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Posts Tagged ‘opera’

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Photo: Warner Bros. via Wikipedia
In 1957, Warner Bros. released a Bugs Bunny version of the Wagner opera
The Ring of the Nibelung. Creative folks are still thinking up engaging ways to involve children in the beauty and hilarity of opera.

If you love the field you are in and if you have some imagination, there’s always a way to inspire even the youngest children with your enthusiasm.

Michael Andor Brodeur writes about one recent example at the Washington Post.

“Like many a music lover of an age we needn’t get into here, my formative education in classical music and opera came straight from the masters: Bugs, Elmer, Porky. Bugs Bunny was my first Brünnhilde. (So I guess he introduced me to drag as well. Different story.)

“Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies and Silly Symphonies taught my wee ears how to listen, how to synthesize the music in my imagination with color, movement, emotion and irony. It was like a crash-bang-boom course in how to read sound: The vastness of Wagner became suddenly legible in the context of wabbit-killing.
Kids today are a bit more hands-on, as I discovered during a recent session of ‘Opera Starts With Oh!,’ an opera education program for ages 3 to 7, run by the D.C. and NYC-based company Opera Lafayette. …

“Each installment I watched of ‘Opera Starts With Oh!’ — helmed by director, choreographer and teaching artist Emma Jaster and Opera Lafayette community engagement manager Ersian François — kept its grid of budding opera buffs rapt with an action-packed half-hour of activities, performances and assorted operatic antics.

“ ‘Opera Starts With Oh!’ originated in 2018 as an in-person program to accompany productions in progress, but in its Zoom-based incarnation, each themed installment [centers] on a visit from a guest artist and a simple lesson. …

“At a recent workshop, the Zoom grid filled up fast with small faces smooshed into the frame. It was easily the most entertaining Zoom meeting I’ve had since this whole thing started.

“Lucy and Phoebe were sporting matching unicorn horns and dancing in circles whenever music played. Theodor was paying attention but kept changing his background — first it was outer space, then it was a hedgehog. Gabriel, Massimo and Timothy all crammed attentively into one square.

“Jaster led a round of warm-up exercises (her 6-year-old Ellis popping in and out of view), Nero performed the Passacaille from Lully’s ‘Armide’ (a performance of which Opera Lafayette recorded in 2007) and François skillfully moderated a quick Q&A session (turns out kids are way better at the muting/unmuting thing than adults).

“By the end of it, Helen, who had been pretty quiet up to that point, politely raised her hand, unmuted, and let the group know: ‘I think I want to play the violin.’ …

“ ‘I didn’t get to attend my first opera until I was about 26 years old, particularly because it’s a pretty expensive endeavor to attend an opera,’ says Natalia Lopez-Hurst, mother of Gabriel, Massimo and Timothy. ‘So I wanted to start my kids early with the exposure. I feel like opera encompasses so many different forms of art … We use it as a steppingstone to teach them about art, as well as history, as well as geography.’

“For Jaster, the kinetic goals of the workshop are as important as the aesthetic ones.

“ ‘I’m a movement director and choreographer, that’s how I came to opera,’ says Jaster, ‘But I have a 5-year-old and I live and witness every day how much children need to move their bodies.’ …

“Thus, much of the unbound energy that animates an average ‘Opera Starts With Oh!’ is channeled into twirling, interpretive dance, vocal exercises and functional training (like ‘finger ripples’) for aspiring virtuosos. ..

“ ‘What’s a fun way to take what we’ve learned and make it something that these children will do and be engaged with beyond and outside of this 30 minutes?’ says Jaster. ‘As a parent, 30 minutes is not a lot of the time that I actually need to occupy from my child’s day. So the more the children can be inspired to take this along and then go and make their own performance for all of their stuffed animals — that’s where I want to be.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Carl Van Vechten
Portrait of composer Shirley Graham (1896-1977), later Shirley Graham Du Bois, taken July 18, 1946.

One of my favorite places to walk — because it’s lovely and because it’s easy to move away from maskless people — is the shady local cemetery. Naturally, I have read a lot of tombstone inscriptions on my walks, and one thing I’ve noticed is how often a woman’s marker says “his wife” or identifies the deceased as “wife of.” I have never seen a stone that describes a man as “husband of.” This hierarchy seems to apply to all races in our country.

So when I share today’s story about Black opera composer Shirley Graham, I’ll just say her husband was known as W.E.B. Du Bois and had a career in his own right.

David Patrick Stearns reported recently at WQXR radio that one Africana studies professor wants everyone to know Graham’s story.

“ ‘This is the time to unleash my voice again.’ Such is the message that Oberlin College’s Africana studies professor Caroline Jackson Smith is hearing, beyond the grave, from the late activist / composer / writer Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896–1977). … Smith moderated a panel following the Caramoor Festival’s recently streamed excerpts from Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, Du Bois’ 1932 opera that is said to be the first by an African American women composer. A full production is hoped for in 2021.

“From the outset, few listeners could’ve known what to expect, because — unfairly — Du Bois’ name has faded in history. … Born in Indianapolis, this daughter of a preacher lived all around the country during her childhood. As an adult, she was often on the move, most significantly with educational pursuits at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she studied composing and began writing Tom-Tom in 1926.

“The opera, however, predates most of what she was known for: Her joining the American Communist Party in the late 1940s, her 1951 marriage to the famous sociologist / activist W.E.B. Du Bois, their back-to-Africa immigration to Ghana in 1961, her later move to Cairo, and her many, many writings along the way.

“In fact, she seemed to write constantly, whether comedies and tragedies for the stage, biographies of fellow radical Paul Robeson (as well as Booker T. Washington and Gamal Abdul Nasser) as well as novels, almost right up to her death from breast cancer. Given her global existence, it’s fitting that she died in China but was a citizen of Tanzania.

In 1932, Tom-Tom was the kind of hit that composers dream about at its Cleveland Opera premiere. Reviews were excellent and two performances reportedly drew stadium-size audiences of 25,000.

“Descriptions suggest it was more than an opera — it was more like a pageant with dancers, singers, musicians, and even elephants. … Tom-Tom disappeared until a score was found among Du Bois’ papers in 2018 at Harvard by Lucy Caplan, then a Yale University doctoral candidate in American and African American studies. The six excerpts presented on the July 9 livestream from Caramoor revealed a convincing synthesis of spirituals and West African folk music applied to a Wagnerian template. …

“This is not a fragile but endearing ballad opera like Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha. … Tom-Tom is an opera with a mission: to connect the African American community with something beyond its history of American slavery. The only apt comparison that I can come up is Kurt Weill’s the Eternal Road, a 1937 pageant whose mission was to call attention to the plight of European Jews in Nazi Germany. …

“In writing Tom-Tom, Du Bois had plenty of education to draw on, and during her period in Paris at the Sorbonne, she discovered that the music that her missionary brother brought back from Liberia (as well as the spirituals she grew up with as the daughter of a minister) stuck in her head much more readily than the conventional chord progressions of western music, according to the 2000 biography by Gerald Horne, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois. Later, she would translate those impulses directly into Tom-Tom, whose prelude was played by three timpani that were translated into what she considered an accurate rendering of African drumming. …

“Act I takes place in 1619 Africa, when a tribal human sacrifice is interrupted by the invasion of slave traders. Act II is set in mid-19th-century America, progressing on to then-contemporary 1930s Harlem in Act III. … How this epic-sized production was financed and mounted remains to be revealed.

“For all of the success of the opening (Horne quotes critic John Gruesser as describing the piece as having ‘the length, complexity and power to be called major’), the opera’s moment in the sun was brief.

“As Horne put it, ‘She quickly discovered that writing operas during the Great Depression was not the soundest method by which an African American woman could escape privation.’ Du Bois went on to the Federal Theater Project doing just about everything, including composing a number of works, including a musical. But after the early 1940s, she seems not to have pursued the kind of composing career that would prompt her — or those impressed with Tom-Tom — to return to the opera in later years.

“Being female and African American in a white, male-dominated world couldn’t have been encouraging. But looking at Du Bois’ biography in the long term, she was about spreading her message — whether as a civil rights activist, advocate of Socialism in various guises, and much else — in whatever form was most effective. Almost anything is more agile than the high-overhead medium of grand opera.” More at WQXR, here.

Photo: Lotte Jacobi, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Composer Shirley Graham Du Bois with her husband on his 87th birthday, 1955.

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The English National Opera (ENO) is rethinking how to stage productions for the current self-distancing environment. A lot depends on when driving restrictions might be lifted.

Mark Brown writes at the Guardian, “English National Opera (ENO) has announced plans for what are thought to be the world’s first drive-in opera performances.

“Planned for the first three weeks of September, the idea is to stage live performances in the grounds of Alexandra Palace, north London, with musicians and singers spaced out to conform with physical distancing guidelines. If successful, ENO hopes to roll out the ‘Drive & Live’ concept to other parts of the UK.

“Stuart Murphy, ENO’s chief executive, told the Guardian it was part of the company’s mission of ‘opera for everyone.’ He said: ‘It is a bit of an experiment and if it works it might be a way of bringing the art form to people in a totally different and authentic way.’ …

“The idea is that the audience would be in 300 cars, with the bigger vehicles at the back. People on motorbikes and pedal cycles would also be allowed. Then windows go down and the audience watches the live performance unfold on a specially constructed set.

“The audience reaction could be interesting, Murphy said. ‘Instead of clapping or shouting “bravo,” it might be that people flash their lights or honk their horn. As long as it’s authentic, we’re not going to force it.

“ ‘I think it could attract a whole new generation to opera, people who love their car, see it as an extension to themselves.’ …

“Murphy said if the concept worked, then he could see drive-in operas being staged at racecourses or historic properties. ‘We’ve also had a couple of really productive conversations with international opera houses who think we’re on to something. It is an attempt to square the circle and let people have a big collective moment while staying safe.’

“The first 12 performances will be a shortened 90-minute version of Puccini’s La Bohème and a one-hour family-friendly version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

The first show will be free for National Health Service and frontline workers. …

“Murphy, who joined ENO in 2018 after a career in TV [said] all arts companies needed now to be ‘nimble and quick’ and react to circumstances, but at the moment ENO was not planning for seats being empty. …

“Some countries have allowed drive-in cinemas to remain open during the lockdown. Germany, for example, has two year-round operations, in Essen and Cologne. According to the Hollywood Reporter, both have sold out for every screening since Germany’s lockdown was declared. Makeshift drive-ins are also popping up around the country.

“In the US, the spiritual home of the drive-in, fewer than 25 of the nation’s 320 drive-ins are reportedly open for business, but that could change. The New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, said [in April that] he would consider allowing drive-ins to reopen. ‘Where is the public safety issue? It’s a drive-in theatre. You’re in the car with the same people,’ he said.”

Photo: Donald Cooper/Photostage
An English National Opera production of
The Magic Flute in the Good Old Days of 2019. Today ENO operas must take Covid-19 and social distancing into account.

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Photo: Jack Devant
The Perm Opera theater in Russia is getting around quarantine regulations by performing to an audience of one. At least, that’s the plan.

I have been reading a lot of articles about organizations that, although hurting badly from the pandemic, are managing to limp along. You are probably reading other such articles. Just as humans with underlying conditions are said to succumb more quickly to coronavirus, so do institutions with underlying conditions. Some weak nonprofits and businesses have already folded.

Others may come out on the other side of this with new ideas for a stronger future.

It helps to be adaptable.

Andrew Roth writes at the Guardian, “Picture the scene: The curtain rises as the orchestra strikes up the opening bars of Puccini’s La Bohème or Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

And in the 850-person auditorium of a storied Russian theatre sits just one lucky viewer, a lottery winner whose prize is the personal performance of a lifetime.

“Barred from hosting audiences due to the coronavirus outbreak, a theatre in Perm, a city near Russia’s Ural mountains, plans to host a unique experiment – private viewings of the theatre’s ballets and operas for the price of just a normal ticket.

“The project, called One on One, is the creation of Marat Gatsalov, the principle stage director of the Perm Opera and Ballet theatre. The idea, he said, predated the coronavirus pandemic. …

“When the local government in Perm, an industrial city that also has a reputation as a cultural powerhouse, declared that events with large audiences should be cancelled, he realised the time for the experiment had arrived.

“ ‘We’d been told that we can’t let viewers into the theatre hall,’ Gatsalov said. ‘But that doesn’t mean we can’t let just one viewer in.’ …

“Russia’s coronavirus outbreak has accelerated in the last week and the government has passed tougher measures to prevent its spread. One on One had been scheduled to open with Puccini at the end of March, but the theatre has said that it will begin holding shows only when the rules for the country’s theatres are clearer. …

“The lottery will work like this: 850 people will register for each show, whether it’s an opera, ballet or concert, and a winner will be selected and invited to buy a ticket at the theatre for the normal price.

“Nobody else will be charged, although the theatre could use the funds. Financially, Gatsalov said, the coronavirus crisis has been ‘catastrophic.’

“Asked about how he planned to keep performers safe, Gatsalov said he was trying to follow safety rules ‘as much as possible’ and said the theatre regularly checked people’s temperatures and disinfected the premises. But it was clear that plans were in flux. ‘Of course the theatre can’t be operating as normal at the moment,’ he said.”

More at the Guardian, here. I sure hope it works and will look for a follow-up story down the road. Meanwhile, you can watch New York’s Met opera nightly as an audience of one in your home. It’s a free service while the pandemic lasts. Check it out.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Perm, Russia, where a lucky lottery ticket will get you an opera performance for you alone.
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2048

Photo: Kim Stevens/Cape Town Opera
Vuvu Mpofu in a production of Donizetti’s
Maria Stuarda in Cape Town last year.

Who can say why certain random things draw our lives in one direction or another? Did a Mozart aria and a DVD of La Traviata draw this young opera star into an unfamiliar career because her family loved singing? Because the music was so sad? Whatever the reason, Vuvu Mpofu overcame many obstacles because of that powerful draw.

Dalya Alberge writes at the Guardian, “Vuvu Mpofu had never heard opera until, aged 15, she was overwhelmed by a Mozart aria at a school concert. In her home town of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, there were no opera teachers, the library had only one book on the subject, and her classmates were scornful of her interest. But Mpofu overcame all these hurdles: she taught herself to sing by mimicking the singers on two opera DVDs and, several years later, her talent was spotted by a voice coach.

“Now, at 28, the soprano has mentors in the world’s foremost opera companies. … Stephen Langridge, artistic director of Glyndebourne, said Mpofu had a ‘unique’ talent. … ‘People who sing very high in the soprano range can be very impressive … She keeps a humanity and warmth in the sound.’

“Mpofu has been taken aback by such accolades. It is a long way from the two DVDs – one of La Traviata and the other of The Magic Flute – she watched repeatedly as a teenager. ‘I come from a small town in South Africa,’ she said. ‘I never dreamed of any of this.’ Recalling the first time she watched La Traviata, she said: ‘It was overwhelming. I cried while I was watching it. It took my breathe away … I kept on watching, just mimicking how they sang, how they acted. That’s how I taught myself.’

“Mpofu went on to audition successfully for the South African College of Music at Cape Town University, a remarkable feat for someone with no formal training. A voice coach there spotted her potential and helped her get a student loan – although she has yet to pay it off.

“ ‘We were not rich,’ Mpofu said of her family, who loved singing, whether it was gospel, traditional music or choral. ‘I didn’t have things that other kids did … but my mum made sure that we always ate morning, afternoon and evening. At school, people didn’t bring lunches. You had money … If [mum] didn’t have it, I would just make myself bread. I was OK.’

“As she didn’t have a formal music background, her initial studies were challenging, particularly as her mother died not long after she had started. Nevertheless, she went on to study for four years as an undergraduate and two years as a postgraduate.

“Mpofu overcame other challenges. She was mugged by a man with a knife the day before she entered the International Hans Gabor Belvedere singing competition, opera’s ‘world cup,’ when it was staged in Cape Town.

“This was so traumatic that she nearly dropped out of the competition. But, feeling that music was ‘some sort of remedy,’ she sang an aria from La Traviata that got her into the final. She also came third in the prestigious international Operalia competition. …

“Mpofu said competitions had really helped her career. The Belvedere got her noticed by Diane Zola of the Metropolitan Opera, who became one of her mentors. ‘Entering competitions is a way of getting yourself out there to be seen by important people,’ she said. ‘Also, it builds confidence.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: twitter.com
Much to her surprise, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila found a community on Twitter that helped her regain confidence after a painful divorce.

You may say that on Twitter we each live in a bubble of like-minded people and that no good can come of that. But sometimes like-minded people can support someone who is down and out. Consider the case of Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who was suffering doubts after a painful divorce.

Joshua Barone writes at the New York Times, “At 58, [Karita] Mattila, who is currently onstage here at [France’s] Aix Festival in Weill and Brecht’s ‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,’ is having something of a late-career renaissance: a newly expanding repertoire and newfound celebrity on Twitter, where she is beloved by some of opera’s most ardent fans.

“And she loves them right back. …

“On Twitter — where few opera stars, when they’re present at all, are active beyond blandly promoting their performances — she posts, often with an abundance of emoji, about everything. She reacts to the news, never shying from being political; she participates in polls; she shares her thoughts (and horror stories) about restaurants in Aix-en-Provence. …

” ‘I’ve decided to be me. … I used to be so overprotective of myself,’ she said. ‘It’s time to start having faith. … Twitter was — maybe it’s dramatic — it was my lifesaver,’ she said. ‘It really became my rescuer.’

“Before the divorce from Tapio Kuneinen, who was also her manager, Ms. Mattila wasn’t present on social media. … A girlfriend warned her, she recalled: ‘There will be people who hate you. And if there aren’t, it means you don’t have enough followers yet.’

“But Ms. Mattila gave it a try. And as followers came, she began to interact with them, more and more — engaging with fans and music scholars from around the world who also repost many of her tweets.

“ ‘I “met” so many of these people, and I cried so much because it moved me, how they analyzed music and what I was doing. Of course I have that music-training background, but it had been so long since I have had conversations about music, what I do for a living,’ she said, waving her arms for emphasis.

“When she was in New York this spring for a production of Poulenc’s ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’ at the Metropolitan Opera, Ms. Mattila began to meet some of her Twitter followers in person and was, she said, ‘totally in awe.’ …

“Twitter has also redefined Ms. Mattila’s relationship with music. As a busy international artist, she had long thought she didn’t have the time to listen recreationally. But now, she said: ‘There are these guys that send me what they are listening to. It’s re-established my appreciation toward my own field.’ …

“Throughout her career, Ms. Mattila has been famous for her dramatic prowess and visceral physicality, ingrained, she said, since her education at the Sibelius Academy in Finland. But Esa-Pekka Salonen, her fellow student at the academy and the conductor of the Aix ‘Mahagonny,’ described her theatricality as more extraordinary than schooling alone could produce.

“ ‘She is totally committed to the material, whatever it is,’ he said. ‘Things can be raw, they can be intense, they can be funny. But she’s always in it, totally.’ …

“During rehearsals, Mr. Salonen said, she had a talent for energizing the musicians, which then showed once the audience was added to the mix. She even appeared in good spirits on the night of the dress rehearsal, as she posted selfies on Twitter.”

More here.

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Image: South Africa’s Got Talent
What are the chances for a taxi driver with a great voice to move from entertaining his passengers to the opera stage?

I wonder if someone with a tremendous talent who delights himself and a small circle of others with his singing necessarily wants an international audience. That is the question that came to my mind as I read about the fun that a taxi driver in South Africa is having as he sings for passengers.

Stephen Moss writes at the Guardian, “Are opera singers born or made? Are there wonderful natural operatic voices out there waiting to get a break on Britain’s Got Talent? Or maybe on South Africa’s Got Talent, because the reason to pose the question comes courtesy of an opera-loving South African Uber driver called Menzi Mngoma, whose impromptu performances in the front of his cab in Durban have caused a frisson of excitement among those who want to believe that great voices and instant opera stars are all around us.

“Mngoma is a self-taught tenor who likes to belt out arias for his passengers. One of his customers, Kim Davey, liked his singing so much that she posted a video on Facebook. That, in turn, attracted media attention and the 27-year-old Mngoma’s career was launched. He is said to be auditioning for Cape Town Opera. A stadium tour will no doubt follow.

“It generally pays to be suspicious of such stories. The media want to believe in fairytales because they make good copy. Being an opera singer is about more than giving a passable two-minute rendition of ‘La donna è mobile.’ It is singing and acting a role over three or more hours in an opera house twice a week; having the vocal technique to sustain a 20- or even 30-year career; performing a wide range of parts in up to five languages. It is bloody difficult.

“That said, Mngoma does have the spark of something. I played the clip to the Guardian’s opera critic Tim Ashley, and while Ashley said there was barely enough to make a judgment, he thought Mngoma ‘sang “La donna è mobile” perfectly decently and with no strain at the top [of the voice].’ Ashley says that being self-taught is ‘unusual but not completely unheard of.’ …

” ‘You have to be born with talent – that can’t be taught – but teaching will hone that talent,’ says Martha Hartman, the manager of the vocal studies department at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She says that singers do not have to start studying in their teens: the Guildhall has several students in their late 20s, including one who used to be a builder. But she emphasises that natural talent is not enough. …

“If Mngoma wants to be a professional opera singer, the hard work starts now. ‘If you find a singing teacher and if you hone your skills and if you have some classes in stagecraft and movement and drama and all these things that go into being a singer,’ says Hartman, ‘then you might have some roads open to you. But most opera houses and orchestras will demand knowledge of repertoire, and that’s a very big piece of the puzzle: knowing how to learn music and learn a role.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Matt Barnes
Jeremy Dutcher is a First Nations tenor and pianist who is getting a lot of attention in Canada and beyond.

Bit by bit we’re all learning more about the people around us, people who may have very different lives and who in the past we knew nothing about. Even those we thought we knew well sometimes have lives that are veiled to us, as I learned this summer when our niece sent me her story, a heartbreaking tale of a childhood that I had only perceived on the surface. You just can’t know what is going on behind someone’s eyes.

Among the kinds of people I am learning more about are indigenous people, both in the United States and elsewhere. This story is about a young tenor who belongs to a Canadian tribe.

Jeff Kaliss writes at San Francisco Classical Voice, “Interviews with Jeremy Dutcher figure among the new demands on a Canadian First Nations (indigenous) singer-pianist who’s risen rapidly to international attention. The 28-year-old Toronto resident needs now and then to take a break from the clamor, to return to something like the pastoral pace of his raising in the Maritime province of New Brunswick, as a member of the Wolastoqiyik [pronounced Wuh-last-o-key-yik] tribe.

“I first witnessed Dutcher a year ago, at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, performing on piano and singing in his tribe’s native Wolastoq language (the word denotes ‘the beautiful river’; renamed by the colonizers of New Brunswick as the St. John), in the basement of a church, a beautiful historical landmark. He hadn’t yet won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize, nor its Grammy-equivalent Juno Awards. Both of these wins would recognize his debut self-produced album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, translated as Songs of the People of the Beautiful River. …

“Dutcher incorporates in his live and recorded music an unusual and affecting act of legacy, playing transcribed wax recordings from 1911 by an early anthropologist of a tribal elder singing and speaking, and following the melodies with his own heldentenor voice and mellifluous keyboard compositions. The method and quality of his approach derive from his training, including classical voice with Marcia Swanston at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“Two semesters before completing his music degree, Dutcher enrolled in a class in Social Anthropology, and decided to stick around Dalhousie for an additional year, completing a second major and an honors thesis on the subject of Traditional Music in a Contemporary Moment: Musical Pan-Indigeneity as Revitalization in the Wabanaki Region. The region is a confederacy of five indigenous nations including the Wolastoq and extending across the current provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec, and the state of Maine. The thesis title took the form of a mission statement for Dutcher, who was led to the wax recordings by a living tribal elder, sweat lodge keeper, and First Nations ambassador, Maggie Paul.

“ ‘I made my way to Ottawa [the site of the Canadian Museum of History] and went down into the basement archives there and threw on some headphones and started a journey,’ Dutcher recalled for an NPR presentation last year.

“ ‘To not just hear the songs, but also to hear the background noise and to hear them laughing and telling jokes — there was a sense of entering into that space through these voices. And that was something that changed my life.’

“The Dalhousie anthropology faculty have declared in writing their admiration for where their alumnus has taken his education and his life. … ‘Dutcher honors intergenerational connections, his voice singing on with the voices of his elders … It disrupts widespread expectations of indigenous music as a thing of the past, and shows instead how it lives in the present, fully capable of working and remixing in contemporary idioms. This has a decolonizing effect, in that it unsettles public conceptions that all too often primordialize and essentialize indigenous art forms.’ ”

I love the idea of a decolonizing effect. I never thought about that — about not only promoting healthier relations between indigenous people and others going forward but actually starting to undo harm that was done in the past. How great if we could apply that idea to all kinds of wrongs the world has seen!

More at San Francisco Classical Voice, here.

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Photo: Brian Peterson
Hmong writer Kao Kalia Yang with her father, Bee Yang. The daughter’s lyrical book about Bee Yang’s unconsciously artistic storytelling,
The Song Poet, will be turned into a youth opera in Minnesota.

When I was working at a magazine that focused on the concerns of lower-income communities, I sometimes tried to get the voices of immigrant authors in there. One such author was Kao Kalia Yang, a Minnesota Hmong writer whose work I greatly admired.

Yang spent her early childhood enduring the privations of a refugee camp in Thailand but eventually moved with her family to St. Paul, where poverty and a strange new culture made life difficult in whole new ways.

One of Yang’s lyrical memoirs focuses on her father and the way he sang stories about life in the old country that brought other Hmong immigrants to tears. Now it’s being turned into an opera for young people.

Jenna Ross writes at the Star Tribune, “Author Kao Kalia Yang’s father has been a farmer, a refugee, a machinist. But in a book about his life, Yang elevated his true vocation — poet. Soon, his story will be an opera.

“The Minnesota Opera announced [in April] that it’s creating a youth opera based on ‘The Song Poet,’ Yang’s acclaimed 2017 memoir about her father, Bee Yang, who composed and sang songs about life and politics, love and family.

“It’s the first time a Hmong story will be translated to the operatic stage, Yang said. … The book follows a young boy [Yang’s father] whose father dies, who grows up in a warn-torn country, who tries to find the place his father was buried. The tale begins in Laos, moves to a refugee camp in Thailand, then makes its way to Minnesota. …

“For its Project Opera, a youth vocal training program, the Minnesota Opera is scouting for stories that connect with young audiences and reflect the Twin Cities community, said Jamie Andrews, the company’s chief learning officer. When he sat down with ‘The Song Poet,’ he knew it would make an incredible opera.

“ ‘Kalia’s writing is just so lyrical and beautiful — so singable,’ Andrews said. … ‘The Song Poet’ becomes the third opera commissioned for Project Opera, which will premiere it at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis in 2021. …

“Bee Yang has performed traditional song poetry, or kwv txhiaj, since he was 12 years old, becoming a keeper of Hmong history. ‘When I began singing song poetry, I discovered I could share our stories of hurt and sorrow, of missing and despair, of anger and betrayal,’ he said in the book.

“This daughter’s telling of his story — and how it shaped her own — won the Minnesota Book Award for memoir and creative nonfiction. The 39-year-old author and Harding High School graduate is best known for her 2008 book ‘The LateHomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,’ which nabbed two Minnesota Book Awards. After graduating from Carleton College, Yang earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia University. …

“To ensure that the cast is diverse, the opera company will reach into the Hmong-American community, Andrews said. It’s working with the Saint Paul Music Academy and talking with Theater Mu, an Asian-American troupe. ‘It’s not just a Hmong cast,’ Andrews said. ‘But we’re doing some strategies already now for 2021, to build those connections and find those kids.’ …

“When Yang was young, she took the occasional field trip to the Ordway or the Guthrie. ‘You’d go in knowing that you’d be entering into a different culture,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t have imagined, as a child, walking into a place and seeing something from the Hmong story represented.

“I hope that for those young Hmong people who get to see this, it opens up possibilities for them. Not just Hmong — but all refugee children.’ ” More.

I highly recommend Yang’s memoirs. Maybe some of you will check them out.

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Photo: Tom Gralish / Philadelphia Inquirer
Composer Andrea Clearfield sought new sounds when composing her Buddhist-enlightenment opera. Here she is pictured with Tibetan instruments from her personal collection.

A Philadelphia composer who was writing an opera decided that, much as she loved Western classical instruments, they wouldn’t be enough to capture “enlightenment.” So she ordered new sounds.

David Patrick Stearns had a report at the Inquirer in January.

“Philadelphia composer Andrea Clearfield knows to warn her downstairs neighbors when her opera is scheduled to erupt. ‘I’m writing a destruction scene. Beware!’ …

“The commotion-causing opera is Mila, Great Sorcerer: It will have a semi-staged presentation Jan. 12-13 [2019] in New York City’s Prototype Festival and dramatizes a Tibetan Buddhist parable of annihilation and enlightenment. The more demonic sections have music she describes as ‘macabre circus … dark tango … a nod to the Mummers strut,’ played by Western orchestra augmented with horns, bowls, and bells from Nepal.

“Yet the story — about a young man who acquires dark powers for revenge and is later transformed into one of the most venerated teachers in Tibetan Buddhism — still asked for something more.

Clearfield wanted sounds she had never heard, from an ethereal tricked-out music box to a drone that suggests something primeval welling up from the center of the Earth. Instrument maker David Kontak created seven new instruments to produce them.

” ‘I was looking for a third world,’ Clearfield said in her Philadelphia studio, ‘a world that is not electronic, not acoustic, blends the voices and instruments, is East and West, and is capable of transmitting this story of ultimate transformation.’ …

“Clearfield had been thinking about the subject matter for a while when by chance she met playwright Jean-Claude Van Itallie, who had adapted The Tibetan Book of the Dead for the stage and who had already written a libretto about Mila with Lois Walden. …

“Even better, the libretto was commissioned by a pair of producers who originally considered a film about Mila but concluded opera would be a better way to tell the story.

“ ‘I’m a composer who met the writer who had written the libretto to the opera I wanted to write,’ Clearfield said. ‘How often does that conversation happen?’ …

“[Says] Gene Kaufman, ‘and some moments choose you.’ Kaufman, who is producing the opera with his wife, Terry Eder, finds that ancient religious mythology contains ‘the accumulated wisdom of centuries to which modern life is only a retelling. We just need to listen. …

“Interestingly, much Mila iconography shows him with hand cupped to his ear: Listening was a major element of his enlightenment. …

“During Clearfield’s residency at the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., she often asked other Yaddo artists what enlightenment sounds like to them. The artist/author/musician/documentarian Laurie Anderson replied, ‘The resonance [that is] left in the room.’ …

“As much as Clearfield and her collaborators have immersed themselves in Tibetan culture, the greatest impact on the opera itself may not be religious or even philosophical, but elemental.

” ‘You feel the aliveness of everything [in Nepal]. Even in the rocks,’ she said.”

More here.

Bhutanese painting thanka of Milarepa [Mila]. Here Mila is listening, “reminding you to stay awake. Stay awake to your life — and move forward,” says Inquirer reporter David Patrick Stearns.

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Photo: English National Opera
Young people have fun participating in the English National Opera’s Opera Squad.

Anything that engages young people in the arts — and helps them to start on a lifetime devotion — has my vote. As arts organizations struggle to increase their base of enthusiasts and bring in a new demographic, they might look at the idea of “free.”

Mark Brown writes at the Guardian that as of last December the English National Opera will “offer under-18s free Saturday night tickets in what it has called a ‘seismic’ initiative to attract the next generation of fans. …

“Stuart Murphy, the former channel controller of the youth channel BBC Three who joined ENO as CEO in March, said the initiative stemmed from the company’s core values.

“ ‘We were founded on the belief that opera is for everyone,’ he said. ‘Removing cost as a barrier to entry for under-18s is a seismic leap forward for ENO and for opera as a whole. … We want young audiences to feel alternately passionate, excited and transfixed. We can’t wait to welcome them to the London Coliseum.’

“All the free tickets will be for what might be called the cheap seats in the balcony. But ENO contends the balcony ‘is widely regarded as having acoustically the best seats in the house.’ There will also be no peering round columns as, uniquely, all seats at the Coliseum have unrestricted views of the stage.

“Anyone who is under 16 will need to be accompanied by an adult. But any adult who purchases a full-price ticket in the balcony … will be able to take up to four children for free. Teachers bringing a school group can be accompanied by 10 children for free. Young people aged 16-17 can book one ticket each.

“The tickets will be available for all of the 11 Saturday performances in the spring 2019 season, which includes productions of La Bohème, Akhnaten, The Merry Widow, The Magic Flute, and the new opera Jack the Ripper: the Women of Whitechapel. …

“The ENO initiative will be welcomed by those who argue that the best way to get young people hooked is for them to experience the art form itself.

“Graham Vick, the artistic director of Birmingham Opera Company, has described conventional outreach and education work as a ‘barrier’ to reaching new audiences. ‘You do not need to be educated to be touched, to be moved and excited by opera,’ he said. ‘You only need to experience it directly at first hand with nothing getting in the way.’ ”

Not sure I agree with that last comment. I was 14 at my first opera, La Bohème, and it meant nothing to me. At the very least, I think it would help if kids heard the music in the background at home or school for some days before attending a performance. I could be wrong. No doubt they will all get into Jack the Ripper without help!

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Cory Weaver
Wexford Festival Opera:
Dinner at Eight, by William Bolcom, got its European premiere at last fall’s event.

Back in the 1990s, I worked with a woman whose father was an opera buff. He loved opera so much that, although he had no real connections in the field, he managed to organize a high-quality company in the part of New York State where he lived. Westchester, if I remember correctly.

It wasn’t his day job: it was what he did for love. In another example of opera lovers who go out of their way to lend support, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has taken small, non-singing parts on stage, attracting some new audiences.

At the Irish Times, David McLoughlin has another example of what some folks will do for opera.

“Never intimidated by the weight of cultural heritage, each new generation of Irish artists continues to reimagine, reinvent and reinvigorate. The arts are constantly changing, finding new forms of expression and igniting new flames. …

“Wexford Festival Opera was founded on an idea and ethos which still remains at its core today, 67 years later – to present rarely performed operas, to unearth and shine a light on hidden gems.

“I was once told by the then chairman of a leading American opera company that the reason Wexford has rightly survived is because from the outset its rationale was plain wrong.

“He was right: the dream by a small group of local people, including a GP, a hotelier and a postman, in the early 1950s, of bringing international singers to a remote corner of Ireland to present rarely performed operas, wouldn’t even get past the first page of a modern-day feasibility study.

“But they weren’t dissuaded, and the minor detail of no real financial underpinning was from the outset not even considered a hindrance. The dream they were determined to see become a reality was enthusiastically shared and championed by the local community, who volunteered their time and skills. …

“The festival opened up not just Wexford itself, but Ireland and its arts sector, to the international performing world in a way no other cultural venture had done up until then – nor, I would argue, since. The spin-off has been enormous – artistically, culturally, and economically, generating [$14 million] annually. …

“Wexford is often defined as what it is not: a national opera company. It isn’t. Wexford is an annual festival, an international event, proudly Irish, presenting Irish and international audiences with a distinctly international repertoire, featuring Irish and international performers and attracting an audience that stretches well beyond these shores. It makes a vital contribution to the profile, development and reputation of the Irish opera sector. It may be niche but it’s broad enough to accommodate new audiences.”

More at the Irish Times, here. It will be interesting to see how this festival fares after Brexit, when Ireland will still be part of the European Union and its closest neighbors won’t.

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Photos: Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
Annette Phuvan (left, with Janet Victors) said that
Amahl and the Night Visitors spoke to her of “miracles. Blessings. Generosity. Community.” She and others who have struggled with homelessness are performing the touching opera about poverty and hope.

In today’s story, two organizations that do good works all year-round have chosen an especially appropriate way to enhance the “comfort and joy” they deliver to others.

Tim Teeman writes at the Daily Beast, “The rich, collective sound of a choir warming their voices up filled the 15th-floor rehearsal room, Broadway and Times Square, a rainy, fogged-up blur outside the windows. Standing in a circle, and accompanied by a pianist, the group of tenors, basses, altos and sopranos practiced their scales, and then, as if in an urgent incantation, spoke the words of the score they would next sing.

“ ‘Free the body,’ instructed Michael A. Ciavaglia, the chorus master, eliciting much loose-limbed waving of arms, as the choir and soloists continued their preparations for On Site Opera’s production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s 45-minute Christmas Nativity opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, written for television and first performed on NBC in 1951.

“The show will be presented in the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Chelsea, and will feature professional musicians and vocalists alongside a chorus made up of people who have experienced homelessness and who now live at the 43rd Street site of Breaking Ground, New York City’s largest provider of permanent supportive housing for the homeless. …

” ‘The object is to find that perfect intersection of piece and place that speaks to us as producing artists and what we want to do in the greater arc of the company and then find the right place to do it in,’ said Eric Einhorn, the general and artistic director of On Site Opera. …

“They all sang in rousing unison: ‘How cold is the night, how icy is the wind.’ As formerly homeless people, they would know the meaning of those words more powerfully, and literally, than many.

“One of the choir, soprano Christine Flood, told The Daily Beast she had been a resident at Breaking Ground since New Year’s Eve 2016. She said she suffered from PTSD, resulting from ‘terrifying and violent’ childhood abuse while growing up in southern Ohio. She had been homeless in her late teenage years, and then suffered from drug and alcohol addiction. She has been sober for 12 years. …

“The opera was an excellent way to bring members of Breaking Ground together, she said, and had inspired Flood to suggest to those that run the community that she begin classes in teaching English to non-English speaking residents. ‘Language is both a big barrier, and a big invitation,’ the former teacher and dancer said.

“ ‘I’m much better than I was a year ago,’ Flood said of her general health. ‘Two years ago I couldn’t have done this opera. Last year at this time I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it even, or this interview.’ Next, Flood wants to finish her master’s degree, and use her passion for theater and acting to ‘build positive change in my city and community.’ ”

More at the Daily Beast, here. At the New York Times, here, you can find some nice pictures of singers rehearsing for the production.

Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors is my all-time favorite — guaranteed to get me in the Christmas spirit.

From left: Kristine Flood, Wanda Ferrerias, Maya Lehmann, and Annette Phuvan join On Site Opera’s production of Amahl, thanks to Breaking Ground, a homeless-support organization in New York.

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Photo: Lisa Marie Summer for the New York Times
A German opera company invited current refugees to be part of its production of “Moses,” lending immediacy to the story of exile.

Powerful stories from any century speak to the human condition in any other century. Thus, for example, the story of exile in the opera “Moses” speaks to the sense of dislocation that today’s refugees experience. To drive home that point, an opera company in Germany has invited current refugees to participate in a production.

Joshua Barone reports at the New York Times, ” ‘We tell the story of Moses because it is actually our story,’ one teenager, a refugee from Afghanistan by way of Iran, said in the Hazaragi dialect to the German-speaking audience at the Bavarian State Opera here on a recent Sunday evening.

“Others chimed in: ‘The story of Moses is also my story,’ they said in French, Kurdish, Greek and Arabic.

“They were the cast of ‘Moses,’ a feel-good yet sobering new production by the Bavarian State Opera’s youth program, written for refugees, children of immigrants and born-and-raised Bavarians.

“In the opera, a mixture of new music by Benedikt Brachtel and adapted excerpts from Rossini’s “Mosè in Egitto” [“Moses in Egypt”], the teenagers tell the story of Moses — common ground for followers of the Bible, Torah and Quran — with Brechtian interludes about refugee experiences and current events.

“The director Jessica Glause, who created the libretto based on interviews with refugees in the cast, has concocted a blend of humor, horror and youthful energy that hardly feels like a didactic documentary about Europe’s refugee crisis. Behind the scenes, ‘Moses’ has provided a way to learn German and make friends — in short, to make the process of migration a little less painful. And audiences have responded favorably. …

“Theater about the refugee crisis has proliferated in Germany since migration into the country reached its peak in 2016. But rarely has the hot-button issue — which continues to threaten Chancellor Angela Merkel’s power and fuel the rise of the far-right party Alternative for Germany, or AfD — entered the realm of opera, much less children’s opera. …

“Ms. Glause, who had volunteered on boats in the Mediterranean, also wrote the libretto for ‘Noah,’ after interviewing many of the same young refugees who are in ‘Moses.’ She described the process — hearing stories of loss, danger and fear from teenagers — as acting as both an artist and a counselor.

“Among the people she spoke with were Ali Madad Qorbani, a young man from Afghanistan who fled to Iran, then Europe, after his father had disappeared; and Zahra Akhlaqi, also from Afghanistan, whose mother came to Europe first while she and her sister waited in Iran, where, she said, they were forbidden from going to school but would dress up like students at home and play pretend.

“Now, their lives are slightly more stable, though just as precarious as any refugee’s. …

“There are still monologues of how and why some of the cast members came to Europe, but much of the material is about reconciling their faiths and cultures with those of Germany — including one humorous passage about trying German beer for the first time. But they also describe how they don’t always feel welcome, such as a scene in which the plagues in Moses’s story give way to one person describing signs near Munich that say refugees overrun Germany like locusts. …

“In interviews, [youth program director Ursula Gessat] and Ms. Glause were quick to say that their job is to reflect the world around them, and that it would be irresponsible to ignore the refugee crisis. Indeed, Ms. Glause said that conservative politicians may change their minds if they met the cast of ‘Moses.’

“ ‘I would tell them to come see this show,’ she said. ‘Come hear these stories.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

 

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Photo: YouTube
Long ago, music was recorded on a wax cylinder like this. Out of curiosity, contemporary opera singers experimented with wax recording at Lincoln Center’s New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Once at my old job, we tried an ice-breaker game in which we said our first name and an adjective describing ourselves. My first name begins with “c,” and the first adjective that popped into my head was “curious.” Since then, I’ve often thought that was the right word for me. I am curious.

And I admire people whose curiosity takes them interesting places. Recently the curiosity of a Met tenor led to a fun experiment with wax recording that you can listen to online.

Anthony Tommasini writes at the New York Times, “Whenever Luciano Pavarotti was asked to name the greatest tenor ever, he always answered Enrico Caruso, who became a household name from his recordings, made from 1902 until his death in 1921.

“But how did Pavarotti know? Especially on Caruso’s breakthrough records, the sound is scratchy, wiry and wobbly. The same holds true for early recordings of Nellie Melba, Luisa Tetrazzini and other luminaries of that era. While there are entrancing hints of astonishing voices, it’s hard to tell what they were really like. If only we could record a singer today on the equipment used back then and compare the playbacks to modern recordings.

“Well, that precise experiment took place earlier this month at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, thanks to the curiosity of Piotr Beczala, a leading Met tenor.

“Touring the Met’s archives a couple of years ago, Mr. Beczala mentioned that his dream was to record some arias under early-20th-century conditions. He wanted to learn firsthand how faithful — or far-off — the results would be.

“Peter Clark, the company’s archivist, mentioned Mr. Beczala’s fantasy to Jonathan Hiam, the curator of the performing arts library’s Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound; Mr. Hiam then contacted Jerry Fabris, from the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey, who knows a collector in Illinois who makes wax cylinders like those Edison once produced. …

“The material surrounding the wax cylinders is not really wax, [Mr. Fabris] said, but something called metallic soap. Before using the cylinders, he had to warm them up under a light to make the material soft enough for the stylus to cut grooves as the disc spun. …

“Mr. Beczala was first up, singing ‘Quando le sere al placido’ from ‘Luisa Miller,’ accompanied by Gerald Moore, who played on a small upright piano so as not to compete with the voices. Putting the cylinder in place, Mr. Fabris was careful not to touch the surface: Even a slight thumbprint can create an impression. While Mr. Beczala sang, Mr. Fabris held a small brush in one hand and a little squeezable air bag in the other to disperse the dustlike shards of wax that are created when the stylus cuts into the cylinders.

“Since the machine has no meter to check levels, Mr. Beczala tried out the opening of the aria twice, the second time moving closer to the machine. Both times, the ringing, virile quality of his sound came through fairly well, though dynamic variations essentially disappeared. Mr. Beczala was most rattled that his intonation sounded off — though this was a flaw of the equipment, not of his solid technique. …

“Listening to the playback, he commented that the resonance was not bad and that the high notes were O.K. But his softer singing sounded faint and distant, and the consonants, he said, ‘are nonexisting,’ though in the room his diction was excellent.”

Read more about this at the New York Times, here, and listen to the wax cylinder recordings the experiment produced.

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