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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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