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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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Photo: James Glossop 
Charlotte Hoather as Uccellina in the “BambinO” production from Scottish Opera, Improbable theater company and the Manchester International Festival.

I know that babies take swimming lessons these days and yoga with Mama. I know they go to music classes (“put your instruments back in the Taster’s Choice bin before we go home”). But opera?

Well, why not? Some babies are so loud everyone says they will be opera stars when they grow up.

Michael Cooper, a reporter for the New York Times, wrote in March at about an opera actually designed for babies. “The average age at the Metropolitan Opera is about to get lower — much lower. Sitting still will not be required: Audience members will be encouraged to crawl around and interact with the singers if they like. The dress code will be so relaxed that many operagoers may opt for onesies.

“No, the barbarians are not at the gate. The Met is presenting a new opera for babies.

“The company will present 10 free performances of ‘BambinO,’ an opera for babies between 6 months old and 18 months old, from April 30 to May 5. …

“The most unusual opera, about a bird, an egg and chick, was written by the composer Lliam Paterson and developed by Scottish Opera, Improbable theater company and the Manchester International Festival. It was directed by Phelim McDermott. …

“ ‘In the Met’s never-ending quest to develop audiences of the future, we’ve decided to start at the very beginning,’ Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in a statement.

“The opera will be performed for 25 babies, who will be seated on the laps of their caregivers on benches with cushions around the perimeter of the stage area.

Changing tables and stroller parking will be provided.

“The Met’s education team will work with researchers in infant development and early childhood music education from the Rita Gold Early Childhood Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.” More at the New York Times, here.

I apologize for not posting this in time for New York readers to take babies to the opera, but you can read a thoughtful review at Broadway World:

“No one in the audience as on Facebook or Twitter during Lliam Paterson’s opera BAMBINO at the Met’s List Hall — a rare occurrence for the company these days — on Friday May 4. In fact, no one looked at a cell phone at all during the performance. And nobody fell asleep — even though the opera was written for 6-18 month-olds. …

” ‘It’s lovely to see the full range of reactions the show has received,’ says Paterson, ‘and that every little toddler is just a person — and you’re already seeing all of the characteristics that are eventually going to come out.’ ”

Let’s hope operas for babies help build audiences for the future. “Free” is definitely the way to start.

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Photo: National Institutes of Health via AP
Soprano Renee Fleming looks at a brain scan with NIH neuroscientist David Jangraw after singing in the MRI machine.

To help scientists understand how music helps patients heal, notable musicians like opera’s Renee Fleming are getting brain scans.

Lauran Neergaard writes at the Associated Press, “Music increasingly is becoming a part of patient care — although it’s still pretty unusual to see roving performers captivating entire wards, like at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital one fall morning.

“ ‘It takes them away for just a few minutes to some other place where they don’t have to think about what’s going on,’ said cellist Martha Vance after playing for a patient isolated to avoid spreading infection.

“The challenge: Harnessing music to do more than comfort the sick. Now, moving beyond programs like Georgetown’s, the National Institutes of Health is bringing together musicians, music therapists and neuroscientists to tap into the brain’s circuitry and figure out how.

“ ‘The brain is able to compensate for other deficits sometimes by using music to communicate,’ said NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, a geneticist who also plays a mean guitar.

“To turn that ability into a successful therapy, ‘it would be a really good thing to know which parts of the brain are still intact to be called into action. To know the circuits well enough to know the backup plan,’ Collins added. …

“ ‘The water is wide, I cannot cross over,’ well-known soprano Renee Fleming belted out, not from a concert stage but from inside an MRI machine at the NIH campus.

“The opera star — who partnered with Collins to start the Sound Health initiative — spent two hours in the scanner to help researchers tease out what brain activity is key for singing. How? First Fleming spoke the lyrics. Then she sang them. Finally, she imagined singing them.

“ ‘We’re trying to understand the brain not just so we can address mental disorders or diseases or injuries, but also so we can understand what happens when a brain’s working right and what happens when it’s performing at a really high level,’ said NIH researcher David Jangraw, who shared the MRI data with The Associated Press.

“To Jangraw’s surprise, several brain regions were more active when Fleming imagined singing than when she actually sang, including the brain’s emotion center and areas involved with motion and vision. One theory: it took more mental effort to keep track of where she was in the song, and to maintain its emotion, without auditory feedback.”

Read how the new insights are being used to study Alzzheimer’s patients and others here.

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Photo: Sara Miller Llana/Christian Science Monitor
The annual Festival Verdi in Parma, Italy, brings opera to the people by performing in private homes. Just like the old days.

I love the idea of having arts performances in one’s living room, whether it’s a cabaret duo, jazz, opera, drama, or anything similar. It’s partly because I used to write and perform plays as a kid, especially at Christmas in the living room.

Sara Miller Llana has a cool story about living-room concerts at the Christian Science Monitor, a really interesting newspaper with an international focus, in case you’re interested.

She writes, “A young tenor’s voice, in his rendition of ‘La donna e mobile,’ fills the palatial living room with one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most famous canzones from ‘Rigoletto.’

“It’s a late Thursday afternoon and the sun is setting, as guests seated around the piano begin to clap. The hostess is suddenly in the center of the circle for a short waltz.

“For a moment, it feels as though we are transported back to the 19th century, when Verdi, among the world’s most famous composers, created 27 operas, some of them the most-loved in the world.

“But it’s 2017, and this is the sidelines of the month-long Festival Verdi held each year in Parma, Italy. If any region can call itself a heartland of opera, it’s this one.

“The festival … aims to bring opera off the stages into the community in a series of events – from Verdi sung in rap, to the staging of ‘Nabucco’ by inmates at the local jail, to these living room performances for aspiring opera stars. And at least with the latter, the festival brings an ancient custom of private home performances that started in mid-18th century Europe to 21st century Italy.

“Accompanist Claudia Zucconi, who is studying for her masters and wants to specialize in opera, says that playing these antique keys in such a living room ‘was very emotional.’

“ ‘The piano was very ancient, so it was special for a pianist to play it. I felt like it was another epoch, in another time, like I could be dressed liked a princess playing in a room like this.’

“Opera – and specifically local hero Verdi – are so central to the town’s identity and culture that people debate it at locales the way they might discuss the latest soccer match. …

“The director general of Parma’s Teatro Regio, Anna Maria Meo, says the responsibility she feels is nothing short of enormous. Only a few nights ago, after a performance that had only one intermission, theatergoers stopped her on her way down from her office and asked why there weren’t two. She replied that the opera was already long. ‘ “But you can’t cut the space for us to discuss what we are watching, we need at least two,” they said,’ she recounts over a cappuccino in the theater’s baroque café.”

More here.

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