A new era for Florida Grand Opera
4 March 2013, Miami, US
Rachel Gilmore, thrilling as Amina in FGO's 'La Sonnambula'(Photo: Gaston de Cardenas)
FGO's new general director, Susan Janis(Photo: Nick Garcia)
Report by Karyl Charna Lynn
There’s new energy and vitality at the Florida Grand Opera, which hasn’t been felt since October 2006, when the company staged a spectacular season to inaugurate the Ziff Ballet Opera House, its state-of-the art new home. Then the economic meltdown came and FGO was hit hard. When the company needed funds the most, its budget was slashed and programming suffered.
Robert Heuer, FGO’s general director of 32 years, retired in 2012, and Susan Danis, former executive director of the Sarasota Opera and fundraiser par excellence, is now at the helm.
Danis’ forte is building opera companies on financially secure foundations. Sarasota Opera’s budget grew from US$3.2 million to more than $8 million during her 12-year tenure – exactly what the FGO needs. ‘Miami is a great international city that deserves a great opera company presenting exciting productions with world-class singers and thought-provoking repertoire and realizations of the operas,’ says Danis. ‘That’s my vision for the future of the Florida Grand Opera.’
She has wasted no time in bringing her vision to fruition. The 2013-2014 season (the first she’s planned) is diverse, with top-notch singers and directors, including honouring the ‘birthday’ composers Wagner and Verdi: the company’s first ever Tristan und Isolde features Peter Sellar’s Tristan Project with Christine Goerke as Isolde; Verdi’s Nabucco, which FGO hasn’t performed since 1981, uses Thaddeus Strassberger’s ‘opera within opera’ concept; there’s a nod to contemporary opera, with a new production of the Miami-based composer Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Elektra; and the season ends with Puccini’s Tosca.
One major improvement has been the arrival last season of a new music director, Ramon Taber, who has breathed new life, energy and precision into the orchestra. Two operas staged recently, La Sonnambula and The Magic Flute, were surprisingly refreshing, with exciting young talent. In La Sonnambula, Rachele Gilmore (Amina) thrilled us with her spine-tingling coloratura, and Michele Angelini (Elviro) sang with honeyed tone. Tebar kept up a crisp tempo in the pit, making for an engrossing evening. Meanwhile, in the Mozart, Andrew Bidlack was an especially noteworthy Tamino.
Wagner's Dutchman sails into Kansas
4 March 2013, Kansas City, US
Richard Paul Fink as Wagner's Dutchman in Kansas(Photo: Cory Weaver)
Review by Karyl Charna Lyn
Two decades have passed since the Lyric Opera of Kansas City last staged a Wagner opera. Perhaps that influenced director Bernard Uzan need to keep offering ‘explanations’ during his new production of The Flying Dutchman. The overture was full of evidence of Senta’s obsession with the Dutchman, as vignettes of the characters were interspersed with gigantic digital projections of the ghost ship on storm-tossed seas. These projections were interjected throughout the course of the opera.
Uzan added another narrative layer to an otherwise conventional staging by having characters appear and disappear. The question Uzan seemed to want to explore was, are these characters real or imagined? Unfortunately, this tended to confuse the story rather than add any narrative depth.
Richard Paul Fink was a fine Dutchman, and Melissa Citro’s Senta was dazzling, although her character’s emotional range was limited. Ward Holmquist conducted with authority, but it was apparent that the orchestra was unfamiliar with the nuances and fine distillation of sound necessary for a true Wagnerian performance.
The Lyric Opera has gone from strength to strength since its move two years ago into a new performing venue, the Kauffman Center. The company now produces its own scenery and costumes for new productions, and earns revenue from the subsequent rentals. The new general director, Deborah Sandler, plans to capitalise on the company’s growing national profile in the US as she strives to build on quality. The 2013/2014 season looks especially promising with Joyce DiDonato opening in I Capuleti et i Montecchi followed by The Magic Flute, La bohème and Die Fledermaus.
Tim Albery's triumphant new Otello at Opera North
11 February 2013, Leeds, UK
Moor’s the pity: Ronald Samm and Elena Kelessidi at Opera North(Photo: Clive Barda)
The chief problem in performing Verdi’s Otello has always been finding a more-than-adequate heroic but Italianate tenor to sing the strenuous title role. Caruso avoided it, so did Pavarotti. Until recently, it was dominated by Plácido Domingo. You see the problem.
Ronald Samm, who sings the role of Otello in Opera North’s new co-production with Scottish Opera, is no Domingo, but nor does the role over-tax his vocal resources. He sustains the part well, and the barely suppressed violence with which he threatens Desdemona as the drama intensifies is truly terrifying.
Elena Kelessidi, singing Desdemona for the first time, started a bit nervously, but found her way into the role, and was entirely convincing in the third act confrontation with Otello, and in her great scene in the final act. Ann Taylor made an impression as a supportive and sympathetic Emilia.
David Kempster, always a strong physical and vocal presence, is I think a rather under-valued opera singer. He is presented as an elderly Iago, which makes it easy to see why he so bitterly resents the promotion of the young, gullible Cassio (Michael Wade Lee), as well as having to defer to ‘the Moor’ – a blatant ethnic upstart, especially in the context of, probably, the US Navy in the 1950s, which is the entirely convincing setting of Tim Albery’s thoughtful and thorough production.
It is typical of this production that Albery ensures we do not miss the explosive opening of the work, just as, at the end, the dead couple are left alone in their bleak bedroom. Everything serves the work, which is among the greatest of all tragic operas. Of course it helps that it has a Shakespearean basis, but it helps too that Boito constructed such a clear, compact and powerful four-act libretto.
In Leeds, production and performance cohere, and the combined forces of Opera North under the powerful and detailed direction of Richard Farnes, give us a rendering of Otello which is unforgettably moving.
Opera North’s Otello will tour next month to Newcastle (Theatre Royal: 27 Feb, 2 Mar) Belfast (Grand Opera House: 6, 9 Mar), Salford Quays (The Lowry: 13, 16 Mar) and Nottingham (Theatre Royal: 20, 23 Mar).
Wagner and Mozart at the Canadian Opera Company
4 February 2013, Toronto, Canada
Peter Sellar's 'Tristan' in Toronto
COC's 'Clemenza di Tito'(Photos: Michael Cooper)
Live reviews by Karyl Charna Lynn
Tristan und Isolde Wagner
This extraordinary production of Tristan und Isolde, conceived by director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola, was premiered at the Paris Opera in 2005. Although video projections are these days familiar in opera, few have made such an earnest attempt to express a musical score and grapple with the symbolic significance of a narrative.
The imagery is taken from aspects of Tantric philosophy, in which perfect love is expressed as an act of dissolution of the individual. In Act I, male and female archetypes begin as two spots of light in which slowly transform into a man and a woman. They are stripped, purified and then caress one another while floating underwater. Act II opens with the sun setting and ends with a new dawn. In the meantime, the man walks through burning logs, and the woman lights a sea of candles then walks through water. The most stunning image comes in Act III, as a stream of water raises the dead Tristan towards eternity.
The video was projected on a gigantic screen that literally and figuratively took center-stage; a square platform was the only ‘prop’. With the stage dimly lit and the singers hardly visible in predominately black costumes, the opera’s emotional intensity and depth were focused on the voices which, for the most part, were admirable.
Of the original Paris cast, only Ben Heppner (Tristan) and Franz-Josef Selig (King Marke) remained. Although Heppner is past his vocal peak, his performance was heartfelt and passionate, especially in the third act. Melanie Diener as Isolde started out with a powerful, accurate vocal performance, but lost heft as the evening progressed (perhaps because this was at the end of a long run). Selig made a solid King Marke, and Daveda Karanas was noteworthy as Brangäne. Maestro Johannes Debus, conducting this work for the first time, gave a commendable account with COC Orchestra and Chorus.
Watching this production reminded me of Ruth Berghaus’ Tristan und Isolde at the Hamburg Staatsoper in 1988 – another avant-garde production at the time. Both were radical and innovative stagings controversial theatrical geniuses with an abundance of brilliant moments, but whose concept also distracted from the opera with its overabundance of ideas. In Sellars’ case, the non-stop video at times drew the focus away from the musical performance, relegating the opera to the role of being the soundtrack of the video.
La Clemenza di Tito Mozart
Mozart’s penultimate opera, composed in 1791 ostensibly to flatter Leopold II on his coronation as King of Bohemia, deals with power, honour, friendship, vengeance, love, and forgiveness. It is a psychologically penetrating tale about enlightened leadership and the nature of power – topics as germane today as when the work was composed.
Director Christopher Alden infused the opera’s Roman neo-Classicism with a modern edginess, liberating it from opera seria’s stilted conventions. This gave his staging vitality but also introduced some absurd anachronistic elements: Annio jogged around the stage sporting a headband and Elvis-Presley-type hairdo; Tito strutted around in silk purple pajamas clutching a gold (security) blanket, using a 1960s-era red phone to ‘call in’ Sesto’s verdict; the chorus, outfitted in ghastly mid-20th century leisure wear, wore white commedia dell’arte masks and scarves. The remaining characters sported Roman togas, with and without helmets.
The a minimalist uni-set, consisting of a massive white marble wall crossing the stage diagonally and engraved with (Latin) words, complemented by a red carpet, red velvet rope and stanchions, marble benches, and golden trash can. All of this bore a striking resemblance to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in America’s political powerhouse, Washington DC.
The production offered uniformly flawless singing and impeccable acting that powerfully conveyed the high ethical and political stakes involved in the characters’ emotional turmoil, struggles, and passions.
Isabel Leonard’s Sesto mesmerized us with intense acting and sparkling singing. Wallis Giunta portrayal of Annio as a contemporary ‘dude’ was amusing but absurd; fortunately it didn’t detract from her impressive vocal powers. Keri Alkema made an imperious, seductive, and vengeful Vitellia with a full, rich, sound. Michael Schade, the scheduled Tito, was ill, but Owen McCausland, a young Canadian tenor who from the COC Studio Ensemble, did an admirable job all round, convincing in his acting and accomplished in his singing. Daniel Cohen drew vibrant, nuanced playing from the COC orchestra.
22 January 2013
Revealing gestures: the 'Opera Naked' team(Photo: Maddy Cannon)
Opera director Lynn Binstock turned a series of personal stories gleaned from interviews with singers into a revealing show that debunks myths surrounding opera singing, exposing the real-life trials and tribulations unfolding behind the scenes.
I have worked with opera singers for many years and although I thank my lucky stars I am not one of them, I admire them hugely for their talent, industry and courage. Yet most people have little understanding of what it involves, or why anyone would choose to do it. Our vision in creating Unexpected Opera’s Opera Naked was to change that by offering an intimate perspective on opera, so I interviewed 40-odd singers of varying ages and experience. The stories I heard were fascinating and inspiring, and the comments I got were often telling: ‘Singing is very personal, very open – so performing is almost like being naked.’
To lay bare the lives of opera singers with honesty, humour and great music, we put four emerging soloists together with Unexpected Opera’s resident comic. Opera Naked includes four life-stories with operatic performances deeply rooted in personal experience, and is peppered with verbatim material from the interviews. The first act explores the journey towards becoming an opera singer. The second looks at the professional world they inhabit, sharing ‘insider knowledge’ and intimate revelations.
What did the interviews reveal? Opera singers are not necessarily ‘posh’ or ‘cultured’. For some, becoming a singer was completely unexpected. Others, even from music-loving families, found that their career choice was not welcomed. Whatever their background, most had strong memories of singing as a child. Several abandoned serious study of other instruments to dedicate themselves to the voice. Others were drawn back to singing after working in non-musical fields, even when they had achieved considerable success.
Training to sing opera isn’t easy. Whatever your natural talent, it can take a good eight years to reach the starting line. Most difficult of all is establishing a solid vocal technique: it is terribly easy to ruin a voice. The wrong repertoire or a bad habit quickly leads to trouble. Moreover, voices change over time as they develop and are as individual as their owners. Since they can’t hear themselves as others do, singers are dependent on teachers and coaches throughout their careers. Larger, ‘dramatic’ voices aren’t fully developed until the singers are in their thirties or even forties.
Most fascinating of all was how many interviewees described their need to sing opera as an addiction. They can’t give it up, and although it causes them a good deal of personal torment, it also provides their moments of greatest exhilaration and happiness. But what is the drug? Some think it is the pure physicality of singing. Others talk about the stimulating mix of rational technique and emotional engagement. Many focused on the intense pleasure of connecting with audiences. Generally, they spoke with fervour about their love for the characters, the drama, the poetry and the music itself.
The audiences at Opera Naked clearly loved hearing the personal stories – there was much hilarity at our ‘awful auditions’ sequence. A healthy portion were under thirty, and new to opera; many admitted to being surprised and delighted that they could relate to the music in the context of the singers’ lives, even when sung in different languages. There was plenty of feedback, and the following is a typical audience response: ‘What I liked best was the intimacy ... how the actors and actresses told true life stories, and the variety of different operas (a great insight for a novice opera-goer!).’
Opera creates castles of the imagination, but it requires real work. Singers struggle to earn a living while training and to cope with the lack of career-structure, but the hardest struggle seems to be with themselves. Learning about one’s voice – its strengths and weaknesses, where it truly lies, how to let it soar – is profoundly connected with learning about one’s self.
Opera Naked was born of a desire to challenge stereotypes and contribute to a better understanding of opera. It is also partly a reaction to programmes like Popstar to Operastar and to the ‘opera stars’ who use microphones and have never performed a full role onstage. Above all, however, it is my love-letter to singers, and to opera itself.
Lynn Binstock is artistic director of Unexpected Opera. While pursuing a freelance career in the UK, USA and Germany she was head of staff directors and artistic administrator of the Jerwood Young Singers Programme during her 12 years at ENO. She has also been engaged as an associate and assistant director at the ROH and Scottish Opera.
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