IU Opera brings a steampunk aesthetic to ‘L’Etoile’ production

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Linda Pisano, professor of costume design, points out some of the details in the costumes that make them steam punk during preparation for next week's steam punk style L'Étoile, at the Musical Arts Center.

Linda Pisano, professor of costume design, points out some of the details in the costumes that make them steam punk during preparation for next week’s steam punk style L’Etoile, at the Musical Arts Center.  (Chris Howell | Herald-Times)

If illogical world leaders wore their true colors on the outside, they might be dressed like the comic villain in Indiana University Opera and Ballet Theater’s next production.

Alexis Emmanuel Chabrier’s “L’Etoile” (French for “The Star”) opens Friday at the Musical Arts Center in Bloomington. Written in 19th century France, it stars King Ouf, who celebrates his birthday by looking for someone to execute. When he meets a traveling salesman who he hopes to use to fulfill his birthday wish, he’s warned by his astrologer that Lazuli’s death will result in his own.

Director Alain Gauthier brought his vision of the surreal opera to Bloomington. The Montreal-based director, who has worked on productions of “L’Etoile” for professional opera companies, felt it called for a less traditional look and feel that echoed the time and place of its creation. He chose steampunk, a style known for incorporating metallics, steam-powered machinery and the technology of the 19th century.

Sometimes, Gauthier said, a steampunk-inspired aesthetic can appear dark and gloomy, integrating dark, metallic colors. However, “L’Etoile” has traditionally been produced with vibrant colors to capture the farcical qualities of the writing.

“If you Google ‘L’Etoile,’ you’ll see plenty of different, very colorful photos of productions,” he said. “It’s what it calls for … the possibilities are infinite.” The goal, he said, was to make the visual language match the story and music.

When brainstorming began for the show’s set, Gauthier’s inspiration played off of the science, technology and metal of 19th-century Paris. Set designer Tim McMath started by incorporating a metallic look with a greenish tint that captured the industrial feel of the era, and the color scheme evolved from there.

Gauthier wanted to integrate aspects of fantasy and fairy tale into the look of the production by introducing vibrant colors and shiny fabrics. “The piece calls for it, because it’s very silly,” he said. “There’s no boundaries when you have such a farce.”

As the color palette expanded to encompass that silly nature, new shades of pink and purple made their way into the design, along with brighter, shinier metallics. The colors and styles extend to the costumes, which represent different types of people in the story.

Costume designer Linda Pisano described the three classes of characters that appear on stage as oppressed, working class citizens; the court inside the palace; and visitors from elsewhere who disguise themselves as tailors. Each style takes steampunk aesthetics into a new direction with its own colors.

Costume designer Linda Pisano's renderings for L'Étoile show her vision for its characters.

Costume designer Linda Pisano’s renderings for “L’Etoile” show her vision for its characters.

Bright colors and steampunk styles blend with the clothing of the era in Pisano’s designs. She combined a Victorian gothic style with punk and glam rock elements — “sort of David Bowie, but with a more 18th-century effect,” she said — to give an air of pretension to the courtiers’ overall look.

“It will be very obvious on the set who belongs to the working class (autumnal colors), the outsider/visitors (black and gray) and the courtiers (fuchsia, lime, pastels, yellow),” Pisano wrote in an email. “It will be clear that the king controls this world. The root of the working class steampunk and the visiting gothic punk has firmly landed in the late 19th century. The courtiers have their root in 16th-18th century (which is a very broad range of three centuries) coupled with very modern elements (i.e. leopard skin leggings and leather) for not only fun visual candy to bring out the silliness of this court, but in some ways demonstrate the decadence and ostentatious world of an opulent yet oppressive monarchy.”

To make the visitors look more like outsiders when dropped into the bright pink and gold of the sets, they’re in darker, more classic steampunk attire. And because they’re in disguise, their look is more subtle. Defining the social classes is part of what makes the show more accessible, Pisano said. “This is a farce, and bringing a non-conventional silhouette provides a fun, if not quirky, sensibility for the audience.”

Audiences will be able to see King Ouf’s madness on the outside for the next two weekends as he takes the stage in his attire of opulent pink, gold and blinding rhinestones.

Props to be used in next week’s steam punk style L’Etoile, at the Musical Arts Center.
(Chris Howell | Herald-Times)

 

Linda Pisano, center, professor of costume design, and Sarah Akemon, left, wardrobe supervisor, help fit performer Patrick Conklin, a first year master’s student, during preparation for L’Etoile at the Musical Arts Center. (Chris Howell | Herald-Times)

Props to be used in next week’s steam punk style L’Etoile, at the Musical Arts Center.
(Chris Howell | Herald-Times)

 

Gwen Law, props master at Indiana University, right, and her assistant, Olivia Dagley, work on a chair that transforms into a replica of the Eiffel Tower. To be used in next week’s steam punk style L’Étoile, at the Musical Arts Center.
(Chris Howell | Herald-Times)

If you go

WHO: Indiana University Opera & Ballet Theater

WHAT: “L’Etoile” by Alexis Emmanuel Chamber.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13, 14, 20 and 21

WHERE: Musical Arts Center, 101 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington

TICKETS: $16-$43; $10-28 for students. Reserved seating. Available at the MAC box office; 812-855-7433, music.indiana.edu/opera

© Herald-Times 2017

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Review: IU opera delivers top-notch rendition of ‘Don Giovanni’

An imposing new set, strong singing, first-rate musical production and stage direction that bring a sense of order and grandeur are positive aspects of the Indiana University Opera Theater’s current staging of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

Generous applause following the opera’s numerous arias and at opera’s end, along with comments overheard and comments directly addressed to me, would suggest that, by general agreement, this newly introduced staging has merit.

My plan in reviewing had been to sit through the first weekend’s performances, evaluate what I had heard and seen from both casts and report on my reaction. That has been the usual approach at The Herald-Times for a long while. As the week passed, however, a trip to the hospital that lasted one day longer than I thought it would made attendance on opening night not possible. So, this review offers my response to Saturday’s performance only. My new game plan is to see the cast I missed next weekend and then report once more to you.

Actually, I did witness one portrayal that all viewers of this production did or will see. It is that of the Commendatore, he who is murdered in the opening scene and then, at the end, returns in retribution to have Don Giovanni meet his Maker. The newly hired associate professor of voice in the IU Jacobs School of Music’s voice department, Peter Volpe, took on all four performances of that role, thereby returning to a casting policy of the school’s past: to mix student and faculty voices in the company’s productions. Volpe is a natural for the part, not only for the robust nature of his bass voice but for his physical stature. Volpe’s was a most successful debut as performing teacher; he has plenty of his vocal powers still to draw upon.

But before we continue along the praiseworthy musical path, let’s comment further on the environment in which this production unfolds, in that it will be around for a while. It is the work of Bloomington-based set designer Mark Frederic Smith, who studied at the Jacobs School under C. David Higgins and Robert O. Hearn and created set designs locally for IU Opera Theater, IU Theater and Cardinal Stage. He has a keen sense for beauty and appropriateness.

For this “Giovanni,” he has constructed a basic set that evokes the past but is also timeless. It is a single unit but, through the addition of slide-on panels and drop-down backdrops, makes scene changes easily and quickly possible, a plus for any performance of “Don Giovanni.” In a comfortable instant, the stage picture shifts and the action flows on, a neat trick comfortably delivered. Dana Tzvetkov’s costumes are handsome and very much in concert with the physical aspects of the production. So is the lighting of the always-dependable Patrick Mero.

In the use of that stage, visiting stage director David Lefkowich showed the way for Saturday’s cast to fill it. Every suitable movement has been called upon to prevent a stand-there-and-just-sing situation; movement contributed a sense of theater to the unfolding drama, all to the good when not overdone, which it wasn’t.

Arthur Fagen, veteran IU faculty conductor who also serves as music director of the Atlanta Opera, was very much the man in-charge on the podium, doing his critical job of paying homage to Mozart’s brilliant score. The IU Concert Orchestra played beautifully for him. A small chorus served well, and during the performance, had the benefit of Maestro Fagen’s baton.

Vocally, in addition to the Commendatore, the opera calls for seven top-notch singers. Casting deserves praise.

Bruno Sandes, a second-year master student with considerable professional experience, gave his portrayal of Giovanni the needed libido-driven, self-centered and malevolent personality that make a viewer shudder. His voice, a lyric and flexible baritone, did justice to Mozart’s score as an instrument easy to listen to while conveying the devil-may-care character of Giovanni.

Soprano Kaitlyn Johnson, a doctoral student also with a list of accomplishments, brought a powerful and dramatic soprano to the role of Donna Anna, the woman first debased in the course of the opera’s story. She produced sorrow and anger with her voice, just right for a woman avenging her father’s murder.

Donna Elvira, another woman who Giovanni draws into his scheming, was in the capable presence and voice of soprano Shayna Jones. Her servant Zerlina’s character benefited from its portrayal by Alissa Dessoye, she of a sweet lyric/coloratura vocal instrument.

Giovanni’s servant Leporello, as played by bass-baritone Glen Hall, had the needed bounce, anger and comic thrust.

Completing Saturday’s cast were two undergraduates who held their own: As Donna Anna’s beau Don Ottavio, tenor Leo Williams displayed a beautifully trained and controlled voice that more than hints at a promising future. And as Masetto, Zerlina’s husband-to-be, baritone Joey LaPlant revealed an affinity for delving into his role.

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer © HTO 2017

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IU’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ worth drive to Butler to see

jacobi article

“Madama Butterfly” is one of those operas for which you must have the right talent to portray the central character. If you don’t, it shouldn’t be done.

Fortunately, the current new production of Giacomo Puccini’s heartrending masterwork, as staged by the Indiana University Opera Theater, is twice fortunate: both sopranos portraying Butterfly or Cio-Cio-San have been carefully and successfully cast.

On opening night in the Musical Arts Center, last Friday, Marlen Nahhas offered us a soprano both powerful enough and dramatically intense to fulfill the demands of Puccini’s music and what the music imparts theatrically.

One heard faith in her voice, the faith of a very young bride staunch in the belief, even after three years of waiting, that her B.F. Pinkerton, her American naval lieutenant of a cad husband, will return to her. One heard maturation in her voice, of a 15-year-old becoming a woman and a mother faced with what will become mounting consequences. One heard tragedy in her voice, for a heroine Puccini considered brave as could be but victimized by her world and by the courage of her convictions.

On Saturday evening, Mathilda Edge took over the role. And the same needs to be said about her satisfying work. Again, musically, Edge turned into that unfortunate and admirable heroine. The faith was there. And the maturation. And the tragedy.

That was so even though their voices differed. In Marlen Nahhas’s soprano, one heard strains of silk, a rugged yet soft, pliant element that rounded out the mellifluous nature of her native instrument. In Mathilda Edge’s soprano, that noticeable extra element was steel, a band of the metallic that seemed to symbolize strength and determination.

Undoubtedly helped along dramatically by the counsel of guest stage director Lesley Koenig, they turned into Cio-Cio-Sans, despite the fact that, physically speaking, neither approximated the very young, delicate geisha Puccini had in mind. Singers that look so are not easy to find. Hard work and musical strength made the difference work in this staging.

All that said, there is no workable production of “Madama Butterfly” without several other requirements:

• Although Pinkerton’s part is not long (he appears only in the first act and briefly in the third), the tenor who sings that role must be very good, with a voice both lyrically tender and large enough to be heard above orchestral rises of sound, which Puccini supplies in abundance. We’ve been fortunate here with tenors of late, and are again in this “Butterfly” production. Justin Stolz on opening night and Trey Smagur on the next both proved to be singers with voices of excellent quality and sufficient scope. Dramatically, they had sufficient swagger. More importantly, each gave his Cio-Cio-San a well-matched partner in the gorgeous love duet that ends Act 1, probably the most beautiful such scene that Puccini ever wrote and one requiring two impassioned, radiantly-voiced singers. Stolz and Smagur supplied the goods.

• Orchestrally speaking, Puccini’s “Butterfly” score is a wonder of touches that give the music its pungent and poignant flavors. The orchestral score is bulging with technical difficulties; thus, a qualified pit orchestra is a must. The IU Philharmonic fulfills that must, with quality to spare.

• To make the orchestra accomplish what it must accomplish, a conductor of experience and lofty talent needs to be wielding the baton. In the resident Arthur Fagen, IU Opera Theater has such a conductor. Maestro Fagen contributed the appropriate leadership to both the pit musicians and the singers on stage. He was the stabilizer and the inspirer for everything musical.

• The women’s choir that musically introduces Cio-Cio-San to the stage in Act 1 must be able to convey dream and cream with their voices, in one of the most haunting such moments in all of opera. Chorus master Walter Huff’s young ladies did their job stunningly.

Now, I happen to be a traditionalist when it comes to “Madama Butterfly.” Most of Leslie Koenig’s directing was to the point and effective. However, in Act 1, I expected the chorus portraying Japanese women to introduce Butterfly to the stage, not the opposite, for some strange reason. And in the closing scene, when our brutally scarred and betrayed heroine chooses suicide to other possible options, I prefer to see most attention given to her and less to her young son, despite the fact that this production’s Sorrow, the son, is portrayed dutifully and obediently by Mira Vamos. Mira is also far older than Sorrow should be, but then, I cannot remember ever seeing a Sorrow of the right age; it wouldn’t be possible to keep a 2- or 3-year-old in line on stage. Puccini failed to take care of that issue.

In matters of scenery, again as a traditionalist, I prefer to see a house of some sort on stage. IU’s new production has no house save little toy-sized ones that hang above as a sort of roof. There are platforms instead of rooms and other spaces. But, admittedly, the set by Steven Kemp, a much-admired designer, offers a fluency of motion and a picture worth looking at. Also worth looking at are the beautiful costumes designed by Linda Pisano. As usual, Patrick Mero’s lighting adds to the looks when and wherever they are needed.

Were you to see both casts, you’d probably come up with choices, but most every singer is more than adequate, including the two baritones playing the hapless American consul Sharpless, Jonathan Bryan and Eric Smedsrud. Far stronger than adequate are the two mezzos who portray Butterfly’s faithful and worried servant Suzuki with formidable fervor, Kaitlyn McMonigle and Liz Culpepper. Tenors Darian Clonts and Bradley Bickhardt give personality to Goro, the busybody marriage broker, and two other baritones, Ji Lu and Adam Walton, display fury in abundance as Butterfly’s fanatical uncle, The Bonze.

Next weekend’s performances are in Indianapolis at Clowes Hall on the Butler University campus. If you haven’t seen this production, I’d suggest you go, despite the distance.

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer © HTO 2016 | pjacobi@heraldt.com

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IU Opera Theatre presents Puccini classic

By Peter Jacobi H-T Columnist

When the curtain rises in the Musical Arts Center on Friday evening for what will be the 11th Indiana University Opera Theater’s presentation of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” you will benefit not only from the beauties the composer poured into the score but from Puccini’s always persistent search for stories he deemed right for him to explore, stories that begged for his music to enhance their appeal.

One could write far more about the literary origin of “Madama Butterfly” than there is room for, full length, in this column. And the whole of such a discussion would not be out of place because Giacomo Puccini’s compositional career featured long bouts of seeking the right story content, so to produce the strongest possible theatrical package.

Three times, he made decisions based on what other composers had already done or were planning to do. Jules Massenet had already written his opera “Manon” when its success led Puccini to create his own version, “Manon Lescaut.” Ruggiero Leoncavallo had started to write his “La Boheme,” about those love-driven and impecunious Parisian Bohemians, when he chanced to tell Puccini what he was doing, only to have his “friend” Puccini steal the idea and brilliantly mine it, leaving his fellow composer in the lurch. To set “Tosca” into an opera, Puccini had to talk Alberto Franchetti out of doing this Victorian Sardou drama with arguments that the story was really too sordid to be used for an operatic libretto.

Having finished “Tosca” and sweetly tasted its triumph, Puccini faced the repeated dilemma: what to choose as the subject for his next opera. Among the possibilities were Maurice Maeterlinck’s “Pelleas et Melisande,” already promised to Debussy, Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “House of the Dead,” projects with Emile Zola and Gabriele d’Annunzio, and about a dozen more.

While engaged in the search, Puccini was invited — during a visit to London — to attend a theater performance of a one-act play by the American playwright and director David Belasco. It was called “Madam Butterfly.” It was performed in English, very little or anything of which Puccini could understand. But the composer was smitten. He sought out Belasco and came away with a deal. Belasco later explained the transaction: that he told Puccini, “He could do anything he liked with the play and make any sort of contract he chose, for it was impossible to discuss business arrangements with an impulsive Italian with tears in his eyes and both arms around my neck.”

Belasco’s theatrical package originated as a short story by an American lawyer and sometime writer John Luther Long, published in Century Magazine, a well-read journalistic entity at the time. Now, actually, origins came earlier because what Long did was to take other literary sources that rose out of history, the 1854 treaty that naval commander Matthew Perry arranged to open Japan to the West and that encouraged tourism to a country of prior mystery and intrigue. But let’s leave the story’s background to that.

Anyway, the very practical producer Belasco and the very practical composer Puccini and the agreeable short story writer Long and the literary and historical sources that led Long to his story and two of Puccini’s always hungry-for-work librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, and who knows what and who else merged across space and time to make possible the opera that so many so deeply love, “Madama Butterfly.” And that we get to see starting Friday night.

For that, the folks at IU Opera Theater have gathered a team of cooperating talents, all of whom express love for the opera and for the producing team of which they are a part:

• Conductor Arthur Fagen, the Jacobs School’s professor of orchestral conducting, who has a distinguished and lengthy career in the worlds of opera and the symphony that includes, at present, the musical directorship of the Atlanta Opera.

• Visiting stage director Lesley Koenig, managing director of the Weston Playhouse in Vermont who also brings experience, as forged during a 35-year career as opera director.

• Visiting designer Steven Kemp, a widely sought-after and much praised scenic designer for operas, musicals and plays nationwide.

• Costume designer Linda Pisano, professor of costume design and head of design and technology for IU Theater, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.

Each and all express enthusiasm for the state of things backstage, lauding not only each other but the students — on stage, behind the stage, and in the orchestra pit — that are involved in this “Butterfly” production. In response to my questions, they had this to say:

Maestro Fagen: “I’ve done three productions of ‘Butterfly.’ I love it. The melodies are exquisite. The orchestral score is one of the most beautiful ever written, with that slightly exotic element hinting at Japan. We have the Philharmonic to do it, which is good, and we’ve been working very hard to honor the music, in all of its details. The orchestration is thick. That means we’re dealing with balances, and that’s tricky work, but we’re getting there. The casts selected are contributing some remarkable singing, with two Butterflies handling a long and very difficult role. I’m satisfied with the progress we’re making.”

Stage director Koenig: “The rehearsals have been delightful with two extremely strong casts, working hard, and laughing equally hard. I believe that creating strong ensembles is the key to successful productions, and here are two casts fully supportive of one another. It’s a magical process. … ‘Madama Butterfly’ is a big sing. No problems whatsoever. And we found a terrific child to play Trouble. … This is my first ‘Butterfly’ and is a piece that has always been on a short list I have been craving to do, so I am thrilled.

“I’ve seen different productions,” Koenig continues, “and Pinkerton always arrives in a crisp white suit, acting as if he were a highly ethical, well-mannered officer. But read what he says; three times in the first 20 minutes, he boasts that though he has bought a house and family, he can get out of the deal any day he decides. He speaks of taking women in every port and, finally, just as Butterfly enters, he toasts his future American wife. We are playing him as he is, not a bad guy but a bit of a cad.who thinks only of himself.”

Scenic designer Kemp: “The opera is one of my favorites, and I loved every second of designing it for the first time. I love Puccini and, especially, ‘Butterfly,’ for the haunting melodies that get embedded deep in your soul, entrenched for days even after just a short casual listen. … For the set, we wanted to create a strikingly simple environment that is in tension between the poetically ethereal and the viscerally elemental. Transitioning the audience to the performers is a full stage strip of an illusion of water, where we find our most realistic visual: the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln lurking in the harbor of Nagasaki.

“There are punches of Japanese heritage and tradition,” adds Kemp, “such as the fragmented sand pits inspired by traditional kitchens and Zen gardens as well as the cherry tree that grows in age with Butterfly’s child throughout the opera. All of this is enveloped in layers of a translucent series of mountains that simultaneously conjure the ocean and the clouds to evoke a beautiful hazy existence in which Butterfly is trapped.”

Costumer Pisano: “I’m excited by the opportunity. We’re stressing clean lines, elegance, the simple and yet with quite a bit of the ornamental to enrich the lines. … The project is daunting because there is so much tradition with this opera, and audiences have strong expectations. We have to be aware of what’s acceptable for those familiar with the opera. Lesley has been particularly helpful by sharing with me her thoughts about each of the characters. They’ve become three-dimensional people for whom I’ve designed appropriate clothing.”

Lesley Koenig, when asked what she hopes to accomplish for those of us who attend “Butterfly,” responded: “I want you to leave the performance with sufficient Kleenex, well used. I want you to feel you have truly seen the opera and have been thoroughly caught up in the story, awash with wonderful, touching music.”

I’m pumped.

Contact Peter Jacobi at pjacobi@heraldt.com.

If you go

This Indiana University Opera Theater production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” will be performed three times here in Bloomington and twice in Indianapolis.

If you attend here: The performances are in the Musical Arts Center on the IU Bloomington campus. Dates: Next Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 and next Sunday afternoon at 2. Tickets: Available at the MAC box office or at music.indiana.edu/opera or by phoning 812-855-7433. For adults: From $16 up. For students: $10 and up.

If you attend in Indianapolis: performances are in Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University campus. Dates: Nov. 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets: Available at the Clowes Memorial Hall box office or through Ticketmaster outlets or via email at cloweshall.org or by phone at 800-982-2787. For adults: From $22 up. For students: From $10 up.

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IU Opera Theater tackles a contemporary opera

Peter Jacobi

Over the years, Indiana University’s Opera Theater has given us a rich sampling of contemporary operas, the most recent having been Jake Heggie’s powerful “Dead Man Walking,” just last season. This week, we’re to get another, “Florencia en el Amazonas” (“Florencia in the Amazon”). It is the work of Daniel Catan, a Mexican composer who was driven to make the Spanish language a servant to operas yet to be written.

He wrote a few of his own in Spanish before death took him in 2011 at a too-early age of 62. Consequently, Catan did not live long enough to see a tradition formed, but in “Florencia,” he left us an opera that, according to critics and others who have seen it, works and makes a strong case for opera in the beautiful Spanish language. “Florencia” premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1996 and was highly lauded by the press, not only in Houston but when co-commissioning opera companies took their turns producing it, Los Angeles in 1997 and Seattle in 1998. There have been plenty more performances since, including a number at universities: Michigan State and the Universities of Houston, Maryland, Illinois and Boston.

Now, it comes our way in a brand new production designed by Mark Smith, who serves as director of paint and props for IU Opera Theater; clothed by Linda Pisano, director of costume design at IU Theater; musically led by David Neely, head of Des Moines Metro Opera and conductor of last year’s impressive IU production of “Dead Man Walking”; stage directed by Candace Evans, widely acclaimed for not only her directing skills but as choreographer. I’ve not seen the opera but have listened to its music on CD; it impressed me for the lushness of the score, its accessibility, and how the music seems to closely fit the story.

The story, in brief, tells of a passage on the Amazon by a steamer. Aboard is, most prominently, an aging opera singer, a diva named Florencia Grimaldi, who has spent the last 20 years in Europe and now plans to give a concert at the opera house in Manaus, deep in the jungle (one that actually exists). The trip becomes a voyage of self-discovery for each of the characters. Florencia, in addition to singing her return concert, hopes to find her lo ver of long ago, of all things a butterfly hunter. Action takes place on the riverboat, named El Dorado, and off. You must wait to see what happens.

Each member of the production team claims to love Catan’s “Florencia,” it music, its story, its libretto, its theatrical potency.

Designer Mark Smith says the ship built for this production is, itself, a character, “an extension of its aging captain, who is in charge of navigating the dangers of the river, but it is also a character of its own, not only scenery. Many other productions have them traveling on a polished luxury vessel, but we agreed that didn’t fit the setting or the music. This is 1910, deep in the Amazon. We were drawn more to the romanticized stories found in film and fiction of unpleasant river journeys full of love, danger, and the unknown. Our El Dorado has the faded beauty of a once elegant craft.

“With what we settled on,” Smith continues, “there are elements of realism at the center of the stage picture, but as they depart for their destination and move deeper into the jungle, the river and surroundings take on a fantastic and slightly surreal environment suggested by the colors, textures, and creatures found in the Amazon.”

Director Candace Evans adds that the river itself is a character. “It changes everyone,” she explains. “What Mark has evocatively built for us makes possible an atmosphere that suggests movement. The river, as we show it and as the music and story line make clear, is the force of nature that changes the people making the trip. They’re caught by the emotional force of the Amazon, the spell it casts. Importantly, we have to create the blend of magic and reality through the actors’ interaction with this strange environment. Catan’s music, of course, promotes the spell. It is absolutely beautiful, exquisite, intriguing.

“We’re working very hard with the singers,” says Evans, “asking them to know the music and what it is meant to say. I need them, also, to think why they’re singing the music, what the music is dramatically all about. And another lesson deals with how to listen. The singers we have here understand those requirements, and they have the will and talent to make it happen. It’s always a joy to be here.”

Conductor David Neely says the opera is new to him but that he’s had his eyes on it for a while. “For me, ‘Florencia’ works on all levels and captures the magical-realist spirit of Columbian writer Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Great opera begins with a great libretto that understands the language and the pacing necessary for the music, as it expresses the words and what is happening on stage. in this case what Marquez’ assistant, the writer Marcela Fuentes-Berain created. The compelling text incorporates elements from across Marquez’ works and proves perfect for the operatic stage. People can relate to the imaginative story, characters, and music. It’s no accident that the opera has rapidly grown in popularity since its premiere.”

Expanding his discussion of the music, Maestro Neely says, “Catan wrote in a sweeping style that combines beautiful vocal writing, impressionistic orchestration, Wagnerian-style leitmotivs, Latin-American popular music, and naturalistic effects to place us in the dense and mysterious Amazon. He created a lush and layered musical dream state of great beauty that is pleasing to the ear and soul. Conducting ‘Florencia’ feels a bit like flying, and that is what I hope the audience feels, too.”

I’ll be waiting to sail and soar.

© Herald Times Online

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Saying Yes : The Art of Assessing and Accepting a Role in College and Beyond by Peter Thoresen – featuring Kevin Murphy

by Peter Thoresen | www.peterthoresen.com

Young singers face a multitude of decisions as they embark on an educational career at a university or conservatory. Matters of class decisions, finding a compatible roommate, and teacher selection are only a few of the critical decisions required of them. After a student figures out how to navigate the minutia of getting around campus and knowing just how many pages are in their library “print allotment,” the prospect of being cast in an opera role seems like the easiest decision to make—if you’re offered a role in your school’s opera theater season, you should smile, be grateful, and say, “Yes.” Right?

Not necessarily. Sometimes we’re put in a situation that feels both luxurious and troubling—we’re offered a role and we feel excited and grateful, yet concerned. This complex and complicated assortment of emotions is absolutely operatic. It requires thoughtfulness, imagination (contemplating how our lives will be affected), and frequently difficult decision-making.

To gain further perspective, I reached out to mezzo-soprano and teacher Catherine Cook and opera coach and administrator Kevin Murphy. Both offered valuable advice on how to decide if a role is right for you.

 

Catherine Cook

 

Cooking Up a Role
I caught up with Catherine Cook by phone on a hot July day as she drove to rehearsal for Sweeney Todd at Mill City Summer Opera to prepare for her summer performances as Mrs. Lovett. “I did the role in college and have been wanting to do it again for 20 years—it’s been on my bucket list,” Cook says of the baker of “the worst pies in London.”

Over the course of a career with an enviable balance of performing and teaching at the highest levels, Cook is the recipient of the Frederica von Stade Distinguished Chair in Voice at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music—an institution that’s just down the block from the San Francisco Opera where Cook has sung over 300 performances in an expansive repertoire, which will grow to include the Countess in Giordano’s Andrea Chénier this fall as she celebrates her 25th season with the company.

On this summer day, our conversation centers on our students and the tremendous responsibility teachers face as they guide and nurture them through a variety of situations, including the whens and whys of accepting a role offered at the collegiate level.

“It’s different in college, because at the university level you’re there to learn—but stage time is stage time,” Cook says. “It is really valuable. You might think, ‘I’ll never sing this role,’ but if you have the opportunity to get onstage, you’ll learn something.”

Cook is quick to point out, however, that this learning experience shouldn’t be at the expense of a singer’s vocal health or get in the way of their development. “College time is precious—don’t waste lesson time wrapping your voice around a role that’s not for you.

“But if it’s a role that’s just a little bit outside of your Fach, it’s OK,” she continues. “And for roles like that, or roles that are in your Fach but you’re not cast, ask if you can understudy! I always tell my students, ‘Ask if you can understudy—you may not get to put the role on your résumé, but you’ll get some coachings and you’ll have a learning experience.’”

Cook is an empowering and inspiring educator, and her advice is colored by the words of her mentors—celebrated teacher Barbara Hahn and her career-long manager, John Anderson, president of Barrett Artists. Their counsel has shaped Cook’s decision-making over the years and has direct impact on how she advises her students as they decide whether to say yes to a role.

“‘No’ is a complete sentence,” Cook advises, quoting John Anderson. “I tell that to my students at the conservatory and in workshops. It’s empowering and it’s OK. If you’re meant to have that dream role, it will come. We all have something that we do really well—and you might not know it yet when you’re in college.

“As a student,” she continues, “you have to do the work—but even now as a teacher, I still call Barbara Hahn about role decisions, and she asks, ‘Do you want to do that? You can sing it, but do you want to do that?’” It’s questions like these that many students feel they’re not allowed to ask while in school. And because stage time is so valuable, these types of questions tend to be swept under the rug in order to add a role to a résumé.

Additional questions include matters of musical practicality. As you’re weighing your options, Cook furthers that “with young voices, it’s so important and it really matters if the production is with full orchestra.”

Matters of financial practicality also worked their way into our conversation. “Sometimes a student is cast in five different things, and then it becomes a matter of ‘getting your dollar’s worth,’” she says. “A student might feel like they have to say yes to all five things, but it’s OK to let a couple of things go. Otherwise—with so much to do—our work in the studio is going to suffer. You want to leave school with the technical tools that will lead you into your career. When you leave, you should have a clear idea of what you need to do onstage—musically, technically, and as an actor.”

 

Kevin Murphy

Kevin Murphy

Murphy’s Law
Cook’s encouragement to candidly assess a situation and to ask oneself important questions was right in step with the advice of Kevin Murphy, director of coaching and music administration at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Opera & Ballet Theater.

“For young singers, it’s important—right from the beginning—to feel like they’re in charge of their own voices and their boundaries,” Murphy says. “Saying yes to a role is easier than saying no. Say no if it doesn’t feel right or sit well from the beginning—always be looking out for your own throat.”

His advice is based on an illustrious and ongoing career, working with the great singers of today and training those of tomorrow. Murphy, who maintains an on- and off-stage partnership with his wife and celebrated Metropolitan Opera soprano Heidi Grant Murphy (also on faculty at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music), previously served as director of music administration and casting advisor at the New York City Opera and was the first pianist and vocal coach invited by Maestro James Levine into the Lindemann Young Artist Program at the Metropolitan Opera.

“At many schools, students sometimes feel the pressure to say yes to a role because they don’t want to offend somebody who’s an authority figure in their education,” Murphy says.

He also says that students need to be honest and to discuss their concerns about a role with a member of a school’s casting committee. “A student shouldn’t be afraid of offending somebody,” he says, “and it’s important for a singer to have a team that knows his or her voice—a team that they can discuss these issues with.”

Like Cook, Murphy also emphasizes the importance of making a decision about a role based on the circumstances and various contexts related to the performance forces involved—such as singing a role with piano accompaniment versus a full orchestra, and how much of the role a singer is actually tasked with singing. “It’s very different if you’re singing a portion of a role in a workshop, the entire role, or just an aria,” he advises. “I think that people are a little too conservative about what singers can and can’t do.”

When it comes to the usual repertoire suspects, Murphy mentions a frequent reaction that many young singers and their teachers have to certain composers. “They hear the name Puccini and they head for the hills, thinking that Mozart is the only—and the best—option for young singers,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with heavier roles if it’s in the right place. For a program of scenes or a performance with just piano accompaniment, it’s definitely doable for a young voice that’s built to sing heavier roles. One size does not fit all.”

With regard to venue, Murphy refers to the Musical Arts Center at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. “It’s a big auditorium and a large orchestra, but the room really favors the voice. The orchestra doesn’t cover the voice like it does in other theaters.”

Further still, Murphy is quick to point out that the same considerations should be factored into the personnel involved in a production. “Who the conductor is matters when it comes to who can sing a role—especially when it comes to jacking up the orchestra, and if a conductor is not a singer’s conductor.”

This also applies to directors and if the set and staging are favorable to singers. Matters of how far upstage and on which types of levels singers are asked to sing on impact their ability to be heard, feel comfortable, and make a role sustainable.

Sustainability is a key factor when it comes to saying yes or no to a role. Murphy uses Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah as an example. “We hear a lot of young singers sing these arias in auditions—‘The Trees on the Mountains’ and ‘Ain’t It a Pretty Night?’—and they think they can do the entire role,” Murphy says. But those arias aren’t totally representative of what sustaining an entire performance of the role actually requires. “It sits pretty low, and young singers have to look at the whole role in context—those arias don’t say a lot about the rest of the evening.”

Keeping a keen eye—and ear—on “the rest of the evening,” what it entails, and how that affects a singer’s voice in both the long and short term is what’s critically important in planning, sustaining, and enjoying a career as a singer. There’s so much that we can do, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should do it.

So, like Mimì or Countess Almaviva, be prepared to take a deep breath, ponder the challenges and joys of this difficult decision-making, and trust in both your desires and the intelligence of your body, brains, and voice. Such thoughtfulness and intelligence will lead you to say “yes” to the right roles and “no” to the wrong ones.

Peter Thoresen is a Manhattan-based voice teacher, countertenor, and arts consultant. A regular contributor to the Auditions Plus blog, he previously served as business manager to opera legend Thomas Hampson and also served on the faculty of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, leading Project Jumpstart, a music entrepreneurship program. For more information, visit www.peterthoresen.com.

© Classical Singer, Sept. 2016

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‘Fledermaus’ sparkles in opera’s temporary home

An exuberant cast, a gorgeous production and Johann Strauss, Jr.’s irresistible tunes added up to a sparkling evening with “Die Fledermaus” to open the Cincinnati Opera season.

Performed in English, the text of Strauss’ bubbly operetta was given a witty updating by Robin Guarino, who was making her company debut as director. Her agile staging and clever twists kept the opening night audience engaged – and sometimes laughing out loud — from beginning to end. At its conclusion, the full house (seating 2,250 when the orchestra pit is used) stood and cheered.

At its heart, “Die Fledermaus” (“The Bat”)  is a drawn-out tale of revenge for a long-ago practical joke. The operetta entertained the Viennese when it debuted in 1874, but its inside jokes and lengthy dialogue can grow tedious to modern audiences. Guarino’s adaptation and streamlining of David Pountney’s translation from the original German worked wonderfully.

It was a visual treat as well. For the new co-production with Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, Guarino and scenic designer Allen Moyer set the entire operetta in a fading, but still grand, hotel, where the Eisensteins are staying on New Year’s Eve. It’s an ingenious concept because the hotel setting provides an opulent ballroom for the ball and a “jail” lockup in the concierge’s office where Eisenstein is to stay for cheating at cards in the casino. The role of the jailer is merged into Frank, the concierge (performed with flair by Thomas Dreeze).

As the overture played, the curtain rose on a charming vignette in Vienna’s Imperial Hotel, as visitors checked in, children scampered and bellhops put on their own little pantomime. People entered and exited through a working revolving door, elevator and down a grand staircase. (Lest patrons were missing Music Hall, the elegant design included a grand chandelier.)

Heading the fine cast was soprano Nicole Cabell, who sang with a rich tone and delivered a nuanced performance as Rosalinde, wife of the philandering Eisenstein. One of the highlights was her soulful Czardas (in disguise as the Hungarian countess), which was beautifully expressive and enhanced by effortless high notes.

As her husband – now on the receiving end of a practical joke – tenor Zach Borichevsky offered robust singing and plenty of theatrical swagger in his company debut. One of the comedic highlights was his confrontation with his wife’s alleged lover, Alfred, using an umbrella as a weapon. She cooled them both off with seltzer water.

Also making her debut, soprano Nicole Haslett was alluring as the chambermaid Adele. Her crystalline voice and coloratura fireworks provided some of the evening’s most enjoyable moments. She is clearly an artist to watch.

The superb lyric tenor Alek Shrader impressed in the role of Alfred, the unemployed tenor who is locked up instead of Eisenstein. And just as impressive was Hadleigh Adams, who as Dr. Falke was a good match for Eisenstein in vocal heft and vitality as he sought revenge on his friend.

In the “pants” role of Prince Orlofsky, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor wielded a thick Russian accent and a mellifluous voice and acted the role of the bored prince with aplomb.

And of course, there were dancing girls in shimmery hot pants and top hats, with engaging choreography – complete with can-can kicks – by Cincinnati Ballet’s Sarah Hairston. The chorus, prepared by Henri Venanzi, shone as the exuberant revelers. In the end, they lustily agreed that “it was all the fault of the champagne.”

Then there was Strauss’ effervescent score – a Viennese time warp of waltzes, gallops and polkas. Leading the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit, conductor David Charles Abell deftly caught the nuance and grace of the music. He allowed the music to breathe, and supported the cast flawlessly. The 62-piece orchestra responded with refined playing.

The time period between the wars perfectly captured the aura of Viennese nostalgia that pervades this piece. Costumes by Candice Donnelly added a glamorous touch. The final scene, when the action moved back into the ballroom, was real “coup de théâtre” that drew applause. (Without revealing all, it was achieved by backstage staff pushing the massive set on wagons.)

Thursday’s show in Procter & Gamble Hall at the Aronoff Center was also the debut of the company’s home for two years while Music Hall is a construction zone. Although not as acoustically warm as Music Hall, the Aronoff provided clear sound and excellent sight lines. I had trouble hearing some of the female singers, as well as the mid-range tones in the orchestra from my seat under a balcony.

Cincinnati Opera’s performances were dedicated to victims of the tragedy in Orlando. The opening weekend was dedicated as well to devoted supporter Dr. Robert J. Hasl, who died in April.

 

Original article can be found here at cincinnati.com

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New Voices Opera 2016 Double Bill

NEW VOICES OPERA 2016 DOUBLE BILL.
A world-premiere of two operas: Nicolas Chuaqui’s The Forest of Dreams
and Maxwell Ramage’s Swann’s Love.
WHEN AND WHERE
Buskirk-Chumley Theater
May 5th @ 7:00pm
Curtain Talk beginning at 6:15
FREE Admission ($10 Suggested Donation)

BLOOMINGTON, IN – New Voices Opera, Bloomington’s student-run contemporary american opera company, is performing the world-premiere of two brand new student-composed one act chamber operas in a one night only double billing at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater with support from the BUEA Zone Arts Grant and the IU Funding Board. These pieces will be The Forest of Dreams by Nicolas Chuaqui and Swann’s Love by Maxwell Ramage. Admission is free and donations will be accepted at the door. There will be a curtain talk preceding the performance at 6:15 with the composers and director, David Koté.

The Forest of Dreams is an intriguing tale of the lost colony of Roanoke following the story of John White and his life after Roanoke in a new epilogue crafted by Chuaqui. Nic Chuaqui’s inventive and twisting libretto is accompanied by a music of captivation. Capturing the mind of White with glimpses of the early American colonies, it is a perfect capstone to NVO’s season.

A modern take on Proust’s “Swann’s Way,” Maxwell Ramage’s opera is a humorous exploration of modern romantic relationships and Swann’s lack of skill within them. In Swann’s Love Ramage tests the boundaries of the operatic love affair. It’s an erogenous cacophony of he loves her, she loves him, he loves him. Blurring the lines between broadway and grand opera, Swann’s Love is a modern take on what a piece of “music theatre” can be. Audience Advisory: Swann’s Love contains some strong language and adult content.

ABOUT NEW VOICES OPERA – New Voices Opera (NVO) is a student-run contemporary opera company in Bloomington, IN. With a completely volunteer staff, NVO acts as a experiential learning program for administrators, performers, musicians, designers, technicians, and composers. Each year, in addition to several other smaller events, NVO produces two world-premieres of student-composed chamber operas in a fully staged and orchestrated one-night-only event. Please find more information about New Voices Opera and our 2016 Double Bill at newvoicesopera.org

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This ‘Oklahoma!’ a good show, a classic musical proudly performed

"Oklahoma" is currently playing at the Musical Arts Center.

“Oklahoma” is currently playing at the Musical Arts Center.

Posted: Monday, April 11, 2016 12:00 am

It’s “Oklahoma!” with an exclamation point written into the title. Over the weekend at the Musical Arts Center, Indiana University Opera Theater unfurled its handsome new production of that classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in exclamation form. And the Walter Huff-trained chorus sang the title song with a gusto that called for an extra exclamation point.

“Oklahoma!” remains a game changer, a work that, when it premiered in 1943, altered how the American musical is put together, with a story to be told, dialogue worth listening to and a libretto that gave meaning to the melodic and sometimes dramatic musical numbers scattered throughout.

Though the passage of time, of 73 years, has taken away some of the pioneering luster from the piece, it can still surprise a listener with its content and the way it so smoothly moves from speech to music and back to speech, not an easy task to accomplish.

Of course, to have an impact, “Oklahoma!” requires a first-rate production, one that serves Richard Rodgers’ outstanding score and takes seriously the literary substance taken from “Green Grow the Lilacs,” Lynn Riggs’ play about the Oklahoma territory a century ago becoming a state while a battle is waged between farmers and cowboys to determine how the land is to be used. The story is also about the joy of love gained and the loneliness of love denied, a common theme that does work once again, because everything about the current staging is first rate and honest.

Set designer Steven Kemp and costume designer Linda Pisano have provided this “Oklahoma!” with a stunning and workable environment, a wide-open extent of land and sky into which shifting objects such as a frame and see-through farm house and other human trappings appear and then disappear. Patrick Mero’s lighting is magical, whether it creates daytime or night, whether it casts light on a scene meant to be real or on the evocative dream sequence that ends the first act.

Guest director Gabriel Barre gives the major characters as well as those who portray smaller roles personalities by keeping them all busy. Also, because the musical contains so much movement, he brought along a dance choreographer, Jennifer Paulson Lee, to let the action unfold in dance as did Agnes de Mille in the original production. Lee used de Mille’s choreography to build upon, and the result was most effective, helped along by the presence of some true dancers to twist and twirl amidst the leads and chorus. Amazingly, nothing and no one seemed awkward.

For everything musical, the production has a by-now frequent and favored visitor, conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, who carefully and successfully guided not only his pit orchestra, the IU Symphony Orchestra, but the chorus and soloists through the demands that “Oklahoma!” puts on all. Maestro Kitsopoulos knows the genre and how to train young performers for the responsibilities that Rodgers and Hammerstein burdened them with.

What one heard seemed to have an at-ease quality. And for that, one needs also to praise sound designer Bryan Delaney. Amplification, usually a big problem here in performances of musicals, was solved so that pretty near everything, including dialogue, was heard. That’s a victory, mind you.

I attended only the opening night performance but plan to see the alternate cast next weekend and report to you then. Meanwhile, the opening night crew deserves accolades.

The romantic lead, Curly, leapt around the stage as a romantic lead should, and from the opening note of his opening ballad, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” unleashed an attractive baritone voice, resonant and lyrical and absolutely right for the role. His partner in the romance department, Laurey, was soprano Emily Dyer, who could lift her voice operatically and who well characterized her part as a young woman seeking romance while, in a no-nonsense way, she tries to keep her farmstead out of bankruptcy.

Laurey’s helper on the farm is advice-giving and practical Aunt Eller, assigned wisely to mezzo-soprano Olivia Thompson, who brings warmth to her character as a needed busybody looking out for the young farmer and her homestead. As Will Parker, another would-be suitor for Laurey, tenor Kole Howie personifies a less romantic and more materialistic fellow trying to tease his way into a relationship. He doesn’t succeed with Laurey, but suggests a personality ready to go on in search for a substitute.

Soprano Rebekah Howell, as another lady at the center of things, the man-seeking Ado Annie, captures the spirit and comic aspects of her role. Bass-baritone Christopher Seefeldt plays the heavy, the morose and bitter Jud Fry who aches for companionship and gets none. Baritone Bruno Sandes portrays the peddler Ali Hakim, making of him a comic figure; Sandes’ sense of timing is quite remarkable, as is the subtle way he moves to earn laughter. The rest of the large cast adds to the high quality of the production.

In other words, this “Oklahoma!” is a good show, a classic musical proudly performed.

© Herald Times

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Where have all the good tenors gone, and where are all the basses?

© The Economist

 

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