Indiana University Bloomington

Alumna Ailyn Pérez honored at 14th Annual “OPERA NEWS” Awards

by Henry Stewart
OPERA NEWS
April 2019

Ailyn Pérez

AILYN PÉREZ’S creamy soprano elevates all the roles she sings. When she returned to Mimì, a signature part, at the Met this past winter, she entered with an abundance of beautiful tone, perfectly matched to Puccini’s luscious melodies, her lyric soprano gleaming like bullion in sunlight. In “Mi chiamano Mimì,” her voice floated through the upper register like a body in outerspace, freed from mere earthly constraints such as gravity. She was lovably sincere about her little flowers and religious devotion, and her excitement about her sudden, newfound love felt so warm it was as though she were pointing heat lamps at your ears.

But she’s beloved for more than her gorgeous singing—she’s also a sensitive actress. “The phrase ‘an embarrassment of riches’ might have been invented to describe the combination of talents that belong to Ailyn Pérez,” OPERA NEWS reported in 2012. The first-rate acting and singing came together in that Met Bohème in Act III’s “Donde lieta uscì,” in which Pérez’s shading and dynamic modulations went deeper than what’s written on the page; her final “senza rancor”s came to the edge of breaking with hurt, belying her tough front and subtly suggesting the real feeling beneath the face-saving words.

In Act IV, she evinced the appropriate weakness of her dying character, seeming frail while still in full, powerful control of her graceful instrument. It was a consummate performance—a clear indication of why she has been invited to sing the role at top houses, from the Met to La Scala. “Her vulnerability, immediately apparent, is her greatest strength,” OPERA NEWS reported in its 2017 cover story. “We root for her, as we did for Teresa Stratas or Édith Piaf.”

Pérez had studied voice since joining the chorus in high school, in a suburb of Chicago. She got her undergrad degree at Indiana University, where she studied with Martina Arroyo; she joined the Academy of Vocal Arts, in Philadelphia, in 2002, did a summer with San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program in 2005 and received a George London Foundation Award in 2006. In 2012, she received another prestigious award—the Richard Tucker—joining a list of winners that reads like a who’s-who of opera. In 2016, she received the Met’s Beverly Sills Award.

Because her family wasn’t steeped in classical music or vocal training, Pérez might have expected to make a career singing Spanish pop music, she once said, except that she’d fallen in love with opera—specifically La Traviata, and Violetta subsequently became another calling card; she has performed it at San Francisco, Covent Garden, Zurich, Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Milan. She hasn’t recorded it, but a piano-accompanied performance of “È strano…. Ah, fors’è lui…. Sempre libera” on YouTube, from the Rosenblatt Recitals series in London in 2015, shows a performer at home with the role, traversing its moment-to-moment emotional shifts with sensitivity and secure vocalism.

Pérez attracts fans not just with her technical and dramatic skills but with her offstage savvy and enthusiasm, which have helped her bring opera into the twenty-first century, whether through her work with the Time In Children’s Arts Initiative, which helps kids in the U.S. get an education in the arts, or through her posts to her 17,000-plus Instagram followers, highlighting the glamorous onstage spectacle of the art form as well as glimpses of her life offstage—which often seem effortlessly as glamorous. Through her talent and celebrity appeal, Pérez has quickly become one of the brightest stars of her generation.

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IU Opera Theater’s ‘Elixir’ an effective tonic

by Peter Jacobi
Feb. 25, 2019

Scene from "The Elixir of Love."

Bradley Bickhardt as Nemorino and Alyssa Dessoye as Adina rehearse a scene from Indiana University Opera Theater’s production of “The Elixir of Love.”

This was opera for enjoyment: no levels of hidden meaning or complexities for listening involved. From curtain opening to closing, both this past Friday and Saturday evenings, Indiana University Jacobs School Opera Theater’s production of “L’Elisir d’Amore” at the Musical Arts Center provided enjoyment, entertainment.

That’s not only because the presentation was lovely to the eyes and attractive to the ears. It is because the point of attention fell on an opera by a master of the genre and craft, composed and premiered in 1832, in the midst of Italy’s “bel canto” period. Bel canto, “beautiful sound”: We can’t know for sure what those singers of beautiful sound truly sounded like, of course. There are no recordings to let us in on what audiences way back then heard. But musicology about and written reactions from that period reflect the importance of singers being required to produce a vocal product that soothed the mind and melted the eardrums.

I’m not sure if the two casts who shared the weekend offered true bel canto; in fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t, at least all the time. But they did mighty well with music extremely difficult to pull off successfully. Consequently and rightly so, the audiences treated them in very friendly manner.

They and the chorus and the orchestra (the IU Symphony) had a delightful score to work with, as did those who prepared them for the full staging: a very knowing and skillful conductor, David Neely, who certainly left his mark on the proceedings; a visiting stage director, Linda Brovsky, who kept things moving adroitly and just short of frenzy, and the always reliable and experienced resident chorus master Walter Huff.

The opera is special, part of growing proof that Donizetti, long considered a hack who worked too fast and carelessly, was not so at all. He amazingly wrote more than 70 operas. For decades, he was remembered almost totally for his tragic “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Then, during periodic revival periods focused on bel canto operas, other works of his, the tragic and the comic, reappeared to add luster to his reputation.

One of the first was “The Elixir of Love.” Why not? It’s a melody-bulging, funny, occasionally rueful comedy about characters one can care about. At the end, they — lovers driven apart until feelings in conflict get straightened out — are happy, so to leave us happy. Yes, it’s an “elixir,” actually a cheap Bordeaux wine with label thrown away, that paves the way to conciliation.

Among devotees of these early 19th century Italian operas, Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” appears to have captured the top spot for excellence, often with Donizetti’s “Elixir” following behind. In my view, the No. 2 has qualities that might raise that ranking. No matter: it’s a good show and shown off here in excellent form, surrounded by a picturesque and workable set done for IU Opera Theater a while back by the eminent, then resident, designer Robert O’Hearn.

For what composer Donizetti and what IU Opera Theater intended to do, the product in the spotlight at the MAC (again next weekend) is a class act.

Back to the presentation:

Maestro Neely had the orchestra play crisply, but also with finesse and unflagging energy. His communication with those on stage, both the soloists and the chorus of villagers, seemed assured. No glitches in unison disturbed the never-stopping flow of music and accompanying action.

Director Brovsky made splendid use of the applauded set and knew, from instinct and experience, how to move each cast of young singers to be a part of the story. She did so, too, with the choristers who were given personalities and things to do without interfering with the unfolding plot. That chorus, musically, took splendid care of Donizetti’s bundle of demands. Master Walter Huff knows his opera chorus business.

O’Hearn’s set has passed the test of time and still works for movement and atmosphere, the latter enhanced by the adept lighting, for mood changes and passage of hours, by guest lighting designer Thomas Hase. And the total picture wouldn’t have worked without the attractive period costumes created by IU’s Dana Tzvetkov.

There are two Nemorinos. Friday’s was tenor Spencer Boyd, a dominatingly tall figure with the ability to portray this humble, bumbling, love-sick fellow who sort of emotionally drifts between his village life and an imagined fairyland. Saturday’s tenor, Bradley Bickhardt, is not as physically outsized but has an agility he’s willing to use to convince us his Nemorino also is not quite there but is moved by sincerity and youthful passion. Vocally, they did quite well and delivered what is arguably all of opera’s most beguiling tenor solo, “Una furtiva lagrima” (“A Furtive Tear,” which Nemorino believes he has detected in his hard-to-get Adina’s eyes), with melt and adoration.

The high soprano voices of the Adinas, the hard-to-catch, then finally melting heroine (Avery Boettcher on Friday and Alyssa Dessoye on Saturday), differ in texture but were well capable of mastering the fioritura and belting out the high notes as the role requires. As dramatically necessary, their role’s shift in feelings for the suitor, from don’t-bother-me to love, was clearly evident.

Two other roles significantly matter. One is Belcore, the braggart sergeant who comes to town with his small band of soldiers on assignment and initiates a conquest of Adina, thereby giving Nemorino more heartache. The other is Dr. Dulcamara, a traveling quack dispensing tonics and potions that promise all but provide nothing save fooled optimism; it is he who promises Nemorino the love of all women if he drinks the magic love potion, in fact nothing but wine.

Bruno Sandes and Ian Murrell take on the Belcore character with comic pomp and circumstance and let loose with expressive baritone voices. Baritone Ricardo Ceballos de la Mora and bass-baritone Cameron Jackson make one almost believe Dr. Dulcamara, so convincingly deceptive they dig into their patter song-dominated part.

Best I stop, but this “Elixir” will cure your gloom.

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Jacobs School’s ‘Giulio Cesare’ an achievement

by Peter Jacobi
Feb. 4, 2019

“Giulio Cesare” is being staged at IU’s Musical Arts Center, with performances this Friday and Saturday.

“Giulio Cesare” is being staged at IU’s Musical Arts Center, with performances this Friday and Saturday.

The current Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Opera Theater production of George Frideric Handel’s opera “Giulio Cesare” is an achievement, not perfection, mind you, but effective, interesting to watch, and definitely worthwhile to listen to.

There are always issues when performing what we refer to as Early Music, that created from the Baroque period and back. Here are a few, generally speaking and/or pertaining to the local presentation. Please remember that an entire field of study (including at IU’s Historical Performance Institute) has grown around how musicians of today should read and use the scores from that period, which often tend to be less informative than those from later on that offer more instructive clues.

This production’s music director and conductor, Gary Thor Wedow, reminds us that Handel wrote four hours of music for “Giulio Cesare,” which the maestro wisely considered too much for most in a modern audience. He did some pruning, and folks this past weekend, save the scholars and the experts, are not likely to have missed the cuts. Plenty remains in a version that reaches the finish line just short of three hours from the start, with the insertion of one intermission.

There is the matter of the orchestra and its instrumentation. Does one use in a full-scale opera house like the MAC an ensemble of period instruments or of instruments usually heard from a pit orchestra? Maestro Wedow, a specialist in preparing Baroque works, chose not IU’s Baroque Orchestra but the Chamber Orchestra. Consequently, that probably pleased some in the audience, displeased others, and made no difference to still others. But a choice it was, with marked artistic results. The Chamber Orchestra and its maestro deserve plaudits for music firmly and affectionately played.

Choice of singers is a major concern. I don’t mean one soprano versus another, or one tenor versus another. For instance, in the past, I’ve heard male and female voices sing the role of Julius Caesar, even males with different high voices: a male soprano and a countertenor (and there are differences). Actually, the role, as were several others, was written for an alto castrato. Well, there aren’t any more of those or shouldn’t be.

Maestro Wedow and colleagues chose a basso for the opening night cast and a female mezzo-soprano for the Saturday. The result was dramatically different. In terms of vocal quality, both choices — bass Rivers Hawkins and mezzo-soprano Grace Skinner — brought strength to their portrayals, he a greater vocal power and authority, she the greater vocal flexibility. Bu the entire soundscape changed from one night to the next.

And just where does all this happen, the story, based somewhat on history, of Caesar visiting Egypt and meeting Cleopatra? Well, that meeting happened in ancient Egypt, 48-47 B.C. The IU production’s designer, Allen Moyer, gives us an Egyptian background, sometimes using two of the Great Pyramids, at others the Sphynx (from different angles to suggest the action has moved). There also are interiors cleverly created by roll-ons and walls and ceiling that shift up and down.

In terms of historic period, I’ve seen the story unfolding at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in modern colonial times early in the 20th century. The IU production chosen by set designer Moyer and stage director Robin Guarino selected the 18th century during Napoleon’s French campaign in Egypt and close to Handel’s lifetime. I was not bothered by the shift, in that the sets and Linda Pisano’s costuming and Julie Duro’s evocative lighting made the pictures one observed so striking.

Add to these matters, a physical issue for one of the cast members. As the printed program states: “Due to an injury, Gretchen Krupp will sing the role of Cornelia from off-stage during her designated performances while Yujia Chen performs the role on stage.” Mezzo-soprano Krupp on Friday did her sitting on the edge of the orchestra pit while fellow mezzo Chen acted and mimed the role; on Saturday, Chen took over her assigned role entirely. They both were excellent as the grieving widow of the would-be Egyptian ruler Pompey, murdered by Cleopatra’s evil brother Tolomeo, the usurping King of Egypt.

The production’s two sopranos selected to portray Cleopatra, Ahyoung Jeong on opening night and Virginia Mims the next, were outstanding in handling music of utmost difficulty, often fiendishly rapid and jumpy and reaching for the stratosphere. They also theatrically attuned themselves to the character and what happens to her: an assured flirt as co-ruler (with her brother Tolomeo) in act 1, as a despairing woman with seeming lost power given two gorgeously sad arias by the composer in act 2, and as a triumphant woman of power in the final act, a ruler finally granted the power of a queen by a magnanimous and admiring Caesar, power with no more possible interference from her nasty brother.

The nasty brother received his due just before opera’s end by knife thrust. But before the knife cut to the quick, the role had been villainously portrayed by male soprano Elijah McCormack on Friday and countertenor Hunter Patrick Shaner on Saturday. In a movie house, we might have hissed the pair of them.

The important role of Sesto, son of the slain Pompey, was given to a pair of impressive mezzos, Gabriela Fagen and Emily Warren. And the remaining cast members added their energies to the enterprise, making the whole a success, very difficult to achieve but definitely accomplished.

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Come in from the cold and simmer in the Egyptian heat with ‘Giulio Cesare’

By Peter Jacobi H-T columnist
Jan. 27, 2019

Says Gary Thor Wedow of the Indiana University Opera Theater’s new production that he’ll conduct: “It promises to be a knockout, with set design by Allen Moyer, costumes by Linda Pisano, and lighting by Julie Duro.

“It will visually stun you,” Maestro Wedow continues about the show that opens in the Musical Arts Center this coming Friday evening. “And then, the orchestra and singers will stimulate you with brilliant music and, in the meantime, give you a little history, a travelogue, a lesson in political intrigue and an epic love story all told with universal, unending truth. Caesar will come, will see, and he will conquer you!”

Wedow, a specialist in music of the Baroque, is a native of lndiana and an alum of the Jacobs School of Music, a member of the faculty at the Juilliard School, an active guest conductor elsewhere, including previous productions here, these of two other Handel operas: “Xerxes” and “Rodelinda.”

“Giulio Cesare,” he says, “is a very special opera for me for several reasons. It was the first opera I conducted here many years ago after I graduated as a student, and my dear mentor, Thomas Durrn, was in the audience. The current production unites me with director Robin Guarino, a dear friend (and distinguished chair in opera at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music) and frequent collaborator. We first did a marvelous production of this opera for Seattle Opera starring Ewa Podles, which was a turning point in both of our careers. Handel’s opera is a masterpiece, so every time I return to it, I find new things to admire and to love.

“On a very personal note, I remember when I was a student at IU, turning pages for Beverly Sills’ accompanist on the stage of the IU Auditorium, as she sang arias from ‘Giulio Cesare’ in recital, she asked me about all the voice teachers here with whom she had sung or who she had heard when she was a student in New York. That was a star-struck moment for me.”

My wife and I have seen several productions of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” here and elsewhere. One, however, we remember most, up to now.

The time is November 2007. The place is Chicago. On that season’s repertoire at the Lyric Opera of Chicago was “Giulio Cesare.” We drove up from Bloomington for one of our weekends featuring what the Lyric then billed as its “0” series, its selected performances for out-of-towners. That meant evenings for which the company held blocks of seats and reserved them for fans who came from all over the United States and elsewhere. Through the “0” period of years, in addition to outstanding opera, we met some fascinating opera lovers, a few we remain in touch with.

The trip up had been arduous because the weather was rotten: cold, windy, bitter. Handel was the fare for that Friday evening. We were tired. We yearned for rest, closely available food, bed time. Our hotel, a Frank Lloyd Wright-styled charmer where we always stayed, was across the Loop from the opera house. We were hard-pressed to go rather than remain at our cozy lodging. But my wife reminded me of the tickets we had purchased, expensive ones. So, we changed clothes and, with no empty cabs in sight, headed on foot for a long night of Handel, reluctantly.

But they don’t call “Giulio Cesare” Handel’s most popular opera today for nothing. What started out as a reluctant trek turned into one of our most memorable operatic evenings ever, one we’re still grateful to have experienced. The delicious production came courtesy of England’s Glyndebourne Festival and the creative mind of designer David McVicar. The remarkable cast, headed by countertenor David Daniels in the title role and Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra, along with other fine singers and artistic elements, came courtesy of Lyric. The music came courtesy of composer Handel. We were mesmerized.

As New York Times critic Steve Smith wrote in his review, the production “stands out for sheer audacity,” explaining that McVicar relocated “the opera’s setting from the time of the Roman Empire to the British colonial era in the early 20th century. Caesar and his pith-helmeted, rifle-toting soldiers maintain stiff upper lips when confronting the exotically glamorous Egyptians, who try to sway the balance of power through seduction and deceit.”

Neither my wife nor I am particularly fond of dramatically altered times or places given to familiar and fondly-thought-of operatic masterpieces, but we fell in love with the Lyric production, its charm, its rightness and an evening that glowed after having started out on our part with such timid desire to see it.

What’s to come this weekend, we have only hints. What we’ll think of the IU Opera Theater presentation, we can’t predict. But the folks collected to put the show together seem to be wise choices, not only for their talents and enthusiasms, but for their experience working with young musicians, their ability to enthuse and train them.

Stage director Guarino does give us a hint on focus: “We have set our production during the French campaign of Egypt. Napoleon, who was born 10 years after Handel’s death, was a lifelong aficionado on the history of Caesar and was very influenced by him. There were parallels: Both were highly educated, ambitious politicians, and generals. Both fought civil wars in Egypt. Both were consumed by their passion for the rights of citizens and fought the European and, in Napoleon’s case, British monarchy. Both became emperors to advance their political agenda. There is wonderful image research on Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt: paintings, lithographs depicting the French camp in front of the great pyramids. In Jacque Louis David’s painting of Napoleon’s coronation, he is depicted as Caesar wearing a crown of laurels and Roman-influenced robes.”

Guarino says she is attracted by Cleopatra as “brilliant and strong and a comparable states-person to Caesar. I am committed to giving agency to women in the baroque, classic, standard, and contemporary productions of opera.”

As for the local production, she says both casts “are lovely and bring the full expanse of their imagination, training and artistry to their depiction. They handle both the drama and the comedy well. It has been fun.”

Wedow says rehearsals “have been going swimmingly. From the beginning, we’ve focused on the opera from two vantage points: looking at it from the text and the recitatives, with their rhetoric and dramatic opportunities, which carry the action from aria to aria, and from the arias themselves, which give the singers chance for vocal display, dramatic reflection, and splendid ornamentation. Many of the singers have devised their own ornaments, based on 18th century treatises and manuals, and everyone is trilling away like warblers. It might be cold outside in Bloomington, but inside the MAC, it is simmering in Egyptian heat.”

In Wedow’s estimation, “Handel wrote some of the most splendid music imaginable: dramatic music that explores the human soul. Not only does his music delight the ear, but it also ignites passions and stimulates thought as we delve into our deeper human nature. He had it performed by his greatest singers and orchestra. They were rock stars. Then, because Handel was such a terrific psychologist, he gives you characters with whom you immediately identity and are interested in. These are people you might meet daily in the course of your life or see on television or read about in the newspaper. In the case of ‘Giulio Cesare,’ these are world leaders caught in political intrigue but also driven by personal passions.”

So, it’s on to Egypt in an unexpected century, the 18th, but Caesar and Cleopatra will be there, along with Handel’s score.

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Review: Remarkable young talent a highlight of Saturday’s opera performance

The performance requirements are steep for Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” currently in local revival, courtesy of Indiana University Opera Theater.

The popular opera is at the heart of “bel canto” repertory, “bel canto” meaning “beautiful sound.” But in addition to demanding tones that gratify the ears, the “Lucia” score asks for singers who can project and contribute exciting vocal drama.

After all, the story speaks of cruelty, deceit, murder and madness. Profusely melodic though the music used to tell the tale of poor Lucy, it must be propelled to listeners with great passion. No wimpy tone production allowed.

Well, fear not, those of you who’ve yet to hear what’s going on in the Musical Arts Center: The current production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” strikes both at the eardrums and the heart, while staying true to the traditions of early 19th-century bel canto. Donizetti is being amazingly well served by one and all, most surely by the focus of everything that happens, the heroine, the soprano who portrays the title character. On Saturday evening, a remarkable young talent was to be seen: Rose-Antoinette Bellino. Without the right Lucia, there is no reason for a performance of the opera. Bellino is the right Lucia.

I write of Saturday’s Lucia only because, not wishing to contribute throated hacking to the soundscape, I remained away from last Friday evening’s opening. But I returned to duty for Saturday’s repeat, and I intend to catch up with the other cast this coming weekend.

The production’s conductor, Gary Thor Wedow, had told me during the rehearsal period about his hopes for audience reaction when the final curtain falls. “Shouldn’t opera transport us, inspire us and take us out of ourselves,” he posed. “This is such a moving story of faithful young love destroyed by clan warfare. It’s gloomy, yes, but the music is so magnificently uplifting and romantic that I know we will be inspired by it, forget our personal troubles for a while, cleanse our soul weeping for poor Lucia, and become bigger, more feeling people.”

After hearing and seeing the newly put-together “Lucia,” I can buy into Maestro Wedow’s expectation. He, indeed, must be credited for critical portions of the production’s success. Artistically steeped in historically informed performance (hewing to musical methods practiced when the opera was written), he fine-tuned the cast’s vocalizations to what seems a likely reproduction of what Donizetti expected from his chosen singers.

The pit ensemble, the IU Concert Orchestra, likewise evidenced a feel for nuances and lighter articulation than one often gets these days in readings of early Romantic, pre-Verdi operas. Instrumental sounds produced were often loud, never leaden. The Walter Huff chorus, superbly trained, fell right into line with Wedow’s intentions.

The stage sets impressed. Created by the gifted visiting set and costume designer Philip Witcomb, their Gothic resonance and sorrowful, oppressive presence served as an evocative environment for the evil and moral decay they bear witness to: the destruction of the sweetly innocent and unwitting heroine. Patrick Mero’s lighting accentuated the darkness of the unfolding plot. Nineteenth-century costumes interestingly brought the story compellingly closer to now in substance.

Another well-chosen visitor, Jose Maria Condemi, put to the task of directing cast and chorus, placed emphasis on the melodramatics attached to Lucia’s personal tragedy. He gave three-dimensional villainy and/or cowardice to most who affect Lucia’s existence: her nasty brother Enrico Ashton, set on saving himself and the family name at the expense of his sensitive sister, played with sneering gusto and sung in resonant baritone by Ian Murrell; the Ashton family chaplain Raimondo, more of an intriguer than councilor, sung by a fine bass-baritone, Julian Morris; Arturo, Lucia’s husband-for-one-fateful-night, portrayed in proper self-glory by tenor Joseph Ittoop; and Ashton estate busybody Normanno, a role fulfilled by another well-toned tenor, Doowon Kim. On the right side, of course, is Lucia’s attendant Alisa, sung neatly by mezzo Yujia Chen.

The significant and unhappy role of Lucia’s lover Edgardo was taken by Joseph McBrayer, who displayed a ringing tenor and notable stage presence. His big scene follows Lucia’s demise and covers the character’s realization that he, too, has been duped, that Lucia did not betray him but that her brother plotted successfully to part them. Edgardo’s suicide concludes the opera.

So, let me return to Saturday’s Lucia. Rose-Antoinette Bellino shaped a fully developed tragic creature emotionally tossed about like a victim in a whirling cage. One sees in her performance a girl of a woman smitten with love for life and Edgardo. Her descent into despair and death was heartrending to view.

And because of Bellino’s brilliant vocal acrobatics, Lucia’s tortured existence becomes — again as Donizetti undoubtedly would have wished — exhilarating. The rangy soprano sang with astonishing accuracy and assurance and thrust. As actress, she was alternately limber and frail, a figure magnetic to watch. Musically, she accomplished the famous Mad Scene in memorable fashion.

Rightfully, Saturday’s audience cheered.

By Peter Jacobi | H-T reviewer | pjacobi@heraldt.com

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Going for baroque: A chat with Eiddwen Harrhy

Eiddwen Harrhy coaches a Jacobs School of Music student.

Eiddwen Harrhy coaches a Jacobs School of Music student.

The name’s Eiddwen (IDE-when in “American”). Eiddwen Harrhy. (Ms. Harrhy if you’re nasty.)

A renowned soprano and baroque opera specialist, Harrhy has been coaching Jacobs School of Music voice students for eight years as part of The Handel Project, sponsored by the Georgina Joshi Foundation in honor of Joshi, a former Jacobs student. The next work in the series is a free performance of Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast” at 8 p.m. Feb. 13 in Auer Hall.

As a four-year-old girl in southern Wales, Harrhy tripped through the light fantastic of the storybook garden across the back lane to take piano lessons from her neighbor and get a “sweetie” before skipping back.

She was first exposed to music at chapel three times each Sunday, and sometimes mid-week as well. She first heard the great oratorios at her grandfather’s chapel, in eastern Wales. All made an indelible impression.

After studying voice and piano at the Royal Manchester College of Music, Harrhy became a professional singer, eventually subbing for an ill voice coach about five years before she retired from performing. She enjoyed it so much, she knew it was what she wanted to do after leaving the stage. “This is the best thing ever,” she exclaimed. “If I had put my feet up and done nothing, I would have gone crazy, I think. Years later, I absolutely love it. And I certainly love coming here—this is the crème de la crème for me.

“When one is offered any kind of teaching opportunity in an institution like this, if it doesn’t work, and if you don’t like it, you don’t come back. And I can’t wait to come back. Luckily, I have been able to every year—eight years running, now—because one year we do an opera, and the next year we do an oratorio.”

IU Opera Theater's 2017 production of Handel's "Rodelinda."

IU Opera Theater’s 2017 production of Handel’s “Rodelinda.”

So exactly what does she do at Jacobs?

“I don’t come here as a singing teacher, because obviously you have a wonderful roster of singing teachers,” Harrhy explained. “Because I’ve done it, I think I understand what students have to do on stage—sing, act, dance, move about. They have text, they have a language. The combination is enormous, and it’s difficult for them to work all that out on their own. I try to complement what they are doing with their teacher.”

In addition to helping with students’ pronunciation and diction, Harrhy tries “To instill in them the love of text—because the text is all important. The music comes out of the text because that’s the way the composer wrote it. The composer got hold of some text, whether they wrote it themselves or had a librettist, and the music came after that. The actual pronunciation of the text is very, very important. If the text is projected to the audience with conviction, it makes a real impact, and heightens the experience.

“And acting, in general, has gotten much, much better. You need to be much more expressive, because you have to communicate to people, that’s what it’s all about.”

Why does she do it here?

Georgina Joshi

Georgina Joshi

Harrhy taught Joshi during the young student’s undergraduate years at the Royal College of Music in London. Afterward, Joshi decided to pursue her master’s at the Jacobs School of Music. Her studies were cut short when she and four other Jacobs students died in a 2006 plane crash.

“Every time somebody asks me about her, I start to get these great big emotions and tears in my eyes,” said Harrhy. “Georgina had such grace and style, and she was a total, total musician from top to toe. Plus her work ethic was astounding. She was genuinely the most beautiful, wonderfully hearted young woman. And apart from all of that, she could sing! What more could I want from a student?

“I’d introduced her to the works of Handel, so her parents came up with the idea of having some kind of Handel work in her memory every year. They thought, and I’m eternally grateful to them, that it would be nice if I could work with the students here because I had been involved with her. So we have this sort of never-ending thread.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Isn’t it incredible? Georgina’s walked all these pathways, been on that stage, in that hall. Her aura is so present, and that, to me, is the most wonderful thing. It thrills me because I know I’m not coming back to a sad place. It’s not a sad place at all. I find it one of the most special places in my life, really.”

Advice for students?

“Whatever’s on stage—from music to dance to theater—go see it, you’ll learn something. It’s not just a case of ‘I’m standing at the front singing my piece, and they’re all accompanying me’—oh, no, it’s not like that at all. You’re a unit, you’re a team.”

When I enthused about her helping to instill such values in her students, because we’ve all met the person who thinks they are the star, she said, “Oh, yes, and you just ignore them—because the ones who are the real stars are not like that at all, of course.”

Exactly. Georgina Joshi was proof of that.

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Busking for opera

Alice Barbe and Jonathan Rickert love opera, and they want other people to have the chance to also.

They love it so much that they decided to donate their proceeds from busking at the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market to Reimagining Opera for Kids (ROK), a non-profit Bloomington arts and education organization dedicated to introducing children to opera and to giving developing professional musicians the opportunity to hone their performance skills.

The organization was founded 10 years ago by director Kim Carballo, academic specialist at the Jacobs School of Music and coordinating opera coach with IU Opera Theater. ROK is a community partner for a class she instructs, Community Engagement in Performing Arts.

After the $200 donation, Carballo partnered with IU Opera Theater, who offered 40 tickets to seating anywhere in the Musical Arts Center for its current production of It’s a Wonderful Life. They were distributed to elementary school students and their families, who may not otherwise have a chance to see a live theater production, by Jacobs alumna Maggie Olivo, a teacher at Bloomington’s Fairview Elementary School, another community partner for Carballo’s course.

Barbe, an eleventh-grade homeschooled student and accomplished cellist, pianist, and chamber musician, played cello at the summer busking gigs while Rickert, a junior at Bloomington High School North and accomplished violinist, violist, and trumpeter, played violin.

ROK performance

“Jonathan and I really enjoy playing music with each other, and we thought it would be fun to go busking together at the farmers’ market,” said Barbe, now living in Atlanta. “We wanted our busking proceeds to go to a worthy music-related cause, so we gave most of our earnings to exposing children to live opera, especially those who might otherwise not be able to experience it.

“I was a cellist and narrator for ROK in 2013-14, so I got to see firsthand the impact that live opera can have on kids. That experience ended up extremely formative and inspiring to me, actually. Jonathan and I felt that ROK does amazing work and is a very worthwhile cause. We are very grateful to Kim Carballo for her support and her incredible drive and passion to get things done.”

“I have played violin a few times with ROK this semester, and I hope to be more involved in the future,” said Rickert. “Both Alice and I have known Kim for a long time and are aware of the great work she and her organization do, bringing live opera to kids and reducing the financial barrier to an experience that has proven formative for both of us and many others.”

Barbe has studied piano for 13 years, most recently with William Ransom of Emory University, Daniel Inamorato and Kati Gleiser in Bloomington, and Nicolas Marzinotto of the Luxembourg Conservatory. She has also been studying cello, for 11 years, most recently with Martha Gerschefski in Atlanta, Jean Adolphe of the Metz Conservatory in France, and Janusz Kubiak of Indiana University. A passionate advocate of music technology as a way to educate people about both music and science, Barbe leads a team of 12 Georgia Tech students to create new digital musical instruments in an ongoing effort called Project Music Connector.

Rickert has studied violin for 10 years, five of them with the IU String Academy under teachers including Emily Nehus, Christina Hightower, Brenda Brenner, and Mimi Zweig. On violin, viola, and mandolin, he has participated in the pit orchestras of Cardinal Stage Company’s productions of Oliver! and West Side Story, and will be heard in its upcoming Peter Pan. He has worked for seven years as a player and teacher in the Strings Program at the Project School under the direction of Emily Nehus. Rickert also studies trumpet with Will Koehler and plays in the jazz and marching bands at Bloomington High School North.

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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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