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Blog entries posted during 2013

LA Opera Announces 2013/14 Season

LA Opera 13/14 Season

We're pleased to announce our 13/14 Season! This exciting season will include seven productions at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, including the Company premiere of Massenet’s Thaïs and the highly anticipated Los Angeles debut of the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson collaboration Einstein on the Beach.

Placido Domingo will conduct the season-opening production of Carmen and also perform the role of Athanaël in Thaïs. James Conlon, LA Opera’s Music Director, will conduct four mainstage productions as well as the world premiere of Alexander Prior’s community opera Jonah and the Whale at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

According to Christopher Koelsch, President and CEO of LA Opera, the season will include 42 performances presented at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as well as four LA Opera Off Grand performances taking place in other venues. The season opens on September 21, 2013, and will run through June 7, 2014.

For more information on the 13/14 Season, subscribe or renew your subscription, visit laopera.org.


LA Opera Launches Britten 100/LA: A Celebration

Britten 100/LA: A Celebration

Britten 100/LA: A Celebration, a year-long festival honoring the 2013 centenary of British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), officially launches on Saturday, February 23, 2013 with a conversation with LA Opera Music Director James Conlon. The free event begins at 4:00 pm and will take place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. 

A master of orchestral writing, Benjamin Britten wrote some of the most appealing classical music of the twentieth century. He is perhaps best known for his music for the voice – operas, choral works, songs and song cycles – and was as committed to writing music for children and amateur performers as he was for leading soloists of the day. More than 65 Britten 100/LA partners to date have come together to examine and celebrate this remarkable talent through a variety of performances, conferences and exhibitions.

James Conlon, whose lifelong admiration of Britten's artistic genius is reflected in his personal three-year performance cycle of the composer’s works in the United States and Europe, spearheads Britten 100/LA for LA Opera. In a presentation expanding upon the format of his standing-room only pre-performance talks, Mr. Conlon will discuss the music and artistic legacy of Britten, as well as introduce a number of exciting festival events happening throughout Southern California well into 2014.

The event will also include performances of Britten vocal works by members of LA Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program and all attendees are invited to meet Mr. Conlon in person after the presentation.

The February 23 event is open to the public and free of charge. Reservations can be made by calling the LA Opera Box Office at 213.972.8001. Britten 100/LA: A Celebration will take place in Salon A, on the fifth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, located at 135 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90012.

Generous support for Britten 100/LA provided by the Britten–Pears Foundation. 

For more information on Britten 100/LA, visit Britten100LA.org


The Flying Dutchman: Wagner Finds a Direction

By Thomas May

Given the fundamentally hybrid character of opera, it’s not surprising that so many composers have needed several test flights before getting the balance right, let alone making an artistic breakthrough—even when the composer in question, like Richard Wagner, is the figure responsible for the whole package: the overall concept and libretto as well as the music.

Beethoven famously never found closure with Leonore/Fidelio, for all his attempts to wrestle it into shape; eventually he lamented how the project had turned into a “shipwreck.” At the start of his career, Puccini was fortunate to have earned the confidence of a powerful publisher who gave him the space he needed until victory arrived with his third try, Manon Lescaut. Verdi nearly decided to pack it in after his first two operas before he found his stride with Nabucco in 1842 – the same year Wagner was negotiating for the premiere of a recently completed work, The Flying Dutchman.

The ambitious young German had up to that point been as tormented by frustration as the weary mariner onto whom he projected his solitude, fears and longing. Wagner wrote The Flying Dutchman during one of his most dejected periods, while trying to make it in the opera capital of the time, Paris. Then, in the fall of 1842, just a half-year after Verdi’s breakthrough to the south, Wagner’s struggles as an emerging composer paid off, for the short term at least, when he enjoyed his own sweet experience of success for the first time, on a level that wouldn’t be repeated until 1868 with Die Meistersinger. But it hardly prepared the audience for what was to come in Dutchman.

The triumph in question was that of Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes, set in late-medieval Rome, which premiered in Dresden in October 1842. In Rienzi Wagner had assimilated the model of grand opera in the French style evolved by such phenomenally successful composers as Giacomo Meyerbeer. When his concept of a revolutionary music drama later took shape, it was precisely this model that Wagner would vehemently denounce as the epitome of mindless commercial entertainment, “effects without causes.” Meyerbeer, who in fact had been responsible for arranging the premiere of Rienzi (and tried to do the same for Dutchman), became a particular target of his notorious anti-Semitic polemics as well.

Enormous in scale, full of pomp, and featuring a climax in which the Capitol is set ablaze and collapses, Rienzi was the third opera Wagner had completed. It followed two efforts written before the move to Paris: the Weber-inspired The Fairies and The Ban on Love, his take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The former never had a performance in Wagner’s lifetime, and the latter proved an unnerving fiasco when the composer tried to introduce it in Germany. Remarkably, the work on Rienzi overlapped with his initial sketches for The Flying Dutchman, the last product of his self-imposed Parisian exile but a game changer in terms of his artistic self-understanding.

In his official memoirs Wagner later wrote that the inspiration for Dutchman originally came to him during the fraught voyage he made with his first wife, the actress Minna Planer, from Riga to Paris by way of London in 1839. The reason they were taking a circuitous sea route was because Wagner’s passport had been confiscated as a result of massive debts accumulated in Riga, where he had been posted as music director. Facing a small army of creditors, he and Minna beat a stealthy (and dangerous) retreat across an armed border. At the time the composer looked to Paris as the Mecca of the opera world, where he would at last find the recognition he longed for.

Smuggled aboard a schooner and hidden away, the Wagners then endured a terrifying tempest whose fierce winds made a “strangely demonic impression,” as the composer put it. The captain was forced to find shelter in the Norwegian fjords, where Wagner took note of a starkly different musical impression: “A feeling of indescribable well-being came over me as the granite walls of the cliff echoed the chantings of the crew as they cast anchor and furled the sails…[It] soon resolved itself into the theme of the Sailors’ Chorus in my Flying Dutchman, the idea for which I had already carried within me at the time….”

Wagner scholars have long since constructed a firewall of skepticism when it comes to the composer’s own accounts of the genesis of his works, well aware that he routinely spins the scenario in hindsight to fit seamlessly into the narrative of his evolution as an artist. They point to the fact that Wagner’s earliest surviving sketches for Dutchman date from the following year—he then composed the bulk of the opera in 1841—and that he retrofitted his setting for Dutchman from Scotland (where he had placed the legend in accordance with literary precedents) to Norway just before the premiere. Still, holding onto latent ideas for future operas—sometimes for decades—became Wagner’s modus operandi.

And the opera contains a deeper autobiographical layer, much as the legend’s storms are not merely literal but symbolic of the human condition as the composer understood it. In this sense he identified as a misunderstood artist with the Dutchman’s alienation as well as with the dynamic between the Dutchman and Senta. Wagner expert Thomas Grey suggests one potential reading of the work as an allegory of the artist’s endeavor, in which “the selfless, self-sacrificing, unconditionally yielding woman was thus also a figure for the ideal audience….”

Dutchman certainly bears out Wagner’s conviction that here, for the first time, he found his authentic voice, marking the start of “my career as a poet and my farewell to the mere concocter of opera texts.” It was a dramatic leap and, as Grey points out, it prefigures the even more extraordinary later leap between Lohengrin and Das Rheingold. And what makes Dutchman the vehicle for this achievement is the fact that with it Wagner at last found the material to convey his vision of life and a musical approach that could begin to do it justice.

But why this particular story? Wagner discovered in the Dutchman the first of his mythic figures, ambivalent in nature, who have the flexibility to accommodate multiple meanings. His (unnamed) hero acquires the resonance of an archetype or myth as timeless as the wandering Odysseus and that, according to the composer, expresses “the longing for peace from the storms of life.” Yet the legend itself seems to have been of relatively recent origin, a few centuries old at most. It initially spread as a colorful sailors’ folk tale but really took root in literary form, ranging from the likes of Coleridge, Poe and Walter Scott to countless retellings in popular culture of the time—in plays, cheap novels and the like.

Wagner had latched onto a topic that was genuinely fashionable as well. He even managed to sell his original prose treatment of Dutchman to the head honcho of the Grand Opera in Paris, who otherwise didn’t have the time of day for him and who handed it over to the composer Pierre-Louis Dietsch to use. (Dietsch’s librettists, however, ended up drawing on different sources for the opera, which was titled Le vaisseau fantôme.)

The storm-tossed captain who wanders about undead obviously struck a chord among those attracted to the darker, Gothic undercurrents of the groundswell of Romanticism. And a larger clan of similarly unhappy figures enduring a nightmarish existence was more recently emerging, from Lord Byron’s lonely, restless Manfred, suicidal but unable to die, to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s experimental rethink of Prometheus in Frankenstein—not to mention aspects of Goethe’s version of the Faust legend. In fact Wagner abandoned efforts to write his own Faust Symphony—he ended up producing only one movement and made it a concert overture—and channeled his thoughts into the new opera instead. In a letter, he remarked that he had “[broken] free from the mists of instrumental music and [found] a solution to the problem that confronted me in the specificity of the drama.” It’s worth recalling here Wagner’s famous interpretation of  Beethoven’s Ninth as a Columbus-like voyage from the restrictions of the instrumental symphony into a new world fusing music and word. The Ninth marks another profound discovery of his formative years, and its d-minor opening is to some extent echoed in the Overture and the “hollow fifths” outlined by the Dutchman’s theme.

Ironically, though, Wagner’s principal source for The Flying Dutchman came from an archly anti-Romantic account published in the early 1830s by the iconoclastic poet and critic Heinrich Heine. A fellow exile (from the Rhineland) in Paris, Heine welcomed the young composer into his circle. His retelling of the legend—which he incorporated into a larger narrative—contains many of the ingredients essential to Wagner’s scenario, most significantly of all the theme of redemption by the self-sacrifice of the captain’s lover. But this is how Heine describes the cynical “moral” of his story, in which he mockingly refers to “Mrs. Flying Dutchman” leaping from the cliff: “As far as women are concerned, they should be wary of marrying a Flying Dutchmen; and we men should learn from it that, at best, women will be our ruin.”

Among other things, the ironic tone Heine adopts indicates just how clichéd the legend had become by then—the equivalent of a thriller film franchise whose latest sequel causes eyes to roll. But by making it dead serious, Wagner discovered the template that would preoccupy him for the rest of his career: a drama rooted in the existential predicament of its hero and the search for redemption. The condition of a world out of joint, with the protagonist caught up in a dilemma of the highest stakes and with an unlikely hope for resolution, is the Ring cycle in a nutshell. “Die Frist ist um,” the opening monologue that gives us access to the Dutchman’s perspective, already looks ahead to the vision of existence itself as torment voiced by Amfortas in Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, while the Dutchman prefigures the time-traveling Kundry, whose curse also condemns her to an endless life (in the form of reincarnation). In both operas, another is awaited who has the capacity for compassion to break the cycle of suffering.

Another element of Wagner’s deep attraction to this material is suggested by Joachim Köhler, author of the provocative biography Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans. Despite the officially idyllic picture he later painted of life with his actor step-father, argues Köhler, the composer endured a traumatic childhood characterized by fear of punishment, and “found it hard to distinguish between real life and the world of his imagination,” while “the stage that was his family’s livelihood became a place of terror for him.” In the challenge the Dutchman poses to the “normal” community he infiltrates, Wagner “discovered his own spectral past” and could now set about trying “to exorcize ghosts.” Because of his newfound musical confidence as well—earned from his study not only of Beethoven but of French models, in particular the far-reaching experiments of Berlioz—“the ideas that seethed within him,” writes Köhler, “could acquire independent existence in the material world now that the archetypes of his subconscious had begun to speak for themselves….”

In The Flying Dutchman Wagner thus found a way to fuse his identities as both dramatist and composer into the creation of a more powerfully unified work. Although he retains the conventional genre name of “Romantic opera,” the guiding concept of the medium we experience here goes beyond “setting” a story to music or just adding atmosphere, color and heightened emotion to the mix. Words and music begin to coalesce into something more ambitious. It’s curious to recall that Wagner’s original plan was to have Dutchman produced as the “opening bill” at the Paris Opera, the curtain raiser to a full-length ballet. But the original intermissionless structure (which we hear in this production) also prompted him to condense his thoughts into a powerful whole made up of larger scenic units. Anxiety that his new opera, presented by itself, would fare better with intermissions led Wagner to adopt the latter for the premiere. When his widow Cosima introduced it at Bayreuth in 1901, she reverted to his original intention of performing the whole opera without pauses. Along with the uninterrupted momentum this allows, you can clearly hear how Wagner designed one scene to “fade” into the next, as in the transition from the masculine sailors’ chorus ending the first act to the cheerful humming and spinning of the women.

In other words, elements of the seamless music drama of Wagner’s maturity are at least foreshadowed—though not to the exclusion of the old-fashioned models from earlier Romantic opera, of set pieces and even of French grand opera “spectacle,” despite the composer’s retrospective emphasis on Dutchman as a harbinger of the “music of the future.” In fact, the contradiction between old and new gives a fascinating tension to the opera’s texture. It could even be seen to play a dramatic role, underscoring the conflict between the conventionality of the townfolk and the more unusual musical depictions of the Dutchman and his crew. The blithe four-squareness of Daland’s music introducing his daughter to the Dutchman, for example, almost sounds like a parody of the charming but bland music that could win Wagner’s peers such approval from their audience—especially considering the context of the character to whom he’s planning on marrying her off to. And despite his ardor, it’s no wonder Senta wants to escape the bourgeois, predictable life she would have with her suitor Erik, the safe but boring boyfriend. He changes his conventional tune only when he foresees her fate in his dream. Implicit in hyer choice, of course, is the very act of betrayal (of the mere mortal Erik, in this case) that the Dutchman assumes is in his despair is the pattern of every woman’s behavior. But Senta senses a doppelganger-like kinship with the mysterious stranger even before she meets him in person. Through her ballad, Wagner explores this aspect of her character, adding an uncanny dimension to their “love at first sight” that bypasses what could otherwise have been another operatic cliché.

Wagner’s score is often praised for its “realistically” stormy weather and tumultuous evocation of the elements. These do in fact mark the start of an impressive series of orchestral evocations of nature. But what’s even more impressive is Wagner’s musical characterization of the inner psyche of the Dutchman and of his encounter with Senta (a name the composer himself invented and which his champion-turned-enemy Friedrich Nietzsche lampooned with his reference to Wagnerian “Senta-mentality”). Wagner also returned to the score several times after the Dresden premiere to refine the orchestration (some of which Berlioz had found a touch crude and over “obvious”). Most significantly, in 1860, just after finishing Tristan und Isolde, he introduced a new motif of redemption to the end of the Overture and to the end of the opera itself, using a language of harps and lofty strings that is reminiscent of the later opera.

At the opera’s center is a duet between Senta and the Dutchman unlike any “love duet” that had come before. Here Wagner begins to expand our ordinary perception of time as he depicts these characters transcending the mundane pace of the world surrounding them, participating in a kind of shared hallucination, as if enfolded in each other’s dream. Whose dream, after all, is being dreamt? The question seems to be an open one. Wagner lays out the dream narratives of both Senta and Erik. Does his dream frame her own, or vice versa? Wagner even shows us the Steersman drifting into half-sleep – the epitome of the everyday world from which Senta wishes to stray. Could all that follows be his dream? Or are the whole proceedings a fever fantasy of the still-unredeemed Dutchman between one of his seven-year landings?

In The Flying Dutchman, Wagner adopts a strategy that’s also found in such works as Hamlet and Henry James/Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw: He draws us in with a thrilling ghost story that actually embeds a meditation on something far more profound. Wagner might Wagner might have settled for another supernatural, Gothic thriller like those of Heinrich Marschner and other contemporary composers who provided other models in these years. But through his identification with the Dutchman’s self-conscious suffering, the still-rudderless Wagner at last found a sense of artistic direction that he would follow hereafter with unwavering compulsion.

Thomas May writes about the arts and is a regular contributor to the LA Opera program.


James Conlon Extends Contract as LA Opera Music Director through 2018

We are pleased to announce that Music Director James Conlon has extended his contract with LA Opera through the end of the 2017/2018 season.

Zev Yaroslavsky, James Conlon and Christopher Koelsch at An Evening with James Conlon 2-20-13

The news was made public by LA Opera’s President and CEO Christopher Koelsch at a special event honoring Mr. Conlon, held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall. During the event, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky presented Mr. Conlon with an official proclamation from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors celebrating his ongoing and continued contribution to LA Opera and the City of Los Angeles.

Mr. Conlon joined LA Opera as Music Director at the beginning of the 2006/07 season. Since then, he has conducted a total of 33 different operas at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, including 18 company premieres and two U.S. premieres. To date, he has conducted 190 performances of mainstage LA Opera productions, more than any other conductor in the Company’s history. Additionally, his highly anticipated pre-performance talks continue to draw standing-room only crowds.

Mr. Conlon is currently prepping for the March 9 premiere of The Flying Dutchman followed by Cinderella on March 23. Tickets for both productions are on sale now


Noah's Flood: Our Opera Expedition Has Begun!

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

First days of anything always get me a little paranoid. Did I pack an extra pencil? Is my score with me? And for that matter, where on earth did my singing voice go?  This was me right before the first ensemble rehearsal of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Fludde (Noye's Fludde), this year's Community Opera. Heightening my nervousness, this was also the first time I had ever done this program. I knew a bit about it, though: it is a huge annual opera performed by adults, kids, teens and non-singers like me, as well as music professionals from the community.

Hopping from the car, I walked into our rehearsal venue, the spacious auditorium of East LA Performing Arts Academy. Immediately, all my apprehension went away. I started seeing people I knew from last summer’s Opera Camp, both staff and campers. How I have missed hearing director Eli Villanueva’s continued attempt to make the word “groovy” cool again!

Muse Lee in Opera Camp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Muse Lee in LA Opera's 2012 Opera Camp. Photo by Taso Papadakis.


At the beginning, we were given an overview of the program. On April 19 and 20, we will be performing at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels with choruses from all over LA, numbering around 200 people altogether. A community orchestra of 100 members, along with LA Opera Orchestra members, will accompany us, all under the baton of a certain Maestro named James Conlon.  If that's not the pinnacle of epic, I don't know what it is — especially since 2013 marks Britten's hundredth birthday!

flood animals


We plunged right into rehearsal. The younger kids, the animals in the ark, went to a separate room to rehearse. As for the teens and adults, we stayed with assistant director Heather Lipson Bell. Bit by bit, we learned our motions in the opening scene; we pieced together our entrance, exit and the choreography in between. In this scene, we are congregation members searching for the Lord’s guidance. Eli encouraged us to go beyond this simplified sketch and develop individual identities. He asked us to think about who we are, why we're having this crisis of faith, and how this dictates even our subtlest movement choices. Each action we perform can be interpreted in many different ways, and the actions we settle on depend on our own character. I can't wait to get to know mine better!

flood adults

After a short break, we began singing the lonely, searching melody of “Lord Jesus, think on me,” our voices floating through the space, the amateur voices supported and buoyed up by the resonant, trained voices. Noye's Fludde is based on the medieval Chester Miracle Plays, meant to be performed by townspeople and local choristers. Britten intended his opera version to be the same way: a community production with singers and non-singers, adults, children and everyone in between. The resulting sound is something so exquisitely pure and organic that I almost forgot I was actually singing. It just felt completely natural. I can only imagine how gorgeous it will be with 200 other singers and orchestra.

Our next task was to put the action together with the singing. This was easier said than done. Whenever I focused on the singing, I forgot my blocking, and whenever I switched my attention to the action, the words and music escaped me. I never realized how difficult onstage coordination can be—it really makes me appreciate performances more! Though it's challenging for some of us, the opening scene is already starting to solidify.

I left rehearsal brimming with happiness and anticipation. Everything around me looked infinitely more awesome. Now, the flood waters have come in and our ship is off and away. Our Community Opera expedition has begun!


James Conlon: Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman"

flying dutchman collage

By James Conlon

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
Henry David Thoreau

Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them.
Oliver Wendell Holmes

The protagonist of The Flying Dutchman has led a (very long) life of desperation, but thanks to Richard Wagner, not a quiet one. He will go to his place in the universe (no grave) but, fortunately for us, will have left behind his “song.” His song is not just that of the protagonist of this opera, but that of one who will be omnipresent in the rest of all of Wagner’s music dramas: The Outsider.

This production marks LA Opera’s first tribute to the three composers who share an anniversary in 2013. They are, in order of their births, Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi and Benjamin Britten. The Outsider will be as ubiquitous in Wagner’s works as the plight of the tragic father in Verdi’s and the voice of outraged innocence in Britten’s.

Another key characteristic embodied in the Dutchman is that of “The Wanderer.”

I wander silently and am somewhat unhappy,
And my sighs always ask "Where?"
In a ghostly breath it calls back to me,
There, where you are not, there is your happiness.
(Translation by Paul Hindemith)

Franz Schubert’s rendition of this poem by George Philipp Schmidt (von Lübeck), from which Franz Liszt further developed his work for piano and orchestra, is a classic. Wagner draws from the ancient myth of the “Wandering Jew” and initiates a series of exiles who will appear in his subsequent music dramas: Tannhauser, Siegmund and Sieglinde, Wotan (who will actually be renamed “The Wanderer” in Siegfried) and Tristan. Even Lohengrin and Elsa, despite their enormous dissimilarity with the Dutchman and Senta, also tell a tale of a distant “mythical” figure who exists first in the imagination of a young woman and then in reality. Lohengrin and the Dutchman enter the real world, the former from the realm of the grail and the latter from that of the devil. Both women lose their earthly existence, Elsa as a victim and Senta as the first in a series of self-sacrificing women.

Senta represents a third motif that will be repeated constantly in Wagner’s works: the redemptive woman, who teaches the world true love by sacrificing her own life to save a masculine soul imprisoned in emotional and metaphysical torments. Although criticized for its male bias, Wagner’s vision of this figure implicitly suggests that the man, wracked by his own conflicts and longings, can never achieve what the woman possesses by birthright. She incarnates infinite and redemptive love, and is the core of the universe.

I believe that the full power of the union of Senta and the Dutchman can be understood more completely if interpreted as the mythical (re)union of two parts of a common soul, man and woman, like Siegmund and Sieglinde. Viewed in this manner, Wagner steps into the world of myth for the first time, opening up the future to the Ring.

The Dutchman, who made his Faustian pact with the Devil, has been condemned to sail the seas for centuries, to be released from his curse and allowed to die only if he can find a woman who is faithful to him. He has lived on the sea, lonely and increasingly bitter, apart from any other society, unable to have a home, unable to rest, unable to find serenity.

Even in the most settled and stable of us, there is a part that has known that sense of exile and separateness on some level. The Dutchman embodies the 19th- century German concept of “Sehnsucht” (yearning). The painful perception of the distance between an ideal world and the realities of life is a staple in the artistic environment of the German-speaking world of that time. It fueled the poetry and literature of its time, impregnated the music of Schubert and Schumann, and eventually was projected onto a cosmic screen by Wagner.

This yearning exists not just in the Dutchman, but also in Senta, the young woman who has grown up obsessed with the legend of the Dutchman. She lives in isolation within her community precisely because she has been drawn to the fate of this mythical outsider, whose picture hangs on the wall and through whose agency she becomes an outsider herself. Perhaps she recognizes her status as outsider early on, and bonds with the myth in a mystical union that only she can understand.

Even Erik, the young man who believes himself to be betrothed to Senta, is an outsider. As a hunter living in a community of sea-faring men, Erik is subject to the cultural tensions between the men of the sea and those of the land. Like Senta, he suffers the disdain of his community. The Dutchman wanders, Senta and Erik do not, but all three are equally isolated.

Finally, the power of the sea, in both its real and symbolic forms, competes for the status of protagonist. A perfect medium to express the tempestuous, oceanic emotions that characterize so many operas, it serves Wagner here as it will again in Tristan und Isolde as a metaphor for colossal emotional, metaphysical and erotic forces. Verdi will use it as a metaphor of exile for the Doge in Simon Boccanegra, landlocked as head of state while his heart is at sea. Britten also lives in dialogue with the sea, from Peter Grimes through Billy Budd to the end of his life with Death in Venice.

Thoreau’s “quiet desperation,” or Puccini’s writing the “tragedies of little souls” are nowhere to be found in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. He casts the mythical dimensions of his protagonist onto a cosmic panorama. There is despair and desperation, but there is also devotion and that central theme to all of Wagner’s work: redemptive love.


James Conlon: Returning to Bel Canto

By James Conlon

On the occasion of LA Opera’s production of Cinderella (La Cenerentola), and in a departure from my customary style, I am writing more personally; in particular, the story of my love for the music of Gioachino Rossini.

The bel canto operas (a term used to loosely denote the Italian operas of the first half of the 19th century) have an important place in the repertory of LA Opera. Every opera theater must produce works in many different styles, speaking to all tastes. It must offer a balance of known and unknown works in the Italian, German, French, Anglo-Saxon, English-American and Russo-Slavic repertories. It must include 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century works, along with contemporary opera. Beyond serving the public, we—all of us who are devoted to opera—are responsible in the long term for keeping the art form alive and healthy.

In the Italian repertory, the heart of the theater is a tripod consisting of bel canto, (Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini), Verdi and verismo (primarily Puccini). Whatever else is performed, any international opera company must be able to perform with appropriate stylistic sensibilities in each of these three categories.

I have been devoting myself to the bel canto repertory for the past several years, and will continue to do so. There are two reasons for this.

First, it is important that these operas be recognized as the great works that they are. The art of singing, conducting and playing bel canto operas must be learned and mastered.  Knowledge of both tradition and modern critical trends is necessary to conduct these works. The preservation of this now “classical” art and its style is highly important. For the orchestra, performing a Rossini opera demands the same elevated level of transparency, clarity and wit as a Haydn symphony. Whatever charms a theatrical production can provide for these marvelously entertaining and amusing works, nothing justifies mechanical or indifferent musical performances, whether emanating from the stage or the orchestra pit. No theatrical virtues can compensate for a rendition deficient in any of the demands of the bel canto style. Beauty of tone, limpidity of phrasing, brilliant fioratura and clarity of text are neither optional nor dispensable.

Second, in the many years of my professional life, I have largely missed out on the personal satisfaction of conducting much of this repertory. The fact is, at the tender age of 11, Rossini became my favorite composer after I saw The Barber of Seville. It was only the second opera I attended, but it, more than any other, was responsible for the rapid metamorphosis in my life, which drew me inextricably into the overwhelming embrace of classical music. To amuse myself in the summers, I twice organized little performances of the Barber with my friends.  Producing them with the limited means and abilities of youngsters, we made up in enthusiasm whatever else we lacked in ability and training (which was just about everything).

In the following years, as a sort of apprenticeship to learn the ropes in an opera theater, I volunteered to work backstage whenever the opportunity presented itself, including several bel canto operas: The Turk in Italy, Cinderella and The Elixir of Love. I came to know them from the inside out. I got my first opportunity to conduct Don Pasquale at the Juilliard Opera Theater when I was 22, and a year later, to my great joy, The Barber of Seville. My dream had come true, I was conducting the very opera that had set me on my path a little more than ten years before. Seven performances with a double cast (Frederica von Stade and Maria Ewing sharing the role of Rosina) in five days, conducting from the harpsichord at the Washington Opera, provided one of the high points in my life thus far. I thought to myself afterwards, “How wonderful, now that I know how to conduct The Barber, I can do so all of my life.” And then, irony of ironies… I never did again. In fact , until now, I had only conducted Rossini operas at 20-year intervals: Semiramide at the Metropolitan Opera (1990) with Marilyn Horne, June Anderson and Samuel Ramey, and LA Opera’s Turk in Italy (2011). Aside from the numerous concert performances of overtures, the Stabat Mater and the Petite messe solennelle, there were no more Rossini operas.

Spending so much time on the concert podium and plunging into “big” operatic repertory, the bel canto simply remained on the sidelines.  There were inevitable choices to be made: Boris Godunov or Norma? Pelléas et Mélisande or La Sonnambula? Tristan or I Puritani? The irresistible pull toward Wagner, Verdi, Mozart, Mussorgsky and Puccini had the effect of putting it all on hold.

Three seasons ago, when I conducted The Elixir of Love, I enjoyed myself so thoroughly, that I decided to personally oversee all the bel canto productions here at LA Opera. My decision, far from being merely practical, gave me the opportunity to reunite myself with several works that I have loved since childhood but never conducted. In doing so, I have rekindled a source of excitement and satisfaction within myself, a source neglected for far too many years.

To paraphrase Giuseppe Verdi, sometimes to make progress we have return to the beginning. I am, with Cinderella, reliving a part of my youth, and, who knows, maybe I will even conduct The Barber of Seville again.

 

 

 

 


Noah’s Flood Rehearsal = the pain, the agony, the achievement

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.


Recently, I heard a comic comparing a music rehearsal to the ER. Both are supposed to help you get better, both make you cry, and both are filled with excruciating pain. During Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Sunday, we experienced all three of these things.

For this rehearsal, only the animals, raindrops, waves, rainbows, and the raven and dove were called. I’m one of the fourteen waves. Basically, what we do is maneuver long strips of blue fabric, with two people per strip. I had a similar job during Opera Camp, so I thought I was prepared for this. However, I soon realized that there are two crucial differences between The White Bird of Poston and Noah’s Flood waves. Firstly, this wave scene goes on for 7 minutes, and secondly, while the Poston waves represented the Colorado River, these waves are supposed to make up a worldwide flood.

Flood #1

To help us achieve the desired effect, assistant director, Heather Lipson-Bell patiently and energetically taught us a bunch of different wave movements. I don’t want to give it all away before the performance, but I’ll just say that it involved incessant arm-pumping, duck-walking, and squats. Twenty minutes in, my wavemate and I were already hot and red-faced. By the end, we were ready to drown along with God’s condemned. I think my muscles hate me right now. 

After our exhausting wave movement session, we listened to the music for the storm and flood scene. When I heard the glorious, crashing music, it suddenly hit me: I’m actually in a Benjamin Britten opera. I’ll be singing something written by Benjamin Britten. Both that thought and the beauty of the music gave me chills. My eyes watered. There’s nothing like opera to bring on the tears.

Following this, we were released, but I didn’t want to leave yet. I’d been hearing the kids singing their animal parts upstairs, and I really wanted to get a glimpse of their rehearsal. Halfway there, I heard a huge, enthusiastic voice that almost sounded amplified. Turns out it was assistant director, Nathan Rifenburg – who happens to have twice the energy of an average human being.

When I walked into the classroom, he was animatedly demonstrating monkey movements, bouncing around and bending down to pick imaginary bugs out of a kid’s hair. I was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, but it was just too awesome not to giggle. The best part was that the kids weren’t laughing at all. They took it all so seriously. Whenever Nathan told them to stand up, they immediately sprang up like jack-in-the-boxes. And their ark entrance scene—wow. They were so focused, and even if I couldn’t immediately tell what animal they were, I saw that they believed in it, and so I did too. The rest of rehearsal was delightful: the best parts included an impromptu “Doe-A-Deer” and Nathan’s colorful description of well-supported singing as “throwing your guts on the table.”

Flood #3

The day ended on an exciting note: as we were leaving, we received Noah’s Flood posters. It includes the names of all participating choruses and orchestras. The fact that we’re on the same poster as James Conlon is way too awesome to handle. And I had no idea that Ronnita Nicole Miller will be Mrs. Noye. I started spazzing out. (download the poster here)

As for us ensemble members, though?  Improvement: check. Tears: check. Pain: double check. We know what that means: this production is on its way to becoming something incredible.


The Flying Dutchman: Technical Preparation

Numerous puzzle pieces of scenery for our new production of The Flying Dutchman are assembled to create one cohesive and spectacular vision. 

Flying Dutchman Technical Preparation

This is an early view from the auditorium looking through to the backstage. This bridge weighs nearly 5000 pounds and is an integral and dynamic element of the scenery. The bridge “flies” in and out on cue, controlled by a computerized chain motor console.

Flying Dutchman Technical Preparation

The deck is composed of hundreds of individual pieces of structural steel. When fully assembled with its mirrored surface, the deck becomes the playing area for dozens of cast members.  

Flying Dutchman Scenery Stage Lighting

The  scenery as designed is comprised of layers of vivid imagery  that only become apparent when completed with show lighting and effects. In this image, final preparations are made for the first onstage rehearsal.


Dulce Rosa's New Life -- By Isabel Allende

In l987 I fell in love with a Californian and moved to the United States. We started living together and soon I realized I had no room of my own to write. It was impossible to tackle the long project of a novel, so I tried my hand at short stories, which I could write waiting for my lover in coffee shops and parks. I came up with 23 stories. Given my state of mind (or state of heart) at the time, they were all love stories. Most of them were timeless and located in unnamed places in South America.

One of the stories was called “Revenge” and it was the tragedy of a young woman called Dulce Rosa who spent years planning how to punish the man who had raped her and killed her family. It doesn’t sound like a love theme, does it? Trust me, it is. The story came to me whole, like a gift. I wrote it down in a sort of trance, in one sitting. It was published in a collection with the title Stories of Eva Luna. I did the required book tours and promptly forgot about it, never imagining that, more than 20 years later, Dulce Rosa would come back in a new form thanks to a couple of visionary artists. And what a delightful form it is indeed!

When Richard Sparks and Lee Holdridge first contacted me about transforming my story into an opera, I loved the idea but was quite skeptical regarding its feasibility. An opera is a very ambitious endeavor; in fact, it is so ambitious that it would be an endangered form of art without a handful of passionate lovers of the genre and idealists like Richard and Lee. I reread my story and realized that it lends itself well for the stage, so I accepted their proposal. However, I had little hope that it would ever see the limelight. They left and once again I forgot about Dulce Rosa. But they didn’t. For years they worked on the script, the lyrics and the music, they assembled a formidable team of musicians and singers, and they got Plácido Domingo to conduct. Deep thanks to Plácido Domingo, LA Opera and the Broad Stage for making these performances possible. Although some changes were necessary for the stage, they respected the essence of the story, and I believe that they also enhanced it. For example, they added new characters who were needed to make the plot clearer and they changed the ending. Richard explained to me that an open ending, like the one in the book, would not work in an opera, and I did not object because he has a lifetime of experience in this matters.

By the end of 2012 Richard and Lee came to my house in Marin County to show me on their PCs the result of all those years of dreaming and creating. I was able to hear the beautiful music composed by Lee, discuss the libretto written by Richard, hear most of the singers rehearsing, and see, in amazement, the fantastic sets that Yael Pardess and Jenny Okun imagined for this opera. I was very impressed. All that talent and effort invested in bringing my story to life! By the end of that unforgettable day I was on the verge of tears. Since then I have not been able to get the music and some of the scenes out of my head; they haunt me, as I hope they will haunt everyone who sees it.

Isabel Allende


Domingo-Thornton Young Artists Advance to Met National Council Finals

Soprano Tracy Cox and bass Matthew Anchel have advanced to the final round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, one of the most prestigious voice competitions in the world. The last stage of the competition will take place in New York on Sunday, March 10, 2013, at a Grand Finals Concert where the finalists will perform with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Tracy Cox

Tracy is in her third season as a member of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program. She made her LA Opera debut in 2010 as Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro and most recently performed the role of Pisana in the season-opening production of Verdi's The Two Foscari.

While spending the summer at the Music Academy of the West, she was named the 2012 winner of the Marilyn Horne Song Competition, and in 2012, she sang the role of the Second Lady in The Secret Kingdom, conducted by James Conlon at the Colburn School. A former member of the Wolf Trap Opera Studio, she will return to Wolf Trap later this year to sing the role of Alice Ford in Falstaff.

Matthew Anchel

Matthew Anchel was a member of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program during the 2010/11 season. He made his LA Opera debut as the Fourth Noble in Lohengrin and went on to perform the role of Count Ceprano in Rigoletto, while also covering leading roles in The Marriage of Figaro and The Turk in Italy.

During his season in Los Angeles, he created the role of Dr. Chasuble in the world premiere of Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest at the LA Philharmonic. He subsequently joined the ensemble of the Leipzig Opera, where he performed numerous roles. Earlier this year, he made his debut with Opera San Jose as Ferrando in Il Trovatore. In April, he will debut with Knoxville Opera as Alidoro in Cinderella (La Cenerentola), and he will return to Opera San Jose next season as Leporello in Don Giovanni and as the Bonze in Madama Butterfly.

The Grand Finals Concert will be hosted by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, a past National Council Auditions winner is returning to LA Opera in May in the title role of Tosca. Last year, soprano Janai Brugger, who was a member of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program at the time, was one of the winners of the finals.

The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, which are celebrating their 60th anniversary this year, have been an important stepping stone in the career of many of the opera world’s leading artists. Twenty gifted young singers from around the country arrived in New York on February 28 to prepare for a March 3 semi-final round, in which they sang on the Met stage for the first time in their careers before a panel of judges. After deliberations, the panel narrowed the field to ten singers who move to the final phase of the competition on Sunday.

This year’s finalists, all between the ages of 20 and 30 years old, will compete for individual cash prizes of $15,000 each. The finalists were chosen from nearly 1500 singers who participated in the auditions held in 40 districts and 13 regions throughout the United States and Canada, sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera National Council. Given the reach of the auditions, the number of applicants, and the long tradition associated with them, the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions are considered the most prestigious in North America for singers seeking to launch an operatic career.


Cinderella's Kate Lindsey Chats with Local Educators

Soprano Kate Lindsey, who will be stepping into the title role of Cinderella later this month, stopped by this weekend's Opera for Educators session to talk to local teachers about her role in the Rossini masterpiece.

Kate Lindsey/Cinderella

The award-winning Opera for Educators series explores opera from an interdisciplinary point of view allowing teachers to gain insight about opera and the historical context in which it was created.

Kate Lindsey/Cinderella

From time to time, they are also treated with visits from the stars of the opera's they are learning about, rehearsals and recitals. 

kate Lindsey/Cinderella

Additionally, teachers recieve up to two LAUSD salary points for their participation in the program.

Visit LA Opera.com for more information on Opera for Educators.


Noah's Flood Rehearsal: When the Opera Pixies Take Over

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Tickets become available tomorrow, March 14 at 10am.
 

With five upcoming tests, an essay to write, and a lost hour of sleep, I really didn't want to go to Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Sunday. I’d spent the weekend studying, sneezing, and wallowing in self-pity. When I finally dragged myself out of the house, though, everything changed. The opera pixies took over: the moment I signed myself in, all the stress disappeared, and I was ready to sing.

NF - Floyd coaching

Assistant Conductor Paul Floyd leads the adults in a music rehearsal.

The day started with a change of scenery. Instead of practicing in the auditorium as usual, we switched places with the children and went into the upstairs classroom. There, we reviewed the opening scene with assistant director Heather. Before I could get totally wrapped up in it, though, a few of us were pulled out for costume fitting. The group of us went into a small room, and we were greeted by costume designer Paula Higgins. After taking our measurements, she gave us costumes to try on. I loved mine immediately—it really looked and felt like water. I was reluctant to take it off, but I knew I’d see it a lot in the coming weeks, so I put it back on the hanger and returned to rehearsal.

Heather Lipson Bell

Assistant Director Heather Lipson-Bell

When we got back, we practiced the choreography with the singing and moved onto the storm scene. We waves didn’t have to learn the movements, so we stood off to the side and observed. It was so cool to just watch the scene develop—it gave us an idea of how it'll look to the audience.

After trooping downstairs and refining the opening a little more, most of the ensemble took a break. Those of us working with props, though, stepped up to rehearse with Heather and director Eli. Eli distributed wave fabric to each pair and determined our positions and cues. Then, we went over our movements and practiced engulfing the doomed. My and my wave-mate’s “victim” is absolutely terrifying when she begins drowning. To me, it looked like something out of a horror movie. Eli’s take on it was much different: he told our drownee that she’s supposed to look like Han Solo frozen in carbonite. Whoever talks about opera and Star Wars in the same sentence is automatically my hero.

NF Adults Rehearsing 

Director Eli Villanueva leads the adults in a staging rehearsal.

With Eli’s instructions in mind, we put it all together, running through the whole storm scene with music. Since my wave-mate and I are standing at the front, we could watch the entire scene unfolding behind us. The effect is just astonishing. Enraptured as I was, I wouldn’t have minded staying longer, but time was up. Rehearsal ended with a few final announcements.

I signed myself out and walked through the door. As I left, I started remembering all that homework that lay in wait, and all that studying that had to be done. Somehow, though, it no longer looked so bad. I guess the opera pixies hadn’t abandoned me.


Tickets Available Now For Noah's Flood (Noye's Fludde)

Noah's Flood Key Art

LA Opera artists will collaborate with more than 300 members of the greater Los Angeles community for two performances of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood (Noye's Fludde) this spring at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Conducted by LA Opera Music Director James Conlon and presented as part of the Britten 100/LA celebration, the performances will take place at 7:30pm on Friday, April 19, and at 7:30pm on Saturday, April 20.

Thanks to generous longtime support from the Dan Murphy Foundation, LA Opera is able to produce Noah's Flood and offer it free of charge as a special gift to the community. Advance tickets are required for admission; there will be a $1 per order handling fee and a four-ticket limit per household. Tickets are available now and can be reserved online at www.laopera.org or by phone at 213.972.8001. But hurry, they won’t last long!

Noah's Flood is presented as part of Britten 100/LA: A Celebration, a series of events taking place to honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). One of several Britten operas on Biblical subjects, Noah's Flood (Op. 59, 1958) is a colorful pageant where children play all the animal roles, parading two-by-two into the ark. Regarded as Britten’s most lovable work, the opera is based on one of the famous medieval Chester mystery plays, dating back to the 15th century.

Scored for a combination of both student orchestra musicians and a professional chamber ensemble, the opera features inspired and delightful musical innovations; for example, the raindrops are represented by the sound of a series of mugs of varying sizes slung on string and struck by wooden spoons.

Bass-baritone Yohan Yi will perform the role of Noah and mezzo-soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller will be Mrs. Noah. Mr. Yi and Ms. Miller are former members of LA Opera's Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program. Actor Jamieson K. Price will be heard as the Voice of God. The orchestra will include musicians from the LA Opera Orchestra performing alongside the Hamilton High School Academy of Music Orchestra and the Celebration Ringers of Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena. The performers will include teachers from LA Opera’s Opera for Educators program and students from LA Opera' annual Opera Camp, as well as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Choir, the Beverly Vista Middle School Choir, students from the East LA Performing Arts Academy, the Holy Family Filipino Chorale and Children’s Concert Chorus, the Mariachi Conservatory, Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley, the Sacred Heart School Choir and Schola Cantorum, and participants in LA Opera's Zarzuela Project.

The stage director will be Eli Villanueva. The scenic designer is Carolina Angulo and the costume designer is Paula Higgins. The lighting designer is Tantris Hernandez. The sound designer is Jon Gottlieb and the prop designer is Melissa Ficociello.

Noah's Flood is part of the LA Opera Off Grand initiative, dedicated to presenting a wide variety of artistic exploration throughout a broad geographical area.

This production made possible by a generous grant from the Dan Murphy Foundation.

Special production support also received from the Britten-Pears Foundation, the City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs, and Mr. and Mrs. Joseph A. Saunders.


Noah's Flood Rehearsal: "I Need a Stunt Double"

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Last week Friday, a miracle of biblical proportions took place: school finally ended. A long, glorious spring break stretched before me like the rainbow after the flood. The perfect way to celebrate its arrival was going to Noah’s Flood rehearsal stress-free.

And what a celebration it was. This was the most rewarding rehearsal yet: on Sunday, everything began to come together. For the first time, the ark was brought in. With it there, we went over our wave movements, and we confirmed our various cues. As we did, the “doomed” practiced getting engulfed. I said before that their drowning looked like a horror film scene, but during this rehearsal, director Eli changed it a bit. It just got a whole lot scarier. Now, it involves the drowned rolling around on the ground. I think the situation was summed up best by one of the victims: “I need a stunt double.”

Muse

While we worked the waves, the four guardian angels practiced maneuvering the ark for the first time. I almost lost focus on my movements because I couldn’t take my eyes off the ship. With our blue strips billowing around it, it sailed and rocked and veered. Later, I went up close to the ark, and I realized that it was only a frame with fabric. Though one of my fellow waves joked that we needed CGI, I heard one lady marveling at how incredibly well it worked. She was saying that this really shows the beauty of theater: the audience is not only given a story, but is also invited to fill in the gaps and complete it. It’s kind of like how when a tree falls in a forest, it technically only makes a sound if people are there to hear it. Or maybe it’s more like a coloring book. We provide the outline, and each audience member can fill the blank spaces with his or her own colors.

Ark far

After a short break, Eli got us back on our feet. It was now time to start working on the final scene. We figured out our entrances and exits and got a rough idea of the music. As we practiced, the people manipulating the rainbow sent it streaking back and forth over our heads. It was absolutely gorgeous, but as a wave, I could only imagine their pain once we hit the forty-minute mark.

Doomed

As usual, the three hours of rehearsal went by quickly, and before we knew it, it was time to go home. With rehearsal over, spring break officially began. I can’t ask for a more wonderful start!


Noah’s Flood Rehearsal: It’s All Coming Together

During a field trip last week, I mentioned rehearsal to one of my teachers. She asked me what show I’m doing, and I told her that it’s Noah’s Flood. “By Benjamin Britten?” she asked. “I did that show about 20 years ago!” She went on to tell me about her experience. It’s almost scary to think that in 2033, we’ll be talking about our production like that.

However, I decided to slow down and take it one rehearsal at a time — I mean, we haven’t even started rehearsing in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels yet. Rehearsal #5 took place on Saturday, instead of our usual Sunday. Because of the wicked L.A. traffic, it took a while for all of us to get to East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy. When almost everyone had arrived, though, we began rehearsal.

There was something new in the building that day: tape markings on the floor to delineate the Cathedral’s stage area. We knew what that meant. It was time to really get down to business. Sure enough, director Eli Villanueva announced that today would be our first stumble-through rehearsal, in which we’d put all the scenes we’d learned in sequence.

Muse and Eli

After some warm-up, we dispersed to our opening positions. All of us enter from different locations, and originally, a small group of us had to run halfway around the stage area to get to our initial positions.  A few injuries later, we found our number reduced to only two. Eli greeted us with the additional happy news that he had made an executive decision: by his decree, we now had to run around the entire stage. When we finally made it to our spots a geologic era later, we ended up gasping instead of singing. I didn’t know that I had signed up for operatic boot camp!  

After Eli worked with us on the physical, assistant conductor Paul Floyd gave us tips for the singing. He told us to really think about the verbs and to energize them. Now, it sounds less like a practiced mantra, and more like a sincere prayer. With all those repeating phrases, it’s easy to simply chant the words, but Paul helped us really find the color and intention in each one.

Katie and Eli

We transitioned from the opening scene to the ark entrance. The kids came downstairs to rehearse this, and since the adult ensemble isn’t in the scene, we got to sit down and watch. What a treat! Playing various types of animals, including birds, cats, and deer, the children paraded out, swooping, prowling, or prancing up the ramp and into the ark. My wavemate and I alternated between happily singing along with the animals and going insane because of the cuteness. By the time the mice came out, we were literally dying.

NF Lions

Luckily, break came next, so we had time to recover. We bonded over Shakespeare, dying oranges, and free verse about cement. As cheesy as it sounds, theater really brings people together and makes them bond over the most random things!

After break, we continued from right where we left off. With our animals in the ark, we proceeded to the flood scene. With all of us together for the first time, the power of the music ballooned us up, infusing the scene with an incredible collective energy. Instead of simply being the manipulator of a fabric strip, I keenly felt my own role in the drama. My wave and I had become a living, breathing character.

Birds

It’s really all coming together now. I can’t believe that we’re already halfway through the program, and only about three weeks away from the performance. And I can see it already—with each rehearsal, we’re also a little closer to 2033, when we’ll be talking on and on about Britten’s centennial year and that amazing production we put together.


jay Hunter Morris Returns to The Flying Dutchman for Final Two Performances

jay Hunter Morris

Jay Hunter Morris, one of today's tenors in the Wagnerian repertory, will return to LA Opera to perform the role of Erik in the final two performances of The Flying Dutchman on March 27 and 30. Mr. Morris had originally been scheduled to appear as Erik, but was forced to cancel his appearance when a severe case of gastroenteritis made it impossible for him to begin rehearsals in February. Corey Bix subsequently replaced Mr. Morris as Erik for the first two performances of The Flying Dutchman, but has had to withdraw from the production himself due to illness; the role was performed on March 21 and 24 by tenor John Pickle, who will remain in Los Angeles to cover the role. 

Jay Hunter Morris has previously appeared with LA Opera in 2006 as Unferth in the world premiere of Elliot Goldenthal's Grendel and in 2008 as Marky in the U.S. premiere of Howard Shore's The Fly. After 2011 appearances in the title role of Siegfried with San Francisco Opera, he has since performed that role in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung at the Metropolitan Opera. He will perform Siegfried again with the Met later this spring and he will appear in the 2016 Ring cycle at Houston Grand Opera.

He will reprise the role of Erik in The Flying Dutchman this summer at Glimmerglass Opera. He has previously performed Erik at Seattle Opera, Opera Australia, Arizona Opera and Atlanta Opera.  Other recent appearances include Captain Ahab in Jake Heggie's Moby Dick at San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera and at the Adelaide Festival, and Tristan in Tristan und Isolde for Welsh National Opera and at the Edinburgh Festival. For more information about Mr. Morris, please visit www.JayHunterMorris.com.

The final two performances of Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman will take place on Wednesday, March 27, and on Saturday, March 30. Both performances will take place at 7:30pm. Tickets start at $19 and can be purchased in person at the LA Opera Box Office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, by phone at 213.972.8001 or online at www.laopera.org.



How to Design an LA Opera Production

Reposted from LA Weekly's Public Spectacle Arts & Culture Blog:

Cinderella (La Cenerentola)

LA Opera's current production of Rossini's La Cenerentola (aka Cinderella) has no glass slippers, no coach that turns into a pumpkin, no evil stepmother and absolutely no bippity boppity boo. But it is a fun visual feast, a comic opera in cartoon colors, thanks largely to the work of set and costume designer Joan Guillén. Guillén, who has taught set design in Barcelona for 40 years, makes his LA Opera debut with La Cenerentola, which opened to a sold-out house at the Dorothy Chandler on March 23.

Cinderella (La Cenerentola) - Alidoro Sketches

Gioachino Rossini, known especially for The Barber of Seville, was only in his twenties when he and his librettist pal Jacopo Ferretti cranked out La Cenerentola in three weeks, but he had already established himself as an innovative composer adept at mixing comedy with moments of pathos. Ferretti replaced the glass slipper with two sparkly bracelets and the fairy godmother with a Dumbledore-esque tutor/wizard. But otherwise, La Cenerentola, which premiered in 1817, has the catchy tunes and rapid-fire alliterative articulation for which Rossini is loved.Guillén, the LA Opera production's designer, is also a cartoonist, illustrator and sculptor, and he brought all of these sensibilities into play when designing the costumes and sets for La Cenerentola, incorporating animated colors and geometric forms into his pieces. He cites as influences Constructivism (an industrial, angular style with geometric elements) and, more recently, Minimalism (a design philosophy in which the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect).

In La Cenerentola, large bustles and wirework give the designs a sculptural quality, and bold, primary costume colors illustrate character. "All of my scenic work is characterized by the use of a rich palette," Guillén says in an interview, translated from Spanish. "As a viewer, I'm tired of the abuse of black and white in many of the productions I see. It seems that scenic designers have a fear of using color."

However, Guillén says he distinguishes "between the use of vivid colors that illuminate personality in the characters from the color that I utilize in the scenery. In La Cenerentola, the scenery is at first gray, and later the light transforms into color planes. That always makes it a neutral background for the vivid colors worn by the characters, since they are the real stars."

For example, the hammy evil stepsisters sport Marge Simpson hair in nearly neon pink and yellow, with tiny feathered hats perched comically on top. The prince's courtiers wear cobalt blue wigs, the hems of their multi-tiered, multi-colored coats held out in a circle with wire.

Cinderella at the Ball

Inspired by the world of cartoons, he says, "I have incorporated in my scenic designs just the essential features needed to understand the character that's being portrayed or an element of the scene...In the operas of Rossini, the characters are direct, and show their souls as they appear. It's not a psychological theater, where you need to explain the whole opera to understand how a character is."My designs have to be clear and emphatic as they appear onstage," he adds. "For example, the use of the color violet to draw Don Magnifico [Cinderella's stepfather]: this color is a pale reflection of the former glory of another era, but shows he is still resisting fading away definitively."

As a reflection of her innocence, Cinderella is always clothed in pale, neutral colors, from her gray and beige rags to her shiny white ballgown, virginal veil and curled wig. Her only spot of color is her vibrant red hair, displaying that her "color" is a natural part of her, not an affectation like her garishly dressed stepsisters.

Although he says he gets "excited about any job," Guillén confesses that he would love to be able to apply his talents to a Wagner opera, with their drama and psychological complexity. "It would be a beautiful challenge."


10 Questions with... Ronnita Nicole Miller

Mezzo-Soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller is no stranger to LA Opera. An alumna of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, and with LA Opera appearances including Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, Florence Pike in Albert Herring and Flosshilde/Schwertleite in the Ring cycle, she has become a seasoned (and supremely gifted) member of the LA Opera family. Ronnita has the distinction of being in both Cinderella (La Cenerentola) as Tisbe and The Flying Dutchman as Mary at the same time! Not an easy task, but Ronnita makes it look effortless.  

Ronnita Nicole Miller

We aksed Ronnita 10 questions about opera, life, and what's next on her busy agenda.  And in the process learned a lot about this talented singer. 

Who do you love more these days, Wagner or Rossini?

Well, I'm not sure. Mary is definitely a little more challenging; her character is a little more of a challenge vocally and dramatically. Rossini, and the other bel canto composers keep me honest. I have to say that so far, I'm digging Rossini, even though the part of Tisbe really scared me at first.

If you could keep one of the costumes from either production, which would you choose?

Honestly? Neither.  

Have you dreamt that Clorinda would appear in Dutchman?  Or that Mary would be Cinderella’s more morose sister?

I've never dreamt that either of these things would happen. But wouldn't it be hilarious if you saw one of the stepsister’s wigs ascending from the trap instead of Mary, coming in to wreak havoc?

What’s currently on your iPod?

There is A LOT of music on my iPod. Most of it is pop, jazz, and alternative music. I do have opera. But when I'm not working, I listen to a lot of pop music. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bob Marley are all favorites and had big influences. They didn't save anything when they stepped onstage. It still inspires me. Any artist that can be so amazingly talented, practice so thoroughly, and yet, achieve such total freedom onstage is magnificent. I'm also a big fan of Bruno Mars and Adele. They're on heavy repeat right now.

Have you and Stacy Tappan recorded ‘Sisters’ from White Christmas? 

We have not…yet.

Cinderella (La Cenerentola)

Do you have a favorite moment in Cinderella?

Yes, the moment when Tisbe decides to not follow her older sister.  One can always choose to be a better person.

When you’re not onstage, what’s your favorite way to occupy your time?

During a show when I'm not onstage, I'm probably dancing in the hallway, talking to people, or playing with my iPad. If it's in rehearsal, I may even crochet.  When I'm not at rehearsal or onstage, I'm probably learning music, reading, or playing Tomb Raider on my PC or Just Dance on Wii.  I like video games a lot.

How/when did you decide to become an opera singer?

Well, being an extremely introverted and slightly shy person (no one ever believes that), I actually had a lot of trouble getting up and singing, much less speaking in front of people.  I joined chorus because there was this cute guy that I wanted to get to know.  I got in, but I never wanted to sing solos.  For some reason I decided to major in music with an extremely heavy science course load.  I actually cried the first time my opera director in undergrad asked me to sing.  I would cry at solo and ensemble competitions in high school when I would have to sing (I also played viola, with no problems).  I guess I was always afraid of my voice, afraid of people looking, watching me do something that was so vulnerable.  I think opera came as the result of two things, me being really shy but wanting to be able to express all the emotions I felt in some way and also because I was never really any good at singing gospel or jazz.  The ability to sing – that came later, through classical training, funny enough.

What’s your dream role?

In a perfect world, I would LOVE to sing Carmen and Amneris.  They have always been my two favorite ladies. Carmen, because she is so strong and beats men at their own game. She takes life as it comes and there is an incredible vulnerability in addition to her strength, which I think is why she's so incredibly irresistible. 

Amneris because, although she's typically classified as a villain (she is kind of a spoiled brat, she's never had to doubt anything could be hers as a princess), she is motivated by love.  Not in its greatest form, but it's the one thing she wants, that unfortunately, she can't have.  This, I can personally identify with. Everything she does is motivated by this fact.

Following your current run at LA Opera, what’s next for you?

 After my run with LA Opera, I go to cover Erda and the First Norn in Siegfried and Gotterdammerung at the Met, a concert at the Cincinnati May Festival, and then I prepare to move to Germany [to join the Deutsche Oper Berlin]!


James Conlon Conducts 200th Performance at LA Opera

Cinderella cast, Italian Ambassadors, JC

LA Opera's April 3 performance of Gioachino Rossini's Cinderella (La Cenerentola) marked the debut of a new singer in the title role—Georgian mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze—as well as a special milestone for Music Director James Conlon: his 200th mainstage performance at LA Opera.

The performance was attended by Claudio Bisogniero, the Ambassador of Italy to the United States, and Giuseppe Perrone, Consul General of Italy in Los Angeles, who came backstage afterward to congratulate Mr. Conlon and to meet the members of the cast (which includes three Italian singers: baritone Alessandro Corbelli as Don Magnifico, baritone Vito Priante as Dandini and bass Nicola Ulivieri as Alidoro). Ambassador Bisogniero is currently visiting Southern California as part of an official mission in celebration of the 2013 "Year of Italian Culture in the United States." This initiative is a showcase of Italian culture and identity and what they mean to the American public.

In addition to 200 fully-staged productions at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mr. Conlon has also conducted six concerts for LA Opera, as well as six community opera productions at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and five Opera Camp performances of Hans Krása's children's opera Brundibar. Mr. Conlon became Music Director of LA Opera in 2006, and recently renewed his contract through 2018. 


Noah’s Flood Rehearsal – Going Overboard

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Early on in Sunday’s Noah’s Flood rehearsal, director Eli pronounced, “We really have to go overboard.”  Whether or not the pun was intended, I’d say that was the theme of the day: testing our limits. The thing is, we had everything in place, and our new job was to turn it up several notches and amplify it—even if that meant completely overdoing it and feeling so embarrassed that we’d never want to face Eli again.

Muse

With this objective in mind, we plunged right into rehearsal, running through the opening scene several times. After carefully observing us, Eli pointed to the open door, through which we could see a distant fence at the edge of the campus. He told us to keep in mind that there would be audience members that far away, and that we had to effectively convey the story to them. Therefore, it had to be bigger, louder, and way past the boundary of ridiculous. We had to shed the “armor of appropriateness” and “really explore what embarrasses you.” We took his words to heart and started translating them into action, elongating our bodies and stretching our arms as much as possible. We had extra motivation since he announced that the first person who touched the ceiling would get a thousand dollars.

Next, as the kids rehearsed their ark entrance, assistant director Heather took the “waves” and “doomed” outside to practice.  Since it was so windy, our fabric strips wouldn’t listen to us, instead flapping every which way and talking back. It was exhausting, but it actually added a splash of realism. Now, during the storm scene, I can truly imagine the wind whipping my wave and my clothes and my hair. And plus, my wavemate and I had fun pretending that our wave was a parachute and that we were going to fly away.

Lions

As we went back inside, my wavemate and I nearly got trampled by the animals, but we narrowly avoided this fate and got to watch the rest of their ark entrance scene. When working with the kids, Eli told them something similar to what he told us: he said that the scene felt a little tentative and that it needed to be bolder. He said to them, “I’m giving you permission to make mistakes.”

Once they had worked on the scene a little more, we waves stepped in and the storm began. With Eli’s words in mind, I threw myself so fully into the motions and the music that I don’t quite remember what happened. All I know is that my limbs are really sore and that, according to my wavemate’s mom, I had quite a lethal facial expression.

Birdy

Together with the animals, we sang our parts, and then slowly exited the stage. However, assistant conductor Paul, who was accompanying us on the piano, didn’t stop playing. For the first time, he kept on going, right to the very last note. There were several moments of silence. Then, we burst into applause.

And that’s how our very last ensemble rehearsal ended. Next week, the principals and the community orchestra will join us, and then we’ll be moving to our actual performance venue, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Each rehearsal is more exciting than the last—who knew that embarrassing yourself can be this fun?


Noah’s Flood Rehearsal: The Party Has Only Just Started

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

It’s really impossible to call Saturday’s Noah’s Flood practice a “rehearsal.” With all the hilarity, wonderful music, excitement, surprises, and star-struck moments, it had all the makings of a smashing party.

I arrived at the rehearsal venue, East LA Performing Arts Academy (ELAPAA), two hours earlier than usual—our rehearsal this time was five hours long. Before I even entered the auditorium, I heard the purr of strings and chatter of woodwinds. I stepped through the door and stared. For the first time, an orchestra was there. Rehearsal hadn’t even started, and I was already insanely happy and excited.

Hami Orch

After several minutes, LA Opera staff member Anthony Jones began the opening announcements. He started by introducing the orchestra: the Hamilton High School orchestra and the Celebration Ringers, a 5th through 8th grade handbell ensemble. I never even knew that such a thing existed.  He introduced the stage managers and the principal kids and teens playing Noah’s sons and their wives, as well as the gossips. Finally, he introduced Noah (bass-baritone Yohan Yi), the Voice of God (actor Jamieson Price), and the pianist. I hope I didn’t scream that loudly when he said the name Nino Sanikidze.

Muse-wave

We kicked off rehearsal by plunging immediately into wave practice, this time with the principals. We went over the drowning of the gossips and reviewed our positions.  After we had gone over the drowning a few times, the rest of the ensemble joined us to rehearse the full storm scene with the orchestra. I got my first glimpse of Mr. Yi, standing in the ark. When he started singing, I was completely star-struck—I couldn’t believe I was onstage with an artist like him. I just kept staring at him while I waited for the fact to register. It never really did.

Yohan-Noah

At last, we got to see all the scenes between the opening and the ark entrance. The first in this sequence is the one in which God speaks to Noah for the first time. We were all excited to hear what God sounded like, but finding out was a little terrifying. Standing above all of us on the auditorium stage, Mr. Price spoke his opening lines into a microphone. There’s no one word that can adequately describe his voice except for summoning — put simply, it’s the perfect Voice of God.

Voice of God

The scenes after God’s address were of Noah’s children and their wives building the ark, of Mrs. Noah and the gossips laughing at them, and finally, of their  children dragging Mrs. Noah onboard right before the storm. It was great to finally see how our ensemble scenes fit into the big picture, and also, many of the principals were my Opera Camp friends, so I had a blast chatting with them and watching them rehearse. Plus, seeing Director Eli filling in for Ronnita Nicole Miller as Mrs. Noah was a real moment to remember.

After a break, we continued rehearsal. When my wave-mate and I walked back into the auditorium, Mr. Price was still onstage, towering above everybody. My wave-mate and I were a bit intimidated and avoiding eye contact, but he noticed the two of us and gave us a kind smile. That was one of the highlights of rehearsal. We proceeded to go around telling everyone that God had smiled at us.

Next we moved on from the ark entrance and began the storm. With the orchestra playing full-throttle, the whole auditorium seemed to expand. There was a new sense of hugeness and space to be filled, and this began to translate into our motions and singing.

Flood

When the storm was over, the teen and adult ensemble members got a chance to rest, since our only remaining scene to perform was the finale. It wasn’t a very relaxing break, though—every time Mr. Price uttered “Noah…” into the microphone, we all jumped. We eventually came to anticipate it, but the first time, everyone had a mini-heart attack and the guy next to me even screamed. We could only imagine how poor Noah must have felt hearing that voice from the sky.  With almost all the elements present, the performance became grander, bigger, fuller. I can hardly imagine where it’ll be by showtime.

It won’t be long before we find out. On Monday, April 15, tech week begins, and we’ll be in our performance venue, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. This was our final rehearsal in ELAPAA, and as we left the building, we bid the wonderful space goodbye.

Ellie and Muse

Saturday’s rehearsal was quite a party: we’ve reunited with friends, sung glorious music, and received a smile from God. Something tells me, though, that the best is still ahead: the party has only just started.


Noah’s Flood Has Taken Over My Life

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood.  Performances are April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

It’s official: Noah’s Flood has taken over my life.

Just look at my Monday, for example. For starters, on Sunday night, my dreams were all about the opera. Then, in school, I wasted my free time watching Noah’s Ark cartoons on YouTube. A little later, I headed to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for a three-hour rehearsal. Finally, when I got home at 10pm, the first thing I did was rush to the computer and start this blog post. So many exciting things happened that simply going to bed wasn’t even an option: Monday was equal parts rehearsal and adventure.

Cathedral spaceAs Day 1 of tech week, Monday was a bit hectic. I had to squeeze all my homework into the two hours between school and rehearsal. However, it was “happy trouble.” I just couldn’t wait to be in the Cathedral, and the time finally came. As I walked to the entrance, I took it all in. The building jutted sharply up to the sky, cut out in slanting planes and stark angles. I was filled with awe and reverence. I signed in and entered the vaulted, mystical chapel at last.  

I soon found my wave-mate sitting in the choir pews, and I joined her. We spotted Noah (Yohan Yi) and for the first time, Mrs. Noah (Ronnita Nicole Miller) sitting in the pews. I found out that my wave-mate also loves her, and of course, we started “fan-girling” together. I’m Facebook friends with Ms. Miller, and I met her once backstage. However, I wasn’t sure whether she remembered me or not. My wave-mate and I decided that no matter what, we’d approach her and see what would happen.

We didn’t have time for that yet, though—Director Eli promptly got us on our feet to walk around the Cathedral and get a feel for the space. Then, after that, he had us go to our opening positions. There was some confusion about our places, since this was our first time in the Cathedral. Soon, though, we sorted it out. As I walked down the aisle to get to my position, I nervously passed by Ms. Miller and Mr. Yi.  Ms. Miller noticed me and broke into a huge smile, waving. She actually remembered me! Ecstatic, I waved back, and Mr. Yi also smiled and said hello. They began to feel less like celebrities and more like real people.

Noye and Mrs.

We proceeded to rehearse the opening scene. In the huge Cathedral, it was almost eerie to hear our own voices. However, singing the phrase “Lord Jesus, think on me” in a holy building added an element of raw sincerity and even fear to our words. Eli encouraged us to key into these emotions and to make our singing and our actions bigger and fuller. After we went over the opening scene several times, we ensemble members sat back down in the choir pews. Then, Jamieson Price, playing The Voice of God, spoke his first lines. I thought the huge Cathedral would make his voice sound scarier, but instead, it served as a natural vessel for the sheer gravity of his voice. Everything was really starting to fit into place.

Waves

From this time, we occupied ourselves with watching the principals. Seeing and hearing Ms. Miller so close up sent me back into fan-girl mode. I’d always seen her in LA Opera productions, and now, here she was, singing right in front of me. Better yet, we’d be singing with her. It was unbelievable.

Break time came. During the first half, my wave-mate, her sister, and I explored the vast outside area. Then, my wave-mate and I resolved to approach Ms. Miller as we had planned. We found her sitting in the pews with Mr. Yi, and I introduced my wave-mate to her. We had expected it to be a quick introduction, but to our surprise, Ms. Miller kept on talking with us, and Mr. Yi joined in. By the time rehearsal resumed, we had talked about chicken, brownies, and Björk. Since Ms. Miller will be covering Erda and singing the First Norn at the Met, she also treated us to her spin on Rheingold. I vote Ronnita Nicole Miller as the next Anna Russell.

We had to end the conversation when rehearsal started up again. In the final half of Noah’s Flood rehearsal, we went from the storm to the finale. We had trouble translating some of our movements to the Cathedral, since we’d been rehearsing in the East LA Performing Arts Academy auditorium all this time. However, when it finally began coming together, it really started looking and sounding spectacular. In a way that’s difficult to describe, the Cathedral setting has brought out shades and colors in the opera that would have been lost in a theater. Benjamin Britten intended Noah’s Flood to be performed in a church, and I think all of us are beginning to realize why.

rainbow

The first day of tech week is down, and there are five more days to go. It won’t be easy, though—I have a feeling that if this adventure continues as it did on Monday, I won’t be getting to bed anytime soon. 


Noah's Flood: Taking The Leap

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Community Opera production of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood. Performances were this past weekend, April 19 and 20 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.  This is her final post in the series.


Tuesday and Wednesday

I’ve been saying the word “almost” a lot: we’re “almost” there, it’s “almost” coming together, etc. During Noah’s Flood rehearsal on Tuesday and Wednesday last week, we finally abandoned “almost” and took that leap.

On Tuesday, we rehearsed the performance with the community choirs and orchestras for the first time at the Cathedral. Both elements added incredible majesty, grandeur, and energy. Still, the performance remained at the “almost” stage.

However, on Wednesday we added four main things: costumes, lights, the LA Opera Orchestra members, and most exciting of all, Maestro James Conlon.  And one that day, two things happened that completely changed the game.

Noah's Flood

The first of these things came in the form of a surprise visitor: a bespectacled man with a close-trimmed beard. Blinking, I whispered to Noah (Yohan Yi), “Is that Christopher Koelsch?!” It really was.  That’s when I really sank in that we were part of something so significant that it called for a visit by LA Opera’s President and CEO. My determination hardened. I would do all I could to help make it a great performance.

For me, that set the tone for the whole day. When the time came for rehearsal to start, we went to the halls flanking the sanctuary to review notes and warm up. As we did, we heard a murmur and applause from inside. Maestro Conlon had arrived.

Noah's Flood

I knew that the second I ran out into the sanctuary for my opening position, I would see him up there on the podium. My nervousness escalated, and the beatings of my heart hurtled to a peak. The thundering opening chords sounded. My running partner and I exchanged a glance; it was our cue.

At that moment, the second amazing thing happened. The moment I took off sprinting, my nervousness immediately converted itself to fear and anger. I ran down the aisle, bursting with desperation, searching everywhere for answers. When I skidded to a halt, it wasn’t me anymore, but at last, my character. For the first time, I carried my voice to the breaking point, singing on the edge of danger.

Noah's Flood

Throughout the program, director Eli Villanueva, assistant conductor Paul Floyd, and assistant director Heather Lipson-Bell have been urging us to realize our intention. Up until that point, it had been make believe. Now, one by one, we were all finding our own meaning in the words and actions.

We bumped through the rest of the opera, costume changes and Maestro Conlon and all. By the end of rehearsal, the only element left to add was an audience, which would come in during Thursday’s final dress rehearsal.

On the first day of tech week, Monday, I don’t think any of us could honestly say we were prepared to perform. By the time we hit Wednesday, we crossed the boundary between “almost” and “finally.” Thursday, Friday, Saturday, here we come. We couldn’t feel any more ready.


Thursday, Friday, and Saturday

At this point, I began reflecting on all parts of my Noah’s Flood experience—the beautiful music, the friendships made with the ensemble members and principals, the number of times we imitated Jamieson Price (Voice of God)—and I keenly felt the fact that it would all be over soon. I knew that it wouldn’t end without a bang: the last three days would be a stunning finale. 

Noah's Flood

The first of these three days, Thursday, was our final dress rehearsal. For the first time, we had a handful of people in the audience. It went smoothly, and the audience loved the performance.

We still hadn’t endured the greatest test, though. On Friday, all of our emotions were at a peak. The stress from tech week had now accumulated, and it now aggravated by opening night nerves. It didn’t help that we were told that two thousand people were coming.

 

Downstairs, assistant director Heather Lipson-Bell led us through our warm-ups and review. Halfway through, Eli came in. He stood up on the platform and began to speak to us. “On Monday,” he admitted, “I was concerned.” He went on to tell us how we had then invested all that we had into the performance, and how it had now evolved into something truly beautiful. He concluded by saying, “Let your bodies and souls reach the heavens, and just do what you know to do.”

Noah's Flood

With his words in mind, we went upstairs to the sanctuary and got into our places. When we saw all the pews swelling with people, our hearts fluttered again. “This is what two thousand people looks like…” someone whispered. Eli’s words, though, repeated in our minds: “Let your bodies and souls reach the heavens. Just do what you know to do.”

And that’s exactly what we did.

Hearing the applause of thousands of people is a frightening, cathartic, overwhelming moment. We glanced around at each other, smiling uncontrollably. We had done it, and we felt fully confident to do it again on Saturday.

Saturday’s routine was the same as Friday’s: we brought our quick-change costumes upstairs, and then went back downstairs to warm up, review, and receive our final pep talk. Eli expressed how proud he was of us, and thanked us for giving our all. For the final time, we went to our opening positions.

LA Opera

Knowing that it would be my last time singing each number, I poured more than I ever had before into the performance. I tapped into my desperation during “Lord Jesus, think on me,” and let loose my fury in the storm scene. At last, we reached the finale. As we sang the soaring, wondrous melody of “What though in solemn silence all,” with the choirs and orchestra triumphantly accompanying us, I gazed out into the audience, and my throat constricted. When I sang the last “Amen” and slowly retreated offstage with the rest of the cast, there was no stopping it anymore. I sank down in the choir pews and wept into my sleeve.

Noah's Flood

The lights went back on, and audience swept us up in warm, rushing applause. We bowed and waved, still in disbelief. Then, when the audience began to disperse, I met up with my wave-mate. We went downstairs to hang up our costumes for the last time.

Muse and Ellie
Muse and her "wave-mate" Ellie after the performance

There were still tears in my eyes as we went down the stairs and said goodbye to all the staff and ensemble members. That night, before and after, there were many incredible moments, but I think it’s best to end by relating a single incident.

Over the course of the program, I had become friends with a young man with an intellectual disability. He was always cheerful and bubbly, and whenever he saw anyone, he would break into a huge smile. That night, as I spoke with my wave-mate through tears, he walked in and noticed me. For a moment, he watched uncertainly. Then, he stepped forward and tightly wrapped his arms around me for a long embrace. When he finally pulled away, I looked up. To my surprise, there were now tears gathered in his eyes as well. Struggling not to cry, he hugged me and my wave-mate one more time, and shakily said goodbye. “Next year,” I managed to reply. He nodded, bravely smiled, and then slowly walked away.

I’ve covered this Community Opera program over nine blog posts. However, I think describing this one moment makes all of them unnecessary.

Noah's Flood


Tosca La Latina

Tosca drives people crazy. The opera brings out venom in people—even in people who normally digest the outrageousness of other operas with ease. Composer Benjamin Britten said he was “sickened” by the music’s “cheapness and emptiness,” and the astute critic Joseph Kerman famously called it a “shabby little shocker.” Much of this has to do with the title character. Driving people crazy, as we’ll see, is sort of her job.

Beyond the classic denunciations, Tosca is routinely called out as “vulgar,” “sensationalist” and “overly emotional.” Indeed, it is standard—and even expected—to look down on this opera as if it were a bordello—or a telenovela. But while some people maintain a sense of shocked condescension toward this enormously popular work, the Hispanic world possesses unique tools to appreciate Tosca and to unpack its treasures with penetrating insight not readily available elsewhere.

Some of Tosca’s connection to Latinos abides in the importance of the city of Rome. Other operas happen to be set in Rome, but nowhere is the mythical power of the Eternal City more central than in Tosca. Latins are closer to the mythical fascination exerted by Rome (home of the original Latins) than Anglo-Saxons are: the name Anglo-Saxon recalls the Germanic tribes who overthrew the Roman Empire, while the term Latino claims an intimate relationship with Romanità (“Roman-ness”). Sancho Panza annoyed Don Quijote by constantly repeating the proverb “Bien está San Pedro en Roma”—my Mexican grandmother annoyed me too with that proverb, more recently. Spanish is a Latin language, but there’s more. There is the Roman Catholic heritage of Latin America.

An important part of that heritage is the “Quadriga,” the four-fold method of textual analysis that was (and officially still is) at the core of Catholic thought. This Quadriga is a system of reading a sacred text—and, by implication, everything else—on four levels: (1) literal; (2) allegorical; (3) theological; and (4) anagogical. To properly interpret a passage of scripture (or anything else), one should understand (1) that it actually happened; (2) that it has other meanings beyond the literal; (3) that it has moral implications; and, most important for our present purposes, (4) that it has an anagogical dimension. An “anagoge,” from the Greek word for “leading,” means something pointing to a future event. In Christian scripture, according to the Quadriga, the manna in the desert is important anagogically because it prefigures the bread of the Last Supper, another meal sent by God. An event, therefore, can exist in two (or more) moments in time.

The Protestant mind works differently, with no Quadriga, an emphasis on literalism, and a veneration of The Word. Eucharist, where it exists at all, is commemorative or symbolic of something that happened two millennia ago. And as with events, so too with objects. One thing cannot be another thing if it is literally that thing: that is, bread and wine, being bread and wine, cannot be something else (e.g. flesh and blood) except symbolically. But symbolism is something else—it is one thing standing for another. An anagogical interpretation means one thing can be itself and something else at the same time. Bread and wine can be flesh and blood without ceasing to be bread and wine.

The same pattern holds true for people as well as events. Eve is important as herself and as a prototype of Mary, and so forth. Folk traditions in Latin countries manifest this even clearer. In Las Posadas, people become the Holy Family and angels, shepherds and others around them. Protestants might sing about the Nativity or re-enact it in pantomimes, but they will not aim to become the Holy Family as in Las Posadas. The Hispanic traditions associated with La Semana Santa and especially Good Friday show how intensely carnal this association with sacred events can become. Archetypes can directly inhabit the very bodies in Latin communities. The man who is “being” Christ or Pilate in a Hispanic pageant does not cease to be himself. One can be two people at once, filtered through an anagogical mindset, and not only in religious areas. Thus a Latino can freely address someone who is not in fact a relation as “mi hijo,” “mamacita” or “papi.” This simply does not happen in English.

This permeates the literature of Latin America. The impossibly long-lived characters in Jorge Luis Borges’ fiction [e.g. El inmortal, et al.] are a form of anagogical type; so are the ghosts that recur in Gabriel García Marquéz’ Cien años de soledad, not to mention the ghost that makes love to his widow better than her new husband in Jorge Amados’ Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos. People exist in different times and places in the genre of magical realism, which flourishes in Latin America. And while magical realism exists elsewhere (possibly including Kafka et al., depending on who applies the labels), it is particularly at home throughout Latin America—perhaps owing to this background of Roman anagogical thinking. So being Latino is not only about how one conjugates a verb, or how (or if) one prays: it’s also about how one reads and relates to a text—and everything is a text.

Latins can easily see Tosca as a multitude of archetypes—and no less because she is also meant to be a real woman walking around a real city on the afternoon of June 17, 1800 (the date of the opera’s action). She is a “diva” and can be understood as a sort of Maenad (a follower of the god of wine called Dionysos in Greece and Bacchus in Rome) creating a healthy level of disorder amid the stifling Apollonian order of the overbearing state represented by Scarpia. She slices him up like a proper frenzied woman of Greek mythology when confronted by a minister of Apollo (Scarpia here, Pentheus in Euripides) who reject the divinity of chaos: Note Scarpia’s shocked comment when he enters the church (and the opera) and sees the kids having fun—of all things—in Act I: “Tal baccano in chiesa!” “What a bacchanalia (festival in honor of Bacchus, i.e., drunken, drug-ridden orgy) in church!” He is preternaturally opposed to anything Bacchic/Dionysian.

The character Tosca is a bacchanalia on two legs. For starters, she is a singer of opera, an art form invented as an attempt to recreate the spirit of the ancient Athenian Drama Festivals, the Dionysia, given in honor of Dionysos/Bacchus. And while Apollonians look down on Dionysians, the Maenads dismembered Apollonians at their drunken orgies. Tosca merely slices Scarpia with a knife and tells him to choke to death on his own blood… There are limits, even in this opera.

How appropriate, then, that María Guadalupe Jiménez López, the alleged drug cartel enforcer suspected of 20 murders who was apprehended last year in Monterrey, Mexico, is known as “La Tosca.” Tosca in Spanish means rude in a sloppy way – I remember that same grandmother telling me “No seas tosco!” when I knocked over glasses on the table – but there are many derogatory words for rude people (especially women) in Spanish. But since this woman is an enemy of the state, a subversive, and an agent of chaos as well as a killer, no name is better than La Tosca—whether anybody who named her was conscious of the opera or not. This Maenad roamed ancient Greece; she was in Rome in 1800; and she has recently been arrested in Monterrey. Borges himself couldn’t have made it any clearer.

Puccini’s original stage directions have Tosca leap to her death off the Castel Sant’Angelo at the climax of this intense opera. This is the final straw for many critics of the work. Yet it’s the perfect example of how a Latin and an Anglo-Saxon can see two disparate things in the same object. In this case, an iconic event from Mexican history would have informed a Roman audience’s understanding of this striking stage moment.

The Niños Heroes of Chapultepec are familiar inspirational figures throughout Mexico. The six cadets, ages 13 through 19, were serving in the Mexican military academy at Chapultepec Castle overlooking Mexico City when it was under attack from the United States Army in 1847. The cadets refused to retreat or surrender, and died defending the castle against hopeless odds. It is said that one of the cadets, Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and leapt to his death to prevent the flag’s dishonorable capture by the Americans. Newer scholarship has cast doubt on the historicity of this occurrence, but the legend continues, amplified by a searing overhead mural by Gabriel Flores at Chapultepec. Every year, six cadets are honored as the Boy Heroes, the Niños Heroes, wrapped in Mexican flags, and the names of the original six are called out as the crowd—in a ritual familiar throughout Latin American—responds “presente!” The Heroes are alive, and dead, again.

The martyrdom of the Niños Heroes seems to have echoed powerfully in Rome shortly afterward. In 1849, the Pope, ruler of the Papal State centered in the Eternal City, had fled Rome and been replaced by a short-lived republic. Garibaldi was among those fighting for the end of Papal rule in Rome and with the long-term goal of a unified, independent nation. The composer Giuseppe Verdi, also an important leader of this Italian “Risorgimento” movement, arrived in January to produce his new opera La Battaglia di Legnano. This was an incendiary work of thrilling choruses and patriotic rhetoric, commemorating a significant moment in Italian history in 1182, when Italians briefly put aside their differences and successfully fought the German-led forces occupying the country. The climactic moment of the opera is in Act III: the tenor has been locked in a tower to suffer the disgrace of missing out on the battle. Unable to bear this, he wraps himself in the red, white, and green Italian flag (an obvious anachronism for 1182, but a powerful symbol in 1849), cries “Viva Italia!” and leaps out the window. (A figure in the orchestral prelude gives us the hint that this tower is fortunately surrounded by a moat). He gets to Legnano and dies fighting for his country, praised by the crowds. The 1849 premiere of this opera at Rome’s Teatro Apollo was a sensation. In one performance, a man sitting in an upper balcony proscenium box was so moved to patriotic action that he wrapped himself in the Italian flag, cried “Viva Italia!” and leapt into the orchestra, unharmed. Or so the story goes….

Rome, with its busy diplomatic community (including a Mexican delegation) must have been aware of the tales of Chapultepec a year before. And the image of a doomed hero, fighting a Germanic (or Anglo-Saxon) invader, flying through the air wrapped in a red, white and green flag would have had inherent power for Latin audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The audience at Tosca’s 1900 Rome premiere would have had a collective memory of the Legnano premiere 50 years before—surely someone in the audience had been there. And its effect would have differed from its effect on the dismissive English-speaking critics who saw, and see, nothing in Tosca’s leap but a Roman diva over-acting one last time.

The music of the finale also confounds many: it’s a restatement of the big theme from the tenor’s aria earlier in the act, “E lucevan le stelle.” Kerman said the orchestra thunders out “the first theme that pops into its head,” which is truly unfair. Whatever shortcomings Puccini had from an academic point of view, no one can say he couldn’t come up with a new melody when he needed one. In fact, the reviewer for the Buenos Aires paper La Prensa wrote from the world premiere of Tosca in Rome that Puccini had written a more complex work than his previous operas, one which deftly managed “Italian melodic simplicity” (“sencillez melodica italiana”) so as not to “shut oneself up” (“encerrarse”) in the style of French and German modernists (La Prensa, January 15, 1900). It was an insightful and specifically Latin observation to see Puccini’s use of melody as an effective choice of directness, and a liberating rejection of inhibiting Northern European models.

The sort of theme Puccini uses in the tenor aria and then restates at the finale is called a slancio, which means many things: impulse, rush, outburst, leap or jump, even. The term also contains references to lanciare, to launch or hurl, and lancia, a spear. Spear in Latin is jacula, and to cast one is ejaculare, whose cognates in English and Spanish are obvious. Tosca’s final deed, therefore, is a leap, an act of love, and a climax. She cries out to her enemy Scarpia that she will meet him before God, and this calls forth the slancio in the orchestra. So this act is also a declaration that she, as a sexual being, has a right to stand in confidence before the judgment of God.

Perhaps much of one’s reaction to the finale of the opera has to do with one’s point of view toward sex, or at least its role in the opera house. Curiously, the critic reviewing the Montevideo premiere of Tosca singled out the tenor’s aria as “very elegant, and its melody is pure and spontaneous" (El Día, August 18, 1902), an assessment that would have surprised Kerman. But there is in Rome another work of art whose scandalous juxtaposition of genres helps put Tosca’s supposed blasphemies into clearer perspective.

Bernini’s famous statue The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1652) in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria captures an extraordinary moment in the Spanish mystic’s celebrated Autobiography: her encounter with an angel who imparted the fire of divine love in her. She wrote: “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails…. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it.”

The statue is frankly sensual. As a rakish president of France commented, on touring the church a century ago: “If that is ‘divine love,’ I know all about it.” Some recent commentary plays down the erotic aspect of the statue, but it is undeniable: Saint Teresa herself is frank about her experience, being neither sensational nor coy, and Bernini was pious rather than lurid. Carnality, however, is not really the point of either the statue or the scandal it causes. Sexuality and spirituality had been mixed before in many genres, and spectacularly in the poetry of Bernini’s own time (by Donne and Marvell in England, and especially by Sor Juana de la Cruz in Mexico). The real scandal of Bernini's statue is not in its eroticism but in its theatricality. It is set in an opera house, so to speak. Members of the Venetian Cornaro family who commissioned the statue are also represented by statues on either side of the chapel, sitting in theater-type boxes and leaning over as if watching something on a stage and commenting about it. “Theater” in 17th-century Venice meant “opera houses” and the city had dozens of them. The operatic setting of the statue is what truly makes it a scandalous "baccano in chiesa." It recalls Garrison Keillor’s priceless line about the Lutherans in his home town frowning upon sex because it might lead to dancing. Yet Roman ladies pray in this chapel every day as if it were the most natural thing in the world, which, for them, it is. A Spanish saint has an orgasm for God on an operatic stage, and—in Rome—it makes perfect sense.

Bernini’s masterpiece makes it clear that what is vulgar to one culture could be sublime to another. A conception of mythological identity in everyday individuals, a sense of recurring archetypes in modern (and future) life, and historical moments of suicidal leaps as noble self-sacrifice will also influence what one sees in the opera known as Tosca. This opera will continue to divide audiences for ages to come. But experiencing Tosca through a Hispanic frame of mind—whether one is Hispanic or not—might allow audiences to see what Kerman, Britten and the others could not see: a vital and honest drama of an ageless heroine in a never-ending struggle that continues today and beyond.

A writer, lecturer and radio commentator, William Berger is the author of Wagner Without Fear, Verdi With a Vengeance and Puccini Without Excuses.  He is Creative Content Producer for the Metropolitan Opera.

 

 

 

 


A Celebration with Domingo

On June 7, LA Opera will present An Evening of Spanish Zarzuela and Latin American Music, followed by the presentation of Hispanics for Los Angeles Opera’s annual Plácido Domingo Award. Plácido Domingo will perform as both singer and as conductor of the LA Opera Orchestra. Soloists include Janai Brugger, a former member of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program who has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera as Liu in Turandot and with LA Opera as Musetta in La Bohème. In 2012, Ms. Brugger was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and she also won three top awards at Operalia, the international vocal competition founded by Mr. Domingo. She will be joined by tenor Joshua Guerrero, a member of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, and by soprano María Eugenia Antúnez, who will create the title role of Dulce Rosa in May.  Spanish conductor Jordi Bernàcer will lead portions of the concert. Concert tickets start at $19 and can be purchased at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion box office, by telephone at 213.972.8001 or online at www.laopera.org.

The concert will be followed by the 15th annual Plácido Domingo Awards Gala, chaired by HLAO founder Alicia Garcia Clark. The gala is presented each year by Hispanics for Los Angeles Opera to celebrate the accomplishments of Hispanic artists as well as those who contribute to the awareness of opera and its educational value in the Latino community of Los Angeles.This year’s award will be presented to soprano Ailyn Pérez, who last appeared with LA Opera as Mimi in La Bohème, as well as to Iberia Chairman Antonio Vásquez Romero and to the Lloyd E. Rigler – Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation. The event celebrates the accomplishments of Hispanic artists and all who contribute to the awareness of opera in the Latino community. For more information about the gala, please call 213.972.3664.


Floria Tosca and the Freedom of the Artist

By John Caird

Tosca is one of the greatest works of music theater ever written and its importance is undiminished a century after Puccini wrote it. Its narrative is deceptively simple. It involves the lives of three principal characters. Cavaradossi is a talented young painter earning his living by creating ecclesiastical art in Roman churches. Floria Tosca, his lover, is a well-known classical singer, adored by her public. Baron Scarpia is the Chief of Police in a military state that is cracking down on all opposition together with the artistic freedom that sanctions it and draws support from it.

Cavaradossi hides a political friend who is fleeing for his life and gets himself imprisoned and tortured for his pains. The corrupt Scarpia attempts to seduce Tosca, offering to release her lover if she gives in to his demands. Faced with watching her lover suffer further torture, Tosca laments her powerlessness in “Vissi d’arte,” one of the most heartrending arias in the grand opera repertoire. In trying to protect Cavaradossi from further agony, she agrees to betray his political friends. Cornered and ashamed, Tosca kills Scarpia and attempts to outwit the police in order to secure Cavaradossi’s freedom. In the Castel Sant Angelo, surrounded by scores of other political prisoners, her plan fails and her lover is executed. Scarpia’s death is discovered and Tosca kills herself rather than yield to her captors.

The reason for the great popularity of Tosca is enshrined in its overwhelming musical, human, moral and religious powers.

Puccini’s score is utterly masterful. Its tightness of musical conception combined with the intimacy of its subject matter makes for extraordinary intensity, in orchestral color and sung line—in short, it is a musical masterwork.

The human drama that Puccini and his librettists have adapted from Sardou’s original play constitutes a timeless plea for artistic and political freedom. In a world of fundamentalist philosophies, religious intolerance and political tyranny, Tosca stands as a beacon of enlightenment, a passionate plea for freedom of speech, thought and artistic expression. In any country that values its political freedoms, Tosca reminds us of what we have to lose, and the terrible price in human suffering if we cease to value what we truly believe in.

The moral and religious aspects of the story are far harder to pin down. At the beginning of the opera, the painted image that Cavaradossi is working on is that of a Mary Magdalene—a complex woman whose sexuality and experience seem to be in conflict with the teachings of her Master and therefore the teachings of the Church. She is also, at least in part, an image of Tosca herself—and in this production the Magdalen’s face has been fractured by the effects of war on the structure of the building in which she is to hang. In this respect the image takes on a dramatic irony. Tosca becomes a fractured character in the drama—as does the man who has imagined her as a redeemed Magdalene. The picture will never be completed, just as Tosca’s and Cavaradossi’s lives will never be completed.

Floria Tosca’s genuine religious devotion to the other image in the church, the image of the Virgin, requires a director, a designer and, more importantly, a singer to build up a picture of the life of this complex character—from her earliest religious and artistic yearnings as a child right up to her sacrificial death as an adult. What was Tosca’s life like as a child? How did she develop as an artist? The original Sardou play gives us many of the answers. She came from a very poor background and was brought up in the church, the beauty of her voice redeeming her from a life of religious devotion. But as with many artists, the soul of the child has remained vividly alive in her. It is part of her artistry. Perhaps that is why she is so vulnerable to the corrupting demands of the real world. And so trusting.

The aspiration contained within the beauty of Cavaradossi’s ecclesiastical art is deeply envied by Scarpia and, like many an autocratic Philistine, his envy turns into a collector’s ambition. The palace from which he works is crammed with banned and stolen art. But his ambition goes beyond objects to include people. He has Tosca, too, in his sights. His inability to understand her beauty and artistry makes him want to control it and if he can’t control it, destroy it. In short, he wants to add her to his collection.

Like his two lovers, Tosca and Cavaradossi, Puccini himself had a deeply divided attitude towards the church. In moral terms he was a passionate Humanist, but like many men of his age, brought up in the faith of his forefathers, he could never completely escape from his feelings of religious fervor when faced with questions of belief or eternity. The evidence in this opera would seem to point to his Humanism and Catholicism being all of a piece, inextricably entwined with his passion and integrity as an artist. And he certainly imbues his two heroic characters with the same synthesis of beliefs.

Floria Tosca’s decision not to be controlled by Scarpia, that her integrity as a woman and an artist is more important to her than life itself, leads her and Cavaradossi to their deaths. But even in the hopeless confines of the Castel Sant Angelo, and in spite of everything he has seen, Cavaradossi still manages to believe in a future life of freedom and happiness for himself and his lover. The fact that he believes, against all the odds and all the evidence, is what makes his belief so moving. It is the same belief fuelling the same artistic passion that he uses to breathe life into his painted canvas characters.

After Cavaradossi has been executed, Floria Tosca goes willingly to her death. Willingly because she cannot imagine living on after the man she has betrayed but also because, in killing Scarpia, she knows or fears that she has become no better than him. She will meet him again before God. The God of her childhood faith will make the judgement, not them. In that sense she has become the Magdalene, trusting in the very faith from which she has never really drawn a benefit. Perhaps that is the meaning of true faith. And perhaps Puccini’s understanding of it can help us with our own faith in the limitless moral powers of artistic freedom.

John Caird is the director of LA Opera's May/June 2013 production of Tosca.

 

 

 

 

 


A Backstage Look at Day 3 of Scenery Assemble

The Tosca scenery arrived from Houston in three 53-foot trucks in thousands of small pieces. It normally takes our stage crew two or three days to assemble all of the pieces into a full stage setting. With rental or incoming productions, minor repairs often have to be made due to the stress of shipping and handling. By the end of the third day, we have begun to make these minor repairs and scenic touch-ups.

Tosca scenery LA Opera

Replica hand-carved foam sculptures were designed for this production. The sculptures are hard-coated with urethane foam and treated with scenic paint to look like stone.

Tosca Curtain LA Opera

Each act has a different silk curtain. These silk drops are weighted at the bottom with a drapery chain to keep them from fluttering around when the curtain flies in and out. Note that a small bit of drapery chain hangs below the curtain. This chain will be sewn back into the bottom of the drop. 

Tosca Scenery LA Opera

One of the final elements of the scenery to be assembled is the ceiling. The aluminum triangular trusses serve as a lightweight skeletal structure. The ceiling is attached and held in place by four batten pipes over the stage.

Tosca scenery

A scenic artist touches up the walls with gray paint custom-mixed to match the existing color. Note that the ceiling is now in place in the set.


LA Opera On Air Begins Saturday, May 18

For the eighth consecutive year Classical KUSC brings you LA Opera On Air, Saturdays at 10am.  Each week you’ll hear a complete performance from LA Opera’s 2012/13 Season, recorded live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  The series is hosted by KUSC’s Duff Murphy and continues to be made possible by a generous grant from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, spearheaded by the efforts of Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

May 18
Giuseppe Verdi: The Two Foscari

The Two Foscari

Plácido Domingo and James Conlon join forces in a new production of this Verdi masterpiece. The languid canals and boisterous festivals of 15th-century Venice conceal a deadly web of secret plots and vindictive rivalries. Caught up in forces beyond their control, a father and son struggle to reclaim honor in a city that knows no mercy.

Plácido Domingo stars as a head of state, desperate to protect his son -- and himself -- from the ruthless enemies that surround them.

May 25
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni

The legendary seducer Don Juan returns in a production new to LA! Considered by many to be the greatest opera ever written, Don Giovanni deftly balances comedy and tragedy with unforgettable music.

Features a vividly theatrical staging by the legendary director Peter Stein, the smolderingly intense Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Don Giovanni, and LA Opera's rich tradition of Mozart's classics.

June 1
Giacomo Puccini: Madame Butterfly

A love that knows no boundaries goes horribly wrong in a fateful meeting of East and West. What begins as an idyllic liaison in an enchanting land of cherry blossoms turns into the heartbreaking tragedy of an abandoned bride forced to make an excruciating decision.

A stunning production, never before seen in Los Angeles, melds sumptuous costumes with evocative period scenery. From the acclaimed director of Il Postino, Ron Daniels.

June 8
Richard Wagner: Flying Dutchman

The legend of the ghostly ship condemned to wander the oceans forever has fascinated opera lovers - and more recently, movie lovers - for hundreds of years. An enthralling score, illuminated by striking stage imagery, powers a thrilling journey into an unsettling, mythic world where a tormented spirit seeks true love as his redemption.

James Conlon, one of the foremost Wagner interpreters of our time, leads a world-class cast in a mesmerizing production, new to Los Angeles, staged by the brilliant Nikolaus Lehnhoff.

June 15
Giochino Rossini: La Cenerentola (Cinderella)

In her impoverished stepfather's castle, a kindhearted girl dreams of escaping the tyranny of her vain stepsisters. When the prince announces that he will choose his bride at a glamorous ball, she seizes the opportunity to take control of her own destiny.

Rossini's warmhearted retelling of the Cinderella story is a delightfully romantic comedy, brought to life by the dazzling vocal fireworks of an exciting young cast and a production new to Los Angeles! Conducted by James Conlon.

June 22
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca

A fiery prima donna is forced to play a role she never imagined when she becomes trapped between her allegiance to her rebel lover and the scheming of a treacherous police chief who will stop at nothing in his lust for her. The explosive triangle comes to a hair-raising conclusion in one of opera's bloodiest, most intense dramas.

One of the most popular of all operas, Tosca is a passionate tale set to some of Puccini's most openly beautiful and passionate music.

For more information visit www.KSUC.org



La Tosca in Los Angeles

Sondra Radvanovsky in Tosca

(Originally published in Opera Today)

When is verismo verily veristic? Or what is a virginal girl dressed in communion white doing in the two murderous acts of the Los Angeles Opera’s current production of Tosca? And why does she sing the shepherd's song?

Before we explore the girl’s presence, we must meet Floria Tosca, the eponymous heroine of the opera, originally the creation of French playwright Victorien Sardou. Sardou’s five act play, La Tosca, which takes place in Rome on a June day in 1800, was an immensely popular work with which Sarah Bernhardt toured the world. Puccini and librettist Luigi Illica reduced the work to an intense and brutal drama featuring three principles: Tosca, a famous opera singer; the artist Maria Cavaradossi, her lover, who is sheltering an escaped revolutionary prisoner in his country home; and Baron Scarpia, chief of police, who lusts for Tosca. Lusts is the right word. He announces that he plans to have her violently and briefly. After arresting Cavaradossi, Scarpia invites Tosca to his office, from which she can hear Cavaradossi’s screams of pain as he is being tortured. Scarpia sentences Cavaradossi to death, then appears to agree to a mock execution and a safe conduct out of Rome for the lovers if Tosca will surrender to him. When Scarpia has signed the order and turns towards her, Tosca stabs him to death. Immediately thereafter, she rushes to prison to tell Mario there will be a fake execution, but when he is really shot, and her own crime is discovered, Tosca leaps from the prison tower.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s appearance as the Roman diva made this a special occasion for the Los Angeles Opera company and its audience. Since the soprano’s first appearance with the company in 2004 in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, she has made an international career in Verdi roles. Ms. Radvanovsky’s radiant voice is evenly produced throughout all registers. Her moving “vissi d’arte” which concluded with a messa di voce brought vociferous applause. Her stabbing of Scarpia with two knife thrusts was one of the most vehement I have seen.

As Tosca’s lover, Mario Cavaradossi, Italian tenor, Marco Berti did not match Radvanovsky’s lyricism, particularly early on. Singing the first act’s “recondite armonia” to Placido Domingo, the evening’s conductor, can’t be easy work. However, Berti’s high notes, including the famous “Vittoria” were clarion sounds. And happily, he seemed more comfortable with his last act aria.

Lado Ataneli made a suave yet savage Scarpia. Keeping with his character, Puccini has given Scarpia sinuously lyrical passages, which the Georgean baritone delivered with subtlety and power. It’s a shame that opera audiences of late have demonstrated a childish tendency to hiss or boo villainous characters at their curtain calls. Ataneli was deprived of the appreciation he deserved. Philip Cokorinos, Joshua Bloom as the Sacristan and Angelotti, the escaped prisoner, respectively, turned in convincing performances, as did Eden McCoy as the young girl. Maestro Domingo led a well-paced performance. At times he seemed to be bent over as though to extract still more emotion from his orchestra. However he effected it, Puccini’s orchestration sounded lush.

John Caird, who has earned honors and worked on every kind of stage throughout the world, led the production team for Tosca, which he originally created for Houston Grand Opera in 2010. Caird considers Tosca “one of the greatest works of music theater ever written” and has lauded its “overwhelming musical, human, moral and religious powers.” At the same time he has enhanced verismo violence by staging a bloodier than usual Tosca. Each act opens with an ever more blood- blotched fore curtain, which is pulled down by the first character to appear in the ensuing act. And he has Tosca slit her own throat. Neither sets nor costumes give an indication of the time of the opera’s setting, though Ms. Radvanovsky was encumbered with a bustle. What is clear, is that the action seems to have followed a calamity. The unit sets are dark, unattractive and except for the last act, cramped. Cavaradossi works on a three story scaffolding, each of which holds a different part of the Madonna’s face he is painting. Talk of verismo — if that painting were put together, there’d be no place to hang it in that church. The second act, usually staged in Scarpia’s elegant Farnese quarters, is here a warehouse filled with cartons, statues, all sorts of matter clearly purporting to be ill gotten gains. The prison is a large empty yard made still uglier for us as we watch Angelotti’s body being hung. At the rear is a large unbarred, open window — another “unverismo” touch.

But now it is time to return to the virginal girl dressed in communion white. It is she who pulls down the curtain for the prison scene. She then crosses the stage, sits at the window’s edge where she sings the shepherd’s greeting to the sun in a childish voice, “For you I will die,” are its last words. She will remain there throughout the act. The girl first appeared in the second act, beckoning to Tosca after the singer killed Scarpia.

There is no mysterious or mystical character in either the Puccini or Sardou stories. The girl is Caird’s creation. But who is she, why does she sing the shepherd’s song? Though the director may seem to have forsaken purists’ interpretation of verismo by inserting this vision, he has, in fact, made more explicit what Puccini had only implied, and what Sardou had made clear: that Tosca was a child of the church. Puccini’s Tosca lays flowers at the Atavanti altar, and refuses to kiss Mario before the Madonna. In “vissi d’arte”, her plea to God, she recalls her devotion and generosity to the church. Her last word in the opera is “God.” In Sardou’s play we learn the full depth of Tosca’s faith. She herded goats as a child until she was found and raised by Benedictine nuns, who expected for her to join their order. As she began singing and her talent was recognized in the secular world, the composer Cimarosa insisted she become an opera singer. Sardou tells us that the entire city of Rome took sides in the ensuing conflict until the girl was brought to sing before the pope. Charmed by her voice, the pontiff patted her cheek and told her, “Go your way, my child, you will move others to compassion, as you have me. You will make people shed gentle tears and that too is a way of praying to God.”


MEET LA OPERA'S SUMMER INTERNS

Interns

LA Opera is excited to introduce the wonderful group of college students who will be spending their summer with us as interns!  Their energy and excitement will help propel us into the upcoming 2013/2014 season.  These special students come from schools all over the country studying music, economics, public relations and arts administration.  We asked them each to write a little bio about themselves:


Erin

Erin Alford is an incoming senior at UC Berkeley with a major in music and a specialization in classical vocal performance. Passionate about performing arts education, Erin is thrilled to be one of four Education and Community Engagement Interns for LA Opera! This summer, Erin is most excited for Opera Camp, where she will get to work with youth and help show them how opera is not just a boring and "ancient" art form, but rather that it is beautiful and can also help build their confidence, ability to work harmoniously together with others, diligence in following directions and completing tasks, and personal expression and creativity.

Chase

Chase Hodge-Brokenburr is an economics and French double major at Bowdoin College.  This summer he is working in the Finance department, and he is most excited to be working on enhancing the efficiency of individual departments’ budgets. So far, he has most enjoyed collaborating with different department heads on improving their budget spreadsheets.

Adam

Adam Hollick attends Azusa Pacific University where he is studying vocal performance. He is an intern in the Education and Community Engagement department. Since he loves opera, he is most excited to just be working here and getting connected with this great community!

Nicole

Nicole Lussier attends Luther College in Decorah, Iowa and is an economics major with a music minor. This summer, she is working in the Education and Community Engagement department.  She is most looking forward to preparing for the company’s second season of Community Circle, a seating program piloted in the 2012/13 season, which allows community groups to experience opera at a significantly lowered price.

Amber

Amber Marsh is studying vocal performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, with the aspiration of going into opera.  She is interning in the Education and Community Engagement department this summer. She is most excited to be working on the development of the upcoming Opera Camp production of Brundibár along with its prelude Friedl, and the many aspects that come with being responsible for the happiness and productivity of our campers!

Lisa

Lisa Reilly is our Social Media Intern this summer. She recently graduated magna cum laude with a BA in communications from California State University, Los Angeles.  She is thrilled to gain insight into the overall marketing/public relations operations of a major arts organization along with direct experience managing social media for LA Opera and Britten100/LA: A Celebration.

Tess

Tess Weinburg is thrilled to be the Development Intern at the LA Opera this summer. Tess just finished her junior year at Butler University where she is an arts administration major and dance minor. She is excited to have the opportunity to work on and learn about fundraising to support LA Opera’s upcoming season.

College students: think you would like to be an intern at LA Opera?  Click here regularly to see available internships.  (Please note: most internships are unpaid, for credit positions.)


Placido Domingo hospitalized in Spain, cancels Madrid performances

Placido Domingo

LA Opera’s Eli and Edythe Broad General Director Plácido Domingo was admitted Monday, July 8, into a hospital in his native city of Madrid, where he is being successfully treated for a pulmonary embolism resulting from a deep vein thrombosis. Maestro Domingo is expected to make a full recovery.

Per his doctor's instructions, he will need to rest for 3 to 4 weeks. His exact return to his performing engagements remains subject to how fast he can heal and regain his characteristic strength. He has, however, had to cancel his  performances in Daniel Catan's Il Postino scheduled to begin at the Teatro Real in Madrid on Wednesday, July 17, as well as a performance at Madrid’s Plaza Mayor on July 21. 

All of us at LA Opera wish Maestro Domingo a full and speedy recovery. Our thoughts are with him and his family at this time.


LA Opera on Air Begins WFMT National Broadcasts Saturday, July 20

The Two Foscari

If you missed the initial KUSC airing of this season’s LA Opera on Air, don’t worry. You have another chance to listen to selections from our recent season, plus a ‘Recovered Voices’ rarity from our archives. Beginning Saturday, July 20 with The Two Foscari starring the incomparable Plácido Domingo and ending Saturday, August 24 with Tosca starring the radiant Sondra Radvanofsky, the WFMT Radio Network will broadcast five productions from LA Opera’s 2012 -13 Season.

The Stigmatized

Plus, on Saturday, July 27, WFMT will broadcast Franz Schreker’s magnificent The Stigmatized from the 2009-10 season, conducted by James Conlon, which will also be released later this summer by Bridge Records.

Travelling this summer? Then visit WFMT online to find the radio station nearest you carrying LA Opera on Air or simply listen online at WFMT.com.  


Opera Camp presents free family performances of inspirational children's opera Brundibár

LA Opera will present Brundibár, a 35-minute children’s opera by Hans Krása, to be performed by children participating in Opera Camp, an intensive two-week educational summer program.

Brundibár will be performed four times at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater, at noon and 2pm on Saturday, August 10, and at noon and 2pm on Sunday, August 11. The production will be conducted by Karen Hogle Brown and staged by director Eli Villanueva. Advance tickets are required for admission; there will be a $1 per order handling fee and a four-ticket limit per household. Tickets will become available at 10am on Thursday, July 25, and can be reserved online at www.laopera.org or by phone at 213.972.8001. The Barnsdall Gallery Theatre is owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs’ Community Arts Division, and is located at 4800 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles CA 90027.

An uplifting tale of tolerance and hope, Brundibár is historically significant, for it had been performed by Jewish children imprisoned at the Terezín concentration camp during the Holocaust. The opera tells the story of a young brother and sister trying to buy milk for their sick mother. After watching an organ grinder named Brundibár earn money by making music in the town square, they decide to do the same thing, but the greedy Brundibár drives them away. A friendly cat, bird and dog encourage the siblings to enlist the help of the town’s other children and to try again. Together, the children and their animal friends return to the town square, where they win over the townspeople and triumph over Brundibár.

The cast will be made up of young performers participating in LA Opera’s Opera Camp, one of the Company’s many Education and Community Engagement programs. Opera Camp brings together more than 50 children from all over Los Angeles County, ages 9 to 17, for two intensive weeks each summer to work with professional opera artists, culminating in public performances of a children’s opera.

Hans Krása (1899-1944) composed Brundibár between 1938 and 1939 for the children of the Jewish orphanage in Prague. After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, Krása and other Czech Jews were sent to the Nazi concentration camp in Terezín. The score for Brundibár was subsequently smuggled into the camp where it was performed at least 55 times by children imprisoned in the camp, including one performance for International Red Cross inspectors on June 23, 1944. Just a few months later, on October 17, 1944, Krása was killed at Auschwitz.

At the conclusion of each performance, Ela Weissberger, a survivor of the Terezín concentration camp, will share her extraordinary experiences with audience members and performers. Mrs. Weissberger had been transported to Terezín as a child with her Czech family in 1942, and performed the role of the Cat in those early performances of Brundibár.


LA Opera on Air July 27 Broadcast of The Stigmatized (Die Gezeichneten) on WFMT

The Stigmatized

In 2010, LA Opera presented the U.S. premiere of The Stigmatized (Die Gezeichneten), Franz Schreker's rarely heard masterpiece as part of the Recovered Voices series, dedicated to reviving operas by composers who were suppressed by the Holocaust. In a special encore performance, the WFMT Radio Network will rebroadcast The Stigmatized on Saturday, July 27, as part of this season’s LA Opera on Air international radio series. Schreker's rich orchestrations and soaring vocal lines illuminate the tragedy of a misshapen protagonist confronted by the shattering discrepancy between illusion and reality. James Conlon conducts a stellar cast led by tenor Robert Brubaker and soprano Anja Kampe. Bridge Records will release a CD of The Stigmatized in the Autumn of 2013.

For information on where you can listen to this broadcast, please click here


Opera Camp - "Art as Spiritual Resistance"

Opera Camp 2013 opened early on July 29 with an orientation in the rehearsal rooms of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The Senior Director of Education and Community Engagement, Dr. Stacy Brightman, introduced the two operas we would be performing, Brundibár and Friedl. Brundibár, the story of two children’s victory over an evil organ grinder, was written by Czech composer Hans Krása on the eve of World War II. Soon after writing the opera, Krása was transported to the Terezín concentration camp, and there, he reconstructed the score. The children in the camp performed Brundibár fifty-five times. Most of them, along with Krása, were later killed in the camps.

Friedl was composed by our director, Eli Villanueva, with a libretto by movement director Leslie Stevens. It is the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who secretly taught art to the children in Terezín. Before she was killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau, she hid away the children’s drawings in a suitcase, ensuring that at least their art would survive. Dr. Brightman concluded, “Their art was spiritual resistance. It was their way of retaining their humanity when the Nazis tried to strip it away.”  We knew what she meant: our performances weren’t just shows we were putting on. They were fulfillments of our duties as fellow artists.

Music_rehearsal

After the orientation, we kicked off camp with a movement session and music rehearsals. We learned the stirring, haunting Lullaby, sung by all the children of the village to drown out the songs of the titular organ grinder. What’s so unique and poignant about the Lullaby is that it’s a reversal of roles. While parents usually sing lullabies to their children, this Lullaby is sung by children to their mothers.

While the younger campers went for a scavenger hunt at the Music Center, we teens stayed back to begin rehearsing Friedl. Though some parts were tricky, the melodies and harmonies sounded gorgeous. During lunch, we started getting to know each other. It’s just wonderful hanging out and working with fellow music lovers my age—and at my favorite place on Earth, to boot!

Muse in Friedl

Dr. Brightman spoke to us again after lunch, giving us more historical background. We discussed the fact that, in Friedl, we play actual historical people, and therefore we have a responsibility to them and their memory. “If we don’t tell the story, it makes it possible to happen again,” Dr. Brightman reminded us. After more rehearsals, we headed home to rest and review.

On Day 2, we went deeper into the previous day’s scenes and moved further into the music of Brundibár. Then, like the first day, we split up. The younger children went with Senior Director of Production, Rupert Hemmings, for a backstage tour of the Dorothy Chandler, while we teens rehearsed Friedl.

Bkstg_Tour

During that rehearsal, Eli conducted a very memorable exercise. To help Maddie (our Friedl) make her spoken lines more organic and natural, he had her try to sing them, then speak them as recitative. As an example, he treated us to an impromptu performance of Count Almaviva’s recitative from The Marriage of Figaro “Che imbarazzo è mai questo.” That was one of the highlights of camp so far!

As we went further into Friedl, though, the mood got more serious. As I listened to the blithe, cheery singing of the principals, my heart broke to think that so many of the lively, creative children depicted in the opera were silenced in the camps. It strengthened my resolve to do what Dr. Brightman had told us to do: honor their memory by passing on their story.

Staging

Lunch and a Brundibár staging rehearsal ended the second day of camp. In these two days of rehearsal, I’ve realized that it’s not like last year for me: like I said, as a complete singing newbie, it had been all about struggling to read the music or fighting to hit the right note. This year, though, I’m actually listening to the music, stepping back and hearing what it’s trying to say. I understand we have a responsibility as artists to do this, and act as ambassadors for history through art. And now, in Opera Camp 2013, I feel ready to take on this challenge.


Opera Camp – Choosing to Use Art for Good

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Opera Camp production of Hans Krása's Brundibár. Performances will take place August 10 and 11 at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre.  This is her second post in the series.

Opera Camp continued on Wednesday. As usual, we began with a session with movement director Leslie Stevens. Then, we dove into a Brundibár music rehearsal. When we reviewed the Lullaby, which the children use to stifle the villain’s song, we sung it tenderly and softly. Our conductor, Karen Hogle Brown, told us, “It isn’t a lullaby, it’s a fight. It’s a reminder that every person is human.” I liked the idea that we are human through our ability to create art, and I made a mental note to explore it later.  After our music rehearsal, we teens had a Friedl rehearsal. The younger kids went to a tech workshop, in which they learned and played theater games.

Muse singing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Then we stepped onto the bus and set off for the day’s main program: the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), the oldest Holocaust collection in the United States. When we walked in, we were faced with the Tree of Testimony, a wall full of television screens that each featured a man or woman speaking to us. Our guide, a former teacher named Ruth Harris, greeted us, and she explained that every screen played the testimony of a Holocaust survivor.  Our guide explained that though the generation that witnessed the Holocaust first-hand will eventually be gone, “…once we have their accounts, we become the testimonies.”

LAMOTH - TOT

She led us next to the Goldrich Family Foundation’s Children’s Memorial, an outdoor space enclosed by a wall. Inspired by the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the wall has 1.2 million holes drilled into its slabs, some large, some small, representing the lives of children lost. We each had an opportunity to write a note to one of the children and place it in one of the holes, the size depending on the child’s age. I wasn’t sure what to tell the smiling boy on the slip of paper I received. I ended up writing that we would think of him as we performed our operas and be his voice. I rolled up the paper and slipped it into one of the smallest holes.

MOTH-Children's Memorial

Our guide then led us through exhibits filled with photographs, documents, and artifacts illustrating the history of anti-Semitism up through the Holocaust. She reminded us that anti-Semitism is still alive today, but that we can combat it.

“Hatred is learned. It’s not something that’s innate,” she stated.

Our tour finished, and, after thanking her, we headed to the Survivor Presentation room. At this time, it displays the Erich Lichtblau-Leskly Theresienstadt Collection, paintings by an artist from the very camp where Brundibár was performed, Terezín.

MOTH - Mr. Daniels

In that room, we got the opportunity to hear the story of Peter Daniels, a survivor of the Terezín camp. Mr. Daniels was born in Nazi-ruled Berlin in 1936, with the Nuremberg Laws firmly in place. These rules prevented him from going to school, parks, playgrounds, and movie theaters. Fear of the Nazis stopped him from even venturing outside. His single mother worked all day, and the laws prohibited Jews from hiring non-Jewish babysitters, so his childhood was profoundly lonely.

In 1943, the Nazi Gestapo deported him and his mother from Berlin, and they travelled for two days before reaching Terezín in Czechoslovakia. His experience in the camp was appalling, but he was one of the few lucky ones: out of the 15,000 children who arrived in the camp, only around 125 survived.

“I don’t remember any of the boys because most of them died,” he told us. “They came in, and three months later, they were gone.”

1944 Brundibar cast

He shared an account of life at Terezín. He told us how the Brundibár cast always changed because children kept leaving. He then told us about how he and his mother immigrated to America after liberation, and about his long struggle adjusting to the new culture and language. What moved me the most was the way he summed up his experience before, during, and after his time in Terezín. “When I was born,” he concluded, “I was already fourteen.”

We returned on Thursday with a renewed earnestness and dedication to Brundibár and Friedl. That day, as we continued learning new sections and worked on staging, a question arose in my mind: why was the opera titled Brundibár, after the villain? Karen and I looked into the program notes, but we couldn’t find an answer.

Friedl staging

Though the question stayed in my mind, I pushed it away as we rehearsed. One thing we focused on in Friedl was the acting—or lack thereof. “There is no need for acting,” our director, Eli Villanueva, told us. “Opposed to the heightened, cartoonish Brundibár, this needs to be as real and true as we can make it.” After visiting LAMOTH, we found that it was much easier to envision the world of Friedl. We were able to place ourselves in our characters’ shoes.

By Friday, we had loosened up considerably, and we spent most of the day laughing. Firstly, to encourage us to work on our diction, Eli promised twenty dollars to whoever first over-enunciated. After flourishing the bill in our face and calmly observing us spit all over the floor, he revealed that there was no way to over-enunciate, so his money had been safe all along. Then, later that day, when Eli was instructing us to express disgust at the two lead characters, Joe and Annette, he demonstrated with some devious facial expressions of his own. They included imitations of the Wicked Witch of the West and Ursula. Let’s just say that we’ll try our hardest at perfecting our sneers so that we won’t have to witness his demonstration again.

Friedl staging w/Eli

We did have a very serious discussion on Friday. The question about the opera’s title, Brundibár, had come up again: why was the opera named after the villain? Two of my friends and I talked about it, and suddenly, we had the answer. It was simply that Brundibár translates to “Bumblebee.”

On the first day, Dr. Stacy Brightman, Senior Director of Education and Community Engagement, had told us how the Nazis used Brundibár as propaganda, filming it to present the camps as thriving centers of culture. She had concluded, “Art can be a force for good, but here, art was twisted for an evil purpose.”

Brundibar staging

I then remembered my idea from Wednesday that our ability to create art makes us human. When I thought about what Dr. Brightman said, I realized that’s not quite it. What makes us human is our ability to choose to use art for good. With art, we can, like the bee does, either make honey or sting—though, as in Brundibár’s case, we can’t expect to use the stinger without consequences! So maybe the opera, Bumblebee, isn’t actually named just for the villain, but also for Joe, Annette, and all the rest of us. And perhaps the children who sang this opera in Terezín are the bees, too: though some believe that the size of a bee’s wings means that it shouldn’t be able to fly, it flies anyway.


James Conlon Cancels August Performances Due to Surgical Procedure

James Conlon

James Conlon, LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director, will undergo a surgical procedure in New York tomorrow (Thursday, August 8) for treatment as the result of diverticulitis.

Per his doctor's instructions, Mr. Conlon will need to rest for three to four weeks afterward. Therefore, he's had to cancel August performances with the Ravinia Festival and with the SummerFest Chamber Orchestra in La Jolla. He is, however, expected to make a full recovery and resume his regular activities by the time he is scheduled to return to the Metropolitan Opera for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opening on October 11, followed by his return to Los Angeles for Falstaff rehearsals and several autumn performances he is conducting throughout Southern California as part of the Britten 100/LA festival. 

Please join all of us at LA Opera in wishing Maestro Conlon a full and speedy recovery.  


Opera Camp: Brundibár Will Never Die

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Opera Camp production of Hans Krása's Brundibár. Performances will take place August 10 and 11 at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre.  This is her third post in the series.

 

Rehearsal on Monday marked the beginning of the second, and final, week of Opera Camp. At the beginning of the week, it was little scary to think that on Saturday, the curtain would be going up on our performance. We knew that we had some serious work to do.

Dancing

On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we started to really piece together the production. Eventually, we began to bump-through rehearsals of Brundibár. Director Eli Villanueva and Movement Director Leslie Stevens constantly reminded us to engage our expressions and our bodies to the fullest, to the point of cartoonish exaggeration. Sometimes, though, we ensemble members got a little lazy; while the principals sang, we stopped investing full focus and power into the performance. Leslie reminded us that none of the characters have status unless we give it to them. Everything is built around our reactions. “The world is created by you guys,” she said. “Otherwise, the story doesn’t get told.”

Muse swooning 

In Friedl rehearsals, too, we were on our feet blocking from the beginning of the week. A depiction of the art classes taught by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis in Terezín, Friedl is as different from Brundibár as you can get. The reflective, realistic Friedl is a refreshing contrast with—and complement to—the splashy, stylized world of Brundibár. With a small cast consisting of only the teens, Friedl is strikingly intimate and personal. The opera itself is all about contrasts, too. The emotions expressed in the piece range from liberating joy to fear of death; the characters experience each within, and in spite of, the other. As the character Lilly sings, “With black, is always white/So I know from darkness, I’m sailing into light.”

Though Friedl and Brundibár rehearsals required a lot of energy, that doesn’t mean Opera Camp was all work and study these past few days—during every rehearsal break, the kids took over the piano and conducted some rocking sing-along sessions.

Lunchtime

After our rehearsal on Wednesday afternoon, we said goodbye to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and on Thursday morning, we were at our performance venue, Barnsdall Gallery Theater, for the first time. We started out with warm-ups onstage, where the set was already in place, and we began to get acquainted with the new space. After our warm-ups, we ran through several scenes in Brundibár and Friedl. It was a little difficult adjusting to the dimensions of the stage, but we started to get used to it. Though we have some aspects to work on, such as diction and breathing, we still have one more day.

Muse on stage

At the end of Thursday’s rehearsal, we had a special guest, one whom we had been looking forward to meeting from the very beginning: Ela Weissberger, Terezín survivor. She had sung the role of the Cat in all fifty-five performances of Brundibár in the camp. In the ten minutes we had with her, Mrs. Weissberger spoke to us for a while. Then, with Little Joe and Annette joining hands with her, we all sang the Victory March Finale, we in English and she in the original Czech.

Ela with Campers

As we marched alongside Mrs. Weissberger, my eyes welled up. For the first time, I keenly felt the triumph expressed in the music. Mrs. Weissberger had explained to us that when almost all of her cast-mates were sent to the gas chambers, she thought Brundibár had died with them. To her, we are all an avowal that Brundibár will never die.


Opera Camp: “Remember Me and My Friends”

Muse Lee, our favorite high school blogger, has returned for a series on her participation in the Opera Camp production of Hans Krása's Brundibár. Performances took place August 10 and 11 at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre.  This is her fourth and final post in the series.

On Friday morning, we arrived at our performance venue, Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, with side-parts, curls, and way too much hairspray. It was the day of the dress rehearsal.

Once everyone had arrived, we headed into the theater. Dr. Stacy Brightman, Senior Director of Education and Community Engagement, formally introduced Mrs. Ela Weissberger, the original Cat in all 55 performances of Brundibár in Terezín.

Ela and Stacy

The coming hour, Dr. Brightman said, would be the most important of Opera Camp. Mrs. Weissberger sat down in a chair, and we crowded around her on the floor. Mrs. Weissberger then shared her story. She was 11 years old when her family was deported. She recalled that it was snowing that day, and that she had begged her mother to take her home. Her story led us from the border-crossing in the icy weather, through the uncertain days in Terezín, through her liberation and return to civilian life, and at last, to the worldwide revivals of Brundibár. Despite everything, what amazed me the most was that her words were so full of light. She spoke of friendship and hope, and of her art teacher Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. “Sometimes, I hear her voice like it was yesterday,” Mrs. Weissberger stated.

Ela's painting

Though using names was not allowed and everyone was referred to by a number, Friedl told her students, “Children, you are not numbers. You have names.” Friedl encouraged her students to sign their names on all their work. It was an affirmation of freedom.

Mrs. Weissberger also pulled out a yellow felt cut-out and held it up in front of us. It was her original Jewish star. The only time she didn’t have to wear it was while performing Brundibár. She now calls it her “lucky star.”

Ela with Star

We finished our conversation with a question-and-answer session. Then, we headed into the auditorium, and with Mrs. Weissberger watching, we ran scenes from Friedl and Brundibár, accompanied by the orchestra for the first time.

A group of us spoke with Mrs. Weissberger a little more after lunch. Several people asked her about their characters in Friedl. Since she knew them in real life, her words were invaluable. She also showed us copies of illustrations by children in Terezín. One drawing by Mrs. Weissberger herself depicted a girl from Holland. Over her rendition of a Dutch bonnet, there was another set of lines. They were Friedl’s corrections. It gave me chills.

After our conversation, we ran Friedl and Brundibár in costume twice, with the staff giving notes on what to fix or improve. We were sweating and exhausted by the end, but Dr. Brightman had words of encouragement for us: Maestro James Conlon, LA Opera Music Director, had sent us all a letter. He wished us a wonderful performance and thanked us for participating in Opera Camp.  “Through (Mrs. Weissberger), and through the music of Hans Krása, you are connected to those children who performed Brundibár at Terezín 70 years ago,” he wrote. “I believe that you sing for yourselves, for each other, and for them as well. Someday, I hope you will share stories of this experience with your own children and grandchildren.”

On Saturday morning, the day of the first two performances, we warmed up and went over a few rough spots. Time soon ran out, though, and the audience started to line up outside. We retreated backstage and the house opened. Soon, places were called, and the performance began.

Brundibar cheese

We danced and sang, leapt and laughed, sweated and strained. After fifty minutes of sashaying, lunging, box-stepping, and marching, the orchestra hit the triumphant final note. The audience swept us up in loud applause, and as we bowed, we broke out into smiles—we had done it. Our production’s Cat led the original Cat onstage, and we all sat down to hear her speak. Mrs. Weissberger shared with the audience that this year marked the 70th anniversary of Brundibár’s first performance in Terezín. She went on to tell them about her experiences, just as she had with us. Joining hands with her, we rose to sing the Victory March once more. The next performance followed the same pattern. Completely exhausted, we straggled home.

The Cats

The next day, we arrived, ready for our final two performances. Our director Eli Villanueva reminded us of the 700 years of stage tradition that came before us. Everything we do is “either honoring what they have built or disrespecting it.” In the next two performances, I hope we made him proud.

As usual, Mrs. Weissberger finished the performance with a speech. In it, she recounted a special memory. Friedl would lead the children to the window, which offered a view of the mountains. She would say, “Children, look out. It’s a beautiful day.” Mrs. Weissberger’s voice grew meditative as she went on. “And Terezín is surrounded by mountains. ‘The sun is above those mountains. But what is important is what is beyond those mountains. Beyond those mountains is hope, hope that you will survive.’” Mrs. Weissberger smiled. “Here I am. I survived.”

Ela during performance

We sang the Victory March one last time with Mrs. Weissberger. Then, we bowed, retreated offstage, and hung up our costumes for the last time. While exchanging hugs, phone numbers, and goodbyes, we headed upstairs to the lawn for a little cast party.

Each of us received a goodbye present. As we munched on cake and other delicious desserts, we took a look at the gifts: a mounted group photograph and a copy of the program. On the program was a note from Mrs. Weissberger herself.

“Remember me and my friends
With love Ela
Cat from TEREZÍN”

She did sign her name.

Muse and Ellie

 


The Universal Drama of "Carmen"

Carmen stands at the center of the operatic repertory and holds a notable place in the world’s consciousness because it uses a global language to take us on a psychological, philosophical and thoroughly erotic journey through everything essential. It’s simultaneously realistic—even grungy—and abstract. Like the stereotype of the gypsy fortunetellers who figure in its story, Carmen uses the languages of many cultures to open issues of universal dimensions. Mere exoticism alienates the modern viewer, but, in Carmen, a compelling use of The Other makes the drama both immediate and timeless.

To speak of the sources of Carmen is to take a trip around the world. The immediate source of the opera is the novella of the same name by the Frenchman Prosper Mérimée, who had travelled throughout Spain in 1830. The novella itself has intriguing, diverse sources. Mérimée credited a friend from Spain, the Countess of Montijo, for the idea. This Countess herself represented an astounding confluence of cultures and currents of the day: of mixed parentage (her Scottish-born father was the American consul in Málaga, and her mother was born in Belgium), she married a Spanish nobleman and moved to Paris when widowed. A fervent Bonapartist, she married off (with Mérimée’s help) her younger daughter Eugenia to Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. Mérimée told the Countess he was writing a story based on a bit of local gossip she had shared with him about a soldier who was to be executed for killing his lover. He added that he was making the woman a Gypsy, since he had been studying Gypsies at this time.

Carmen and dancer

Why did Mérimée choose to make the heroine a Gypsy? And why so much emphasis in the novella on the customs and lore of these people? Part of the fascination of this race lay in their inherent mystery: who were they? Where did they come from? The Roma or Romany (names unrelated to the city of Rome or the country of Romania) people originated in India and developed a migratory culture lasting into the present day and virtually around the globe. Called Gypsies because they were once thought to have originated in Egypt, they were also frequently called Bohemians because of their notable presence in that country (in the present day Czech Republic). In the opera, Carmen refers to herself as bohemienne, and it is this connection to the nomadic culture that gave a name to the peripatetic artistic lifestyle unencumbered by bourgeois responsibility (as in Puccini’s La Bohème, and all references to urban hipsters).

Carmen Act 1

The Roma have long maintained a prominent presence in Spain, and Spain itself has maintained a distinct identity within European nations. Mérimée was aware of the European notion of Spain as an exotic locale. Frenchmen used (and still use) the expression “building castles in Spain” to describe fantasies and daydreams. And beyond Carmen, Spain has long served as an operatic Neverland where the normal rules don’t apply: Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, The Barber of Seville, Il Trovatore, La Forza del Destino, Fidelio and Parsifal, among others, all take place—must take place—in Spain. When modern storytellers want to tell an unlikely yet recognizably human tale, they set it in outer space. Creators of romantic opera set those types of stories in Spain. Spain is one level of Otherness, Gypsy yet another: it makes Carmen an alien among aliens, so to speak.

Another source for the novella may have been a short narrative poem, The Gypsies, by the Russian author Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). This towering literary name is the source of many operas, primarily (though not exclusively) Russian ones. His inexhaustible imagination was inspired by a vast range of stimuli: history (Boris Godunov, set as an opera by Mussorgsky), the neurotic anti-hero (The Queen of Spades, set by Tchaikovsky), and magic and fantasy (The Golden Cockerel, set by Rimski-Korsakov). Pushkin also wrote about stifling governmental oppression (the story “The Bronze Horseman,” in which a man imagines himself pursued by a statue of Peter the Great through the flooded streets of St. Petersburg), and was interested in issues of cultural and racial identity (as witnessed by his proud interest in the life of his great-grandfather, Abram Gannibal, a black African who rose from page to nobleman at the Russian imperial court). All these diverse threads are present in The Gypsies, written during a period of exile in the Caucasus Mountains (considered by Russians, then and now, as a wild and mysterious land) and published in 1824.

Carmen Act 3 mountains

In this tale, a volatile young man, Aleko, hides out from the law with a Gypsy woman and her father in the mountains. Aleko is (understandably) jealous of his Gypsy mistress. When he finds her with another lover, Aleko kills them both. The father casts Aleko out of the Gypsy world, since their ways are too mutually incomprehensible. “You want freedom only for yourself,” the father says trenchantly. The narrator concludes that “fateful passions are found everywhere, and there is no defense against Fate.” Mérimée read this poem in 1840 and published a translation in 1852. Thematically, it is an executive summary of Carmen: you cannot escape yourself; you cannot escape Fate; where does Fate end and psychology begin? Is there, in fact, any difference between the two?

The novella, then, seems to have roots in both the Countess’ chatter from southern Spain and in Pushkin’s imaginative poem about gypsies in the Caucasus Mountains. The opera has claims on both realism and fantasy, which is part of its near-universal appeal. It may also explain the initial bewilderment of audiences for Bizet’s Carmen. While it wasn’t the flop that operatic mythology later made it out to be, neither was it a success at first. It’s often said that the bourgeois audiences of the Opéra-Comique couldn’t bear such a loose woman as Carmen on the stage, but that is an insufficient explanation: loose women are the sine qua non of the French stage. What befuddled those premiere audiences was the elusive nature of this particular loose woman—exactly who and what was she? She was as difficult to categorize as the opera itself: was it realistic social commentary, charming exoticism, or something deeper than both of those? In fact, it was all of those at the same time, and that was a lot to comprehend on opening night. But Carmen was soon a hit in Vienna, with much (but not all) of the spoken dialogue replaced with recitatives composed by Bizet’s friend, the New Orleans born Ernest Guiraud, and it quickly went on to become an international sensation. Its appeal lay in more than its dramaturgy. The name “Carmen,” not incidentally, means “song,” and the score of Carmen embodies all these issues even more dramatically than the story alone.

Carmen Act 2 tavern

Some of the most memorable melodies in Carmen came from beyond Bizet’s own imagination. Put another way, some of it is “borrowed.” In these instances, Bizet’s genius lay in harmonizing, orchestrating and applying these melodies with brilliant strokes. For example, the beautiful melody heard only in the entr’acte before the final act came from a work by Mañuel García, Sr., the Spaniard famous as the singer who created Almaviva in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in Rome in 1816 and who brought grand opera to New York and Mexico City in 1825.

There is an even greater example of borrowed melody in Carmen, a melody that has come to stand for the opera as a whole. This is the Habanera, the song with which Carmen introduces herself to Don José (and to us in the audience as well). Its original form was the song “El arreglito” (“the little arrangement”) by the Spanish songwriter Sebastian Yradier. This is the same man who composed the song “La Paloma” after a visit to Havana, Cuba, in 1860. Two of the most famous melodies of the 19th century were written by the same man, and his name is almost unknown. He died in obscurity in Paris in 1865. (In all fairness, when Bizet discovered that this was not a folk song but an actual composition, he instructed his publishers to make all necessary amends).

Both “La Paloma” and Carmen’s song are built around the same underlying rhythmic structure, the “Habanera” beat: It is an astoundingly versatile and evocative rhythmic unit, appearing in various forms in many cultures. It underlies that definitive Neapolitan song, “O sole mio,” and its English-language counterpart, Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never.” It is the foundation of Scott Joplin’s ravishing 1916 piano composition “Solace,” subtitled “a Mexican Serenade” (there is nothing Mexican about “Solace,” but the subtitle may be a nod to the immense popularity of “La Paloma” in Mexico). It is a basic rhythmic cell of sub-Saharan African music, and one musicologist of the tango (perhaps another related musical form) identifies it not as a dance, but as a call to a dance used in the ancient Kingdom of Kongo. It is also related to the French contredanse, and was known in Cuba as the contradanza until Cubans themselves adapted the term Habanera (“from Havana”) from Spanish sources. This name was applied by flamenco artists (traditionally associated with Gypsy musicians in southern Spain) as one of the forms within the important genre of “Cantos de ida y de vuelta” (“songs of going and coming back”, i.e., music born of overseas travel and cross-cultural influence). The power of the Habanera form lies not in its pure provenance, but rather in its ability to travel between cultures and to cull from all the places it touches. It is, in fact, a Gypsy.

In the opera, the Habanera is not just any Gypsy but specifically Carmen. She introduces herself singing it, saying “this is who I am and what I am all about.” On the one hand, Carmen’s Habanera is an old-fashioned vaudeville style used (and perhaps lampooned) by Gilbert and Sullivan, whose characters tell us about themselves in elaborate entrance arias even though nobody has asked them (“I am the very model of a modern Major-General,” et al.). On the other hand, it is a forward-looking exercise in realism, since the character of Carmen is actually meant to be singing about herself in that moment.

In fact, Carmen is often meant to be singing, and this becomes an important key to understanding her and her opera. Note how often she is performing for an audience in some sense: the Habanera; the Séguidille at the end of Act I in which she is seducing Don José; the “Gypsy Song” [“Chanson bohémienne”] at the beginning of Act II when she is seducing everybody; her castanet dance in Act II in which she is again seducing José; her mountain song of “la liberté” later in the act when she is yet again seducing José…. Virtually all of her solos are performances. She is “putting on an act”—with one important exception we will look at shortly. It is often noted that Carmen, unlike her rival Micaëla, never sings an actual “aria.”

If Carmen is the words she is singing in the Habanera, then she is Love, the child of a Gypsy who has never, ever known laws. And if she is the words of her song, she is also its music: international and archetypal, a key ingredient in the music (“Carmen”) of the world, which is to say, an essential component of the communal unconscious.

Many have commented that José develops (in the sense of going to pieces, at any rate) as a character while Carmen does not: she is the same defiant character at the end as she was when we met her. Another way of understanding this is that José is an actual human being while Carmen is an abstraction—there is a gritty realism to her, but she is not the same as other dramatic characters who evolve (or devolve) and react to stimuli. José has a rank in the army, a hometown, a mother, a past—all specifics denied to the operatic Carmen. He is tangible, she is theoretical. So who, or rather what, is she?

Some will quickly say “she is Woman,” and there is much to be said for this statement. Few roles in opera demand the same level of sheer and credible femininity as Carmen. But she’s different from a woman we might actually meet in life such as, say, Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, based on a real-life and well-known figure in the Paris of his time. Hints to Carmen’s true nature abound in what, and when and where, she sings. In Act I, José detains her for disturbing the peace. Eager to be set free, she seduces him by singing about her favorite tavern “near the city walls” where she promises to be his… just outside the walled confines of the city, where the laws are looser. Smugglers and other riff-raff thrive in this tavern in Act II, but when Carmen encounters José there, it is still too confining for her spirit: she sings of the mountains and “la liberté.” If José truly loved her, he would follow her into the hills with her fellow gypsies and revel in that freedom.

She is always aware of being observed in all those solos—she is singing in order to get a response, she is literally performing. Once in those mountains, we get the first extended glimpse into Carmen’s true feelings during the famous “Card Trio.” While her friends Frasquita and Mercédès have a fun time reading their fortunes in the cards, Carmen sings without an audience of any sort on stage—and what she sings about is the cards telling her she will soon die. After her initial shock, she is philosophical, if still sad. It is Fate, which cannot be denied. First she wanted out of jail, then away from the city and into the wilderness, only to find that the goal of this journey of self-actualization is death.

Carmen Act 3, Scene 2 bullring

The final act is largely a series of rituals: the remarkable crowd scene outside the bullring in Seville, the parade of the bullfighters, and even, to a certain extent, the formulaic, antiphonal farewell between Carmen and her new lover, the matador Escamillo (their only duet in the opera). The final confrontation between José and Carmen is a choreographed death ritual emphasized by the parallel synchronicity of the offstage bullfight (one of the world’s most formalized death rituals). Carmen remains in charge of her own sacrificial rite. She dares and virtually demands José kill her. She always calls the shots. As he states bluntly in the novella, “I couldn’t help myself. She was stronger than I was.”

So Carmen may be Love, as she suggested when we met her in the Habanera, but everything after that tells us plainly that she is also Death. The fact that she is in the guise of something that seems very much like a real woman makes her even more compelling. She becomes the abyss into which men cannot help but stare; she is “la belle dame sans merci” of Keats; she is Shakespeare’s Undiscovered Country, or rather, an Uncomprehended Country—two of them, in fact; she is Pushkin’s Queen of Spades – only she is nearer to us than all of those ideas. Her song crosses borders and unites races; she’s the thing we all have in common, whether we want it or not. We can’t help it. She’s stronger than us.

A writer, lecturer and radio commentator, William Berger is the author of Wagner Without Fear, Verdi With a Vengeance and Puccini Without Excuses. He is Creative Content Producer for the Metropolitan Opera.


André Previn and Renée Fleming in Their Own Words

André Previn composed A Streetcar Named Desire in 1997, with Renée Fleming creating the role of Blanche DuBois. Last May, in connection with performances of Streetcar at Lyric Opera of Chicaco, Mr. Previn and Ms. Fleming spoke to Jack Zimmerman about composing and performing an opera based on the iconic Tennessee Williams play.

Andre Previn

COMPOSER ANDRÉ PREVIN
You came late to composing operas. Why was that?

Because nobody asked me to write one! I’ll tell you very frankly, I had a couple of ideas given to me by the intendants of various opera companies, but they never interested me. One guy who runs a very good opera house in France offered me a commission and sent me the libretto. I read it and then I called him up and told him, “This thing is going to come out sounding unmusical and ridiculous.” I can’t write a two- or three-hour opera where everybody onstage is in a toga. I don’t know how people in togas think or how they feel. So then I had a call from San Francisco a couple of months afterwards and Lotfi Mansouri, who was the general director there, asked if I’d be interested in A Streetcar Named Desire. “That’s something I really want!” I told him. The play, in its own way, is already an opera—just without the singing.

How do you start writing an opera?
I just start. The world’s worst feeling is to look at a blank page, but once you get a couple of pages done, things start to go. I knew I wasn’t going to have a real overture, and I wanted to have something that would set the scene. I realized Blanche would need a couple of honest-to-God arias, but I didn’t write those first—that’s always a bad idea. I’m rather primitive. I just go from the beginning and keep going.

Do you write at the piano?
No, I check at the piano. In other words, I write and then every once in awhile, if there’s something I doubt, I’ll play a little bit at the piano. But I don’t write at the piano.

What was the most pleasurable part of writing for Renée Fleming’s voice?
Just imagining how it would sound! I know her voice very well. I’ve done not only Streetcar with her, but also quite a lot of songs—song cycles and things, so I know what she likes and where she’s most comfortable. She can really sing absolutely anywhere. I remember one of the other people who sang Blanche. I went backstage after a rehearsal and I said, “Listen, this is just a question, but you know that B-flat up on top of that one aria—can you sing that pianissimo?” And she said, “No!” I thought that was extremely smart of her, and very sweet. She said, “If you want a pianissimo high B-flat, then go talk to Renée. I can’t do that.”

What was the most challenging scene to write?
I think the ending, from the rape on out. That was very hard. Once I got the idea that she should disappear upstage with just one trumpet playing, then I was okay, but I didn’t have that thought right away.

Do you set aside time every day to composeto sit down and write something?
That’s exactly the way to put it—write something. I don’t pretend that it’s going to be great. I don’t pretend that it’s even going to be good. But I want to write something every day.

Do you have a favorite opera or a favorite opera composer?
Yes [silence].

And it is…?
It depends on what century we’re talking about. Nobody ever wrote anything as good as Mozart. And when it comes to the last 100 years, I tend to be conservative. I love Benjamin Britten’s operas. Peter Grimes is really a masterpiece. I can hear it an endless number of times. I like most everything of Richard Strauss, too. But I’m not crazy about twelve-tone operas. Twelve-tone doesn’t sing, as far as I’m concerned. When I hear Don Giovanni or Figaro, I feel like waving the white flag and saying, “OK, forget it—I give up."

Renee Fleming
SOPRANO RENÉE FLEMING
What is it about Streetcar and the role of Blanche DuBois that you find so appealing?

A lot of opera heroines are either glorious victims or virtuous saints. To be able to play somebody as complex as Blanche DuBois, even for an actress in the theater, is a real gift. We so rarely have characters like that in opera! I feel that the plays of Tennessee Williams are operas. All of them have a sort of melodrama that seems musical.

Then what does music bring to this?
What does the music bring to Otello? It enhances the story, creates drama and tension, and when there’s a moment of repose, the music fills in the blanks because music is not concrete – it’s completely abstract, so it adds another dimension. And André’s musical language is perfect for this story. He has the jazz element in his background and the late Romantic European tradition, too.

André Previn wrote the score of Streetcar with you in mind. Did you have any special requests for him?

I asked André if I could I have a set piece or two that I could perform in concert. Well, he gave me six! That was a lot. Several of them are really stunning and they work very well. I’ve been singing them ever since—“I want magic” and “Sea air” are pieces people absolutely love. There’s another one I’ve been singing lately—“Soft people.” It’s short, but it’s so beautiful.

Do you have a favorite spot in the opera?
The powerful scene at the end of Act Two, the duet with Mitch. These two people come together and decide to offer each other some comfort. And her explanation of why she’s in trouble and her confession about what happened with her young lover is incredibly powerful when it’s set to music. That’s such a wonderful scene!

What was it like working with André Previn during the rehearsal process?
The wonderful thing about André is that he’s so experienced in music and art in so many ways. He had no qualms, for instance, about cutting the orchestration so that we could be fully heard and understood – that was no problem for him. Other composers, particularly those who are new to opera, don’t want to give up any notes or any orchestra colors. André would say, “I couldn’t hear that word, so I’m cutting five instruments from the orchestration.” So pretty soon, we had a sparse and nimble orchestration that always lets the singers shine through.

Interview by Jack Zimmerman for Lyric Opera News, originally published in May 2013. Reprinted with permission.


Falling in Love with Opera:
Free Performances for High School Students

Our favorite high school blogger, Muse Lee, returns to LA Opera's blog to talk about her experience with our LA Opera 90012 program for high school students. This program provides a free mini-subscription for students and their parents/guardians. 


Whenever I meet new people, one of the first things I say about myself is that opera is the love of my life. 99% of the time, though, my new friends think I’m joking. I hear what they aren’t saying, and it’s exactly what I used to believe: Opera is for the elderly. Opera is for the wealthy elite. Opera is boring, and it’s in strange languages, and it’s the pastime of pretentious snobs...

Three years ago, I started to change my mind. My teacher had raved about LA Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Ring. Just out of curiosity, I got the most inexpensive seats possible and went. She had told me that the Ring was a series, but she hadn’t informed me that it totaled 16 hours. Let’s just say that after the final curtain call, I was practically running out of the theater. In the weeks after, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about the experience. There was a lingering aftertaste that was impossible to ignore. I wanted to explore opera further. However, I had no idea how to take the next step, or even what the next step was. How could a fourteen-year-old enter the remote, grown-ups’ world of opera?

Ring photo

The answer eventually came: LA Opera’s program for high school students, LA Opera 90012. Through an essay competition, the program provides a pair of tickets for each participant and his or her guardian to four operas in the season. Though that alone got me excited, I had no idea that the program would be so much more than just free tickets.

ticket table

Firstly, there’s the Facebook page, where we talk about the operas, share classical music jokes, and play trivia games. Then, there are the opera events themselves. There’s more challenging trivia at the ticket distribution table, and sometimes, there are even dress-up opportunities. For the opera Cinderella, we all arrived at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion dressed as princes and princesses, and for a few hours, we let the music usher us into a completely different world. It was almost like an elaborate game of make-believe.

Muse and Mom

LA Opera 90012 also gave me an operatic partner-in-crime: my mom. Among my family and friends, I used to be the only opera nut, so no one really understood my “fan-girling.” LA Opera 90012 gave me a chance to share opera with my mom, and these days, she comes with me to many events. While I’m not sure if she’s a mega-fan yet, I’m happy to say that she nods off much less. Plus, all the operas we’ve seen together have led to many interesting conversations, as well as a bunch of inside jokes that no one else understands.

Romeo

As for me, LA Opera 90012 soon began seeping into my daily life. I started seeing opera everywhere I turned. After swooning over the opera Roméo et Juliette, I could read the play in English class without cringing. Since Latin and Italian vocabulary are so similar, I could sometimes get away with listening to arias instead of studying the nights before tests. Learning European history became more exciting because I could link historical events to opera plots.

table trivia

Above all, LA Opera 90012 showed me that despite what all the stereotypes may say—boring, pointless, foreign—opera is still relevant. The stories of the operas mirror our emotions, our relationships, our dreams. In the two seasons that I have participated in the program, many of the operas’ protagonists have been around our age: the hero and heroine in Roméo et Juliette, Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly (the opera that inspired Miss Saigon), the title character in Cinderella. Like us, they struggle with societal expectations, inexperience…and of course, angry parents! When I watch opera, I see works that are for and about us. We are the new audience. None of the stereotypes will be true unless we make them.

Muse and Sarvia

Maybe opera will bore you out of your mind, or maybe you’ll fall in love with it instantly. Maybe, like me, you’ll have to see a couple of operas before the art form starts growing on you. You’ll never know unless you try it. LA Opera 90012 is the perfect chance to do so.

Visit the LA Opera 90012 page for more information and how to apply. Applicants will need to write an essay completing the phrase, “I would like to attend the opera because...”  The deadline to apply is October 22, 2013.
Questions?  Contact us at 213.972.3157 or educom@laopera.org.



Caltech presents EINSTEIN exhibit at LA Opera

The Einstein Papers Project at Caltech is proud to present three installations inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during the performances of Einstein On The Beach.

The exhibitions will include an installation of twelve large portraits of Albert Einstein created by the noted photographer Herman Landshoff. Entitled “Albert Einstein At Home,” the photographs present intimate yet iconic images of Einstein during the years 1946-1950, taken at his last abode at 12 Mercer Street in Princeton, NJ. The photographs are one of only six printings in existence. They are usually housed at the entrance to Caltech’s Board Room in Millikan Library in Pasadena, California.

Einstein was a visiting scientist at Caltech during three winter terms in the early 1930s. A second installation presents nine large panels that incorporate collages of original documents relating to Einstein’s activities while at Caltech, including newspaper clippings, photographs with distinguished scientists, visits to Mt. Wilson Observatory, to Palm Springs, and to the movies – with Charlie Chaplin.

Einstein’s interests and passions ranged widely. He played the piano and the violin, and had wide-ranging correspondence with major figures in European and US cultural life. A third installation presents a selection of archival documents, images, and texts on music and musicians.

Albert Einstein (1879–1955), one of the foremost scientists and public figures of the 20th century, revolutionized our views of time and space, matter and light, gravitation and the universe. The Einstein Papers Project is engaged in one of the most ambitious scholarly publishing ventures undertaken in the history of science. The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein provides the first complete picture of Einstein’s massive written legacy. So far, 12 volumes of Einstein’s writings and correspondence have been published, covering the first 44 years of his life and more than 3000 documents.

The California Institute of Technology, founded as Throop University in 1891 in Pasadena, California, and renamed the California Institute of Technology in 1920, is a world-renowned science and engineering research and education institution, where extraordinary faculty and students seek answers to complex questions, discover new knowledge, lead innovation, and transform our future.


Five Things to Know Before You See "Einstein on the Beach" at LA Opera

1. You decide what it means.
This award-winning, highly acclaimed masterpiece of modernism is a non-linear, non-narrative operatic event. Everyone will walk away with a different interpretation of the avant-garde production. Einstein on the Beach is visually stunning, musically mesmerizing and breathtakingly choreographed. It will challenge the way you think, hear and see.

2. It’s 4½ hours long…with no real intermission.
Not to worry though! Unlike other operas, Einstein on the Beach was created to allow for coming and going throughout the piece. Need to use the restroom? Please do so whenever you need. Hungry? Illustrious restaurant Patina will serve special Einstein Relativity snacks and cocktails. Itching to Tweet about the production? Go to our Social Media Lounge on the 3rd floor, where free WiFi will be provided. And don’t forget to purchase your limited Robert Wilson-designed beach towel that’s only available at the LA Opera.

3. Actually, Einstein on the Beach is longer than 4 ½ hours...
...if you tag on the lecture, the Caltech Einstein Paper Project and the pre-show. Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music critic Tim Page will give a free pre-performance lecture and Q&A prior to each performance. Caltech has also created a special exhibit for us, the Einstein Paper Project in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion lobby, showcasing an installation of 12 large portraits of Albert Einstein created by the noted photographer Herman Landshoff. And pre-show warm ups with the cast onstage begin 30 minutes prior to the "official" starting time.

4. There’s a lot of Einstein on the Beach firsts and lasts at LA Opera.
When Einstein on the Beach was first performed in 1976, it was an unforgettable collaboration: Philip Glass composed the music, Robert Wilson directed and designed the production, and original cast member Lucinda Childs contributed choreography and spoken texts. The production at LA Opera will be the last time these three original creative greats will collaborate together on this historic and unforgettable piece. It's also the first time that Einstein on the Beach has ever been presented as part of a U.S. opera company's season. The October performances at LA Opera will also be the last stop of the production’s North American tour.

5. Want to know more? Get the opportunity to actually speak with the creative powerhouses behind Einstein On the Beach!
The Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAP UCLA) will host a special “In Conversation” event with the acclaimed creators of Einstein on the Beach, Robert Wilson, Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs. It will be held at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday, October 12, 2013, at 1pm.


Philip Glass: Creating "Einstein"

Philip Glass with "Einstein" score

Philip Glass in 1976 with the score for Einstein on the Beach.
(Photo © Arthur Casablanca, 1976)

The following is excerpted from a 2012 interview with composer Philip Glass.

On the 1976 world premiere of Einstein on the Beach at the Avignon Festival:
It’s not like we dropped off the moon. We were part of a continuum, but many of the young people didn’t know that continuum. I’m sure very few people in the audience might have known who Grotowski was, or had seen a Peter Brook piece, so for them, it came in from outer space like a piece of space junk, and landed in Avignon, that’s what it was.

So what happened is that no one knew how long it was—nor did we. No one knew; there was no way to find out where you were in the piece. So basically it was a free-floating theatrical experience, which apparently had no beginning and no end. It was profoundly radical.

The difference was that we had to work with very edgy dialogue. It’s not clear—you would listen to it, and over time you began to understand it, because you couldn’t believe that’s actually what it was. No, no, there must be something else, no—that’s it. That’s it!

One of the famous pieces is the supermarket speech. “I was in a prematurely air-conditioned supermarket.” That’s how [original cast member] Lucinda [Childs] begins, that’s her text. Bob was in charge of putting the text in. Well, she repeats this phrase more or less 40 times, and it’s the most beautiful thing. And I managed to get a piece of music to it, which moved as rapidly as the words did, but was stationary at the same time. I went for that quality of movement and immobility, the words that I put it in the music, and it was a marriage.


Lucinda Childs: Creating "Einstein" (Part 1)

Lucinda Childs in "Einstein," 1976

Lucinda Childs in the original production of Einstein on the Beach.
Photo © Philippe Gras, 1976

 

The following is excerpted from a 2012 interview with choreographer Lucinda Childs, who was one of the principal performers in the world premiere production of Einstein on the Beach in 1976.

On the “air-conditioned supermarket” speech:
During the whole third act, I was saying the supermarket speech, and Bob had asked me to say something about the beach. It ended up being called the supermarket speech, because I talked about avoiding the beach, I didn’t talk about actually being at the beach. And I talked about the fact that in the supermarket, they were selling these strange looking bathing caps.

Anyway, Bob picked this out of a whole discussion that we had about the beach, and he said “I like that part, when you were talking about the supermarket and seeing some bathing caps, and how you didn’t really want to buy one, but that you were reminded about… that you had been avoiding the beach.”

And somehow, just thinking about the quality of Patty Hearst and the whole quality of delivering that text is a little bit dreamlike, it’s a little bit like how you would talk to a very close friend on the phone, you know, because it’s just strange information: “You know, I was in a prematurely air-conditioned supermarket, and there was this, and this, and this, and this,”... I mean, it’s sort of a level of very intimate, and just a little bit dreamlike. I like that, and I like thinking about her in that kind of state she was in. Not necessarily what she had been through, but how she would be.



Lucinda Childs: Creating "Einstein" (Part 2)

"Einstein" in 1976

Lucinda Childs (right) with Sheryl Sutton
in the original production of
Einstein on the Beach.
Photo © Richard Landry, 1976

The following is excerpted from a 2012 interview with choreographer Lucinda Childs, who was one of the principal performers in the world premiere production of Einstein on the Beach in 1976.

On plumbing parts and patterns:
The solo for the three diagonals in the first act comes out of improvisation. Because Einstein was a plumber, I was dancing with a big heavy wrench, and we decided to drop that in favor of the pipe, which is much easier to hold on the end of my hand, and on my thumb, out in the space. But basically when push comes to shove, the whole choreography is really inspired by the music, and I felt that alternating the walking patterns forward and back, six and seven patterns, would very much produce the kind of on and off quality I wanted with Philip’s music.



Robert Wilson: Creating "Einstein"

Night Train

Night Train: Helga Davis and Gregory R. Purnhagen in Einstein on the Beach
Photo © Lucie Jansch, 2012

The following is excerpted from a 2012 interview with director/designer Robert Wilson.

People said, you know, it was radical and new at the time. Actually, it wasn’t. In the theater world, opera world, we’re not used to just seeing a work that is constructed with theme and variation. But that’s nothing new. We’re used to seeing opera and theater that has narrative and tells stories, where action is following the music or action is following a text. It’s something that you can easily comprehend, understand. Here, it’s a work where you go and you can get lost. That’s the idea. It’s like a good novel. You don’t have to understand anything. I went to the revival at BAM some years ago, and I was there for the opening, and then I went back a week later, and walked down the aisle. There was an empty seat, and I sat down, in the empty seat on the aisle, and Arthur Miller was sitting next to me. And after about 20 minutes he turned to me, and he didn’t know who I was, and he said, “What do you think about this?” I said, “I don’t know, what do you think?” And he said, “You know, I don’t get it.” I said, “You know, I don’t get it either.”



A Magical Storybook

The creators of LA Opera's new production of The Magic Flute—Barrie Kosky, Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritton flying elephants, the world of silent film and the eternal search for love

HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE IDEA OF STAGING THE MAGIC FLUTE WITH 1927?
Barrie Kosky (stage director; Intendent of Berlin’s Komische Oper): The Magic Flute is the most frequently performed German-language opera, one of the top ten operas in the world. Everyone knows the story; everybody knows the music; everyone knows the characters. On top of that, it is an “ageless” opera, meaning that an eight-year-old can enjoy it as much as an octogenarian can. So you start out with some pressure when you undertake a staging of this opera. I think the challenge is to embrace the heterogeneous nature of this opera. Any attempt to interpret the piece in only one way is bound to fail. You almost have to celebrate the contradictions and inconsistencies of the plot and the characters, as well as the mix of fantasy, surrealism, magic and deeply touching human emotions.

About four years ago I attended a performance of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, the first show created by the British theater company known as 1927. From the moment the show started, there was this fascinating mix of live performance with animation, creating its own aesthetic world. Within minutes, this strange mixture of silent film and music hall had convinced me that these people had to do The Magic Flute with me in Berlin! It seemed to me quite an advantage that Paul and Suzanne would be venturing into opera for the first time, because they were completely free of any preconceptions about it, unlike me.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea(Pictured: Esme Appleton and Suzanne Andrade
in 1927's Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea)

The result was a very unique Magic Flute. Although Suzanne and Paul were working in Berlin for the first time, they had a natural feel for the city’s artistic ambiance, especially the Berlin of the 1920s, when it was such an important creative center for painting, cabaret, silent film and animated film. Suzanne, Paul and I share a love for revue, vaudeville, music hall and similar forms of theater, and, of course, for silent film. So our Papageno is suggestive of Buster Keaton, Monostatos is a bit Nosferatu, and Pamina perhaps a bit reminiscent of Louise Brooks. But it’s more than an homage to silent film—there are far too many influences from other areas. But the world of silent film gives us a certain vocabulary that we can then use in any way that we like.

IS YOUR LOVE OF SILENT FILM THE MOTIVATION BEHIND THE NAME "1927"?
Suzanne Andrade (stage director/writer/performer; co-creator of 1927):
1927 was the year of the first sound film, The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson, an absolute sensation at the time. Curiously, however, no one believed at that time that the talkies would prevail over silent films. We found this aspect especially exciting. We work with a mixture of live performance and animation, which makes it a completely new art form in many ways. Many others have used film in theater, but 1927 integrates film in a very new way. We don’t do a theater piece with added movies. Nor do we make a movie and then combine it with acting elements. Everything goes hand in hand. Our shows evoke the world of dreams and nightmares, with aesthetics that hearken back to the world of silent film.

Paul Barritt (filmmaker; co-creator of 1927): And yet it would be wrong to see in our work only the influence of the 1920s and silent film. We take our visual inspiration from many eras, from the copper engravings of the 18th century as well as in comics of today. There is no preconceived aesthetic setting in our mind when we work on a show. The important thing is that the image fits. A good example is Papageno’s aria “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” [a girl or a little wife]. In the libretto, he is served a glass of wine in the dialogue before his aria. We let him have a drink, but it isn’t wine. It’s a pink cocktail from a giant cocktail glass, and Suzanne had the idea that he would start to see pink elephants flying around him. Of course, the most famous of all flying elephants was Dumbo—from the 1940s—but the actual year isn’t important as long as everything comes together visually.

Papageno's Aria "Ein Madchen oder Weichen"

(Papageno's aria “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”)

Suzanne Andrade: Our Magic Flute is a journey through different worlds of fantasy. But as in all of our shows, there is a connecting style that ensures that the whole thing doesn’t fall apart aesthetically.

Barrie Kosky: This is also helped by 1927’s very special feeling for rhythm. The rhythm of the music and the text has an enormous influence on the animation. As we worked together on The Magic Flute, the timing always came from the music, even—especially—in the dialogues, which we condensed and transformed into silent film intertitles with piano accompaniment. However, we use an 18th-century fortepiano, and the accompanying music is by Mozart, from his two fantasias for piano, K. 475 in C minor and K. 397 in D minor. This not only gives the whole piece a consistent style, but also a consistent rhythm. It’s a silent film by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, so to speak!

DOES THIS PIECE WORK WITHOUT THE DIALOGUES?
Suzanne Andrade: I think that almost any story can be told without words. You can undress a story to the bone, to find out what you really need to convey the plot. We tried to do that in The Magic Flute. You can convey so much of a story through purely visual means. You don’t always need two pages of dialogue to show the relationship between two people. You don’t need a comic dialogue to show that Papageno is a funny character. A clever gimmick can sometimes offer more insight than dialogue.

Paul Barritt: Going back to silent films, for a moment—they weren’t just films without sound, with intertitles in place of the missing voices. Intertitles were actually used very sparingly. The makers of silent films instead told their stories through the visual elements. While talkies convey the stories primarily through dialogue, silent films told their story through gestures, movements and glances, and so on.

Barrie Kosky: This emphasis on the images makes it possible for every viewer to experience the show in his or her own way: as a magical, living storybook; as a curious, contemporary meditation on silent film as a singing silent film; or as paintings come to life. Basically, we have a hundred stage sets in which things happen that normally aren’t possible onstage: flying elephants, flutes trailing notes, bells as showgirls... We can fly up to the stars and then ride an elevator to hell, all within a few minutes. In addition to all the animation in our production, there are also moments when the singers are in a simple white spotlight. And suddenly there’s only the music, the text and the character. The very simplicity makes these perhaps the most touching moments of the evening.

During the performance, the technology doesn’t play in the foreground. Although Paul spent hours and hours sitting in front of computer to create it, his animation never loses its deeply human component. You can always see that a human hand has drawn everything. Video projections as part of theatrical productions aren’t new. But they often become boring after a few minutes, because there isn’t any interaction between the two-dimensional space of the screen and the three dimensions of the actors. Suzanne and Paul have solved this problem by combining all of these dimensions into a common theatrical language.

WHAT IS THE MAGIC FLUTE ABOUT?
Paul Barritt: It’s a love story, told as a fairy tale.

Suzanne Andrade: The love story between Tamino and Pamina. Throughout the entire piece, the two try to find each other—but everyone else separates them and pulls them away from each other. Only at the very end do they come together.

Barrie Kosky: A strange, fairytale love story, one that has a lot of archetypal and mythological elements, such as the trials they must undergo to gain wisdom. They have to go through fire and water to mature. These are ancient rites of initiation. The Masonic trappings imposed on the story interested us very little, since they have, of course, much, much deeper roots.

Tamino falls in love with a portrait. How many myths and fairy tales include this plot point? The hero falls in love with a picture and goes in search of the subject. And on his way to her, he encounters all sorts of obstacles. And, at the same time, the object of his desire faces her own personal obstacles on her own journey.

You can experience our production as a journey through the dream worlds of Tamino and Pamina. These two dream worlds collide and combine to form one strange dream. The person who combines these dreams and these worlds is Papageno. We are very focused on these three characters. Interestingly, Papageno is in pursuit of an idealized image too: the perfect fantasy woman at his side, something he craves almost desperately. Despite all of the comedic elements, there is a deep loneliness in The Magic Flute. Half of the piece is the fact that people are alone: Despite the joy in Papageno’s bird catcher aria, it’s ultimately about a man who feels lonely and longs for love. At the beginning of the opera, Tamino is running alone through the forest. The three ladies are alone, so they are immediately attracted to Tamino. The Queen of the Night is alone—her husband has died, and her daughter has been kidnapped. Even Sarastro, who has a large following, has no partner at his side. Not to mention Monostatos, whose unfulfilled longing for love degenerates into unbridled lust. The Magic Flute is about the search for love, and about the different forms that this search can take.

Finally, it is also an Orphic story—it is about the power of music, music that can move mountains and nature. After all, the opera is called The Magic Flute, not Tamino and Pamina! The magic flute isn’t just an instrument, it is the quintessence of music, and music, in this case, is synonymous with love. I think that’s the reason why so many people love this opera so much, because they see, hear and feel that it’s a universal representation of those looking for love, a journey that we all take time and time again.

Interview by Ulrich Lenz


“An Immense Burst of Cheer”: Verdi’s Uplifting Operatic Farewell

Whoever laughs last, laughs best—or, in the more elegant formulation by Arrigo Boito, author of Falstaff’s libretto: Ma ride ben chi ride / La risata finale. And in more than half a century of writing for the stage, Verdi has the last laugh with the ultimate joke: a fugue, that emblem of a fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned, academic, Teutonic sensibility, a virtual non-sequitur vis-à-vis the Italian operatic tradition he had inherited.

Yet the fugal capstone to Falstaff is a perfect and ingenious choice, theatrically and musically. After Sir John has been punked and had his drubbings, he’s the one who leads off the fugal chain reaction, as the entire ensemble joins to celebrate our shared humanity. Itamar Moses’ 2005 play Bach at Leipzig attempted to dramatize the fugue’s inherent theatricality—the way it wrests reconciliation from entanglement—but Verdi’s merry pranksters buoyantly sail free of any regrets, proving the power of his art to set the world right (at least for the illusory moments until the house lights come back on). Jester and jest become one. The rigorous form morphs into a bubbly champagne, ending with the orchestra’s zippy final chords. If Verdi alludes to the choral setting-things-straight culmination of Don Giovanni, he also seems to hint at the clear blue skies of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony—albeit his is a punch-drunk Jove.

They also say comedy is all in the timing. Verdi’s announcement that he was writing his final opera based on one of Shakespeare’s iconic comical figures must have seemed a thrilling surprise. But it also had an inevitability, and not only on account of his abiding love for the Bard. For decades Verdi had been on the lookout for material suitable material for a comic opera. He’d even briefly considered a Falstaff opera around the time of Aida, and a treatment of Molière’s Tartuffe was also mulled over. And Victor Hugo’s Shakespearean creed of mixing the high and the low, a major source of Verdi’s Romanticism, is echoed in the sparkling, though bitterly ironic, scenes of merry-making in such famous tragic operas as Rigoletto and La Traviata.

Verdi even anticipates aspects of Falstaff in the self-centered and curmudgeonly Fra Melitone amid the epic canvas of La Forza del Destino.

All the elements had somehow aligned perfectly by the summer of 1889, when Verdi, who was just shy of 77, praised Boito for his proposed scenario and decided to forge ahead “so that…what two days ago was in the world of dreams now takes shape and becomes reality.” Still, the miracle of the composer’s late-life return to the stage with Otello was still a fresh memory, its triumphant premiere having been given just two years before. Otello—thought by many Verdians today to be his greatest masterpiece—appeared to vindicate his reputation as Italy’s unsurpassed master of tragic opera.

Why, then, did Verdi choose to crown his career with a comedy? Opera buffa as a genre had died out and seemed buried with the past—and, anyway, this was exactly what Verdi was not known for. Was there something more to the choice of Falstaff than wanting to vindicate, at long last, the sting of the fiasco from his last attempt long ago at a truly comic opera (Un giorno di regno, in 1840, at the beginning of his career)?

According to LA Opera’s music director, James Conlon, “Because Verdi still felt the urge to create, his failure to have produced a great comedy should not be minimized and I think it did play a significant role in his motivation. As for what explains the unique inspiration in Falstaff, nobody could possibly have foreseen the results. Maybe not even Verdi himself.” The writer (and fellow composer) Boito also played a major part in winning him over to the idea. Otello had already proved how uniquely compatible the two were as creative partners. “There is only one way to end better than with Otello,” Boito argued, “and that is to end victoriously with Falstaff. Having made all the cries and lamentations of the human heart resound, to end with an immense outburst of cheer! That will astonish!”

Boito had already succeeded in luring Verdi out of what, for all the world, appeared to be his nonnegotiable retirement from the opera stage by producing a sophisticated but theatrically savvy adaptation of Othello. It wasn’t so much a repetition of that feat—the composer’s creative juices were obviously already flowing again—as a shift in perspective that Boito achieved by working out the scenario for a new comic libretto loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Working from what is by consensus a second-rate (at best) Shakespeare play—though a source for several operas, from a German Singspiel by Otto Nicolai (before Verdi) to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love—Boito crafted an economical libretto in six scenes. His ingenuity wasn’t so much in streamlining the original plot—the usual strategy for any libretto adaptation—as in his filling out (so to speak) the character of the fat knight.

Boito does this by including additional snapshots alluding to his speeches in the two Henry IV chronicle plays, where Shakespeare develops the fuller, more richly dimensional erstwhile pal of Prince Hal, Sir John Falstaff— “the height of Shakespeare’s invention of the human,” as Harold Bloom rhapsodizes about the character. This more-rounded Falstaff (puns simply become unavoidable with this material, even in the lowly genre of the program essay) comes to the fore above all in his soliloquies about “honor” and after the prank that leaves him waterlogged from the Thames. While Falstaff overall is an ensemble opera, Sir John manages to dominate, his presence keenly felt even when he is offstage but being talked about. Regarding the timeless and archetypal nature of Shakespeare’s character, the poet W.H. Auden observed that his “true home is the world of music.”

Verdi became almost giddy with gratitude for being urged to compose again—and for receiving a vehicle to do so in such fresh ways. This is one of several fascinating paradoxes about Falstaff. It’s quintessential Verdi, incorporating myriad references to his own artistic past; and yet, far from repeating himself, the composer responds to the drama with a remarkably innovative attitude. This trait can still surprise opera lovers accustomed to the more obviously lyrical style of the blockbusters from earlier in his career. A prominent example of its novelty is the unusual (for Verdi) degree of integration of voices and orchestra, which some even describe as symphonic.

The very first music we hear is a riotous C major chord on the “off” beat, and the impetus keeps pressing forward. It’s as if there’s no time to dally with a prelude or overture—or, rather, Verdi mashes the expectation of an instrumental introduction with the stage action, and the characters themselves become “themes.” The whole business with the indignant Dr. Caius is interpreted by some commentators as a closet sonata form overture—which makes for a neat symmetry with Verdi’s dramatization of another instrumental form, the fugue, at the very end. This way of kicking off the action has an especially “modern” feel to it (compared with traditional Italian opera). Puccini certainly borrowed the tactic for La Bohème, and it’s a familiar device with composers in our own time.

Verdi both reinvents Shakespeare’s comedy and adds a new dimension by translating it to the medium of opera. His music shatters the illusion of the fourth wall, pulling aside the wizard’s curtain in clever parodies of opera as well as loving allusions to his predecessors. Falstaff pays tribute to a rich century of operatic tradition. It’s not just his own past that Verdi touches on throughout the score (which even includes references to his Requiem). There are nods to Figaro in both the zany ensembles and the attempted-seduction-by-night scene, to long-vanished opera buffa practice, honeyed bel canto melody, the colorful atmospherics of such early Romantics as Berlioz and Mendelssohn, and even to the high spirits of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (which had only recently been introduced, and with great success, to Italian stages).

A kind of self-conscious play-acting—which is after all what drives the plot—is highlighted musically as well. Verdi’s score continually draws attention to it through his radical stylistic gear shifts. When Alice reads her would-be suitor’s letter, she swoons to a gorgeous lyrical line that Verdi might have penned to satisfy a demanding prima donna at the height of his career. But the tune then serves to mock Falstaff’s ulterior motives before disintegrating into a collective cackle.

An especially wonderful example of this kind of in-joke parody of how easily we fall into (or for?) role playing occurs in Ford’s rage monologue. Verdi introduces the standard operatic theme of jealousy and control. But he dramatizes this as a complement to Falstaff’s id-centered lifestyle, and so it, too, gets spoofed. Ford’s outburst borrows from the rhetoric of high tragedy, even hinting at the implacable jealousy depicted in Otello, yet Verdi hedges all this by embedding it within a comic exchange.

What a cornucopia of humor is contained in Verdi’s score: You meet it in the protagonist’s delusions of grandeur or in Mistress Quickly’s ridiculously exaggerated courtliness as she repeatedly addresses Falstaff as “Reverenza” (“Your Grace”), making her flattery annoying. Or in the virtuoso rhythmic layering in the first-act finale, when the five men sing in one meter, the four women in another. The metrical dexterity here underlines the fact that the men are unaware of the women’s plot. Later, in the second-act finale, Verdi puts his own spin on those madcap scenes of “organized chaos” perfected by Rossini, whose remark decades earlier—that Verdi was incapable of doing comedy—had made him bristle.

Another characteristic of Falstaff is the brimming vitality and variety of Verdi’s word painting, his musical conjuring to illuminate what is sung and what happens onstage. Throughout the score, and above all in the final scene in Windsor Forest, writes the musicologist Emanuele Senici, “the practice of finding musical equivalents for textual images, common throughout Verdi’s career, turns in on itself when it responds literally to musical images present in the text.” By responding to Boito’s continual stream of verbal references to music—take the trill in Falstaff’s soliloquy in the last act or Fenton’s song-sonnet— “the subject of music has become music. Or, better, the subject of words and music in opera has become opera itself.”

If Falstaff emerges as one of the most memorable, colorfully realized characters in all opera, he has a counterpart in Verdi’s treatment of the orchestra. The latter could be said to become a character itself; never before had the composer lavished such care on the details and finesse of his instrumentation. And it’s not just a character, but a sly commentator that glosses every dimension of the text. Verdi’s untiring flow of ideas elicits much more than Boito’s “immense outburst of cheer.” His orchestra knows how to make us smile, wink, chortle and belly laugh. There’s even a panoply of “special effects”—listen for the high and low of piccolo and cello together tracing an “empty” outline when Falstaff imagines the non-Falstaff, thinned out by lack of access to his pleasures. The ghostly parody of this sonority almost looks ahead to Shostakovich.

Verdi’s ideas buzz past at a dizzying pace. However lightweight the comic action, his music drama demands full-on attention if it’s to be savored. A common misconception about Falstaff is that Verdi’s melodic gift was drying up. So where are those gorgeous, long-limbed arias? “The tunes are there,” explains Conlon, “and many of them are in the orchestra. It’s just that they go flying by at the speed of light. And they don’t repeat themselves, so it is hard for some who are hearing Falstaff for the first time to retain them. But they are there—charming, warm and lyrical—as they are in all of Verdi’s operas. This is one of the opera world’s most life-affirming works.”

This proliferating invention reinforces the wordplay of Shakespeare and Boito. At times it can almost seem as if Verdi is rushing against the clock, impatient to linger on a single idea when he has so much more to express. Julian Budden observes that Verdi’s music for the young lovers Nannetta and Fenton is particularly haunted by the sense of passing time. “In setting their lyrical encounters to a fast tempo,” he writes, “Verdi gives them a sense of transience, of moments of happiness snatched from ‘devouring time.’”

The old-school separation of distinct arias, duets, choruses and the like is broken down in the cauldron of Verdi’s imagination. We do get aspects of these formal ideas, but most often distilled into minimal events conveying a maximalist density of musical information—yet all exuding the feathery lightness of Verdi’s touch. This superabundant but fleeting diversity of detail has always been a particularly striking feature of Falstaff’s score. It’s also one way in which the Italian master strikes out on a path very different from the one Wagner had forged. The irony is that precisely in the historical context that produced Falstaff, Verdi’s innovative spirit was largely interpreted by his contemporaries as a desire to imitate Wagner—and, implicitly, as a repudiation of the grand Italian tradition and of his own past.

One of the advantages of this dual bicentennial year for Verdi and Wagner—in spite of the silly, pointless “debates” pitting one against the other and in spite of the legitimate comparisons of their revolutionary approaches to opera—is that closer focus has shed light on the independence of their respective legacies. Instead of comparing Verdi to Wagner, it makes more sense to marvel at how the comedy in Falstaff opened up unique new musical possibilities. “In the midst of an increasingly fragmented aesthetic world,” writes Roger Parker, “[Verdi] was able to follow the whim of the moment, to gaze back serenely on past achievements and…simply to enjoy himself.”

A writer and educator, Thomas May is a regular contributor to LA Opera’s programs. His books include Decoding Wagner and the John Adams Reader, and he blogs at memeteria.com.


Audra McDonald in Concert: Set List

October 26, 2013

SET LIST

“When Did I Fall in Love”
     from Fiorello! by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick

“Stars and the Moon”
     from Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown

“My Buddy”
     by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn

“Double Dare You”
     by Terry Shand and Jimmy Eaton

“Baltimore”
     by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich

“Moonshine Lullaby”
     from Annie Get Your Gun by Irving Berlin

“Moments in the Woods”"
     from Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim

“Migratory V”
     from Myths and Hymns by Adam Guettel

“I Could Have Danced All Night”
     from My Fair Lady by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner

“Whose Little Angry Man Are You?”
     from Raisin by Judd Woldin and Robert Brittan

“Baby Mine”
     from Disney’s Dumbo by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace

“Can’t Stop Talking About Him”
     from Let’s Dance by Frank Loesser

Selections from Craigslistlieder
    
by Gabriel Kahane

“Go Back Home”
     from The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander and Fred Ebb

“I’ll Be Here”
     from Ordinary Days by Adam Gwon

“Make Someone Happy”
     from Do Re Mi by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green

“Some Days”
     by Steve Marzulo and James Baldwin

 

Encores:

“Summertime”
     from Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin

“Over the Rainbow”
     from The Wizard of Oz by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg


Mozart, Buster Keaton and Nosferatu: A new "Magic Flute" comes to LA Opera

Ethereal swaths of smoke combine to form familiar yet odd images: flowers that grow in slow motion as if by magic, elephants floating in cocktail glasses, flying flutes, dancing bells, an enigmatic black cat—anything is possible in LA Opera’s new staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Created by the British theater group 1927 in collaboration with Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, the staging had its production premiere in that city last year, playing to sold-out houses and rave reviews. London’s The Guardian described 1927’s distinctive aesthetic: “A perfect mixture of all the things worth loving: silent films, the cabaret of the Weimar Republic, David Lynch and the Brothers Grimm.” (To view a video preview, click here.)

The extraordinary, unconventional fantasy worlds dreamed up by the artistic directors of 1927—director Suzanne Andrade and filmmaker Paul Barritt, employing a combination of animated film and live performers—create the impression that huge comic strip collages have come to life. The singers, positioned in front of a huge screen, interact with the images projected around them, all in real time. The most frequently performed of all German operas is thus transformed into an exciting new experience unlike anything encountered before on the operatic stage.

And now LA Opera presents the first performances of this staging seen outside Berlin, for a limited run of six performances (November 23 through December 15), conducted by LA Opera Music Director James Conlon. For more information about The Magic Flute, click here.


Behind The Scenes: Falstaff by a Nose

The LAO Wig Shop (or 'Ye Olde Wig Shoppe' the week Falstaff opens) is typically the hairiest of work environs at LAO…

Wig Shop

…but for this show some of their space is doubling as a special effects make-up shop for facial prosthetics.

Here, an epoxy casting of singer Rodell Rosel's face is matched-up with a corresponding casting of a sculpted fake shnoz. Known as the 'positive' and 'negative' molds, they'll be used to cast a silicone or rubber prosthesis to be worn on stage.

Falstaff Nose Mold

Multiple strikes of the gross lumpy nose are made and stored on plastic copies of the face so that they retain their shape as they await application.

Falstaff Nose

The 'flashing' of extra material around the nose will be cut away, then the piece will be painted to match the singer's skin tone.

Falstaff Nose

The prosthetic needs to be lightweight, not hindering the performers's ability to sing or emote facially. The casting, attaching and blending techniques are similar to what's done in movies and television in that the prosthetic pieces must be durable. But unlike television and film, there's no director yelling "cut," so make-up techs can't run in and fix things between takes. Nor is there any digital clean-up in post-production. 

Falstaff Nose

So, for singer Rodell Rosel as the lumpy-nosed Bardolph, a full-costume dress rehearsal also means full facial appliance, too. Wow, look at that thing…

Bardolph


James Conlon: "Falstaff," A Cosmic Scherzo

Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera Falstaff is a paradox. Together with Otello, it represents the zenith of Italian opera. It a highly innovative culminating achievement of more than a half-century’s artistic output. It is a Janus Head, showing a way towards the future, while integrating and partially repudiating the tradition and style Verdi himself had forged. The disappearance of arias, cabalettas, set numbers, vocal display and high notes has often perplexed traditional opera lovers. But it has also won over countless devotees and connoisseurs of so-called “absolute music,” affording them some access to the Italian opera. Many musicians and musicologists who are restrained—if not downright dismissive—in their appreciation of Italian opera cite Otello and Falstaff, along with the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas and Wozzeck, Pelléas et Mélisande, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal as absolute musical masterpieces. Falstaff completes the cycle, begun in Florence with Claudio Monteverdi, of lyrical works blending text, voice and orchestra, dramatic narrative and reflective prose and poetry, libretto and music. Whether or not in tandem with, or under the influence of, German music (Wagner and Beethoven in particular), the polyphonic intricacy and glorification of the orchestral texture of Falstaff has no precedent or equivalent in the Italian tradition.

Verdi’s 80 years afforded him the privilege of writing for his own pleasure without taking theaters, impresarios and singers into consideration. With detachment, he created a multi-layered work to suit his fancy. First and foremost, with the brilliant collaboration of librettist Arrigo Boito, he transformed a Shakespearean character drawn from two plays into a successful comedy, an accomplishment that had eluded him up until that time.

It is a work of paradoxes, ironies and contradictions. A raucous comedy with profound undertones, it reflects both the philosophical wisdom and resignation of old age. And yet it is infused with astonishing youthful vigor. It demonstrates a total mastery of wedding text and music. Dramatic wit, melodic and contrapuntal invention (the final fugue a culminating accomplishment) cohabit a musical text replete with self-deprecating humor and irony. The use of musical gestures from the long shadow of his past triumphs at times suggests ironic devaluation of the musical and theatrical language that he had built over his lifetime.

And yet it is equally the logical conclusion of the development of the musical language of the entire corpus of his more than two dozen operas. From Nabucco on, one sees a progressive and inevitable metamorphosis from the strict bel canto traditional forms to through-composed music, from set numbers to seamless dramatic constructions. Step by step, Verdi developed the orchestra from its previous subsidiary role to that of equal partner and in the end to that of the center spoke of the wheel. One sees the same wealth of deep humanity that informs all of Verdi’s works, now with a maturity and depth unimaginable at the beginning of his compositional career.

No other operatic work employs numerous subtle self-citations (Verdi connoisseurs will recognize many of them) which fills the work with ironic and self-satirizing humor. With a distanced eye and ear, he winks at the entire melodramatic tradition to which he had devoted his life. It is a perfect combination of the skepticism (even cynicism) of an octogenarian genius and an extraordinary life-affirming joie de vivre.

His three Shakespearean operas have special reverberance in the Anglo-Saxon world, which at times has been a two-edged sword. In the first century after their composition, these works were constantly compared to their literary originals disappointing some while convincing others. The majority view emerged that, in writing Macbeth, Verdi had made a giant leap in the development of his own style but fell short of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. With Otello, he produced the perfect operatic equivalent of the original tragedy, drawing the Italian operatic tradition to its climax. And with Falstaff he surpassed the original Merry Wives of Windsor, already considered to be one of Shakespeare’s weaker works (if written by him at all). Although this viewpoint is somewhat oversimplified, it bears up under serious scrutiny. One of Verdi and Boito’s great accomplishments was to blend in the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor with the Falstaff of Henry IV, Part 2. Both men had so digested the essence of Shakespearean theater, through their life-long study of his works, that their rotund knight achieves a depth and breadth latent in Shakespeare, but only achieved in this musical reincarnation.

Falstaff has been with me for my entire lifetime of music making. I was in my early teens when I first saw it at the old Metropolitan Opera in the now legendary Zeffirelli/Bernstein production. Fewer than ten years later, I conducted it in my first professional engagement, literally a month after my graduation from conservatory. In the Verdian pantheon, Falstaff is to the conductor what Aida, Otello and Rigoletto are to those who sing their title roles. The musical structure, the demands of a perfect ensemble of singers, and the orchestra have become the “protagonist” and hence fully in the domain of the musical direction. The challenge and the joy of steering this ship, while the music goes by at the speed of light, is amongst the greatest that I have experienced.

Fifty years separate this production of Falstaff—my sixth—from my first acquaintance with this work, and the same span of time separated Verdi’s creations of Nabucco and Falstaff. There may be Verdi operas that I love as much, but none that I love more. The entire musical world celebrates Giuseppe Verdi this year, the bicentenary of his birth. I dedicate these performances to him, with the gratitude that we all owe him, for what he has bequeathed to us and to the entire world.

James Conlon is the Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera.

 

 

 

 



Learn More About Charitable Remainder Trusts

The following example compares the results for an individual selling an asset and investing the after tax proceeds against the results for contributing the same asset to a Charitable Remainder Trust for his or her benefit.  Costs of sales are not included in the example.

If you sell vacant land worth $1,100,000.00, which you bought for $100,000.00 and your investment goal is a five percent (5%) annual return, the result would be:

$1,100,000.00 minus $300,000.00 ($1,000,000.00 gain x 30% tax) = $800,000.00.  Your annual income would be $800,000.00 x 5% = $40,000.00 per year.

If you contribute the asset to a Charitable Remainder Trust paying 5% per year, the result, after the trust sells the asset, would be:

$1,100,000.00 x 5% = $55,000.00 annual income the first year (later years may vary).  You will also receive a substantial charitable income tax deduction in the year of your contribution; for example, a single person aged 75, under these circumstances, would receive a charitable income tax deduction in the range of $650,000.00, the unused portion of which, if any, may be carried forward for 5 years.

At the termination of the Charitable Remainder Trust, the remaining assets will pass to LA Opera, where your gift will help to bring beauty and drama of opera to future generations.

The foregoing is a general summary; results may vary based on individual circumstances.

For more information please contact Howard Moss, Senior Planned Giving Officer, at (213) 972-3141 or email hmoss@laopera.org


Magic Flute: Tech Behind-the-Scenes

This production of Magic Flute marks the first time in opera that all physical scenery has been entirely replaced with video projections. 

Magic Flute Pamina

Pamina stands on a tiny revolving door platform that pivots out of the wall that serves as a projection screen. She is harnessed and buckled into the wall.  Monostatos stands on the first level of the stage. All other scenic elements are video projections. 

Magic Flute Stage Spike Marks

Different color tapes are used for “spike” marks. These spike marks serve as a road map to indicate the position of sets and props and performers. The integration of these elements is critical in a production as intricate as this Magic Flute with nearly one thousand video animation cues. 

Magic Flute Spike Tape

The yellow “Ts” are overall placements for where the performers stand for many of the projections.  There are a number of other different colored spikes for various performer and prop placements. 

Magic Flute Video Projections

The video animation is not one complete movie that plays from beginning to end.  It is composed of layers of separate clips. All clips are stored on a powerful computer (media server) and the stage manager, while watching the visuals and following the music, “calls” these cues accordingly to a projectionist. The projectionist then pushes a “go” button which executes the cue sequences. All of this is projected through one 18,000 lumen hi-definition projector located in a booth at the back of the orchestra level seating.

The video is mixed live for every performance because every performance is different based on the musical tempi of the conductor, orchestra and singers. Thus no two productions are exactly the same. 

While Magic Flute is on stage and show-ready, Falstaff is stored in the wings until the next performance of that production. It takes three hours to completely transform the stage from one of these productions to the other, ready for curtain. 

Magic Flute with Falstaff Backstage


Welcome to Jonah and the Whale

Our favorite high school blogger, Muse Lee, returns to LA Opera's blog to talk about her experience with our Community Opera Program.  This year we are presenting the world premiere production of Jonah and the Whale by Jack Perla and Velina Hasu Houston.

To me, LA Opera’s Community Opera program means many things. However, now that I’m returning to participate a second time, one memory stands out: the moment that we finally rehearsed in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Just standing in the Cathedral filled us with a sense of mystery, urgency, and wonder. The singing transformed from practiced mantras to spontaneous outbursts, and the movements sprang not from conscious decision, but from an inner compulsion.

Cathedral Opera

At the time, I didn’t quite realize the beauty of creating art in a holy place. However, entering my second year in the program, I’m starting to realize the true significance of the Community Opera program.

Community Opera is LA Opera’s annual project open to the entire community: children and adults, amateurs and professionals. After two months of rehearsal, participants join more than four hundred chorus and orchestra members at the Cathedral to perform an opera.

Orientation for Community Opera 2014 took place last Sunday. As I arrived in the room, I saw familiar faces everywhere. All my friends from last year’s program and Opera Camp were there, and they were just as excited as I was. We instantly began rehashing memories and belting out tunes from the operas we had done together. The moment our antics earned a fondly exasperated look from our director, Eli Villanueva, it was as if no time had passed at all.

Cathedral Opera

The Senior Director of Education and Community Engagement, Stacy Brightman, and our directors, Eli Villanueva and Leslie Stevens, gave us overviews of the program and led us through some of the choreography. We also learned about what we’d be performing: the world premiere of Jonah and the Whale. Jonah and the Whale is the story of a prophet fleeing from the Lord. As he escapes by sea, God sends a giant fish to swallow him. Inside the belly of the whale, Jonah learns the error of his ways and repents, placing all of his faith in God’s will. As the ensemble, we will play waves, sea creatures, sailors, and Ninevites in the story.

To sum up the program, Dr. Brightman stated, “Art belongs to everybody. Opera certainly belongs to everybody. And this opera house belongs to everybody.”

As we laughed, leapt, and danced for the next hour of orientation, I reflected back on my Cathedral experience and thought about Dr. Brightman’s words. I’m beginning to understand what she meant. Only now do I realize why in the Cathedral, everything fell so naturally into place. It’s because art itself is an act of faith. Art fills us and lifts us up. Art brings the community together, because though it may not have all the answers, it shows us that others have the same questions. And making artistic choices, devoting ourselves to art, and sharing it with the community are in themselves a leap of faith.


Tito Gobbi: Centenary Exhibit

(Tito Gobbi with his book, "My Life")

October 2013 marked two important anniversaries in the world of Italian opera: the bicentennial of Giuseppe Verdi, and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tito Gobbi, one of the greatest baritones of the 20th century.

Gobbi had retired before LA Opera was founded, but opera lovers in Los Angeles enjoyed several opportunities to experience him in his prime. He performed at the Shrine Auditorium on tour with the San Francisco Opera in several of his greatest roles: Belcore in L’Elisir d’Amore in 1948; the title role of Simon Boccanegra, Jack Rance in La Fanciulla del West and Scarpia in Tosca in 1960; Iago in Otello and Scarpia in 1962; and Iago as well as the title roles of Nabucco and Gianni Schicchi in 1964.

An exhibit in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion lobby throughout the run of LA Opera’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff  presents a wealth of iconographic materials documenting Tito Gobbi as an interpreter of Verdi. His artistry comes to life in a fascinating series of photographs, drawings and set and costume designs showing the full complexity of Verdi's characters and the baritone’s rigorous and imaginative approach to his roles.


(Don Carlo, 1951)                            (Macbeth, 1960)                              (Nabucco, 1965)

about tito gobbi

Tito Gobbi was born in Bassano del Grappa on 24th October, 1913. When he was 19 years old a musician friend of the family, Baron Agostino Zanchetta, noticed that he had a good voice and advised him to study singing. That same year Tito moved to Rome to study with the famous Sicilian tenor, Giulio Crimi, at whose home he met the young pianist, Tilde De Rensis, who was to become his life partner.

His first appearance on stage was in Gubbio, in 1935, where he played Count Rodolfo in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Immediately afterwards, thanks to an audition with Maestro Gino Marinuzzi, he won a scholarship to the La Scala theatre where, between 1935 and 1936, he understudied for many parts.  In 1942, Maestro Serafin invited him to sing the title role in the Italian première of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and from that time on Gobbi’s name was inscribed in the history of opera.  His career didn't suffer any hindrances during the war and the post-war period: he sang not only in many great Italian opera houses, but also in small provincial theatres and halls, experiencing all the difficulties of those times but with important achievements.

The year 1947, with Rigoletto in Stockholm, marked the beginning of a great international career that brought Tito to all the major opera houses in the world and earned him the nickname of "the flying singer".

In 1964 he performed with Maria Callas in the unsurpassed edition of Tosca directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario, which was repeated in Paris the following year and circulated throughout the world on DVD (the second act only).  His U.S. debut dates back to 1948 with The Barber of Seville in San Francisco; in 1954 he was in Chicago for the re-opening of the Lyric Opera, a theatre to which he returned often during more than 10 years,  initially as a performer and then also as director.

In the 70's Tito gradually gave up singing, and stopped completely in 1977 to dedicate himself fully to stage direction and teaching, an activity for which he realized he had a natural proclivity.  He never left theatre and music that accompanied him throughout his life: his last direction is dated 1982, while his last master class was held in 1983.  Tito Gobbi died in Rome on 5th March 1984.

(Biography courtesy Associazione Musicale Tito Gobbi)

 

View more images from the Tito Gobi Centenary Exhibit

The centenary exhibit is presented courtesy of
Cecilia Gobbi and the Associazione Musicale Tito Gobbi.