Skip to main content

Information 213.972.8001

Blog entries tagged with Maestro James Conlon

Meet the Artists of Simon Boccanegra on March 1

Got plans on Thursday, March 1? Well, drop them and come to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to see Simon Boccanegra instead! (And if you’ve already seen it, come back and see it again.) Immediately following the March 1 performance, we’re hosting a special reception for all ticket holders in the Oval Bar where you can meet the artists from this spectacular, critically and popularly acclaimed production!  Plácido Domingo, Maestro James Conlon, Ana Maria Martinez, members of the orchestra and chorus will all be on hand to meet and greet fans!

There will be complimentary coffee and deserts and the bar will be open for additional purchases.

For tickets, visit www.laopera.org and we’ll see you on March 1!


Verdi: Pater Familias (by James Conlon)

1813: The birth year of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner

1913: The birth year of Benjamin Britten

2013: The year LA Opera and the classical music world will mark these three anniversaries. Actually, 2013 will serve as the center line for observing these birthdates. We have already begun this process, and it will extend into 2014.

One could barely think of three composers who were personally and artistically so different. And yet, aside from their centenary celebrations, they have one enormous attribute in common. All three unquestionably stand at the zenith of their respective operatic cultures. In presenting The Two Foscari (I Due Foscari), in its first production in a major American opera house in 40 years, LA Opera brings to light an essential work from Verdi’s early period, which will be especially appreciated by Verdi lovers. This opera represents an important step in the development of Verdi’s style and musical vocabulary, in which he gradually transforms the inherited culture of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini into a language of his own, quintessentially defining and personifying the Italian 19th century.

Composer Giuseppe Verdi

I Due Foscari is the sixth opera of Verdi’s 26 theatrical works (not counting several revised versions). Between his first opera, Oberto (1839), and Falstaff (1893) are 54 years. Foscari (1844) was written five years into that trajectory—in terms of works written, not yet a quarter of his ultimate output and in terms of years, less than ten percent of the way. It may be, by our standards, an “old-fashioned” opera. It certainly would have been considered as such by the composer himself. But we have come to measure the sophistication of Italian opera precisely by the yardstick Verdi has provided us through his extraordinary life’s productivity.

What it is easy for us to miss, in a first hearing, is actually how much there is that was new and significant at the time, starting with Verdi’s choice of subject. He recounts the story of the forced abdication of a great Venetian statesman (Francesco Foscari) resulting from an unseemly, clandestine intrigue by other Venetian nobles. (The Doge of the Venetian Republic was the head of state, and the word Doge is the Venetian form of the Latin word Dux, whence the English word duke and Mussolini’s self-appellation Duce). Considering that the work was intended to be premiered in Venice, this constituted an unacceptable affront to the nobility at large and to the still-prominent Foscari family. It was rejected as unsuitable, and Verdi later substituted it for a commission in Rome, where it was premiered.

After dispensing raw energy and occasional bombast in his early operas, he took a decisive step toward elegance and refinement. His third opera, Nabucco (1842), catapulted him to prominence as a daring young composer and, almost simultaneously, into a political hero.

Nabucco is to Verdi what Idomeneo is to Mozart, the “Eroica” Symphony to Beethoven, The Flying Dutchman to Wagner, and The Rite of Spring to Stravinsky: a quantum leap into the future. Verdi would continue a pattern of pushing his vocabulary forward with new forms and compositional procedures, followed by a work of consolidation. Foscari is a determined step towards intimate drama following larger-scaled works. It demonstrates a pattern he was to repeat nine years later, following the medieval and stormy Il Trovatore with the elegant Parisian “drawing room” romance of La Traviata.

Verdi concentrates the action of Foscari within a tight family unit: the aging Doge Francesco, his son Jacopo, persecuted by the intriguing nobles, and Jacopo’s devoted and courageous wife, Lucrezia Contarini (herself of noble blood). Venice is an alternatingly colorful and lugubrious background, one of the first examples of Verdi’s fascination with the political world and the ambiance of power. The first two words of the opera, an example of Verdi’s famous “parola scenica” (“the scenic word”), are “silenzio …mistero” (silence and mystery), which are said to reign over and to have protected Venice since its infancy. In contrast, the populace sings to Venice, the daughter, wife and mistress of the sea, as a mirror; the blue lagoon reflects the brightness of day, and the moon transforms its night into silver.

Verdi uses identifying motifs for his principal characters in a more consistent way than in his previous operas. His characteristic devotion to concision produces one of his shortest operas.

But by far the most important aspect of Foscari is the subject and the primacy of the father-son relationship. There is no question that the plight of the father is the single most central theme spanning Verdi’s entire output. Its absence in an opera is the exception rather than the rule. Psychobiography is a highly unreliable, if not an entirely unworthy, approach to analyzing works of art, but it is tempting to state the obvious. Verdi’s loss of his first wife and two infant children within 22 months between 1838 and 1840 clearly left its mark on the composer as well as the man.

His fathers are complex and multi-dimensional; few are stick figures of good or bad. Many of the fathers are unsympathetic by their actions, but win our compassion through their own sufferings, or incapacity to prevent their own tragic fates and/or those of their children: Nabucco, Count Walter (Luisa Miller), Rigoletto, Germont (La Traviata), Monfort (I Vespri Siciliani) King Phillip II (Don Carlo) and even the comic and blustering Mr. Ford, outdone along with Falstaff by his clearly superior-witted wife.

One might consider Miller, father of Luisa, and Simon Boccanegra to be the most enlightened and evolved fathers in the Verdian pantheon. Conversely, Amonasro (father of Aida) is the least sympathetic father, perhaps because he puts his role as king ahead of his role as father. He shares this dilemma with the father Foscari. In fact, one can see in Foscari the kernel of the future tragedies: the conflict between love and duty. Whether it is opposing national loyalties, as in Aida or I Vespri Siciliani, duties of state as in Un Ballo in Maschera, or Violetta’s choice between the dictates of her heart and the demands of the father of her beloved to conform to provincial bourgeois values, the polar forces of love and duty will be omnipresent throughout most of the Verdi corpus.

The Two Foscari is the first of the series of complex father-son relations, passing through I Masnadieri (with a good and bad son) and Luisa Miller (which will present a clear contrast between the “good” and the “bad” father­) on through Monfort and his son Henri until it finds its apotheosis in the portrayal of the monumentality failed relationship between King Philip II of Spain and his son Don Carlo.

Rare is the Italian opera that lacks the triangular love stories that provided the stuff of generations of competing sopranos, bleating tenors and vindictive, thwarted baritones. But Foscari foreshadows Macbeth in its total absence of love conflicts. It is significant that in Macbeth, a tale of regicide, the good King Duncan and the good father Banquo are murdered, but the story of their sons takes on great significance. The role of Macduff is essentially reduced to one aria, devoted to mourning his murdered children. Leonora’s father in La Forza del Destino appears only for several moments at the beginning of the opera, but his accidental death sets the entire drama that follows in motion.

Verdi’s lifelong preoccupation with and failed attempts to set King Lear may have many explanations, but it is noteworthy that the greatest of all tragic fathers in Shakespeare plays intimidated even the genius who had placed so many fathers on the stage. Of the tantalizing “what ifs” of operatic history, Verdi’s unwritten King Lear is the most frustrating.

The Foscari family trio is a unified and tragic entity, bound together by their implacable enemies’ thirst for vengeance. The conflict between paternal love and the demands of the crown break the will of the aging father; the death (murder) of his son breaks his heart. Only the commanding presence of Lucrezia remains alive at the end of the Foscari reign to face the victorious enemies of her family. Brought to its end by the silent and mysterious forces that ruled “la Serenissima,” the “Most Serene Republic of Venice,” the demise of the Foscari family shows that the “daughter, wife and mistress of the sea” was all but serene.

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

 

 

 


Don Giovanni, the Unknowable (by James Conlon)

“Donna folle! indarno gridi, Chi son io tu non saprai!”
(Crazed woman!, you scream in vain; who I am, you will never know!”)

Writing on the subject of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni is easy, because the subject is vast and fascinating. It is also unnecessary. Primarily, the music speaks for itself. Secondarily, so much has been written and said about it, that it is virtually impossible to avoid redundancy. Thirdly, almost any position the writer might take on the subject, including all the thoughts set forth in this article, can immediately be challenged and dismissed by an infinite number of equally valid or invalid viewpoints.

This holds equally true for performing the opera. Despite routine claims of innovation and fresh “insight,” performances that actually bring something new to this work are the exception, not the rule. But fortunately, the genius of the work is such that it trumps any attempt to “illuminate” its inner workings. Its substance is fully present in any competent performance. The work is unfathomable in its depths, uncontainable in its breadth, and inexhaustible in its essence.

A saying, often attributed to Artur Schnabel, holds that “A masterpiece is a work that is better than any of its possible performances.” That statement, which can make one’s head spin in its implications, unquestionably can apply to Don Giovanni. Might that partially explain why one of the greatest operas ever written lends itself, paradoxically, to more productions that fail dismally than other works of lesser quality?

Or could it be the constant enticement to artists to attempt to “say” something special or unique, to have a “take” on its meaning all one’s own? Or perhaps to apply some reductionist interpretation that decides for the public how it should think and feel, and react? Have too many tried too hard? Could it be that simply performing and not interpreting the work (however unfashionable that notion might be at this moment in history) is to render to it the greatest service possible?

The story seems to have originated with a play attributed to the Spanish monk Tirso de Molina, who curiously never acknowledged his authorship. It was entitled El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra (“The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest”). Don Juan, as it came to be known, would have many new settings—by certain counts over 1,720 in the centuries following its creation—mostly in France in the 17th century and most notably by Moliére. Da Ponte knew and borrowed from an operatic version called Don Juan Tenorio—referred to as a dramma giocoso (jocular or playful drama), the ambiguous appellation retained by Mozart and Da Ponte—with a libretto by one Giovanni Bertati. By the end of the 18th century the subject of Don Juan seemed to be exhausting itself when Mozart and Da Ponte alighted on it. Had it not been for them, the story might have disappeared altogether. But they produced a work of transcendent genius, transformed the story of Don Juan and, whether intentionally or not, gave birth to Don Giovanni, a modern myth.

The “new” Don Giovanni captured the imagination of the some of the greatest writers of the next two centuries. The list is long, but its most prominent exponents were Lord Byron, Alexander Pushkin, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Søren Kierkegaard at first, to be followed later by Charles Baudelaire, George Bernard Shaw and Albert Camus. When they wrote about Don Giovanni, it was no longer about a literary character, but Mozart’s Don. Through his music and dramatic genius, the protagonist was no longer just a vulgar profligate of bestial sensuality, but an enigmatic force of nature who continues to fascinate us into the present day.

With his new status of myth, each age has seen him through its particular lens. As the 19th century gradually lost interest in sin and salvation and reshaped itself, it saw him as a reflection of its own yearnings and search thirst for knowledge. Goethe’s Faust had his quest, it was said, and Don Giovanni his conquest. He was now an “antihero” who, through the excesses of his prodigious strivings, drove himself to self-destruction. He became, in the eyes of others, a melancholy hero who represents a romanticized visionary, in search of an unattainable ideal.

In the 20th century he was to undergo a radically different evaluation under the microscope of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis. The assessment of a flawed, but almost superhuman defiant hero gave way to a psychiatric outpatient, personifying every form of neurosis and pathology imaginable.

And so on. Each age, including our own, sees in him and his story a reflection of its own worldview. This is why, to return to my earlier statement, so many productions fail. The impulse to reduce the myth to specifics and/or a demonstration of relevance to a contemporary world actually impoverishes the richness of its mythic proportions. All approaches are simultaneously right and wrong, fruitful and sterile, expanding and limiting. The whole is greater than the parts, and by reducing it to an “interpretation” we, perforce, limit its infinite scope.

Although Mozart’s framework for this drama resides in the supernatural and in the rendering of divine justice it should be understood that the abundant freedom with which he and Da Ponte create this theatrical drama has less to do with religious dogma than the infinite variety of the human experience. Don Giovanni and the Commendatore provide the pillars which hold up the edifice that houses all of the other characters. Neither is fully human nor pure incarnation of abstract principles. They have a human life but are simultaneously symbols, manifestations of powerful forces, polar antagonists. That the latter is, if not the arbiter, at least the messenger for a divine judge is an easy conclusion to reach.

But, who is the real Don Giovanni? Even the birth of his story, whose author has never been confirmed, is still mysterious. Kierkegaard defined him as a theoretical construction that never rises above the category of “pure” sensuousness. In this view, Don Juan never existed nor can he, in reality, do so. Taken literally, his story seems almost ludicrous in its dimensions, unless he is seen as a force of nature rather than a real human being. His raison d’être is to arouse sexuality in everyone with whom he comes into contact, thus subverting society. To try to explain why he does so is, in a way, pointless: he simply does so.

“Motiveless malignancy,” Coleridge’s famous description of Iago’s character, leaves the “why” unanswered, and is a potent point of departure for the enduring mythical proportions of Don Giovanni. We meet both the Don and the Commendatore on their last day because, in a peculiar way, their past histories are not important (however fascinating and titillating the former’s might be). On that last day, they both meet their terrestrial deaths, and fulfill their function in the otherworldly drama of defiance and retribution. Divine justice is meted out.

Don Giovanni has no core to his personality. Mozart purposely deprives him of a self-revelatory or confessional aria. Unlike Verdi’s Iago, who explains himself in the Credo, the Don never reveals anything. His three solo numbers are one-dimensional extensions of his principal lusts: wine (the drinking song), women (the serenade) and violence (as he prepares to beat Masetto).

All the other characters are fully human. Tomes are written, justifiably, discussing the three women. They have produced a rich and ever developing literature on their own. These fascinatingly diverse characters, Anna and Elvira (the aristocrats), and Zerlina (the peasant), are bound together on this fatal day and have one important experience in common: they have all had their erotic impulses awakened, magnified and irrevocably changed by their encounter with this mythical seducer. One assumes that the lives of all of the 2065 women inscribed in Leporello’s catalog (whose list includes Donna Elvira) have been similarly impacted. Each woman’s character develops in the course of events, and each is allotted arias in both acts to chart that growth. At the end of the opera, the servant-class men, Leporello and Masetto, in their very practical way, will continue on seamlessly with their lives. Don Ottavio, the aristocrat, will as well, although Don Giovanni has struck closer to home for him, and one wonders if his marriage to Donna Anna will actually materialize. But the women’s lives are irrevocably changed; whether for better or for worse is a question that is left up in the air.

Together they all try, and fail, to retaliate against the Don. Retribution is the province of the divine. “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord,” we are told in both the Old and New Testaments, and so it is for our “hero.” Greeks of antiquity were punished by the gods, not because they were necessarily bad, but because their actions represented defiance to those gods. The sin of Adam has been variously interpreted, but is essentially that of disobedience. On the day portrayed in the opera, the Don, who has seemingly been allowed to ride herd on society through his legion sexual misdeeds, has become a murderer, and there, it seems, a line has been crossed.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni has been, is, and will be seen as all things to all people: seducer, iconoclast, devil, pioneer, agent of atheism, impiety and sacrilege, defender of Rationalism, mentally deranged psychopath. The list could be endless. Through Mozart’s masterpiece, he came a long way from the burlesque libertine of the original and will have eternal life in the minds and imaginations of opera lovers. Who he is, is unknowable, and what he represents a matter of perpetual disagreement. And so it should be. He has always given us the slip, and always will. He himself told us so while escaping from Donna Anna in his opening line of the opera, uttering words as prophetic as they are emblematic:

 “Chi son io tu non saprai!”

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

 

 

 

 

 

 


Coming Home to the Opera

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.

When you mention opera to your friends, chances are that they’ll picture gold-rimmed theater binoculars, fancy dresses, and singers trilling in foreign languages. Well, that is, unless they’ve participated in LA Opera’s Community Opera program.

3 Muskateers

Our First Rehearsal
This season's Community Opera kicked off on Sunday, January 26. People of all ages and ethnicities poured through the doors of East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy (ELAPAA): amateurs and professionals, children and adults, opera veterans and curious newcomers, all coming together to put on the world premiere of Jonah and the Whale by Jack Perla and Velina Hasu Houston, to be performed in late March at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Stacy Brightman, LA Opera's Director of Education and Community Engagement, stepped up to deliver a welcome speech and to introduce the program to us. As she talked about how we’d be performing in the grand Cathedral, how we’d be joined by more than 400 chorus and orchestra members, and how we’d be led by Maestro James Conlon, I just sat there smiling uncontrollably. We’d be singing alongside our friends and alongside world-class musicians, and better yet, working with them to achieve the same goal: a spectacular work of art. Though it’s my second year participating, I still don’t think I’ve quite wrapped my head around it. I sure was glad to be back.

Laughing

We began the day with movement warm-up led by assistant directors Leslie Stevens and Heather Lipson-Bell. They led us through stretches and strengthening exercises to prepare us for the strenuous movement required for Jonah and the Whale. Even as my muscles were screaming, I couldn’t help but think about how much I had missed Heather’s enthusiasm and Leslie’s occasional slip into a Dracula voice.

Rehearsing Jonah

After the mini-workout, assistant conductor Paul Floyd and assistant director Nathan Rifenburg led us through some of our music. We sang through the hymn Faith Be Preserved. As I lifted my voice with everyone else’s and listened to the searching, resolute melody unfold, I made a note to myself to remember exactly how I was feeling: curious, stirred, moved. Since we’re performing the world premiere of this opera, when the audience hears this melody, this would be how they will feel, too. Everyone in the Cathedral will be hearing this music for the very first time, just as we are now.

The kids went with Nathan, and director Eli Villanueva ran a staging rehearsal with the rest of us. He emphasized the importance of moving as an ensemble, led not so much by the music but by the collective breath of the group. He guided us through several patterns of movement, or katas, which we would need to learn for Jonah and the Whale. Leslie joined him, and together, they led us through the katas with the corresponding music playing.

The Jonah Company

Our first Jonah and the Whale rehearsal ended with that. After a few closing announcements, we all headed home. Though we were a little exhausted, we all felt renewed and rejuvenated, and already in love with the opera.

A Visit from the Composer
Our next rehearsal took place on Super Bowl weekend, Saturday, February 1. Because of the big event, we had some traffic problems, but eventually, we were all gathered at ELAPAA. The day began with a big surprise. Dr. Brightman stepped up to give her opening announcements, and after she had welcomed us, she told us that we had an amazing opportunity that day. She explained, “When we’re doing La Bohème, we can’t say that Mr. Puccini is in the room.” However, we now got to say the equivalent, because Jonah and the Whale composer Jack Perla had come to visit.

Mr. Perla sat down to watch our rehearsal. Like last time, we began with movement warm-up, then transitioned into working on the hymn. We’re already making significant progress with the diction, the dynamics, and the intention behind the words. I hope Mr. Perla liked what he heard.

Jack Perla and Cast

Next, the kids went with Nathan for their rehearsal, and we went with Eli for ours. We reviewed our movements from last time, fine-tuned them, and practiced several times with the music. Then, Eli divided us into smaller groups: sailors, clouds, waves and parts of the whale. He worked with the whales and the waves to start choreographing the storm. With the whale and wave props there, I could already start to envision the whole show coming together.

At the end of the day, we received our Jonah and the Whale posters. I admit that I may have screamed a little when I spotted my Operalia favorites in the list of singers. Looking at the glossy poster and reading over the names of all the groups involved, it struck me again what a big deal this production will be. I felt more honored than ever to be a part of it.

Jonah Poster

With that, we broke for the day. After final announcements, they sent us on our way. As I lined up for sign-out and observed the diverse crowd around me, I tried to put a finger on it all. Indeed, opera really isn’t just about daggers and ball gowns and wine glasses. The Cathedral experience is impossible to describe, but this is how I’m feeling right now: more than anything, Community Opera is a lot like going home. 

Tickets are available beginning February 5 at 10am at www.laopera.org