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Audra McDonald and Philip Glass Honored with National Medal of Arts

img_8966Broadway and classical icon Audra McDonald and minimalist composer Philip Glass were among the 12 recipients of the 2015 National Medal of Arts which were awarded in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House this morning. Honoring artists and arts patrons, the award was first established by Congress in 1984 with the National Endowment for the Arts’ serving as the selection committee.

The 45-minute ceremony, which also included the awarding of the National Medal of Humanities, was presided over by a good-humored President Obama who praised the honorees for “tak[ing] a piece of this big, bold, energetic country, reshap[ing] it, and shar[ing] it with us.”

Philip Glass is well-known to opera and classical music fans for his symphonic works and operas, such as Satyagraha and Einstein on the Beach. In his opening remarks, Obama praised Glass’ music (though none of it made his most recent playlist) and called it “full of contradictions that cross both genres and cultures.” Noting Glass’ radical composition style, he hearkened back to his 2008 campaign campaign rhetoric which emphasized change; “Change isn’t easy,” Obama said, “but Philip Glass has shown us that change can be beautiful.”

img_8986In a slight snafu that left her citation out of the lineup, Audra McDonald, who is several months pregnant, was the last to be acknowledged in the alphabetical awarding of the medals. “I’m glad Audra’s a good friend of mine,” an off-the-cuff Obama added, “so that they kind of forgot her citation, I think she’ll forgive me.”

Other honorees of the morning included filmmaker Mel Brooks, author Sandra Cisneros, NPR Fresh Air interviewer Terry Gross, and author Ron Chernow whose biography of Alexander Hamilton was adapted into Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s musical Hamilton. Actor Morgan Freeman was also honored, but did not attend; “He’s undoubtedly somewhere playing a black president!” Obama joked.

As honorees left for the following reception, the room was abuzz with talk about how the arts in this country might fare after the Obama Presidency comes to an end. While one could hardly call the arts a focus of Obama’s time in office, he has undeniably done much to give the arts, music, especially, a national platform. In a way, this is truly the end of an era for high-profile arts in the White House as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton‘s arts policies prioritize arts education in schools and Republican candidate Donald Trump has said little about any arts legislation or funding he might enact if elected.

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For a full list of honorees, please see here.

All photos by Opera Teen

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Summer School: “Così fan tutte” at the Mostly Mozart Festival

CosiTerm408 copy

Throughout his operas, Mozart has yielded some incredible insights about the human condition: the capacity for love, the capacity for forgiveness, the capacity to live beyond oneself. So, maybe it’s ok that the aggressively-jaded, unabashedly-sexist Così fan tutte doesn’t do much, if anything, to illuminate the human experience. Continue Reading »

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Red Scare: “Sweeney Todd” and “The Crucible” at Glimmerglass

KarliCadel-Sweeney-GenDress-4394Read Part I of the Glimmerglass Weekend reviews here.

With its commitment to producing an American musical in rep with three traditional operas, the Glimmerglass Festival next presented Stephen Sondheim’s macabre Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Premiered in 1979 with a cast headed by Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, Sweeney, the story of a formerly-exiled barber with a vendetta and thirst for blood (and hunger for meat pies), is one of the musicals most commonly produced by opera companies and justifiably famous. Continue Reading »

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Words and Birds: Jamie Barton in Recital and “The Thieving Magpie” at Glimmerglass

KarliCadel-Magpie-GenDress-8840Summer opera and classical music festivals walk a fine line: should the goal be to buoy the spirits through the hot summer months or present the same, standard programming, just where the mosquitoes can find you? The indispensable Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown (think “baseball”) has achieved a balance between the two – an even blend of the standard repertoire and the more innovative, presented accessibly (think lectures, opera in English, and artist Q&A’s), with other artistic/intellectual events in between (think recitals and masterclasses), all on the sprawling campus in rural upstate New York. One such event brought Jamie Barton, Cardiff Singer of the World and Richard Tucker Award winner and Glimmergass’ 2016 Artist in Residence, to the shores of Otsego Lake for a one-off recital program on Friday afternoon consisting of song cycles and selections by Joaquín Turina, Charles Ives, and Antonin Dvořák and a performance of Lee Hoiby’s delightful Bon Appétit! Continue Reading »

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The Old Ball and Chain: “Fidelio” and Beethoven Lieder at Caramoor

Fidelio by Ludwig van Beethoven at Caramoor

I’m always pleasantly surprised that Fidelio (1814), Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera and one that some consider a slog, runs less than three hours with one intermission. And I was even more pleasantly surprised at the sensational performance it was given at Caramoor last Sunday which was easily the most exciting, enjoyable concert I have seen come from the Venetian Theater. Continue Reading »

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Butterfly, Fly Away: Mascagni’s “Iris” at Bard SummerScape

iris2056If the bellwether of a story is how worthy it is of being told, then Iris doesn’t deserve very high marks; Pietro Mascagni’s grim opera about a stultifyingly naïve girl who is kidnapped from her blind father by a lecherous young man and then sold into prostitution in legendary Japan seems unnecessarily nauseating and indeed, it sometimes feels that way. But sordid stories often yield stunning operas (Salome, anyone?), and Iris, now seeing the light of the sun (Ha!) in a rare revival as part of Bard College’s 2016 SummerScape festival, is everything verismo – the movement towards realism in opera kickstarted by Mascagni – should be: Devastating, provocative, and direct. Continue Reading »

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General Angst: “Aureliano in Palmira” Arrives at Caramoor

Aureliano in Palmira by Gioachino Rossini at Caramoor

Andrew Owens, Georgia Jarman, and Tamara Mumford

pixelAs it generally goes with car insurance, when one older car is exchanged for another, the valuation of the old car is determined by the parts that remain in the car and how usable they will be when repurposed. By that logic, then, Gioachino Rossini’s 1813 Aureliano in Palmira, which was heard for the first time on this side of the Atlantic in its complete, original form at Caramoor on Saturday, should be an absolute gem – the overture as well as themes for “Ecco Ridente in Cielo” and “Io Sono Docile” were all taken from Aureliano and incorporated into the much better-known Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The opera that arrived at the Venetian Theater, though not a perfect piece (the “showpiece” arias aren’t particularly compelling across the board and the plot, which is adequately compelling, hardly requires all the music given to it), does, in fact, contain some gorgeous vocal writing (especially the duets for queen Zenobia and her prince Arsace) and rousing ensembles. Clocking in at nearly four hours and receiving a uniformly committed and capable presentation from the Bel Canto at Caramoor forces, this Rossini rarity is a fine example of the young composer’s music that would only tighten, both musically and dramatically, as his career progressed. Continue Reading »