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Can Theatre Be Too Accessible?

It is an undeniably exciting time to be part of the opera/classical music/live theatre community. Technology has enhanced what can be put onstage, further knowledge of how the human mind works as well as changing social norms has enabled new perspectives on old pieces and tempered new pieces, and social media has made the arts more visible than they have ever been. In a way, it’s become easier than ever to take part in a global community of people who share similar interests, passions, and ideas. Art has connected us as never before.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime Photo by Joan Marcus

With the New York opera season running on the shorter side, I use the summer to reacquaint myself with musical theatre and try to take in as much of it as possible. In July, I went to see Les Miserables, my first time seeing the musical in a, frankly, poorly directed Broadway revival that opened last year. While I appreciate that Les Miz is a big-name show, perfect for someone visiting New York for the first time who wants to see a show, some of the behavior in the audience once the curtain went up was, in my mind, pretty disturbing.

People were carrying on full conversations long past the start of the music, going in and out of the theater frequently and at random, and opening lozenges and eating chips. Children seemed unwatched, playing games and chatting, and nobody paid much heed to overtures or entr’actes, which struck me as strange coming from my background of operagoing. It was disruptive and frustrating to see an audience so disconnected from what was happening onstage. While this could have been one of the numerous faults of the production, I believe that this points to a larger question that Broadway, with the rash of incidents of patrons on phones or electronics during performances, may be feeling all too acutely right now: Can theatre be too accessible?

I spent a good ¾ of the show pondering that. Those rowdy audience members seemed expendable. It’s certainly not necessary to sit unmoving with your back straight as theatergoers may have had decades ago, but what was missing was an appreciation or even basic respect for what was happening onstage.

Prince Igor at the Metropolitan Opera Photo by Cory Weaver

Evolution is key at the crossroads where theatre in America is standing right now. It’s no secret that classical music and opera, just like the audiences that take them in, have to evolve, too. Just like any art form, they must move with the times and adapt to changing demographics. This is important, but if you’re reading this, I probably don’t have to convince you of that.

Now more than ever opera and instrumental music in particular have to find a new audience that will not only carry it through to the next generations, but help it grow and change in a way that unites the best parts of an art form grounded in the present as much as it is in the past.

The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. government’s organization that gives money to artists and arts institutions, is laughably small when you realize how little they have versus how many deserving organizations exist in the U.S. It’s so important for arts organizations to be accessible and in constant search of new audiences, but can they go too far? Could it be the case that theatre is, in fact, not for everybody? Moreover, should it be the goal of an arts organization to appeal to everybody, or to the portion that can truly “sustain” them. And that’s not necessarily the fraction with the deepest pockets- It’s the fraction that might have a vested interest in an aspect of the genre, an enthusiasm for what’s happening onstage or who’s making it happen, or ideas to move the genre forward.

TKTS Discount Ticket Booth in Times Square Photographer unknown

The goal of theatre is to transport us to another world for three(well, six, if you’re talking Wagner) hours. The audience should be filled with people ready and willing to make that journey. Otherwise, why go? To market theatre as anything less than magical in its ability to transport us or elicit a genuine emotional response is to undersell it and misconstrue its value. Should theatre cater to anybody who is uninterested or apathetic to that journey? We must cast a wide net if we want to catch as many fish as possible, but a net with pictures of Nathan Gunn without a shirt or one that apologizes for our medium is a net that badly needs mending.
Seeing a show, be it an opera, a musical, or a concert, is an experience. It is not merely something to do to kill time. Good theatre demands that we take it seriously at its most basic core. It can often provoke thoughts and feelings, and the effective synthesis of these thoughts and feelings are ultimately what is so fulfilling about the theatregoing experience. It’s been said that the Ancient Greeks even preferred tragedies to comedies because they found the pathos associated with the depiction of the human experience refreshing. We remember the shows that made us laugh, cry, and think. And if we’re not in the mood to do either of the three, then why bother?

Al Hirschfeld

Let’s be honest about what theatre is and reassess why we go. Let’s go to the theater to feel things, not simply because it’s a box to check on an itinerary of New York. Being a member of an audience, an audience that is all taking part in the same emotional experience, suspending disbelief, filtering it through different viewpoints, tempering what they see onstage with what they have experienced in real life. So don’t cheat yourself out of your valuable money and time. Theatre can be for everybody who takes part in the human experience. But that doesn’t mean it always is.

Special thanks to JJ of Parterre Box for helping me edit this piece.

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Nuns ‘n Roses: Dialogues des Carmélites at Caramoor

On July 25th, the Caramoor Festival presented the second and final of its Bel Canto at Caramoor operas for the 2015 season, Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera and love letter to the Catholic Church, Dialogues des Carmelites. The opera, performed like a play set to music without formal arias or ensembles, tells the story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, a convent of Carmelite nuns executed during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. The opera may not seem like a natural choice for bel-canto at Caramoor, but conductor Will Crutchfield’s nuanced performance made a case for this opera as a vehicle for great voices in addition to great drama. More information about the presentation of Dialogues des Carmelites at Caramoor can be found here and a review of its first opera of the season, La Favorite, can be found here.

Photo by Opera Teen

Photo by Opera Teen

The opera focuses most on Blanche, a timid society girl who enters the Carmelite Convent as an escape from the dangers of the French Revolution. While Blanche is technically the leading lady, Blanche is not the most important character in the opera per se. She is just the catalyst through whom the drama is viewed. In this way, a good performance of Carmelites doesn’t necessarily require an outstanding Blanche. A great Blanche, though, is what usually puts a performance over the edge. Jennifer Check was a perfectly good Blanche, working within the role’s limits. Her voice is soft grained and resonant, but she built and even more satisfying emotional arc with a character that often comes off as a pansy.

Jennifer Larmore, a Bel Canto at Caramoor veteran, provided a well sung, authoritarian Mere Marie. Her secure singing was complemented by her sensitive yet commanding stage presence. As Constance, the cheerfulest of the nuns, Alisa Jordheim didn’t always emphasize the text in Poulenc’s verbose, detailed libretto and her voice sometimes struggled with filling the Venetian Theater. Fortunately, her stage presence ironed out any kinks in characterization.

At the end of the first act, the prioress of the convent dies in a scene perfect for a powerhouse, experienced singer. Deborah Polaski is both of those things and delivered solid vocalism and a refreshing sense of refinement to the proceedings as the prioress. As the replacement Prioress, Hei-Kyung Hong brought her signature beautiful, refined, balanced vocalism, and a quiet dignity to the character of Madame Lidoine.

Daniel Mobbs’s short appearance as the Marquis de la Force was a highlight as was Noah Baetge as his son, the Chevalier de la Force. The duet between the Chevalier and his sister, Blanche, cut right to the heart of the opera’s themes of solitude and fear and paired it with well-sung music. Scott Brunscheen brought a pinging tenor and appreciated stability to the part of the Chaplain. Amongst other highlights were Vanessa Cariddi as Mother Jeanne and Kevin Wetzel as Javelinot.

Will Crutchfield led a resplendent Orchestra of St. Luke’s in a swift, nuanced reading of Poulenc’s score. The affection for the piece was evident, and an opera that can sometimes feel boring and tedious never sagged. Also strong, as usual, was the Caramoor Festival Chorus.

Instead of the typical semi-staged format of the operas at Caramoor, this performance was staged by Victoria Crutchfield who, in addition to creating some striking stage pictures, was able to effectively communicate the smallness of this convent against the large, looming Reign of Terror with only a few props and virtually no set.

Find out more information about Bel Canto at Caramoor here.

Photo by Gabe Palacio.

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The Maazels of Old Virginia: Spotlight on the Castleton Festival

Tucked away in the heart of the Rappahannock Valley amidst rolling fields and bales of hay is what might objectively be the late Maestro Lorin Maazel’s greatest accomplishment: the Castleton Festival. Dedicated to developing, instructing, and providing exposure and performance opportunities for young artists, the Festival was officially founded by Maestro Maazel in 2009. With its reputation for a high level of artistry and a massive scale chicken coop was overhauled and turned into the intimate Theater House, the first theatre on the sprawling property about an hour and a half outside of Washington DC in Castleton, Virginia.

I took my first sojourn down to the festival last month. Positioned in one of the country’s most scenically beautiful areas, signs for the festival spring up amongst sprawling hills, bales of hay, and wooded forks in the road. The scenic element that’s become so commonplace in the summer opera festival circuit, the things that make destination opera spots like Glimmerglass, Santa Fe, and Caramoor, is something Castleton has in spades.

Despite the festival’s short run time, late-June through the end of July, the season is a busy one. This year, the festival presented fully staged performances of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, a double bill featuring Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnol and a new opera, Scalia & Ginsburg,  by Derrick Wang about the relationship between U.S. Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Also presented are a variety of symphonic concerts, masterclasses, Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, and performances by Castleton’s young artist in residence program, C.A.T.S (Castleton Artists Training Seminar) in an opera scenes concert. I was lucky enough to see one of the C.A.T.S performances as well as a performance of Heure Espagnol and Scalia & Ginsburg. The young artists training down at Castleton delivered a very fun night in scenes from operas and Sondheim musicals. The talent level was high and each of the numerous performers looked to be enjoying themselves. Heure Espagnol was well, sung, funnilly staged, and well played in the pit. Scalia & Ginsburg, a piece that couldn’t have found a more perfect spot for its world premiere, was surprisingly humorous and gave a voice(nay, voices) to a part of the government Americans don’t hear nearly enough from.

In a time of year for destination opera, it’s time to add the Castleton Festival, a festival on the rise, to lists for the summer.

Photos by Molly M. Peterson and Tjark Jinke

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The Yellow Rose: La Favorite at Caramoor

As an audience member, it’s very easy to see an opera, especially one performed in concert, enjoy it, and think, “Why isn’t this piece done more?” Often, there are some clear reasons why. Sometimes it’s staging difficulties with what an opera calls for. Sometimes it’s a part that poses specific casting problems. Donizetti’s La Favorite, though, poses none of these issues, and the performance last Saturday night at the Caramoor Festival under Will Crutchfield’s direction made a strong case for why it’s time for this opera to reclaim its place in today’s bel canto repertoire.

Caramoor’s “Yellow Rose”, Clemintine Margaine Photo by Gabe Palacio

La Favorite opened in Paris in 1840 with a libretto in French by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaez. While it has been commonplace to perform the opera in its Italian translation as “La Favorita”, Bel Canto at Caramoor opted to use the original French text. The opera details the love triangle between Alphonse XI, the King of Spain, Fernand, a monk, and Leonor, the King’s mistress. The music is charming and expressive, and the drama is motile but for the unsurprisingly ridiculous final scene. Despite the opera’s playing like a soap opera, the nature of the story leaves room for many different directorial interpretations(something Monica Lewinsky-esque immediately comes to mind) and could potentially be levied into a moving exploration of sexual exploitation and the subsequent shame and stigma attached.

Bel Canto at Caramoor has been in place at the Caramoor Festival since 1997. Under the direction of maestro Will Crutchfield, the program has consistently offered music of the highest quality with singers to match. Caramoor’s bucolic gardens nearby Spainsh Courtyard, and Renaissance furnishings in the Rosen House conjured medieval Spain and the Alcazar, perfect for an opera set in Spain.

The biggest revelation of this performance wasn’t Donizetti’s taught, potential-filled opera, though. It was French mezzo Cleméntine Margaine. In the title role, Margaine made her Caramoor and New York debut with aplomb. Her voice, rich, agile, and, at times, smoldering, filled the Venetian Theater, and her dignified stage presence hinted at a deeper confidence that enriched the character of Leonor in this semi-staged production. Most impressive, though, was her command of the text. While I’m not familiar with her work in other languages, her idiomatic interpretation of the French text went beyond what is considered necessary to a Francophone singer. Each word was sculpted into a phrase that delivered equal parts musicality and meaning. It was a masterful and layered performance of a complex role. The world has found a wonderful Leonor.

Santiago Ballerini Photo by Gabe Palacio

She was well matched in her Fernand. Argentinean tenor Santiago Ballerini lended a voice of bel canto brilliance to the part of Leonor’s paramour. Despite his effortful, near-strained high notes and seeming discomfort with some of the libretto’s French, Ballerini delivered an expressive, italianate performance.

Stephen Powell, a frequent Caramoor performer, brought an authoritative voice and brooding nature to the sinister role of Alphonse, though Powell is even better served in roles that demonstrate the entire breadth of his talent, from fury to sensitivity. Daniel Mobbs, another Caramoor mainstay who seems to improve with every performance, was a brutal Balthazar with a deep, dark bass-baritone to match. Isabella Gaudĺ was an appropriately cheerful Inès and SungWook Kim delivered his usual solid singing as Don Gaspar.
Caramoor’s next opera is on July 25th when Dialogues des Carmelites takes the stage(and the guillotine). More information about it can be found here.

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Sister Act: Dialogues des Carmélites arrives at the Caramoor Festival

Photo by Gabe Palacio

When people ask me what opera is, my short, go-to answer is usually “a play where the dialogue is sung”. In Dialogues des Carmélites, Francis Poulenc’s 1956 opera about a convent of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution, that definition holds true. Their story of faith and martyrdom comes to life at Caramoor on July 25th as the second installment of 2015’s Bel Canto at Caramoor series. Conducted by Will Crutchfield with a cast that includes names like Deborah Polaski, Hei Kyung Hong, and Jennifer Larmore, the dramatic impact of this opera is augmented by Victoria Crutchfield‘s staging and virtuosic playing by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

The two most basic components of any opera are the music and the libretto. For many operas, through, one is usually stronger than the other. Dialogues is a rarity for its strength in both categories. It combines the taut drama and compelling characterizations necessary to any good play with gorgeous and evocative music. “Poulenc found the way to spin music straight through the threads of this drama almost like a background soundtrack,” says conductor and Director of Opera at Caramoor, Will Crutchfield, “It leads us through serious, thorny questions of faith and human suffering through sensuous music and hair-raising drama.”

Those serious and thorny questions are addressed throughout the course of the opera in a libretto by Poulenc fashioned after a play by Georges Bernanos. The story focuses on Blanche de la Force, a mousy society girl who enters a Carmelite convent to “escape” from the outside world where the French Revolution threatens her family’s status. Life inside the convent proves to be no less taxing, with a distinct group of nuns who, though they differ in many ways, are united by their strong faith and sense of community. In one of the most moving final scenes in all of opera, the nuns march to the guillotine, voices raised in a final hymn, to die for their religion.

Don’t let that grim ending deter you from Poulenc’s expressive opera, though. Dialogues offers something for everyone, especially those who might be attending their first opera. “Exactly because of its theatrical qualities, I think this is an ideal piece, maybe the ideal piece, for someone who isn’t yet accustomed to the ways and means of traditional opera,” says Maestro Crutchfield. Additionally, Poulenc’s distinctive musical language is a point of interest for seasoned opera lovers while falling easily on the ears of new ones. “Poulenc preferred to find his novelties in the language of pop music or the parts of Classical music that were still inventing new ways to relate complex combinations of notes to simple ones. He found himself able to say a great variety of things through that style,” the Maestro adds.

Dialogues des Carmélites represents an exciting new time in the history of Bel Canto at Caramoor. It’s a departure from the typical bel canto opera of the mid-18th century, but fans of the beautiful voices and grand musical passages typical of the style need not fear. “This is a 20th-century opera for bel canto voices,” Maestro Crutchfield reassures. “It has to have beautiful, radiant voices to match the sounds of the orchestra. When you watch those brave innocents singing the praises of God while they walk to the guillotine, you’ve lived a slice of their life with them, you know what got them to that moment – there is nothing in theater more powerful than that.”

Dialogues des Carmélites will be performed on July 25th at the Caramoor Festival. Tickets are available here and more information is available here.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am employed by Caramoor during this summer’s Festival Season. More information about Caramoor can be found here.

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The Light in the Piazza: New Productions of Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci at the Met

You can read my review of the Met’s new productions of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera here on the Huffington Post.

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Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci run through May 8th at the Metropolitan Opera. Tickets are available here.

Photo: Metropolitan Opera/ Cory Weaver

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“OperaRox Presents” Announces Launch and Performance Dates

April 6, 2015- New York- OperaRox Presents, a new startup opera company headed by Kimberly Feltkamp and Jaimie Appleton, announces its launch and dates for an inaugural production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” on at the National Opera Center August Aug. 21 (7pm) & Aug. 23 (2pm), 2015.

Kimberly Feltkamp and Jaimie Appleton, two young opera singers based in New York, have announced the launch of their new opera company, OperaRox Presents, aimed at providing opportunities for young singers to learn and perform important roles in a safe and encouraging environment. Propelled by a philosophy of “making your own opportunities” and shock about the limited performance resources offered to graduate and post-graduate level opera singers, Feltkamp and Appleton have additionally announced plans to perform Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the National Opera Center in New York City on August 21st and 7:00 PM and August 23 at 2:00 PM.

OperaRox Presents extends the online community of young opera fans that Feltkamp has built through Live Stream shows, Twitter discussion, and in-person meetups at the Metropolitan Opera onto the stage as a creative opportunity for young artists. The group has achieved notoriety within the international opera community and Feltkamp hopes that OperaRox Presents “can be a small part of [the future of opera].”

Performances of “Le Nozze di Figaro” will take place at Opera America’s National Opera Center at 330 7th Avenue, New York City. The production will feature Jaimie Appleton as Countess Almaviva, Michael Hoffman as Count Almaviva, Devony Smith as Susanna, Michael Maliakel as Figaro, Kimberly Feltkamp as Cherubino, Maayan Voss de Bettancourt as Marcellina, Jonathan Caro as Bartolo, and Felicia Zangari as Barbarina. The production of Mozart’s famous opera about two servants who manage to outwit their master will be by up-and-coming director, Amber Treadway. An accompanist is yet to be announced. More information about all of the artists can be found here. The production depends on crowd-sourced money that is being raised here.

More information about OperaRox Presents and the upcoming presentation of “The Marriage of Figaro” can be found online at www.operarox.weebly.com and on Twitter through searching “#OperaRoxFigaro”. Public relations by Harry Rose (operateenblog@gmail.com). Please send all inquiries to operateenblog@gmail.com.

 

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