My review of the Met’s latest production of Lulu is live on the Huffington Post! Find it here.
In a galvanizing, hair-raising performance, the Boston Symphony Orchestra arrived at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night a hundred strong and with a vengeance that could only be befitting of one character and the opera that was named for her: Richard Strauss’ Elektra.
The libretto by Hugo von Hofmannstahl, the first one of his many successful collaborations with Strauss, is an adaptation of Sophocles’s play of the same name. To avenge the sacrifice of her daughter Iphegenia, the queen Klytamnestra has murdered her husband, the king Agamemnon, with the help of her lover Aegisth. Klytamnestra has three other children from her marriage to Agamemnon: Elektra, who is fiercely loyal to her father’s memory and vehemently hates her mother, Chrysothemis, who longs for peace and domesticity and has remained in the good graces of Klytamnestra and Aegisth, and Orest, a son despised by Klytamnestra and allied with Elektra who is believed to have been dead. The opera is set in the courtyard of the palace in Mycenae where Elektra lives, having rejected her life as a princess. The series of interactions between Elektra has her brother, sister, and mother, that make up the opera all lead up to the opera’s thrilling climax: Elektra’s manic dance of joy and death once Orest has slain their mother.
A cornerstone of the dramatic soprano repertoire, Elektra is famously demanding. It utilizes the singer’s entire range from piercing high notes to commanding low notes and Elektra is onstage singing nearly the whole night. There are very few people who can do justice to the role, but fortunately we live in the age of Christine Goerke. Bringing the role with which she re-exploded onto the scene as a dramatic soprano in 2012 to New York for the first time, Goerke has made Elektra her calling card and she inhabits the part entirely. In a production performed in concert, Goerke was given a chance to interpret the part without a director’s influence, and the nuances she brings to this deeply angered woman make her both more human and more terrifying. This was an Elektra who was tender at one moment and furious at the next. Goal oriented but self-conscious. Alternately skulking and striding across Cagengie Hall’s stage in a striking crimson gown, her stage-animal instincts blended perfectly with the feral Elektra. Goerke’s voice rose to match her characterization on every level. It easily filled the hall with her powerful, glinting soprano and idiomatic interpretation of Hofmannsthal’s text. She had no trouble transitioning between registers, and only at the end of Elektra’s lengthy first aria did she seem to lose some steam. Otherwise, Goerke was completely in control of the performance and will surely be seen as the definitive Elektra for this generation. And deservedly so.
As Chrysothemis, Gun-Brit Barkmin lent her beautiful yet powerful voice to the part of Elektra’s long-suffering sister. Her singing was sensitive when she dreamed of motherhood and powerful when she rose to match Goerke at the end of their scene. Barkmin’s aesthetic exudes old Hollywood and she was equally expressive onstage as Goerke, glamorously decked out in a fur coat and ropes of pearls. She was every inch a princess nearing the end of her resources.
Klytamnestra is a role many singers grow into. It’s a rich character role with fifteen minutes of thrilling music. Jane Henschel, while not emerging as many Klytamnestras do in stage productions with an entourage and weighed down with jewelry and amulets, gave an incisive dignity to the tortured queen and alternated pin-pointedly accurate singing with penetrating sprechstimme, a German speak-singing technique that’s rarely done or done well these days. Growing progressively more sinister in her confrontation with Elektra, this haughty Klytamnestra gave substance to the underlying tension between Elektra and her mother. As any good scene partner should do, Henschel’s Klytamnestra validated Goerke’s Elektra.
The men were uniformly good as well, though this night belonged to the women. Gerhard Siegel brought a pinging Straussian tenor to the part of Aegsith, and James Rutherford brought an expressive and soft-grained baritone to the part of Orest, though a part like Orest could benefit from a certain grittiness that Rutherford lacked. Rebecca Nash voice was pretty and powerful as the fifth maid, and Nadine Secunda was a distinguished overseer of the maids.
Part of what makes Elektra such an intense piece is the orchestra. Strauss scored over 100 instruments in the opera, and the musicians of the BSO filled the entire stage. But all of this would have been for naught had it not been for Andris Nelsons, the maestro who held it all together. This was a company that moved as one the entire night, which is a credit to Nelsons. He revealed every nuance in Strauss’ complex score and never skimped on the loud, bombastic moments that make Elektra the exciting piece of music-drama that it is. The piece seemed like second nature to the musicians who delivered an unequivocally immersive performance.
Unfortunately, nights as fulfilling as this are the exception and not the norm in New York City. It will be interesting to see what Nina Stemme brings to the part at the Met in the spring. But Carnegie Hall’s Elektra represented a return to the much belabored “golden age” of opera: no-holds-barred singing, a churning orchestral accompaniment, and an audience that loved every minute of it.
My review of the Mostly Mozart Festival’s production of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin is now available on the Huffington Post. Check it out and let me know your thoughts!
Through the Young Artists of America program, brothers Rolando and Kristofer Sanz have worked to bring a new level of musical exposure to students in the Bethesda, Maryland area. Since 2011, they have produced musical theatre and opera combination concerts featuring all-student orchestras and student performers with the occasional adult singer. I recently learned more about the program from Rolando Sanz himself and how his initial one-off concert has spawned a massive effort to expose young people to music and push both genres, opera and musical theatre, forward.
Tell me about how you first came to opera and what inspired you to become a singer?
I first came to opera when I was 11 and my father took me to an audition for the Washington Opera’s children’s chorus. I was always singing as a child and I think my father was looking for some structure for his precocious kid. I remember distinctly not wanting to go because opera was all about people singing loud and being melodramatic. But as soon as I stepped foot on that stage, I was hooked! I would stand off stage left and just marvel at those singers making gorgeous sounds along with the sound of the orchestra. My hope was that one day my voice might lend itself towards this music, and I am very fortunate that it has.
Describe the process it requires to build a program with as wide a reach as Young Artists of America.
Young Artists of America began with a single concert back in 2011. The performance featured a full student orchestra and student vocalists along with a few adult guest artists performing excerpts from opera and musical theatre, including La bohéme, Into the Woods and La traviata . It was a huge success! Little did we know that we had created a monster. The phone calls started coming in as to when the next concert would be, and YAA was born. We have definitely learned a lot about how to build a non-profit organization from the ground up, and now 4 years in, we are amazed at how the organization has quickly grown to become the premier training program for instrumentalists and vocalists in the region. We believe strongly that high quality trumps everything else, and if we are able to provide these unique musical experiences to our young people, that the organization will continue to be successful and to inspire our students.
Also, what is it like to build such a program with a family member? Does this present any challenges?
It has been an absolute joy to build this program with my brother, Kristofer Sanz. He is an amazingly talented conductor, also acting as Music Director of the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras. To be perfectly honest, there is really very little disagreement between us regarding YAA, because neither of us has any personal ego invested in the organization. We are very similar in that everything that we do is for the kids and not about ourselves, so when the goal of everyone involved is to just inspire young musicians to excel, everything falls into place quite naturally. We also each have very clearly defined roles and expertise, Kristofer on the orchestral side and myself on the vocal side. If anything, it’s a pleasure to get a chance to sit in his rehearsals and learn from him all about the world of instrumental education.
YAA produces a lot of musical-theatre & opera combined events. What’s your reasoning behind this?
This combination of musical theatre and opera started at our inaugural concert presenting a combination of the two genres to our students and audiences. We found that the storytelling in both genres are really quite complimentary for both the musicians and the listener. That concept morphed into trying to present a story driven concert combining the two art forms. We began to seek out scores and stories that would work together dramatically but also feature our incredibly talented student instrumentalists and vocalists.
Our first foray into this world was combining the scores of Madama Butterfly and the musical Miss Saigon in 2013, excerpting music from both scores to tell the story that they share from beginning to end. The production featured a symphonic orchestra of 92 musicians and a cast of 40 students and the guest opera singers to sing the roles of Butterfly, Pinkerton and Sharpless. It was a grand experiment really to see if this new kind of musical genre would 1) actually work theatrically and 2) be interesting to an audience mostly unfamiliar with opera. The performance drew an audience of over 1,250 at The Music Center at Strathmore and I never had heard an ovation at the end of a performance like I heard that day. Clearly, we were on to something!
This past March, we produced our second opera/musical theatre production with West Side Story + Roméo et Juliette, combining the timeless Bernstein and Gounod scores. The orchestra, student singers, guest artists and guest dancers blew everyone away! Putting together a unique production like this in a major concert hall with over 130 students is a tremendous undertaking for a small organization like Young Artists of America. Each production takes more than year to put together, but it is some of the most gratifying work that I do and I am honored to be able to give back to my community and to pass on some of the wisdom that I learn in my professional life as an opera singer.
In the same vein, as somebody who produces both opera and musical theater concurrently, what is your opinion on the role of musical theatre in the opera house. Consider Chicago Lyric Opera’s current production of Carousel, for example. Is there a place for musical theatre?
I think that the trend of major opera houses producing large scale musical theatre is brilliant! I had the opportunity to see the Chicago Lyric production of Carousel while I was nearby in Milwaukee singing Nemorino in L’elisir d’Amore with Florentine Opera. It was a tremendous undertaking for even a large company like the Lyric.
While we have wonderful American operas in the repertoire, we have to remember that musical theatre is a purely American art form that was created here as a direct offshoot of European opera and operetta. It only makes sense that some of these works are finding their place again in the opera house. As a matter of fact, because of the large original orchestrations of some of these classic works like Show Boat and Oklahoma, the opera house might be the only place that is able to present these works in their original musical glory without sacrificing musicians or the scenic grandeur that they deserve. I also think that the opera companies are being very smart casting legit musical theatre singers in the works and not trying to make them into operas. I know many singers who have taken part in some of these productions, and they are sometimes moved to tears at the opportunity to sing with a full sized Rodgers and Hammerstein sized orchestra and hearing the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations. Those sounds are what I think got many of us into singing, and I could not be happier that those musicals continue to inspire on the country’s great stages.
We are honored at YAA to be doing the same kind of work on a smaller stage to inspire our kids to still demand these lush orchestrations and to seek out the works of the likes of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe. Otherwise, we might have nothing but canned music in our future!
Why is it important to have programs like Young Artists of America? How does this type of program factor into the sustainability of classical-vocal music?
High quality programs like Young Artists of America are sometimes the difference in inspiring young artists to potentially move from music being just a hobby to dedicating their lives to art. But more than that, we always say that the main purpose of Young Artists of America is really to create the audiences of tomorrow. I call musical theatre the gateway drug to opera. I think if you ask any professional opera singer of my generation what got them into opera, the answer will quite often be: Les Misérables or West Side Story. Why is that? Because these tales are epic, usually scored for full orchestra and they inspire the imagination of a young budding musician. It is no coincidence that many of the most popular musicals like The Phantom of the Opera or Carousel, are operatic in nature, and exposing our young people to these works in their original fully-orchestrated versions is our duty both as educators and fans of the art form.
On a personal level, one of the main reasons that I founded Young Artists of America is because there was nothing like this when I was a kid coming up. Sure, there were plenty of children’s choruses to perform with, and many schools produce a musical. But I felt very alone in my love for classical vocal music and was inspired by the classic musicals with orchestra. In the same vein, two of our board members are former child instrumentalists who loved musical theatre and opera, but never had an outlet as kids to pursue these interests. With YAA, we have created a strong community of vocalists and instrumentalists who comingle and share musical ideas, as well as a network of parents who are also learning the same lessons we are instilling in our students. And honestly, you never know what these kids will be inspired to turn into. For example, we have one graduating senior this year who came in as a “Broadway baby” and is leaving us as a classical voice major at Boston Conservatory (with a $25,000 a year scholarship, as a soprano by the way!)
What do you hope YAA students leave with from the program?
We will have been successful if students graduate from our program feeling like they have been part of a grand production that can move people and bring beauty to the world. We also want them to leave inspired by the guest mentors that we bring in to work with them, including most recently: Jason Robert Brown and Jeanine Tesori from Broadway; Anthony McGill, principal clarinet from the New York Philharmonic as well as many regional actors, singers and educators.
Many of our students have gone on to study in major university programs including NYU, Carnegie Mellon, Michigan, Penn State, Northwestern, Manhattan School of Music, and Baldwin Wallace. We know that these students are entering these programs with a heightened sense of what is possible musically and theatrically and that they will go on to change the world of opera and musical theatre. We also have many students that do not go on to study music, but for whom music will always be a part of their adult lives. Our hope is that by exposing young instrumentalists to vocal music and singers to symphonic music, as adults, they will cross pollinate each other’s art forms and we’ll actually have instrumentalists buying tickets to the opera and not just the symphony, and vice versa. By exposing our students to works ranging from Sondheim to Puccini, we know we are opening their eyes to an entire new world of repertoire that will hopefully whet their appetites to be consumers of the art forms as adults.
On a more personal note, what is your preferred genre of music? Would you listen to opera in your free time?
Personally, I usually listen to opera only when I am studying and preparing a role. While opera is the center of my life and I adore it, opera is my job. So in my free time, I am not listening to much Verdi. I compare it to professional chefs who are cooking in their restaurants all day and sometimes just want to come home and order Chinese take-out! Some people can work productively with classical music on in the background. I am not that guy! Classical music turns my brain on and I immediately find myself analyzing the chord progressions of Bach or the vocal timbre of a singer. My down time music: salsa and merengue (my parents are both Cuban so this is the soundtrack of my life.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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