I love the theater…

After a summer of traveling, seeing a variety of operas, meeting with fellow producers and agents, and attending a multitude of receptions (with a few too many glasses of wine), we at Opera Philadelphia are back in the midst of doing the thing I love the most – PRODUCING OPERA!

imageCast of Nabucco meeting the Academy of Music for the first time

For the past three weeks, our 72-voice strong chorus has been rehearsing for NABUCCO, which will open the Philadelphia cultural season on September 27th. Last week, the production’s principal cast of gifted singers, as well as its talented director/designer Thaddeus Strassberger, arrived and the creative process of bringing the many components that go into producing an opera have begun. This is such an exciting time! With a cast this large it is a bit like a watching a small village come together in preparation for some kind of celebration.  Few realize how many people it takes to bring an opera to the stage. You need all these artistic resources and more: singers, musicians, scenic artists, wardrobe artists, technical experts, stage manager, production team, and stage hands. Each contributes his or her own unique skills, and together, they all work towards that ever-approaching deadline of opening night! No extra rehearsal time, no second takes, no edits in Photoshop are possible – the show must go on. All of this effort coalesces in the moment when the audience takes its seat and the artists take the stage and together, they join in a true act of community. You see, we live in a world that provides a multitude of ways to connect with others.  However, rarely are those connections fully realized. What I mean by this, is that we seldom get to experience things together, using all of our senses; those senses that make us human - our eyes, our ears, our bodies – this is the very essence of a social experience. During an opera, when it works, our humanity and extreme human performance are brought together in one giant moment of sharing which is only heightened by the risks that are inherent in live performance. This is what makes this week so very exciting. It begins the process of building such a community to share in an experience that is bigger than any one of us.

Check out this video – this what I’m talking about….

Next up – a report from the FringeArts Feastival which I will be attending on Thursday night and some production notes about NABUCCO.

DAY THREE: DON GIOVANNI

WOW, what an amazing experience! This production and performance got me to rethink what you can do with a standard piece of repertoire.  It kind of shattered my, what now seems like limited, thinking of how you can make riveting theater! This incredible production was aided by a beautiful ensemble of artists and by the London Symphony Orchestra, again sounding fantastic. Top scores go to director Dmitri Tcherniakov for bringing a depth of emotional resonance to the characters that I have not experienced with this work. The Donna Anna and Don Ottavio duet was a remarkable and unexplainable wonder, as was Zerlina’s “batti, batti, o bel Masetto. I was also blown away by the surprising and engaging performance of Rod Gilfrey as Giovanni.

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PHOTO: Rod Gilfry (Don Giovanni), Maria Bengtsson (Donna Anna), Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello)

And here we get to the big departure from the norm. In Tcherniakov’s production, the entire opera takes place in the home of the Commendatore, and all are relatives, with the exception of Leporello, who is a houseguest. And Don Giovanni is an older guy who is driven into a mad drunken state by family members who are dedicated to exacting lethal revenge on the killer of the father. All the disguises, conquests, and intrigues happen in Giovanni’s crazed and drunken mind. Even the statue is imagined and the famous dinner guest is a Commendatore lookalike that the family has hired to push Giovanni over the edge. The whole thing reads like some brilliant HBO series. Here is the link to check out the cast that worked so well to bring this vision into performance - bravi tutti. 

Now gang, don’t worry! I am not going to come back from this trip trying to update or change all of our standard repertoire. In fact, seeing this production provides me even more excitement about our own Giovanni cast and production coming to the Academy of Music this spring. But in considering how to best curate opera experiences that have a healthy yin and yang (read: balance) it is helpful to experience productions like this so that you can see possibilities and nuances to programming decisions.  This brave and wonderful concept has provided great insight on how interpretations can be illuminating and exciting. 

Tomorrow one of my all-time favorite operas Richard Strauss’s ELEKTRA!

DAY TWO: RIGOLETTO

After a bit of sleep (curtain times here are typically 9:30 or 10 p.m.) I had a nice Sunday brunch and walked a bit of the city. A nice day off. I was so looking forward to Robert Carsen’s production of RIGOLETTO featuring George Gagnidze in the title role, and I was not disappointed. Go HERE to learn more about Robert Carsen. He is a fellow Canadian who has given opera some of the most memorable and iconic productions of our time. Gagnidze’s Rigoletto in this production was a dark and ridiculed character in a world occupied by dark and mean people. image

The inspiration of the production was the 1924 motion picture He Who Gets Slapped and worked in bringing the loathing Rigoletto to life in one of the most compelling ways I have seen. Under an ever present circus tent the action unfolded with a strong conceptual hand, replete with six lady strippers in Act I and six ripped and bouncy male circus performers.  Even the duke dropped his robe for a bare bum exit on his way to Gilda.  It all sounds more gratuitous than it was, as it completely fit in this underbelly world where ridicule, thievery and murder exist. image

The audience here loved it – yet I am still working out in my mind if this is something that would work in the U.S. (Ruminating on this subject will take some time). It was Fête Nationale (Bastille Day) today and as this production was performed in the outdoor Théâtre de l’Archevêché. We were treated not only to the beautiful sounds of the London Symphony Orchestra for the overture at 10 p.m., but also to the sounds of fireworks at the nearby Rotunde.  All in all, a special night.

Day One: THE HOUSE TAKEN OVER

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I arrived on Saturday morning in Marseille after an overnight flight from Philadelphia (via Munich). Thanks to the nice lady at Avis - she provided an Alfa Romeo for the subcompact price I booked :) - I had a pleasant drive from Marseille to Aix.  (Note: I am a bit of a car nut that has a bit of a lead foot so I was VERY happy)!!  The first opera of the trip was THE HOUSE TAKEN OVER by the incredibly talented Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça, who studied with George Benjamin.  This chamber work produced at their ideal small outdoor venue, Grand Saint-Jean, about 30 minutes north of Aix en Provence. The entire evening was a treat - from the pastoral setting, the wonderfully simple charcuterie before-hand to a vivid production for two singers and 13 musicians. The score was richly written and brilliantly performed by the Asko|Schönberg ensemble and young singers, Oliver Dunn (baritone) and Kitty Whately (mezzo).  I am happy I saw this piece and will keep an eye on Mr. Mendonça. 

NOTE: George Benjamin was commissioned by the Festival D’Aix to write WRITTEN ON SKIN, which premiered here last summer and which I saw in Amsterdam in November – it is a work I thoroughly adore and am working on getting to Philadelphia.  

Greetings from Aix en Provence

Welcome to my new blog. As an opera/theater/dance fan, and as General Director of Opera Philadelphia, I see a lot of work on stage.  These outings are incredibly enjoyable, and they also serve as part of our “research and development” in developing projects, seasons, artistic partnerships, and opportunities for artists.  Each member of our senior artistic team Corrado Rovaris (our Music Director), Mikael Eliasen (Artistic Advisor), Nathan Gunn (Director, American Repertoire Council) and David Levy (SVP of Artistic Operations), along with Michael Eberhard (Artistic Administrator) and Kyle Bartlett (New Works Administrator), work in various ways to find the best artists and opportunities for our growing range of operatic offerings in Philadelphia. 

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As the team captain, I too am deeply involved in this work.  Much of this activity requires travel to see productions, meet producers, and hear singers and composers. This summer there is lots of travel for me and the team. First up for me is Festival D’Aix, a leading summer festival in Europe replete with five operas in four different venues, concerts, readings and an Academy for young singers. M. Bernard Foccroulle has been the general director here since 2007 and has continued to bring great distinction to the festival with a blend of traditional repertoire along with new works and often with contemporary stagings. Mikael Eliasen often works at the Academie here in Aix and brought Bernard and I together for a meeting in Philadelphia last fall, at which we talked about potential partnership with the festival. My trip this summer is the second installment of that exploration, and I am here for five days to see all of the productions and meet with Bernard and some of his artistic staff members.