Speaking of voices…

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In my last post, I wrote about the rewards of engaging the voice of a new generation of opera singers and directors, and their ability to provide us all with a unique, fresh, and interesting perspective.  This past week, we amped up that idea through our presentation of Double Exposure, part of our Composer in Residence and Opera from the Lab programs.  Drawing amazingly talented singers from the Curtis Institute of Music, the Academy of Vocal Arts, and the Opera Philadelphia Chorus, we created two teams of six singers and paired each team with a skilled director - one team with Daniel Fish and one with Stephanie Havey. Each team also included its own conductor and pianist.  Both teams shared a string quartet.  Each team had the task of interpreting opera scenes that Composers in Residence Lembit Beecher and Missy Mazzoli have been writing, allowing these composers to fully see and hear those scenes, bringing them to life off the page. Confusing? Probably …but it was awesome!  Here is breakdown of each team:

Fish Team:

Singers: Ashley Milanese, Julia Dawson, Johnathan McCullough, Thomas Shivone, Joanna Gates, and Jennifer Beattie
Director: Daniel Fish
Conductor: Kensho Watanabe
Pianist: Bénédicte Jourdois 

Havey Team:

Singers: Melinda Whittington, Lauren Eberwein, Sean Plumb, André Courville, Veronica Chapman-Smith, and Heidi Kurtz
Director: Stephanie Havey
Conductor: Edward Poll
Pianist: Matthew Brower 

And the program read like this:

"Sunny View", Lembit Beecher

Librettist / Anisa George
Rosemarie – Milanese/Whittington
Magda (a staff member) – Dawson/Eberwein
(Male) Nurse – McCullough/Plumb
George – Thomas Shivone/André Courville

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 André Courville and Melinda Whittington in “Sunny View,” the opening scene of an untitled opera dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, by Lembit Beecher. Photo by Dominic Mercier

"His name is Jan" from Breaking the Waves, Missy Mazzoli

Librettist / Royce Vavrek
Bess – Milanese/Whittington

Scene 3 from Breaking the Waves, Missy Mazzoli

Bess – Milanese/Whittington
Dodo – Dawson/Eberwein
Jan/Calvinist Elder – McCullough/Plumb
Terry/Minister – Shivone/Courville

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Ashley Milanese as Bess McNeill in Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves. Photo by Dominic Mercier.

Scene 3 from I Have No Stories To Tell You, Lembit Beecher

Librettist / Hannah Moscovitch
Sorrel – Julia Dawson/Lauren Eberwein
Daniel – Johnathan McCullough/Sean Plumb
Memory 1 – Ashley Milanese/Melinda Whittington
Memory 2 – Joanna Gates/Veronica Chapman-Smith
Memory 3 – Jennifer Beattie/Heidi Kurtz

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Sean Plumb and Lauren Eberwein in Lembit Beecher’s I Have No Stories To Tell You. Photo by Dominic Mercier.

It was a truly wonderful experience for everyone.  We packed rooms both at FringeArts in Philadelphia and at the Opera America Recital Hall in New York, and everyone learned a lot about the works, the process in creating work, and what it takes to tell compelling stories.  When we set out on this exercise the intent was to provide composers with a learning situation about storytelling, setting scenes for the stage, and engaging an audience.  In this regard the program was a huge success, as each team brought so many different insights in direction, performance and characterization.  But the biggest surprise for me was how much everyone else got out of it.  The performers from Academy of Vocal Arts and the Curtis Institute of Music gained tremendous learning from working with artists from the respective schools, and for some it was a first opportunity to perform contemporary music with the composer in the room.  The directors learned a lot about Lembit and Missy’s music, and the audience was given a bird’s eye view into the creative process and established a deep connection to each of these works as well as to Lembit and Missy.  At the reception afterwards, it was almost like a family gathering as everyone felt like they were an active part of the creative process.  For me, this is a big element of the magic of new work – when you let people in, it can really forge a community around art, artists and ideas. 

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Bravi tutti to everyone who made this happen and to all in attendance!  You were all active members of this artistic journey, and I look forward to all of us continuing our work together in supporting both Lembit and Missy as they develop their operatic ideas and voices.

To Beard or Not to Beard?

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With opera season upon us, I have a decision to make and I need your help.  As many of you know, David and I went on a fairly long camping trip this summer and I returned to the city with a fair amount of scruff. I thought would keep it for awhile, to sort extend my vacation-like feeling. Since my return, however, I have been getting lots of people saying they love it and to keep it. With summer clearly at an end, and opera season about to open, I feel I need to make a decision. Should I keep the beard as a new look, or shave it off and bid adieu to a great summer? Vote away. 

To beard or not to beard?

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.