Sunday, August 28, 2011

Salvatore Licitra suffers severe traffic accident

[This is copied from Salvatore Licitra's official website:]

Dear friends of Salvatore Licitra,

Here is to inform that Salvatore Licitra suffered a severe traffic accident late Saturday night, August 27, in Modica (Ragusa, Sicily). He was brought to Garibaldi di Catania hospital where he had surgery and is treated for his serious injuries.

[Later news reports say that he ran into a wall while riding his Vespa. He was not wearing a helmet.

For continuing news about Salvatore Licitra's condition see his website.]

Saturday, August 27, 2011


Jonas Kaufmann must cancel his guest appearances in Japan

Due to surgery Jonas Kaufmann has to cancel his performances in Japan. In September he was to have sung there several performances of "Carmen" in a production by the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, and of "Lohengrin" in the staging of the Bavarian State Opera. In this letter to his fans in Japan Kaufmann explains the need for his decision:

Dear Friends,

I'm very sorry to have to tell you that I have to cancel the performances scheduled for September in Japan. I was really looking forward to coming back to Japan, and I assure you that this decision has nothing to do with the difficult situation in which you find yourselves for months. The fact is that I undergo an operation: a knot in the breast area must be removed. I don’t want to upset anyone with this message, only my doctors have advised me to have the surgery as soon as possible, and that will be after my appearance at the gala Jussi Björling in Stockholm on 2 September.

That I therefore cancel my trip to Japan and must again disappoint many people, I am extremely sorry. From my previous appearances in Japan, I remember the local audience as particularly enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and the great affection that you have shown me time and again, I have always regarded as an extraordinary honor. But health comes first. And I hope for the understanding of all those of you who can empathize with my situation or who have ever been in a similar situation. And of course I hope that I can as soon as possible to come back to you.

Kind regards,

Your Jonas Kaufmann

[This is translated from the official announcement in German. We can only hope all goes well.]

Friday, August 26, 2011

Werther the DVD

God in heaven, he is so dreamy. And with a DVD you get closeups.  Remember, watch out for those good girls.

And Ludovic Tézier who sings Albert is no slouch either.

For an actual review of this performance see here. It is a Werther for the ages.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sacramento Opera's 2011-2012 season saved by donors

By Edward Ortiz
Published: Saturday, May. 14, 2011 [in the Sacramento Bee]

The Sacramento Opera announced Friday that it will present a 2011-12 season. Urgent pleas in the last two weeks secured $135,164 from donors.

The company canceled most of its 2010-11 season because of an $85,000 budget shortfall. Yet some supporters were willing to come to the organization's aid.

"The situation was critical, and the timing was such that I made a decision to focus on a donation," said Laurie Nelson, a longtime subscriber and donor. "I realized then how important the company was to me."

Others, like subscriber Henry Littell, were not as enthusiastic. Littell said he was displeased by the company's move to offer semi-staged operas in the 2009-10 season and by what he called its lax standards for productions.

"I don't mind being asked for money or donating if they had been giving the audience something instead of a masquerade by cutting the quality of programming," he said. "Did they think that no one would notice?"

The Opera's board of directors voted unanimously Thursday to move forward with the new season after it met a benchmark of $122,000, Gideons said. Its initial plea had been $175,000 by early May.

"This was a vote of confidence," said Rod Gideons, general director of the company. "The board felt that if it attained the minimum it would give them enough confidence in going forward.

"Not one dime of this comes from city, county, state or federal dollars. This is totally from our constituents."

The board also approved an operating budget of $704,551, compared with $1.1 million for its ill-fated 2010-11 season. With a smaller budget, the company will move away from a focus on grand opera. Gone will be the three productions that offered two evening performances and a matinee. The company also plans to operate on a new financing model, drawing less of its operating budget from ticket sales and more from donations.

The new season will see the company producing three performances, including a co-production of Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci," with the Sacramento Philharmonic. That production will be Nov. 19-20 at the Community Center Theater and will be conducted by Sacramento Philharmonic conductor Michael Morgan.

The company's season begins Oct. 6 with a concert staging of opera arias at Sacramento's Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. Its third production will be a fully staged production of Verdi's "Rigoletto" at the Community Center Theater Feb. 24-25, conducted by former company music director Timm Rolek.

[I have copied this from the Sacramento Bee to show the followup after the announcement of cancellation I printed here. Bold is mine.]

Monday, August 22, 2011


In San Francisco this summer is the summer of Gertrude Stein. I've seen the art exhibit at the SF MOMA, I've seen the picture exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, so now it is time for Four Saints in Three Acts.

Of course, there are at least four acts and many more than four saints.  You knew that.  As a former GS freak who has actually read a substantial percentage of her literary works, it feels like the rest of the world is finally catching up.  To keep the record straight, this is my first Four Saints.

I have taken down my copy of Last Operas and Plays to see how the text looks on the page.  Most of Stein's plays look like normal plays--on the left is the character's name and on the right is the words he is to speak.  This is the form for The Mother of Us All, the other opera with text by Stein and music by Virgil Thomson.  Not Four Saints.  Her desire to write a play or maybe an opera is only half-hearted.  She just writes down anything--Stein notoriously never edited herself--including a lot of words that look like stage directions, and Thomson composes everything and assigns who will sing what.

A few words about Virgil Thomson. From the perspective of 2011 he is clearly the original minimalist. The program speaks of his influence on Philip Glass. Deliberate, self-conscious simplicity is minimalism. Why have I never seen this before?

And in Stein's text we have minimalist poetry. Why invent new text when we could simply keep repeating the old text? Perhaps this text is just thoughts about possibly thinking about possibly writing a play.

"Pigeons on the grass alas." Crossing Yerba Buena Gardens on the way to the performance, I saw these pigeons.

At the start of the "installation" someone came out and tried to explain what we were about to see.  Apparently at some date after the original 1934 production, Virgil Thomson created a cut down version of the opera.  Then along came Ensemble Parallèle and SFMOMA, and they requested Luciano Chessa to compose something more 21st century for these cut out bits of text. The result is a short prelude opera called A Heavenly Act. The characters here are also Saint Ignatius and Saints Teresa I and II.

This new work can't decide what it is musically. There is something resembling ensemble Sprechstimme, a kind of randomized whispering. There is an extended rap song, complete with microphone. There's a long, almost tonal waltz. There's a beautiful duet with Teresa I and Teresa II. Often it's almost tonal with intrusive percussion and a meandering synthesizer (harmonium) to throw you off.

You can tell I'm enjoying trying to explain this, even if I don't really succeed.

A Heavenly Act is a dark work, produced in a dark style, with looming black and white projections of angels. The liner notes tell us that the projections of fluffy clouds are heaven as we imagine it, while the dark angels are heaven as it truly is. The projections are by Kalup Linzy who may also be our rapper and principle performer.

Gertrude Stein as rap text just might work. Tender Buttons?

When a crowd appears on stage in colorful outfits, we know we are now doing Virgil Thomson. All is sunshine and light.

A plot is imposed on the text to great effect. Saint Ignatius operates on Saint Teresa--that would be Saint Teresa I--and apparently the results are not good, because two policemen appear and arrest him. He goes on trial for murder, is convicted and executed in the electric chair. While the cast sings about pigeons.  All the saints appear to be electrocuted together.  "When this you see remember me."

The able conductor is Nicole Paiement. Wendy Hillhouse, John Bischoff, Heidi Moss (Teresa I), Krisen Choi (Teresa II) and Eugene Brancoveanu (Saint Ignatius) were the most important singers. Everyone involved is from the Bay Area.

It was a work of love.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1930-50]

Friday, August 19, 2011

Endlich Fidelio

Beethoven's Fidelio is an old friend. My heart is actually racing. As I write, they are singing the canon. You see, nothing less than absolute perfection will do.

It's a Singspiel, a trivial form intended for comedy, perhaps farce. There's nothing particularly original about Fidelio. It's a rescue opera, an idea that arose in opera comique around the time of the French revolution. It seems original to us because it's the only one we know.

We see German opera in relationship to Der Freischütz or Lohengrin, and are not prepared for this insignificant vessel. Beethoven has filled this simple pot with gold. He cannot help but overbalance it, but when did he not? That is, after all, what makes him Beethoven. For a moment give over sophistication and feel the passionate simple.  It is the never married Beethoven's hymn to married love. 

Claudio Abbado's name must precede everyone else's. Nowhere does a work so much depend on tempo and all the other pieces of a conductor's art. His touch is masterful.

There is simply nothing like it.  I don't cry this much for Mimi.

Love and praise to Jonas Kaufmann, Nina Stemme and all the rest.  To do it right you must love it.  Thank you. It is a truly great Fidelio.


The inner dialog around Griselda was intense and quite lengthy, in serious contrast to the short review.  I eschewed my usual diatribe against Peter Sellars.  He is a fascinating lecturer.  It's only his actual profession I have problems with:  stage director and production designer.  I cut him some slack because perhaps no one could probably have saved Griselda.

I learned that the complete budget for this year at the Santa Fe Opera was $11,000,000.  In the world of big time opera that is peanuts.  City Opera pays more than that just for rent.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

O Solitude

I can't believe I'm writing this.

I bought Andreas Scholl's O Solitude because Borders was going out of business, and it was cheap.  I also bought Hilary Hahn's Higdon and Casals' Bach cello suites.

Henry Purcell deserved his title Orpheus Brittanicus.  For me he is divine.  Music reached a state of perfection in the middle Baroque, and here in this English music there is no Italian showing off or German intellectualizing.

It's a wonderful recording.  The phrases sweep with such grace.  Just think of the countertenor as a new, somewhat strange instrument.  "Music for a while shall all our cares beguile."  Perhaps it is the ideal postlude to a practically perfect Fairy Queen.

What have all these centuries been for when already such perfection has been achieved?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Young people at the opera

A subject that came up in Santa Fe, and indeed comes up all over the opera world, is the problem of getting young people to the opera.

Most efforts focus on the ticket prices. Young people don't usually have a lot of money.

Some houses do student rush instead of senior rush. Rush means last minute unfilled seats are offered for very low prices. Frankly, I don't see the concept of senior rush--aren't there already enough gray heads in the audience?

Many do special family performances and performances for audiences that are all young people. The producers always select which operas they think are suitable for young people, such as Magic Flute or Elixir of Love. I always remember my 12 year old son coming home very excited after a performance of Elektra. Do our imaginations always correctly identify the tastes of the young?

Some of the difficulty has to do with the opera itself. On his 40th anniversary at the Met James Levine bragged that he works very hard to maintain the operatic experience of the past. Perhaps in the long run this is a mistake.

The places where I have seen the most young people--besides Santa Fe--have been at the performances of new operas. Satyagraha at the Met drew a whole new audience. The same was true for Bonesetter's Daughter in San Francisco.

Older opera fans want to see their favorites again, and they want them to be the same as before. New younger fans do not yet have favorites and have no preconceived ideas of how they should be presented.

I think as long as opera insists on being exclusively an homage to the past, it will draw its audience primarily from the past.


Among my notes is the following quote, complete with quote marks:  "Rossini's hemorrhoids are fully documented." No source is provided.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Opera Riot

Opera Chic has all the good stories. What a relief to read here about opera rioting in Pesaro.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Chick Flick

Well, maybe you remember when I wrote that opera is a chick flick.  You simply must read this.  Someone besides me has thought that opera is a chick flick.

Singers from Santa Fe

This is the tenor from La Boheme David Lomeli.

Ailyn Pérez from La Boheme.

This is Ana Maria Martinez who was our Mimi. I searched quite a while to find something with a visual AND didn't have Placido Domingo or Andrea Bocelli AND was standard operatic repertoire. This is as close as I could get.

And here is Isabel Leonard doing Handel.

These people were my favorites. It doesn't mean other people weren't very fine. The quality of singing across the board was very good this year.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Isabel Leonard in the New York Times

Here is an article about Isabel Leonard you might find interesting. She is the wife of the New Zealand baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Impressions of Savages

The Santa Fe Opera's production of Menotti's The Last Savage leaves behind a series of images.

The most powerful image is the troop of skinny men in their turbans, long black beards, Ghandi loin cloths and pervasive tattoos who strut around the stage with their toes pointing out.  They told us we were in a comedy.  This in turn led to speculation:  how could you possibly tattoo that many men?  Body suits?  There was no evidence of wrinkling.  Stenciling?  Maybe.  Fake tattoos?  Maybe.  Mysteries are very attractive.

Then there is the unforgettable image of the heroine Kitty in her pink safari suit, complete with pink kepi.  She is sung by the dainty and adorable coloratura soprano Anna Christy.  I didn't expect so much coloratura from Menotti.  Anna was surely perfectly cast, very much like a character from Legally Blonde.

Then there is the image of the savage himself who started out in a loin cloth and huge ugly turban.  Daniel Okulitch, a Canadian baritone who looks marvelous in all possible stages of dress and undress, is also a fine lyric baritone.  I almost said we could hope to see more of him, but how could we possibly, if you know what I mean?

We wander from India to Chicago and back.  Menotti wrote his own libretti, and his skill can best be seen in the party for Chicago society.  The savage meets a cross section of religious figures, artists, debutantes, scientists, etc.  There is even a brief bit of modern sounding chamber music, which is supposed to be the only part Stravinsky liked.

Hearing Menotti from the view of the 21st century, I realize it is in the style of the classic American musical and could easily play on Broadway--particularly in this production.

Our schedule of the five operas was in exactly the right order, especially Faust at the beginning and Savage at the end.  We wondered why Marguerite climbed into the stand of organ pipes on her way to heaven.  The answer came when the savage attempts to escape civilization by climbing into the panorama of Chicago skyscrapers at the back.  We have achieved symmetry.

This was the hit of the summer.

Saturday, August 06, 2011


From l:  Griselda, Costanza, Gualtiero, Roberto.

Every year the Santa Fe Opera does one new or neglected opera, and this year it is Vivaldi's Griselda.  Obviously, 1735 isn't new, so that leaves neglected.

The plot is not politically correct.  King Gualtiero divorces his wife Griselda and threatens to marry someone else for the sole purpose of improving his political standing.  Peter Sellars, the production designer, changed the ending.  In the original there is a kind of double wedding where mother Griselda and Daughter Costanza get together with their respective men.  Instead the King announces simply that all is forgiven, you're still queen, and Griselda just goes on sweeping the floor like it's all too much for her.  Perhaps this helps our modern sensitivities, but it does not save this cruel, anachronistic plot.

I've seen stagings of Baroque operas I liked more--I was quite fond of Rinaldo in Zurich--but I don't really know if any staging could save Griselda.  Gronk painted the set.  Everything looks like modern northern New Mexico.  Do we care one way or the other?  Not really.

Because it's really all about the singing.  And gorgeous singing it was, too.

David Daniels as Roberto is probably the biggest name, and he sang very well, but for me I can't get past the countertenor thing.  Sorry.

Tenor Paul Groves as King Gualtiero, the lowest voice on the stage, was excellent.  My previous reservations about his singing--pushed down tone--were nowhere in evidence.  His coloratura is smooth and natural for such a dark voice.

You could not do this opera without contralto Meredith Arwady as Griselda.  The role was written for Vivaldi's girl friend who, everyone keeps telling us, was a terrible singer.  I was happy to see Meredith take a dip into the Baroque but hope for something more congenial next time.  She was the emotional heart of this otherwise heartless opera.

I enjoyed Amanda Majeski as Ottone, Griselda's other suiter.  This character was translated into a highschool kid with jeans and sneakers and a gun.

The unqualified star of the evening was the incredible, spectacular, gorgeous Isabel Leonard, a mezzo in the role of Costanza.  There were rumors of a shoving match for attention between Paul and David, a seemingly pointless activity, since it was clearly Isabel who stole the show.  Hers were the best arias and she aced every single one of them, including the famous "Agitata da due venti," the hit tune for this opera.

Griselda is saved by singing.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1715-40]

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Outdoor Wozzeck

To give you an idea of the open air Santa Fe Opera, in the spot where Wozzeck says "I smell something.  I smell blood." I thought to myself, "I smell something, too--skunk."  Its timeliness was suspicious.

The set and its use in the drama was spectacularly serviceable on the tiny stage.  Panels came out quickly and smoothly from the side to create the different scenes with no pause in the action.  There are scenes in Wozzeck where large crowds are on stage, people dancing, bands that play on stage, almost mob scenes, and they manage it all quite gracefully.  They have their shit rather astoundingly together here.

Wozzeck is about a soldier of the rank and file.  He shaves his commanding officer every morning.  He gathers sticks in the field.  He supports his common-law wife and their child and supplements his income by allowing himself to be the subject of medical experiments.  In his particular experiment he is allowed to eat nothing but beans.  The production implied that he might also be injected with drugs.

As a result Wozzeck talks crazy.  For instance, he imagines he is pursued by Free Masons (Freimauern).

This is my third Wozzeck--once in the 60's with Marilyn Horne, once in the 80's with Janis Martin and now with Nicola Beller Carbone, a German soprano.  I was most interested in the differences in style of these three women.  Marilyn Horne could have been singing Bellini.  Janis Martin could have been doing Wagner.  Nicola Beller Carbone was doing Berg--a rather choppy modern Berg.

Wozzeck is in the full Second Viennese School style, including extensive Sprechstimme.  Wozzeck is particularly complex with all conceivable levels between talking and singing.  Richard Paul Fink was wonderfully grim and insane, altogether an outstanding Wozzeck.

There were two big men in the production--Eric Owens as the doctor and Stuart Skelton as the drum major--looming over the tiny stage.  Owens rides a bicycle right up to the edge of the pit.  It made me wonder if the orchestra gets hazard pay.  Skelton was a marvelous asshole, but he needs to see that he doesn't become typecast.

As the years go by the music sounds less and less harsh.  Now I hear the enormous variety of colors that Berg achieves with his large orchestra.  By now music in the movies has made modern music sound familiar.  Berg feels an old friend, a fascinating, very emotional old friend.

This is by far the most I have enjoyed Wozzeck.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

La Boheme at Santa Fe

Why do we love it so?  I think it is because we love them, their youth and enthusiasm for living.  The Santa Fe Opera production of La Boheme achieves this.  At Santa Fe all the chorus, bit players and walk-ons are played by the apprentices who bring their youthful enthusiasm to every scene.

The production is very clever.  It looks like two streets that meet in the center of the stage until the middle building opens up to become the garrett.  The problem at Santa Fe is that the entire facility is quite tiny, so to achieve a relatively spacious looking stage is an achievement.

These days everything is coming up tenors, and La Boheme is no exception.  We were won over from the start when David Lomeli, a young Mexican tenor, opened his mouth and out flowed that bright, gorgeous, very Italian sounding voice.  He's a winner.

Also worth mentioning are Ana Maria Martinez as Mimi and Heidi Stober as Musetta.  I saw Heidi here in Platée four years ago. 

La Boheme is many people's favorite opera.  For sheer lovability it would be hard to top.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1890-1910]

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Regie Faust

The band of color across the bottom of the picture is actually a reflection in the moat that runs around the edge of the orchestra pit.

Faust and I have a relationship since it was one of the operas we performed in Ulm.  Ours was neither as serious and sensible as last season's in San Francisco nor as silly as the one at the Santa Fe Opera.

Let's see.  Guys in pointy helmets is Kaiser Germany, right?  It's hard to guess the period for this production.  Men are in top hats, but Marguerite's dress does not reach the floor.  Does that make her a child?

Faust first appears in a wheelchair through the opening at the back of the stage where God's sunset was still in progress.  To turn him back into a young man the devil is reduced to performing surgery.  The fair where Faust meets Marguerite is staged as a carnival side show with a bearded lady, a fat man and a set of Siamese twins.  Marguerite makes her appearance on roller-skates. 

The ballet is left in--a first for me--and staged as six opera divas, each attempting to seduce Faust.  It makes the opera too long.

One could go on and on listing the regie gimmicks.  I liked it that when the soldiers return in triumph, they are followed on stage by three caskets.  Serious and silly alternate in rapid order.

So how does this explain that it was a triumph?  It is one of the great mysteries, one that Shakespeare understood, that a little comedy only makes the tragedy that much deeper.

Our conductor, Frédéric Chaslin, the chief conductor of the Santa Fe Opera, is an actual Frenchman.  After my experience in Paris, I am convinced the French understand their opera in a way that mere foreigners cannot.  We were spared unrelenting heavy tempos and thick orchestral playing, and in its place was lightness and charm, a winning combination.

His singers were with him all the way, beginning with the wonderful Marguerite of American Ailyn Pérez who has already made her debut in Milan, Berlin and Vienna.  I look forward to seeing more of her.

Ours was the last performance for Bryan Hymel as Faust.  He's also already sung in Milan.  Faust appears to be on the heavy end of his repertoire.  Mark S. Doss was vocally a bit light but generally an outstanding Mephistopheles.

My tour mates are quibbling over the production, an irresistible pastime, but for me it was the singing, the poise of the singing actors, and most of all the magnificent music making that made this an excellent Faust

Vive la France.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1850-70]

Monday, August 01, 2011

From Santa Fe

Listening to gossip about things going on behind the scenes, quarrels and so forth, I brought up the La Traviata production of two years ago.  I mentioned how much I admired the way Natalie Dessay jumped from one ridiculous giant box to another with grace and conviction.

Then I was told that before every performance she would come out in full costume and practice the jumps.  The house could not be opened until she was finished.  Natalie is always the complete performer.