Review: Two Italian Dynamos—Nicola Luisotti and pianist Giuseppe Albanese—and the SF Opera Orchestra, kick off SF Opera’s Summer Season at Zellerbach Hall
There’s only one Nicola Luisotti—the magical maestro! Last Friday’s symphonic concert with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra at UC Berkley’s Zellerbach Hall was everything we’ve come to expect when Luisotti is at the helm of this very talented orchestra—heart-felt passion and mesmerizing music. It was wonderful to be able to actually see this talented orchestra, which normally resides in the pit during operas, and to place some faces with soloists we’ve come to respect and love. Last Friday’s program included Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese; Puccini’s early piece, “Capriccio Sinfonico;” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major.
The surprise treat was Giuseppe Albanese, in his West Coast premiere, who not only proved to be un talento enormo on the piano but a curly-haired young Italian heartthrob to boot. He appeared in bright red shoes, a feat not many guys (apart from Jean-Yves Thibaudet!) can successfully pull off ..…he owned it. It was his smile, sensual verve and engagement with the music and orchestra that melted the audience and led to several standing ovations and a sensational triple encore. His encore included an uncannily virtuosic rendition of Scriabin’s “Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand” (Op. 9, No. 2), which he knocked out with playful swagger. I would have sworn there were at least two hands on that keyboard if I hadn’t seen Albanese’s right hand alternately hanging by his side or pressed up expressively against his heart.
The evening opened with Puccini’s “Capriccio sinfonico,” a rarely performed work the composer wrote as a 25-year-old at the conservatory in Milan. The Capriccio was Puccini’s final student work, written to satisfy the requirements for his graduation in July 1883. He hadn’t yet written his first opera (although the work is full of operatic grandeur—and even contains passages that the maestro later used in “La Bohême”). One of Puccini’s biographers, Julian Budden, has this to say about the Capriccio: “Performed at the annual students’ concert on July 14, it at once alerted the critics to a new voice in Italian music. Filippi of La perseveranza shed all his reservations of the previous year. ‘In Puccini,’ he wrote, ‘we have a decisive and rare musical temperament and one which is especially symphonic. There is unity of style, personality, character. In his Capriccio sinfonico there is a good deal that more experienced composers . . . have not succeeded in doing. . . There are no uncertainties or gropings in the young author. . . The ideas are clear, strong, effective and sustained with much truth.’ (PUCCINI: HIS LIFE AND WORKS by Julian Budden, 2002)
The opera orchestra’s performance of this precious archive from Puccini’s repertoire was indeed inspired and so was Luisotti’s conducting, a feat of passion and pure embrace of sound. Luisotti, who at times appeared to be writing in the air with his sweeping gestures of the baton, guided the orchestra into a lush performance, reminding me that it’s hard to beat an Italian conducting an Italian.
Up next was pianist Giuseppe Albanese in Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” a piece that had his curly hair flouncing and his fingers flying as he executed complex crossovers matching blow for blow Luisotti’s passionate baton waving and flying locks. As both men became one with the music and the orchestra, it was a pleasure to sit back, watch and listen. Rota has composed four piano concertos but is best known for his film scores, which date back to the early 1940s. He’s collaborated with Federico Fellini, Renato Castellani, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, Mario Monicelli, Francis Ford Coppola (he received the Oscar for Best Original Score for The Godfather II), King Vidor, René Clément, Edward Dmytrik and Eduardo de Filippo. Additionally, he composed the music for many theatre productions by Visconti, Zefirelli and de Filippo. It’s natural to wonder whether his film and concert music are similar. The Piano Concerto in C has a strong melody but didn’t evoke any filmic moments for me. The drama and passion was injected by Albanese who had the audience’s rapt attention throughout. So much so that, afterwards, he received a long standing ovation and came out for an encore— Denis Zardi Prelude, Op. 6, No. 24—followed by another ovation. It was his second piece— Scriabin’s “Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand” (Op. 9, No. 2)—where he delivered the goods, a technically challenging one-handed performance of great beauty and emotional richness. After that, as if egged on by Luisotti behind the curtain to “go for it,” he came out again with Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” arranged by Earl Wilde, a familiar piece he played to the hilt while taking every opportunity to lap up the much-deserved limelight.
The evening concluded with Brahams “Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90,” which I had never before heard. All four of it movements end quietly and its most powerful moments are quite restrained. Coming on the heels of the robust first half of the concert, this subdued but highly complex piece was a soothing end to the evening. The third movement started with a wonderfully low and flowing cello passage that was followed later by Kevin Rivard’s tender horn solo. What a treat to hear this masterpiece for the first time performed with such passion by Luisotti’s orchestra.
Author Barbara Quick, well-known for her best-selling novel, Vivaldi’s Virgins, has just finished a new historically-accurate novel called “Saving Puccini” and gave ARThound a good deal of insight and perspective on the Puccini performance.
For more information about San Francisco Opera’s Summer 2013 season, which includes Tales of Hoffman (6/5-7/6/2013), Cosi fan tutte (6/9-7/1/2013), and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (6/19-7/7/2013), click here.
She’s graced the stages of the world’s top opera houses, notably stunning at the Met three seasons ago with her break-out role as Carmen. She was set to have her West Coast debut with San Francisco Opera in “Werther,” fall season 2010, but unexpectedly cancelled. The closest we’ve come to seeing her up close was catching her riveting Sesto in the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD simulcast of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (December 1, 2012) at the Rialto Cinemas—wowing us with her opening “Parto, parto” and her Act II aria “Deh per questo istante.” Finally! Latvian mezzo soprano, Elīna Garanča, makes her West Coast debut in recital on at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall on Tuesday, April 9—her only West Coast appearance this year. What a coup for GMC! But it’s been quite a year for mezzos—Stephanie Blythe and Joyce Di Donato gave unforgettable performances earlier in the season.
Garanča’s rich mezzo, musicianship, and compelling stage portrayals have established her as one of the world’s newest opera stars. In 2005, she locked in a coveted exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Now, at 36, she’s in her prime. Along with her last best-selling solo album, Romantique (2012)(works by Berlioz, Donizetti, Gounod, Lalo, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky, Vaccai), she has been releasing a series of glam-shots that accentuate her striking beauty and sensuality. And like, Joyce DiDonato, who wowed us with her amazing red gown, Garanča also loves to dress up, so get ready for some amazing dresses on Tuesday!
On April 26, Deutsche Grammophon will release its recording of Metropolitan Opera’s 2009 production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola in which she sings Angelina, the opera’s central role. Critic Steve Smith raved in a New York Times review (5.7.2009) that she was “technically flawless: her voice lustrous and even throughout her range and at any dynamic; her delivery, silken and seemingly effortless.”
Reviews of this particular performance run hot and cool. She was in recital this past Saturday at Carnegie Hall, with the same program she’s doing for GMC. Critics praised her voice, precision and preparation but pointed to her lack of connection with the audience. Forging that intimate connection is the factor that immortalizes a technically great singer, which Garanča already is. The warm, intimate, and relaxed atmosphere of Weill Hall should go a long way towards taking care of that. It’s been an elixir for the divas who’ve appeared there so far and we’ve experienced them at their finest.
Garanča’s program centers on love—a mother’s love for her newborn child, the early pangs of romance, the solidarity of a great marriage, and the warm contentment of a bond that has matured over many years. She’s selected three of the masters of German lieder: Robert Schumann, Alban Berg, and Richard Strauss. The cornerstone for the recital is Schumann’s Frauenliebe und – leben, which she said in an interview with Carnegie Hall is her current favorite lied cycle.
“Zwei Lieder der Braut””
Frauenliebe und – leben”
“Sieben frühe Lieder”
“All mein Gedanken”
“Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden”
Elīna Garanča introducing the romantic repertoire of her latest CD, “Romantique”
Elīna Garanča sings Mozart’s “Parto, ma tu ben mio” from “La celmenza di Tito”
Elina Garanca sings Gypsy-themed songs, introducing “Habanera,” her 2010 solo album.
Details: Elīna Garanča performs April 9, 2013 at 8 p.m. at Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park. Ticket purchases can be made online at www.gmc.sonoma.edu, or, over the phone with the Sonoma State University Box Office at 866.955.6040. Regular business hours are Monday through Friday from 8am to 4:30pm. The Box Office re-opens one hour before the performance.
Parking: As you enter the Sonoma State University campus from the Rohnert Park Expressway, there are multiple parking lots immediately to your right. Parking Lots L, M, N and O are available for parking for GMC performances. Parking is $10. Have cash ready.
interview: Bay Area artist Naomie Kremer shares how her gardens grow—she created the digital sets for the new opera “The Secret Garden,” at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall through Sunday, March 10, 2013
San Francisco’s Opera’s new opera for its spring season, “The Secret Garden,” which had its world premiere last Friday in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, is an exciting adaptation of the classic children’s novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Directed by Jose Maria Condemi with music by Petaluma composer Nolan Gasser, libretto by Carey Harrison, and visual design by multimedia artist Naomie Kremer, the entire project has been captivating since its inception. Following in the footsteps of its visually intoxicating 2012 production of “The Magic Flute,” the SFO’s first opera to fully incorporate digital projection technology, this co-production with Cal Performances also fully capitalizes on digital technology for its set design. Video technology has moved opera in a new direction—visual design, always thought to be somewhat static and subservient to the musical component, now has the chance be dynamic and just as compelling as the music. Naomie Kremer created all of “The Secret Garden’s” digitally-projected sets—a prologue and 13 scenes—and she agreed to talk about what went into visually styling this two hour production.
Written in 1910, the timeless story is about a spoiled young girl who finds herself alone in a bleary and unfamiliar land, until she discovers the hidden wonder of a secret garden and experiences the healing power of nature. While it has been adapted to the stage and screen many times, the classic struck SF Opera general director David Gockley as perfect for opera and in 2010, he began to talk publicly of developing it as a family opera. Naomie Kremer captured his attention with her masterful one hour video backdrop for the Berkeley Opera Company’s 2008 production of Béla Bartok’s 1918 opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” (A kékszakállú herceg vára). This was the painter’s first stab at video projected stage design but, based on its strength, the choreographer Margaret Jenkins invited Kremer to create a video backdrop for “Light Moves,” a production of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company involving a synthesis of dance, live music, poetry, animation and recurring cycles of light, which premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in November 2011.
Partly because of the success of Light Moves, Gockley’s attention turned to Kremer again when The Secret Garden opera was developed, and he asked her to submit a proposal. Soon after, she was hired to do the entire visual design for the production.
ARThound first discovered Naomie Kremer last September through her detailed FAMSF (Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco) blog posts where she wrote about using FAMSF portraits in the opera’s set design to “hint at Mary’s venerable family made up of generations of proud landowners and beautiful women.” For the pivotal scene where Mary hears moaning sounds and decides to explore the hallway, she planned to line a dark and flickering hallway with portraits of William Turner by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Kilderbee (ca 1757) by Thomas Gainsborough. “Making this video set, I knit together a fabric to support the action of this opera,” wrote Kremer. “The play between reality and fantasy, realism and surrealism, is fluid and wide open. My goal is to stretch reality but not so much that the fabric tears” Indeed, that very elasticity, is what makes digital sets so intoxicating.
The Secret Garden had its world premiere last Friday (March 1, 2013) to a sold out house and I had the privilege of talking with Naomie Kremer about her otherworldly digital set designs. Below is our conversation—
Give us an overview of what you were responsible for and the types of materials you used as source materials.
Naomie Kremer: As the visual designer, I was in charge of all aspects of the set design, including the props. This is my first assignment for SF Opera. They contacted me in July 2011, I presented a proposal in November 2011, and was hired at the beginning of 2012. I started shooting video right away. It’s really been a long and involved process which morphed as I was working on it. I started by creating a lot of raw material— footage that I shot in England, Spain, France, here (CA) and New York, a few things from the Internet, some of my own paintings, and portraits lent by the FAMSF—and then, I began to mix manipulate it all. My process involves layering a lot of different content to arrive at a slightly unreal vision that you would not see in the real world but that is familiar. I call that “enhanced realism.”
What are some previous productions that you’ve worked on and some techniques that you’ve developed that you apply to digital design?
NK: This is my third experience with set design. It all started with Béla Bartok’s“Bluebeard’s Castle,” which the Berkeley Opera Company’s did in 2008. It’s a one hour opera, notoriously hard to stage because the story involves seven doors that open onto 7 completely different worlds that include a torture chamber, a garden, “the realm.” I was introduced to Jonathon Khuner, director of the Berkeley Opera, by the composer Paul Dresher. I showed Khuner some of my painting animations, and he invited me to do a video-based set for Bluebeard. He didn’t expect me make it as comprehensive as I did—I basically did a one-hour music video, with a continuous flow of moving visuals, essentially turning Bluebeard’s Castle itself into an actor in the production.
It was a consuming process that took nine months. The visual design was very well received, and I was very intrigued with the process and the results. I ended up with many many hours of footage and content that was not used, and it led me to develop a whole new body of work that I call “hybrid paintings.”
These “hybrid” works consist of paintings or works on paper onto which I project video, transforming them into mysterious, luminous objects that challenge our perception of surface, space, depth, and materiality through a hybrid of painting and video. I think of the experience as one that “both orients and disorients. The viewer is uncertain which part is paint and which is projection until the spot where the gaze is resting starts to move. I’m interested in the ambiguity of the relationship between projection and reality, stillness and motion. The stillness is that of the painted canvas. The motion is an animation I create, sometimes by selecting and choreographing segments of a finished painting, sometimes by manipulating video footage. All of that came out of working on Bluebeard’s Castle.
Margaret Jenkins saw the opera, as well as my hybrid paintings in an exhibition at Modernism (my gallery in San Francisco), and became intrigued with the idea of creating a hybrid of dance and video. She invited me to do a set for the work that became Light Moves, which premiered at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in November, 2011, and subsequently toured to Maryland and Chicago.
When you heard about the opera, what’s the first image that popped up for you visually?
NK: Many images came into my head. I traveled in India in my early 20s, and this story begins in India. I also lived in England for three years subsequent to that trip, and had strong visuals in my mind of English gardens, with their incredible, softly lit lushness. And, of course, the importance of identifying a forbidding, almost haunted manor house, of which there are many in England!
The thing I was always looking for in shooting footage for the opera was movement. Without it, you would think you’re just looking a photograph—so wind and rain and weather were a very important component. The importance of motion to the set can’t be under-estimated. I think it’s critical to simulating reality, because in the real world there is always motion in our peripheral vision, whether or not we are aware of it. But I wanted the motion not to be so compelling that we are distracted from the action on the stage. There was a balance to be struck.
What role did music play in this for you and in your visual choices? Since Nolan Gasser was in the process of writing the music and everything was coming together at once, how did that work? Were there particular pieces of the opera, or instruments, or natural sounds that were particularly important?
NK: The music was not done until December 2012, and I had to have most of the video long before that. But the atmospherics of the music were definitely in my mind as I put together the imagery. I had parts of the music to refer to, and I felt instinctively that my own snippets— the content that I was gathering—would work with the rhythms and sonorities of Nolan Gasser’s score. Once I heard the music played by the orchestra (which didn’t happen till the rehearsals began in February!) I was delighted with the instrumentation and how well it worked with the visual rhythms I had created.
Were there particular images that you prepared for specific instrument solos?
NK: The appearance of the robin was always associated with a certain musical passage. Intricate cuing is required to make the video and the stage action and the music come together at critical moments. The sets have to perform over the whole course of a scene, so I had to stay very sensitive to the coordination of the music, the stage action and the video.
The robin is key to the novel. How does that play out in the opera?
NK: The robin was my biggest challenge, because you just can’t stage direct robins. In a funny coincidence, a robin built a nest in the courtyard at my house a couple of years ago, and laid gorgeous blue eggs (I wasn’t aware robin’s eggs were blue!). I shot lots of video of that, but it wasn’t quite the action needed for The Secret Garden. Then, I discovered a grove in Central Park populated by a whole bunch of tame robins, so they didn’t run away as I approached to videotape them. Then, one day it dawned on me to Google English robins and I found out that they look completely different than American robins, so I wasn’t able to use any of the footage I had! In desperation, I went to the internet and found some footage that I was then able to modify by deleting the extraneous background content.
How does the ability to paint a scene with digital media change things for you as an artist? Before you had very static sets, painted on boards, and used limited props. Of course, you can still have the best of those but you’ve got this whole other element that brings unlimited opportunities.
NK: It’s incredibly exciting and it’s wide open. You can really visualize and paint a whole world, constructing it from different locations, using diverse content to invent a scene that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world. It’s an incredible extension of the medium of painting.
The garden is of course KEY to the unfolding and mystery of the story. What were specific inspirations for the garden you created both time-wise and the style of garden you created? Frances Hodgson Burnett was a Victorian looking back at the Romantic-era gardens which were so wild and poetic. How did you approach this?
NK: I travelled quite a bit in the course of the past year. I had to come up with two gardens—the house garden, which is the one that is first seen when Mary goes out to play, and the secret garden, which she discovers later. I wanted to make the house garden appear distinctly different from the secret garden and was looking for a formal and very structured garden to use. I ended up videotaping in Grenada at the Alhambra, as well as in Yorkshire, and a combination of the two became the formal garden. For the secret garden, I traveled to Norfolk and Yorkshire in England, as well as videotaping in my own and friends’ gardens. I then created video collages of this footage. The secret garden also needed several versions. When Mary first discovers it, it’s overgrown, seemingly dead. Then, it transitions into early springtime and ultimately into full bloom in the final scene. I masked out certain areas of content in the video and reinserted paintings that I had done so there’s a look that you could not achieve by simply videotaping. To create specific moods and seasonal changes I used color and light.
I actually ended up inserting a layer of the outdoors into the indoor scenes so that the wallpaper has a component that moves very slightly. Since the mood and psychological content is so much about the outdoors, I thought it would be very neat to bring an outdoor component indoors. I adjusted brightness and contrast and content to create gloomy interiors at first, which become more upbeat as the story develops.
As in C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I am struck by the contrast in this story between these dark repressive interiors and the bright and vital outdoors. And that’s what heals the little boy, coming out into the light and the garden air. How do you handle those contrasts and mood shifts in the opera?
NK: I actually ended up inserting a layer of the outdoors into the indoor scenes so that the wallpaper has a component that moves very slightly. Since the mood and psychological content is so much about the outdoors, I thought it would be very neat to bring an outdoor component indoors. I adjusted brightness and contrast and content to create gloomy interiors at first, which become more upbeat as the story develops.
You’ve included several portraits from the Fine Arts Museums’ collection to hint at Mary’s venerable family. Can you talk about a scene where these are particularly important for setting a mood.
NK: There’s a particular scene where Mary decides to venture out into the hallway to investigate this mysterious wailing sound that she hears, which no one will explain except to say it is the sound of the moors. It was interesting to me to try to create some sense of family history in that hallway and to capture that foreboding mood, so I have the hallway lined with venerable family portraits. To emphasize the progress she’s making, it’s scrolling by as she walks, and to set the mood for this slightly scary journey, it distorts and kind of comes out at her.
You’ve been working in fragments, visual fragments for some time…When did you first see your work joined with the music and what was your reaction?
NK: I was very pleased…It really all came together quite recently, basically when it was in rehearsal. Before that, I had to hold all these fragments together in my head, though I created detailed storyboards as reference points.
The last step was to program the video the MBOX, a performance management system which permits the video to be cued to the stage action. I worked with the team over the past month to adjust brightness, contrast, speed, and so forth so when that the opera’s live the content matches what’s happening on stage. It’s quite complicated!
Naomi Kremer’s exhibition “Sightlines”— An exhibition of Naomie Kremer’s artwork is on display work at Modernism Gallery, 685 Market Street, San Francisco, through April 27, 2013. For more information, call 415.541.0461
DETAILS: There are 2 remaining performances of “The Secret Garden,” Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 3 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall. Tickets: The Sunday matinee is sold out. There is limited availability for Saturday evening. Tickets start at $30. To purchase tickets and check availability, phone 510.642.9988 or click here.
Zellerbach Hall does not have a street address and is located on the lower U.C. Berkeley campus, directly across the street from “The Musical Offering,” 2430 Bancroft Avenue, Berkeley, CA.
Parking is very difficult to find near curtain time, so plan on arriving 30 to 40 minutes prior to your event to ensure getting to your set on time.
Finding the Ticket Office and Will Call: The Ticket Office/Will Call is located at the northeast corner of Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Hours: Sat & Sun, 1 pm – 5 pm and approximately one hour prior to curtain. Tuesday-Friday, noon-5:30 pm. Closed Mondays
“Maria Stuarda,” Donizetti’s powerful Tudor queen opera, never before performed at the Met, screens on “Met Live in HD” this Saturday, January 19, 2013
While history informs us that that Mary, Queen of Scotts never actually met Queen Elizabeth I, Donizetti couldn’t resist putting the two rival queens together to clash it out in his dramatic 1834 opera, “Maria Stuarda.” The Metropolitan Opera premiered this fiercely dramatic opera—the second opera from Donizetti’s bel canto trilogy about the Tudor queens—on New Year’s Eve. With Joyce DiDonato as Mary Queen of Scotts and the debut of the remarkable San Francisco-trained South African soprano Elza van den Heever as Elisabetta, the power struggle between the two queens with two sets of religious beliefs and only one possible, bloody outcome couldn’t have been better cast. This David McVicar production will be transmitted live around the world on Saturday, January 19, 2013 as part of The Met: Live in HD series and will play at 10 a.m. PST in Sonoma County at Sebastopol’s Rialto Cinemas. Encore performances will play on Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Approximate running time: 166 minutes
Those lucky enough to have experienced Joyce DiDonato’s rapturous “Drama Queens” performance in November at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall know what magic this Grammy Award winning mezzo is capable of—channeling the very soul of her composers. While the role of Mary is normally a soprano role, it’s been transposed for diDonato’s rich and expressive mezzo. Here’s a taste of the passion DiDonato delivered while practicing the role. Deborah Voight’s interview was part of the Met Live in HD transmission of “Un Ballo in Maschera” on December 8, 2012 and speaks to the wonderful extras that are part and parcel of every Met: Live in HD experience—
Elza van den Heever went to extraordinary lengths to portray the legendary Queen, who is vividly developed in this production. She even shaved her head in order to better suit the elaborate wigs and high forehead depicted in portraits of the Monarch. The Wall Street Journal’s Heidi Waleson noted that her “big, well-controlled soprano” was “steely and assertive, with the flexibility to pull off Elizabeth’s vengeful, vitriolic cabalettas.” And I can’t wait to see her in a wide red skirt by John Macfarlane that opens like curtains to reveal pants. Van den Heever is a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Merola Opera Program and San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) Adler Fellowship Program. At SFO, she last portrayed Mary Curtis Lee (general Lee’s wife) in the 2007 world premiere of Philip Glass’s Appomattox and Donna Anna in the Company’s 2007 Don Giovanni. She has also partnered with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, notably in their triple Grammy Award winning 2009 release of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8.
Originally premiered in 1835, Maria Stuarda is based on the German writer, Friedrich Schiller’s play Mary Stuart, which depicts the final days of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was viewed as a challenger to Elizabeth I’s throne and beheaded in 1587.
“In this mid-point opera we are really focusing on the relationship between two queens in the same moment and the political impossibility of these two women co-existing on the same small island,” said Mr. McVicar. “It’s based on the Schiller dramatization of Mary’s story which contains the great, mythical scene – which never actually happened in history – when the two queens meet and have a cataclysmic showdown. It crackles with drama, it crackles with romance and it’s a very, very powerful mid-point in the trilogy of these three operas.”
For Maria Stuarda, Mr. McVicar works with fellow Scotsman, John Macfarlane on set and costume designs. Mr. Macfarlane’s previous work at the Met has included the much-loved fantastical sets and costumes for Hansel and Gretel. Mr. McVicar says that this new production embraces the romance of Maria Stuarda, rather than realism: “When we did the production of Anna Bolena last season at the Met, we went for the ’nth-degree of historical accuracy, particularly in the costuming. With Maria Stuarda being a different type of opera, we’ve gone for a visual style that is free-er, that is more romantic and which somehow, rather than reflecting history, reflects the romantic nature of this retelling of the story and the sweeping romantic nature of Donizetti’s music.”
Cast: Joyce DiDonato, Maria Stuarda; Elza van den Heever, Elisabetta; Matthew Polenzani, Leicester; Joshua Hopkins, Cecil; Matthew Rose, Talbot
Artistic and Production Team: Conductor, Maurizio Benini; Production, David McVicar; Set & Costume Design, John Macfarlane; Lighting Design, Jennifer Tipton; Choreographer, Leah Hausman
Details: “Maria Stuarda” is Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 10 a.m. (PST), with encore (re-broadcast) performances on Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. (PST). . Purchase tickets, $23, for Sebastopol’s Rialto Cinemas and select your seat here. A list of participating Bay Area cinemas and online ticket purchase is available at www.FathomEvents.com. For a complete list of cinema locations nationwide and schedule, please visit The Met: Live in HD. Ticket prices vary by location. NO ONE cares what you wear or what you eat or drink but please be kind enough to elbow your snoring partners to consciousness.
Rialto Cinemas Lakeside
551 Summerfield Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95405
Cinemark Napa 8
825 Pearl Street
Napa, CA 94559
The Lark Theater
549 Magnolia Avenue
Larkspur, CA 94939
Cinemark Century Northgate 15
7000 Northgate Drive
San Rafael, CA 94903
Cinemark Cinearts Sequoia 2
25 Throckmorton Avenue
Mill Valley, CA 94941
San Francisco Opera honors its top scenic artist, Jay Kotcher, with the San Francisco Opera Medal, SFO’s highest award
Those of us who attended the final performance of San Francisco Opera’s Tosca yesterday were in for a treat. Right after extended rounds of applause for Patricia Racette, who delivered a scintillating Tosca, and for Brian Jagde, who played her lover, the artist Mario Cavaradossi, SFO’s fall season closed with a special ceremony awarding Jay Kotcher, SFO’s top scenic designer, the San Francisco Opera Medal. The award was established in 1970 by former General Director Kurt Herbert Adler and is the highest honor the Company bestows in recognition of outstanding achievement by an artistic professional. Kotcher is the first scenic designer to receive the prestigious award.
Kotcher was offered a position with SFO as a scenic artist in December 1977 and began work in early 1978. He has since worked on nearly every SFO production in the past 35 years and has a hand in all the styles that have evolved in the past 4 decades. Kotcher’s all-time favorite production to work on was SFO’s 1985 Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen). This was SFO’s third Ring Cycle, and it was directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, designed by John Conklin and conducted by Edo de Waart. This was the first time Bay area audiences experienced the Ring with Supertitles, then a new technology, and the experience of following the text in a language they understood was revolutionary.)
Kotcher was given the award by SFO’s General Director David Gockley and present on stage were members of the cast of Tosca. Fittingly, the award was given against the dazzling backdrop of a set Kotcher had worked on—Thierry Bosquet’s recreation of the towering Castel Sant’Angelo in Pacrco Adriano, Rome, where Tosca takes her fatal leap in Act III.
In accepting the award Kotcher said that he was “here to serve the music, to enhance the music and never to overwhelm it.” The visual aspects of opera design have become increasingly important— and celebrated—and can make or break an opera. I would like to hear more from Kotcher about his creative process.
The first SFO Medal laureate was soprano Dorothy Kirsten. While many vocalists (such as Leontyne Price in 1977, Joan Sutherland in 1984, Plácido Domingo in 1994, and Samuel Ramey (2003) have been so honored, other laureates have included stage director John Copley (2010), conductor Donald Runnicles (2009), chorus director Ian Robertson 2012.
San Francisco Opera Medal Recipients
1970 – Dorothy Kirsten
1972 – Jess Thomas
1973 – Paul Hager (house stage director)
1974 – Colin Harvey (chorister and chorus librarian)
1975 – Otto Guth
Alexander Fried (San Francisco Examiner music critic)
1976 – Leonie Rysanek
1977 – Leontyne Price
1978 – Kurt Herbert Adler
1980 – Geraint Evans
1981 – Matthew Farruggio (production supervisor and house stage director)
1982 – Regina Resnik
1984 – Joan Sutherland
1985 – Thomas Stewart
1987 – Régine Crespin
1988 – Philip Eisenberg (music staff)
1989 – Pilar Lorengar
1990 – Janis Martin
1991 – Licia Albanese
1993 – Walter Mahoney (costume shop manager)
1994 – Zaven Melikian (concertmaster)
Michael Kane (master carpenter)
1995 – Charles Mackerras
1997 – Frederica von Stade
1998 – Irene Dalis
2001 – Lotfi Mansouri
2003 – Samuel Ramey
2004 – Joe Harris (dresser)
2005 – Pamela Rosenberg
2008 – Clifford (Kip) Cranna (director of music administration)
Ruth Ann Swenson
2009 – Donald Runnicles
2010 – John Copley (stage director)
2012 – Ian Robertson (chorus director), Jay Kotcher (scenic artist)
“The Future is Now,” San Francisco Opera’s 2012 Adler Fellows present a gala concert of opera’s greatest hits— Friday, November 30, 2012, at Herbst Theatre
In their final concert of 2012, the critically acclaimed Adler Fellows of 2012 will team up with San Francisco Opera Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra to perform “The Future is Now,” a gala concert of well-known opera scenes and arias on Friday, November 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Herbst Theatre in the War Memorial Opera Building, San Francisco. This night of unforgettable music will include well-known works by opera’s great composers, including Massenet, Mozart, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Gounod, and Verdi. For those who have followed the young performers in the Adler program, it is celebration of their talent and accomplishment as many prepare to move on to professional roles the world’s leading opera houses. “It is the greatest opera fellowship program in the country,” said former Adler Patricia Racette, currently singing Floria Tosca to rave reviews in SFO’s Tosca.
“The Future is Now” features 8 singing Adlers and 2 coaching Adlers.
Sopranos include Marina Harris (Los Angeles, California) and Nadine Sierra (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) who most recently appeared in SFO’s Summer 2012 production of The Magic Flute as Papagena. In 2009, Sierra was the youngest performer to win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and this May, at age 23, she had her debut at Carnegie Hall’s intimate Weill Recital Hall. a
Mezzo-sopranos include Laura Krumm (Iowa City, Iowa) who had her SFO debut and most recent appearance in this fall’s production of Rigoletto as Countess Ceprano and a Page, and Renée Rapier (Marion, Iowa) who had her SFO debut and most recent appearance in this fall’s production of Rigoletto as Giovanna.
The sole tenor is Brian Jagde (Piermont, New York), who is currently getting rave reviews as the painter Mario Cavaradossi in SFO’s Tosca and is also singing the role of Don Jose in SFO’s Carmen for Families, a two-hour version of the opera suitable for children 10 and above. Jagde was a baritone for ten years and then, 4 years ago, made the switch to tenor.
Baritones include Ao Li (Shandong, China), who is currently singing in Tosca as Sciarrone, and Joo Won Kang (Seoul, South Korea) who has been very this fall at SFO, performing in Rigoletto as Marullo, in Moby Dick as Captain Gardiner, in Lohengrin as Noble, and in Tosca as the Jailer.
The sole bass-baritone is Ryan Kuster (Jacksonville, Illinois), who is currently singing in Tosca as Angelotti.
Apprentice coaches Sun Ha Yoon (Seoul, South Korea) and Robert Mollicone (East Greenwich, Rhode Island) will also participate.
Manon – Massenet / “Je suis seul…Ah! fuyez, douce image…Toi! Vous!…N’est-ce plus ma main”
Manon – Nadine Sierra
Des Grieux – Brian Jagde
Un Ballo in Maschera – Verdi / “Forse la soglia attinse…Ma se m’è forza perderti”
Riccardo – Brian Jagde
Roméo et Juliette – Gounod / “Dieu! Quel frisson…Amour ranime mon courage”
Juliette – Nadine Sierra
Il Corsaro – Verdi / “Alfin questo Corsaro è mio prigione…Cento leggiadre vergini”
Seid – Joo Won Kang
Selimo – Ryan Kuster
Don Giovanni – Mozart / “Deh vieni alla finestra”
Don Giovanni – Joo Won Wang
La Cenerentola – Rossini / “Sì, tutto cangerà…Là del ciel nell’arcano profondo”
Alidoro – Ryan Kuster
Angelina – Laura Krumm
The Marriage of Figaro – Mozart / “Hai già vinta la causa…Vedrò mentr’io sospiro”
Count Almaviva – Ryan Kuster
Cendrillon – Massenet / “Enfin, je suis ici”
Cendrillon – Laura Krumm
La Clemenza di Tito – Mozart / “Parto, ma tu ben mio”
Sesto – Renée Rapier
Così fan tutte – Mozart / “Ah guarda sorella”
Fiordiligi – Marina Harris
Dorabella – Laura Krumm
Eugene Onegin – Tchaikovsky / “Puskai pagibnuya”
Tatiana – Marina Harris
Mignon – Thomas / “Légères hirondelles”
Mignon – Laura Krumm
Lothario – Ao Li
Il Signor Bruschino – Rossini / “Nel teatro del gran mondo”
Gaudenzio – Ao Li
More About the Adler Fellow Program: Named for the late great San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, the Adler Fellowship Program is the Princeton of performance-oriented residencies, offering exceptional young artists intensive individual training, coaching, professional seminars and a wide range of performance opportunities throughout their fellowship. The Adler Fellows have all been selected from the Merola Opera Program, a prestigious resident artist training program sponsored by San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Opera Center that has nurtured the development of more than 150 young artists since its inception.
There are currently ten 2012 Adler Fellows and thirteen new 2013 Adler Fellows were announced on September 26, 2012. That list includes continuing Adlers from 2012: Marina Harris, soprano; Joo Won Kang, baritone; Laura Krumm, mezzo soprano; Ao Li, baritone; Robert Mollicone, coach and accompanist; and Renée Rapier, mezzo soprano. New 2013 participants include: Hadleigh Adams, bass-baritone, from New Zealand; Jennifer Cherest, soprano, from Maryland; AJ Glueckert, tenor, from Portland, OR; Chuanyue Wang, tenor, from China; Erin Johnson, mezzo-soprano, from New Jersey; and Sun Ha Yoon, apprentice coach, from South Korea. Phillipe Sly, bass-baritone, from the Merola class of 2011 is also included. Unusually, he skipped a year, during which he became a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and appeared in several Canadian Opera Company productions.
Details: “The Future is Now” is Friday, November 30 at 7:30 p.m. at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Tickets: $60 front orchestra; $50 box seats; $40 rear orchestra and dress circle. $15 student rush tickets will be available from 11 a.m. on November 30, subject to availability, upon presentation of valid identification, in person only at the San Francisco Opera Box Office (301 Van Ness Avenue at the northwest corner of Grove Street, San Francisco). All other tickets may be purchased in advance online (click here) or at the SFO Box Office which is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
review: Puccini’s “Tosca” with Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu singing Tosca and Massimo Giordano as Cavaradossi at San Francisco Opera—3 remaining performances for Gheorghiu, 4 for Patricia Racette
An intoxicating beauty, a lecherous villain, boldfaced treachery and murder, topped off by a spectacular suicide: Puccini’s Tosca delivers high drama with a supremely lyrical score that never fails to mesmerize. San Francisco Opera (SFO) closes its fall season with a marvelous Tosca, conducted by SF Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti and featuring two renowned casts of principal singers, rotating between 12 performances. The role of Tosca is split between Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and American soprano and former Adler Fellow, Patricia Racette —two very strong but different voices.
When Gheorghiu fell ill last Thursday (opening night) with an intestinal disorder, stand-in soprano Melody Moore—who opened SFO’s 2011 fall season as Susan Rescorla in the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Solider—took over after the first intermission and reportedly did a splendid job. Gheorghiu was back for the Sunday matinee performance and sang magnificently through Act I bringing a sense of playfulness and flirtation to Floria Tosca as well as vulnerability and bravado. She had a natural chemistry with Italian tenor Massimo Giordano in his SFO debut as Mario Cavaradossi. (He splits the role with third-year Adler Fellow, American tenor Brian Jagde, paired with Racette.) Her Vissi d’arte, normally a moment for showing off, which requires her to use the range of her voice in full voice, was strained. She seemed tired, which is understandable after illness. She still managed to pull off some particularly fine lines and, after the intermission, was back in the driver’s seat for the less demanding Act III. She sang a particularly passionate duet with Giordano foretelling their future life far away from Rome. Her death leap from the parapet was rushed with far too little dramatic build-up. It seemed to parody what I imagined she must have been feeling: “I’m exhausted, let me get this over with.” She has sung this role splendidly many times and there is no reason to assume that she won’t rise to the occasion in full vocal luster when fully recovered.
In all, the star on Sunday was Italian tenor Giordano and the performance soared from the moment he climbed the scaffold in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle and sang “Recondita armonia” while working on his portrait of Mary Magdalene. As he compares the fair beauty of Angelotti’s sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, upon whom the portrait is based, to that of his darker lover, Floria Tosca, he captured the audience. Giordano was well-matched with Gheorghiu as both are natural actors as well as consummate musicians and from their very first love duet, it was clear they had the chemistry that can ignite a performance. His voice! It’s powerful dramatic, impassioned and capable of great tenderness and he delivered them all in spades on Sunday. His solemn Act III aria “E lucevan le stille” (“And the stars shown”) sung while Cavaradossi waits on the roof of Castel Sant’Angelo for his execution, was fraught with apprehension. The aria was ushered in by a lovely clarinet solo by José González Granero, principal clarinet for the SFO Orchestra who also distinguished himself with a lush solo in last month’s The Capulets and the Montagues.
Italian baritone Roberto Frontali as Baron Scarpia, the evil police chief who is hell bent on using Cavaradossi’s republican sympathies and Tosca’s jealous nature to snare her for himself, sang with a rich voice that was so full of color, that it was hard to see him die. At the end of Act I, he passionately sang of his love for Tosca and his intentions of possessing her while the chorus sang a moving Te Deum while Luisotti expertly guided his orchestra—it was a grand musical moment. By the end of Act II, Scarpia fell dead, murdered by Tosca in one of the opera’s great dramatic moments. The success of Scarpia rests on being able to transform from being very genial one moment into an instrument of pure evil and depravity the next and Frontali’s singing, much stronger than his acting, certainly conveyed the requisite quixotic charm and hatred. (Frontali splits the role with Mark Delavan, who is paired with Racette).
Directed by former Adler fellow, Jose Maria Condemi, the production features a gorgeous series of tromp-l’oeil sets designed by Thierry Bosquet and inspired by a 1932 SFO production. The lush period costumes are also by Bosquet. His gorgeous gowns for Tosca feature exquisite embroidery and sensual bodices which fit the svelt Gheorghiu like a glove. In her crimson dress for Act II, she is gorgeously aflame…of course, it takes a certain attitude to really wear a dress like that and Gheorghiu’s just the diva to pull it off.
Sunday’s singing was backed up by Luisotti’s passionate conducting of the SFO orchestra and chorus and he drew the mood, musical intensity and emotion requisite for a compelling Tosca from them, clearly delighting the audience every step of the way. The final two performances will be conducted by Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi.
In 2009, Gheorghiu was invited to honor Grace Bumbry during the 32nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors, in Washington, DC. She performed “Vissi d’arte” in the presence of Barack and Michelle Obama and clearly had a great day—
Details: War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. One of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States, the Opera House seats 3,146, with 200 standing room places. Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.
Remaining Performances: The seven remaining performances of Tosca are November 24 (8 p.m.), November 25 (2 p.m.), November 27 (8 p.m.), November 28 (7:30 p.m.), November 29 (7:30 p.m.), December 1 (8 p.m.) and December 2, 2012 (2 p.m.). Click here to see cast scheduling information. Tickets: $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330 or purchase online here. Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.
Puccini’s “Tosca” opens Thursday, November, 15, 2012 at San Francisco Opera with two different casts—Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and American Patricia Racette will split the lead role of Tosca
An intoxicating beauty, a lecherous villain, boldfaced treachery and murder, topped off by a spectacular suicide: Puccini’s Tosca delivers high drama with a supremely lyrical score that never fails to entertain. San Francisco Opera (SFO) closes its fall season with what looks to be a marvelous Tosca, conducted by SF Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti and featuring two renowned casts of principal singers, rotating between 12 performances, as was the case with Rigoletto, which opened SFO’s fall season. Splitting the role of Tosca, Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and American soprano and former Adler Fellow, Patricia Racette—two very strong but different voices—promise to enliven the production. Directed by former Adler fellow, Jose Maria Condemi, the production features a gorgeous series of tromp-l’oeil sets designed by Thierry Bosquet and inspired by a 1932 SFO production. Also starring are Italian tenor Massimo Giordano, in his SFO debut, and third-year Adler Fellow, American tenor Brian Jagde as Mario Cavaradossi, and Italian baritone Roberto Frontali and Mark Delavan (former Merolini Woton in recent SFO’s 2011 Ring Cycle, as Baron Scarpia. The final two performances will be conducted by Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi.
Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu opens the opera on Thursday, singing beside Massimo Giordano as Mario Cavaradossi and Roberto Frontali as baron Scarpia. Gheorghiu returns to SFO following her highly praised 2008 appearance as Mimi in La Bohème. Gheorghiu, known for her theatricality and fiery temperament is well suited for Tosca, one of the great diva soprano roles that not only requires powerful singing but convincing acting as well. For the opera to really succeed, Tosca needs to seduce not only those men on stage but the entire house too. Gheorghiu has previously sung Tosca at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and Deustche Oper Berlin. She made her SFO debut in 2007 as Magda in Puccini’s La Rondine, a role she reprises this season at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.
American dramatic soprano Patricia Racette is up on Friday, singing beside Brian Jagde as Mario Cavaradossi and Mark Delavan as Baron Scarpia. She is known for her spectacular suicide leap, which Tosca takes from a castle parapet at the end of the opera. Racette garnered accolades and headlines for the role of Tosca in 2010 when she in stepped in on late notice to make her Met role debut and has since reprised the role at Washington National Opera, the Ravinia Festival and again at the Metropolitan Opera.
Racette also continues her more than 20-year relationship with SFO which she began as a college senior when she won first prize in the Merola Opera Program auditions. She made her debut with the San Francisco Opera in 1989 as the voice of the priestess in Aida. She sang several more roles with SFO while in the Merola program, including Alice Ford in Falstaff, Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus, Sister Osmina in Suor Angelica, and Freia and Helmwige in The Ring Cycle. In 1991, she was made an Adler Fellow which led to several more performances at the SFO over the next two years, including Micaëla in Carmen, Dunyasha in War and Peace, the First Lady in The Magic Flute, and Mimì in La bohème. She most recently appeared at SFO in 2010, as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust and in 2009 as each of the three heroines in Puccini’s triptych Il Trittico. She has performed in 29 mainstage productions with the Company.
In SFCV interview with Jason Serinus on 11/6/2012, Racette said “My teacher calls it my ‘glove opera.’ My voice is so very, very happy doing this part. It really likes to function just the way this role does….I love that he (Puccini) gives her (Tosca) these magnificent, soaring passages. I don’t feel like I’m singing when I’m doing it. It feels like completely raw emotion riding on music, as though I’m saying things or screaming things. And that’s what’s so masterfully presented in the score. When she drops into the lower part of her voice, there’s more of a maturity to her. It’s unlike any of Puccini’s other roles.”
This production, which was first conceived by opera impresario and stage director Lotfi Mansouri in 1997, is a re-creation of Armando Agnini’s Tosca production that opened the War Memorial Opera House on October 15, 1932 and featured the acclaimed Italian soprano, Claudia Muzio. The national anthem and first act of the opera were broadcast nationally and the opera and the house were given accolades. What better way to kick-off the holiday season than in this historic building with this dramatic and endearing opera.
Jose Maria Condemi’s staging is always interesting and innovative but true to Puccini’s very detailed staging instructions. For SFO’s June 2009 Tosca production, he was praised for cleverly moving the chorus members/extras on the stage so that they had real presence despite their non-speaking roles.
Masestro Luisotti always delights in his passionate conduciting of the SF Opera Orchestra and promises to be one of the highlights of the this production.
Run time is 2 hours and 40 minutes with two intermissions.
Details: War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. One of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States, the Opera House seats 3,146, with 200 standing room places. Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.
Performances: The twelve performances of Tosca are November 15 (7:30 p.m.), November 16 (8 p.m.), November 18 (2 p.m.), November 20 (8p.m.), November 21 (7:30 p.m.), November 24 (8 p.m.), November 25 (2 p.m.), November 27 (8 p.m.), November 28 (7:30 p.m.), November 29 (7:30 p.m.), December 1 (8 p.m.) and December 2, 2012 (2 p.m.). Click here to see cast scheduling information. Tickets: $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330 or purchase online here. Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.
Interview: Opera’s Magical Mezzo, Stephanie Blythe, talks about her new musical tribute to Kate Smith, this Saturday, at Weill Hall, and, of course, opera
Mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe Kate Smith, is renowned in the world of opera for her commanding voice and for her intense immersion in the roles she chooses to sing. Her expansive classical repertory ranges from Handel to Wagner and she garners accolades wherever she performs. In 2009, she was named Musical America’s “Vocalist of the Year.” This Saturday, she brings a new program honoring Kate Smith, the legendary “Songbird of the South,” to the new Green Music Center’s acoustically stellar Weill Hall. Blythe and her accompanist, pianist Craig Terry will present “We’ll Meet Again: Songs of Kate Smith,” a part-concert, part-historical conversation that has been getting rave reviews since it was first performed last year as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.
Kate Smith (1909-1986), who never took a formal music lesson, sang for WWI troops at U.S. Army camps near Washington when she was just 8. She went on to galvanize our nation’s spirits throughout the Great Depression and WWII with her sumptuous voice and iconic renditions of “God Bless America” and “The White Cliffs of Dover.” She was also closely associated “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” a soothing song which was based on a poem that she had written whose poignant ending, “I’m alone with my memories of you,” resonated with a war-torn America. In her six decade career, she recorded over 3,000 songs and introduced over a thousand songs to America, over 600 of which made the hit parade. At the height of her career, during WWII, she was one of the most popular women in America. Ask any veteran who served in WWII about Kate Smith and you’re likely to hear a story about one of her songs that he or she holds dear.
On Tuesday, Election Day, I had the opportunity to speak with Stephanie Blythe about her interest in Kate Smith and American music and her upcoming opera performances. She’s refreshingly direct and passionate about revitalizing interest in songs from America’s past, both on the part of audiences and young singers who have a generation of disconnection from heroic icons like Kate Smith.
Saturday’s program is a tribute and Blythe is not trying to sound like Smith, rather to honor her through her musical choices. Those attending will come away with memories—there won’t be any commemorative programs distributed that list the songs or their lyrics because Blythe wants her audience active, participating and connected to her. “I’ll be announcing the numbers from the podium and, believe me, most of the audience that I’ve been singing to don’t need a program. They know this material well.” The Kate Smith repertoire has been so popular that Blythe will do a recording of it— “things are in the works”— but there’s no release date yet.
What is the attraction to Kate Smith? Did you grow up listening to your parents’ records of her?
Stephanie Blythe: As I was growing up and visiting my grandparents, back in the 1970’s, my grandfather played her records and listened to her on the radio. I liked that voice of hers. I started listening to her on my own after I started singing professionally. I was very interested in Americana singers of that time period and I became specifically interested in her voice because she was phenomena, a natural untrained instrument, very beautiful and poignant. I also liked the message she sent with the music she chose. Had she sung opera she probably would have been a contralto or a very dramatic mezzo.
What’s her greatest contribution to American musical life?
Stephanie Blythe: Song wise, it’s “God Bless America” which became what it was because of her. The song itself was written in 1918 by Irving Berlin while he was in the military but never used it for its intended purpose, a comedy show. He sat on it and brought it out again for Kate Smith because she asked for it. She wanted a patriotic song for Armistice Day 1938 and he re-worked it and he gave it to her. She sang that on the radio in 1938 and it became her song. Who knows, had she never asked him for a song, we might never have had “God Bless America.”
Kate Smith introduces “God Bless America” to America via Radio on Armistice Day, November 11, 1938
Her identification with patriotism and patriotic themes was famous and endearing. Is it harder to be patriotic in today’s day and age? It seems like acts of patriotism can be misinterpreted.
Stephanie Blythe: I am very patriotic and I actually feel very inspired when I sing this program. This music brings out something very wonderful and communal. It’s hard to be patriotic alone. You actually need a community to be patriotic, which is not easy today because of things like the Internet, which are mainly used alone. That’s almost the first requirement of the Internet—you connect with other people but you are basically alone when you’re doing it. I frequently say that radio was the first social media because it connected everyone through what they were all listening to at the same time. And that’s what is great about concerts today: they bring people together in a wonderful way. So, yes this is nostalgia but it’s also here and in the moment and, in that way, I feel I am being patriotic. I’m glad I have this opportunity to bring people together.
About the program, we’re not expecting you to sound like Kate Smith but rather to honor her through your musical choices. Are your voices at all similar?
Stephanie Blythe: Sometimes yes but, honestly, I don’t actively search for that when I’m singing. I am singing in the same register she’s in though, so, sometimes, there is a resemblance. It just comes from the color in our voices and that we’re both American singers. When I’m singing some of these songs, I feel her very definite presence. I don’t mean that in a weird way. This is how she applied her trade and she was known through her songs and she still very much breathes life into all of these songs.
Are there any of her songs that are challenging to sing or that have challenging passages?
Stephanie Blythe: No, that’s not what these songs are about. Originally, these songs were written so that other people could sing them. They were put on sheet music and available at music stores and meant to be purchased. In those days, people had pianos or an instrument in their home and they played and sang these songs. You can interpolate challenging octaves when you want, and go higher than is naturally written, but these songs were meant for your average person.
Throughout the program, you go from talking to singing, is that hard to pull off?
Stephanie Blythe: It gets easier every time I do it but it’s not the tradition that I come from. We don’t do that in opera. I am very comfortable with that now. It also depends on how the audience feels. When the audience expects a recital, talking is not the norm, except in the end when maybe you do an encore. But this concert is more of a cabaret than anything and it just takes practice.
Prior to Kate Smith’s repertoire, you also sang other popular music. Can you talk a little about that?
Stephanie Blythe: I’ve been singing music from Tin Pan Alley—basically music that was written between 1910 and 1930—in recital for a long time. Now, I am actually doing more American popular songs in my regular recitals as a matter of course. I believe these songs are very much part of our American song tradition and they need to be sung and people need to hear them. I am very keen to get younger singers to sing this music too because it’s a real part of our history.
What have you heard about the new Green Music Center whose concert hall is modeled after Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall? How much of a difference does a great concert hall make for you as a singer?
Stephanie Blythe: I have to be honest and say that I haven’t sung this concert in a bad hall. I’m very familiar with Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall and have sung there many times. I did the acoustic test for that hall before it opened. I just did this concert in Rockford, Illinois, at the historic Coronado Theatre (now called Coronado Performing Arts Center) and actually found it was very appropriate because it was a theatre that had once heard this very music. It will also be wonderful to do this concert in the Weill Hall because that hall is very open and seems very friendly and I think this music will lend itself quite well to that stage setting.
Prior to scheduling, had you heard anything about the Green Music Center?
Stephanie Blythe: Only from Mr. Weill, who I met at a Carnegie Hall function, and he spoke in the most glowing terms.
Stephanie Blythe talks about Opera (live and her HD performances)
Are there any changes in your voice that you’re noticing as you mature? I know that you’ve been adding roles to your repertory, for example, last season at the Met you sang the role Amneris in Verdi’s Aida, which required a tremendous range, with many highs and lows and a great deal of emotional depth. You got rave reviews. And with Ulrica, too, from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, a role you’ve sung many times, and will reprise shortly at the Met, that part can be sung by a contralto or a mezzo.
Stephanie Blythe: Of course, my voice is changing and I’m in my 40’s now. The voice doesn’t really mature until you’re about 35—it’s changing constantly up until then—and lots of different thing can happen on top of that which can contribute to the voice changing. I actually have been singing Amneris for quite some time now and Ulrica, too, for quite a while. I find while I’m singing those roles, I’m also singing a lot of other stuff too, like early music, Handel. I try to keep my vocal palate as wide as I can just to keep my voice very healthy. My voice has changed and, at this point in my life. I am more in my voice than I have ever been before. I know myself pretty well and bring that experience to these roles as well.
Those of us who attend the MetLive in HD productions are familiar with some of your fabulous roles. We’ll have the chance to hear you sing Ulrica in the Met’s new production of Un Ballo in Maschera on December 8, 2012. How are you prepping for that role and what is special about this new production?
Stephanie Blythe: Actually, I can’t tell you anything yet because I haven’t started rehearsing yet. Dolora Zajick is singing the first five performances and then I come in for the final five.
I know that Fabio Luisi (Principal Conductor, Metropolitan Opera) will be conducting. You worked together in last spring’s Ring Cycle at the Met but this your first time to work on a new production with him. Are you excited?
Stephanie Blythe: Oh yes. I like Luisi very much. First, he’s a lovely human being and a very talented singer’s conductor. He’s very connected to the stage as well as the orchestra and that makes it a joy to work with him.
Do you watch yourself in your HD performances? If so, what do you think? I am also interested in the details, what you do differenty. I am wondering if the makeup is different when you’re doing an HD performance because of the close-ups versus when it’s not being recorded?
Stephanie Blythe: You know, I don’t do anything any differently with those HD performances than I would do any other time. I really like the HD programming because it brings opera to difference parts of the country and the world and to those who would not ordinarily have a chance to see those shows. I generally don’t watch them and I don’t watch myself. I just don’t want to think about that kind of stuff when I’m performing. I think about the audience I am singing to and I just hope that the camera can capture that.
Do they do your makeup differently?
Stephanie Blythe: Yes they do and we’re actually not allowed to wear very much makeup at all.
We’re all thrilled with the announcement that in the next Met Season, Maestro Levine will be returning to the podium. You’ll have a chance to work with him in Falstaff. Are you excited about that?
Stephanie Blythe: I have sung Falstaff with Maestro Levine many times. He has said to me that it is possibly his favorite show. It’s one of my favorites too and I am very excited to have the opportunity to sing it with him again and just to share a performing experience with him again, which means so much. I’ve been singing with him since 1995 and I always love it. I am thrilled for the Met audiences too, who will be able to hear the orchestra under his leadership again.
Thinking about your performance in Falstaff, or those roles that you keep revisiting, how do you go about the process of figuring out how to keep a role fresh and exciting, or how you’ll sing it differently?
Stephanie Blythe: I don’t think anyone who sings any role in Falstaff has that concern. Early in my career, 1996, I sang Mistress Quickly in Falstaff at the Met when I unexpectedly stepped in for Marilyn Horn who was ill. That role has been special—it introduced me to just about every major house and I met my husband at Falstaff in Paris and I have met and worked with just about every Falstaff around. You don’t have to work to make it fresh; it’s one of the most brilliantly written pieces in the repertoire—effervescent, exciting, and challenging musically. The great Marilyn Horn has said there’s not a once of fat on it. It is the leanest opera ever written with not one note out of place. It’s also an ensemble work and whenever a new group comes together to sing it, it changes and evolves.
Do you feel the same way about the role of Fricka (wife of Woton, ruler of the Gods in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung), which you are synonymous with, and will be singing again in Seattle Opera Company’s August 2013 Ring Cycle?
Stephanie Blythe: I’ve sung that Ring Cycle in Seattle since 2000 and I adore it and I know a lot of the people who I will be performing with. That production is so breathtaking and so brilliantly directed. It is sort of like coming home to do it again and it takes me no time to get back into the swing of things with that piece. Every time you’re introduced to a new person doing a role, because their personality comes through in the drama, it makes it fresh and new and you find a whole new litany of things that are going to be different for you. Everyone comes to the plate with something different—that’s what makes it really exciting.
Dogs are very dear to my heart and I know you have a dog too. My dog just loved Tina Turner. Do you sing to your dog and what’s the reaction?
Stephanie Blythe: Agnes Gooch, my black pug, died this past August. She really loved my singing. When I learned Fricka for the very first time, I used to bring her to my rehearsals. She was just a puppy then and she would fall asleep to my singing and very frequently she would sit under my feet while I practiced. She really enjoyed the sound of the piano and of my voice. She travelled basically everywhere with me.
Details: “We’ll Meet Again: Songs of Kate Smith” is Saturday, October 10, 2012, at 8 PM at Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, at the intersection of Rohnert Park Expressway and Petaluma Hill Road, Cotati, CA.
Tickets are $90 to $30 and can purchased online (click here) OR by phoning the Box Office at (866) 955-6040. Box Office hours: Monday–Thursday 8 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. and Friday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. OR In Person at the Green Music Center (same hours as above).
Parking for this Green Music Center performance is included in ticket price. Enter via Sonoma State University’s main campus entrance or its Rohnert Park Expressway entrance (closer to GMC). Park on campus in lots L,M,N and O. For more information, visit gmc.sonoma.edu or phone 1.866.955.6040.
Stephanie Blythe’s Upcoming Performances Mentioned in this article:
Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD presentation of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera—New Production, Saturday, December 8, 2012, 9:55 AM, with encore performance Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 1 and 7 PM, Run time: 3 hours, 55 minutes. Sebastopol’s Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley Street, Sebastopol, CA. (707) 539-9771. Tickets $23 Adult and $21 Senior (62 and over). To purchase tickets, click here.
Metropolitan Opera: Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera—New Production. Blyth sings the role of Ulrica for 5 performances: Tuesday, November 27, 2012, 7:30 PM; Friday, November 30, 2012, 7:30 PM; Tuesday, December 4, 2012, 7:30 PM; Saturday, December 8, 2012; Friday, 1 PM; December 14, 2012 7:30 PM. For tickets and performance information, click here.
Seattle Opera Company’s Ring Cycle, August 4-25, 2013. Stephanie Blyth sings Fricka, Norn. Click here for performance information, special events and tickets. Online Ticket presale begins Monday, November 9, 2012 at 9 a.m.
SF Opera’s Lyrical Lohengrin—singers, chorus and orchestra add up to music for the ages…meet Camilla Nylund this Sunday when she signs cds
Now in his 4th season with San Francisco Opera, Music Director Nicola Luisotti has proven many times over that when a production is theatrically flat, he will awaken it musically. And that he did on Saturday, dazzling again, as he energetically tackled Wagner for the first time ever in San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, which runs through Friday, November 9, 2012. At Saturday’s premiere performance, the lush music coming from Luisotti’s orchestra directed the singers and Ian Robertson’s marvelous opera chorus as they filled the opera house with one of the most musically memorable Lohengrins ever.
But as divine as the music was, British theatre and opera director Daniel Slater’s production itself was disappointing. Abandoning Wagner’s 10th century Belgium setting and, instead, taking inspiration from the military and political contexts surrounding the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Slater’s update could have been interesting but failed to fly. When combined with Robert Innes Hopkins’ dull sets and bland costumes, the result was a visually drab experience that made me wonder if this was the same opera company that had so delighted us this summer with its astoundingly visual Magic Flute, brought to life by artist Jun Kaneko. With the advent of high-definition video via satellite (HD simulcast), which has become increasingly popular since its introduction in 2006, opera has reached a turning point. Production values need to be as high as musical values, otherwise the result is major attrition from live local performances to the $23 (cheaper) and sometimes immensely more interesting HD broadcast offerings available at the local movie theatres.
Why see this production then? Tenor Brandon Jovanovich is one reason. The entire opera is anchored by his superb and consistently lyrical singing in the role of Lohengrin, the mysterious Knight of the Grail, who appears to defend the princess Elsa who has been accused wrongly of the murder of her brother. Jovanovich, who delivered a vibrant Siegmund in SFO’s 2011 production of Die Walküre, was again mesmerizing and unfaltering all night long in the vocally grueling role. While his most notable arias are in Act III— “In fernem Land” and Mein lieber Schwan—his singing throughout was big and yet expressively romantic. His voice blended beautifully with Finnish soprano, Camilla Nylund, his love interest. From the moment Jovanovich/Lohengrin came on stage to bid the swan farewell, there was no question that Elsa would agree to marry him and to never ask his name or history. This tall and strapping stranger was in all ways heroic and the roaring ovation he received from the audience was well-deserved.
In her San Francisco Opera debut, the Finnish soprano, Camilla Nylund, captured the maiden Elsa’s dreamy nature and sung beautifully. She’s a truly tragic heroine whose idealistic faith and trust are shattered. She enters in Act I wrongfully accused of murder and spends most of Acts II and III in anxiety, as she is humiliated on her way to the altar. She then breaks her martial vow and later collapses. A particularly juicy moment came when Nylund unleashed her considerable vocal reserve on Petra’s Lang’s cunning, showing that she was not all milk toast. Her voice blended well with Jovanovich, particularly in their Act III duet ‘Das süsse Lied verhallt’ (Love duet).
Mezzo Soprano Petra Lang, who made quite an impression in her 2007 SF Opera debut as the sizzling Venus in Tannhäuser, again brought a dramatic flair to her role that was on par with excellent singing. As Ortrud, the old-world sorceress who really stirs the drama, Lang seemed to delight in vexing the vulnerable Elsa. Dressed in a business suit that evoked the bright blue of the old two-stroke East German Trabbi (Trabant), synonymous with the communist bloc, the fiery redhead seemed completely at home in the role, despite the awful costume. Lang has sung Ortrud in Berlin, Budapest, Bucharest, Vienna, Geneva, London and Edinburgh and will reprise the role later this season at the Bayreuth Festival. On Saturday’s opening performance, her voice was bursting with energy and her performance far more compelling than Nylund’s.
German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski was outstanding as Ortrud’s husband Friedrch von Telramund, who is duped into wrongly charging Elsa but takes great twisted pleasure in doing so. Grochowski had his SF Opera debut in November 2010 beside the indefatigable Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as Jaroslav Prus in The Makropulos Case.
While there’s little point in dwelling on the mundane, the sets by Robert Innes Hopkins did nothing for the opera. The beginning action seemed to occur in a large drab room accentuated by shelves scantily filled with books. The wedding suite was presented as a diorama and looked like a cheap hotel room. Green garlands covered the wall seams and an oddly out-of- place colonial style lamp hung from the ceiling.
The costumes were worse. The men of Brabant were in tan military duds and the women recalled droll DDR fashion. Camilla Nylund, a large woman to begin with, spent most of the evening dressed in long storybook princess style flowing gowns that tended to emphasize her size.
Lohengrin is sung in German with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 4 hours, 20 minutes including two intermissions
Details: Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin is at War Memorial Opera House through Friday, November 9, 2012. Remaining Performances: 10/28 (1p.m.), 10/31(7 p.m.), 11/3 (7 p.m.), 11/6 (7 p.m.) 11/9 (7 p.m.) Tickets: : $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330, or online at www.sfopera.com. Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.
War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.
Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a 15 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Sausalito onwards due to congestion around the toll-plaza. Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends. Recommended garages near the opera house are the Performing Arts Garage and Civic Center Garage (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)