ART hound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Carb-loading for a cause—the 15th Annual Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting is this Saturday, May 12, 2012, and it benefits Cinnabar Theatre’s Youth Programs

Save Saturday, May 13, 2012, for the 15th Annual Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, Petaluma

Most of us don’t need an excuse to eat but this Saturday offers a great reason to indulge—it’s the 15th Annual Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting, an all-you-can-eat extravaganza— and all the proceeds fund Cinnabar Theatre’s wonderful youth programming.  The event runs from 1 to 5 p.m. at Herzog Hall at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma.  This year, 55 teams of chili and salsa challengers and 14 Bay Area breweries are participating and there will be chili and salsa galore to sample and judge, and plenty of beer, including special microbrews, to quench your thirst.  The goal—to determine the best-of-the-best when it comes to meat chili, veggie chili, traditional salsa, fruit salsa.  Defending their 2011 title for best meat chili by individual will be Tree Huggin’ Hippies; best meat chili by restaurant/ Whole Foods; best vegetarian chili/ Tree Huggin’ Hippies; best traditional salsa/ Tree Huggin’ Hippies and best fruit salsa/Sonoma Salsa.  There’s also a People’s Choice award given in each of the categories.  Come early, eat plentifully, and see if you can spot the taste of victory.

The cook-off’s founder and organizer, Laura Sunday, deemed “Empress”—who also runs Taste of Petaluma every September—has fond memories of last year’s contest and high hopes for this one.  “Last year we had 15 young guys from Chicago who attended our Chili Cook-off for a Bachelor Party.  They drove up from SFO in a limousine and partied all day long with us.  I asked them how they heard about us. They said they wanted to go to a chili cook-off to celebrate and when they researched it, ours kept coming up as the best in the West, so they planned their entire trip around our event.”

Last year, the event was attended by 1,300 people and raised $50,000 for Cinnabar Theater’s youth programs which include a variety of classes in the performing arts for children of ages 4 through 18; Cinnabar’s Young Repertory Company, which produces 4 fully staged shows annually; and Cinnabar’s very popular Summer Camps, which provide an immersive 4 week training leading up to a staged performance or musical revue.  This year, there are three camps offered that will perform Musical Madness (Broadway hits revue), Rock ‘n’ Music Roll (rock opera) and Les Miserable.

“We’re heading into our 40th season for our Young Rep program and are proud to say that no child is turned away for lack of funds,” said Elly Lichenstein, Cinnabar’s Artistic Director.  “We have between 450 and 500 students coming from all over the North Bay every year and we offer a range of scholarships and the Chili tasting is our biggest fund raiser of the year—it’s vital to our survival.”    Lichenstein is proud that her program has launched several careers in the arts.  One Cinnabar alumnus is in Hollywood making movies and several students, now sprinkled across the country, are pursuing acting careers.

“What I love about the chili cook-off is that it’s such a celebration,” said Lichenstein.  “Everyone’s having a great time, packed in this hall like sardines and eating away, and it brings out a whole different demographic than we see during our regular performance season—these are people who love chili and they don’t necessarily love theatre and it’s fabulous.”

How does the competition work?  Some chili contests adhere to purist rules about what chili is and isn’t and what it can and can’t be.  Some contests, for example, don’t allow beans in chili.  In Petaluma, things are flexible and Sunday doesn’t give entrants any rules about chili or salsa.   “I love beans! If you want to put beans in your chili, I will not say no.”

Because there are only 55 contestants, and entry is handled on a first-come, first-served basis, anybody with a hot recipe and the requisite $65 to $75 entry fee who entered before the March 15, 2012 deadline, made the cut.  Most of last year’s winners are back to defend their titles, including the mystifying Tree Huggin’ Hippies who won the meat chili, vegetarian chili and vegetarian chili by individuals divisions.

Each contestant has been asked to prepare a whopping 9 gallons of the recipe entered, enough for the panel of judges and community tasting.  Chili judging will be by a blind taste test and all chili and salsa will be served to the judges in 2 oz. plastic cups.  The judges will have no contact with the chili or salsa challengers.  Judging is on the basis of taste and personal preference of the V.I.P. judging panel—a team of 13 foodies and community members selected by Dick Kapash, the retired founder of Petaluma’s SOLA Optical.   “I can’t get enough of those fine chili dishes…the chili, salsa and beer just keep getting better every year,” said Kapash, who has worked with Laura Sunday for about 9 years planning the event.   Each judge tastes either chili or salsa and votes.  This year’s judges are Dick Kapash, David Glass, Ryan Williams, Yovanna Bierberich, Steve Jaxon, Jason Jenkins, Mike Harris, Geraldine Duncann, Mary McCusker, Jason Davies, Geneva Anderson, Joe Davis, Nick Grizzle.

When asked to judge again, I agreed immediately.  I love the competitive edge it brings out, the fun of people watching and the joy of eating.  I opted for salsa—refreshing, tart and spicy—I make it frequently and am always up for a new twist.  And, frankly, I am interested in seeing how others adjust their recipes to get that fresh flavor burst in non-tomato season.  When you’ve got juicy sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes at your fingertips, everything is already easier.

Awards: There will be 4 “People’s Choice” trophies given for Meat Chili, Veggie Chili, Salsa and Beer.  A panel of distinguished judges from the community will award “Judges’ Choice” trophies for Best Restaurant, Business, Service Organization, Individual, Salsa, and Vegetarian Chili, and an overall “Grand Champion Chili.”  Other awards will be given for best team costumes, best booth decorations, most spirited team, best salsa and chili display, and any other wacky contest that the organizers can come up.  Runners up will also be awarded.

Live Entertainment: Although the main event on Saturday will be the chili and salsa contest, in Behren’s Park, just next to Herzog Hall, there will be music by Soup Sandwich, an 8 piece local Ska band (1 PM to 1:45 PM), and Sonoma County favorites Stony Point, performing a crowd-pleasing mix of rock and blues plus some original tunes for dancing and listening pleasure (3 PM to 4:30 PM).  Local dance companies Raks Rosa Dance Company (belly dance, middle eastern)(1:45 to 2 PM) and FIERCE Dance Company (hip-hop) (2:45 PM to 3 PM) and are also on the docket.  The Amazing Caine will perform dazzling magic tricks and Fred Speer of Clark’s Pest Control will offer a Bug Zoo and promises a collection of very interesting insects.  (full entertainment schedule)

If you sign on for the beer tasting component of the event—an additional $15–you’ll have your fill of the offerings of 15 local micro-breweries producing the finest premium ales around.

More About Cinnabar Theater:
Cinnabar Theatre winds up its 39th  season with Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday,  playing May 25-June 10, 2012.  This 1946 hilarious tale features a not-so-dumb-blonde, her less-than-honest brute of a boyfriend, and the no-nonsense reporter who helps her uncover Washington’s dirty little secrets and life’s glorious possibilities.  Get your tickets here or call 707.763.8920.

Sing We & Chant It, Cinnabar Chamber Singers, Spring Concert, with Michael Shahani, Directing.  Cinnabar Chamber Singers is a thing of rare beauty: breathtaking music arranged for several parts, sung by people who find fulfillment and fellowship, offered up to the public in concert.  They teach us something about music, art and life, as the notes wrap themselves gently around our hearts.  The Spring Concert features Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata #131, Mark Kratz soloist (Don Ottavio in this Spring’s Don Giovanni), as well as a set of beloved madrigals and exciting new works.  (May 27, 2 PM, Petaluma’s United Church of Christ, 825 Middlefield Drive, Petaluma) Get your tickets here or call 707.763.8920.

Details: 15th Annual Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting is Saturday, May 12, 2012, from 1 to 5 p.m., at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, Herzog Hall, Petaluma (located at East Washington and Payran Streets in Petaluma) Chili, salsa and beer tasting $40, Chili and salsa Tasting $25, Kids under 12 $10, under 5 free.  ID necessary for beer.  Tickets can be purchased in advance online, or the day of the event.

May 9, 2012 Posted by | Food, Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s our turn: the Bay Area honors “Flicka” with a special retirement tribute December 3, 2011

Opera Superstar Mezzo Soprano and long time Bay Area resident, Frederica von Stade, “Flicka,” is retiring. A special tribute concert celebrating her career will be held Saturday, December 3, 2011. Here, von Stade plays the diva Madeline Mitchell in “Three Decembers,” a chamber opera composed especially for her by Jake Heggie, and performed in 2008 at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley. Photo by Kristen Loken.

For the past year, the beloved opera superstar Frederica von Stade, a long-time Bay Area resident affectionately known as “Flicka,” has been making farewell appearances and the great opera houses and concert halls worldwide, whose stages she has graced for the past 40 years have been paying tribute, one by one.  Now, it’s the Bay Area’s turn.  On Saturday, December 3, 2011, San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Performances, Cal Performances, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music will join in an unprecedented team effort to celebrate the illustrious life and career of our treasured mezzo, arts advocate, and musical celebrity.  

Eight extraordinary artists and friends of von Stade─and some as of yet unannounced surprise guests─ will lead the special one night only musical tribute, joined by von Stade and accompanied by Jake Heggie, John Churchwell and Bryndon Hassman: Sir Thomas Allen, baritone; Susannah Biller, soprano; Zheng Cao, mezzo-soprano; Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano; Samuel Ramey, bass; and Richard Stilwell, baritone.

The concert will feature highlights from von Stade’s expansive performance and recording career, including arias from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria; songs by Ravel, Mahler, Poulenc and Berlioz; selections from American musical theater; and contemporary songs by Jake Heggie.  The evening will also feature personal tributes and recollections of working with Ms. von Stade.

An intimate gala reception with the artists in the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House will follow the performance, with proceeds supporting University of California Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program and the St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Oakland.

What’s it like to work with Flicka?  Rauli Garcia, who is the CFO of HGO  (Houston Grand Opera) made his stage debut as a supernumerary in Dead Man Walking earlier this year and his account “What a rush!”was posted on the HGO (Houston Grand Opera) blog on January 31, 2011. 

Frederica von Stade made her debut with San Francisco Opera in 1971 and has sung most of the great roles in opera over her 40 year career. Photo: courtesy San Francisco Opera

Recognized as one of the most beloved musical figures of our time, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade began at the very top, receiving a contract from Sir Rudolf Bing during the Metropolitan Opera auditions and since her debut has enriched classical music for over four decades with appearances in opera, concert and recital.  The first aria in her career was Thomas’s “Connais-tu le pays”.  Von Stade has sung nearly all the great roles with the Met and in 2000, the company celebrated the 30th anniversary of her debut with a new production of The Merry Widow.  She made her 1971 San Francisco Opera debut as Sextus (La Clemenza di Tito) with Spring Opera Theater and her main stage debut in 1972 as Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro), and has appeared with San Francisco Opera in more than a dozen roles, including Mélisande (Pelléas et Mélisande), Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier), Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), Countess Geschwitz (Lulu) and the title roles of La Sonnambula, La Cenerentola, and The Merry Widow. She created two roles in world premiere productions by San Francisco Opera: Marquise de Merteuil in Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons and Mrs. Patrick de Rocher in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking; she also created the role of Madeline Mitchell in Jake Heggie’s chamber opera Three Decembers, presented in its West Coast premiere by San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances in 2008.

Known as a bel canto specialist, von Stade is also beloved in the French repertoire, including the title role of Offenbach’s La Périchole. She is also a favorite interpreter of the great “trouser” roles, from Strauss’s Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos) and Octavian to Mozart’s Sextus, Idamante (Idomeneo), and Cherubino. Von Stade’s artistry has inspired the revival of neglected works such as Massenet’s Chérubin, Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon, Rameau’s Dardanus, and Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, and she has garnered critical and popular acclaim in her vast French orchestral repertoire, including Ravel’s Shéhérazade, Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été and Canteloube’s Les Chants d’Auvergne. She is well known to audiences around the world through her numerous featured appearances on television including several PBS specials and “Live from Lincoln Center” telecasts.

Miss von Stade has made over seventy recordings with every major label, including complete operas, aria albums, symphonic works, solo recital programs, and popular crossover albums. Her recordings have garnered six Grammy nominations, two Grand Prix du Disc awards, the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis, Italy’s Premio della Critica Discografica, and “Best of the Year” citations by Stereo Review and Opera News. She has enjoyed the distinction of holding simultaneously the first and second places on national sales charts for Angel/EMI’s Show Boat and Telarc’s The Sound of Music.

Von Stade was appointed as an officer of France’s L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1998, France’s highest honor in the Arts, and in 1983 she was honored with an award given at the White House by President Reagan. She holds five honorary doctorates from Yale University, Boston University, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (which holds a Frederica von Stade Distinguished Chair in Voice), the Georgetown University School of Medicine, and her alma mater, the Mannes School of Music. 

Details:  Celebrating Frederica von Stade, Saturday, December 3, 2011, at 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA  94102.  Tickets for the concert are $50, $75 and $100.  Tickets for the gala reception, which includes premium seating for the concert, are $500.  Tickets for the concert and gala reception are available at http://www.sfopera.com  or the San Francisco Opera Box Office at 301 Van Ness Avenue, or by phone at (415) 864-3330.

November 28, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

interview: Finnish Composer Olli Kortekangas talks about “Seven Songs for Planet Earth,” his new cantata about respecting our planet

Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas at the West Coast premiere of his symphonic cantata “Seven Songs for Planet Earth,” at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church. Photo: Geneva Anderson

The Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas is little known in the U.S. but all that should change.  His “Seven Songs for Planet Earth,” a sweeping symphonic cantata, which had its West Coast Premiere this weekend at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church, revealed his ability to craft contemporary classical music of enormous complexity and beauty.  The tonal nature of “Seven Songs” intrigued and delighted both the musicians and audience and introduced some new primal sounds to the Bay Area, including yoiking, a tradition of the the Sámi, the indigenous people of Kortekangas’s home country.  “Seven Songs” was commissioned by one of America’s leading symphonic choirs, The Choral Arts Society of Washington, along with the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and the San Francisco Choral Society.  Kortekanagas is well known to Robert Geary, the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Choral Society who had previously conducted five of his works but none as expansive as “Seven Songs,” which was performed with the San Francisco Choral Society, the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, the California Chamber Symphony, and soloists soprano Shauna Fallihee and baritone Nikolas Nackley.  “Seven Songs” is centered on four poems by American agrarian poet and farmer Wendell Berry and draws on a prayer by Saint Francis of Assisi and a collage of short texts written and sung by the children in the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir.  Kortekangas worked on this “green” piece for three years, striving to celebrate man’s relationship with nature as well as to convey a message about our obligations for living on and honoring our planet.   ARThound had a chance to interview Kortekangas on Friday, before his performances.  The fascinating Finnish composer revealed a bit of his creative approach to crafting music.  (Click here to read ARThound’s previous coverage of Kortekangas.)

About the commission that resulted in “Seven Songs”How free were you?  Were you commissioned to do a piece in general, or, specifically a piece addressing the theme of ecology?  Can you give us a sense of how it developed?

Olli Kortekangas:  It all started with the Choral Arts Society of Washington getting interested in Finnish music.  They had these theme concerts with music from different countries and, 4 or 5 years ago, it was Finland 4 or 5.  The Finnish cultural attaché at the Finnish Embassy in Washington the time, Pekka Hako, was key in bringing me and the chorus together.  It began with a great discussion with Norman Scribner, their artistic director, but that was 2008 and the recession and economy in the States prohibited any new commissions. The project was basically saved when Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra in Finland decided to co-commission it.  Then Robert Geary, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Choral Society, came along and that made it all possible.

The idea of something in that direction already existed before they contacted me.  So an ecological theme wasn’t a pre-condition but it was their wish from the beginning. I am personally interested in these issues too so was happy to go that way. 

Robert Geary (left), Artistic Director of the San Francisco Choral Society, and composer Olli Kortekangas at the West Coast premiere of Kortekangas’ symphonic cantata “Seven Songs for Planet Earth,” at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church. The SF Choral Society co-commissioned the piece and Geary has conducted several of Kortekangas’ other works, but none as expansive as “Seven Songs.” Photo: Geneva Anderson

Can you speak some to the goal of the work?  Is it meant to be overtly political about “saving the planet” or more subtle in its message?  My take on Berry is that he’s making a statement through his poetry and his other writings that we as culture need to understand and respect that all things are connected.  We have really broken that.  The way we live now is not sustainable and we are starting to see this because things on all levels are starting to buckle.

Olli Kortekangas:  Rather than a political message per se, I wanted to convey something that would inspire people.  In some of the poems I am using, there is also a political dimension but it is not the most essential thing.  Music, for me, is about construction and a lot of thinking, of course, but I believe that in the end it is, like every form of art, very much about emotions.  Music goes straight there.  This is emotion and that emotion drives other important things.

Why are there seven songs?

Olli Kortekangas:  I wanted to have the four poems by Wendell Berry serve as cornerstones and I needed something in between and I wanted three different things. I like that number too. 

When did you first become acquainted with Wendell Berry?

Olli Kortekangas:  The Way to the Woods (2007), my first U.S. commission, was an a cappella work I wrote for the Syracuse Vocal Ensemble in New York State using Wendell Berry’s poetry.  I was looking for a suitable text and someone in the choir came up to me–she was librarian–and she started looking for different texts and sending them to me and that’s how it began.  He’s a very special poet and so when I got this commission from Washington, I turned to his work right away.

You’re bringing in a lot of music, words and texts from different traditions, but they all seem to deal with nature and the earth.  How did you decide on those four Wendall Berry poems among his large oeuvre, and then specifically to draw from the St. Francis Canticle of the Creatures, the Sámi-influenced yoik and the voices of the children?   It’s quite an interesting mix.

Olli Kortekangas:  A lot of Berry’s work is about finding peace and sustenance in nature.  I was looking for different poems that would somehow connect with the overall theme from different angles—one poem is more political, one more atmospheric and then one conveys emotions─very deep feelings about fears of death, personal fears about losing one’s family, and so forth.  The St. Francis of Assisi text is a very old text.  It basically addresses the same things as Wendell Berry does but in a different way and there is something very European in its feel.  The Sámi thing is primitive, spiritual and representative of an indigenous culture, in this case, my own country, Finnish-Lapland.  My yoik is not a semantic text, it’s basically onomatopoeic, so it doesn’t make perfect sense.  I believe there is a connection between different Northern cultures around the globe, so using material of one indigenous people, the Sámi, is in a way a tribute to any indigenous people.

The third element is the texts written by the kids, the young people of today, and the idea is having a very contemporary element.  In the original version, the texts were written by the kids in the Children’s Chorus of Washington but Robert Geary came to me and said the San Francisco kids wanted to write and speak their own texts and I liked that idea very much. 

Were you able to meet any of the children?

Olli Kortekangas:  Actually, I haven’t had a chance to work with these exact kids yet but I will meet them all tomorrow (Saturday).  In Washington, I was able to work with the children’s choir.  I enjoy working with kids and I’ve done a lot of that.  It was a long time ago that I started working with the Tapiola Choir (Tapiolan Kuoro), which is one of best-known and largest children’s choirs in my country and probably in the world.  I’ve worked with children and youth in workshops and written music for them too.  Writing music for children can be very challenging in itself.  And working with kids, well, it’s actually more difficult in some ways than working with adults but then, it’s also fun because they are not as conservative as adults tend to be.  This sounds like a cliché, but clichés have their basis in truth.  Anyway, sharing a creative process with young performers requires a certain attitude but it can lead to great results.

Since “Seven Songs” was written for an American audience, did that consciously factor into this into the piece?  Did you write it any differently?

Olli Kortekangas:  I believe I was chosen to do this job and they, the commissioners, thought that I would write music that would resonate with the American audience and musical scene here but, no, I didn’t try to do anything special.  Of course, I am using poems by an American poet and that’s one thing, actually the only thing, so no, I didn’t really think about that at all. 

Stylistically, how does “Seven Songs” compare with your operas and other choral pieces?

Olli Kortekangas:  It’s my largest choral work so far.  Actually, it’s got an orchestra and two soloists and it kind of borders on a cantata, not an oratorio because there’s no real story here, but it’s big.  For me, it almost has symphonic dimensions.  It’s not as dramatic as an opera.  Of course, it has contrasts and a dramatic arch and a sequence of events musically and text wise, it’s fairly lyrical in character.  The duration is close to 40 minutes.

If I were to compare it to my other works, it’s not that different.   My music is usually influenced by many musical styles which I am pulling together but (I hope) it is still unified structurally.  I am using certain harmonies, certain ideas throughout the piece which glue it together.  In that sense, then, it’s not so different from my operas but it’s different in the level of drama and lyricism.  

You’ve written a lot of different types of music—orchestral, chamber, etc.— but I sense that vocal music is very special to your heart.  Is vocal music a particular specialty of yours and, if so, why?

Olli Kortekangas:  I’ve written all types of music, practically every thinkable combination—choral, opera, chamber, orchestral─but any music with the human voice is special.  I guess you would say the human voice is my favorite instrument.  It has to do with my history.  There was a lot of music and singing in my family and I sang in choirs when I was a kid.  I’m not a trained singer but you never forget that experience of singing in a choir.  The other thing is that I’ve always been a great reader and the texts, which are integral to choral music, also have a lot to do with this.  

Olli Kortekangas at Sunday's post-performance reception at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church. Photo: Geneva Anderson

I know you are very interested in other art forms and that you like to collaborate with non-musicians.  I know you’ve worked closely with painters (also choreographers and playwrights) but I am interested in your collaboration with visual artists.  What does that bring to the table for you?

Olli Kortekangas:  Composing is a pretty lonely job and when I have the chance to be part of a group, I like that.  To be able to exchange ideas and discuss things—that’s certainly part of my inspiration for writing operas, not the only, but it factors in.  There’s also the excitement of being influenced by different fields of art.  I am a visual person and architecture has been very important for me, as well as visual art.  At one point, I was very interested in the work of M.C. Escher and his graphics, his ideas overall, the logic and the surprising effects you find in Escher once you get into him. I’d say, for me, his metamorphosis idea in particular [Metamorphosis I, II, and III, series of woodcuts from 1937-1968] is the most important and interesting concept in his works.  I wrote a couple of works inspired by Escher’s graphics.

And, then I wrote a piece, A (1987-88) for the Tapiola Choir which was created together with the chorus and Raija Malka a Finnish painter.  And a couple of years ago, I wrote my second organ sonata which has the subtitle “Stargazer” (Sonata for Organ No. 2, Stargazer) and its inspiration came from a 5,000 year old little sculpture in the Ancient Near East collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.  It’s not one to one but the overall spirit of visual art somehow feeds me and I express this in my music in many ways.  

One thing I’m dying to ask you about is film—you said you have not done any music for film.  Would you like to?  And if you could work with any director, who would that be?

That’s something I’m really interested I and I would really like to do it.  I am a film freak, I guess, and there are lots of interesting directors out there.  When I see a film and hear the music, I am sometimes thinking about how I would have done the music differently.  If I could work with anyone, well, one of them, unfortunately, is gone, but Tarkovsky is someone whose work I like very much, especially Andrei Rublev (1966).  I’d also choose Mike Leigh, the British director.    

Mike Leigh is improvisational in terms of his own actors not really working off of scripts or knowing what will happen in the film.  He tells them at the last minute and they act out their fates spontaneously.  I wonder what it might be like to make music for a film like that.  What do you think about when you think about making music for a film?

Working like that would be spontaneously interesting. My favorite Mike Leigh films are Naked (1993) and Career Girls (1997) (very different!).  In my latest opera, One-Night Stand, we were actually working a bit like Mike Leigh with our singers and we used Naked as a reference work.  

When you think of San Francisco and music what comes to mind?

Olli Kortekangas:   While I was growing up I listened to a lot of hard rock and punk and played aome too.  It’s really this period of the late 1960’s and 70’s─Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and others that I associate with San Francisco.  And the other thing is that, at some point, I was very interested in American minimalism too, this very experimental music which has a lot to do with California.  I am not at all familiar with the classical scene. 

What’s ahead in the coming year?

Olli Kortekangas:  Well, I’ve written four pretty extensive works in the past four years─a piano concerto, a choral piece, this one, and then a new opera.  The piano concerto premiered this past spring with Paavali Jumppanen and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.  My latest opera Yhden yön juttu (One-Night Stand) which I wrote along with librettist Michael Baran (dramaturge of the Finnish National Theatre), is for the new Helsinki Music Center.  It’s a kind of spin off of my earlier opera Isän tyttö, (Daddy’s Girl) which premiered at Savonlinna Opera Festival in 2007.  The voice students at the Sibelius Academy, our music conservatory, have collaborated, and it’s very experimental and it’s been fun in terms of the story and the whole process.

November 22, 2011 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Rita Moreno shows us who she is at 79 and she’s a force to be reckoned with in the world premiere of “Life Without Make-up,” at Berkeley Rep through October 30, 2011

Legendary performer Rita Moreno returns to Berkeley Rep for the world premiere of "Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup," written by Artistic Director Tony Taccone, through October 30, 2011. Photographer: Michael LaMonica

At 79, Rita Moreno, the legendary star of stage and screen, has led quite a life and most of it has been an uphill battle.  Her autobiographical new play Rita Moreno: Life Without Make-up, which opens Berkeley Rep’s new season, explores what that climb to the top has entailed.  Moreno is just one of an elite handful of persons who have won an Oscar (supporting actress for “West Side Story”), Emmy (“The Rockford Files”), Grammy (soundtrack for “The Electric Company”), and Tony (“The Ritz”).  And she is the only Latino on that list which also includes Barbra Streisand and Audrey Hepburn.  In her new show, which she co-created with Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director Tony Taccone, the Puerto-Rican born star tells the story of her struggle against poverty, racism, and the sexual politics of show business in Hollywood’s Golden Age.  She also offers a wealth of inside dirt about the leading men and women she interacted with―all against a stunning multimedia montage of memorable moments from her extraordinary life.  She is accompanied by two expert dancers, Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo, who join her to perform choreography by Lee Martino.  Seeing her in person is worth the price of admission–watching her on stage, dancing and gamming it up, you wonder why she at 79 looks better than most of us do at 50.   

If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to walk in the footsteps of such a powerhouse, you’ll come away satisfied.  Moreno starts her story at age 5 as Rosita Dolores Alverio (her given name) in her native Puerto Rico with her willful mother, who is escaping poverty and an abusive marriage by hopping a boat to New York City.  Tragically, her infant brother is left behind.  Once in New York, she and her mother assimilate in poor neighborhoods packed with immigrants, barely scraping by.   When young Moreno’s talent is discovered, it is nurtured, first and foremost by her mother who sees her young daughter as the ticket out of the barrios. When she starts Spanish dancing lessons with Rita Hayworth’s uncle, Paco Cansino, a knowledgeable instructor, Rita realizes that performing is her destiny.  Through a magic combination of luck and chutzpah, she is soon off and running and begins auditioning and performing.  She slowly cobbles together an identity around entertaining and by the time she is a teenager, she is acting on Broadway.  

Her lucky break comes a few years later when she is discovered by a Hollywood casting agent while performing at a dance recital and is whisked off to Hollywood with a coveted MGM contract.  She gushes as she recalls that the first person she met on the MGM lot was Clark Gable and then, shortly thereafter, Elizabeth Taylor whom Moreno idolized.  There’s a huge “but wait” though―the film industry didn’t really know what to do with talented non-white performers in the 1940′s and Moreno was relegated to playing stereotypical Latina spitfires and Indian maidens in a spate of B-movies.  One of the things Life Without Make-up does most effectively is paint a picture of what it was like to work in a Hollywood that was both racist and sexist and the constant pressures Moreno faced to fit the mold of the “ethnic utility player.”  Moreno speaks directly to the audience with candor and humor about some very painful experiences.  She constantly struggled to maintain a healthy sense of self as a woman and as a Latina while straightening her hair and trying to lighten her complexion to look like someone she wasn’t.  One of her sadist stories recounts being mauled by movie industry bigwigs at a fancy party who claimed that she was coming on to them and then being rescued by humble Latino gardeners who respected women.  Moreno had true grit though and somehow, she persevered. 

Legendary actress Rita Moreno performs with Salvatore Vassallo (left) and Ray Garcia during dress rehearsal for the world premiere of "Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup," at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

 A rare opportunity came when she was chosen to tango with Gene Kelly in the now classic Singin’ in the Rain (1952).  Her first major break though came when she landed the role of Tuptim, the rebellious concubine, in The King and I (1956) over the Asian actress France Nguyen.  In recounting this story, Moreno confesses deep regret over something that occurred but never gets into specifics. You get the idea that she may have actively campaigned for the role and there is more that she is not telling.  If you’re interested in personal confessionals, that’s where Life Without Make-up falls short.  If you listen carefully throughout, you’ll find Moreno’s collection of stories entertaining and poignant, and there’s also a good mix of small observations and big picture questions, but Moreno’s clever wit and sharp insights are mainly turned on those around her and on experiences that were thrust upon her.  This is an expose of the entertainment industry and doesn’t really delve into Moreno’s regrets about her own actions.   This seems intentional as Tony Taccone, Life Without Make-up’s writer, knows the power of brutal honesty, and owning one’s dark side.  It was Taccone who collaborated with actress Carrie Fisher (of Starwars’ fame) to create her 2009 brut tour-de-force “Wishful Drinking.” 

Near the end of the first act, Moreno talks about her famous love affair with Marlon Brando, whom she met on the MGM lot.  She recounts quite humorously how she was totally smitten with Brando but how he was completely smitten with himself and how she started “seeing” Elvis to make him jealous.  She skips her sleeping pill-swallowing suicide attempt.  In another sequence, she talks about being thrust in bed with Jack Nicholson to do numerous love-making takes for the film Carnal Knowledge (1971) and how it was a source of conflict in her marriage to Leonard Gordon.  There’s a lot she is not telling but that’s Hollywood!

All of her sacrifice and hard work ultimately paid off with 1961′s film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical West Side Story.  As the fiery Anita, who sings and dances the show-stopping “America,” Moreno lit up the screen and earned that year’s Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.  As she tells her stories, Moreno powerfully and colorfully recants the “characters” in her life–using a number of hilarious accents to complete the portraits.  She outdoes herself as she tells about working with Natasha Lytess, Marilyn Monroe’s acting coach, who taught her the nuances of gesture, movement, elocution and getting in touch with her vagina.  And then there’s the music and dance.  Highlights include her tapping “Broadway Rhythm” from Singing in the Rain (1952) and performing “The Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story with Ray Garcia and Salvatore Vassallo to lee Martino’s choreography.  Through it all Moreno emerges as a powerhouse, lady-like but razor-sharp and never forgetting her humble past.  This is a two-hour performance to be savored.

And if this review has you aching to see more of Moreno, if you have satellite or cable tv, you can always catch her on re-runs of Law and Order: Criminal Intent as the fabulously crazy dying mother of Detective Goren.  And she plays Fran Drescher’s mom on TV Land’s new sitcom Happily Divorced which aired in June 2011.  With a one-woman show and a new TV role, 79 never looked so good.

Production Team:

Written by Tony Taccone

Developed by Rita Moreno and Tony Taccone

Staged and directed by David Galligan

Choreography by Lee Martino

Set design by Anna Louizos

Costumes by Annie Smart

Video and lights by Alexander V. Nichols

Sound by Phil Allen

Starring:

Rita Moreno

Ray Garcia

Salvatore Vassallo

Featuring a four-piece band with Cesar Cancino (music director), Sascha Jacobsen (bass), Alex Murzyn (reeds), and David Rokeach (percussion)

Details: Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup runs through October 30, 2011 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances Tuesday-Sunday with several matinee performances.  Pre-show docent talks: Tuesdays 9/27, 10/4, 10/11, 10/18 & 10/25 and Thursdays 9/22, 9/29, 10/6 & 10/20 @ 7:00 PM.  Post-play discussions: Thursday 9/22, Tuesday 9/27, and Friday 10/7 @ 8:00 PM

Tickets: $73 to $34.  Box office:  (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.  

Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre.  The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

September 18, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFMOMA presents “Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation,” at YBCA’s Novellus Theater, August 18 through 21, 2011

Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein looking over the score for Four Saints in Three Acts, ca. 1929; Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library, Yale University; photo: Mabel Thérèse Bonney

Among the outtakes from Woody Allen’s recent hit film Midnight in Paris might well have been a scene showing Gertrude Stein being asked by the obscure young American composer Virgil Thomson to create an opera libretto for him.  There, in Paris in 1927, began one of America’s quirkiest creative partnerships, yielding not only the unique, wacky, and strangely moving operas Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mother of Us All (1947), but opening the floodgates for new modernist thought in music, literature, and art in America.

Stein’s typically nonlinear libretto for Four Saints, more focused on the sounds of words than on plot, is a sort of fractured fairy tale starring two 16th-century Spanish saints—the theologian Ignatius of Loyola and the mystic Teresa of Avila—and a gaggle of imaginary cohorts (St. Plan, St. Settlement, St. Plot, St. Chavez, etc.) who have visions of a heavenly mansion, enjoy a celestial picnic, and dance a tango-inflected ballet.  Thomson’s accessible music draws upon the snappy rhythms of American speech and the warm melodic shapes of American folksongs and hymns. 

On the occasion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s major exhibition The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Bay Area Now 6 (BAN6), SFMOMA in association with YBCA will present a new production of Stein and Thomson’s opera. The new version, titled Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation, will play at YBCA’s Novellus Theater this Thursday, August 18, through Sunday, August 21, 2011.  The 50 minute performance will be preceded by a “A Heavenly Act” (2011), a brand new stand-alone curtain-raiser with an original score by Luciano Chessa and new video and performance elements by Kalup Linzy, inspired by a streamlined 1950s version of Thomson and Stein’s opera.  Four Saints, which follows it, will be augmented by video projections from Chessa and Linzy’s opening piece.

Four Saints is vintage Thomson/Stein, simultaneously All-American and countercultural,” said New York opera dramaturg Cori Ellison.  “Avant-garde yet sweetly ingenuous, it’s always been a magnet for the most imaginative theatre and visual artists, from Robert Wilson and Mark Morris on down.  I’d say any performance of this rare and charming opera is a must-see.”

SFMOMA in Association with YBCA Presents:  Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation

An Ensemble Parallèle production

     Nicole Paiement, conductor/artistic director

     Brian Staufenbiel, director

Music by Virgil Thomson and Luciano Chessa, with libretto by Gertrude Stein

Featuring Kalup Linzy

Novellus Theater at YBCA

Preview: Thursday, August 18, 7:30 p.m.

Friday and Saturday, August 19 and 20, 8 p.m.

Sunday, August 21, 2 p.m.

For tickets ($10–$85) visit ybca.org or call 415.978.2787

The Art of Four Saints in Three Acts, gallery talk

Thursday, August 18, 6:30 p.m. • Contemporary Jewish Museum, Free with museum admission

See original music, art, and ephemera connected with the Gertrude Stein-Virgil Thompson collaboration Four Saints in Three Acts in a gallery talk directly preceding the preview performance of SFMOMA’s new staging of the opera at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories exhibition at Contemporary Jewish Museum, May 12, 2011 – September 6, 2011:

Drawing upon a wealth of rarely seen artistic and archival materials, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories illuminates Stein’s life and pivotal role in art during the 20th century.

SFMOMA exhibition: The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, through September 6, 2011

American expatriates in bohemian Paris when the 20th century was young, the Steins — writer Gertrude, her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael’s wife, Sarah — were among the first to recognize the talents of avant-garde painters like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Through their friendship and patronage, they helped spark an artistic revolution. This landmark exhibition draws on collections around the world to reunite the Steins’ unparalleled holdings of modern art, bringing together, for the first time in a generation, dozens of works by Matisse, Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and many others. Artworks on view include Matisse’s Blue Nude (Baltimore Museum of Art) and Self-Portrait (Statens Museum, Copenhagen), and Picasso’s famous portrait Gertrude Stein (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Yerba Buena Neighborhood Celebrates Gertrude Stein, May–September, 2011

Join the Yerba Buena neighborhood this summer in celebrating the life of writer Gertrude Stein and her influence on modern art, literature, and culture. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival will each host related programming: from art exhibitions to opera, poetry readings to salons, there’s definitely a there there. Visit  www.sfmoma.org/celebratestein   for a complete list of programs, discounts, and members-only specials throughout the neighborhood.

August 15, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival brings its best films to San Rafael’s Rafael Film Center August 6-8, 2011

Feliks Falk’s “Joanna” opens the Marin programming for the 31st San Francisco Jewish Festival. Urszula Grabowska (left) is Joanna, a Polish woman who finds seven-year-old Rose (Sara Knothe ) sleeping in the pews of a church and is faced with a split-second decision—to take the child with her or leave her for the Nazis. Image courtesy SFJF.

For those of us who live in the North Bay, the travel time and various costs associated with going to San Francisco for even a special film can put a damper on the most enthusiastic of fans.  Next Saturday, August 6, 2011, through Monday, August 8, 2011,  the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will cross the bridge and splash onto the screen of Marin’s Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center offering 16 of its best films and shorts.  This year’s festival opened in San Francisco on July 21 and this is its 15th year of presentations in Marin.  The first and still the largest of its kind, the festival showcases some of the best and brightest cinematic gems—offering a full complement of films, celebrations, panel discussions and international guests—that highlight various aspects of Jewish culture.

Opening Night, August 6, kicks off with Joanna, a riveting drama

On Saturday August 6—the opening evening—Marin audiences will be treated to film and theater director Feliks Falk’s Joanna [Poland, 2011, 105 min], which proposes the altruistic dilemma—what would you risk to save another during World War II in Nazi-occupied Poland?   Joanna (Urszula Grabowska) is a gentile woman who finds 8-year-old Rose, a Jewish girl abandoned in a church, and faces this dilemma knowing that any choice she makes will be life-changing.  They embark on a relationship that helps to heal their respective losses, but Joanna faces difficult decisions if Rose is to survive.  Following Joanna that evening is Ben Berkowitz’s Polish Bar [US, 2010, 96 min], which centers on ambitious Reuben Horowitz (Boardwalk Empire’s Vincent Piazza) who works in his Uncle Sol’s (Judd Hirsch) Chicago jewelry store but dreams of DJing at a top local club.  Reaching for his dream, Reuben rolls the dice with his uncle Sol’s merchandise on a big drug score in this gritty, raucous drama suffused with an urban Jewish hip-hop vibe. Berkowitz will appear in person at the San Rafael screening.

Monday night, the Festival comes to a close with Avi Nesher’s The Matchmaker [Israel, 2010, 112 min], an affectionate, bittersweet feature set in 1960s Haifa, in which protagonist Arik’s eye-opening summer vacation includes the sexy Iraqi-Jewish-American niece of his best friend, a seedy downtown movie theater run by a group of Jewish dwarfs who met at Auschwitz, and Yankele Bride—matchmaker, shady businessman and Holocaust survivor.

Diverse stories with international flavors

This year’s program is especially strong on documentaries.  It begins with Marin’s first screening next Saturday:  Incessant Visions—Letters from an Architect [Israel, 2011, 70 min].  This is Duki Dror’s (My Fantastia, The Journey of Vaan Nguyen, Mr. Cortisone, Happy Days) compelling meditation on the life and career of the architect Eric Mendelsohn.  Of local interest, Mendelsohn’s granddaughter, Daria Joseph, is a Marin resident.

Next Year in Bombay [France, India, 2010, 55 min], a co-production by Jonas Parientè and Mathias Mangin, profiles the surprising diversity of India’s Jewish communities.  The film focuses on a young couple’s struggle with their desire to see Judaism thrive in India and their commitment to providing their children with a Jewish education which is only possible if they move to Israel.

From France, Rose Bosch’s The Roundup [France, 2009, 120 min] is the harrowing investigative account of the Vel d’Hiv roundup of Paris’ Jews in 1942 with a stand-out performance by French actor Jean Reno (The Professional).  Standing Silent [US, 2010, 82 min] is Scott Rosenfelt’s profile of journalist Phil Jacobs, whose crusade to unmask sexual predators within the Jewish community exposes him to ostracism for exposing the community to external scrutiny.  Liz Garbus (Shouting Fire) brings a portrait of the complicated life of the tormented chess genius in Bobby Fischer Against the World [US, 2010, 92 min].

Also screening at the Rafael Film Center and part of the San Francisco portion of SFJFF festival programming is Crime After Crime [US, 2011, 95 min], Yoav Potash’s unforgettable chronicle of a woman’s fight against horrible injustice.  Winner of both Audience Choice and Golden Gate awards at the San Francisco International Film Festival, this compelling documentary tells the story of the legal battle to free Debbie Peagler, an incarcerated survivor of domestic violence.  Over 26 years in prison could not crush the spirit of this determined African-American woman, despite the wrongs she suffered, first at the hands of a duplicitous boyfriend who beat her and forced her into prostitution, and later by prosecutors who used the threat of the death penalty to corner her into a life behind bars for her connection to the murder of her abuser.  Her story takes an unexpected turn when her cause is taken up by two volunteer attorneys: Joshua Safran, who witnessed spousal abuse as a child and whose identity as an Orthodox Jew fuels his work on the case, and Nadia Costa, a former social worker for Children’s Protective Services in Los Angeles.  Tickets for this exceptional film, which opens Friday,  August 5, 2011 at the Rafael Film Center with multiple screenings, can be purchased directly from the Rafael Film Center, as it is not officially part of the Marin festival offerings.

On the narrative side, thought-provoking stories abound from Israel, Poland and Germany, as well as America.  Aside from the opening and closing night offerings of Joanna, Polish Bar and The Matchmaker, from Israel comes Mabul (The Flood) [Israel, Canada, France, Germany, 2011, 97 min], directed by Guy Nattiv, which paints the unstable members of the Rosko family, each hiding dark secrets from the others.  Affairs, adolescence, drugs and unemployment plague the Roskos, and when autistic son Tomer suddenly rejoins the family, the building pressure explodes. The sharp performances of the cast earned the film 6 Ofir nominations, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars.

Nir Bergman’s Intimate Grammar [Israel, 2010, 110 min] is a beautiful narrative based on a 1991 David Grossman novel and is movingly told from the point of view of the teenage son of a dysfunctional family in 1960’s Jerusalem. From Poland, Jan Kidawa-Blonski’s Little Rose [Poland, 2010, 118 min] is a Cold War espionage thriller that opens as news of the Six Day War arrives.  In this paranoid atmosphere, a blond bombshell (Magdalena Boczarska) is hired by the secret police to spy on a renowned intellectual (Andrzej Seweryn) suspected of subversive views.  This twisted love story becomes entangled with the intrigues of the State security apparatus.

In an Austrian/German/Hungarian co-production, Elizabeth Scharang’s debut feature In Another Lifetime [Austria, Germany, Hungary, 2010, 94 min] (see ARThound’s full review) is a haunting and bittersweet tale of Hungarian Jews on a forced march towards death who stage a Strauss operetta in an Austrian village in a vain hope to survive their fate.

About the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF), turned 31 this year and is the world’s oldest and largest Jewish film festival.  There are 58 films in all─38 full-length  films in all—38 full-length films (23 documentaries and 15 narratives) and 19 shorts (10 documentaries, 1 narrative and 8 animations) from 16 countries.  There are many free events too.  Attracting more than 33,000 filmgoers annually, SFJFF is world-renowned for the diversity and breadth of its audiences and films.  SFJFF’s mission is to promote awareness and appreciation of the diversity of the Jewish people, provide a dynamic and inclusive forum for exploration of and dialogue about the Jewish experience, and encourage independent filmmakers working with Jewish themes.

The SFJFF Jewish Film Forum

Members of SFJFF’s Jewish Film Forum receive exclusive discounts on all festival tickets, passes and 10-Flix vouchers. The Jewish Film Forum is SFJFF’s year-round affiliation program bringing film lovers together to enjoy and support the mission and programs of SFJFF. Memberships, which begin at $50, may be purchased online or by phone when ordering tickets.

Details:  The Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center is located at 1118 Fourth Street in San Rafael.  Metered parking is available on the street or chose from several lots close by.  The San Rafael portion of the festival starts next Saturday, August 6, 2011 and runs through Monday, August 8, 2011. 

Tickets are $12.00 for the general public and can be purchased online or by phone (M-F 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) at 415.621.0523.  Tickets are also available for same day purchase at individual screening venues but screenings may sell out in advance www.sfjff.org.  “Discount 10-Flix Voucher Packs” are $100 for the general public. Group rates and special prices for students and seniors are available.

July 31, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Opera’s Ring closes today and marks Verna Parino’s 61st Ring cycle

Ring aficionado Verna Parino, 94 years young, at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House prior to the June 14, 2011 performance of “Das Rheingold,” her 59th Ring cycle. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 As the curtain closes later today on San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, it will mark Verna Parino’s 61st Ring cycle and I could not pass up the opportunity to talk with her about what makes a Ring memorable.  Parino, now a spry 94, first heard Wagner on the radio when she was about 16 and was mesmerized but it wasn’t until 1971, when she was 54, that she actually saw her first Ring cycle. 

She made up quickly for lost time.  In the past 40 years, she has travelled to 18 countries and seen 61 cycles in places as far flung as Shanghai and Adelaide, and has befriended Ring “trekkies” all over the world.  Not only did she embrace the Ring, she embraced opera as well and for years headed the Marin chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild’s Preview Program, retiring just last year.  I caught up with her in mid-June at Das Rheingold of Cycle 1, which marked Ring No. 59 for her, and again a week later at a Wagner Society of Northern California Ring symposium and she was full of exuberance for Wagner’s musical epic.

You’ve see so many Rings now, what type of production do you prefer and what makes it exciting for you?

The first thing to determine is if goes along with Wagner.  Something that is not Wagner, like last year’s Los Angeles Opera production, I didn’t like at all and I complained bitterly about that.  You can be innovative and modernize the setting but make it apply to what Wagner was writing about. 

And if you don’t react to the staging, it’s not a good production.  For me, if I don’t cry when Wotan has to punish his child, then it’s not a good production because as a parent it’s very painful to punish your child and you do cry.   When Speight Jenkins staged his first Ring at the Seattle Opera, I didn’t cry at that father having to punish his child and I didn’t think the production was very good.  With his later productions, I did cry and it all came together.

It’s Wagner’s music that tells you what’s going on, not always the words.  Here, at this Ring, I am trying something that is quite different for me—I am trying to find an ending in the music.  Wagner spent a lifetime searching for the answers to civilization’s problems.  He used the universal language of myth to portray man’s foibles and composed some of the most glorious music ever to represent the deepest emotional reactions of love and parental discipline.  But, after sixteen hours of the most monumental work of art ever envisioned, Wagner was still searching for an ending of how to govern the world.   Several solutions were dismissed and he finally gave us the answer through his music.  It’s the churning music, representing the convoluted story of mankind, that brings about a positive conclusion with a rebirth, a renewal, as indicated in the source materials of the Norse Poetic Edda.   The music itself is so exciting—it tells you that life is really hard and the answers are difficult to come by but that’s why I keep coming back time and time again trying to find the answer.  

Who are the heroes for you?  

Many people say that all the women represent the truth and that ‘love conquers all’ and that it’s Brünnhilde and that it’s the men who let the world down with their greed and negative attributes.   Brünnhilde wasn’t true to herself.  She goes after revenge and that’s not the answer.  Of course, Brünnhilde grew–she understands what has happened but she’s betrayed herself.  She finds out too late what the truth is and by then it’s all set in motion.  Wotan, well, he just accepts that he’s done it all wrong and that he can’t fix it any more. 

It’s interesting to analyze the characters because with each director, in each new production and portrayal, you might see something that has been added that makes sense to you.  I attended a talk last night and was struck with a realization about Alberich.  He was evil, and greedy, and power-driven but he admitted it and he was therefore true to himself, honest about his nature.  It is Wotan who pretends that he is righteous when he’s not–he is really driven by greed and takes advantage of other people and ultimately pays the price.  Siegmund is the only true hero, the only one who remains true to himself and to his love Sieglinde.   That was new to me that Siegmund was the true hero.  

And then, of course, you have to bring your own thoughts in too and ask yourself what you see in it all.  It depends on where you come from and we all have different backgrounds.  I’m Swedish and I married an Italian and I love German and I’ve had many adventures around the world.  Wherever we come from, we bring all that with us when we sit down and watch what’s on stage.  I just can’t wait to see it all unfold again.

What’s your overall impression of Francesca Zambello’s production, now that you’ve seen all three cycles?

Upon reflection today, thinking about the reasons this San Francisco Ring is such a positive success, and why people leave the Opera House smiling and saying it was great, most important is the fact that it is true to Wagner.  It was not some director’s concept of what he thought Wagner might have said.  It was not a ‘glitsey’ controversial, sensationalized staging for the sake of controversy or publicity.  Although Wagner used giants, dwarfs, gods, and dragons, they are symbols or archetypes of the people we know around about our worlds–our neighbors, even ourselves. We identify with them. We read about them in today’s news. 

The direction was humanized. Wotan was bored with his wife Fricka’s complaints so he picked up the newspaper and read. Then Fricka, bored with Wotan’s explanation of the extended view of world leadership, also picked up the newspaper and read. Francesca Zambello welcomed suggestions from the cast so that performers were part of a team, acting in ways that seemed normal.  It seemed as though there was a communal joy and presenting this Ring.

Wagner appreciated the natural world as illustrated many times in this epic story. The destruction of our environment—water, air, earth—has formed the basis for the sets of many productions (Cologne + Rhein River pollution, Berlin + junk yards, Arizona + Colorado River diversion, Oslo and Warsaw + barren trees).  In San Francisco’s Gotterdammerung there were piles of junked plastic bags that the Rheinmaidens picked up.

New questions to ponder:  Was Siegmund really a hero if he was willing to slay his bride and unborn child because they could not go with him to Valhalla?  Was Brünnhilde really a heroine, and really true to her inner self, if she was willing to conspire with Hagen for her husband’s death?   Is a yellow ‘sail’ that balloons into the air and finally dissolves into the river, a likely gold that can be stolen?  If Gutrune is so willing to jump into the king-size bed with Hagen, while waiting for Siegfried to return to marry her, should she participate so prominently in the finale supporting Brunnhilde’s memorial dedication?

And, this being a music-drama, the music itself was simply outstanding.  Leading the outstanding cast was Nina Stemme, today’s world-famous Brünnhilde. Returning to conduct the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was Donald Runnicles, internationally acclaimed for his work with Wagner.  The music of the finale is positive, so that using again a child planting a small tree representing a new beginning, is logical. Wagner’s early revolutionary ideas took many philosophical turns. How should the world’s ending be portrayed?  ‘Tis a puzzlement’ that Wagnerians will continue to ponder.

July 3, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meet Kevin Rivard, the horn behind Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, at San Francisco Opera through July 3, 2011

Kevin Rivard, Co-Principal Horn of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, is responsible for the demanding long horn call in Siegfried, the third drama in Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle, at San Francisco Opera through July 2, 2011. Rivard plays the two minute solo backstage on his Conn 8D French horn. Photo: Geneva Anderson

When it’s time for the hero Siegfried to slay the dragon in Richard Wagner’s third Ring of the Nibelung opera, Siegfried, it is Kevin Rivard’s hypnotic long horn call in Act II that draws Fafner out of his cave and ushers in the action.  That two-minute French horn solo, echoed in shorter motifs throughout the Ring, is one of the cycle’s musical highpoints.  It’s also the longest instrumental solo in the Ring.  At 28, Rivard, Co-Principal Horn of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Principal Horn of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, is the youngest member of both brass sections.  This is Rivard’s first Ring and he was eager to talk about this demanding solo which he plays backstage, in order to create the illusion that Siegfried himself is playing the horn.  Wagner was one of first composers to write extensively for the valved horn and the Siegfried long call, his most famous horn composition, set the bar for all future horn solos in terms of its difficulty and haunting beauty. Rivard plays this horn call for the 4th and last time, next Friday, July 1 in San Francisco Opera’s Cycle 3 of the Ring

Would you describe your instrument and tell us if you use only one horn throughout the Ring?

Kevin Rivard:  There’s only one horn that I play—it’s a factory Conn 8D horn.  It’s the instrument that is known for the American horn sound—that big, broad, full, dark, beautiful sound that you hear in all of the movies.  It’s the horn most closely matches the sound that I hear in my head for the ideal horn sound.  It fits perfectly with the type of writing that Wagner did for the horn in the Ring Cycle, which is very heroic most of the time… This horn belonged to Julie Landsman, my Juilliard teacher and longtime principal horn at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.  She always raved about how spectacular this horn is, so when she retired, I talked her into selling it to me. 

Which leitmotifs in The Ring are played by the French horn? 

Kevin Rivard:  When I think about all 17 hours of this, I am pretty sure the horn section plays all or most of the scenes and leitmotifs.  The Valhalla motif, which is heard for the first time in the first Ring opera Das Rheingold, at beginning of Scene 2, is handled by the Wagner tuba section, part of the horn section.  The spear motive, also originating in Das Rheingold, is handled by the horn section. Siegfried’s long and short calls are played a cappella [without accompaniment] by a solo French horn in Act II, Scene 2, of Siegfried.

 The big thing about the motifs we play in this Ring cycle is the variation in their complexity.  There’s such a great span of time between when Wagner composed Das Rheingold and then began Götterdämmerung that it’s completely different music and you can see and hear it.  The orchestral score of Siegfried is so dense and interesting and what I love in particular is that you could listen to this entire opera and have no clue about any of the text and know exactly what’s going on.  It’s so cleverly written with the leitmotifs and altering them slightly that you know what’s going on even before the characters themselves know.

The horn is almost always used by classical composers to signify hunting or at least a kind of hearty, masculine, rural sensibility.  What does the horn signify in the Ring?

Kevin Rivard:  In addition to its use historically for hunting calls, the horn is also the voice of the hero, Siegfried, which is what we most notice. Siegfried lives and hunts in the woods.  Also, because of the way the instrument is made and shaped, and its sound, it works very well with other instruments in blending and creating great sonorities throughout the orchestra.  Composers will write for the horn in a partnering role, using it to join the sound of different instruments together.  If they are writing for the strings and woodwinds, they will stick the horn in there to kind of blend the sounds together.  With woodwinds and brass, the horns will be the middle ground to help blend the two together.  I’ll play some concerts where we’ll be playing almost the entire concert in these supporting roles and when I finish, people will tell me that I was hardly playing at all.  I’m thinking no, I was playing the entire time but in a supporting role.

Aside from its length, what makes the long call in Siegfried special?

Kevin Rivard: This is the biggest, hardest, longest horn solo in any rep–orchestral or opera–that there is, period, because of the way it’s structured.  It’s the way Wagner wrote it–the entire orchestra cuts out and it’s just one solo for over two minutes and it keeps building and goes on and on and on and then ends on that spectacular high C.  With the French horn, there are a couple of things at issue.  The instrument requires an incredible amount of endurance in the lips.  You are requiring just the center of your lips to create all of this sound that’s coming through the instrument and the endurance of having to play a solo in that register for that long is a huge factor in its difficulty.

 In addition, the register in which this call is written is the extreme upper register of the horn and the partials for the notes are very close together, with a half step of each other.. If my lips are inaccurate by the smallest degree, it’s not a matter of being slightly out of tune; it means the note is missed, completely missed.  When a horn player misses a note, it sounds like a dying goat.  Everyone knows and no one forgets.

Kevin Rivard, Co-Principal Horn of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, backstage at the War Memorial Opera House. For his long horn call in Siegfried, he leaves the orchestra pit and performs his solo unseen and off to the side of the stage to create the impression that the Siegfried on stage is playing the horn. He plays it on his vintage Conn 8D French horn which he bought from Julie Landsman, former principal horn at the Met. Photo: Geneva Anderson

How did you approach and prepare for this great solo?  

Kevin Rivard:  Since endurance and stamina are such an issue, I looked at my schedule a year ago and I found all of the holes where I would have time to practice and I started preparing, a little here and a little there.  A lot of this was mental, knowing in my head exactly what I wanted it to sound like.  As an artist, if I have the technique down and I know how I want it to sound, then I can put those two things together.  Wagner wrote that the call was to start with moderate tempo and then accelerando [become faster] throughout.  Out of respect to that comment and to add to the drama of the scene, I begin very slowly and let the accelerando build and roll it forward and I really try to give it plenty of room.  The speed of the accelerando and that crescendo [increase in volume] is based solely on one thing –how much air I can take in and how much music I can make in one breath.  I set my tempo and I take the biggest breath that I can and based on that, I start to build.  That’s a lot of notes to get into one breath.

 

Were there any particular horn players’ renditions you listened to?  YouTube has lots of fabulous examples for us to hear and compare as does Wagneropera.net.

Kevin Rivard:  Julie Landsman has a recording of this in which she plays principal throughout the Ring and she does the long call.   This is the best I’ve ever heard, period.  I feel pretty strongly that as an artist and individual I want to make every effort not to just try to sound like everyone else.  I want to go out there and sound the way I want to sound.  Throughout my entire preparation period, I tried not to listen to any recordings, but rather to just study the score and decide what this character means to me and what this horn solo means and how I want to present it.  I think this approach has led to something that is similar to what my teacher did but that my call does sound considerably different than any of the recordings out there as a result.  I appreciate that because I wanted to step away and see what it meant to me to be Siegfried. 

What’s going on physically for you during this solo?  Does it help that you are back stage and not actually seen, just heard?

Kevin Rivard:  I might not be seen but I have to return to the pit afterward and see all my colleagues so being out of sight doesn’t have much benefit for me.  What I think it is, and I read this from other principal horn players too, is that a lot of horn players are adrenaline junkies.  The nature of the instrument, the harmonic series, and the extreme accuracy that is required to do our job on a daily basis requires this.  Simon Rattle, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (BPO) once said ‘You never want to look a horn player in the eye before he plays a solo– it’s like looking a tightrope walker in the eye before he grapples with death.’  There’s this huge adrenaline rush you get when you do these big solos—the Siegfried long call and the solo in Handel’s Julius Caesar. You walk back there and you are nervous and your heart is racing and the next thing you know…you’ve jumped and landed.  I think ‘wow!’ that was the best thing in the world and I have to do it again. 

When you leave the pit, where exactly are you playing and how do you get your cues?

Kevin Rivard:  The idea is to position the horn very close to Siegfried so that it sounds like he is playing. My chair is onstage, just behind the curtain, on the rake [upward slope] of the stage. I am sitting tilted back at an angle with my horn in hand and I am facing off to the side of the stage, looking in the opposite direction of Siegfried.  Initially, I had to turn around and look at him for my cue which is when he takes this big breath.  When I did this, there was this huge spotlight on him from the opposite side of the stage that nearly blinded me.  I could barely see him and the light was so strong that I couldn’t see anything on my music stand either.  He also took his breath very quickly and I whipped my head around and tried to play very quickly.  When I finished the first phrase, I turned back around and was blinded again and then whipped my head back around again and it was an incredible experience. I was like ‘this is just too crazy,’  so I went and found an extra conductor that they have and it’s now his job to stare into that light and catch the cues from Siegfried’s breath and then cue me.

The pace of the four long performances comprising each Ring Cycle, essentially back to back, must be grueling.  How do you handle that?

Kevin Rivard:  It’s an incredibly difficult work load, without question. The way we have it structured in the horn section is that we have two co-principal horns and this is to purposefully lighten the work load on these long things.  Before we started the Ring, I got in touch with principal horn players at all the major opera companies—the Met, Munich, Berlin, and so forth– and starting asking them how they handle the Ring Cycle.  Do the same people play or what?  Unanimously, all of them have relief players. They would have different horn sections come in half way through an opera to play the last two acts of Götterdämmerung or the last two acts of Siegfried.  The horn section that did Die Walküre would not have to play Das Rheingold the night before.  They all had some relief.  But the way we’re doing it is that we have the same horn section and the same Wagner tuba section and everyone is playing everything for all three cycles.

The standard approach for the Siegfried long call is that whoever plays that solo, that’s all they have to do.  If they don’t do it that way, in consideration of the huge work load, you might play Act I and then the horn solo and that’s it.  I play Act I, the horn solo and the rest of the opera.

After working on this for a solid year, how do you get this out of your head?  What do you do?

Kevin Rivard:  Funny you would ask because the other day Bill Klingelhoffer, the other co-principal horn, and I were sitting in the locker room before our final orchestra rehearsal of the season discussing what music we were going to present at an upcoming horn seminar.  On stage, they were doing the final piano dress rehearsal for Siegfried and it was coming through on the monitors.  The piano was playing literally at about a minute right before the big horn solo.  I said to Bill, ‘Hey, they’re playing Siegfried,’ and my heart was pounding like crazy.  It stays with you and rings through your head along with the energy and emotion that you feel playing it.  It just doesn’t leave.

What is it like working with conductor Runnicles (longtime San Francisco Opera music director)?

Kevin Rivard:  It’s going very well.  The first time I played the long call was when we were out rehearsing at the Presidio.  I half jokingly asked him if he wanted to hear it, thinking he’d tell me to wait until we were at the opera house to hear the whole solo.  He, of course, said “Why don’t you play it here and show off for your colleagues.” I thought, ‘Great!’   

 This is my first Ring Cycle but in talking with Julie Landsman I became aware of the physical, emotional and mental toll this takes.  With Runnicles, it’s like this music is in his blood and it’s so natural for him and so in his bones that when he conducts it, he makes it seem easy.  The way he prepares and will give a cue for something makes it as easy as it can possibly be and that has a remarkable effect on us.  It’s also the energy he breathes into a particular piece of music that makes it come to life.

During this long rehearsal period you must have thought a lot about Wagner.  What intrigues you most?

Kevin Rivard:  I often consider the great challenges of Wagner’s horn writing and wonder what the premiere performances sounded like.  It’s interesting to note that the Principal Horn of the Munich Court Orchestra, the orchestra that premiered the Ring Operas and most of Wagner’s other works, was none other than Franz Strauss.  He was the father of the famous composer Richard Strauss, and was known as one of the finest hornists of his day.  It’s also interesting to note that Franz Strauss and Wagner did not care for each other.  Wagner is quoted as saying: ‘Strauss is an unbearable, curmudgeonly fellow, but when he plays his horn one can say nothing, for it is so beautiful.’

ARThound would like to thank opera dramaturg Cori Ellison, who worked with Francesa Zambello on the conception for this Ring cycle,  for assistance in editing this interview.  David Marsten, of Calistoga, too provided valuable background information on Wagner and Siegfried.

Details: Single tickets for next Friday’s (July 1, 2011) final performance of Siegfried are still available.  Tickets for San Francisco Opera’s Cycle 3 presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (June 28, June 29, July 1, July 3) are individually priced from $95 to $360.  All tickets are available online at www.sfopera.com , or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., or by phone at (415) 864-3330.

June 26, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Standing for Valhalla: the passion, endurance and strategy it takes to stand through the Ring at SF Opera

Lauren Knoblauch's special ergonomic shoes have trekked to Bayreuth and now they're in San Francisco standing for San Francisco Opera's Ring. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 Those attending the full Ring cycle at San Francisco Opera will spend 17 hours just watching the 4 performances but for those who choose the standing room ticket option, the hours multiply.  One hundred and fifty standing room tickets for last night’s opening performance of Das Rheingold went on sale at 10 a.m. yesterday morning at the War Memorial Opera House.  An additional 50 tickets went on sale at 5 p.m. and all 200 were sold.  Charlise Tiee, of Alameda, arrived “before 7 a.m.” and stood for 3 hours to buy the coveted #1 standing room ticket.   That allowed her to stand again–at the side of opera house– and enter 70 minutes before the performance and select her place to stand for the two hour and 40 minute performance.   Her standing-in-line to standing-in-performance ratio: roughly 2 to 1.  “It will get better with the 4 and 5 hour performances.”

This is Tiee’s 6th Ring cycle and the 34 year old, who studied viola and piano, started her ring thing when she was 26.  Tiee was a stand-out in last night’s line because she came dressed in a green satin brocade gown as Erda, the goddess of earth and mother of the three Norns.  It is Erda who warns Wotan to give up the ring after taking it from Alberich.  It is Erda who sees into the future and possesses great wisdom.  “I’ve been planning this,” she said. 

Charlise Tiee, dressed as goddess Erda, arrived before 7 .m. and bought standing room ticket #1 for $10 for yesterday's Das Rheingold at SF Opera. Photo: Geneva Anderson

At 7:30 a.m., there were 4 people in line for the $10 standing room tickets.  By 10 a.m., there were 40 people, and the line was growing.  Tiee is an SF Opera subscriber but also enjoys the thrill of nabbing the first standing room ticket and the flexibility of standing “I can move around more.”  Her strategy for the special evening was simple—she was going to stand on the orchestra level, on the right side by the pillar “to enhance the contrast with my outfit.”   Tiee is also well known for her lively blog– The Opera Tattler—that tracks her experiences attending opera performances as a standee in San Francisco and beyond.  Her writing is not limited to the performance but to what she sees and hears and “tattles” about the audience as a standee.  Tiee also presides over the Opera Standees Association, a social club for people in the Bay Area who love opera and met in standing room.  OSA meets and also financially sponsors a Merola Opera Program summer participant.  

This really isn’t about saving money, it’s about experiencing opera,” said Tiee.  “A lot of people who attend are in it for the social experience, which is fine.  It’s not easy to keep standing and the people in standing room tend to be more serious and very well-informed about the performances.  I have attended most of the dress rehearsals and will go to all three cycles.  I am interested in how it all evolves–you hear and see things at one performance that you won’t experience again because it’s live art.”  

Members of the standing group consider themselves “exceedingly lucky” because the SF Opera Company is so good and because the people in the box office are friendly and supportive of standees.  This is not the case at other opera venues where standees are valued “at about the price they pay for their tickets.”  

Having secured their numbered sanding room tickets, standees then cue outside the opera house. Many make productive use of their time studying the Wagner libretto in German. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Lauren Knoblauch drove straight from Seattle on Monday evening, leaving right after work, and took a chance on standing room tickets, “Oh, I knew I could get them—they’ve got 200.”  She decided to nap some but still managed to snag standing room ticket #119.  Knoblauch has been to Rings all over the world and likes to travel light.  Wotan has his spear and Siegfried has Nothung and she has her special ergonomic shoes—with separate toes—that make standing easy.  “I haven’t heard too much about the production itself or Zambello,” said Knoblauch.  “I know it goes from different ages—starting in one period and ending in another.  I try not to let the production bother me.  I go for the music and the singing and the acting and let the director do whatever he or she is going to do.  Afterwards, I’ll tell you what I think.”

After securing her place inside the opera house on the orchestra level, Knoblauch began texting and lo and behold, Charlise Tiee, standing next to her was the recipient.  As it turns out, the two have tweeted and texted each other about the performance for some time and met in person that evening.  When asked about Das Rheingold’s opening video projection scenes, by Jan Hartley, of billowing clouds and waves of water, Tiee responded “I do like an interesting production.  To me it looks like a video game and I’ve played a lot of video games and seen a lot of movies that feature CGI (computer generated imagery).  That stuff is competing in the opera for our attention but it’s a much better match with the music than what they used in 2008.”   

 Ring Schedule Cycle 1:  last night (June 15, 2011), Das Rheingold (2 hours, 35 minutes, no intermission); tonight, Die Walküre (4 hours, 30 minutes with two intermissions); Friday Siegfried (4 hours and 50 minutes with two intermissions); Sunday Götterdämmerung(5 hours and 15 minutes with two intermissions). The cycle repeats two more times, June 21-26 and June 28-July 3, 2011. 

After texting and tweeting, Charlise Tiee (L) and Lauren Koblauch (R) finally meet inside the opera as standees for Das Rheingold. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 

Standing Room for the Ring: There are 200 standing room tickets for each performance in the Ring cycle, and 150 of these go on sale at 10 a.m. the day of the performance at the War Memorial Opera House.  The remaining 50 are sold 2 hours before the performance.  Tickets are $10, cash only, and each person may buy 2 tickets.  Standees may enter on the south side of the opera house, across the street from Davies Symphony on Grove Street, 70 minutes before the curtain time.  The tickets are numbered and sold in order.  One enters the opera house by number, and there is a numbered line painted on the ground outside.  The standing room areas are on the orchestra level and the back of the balcony.  For availability, call the Opera Box Office at (415) 864-3330

June 15, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sonoma Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild readies for the Ring…Cori Ellison speaks Thursday at Kenwood Depot

Cori Ellison, dramaturg and consultant for Francesca Zambello's new production of the Ring cycle currently at San Francisco Opera, will lecture on Wagner's Ring cycle to branches of the SF Opera Guild. Photo: Carol Rosegg

 This Thursday, June 9, 2011, the Sonoma Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild will host Cori Ellison, dramaturg, New York City Opera, who will offer an in-depth look at Wagner’s Ring cycle operas.  Ms. Ellison will speak at 10:30 a.m. at the Kenwood Depot in Kenwood, CA.  San Francisco Opera Guild preview lectures bring renowned musicologists to the greater Bay Area for an in-depth look at the season’s operas.  Cori Ellison was a consultant to Francesca Zambello in the new production of the San Francisco Opera’s Ring cycle which is beginning next Tuesday, June 14 and running through July 3, 2011.  Ellison is also speaking this week at the Marin, San Jose, Peninsula, San Francisco, and East Bay Chapters of the San Francisco Opera Guild.   She will also talk about female protagonists in the Ring in an all day Ring Symposium (“Wagner’s Ring: The Love of Power, the Power of Love—Cycle 1 Symposium.”) sponsored by the Wagner Society of Northern California on Saturday, June 18, 2011.

Ellison’s talk in Kenwood will establish why Wagner’s Ring is so popular and important.  She will situate the 4 operas contextually in Wagner’s career, in European history, and in philosophical thought, also discussing his source materials.  She will introduce Wagner’s idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total work of art” that aims to make use of all or many forms of art.  She will also give signposts that the audience can grab onto throughout the production to help them get the most out of their experience, with emphasis on leitmotifs.  She will also share special details about the production based on her experience as part of Francesca Zambello’s core creative team.

“One of the wonderful things about Wagner and the Ring is that it really sparks deep thought and conversation in a way that other operas don’t,” said Ellison. “One of the biggest challenges in talking about Wagner, which I’ve done all over the country for a number of years, is that you are pretty much in a little red school house situation where some of the people are themselves experts and the others are novices.  Bridging this divide is tricky—I’ll try to find thoughts that will be of help to both groups.”

“What interests me most about Francesca’s production in San Francisco is that she has so wisely revealed the threads that speak to the American experience in particular.  Of course, every character speaks to forces within each of us, but she’s managed to make us see America too.  That’s why she’s a visionary–no one sees the big picture the way she does.”

Swedish Soprano Nine Stemme, one of the finest Wagner sopranos of our day, has received rave reviews for her Brünnhilde in the San Francisco Opera’s premiere productions of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Francesca Zambello’s new production emphasizes the role of the spiritual feminine and Brünnhilde emerges as the true hero in the four epic dramas. Photo: Cory Weaver

“And without Wagner’s even realizing it, this is so much a story about women and the way they are treated by society and how what’s unique in the feminine can save the world,” added Ellison.  “This is not superimposed by Francesca–it’s organic in the work, but it took Francesca to see that and tease it out in this remarkable way.  It’s like looking at a vast tapestry where there are millions of details and she finds one of those details that she feels is a basic.  She shines a light on it and, of course, that leads to what she’s know for–some very psychologically probing interpretations.”  

The Sonoma guild has roughly 1,500 members, 250 of whom are active participants.  “We’ll have a turn-out for this lecture because of the group’s interest in Wagner,” said Neva Turer, who’s been running the group for several years now.   The guild’s educational component is one of its most important functions.  “We host 6 annual music education lectures for our members and the community with experts selected by the San Francisco Opera,” said Turer.  “Even if people don’t make it in to the operas themselves, they will get a lot out of these wonderful talks.  We also do education programs in about 25 local schools to provide the important foundation that they can’t anymore with all the cuts they’ve had.”

It was Turer who worked with Ky Boyd to bring the very popular Met Opera: Live in HD opera broadcasts to the (former) Rialto Lakeside Cinemas.  The series, now in its 5th season, is currently held at the Jackson Theatre at Sonoma Country Day School and is a program of the Jewish Community Center of Sonoma County by arrangement with Rialto Cinemas.  “I had to plead with Ky to get them to bring this here and I promised that we’d fill the seats,” explained Turer. “Now, it’s become a phenomenon with a life of its own.”   Attendees have had their Wagner appetites whetted this season with two ambitious Robert Lepage productions in the Met’s new Ring Cycle. Das Rheingold, which opened the 2010-11 Met Opera: Live in HD season and Die Walküre, which it closed with in May.

“We have members in our group who live for Wagner and some new ones who are excited to get into it,” explained Turer.  “We are all looking forward to this SF Opera production.  Several saw Zambello’s 2008 production of Das Rheingold in San Francisco and we’re waiting to see how it all comes off.    

In San Francisco Opera’s new production of Götterdämmerung (Act 3, Scene 2), the three Rhinemaidens—Woglinde (Stacey Tappan), Wellgunde (Lauren McNeese) and Flosshilde (Renee Tatum) are dressed in filthy gowns and are surrounded by washed up plastic bottles as they mourn the lost Rhine gold and plead with Siegfried (Ian Storey) to act now and return the ring to avoid the coming crisis. Photo: Cory Weaver.

David Marsten of Calistoga is one member of Sonoma group who has seen the Ring over 20 times and has a passion and breadth of knowledge that is inspirational.   When I called him, he was just running off to St. Helena with books and recordings to share with a member who was new to the cycle.  Marsten tries to catch all the major performances and has found camaraderie in the group.  In 2009, when his granddaughter was being born, he suddenly found himself with a spare ticket to a Ring cycle in Seattle, so he persuaded another member, who he didn’t know at the time, to spontaneously travel with him to see the performance.  He also went to the Los Angeles Opera’s cycle in 2010.

“When you’ve done this for awhile, and needless to say, you have recordings of all the major performances—you find that there’s an enormous breadth of interpretation, different versions of the same opera, and that’s exciting.  It’s amazing that Götterdämmerung, for example, can be as short as 5 ½ hours and as long as 6 ½ hours and that’s without intermission, just straight musically.   You come to the realization that this breadth can encompass very slow conducting to more rapid versions—and generally it’s all valid.  And what makes it work is that concept of Gesamtkunstwerk—a unity of the arts–when it all comes together poetically.”

“Wagner was one of the few operatic conductors who really did it all,” said Marsten.  “He wrote the story and then he put the text into a very curious verse form of the archaic German ‘stabreim’ (alliteration) which had the effect of liberating him from normal rhyme patterns.  Then, he wrote the music and created all sorts of incredible effects with a huge orchestra that he could only imagine.  In fact, in the case of the brass section, he invented three completely new instruments that didn’t exist previously—the Wagner tuba, bass trumpet and bass trombone.  The most amazing thing about this was that he imagined the sound he needed to complete the tonal range and it was written on paper and lived inside of his head for 25 years until he actually heard it in the rehearsals in 1876.   He was just a remarkable visionary…. It’s not so easy, but step by step, you enter and you begin to see that beyond the genius of the music itself, it’s all a gigantic metaphor, like a Tibetan sand mandala, that operates on many levels that you can work your way around and into.”

Marsten’s recommendation: buy and read William Cord’s An Introduction to Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.  Cord is a former music professor at Sonoma State University and has written extensively and insightfully on Wagner and the Ring

Enjoying Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung with Speight Jenkins is a 2 CD set, one per opera, of the 1954 Bayreuth performance, with each playing about an hour that presents some of the major themes and leitmotifs in the Ring.

M. Owen Lee’s (University of Toronto) Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round, an excellent introduction to the Ring cycle.

Details:  Cori Ellison will speak Thursday, June 9, 2011, at 10:30 a.m. at the Kenwood Depot, 314 Warm Springs Road, Kenwood, CA.  Admission is $10 at the door.  Refreshments will be served.  For more information, contact Pat Clothier at (707) 538-2549 or Neva Turer at (707) 539-1220.     

Visit sfopera.com/calendar and select “Ring Festival Event” from the “All Events” dropdown menu to explore upcoming events by month.

June 6, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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