Geneva Anderson digs into art

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  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

Finnish Composer Olli Kortekangas’s ‘Seven Songs for Planet Earth,’ a new choral work about the environment, has its West Coast Premiere this weekend in San Francisco

Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas unveils “Seven Songs for Planet Earth,” a sweeping choral work about the environment, this weekend in San Francisco at the Calvary Presbyterian Church.

Olli Kortekangas is one of Finland’s leading composers and this weekend he will be in San Francisco for the West Coast premiere of his “Seven Songs for Planet Earth,” a vivid and compelling new choral work about the environment and man’s relationship with nature.  “Seven Songs” is centered on four poems by American agrarian poet and farmer Wendell Berry and draws on texts by Saint Francis of Assisi and texts by members of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir.  Kortekangas worked on the “green” piece for three years striving to celebrate man’s relatonship with nature as well as convey a message about our obligations for living on the planet Earth.  “Seven Songs” will be performed by the San Francisco Choral Society, the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, soloists and California Chamber Symphony, conducted by Robert Geary.  The Choral Arts Society of Washington recently gave the world premiere of this 40-minute work at the Kennedy Center to rave reviews.   The program also includes Mozart’s Grand Mass in C minor.   Stay tuned to ARThound for an interview with Olli Kortekangas about “Seven Songs.”  

One of the most popular Finnish composers of today, Kortekangas studied music theory and composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki under the direction of Einojuhani Rautavaara and Eero Hämeenniemi, and continued his studies in West Berlin with Dieter Schnebel.  His oeuvre consists of more than 100 works from solo pieces and chamber music to orchestral works and operas.  His latest opera, Daddy’s Girl, commissioned jointly by the Savonlinna Opera Festival and the Finnish Parliament, was premiered in Savonlinna in 2007, and a new production was staged by the Finnish National Opera in January 2009.

Details: Saturday, November 19, 2011 8:00pm and Sunday, November 20, 2011 4:00pm, at Calvary Presbyterian Church, 2515 Fillmore Street at Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Street Parking or California Pacific Medical Center Garage, Clay at Webster.  Tickets: $25 to $31.  (415) 392-4400

November 18, 2011 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Made in Sweden” honors Swedish tenor Jussi Björling…ARThound interviews “Jussicologist,” Bertil Bengtsson, and Swedish star tenor Mats Carlsson

Swedish tenor, Mats Carlsson performed in “Made in Sweden,” a multimedia program celebrating the centennial of the late Swedish tenor Jussi Björling on November 7, 2011. Carlsson is the first recipient of the Scandinavian Björling Society award. Photo: Geneva Anderson

In the world of opera, the late Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960) is legendary—his voice was so distinct, so infused with emotion and velvety richness, and his phrasing so artistic and capable of handling huge ranges, he was and remains THE GOLD STANDARD for lyric tenors.  Last week, Bay Area audiences were treated to “Made in Sweden,” a remarkable tribute at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music  commemorating Björling’s legacy and celebrating the centennial of his birth.  The program, which has been traveling around the country, was an enormous hit, particularly with the Bay’s Area Swedish community, who showed up in force to celebrate their beloved tenor.  For those unfamiliar Björling, it was a chance to immerse oneself in his music and all things Swedish.  Beforehand, ARThound had the chance to interview Bertil Bengtsson, co-founder of  the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Society (Jussi Björlingsällskapet i Sverige ) and one of the world’s leading “Jussicologists” and Mats Carlsson, one of Sweden’s leading lyric tenors who performed 10 songs, ranging from Swedish folk music loved by Björling to arias he immortalized.

The program also featured a heartwarming opening by Anders Björling, Jussi Björling’s son, who shared his childhood memories of his father and his personal reflections on his father’s legacy and two breathtaking solos by Swedish pianist Love Deringer who accompanied Carlson.  Deringer treated the audience to Liszt’s Sonetto del Patrarca No. 104 and Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F-minor.  Bengtsson also gave complete accounting to date of Björling’s performances at San Francisco Opera which began in 1940 when he made his debut as Rodolfo in “La Boheme” and continued with eight more roles until his last appearance in 1958.  San Francisco was also the place where the last operatic performance of his career, Gounod’s “Faust,” occurred at the Cosmopolitan Opera ensemble on April 1st, 1960. “Made in Sweden” was sponsored by the Consulate General of Sweden, in cooperation with San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  (Click here to read ARThound’s earlier coverage of “Made in Sweden.”)

Can you tell us a little about the Scandinavian Björling Society award you were given and how you came to be selected?   

Mats Carlsson:  This year, (as the recipient of the Scandinavian Björling Society award) I am giving about 50 concerts with a Jussi theme.  I always lecture about Jussi at these concerts and try to speak about him from a singer’s point of view.  Aside from being honored, I received about  US $1,500 and a crystal vase.

Growing up in Sweden and studying music at the Royal College of Music and University College of Opera in Stockholm, when did you first encounter Jussi Björling─in school?  In voice lessons?  How did that impact you?  

Mats Carlsson:  I met Jussi in my voice lessons.  By listening to him, you can learn a lot about placement, pronunciation, breathing, interpretation, etc.  Jussi sang in a healthy way.  That is very important for a singer.

Having immersed yourself in Björling, what do you find special/unique about his voice?  And is there such thing as a Nordic timbre? 

Mats Carlsson:  Nordic timbre, I would say a pure voice, very clear and with a natural vibrato. We are all born with a voice but some with more beauty than others. That is a fact.  I believe Jussi had a beautiful one.

Bertil Bengtsson, of the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Society, and leading Swedish tenor Mats Carlsson at “Made in Sweden,” a multimedia celebration of the late Swedish tenor Jussi Björling on November 7, 2011 at San Francisco’s Conservatory of Music. Photo: Geneva Anderson

You have prepared a program that includes both classic Swedish songs and opera arias (as well as two piano solos).   For those of us who are basically unfamiliar with Swedish music, can you explain why you selected these pieces from Björling’s extensive repertoire?  

Mats Carlsson:  I have chosen the songs that I like to sing and, of course, those that suit my voice.

Also, the program includes a fair amount of Italian opera—Puccini, Donizetti, Ponchielli, Verdi.  How was his voice suited to these particular composers?

Mats Carlsson: Very well.  Jussi had a lyric voice and had an easy time with the high notes. Very opened and a relaxed voice. That is really is important.

I also sense that the quality of his voice was supported/bolstered by the emotional content of those Italian operas. He’s singing the role of the tender boyfriend—very passionately, longingly—and he’s playing the role of the man who loves women, basically a good guy.  That’s got to help.

Mats Carlsson: Yes, exactly!

How popular are the Swedish songs in the program?  

Mats Carlsson: Some of them are popular but mainly with the elder generation and they are still sung, just not very often.  As for myself, I didn’t grow up with these, I was a rock and roll guy!

There’s also definitely a dark side to some of the songs.  Wilhelm Peterson-Berger’s  “When I Walk Along in the Dark Forest,” for example, is a particularly sad song in both its lyrics and mood.  This seems a huge part of the Scandinavian mind set—from Bergman to Kierkegaard and I can think of numerous other references.  What is this attributed to?  lack of daylight, cold weather?  On the other hand, Björling found the perfect expression of this.

Mats Carlsson:  Yes he did.  Despite a very successful career, you must understand that Jussi’s life was full of sadness mingled with music.  He sang 45 years out of his 49.  When he was 15, he had already sung 1000 concerts.  His childhood was to perform, not to play like other children.  He lost his both parents at young age.  All that, combined with all the pressure from being an opera star is probably why you find him to be the perfect expression of the Swedish melancholy.

The experience of immersing yourself in Björling on this concert tour must be fascinating for you.  How do you do it?  How do you keep your own personality defined while you are immersing yourself in his repertoire?  Also, in preparation, did you watch any films of him singing? 

Mats Carlsson:  I am not interpreting Björling.  I am interpreting the songs and arias. There is no reason to reproduce or try to copy someone else as I have my own expression.  The most important for me is to communicate with my audience.  That is why I am doing this and why I am a singer.  If I can make a difference in someone’s life, either by affect them directly or waking up emotions or memories that mean a lot to them, that is a great feeling.  I’d be grateful to have that impact.  No, I didn’t watch any films but I do enjoy listening to him.

What’s your personal favorite Björling song and why? 

Mats Carlsson:  I really enjoy August Söderman’s “Trollsjön” (“The Enchanted Lake”).   I think you can buy any recording actually and it will be great.  Jussi was able to maintain his remarkable voice through his whole career.

You and Björling are all over YouTube.  What do you think of this as a means of exposing people to your music?

Mats Carlsson:  YouTube is great for that.  We have to keep these Scandinavian songs alive for the future generations.

You are also going to be giving some master classes during this tour. What will you be covering?

Mats Carlsson:  I work with the students individually.  They need different kinds of help─solutions for support, breathing, how to mix head/chest voice, phrasing, legato and to sing in a relaxed way with as much beauty as possible!

Mats Carlsson with Walter Rudolph, current President, Jussi Björling Society-USA at “Made in Sweden,” November 7, 2011. Photo: Geneva Anderson

I’ve read that you are an accomplished guitar player?  When you play, what type of music do you play?

Mats Carlsson: Unfortunately, I don’t play so much anymore. I have always mixed between classical and pop/rock. Who knows? I might start practicing again!

What has the reaction of the American audience been to this program so far?  I am particularly interested in the response of those people of Swedish ancestry that you’ve met while performing here—how do they react?    

Mats Carlsson:  Standing ovations!  That is a good answer!

Tell me about the Björling foundation.  Is the Björling family actively involved?  Aside from the preservation of Björling’s legacy why else are you pursuing this?  Is it to train young singers, music education, cultural promotion?

Bertil Bengtsson, co-founder of the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Society and one of the world’s leading “Jussicologists” gave an informative lecture on Björling’s life and musical legacy at “Made in Sweden.” Photo: Geneva Anderson

Bertil Bengtsson:  The Scandanavian Jussi Björling Society was formed in 1989 by several Björling fans and I was one of the initiators.  We have members all over the world and our primary aim is to connect Jussi fans, regardless of country, in the study his life and art and to encourage the Swedish singing tradition, of which Jussi was one of the greatest exponents.  Mats Carlsson was selected for the Björling Award because he carries on the tradition of Jussi. (I am not saying that he’s the second Jussi as there will never be a second Jussi).  In Mats, we found a tenor whose art in inspired stylistically and vocally by Jussi.  Mats was one of several candidates.  The Society is always looking out for new talent, and as you rightly assume, the purpose is to assist a promising singer in his career.  When receiving this prize it’s the hope and wish of the society that the chosen singer will continue to carry on the proud Swedish singing tradition.

The Björling family is partially active in the society.  They attend meetings and show an interest in what we do.  We appreciate this.  Personally, I pursue my work with regard to Jussi because his singing has been such an inspiration to me for close to 30 years now, and through him I’ve also made an in-depth study of all great singers of the past, in particular Caruso and the singers of his era.  Through this interest, I’ve come to experience so many things, and I’ve made friends all over the world. The society’s aim is to find and promote young singers, as well as to make known and carry on our Swedish cultural heritage. With regard to what I do, well, aside from the Björling Society and serving as a consultant to the Jussi Björling Museum in Borlange, Sweden, Jussi’s hometown, I lecture and I work as a teacher (grades 6-9).  My subjects are socially-orientated: history, religion, social science and geography.  I also teach languages, primarily Spanish.

Here in the US, government money for culture has virtually dried up.  Do you get government funding or is this a privately funded foundation?  

Bertil Bengtsson:  We’re a privately funded society. This year, with regard to the centennial of Jussi’s birth, we also received some much appreciated sponsorship from private donators, including the Bernard Osher Foundationwhich has been instrumental in backing us for our centennial events.

Sweden’s Jussi Björling was one of the most beloved vocal artists of the 20th century.

In terms of the people Björling sang with, who was his favorite soprano and why?  Also conductors?

Bertil Bengtsson:  Jussi had many favourite singers. Among the sopranos he especially liked Victoria de Los Angeles and Renata Tebaldi.  As for the conductors, well, the same here, he liked several, but spoke most glowingly of his association to Arturo Toscanini.

What was Björling’s role in making Swedish music known to international audiences?  Did he play a role in bringing any previously unknown or underrepresented artists from the Scandinavian countries to mainstream attention? 
Bertil Bengtsson:  Jussi always included songs by Swedish and Scandinavian composers on his programs when in the USA: Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Hugo Alfvén, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Jean Sibelius and Ture Rangström.  Very often, his audiences were comprised of Swedish-American, so it was a way to connect with them.

What’s your personal favorite Björling song and why?  Along that line, do you have a personal favorite recording of Björling? 

Bertil Bengtsson:  I have many favorite songs and arias, but I will pick the aria “M’appari tutt’ amor” (“She Appeared to Me Full of Love”) from Friedrich von Flotow’s “Martha.”  I’m referring to the studio recording from 1957 (important!).  It’s classical bel canto at it’s very best.  As for a favorite complete opera recording, I choose the live recording of “Roméo and Juliette” from the Metropolitan Opera of February 1st, 1947, surely one of the greatest live recordings ever (regarding tenor singing).

How much of Björling’s repertoire is available digitally?  When did the re-mastering of his work start? 

Bertil Bengtsson:  A very large proportion of Jussi’s recordings are available digitally (on CD, and to a lesser extent on DVD). The transfer to digital media began early, at the beginning of the ’80s, when the CD was introduced.

What’s the opera scene like in Sweden?   Here, it’s a real struggle to get younger people interested in and attending the opera.  Is opera a strong and vibrant art form?  Is it attracting young people or is it seen more a dying art? 

Bertil Bengtsson:  I guess we’re having the same “problem” as you describe within the USA─ trying to interest younger people in attending concerts and opera.  I think that the interest for opera and classical comes later in life.  Very few kids in Sweden have their parents to educate them on these subjects.  My experience is that I’ve noticed more of an interest this year, as Jussi has been “marketed” much more.  There are more young listeners at our performances, which of course is very nice.  From time to time, I play Jussi to my students, and generally I get positive comments.  The Swedish Royal Opera is the foremost institution for the genre in Sweden.  We also have several high-class opera companies in other cities, like Gothenburg and Malmö.

If you had to pick a singer who most encapsulates the best of Björling, who would you choose and why?

Bertil Bengtsson:  The German tenor Fritz Wunderlich.  He died in 1966, at the very young age of 36.  He has the same stylistic beauty and elegance, as well as a voice of exceptional beauty.

What has the reaction of the American audience been to this program so far?  I am particularly interested in the response of those people of Swedish ancestry that you’ve met while performing here—how do they react?   

Bertil Bengtsson:  Very appreciative and warm reactions, often with standing ovations at the end.   It’s great to connect with all the Swedish-Americans who have so much to tell about Jussi. His art is something that affects people deeply, which is clearly noticeable at our performances. And San Francisco─it’s a city closely associated with Jussi, who sang there over a 40 year time span, the first time in 1920 and the last time in 1960.  It was actually the place for the last operatic performance of his career, Gounod’s “Faust,” with the Cosmopolitan Opera on April 1st, 1960.

November 17, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Opera’s “Carmen”─two mezzos, Kendall Gladen and Anita Rachvelishvili, will there be any heat?

Mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen, a former Adler Fellow, plays Carmen and Thiago Arancam is Don Jose in San Francisco Opera’s “Carmen” which runs through December 4, 2011 at War Memorial Opera House. Photo: courtesy Cory Weaver, SF Opera

Last Sunday afternoon’s opening of Bizet’s Carmen at San Francisco Opera brought high hopes with mezzo soprano Kendall Gladen as Carmen, a role the former Adler Fellow has played to great acclaim at leading opera houses.  The blasé performance was buoyed immensely by Nicola Luisotti’s passionate conducting─rousing, brisk, clear, fresh and attenuated with marvelous aplomb─but when the conductor generates more heat than the lead singer, and the two leading men─ Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam (as army corporal Don José) and Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot (as bullfighter Escamillo)─were not hitting their strides, one can only hope that mezzo number two, Anita Rachvelishvili (rotch-vell-esh-VEEL-ee), who steps in this week, will bring some fire to the stage.  

Aside from Luisotti’s marvelous conducting, the vocal highpoints were the children’s chorus and the San Francisco Opera chorus, both singing very well.  Soprano Sara Gartland, a current Adler Fellow, was touching as Micaëla, especially in her moving Act I duet with Don José though her voice at times seemed almost too powerful for the role.  Carmen’s sidekicks Susannah Biller as Frasquita and Cybele Gouverneur as Mercédès also added some pizzazz.  Wayne Tigges as Zuniga, and Timothy Mix as La Dancaïre and Daniel Montenegro as Le Remendado sang their minor roles with aplomb and proficiency.  José Maria Condemi’s restaging of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1981 production was also effective.  The handsome sets were designed in sumptuous earthen hues evoking 19th century Seville and provided an excellent backdrop for the red-hot passion that should have unfolded onstage.  Next week, another mezzo-soprano, Tbilisi-born Anita Rachvelishvili, also experienced in the role and very much looking the part, steps forward as Carmen.  Let’s hope she brings some fire to our beloved aria, “Habanera,” and makes that flower she tosses at Don José in Act I wilt, as should he.   Carmen is all about seduction–through music, voice, and dance and bodies exuding and responding to passion.  If we aren’t seduced, it’s just not Carmen.  

Details: Carmen is at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.  There are eight remaining performances:  Tuesday, 11/15/2011, at 8 p.m with Anita Rachvelishvili; Thursday, 11/17/2011, at 7:30 p.m. with Anita Rachvelishvili; Sunday, 11/20/2011, at 2 p.m. with Anita Rachvelishvili; Wednesday, 11/23/2011, at 7:30 p.m with Anita Rachvelishvili; Saturday, 11/26/2011, at 8 p.m; Tuesday, 11/29/2011, at 7:30 p.m; Friday December 2, 2011.  Tickets are $29 to $330.  Information:

November 14, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Handel’s “Xerxes” at San Francisco Opera—a hit!

Susan Graham, left, as Xerxes, and David Daniels, as Arsamenes, in San Francisco Opera's production of Handel's "Xerxes,” through November 19, 2011. Photo: Cory Weaver SF Opera.

San Francisco Opera’s premiere of George Frideric Handel’s baroque masterpiece Xerxes is the high point of the company’s fall season to date─one of those rare opera moments where music, singing, acting, and staging all come together to create magic.  Xerxes (Serse in the original Italian), dating to 1738, is an opera bursting with beautiful music and a positively twisted love plot.  The opera is very loosely based on King Xerxes I of Persia, though there is next to nothing in the libretto or music that recalls that setting.  If you haven’t seen a Baroque opera before, this production of Xerxes, which is the most light-hearted of all Handel’s operas, is delightful in all regards.  Nicholas Hytner’s production, directed by Michael Walling, originates from English National Opera 1985 production and was last seen in 2010 at the Houston Grand Opera.  

On opening day, Principal Guest Conductor/harpsichordist Patrick Summers, who last appeared at SF Opera in September conducting the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier, was exceptional as was the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.   Summers played his harpsichord for some of the recitatives along with David Kadarauch, principal cellist.  Xerxes is well-known for having been sung originally by a castrato and the role is now usually performed by a mezzo-soprano, contralto or countertenor.  Mezzo soprano Susan Graham who specializes in castrati roles was a perfect “Xerxes. ”  She was joined by countertenor David Daniels as “Arsamenes,” soprano Lisette Oropesa (Romilda), soprano Heidi Stober as “Atalanta,” contralto Sonia Prina as “Amastris,” Waynes Tigges as “Ariodates, and Michael Sumuel as “Elviro,” and they all put their own stamp on the arias and recitatives.  Susan Graham, David Daniels, Heidi Stober and Sonia Prina sang these roles in Houston and were exceptional together again in San Francisco.

The opera began with a clever and humorous touch:  at the starting overture, the characters ran out on stage, one by one, as a projected placard on the curtain behind them explained to the audience in a single sentence who they are and what their relationship in this love romp is.  King Xerxes is chasing Romidle (his servant Artiodate’s daughter) but she loves Xerxes’ brother, Arsamene, who also loves her.  Romilda’s sister, Atalanta, also wants Arasmene, in large part to have some of what her sister has.  Amastre, is engaged to Xerxes but he has betrayed her and she returns disguised as man to spy on him.  It’s romantic chaos, not to mention tests of sisterly and brotherly love and rank and loyalty as these characters plot, scheme, align with and betray each other, all hoping to end up with their true love.  In the end, Arsamene and Romilda are wed and Xerxes’ love is unrequited love.  

A scene from Act I of Nicholas Hytner's production of “Xerxes,” directed at SF Opera by Michael Walling. The sets and costumes for this production were designed by David Fielding and the opera is set in London’s elegant Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the center of fashionable London in the early 18th century. Photo: courtesy Cory Weaver, SF Opera.

The opera’s action has been transported from King Xerxes’ Persia, circa 475 B.C. to London’s Vauxhall Gardens, the center of fashionable London in the early 18th century, which was Handel’s time.  David Fielding’s set is brilliant.  Executed in tones of creme and green, it evokes both the historical period it is referencing and the sophisticated vibe of a Veranda magazine spread.  It includes many artifacts and references to the Middle East─a region considered exotic, fascinating and dangerous in 18th century London.   During this era, England was captivated by the Grand Tour and pleasure gardens like Vauxhall would have displayed all types of artifacts and botanical specimens too.  In this set, you’ll see an enormous winged lion topiary recalling the sculptures of Persepolis and a fascinating model of a famous bridge designed for King Xerxes to span the Hellespont (or Dardanelles) which allowed Xerxes and his Persian army to cross from Asia to Europe and invade Greece in 480 B.C.  What a surprise when the bridge collapses onstage, mirroring an obscure moment in ancient history that aficionados of historian Herodotus have all but memorized.  

Musically, Xerxes is known nowadays mostly for its intoxicating aria “Ombra mai fu,” which is an ode in the form of a song to a tree that Xerxes loved.  Whenever I hear this aria I envision the huge tree from Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s 2002 video installation “Tooba” (the feminine Tree of Paradise cited in the Qur’an) instead of the puny ornamental potted stick tree in this staging.  Despite the tree, the four minute aria was sung vibrantly by Graham but her voice did not project well due to her position on stage.  Throughout the opera, Graham was in top form, particularly when paired in aria with counter-tenor David Daniels. 

Lisette Oropesa (left) and Heidi Stober (right) play sisters Romilda and Atalanta and they both love Arasamenes (Xerxes’ brother). Arasamenes loves Romilda and Xerxes is also infatuated with her but he is engaged to Amastris. Photo: courtesy Cory Weaver, SF Opera.

American sopranos Heidi Stober as “Atalanta” and Lisette Oropesa, who makes her San Francisco Opera debut as “Romilda” were fabulous in both their comedic presence and their hilarious dueling recitative arias expressing their love for Arsamenes were a joy to listen to even in multiple iterations because of the richness of their coloraturas.   Special mention goes to Michael Summel who charmed all in his debut as “Elviro,” Arsamentes’ lumbering servant who dons a dress and bonnet and poses as a flower seller.  

Xerxes runs three hours and forty minutes, with two intermissions, but the time seems to fly. 

Details: Xerxes is at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.  Tickets are $29 to $330.  Information:  Click to purchase tickets on-line:
Wednesday, November 16, 7:00 pm
Saturday, November 19th, 7:30 pm

November 13, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: “I am Sindhutai Sapkal” a young Indian woman’s remarkable journey out of abuse and into a life of mothering orphans

3rd i’s 9th annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (SFISAFF), began this Wednesday, November 9, 2011, and runs through Sunday, November 12, 2011, showcasing 10 new independent films from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, USA, and the South Asian Diaspora (Read ARThound’s coverage here).  As an adoptee who continues to process my own mothering and attachment issues and a fan of Indian cinema, particularly films steeped in history, I couldn’t wait to see Anant Mahadevan’s bio-pic  I am Sindhutai Sapkal (Mee Sindhutai Sapkal)(2010) about internationally-known Maharashtrian social worker Sindhutai Sapkal’s life.  The film had its world premiere as an official selection for the 54th BFI (British Film Institute) London Film Festival (2010) and has its Bay Area premiere at SFISAFF. 

We first encounter Sindhutai Sapkal as a 60 year old woman (Jyoti Chandekar) on a plane travelling to America for her first time to attend a Marathi Literature Conference in the Bay Area where she is being honored.  The co-passenger sitting next to her is the film’s director, Anant Mahadevan, whom she soon instructs to call her “Mai” (mother).   As they fall into conversation, and little things happen in the course of the flight that trigger memories, her life story unfolds through flashbacks.  Mahadevan’s non-linear narrative works well; the shifts back and forth in time seem plausible and enforce the character’s remarkable life journey.  During the film’s second half, Sindhutai continues her story but is addressing an audience in the Bay Area.  Mahadevan has wisely made a human drama that uses this singular woman’s story of true grit and compassion to comment on some of India’s most topical and historically vexing issues:  poverty, rural education, status of women, tenant worker’s rights, homeless children and traditional family life.  The rural India of the 1950’s where young Chindi’s story transpires, the interiors of Vidarbha in eastern Mahatashtra state, is a cinematographer’s dream–a ruined paradise overtaken by poverty.  It is especially harsh for women in the time period depicted, because being born female means the cards are already stacked against them. 

Twelve-year-old Chindi (Pranjal Shetye), wide-eyed and impish, spends her days grazing buffaloes and whenever the opportunity arises, she herds them into the water, instructs them to stay put, and rushes to the nearby school, where she studies in the fourth standard (grade).  She is one of a few girls in a sea of boys.  Her father, a simple man who from th very start seems human and loving,  sees education as her ticket for a better life but her mother (Charusheela Sable) sees no point.  Before Chindi even reaches puberty, her family, urged on by her mother, arranges her marriage to a 30-year-old farmhand, Shrihari Sapkal (Upendra Limaye) whose household is slightly more prosperous but the atmosphere is treacherous for young Chindi.  She is treated like a slave by her in-laws and lives in fear and isolation.  Her one solace, her love of reading, infuriates her husband who accuses her of trying to show-off and he punishes her with beatings.  A visit from her father who tells her that he regrets her not pursuing her education is pivotal for Chindi who senses that he is the only one who truly loves her and she listens to his advice.  Tragically he dies shortly after this visit, leaving her completely alone.

Sindhutai Sapkal escapes an abusive marriage to provide for her baby girl only to give her up. Years later, she realizes her true potential and becomes a mother to all orphans. Photo: courtesy third i

The final blow comes when Chindi at age 26 (Tejaswini Pandit) is pregnant and the local landlord Damdaji Asatkar (Ganesh Yadav) tells Chindi’s husband that she had been sleeping with him.  Without hearing a word from Chindi, he throws her out of the house and she gives birth to a daughter in a cow-shed surrounded by animals.  Desperate, she leaves with her newborn for her mother’s home but her mother (Charusheela Sable) turns her away, fearing her village’s reprisal.  The sting of abandonment by her own mother leads Chindi to attempt suicide but she cannot go through with it because her daughter’s cries awaken her nurturing instincts.  It is then that her life takes a turn, she wanders from place to place and, with pure grit, she survives because she has to.  She not only scrounges enough food for her child but she begins to feed and care for street orphans.  She abandons her image of Chindi and becomes Sindhutai, a social reformer and mother to all.

The film is carried by the exceptional and fully committed performance of Tejaswini Pandit, who plays Chindi as from age 20 through her 40’s and masters a full range of emotions as she enacts the defining moments of her existance.  Everything in Chindi’s brutal life prepares her for misery but somehow, she refuses to turn over her power to others and once she makes that decision, she cannot fail.  Mahadeven manages to throw light on the spiritual foundation of ethical behavior.  Here is a woman with nothing, who has been told she is nothing,  but she understands that unconditional love is healing and empowering and seeks to give a mother’s unconditional love to all those she comes in contact with.   K. Rajkumar’s cinematography takes full advantage of the breathtaking nature and colorful depictions of village life.  

In Marathi with English subtitles.  Running time: 110 minutes.  This film is not rated.

Cast and Crew: Directed by Ananth Narayan Mahadeven; Produced by Bindiya Khanolkar and Sachin Khanolkar; written by Sanjay Pawar; Cinematography by K. Rajkumar; Sound Design by Parikshit Lalwani and Kunal Mehta; Music by Ashokpati. 

With Tejaswini Pandit as Sindhu at ages 23-40; Jyoti Chandekar as Sindhutai at age 60; Upendra Limaye as Srihari Sapkal; Neena Kulkarni as Bai, who mistakes Sindhu for her own daughter; Pranjal Shetye as Chindi at age 12 years and Chatushila Sable as Chindi’s mother.

I am Sindhutai Sapkal screens Saturday, November 12, 2011 at 2:30 p.m. at the Castro Theatre.  The film will be followed by a panel discussion. 

Part of  The 9th annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (SFISAFF), sponsored by 3rd i.   Tickets: $10 to $11.  For a full description of SFISAFF programming and schedule, click here.

November 12, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Today is Veterans Day: here’s a free film program that’s sure to inform and intrigue the Vet in your life

Escuadrón 201 or “Aztec Eagles” pilots, part of the Mexican Air Force, fought alongside the United States forces during World War II and were the only military unit in the history of Mexico to engage in combat outside of its national borders. Here are the Aztec Eagles prior to flying a combat mission in the Philippines. The Mexican aircrews used standard issue U.S. flight uniforms and equipment. Photo: courtesy U.S. Air Force

Special Free Film Program at Lincoln Theatre, in Yountville, in honor of Veteran’s Day, sponsored by the Napa Valley Film Festival, Friday, November 11, 2011 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The Forgotten Eagles (Las Águilas Olvidadas), (70 minute, documentary feature, 2006) tells the story of the legendary “Aztec Eagles” of the Mexican Expeditionary Air Force.   Arriving in San Francisco on Thursday from Mexico City to participate in the film screening will be two members of Aztec Eagles Escuadrón 201: Capt. Fernando Nava Musa and Capt. Manuel Cervantes Ramos who flew with the American 58th Fighter Group on Luzon in 1945.

 The Aztec Eagles were an elite unit of young volunteer Mexican fighter pilots who flew combat missions in support of American and Filipino ground forces in the struggle to free Luzon from the Japanese occupation. They were decorated by the United States, Mexico and the Republic of the Philippines for valor and sacrifice in the cause of freedom. They received the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, the Philippine Liberation Medal and, recently, the Philippine Legion of Honor, personally bestowed by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The film was directed and produced by Mexican-American director/producer Victor Hugo Mancilla; producers Rodger and Felicity Marrs and Jerry Smolinsky. It is introduced and narrated by noted Latino actor Edward James Olmos. It was filmed over a five-year period in Mexico, the Philippines and the United States. Mancilla, a Mexican American filmmaker, has worked on productions in Latin America, Europe and the Far East. He has had extensive experience as an author, producer, director and journalist and is considered by many to be a rising star in the film industry.

The Forgotten Eagles was the brainchild of the late Roger Marrs, a Los Angeles attorney and WWII veteran who provided the initial funding and impetus for the production.

“When I was a child I recall my father saying that the Aztec Eagles were great heroes, so I was honored when I was asked to make a film about them…this is an inspiring, compelling story of personal courage and sacrifice, and of two allied nations – one a former sister colony – who helped the Philippines in a time of need.” said Mancilla.

Journey Home:  A 22 minute short that honors the sacrifice of veterans and their families, Journey Home (US, 2010), was written, directed by and also stars Christopher Loverro.  When the main character’s best friend is killed in an ambush in Iraq, he volunteers to return home to notify his wife.  Journey Home explores the themes of sacrifice, selfless duty, the loss of a comrade and the impact of loss on the families of those who were lost.

Petaluma Veterans Day Parade and Flyover: Friday November 11, 2011, 1pm, Walnut Park, Petaluma, FREE

If you like aircrafts, parades, and an airshow, you’ll love the Petaluma Veteran’s Day Parade and Flyover, in beautiful downtown Petaluma. Vintage war birds and sleek air racers fly-in to take part in what has been called the “largest Veterans Day Parade north of the Golden Gate.” The Petaluma Veterans Day Parade and Flyover features war planes that fly in formation over Historic Downtown Petaluma. The parade winds its way north from its starting point at Walnut Park at “D” Street and finishes back at Walnut Park.

November 11, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bill Cain’s “How to Write a New Book for the Bible,” caring, coping and loving one’s way through the death of an elderly parent, at Berkeley Rep through November 20, 2011

Written by Bill Cain; Directed by Kent Nicholson; Designed by Scott Bradley (sets); Costumes by Callie Floor; lighting by Alexander V. Nichols; sound by Matt Starritt

Starring Aaron Blakely (Paul), Linda Gehringer (Mary), Leo Marks (Pete), and Tyler Pierce (Bill)

Details:  How to Write a New Book for the Bible closes November 20, 2011.  The Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Thrust Stage is located at 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Tickets and Info: (510) 647-2949,

November 10, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Cirque du Soleil’s new “Totem,” Mankind’s Evolution Unfolds…Aided by Crystal Man and a Giant Turtle

The Crystal Man is “Totem’s” connective tissue. He comes from space to spark life on Earth, animating the turtle’s skeleton early in the show, and he closes the show by diving into a lagoon. His costume is comprised of thousands of reflective crystals and when in motion, he becomes a spinning ball of light. Photo: courtesy Cirque du Soleil

With “Totem,” Robert Lepage and Cirque du Soleil again prove they are a match made in heaven.  Lepage’s endless imagination and Cirque’s deep pockets have led to a stunning new production that opened in San Francisco last Friday under the Grand Chapiteau (Big Top) in Cirque’s Village on Wheels near AT&T Park.  Even if you’ve seen a Cirque production lately, this is a show worth seeing with lots that’s new, especially in Lepage’s signature area of technical wizardry.  Inspired by many founding myths, “Totem” loosely traces the human evolutionary journey through a series of mind-blowing specially choreographed acrobatic acts performed by elite athletes in gorgeous costumes.  A backdrop of stunning video projections bring a new dimension to the stage. “Totem,” explains Lepage, “is inspired by the foundation narratives of the first peoples and explores the birth and evolution of the world, the relentless curiosity of human beings and their constant desire to excel.  The word suggests that human beings carry in their bodies the full potential of all living beings, even the Thunderbird’s desire to fly to the top of the Totem.”

“Totem” is Lepage’s second Cirque du Soleil show.  It follows the immensely successful jaw-dropping “,” which took a whopping $165 million to launch and has been running in an enormous 1,951-seat theatre at the MGM Grand since late 2004.  “KÀ” traces the epic journey of Imperial twins who embark on an adventurous journey to fulfill their destinies and is the most technologically sophisticated show I have ever seen.  It features a giant rectangular 150 ton stage that floats and rotates in the air and can pivot from horizontal to vertical and transform into several landscapes, making things like battle scenes come alive as actors scale and rappel a vertical battlefield.  

A giant turtle at centre stage represents the origins of life on earth. Beneath its shell is an effervescent community of amphibians and fish which burst into play as artists embodying frogs launch themselves into the air and Crystal man, tucked tightly into a ball, descends from space to spark life on Earth. Photo: courtesy Cirque du Soleil

For San Francisco audiences, “Totem” also falls right on the heels of Lepage’s highly publicized and controversial production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera where some of his ingenious and expensive technology failed to perform as expected.  In the Ring’s first installment, Das Rheingold (September, 2010), the video technology, which was supposed to project imagery on 24 planks operated by a hydraulic system—the 45 ton “Valhalla machine”–failed during the climactic scene in which the Gods walk across a rainbow into Valhalla. That problem was resolved but others emerged in Die Walküre (April, 2011), the second installment, including leading ladies Deborah Voight and Stephanie Blythe both slipping on the planks of the $16 million machinery. “Totem” is not as spectacular as “KÀ,” nor does it carry the weight of Valhalla, but it makes for a wonderfully entertaining afternoon or evening and it is perfect for kids.

 Where “Totem” really excels is in the use of video projection and special effects, all masterminded by Pedro Pires, Image Content designer, in conjunction with Set and Props designer Carl Fillion and Lighting Designer Etienne Boucher.  In “Totem,” the projection screen is a virtual marsh at the rear of the stage.  The images projected are all drawn from nature and Pires shot most of them himself on travels to Iceland, Hawaii and Guatemala.  Throughout the show, these evolve in long mixes or morph to create an ever-changing tableau of gorgeous eye-popping color.  Way way cool factor—infra-red tracking cameras positioned above the stage and around the marsh detect movement and produce kinetic effects that interact with the artists’ movements in real time.  The results are poetic—water flows across beaches, molten lava streams, projected swimmers swim across the stage while real time swimmers emerge at the side.  As performers wade across projected water, projected ripples swell out from under their feet.  

“Totem” is filled with feats of dazzling artistry. Five unicyclists juggle metal bowls in an astounding display of agility, balance, synchronized control and physical grace, tossing the bowls with their feet─sometimes over their shoulders─and catching them on their heads without using their hands. Each unicyclst has their own look but together they form an integrated unit. Photo: courtesy Cirque du Soleil

 Kym Barrett’s creative costumes have ingenious attention to detail and look fabulous on these well-toned athletes.  Barrett explained in the press kit that, in brainstorming with Lepage, the idea was to create a real world that evolved into a fantastical world─from a documentary style to fantasy, keeping the human body and its possible transformations in mind at all times.  Her designs emphasize themes of evolution, nature itself and

In “Totem,” an American Indian performs a narrative dance using hoops to evoke various animals and images in a ritual that symbolizes the endless circle of life. The hoop dancing and roller skating in “Totem” are firsts for Cirque du Soleil. Photo: courtesy Cirque du Soleil

changes of the seasons, traditional cultural and tribal designs and sophisticated surface treatment of fabric to achieve costumes that constantly interact with and adapt to the show’s ever-changing lighting. 

Most striking is Crystal man—a recurring character—who represents the life force. He descends from space and sparks life early in the show and dives into a lagoon at the close.  His dazzling costume is covered with about 4,500 crystals and reflective mirrors and when he twirls and drops down from the sky, he glistens like a falling star.  The ten performers in the Russian bars act also stand out in their vibrant op art unitards—each is different but collectively these costumes have a harlequin meets the lost civilizations of South America vibe.  Humans, scaly fishes, clowns, a toreador, cosmonauts—whatever the costume, Barrett has designed it to accentuate the bodies and all the possible movements of these outstanding performers.

For all its wizardry and outright coolness and camp, “Totem” doesn’t really present any clear-cut thesis or timeline about where mankind has come from or is going—the approach was to throw in everything and anything and mix it all up in a series of vignettes with great stunts.  It’s an environment where Planet of the Apes chimps, Darwinesque explorers, Native Americans, clowns, businessmen, Cosmonauts, and Bollywood players all meet up.  At the end of it all, my favorite act was a male female trapeze duo cleverly enacting a romance─from an innocent game of seduction to gradually intertwined bodies enthralled in a vertical dance of unusual movements and lifts. 

Trapeze artists Louis-David Simoneau and Rosalie Ducharme play a sexy game of in-air seduction, eventually intertwining their bodies in a light-hearted vertical dance. Photo: courtesy Cirque du Soleil


Cirque Facts: The cast of “Totem” comprises 51 artists from 17 countries.

The “Totem” hybrid show is the first Cirque du Soleil show to be created in such a way that it can be adapted to the reality of arenas and other venues from the very outset.

As part of the celebration festivities surrounding the 400th anniversary of Quebec City in 2008, Robert Lepage created Le Moulin á images─the largest architectural projection ever produced─on the walls of the Bunge, a massive grain silo.

In January 2012, “Totem” will travel to London to the Royal Albert Hall. 

Details:  Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem” takes place under the Grand Chapiteau (Big Top), AT&T Park, Parking Lot A, 74 Mission Rock Street, San Francisco.  Tuesdays and-Wednesdays 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and 1 p.m.; Sundays 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.  Closes: December 11, 2011.
Tickets: $55 to $360   Information and to purchase tickets:

November 10, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment