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Horse Sense—ARThound talks with San Francisco Opera’s Daniel Knapp about “Patches,” the equine star of “The Trojans,” at War Memorial Opera House through July 1, 2015

In San Francisco, they call just him “Patches.”  He’s the 23 foot tall Trojan horse in Berlioz’s epic opera, “The Trojans,” which opens San Francisco Opera’s summer 2015 season.  The horse was designed by famed British designer Es Devlin and built in the UK for the 2012 Royal Opera House co-production, directed by David McVicar.  The horse is constructed with steel and custom-pressed fiberglass appliques, which are flame resistant and appear like various old scrap metals.  There are 2 carpenters and 3 acrobats inside the horse moving and manipulating it and it travels on a special track that was mounted on the reinforced War Memorial Opera House stage.  Image from Act I of the 2012 Royal Opera production, ©Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House

In San Francisco, they call just him “Patches.” He’s the 23 foot tall Trojan horse in Berlioz’s epic opera, “The Trojans,” which opens San Francisco Opera’s summer 2015 season. The horse was designed by famed British designer Es Devlin and built in the UK for the 2012 Royal Opera House co-production, directed by David McVicar. Patches is constructed with steel and custom-pressed fiberglass appliques, which are flame resistant and appear like various old scrap metals. There are 2 carpenters and 3 acrobats inside the horse moving and manipulating it and it travels on a special track that was mounted on the reinforced War Memorial Opera House stage. Image from Act I of the 2012 Royal Opera production, ©Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House

Horses are mythic.  There’s none more colossal or more steeped in legend than the Trojan horse, a prize so glorious that it could not be left standing outside Troy’s gates but once brought inside, would destroy all those in power. As San Francisco Opera opens its summer season with six performances of Berlioz’s glorious musical epic, The Trojans, I spoke with David Knapp, the company’s new production manager, about “Patches,” its equine star. The 23-foot-tall Trojan horse, which is on stage for most of the 5+ hour opera, has been nicknamed “Patches” by SFO because it’s literally pieced together from scraps and functions much like a mechanized puppet, with carpenters and acrobats inside it manipulating it.  Back after a 47 year hiatus, it took over a decade of planning to bring the $6 million production to San Francisco Opera (SFO).  It’s staged by Sir David McVicar, the acclaimed Scottish director, and is a coproduction of SFO, Royal Opera House, Teatro alla Scala, and Vienna State Opera.  Since the opera opened to a sold-out house on June 6, it has drawn universal praise from critics and audience alike.  Long before the opera opened though, Patches was a big draw with SFO staff and special visitors who came back stage in droves to pose for photos with the humongous but intricately constructed artwork.  Here is my conversation with Knapp about this horse—

What’s so special about this giant horse that has travelled here from Europe.

Daniel Knapp:  It’s magnificent—7 meters (approximately 23 feet) tall and is not only a sculpture that is scenic art but it’s also a puppet to a certain extent.  It’s constructed of steel and fiberglass and doesn’t weigh too much because it’s mainly fiberglass.  It has a gaf piston in it which allows for the rocking of the head and basic movements and that’s very exciting.  When it’s first introduced, you get the impression that it’s very tall, frightening.  You only see the upper part of the head and wonder where’s it coming from and what does the whole thing look like and is it really a horse?  There are 2 carpenters and 3 acrobats inside, moving and manipulating the horse and they’ve been here practicing since the rehearsal period began.

Trojan Horse in a scene from

Trojan Horse in a scene from “The Trojans,” at SFO through July 1. Sets designed by Es Devlin. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Who gets credit for artistic design of the horse?

Daniel Knapp:  It’s Es Devlin, a British designer who’s involved with all the top rock and roll shows—U2 tour, Take That tours, Miley Cyrus—and with opera and theatre.   She designed the closing ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic Games.  She runs an office with a multitude of assistants and she has just opened an office in Brazil.  The conception for the horse came from the workshops of the Royal Opera House and she worked with them to refine it, from the model to the life-scale sculpture we call “Patches” because it’s patched together.

Has Devlin created any other animals that we might recognize?

Daniel Knapp:  She’s done all the set and scenic design on this opera but I’m not aware that’s she done another horse.  For one of the last Take That tours, she did a big man, that was more than 40 feet tall, that stood up over the course of the concert, going from crouching to standing in the middle of the audience.  (Take That is a leading British pop group that formed in 1990 and currently consists of musicians Gary Barlow, Howard Donald and Mark Owen)

(Es Devlin designed the giant walking elephant for Take That’s Circus Live Tour 2009.  The 26 foot tall elephant had translucent skin made light-weight chain mail and was constructed by Mark Mason of Asylum Models.  It was operated by 13 puppeteers inside the skins and another four at ground level who controlled the head, trunk and legs.  It had rods that moved the ears and its tail was an inverted acrobat wearing a helmet with hair extensions.  (To read about and see the elephant, click here.)

The version of “The Trojans” directed by David McVicar and currently at San Francisco Opera, is set at the time of its composition, in the 1850s, Second Empire France.  All the parts affixed to the Trojan horse look like period tools and scrap metal bits but are custom-pressed fiberglass appliques that are flame resistant and lightweight.  Image from Act I of theRoyal Opera production, directed by David McVicar with set designs by Es Devlin, costume designs by Moritz Junge and lighting design by Wolfgang Göbbel, performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 22 June 2012. ©Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House

An overwrought Cassandra realizes that the Trojan horse will be the end of Troy in a scene from Act I of the Royal Opera production, directed by David McVicar with set designs by Es Devlin, costume designs by Moritz Junge and lighting design by Wolfgang Göbbel, performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 22 June 2012. The version of “The Trojans” directed by David McVicar and currently at San Francisco Opera, is set at the time of the opera’s composition, in the 1850s, Second Empire France. All the parts affixed to the Trojan horse look like period tools and scrap metal bits but are custom-pressed fiberglass appliques that are flame resistant and lightweight. Image: ©Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House

This version of Troyens is set, more or less, at the time of its composition, in the 1850s, Second Empire France.  How did that influence the actual conception for the horse that looks like a machine horse? 

Daniel Knapp:  Everything that you will see that is part of the horse could have been made at that time or could predate that time.  The horse is pieced together from what appear to be rifles, screwdrivers, all sorts of tools and scrap materials like keys…it’s actually mostly fiberglass, a piecemeal puzzle that once put together appears as this great horse.

Carbon footprint aside, what’s entailed in getting something of this magnitude to San Francisco?  And then assembling it?

Daniel Knapp:  We always use steam ship companies because air is too expensive.  It was shipped in 16 containers (40 foot high cube containers).  Your entire household could fit in 1 of these containers, or, if you’ve got an extensive household you might need 1.5 containers.  It all arrived in pieces in a very organized matchbox system.  A team form the Royal Opera House came over to help with the assembly because they are the originators.  Actually, our staff went to La Scala last year and watched this process and got a feel for what it takes to put on this production.  With this run, we did all of that assembly in 3.5 days; in Milan, they weren’t as quick as we were.  We didn’t have the time or money to allow for more time to do it.

How many scenes does Patches appear in?

Daniel Knapp:  He appears in a multitude of scenes but I’m not going to give away any of the excitement.  He’s on stage for a fair while and, when he’s not hiding in the back, sometimes he’s looming in the background and sometimes he’s hidden by a blackout curtain.

How mobile is the horse and how does it move around the stage? I heard this entails acrobats and carpenters.

Daniel Knapp:  Yes, that’s exactly what it takes.  We have few carpenters and acrobats around and in it, moving it.  It’s on wheels, on a huge A stand.  If you think of a child’s swing on the playground and think of it for giants, that’s what the internal structure of the horse is.  It moves around on wheels that are on tracks just like a train.   The tracks are a part of the original design and actually travel with the production.  We had to cover our stage floor with another floor and that entailed adding about 1 inch to our stage to ensure that the weight is distributed evenly so that we don’t damage our rather old stage floor.  We also had to re-enforce some of the stage structure underneath to make sure that we don’t suddenly fall in the basement.  The horse might be relatively light but the trappings—the drum trucks, the big scenery elements for Troy and Carthage—all together, those weigh 32 tons.

Anything tricky about coordinating the movement of the horse to the music and the singers?  Do any of the lead singers have any direct interaction with the horse?

Daniel Knapp:  As we know from the Trojan story, the horse is sort of a separate entity.  The lead singers certainly react to it but they don’t interact with it directly.  The horse’s movement on stage is cued like everything else—people execute what they have rehearsed and there’s nothing complicated about that.  These are professionals who are used to working to cues from the stage manager, such as “horse go upstage.”   We do this in rehearsal and there’s always a review afterwards to make sure that we have hit our marks.  Sometimes, the director might want to change the speed but it’s not complicated.  There’s one boss and that’s the director but on stage, it’s the stage manager who calls out when and where.

This is a fiery horse—how is the fire created and will there be accompanying liquid nitrogen and steam, like in the Ring? 

Daniel Knapp:  The horse itself doesn’t breathe fire but its mane burns, which is a very impressive sight.  In the original version, in London, they had the horse smoke but due to restrictions over here, the director distanced himself from that when he did the revival in Milan.   That’s what I said about cooking the meal for the third or fourth time, you’ve left out the ginger but added something else.  Over here, steam and liquid nitrogen are our only possibilities to create atmosphere due to the CVA restrictions we work under as collaborating artists.

Do you have much freedom in interpretation of this opera and how the horse is used here in San Francisco?

Daniel Knapp:  It’s like your last cooking experience when you invite people over for dinner and you remember that, three years ago, you did this fantastic meal and you want to do the same meal again.  Will do it exactly the same way?  No—that’s exactly the same situation with a revival or co-production.  We are not the conceivers, David McVicar or Ses Devlin, we are realizing their artistic vision. We had Leah Hausman, the co-director from London, here, who is a dance and movement director and coach, and other of McVicar’s associates here.  We could never do this just ourselves because then it’s not in the original spirit.  People in the house who were part of the original creation production do feel differently than people who have just joined a few years later and we needed them.

A very rare photo of the Trojan horse in the Port at Carthage scene from San Francisco Opera’s first production of “The Trojans” in 1966.  Courtesy: SFO

A very rare photo of the Trojan horse in the Port at Carthage scene from San Francisco Opera’s first production of “The Trojans” in 1966. Courtesy: SFO

How appropriate is the War Memorial Opera House stage for a horse of this weight and magnitude?  Isn’t SF much smaller than the Royal Opera House or La Scala?

Daniel Knapp:  It’s not only the horse but it’s also the enormous drum trucks which support Carthage and Troy. Carthage is an entire terracotta kingdom and you’ll be blown away by it, as much as by the horse.  You’ve also got the chorus, the singers, dancers, acrobats—over 130 on stage.

Stage wise, we are a little smaller but, auditorium wise, we are bigger than all the European houses.  We compare ourselves to the size of Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki, which has the biggest modern stage (together with the Opéra Bastille in Paris) in Europe.  Here in the US, you have this curiosum or wonderful paradox because sometimes there are stages like ours that originally did not have a backstage or a real up stage storage area but only a stage area.  Actually, up until 45 years ago, all our sets were built right on stage.  Our auditorium is huge compared to all the European houses.  With 3,146 seats, we are bigger than all other houses but now our stage is smaller, so over the next 20 years there will probably be some developments.

Any funny stories related to Patches so far?

Daniel Knapp:  Just people excited to have their picture taken with Patches.  It’s like we are a part of Disney World here; even the staff is coming down to the stage to have their picture taken.

What’s your favorite scene in Trojans?

Daniel Knapp:  It’s the whole opera, the whole thing, because once it’s done because it’s such a complex and huge show that I can’t focus on one thing but rather all the contributing moments.

Daniel Knapp is SF Opera’s new production manager and has been in San Francisco on the job for the past four months.  The enthusiastic German hit the ground flying, taking on Berlioz’s mammoth, “The Trojans,” which opened SFO’s summer season on June 6 and Marco Tutino’s “Two Women,” which had its world premiere on June 13, 2015.  Knapp is responsible for all aspects of SFO’s physical productions which have an annual operating budget of $22 million.  For the past six years, he was the artistic production director and head of company management for Austria’s prestigious Bregenz Festival, where he served as house producer for both the Opera on the Lake Floating Stage and Bregenz Festival House.  He told ARThound that he can’t wait to explore Northern California with his family who will join him here this summer.  Photo: courtesy SFO

Daniel Knapp is SF Opera’s new production manager and has been in San Francisco on the job for the past four months. The enthusiastic German hit the ground flying, taking on Berlioz’s mammoth, “The Trojans,” which opened SFO’s summer season on June 6 and Marco Tutino’s “Two Women,” which had its world premiere on June 13, 2015. Knapp is responsible for all aspects of SFO’s physical productions which have an annual operating budget of $22 million. For the past six years, he was the artistic production director and head of company management for Austria’s prestigious Bregenz Festival, where he served as house producer for both the Opera on the Lake Floating Stage and Bregenz Festival House. He told ARThound that he can’t wait to explore Northern California with his family who will join him here this summer. Photo: courtesy SFO

How are adjusting to your new position here?  What are your responsibilities?

Daniel Knapp:  I’m adjusting great; it’s full of surprises in a good and interesting way.  The whole scope of coming to a new country and a new working environment offers a multitude of perspectives.  It’s been very welcoming so far and very intense, so it feels a lot more like I’ve been here a year and half rather than just a few months.

I’m responsible for overseeing all the productions at SFO— all the scenic elements, costume shops, sound and technical departments and all the labor that’s involved, which is all the talent on the stage plus the electricians and all the support staff…so, it’s quite a scope.  I’ve met a lot of people who have a certain sense of responsibility for this company, who identify with it and who have been here much longer than me.  They’ve introduced me to the company culture and what necessary changes could be made and how we can achieve those as a team over the next 3, 5, 15, or however many, years to stay up with the world class opera companies.

With “Troyens” up first, followed by the world premiere of “Two Women,” it’s kind of a trial by fire for you.  What’s the most demanding part of your job right now? 

Daniel Knapp:  I’m a little in both fire and water trials right now.   I’m from a country that has plenty of drinking water and lakes on our doorstep and coming to Northern CA, and being in the middle of a drought, is also a big trial.  To be able to make use of all the technology and intellectual capital that surrounds us here and to engage the techies is another exciting challenge for our opera company.  With respect to the work load, at the Bregenzer Festival in Austria, I was always overseeing two productions; last summer it was three productions, one of which was The Magic Flute on the floating stage.  I was also very involved with the pre-production of Turandot that will premiere on July 22.  So that’s heavy experience with large-scale productions on the lake, in the open air, and it’s a bit of a different scale.  We had many international co-productions as well with companies in Europe and the US, so I am quite used to doing multiple wedding dances at the same time.  That was exciting but the requirements of a concentrated festival versus a company that is doing performances year-round are different.  What I love here is that we have an interwoven schedule so that the three monumental productions— The Trojans, the world premiere of Two Woman and the revival of the classic, Figaro, in an adapted version, Figaro, will all be able to fit on stage.   That was a lot to step into.

How did you prepare for this opera?  Did you do extensive reading or do you mainly execute and manage?

Daniel Knapp:  My learning process is the interaction with the artists, finding out what their real concerns are and looking behind the scenes.  I’m not the guy who tries to be more prepared than the director and I don’t do the full research of the director or designers.  However, when I have questions about why something is set-up a certain way and why something can’t be done, I get very involved.  I always question creative teams about why they would want to emphasize something or not.  I need to understand where they are coming from so that we can get the most from their art on stage.  The great thing about my job is that, if I do it correctly, you don’t notice that I am there.

What are you most looking forward to in the coming fall season?

Daniel Knapp:  Meistersinger of course! That’s because it’s another one of those monster shows with great music, a great designer, great artists…so that’s very nice.  I’m also excited about Usher (Fall of the House of Usher) which is so theatrical.  The great thing is that my former boss, David Pountney,  is the director of that show, so I get to meet him under different circumstances, to collaborate and to actually tell him “no.”

Details:  There are three remaining performance of The TrojansSaturday, June 20, 2105, 6PM; Thursday, June 25, 6PM and Wednesday, July 1, 6PM.  Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.  The June 25th and July 1st performance feature OperavVision, HD video projection screens in the Balcony level.   For information about the SFO’s Summer 2015 Season, click here.

June 19, 2015 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Opera honors Soprano Patricia Racette with the San Francisco Opera Medal, commemorating 25 years and 32 roles, SFO’s highest award

Patricia Racette and David Gockley San Francisco Opera General Director on Sunday, September 21, 2014 at War Memorial Opera House.  After the final performance of “Susannah,” Racette was presented with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the Company’s highest distinction, for her 25 years of amazing performances with the company. Photo: Scott Wall

Patricia Racette and David Gockley San Francisco Opera General Director on Sunday, September 21, 2014 at War Memorial Opera House. After the final performance of “Susannah,” Racette was presented with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the Company’s highest distinction, for her 25 years of amazing performances with the company. Photo: Scott Wall

Those of us who attended the final performance of San Francisco Opera’s new production of Carlise Floyd’s “Susannah” this afternoon were in for a treat.  Right after extended rounds of applause for soprano Patricia Racette, who delivered a profound Susannah, and cheers for her wonderful supporting cast, a special ceremony took place awarding Racette with the San Francisco Opera Medal.  The award was established in 1970 by former General Director Kurt Herbert Adler and is the highest honor the Company bestows in recognition of outstanding achievement by an artistic professional.

How fitting it is that Racette, who celebrates 25 years and 32 roles with SFO this year, was given this award now.  Her repertoire and success over the past year with the company has been so vast it is dizzying.  She just sang the title role of “Susannah” to rave reviews.  This summer, she sang Cio Cio San in the splendid “Madame Butterfly” and gave a stand-out performance as the cabaret singer, Julie La Verne, in Francesca Zambello’s opulent “Show Boat,” SFO’s other stand-out summer of 2014 hit.  There, her delightful renditions of Jerome Kern’s ballads “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill,”along with her wonderful acting, were central to the production.  Last season, at the very last minute, she stepped up to assume the title role in Tobias Picker’s “Dolores Claiborne” while simultaneously singing the dual roles of Marguerite and Elena in Arrigo Boito’s “Mephistopheles.” That’s just the past year!  Her career with the company is nothing short of remarkable.

The New Hampshire-born soprano first joined SFO’s Merola Program where she debuted her now acclaimed portrayal of Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San. Later, as an Alder Fellow with the company, she covered Pilar Lorengar in “Falstaff.” Over the years, she has sung roles with the company as varied musically and dramatically as Luisa Miller and Jenůfa, Marguerite, and Dolores Claiborne. The artistry and fervor Racette brings to the stage is limitless, whether in vocal mastery, stylistic range, or emotional interpretation. After “Susannah,” Racette is singing the title role in “Salome” at San Antonio Opera (Jan 2015); Marie Antionette in The Ghosts of Versailles at Los Angeles Opera (Feb-March 2015) and Nedda in “Pagliacci” (April-May 2015) at the Met.  Racette, who is married to mezzo Beth Clayton, is also proud to call San Francisco home, and when she isn’t on tour, she loves walking with her poodle, Sappho, on the beach.

Racette was given the award by SFO’s General Director David Gockley who said Racette was “family” and went on to list her numerous accomplishments over the years.   Present on stage were members of the cast of “Susannah.” In accepting the award Racette graciously thanked all those support persons associated with SFO who have contributed to the quality of her performances over the years and the special San Francisco audience members, many of whom have “been there since the very beginning.”

Patricia Racette (blue dress) as Susannah, square-dancing at a church social in backwoods Tennessee in a new San Francisco Opera production of Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah."  edited Corey Weaver photo.

Patricia Racette (blue dress) as Susannah, square-dancing at a church social in backwoods Tennessee in a new San Francisco Opera production of Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah.” edited Corey Weaver photo.

The first SFO Medal laureate was soprano Dorothy Kirsten. While many vocalists (such as Leontyne Price in 1977, Joan Sutherland in 1984, Plácido Domingo in 1994, and Samuel Ramey (2003) have been so honored, other laureates have included stage director John Copley (2010), conductor Donald Runnicles (2009), chorus director Ian Robertson 2012 and scenic artist Jay Kotcher in 2013.

San Francisco Opera Medal Recipients
1970 – Dorothy Kirsten
1972 – Jess Thomas
1973 – Paul Hager (house stage director)
1974 – Colin Harvey (chorister and chorus librarian)
1975 – Otto Guth
Alexander Fried (San Francisco Examiner music critic)
1976 – Leonie Rysanek
1977 – Leontyne Price
1978 – Kurt Herbert Adler
1980 – Geraint Evans
1981 – Matthew Farruggio (production supervisor and house stage director)
Birgit Nilsson
1982 – Regina Resnik
1984 – Joan Sutherland
1985 – Thomas Stewart
1987 – Régine Crespin
1988 – Philip Eisenberg (music staff)
1989 – Pilar Lorengar
Bidú Sayao
1990 – Janis Martin
Marilyn Horne
1991 – Licia Albanese
1993 – Walter Mahoney (costume shop manager)
1994 – Zaven Melikian (concertmaster)
Michael Kane (master carpenter)
Plácido Domingo
1995 – Charles Mackerras
1997 – Frederica von Stade
1998 – Irene Dalis
2001 – Lotfi Mansouri
James Morris
2003 – Samuel Ramey
2004 – Joe Harris (dresser)
2005 – Pamela Rosenberg
2008 – Clifford (Kip) Cranna (director of music administration)
Ruth Ann Swenson
2009 – Donald Runnicles
2010 – John Copley (stage director)
2012 – Ian Robertson (chorus director)

2013–Jay Kotcher (scenic artist)

Details: Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” opens Saturday, October 4, 2014 and there are 7 performances in the run. Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330. Handel’s “Partenope” opens Wednesday, October 15, 2014 with acclaimed Danielle de Niese in the title role and runs for 6 performances. Purchase tickets here. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.

For more information on San Francisco Opera and all upcoming performances, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx

September 21, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bellini’s glorious “Norma” opens San Francisco Opera’s 92nd season

Radiant soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014.  Last fall, Radvanovsky triumphed as Norma at the Metropolitan Opera and, after her SFO performance, will go on to sing the role at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera.  Image: @Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Radiant soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014. Last fall, Radvanovsky triumphed as Norma at the Metropolitan Opera and, after her SFO performance, will go on to sing the role at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera. “Norma” marks Radvanovsky’s second SFO appearance. She debuted as Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in 2009, which was also Conductor Nicola Luisotti’s debut as SFO Music Director. Image: @Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Friday evening’s “Norma,” San Francisco Opera’s season opener, with soprano Sandra Radvanovsky  as Norma, was an evening of firsts—my first time attending on SFO’s big gala night and my first live performance of  Bellini’s “Norma.”   And, I was lucky enough to score tickets in the 5th row, close enough to see without even my glasses, also a first.   I had prepped most of the week with YouTube recordings of the great Normas—Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland—and was excited to see how Radvanovsky, rumored to stand in their lauded company, would measure up. Norma is a Druid high princess in Roman-occupied Gaul who has secretly been sleeping with the enemy— a Roman procounsel, Pollione, and has two illegitimate children as a result.  Pollione has grown tired of Norma and now has his eyes set on Adalgisa, a young Druid priestess whom Norma regards as a friend. The opera is considered to be the gold-standard of early 19th century bel canto Italian opera.

SFO’s new production is conceived and staged by Kevin Newbury, with sets by David Korins and costumes by Jessica Jahn.  Newbury debuted at SFO in 2103 directing the world premiere flop, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. (ARThound wrote about the gorgeous Michael Schwab poster that accompanied the opera.)  Billed as being “rooted in the stone age with a contemporary slant,” the production is inspired by contemporary research on the archaeology and mythology of the Druid cultures of Roman-occupied ancient Gaul.  With the SFO’s always effervescent Music Director, Nicola Luisotti, in the pit, the orchestra delivered a luminous performance with outstanding woodwind solos.

The British music critic, Andrew Porter, who wrote so insightfully for the New Yorker for some thirty years, said the role of Norma: “calls for power; grace in slow cantilena; pure, fluent coloratura; stamina; tones both tender and violent; force and intensity of verbal declamation; and a commanding stage presence.”  Joan Sutherland said of the role “[Hearing Callas in Norma in 1952] was a shock, a wonderful shock. You just got shivers up and down the spine.”

By all measures, Radvanovsky was an astounding Norma.  She has a radiant stage presence and a powerful voice, full of sparkling color.  The minute she began singing, I immediately liked her velvety tone and her innate musicality, especially her ability to convey tenderness and vulnerability.  On Saturday, though, there were some issues with her top range and extended notes.  On a handful of occasions during the three hour marathon, her voice broke or became scratchy.  And, importantly, that forceful gale wind dynamism and power that we associate with the hypnotic Normas, was not there.  From all I’ve read, she’s capable of it and I am sure it will emerge in subsequent performances.  Her “Casta Diva,” the famous first act cavatina, a prayer to the moon goddess, asking for peace, was gorgeous but I had the impression that this finely-tuned Ferrari had one more gear that was not present in this rendition.  She’s so passionate and immersed in the role though and so secure and nimble in her upper middle range that it was pure pleasure to both listen to her and watch her.  I particularly enjoyed her conflicted “Oh non tremare” which completes the first act, where she slams Pollione for his betrayal and exhibited her exceptional range.  The audience went wild over her “Casta Diva” and carried its ebullience to the funeral pyre (which came some three hours later and was a quick unsatisfying flash.)

They share a disastrous taste for the same Roman lover— mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Druid priestess Adalgisa (L) and Soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014.  Image: Cory Weaver

They share a disastrous taste for the same Roman lover— mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Druid priestess Adalgisa (L) and Soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014. Image: Cory Weaver

They were equally enthusiastic over mezzo soprano Jamie Barton’s inspired Adalgisa.  Barton, in her SFO debut, seemed completely at ease in the difficult role and her nimble voice was warm and alluring.  Barton won the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and has gone on to impress audiences ever since.  She so believably conveyed the dramatic emotional twists that come with loving a man who is also her friend and superior’s lover that my eyes gravitated constantly to her, troubled pure soul that she was.  We’ve all felt the tug of dangerous love and had to make difficult choices between loyalty and following your heart and they played out with compelling drama on Friday.  The shivers in this “Norma” were evoked by the girl power moments—by the lush lyricism of Radvanovsky and Barton’s voices blending in the duos—rather than by Norma’s solos of torment and passion.

Italian tenor Marco Berti delivered a wonderful Pollione and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn sang Oroveso with a power that matched his height.  We’ll be seeing a lot of Van Horn this season as he appears as Count Ribbing (“Un Ballo in Maschera”), Alidoro (“La Cenerentola”), Colline (“La Bohème”), and Narbal (“Les Troyens”).

David Korins’ set design, which many found confounding, had a single silvery snow-covered tree trunk elegantly hovering from chains in front of an enormous gray wall as a representation of the Druid forest. Blustery snowfall was visible through the doors evoking a Druid winter wonderland. Towards the end of the opera, a giant Trojan horse-like creature slowly overtook the stage and its crescent-shaped horn descended from the sky until it landed in place on its head. The funeral pyre was a mere flash in the pan. Jessica Jahn’s costumes were unfathomable to me—they appeared to come from several different eras and, with the exception of Radvanovsky’s, were unflattering, uninteresting and unattractive.

After the performance, drowsy couples exited the opera house raving about losing themselves in the music and comparing the great divas who have defined Norma.  There was a warm buzz about Jamie Barton.  SFO’s 92nd season was off to a brilliant start.

Run-time: 2 hours, 50 minutes with one intermission

Details:  There are six remaining performances of “Norma”—Wednesday, Sept 10 at 7:30 PM, Sun, Sept 14 at 2 PM, Friday, Sept 19 at 7:30 PM, Tuesday, Sept 23 at 7:30 PM, Saturday, Sept 27 at 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept 30 at 7:30 PM  Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets for performance here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.

For more information on San Francisco Opera and their upcoming performances, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx

September 10, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Suddenly, so gorgeous, so relevant—San Francisco Opera’s new “Madame Butterfly”—not to be missed, through July 9

Giacomo Puccini described his “Madame Butterfly” as “the most felt and most expressive opera” he ever conceived.” Acclaimed soprano and San Francisco Opera celeb, Patricia Racette, is Cio-Cio-San/Butterfly and tenor Brian Jagde is Pinkerton in a production featuring vivid video projections by Jun Kaneko, who delighted audiences with his "Magic Flute" in 2012. This co-production with Omaha Opera premiered in 2006 and is at SFO through July 9, 2014. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Giacomo Puccini described his “Madame Butterfly” as “the most felt and most expressive opera” he ever conceived.” Acclaimed soprano and San Francisco Opera celeb, Patricia Racette, is Cio-Cio-San/Butterfly and tenor Brian Jagde is Pinkerton in a production featuring vivid video projections by Jun Kaneko, who delighted audiences with his “Magic Flute” in 2012. This co-production with Omaha Opera premiered in 2006 and is at SFO through July 9, 2014. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

For many opera lovers, the soaring music of Puccini is reason enough to go to a live performance.  San Francisco’s Opera’s (SFO’s ) new “Madame Butterfly,” with its abstract video projections by artist Jun Kaneko, outstanding Cio Cio San/Butterfly by soprano Patricia Racette, and passionate directing by Nicola Luisotti, kept me glued to my seat on Thursday evening.  I’d count it among the top live opera experiences I’ve had.  This was the sixth of eight performances, with the run concluding Wednesday, July 9.  This is Florida-based Leslie Swackhamer’s co-production with SFO and Opera Omaha, which required three years of collaboration with Kaneko and Opera Omaha to pull off.   Freed of its traditional staging, this is a Butterfly unlike anything you’ve seen before—it’s fresh and timeless and while it has Japanese sensibilities, it feels more global than Japanese.  Kaneko dresses the cast in spectacularly colorful kimonos and suits a la Mondrian.  His simple set is an angled walkway that extends from the stage right-rear to left-front with a raised central platform with a sliding screen.  A vivid array of constantly shifting projections accompanies the action and punctuates the exquisite music.  The stage is so expressive, so hypnotic, with these color and pattern changes that it too becomes an important character in the performance, interacting with the singers and audience in a way that really makes you pay attention to what’s going on.

The story is still set in Nagasaki, Japan where a naïve fifteen year-old local geisha, Cio-Cio-San (Racette), falls in love with a handsome and charismatic American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton (tenor Brian Jagde).  Their marriage is arranged by the broker, Goro (Julius Ahn), and the contract is clear—the “Japanese marriage” is revocable with one month’s notice.  Butterfly understands it differently though—she unconditionally accepts her suitor’s love as real and eternal and goes so far as to forsake her family and her ancestral Buddhist faith to become a devoted wife and Christian.  He leaves to go back to the States with a promise to return to her.  She trusts him implicitly.  She grows impoverished as she waits with her faithful maid Suzuki (mezzo Elizabeth DeShong).  When he does come back, three years later, it’s with his American wife.

I was once told that co-dependency is a vicious addiction to the potential of things. Patricia Racette, who has performed Cio-Cio-San three times at SFO, has an electrifying command of Butterfly’s psyche.  Her instinct for baring this deluded young’s woman’s soul while singing rapturously all evening long, is a feat that won’t be repeated.  She delivers a Butterfly who is so sumptuous in her optimism and so stubborn in her head-in-the sand denial and passivity that we want to slap her back into reality and save her from the intense pain in the pipeline.

By now, Racette should be a household name amongst Bay Area opera lovers—the Merola/Adler alum started her career with SFO 24 years ago and has sung nearly 30 roles with the company.  This past season, she took on the herculean task of singing four roles in various SFO productions and drew praise across the board.  Just last week, she concluded a stand-out performance as the cabaret singer, Julie La Verne, in Francesca Zambello’s opulent “Show Boat,” SFO’s other stand-out summer of 2014 hit.  There, her delightful renditions of Jerome Kern’s ballads “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill,”along with her wonderful acting, were central to the production.   This Racette’s second SFO pairing with hunky Merola/Adler tenor Brian Jagde as Pinkerton and their natural ease with each other and on stage chemistry made their  Act 1duet, “Bimba, Bimba, non piangere” (“Sweetheart, sweetheart, do not weep”) intensely passionate.   Racette’s Act II, “Un bel dì” (“One beautiful day”), the opera’s most famous aria was interrupted by clapping and, once she finished, earned her a loving ovation.   The tension ran unbearably high when she sent her son out of the room so she could kill herself and that final gesture of sacrifice and insane fidelity was something to savor—a shame that it was interrupted by a *$#@ cell phone which rang 5 or 6 times before an usher had the good sense to take the offender by the arm and pull him out of the opera house.

Jun Kaneko’s boldly colorful and pattern changing video projections are so expressive that the stage too becomes an important character in the performance, interacting with the characters in a way that really makes you pay attention to what’s going on with them.  Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio-San) and Elizabeth DeShong (Suzuki) in a scene from Act II. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Jun Kaneko’s boldly colorful and pattern changing video projections are so expressive that the stage too becomes an important character in the performance, interacting with the characters in a way that really makes you pay attention to what’s going on with them. Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio-San) and Elizabeth DeShong (Suzuki) in a scene from Act II. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Butterfly’s inspiring score is imbued with a mix of east and West and the music flowed almost seamlessly from the SFO Orchestra and chorus under Luisotti’s impassioned conducting.  In an interview in the program, Luisotti estimates that he has conducted the opera over seventy times, including two productions in Japan.  The energetic prelude that leads right into the opening scene had his silver locks flying and the volume energetically revved to the point that Jagde’s first aria, “E soffitto e pareti” (“And ceiling and walls”), was momentarily overpowered.  He pulled in it and the rest went magically.

In critical supporting roles, mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and baritone Brian Mulligan as the compassionate American consul offier, Sharpless, were excellent.  DeShung, in her third SFO appearance, exhibited a tremendous vocal range and deep compassion in her role as Butterfly’s faithful servant and confidant.  Her flower duet “Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio…” was bittersweet in its foreshadowing the death about to occur. First year Adler, baritone Efraín Solís, who made his SFO debut as Prince Yamadori, a prospective proper husband for Butterfly, demonstrated he is headed for glory

The projections are game-changers—modernizing everything and encouraging very contemporary and personal associations.  Once Butterfly is abstracted from its own history and the Orientalist tableau from which we traditionally evaluate it, we’re much freer to look at its broad political issue—the plight of women today who are disowned in many cultures because they don’t play by the games established by the patriarchy.

Kaneko’s sets and costumes are influenced by the conventions of classical Japanese theater, such as the use of black-dressed Kuroko which function as running crew to assist with scene changes.  In this vividly colored “Butterfly,” they also played other minor roles not covered by fully costumed singers.  Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Kaneko’s sets and costumes are influenced by the conventions of classical Japanese theater, such as the use of black-dressed Kuroko which function as running crew to assist with scene changes. In this vividly colored “Butterfly,” they also played other minor roles not covered by fully costumed singers. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

“Gorgeous” at the Asian Art Museum:

Before the opera, I took in Gorgeous, the provocative and inventive collaboration between SFMOMA and the Asian Art Museum (AAM)—72 artworks in conversation (39 from SFMOMA and 43 from the Asian), spanning 2,000 years, that asks the viewer to decide for themselves what ‘gorgeous” means.  It primed me for the visual feast that awaiting me at SFO.  Gorgeous explores attraction, repulsion and desire and certainly engages us in thinking about the Orientalist tableau which is strong part of Butterfly.  One of the ideas behind Gorgeous is to use what we’ve learned from 20th century art about awareness of color and form and apply it to the historical objects from the Asian’s collection.  In the Asian’s Oscher Galley, quietly hanging across from Sally Mann’s provocatively posed portrait of her topless five-year-old daughter, are three silk scrolls by renowned Japanese artist Chobunsai Eishi, “Three Types of Beauties in Edo,” approximately dated 1798-1829.  These scrolls represent three types of women: a geisha, an elite courtesan and a maiden of a wealthy family.  The courtesan wears a magnificent costume that includes a brightly colored and patterned outer-kimono tied with a heavy ornate sash and has an elaborate hairdo.  In another, a demure geisha (erotically?) twists her hair pin with her delicate white hands, her forearm revealed when her sleeve is raised.  In Eishi’s time, too, there was a fascination with ranking types of beauties but the coding is fuzzy to our modern eye.  Over at SFO, Kaneko’s bold, colorful projections and costuming indicates once again that he’s digested and revisioned and moved on to his own gorgeous.  For me, gorgeous is an unexpected surprise that draws you in and keeps you rapt.  This is “Butterfly” to a T.   (The AAM is open Sunday, July 6, and admission is free.  Gorgeous closes September 14, 2014)

Details: There are two remaining performances of “Madame Butterfly”—Sunday, July 6 at 2 PM and Wednesday, July 9 at 7:30 PM.  Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets for either performance here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.

For more information on San Francisco Opera and their upcoming performances, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx

 Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there are frequent delay on Highway 101 South due to ongoing road expansion work and wine country tourism.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up, especially when the San Francisco Symphony is performing on the same day.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to War Memorial Opera House— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block) (Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larkin Streets) (Both have a flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights.)

July 5, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dark, Thrilling Opera—San Francisco Symphony’s “Peter Grimes” runs Thursday, Friday, Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall

 

Michael Tilson Thomas leads over 200 members of the SF Symphony, the SFS Chorus in three semi-staged performances of Benjamin Britten’s  opera, “Peter Grimes,” which features engrossing panoramic floor-to-ceiling video projections by cinematographer/filmmaker Adam Larsen, directed by James Darrah.  Heldentenor Stuart Skelton sings the title role.  With this opera, Britten reinvented the possibilities of musical language—sea breeze, gull in flight, tempest and glittering dawn.  This is SFS’ first performance of the complete “Peter Grimes.” Photo: courtesy SF Symphony.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads over 200 members of the SF Symphony, the SFS Chorus in three semi-staged performances of Benjamin Britten’s opera, “Peter Grimes,” which features engrossing panoramic floor-to-ceiling video projections by cinematographer/filmmaker Adam Larsen, directed by James Darrah. Heldentenor Stuart Skelton sings the title role. With this opera, Britten reinvented the possibilities of musical language—sea breeze, gull in flight, tempest and glittering dawn. This is SFS’ first performance of the complete “Peter Grimes.” Photo: courtesy SF Symphony.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conclude the 2013-24 season and their celebration of the centenary of British composer Benjamin Britten with three semi-staged performances of his thrilling opera “Peter Grimes” (Thursday, Friday, Sunday) and a special concert, Four Sea Interludes (Saturday), accompanied by a video installation by Tal Rosner which is paired with excerpts from Britten’s exotic The Prince of The Pagoda Suite.

I’ve never heard Britten’s music performed live and I am very visually oriented, so I am looking forward to the enlivening projections which will add meaning of their own.  I first heard the name Benjamin Britten in a Keynesian macroeconomic theory course at Cal.  John Maynard Keynes, the influential British economist, thinker, and member of the Bloomsbury Group, was very keen on culture.  In the early 1940’s, he proposed (and chaired) an “Arts Council” that established the initial foundation for a system of permanent State patronage of the arts.  As you may recall, the premise behind Keynesian theory was that increased government spending (and lower taxes) would stimulate demand and pull an economy out of a Depression.  The Arts Council initially gave over half its money (grants of public funds) to music, especially classical music and opera.  Benjamin Brittan’s now famous opera, “Peter Grimes,” was first funded through a generous grant given to the Sadler’s Wells theatre to support its emergence as a national opera house charged with embodying the British national character and producing operas that were more accessible than prewar grand opera had been.

“Peter Grimes” had its premiere in June 1945, between VE Day and VJ Day, and the audience’s enthusiastic approval was taken for a political demonstration, so the curtain was brought down early.  The opera, which is based on a poem by George Crabbe, captured something new musically while depicting the epic psychic struggle of a man against his own destructive potential and the bitter sting of alienation, themes that became very familiar in Britain in the years to come.  How appropriate that Britten, who wrote for the people, and was somewhat under the radar before WWII, shot into the limelight with this story of a fisherman at odds with society.  The opera went on to immense success and Britten, as a result, became quite wealthy. The issues (from a macro theory perspective) were that Britten was part of the creation of a new state-funded system of arts patronage and he went on to invest his considerable personal earnings outside the country.  In researching Britten, this vivid memory surfaced.  Of course, SFS promises a revolutionary production of “Grimes,” dazzlingly staged—a grim but rapturous experience.

Sneak Peek of Peter Grimes with the SF Symphony

New Ground for SFS—Video projections, now commonplace in fully staged opera, are also trending in symphony halls across the country. The term “semi-staged” is not synonymous for “projection-based,” however, and “Peter Grimes” marks SFS’ first foray into an opera performance that combines video projections with minimal set staging.  Los Angeles-based director, artist and costume designer, James Darrah and New York-based artist, projection designer and filmmaker, Adam Larsen promise dramatic staging like a “big curved sail with scenes that capture the setting of an old-world fishing village and volatility of the sea.” The video will be projected onto a panoramic floor-to-ceiling scrim that encompasses the stage which has been extended and floated over a few rows of center seats to allow for extra performance space and proximity to viewers.

Darrah and Larsen collaborated in SFS’ January 2013 production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” creating vivid projections that evoked the vast Norwegian landscape and served to counterbalance the smaller stage which accommodated the orchestra and singing cast, one of whom was a dancer. The relative placement of the orchestra, singers and set props vis-à-vis the projection screens are just one issue involved in the production.  New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe gives a very readable accounting of the state of semi-staged opera in “Giving a Semi-Hearty Cheer for Semi-Staged Opera,” NYT, June 13, 2014.  Attending a flurry of recent performances across the country led him to ponder where the drama is located in an operatic performance and what kind of production brings it out most effectively.  He asks, “Does paring a work down to the bare score make it more potent, or do theatrical trappings enrich the experience?” On numerous occasions, MTT has enthusiastically affirmed his commitment to using new technology to enliven performances. It all makes sense provided he can maintain his sensitivity to the music-making as people begin to factor in the look as well as the sound of a performance.

Timelapse video of the installation of immersive sets and panoramic video screens for Peter Grimes at Davies Symphony Hall

Performance Details:  Peter Grimes: A Multimedia Semi-staged Event is Thursday, June 26, 2014 at 8 PM; Friday, June 27 at 8 PM; and Sunday, June 29 at 2 PM with  a pre-performance talk by Peter Grunberg one hour before each performance.  Purchase tickets online here or phone SFS Box Office at 415.864-6000.

Britten: Four Sea Interludes with Video by Tal Rosner is Sat, June 28, 2014 at 8 PM with pre-performance talk by Laura Stanfield Prichard at 7 PM.  Purchase tickets online here or phone SFS Box Office at 415.864-6000.

Getting to Davies:  Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall.  The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.  Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently congestion from Sausalito through the toll-plaza.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to Davies— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larkin Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

June 24, 2014 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Interview: British Composer Adam Gorb on his sex trafficking opera, “Anya17,” which has its American premiere with Opera Parallèle Friday

British composer Adam Gorb says that he was “completely swept up and in love with the characters” he was writing for in “Anya17,” his first stab at opera. "Anya 17" is the story of a young woman from an unnamed Eastern European country who's lured by love to the West and forced into prostitution.  The one-act chamber opera, set to a libretto by Ben Kaye, has its North American premiere in an Opera Parallèle production June 20-22, 2104 at Marines' Memorial Theatre in San Francisco. Photo: courtesy Adam Gorb

British composer Adam Gorb says that he was “completely swept up and in love with the characters” he was writing for in “Anya17,” his first stab at opera. “Anya 17″ is the story of a young woman from an unnamed Eastern European country who’s lured by love to the West and forced into prostitution. The one-act chamber opera, set to a libretto by Ben Kaye, has its North American premiere in an Opera Parallèle production June 20-22, 2104 at Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco. Photo: courtesy Adam Gorb

Amidst a summer opera season offering Francesca Zambello’s production of “Show Boat” at San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged production of Brittan’s “Peter Grimes;” Opera Parallèle hopes to put British composer  Adam Gorb firmly on the Bay Area map, presenting the North American premiere of his first opera, “Anya17,” at Marines Memorial Theatre this Friday through Sunday.  “Anya 17” is a dark chamber opera that is Gorb’s third collaboration with Dorset-based librettist Ben Kaye.   The opera unfolds through the eyes of Anya, a naïve young girl (sung by soprano Anna Noggle) who falls in love with the wrong guy who persuades her to follow him to the West. Instead of a better life, she is betrayed and coerced into sexual slavery. In order to survive, Anya must find an ultimate inner strength as she struggles to adapt to the humiliation and brutality of her brothel existence.

Adam Gorb was born in Cardiff in 1958 and started composing at the age of ten.  His first work to be broadcast on the BBC was written when he was fifteen.  He studied at Cambridge University (1977-1980) and at the Royal Academy of Music (1991-1993), where he graduated with the highest honors.  He has been on the staff at the London College of Music and Media, the junior Academy of the Royal Academy of Music and, since 2000 he has been the Head of School of Composition at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music.  He is acclaimed for his wind ensemble works.  His 2007 “protest cantata,” “Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall,” a collaboration with Dorset-based librettist Ben Kaye, was based on the experiences of the British journalist and broadcaster, John McCarthy, Britain’s longest held hostage in the Lebanon hostage crisis.  Then working for UPI, McCarthy was abducted in Beirut in 1986 and held for five years before his release.  Gorb and Kaye’s mutual interest in current affairs led them to collaborate again in 2010 when they created “Eternal Voices,” a commission from the Royal Marines Service Band about contemporary war.  The 30 minute long choral work told the story of a Royal Marine who loses his life in Afghanistan and the effect it has on his family. BBC newscaster Trevor McDonald acted as a narrator and interjected by reading current news headlines relevant to the story.

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Adam Gorb at his home in the UK, as he was preparing to travel to the Bay Area for this week’s series of “Anya17” events and performances. He was excited about the opera’s relevancy as well as the fun he had in composing its music, which contains passages inspired by his family’s ancestral roots in the Ukraine.  (To read ARThound’s previous coverage, an overview of “Anya17,” click here.)

Here is our conversation—

 

When did you first become aware of and interested in the trafficking topic and whose idea was it to use that as a basis of an opera?

Adam Gorb:   It was the librettist, Ben Kaye’s idea.  We had worked together on two previous pieces—one of them (“Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall,” 2007) about a political hostage from the UK and the other (“Eternal Voices” 2010) about war in the 21st century—and we both realized that we get on quite well and that we like working with up-to-date subjects.  We both really wanted to do an opera. I was very interested in displaced peoples and wanted to do something that addressed the concept of people moving from one country to another because that has so many musical possibilities. We batted about the idea of the sex trade and Ben did a lot of research and he came up with the story.

What is the significance of the number 17 in the title “Anya17?

Adam Gorb:   She could be 17, of course. But the reality is that there are these actual places that offer girls’ photos on a menu and clients look that menu over and order— ‘I want number 17.’   The actual title “Anya17” was taken from an episode of an award-winning British-Canadian TV miniseries, “Sex Traffic” (2004).  There was a character, Anya, in it who was 17.  We went with the name, Anya, because it’s a generic name associated with any Eastern European girl.

There’s good and bad in everyone…Have you gone the route of completely demonizing the pimps, or, do we also see the desperation in their situation as well, even some humanity? Likewise, do we see any unappealing traits in the girls?  

Adam Gorb:  The opera is very much through Anya’s eyes and she’s a sweet, innocent, young girl but she’s also naïve. She likes money and she loves people buying things for her and goes into raptures about meeting this guy who is taking her shopping.  You sometimes want to shake her and say ‘Come on, you’re crazy, don’t you realize you’re going to have to pay a high price for this later on.’   And Victor, her pimp, is certainly an awful character but he sees himself as a businessman who is providing a valuable service.  This comes out in his aria, “I only give you what you want,” and there’s a certain truth in that.  He’s charming in the beginning—to get what he wants—but he’s completely amoral at his core.  One of the crucial characters is Natalia, who is very friendly at the beginning but she’s actually someone who has come full circle from being trafficked herself to working for Victor, her lover.  So she’s this cabaret jazz singer who gradually loses all of her warmth to becoming cold and calculating.  Her tragic history comes out in this Sondheim-like song about how she was raped by her father.  I felt the only way to handle those horrific words she was singing was with a cheerful upbeat song that dehumanized the entire experience and showed her dissociation from her history.

How are brutalization, violence and sex handled?

Adam Gorb:   Parts of the music are quite brutal and there is a harsh dissonance to the music that builds.  At the climax, where one of the characters is beaten to death, there’s a long remorseful melody with the whole orchestra playing that’s extremely moving.  Of course, those very harsh parts are foreshadowed by the music of seduction that goes along with building sexual tension.

Some things were difficult to be too graphic about.  There’s more than one rape scene and quite a lot of grotesquery.  The music that accompanies this becomes almost like noise with certain instruments out of their registers.  In the German production, when the rape occurred, the curtain came down and there were no projections and it was carried out in the dark.

Beyond raising awareness about the topic, do you want the audience to do something with their experience?

Adam Gorb:   My awareness is less political and more artistic. Yes, I do want to raise awareness but the thing that I do well is write music.  Without ducking responsibility, if someone came to see “Anya17” and afterwards said ‘That’s a really interesting story’ and could tell me something about it, I’d be pleased.  There are so many causes completing for people’s attention these days. I hope people are drawn along by the story and can relate to the characters and, frankly, aren’t bored. I try and keep up with new opera and have a problem with a lot of the operas that I attend holding my attention. I’m asking myself a lot of whys—Why is this taking so long? Why are they singing that?   I wanted to do something that I wouldn’t get annoyed by and that would tell a story that makes an important and lasting impression. At its core, this is a story statement about a young girl who comes to a new country and falls in love for the first time and it all falls apart and she is tricked and humiliated and her spirit is almost broken but still there is hope for the future.

Were changes made after the last (German) production that will be in play for the first time in San Francisco?

Adam Gorb:   I fiddle with little things but tend to do one big brain surgery and then leave it.  The opera was semi-staged in Liverpool and Manchester in March 2012 and the first performance outside the UK was in Romania in October 2013 at the National Opera of Timişoara, with a mixed UK and Romanian cast.  I made the big changes for the fully staged German production, at the Meininger Theater in October 2013. By then, I had a recording and was able to go through the opera and make more sense of the feel and continuity of it overall as well as determine whether the singers themselves were clear enough.  I made some cuts to some of Anya’s arias that had to do with her interaction with one of characters because it didn’t feel dramatically right the way it was.  I haven’t made any changes since then and don’t intend to do any more tinkering, otherwise I’d never move on to something new.

I read that you had been particularly moved by Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” which will be performed by San Francisco Symphony later this month. What in particular about that opera moved you?

Adam Gorb:   I saw “Peter Grimes” when I was a kid, when Britten was still alive—he was quite ill by then— and he was in the audience. It was a very moving experience that caught me at a very impressionable age. The subject matter—the lone fisherman fighting alone against everyone—gripped me. What I admire in opera and what I admire in composers like Britten and Puccini is that sense is that they are really writing for the theatre. They’re not writing comfort pieces—they’re getting to the core of these deeply human tendencies that fascinate us all and I respect that. I’ve wanted to write an opera for years, because, before I was working in the conservatory, I was worked in musical theatre and I’m very interested in what you can do with music on the stage.

What’s next?

Adam Gorb:   Well, I’d love to do another opera and am very keen to write the music. “Anya’s” probably the biggest thing I’ve done and I was completely swept up and in love with the characters I was writing for. I also really enjoyed the collaborative aspects of it—it can get quite lonely sitting at home and writing music alone. I’m most interested in recent history—something that people are close enough to that they can really identify with. I’m glad that it’s come together the way it has but, next time, I’d want it to be commissioned. I’ll also write a lot for wind ensemble. I travel to the US a lot for that because it’s so big there.

Performance Details:

Cast: The role of Anya will be sung by soprano Anna Noggle, whose portrayals have been described as “sensitively drawn and heart-achingly sung” (Opera News). Viktor is baritone Victor Benedetti, lauded by the Chicago Tribune for his “confident and commanding stage presence and strong, dark baritone.” Local favorites are mezzo-sopranos Catherine Cook (who sang Julia Child in OP’s La Bonne Cuisine) and Laura Krumm, soprano Shawnette Sulker, and tenor Andres Ramirez (whom OP audiences enjoyed in Trouble in Tahiti and Ainadamar).

Creative Team: Directed by Brian Staufenbiel; Conducted by Nicole Paiment; Composed by Adam Gorb; Libretto by Ben Kaye; Media Design by David Murakami

Free Stage Rehearsal, Friday, June 20: An open stage rehearsal, after which Opera Parallèle Artistic Director and Conductor, Nicole Paiement, and stage director Brian Staufenbiel (Paiement’s husband) will lead the cast and audience in a Q & A question-and-answer session, takes place at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street (at Mason) second floor, San Francisco. The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend.

Dates, Tickets: “Anya17” is at 8 p.m. in Friday, June 20, 2014 and Saturday, June 21, 2014 and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 22, 2014 at Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street (at Mason) second floor, San Francisco. Tickets: $80 to $30, are available online here or phone City Box Office at 415-392-4400. For more information, visit www.operaparallele.org.

 

June 19, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Anya17,” a new opera that explores sex trafficking and slavery, opens Friday at San Francisco’s Marine Memorial Theatre

In “Anya17,” a powerful contemporary opera which has its North American premiere this week at Opera Parallèle, naïve Anya is trafficked into Britain and forced into prostitution by a man pretending to be her boyfriend. The opera is a collaboration between British composer Adam Gorb and librettist Ben Kaye.  Watercolor by Evan Wright.

In “Anya17,” a contemporary opera which has its North American premiere this week at Opera Parallèle, naïve Anya is trafficked into Britain and forced into prostitution by a man pretending to be her boyfriend. The opera is a collaboration between British composer Adam Gorb and librettist Ben Kaye. Watercolor by Evan Wright.

Those who know her, have come to expect great things from Nicole Paiement, Opera Parallèle’s valiant Artistic Director and Conductor. But her timing of the American premiere at Opera Parallèle of “Anya17”—British composer Adam Gorb’s opera about sex trafficking and human slavery—couldn’t have been better.  On June 10, news broke that two San Francisco women (sisters) had been arrested for allegedly operating a sex trafficking ring out of several locations in San Francisco, bringing in young new girls weekly.  Human trafficking is a $32 billion industry and the US State Department estimates that between 20,000 and 40,000 people are trafficked into the country each year as modern-day slaves.  San Francisco and the Bay Area rank among the top 20 destinations, according to the FBI.  Kudos to a composer brave enough to humanize these devastating statistics and base his first opera on the insidious subject.  Gorb teamed up with librettist Ben Kaye and together they created “Anya17,” a dramatized interpretation of the lives of four very different young women trafficked from Eastern Europe and sold into sexual slavery.  The opera, performed twice before in Europe, unfolds through the eyes of Anya, a naïve and vulnerable young girl who falls in love with the wrong guy who persuades her to follow him to the West. Instead of a better life, she is betrayed and coerced into slavery. In order to survive, Anya must find an ultimate inner strength as she struggles to adapt to the humiliation and brutality of her brothel existence. The number 17 in the title comes from the practice of numbering girls on a “menu” in brothels. Last week, I interviewed Adam Gorb who definitely believes that opera can help change the world.  I’ll be posting our interview shortly, so stay tuned.

Free Stage Rehearsal, Friday, June 20: An open stage rehearsal, after which Opera Parallèle Artistic Director and Conductor, Nicole Paiement, and stage director Brian Staufenbiel (Paiement’s husband) will lead the cast and audience in a Q & A question-and-answer session, takes place at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street (at Mason) second floor, San Francisco. The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend.

Cast: The role of Anya will be sung by soprano Anna Noggle, whose portrayals have been described as “sensitively drawn and heart-achingly sung” (Opera News). Viktor is baritone Victor Benedetti, lauded by the Chicago Tribune for his “confident and commanding stage presence and strong, dark baritone.” Local favorites are mezzo-sopranos Catherine Cook (who sang Julia Child in OP’s La Bonne Cuisine) and Laura Krumm, soprano Shawnette Sulker, and tenor Andres Ramirez (whom OP audiences enjoyed in Trouble in Tahiti and Ainadamar).

Details: “Anya17” is at 8 p.m. in Friday, June 20, 2014 and Saturday, June 21, 2014 and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 22, 2014 at Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street (at Mason) second floor, San Francisco. Tickets: $80 to $30, are available online here or phone City Box Office at 415-392-4400. For more information, visit www.operaparallele.org.

June 18, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review—Cinnabar Theater’s fabulous“Figaro”—Mozart’s playful and tangled web of matrimony

Mozart’s music soars at Cinnabar Theater as (l to r) Kelly Britt, Cary Ann Rosko, and Bharati Soman star in a hilarious production of "The Marriage of Figaro," through June 15, 2014.  Photo: Eric Chazankin

Mozart’s music soars at Cinnabar Theater as (l to r) Kelly Britt, Cary Ann Rosko, and Bharati Soman star in a hilarious production of “The Marriage of Figaro,” through June 15, 2014. Photo: Eric Chazankin

A big Figaro, up close and personal in Cinnabar’s intimate schoolhouse theater is a treat you can’t pass up.  After last season’s sold-out run of Carmen, Artistic Director Elly Lichenstein and Music Director Mary Chun reunite to close Cinnabar Theater’s 41st season with Mozart’s glorious marriage of music and theater.  The opera opened last Saturday to a sold-out house and closes June 15 but it has been so successful that an additional performance has been added on Wednesday, June 11.

For those who haven’t experienced Mozart’s magical farce, The Marriage of Figaro which premiered in Vienna in 1786, Cinnabar’s is a wonderful introduction.  It has all the special touches that we associate with Cinnabar’s bankable perfectionism and it’s in English.  Jeremy Sams’ smooth translation of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto eliminates the fuss of subtitles and lays out all complex plot twists, of which there are many. For those who know Figaro, here’s a chance to sit back and enjoy the scheming, with a new twist—it’s set in the 1920’s rather than the usual 18th century.

The performance takes place on a small ground-level stage with gorgeous sets by Wayne Hovey that take their inspiration from a well-appointed Downton Abbey-like estate. Wherever you’re seated at Cinnabar, you’re just a few feet from the action, so you can take in the expressions on the singer’s faces and the fine details in the costumes and props, making it intense and immersive, just as opera should be. You’re in for a visual treat with the 1920’s inspired costumes created by Lisa Eldrege, who outfitted the entire cast of 22 in hues of black and white, gray, and gold.  The gents sport country tweeds and linens and the ladies, lavish evening attire and gowns appointed with delicate lace.  The chorus members wear individualized servant’s uniforms.

Figaro is one of my favorite operas because of the wonderful match between Mozart’s lively music and the onstage drama.  Mary Chuni and her small but ample orchestra of ten outdid themselves AGAIN.  Snuggled between two walls and sitting in a snaking line, they opened with a gorgeous overture and proceeded to play beautifully for all four acts, in perfect sync with the action.

Soprano Kelly Britt, as the young maid Susanna, glows with bright energy and has natural chemistry with her fiancé, Figaro (Eugene Walden), and with Countess Rosina (Bharati Soman) and a palpable revulsion for the skirt-chasing Count.  Susanna does the most singing of all the characters and Britt’s powerful voice carried her through the opening night performance, growing lovelier and more nuanced as she relaxed into her role.  Her Act III duet with the Countess, about a letter intended to the dupe Count, was a wonderful blending of two naturally lyrical voices.  Her Act IV garden aria, “Come Here” (“Deh vieni”), where she sings of love and confuses Figaro, was touching.

Soprano Bharati Soman has her debut at Cinnabar as the pained Countess Almaviva.  Shes loves her husband, the Count, but knows that he wants to cheat on her with Susanna, her maid, who is engaged to Figaro, the Count’s servant.  Photo: Eric Chazankin

Soprano Bharati Soman has her debut at Cinnabar as the pained Countess Almaviva. Shes loves her husband, the Count, but knows that he wants to cheat on her with Susanna, her maid, who is engaged to Figaro, the Count’s servant. Photo: Eric Chazankin

Soprano Bharati Soman has her debut at Cinnabar as the Countess Almaviva and what a lovely voice and countenance she has.  She’s in love her husband, the Count, but knows that he wants to cheat on her with gorgeous Susanna, her maid, who is engaged to Figaro, the Count’s servant.  At times regal and at times terribly vulnerable and regretful, Soman sang the Countess’s two great arias with poise and great tenderness— Act II ”Oh Love give me some comfort!” (“Porgi, amor”) and Act III “Where are the beautiful moments?” (“Dove sono I bei momenti”). 

Baritone Eugene Walden, as Figaro, has a natural comedic flare and excelled in his solo arias and in the wonderful ensembles. In the Act I duet, “Five, ten, twenty” (“Cinque, dieci, venti”), where he’s taking measurements in the bedroom, his endearing chemistry with Susanna set the tone for the rest of opera.

Charismatic baritone Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek sang the role of the scheming lord of the manor, Count Almaviva, impressively, revealing his brooding insecurity.  Almaviva fancies himself a wild womanizer but without his money and position, he’d be washed up. Smith-Kotlarek’s Act III revenge aria, “Shall I live to see” (“Vedro, mentr’io sospiro”), is an incisive commentary on class, revealing the Count’s seething anger about his vassals Susana and Figaro outwitting him and finding the happiness that has eluded him.

The cheating Count Almavira (Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek) tries to woo his suspicious wife Countess Almaviva (Bharati Soman). Photo: Eric Chazankin

The cheating Count Almavira (Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek) tries to woo his suspicious wife Countess Almaviva (Bharati Soman). Photo: Eric Chazankin

Standouts in the ensemble include the wonderfully animated mezzo soprano Krista Wigle as Marcellina (Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper) who claims Figaro owes her money and, if he doesn’t pay, he will have to marry her.  Wigle has the “it” factor—it’s  impossible to take your eyes off her and she’s a delight in every scene she’s in.

Mezzo-soprano Cary Ann Rosko shines in a pants role as Cherubino, the Count’s flirtatious young page, whom the Count suspects is having an affair with his wife.  Rosko’s impish antics are delightful, especially when Susanna and the Countess dress him in girl’s clothes as a disguise. Rosko’s Act II aria “You ladies know what love is” was well sung and the leap out the window that followed comically executed.

Cudos to Wayne Hovey, who spent years doing Cinnabar’s lighting, and is now applying his engineering skills to set design. His set of fluidly shifting walls get top billing, right along with the music and singing—they expand, contract and pivot to create a garden and three beautifully appointed rooms replete with period paintings and portraits.

(l to r):  Kelly Britt, Cary Ann Rosko, and Bharati Soman.  Mezzo-soprano Rosko is delightful in the pants role of Cherubino, the Count's flirtatious young page.   Photo: Eric Chazankin

(l to r): Kelly Britt, Cary Ann Rosko, and Bharati Soman. Mezzo-soprano Rosko is delightful in the pants role of Cherubino, the Count’s flirtatious young page. Photo: Eric Chazankin

Details: Cinnabar Theater is located at 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North (at Skillman Lane), Petaluma, CA, 94952.  The Marriage of Figaro has 7 remaining performances—June 6 (sold-out), 7, 8, 11, 13, 14, and 15.  Buy tickets online here.   ($40 General, $25 under age 22, $9 middle-school and high-school.)

June 6, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dmitri Hvorostovsky in recital at Davies Hall Sunday, May 25, 2014

Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky will be performing a program of Russian songs Sunday, May 24, 2014 at Davies Symphony Hall with his longtime artistic partner Ivari Ilja.  Hvorostovsky (52) was last heard in North America at the Metropolitan Opera last fall when he made his acclaimed role debut as Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”  This month, he will be inducted into the Gramphone Hall of Fame.  His most recent solo recording is “In this Moonlit Night” (Ondine, 2013).  In 1989, he won the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.  Photo: Pavel Antonov

Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky will be performing a program of Russian songs Sunday, May 24, 2014 at Davies Symphony Hall with his longtime artistic partner Ivari Ilja. Hvorostovsky (52) was last heard in North America at the Metropolitan Opera last fall when he made his acclaimed role debut as Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” This month, he will be inducted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame. His most recent solo recording is “In this Moonlit Night” (Ondine, 2013). In 1989, at age 27, he won the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. Photo: Pavel Antonov

A shout out to opera devotes.  Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a.k.a. the “Silver Fox,” the “Siberian Express” is in town.  He will be performing a program of Russian classics Sunday evening at Davies Hall, accompanied by his long-time recital partner, Estonian pianist Ivari Ilja, the final concert in San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performers Series. There are plenty of great seats still available. There’s not much that can pull me away from gorgeous Sonoma County during a long holiday weekend but I’m not missing my first chance to experience this great singer live in recital, especially since I’ve been following him so avidly through the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD transmissions.  There are plenty of great seats still available and, unless the situation changes dramatically by Sunday (do check!), it will be possible to just show up at the Symphony Box Office prior to the performance and select tickets on the spot without having to pay additional fees.

Hvorostovsky, who is based in Russia, has been on his North American tour since mid-May.  He comes to San Francisco from L.A., where he performed Thursday at Los Angeles Opera.  For his West Coast performances, he is presenting a Russian program of Pushkin-inspired romances by Glinka, Borodin, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and others as well as Shostakovich’s haunting late-period “Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti” from 1974.  The rarely performed work is based on chosen texts from Michelangelo (translated into Russian).  Every text has to do with the life and work of the artist, with his achievements, his set-backs, his loves and his sense of destiny.  The texts are arranged into a dramatic cycle of ten songs, with an eleventh hanging at the end, which trace an arc of the poet’s life and the entire cycle has resonances of Musorgsky and Mahler, two of Shostakovich’s heroes.

You may have noticed that the Green Music Center’s newly announced 2014-15 Season is devoid of opera, which so punctuated their fabulous first season.  This makes superstar Hvorostovsky’s presence in the Bay Area a treat to be savored even more.  The performance will be well worth the drive in the City.  Who can forget the great baritone’s last Met Opera Live in HD performance in December 2012 when he sang Renato (Count Anckarström) to Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia Anckarström in David’s Alden’s new production of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”?  (Both Hvorostovsky and Radvanovsky reprise their roles in the Met’s spring 2015 production of the opera with James Levine conducting.)  One of the pleasures of the HD transmissions is that they are almost as good as being there BUT when you’ve got the chance to experience an artist live and help create the magic, you don’t want to miss it because it will make all the artist’s subsequent performances that you see all the more resonant.  And, of course, a cinematic experience of an opera can be very different from the impression it makes in house because the camera focuses on the important details and often ignores the bigger picture.  Enough said.

My colleague, music critic Sean Martinfield, who writes for Huffington Post, was lucky enough to secure the only interview that Hvorostovsky granted for this Davies appearance. (click here for full interview)  Speaking on Shostakovich’s rarely performed Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Hvorostovsky said— “The cycle is amazing.  Shostakovich wrote it for piano to begin with and then decided to re-write it for symphony orchestra which he dedicated to the first performer, Evgeny Nesterenko. The way it’s written for piano is so colorful that it sounds like an orchestra. The translation of the poetry of Michelangelo Buonarroti sounds incredible. There has only been one example, by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who decided to sing the songs in the original Italian. I think it was a failure, because you have to move the accents and stresses. The way it sounds in Russian is so complete. It is a cycle where two geniuses meet with each other and create an amazing impact of classic and contemporary. It absolutely reflects the reality we live in now.”

In 2004, Hvorostovsky, who hails from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, became the first Russian opera singer to give a solo concert with orchestra and chorus on Red Square in Moscow and the concert was televised in over 25 countries.  He has gone on to sing a number of prestigious concerts in Moscow as a part of his own special series, “Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Friends” inviting celebrated artists as Renée Fleming, Jonas Kaufmann, Marcello Giordani, Sumi Jo and Sondra Radvanovsky to join him. In 2005 he gave an historic tour throughout the cities of Russia at the invitation of President Putin, singing to crowds of hundreds of thousands of people to commemorate the soldiers of the Second World War.  He now annually tours the cities of Russia and the former Eastern Europe.  In the video clip below, from the famous Red Square Concert on June 19, 2013, Hvorostovsky is joined by soprano Anna Netrebko as Lev Kontorovich conducts the Masters of Choral Singing choir and Constantine Orbelian conducts the Russia State Symphony Orchestra. They sang Verdi, Puccini and Tchaikovsky, bringing the audience of 8,000 to a stunned silence with an aria from “Eugene Onegin. For the finale, Hvorostovsky sang “Dark Eyes,” one of the most famous Russian romances.

 

2014-15 Guest Vocalists at San Francisco Symphony: Soprano Ruth Ziesak and baritone Christain Gerhaher in Brahms’s A German Requiem (Feb 19-21, 2015); Soprano Dawn Upshaw in Ades & Upsahw (March 5-7, 2014); Mezzo Soprano Sasha Cooke and Soprano Joélle Harvey in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis (June 10-13, 2015); Soprano Karita Mattila in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (June 17 and 19, 2015); Soprano Nina Stemme in Beethoven Festival Fidelio (June 25-6, 2015)  Tickets and subscription packages are on sale now.

Details: “Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Concert” is Sunday, May 25, 2014 at 8PM at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.  Tickets: $15 to $84; purchase online here, or, call (415) 864-6000. For more information, visit www.sfsymphony.org.

Getting to Davies:  Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue, at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall.  The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.

Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the holiday weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently congestion en route to Davies Hall.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice as these also fill up early on weekends.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to Davies— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

May 23, 2014 Posted by | Classical Music, Opera, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Show Boat” opens San Francisco Opera’s summer season—discounted tickets options

San Francisco Opera takes the dive into big musical theater with “Show Boat,” its summer season opener produced by Francesca Zambello.  Photo  ©Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

San Francisco Opera takes the dive into big musical theater with “Show Boat,” its summer season opener produced by Francesca Zambello. Photo ©Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

It’s going to be a memorable summer at San Francisco Opera (SFO) as the company opens its Summer Season with a dive into big musical theater with “Show Boat,” a performance that promises to be a uniquely American hybrid of opera and rousing Broadway musical. Both a poignant love story and a powerful reminder of the bitter legacy of racism, “Show Boat” was a theatre landmark that contributed such now standard songs as “Ol’ Man River,” “Make Believe,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”  “Show Boat” holds a special spot in the history of musical theater in that it was the one of first musicals with a believable story where the songs existed to move the tale forward.  Under the baton of music theatre-maestro John DeMain, these songs will come to life.   Based on the 1926 novel Show Boat by Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, the story focuses on a performing troupe aboard the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River showboat in the late 1880s, and follows their turbulent lives over 40 years.  Captain Andy Hawks (Bill Irwin, Tony Award winning actor, with fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the NEA, Guggenheim and Fullbright,  and a Bay Area favorite at A.C.T. ) and his bossy wife, Parthy (Harriet Harris, Tony Award winning actress), steer this floating company through its ragtag existence. But they cannot protect their stage-struck daughter, Magnolia (the ebullient soprano Heidi Stober), from falling for a dashing stranger, Gaylord Ravenal (baritone Michael Todd Simson), a riverboat gambler.  And then there’s mixed-race Juli, the emotional core of the story (Patricia Racette, SFO’s go-to soprano who has dominated the past season with several impressive title roles).  Illegally married to a white man, she is posing as white and just bound for trouble.

Acclaimed stage director and production designer Francesca Zambello’s scale production opened at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in 2012 and the Chicago Classical Review declared it “a triumph—a stylish, fast-paced and colorful show that had the capacity audience on its feet, cheering loud and long.”  A co-production of four major American opera companies, “Show Boat” has already sailed to the Houston Grand Opera in January 2013 and the Washington National Opera in May 2013, gathering accolades long the way.

Dance is the fabric of life on the show boat and the production will feature a lot of high-energy, high kicking punchy dance routines by choreographer, Michelle Lynch, who also worked on “Hairspray” on Broadway.  “Show Boat” spans some 50 years and Lynch has integrated popular social dances from the period into the production, which ought to be dazzling with Paul Tazewell’s plush period costumes.

The first edition of Edna Ferber's Show Boat which established the popular author as a first rate story-teller.  The story chronicles the lives of three generations of performers on the Cotton Blossom, a floating theater that travels between small towns on the banks of the Mississippi, from the 1880s to the 1920s. The story moves from the Reconstruction-Era river boat to Gilded-Age Chicago to Roaring-Twenties New York, and finally returns to the Mississippi River.

The first edition of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat which catapulted the popular Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (for “So Big” (1924), short story writer and playwright to further fame. The story chronicles the lives of three generations of performers on the Cotton Blossom, a floating theater that travels between small towns on the banks of the Mississippi, from the 1880s to the 1920s. The story moves from the Reconstruction-Era river boat to Gilded-Age Chicago to Roaring-Twenties New York, and finally returns to the Mississippi River. The opera closely follows the book.

SFO General Director David Gockley is proudly awaiting “Show Boat’s” arrival:  “Show Boat” will be done in grand opera fashion in the way the creators conceived. The Opera House is—I believe—the appropriate venue for these great classic musicals that require full-voiced, ‘legit’ singing.”

Approximate running time is two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission.  Sung in English with English supertitles.

Ten performances are scheduled from June 1 to July 2, 2014.

What were Show Boats?   Show boats or showboats were floating theaters that traveled along the major rivers of the United States from the 1870s to the 1930s. The performers lived aboard the vessels. With song, dance, and dramatic productions, show boats provided song, dance, and dramatic productions for small riverside towns that were otherwise quite isolated. Edna Ferber, who had never heard of show boats, was immediately intrigued when she learned about them in 1924 from one of a producer of one of her earlier plays.

Here, I thought, was one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana that had ever come my way. It was not only the theater—it was the theater plus the glamour of the wandering drifting life, the drama of the river towns, the mystery and terror of the Mississippi itself… I spent a year hunting down every available scrap of show-boat material; reading, interviewing, taking notes and making outlines. (Edna Ferber, A Peculiar Treasure, Doubleday, 1960, pp 297-304.)

NOT a steamboat: In order to move down the river, a show boat was pushed by a small tugboat, which was attached to it. It would have been impossible to put a steam engine on it, since it would have had to be placed right in the auditorium. Ever since the box-office success of MGM’s 1951 motion picture musical Showboat, in which the boat was inaccurately redesigned as a deluxe, self-propelled steamboat, the image of a showboat as a large twin-stacked vessel with a huge paddle wheel at the rear has taken hold in popular culture.

In the spring of 1925, Ferber traveled to Bath, North Carolina and spent four days aboard one of last show boats in the country, the James Addams Floating Theatre, which plied the Pamlico River and Great Dismal Swamp Canal. The material she gathered fueled her novel which she spent the next year writing in France and New York.

 

2 Awesome SFO Ticket Deals:

SPECIAL TWO-DAY SALE Enjoy 40% Off Summer Operas!

Whether you’re still working on your tax return or your refund is burning a hole in your pocket, now is the time to treat yourself and your friends to this world-class opera and others from SFO’s summer season!  For two days only, San Francisco Opera is offering its biggest sale of the summer—40% off select performances of Show Boat, La Traviata and Madame Butterfly.  This offer is only available online and valid until Wednesday, April 16, 2014.    BUY TICKETS   Enter Code: TAX40

Save up to 30% when you buy tickets to all three of SFO’s summer operas.

Can’t make a decision by April 16th?  Call the Box Office at 415 864-3330 to select your own dates for all three Summer 2014 operas and save 30% on tickets.  This discount offer is not available online.

 

 

 

April 14, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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