Geneva Anderson digs into art

Ensemble Parallèle Presents “The Great Gatsby,” a chamber opera with the swagger and pizzazz of the roaring ‘20’s─at Yerba Buena Center, February 10-12, 2012

Beautiful, haughty, seductive, manipulative, wearied, and indulged to excess….the iconic Daisy Buchanan is played by Soprano Susannah Biller, a former SF Opera Adler Fellow, in Ensemble Parallèle’s new chamber opera, "The Great Gatsby," at Yerba Buena's Novellus Theatre February 10-12, 2012. Photo: courtesy Rapt

Ensemble Parallèle is bringing what promises to be a very  inventive contemporary opera to Yerba Buena Center’s Novellus Theatre this coming Friday-Sunday (February 10-12, 2012):  the world premiere of Jacques Desjardins’ chamber orchestration of composer John Harbison’sThe Great Gatsby.”   Based on the beloved 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the opera was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to celebrate James Levine’s 25th anniversary as its musical director.  It premiered in 1999, with just one subsequent performance at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, mainly because it called for an orchestra of 120 musicians.  Aware of the need to make Harbison’s important work accessible to performing groups, Ensemble Parallèle, a professional ensemble-in-residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, embraced the project and commissioned its re-orchestration from 120 to 30 musicians, keeping the rich sound of Harbison’s music─ which includes 17 original vernacular pieces─tangos, Charlestons, jazz songs─not your traditional opera to begin with.   The cast includes 11 singers─some very well known in the Bay Area and some newcomers.  This is the first time in ten years that the piece, which opened to mixed reviews at the Met, will be performed on stage and it is Ensemble Parallèle’s most ambitious project to date.  Recognizing music’s power to transform and raise consciousness, this presentation of a classic, with some story enhancements, with should be an exciting event.   If you haven’t been to an opera before, the best thing to do is literally jump in─get tickets and go!  At 2.25 minutes with one intermission, and all in English, this opera—jazzy and emotionally gripping─should be a great introduction for newcomers.   And, if you haven’t been to Yerba Buena Center’s modern Novellus Theatre for a performance, you’re in for a treat.  Unlike San Francisco Opera, these seats are much more user friendly and the site lines are exceptional. 

The cast looks fabulous.  Lyric tenor Marco Panuccio, a newcomer to the Bay Area, is Jay Gatsby.  Panuccio portrayed Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon for Lyric Opera of Chicago.  Soprano Susannah Biller, a Bay Area favorite and former SF Opera Adler Fellow, with a rich and powerful voice, who portrayed Eurydice in Ensemble Parallèle’s spring 2011 production of Philip Glass’ Orphée, is Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s fixation.  Baritone Jason Detwiler, who played St. Plan in Ensemble Parallèle’s summer 2011 production of Four Saints in Three Acts, is Nick Caraway, the opera’s narrator.  Casting also includes tenor Dan Snyder as Tom Buchanan, Disy’s husband; baritone Bojan Knezevic as the machanic George Wilson; mezzo soprano Erin Neff as his wife Myrtle Wilson and mezzo-soprano Julienne Walker as Jordan Baker.  All come together to present the gripping story—in music─of a very shallow lot of characters who make a tragic mess of their indulgent lives.  The setting is deco and the drama transpires against the colorful backdrop of the roaring ‘20’s, when American society enjoyed great prosperity, endured Prohibition and the dance music of the day was jazz. 

Gatsby marks the fourth major presentation of fully-staged contemporary chamber operas by Ensemble Parallèle’s duo–Artistic Director/Conductor Nicole Paiement and Stage Director and Production Designer Brian Staufenbiel.  Gatsby follows last year’s Orphée by Philip Glass, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in 2010 and Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar in 2007–all to acclaim from audiences and critics.  Last August, in conjunction with SFMOMA’s fabulous The Steins Collect, Ensemble Parallèle presented a critically acclaimed production of the rarely performed Four Saints in Three Acts by composer Virgil Thompson and librettist Gertrude Stein. (Read ARThound’s coverage here.)

Paiement founded Ensemble Parallèle in 1994 to perform new music and to collaborate with various artists such as dancers, choreographers, and visual and multimedia artists— as the Ensemble’s name suggests, in parallel.  These collaborations have allowed Ensemble Parallèle to reach a wider-ranging and younger audience.  In 2007 Ensemble Parallèle began to focus exclusively on contemporary chamber opera, producing works with vitality, edge, and appeal, so important in world of opera.

Gatsby Insights at 7:15 PM, prior to each performance

Run-time: 2.25 hours with one intermission

Sung in English/English Supertitles

Details:  All performances are held at Novellus Theatre, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, San Francisco, 94103

Friday, February 10, 2012
 – 8:00 PM
Saturday, February 11, 2012 – 8:00 PM
Sunday, February 12, 2012 – 
2:00 PM

Tickets are $35 to $85 and are on sale at the YBCA Box Office.  Call 415-978-2787 or order online at:

A Fitzgerald gem to ponder:  

I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade.

It was seven o’clock when we got into the coupe with him and started for Long Island. Tom talked incessantly, exulting and laughing, but his voice was as remote from Jordan and me as the foreign clamor on the sidewalk or the tumult of the elevated overhead. Human sympathy has its limits, and we were content to let all their tragic arguments fade with the city lights behind. Thirty – the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.  But there was Jordan beside me, who, unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age.  As we passed over the dark bridge her wan face fell lazily against my coat’s shoulder and the formidable stroke of thirty died away with the reassuring pressure of her hand.

So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight. (Nick,  The Great Gatsby, Chapter 7, pp 307-309)

February 5, 2012 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mats Carlsson: Yes, exactly!

How popular are the Swedish songs in the program?  

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your personal favorite Björling song and why? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SF Opera: “Made in Sweden” honors Swedish tenor Jussi Björling on the centennial of his birth, November 7, 2011

Leontyne Price as Lenora and Jussi Björling as Manrico in Il Trovatore, 1958, at San Francisco Opera. A special concert to commemorate Jussi Björling on the centennial of his birth will be held November 7, 2011. Photo: courtesy SF Opera

Swedish tenor Jussi Björling’s  flawless vocal technique, silvery beauty of tone, gleaming upper register, and superb interpretive skills made him one of the greatest and most beloved tenors of the twentieth century.  The Consulate General of Sweden, in cooperation with San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, will present “Made in Sweden” a special concert to commemorate the extraordinary musical legacy of late Swedish tenor, Jussi Björling (1911-1960), and to mark the centennial of his birth, on Monday, November 7 at 7 p.m., in the Conservatory’s Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, 50 Oak Street.

The multi-media program features live vocal performances by Mats Carlsson, a leading tenor of the Swedish Royal Opera and the first recipient of the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Society Award, established in 2008.  Björling expert Bertil Bengtsson will also offer historic recordings and a slide show presentation highlighting some of the greatest performers of the classical Swedish singing tradition, including Björling, Birgit Nilsson and others.  Audiences will embark on a fascinating and moving journey through the life of this incomparable artist and Swedish music and cultural history.  Special guest Anders Björling, Jussi Björling’s son, will introduce the program.  One of the greatest operatic voices of the 20th century, Jussi Björling, who was acclaimed at the world’s major opera houses during his historic career, gave nearly two decades of memorable performances at San Francisco Opera.    

Lyric tenor Mats Carlsson will perform folk songs and opera arias accompanied by leading Swedish pianist Love Dervinger.  In recent years, Carlsson has established himself as one of the most sought after tenors in Sweden in both opera and concert. He is praised for his shimmering Nordic timbre coupled with an Italianate style.  After a recent performance Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, noted that “Carlsson’s crystal clear diction and perfect blend of light and dark timbre of his voice can compare to Set Svanholm and Fritz Wunderlich.”

Jussi Björling as Chevalier des Grieux and Licia Albanese as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera’s “Manon Lescaut,” 1949. Photo: courtesy San Francisco Opera

Bertil Bengtsson is a co-founder of the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Society, and is a longstanding consultant with the Jussi Björling Museum in the singer’s hometown of Borlange, Sweden. For twenty-five years he has researched the life and career of Jussi Björling as well as other great singers of the past. His international lecture venues include the Smithsonian Institution, Friends of English National Opera, London, and The St. Olav and Kirsten Flagstad Festivals in Norway. He has also produced radio programs and articles about Jussi Björling and other singers.

Tenor Jussi Björling was born in Sweden in 1911.  He became a member of the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1930, and two years later began his international career in Germany, followed by Vienna (1936), Chicago (1937), and London’s Royal Opera, Covent Garden (1939).  He made his New York Metropolitan Opera debut in 1938 and sang as the leading tenor for the company for the next two decades.  Björling made his San Francisco Opera debut in 1940 as Rodolfo in La Bohème.  His career with San Francisco Opera spanned from 1940 through 1958, with repertory at the War Memorial Opera House and Company tours to Los Angeles and Sacramento including La Bohème, Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, Roméo et Juliette, Faust, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Don Carlo, and Rigoletto.  Björling’s flawless vocal technique, silvery beauty of tone, gleaming upper register, and superb interpretive skills have made him one of the greatest and most beloved tenors of the twentieth century.  He was regarded as the foremost Italian-sounding tenor of his day in the spinto rôles of Puccini and Verdi, and he also excelled in French opera. His tragic, early death in 1960 at age 49 ended a brilliant career that began during the acoustic era of recording and extended to the advent of stereophonic sound.

Swedish tenor Mats Carlsson, of the Swedish Royal Opera and the first recipient of the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Society Award will perform at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on November 7, 2011. Photo: courtesy San Francisco Opera.


Jussi Björling (1911-1960) possessed one of the greatest tenor voices of the 20th century. His musical legacy, along with other great performers of the classical Swedish singing tradition, will be celebrated in his centennial year with a combination of vocal performances by Mats Carlsson, leading tenor of the Swedish Royal Opera, and a multi-media presentation by Björling expert Bertil Bengtsson.  Audiences will be taken on a fascinating and moving journey through the life of this incomparable artist and Swedish music and cultural history. Special guest Anders Björling, Jussi Björling’s son, will introduce the program.


MUSICAL SELECTIONS: (Mats Carlsson & pianist Love Dervinger)

Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) / Saa tag mit hjerte (So take my heart)           

W. Peterson-Berger (1867-1942) / När jag för mig själv i mörka skogen går (When I walk by myself in the dark forest)

August Körling (1842-1919) / Aftonstämning (Evening mood)  

Ragnar Althén (1883-1961) / Land du välsignade (Thou blessed country)   

F. Liszt (1811-1886) / Piano solo: Petrarch Sonnet 104       

Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) / Jag längtar dig (I long for you)

C.L Sjöberg (1861-1900) / Tonerna (Harmony) 

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) / “Recondita armonia” from Tosca         

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) / “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’Elisir d’Amore

F. Chopin (1810-1849) / Piano solo: Ballade No. 4 in F-minor 

Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-1886) / “Cielo e mar” from La Gioconda        

Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901) / ”La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto   

TICKETS:  $20, available through the San Francisco Opera Box Office at (415) 864-3330 or   

The concert will be November 7, 2011 at 7 p.m. at the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak Street, San Francisco.

October 21, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment