Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco Opera’s new production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”—not so scary, but bloody grand it is!

Baritone Brian Mulligan is Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. He has escaped from wrongful imprisonment and returns to London, full of anguish and rage, to exact revenge on the vile Judge Turpin who sent him away on trumped up charges and destroyed his beloved family. The musical is big and bold and artfully combines the macabre with tender romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Baritone Brian Mulligan is Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. He has escaped from wrongful imprisonment and returns to London, full of anguish and rage, to exact revenge on the vile Judge Turpin who sent him away on trumped up charges and destroyed his beloved family. The musical is big and bold and artfully combines the macabre with tender romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

There’s nothing more satisfying than an occasional slice of pie!  And San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, offers just that─delectable meat pies with a killer secret ingredient served up in an exhilarating musical.  A co-production with Houston Grand Opera and the Paris Thèâtre du Châtelet, this Lee Blakeley production premiered in Paris in 2011, and garnered raves at the Houston Grand Opera in April 2015.  It features Sondheim’s original score for the lyric stage and boasts unforgettable tunes.  At the War Memorial Opera House, with a stand-out cast of singers who can also act, it has definitely found its groove.  The SFO orchestra and chorus are magical under guest conductor Patrick Summers.  Simon Berry’s powerful organ solos, which fill the opera house, punctuate the drama.  Wonderfully harmonic singing accompanies the throat slitting and a spare-no-expense big staging, designed by Tania McCallin transports the audience back to bleak 1860’s backstreet London.

In all, it’s a fitting coup for SFO’s Music Director David Gockley, who is retiring and is now in his final season.  Gockley has championed musical theater in the opera house to help build a wider audience base.  During his tenure at Houston Grand Opera in the 1980’s, it was he who mounted a groundbreaking production of Sweeney Todd, establishing HGO as the first opera company to stage the 1979 musical, originally directed for Broadway by Harold Prince and starring Angela Lansberry and Len Cariou.  By the looks and gleeful ovations of the audience at last Sunday’s performance, which included more in their teens and twenties than I have ever seen before, Gockley’s making headway at building that wider base.

The story: In London there once lived a barber named Benjamin Barker (baritone Brian Mulligan) and his sweet young wife and child and he loved them with all he had.  But the licentious Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs) had Barker exiled to Australia on trumped up charges, meanwhile holding his wife and daughter, Johanna, captive.  Turpin ravishes the wife, ruining her life, and the traumatized young Johanna grows up as his ward and house prisoner.  The wronged barber, going by the name of Sweeney Todd returns to London to exact revenge and teams up with an ambitious pie maker, with a few secrets of her own, who has high hopes that the barber will become her next husband.

At last Sunday’s matinee, there were three clear standouts —baritone Brian Mulligan in the title role; mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe as his pie baking accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, and baritone Elliot Madore as the young sailor, Anthony Hope.

From the moment he takes the stage, American baritone Brian Mulligan, commands full attention. Mulligan who sang the title role in SFO’s Nixon in China (2012) and, most recently, Chorèbe in Les Troyens (summer 2105), really channeled his dramatic flare, pulling off a dynamic performance with his rich vocals and acting.  Mulligan looks and a lot like School of Rock’s sensational Jack Black, so much so, that, at times, I half expected to see him amplifying his heartbreak with an electric guitar.  As the performance begins, Sweeney has just sailed into London with young Anthony Hope, Canadian baritone Elliot Madore, the winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in his SFO debut.  The duo’s energetic opener, “No Place Like London,” showcased the strength and lyricism of their blended voices, while Mulligan’s “The Barber and his Wife” conveyed sensitivity and heartbreak.  Later in the Act I, Mulligan’s chilling duo with Stephanie Blythe, “My Friends” referring to his razors, was powerfully macabre.

Madore, in his SFO debut, sung so tenderly throughout the afternoon that I too swooned, from he began wooing young Johanna away from her troubles with his exquisite “Johanna” to his ACTII reprise of that enchanting song and wonderful duos along the way.

Mezzo Soprano Stephanie Blythe is Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” When barber Benjamin Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he returns to his former barbershop where the landlady is still Mrs. Lovett. She runs a pie shop that sells the worse meat pies in London. Together, the two embark on a mutually beneficial venture─he sets up business as a barber and begins slashing the throats of his clients and she uses the bodies in her pies. Soon, she’s known for baking the most succulent pies in all of London. At San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Mezzo Soprano Stephanie Blythe is Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” When barber Benjamin Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he returns to his former barbershop where the landlady is still Mrs. Lovett. She runs a pie shop that sells the worse meat pies in London. Together, the two embark on a mutually beneficial venture─he sets up business as a barber and begins slashing the throats of his clients and she uses the bodies in her pies. Soon, she’s known for baking the most succulent pies in all of London. At San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Mezzo Stephanie Blythe is always an amazing stage presence but she outdid herself as shopkeeper Mrs. Lovett, a role that showcased her natural comedic genius and irrepressible bombast. She won hearts in “The Worse Pies in London” and continued to deliver full force delight in her Act I duo with Mulligan,  “A Little Priest,” an outlandishly hilarious culinary appraisal of humans as pie ingredients. Act II’s duos  “By the Sea” with Mulligan and “Not While I’m Around” with Tobias (Mathew Griggs) were exquisite. It was hard to believe that this is Blythe’s debut in this role; she’s set the bar high at SFO for future singers in this role.

There are also star turns by Heidi Stober as Johanna; Elizabeth Futral as Beggar Woman; AJ Glueckert as Beadle Bamford, Wayne Tigges as Judge Turpin; Matthew Grills as Tobias Ragg and David Curry as Adolfo Pirelli.

Canadian Baritone Elliot Madore, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and makes his SFO debut as Anthony Hope, who sails into London with Benjamin Barker and falls in love with his daughter Johanna (Heidi Stober) who has became a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs). Madore’s lyrical “Johanna” earned him an ovation at the September 20 matinee. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Canadian Baritone Elliot Madore, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, makes his SFO debut as Anthony Hope, who sails into London with Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd and falls in love with his daughter Johanna (Heidi Stober), now a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs). Madore’s lyrical “Johanna” earned him an ovation at the September 20 matinee. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

As ACT II opens, the San Francisco Opera Chorus goes wild for Mrs. Lovett’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) meat pies which have become the talk of Fleet Street. “God, That’s Good” they belch. Tobias (Matthew Griggs, with broom) helps wait on customers while Sweeney (Brian Mulligan, above) anticipates a custom-made barber chair that will allow him to slash a throat and send the body directly down a chute into the pie shop’s bakehouse. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

As ACT II opens, the San Francisco Opera Chorus goes wild for Mrs. Lovett’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) meat pies which have become the talk of Fleet Street. “God, That’s Good” they belch. Tobias (Matthew Griggs, with broom) helps wait on customers while Sweeney (Brian Mulligan, above) anticipates a custom-made barber chair that will allow him to slash a throat and send the body directly down a chute into the pie shop’s oven. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Stephanie Blythe at the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room October 4:  Blythe will perform her heart-warming cabaret show “We’ll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith,” about the great First Lady of Radio, Kate Smith, on October 4th, 2015.  For information and tickets ($70 or $100), click here.

Sweeney Todd Details:  There are 2 remaining performances of Sweeney Todd─Saturday, Sept. 26, 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 PM.  Both will be conducted by James Lowe.  Click here for tickets ($31 to $395) or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   While it’s sung in English, every performance of Sweeney Todd features English supertitles projected above the stage, visible from every seat.  For information about the SFO’s 2015-16 season, for which you can still catch all performances, click here.

September 26, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Interview: Opera’s Magical Mezzo, Stephanie Blythe, talks about her new musical tribute to Kate Smith, this Saturday, at Weill Hall, and, of course, opera


Stephanie Blythe appears at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall on Saturday, November 10, 2012, for a musical tribute to Kate Smith. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe Kate Smith, is renowned in the world of opera for her commanding voice and for her intense immersion in the roles she chooses to sing.  Her expansive classical repertory ranges from Handel to Wagner and she garners accolades wherever she performs.  In 2009, she was named Musical America’s “Vocalist of the Year.”   This Saturday, she brings a new program honoring Kate Smith, the legendary “Songbird of the South,” to the new Green Music Center’s acoustically stellar Weill Hall.  Blythe and her accompanist, pianist Craig Terry will present “We’ll Meet Again: Songs of Kate Smith,” a part-concert, part-historical conversation that has been getting rave reviews since it was first performed last year as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.

Kate Smith (1909-1986), who never took a formal music lesson, sang for WWI troops at U.S. Army camps near Washington when she was just 8.  She went on to galvanize our nation’s spirits throughout the Great Depression and WWII with her sumptuous voice and iconic renditions of “God Bless America” and “The White Cliffs of Dover.”  She was also closely associated “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” a soothing song which was based on a poem that she had written whose poignant ending, “I’m alone with my memories of you,” resonated with a war-torn America.  In her six decade career, she recorded over 3,000 songs and introduced over a thousand songs to America, over 600 of which made the hit parade.  At the height of her career, during WWII, she was one of the most popular women in America.  Ask any veteran who served in WWII about Kate Smith and you’re likely to hear a story about one of her songs that he or she holds dear.

On Tuesday, Election Day, I had the opportunity to speak with Stephanie Blythe about her interest in Kate Smith and American music and her upcoming opera performances.  She’s refreshingly direct and passionate about revitalizing interest in songs from America’s past, both on the part of audiences and young singers who have a generation of disconnection from heroic icons like Kate Smith.

Saturday’s program is a tribute and Blythe is not trying to sound like Smith, rather to honor her through her musical choices.  Those attending will come away with memories—there won’t be any commemorative programs distributed that list the songs or their lyrics because Blythe wants her audience active, participating and connected to her.  “I’ll be announcing the numbers from the podium and, believe me, most of the audience that I’ve been singing to don’t need a program.  They know this material well.”   The Kate Smith repertoire has been so popular that Blythe will do a recording of it— “things are in the works”— but there’s no release date yet.

What is the attraction to Kate Smith?  Did you grow up listening to your parents’ records of her?

Stephanie Blythe: As I was growing up and visiting my grandparents, back in the 1970’s, my grandfather played her records and listened to her on the radio.  I liked that voice of hers.  I started listening to her on my own after I started singing professionally.  I was very interested in Americana singers of that time period and I became specifically interested in her voice because she was phenomena, a natural untrained instrument, very beautiful and poignant.  I also liked the message she sent with the music she chose.  Had she sung opera she probably would have been a contralto or a very dramatic mezzo.

What’s her greatest contribution to American musical life?

Stephanie Blythe: Song wise, it’s “God Bless America” which became what it was because of her.  The song itself was written in 1918 by Irving Berlin while he was in the military but never used it for its intended purpose, a comedy show.  He sat on it and brought it out again for Kate Smith because she asked for it.  She wanted a patriotic song for Armistice Day 1938 and he re-worked it and he gave it to her.  She sang that on the radio in 1938 and it became her song.  Who knows, had she never asked him for a song, we might never have had “God Bless America.”

Kate Smith introduces “God Bless America” to America via Radio on Armistice Day, November 11, 1938

Her identification with patriotism and patriotic themes was famous and endearing.  Is it harder to be patriotic in today’s day and age?  It seems like acts of patriotism can be misinterpreted.

Stephanie Blythe: I am very patriotic and I actually feel very inspired when I sing this program.  This music brings out something very wonderful and communal.  It’s hard to be patriotic alone.  You actually need a community to be patriotic, which is not easy today because of things like the Internet, which are mainly used alone.  That’s almost the first requirement of the Internet—you connect with other people but you are basically alone when you’re doing it.  I frequently say that radio was the first social media because it connected everyone through what they were all listening to at the same time.   And that’s what is great about concerts today:  they bring people together in a wonderful way.  So, yes this is nostalgia but it’s also here and in the moment and, in that way, I feel I am being patriotic.  I’m glad I have this opportunity to bring people together.

About the program, we’re not expecting you to sound like Kate Smith but rather to honor her through your musical choices.  Are your voices at all similar?

Stephanie Blythe: Sometimes yes but, honestly, I don’t actively search for that when I’m singing.  I am singing in the same register she’s in though, so, sometimes, there is a resemblance.  It just comes from the color in our voices and that we’re both American singers.  When I’m singing some of these songs, I feel her very definite presence.  I don’t mean that in a weird way.  This is how she applied her trade and she was known through her songs and she still very much breathes life into all of these songs.

Kate Smith recorded nearly 3,000 songs during her life and made over 15,000 radio broadcasts. During one 18-hour stint for CBS radio, she sold $107 million of war bonds to help finance the war effort. When President Roosevelt introduced her to Queen Elizabeth of England in 1939, he said “This is Kate Smith. Miss Smith is America.” On May 27, 2010, the U.S. Post Office, with help from the U.S. Army, issued a stamp honoring Smith in a ceremony held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Are there any of her songs that are challenging to sing or that have challenging passages?

Stephanie Blythe:  No, that’s not what these songs are about.  Originally, these songs were written so that other people could sing them.  They were put on sheet music and available at music stores and meant to be purchased.  In those days, people had pianos or an instrument in their home and they played and sang these songs. You can interpolate challenging octaves when you want, and go higher than is naturally written, but these songs were meant for your average person.

Throughout the program, you go from talking to singing, is that hard to pull off?

Stephanie Blythe: It gets easier every time I do it but it’s not the tradition that I come from.  We don’t do that in opera.  I am very comfortable with that now.  It also depends on how the audience feels.  When the audience expects a recital, talking is not the norm, except in the end when maybe you do an encore.  But this concert is more of a cabaret than anything and it just takes practice.

Prior to Kate Smith’s repertoire, you also sang other popular music.  Can you talk a little about that?

Stephanie Blythe:  I’ve been singing music from Tin Pan Alley—basically music that was written between 1910 and 1930—in recital for a long time.  Now, I am actually doing more American popular songs in my regular recitals as a matter of course.  I believe these songs are very much part of our American song tradition and they need to be sung and people need to hear them.  I am very keen to get younger singers to sing this music too because it’s a real part of our history.

What have you heard about the new Green Music Center whose concert hall is modeled after Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall?  How much of a difference does a great concert hall make for you as a singer?

Stephanie Blythe:  I have to be honest and say that I haven’t sung this concert in a bad hall.  I’m very familiar with Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall and have sung there many times.  I did the acoustic test for that hall before it opened.  I just did this concert in Rockford, Illinois, at the historic Coronado Theatre (now called Coronado Performing Arts Center) and actually found it was very appropriate because it was a theatre that had once heard this very music.  It will also be wonderful to do this concert in the Weill Hall because that hall is very open and seems very friendly and I think this music will lend itself quite well to that stage setting.

Prior to scheduling, had you heard anything about the Green Music Center?

Stephanie Blythe:  Only from Mr. Weill, who I met at a Carnegie Hall function, and he spoke in the most glowing terms.

Stephanie Blythe talks about Opera (live and her HD performances)

Are there any changes in your voice that you’re noticing as you mature?  I know that you’ve been adding roles to your repertory, for example, last season at the Met you sang the role Amneris in Verdi’s Aida, which required a tremendous range, with many highs and lows and a great deal of emotional depth.  You got rave reviews.  And with Ulrica, too, from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, a role you’ve sung many times, and will reprise shortly at the Met, that part can be sung by a contralto or a mezzo.

Stephanie Blythe:  Of course, my voice is changing and I’m in my 40’s now.  The voice doesn’t really mature until you’re about 35—it’s changing constantly up until then—and lots of different thing can happen on top of that which can contribute to the voice changing.  I actually have been singing Amneris for quite some time now and Ulrica, too, for quite a while.  I find while I’m singing those roles, I’m also singing a lot of other stuff too, like early music, Handel.  I try to keep my vocal palate as wide as I can just to keep my voice very healthy.  My voice has changed and, at this point in my life. I am more in my voice than I have ever been before.  I know myself pretty well and bring that experience to these roles as well.

Stephanie Blythe will sing Ulrica, the fortune teller who drives the drama, in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” starting December 8, 2012. Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera

Those of us who attend the MetLive in HD productions are familiar with some of your fabulous roles.  We’ll have the chance to hear you sing Ulrica in the Met’s new production of Un Ballo in Maschera on December 8, 2012.  How are you prepping for that role and what is special about this new production? 

Stephanie Blythe:  Actually, I can’t tell you anything yet because I haven’t started rehearsing yet.  Dolora Zajick is singing the first five performances and then I come in for the final five.

I know that Fabio Luisi (Principal Conductor, Metropolitan Opera) will be conducting.  You worked together in last spring’s Ring Cycle  at the Met but this your first time to work on a new production with him.  Are you excited?

Stephanie Blythe:  Oh yes. I like Luisi very much.  First, he’s a lovely human being and a very talented singer’s conductor.  He’s very connected to the stage as well as the orchestra and that makes it a joy to work with him.

Do you watch yourself in your HD performances?  If so, what do you think?  I am also interested in the details, what you do differenty.  I am wondering if the makeup is different when you’re doing an HD performance because of the close-ups versus when it’s not being recorded?

Stephanie Blythe:  You know, I don’t do anything any differently with those HD performances than I would do any other time.  I really like the HD programming because it brings opera to difference parts of the country and the world and to those who would not ordinarily have a chance to see those shows.  I generally don’t watch them and I don’t watch myself.  I just don’t want to think about that kind of stuff when I’m performing.  I think about the audience I am singing to and I just hope that the camera can capture that.

Do they do your makeup differently?

Stephanie Blythe:  Yes they do and we’re actually not allowed to wear very much makeup at all.

Stephanie Blythe as the formidable goddess, Fricka, and Bryn Terfel as Wotan, her husband and ruler of the gods, in Robert Lepage’s groundbreaking production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in April 2012. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

We’re all thrilled with the announcement that in the next Met Season, Maestro Levine will be returning to the podium.  You’ll have a chance to work with him in Falstaff.   Are you excited about that?  

Stephanie Blythe:  I have sung Falstaff with Maestro Levine many times.  He has said to me that it is possibly his favorite show.  It’s one of my favorites too and I am very excited to have the opportunity to sing it with him again and just to share a performing experience with him again, which means so much.  I’ve been singing with him since 1995 and I always love it.  I am thrilled for the Met audiences too, who will be able to hear the orchestra under his leadership again.

Thinking about your performance in Falstaff, or those roles that you keep revisiting, how do you go about the process of figuring out how to keep a role fresh and exciting, or how you’ll sing it differently? 

Stephanie Blythe:  I don’t think anyone who sings any role in Falstaff has that concern.  Early in my career, 1996, I sang Mistress Quickly in Falstaff at the Met when I unexpectedly stepped in for Marilyn Horn who was ill.  That role has been special—it introduced me to just about every major house and I met my husband at Falstaff in Paris and I have met and worked with just about every Falstaff around.  You don’t have to work to make it fresh; it’s one of the most brilliantly written pieces in the repertoire—effervescent, exciting, and challenging musically.  The great Marilyn Horn has said there’s not a once of fat on it.  It is the leanest opera ever written with not one note out of place.  It’s also an ensemble work and whenever a new group comes together to sing it, it changes and evolves.

Do you feel the same way about the role of Fricka (wife of Woton, ruler of the Gods in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung), which you are synonymous with, and will be singing again in Seattle Opera Company’s August  2013 Ring Cycle

Stephanie Blythe:  I’ve sung that Ring Cycle in Seattle since 2000 and I adore it and I know a lot of the people who I will be performing with.  That production is so breathtaking and so brilliantly directed.  It is sort of like coming home to do it again and it takes me no time to get back into the swing of things with that piece.  Every time you’re introduced to a new person doing a role, because their personality comes through in the drama, it makes it fresh and new and you find a whole new litany of things that are going to be different for you.  Everyone comes to the plate with something different—that’s what makes it really exciting.

Dogs are very dear to my heart and I know you have a dog too.  My dog just loved Tina Turner.  Do you sing to your dog and what’s the reaction?

Stephanie Blythe:  Agnes Gooch, my black pug, died this past August. She really loved my singing.  When I learned Fricka for the very first time, I used to bring her to my rehearsals.  She was just a puppy then and she would fall asleep to my singing and very frequently she would sit under my feet while I practiced.  She really enjoyed the sound of the piano and of my voice.  She travelled basically everywhere with me.

Details: “We’ll Meet Again: Songs of Kate Smith”  is Saturday, October 10, 2012, at 8 PM at Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, at the intersection of Rohnert Park Expressway and Petaluma Hill Road, Cotati, CA.

Tickets are $90 to $30 and can purchased online (click here) OR by phoning the Box Office at (866) 955-6040.  Box Office hours:  Monday–Thursday 8 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. and Friday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. OR In Person at the Green Music Center (same hours as above).

Parking for this Green Music Center performance is included in ticket price.  Enter via Sonoma State University’s main campus entrance or its Rohnert Park Expressway entrance (closer to GMC).  Park on campus in lots L,M,N and O.  For more information, visit or phone 1.866.955.6040.

Stephanie Blythe’s Upcoming Performances Mentioned in this article:

Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD presentation of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera—New Production, Saturday, December 8, 2012, 9:55 AM, with encore performance Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 1 and 7 PM,  Run time: 3 hours, 55 minutes.  Sebastopol’s Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley Street, Sebastopol, CA.  (707) 539-9771.  Tickets $23 Adult and $21 Senior (62 and over). To purchase tickets, click here.

Metropolitan Opera: Verdi’s Un Ballo in MascheraNew Production.  Blyth sings the role of Ulrica for 5 performances: Tuesday, November 27, 2012, 7:30 PM; Friday, November 30, 2012, 7:30 PM; Tuesday, December 4, 2012, 7:30 PM; Saturday, December 8, 2012; Friday, 1 PM; December 14, 2012 7:30 PM.   For tickets and performance information, click here.

Seattle Opera Company’s Ring Cycle, August 4-25, 2013.  Stephanie Blyth sings Fricka, Norn.  Click here for performance information, special events and tickets.  Online Ticket presale begins Monday, November 9, 2012 at 9 a.m.

November 7, 2012 Posted by | Classical Music, Green Music Center, Opera | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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