Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

jcm’s Top 10 SF Performances of ’12

In the midst of the embarrassment of riches jcm partook in this year, above all, it was the year of the art song, “Hasa Diga Eebowa,” and contemporary american opera (and THIS without even having seen Moby Dick ;-(. This was particularly good news for art song and american opera, as it’s more the norm to bemoan their demise these days.

In capturing the highlights of the year, the performance and production were weighed most heavily, but in the case of new material, the script and score were of course considerations. Oh, and who can help some personal biases slipping in? Not jcm (ie: West Side Story = the greatest show ever written)! SO, here goes…

1) Sandrine Piau, (Susan Manoff, piano) CalPerfs, Hertz Hall

It was as if a gentle, gamine spirit had landed for just an hour or two, gracing us with her rare magic. She left us transfixed, susceptible to the whims of her potent storytelling. The program was studio-ready in its refinement and attention to detail, yet never bland or white-washed. She uses her lyric instrument to full advantage, painting a broad palette of tones and expressions. The very satisfying program featured french, german and english sets of Fauré, Bouchot, Chausson, Mendelssohn, Strauss and Britten, followed by a generous set of encores: “Voyage a Paris,” “Clair de lune,” and Strauss’s “Madchen Blumlein.”

sandrine-piau-black-and-white

TIE

Karina Gauvin,  (Michael McMahon, piano) Weill Hall at the Green Music Center

The Bay Area has been given a great gift in the form of the new Green Music Center. In structure it is reminiscent of the great Musikverein of Vienna. It is nearly all wood, which is visually rich, and acoustically perfect. In a word, intoxicating. This was the inaugural recital of the hall’s vocal series. They programmed very well, especially as Karina’s Bay Area appearances are rare. Highlights included: “Le Printemp” by Hahn, “Phylidé” and “L’Invitation au Voyage” by Duparc. For her encores, she performed Weill (ie: Weill Hall) and the Scottish “Ae Fond Kiss.” The latter was deeply satisfying. Her english diction is stunning, and her textual delivery particularly soulful. On a personal note, her sister and mother were in the audience, just a few rows in front of me. She shared that this was the rare performance they were able to attend, and dedicated a song to her sister. A special night indeed.

karina-gauvin

2) The Book of Mormon, National Tour, Curran Theatre

It takes you by the balls, and won’t let you go. I’ve rarely seen the kind of go-for-broke commitment from a cast as this. 21 year-old Grey Hensen, who played Moroni and Elder McKinley, as well as Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham stole the show. I live for Gavin Creel, but oddly he seemed not to embody the role as much as to act it. Surely he’s settled into it by now, or will fully by its UK West End run. The first 20 minutes have to be the most perfectly crafted portion of almost any Broadway show I’ve seen LIVE. You know…those laughing-and-crying at the same time moments? The vocal power in the ensemble numbers was very impressive. Having an 8 year-old behind us in the audience made the profanity and vulgarity seem even more raucous and saucy.

gavin-creel-book-of-mormon

Continue reading jcm’s Top 10 —>

Delicacies: The Finest Light Lyric Sopranos

Why LLS (Light Lyric Sopranos)? Why now?

In April, I attended the Cal Perfs recital of Sandrine Piau at Hertz Hall. I’ll wait until my “Top 10” EOY post to review it, but needless to say, she was sensational. I bought my tickets well in advance, knowing it would be the sleeper of the season.

However, at the time it crossed my mind that the recital came and went without much fanfare, she had no SF Opera presence in this or any season to date, the hall was only half full despite its intimate size, AND even few if any of my opera friends in-the-know had it on their must list. The reasons? Her career has been almost entirely in Europe, she’s essentially a “specialist” (ie: early music, Mozart, and lieder/art song), and she’s an LLS. Unfortunately, this fach rarely commands the same mainstream attention as the big guns, and in more standard operatic fare usually serves ensemble or comprimario roles.

I’ve spent much time on jcm raving about my beloved coloraturas, dramatic sopranos, and at times full lyrics, but it’s time I shed a spotlight on the finest LLS of our time (all of them active). I hope you discover an artist new to you.

Wikipedia shares that an LLS “has a bigger voice than a soubrette, but still possesses a youthful quality.” SO, clearly this doesn’t include the full lyrics, typified by a Fleming, Moffo, or Steber. Their predecessors are Elisabeth Schumann, Bonney, and Cotrubas.

What are the qualities I want in my LLS?

I look for well modulated technique, emission “on the breath” (unless for expressive purposes), singing within one’s “column of sound” (— L. Price), a balance of sweetness and brightness (not too much of one), good taste (which is VERY important in this fach, lest they become cloying), and of course unique interpretive and expressive abilities/gifts.

There’s no hard line drawn between fachs, so some of these singers have characteristics of a coloratura, soubrette, and lyric, but I believe they are at their essence LLS. It should come as no surprise that many of their coloratura skills are astonishing, as a leaner voice is wont to move fast at times.

Karina Gauvin

She was the inspiration for this post, because, she, like Sandrine is offering a Bay Area recital this year (this weekend!), which I’m not going to miss. As with Sandrine, it likely won’t be sold out, has been rather under-marketed, BUT will surely contain some of the finest singing the Bay Area has heard all year. Her holiday album Images de Noël is always a part of my Christmas. I also recommend her Baroque duet album with Marie-Nicole Lemieux: “Streams of Pleasure.”

Sandrine Piau

She is the definition of good taste, portraying a supreme elegance, self-possessed carriage, and pristine tone. Her Mozart aria recital CD is superior to Dessays, but she’s less flashy and more reserved, so not the mainstream marketing darling that Dessay has become. (I admire Dessay’s art too for different reasons.)

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jcm’s Top 10 SF Performances of ’11

It’s time for my third annual Top 10 round-up. These don’t attempt to be comprehensive reviews…but rather an Amuse-bouche of the most stellar performances I witnessed by the Bay, in ’11. How in the world can I compare a Pop Star to a Handel opera, you ask? Well…I warm up the jcm-ulator, and out come the tabulated results. It doesn’t lie. I seem to be trending towards opera, with musicals taking a back seat. Why? They sing louder, higher and without mics?

1) RING Cycle, SF Opera  details

With the carefully crafted characterizations of a stage play, this Cycle was a well-deserved hit and had the city abuzz with Wagner. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde was an utter triumph, equal parts true Wagnerian and singing actress. Stunning SFO leading role debuts were offered by Heidi Melton as Sieglinde, and Daveda Karanas as Waltraute. There wasn’t a weak link in the cast. Francesca Zambello’s concept was fortunately not too heavy-handed, largely staying out of the way of the story and score…more often informing it, and only periodically misstepping. I found the Industrial Revolution concepts throughout Das Rheingold to be the most iconic and potent. However, the mythic Die Walküre was the emotional highpoint, featuring the burnished, virile tenor of Brandon Jovanovich’s Siegmund. Siegfried was also surprisingly engaging. I had the good fortune of serving as Super Captain and Supernumerary in Walküre and Götterdämmerung.

2) Stacey Kent, Venetian Room, Fairmont Hotel  details

I fell in love with her voice three years ago. After stalking her tour schedule for a Bay Area performance, I got to experience her art live at last. She’s a real pixie…a gentle spirit, with a frail flutter to her vibrato. She completely transported me and her audience, casting a convincing spell. Her palpable, loving connection to her band leader, sax player and husband Jim Tomlinson added to the glow. She embodied “less is more,” drawing us in, rather than overworking her numbers in a too extroverted manner. Her set included lots of brazilian and french songs unfamiliar to me, some off her just released album. Come back soon Stacey!

 

Continue reading jcm’s Top 10 —>

jcm’s Top 10 Best LIVE Performances of ‘10

It’s that time again! I’m serving up my second annual Top 10 LIVE Performances of the year. It’s a follow-up to my ‘09 list. Sadly, there are no Broadway shows on this list. I plan on remedying that in 2011!

1. Die Walküre, San Francisco Opera (Details)

This production offered one of the finest casts that could possibly be assembled for this opera (and The Ring) in the current operatic landscape. The production said some new things, and offered a few fresh perspectives, but didn’t try too hard, or overshadow the score. Maestro Runnicles is a Wagnerian master, and he and the orchestra rose to the occasion again. Yeah, I was a “Supernumerary” in the production, but I was able to watch much of it from the orchestra during rehearsals, and even accounting for my bias, this would still takes my top spot. Enjoy my full review here.

Mark Delavan (Wotan) & Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde); Photo by Cory Weaver

2. Scalpel! The Musical, Brava Theatre (Details)

Can you say fun? It had me at the opening number, with countless heals and drag runway walks. It was the first show I’ve seen in the Brava, and I immediately loved this venue…the warm lighting, the urban ambience, and the straight, raked seating offering direct views. Even with all the camp and hijinks, the entire cast was completely committed to the material. This was the second mounting of the show, and my fingers are crossed that it returns yet again. Apparently, there was a bit of a curse on the production, with multiple cast injuries (including a very unfortunate broken leg for leading man, Mike Finn), but they pushed through, with some quick and fortuitous replacements and prevailed. Picturing Sara Moore as “poop-raking” TV reporter Kitty Kelly (“Hardballs” host) still makes me laugh.

 

Emily McGowan: Fritzy, Arturo Galster: Pepper Van Allen, Cindy Goldfield: Jacqueline Bulgari

3. Heidi Melton: Salon at the Rex, The Rex Hotel (Details)

To hear Heidi Melton plead in spoken french AND debut her chest voice was alone faint-worthy, and positively scintillating. And, to hear her in repertoire much outside her core operatic rep and comfort genres was a treat (ie: Irving Berlin and Kurt Weill cabaret, and Korngold songs). Her rendition of Berlin’s “Always” left not a dry eye in the audience. (Her Noe Valley Chamber Music Recital a few weeks before was also very beautiful). No thanks to the Adler “Future is Now” concert, which was on the same night, the recital was over all too soon (evidenced by a jcm quotation here and here)! I stuck around and imbibed and dined at the bar…I wanted to savor the spell Heidi had cast.

 

Continuing Reading jcm’s Top 10! —>

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet with SFO Adler Fellows

The Melding of Classical Voice & Dance


Thanks to my friend Sara, last night I attended one of the freshest, most daring shows I’ve seen in a very long-time. Somehow, it hadn’t even entered my radar before her mention of it. The first half was the World Premiere of Wheel in the Middle of the Field,” presented by Alonzo King Lines Ballet, and featuring a quartet of the current Adler Fellows, two of whom I touted in their Merola debut last year. The second half was “Rasa,” a piece performed by the dancers alone.

Other than brief insets within an opera, I’ve only seen the melding of dance with live classical voice a handful of times. The most effective have been Iphigénie en Tauride at the SF Opera (’07), with choreography by Phillipe Giraudeau, Purcell’s King Arthur by the Mark Morris Dance Company (Zellerbach, ’96), and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Sea Pictures” at the SF Ballet, set to Elgar’s song cycle, and sung by mezzo and Adler Fellow Katia Escalera (’01). This happy meeting of two of my favorite disciplines always leaves me wanting more. When I saw the listing of this program, I felt it was kismet, and clearly the product of someone thinking outside the box. Ultimately, this is the sort of risk that is a requirement if these art forms are to survive, having the power to woo the younger audiences we all pray for.

Alonzo King said about the project: “The challenge is to integrate body, mind and intention, within the individuals themselves and between the two different disciplines. I encourage them to explore and expand into their physical bodies, using the entire body as a vocal cord. I initiate exercises in being, not doing. Being without armor—which is difficult to do—is believing that what you are is enough.” That intent proved to be very successful.

Curtains Up!


The performance began with the Adler quartet taking the stage: Ryan Belongie, Sara Gartland, Maya Lahyani, and Austin Kness, (with accompanist Allen Perriello in the pit). The women wore beautiful, shimmering slate blue dresses, just below the knees in length. Gartland’s was spare with spaghetti straps, and Lahyani’s with an additional expressive band of fabric hanging down on her left shoulder. The men were in black, both with a subtle nod to a masculine, japanese Samurai silhouette. Surprisingly, they began not to sing, but to dance! The results were mixed, but it was quite unexpected and engaging. I respected the total emotional commitment from them, especially to something they aren’t presumably well-trained in.

Continue Reading LINES/Adler Review —>

jcm’s Best of ’09: A Look Back

In the quieter, darker, colder days of January, in addition to looking ahead to what the year will bring, and setting goals, it’s always especially nice to reflect back on the previous year, to recall and relive some of its finest moments. So, it is in that spirit that I share my Top 10 LIVE Performances List for the year.

1. Hair on Broadway (8/2): I’ve certainly said enough about this love-rock musical on my blog in the past 6 months, but for good reason. Attending the acclaimed Broadway production with CJ and some dear friends was deeply moving, and a wonderful way to further launch me into my ACLO production. Although the singing style was more “pop” than I’d like (relative to the original productions), when seeing it live, any stylistic qualms fell away, and the raw honesty of the production swept me away. Steel Burkhardt was a surprisingly good understudy for Will Swenson, as Berger.

2. Heidi Melton Recitals: (2/4) Her Salon at the Rex featured Purcell, Berg, Messiaen, Debussy, and Bolcom; (10/20) Her LIEDER ALIVE! recital second half at the SF Conservatory featured Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. Now in Berlin preparing for her Deutsche Oper Berlin debut, and just off her Met debut in Elektra, she thankfully gave San Francisco two satisfying recitals before her departure. The first was very casual in spirit, much like the salons of old, I imagine…a great artist sidled up to the piano, friends and fans with cocktails in hand, and the artist just telling stories, in words and song. Perfect! The second prooved her Wagnerian chops in the demanding Wesendonck.

3. The Cockettes’ Pearls Over Shanghai (8/15): Straight from The Cockettes’ closet and into The Thrillpeddlers’ Hypnodrome…this irresistable tale is told in glitter, technicolor, pasties, and skin, with raw, campy delivery, and a bawdy flavor. I am happy to now be a part of this production, its first revival since its creation in the late ’60s. John Waters just graced our audience. Don’t miss it!

4. David Wilcox at the Swedish American Hall (3/23): First row, perfect intimacy and completely disarming open-heartedness.

5. Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment at SF Opera (10/22): This Pelly production is an example of a fresh take on an opera that enhances a classic, not apologizes for or covers it up. Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Florez struck the perfect balance of bel canto purity and knee-slapping hijinx. It was genuinely funny throughout…true laughter spilled forth from the audience, not just the polite opera-laughter one is accustomed to. Meredith Arwady’s turn as The Marquise de Berkenfeld was beyond her years in comedic timing, and positively ebullient.

6. Next to Normal on Broadway (8/2): Like really good therapy…onstage. Vocal chops for days from all 6 performers. Alice Ripley may be crazy, but she’s perfect in this role, and the show lives up to its buzz.

7. Verdi’s Requiem at SF Opera (5/29): This was a moving farewell for Donald Runnicles. Heidi Melton and Stephanie Blythe melded beautifully. Melton stepped in last minute for an ailing Patricia Racette. The performance just crackled with emotion and commitment. And, how special to experience a sacred choral masterwork in our opera house!

8. Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess at SF Opera (6/12): To finally hear this score performed live in its original operatic context was a true thrill, especially after growing so fond of pop and jazz renditions for decades. Laquita Mitchell and Eric Owens lovingly gave 120%.

9. Rossini’s Semiramide at Caramoor (7/31): In this case especially, it’s hard to separate memories of the setting and journey from the performance itself, but the warm summer air, cultivated audience, and Queer Opera Punk friends in tow helped make it very memorable. It starred bel canto masters Angela Meade, Vivica Genaux, Lawrence Brownlee, and Daniel Mobbs. And, how lovely to discover my old choir friend Heather Meyer in the chorale!

10. Paul Taylor Dance Company at YBCA (5/2): This Program C included Arden Court, (Music by William Boyce: Symphonic Excerpts), Private Domain (Music by Iannis Xenakis: Atrees), and Offenbach Overtures (including La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein and Berbe-Bleue Overtures). Unfortunately, this year held few dance performances for me, but, at least included this one! CJ’s high school acquaintance Rob Kleinendorst is a long-time company member. The Offenbach was absolutely hysterical, not the sort of tone I expected from the company. A real fresh surprise! Last time I saw their tour, I was floored by their dramatic, apocalyptic Promethian Fire. Although not intentional, it felt like a 9/11 tribute. Well, this Offenbach couldn’t be more different, and shows their breadth.

Honorable Mentions: South Pacific Tour, GG Theatre, SF; American Idiot, Berkeley Rep (World Premiere, and Broadway-bound); Kylie Minogue concert, Fox Theatre, Oakland, CA; Pink Martini in concert, Davies Symphony Hall, SF; Souvenir, with Judy Kaye and Donald Corren, Geary Theatre, SF; SF Opera Auditions for the General Director (David Gockley) highlights: Michael Sumuel’s “O! Du mein holder Abendstern”, Ryan Belongie’s “Cara Sposa” and Nathaniel Peake’s “Salut demeure chaste et pure” and “Ah! lève-toi soleil!”.

Overrated/Yawners: In the Next Room: The Vibrator Play, Berkeley Rep (now on Broadway?! I fell asleep.); Billy Elliot on Broadway (some great moments and some great dancing do not a great musical make).

Post With the Most @ Gay Sports Blog

My post with the most “hits” ever (ok, that’s only since February ’09, but it’s still notable) has also just found a home over at gay.com’s Gay Sports Blog. Clearly peeps just can’t get enough of Johnny.

My originally titled “Pop Star on Ice” @ The Castro Theatre is now enjoying a second coming here: Review: Johnny Weir’s “Pop Star on Ice”. (Special thanks to Aaron. Hey, I scratch your back…you scratch mine!? jk)

Photos: Jay Adeff, Anon., and Kevork Djansezian / AP

Photos: Jay Adeff, Anon., and Kevork Djansezian / AP

It’s always lovely to reach an even broader audience.

Keep an eye out for a screening near you!

Violetta à trois

Netrebko, Pérez & Futral: A Study in Contrasts

Part of the fun of experiencing multiple divas in a single role, particularly in the same production run, is drawing up comparisons. Sometimes the differing quality of an “A” and “B” cast can be seen from a mile away, but in the case of the recent run of La Traviata at the San Francisco Opera, all three Violettas offered equally worthy performances. Anna Netrebko can sell tickets like no other, but the goods delivered by the other divas were not disproportionate. And, can you imagine a more beautiful trio of divas? I can’t.

I enjoyed portions of performances and dress rehearsals (sometimes vocally “marked”), from on-stage, backstage, as well as over the dressing room speakers! Perhaps this is not the most complete, or un-biased manner in which to judge a performance, but is a very broad and diverse one. I had some fun comparing and contrasting this wealth of riches, especially as I don’t imagine this opportunity will come again soon.:

NetrebkoAnna Netrebko:

Voce: Dark and throaty

 

Presence: Brooding and tempestuous

 

Diva comparison: Moffo and Vischnevskaya

 

Libiamo: White Russian (pardon the pun…rich and creamy, but with a kick)
 

Violetta traits: Embodied true glamour, and launched vocal climaxes with a surprisingly spinto-scaled soprano.
 

Best Act: Act III, delivered a deeply felt sense of tragedy

 

 

 

PérezAilyn Pérez:

Voce: Round and buoyant

 

Presence: Vulnerable and feminine

 

Diva comparison: De los Angeles and Scotto

 

“Libiamo”: Cosmo (contemporary and chic)
 

Violetta traits: Created a sympathetic, verismatic characterization, and elicited real pathos. Brought refulgent, unforced tone in the middle voice. Wooed with her bright, expressive eyes.
 

Best Act: Act II, rendered heart-breaking tenderness

 

 

 

FutralElizabeth Futral:

Voce: Bright and flexible

 

Presence: Gamine and lithe

 

Diva comparison: Albanese and Sills

 

“Libiamo”: Champagne (sparkling and light)
 

Violetta traits: Offered free and flirtatious movement, and really worked the entire stage. Hit pin-point accuracy in coloratura, as if played on a keyboard.
 

Best Act: Act I, reigned in “Sempre Libera”, with the lone high E flats in the run (much appreciated, despite being interpolated). Her use of mezza voce were also masterful and well modulated.

 

 

Addio, Addio Violetta!

Here’s one of my favorite photo moments from the run. Sadly, my service to Violetta comes to an end with today’s matinee (tear). Signing-off Violetta…

Me as Chauffeur, with Anna (post-Act I)

Me as Chauffeur, with Anna (post-Act I)

“Pop Star On Ice” @ The Castro Theatre

Johnny in heels

When my friend booked my ticket to “Pop Star on Ice” at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, I knew the flick would dish up plenty of bitchy humor and celeb-style entertainment, and figured it would reveal Johnny Weir as a fascinating, but also superficial and narcissistic personality. Instead, he thankfully comes out looking disarmingly and utterly real, complex, insanely and innately gifted, and truly one-of-a-kind. And, the documentary itself is a lovingly crafted piece, telling the story of his life, not just to frivolously entertain, but also to enlighten and inspire.

I’ve always rooted for Johnny, especially when pitted against Evan (Lysacek). My tendency towards the underdog, and his vulnerable, straight shooting (pardon the pun) personality has always drawn me to him. Clearly, as 3-time National Champion one could hardly call him an underdog, at least a few seasons back, but the traditional expectations and desired mold purported by the US Figure Skating Federation and community against which he has had to push qualifies him as such, in my mind.

I will try not to divulge too much detail about the movie, as I’d hate to steal any of the thunder of your experiencing it fresh, but I want to at least help tout this excellent film by dangling a few carrots.

The opening titles are accompanied by critical sound bits about Johnny, narrated in multiple dialects/accents, with hysterical comedic flair: flamboyantly gay, Paris Hilton Valspeak, Minnesotan housewife, Russian, and so on. At the end we discover that this is not the voice of just any narrator, but Johnny himself…yet another skilled and entertaining facet of this performer and personality. If you don’t mind a spoiler, of sorts, watch this intro segment here.

One of the opening scenes sets the tone…clearly Johnny does not take himself too seriously (off the ice), and is just as willing to make fun of himself as others, which is very endearing. He sits naked (presumably) in a frothy bubble bath with his best friend Paris Childers, wearing a campy blond wig, whilst interviewing him in a thick Russian dialect. He asks him questions about Johnny (himself), and Paris answers in queeny fashion. Johnny says they’re so close, “we’re like a married couple without the sex”. Wait, married couples have sex? jk!

Paris & Johnny

 

The story-telling of the documentary is crafted along a graphic timeline (complete with illustrated icons!) of Johnny’s skating career, and the three primary locales in which he has lived (Quarryville, Pennsylvania; Newark, Delaware; Lyndhurst, New Jersey). It moves back and forth along this timeline to give you a perspective of a competitive season, but also a bigger picture of an athlete’s progress over a longer span. This technique helps build drama, as we see Johnny train, and then how he holds up in competition (although the results are of course not a surprise, it makes the story more interesting).

We soon meet Priscilla Hill, Johnny’s coach from age 12 to 2007. Interestingly, he was drawn to her because she too was a clockwise spinner/jumper. Their relationship is just as complex as Johnny himself is. They clearly have/had a great love and admiration for one another (one part mother/son, one part fag hag/fag), and she helped make him what he has become, but also they had reached a point where they perhaps knew each other too well, and were steeped in some bad habits, which was leading to unsuccessfully training and poor competition results. As with any artist, sometimes one just needs freshening up, a new setting, and/or a new team to collaborate with. I even feel this in my profession, where every 5 years or so have found it best to move on to new horizons, and change things up a bit (of course, economic-related lay-offs have helped this along!). You learn different things from different people, and it would foolish to expect one person to be able to offer everything one would need in such an evolving sport.

Priscilla & Johnny

 

It is moving to see Johnny return to his childhood home, where he has both sentimental memories, as well as anxiety, as he is hardly the Quarryville status quo. His first-grade teacher Tawn Battiste is a big fan, and they share a mutual admiration. He visits her current class, and poses for a photo with them.

Other skaters Evan Lysacek, Brian Joubert and Stephane Lambiel have a presence in the film, and some are even interviewed. Johnny’s realness is magnified when contrasted with interviews by Evan, who feels much more calculated, and as if he is carefully measuring what he says, likely to please. Although I have nothing against Evan, think he has much to offer, and certainly believe he deserved to be ’07 National Champion, I was highly amused by (and shared in) the audience hisses at The Castro Theatre, anytime he appeared on screen. He comes across as a villain/antagonist-of-sorts in this film, which is exacerbated by the general media’s highlighting of their “rivalry”.

Given that Johnny was inspired to start skating in his backyard, after seeing Oksana Bauil win the ’94 Olympic Gold, it feels particularly fateful, and fortuitous that he leaves Hill to train with Galina Zmievskaya, Bauil’s former coach. Her more demanding approach, less “friend” or “mother” than Hill had become, appears to be a smart move for Johnny, at least for his ’07-’08 season.

A fallMore than any other source I’ve experienced, this film really allowed me to symphatize with the trials skaters and athletes must push against, and the roller-coaster ride of ebbing and waning commitment, passion, connection to one’s sport/art, etc. It is unbearable to watch Johnny train for the ’07 Nationals. We see a quickly edited succession of his multiple jump attempts (and frequent falls). The toll this takes on the body is so easily understood when seen in this way. We see him distracted, without focus, looking quite underweight, and also struggling to work well or even communicate with Hill. It was clear the outcome would not be good.

Perhaps I should find it more frustrating that Johnny does not “come out” even in this context, but after watching this film, I feel he is withholding little about his life. Some notion of his romantic life would have been welcome, and the lack of it leaves him looking a bit asexual, but frankly, that is his business, and perhaps is better fodder for his tell-all autobiography (in 2020?).

Johnny with the directorsThe question of whether Johnny is a Pop Star, or not, is answered in that he is indeed one in the eyes of “Johnny’s Angels”, and his fans throughout Russia, Asia, and yes, even America. But, as to whether he’s a true, mainstream Pop Star, not yet…once his competitive career is over (after Vancouver, I presume), I’m sure he could be easily launched into that ether, if he so chooses…as he has all the makings of one, and will have more time to nurture his “brand”.

I was heartened to discover that this same directing team of David Barba & James Pellerito will be involved in the upcoming 8-part reality series about Johnny’s quest for Olympic Gold. At the end of the film there was a Q&A with them. Their involvement in the reality series compelled me to ask the following (to paraphrase): “Since training for the Olympics is such a grueling process, how do you remain transparent to Johnny so that your filming, or the “celeb” aspects of being in a reality series are not a distraction for him?

The director’s responses were that they remain pretty invisible to Johnny and his team, and have developed a good relationship with him/them, so that if they felt their presence wasn’t welcome in a given context, they could give him/them space. But, Johnny and the team got so used to them that they weren’t playing for the camera, or really noticing them in the training contexts.

The reality series, which will pick up where this documentary left off, will air early next year on the Sundance Channel, building up to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics!

 

The New ’09 Merola Generation

Auditions for the General Director

I sat in on this private San Francisco Opera, Merola Program event last night. It is billed as David Gockley’s first opportunity to hear the new batch of ’09 Merolini. I was lucky to be able to enjoy the acoustic and easy view from the boxes. The singers each walk out on the stage individually and sing a single aria of their choice. For 23 singers that was about a 2 hour parade of arias. However, given the level of talent Merola presents, it was highly enjoyable, and flew by.

MerolaThen, after a 15 minute or so intermission, once Gockley, Sheri Greenawald (Director), and the other musical staff have deliberated, they request back a handful of artists (8 this time) to sing an additional aria which the staff specifies. I imagine it’s to hear that singer in a different genre (ie: they first heard a soprano perform Wagner, and then requested Mozart for her second aria), as they will be casting them as comprimari and understudies in upcoming seasons.

As is always the case, this batch showed a great deal of promise, and also presented a few singers that seemed quite seasoned. (See the complete roster of singers and apprentice coaches below.) There are several singers in particular that are still lingering in my memory this morning, and for very good reason. They either have exceptional technique, or that X-Factor that may project them into a big career. All of the singers were enjoyable, and I hope all find some degree of fulfillment in a successful career.

The Big Picture

I hope the men are offered “Buying a Suit That Fits: 101, as there were quite a few that didn’t present themselves in the best light. I understand that young artists normally don’t have expendable cash, but fashion is an important part of their image that can be a distraction if overlooked (3 snaps!). The women, not surprisingly held this bar higher. However, vocally, the scale tipped in the men’s favor, which is welcome, as male vocal talent of the highest level seems to generally be more scarce of late. Overall, the lyric sopranos and mezzos offered a greater dose of brightness than I like. This left me craving Merola ’08′s Joelle Harvey, who had perfectly controlled technique, never sang beyond her “column of sound” (as L. Price used to refer to it), and was an actress equal to her vocal abilities. Many of the singers rushed their phrasing, which was likely the result of the adrenaline that must be rushing in this rather unnerving setting, and singers are works-in-progress at this phase of their development, so for this they are forgiven!!! There must be something in the water in Iowa, as 3+ of the singers were from towns there (none I’d heard of): Agency, Royal, and Charles City.

Wagnerian Heights

The great surprise is that we were treated to five Wagner selections, all well performed, and most on a par with the pros. This is quite unusual at an event like this, which is more typically inhabited by a greater majority of lyric voices and rep. I applaud Merola for investing in these singers, and applaud these singers for harnessing such dramatic and rare instruments.

Grandi Voci

Michael Sumuel For me the most complete package of the night was Michael Sumuel, who sang “O! Du mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhauser. He was one of two performers that touched me on a deeper level (tears), the next singer noted being the second. He has a real generosity of spirit in his performing, welcoming the “audience” in with his open arms and heart. His breath support was astounding, and his tone dark and beautiful, like a young Willard White, with a touch of Simon Estes’ edge.

Ryan BelongieI was so pleased to discover a countertenor on the roster, and Ryan Belongie was not just a novelty item in this company. This is a major talent. He has the plumminess and musicality of David Daniels, but with the restraint and minimalism of Andreas Scholl. He sang “I know a bank” from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as Handel’s “Cara Sposa”. He was transfixing, and really knew how to create a sense of theatrical space around him (I could almost “see” the sets). He is a bit of a young Peter Sellars (the opera director) look-alike. One small gripe is that the fast “B” section of “Cara…” was not as masterful as the rest, but it is amazing to consider he moved on from the tenor fach not too long ago, as I understand.

Nathaniel PeakeTenor Nathaniel Peake was one of three singers returning from the Merola ’08 roster. He matched last year’s “Salut demeure chaste et pure” with “Ah! lève-toi soleil!” from R&J. He is reminiscent of the great french tenor of past Georges Thill, and has phenomenal idiomatic french diction and technique, balancing the nasality with an open-throated tone. He offered the most perfect, finely spun, on-the-breath, diminuendo high A I may have ever heard, to top it off. We were rapt.

Gregory CarrollWe had a true heldentenor in our presence, in the form of Gregory Carroll. Seeing Jane Eaglen noted as one of his teachers was heartening too. He sang “Meine liebe Schwan!” from Lohengrin, as well as “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci. He left me wanting nothing more vocally. He could hit the stage tomorrow in a Wagner opera and deliver the vocal goods. But, he will need to learn to engage his body more in portraying his characterizations.

Maya LahyaniThe first of the two strongest offerings from the women came in the form of Israeli mezzo Maya Lahyani’s Werther aria. She is reminiscent of Tatiana Troyanos, in her passionate commitment as a tragedienne, and plummy tone. She had the X-Factor and offered the most unique and stylish look as well. Her list of teachers was very impressive, and have clearly rubbed off some of their greatness: Regine Crespin, Regina Resnik and Ruth Falcon. She did proove that she does not yet have bel canto chops in “Di tanti palpiti”, but I don’t feel that’s the rep where she will make her imprint.

Lori GuilbeauAnd, Lori Guilbeau offered a glorious “Einsam in trüben tagen”, as well as a vocally large-scaled “Ah! Fuggi il traditor!”. She offered some parallels to Carroll (above), in that she has true Wagnerian chops, and a refulgent tone, but needs to hone her physicality to match her vocal goods…which will surely come with time. She possesses a head of gleaming white blonde hair that would make any Sieglinde jealous.

Other Excellent Offerings

Susannah Biller bested her first offering with a plangent “Ach, Ich Fühl’s”. Aleksey Bogdanov offered a very seasoned Iago aria, from Othello, with a James Morris-like villainous snarl and bite. It was nice to get some dramatic mezzo action in the form of Margaret Gawrysiak’s “Stride la Vampa”. Brian Jagde, a recent convert from baritone had a big, ringing voice, and equal swagger in “Recondita Armonia”. And, bass baritone Yohan Yi offered a very resonant technique, and confident delivery in Mephistopheles’ aria (“Tra la la la”).

I eagerly await the debuts of all the Merolini in the summer operas, and into the future! I will most certainly not miss their L’Amico Fritz, as it’s so rarely done, and features Mr. Peake, among others.

The Complete Roster: ’09 Merolini

Sopranos
Susannah Biller, Georgetown, Tennessee; Lara Ciekiewicz, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Kate Crist, Agency, Iowa; Sara Gartland, St. Paul, Minnesota; Lori Guilbeau, Golden Meadow, Louisiana

Mezzo-sopranos
Margaret Gawrysiak, Geneseo, Illinois; Caitlin Mathes, Dayville, Connecticut; Ellie Jarrett, Dallas, Texas; Maya Lahyani, Hod-HaSharon, Israel

Contralto
Suzanne Hendrix, Charles City, Iowa

Countertenor
Ryan Belongie, Beaver Dam, Wisconsin

Tenors
Eleazar Rodríguez, Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico; Gregory Carroll, Des Moines, Washington; Brian Jadge, Piermont, New York; Alex Mansoori, Seattle, Washington; Nathaniel Peake, Humble, Texas

Baritones
Aleksey Bogdanov, Odessa, Ukraine; John Chest, Greenville, South Carolina; Paul Scholten, Muskegon, Michigan; Michael Sumuel, Odessa, Texas

Bass-baritone
Yohan Yi, Pohang, The Republic of Korea

Basses
Evan Boyer, Louisville, Kentucky; Benjamin LeClair, Royal, Iowa

Apprentice Coaches
Keun-a Lee, Seoul, The Republic of Korea; Stephanie Rhodes, Alpine, Utah; Tamara Sanikidze, Tbilisi, The Republic of Georgia; Suzy Smith, Medicine Hat, Alberta; Miaomiao Wang, Lanzhou, Gansu, China

Apprentice Stage Director
Fernando Parra Bortí, Chihuahua, Mexico

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