Archive for the ‘san francisco opera’ Tag
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!
Enjoy an updated and edited version of my previous post on San Francisco Opera’s “Notes from Valhalla: The RING Blog”:
Two years ago I began a journey into the fire…into San Francisco Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. That journey comes full circle (pun intended) this month.
It all started when I was invited to collaborate on the iconic brand image and identity for this Ring (with the fantastic design and marketing studio Mission-Minded). This alone was a dream come true. I had become an official Wagner-phile when I experienced SFO’s previous naturalistic production in 1999, with my dear operagoing friend Gil. (Watch the documentary Sing Faster for a great glimpse of that beloved production.)
The creative process began with a meeting with Director Francesca Zambello and General Director David Gockley, to discuss the particular approach of this new production (shared with ENO and WNO, but not yet performed in its entirety). The goal: to highlight the concept of destruction and rebirth, and portray a dose of the production’s modernity, including an accessible and familiar visual vernacular. (The production employs a trailer, projections of power lines and electrical towers, an office building board room, a stylish, contemporary bedroom…to mention just a few of these modern nods.)
The iconic image evolved in a direction that also took a tragic nod from 9/11, using the burning and fall of city skyscrapers to show the destruction of a civilization, parallel with that of nature (via a forest). Perched atop this, a reborn/renewed female visage…a triumphant Brünnhilde. The photo-illustration was made up of 15 or so separate images.
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.
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.
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.
Enjoy the newest in my “Diva Website Series” (that’s tongue-in-cheek…well, perhaps it shouldn’t be?):
www.rhoslynjones.com just went LIVE!
Visit this new website to keep up and connect with San Francisco Opera Merola & Adler alumni, “The delicious diva,” soprano Rhoslyn Jones. Experience her amazing artistry, musings, repertoire, acclaim, and don’t miss out on her upcoming performances!
Your clicks will also help her site more swiftly climb to the top of the search engine results…so, thanks for clicking around!!!
(I designed and built it on the squarespace.com platform.)
The Adventures of…
“Look! Up on the stage! It’s a samisan, it’s a parasol, it’s SUPER-KOKEN!
Slower than a drifting glacier, more stealthy than a leopard on the hunt.
Able to spin the turntable in a single hook.”
Further Feats: 40 minutes of standing in a demi-plié, 6 child’s poses, 30 minutes in a forward yoga lay, 16 turntable rotations, 1 death-defying silk drop catch, and more!
But, don’t all superheroes have baggage? Thus, I deliver my diagnosis of the Koken: In need of treatment for OCD and chronic inefficiency. These Kabuki-inspired characters in San Francisco Opera’s Madama Butterfly (of which I am 1 of 6) unfailingly offer up perfectly aligned prop placement and table settings, and impossibly measured, controlled movement. SICK!
From a serious perspective, I love exploring and learning different kinds of movement (and dance). Ours requires us to be very in sync, and move nearly as one, in an energized, yet internalized way (like the Tai Chi we trained in). It’s been the best workout I’ve gotten in ages (boy, those pliés are GREAT for the inner thighs!). I’m also savoring the meditative, spiritual practice I’m experiencing through the incredible presence this technique requires.
Given that our all-black costumes are very much like those of a ninja, our presence lends an air of intrigue and gravitas to the unfolding of the proceedings.
Demystifying Illusion & Stagecraft (WARNING: SPOILERS)
I’m amazed at how transforming the art of illusion and stagecraft are, when used so masterfully. Up-close and unlit, the set shows its almost 30 years, and doesn’t really “sing”…BUT, when lit, and from the house, it emerges full bloom into a seemingly living and breathing world. The fiber board panels with overlapping green carpet look like REAL stone and earth. The perforated metal panels that up-close look too thick and heavy-handed, appear exactly like paper screens. GENIUS!
The technological trick that enables the crew to rotate the turntable a calculated amount each time is a crafty system that includes UV painted numbers on the TT rim, that when black-lit from the side are visible only to the offstage crew. This ensures exact placements every time. WOW! Yes, the cat’s outta the bag, the Koken only pantomime the TT rotation, but it’s still a workout to make it look real, with right degree of physical tension.
Honored & Humbled
I’m about to embark on one of my most exciting stage opportunities to date. Tomorrow night I dive into rehearsals for the San Francisco Opera production of Madama Butterfly. It’s the acclaimed 1982 Harold Prince (Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, etc.) production from Lyric Opera of Chicago, most recently seen in LOC’s ’08/09 season.
I’ll be one of six Koken, a Kabuki-style performer and stage assistant/
attendant. Traditionally, their duties include assisting the leading cast with properties and costumes, helping create special and supernatural effects to propel and enhance key plot points, and acting as puppeteers. Although done discreetly, all of this is done onstage, in plain view.
From Behind Black Cloth
We’ll be clothed in all-black costumes, including a robe with cloth belt, partially transparent, veiled hood, cloven boots, and gripper gloves. They are not unlike tailored, ninja costumes to my eyes. In my surfing (aka research), it seems as if our costuming may more accurately define us as a Kurombo (meaning “black fellow,” for the costumes), rather than a Koken (meaning “assistant”). They serve the same function, but are typically costumed differently. Read more about Kabuki and Koken history here, here and here.
Apparently, in this production, the Koken are onstage for most, if not all of the performance. There are extended sections in which only the Koken are onstage, including a 30-minute ritualistic pre-show, involving the set up of various props, which will also be repeated at intermission.
The production also features a turntable that rotates over 25 times in both directions. The Koken connect sturdy hooks on thick ropes to slots on the turntable to simulate its turning. Thank goodness this one is ALL illusion! (Although, it sounds like I’m going to still have to have really good knees.) I don’t want to reveal any of the other illusions, lest I spoil the surprise element. There is an effective, almost jewel-box-like intimacy to this production, as you can see in the photo above, perhaps necessitated by the turntable.
Tai Chi Preparation
In order to help us master the specificity of movement required, we will be training in Tai Chi. with Cory Chan of Kei Lun. Training in a 700+ year old Chinese martial arts practice for a Japanese-themed opera, you ask? (I asked the same thing.) Well, I’d never done Tai Chi, but the small sampling of it I got in the audition whet my palate, as it seems the perfect balance of meditation and dancer-like movement. It’s a great way to really “get in” one’s body, and the intricate sequences will help prepare the mind for the staging sequences that will be asked of us.
Performances are October 12th through November 27th. Buy tickets here. Our cast will include Svetla Vassileva / Daniela Dessì (Cio-Cio-San/Butterfly), Stefano Secco (Pinkerton), Quinn Kelsey / Brian Mulligan (Sharpless) and recent Adler grad Daveda Karenas (Suzuki). Nicola Luisotti / Julian Kovatchev will conduct, and SFO regular Jose Maria Condemi will direct this remounting.
Here goes…I’m ecstatic! How lovely to be able to add a Puccini opera to my previous experiences in a Verdi, Wagner and Philip Glass opera. This opera has never been one of my favorites (other than the few obvious musical highlights), but I’m sure this experience will spark a new love affair with the score.
I leave you now with arguably the most famous selection from the opera, sung by a legendary Cio-Cio-San:
The Omniscient Mussel, hostess of the famed OperaPlot contest is writing a piece about opera standing room culture, and has put out a call for standees’ tales on the experience. Below are the my submitted musings.
Standing in San Francisco
I’ve enjoyed standing room at San Francisco Opera many times over my past 17 years in the Bay Area. My first experience of it at The War Memorial Opera House was from the rear Orchestra at the ’95 Die Walkure, starring Jane Eaglen and James Morris. It was also my first-ever live Ring opera. Having only familiarized myself with a few recorded highlights, the score was surprisingly lyrical, and Jane’s approach refreshingly bel canto.
The first half flew by, and I nearly forgot I was standing, so captivated I was by the evening. Plus, given that opera singers work SO hard, standing for hours themselves, whilst exhibiting a mastery of language, character, vocal technique…it’s a worthy trade. Cupid struck my heart with this taste of the Ring and I haven’t looked back since.
OK…I confess, I did that night what many daring standees do, which is to trickle down into a seat left empty by someone who bailed during the intermission. SO, I got an Orchestra seat for the price of standing room, at least for half the performance. However, I rarely try that stunt these days, and the ushers, perhaps understandably so seem to be more stern guardians these days.
My most recent standing room at SFO was from the rear Balcony at the Verdi Requiem. It was a gala performance that served as the farewell to Donald Runnicles as Music Director, and featured Heidi Melton and Stephanie Blythe.
Below are some excerpts from my blog review of that performance that reveal some benefits of standing in the rear Balcony:
“After my friend scored a single last-minute seat in the Orchestra, I scaled the heights to find the last standing room spot in the Balcony (aka “nose-bleeds”)…
I was reminded that where I stood was the real acoustic sweet spot of the house, and nowhere else can one hear such fine textures in the soundscape, far better than in the rear Orchestra, where I first scavenged for a spot. It does seem to favor voices over instruments, as the chorus actually seemed to overpower the orchestra a bit…but I’m certain that’s just a slight acoustic imbalance, and was hardly a problem.”
My verdict? The rear Orchestra offers the better standing room views, but the rear Balcony offers the finer acoustics…it’s a trade-off. Perhaps the deal breaker in favor of the rear Balcony is that I’ve observed many of the senior standees sitting or laying on either the floor or a bench near the back wall, enjoying just the aural pleasures alone. I have a special admiration for them, as they hearken back to the days of gathering around for an old radio show, creating one’s own visuals with only a ripe imagination.
Being a part of Francesca Zambello’s production of Die Walküre has raised the bar for me yet again on my operatic excursions as a “Super” at the San Francisco Opera. CHECK!…another dream fulfilled. This time Wagner! When I pass over the scratched and worn stage floor, I still pinch myself and marvel at all the legends who have left their mark in this hallowed place. Here’s a photo-narrative glimpse into this exciting production, and my wonderful world of Wagner.
Yes, True Wagnerians Still Walk the Earth
When’s the last time you saw a Wagner opera and weren’t wishing singers of the past were instead onstage? Well, it would be hard to best this nearly peerless cast, particularly in today’s international crop. Eva-Marie Westbroek as Sieglinde is utter perfection, with a refulgent, voluminous voice, and yet, there’s such a naturalness to her delivery, it’s as if she’s speaking. She exudes considerable warmth in her very convincing acting expressions, and as one reviewer said, she couldn’t play the victim better. She also couldn’t look the part more (as evidenced by this glowing photo). She, and all the principals are a joy backstage too. Given the pressure they’re under to perform a VERY difficult piece, that’s quite a testimony.
In her debut as the Walküre Brünnhilde, Nina Stemme delivers the much expected stamina and bravado, but never betrays her beauty of tone, or pushes outside her “column of sound.” She uses her slighter stature and strong connection to her body to paint an authentically youthful and feisty characterization. No, she doesn’t erase memories of Nilsson’s vocal sword throwing in the highest reaches of “Ho-jo-to-ho!,” but she has a far darker, warmer, and more alluring tone, and greater physicality than Nilsson.
Mark Delavan is tireless, and the model of godly alpha-male strength as Wotan. At times he sings with a legato line, but other times chews up and spits out the german consonants to portray anger, or when commanding others. Backstage, he’s the funniest opera personality I’ve ever been around…cracking up the Supers without fail, with his disarming humor. Enjoy his perspective on Wotan, and at times refreshingly irreverent sense of humor in this interview.
Christopher Ventris as Siegmund is in the Heppner/Windgassen vein, having a brighter, not baritonal Heldentenor tone. However, he is easily heard, and has plenty of thrust to cut through the orchestra. He and Eva-Marie make an appealing and very engaged duo. Ray Aceto as Hunding is genuinely scary and imposing, and wields a very satisfying black basso. Janina Baechle as Fricka doesn’t erase vocal memories of Marjana Lipovšek (‘95), but she is quite perfect in this production’s conception of this role, and is fully and excitingly committed.
In this Act I play one of Hunding’s thuggish *insert grunt here* kinsmen, returning from a day of hunting. I carry in a giant plastic-wrapped meat pack, which I immediately throw to Hunding. (Yes, me, the one who couldn’t throw a ball to save his life as a kid…WHY?!) We all threaten Siegmund with our rifles when he hesitates Hunding’s commands. (I’m at bottom left.) Later Sieglinde ladles us up some slop (aka bloodied plastic cubes) from a giant pot, presumably whipped up from the meat I tossed. Mmm-mmm good! Another Super carries a rope with two rather sad, dangling fowl. Not surprisingly, the kinsmen have been likened to the “Michigan Militia,” present-day paramilitary thugs.