Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

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

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

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

Suzanne Hendrix, Charles City, Iowa

Ryan Belongie, Beaver Dam, Wisconsin

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

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

Yohan Yi, Pohang, The Republic of Korea

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

Barnyard Golf or Love Making?

After my City Grazing double-take last week, I wouldn’t have guessed another groovy neighborhood discovery was lurking so closely. Having lived in my hood for about 15 years, it’s rare to come upon something entirely fresh, within a few block radius…let alone something on a grand scale. The northeastern tip of Golden Gate Park alone is rife with history, but I thought I had covered pretty much every path. El wrongo!!!

Well, around noon today, I headed out on my lunch break to practice a monologue for my callback in the out-of-doors. What other show is better suited to a rustic park setting than Hair? Me thinks there isn’t one. I knew it would help put me in the right state of mind, and help my characterization of hippie leader Berger take flight (hopefully).

I wandered onto a narrow dirt path just off the paved walking path winding down from the intersection of Fulton and Stanyan, and hung my jacket on a eucalyptus branch. Just as I was preparing to start, I discovered someone sitting quietly on a nearby bench and writing, so I continued my search for an empty glade. Our homeless neighbors also love this region of the park, so I figured I would likely have a few of them as an audience. Maybe they could even offer some hippie tips?

Photo by Octoferret/Flickr

Photo by Octoferret/Flickr

I walked up a dirt path that branched off to the left of the main path, where I had never gone before. It’s always looked like a vehicle path for the park worker’s use. As I came around the bend, a stone wall and some steps became visible. Once even closer, a huge cement courtyard opened up before me, with a giant 20-or-so foot wide horse sculpture on the opposing wall, formed by a natural cross-sectioned hillside about 50 feet high. The inside of the horse sculpture had crumbled away, leaving only the outer features and details. This gave it a real feeling of antiquity…although, I was pretty sure I hadn’t just uncovered a lost ruin.

Horse Sculpture: Before & After

Horse Sculpture: Before & After

Frankly, it was the perfect site not only for my personal run-through but would be just right for an entire production of Hair (I’ll get on that)! It became clear from multiple vertical metal rods (and the horse sculpture sealed the deal) that it was for horseshoeing. However, it was in such shambles and disrepair, it felt haunted. I could easily imagine countless romantic trysts, late-night drug-induced adventures, and homeless encampments here. In fact it’s been counted as the Number 18, in “Best Place to Make Love in Golden Gate Park”. A “For Screamers” category is even included…although this locale didn’t make that list.

Horseshoe Pits: 1930s

Horseshoe Pits: 1930s

These “Horseshoe Pits“, as they are called are also on the National Register of Historic Places in San Francisco, noted with the year 1922. And, to be exact, there are 16 pitching courts of this largely out-of-fashion game, also referred to by the nickname “Barnyard Golf”. I’m hopeful for the sake of this landmark alone that there is a burgeoning horseshoe following. The Golden Gate Horseshoe Club website reveals that this court is used for periodic special annual events, but most likely not regular weekly or even monthly use. Since there is a well kept, grassy horseshoe court down near Stern Grove, it doesn’t appear the city can fill up and upkeep more than one court, with its largely aging fan-base.

Aerial MapNot surprisingly, I discovered online that a skate park had been proposed for this area, a perfect usage of the space, in my mind. But, apparently the poor site lines, thanks to surrounding hills and trees, were deemed less than ideal, since it would be inhabited largely by youth. That park has instead been (or will be) built at an Upper Haight, Waller Street site.

The book “San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park: A Thousand and Seventeen Acres of Stories” by Chris Pollack & Erica Katz helped the big picture of this locale’s history come together. The courts construction was in 1926 (later than the National Register record above), and the GGHC tended the courts. Previously it was a rock quarry, from which San Francisco streets were built.

The Horseshoe PitcherThe two concrete bas-reliefs, created on the face of the largest rock formations, include the horse, but also “The Horseshoe Pitcher”, a sculpture by Jesse S. “Vet” Anderson, who was a member of the GGHC, and a cartoonist and caricaturist for the Detroit Free Press.

“The sculptures had been overgrown and long forgotten but were revealed in 1968 by Youth Corps volunteers…The hill above the courts rises 384 feet above sea level to what was once a 100,000-gallon water reservoir that doubled as an aquatic garden for irrigating the Panhandle and nearby park areas. This hill has been known by many names: Mt. Lick, Plateau Hill, and Reservoir Hill.

The site was further developed, in 1934, as a Depression-era Works Progress Administration venture; hand-hewn stonework was laid to define the court area. The work included a raised gallery for spectators and a star lined with large red rustic boulders from Conservatory Drive East.”

Hmmm, a game of Barnyard Golf anyone?! I’ll leave the GG Park lovemaking to you and yours!

Four-Legged Environmentalists

Last week, on my way to the Geary Ave. post office to drop off my Q2 tax payment my eyes beheld the strangest sight. I checked my rear view mirror, then stopped the car mid-street, and backed up a bit to get another look.

On the west facing hillside of Lone Mountain, on the U of SF grounds, I spied a tribe of goats. Had I not gotten enough sleep? Did someone slip me something in my morning juice? Was this some kind of prank played by outgoing graduates? Was it the experimental work of some progressive agriculture program at the school? No, no, no…and no.

City Grazing

What I beheld was city grazing. This tribe appeared to be about 20 goats or so in size…with plenty of cute little kids kickin’ around. Thanks to a temporary sign posted near the locale, with their name on it, the truth was revealed. When I returned home I looked up their website, and discovered a business that provides goats for beneficial purposes, primarily weed control in city settings. Amusingly, they’ve also recently been referred to as “Rent-a-Goat”.

Apparently, according to their website, we have the City of Denver to thank for their trailblazing work in the field of raising city goats for these purposes. And, the most compelling benefit of using goats for this is that “fifty goats average 1/2 acre per 8 hour day”. WOW!!!

City Grazing Sign

Here are some other key benefits noted on their website:

Why use goats in San Francisco?
There have been various approaches to weed control, none fully satisfactory nor efficient. Using goats is an efficient, holistic, environmentally healthy approach to weed control allowing us to restore degraded land in a shorter period of time.

How do goats help restore natural areas?
Using goats is based on a natural process, like bison grazing the prairie. Goats eat dried and fresh above- ground plant parts. They break plants down into digestible pieces by their saliva. Their hoof action also tramples plants into smaller pieces. Plants slowly decompose releasing nutrients into the soil. Goats also work desired seeds into soil with their hooves. Goats can restore large areas in a shorter time period than people.

Why is using goats environmentally healthy?
Grazing is an alternative to mowing and herbicides. Goats eat plants, eliminating debris and recycling nutrient elements. They maintain beneficial soil organisms. Goats exclude the use of heavy equipment minimizing soil disturbance and compaction. Goats trample dried brush, create a natural mulch and add organic matter to the soil.

Goats are best used in sensitive areas near waterways, rivers and lakes where chemicals are prohibited; on steep embankments difficult for people; on ditches, canals, rocky and wooded areas where mowing or spraying are difficult or inadvisable; in large areas where manpower is unavailable and costly; on very degraded land where human efforts would take years.

Hand weeding can disturb soil, bringing more weed seeds to the surface; creates plant debris that goes to landfills; extracts nutrients from the soil; disturbs soil organisms; and is labor intensive. Mowing uses heavy equipment that compacts soil; creates air pollution; leaves stubble, does not eliminate plant. Herbicides may contaminate ground water; may kill or disturb soil organisms; do not allow seeding at same time; may damage desired vegetation; may have risk to personnel.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

SO, keep you eyes glued for city grazing in your hood!

Pinch Me! A Diva Tale

Here’s a neat little side dish to jcm’s current experience as a “Super” in San Francisco Opera’s current production of Verdi’s verismo masterpiece La Traviata. Cindy Warner, a SF Examiner writer included my story of working with/around Anna Netrebko as a part of her review article about opening night. My contribution starts about midway through.:

Anna’s chauffeur talks: A Super story

Act I, Scene I Entrance: Chauffeur, Violetta, and Doctor Grenvil

Act I, Scene I Entrance: Chauffeur, Violetta, and Doctor Grenvil

What is a Super, you ask? As the official Supernumerary Handbook states, it “is a nonsinging actor (extra)…As a supernumerary volunteer you are a valued member of the Opera Company…”

8 performances, and 2 more Violettas to go…

— “Chauff”

“Figure Skating is for Little Girls”, a flick

Liam DoughertyThanks to Required Elements jcm has discovered just the sort of thing that he loves to share…an alternative and irreverant take on figure skating. The oft squashed yin to the more typical bright, cheerful yang of how skating is reflected publicly (ok, so I overuse this metaphor). I revel in both!:

Figure Skating is for Little Girls,
by Liam Dougherty: “A one man show about eating disorders, sparkles, and violent personal shame.

It is being featured at The Montreal Fringe Festival (details here). Here is an excerpt of his own introduction to the film.

This guy was (and perhaps is?) a legitimate competive ice dancer, becoming the 2003 Junior Canadian Ice Dance Champion (with partner Melissa Piperno), and was supposedly a short-time early career partner of Tanith Belbin. It appears he was a very promising skater, emerging with Piperno from the shadows of Bourne and Kraatz, after their exit from competitive skating.

His perspective promises to cause some controversy, and frankly seems genuinely wounded. Perhaps he is bristling from not reaching the heights his promise alluded to? But, I’m guessing it’s just his edgy sense of humor, and way of talking about a sport he clearly has a love/hate relationship with, which is most amusing when he mocks the oh-so-tight and pretty attire he donned. OR, more exactly, I imagine he loves the sport, but hates the “culture” of skating, as it is currently manifested itself. The fact that he’s easy on the eyes makes this discovery all the more enticing. (Looks like he’s dabbling in dance now.)

Liam in Dress

Hallelujah! Shen & Zhao Return verified what the ISU Grand Prix09 season lineup first revealed! Chinese pair Shen & Zhao are back in the game! They will appear at Cup of China, and Skate America, and are aiming for a ticket to Vancouver in ’10. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that they beat out their compatriots Zhang & Zhang, their biggest competition, to win both titles.

Shen & Zhao

Out of all the comeback news (officially announced to date, that is), this is arguably the most welcome, and they are arguably the most loved skaters attempting this return to competitive ice. They are among my favorite pairs teams of all time, and made My Desert Island Skates list, with their inspirational Turandot long program, at ’03 Worlds. That performance will not soon be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Watch it here, if you missed it.

Shen & Zhao off iceWhen they made their competitive exit after the ’07 season (with 3 World titles and 2 Olympic bronze medals in their cache), they were still in top form, and on top of the competitive field. Only Hongbo’s achilles injury and recovery threatened their future viability. Hopefully, although they’ve been very busy with skating shows and off-ice commitments, with a break from the demands of competition they will return to top form. Thankfully, China is guaranteed three berths at the Vancouver Games, so this return will not rob Pang & Tong, or Zhang & Zhang an opportunity to have their moment.

I extend to them (and their fans) a sincere “Welcome back!” and, “GO GET ‘EM!”. As much as I love Savchenko & Szolkowy, I’d love to see Shen & Zhao take the gold in Vancouver. They will easily be the sentimental favorites, but hopefully more. I feel it’s their turn, and were it not for the extensive training they missed, due to Hongbo’s injury, would have been theirs in Torino.