Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

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)

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“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

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”

David Wilcox: Musical Prophet

The Backstory

Shortly after CJ and I met and started dating he gave me a mix tape, YES, that age-old expression of crushing, lust and/or love… take your pick! And, it WAS a tape, NOT a cd. It even had the song ‘Mix Tape’, from Avenue Q on it. Here’s an amusing and relevant excerpt:

A mix tape. He made a mix tape. He was thinking of me, which shows he cares! Sometimes when someone has a crush on you they’ll make you a mix tape to give you a clue.

David in concertAnyways, the most prominent artist on that special mix was David Wilcox, featured in the tracks ‘Fearless Love’, ‘Catch Me If I Try’, and ‘All My Life’. I’ve listened to that mix and those songs for years… and now they are a part of me. Well, thankfully, last night we experienced David’s artistry LIVE, in an intimate concert at the Swedish American Hall, on Market Street. I had never set foot in this space. It is right above Café Du Nord (which we were just at last week), has an acoustically resonant wood interior, and is very warm in its typically swedish decor.

The Concert

Thanks to our friend’s invitation and eagerness (first in line!), we scored front row seats. David sprang out of the rear of the hall, earlier than the start time, and announced that he HAD to start making music. I could immediately see his love for his art brimming forth.

He performed some old fan favorites, and works from past albums:
‘Eye of the Hurricane’, ‘Three Brothers’, ‘Rusty Old American Dream’, ‘Perfect Storm’, ‘Plain View’, ‘Native Tongue’, ‘Start With the Ending’, and ‘Show Me the Way’ (encore).

…As well as songs from his newest album Open Hand:
‘Dream Again’, ‘Red Eye’, ‘Captain Wanker’, ‘Winter at the Shore’, ‘Open Hand’, ‘Modern World’, David Wilcox: Open Handand ‘How Long’ (with a sing-along refrain).

His voice is a beautiful meld of nurturing, paternal, sage-like, hushed, caressing, but with thrust and gravitas when called for. He uses it as simply as when he speaks, not fussing over “technique” or diction. This video of Eye of the Hurricanecaptures him in a vibrant LIVE setting not unlike ours.

His lyrics are like a Bible of truths, offering the kind of quotable insight and revelation that people like to post on facebook and forward around, because they are so real, and hit so close to home. I am drawn most to the songs that speak to the more overtly spiritual aspects of life, and less so to his whimsical pieces (ie: ‘Captain Wanker’), but I enjoy those as a sort of palette cleanser, because who wants to cry through an ENTIRE concert!? Here’s a trailer for an upcoming documentary that gives a hint of what’s behind his art, and the lives he touches.:

His songStart With the Endingis a telling examination of what would happen if we were to start a relationship with the break-up: removing the over-analyzing, perfection-seeking, and fear of loss. In introducing the song, he also used this idea to pose what it might be like to start life with death, thereby removing the fear of it, and being able to life more fully, and actually evolving INTO the simplicity of youth and non-verbal communication. Fascinating!

His facial expressions are of complete gratitude and joy. He is clearly channeling the spirit, without obstruction, and living his bliss! His periodic smile stretches from ear-to-ear, and is very infectious.

Stories & Lyrics

He is a great storyteller, keeping us rapt for long stretches. One of his “stories” was an evolution of seeing things before us that are often considered separate, but really aren’t: his left versus right hand playing his guitar, his hands versus his voice, the performer (him) versus the audience, one’s heart versus another’s, and so on. It was a beautiful and poignant way of seeing the world differently, and all its inter-connectedness. He speaks a lot about listening to his guitar, and which song(s) his guitar is urging him to do next. Coming from another artist this might feel contrived, but not from him.

He spoke of his travels to Sudan, also captured on his website: “The ability to perform solo makes possible appearances such as a recent, last-minute trip to Africa, where Wilcox performed in Sudan at the country’s first national day of prayer. Concern about national and international crises led to songs such as ‘Three Brothers’, a moving, allegory of Middle East turmoil.”

And, on top of all of this, I discovered that he’s from my homeland: Ohio! Wish I had known when I met and thanked him afterwards. You know, we have one of those secret handshakes

“Underneath”:

I know that compassion is all out of fashion,
and anger is all the rage…
Grow up and give in to that cynical spin
that you see on most every page
We all know what’s wrong with the system
how the people are puppets and fools.
If they’re not strong, it will trick them,
they’ll get used up like factory tools:
The kids just give up in those schools…

…yeah, but what is it, really, that’s keeping me
from living a life that’s true?
When the worries speak louder than wisdom,
it drowns out all the answers I knew,
so I’m tossed on the waves on the surface.
Still, the mystery’s dark and deep,
with a much more frightening stillness…
underneath

Hopelessness always comes easy.
But “easy” does not make it right.
Courage can look past that surface,
but fear will still put up a fight.
When I get scared and scattered,
and I don’t know where to begin,
why even care; it doesn’t matter.
Why fight when you know you can’t win?
It’s easier just to give in.

‘Home Within Your Heart’
from Underneath

Too tired to sleep, too angry to pray,
too far down to get back up, too lost to find my way.

Who knows what happened, I’m too confused to say,
and too far gone to turn back now;
it’s too late anyway.

I don’t need a clever confidant to try
to soothe with hollow words,
I’ve heard them all.

What I need is just to know
I have a home within your heart.
Just hold me close. A few words will do.

We don’t have to find the answers now,
it’s enough to be with you.

Schwanewilms. Schwane-who?

Last week I received the Chicago Lyric Opera 09/10 season brochure. I was browsing it to see if any operas, productions, or singers caught my eye. I was pleased to discover the German soprano Anne Schwanewilms will be performing the Nozze Countess in Feb/Mar of ’10.

It reminded me that this artist has largely made Europe her playing field, with spotty gigs in Asia and the states. And, I believed this would be her American debut in a staged production. [Correction: She made her American debut in 2001, as Marie in a fully staged Wozzeck at Santa Fe Opera.] Last December she made her NY Phil debut as Chrysothemis, one of her signature roles, in concert performances of Elektra. (Lorin Maazel conducted.)

Elsa, La Scala ‘07, Photo: Marco Brescia

Elsa, La Scala ‘07, Photo: Marco Brescia

In August 2003, I first heard of and encountered the soprano myself. I had the pleasure of seeing her as Elettra in Peter Sellar’s ‘Anti-War’ production of Mozart’s Idomeneo at the Glyndebourne Festival.

Recalling the experience of the day-trip to Glyndebourne, from my post in London is so pleasurable, with all the desired connections and good fortune throughout: serendipitously catching a lift from the train station through the countryside from a Glyndebourne staff member; being 1 of 3 or so men out of hundreds NOT in a tux (I knew this fashion precedent before going, but took the risk anyways, and was amused by the looks-that-kill judgment of many dolled-up opera-goers); enjoying a shared picnic in the grassy pasture with a cute, older couple who extended a random and welcome invitation to join them; the experience of the beauty of the bucolic setting (bleating lambs included) and “campus”; and, of course taking in the high-points of the performance itself.

I remember reading in her program bio that in ’02 she had been named Singer of the Year by the prestigious German magazine, Opernwelt. These sorts of kudos made me take notice that this was a singer to watch.

Photo: Javier Del Real

Photo: Javier Del Real

Schwanewilm’s Elettra that night was full of vitriol. She did not hold back vocally, spitting acid and vinegar, in a more typically Wagnerian manner than Mozartian. It became clear why she has become a specialist of german romantic soprano rep. Her voice recalls the more dramatic side of the viennese style, most associated with Leonie Rysanek. She often errs on the sharp side of notes/phrase (again, aka Rysanek), but certainly didn’t hold back vocally that night. Her “plain clothes” costuming (I recall it appearing not unlike an Alexis Carrington power suit) dimmed her dramatic light a bit. Superficially, she looks like she could be a sister of Karita Mattila, who shares the same fach as she. For me, the metal in her timbre and way in which she used her voice like a sword, nudges her ever so into kunst diva status (“art”-diva), versus stimme diva (“voice”-diva). I look forward to her taking on the Empress in Die Frau. It seems perfectly suited to her.

Arabella @ Frankfurt '09, Photo by Monika Rittershaus

Arabella @ Frankfurt '09, Photo by Monika Rittershaus

This opera seria, Idomeneo was always my favorite Mozart opera. I suppose my tendency to seek out and root for the underdog was at play in cultivating this preference (ie: not part of the perfect, but played Mozart-da Ponte trinity). But, also the beautiful and crisp Gardiner recording drew me in when it was released in ’91, and the Levine recording has provided much pleasure too over the years.

Although an unforgettable experience overall, in hindsight I actually wish I had made it instead to the re-mounting of the now famed production of Handel’s Theodora (first mounted in ’96, and then again in ’03), with Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and Dawn Upshaw. The entire gesamtkunstwerk-of-sorts of that production (incl. director, cast, conception, etc.) was deemed perfect by many. And, who could have known that less than 5 years later Hunt-Lieberson would be gone. Fortunately, I at least had the pleasure of bumping into Peter Sellars (Theodora director) on the way out of the bathroom (on the eve of Idomeneo), and experienced Hunt-Lieberson’s high art elsewhere.

But, I’m thankful that this production of Idomeneo introduced me to the art of Schwanewilms. Also potent and appropriately virile in that production was the Idamante of Magdalena Kozena.

Enjoy her Act 1 Lohengrin Elsa here:

And, her Schreker Die Gezeichneten excerpt here (shades of Cyndi Lauper and Roxette?):

The “recordings” section of her website has a wealth of free samples as well.

Ode to La Melton

Although I’ve waxed poetic on my friend and diva-on-the-brink (of fame, that is) Heidi Melton elsewhere, this is my first time to share that GOSPEL in this forum.

San Francisco has been blessed with her presence, thanks to her status as a Merolini and Adler Fellow (shouldn’t it be “Fella”, in a divas’ case?) for the past 3 years. Her performances at multiple outdoor events here, including Opera in the Parks have been the unqualified treats, especially the rather rare “Ozean du Ungeheuer”, from Weber’s pre-Wagnerian Oberon last year.

dd_merola21_ph_85My introduction to her art was at the 2006 Merola Grand Finals, where her presence and commitment alone made her a stand out, not to mention her voluminous tone and clear expressive gifts. I always eagerly attend that annual event, with a keen eye on who the next possible greats may be. She was clearly in that category. My next experience of her was her company debut as Diana in Iphigenie en Tauride, which REALLY left one wanting more, as she only graced about 3 minutes of music, sung ethereally from the Dress Circle balcony.

Never did I imagine I would attend a production of Der Rosenkavalier in which the Marianne stole the show. In this 2007 SFO production Joyce Didonato was wonderful as Octavian, but perhaps a bit small-voiced for the role at this stage of her career. Heidi’s performance was for me the most memorable of that night. I’ve seen Don Joses steal the spotlight from Carmens, and Amnerises from Aidas, but this was an even bigger stretch. Thanks to Elza Van der Heever’s withdrawal, due to replacing another diva as Donna Anna, Heidi was able to step in to this role.

Photo by Terrence McCarthy

Photo by Terrence McCarthy

My own SFO stage debut as a “Super” (ie: Extra, aka SILENT!) was in Philip Glass’ World Premiere Appomattox. Heidi played the crazed Mary Todd Lincoln. I was thankful to connect with Heidi on a personal level during that production, to watch her weave her magic spell from the backstage wings, and to enjoy my “15 minutes” every night, as a looter who is shot and falls dramatically to his death in the flight from Fort Richmond scene.

Photo by Kristen Loken Ansley

Photo by Kristen Loken Ansley

I was able to enjoy a private preview of her Schwabacher Debut Recital in her accompanist John Parr’s home. The neighbors must have settled in to their couches and gone through a few bags of popcorn before that very special night was over. It was transcendent for me. (See my past musings on that recital here.) And, the recent Adler The Future is Now concert showcased Heidi in her stage debut in “Weh, ach wehe, dies zu dulden,” a scene from Tristan und Isolde (paired with the potent Brangane of Daveda Karenas). Heidi has stated that this excerpt may be one of the easiest things she’s ever sung. Clearly she was born to sing it, and although only performing a portion of a role that would require much more stamina, in a much longer night, she left one wanting nothing from the performance, other than the opportunity to experience ALL of it! She provides that thrill only a true dramatic soprano can provide, that rafter-shaking, fully supported, but still on-the-breath sound. But, she is more than just a big voice, she is a true developing artist, one who believes in and connects fully to her material and the character at hand, and loves her art.

On February 4th, I attended Heidi’s Salon at the Hotel Rex. It was a great opportunity to enjoy her talents in a very intimate setting. I hope that this salon series continues successfully, as they strip away the costumes, sets, and pomp of the opera house, and present an artist in an almost home-like setting, much like one would imagine in times of old.

Her recital included Purcell’s (arr: Britten) “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation”, which provided some small opportunities for Heidi to show her flexibility, in vocal runs throughout. Next were Berg’s “Sieben frühe Lieder”, which were presented very idiomatically, as they are just a step away from Strauss, a composer to which Heidi’s talents are perhaps best suited, and whose work she is most passionate about.

Photo by Ching Chang

Photo by Ching Chang

Selections from Messiaen’s “Hawari” and Debussy’s “Trois Chansons de Bilitis” were next up. She embraced the sensuality of the Bilitis, and of the french language itself. She also shared engaging insights, with John Parr’s embellishment before each set to give the audience some background and context, including the inuendos of “La Flute de Pan”, which are hardly subtle! She ended with Bolcom’s “Toothbrush Time”, “Waitin'” and “George”. These latter more cabaret style songs showed Heidi’s comedic gifts.

I was deeply touched by “Waitin'”, which could very well be done by Alison Kraus, as its simplicity of melody and message felt almost bluegrass or folksong-like in style:

“Waitin, waitin, I’ve been waitin.Waitin, waitin, all my life. That light keeps on hiding from me. But is someday just might bless my sigh. Waitin.”

During a Q&A afterwards a member of the audience asked if we could expect to see any actual cabaret from Heidi. This might be the closest we get to “cabaret” for her, once she steps further into the dramatic operatic rep, but she’s surely capable of going down that path as well, should she wish to. I’m still dying to hear her do “Bill” from Showboat as an encore! When asked what role she would love to do that belonged to another vocal type, she responded “The Dutchman”. And, in response to inquiries about who her favorites were, she professed a love for Astrid Varnay, Regine Crespin, and Anna Moffo, among others. She also shared that it would be 10-15 years or so before we’d have the pleasure of experiencing her in the entire role of Isolde. I’m so very pleased she is doing things right and is going to take things in their right time.

As I shared with her after the recital, she was and is “Hochdramatische, Chanteuse, and a coloratura Blessed Virgin…all rolled into one.”

What’s upcoming for her, you ask? This Sunday, March 8 at 2:30, Heidi performs Messiaen’s complete hour-long epic Harawi song cycle (on the theme of Tristan and Isolde) at Old First Church, 1751 Sacramento St., SF: www.oldfirstconcert s.org. This spring, she returns to L’Opera de Bordeaux to sing her role debut of Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. This summer she understudies international dramatic soprano extraordinaire in Alceste, with Santa Fe Opera. And, the following season will understudy Voigt as Chrysothemis at the Met! What a crime that one can’t plan for understudy performances, or my tickets would be purchased for both debuts!

Triple-Header Weekend

Although we do more than the average amount of theatre-going, this weekend was surely one of the most chock-full. It included “In the Next Room: The Vibrator Play,” by Sarah Ruhl, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, “Souvenir,” featuring Judy Kaye, at A.C.T., and “Origin of Love,” by and with John Cameron Mitchell, at the Victoria.

“In the Next Room” showed how that the vibrator was often the prescription for “hysteria” in the early 20th century… for women AND men. Although the premise seems a guaranteed night of laughs, it was a rather tepid performance, and the world premiere script will likely need some tweaking to fine tune the characterizations and dramatic arc.

“Souvenir” is a fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins. She is up there with Mrs. Miller, when it comes to novelty artists/albums that people have adored for generations. I can specifically remember the first time I heard Flo. I was in a record store in Boston… I ran up to the sales guy and asked: “I must know who this is!” Amusingly, another shopper asked it to be turned down or off. I suppose that is a microcosm of the polarization around F.F.J. You either “get her” and love her, or you don’t.

Take a moment to experienct F.F.J., and even compare her to some of the finest recordings of the same aria (Lakme’s “Bell Song”):

Do you have a preference? Despite F.F.J’s performances sounding like a joke, it is largely believed that she was NOT in on the joke. As portrayed in the play, she likely heard something very different when she sang (as MANY of us do!) To make this point, one of the most beautiful moments in the play is at the very end, when after mimicking F.F.J. thoughout, Judy Kaye takes the stage and sings “Ave Maria” beautifully… as “F.F.J heard it.”

My favorite quote from the show was “singing is like dreaming in public.”

“Origin of Love” was a wonderful opportunity to see and hear JCM’s artistry LIVE, and to “share” the stage with him. I was honored to perform as a backup to Anita Cocktail, the guest host.

JCM performed “Origin of Love”, “My Funny Valentine”, “Midnight Radio”, and “Wicked Little Town”, shared a short story about his travels to Russia, and then offered commentary to his film “Shortbus”, with the help of a few other cast members. It was quite an interesting movie to watch in public. Despite a heavy indisposition earlier in the week, he sounded near 100%. Anita Cocktail performed “Making Love Alone”, a piece done by Bernadette Peters on one of her live albums. And, with her “Lovers” (incl. me), Anita performed “Contact” from Rent, and “Angry Inch” from Hedwig.

It was a very fun evening, although one of the most unorthodox and risque Valentine’s day I’ve shared in.

Backstage at the Victoria: "Origin of Love"

Backstage at the Victoria: "Origin of Love"