Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Exploring Artists: Jonas Kaufmann

I owe Jonas Kaufmann an apology.  Anyone who has been following my blog from the start knows that, in the past, I have not been kind.  When I first heard him, I did not like him at all.  And it wasn't the depth or darkness of his voice.  After all, I much prefer the darker tenor voices to the bright, sunny, cheerful-sounding ones.  I would gladly listen to Domingo (my all-time favorite tenor) over Pavarotti (who I avoid in any role that isn't the Duke of Mantua) any day of the week.  Among the newer generation of tenors, I favor those who have followed in Domingo's footsteps, and greatly appreciate the voices that have baritone qualities.  So it was not the depth of his voice, although it did take me some time to become convinced that Kaufmann was not just a baritone trying to sing tenor roles.  No, I thought his voice was somewhat muffled, as if he had something in his mouth.  It may be that I had just found all the wrong YouTube videos, but there you have it.  I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out what it was that everyone saw in him.

Then last month I went to see Tosca from the Royal Opera House at Cinema Paradiso, a lovely local art-house theater.  I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised by him, but I wasn't expecting too much.  I was going because I love Tosca, and because I was excited to see Bryn Terfel as Scarpia.  I was really anticipating nothing more than a tolerable performance from Kaufmann.  Harsh, I know, but there you have it.  So when I did finally see his Cavaradossi, I was caught completely off guard.  Not only did he sing the role very well, (second only to Domingo among all the Marios I have seen and heard,) he could ACT!  I mean, really act.  He seemed to really understand what the character was all about, and then adeptly conveyed that understanding to the audience.
After I saw that performance, I decided I was willing to give Kaufmann another chance.  However, I approached his music slowly, and with some trepidation.  And, while some of what I found did not impress me, a lot of it really did.  I discovered that, although some roles really don't suit him (at least in my opinion), when he sings the right characters, he really is an exceptional singer.  His voice has all the color of a baritone, yet he deftly handles the range of a tenor.  This combination helps him provide a certain depth of character that is often missing from the tenor roles.

Jonas Kaufmann was born in Munich in 1969.  While he studied piano and sang in the school choir as a child, he very nearly became a mathematician.  However, he realized after a couple of semesters that he would never be happy with such a career choice.  So he began his vocal training at  the Academy of Music and Theatre in Munich, and upon graduation he signed a contract with the State Theatre in Saarbrücken.  It was during that time that he began to have trouble with his voice, but under the instruction of Michael Rhodes, he learned to sing more easily by simply using his natural tone.

In the intervening years, Jonas Kaufmann has sung a wide variety of roles, from Rossini's Almaviva (this, I can't even imagine!) to some of the great Verdi and Puccini parts.  He recently sang Siegmund at the Met, and has been applauded as an outstanding interpreter of Wagner's works.  He is currently appearing, once again, on the stage of the Met, singing the title role in Gounod's Faust.

Jonas Kaufmann evokes strong reactions from opera lovers everywhere.  People either love him or hate him.  He is variably called the greatest tenor alive or a baritone in tenor's clothes.  There's not a whole lot of middle ground where he is concerned.  I used to be part of the group of people who strongly dislike him.  But my opinion is changing.  While he is still not my very favorite tenor in the world, (as I have said before, that spot will always be reserved for Domingo) I am beginning to develop an appreciation for his voice that grows every time I hear him.  In a few short weeks, I have done a (somewhat) complete about-face.  Whereas once I wondered what people saw in him, I now have come to enjoy his rich, dark voice.  In time, I may become one of his die-hard fans.  Then again, I may not.  In the meantime, though, I plan on savoring his voice for its unique tones.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go listen to my new recording of Madama Butterfly, starring Jonas Kaufmann as Pinkerton!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Madama Butterfly flutters in to Palm Beach

I have never been to the Palm Beach Opera before. Never made the one-hour drive (an hour and a half in traffic) north to the Kravis Center. That's partly because it's such a schlep.  But it's mostly because, up until this season, I only knew about the Florida Grand Opera.  I thought that, aside from the Met's Live in HD transmissions, that was all the opera we had here.  (Don't get me wrong, though.  I'm not complaining about either one of those.)  Well, that's all changed now.  Because on my journey to discover every last bit of opera in South Florida, I not only stumbled upon PBO and the wonderful season they have planned, I was fortunate enough to attend the final dress rehearsal of Madama Butterfly last night.  And after that performance, I will not think twice before making the trek to West Palm Beach again.

Palm Beach Opera opens its 2011-2012 season tonight with Puccini's tragic masterpiece.  Madama Butterfly, which premiered in 1904, is one of the most frequently performed operas today.  Although it was originally composed in two acts, Puccini later revised it and divided the second act into two separate acts.  It is the three-act version that is most commonly performed, although while some opera companies take a short intermission between Acts II and III, others present them both together.  (PBO does the latter, and the effect is overwhelming.  But more on that later.)
First, the set.  The stage was very simple and uncluttered.  The scenery consisted of sliding screens, as in most productions of Butterfly.  But these screens were beautifully detailed, and provided a very authentic atmosphere.  The costumes, too, were very beautiful, and the careful attention to detail, especially in mannerisms, all made it so real.  But back to the setting.  In the middle of this simple, beautiful Japanese home, Pinkerton arrived accompanied by a collection of American furnishings, and immediately set the tone for the rest of the opera.  He very clearly had no respect for his Japanese hosts, and the incompatibility of the two cultures was subtly yet clearly portrayed with simple movements and gestures.  For example, upon meeting Suzuki, he offered his hand to shake, and was startled when she did not accept, but rather responded with a bow.  There was a complete disconnect between East and West, and it was played out perfectly throughout the entire performance.
Now the music.  First of all, Palm Beach Opera has an excellent orchestra, and under the baton of Maestro Bruno Aprea, they played marvelously.  Not once did I find myself thinking, as I often do during a performance, that a given passage should have been played faster or slower, louder or softer.  It was, in other words, exactly how Madama Butterfly should be played, at least to my ears.
Next, the singers.  The supporting cast were all very good.  As this was a dress rehearsal, some of them chose not to sing at full volume.  This was barely noticeable, however, as everything blended together so beautifully to really be almost perfect.  The Bonzo, sung by Valentin Vasiliu, was particularly powerful, and Irene Roberts was absolutely lovely as Suzuki.  The part of Sharpless was sung well by Michael Chioldi, and while at times I felt he could have put more power into it, I assume that he was simply preserving his voice for the weekend run.

Now, Pinkerton.  For this production of Madama Butterfly, Palm Beach Opera has obtained two Pinkertons and two Cio-Cio-Sans, who will be singing on alternating nights.  Tonight's Opening Night performance stars James Valenti as Pinkerton, and I was hoping to see him at last night's performance.  It was not to be, and yet I was not disappointed.  Rafael Davila, who will be performing on Saturday night, sang the role with such beauty and skill as to rival any other Pinkerton I have ever seen.  His voice is full and bright, overflowing with amusement, yet softened with tenderness and touched with sorrow at all the right moments.  He played the role with such callous nonchalance that, despite his wonderful singing, he elicited boos from the audience at the final curtain. 
Next, Cio-Cio-San.  Where to begin?  First, Opening Night will star Maria Luigia Borsi.  Last night, however, the beautiful Butterfly was sung by soprano Michele Capalbo, who will also be performing on Saturday night.  And I'll tell you this: anyone attending that evening is in for a real treat.  Beautiful, delicate, heartwrenching, and any other word you could associate with Butterfly could be applied to her performance.  Her voice is powerful, yet exceedingly gentle and full of innocence.  She floated gracefully through the opera, and one could almost believe, while watching her, that she really was the naive fifteen-year-old Geisha.  She wrung tears from my eyes long before the full extent of the tragedy was known to her, and her final moments were simply devastating.  Here she is, singing Un Bel Di from Act II.      

And finally, little Dolore.  The child was so beautiful, and played along charmingly.  He played with the flower petals, wrapped himself in an American flag, and waited patiently for his father.  After the performance, I learned that "he" was played by a little girl.  Apparently they sit still and follow directions better than little boys do.  (I don't know, my four-year-old boy would have probably been up for the task.  He would come out, see the audience, realize he was in an opera, and burst out singing Ferrando... Oh, wait.  That would be exactly what he's NOT supposed to do.  So yeah, I guess little girls are better at following directions, after all.)
I left the Kravis Center choked up and with teary eyes.  I drove home in silence, not wanting to ruin the effect of the evening, spending the hour-long drive reliving some of the most beautiful moments in my head.  Madama Butterfly is one of my favorite operas, and Palm Beach Opera offers a moving, stunningly gorgeous performance.  This is not one to miss, even if you do have to drive an hour and a half to get there.  It is well worth the time.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Opera-tune-ists: Giuseppe Verdi

First off, apologies for the horrendous pun.  My brother came up with it, and it was just too awful not to use.  I'll try not to subject you to too many more of them today.  Secondly, today I'm introducing another new series to the South Florida Opera Scene.  Opera-tune-ists, in case you haven't guessed, are composers.  (You know, opera-TUNE-ists?  Tune, get it?  Oh, never mind.)  Anyway, as with the Exploring Artists series, I will be starting with my favorite composers, and I will slowly work my way on to some that I may be less familiar with.  With each composer, I'll start with a brief history, discuss some of his (or her) famous works, and touch on some more obscure compositions.  And who knows?  We might all discover something new from this!

Our first opera-tune-ist is Giuseppe Verdi, my absolute favorite composer.  Verdi was born in 1813 in Le Roncole, a village located in the Duchy of Parma.  He began his musical education in Busetto, but moved to Milan as a young man to complete his studies.  His first opera, Oberto, was moderately successful when it premiered at La Scala in 1839.  Un Giorno di Regno, his second opera, was his first attempt at a comedy.  The opera, however, was a failure, due in part to the untimely deaths of his wife and two young children while he was writing it.  After its premiere and subsequent cancellation, Verdi almost gave up composition, but fortunately for us, he agreed to write Nabucco, which skyrocketed him to fame.  In the years after this success, Verdi composed many brilliant works, including his three most popular operas, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, and Rigoletto.  After Aida, which premiered in 1871, Verdi took a sixteen year hiatus from composition, and did not produce another opera until 1887, when he unveiled Otello.  His final opera, Falstaff, was a huge success when it premiered in 1893.  In the intervening years before his death, he completed a handful of compositions that included the sacred work Stabat Mater.  Verdi suffered a stroke on January 21, 1901, and died six days later. 
During his lifetime, Verdi met many challenges to his work from the censors.  Many of his libretti were considered too politically provocative, and names, ranks, and locations had to be changed before the operas were deemed acceptable.  Verdi has been variably associated with the Risorgimento, and his name was adopted as an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia.  Following the unification of Italy, he served briefly as a member of the Chamber of Deputies, and was named a Senator of the Kingdom.
Verdi's music was greatly influenced by Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, and Meyerbeer, but he succeeded in creating a sound that was entirely his own.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Verdi avoided any Wagnerian influence in all of his works except Otello.  Here are three examples of Verdi's brilliance, taken from his early, middle, and late career.
Here is Ildar Abdrazakov as Oberto, from Verdi's first forray into the world of opera.

No discussion of Verdi would be complete without the Brindisi from La Traviata, so here it is with that Titan among tenors, Placido Domingo.

Okay, I lied.  I will actually be sharing two examples from Verdi's middle career.  I just couldn't bring myself to write about Verdi without including one of the greatest Verdi baritones, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, singing one of Verdi's greatest baritone roles.  Now I agonized over whether to use Il Trovatore or Rigoletto, and Rigoletto almost won, but (I'm sure I've said this before) Il Trovatore is my very favorite, so how could I not choose it?  Anyway, here is Dmitri Hvorostovsky singing the duet from Act IV with Sondra Radvanovsky.

And here is Verdi's late triumph, Otello, sung by the brilliant duo, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes.  Oh, and nice pants, Sherrill.

Okay, okay, I know I said only three videos, and I know I already added a fourth, but after all, I did say that I would include some works that were not so well-known.  So here is Dmitri Hvorostovsky (again) in I Masnadieri.  And a big thank you to our friend over at Dimaland for creating this beautiful video.

And on that note, I bid you all good night.  Until next time!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Read along, sing a song!

Happy Monday, everyone!  Today I am going to continue on the subject of introducing opera to children.  Over the weekend, I took my boys to a program at the public library, put on by Florida Grand Opera, that promotes literacy through the arts.  The program, called "Read Along, Sing a Song", combines reading with song and dance, using music and movement to bring the story to life.
We got to the library a little early, and the kids passed the time by playing on the computers.  (Remember the days when people went to the library to read?)  When everything was set up, we went into the multipurpose room, and all the children congregated on the floor in the front row.  The program began with a brief introduction to opera.  While almost everyone there knew roughly what opera is, very few of them had ever experienced it before.  So they got their first taste from soprano Kyaunnee Richardson, who sang the Doll Song from The Tales of Hoffmann.  She invited the children from the audience to come up and press buttons on her dress and pull her finger (it's not as bad as it sounds) to make her move.  I appologize for the poor video quality, but I was having camera issues (like having my husband do the filming).

The aria was very well received, and the children discussed the different things the doll did while she sang, noting that sometimes she needed to be wound back up.  Then they all formed a circle, did some movement exercises, and experimented with an accordion.  Then it was storytime.  They read The Nutcracker and discussed their favorite parts.  (Most said they liked the part about going to the Land of Sweets.)  Then they broke out the hats, put on the music, and the fun really began.  They performed the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, and Russian dances, some of them timidly and others with reckless enthusiasm.  Again, appologies for the video quality.

At the end of the program, each child was given his or her choice of an opera activity book.  They were also given the opportunity to sign up for supernumerary auditions, for those moments when a non-singing, non-speaking child is needed.  Naturally, my older son was first in line, throwing his fist in the air and shouting, "I'm in!" at the first mention of a chance to actually be in an opera.  My four-year-old wanted to be in one, too, but he was expecting to be able to sing Ferrando from Il Trovatore.  I only hope he's not too disappointed when he finds out he'll have to wait a few years for that, at least until his voice changes.

Anyway, the children all seemed to have a wonderful time, and it was apparent that a couple of them were particularly affected by the program.  They seemed genuinely excited about opera, and were eager for more.  And the good news is that, throughout the remainder of the season, there will be many more opportunities for these and other children in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to participate in these wonderful events.  So whether the child in your life already knows and loves opera, or has never heard a note of it, I highly recommend attending one of these programs.  You never know what it could lead to!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Exploring Artists: Dmitri Hvorostovsky

And now, the moment you all didn't know you were waiting for!  Announcing... drumroll, please... the new Exploring Artists series.  Each installment will feature a single opera singer, well-known or not, and will spotlight his or her career and works.  If you would like to see a specific singer featured, or if you are a singer yourself, and would like to be featured on Exploring Artists, please let me know!  Otherwise, you'll just have to sit tight while I work my way through some of my favorites, which is how I will start, anyway.

The obvious choice to inaugurate the Exploring Artists series is my current musical obsession, the great Siberian baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky.  Although I've known his name since I was sixteen years old, his voice is a relatively new discovery for me.  I first heard of him on one of my many visits to a specialty music store in Eugene, Oregon, one of the few cities in the country able to support a store that sold opera almost exclusively.  Anyway, I went in that day to pick up one of the Domingo recordings (probably Il Trovatore or Tosca) that I had special ordered.  I glanced at the posters on the wall, as I always did, and there, between Placido Domingo and Yo Yo Ma, was this guy with this impossible name.  I seem to recall that his hair was already quite noticeably whitening, but that could be my memory playing tricks on me.  This was, after all, back in 1993 or 1994, and who can really accurately remember the details that far back?  Anyway, I couldn't tell from the poster if he was a singer, a pianist, a conductor, or something else, and I didn't really pay too much attention.  I was on a mission!  My new Domingo CD was waiting!
Over the years, I would see his name in various places, on Opera's Greatest CDs, on upcoming performance mailings, and I'd think back to that day at Musique Gourmet and wonder again exactly how to pronounce that "hv".  And yet, I never really heard him sing.  Then earlier this year, my son and I went to see Il Trovatore from the Met Live in HD.  It is my favorite opera, and Dolora Zajick was singing Azuchena, so I was really excited.  I didn't know who else was singing, and I didn't care.  I was expecting her to be the star of the show, as she always is in this role.  But as amazing as her performance was, the spotlight was stolen from her by a silver-haired, velvet-voiced baritone.  After almost twenty years, I had finally heard Dmitri Hvorostovsky.  And I was hooked from the moment the words "tace la notte" left his lips.  The notes he sang were so breathtakingly beautiful and powerful, and he played the role of di Luna with such passion that, for the first time in my life, I found myself sympathizing with the "evil" Count.

Well, I didn't sleep for many hours after that performance.  I was up half the night, watching YouTube videos of this amazing artist.  I saw him singing Rigoletto in concert, hunched over as he stood there on stage in his tux.  I saw him transform almost instantly from the grim hunchback to the delightfully humorous Figaro.  I saw him achieve the impossible feat of simultaneously singing both Don Giovanni and his servant, Leporello.  And I saw him singing all the Russian songs I grew up listening to.  And every performance was executed with such skill and beauty as to be virtually flawless!  I was completely in awe of his voice, which is like intense dark chocolate (72% or higher), melted into a rich, creamy fondue sauce and drizzled over fresh strawberries, and of his *ahem* shall we say, somewhat above average looks.  (My husband teases me mercilessly on that point, but he forgets that there's an incredible voice to go along with the pretty face!)    
So what's a (at the time) college girl who's sick of researching vascular diseases supposed to do at eleven o'clock on a work night?  More research, of course!  So I quickly set about learning everything I could about this glorious singer, and here's a bit of what I found. 
Dmitri Hvorostovsky was born in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, where he studied music from a young age.  After winning several national competitions, he entered the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989, where he famously beat Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in the almost legendary "battle of the baritones".  Choosing a single aria to post from that performance was very difficult, but while I prefer his Eri Tu, I selected this because it so beautifully demonstrates his unbelievable breath control.

Anyway, his career exploded literally the next day.  He had recording contracts and bookings with the great opera houses and concert halls the world over.  Over the years, he has performed a wide range of roles, ranging from Tchaikovsky to Mozart to Verdi.  His portrayal of Rigoletto is at once fierce and tender, full of love for his daughter and hatered for everyone else.  He is the definitive Eugene Onegin, and once I saw him performing opposite Renee Fleming, no other baritone would do for the role.  The glimpses he has given us of his Iago, which I hope we will soon have the pleasure of witnessing in its entirety, are spine-chillingly evil.  And as I'm sure I mentioned before, his di Luna changed my whole perspective of Il Trovatore.
 In addition to his fully-staged operatic performances, Mr. Hvorostovsky is a celebrated recitalist and concert performer.  Every year he travels the world, singing not only opera favorites, but also Neapolitan and Russian songs, and he has even collaborated with the popular Russian composer Igor Krutoy.  He is currently wrapping up a tour of Russia, and will be returning to the stage of the Met twice over the next few months, first in Ernani and then in La Traviata.  His next recording to be released is a CD of Rachmaninov romances, published under the Ondine label, which will be available sometime in January 2012.

As some of my South Florida readers may already know, Mr. Hvorostovsky has graced Miami with his presence on several occasions.  Alas, his appearances in the Sunshine State all took place before I really discovered him, and so I have missed out on these wonderful experiences.  I have heard a rumor that he will be returning in the near future, but I have been unable to verify it, so I will say no more on the subject other than that as soon as I know anything, you'll know, too.  And when that does happen, you can bet I will make every effort to be first in line for tickets.  Never again will I miss an opportunity to see him perform.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bravo, Luisa Fernanda! Florida Grand Opera's first zarzuela is a gem!

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a performance of Luisa Fernanda at the Florida Grand Opera.  This was my first experience with zarzuela, and after I saw the previews, I was really looking forward to it.  I had a very charming date for the evening, in the form of my eight-year-old son.  I wasn't sure whether he would want to go, or if he would enjoy it, since he didn't know the story or any  of the music yet, and (obviously) would not be able to ask me questions during the show. However, he very eagerly accepted the offer, got dressed up in his suit and tie, and excitedly counted off the miles on the drive down to Miami.
Since Luisa Fernanda was new to both of us, we had intended to arrive early enough to attend the pre-performance lecture.  Unfortunately, last-minute pre-Thanksgiving grocery trips were necessary before we set out, and by the time we arrived, it had already begun.  We were, however, early enough to leisurely explore the opera house and browse the books and CDs offered for sale before we found our seats.  After I showed him around, we entered the auditorium with plenty of time to spare, set down our programs, and went to have a look in the orchestra pit.  My son was immediately drawn to the woodwind section, and quickly struck up a conversation with the bassoonist.  The bassoon has always fascinated him, as I played it throughout my youth and often draw his attention to it when it can be picked out from the rest of the orchestra.
When it was almost curtain time, we returned to our seats and went over the synopsis.  Then the lights went down, the conductor came out, and the fun began.  First of all, the music was absolutely delightful.  The melodies were at once beautifully stirring and charmingly captivating, and I found myself smiling throughout the entire evening.  It has been many years since I last attended an opera of which I didn't already know almost every note, but I found that it really didn't matter.  The music felt familiar, as though I had known it for years, and I was quickly swept away by it.  Beside me, my son was sitting in open-mouthed wonder, applauding enthusiastically at every full stop and marveling at the beauty of the voices. 
 Ah, those voices!  Every single one of them was gorgeous.  Antonio Gandia, the tenor who sings the role of Javier, has a beautifully lush, smooth voice.  And while at one or two moments early in the performance it seemed to me that he might not have the strength to project over the full orchestra, as the evening progressed, he quickly disproved that initial impression.  He sang with such a rich warmth that at times, his voice seemed to fill the entire stage with dazzling light.
Amparo Navarro gave a stunningly moving performance as Luisa.  Her voice was full and smsooth, and the melodies seemed to flow from her mouth with ceaseless beauty.  Davinia Rodriguez gave a flawless performance as Carolina, both vocally and dramatically.
Among all these wonderful performances, the real star of the show was Angel Odena, the baritone who sings the role of Vidal.  I admit to being particularly partial to baritone voices, but because of this, I am perhaps more demanding of them than of any other male voice.  That being said, I was very impressed.  Odena's voice was rich, velvety, warm, full, and it was just dark enough to paint an effective portrait of Vidal's personality.  It was a joy to listen to him sing, and I found myself at times just closing my eyes and getting lost in the sound of his voice.

Visually, the production was stunning.  The scenery, which was almost completely white set against black, was very crisp, clean, and refreshing.  The costumes were also all either white or black, and the resulting combination was very striking.  There were lovely dance numbers at several points during the opera, and during one of these in the second act, I looked over at my son and saw his mouth hanging open in gleeful awe.  He had never seen anything quite so beautiful before that wasn't on a television screen.
All in all, it was a truly wonderful performance.  As we left the opera house, my son turned to me and asked me to buy him a DVD of Luisa Fernanda.  (He also used some not-so-age-appropriate language to describe how amazing the whole thing was, but that's beside the point.)  It was a perfect production of a delightful opera, and it was a wonderful introduction to the world of zarzuela.   

Monday, November 21, 2011

Flash mob, everyone!

Imagine you're in line at the supermarket.  Suddenly, the guy in front of you starts singing to the lady bagging his groceries, and what do you know, she starts singing back!  "Holy cow!" you think to yourself, moments before you notice that the guy in the next checkout lane, the lady three places behind you in line, and that couple over there in the produce aisle are all singing, too!  Well, last night I was playing around on Stumble Upon, when I, um, stumbled upon (imagine that!) this video:

Quite aside from the lovely performance itself, the reactions of the other shoppers were very interesting to see.  There were, of course, a few people in the crowd who did their best to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary was going on.  They kept their headphones in their ears, paid for their groceries, and left with averted eyes.  But they were the minority.  As the camera panned around the store, I watched the various expressions of surprise and delight cross the faces of the many customers, young and old.  They were sharing the wonderful experience of opera with complete strangers, most of them probably for the first time, and the result was almost magical!
This got me thinking.  There are so many people out there who have never experienced opera, and in the normal course of life, probably never will.  Most people who don't alreaky know and love opera are not likely to go out and buy a ticket to a performance on their own, without any sort of external push.  You know, Newton's first law of motion.  An object will persist in its state of being at rest or in motion, unless acted upon by an external force... Sorry, I digress.  Anyway, my point is this: an event like this just might be that external force needed to alter the inertia... ahem... I mean, to pique public interest in opera. 
So after I saw this video, I wanted more.  I wanted to find other examples of opera ambushes, as they are sometimes called.  I found that various organizations and opera companies often arrange similar events, whether to promote an upcoming performance or just to bring a bit of culture to the unsuspecting public.  These events, also variably called pop-up opera and Opera Anywhere, have been put together in such places as shopping malls, restaurants, transit stations, public markets, and even college cafeterias!

One organization of note puts on what it calls "random acts of culture."  These events range from opera to jazz to "impromptu" orchestras.  And several South Florida locales have played host to these random acts.  Earlier this year, shoppers at the Aventura mall were treated to a grand-scale performance of O Fortuna from Carmina Burana.  Travelers at Miami International Airport were surprised with a brass quintet rendition of West Side Story.  And if you happened to be trying on ladies' shoes in Macy's at Dadeland Mall at just the right time, you might have seen this:

These wonderful surprise performances do much more than provide brief entertainment for people passing through on their day-to-day business.  They raise awareness of the arts, and offer an introduction to opera to anyone fortunate enough to be there.  They bring joy to people of all ages, from the older audience members who may already be familiar with the music, to the young adults who may have never really noticed before, and especially to the children hearing it for the first time.  For them, these performances are precious gifts, paving the way for a lifetime love of opera.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Opera in London, without the plane ticket!

Last night I had a truly wonderful experience.  I attended a performance of Tosca, sung on the stage of the Royal Opera House by Jonas Kaufmann, Angela Gheorghiu, and Bryn Terfel.  I got dressed up, went to the theater, picked up my tickets, settled down in my seat, and looked around the opera house.  The lights went down, the conductor came out, and the music began.  It was the most incredible Tosca I have ever seen, and believe me when I say I have seen a lot of Toscas.  And here's the thing: I didn't even have to cross the Atlantic to see it!  It was broadcast on the screen of Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale as part of Emerging Pictures' Opera in Cinema series.
First, a couple of words on the performance itself.  As I have said before, I have seen and heard many Toscas, live and recorded, on TV, in the theater, and in the second row of the Met, in the days of the Zefferelli production.  This one easily beat them all dramatically, and probably even musically.  Bryn Terfel, of course, was no surprise to me.  If you have read my previous post on the many portrayals of Scarpia, you know that I had high expectations for him.  I was not disappointed.  He took every subtle difference that many singers have brought to the role, and managed to combine them so perfectly, and then to add a bit of his own flavor, that one might say he didn't play the part of Scarpia at all; he WAS Scarpia.  Opposite him, Angela Gheorghiu played Tosca admirably.  Her singing was beautiful, and my trepidation about her dramatic abilities (after seeing her performance with Raimondi) was quickly put to rest.  The real surprise of the evening, at least for me, was Jonas Kaufmann.  I had previously only seen YouTube clips of him in concert, usually opposite Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and I didn't like him.  I thought his voice sounded muffled, and I wondered what everyone else seems to see in him.  I did not have high expectations for him at all.  So I was completely blindsided and totally blown away when he not only acted it better than anyone I have ever seen, but also sang it so incredibly that his performance was second only to Domingo.  While I still think his pianos were at times a little muddy, at full volume his voice was so rich and warm that I am ready to search out as many of his other performances as I can find.  Also worth mentioning was the supporting cast, particularly the Sacristan, who played the role with just the right amount of humor to be positively delightful.
Now on to the Opera in Cinema program.  We all know about the Met Live in HD transmissions.  They are well-publicized, and are available in about two dozen theaters in the South Florida area.  Most people, however, have never even heard of Opera in Cinema, which brings performances from such great venues as the Royal Opera House, La Scala, the Salzburg Festival, and the Liceu in Barcelona.  I only found out about it because, as a diehard Hvorostovsky fan (in case you couldn't tell), I was desperately searching for a theater that was showing Faust from the ROH.  I eventually found two, Cosford Cinema in Miami and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, but ultimately I missed both showings.  However, in the process, I discovered that there is so much more opera available to us here than I ever imagined.  (This, incidentally, is how I came about creating this blog in the first place.)  And while I am still working on updating the calendar past December, I can tell you that there is no shortage of performances to carry us through the opera season.

Last night was my first time at Cinema Paradiso.  I arrived less than ten minutes before the performance began, stressed as I always am when I get stuck in traffic on my way to the opera.  But as soon as I stepped through the front door, I immediately began to relax.  The theater has such a warm, inviting feel, and the attendees all seemed to know each other.  It was like sharing the performance with an extended family.  The seats were very comfortable, and the view was unobstructed.  Champaign and hors d'oeuvres were served during intermission, and everywhere I turned, I heard people discussing this and other performances.  It was a truly special evening, as it brought together spectacular opera and a wonderful community of opera lovers.  I will definitely be back, and I eagerly look forward to sharing the experience with as many of my friends and family as possible!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hook 'em while they're young!

I consider myself very lucky.  I discovered opera at a young age, long before I was aware of all the negative stereotypes associated with it.  Long before I knew it was "uncool", or even that anything could be uncool, I was listening to the gorgeous sounds of Bizet, Verdi, and Puccini.  Long before I knew that my musical preferences would be scrutinized by my adolescent peers, my my love of opera was cemented in my heart.
My parents exposed me to a very broad range of musical styles almost from the day I was born.  Irish music and Highland bagpipes were a staple in our home.  My mother played me music from all over the world, ranging from klezmer to Russian folk songs, bluegrass to Indian sitar.  And, of course, she played classical music.  My father played the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd.  So by the time I was nine years old, I was very open to any new music, as long as it wasn't pop.
One evening back in 1987, my mother put down the TV Guide, sat me on the couch, and turned on PBS.  We were going to try something new!  I really had no idea what to expect, but within minutes I was lost in the now-familiar notes of the overture to Carmen.  I don't remember much about that evening, but I went to school the next day singing all these wonderful songs I had heard for the first time the night before.  That evening changed my life.  I began listening to as much opera as I could, and I attended my first live performance at age eleven.
Let's jump forward a couple of decades, now.  I have two young boys, ages four and eight.  Our morning drive to school usually starts like this:
Me: OK kids, what do you want to listen to today?
4 year old: Eugene Onegin!
8 year old: No, my favorite Russian songs! (Dmitri Hvorostovsky, of course!)
4 year old: Il Trovatore!
8 year old: No, Tosca!
By this point, I've managed to make it out of the neighborhood without crashing the car.  Once we've settled on something, the conversation continues.
4 year old: (Singing)
8 year old: Stop singing!  I can sing it better!
Me: So let me hear both of you!
4 year old: (Singing)
8 year old: Stop singing!
No one else in either of their classes has car rides quite like this, as far as I know.  But I wouldn't have it any other way.  I began playing opera for them in utero, and didn't stop when they were born.  I took my eldest to his first live performance, Aida, two months before he turned four.  He knew most of the music before we went, and was totally engrossed throughout.  (I only learned of the "no children under six" rule during intermission, but he behaved very well, and I only had to remind him once, during the Triumphal March, not to sing along to himself.)  My younger one has yet to attend, partially because he is so curious about everything that, even when watching something he has seen a dozen times, we're lucky if he goes a full two minutes without asking a question.  But at home, at least once a week I put something on the Met Player, and they're both glued to the TV for the rest of the evening.
As much as my children love opera, they are already beginning to hear things like "opera sucks" from their peers.  Their teachers are unfamiliar with it, and show no interest when they express their enthusiasm.  The other children around them, at best, have never been exposed to opera, and at worst, have inherited their parents' negative opinions about it without ever getting the chance to experience it for themselves.  And yet, the minute any opera singer joins a competition such as America or Britain's Got Talent, the audience goes wild.  People are starving for opera, and they don't even realize it.
So when is the right time to give it to them?  Certainly, better late than never.  Friends at work occasionally surprise me when they say things like, "I wish I knew you were going to the opera last night!  I've always wanted to give it a try!"  Once they  have expressed an interest, I go out of my way to try to give them a proper introduction.  Many of them have simply never had the opportunity extended to them, and have therefore missed out on a lifetime of enjoyment.  Which leads me to the answer to the above question: as soon as possible!!!

The next question, then, is how to give it to them.  You could, of course, do it the way my parents did for me, and I did for my children: give it to them straight, from an early age, and watch them lap it up.  In recent years, though, more opportunities are being presented by opera companies everywhere to introduce children to opera.  For instance, the Metropolitan Opera Guild offers hands-on opera workshops to children ages five to eight, as well as school programs that enable children across the country to experience opera in the classroom and on the big screen.  The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis offers an opera summer camp for young children.  And the Florida Grand Opera offers programs for elementary, middle school, and high school aged children, including classroom visits, presentations that explore both the vocal and technical aspects of opera production, dress rehearsal tickets, and a mentoring program to help guide aspiring artists on the path to careers in opera.  Additionally, many programs are offered in public libraries from coast to coast.
But regardless of how it is done, when opera is presented to children, they usually respond enthusiastically.  It's easy for them to get caught up in the drama, the action, and of course, the music.  Sometimes, that enthusiasm sticks with them, opening all sorts of doors to the many wonders of opera.  Sometimes that first operatic experience captures the imagination of a young child, changing the way he or she looks at music forever. 
Perhaps one day I'll pull up to a traffic light, windows down, and hear the children in the next car arguing over whether they should listen to Turandot or Rigoletto.  My eight-year-old just might lean his head out the window and shout, "Neither!  Don Giovanni!"     

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Special delivery: From Madrid to our doorstep!

This Saturday, Florida Grand Opera will open its 2011-2012 season with its first-ever zarzuela, Luisa Fernanda, and will be joined on November 15, for one night only, by the legendary Placido Domingo.  For many opera lovers, myself included, zarzuela is a new experience.  I, of course, have for years heard it described simply as "Spanish musical theater", but I just left it at that and never learned anything more about it.  Italian Romantic opera was always my favorite when I was growing up, and Verdi and Puccini were usually what I put on when I didn't really know what to put on.  Over the years, I also made occasional forrays into French, Russian, Czech, (I was lucky enough to see Renee Fleming in Rusalka relatively early in her career), and yes, even occasionally that frightening (at least to me) territory of German opera.  The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan have always been a delightful source of entertainment when I wanted something more lighthearted and comical.  And yet, somehow, I managed to overlook Spanish-language works.  Maybe it's because, at least during the years I lived in those places, the Seattle Opera, Eugene Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera never performed any zarzuela.
So I decided to do a little research.  I started with the words of Maestro Domingo himself, who described it thus: "Zarzuela is a traditional Spanish musical genre that is frequently compared to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and the Viennese operettas of Johann Strauss."  Okay, this is already starting to sound good.  Then I tracked down a synopsis of the plot, which I will not give away here, other than to say that there is, of course, the requisite love triangle.  And then I found the videos, and in the process, I found something new to love.  The music is beautiful and absolutely delightful!  Here is the "teaser trailer" for Luisa Fernanda, and okay, so I lied, I guess it does give away at least part of the plot.

Luisa Fernanda lies outside my realm of familiarity, and so I very nearly overlooked it again.  That would, indeed, have been a shame, because a whole new door of operatic bliss has been opened for me.  This is one production that I definitely do not want to miss!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Weekly Schedules

Hello, everyone.  This is just a quick note to let you know that, starting this weekend, I will be posting weekly event schedules.  These will include details about live performances, as well as Opera in Cinema and Met Live in HD transmissions.  That's all.  First schedule update will be posted on Sunday morning.  Have a great weekend!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The many faces of Scarpia

Next week, the Royal Opera House in London will be broadcasting Puccini's great opera Tosca through Emerging Pictures' Opera in Cinema program.  While some critics called it a "shabby little shocker" at its premiere,today Tosca is largely considered one of the greatest operas ever composed.  In fact, to some, it represents what opera is all about.  Basically, it has it all: love, hate, lust, torture, murder, deceit, jealousy, political intrigue, and some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear.  For all this, any production can be made or broken by the right (or wrong) cast.  It goes without saying that in any opera, the principles have to be able to sing well.  And for some operas, that's really enough: good acting isn't mandatory for it to work.  But for certain operas, no matter how pretty the music may sound, if the singers can't portray the characters' personalities effectively, the audience won't believe it.  Tosca is one of those operas, and of particular importance are the roles of Tosca and Scarpia.  You can have a bland Cavaradossi and still be okay, but the other two determine whether the performance sizzles or fizzles. 

This particular production stars Angela Gheorgheu as the diva Floria Tosca, Jonas Kaufmann as her lover, the painter and revolutionary Mario Cavaradossi, and Bryn Terfel as the evil Baron Scarpia.  Scarpia is one of that rare breed of truly evil operatic characters, as opposed to all those "villains" who are just a bunch of guys reacting poorly to their circumstances.  And every baritone who has ever sung Scarpia casts that evil in a different light.  Subtle differences in singing and acting styles change the whole character and his motivations.  For example, Tito Gobbi, who was arguably one of the greatest Scarpias of all time, played him as so purely evil that he thought himself untouchable.  He knew he was bad, and he seemed to enjoy every minute of it.  Sherrill Milnes' Scarpia was ruthlessly cold and subtly calculating.  No big, overexaggerated grabby motions from him.  He was in control, and could afford to take his time and enjoy the hunt.  Ettore Bastianini only sang the role a handful of times, and unfortunately there is very little available by way of video, but he is reputed to have played a very dark, dangerous, yet very attractive Scarpia.  And then, on that note, there is Dmitri Hvorostovsky.  While we have as yet only heard the Te Deum from him, when he does finally take on the role, I think we can expect a deliciously sensual, yet wholly evil, Scarpia.  Such a performance will, no doubt, leave many women in the audience furious with Tosca for dispatching this sinister villain.
While I would love to include several dozen video clips of various Scarpias, I've managed to pare the list down to just a handful.  Here are four Scarpias singing the Te Deum from Act I, each providing a different flavor for the character.  We'll start with Cornell Macneil, whose Scarpia is pure, unadulterated evil.

Up next is Rugerro Raimondi, whose many brilliant portrayals of Scarpia each differ from the next.  In this performance, taken from the on-location film also starring Placido Domingo and Catherine Malfitano, he shows himself to be so drunk with power that he is almost in awe of it.

In the Metropolitan Opera's new production, George Gagnidze plays Scarpia as somewhat of a twisted pervert.  As I watched his performance, I could almost see the slime oozing out of every pore in his body!

And finally, here's a taste of what we might expect next week from Bryn Terfel.  Please excuse the expression, but he is badass!  Terfel's Scarpia is mean, and he enjoys bullying everyone around him.  I think we are in for a real treat!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Siegfried: Not to be missed (or is it?)

To go, or not to go, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous Wagner,
Or to take arms against operatic pressure
And by staying home... well, miss it.

The great composer Giaochino Rossini once said of his esteemed colleague, "Wagner has some good moments, but some bad quarters of an hour."  Others, however, (himself included,) hail him as the greatest composer who ever lived.  Certainly, he had a great influence on most music that came after him, and particularly on the development of verismo opera.  Basically, people either love him or hate him.  Period, end of story.  There is no middle ground.  Either he is the genius who revolutionized the use of harmony,tonality, and leitmotifs, or he's the guy who pierces our eardrums with the stereotypical sopranos in horned helms.

But love him or hate him, Wagner's Ring cycle is an event that every opera lover must experience at least once in his or her lifetime.  And only once, if they fall into the second category.  Nobody should be forced to go through that a second time.  I put in my time when I was 14 years old, at the Seattle Opera, which is famous for its Ring cycles.  It was an exciting experience: all the drama and action, and the sheer grand scale of it all.  However, (in case you couldn't already tell,) I'm one of those people whose opinion about Wagner falls into that second category.  Maybe it's because I haven't really taken the time to get to know the music better.  Or maybe because it really does make one's eardrums bleed.  Either way, I was not planning on going to see the Met's HD broadcast.  I already missed last season's transmissions of Das Rheingold and Die Walkure, and I was not too distraught about that.
But then I saw the casting.  One word: perfect.  Siegfried is sung by Jay Hunter Morris, and I can't imagine anyone looking the part more. 

Deborah Voigt is Brunnhilde, and she is also perfect for the role.  And then there's Bryn Terfel as the Wanderer.  I could almost believe that Wagner had him in mind when he conceived the character.  I was blown away when I saw the YouTube clips of him in Die Walkure.  He almost made me want to watch the whole thing.  All four operas.  From start to finish.  All fourteen hours, plus intermissions.  Wait, fourteen hours of this?!?  Really???  I'd have to be crazy to do that!
Seriously, though, this production looks absolutely brilliant, for what it is.  I know that doesn't sound too enthusiastic, but hey, I'm trying here.  I may just bite the bullet and go to see this.  Then again, I may not.  I'll let you know.   

Monday, October 31, 2011

Phantoms of the operas! Ghost scenes for Halloween.

Opera is full of the supernatural.  Stages are haunted by devils, demons, witches, and ghosts.  Dissonant chords and eerie instrumentation often accompany these spirits, creating a creepy, spooky atmosphere.  These moments add a chillingly exciting dimension to the already often-hair-raising art that is opera.   For Halloween, I pulled together a few ghost scenes for your enjoyment.

Let's start off with MacBeth.  The new king has had his best friend murdered, only to have his ghost (who no one else can see) turn up in the middle of a banquet.  There really is no surer way to spoil a party!  Of course, everyone around him thinks he has simply lost his mind.

Next up, The Queen of Spades.  In this scene, the ghost of the Old Countess appears to a restless Hermann, and seeking revenge, tells him the secret of  the winning cards.  That doesn't really end up working out too well for him in the end, though.

The Turn of the Screw is a straight-up ghost story from start to finish.  Here is a taste of bits and pieces of the whole opera:

And finally, what post about operatic ghosts would be complete without the Commendatore scene from Don Giovanni?  There really is nothing I can say about this except watch and enjoy!

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bolshoi: A grand performance!

Hi, everyone!  First off, I'm sorry I didn't get this up sooner.  I wanted to do it the moment I finished watching the performance.  Alas, I have to occasionally spend some time doing other things besides sitting around watching and writing about opera.  But be that as it may, here goes.  In short, it was a spectacular event!  The theater is beautiful, and the dimensions are staggering:

After a few minutes of opening remarks from Medvedev and shots of the auditorium, the curtain opened.... to several dozen construction workers with noisy machinery working on renovations!  Well, those construction workers turned out to be members of the chorus and orchestra, and they burst into Glinka's "Glory to the Russian People!"  The performance continued with an all-Russian program of opera, ballet, and various other orchestral and choral works.  At times during the evening (or morning, for us) the music would stop completely and we would be treated to various fully-staged street views of the theater from several points in its history.  And then there was the ballet.  Ballet doesn't usually do much for me, and at times I found my attention wandering from it.  But at others...  There was a beautifully elegant performance from Swan Lake, and the Polovetzian Dances from Prince Igor were a joy to watch.  And finally, the opera.  First of all, no Placido Domingo.  I guess squeezing a night in Moscow in between two nights in London would have been too much even for him.  The soprano bits were lovely but unmemorable, with Angela Gheorghiu, Natalia Dessay, and Violeta Urmana all giving nice enough performances.  I am pretty new to Russian opera, though, and I wasn't really familiar with anything they sang.  In fact, where Russian opera is concerned, I pretty much know Eugene Onegin and Prince Yeletsky's aria from The Queen of Spades.  Oh, but what an aria!  Performed, of course, by none other than the great Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.  I could go on about the rich, velvety voice, but I'd rather just share the moment we were all (or at least, I was) waiting for:

The evening finished off with nearly every singer and dancer on the stage for Tchaikovsky's Coronation March.  It was a truly grand event, and we were very fortunate to have the opportunity to participate!

Friday, October 28, 2011

This Sunday: Carmen at La Scala, coming to a theater near you!

Okay, this is the first of two posts I will be sharing today.  The second will come after I have watched the Bolshoi Gala.  In the meantime, here is a brief look at what we can expect from La Scala's broadcast of Carmen, which we can see on Sunday at noon at the University of Miami's Cosford Cinema.  This production stars Anita Rachvelishvili, Jonas Kaufmann, Erwin Schrott, and Adriana Damato.  I really haven't heard much at all from Rachvelishvili, Schrott, or Damato yet, so I'm not sure what to expect from them.  Now, Kaufmann.  I know I am going to make some people upset, and I have yet to see him in a complete opera, but from what I've heard so far, I just don't like him.  I think he would have made a splendid baritone, but to me, as a tenor his voice sounds muffled.  I keep trying to see what everyone else seems to see in him, but I haven't found it yet.  I have heard, however, that he does a very good Don Jose, so I will reserve judgement until I have seen it.  In the meantime, here is Rachvelishvili singing the Habanera in Salerno.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bolshoi reopening: There's hope for us yet!

Good news for the Bolshoi reopening!  While we still won't get to see it on the big screen, it will be broadcast live on the Bolshoi Theater's YouTube channel!  It will begin at 10:00 am Eastern time, so make sure you're glued to your computers tomorrow morning!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Bolshoi is reopening, and we're not invited!

After a six-year, $700 million renovation, the Bolshoi Opera is reopening its doors with a star-studded gala celebration on Friday, October 28.  The performance will include opera and ballet, and will feature such artists as Natalia Osipova, Svetlana Zakharova, Ivan Vasiliev, Plácido Domingo, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Natalie Dessay, and Violeta Urmana.  It promises to be a magnificent event, and I think I speak for opera lovers everywhere when I say that we are all very envious of those lucky enough to get to attend this spectacle.


Now, first the good news.  While it may not be quite the same as being there in person, many of our fellow opera lovers will still have the opportunity to share in the experience.  This gala performance will be broadcast on over 600 movie theater screens around the world.  Great news, right?  Well, next comes the bad news.  Unfortunately, not one of those theaters is located in the Broward/Dade/Palm Beach area.  Not a one!  Somehow, we managed to get overlooked.  Finally, the not-so-terrible news, if you don't mind driving a couple of hours to get to a movie theater.  Several theaters in Northern and Central Florida will be showing this.  The closest two are the Silverspot Cinema in Naples and the Carmike Lakeshore 8 in Sebring.  I know I won't be able to make it, but if anyone else manages to, we would love to hear all about it in vivid detail.  Particularly those pertaining to Dmitri Hvorostovsky!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Welcome to the South Florida Opera Scene.  This is my first post, so I'll start with a word on the purpose of this blog.  There are many opportunities to experience opera in its many forms in South Florida, but not everybody is aware of all our available options.  I will compile a list of upcoming performances, both live and telecast, fully staged, concerts, and recitals.  When available, I will post information about upcoming performances, as well as discussions of past performances.  From time to time, I will showcase various artists, both local talent and international stars.

Our first upcoming event is Saturday's Met Live in HD screening of Don Giovanni, available on about two dozen movie theater screens throughout South Florida.  This new production, under the baton of Fabio Luisi, stars Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as the Don.

The stellar cast also includes Luca Pisaroni as Leporello, Marina Rebeka as Donna Anna, Ramon Vargas as Don Ottavio, Barbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira, and Mojca Erdmann as Zerlina.  Joshua Bloom is Masetto, and Stefan Kocan is the Commendatore.

For tickets, please visit