Wednesday, December 12, 2012

AIDA Live in HD this Saturday, Dec 15

The granddaddy of all grand operas, Verdi's Aida is the next installment in the acclaimed Met "Live in HD" series. Come to Virginia Western Community College early for an "opera insights" talk. I'll introduce this great opera at 12:30, prior to the 12:55 curtain.

The Met website is a great resource for photo and video galleries of its productions, and synopses, articles and interviews. Here's the link for this week's HD broadcast:

Aida has been an audience favorite since its premiere in Cairo on Christmas Eve, 1871. It has always been a Met staple, and some of the most distinguished artists of the past century have championed it: conductors like Toscanini, Karajan, Solti and Levine, and tenors such as Caruso, Pavarotti and Domingo. Great sopranos from Emmy Destinn to Maria Callas and Leontyne Price have made Verdi's most dramatic heroine among their signature roles.

For all its grandeur - the "triumphal scene" of Act II, replete with march, parading elephants and a chorus of over 200 singers and dancers is the most famous concerted scene in opera - Aida is an intimate relationship drama. And like many such operas, Aida involves a dramatically charged love-triangle.

The heroic tenor Radames (Roberto Alagna) has been promised to the Pharoah's daughter, Amneris (Dolora Zajick in the photo above, sung by Olga Borodina in this run). Radames is in love with "Celeste Aida" (Heavenly Aida), the Ethiopian slave of Amneris. Aida's father is the king of Ethiopia, Amonasro, the arch enemy of Radames, Amneris and Egypt. Thus the baritone's presence gives Verdi yet another triangle - that between Father and Daughter and Daughter and Tenor!

The synopsis (from the MET site) is copied below. I will conclude with a few observations about Verdi's central musical dramatic principle, the parola scenica, the "scenic word." Verdi harangued his librettists across his long career about finding a concentrated, condensed, dramatically potent image for each scene that would enable him to unlock the musical drama opera requires. In Verdi's operas, these "scenic words" are frequently the names of arias or a key word or phrase that encapsulates a scene.

The tenor's first aria, "Celeste Aida" is the first example (and it comes at the very top of the opera). The top of Act III features Aida's most famous aria, "O patria mia" (Oh, my country). It captures Aida's torturous conflict between her love for her Father and homeland and her love for Radames.

Aida's first aria is one of the most brilliant uses of the parola scenica in all of opera. As Radames is named captain of the Egyptian army in the impending battle with Ethiopia, Amneris enjoins him to "return victorious." The entire ensemble of this first grand scene repeats, "Ritorna vincitor." After the crowd disperses, Aida sings her impassioned aria, "Ritorna vincitor," spelling out the conflicting loyalties that will drive the drama. That threefold repetition, at one master-stroke, distills the sprawling grand drama into two words.

Books have been written about this most beloved of grand spectacles doubling as an intimate and tragic love story. From the highly concentrated prelude and the great arias that introduce the major players, through the triumphal march and "exotic" dances and scenes - from the double triangles of conflict and drama to the final and fatal conclusion - Aida is opera at its best.

Aida: Synopsis
Egypt, during the reign of the pharaohs. At the royal palace in Memphis, the high priest Ramfis tells the warrior Radamès that Ethiopia is preparing another attack against Egypt. Radamès hopes to command his army. He is in love with Aida, the Ethiopian slave of Princess Amneris, the king’s daughter. Radamès dreams that victory in the war would enable him to free her and marry her (“Celeste Aida”). But Amneris loves Radamès, and when the three meet, she jealously senses his feelings for Aida. A messenger tells the king of Egypt and the assembled priests and soldiers that the Ethiopians are advancing. The king names Radamès to lead the army, and all join in a patriotic anthem. Left alone, Aida is torn between her love for Radamès and loyalty to her native country, where her father, Amonasro, is king (“Ritorna vincitor”). She prays to the gods for mercy.

In the temple of Vulcan, the priests consecrate Radamès. Ramfis orders him to protect the homeland.

Act II
Ethiopia has been defeated, and Amneris waits for the triumphant return of Radamès. When Aida approaches, the princess sends away her other attendants so that she can learn her slave’s private feelings (Duet: “Fu la sorte dell’armi”). She first pretends that Radamès has fallen in battle, then says he is still alive. Aida’s reactions leave no doubt that she loves Radamès. Amneris, determined to be victorious over her rival, leaves for the triumphal procession.

At the city gates the king and Amneris observe the celebrations and crown Radamès with a victor’s wreath (Triumphal scene: “Gloria all’Egitto”). Captured Ethiopians are led in. Among them is Amonasro, Aida’s father, who signals his daughter not to reveal his identity as king. Radamès is impressed by Amonasro’s eloquent plea for mercy and asks for the death sentence on the prisoners to be overruled and for them to be freed. The king grants his request but keeps Amonasro in custody. The king declares that as a victor’s reward, Radamès will have Amneris’s hand in marriage.

On the eve of Amneris’s wedding, Ramfis and Amneris enter a temple on the banks of the Nile to pray. Aida, who is waiting to meet Radamès in secret, is lost in thoughts of her homeland (“O patria mia”). Suddenly Amonasro appears. Invoking Aida’s sense of duty, he makes her promise to find out from Radamès which route the Egyptian army will take to invade Ethiopia (Duet: “Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate”). Amonasro hides as Radamès enters and assures Aida of his love (Duet: “Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida”). They dream about their future life together, and Radamès agrees to run away with her. Aida asks him about his army’s route, and just as he reveals the secret, Amonasro emerges from his hiding place. When he realizes that Amonasro is the Ethiopian king, Radamès is desperate about what he has done. While Aida and Amonasro try to calm him, Ramfis and Amneris step out of the temple. Father and daughter are able to escape, but Radamès surrenders to the priests.

Act IV
Radamès awaits trial as a traitor. He believes Aida to be dead but then learns from Amneris that she has survived. Amneris offers to save him if he renounces her rival but Radamès refuses. Brought before the priests, he remains silent to their accusations and is condemned to be buried alive. Amneris begs for mercy, but the judges will not change their verdict. She curses the priests.

Aida has hidden in the vault to share Radamès’s fate. They express their love for the last time (Duet: “O terra, addio’) while Amneris, in the temple above, prays for Radamès’s soul.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Italian cuisine for the Holidays at the MET, "Live in HD"

This saturday the Met "Live in HD" series presents its acclaimed new production of Verdi's romantic masterpiece, Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball).

It's a favorite of Verdi lovers for good reasons - the drama is discernible in the music from the overture to the conclusion, and its principal characters are fully drawn, true-to-life human beings who sing their varying emotional states in music as rich as any Verdi composed.

The opera was originally set around the historical assassination of King Gustavus of Sweden. Since regicide was a subject the Italian censors expressly forbade in their theaters and opera houses, Verdi and his librettist changed the setting to Colonial Boston. The King became the Governor, and the scenario won the censors' approval. We have considered producing this pivotal Verdi opera here in Roanoke, and placing the action in Colonial Williamsburg. I've copied the synopsis below. The Met has pages of its website devoted to the new production - set in a stylized early 20th century Europe (with beautifully elegant costumes and striking set pieces).

The set features a reproduction of a fresco of the mythical figure of Icarus. Icarus was the boy who failed to heed his father's advice to not fly too close to the sun, and fell to his death as a result of his ambitious over-reaching. Tangent for mythology 101: their man-made wings were attached by wax - they were escaping from the island where Hephaistos, Icarus' father, had built the famous labyrinth in which the half-man, half-bull minotaur preyed on human sacrifices... but that's another opera!

The sprawling image of the tumbling youth is a potent one for the dangers of the "tragic flaw" of ambition which overreaches through excess pride or vanity. In this opera, it's a symbol for the corrupting influence of power. It would seem the (literal) affairs of the heads of state and their general are always grist for the dramatic mills of political life. The King is in love with his right-hand-man's wife, Amelia. The count is unaware of this for the first half of the opera. Though the tenor's and soprano's mutual attraction is never consummated - their magnificent love duet in act 2 is interrupted by the appearance of the baritone Count, who does not immediately recognize his wife. They sing one of Verdi's great trios - an ensemble he would infuse with concentrated musical drama from Rigoletto and Trovatore to Don Carlo and Otello.

The cast features three of the greatest Verdi singers of our day. The American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is Amelia, Marcello Alvarez is the King, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky is the Count.

Take a break from the Holiday madness for an afternoon of exceptional Italian musical cuisine with Verdi! I'll be introducing the opera at Virginia Western Community College's Whitman Auditorium at 12:30, before the 12:55 curtain.

Here's that synopsis from the Met site:

Act I
At the royal palace in Stockholm, courtiers await an audience with King Gustavo III, including a group of conspirators led by Counts Horn and Ribbing. The king enters. He notices the name of Amelia, wife of his secretary and friend, Count Anckarström, on the guest list for a masked ball, and thinks about his secret love for her. Left alone with Gustavo, Anckarström warns the king of a conspiracy against him, but Gustavo ignores the threat. The young page Oscar tells the king about the fortuneteller Madame Ulrica Arvidsson, who has been accused of witchcraft and is to be banished. Deciding to see for himself, the king arranges for his court to pay her an incognito visit.

In a building by the port, Madame Arvidsson invokes prophetic spirits and tells the sailor Cristiano that he will soon become wealthy and receive a promotion. The king, who has arrived in disguise, slips money and papers into Cristiano’s pockets. When the sailor discovers his good fortune, everybody praises Madame Arvidsson’s abilities. Gustavo hides as she sends her visitors away to admit Amelia, who is tormented by her love for the king and asks for help. Madame Arvidsson tells her that she must gather a magic herb after dark. When Amelia leaves, Gustavo decides to follow her that night. Oscar and members of the court enter, and the king asks Madame Arvidsson to read his palm. She tells him that he will die by the hand of a friend. Gustavo laughs at the prophecy and demands to know the name of the assassin. Madame Arvidsson replies that it will be the first person that shakes his hand. When Anckarström rushes in Gustavo clasps his hand saying that the oracle has been disproved since Anckarström is his most loyal friend. Recognizing their king, the crowd cheers him as the conspirators grumble their discontent.

Act II
That night, Amelia, who has followed Madame Arvidsson’s advice to find the herb, expresses her hope that she will be freed of her love for the king. When Gustavo appears, she asks him to leave, but ultimately they admit their love for each other. Amelia hides her face when Anckarström suddenly appears, warning the king that assassins are nearby. Gustavo makes Anckarström promise to escort the woman back to the city without lifting her veil, then escapes. Finding Anckarström instead of their intended victim, the conspirators make ironic remarks about his veiled companion. When Amelia realizes that her husband will fight rather than break his promise to Gustavo, she drops her veil to save him. The conspirators are amused and make fun of Anckarström for his embarrassing situation. Anckarström, shocked by the king’s betrayal and his wife’s seeming infidelity, asks Horn and Ribbing to come to his house the next morning.

In his apartment, Anckarström threatens to kill Amelia. She asks to see their young son before she dies. After she has left, Anckarström declares that is it the king he should seek vengeance on, not Amelia. Horn and Ribbing arrive, and Anckarström tells them that he will join the conspirators. The men decide to draw lots to determine who will kill the king, and Anckarström forces his wife to choose from the slips of paper. When his own name comes up he is overjoyed. Oscar enters, bringing an invitation to the masked ball. As the assassins welcome this chance to execute their plan, Amelia decides to warn the king.

Gustavo, alone in his study, resolves to renounce his love and to send Amelia and Anckarström to Finland. Oscar brings an anonymous letter warning him of the murder plot, but the king refuses to be intimidated and leaves for the masquerade. In the ballroom, Anckarström tries to learn from Oscar what costume the king is wearing. The page answers evasively but finally reveals Gustavo’s disguise. Amelia and the king meet, and she repeats her warning. Refusing to leave, he declares his love one more time and tells her that he is sending her away with her husband. As the lovers say goodbye, Anckarström shoots the king. The dying Gustavo forgives his murderer and admits that he loved Amelia but assures Anckarström that his wife is innocent. The crowd praises the king’s goodness and generosity.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

MET "Live in HD" Dec 1, 8 & 15

An exciting three Saturdays are in store for music lovers around Roanoke. The Met "Live in HD" returns Dec 1 to the Whitman Auditorium of Virginia Western Community College
( Join me at 12:30 before the 12:55 curtain for an "opera insights" talk about this classic and traditional "period" production that has been a Met staple championed for years by the likes of James Levine.

Mozart's ultimate grand opera, La Clemenza di Tito launches the December HD fest. Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro are the most popular of his Italian operas. The Magic Flute is the most delightful of the crown jewels in Mozart's incredibly productive final year of 1791 (which also saw the sublime Clarinet Concerto and the fate-filled unfinished Requiem). La Clemenza di Tito may be the grandest achievement of that amazing year. It closed in Prague "with tremendous applause" the very night Die Zauberflöte opened in Vienna. One of the critics of the day wrote, "the music stamps the composer of it as the greatest musical genius of the age." Contemporaries would have thought W.T. Parke's remark an exaggeration; little did any of them know his praise was an understatement.

Here's an image of the autograph score:

Below, I've copied the synopsis from the MET website.(

The title character is one of the greatest tenor roles Mozart wrote, making it one of the great tenor roles of the 18th century. The triangle at the heart of the plot is completed with Mozart's greatest "trouser" role: Sesto. Sesto (sung by a mezzo) is both friend to Tito and in love with Vitellia, the daughter of the deposed emperor. Tito is the benevolent son of her father's enemy, making Vitellia one of those fiery "drama queens" hell-bent on revenge.

One of the highlight's of Mozart's vocal writing is the aria for Sesto near the end of act 1, "Parto, parto, ma tu, ben bio," written for the mezzo with basset clarinet obbligato. The clarinetist for whom Mozart wrote his beloved concerto, Anton Stadler was in the pit for Tito, since the composer wrote one of his most virtuosic instrumental solos expressly for him. In addition to several arias and duets being encored, Stadler received as much of an ovation from the premiere audience as did the singers. Opera has always been a paradigm for artistic collaboration...

Here is a silhouette of Stadler and an image of an 18th century basset clarinet.

Act I
Rome, first century AD. The Roman emperor Tito is in love with Berenice, daughter of the king of Judea. Vitellia, the former emperor’s daughter, feels that she should hold the throne herself and asks her young admirer Sesto to assassinate Tito. Though he is a close friend of the emperor, Sesto will do anything to please Vitellia, so he agrees. When Sesto’s friend Annio tells him that Tito, for reasons of state, will not marry Berenice, Vitellia becomes hopeful again and asks Sesto to put off the assassination plot. Annio reminds Sesto of his own wish to marry Sesto’s sister Servilia. The two men affirm their friendship.

At the forum, the Romans praise Tito. The emperor tells Annio and Sesto that since he has to take a Roman wife he intends to marry Servilia. Diplomatically, Annio assures Tito that he welcomes his decision. Tito declares that the only joy of power lies in the opportunity to help others. When Annio tells Servilia of the emperor’s intentions, she assures him of her love.

In the imperial palace, Tito explains his philosophy of forgiveness to Publio, the captain of the guard. Servilia enters and confesses to the emperor that she has already agreed to marry Annio. Tito thanks her for her honesty and says he will not marry her against her wishes. Vitellia, unaware that Tito has changed his mind, furiously insults Servilia and asks Sesto to kill the emperor at once. He assures her that her wish is his command. After he has left, Publio and Annio tell Vitellia that Tito has decided to choose her as his wife. Vitellia desperately tries to stop Sesto but realizes it is too late.

Sesto has launched the conspiracy and set fire to the Capitol. Full of shame, he runs into Annio, evades his questions and rushes off. Servilia appears, then Publio, and finally Vitellia. They are all searching for Sesto and believe that Tito has died. Sesto returns, looking for a place to hide. He is about to confess his crime but is silenced by Vitellia.

Act II
In the palace, Annio tells Sesto that the emperor is still alive. When Sesto confesses his assassination attempt but refuses to give any reason, Annio advises him to admit everything to Tito and hope for forgiveness. Vitellia rushes in, begging Sesto to flee, but she is too late: a fellow conspirator has betrayed him, and Publio enters with soldiers to arrest him. Sesto asks Vitellia to remember his love.

The Roman people are thankful that the emperor has survived. Tito struggles to understand the conspirators’ motives and doubts Sesto’s disloyalty. Publio warns him against being too trusting. When it is announced that Sesto has confessed and been sentenced to death by the Senate, Annio asks Tito to consider the case compassionately. The emperor will not sign the death decree until he has had the chance to question Sesto himself. Alone with Tito, Sesto assures him that he did not want the throne for himself, but he hesitates to implicate Vitellia. Tito, not satisfied with this explanation, dismisses him. Sesto asks Tito to remember their friendship and is led off. The emperor signs the decree, then tears it up: he cannot become a tyrant and execute a friend. He cries out to the gods, saying that if they want a cruel ruler, they have to take away his human heart. Servilia and Annio beg Vitellia to help save Sesto. She realizes that she must confess her crime rather than accept the throne at the price of Sesto’s life.

In a public square, Tito is about to pronounce Sesto’s sentence, when Vitellia appears and admits that she alone is responsible for the assassination attempt. The bewildered emperor explains that his intention was to forgive Sesto anyway. He finally decides to pardon all the conspirators. The Roman people praise Tito for his kindness and ask the gods to grant him a long life.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Don't miss the Met's Tempest, Nov 10!

The Met has a mini-site dedicated to its new production
of The Tempest, one of the most important new operas
to come along in recent decades -

A post about our recent "Masques of Orpheus" program
devoted to "Tempests, Ghosts & Mad Queens" has a primer
on some of the familiar quotes, speeches & songs
in Shakespeare's autumnal masterpiece (and a personal
favorite among the Bard's great plays).

I hope inquiring minds (and ears!) will come
out to hear the drama and see the music of this
"brave new world" of an opera Saturday, Nov 10
at 12:55. Come early for a discussion on
composer Thomas Adès and his opera with me at 12:30.

The Tempest is the talk of the classical music world
and the eventful cultural scene of NYC!
Just 8 years old, this opera has already had several
productions across Europe, and at Santa Fe opera -
Multiple productions for a new work is a rarity,
and is but one example of both Adès' prodigious gifts
and his opera's stage worthiness.

And his music is fabulous - it's unlike anything the Met's done -
it is at once wholly original and yet full of arias and ensembles that have
a ring of familiarity. The role of the "Airy spirit" Ariel is
sung by a stratospheric coloratura soprano in what must be
among the most demanding roles ever written. The British critic
and author Tom Service writes, "There is no more vertiginous part in
the operatic repertoire."

Caliban's aria in Act 2 - "Be not afeard" - is as hauntingly beautiful as any
tenor aria of the last 40 years. And he is one of 4 lyric tenors in the cast.
The "reconciliation quintet" in Act III is ravishing. The score - from the opening storm to the the ethereal closing duet for the Island's natives - Ariel and Caliban -
is "rich and strange" as Shakespeare's own music. I have been listening
to both the premiere recording from Covent Garden and the Sirius XM
radio broadcasts, and I find the work more compelling with each listen.

This weekend's production is the highlight of the Met "Live in HD" season
for me personally, as I love exciting new works. I crossed paths
with Maestro Adès while I was a young artist at the Aldeburgh Festival
in the UK almost 10 years ago. His career as both a composer and pianist
was really taking off in Europe. He was starting to conduct
not only his own works but also those of his colleagues.
It's only natural that he be considered the successor to Benjamin Britten, another
composer / conductor / pianist who specialized in operas and vocal works
(and composed the most famous English language Shakespeare opera of
the 20th century - A Midsummer Night's Dream).

Amy and I have followed Adès ever since & heard his orchestral works
played live at the likes of Carnegie Hall. Sir Simon Rattle and the
Berlin Philharmonic are among his champions.

He is a bona fide genius, a prodigy & a fascinating individual.

Here's an excerpt from an interview with Adès on the Met's mini-site devoted to The Tempest. The composer is talking about his opera as a kind of musical globe, conceived and executed with the aim of symphonic unity.

Why Do You Describe This As A Symphonic Opera?
"The music has its own internal logic of relationships that doesn’t just do what it wants to do because the characters suddenly decide to go somewhere. It’s a little bit hard to explain. It’s a tissue that’s woven in. Everything is related in the music, and it does create a sort of whole. And I think that’s what symphonic thinking is. All the elements create a view of the world that’s a sphere."

What Other Operas Are Symphonic?
"I’d like to say Pelléas et Mélisande. I think Lulu is another example where everything in the piece is articulated in the music, and in a very jointed way. The opera is like a body, with limbs and arms and bone structure and all this sort of thing. It’s not just a story with music. It’s something that exists above and around the through the story. The music is not just an accompaniment, I hope, more an embodiment."

We hope to see you Saturday at Virginia Western's Whitman auditorium
for an exciting afternoon of a great new opera!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Tempests, Ghosts & Mad Queens? What do they mean?

What, in the "great globe itself," does a title like "Tempests, Ghosts & Mad Queens" mean?

Any opera lover will recognize at least one of the layers of the "Mad Queens," for the repertoire is full of mad scenes for unhinged sopranos - both mad, angry, scorned, hell-bent and otherwise.

Ghosts have been frequenters of dramatic stages since ancient greece. They come in as many varieties as the coloratura-firework-flinging-arabesques of the aforementioned Queens.

And Tempests - from the great floods, Homer & Virgil's maelstroms to Shakespeare and beyond - have fired our collective imaginations and presented myriad opportunities for creative exploration.

The "great globe itself" is one of many familiar quotations from Shakespeare's great play, The Tempest, and 3 vocal chamber works setting Shakespeare are at the heart of Opera Roanoke's "Tempests, Ghosts & Mad Queens" program this weekend. Our guest host from the Spirit World, Edgar Allan Poe, will try to put these pieces in context, lover of Shakespeare that he was (and is)! But here's a quick primer.

Famous songs & quotes form The Tempest:

Where should this music be? I’ th’air or th’earth…

Full fathom five thy father lies...| Nothing of him that doth fade | But doth suffer a sea-change | Into something rich and strange...

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows…

But you, o you,| So perfect and so peerless, are created | Of every creature’s best…

Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises… |...that, when I waked, | I cried to dream again…

In a case of "meaningful coincidence" The Tempest features a Masque - a "play within the play" if you will. Here are some of the lines from within that Masque:

What harmony is this? | Marvelous, sweet music…

You are three men of sin …

Our revels now are ended… | The cloud-capped towers… | the great globe itself…
We are such stuff as dreams are made on…

O brave new world…

Let us not burden our remembrance w | A heaviness that’s gone

Other interesting observations, from our eccentric friend and romantic scholar,
H.L. McCrea:

The Tempest is full of visions & dreams, phantasmagoria, “magic” and “madness.” It is also an archetypal journey through exile and trials to a homecoming, another variation on the "eternal return" or the "return of the hero - ine / exile..."

The exiled & deposed king Prospero is a student of alchemy, "magic" or the so-called “occult arts” and has become a sorcerer. Shakespeare thus spins out a filament of an esoteric thread reaching back to the ancient world, and reappearing dramatically in the romantic era of Poe, Byron, Coleridge, Goethe, Novalis and Nerval...

Frye says this play is a paradox of reality & illusion in drama... like the dream... from Euripides to Pirandello... It is a story of moral & spiritual rebirth… rituals of initiation…baptism…ancient mystery dramas

The Tempest contains a central Masque and is like the masque in its use of elaborate stage machinery and music...

One theory holds that Shakespeare's play was modeled on a Virginia-bound ship wrecked in the mysterious Bermuda triangle...

Frye concludes his excellent introduction to The Tempest (The Pelican Shakespeare edition by comparing Shakespeare's play to Mozart's ultimate fantasy.

"The Tempest in short is a spectacular and operatic play, and when we think of other plays like it, we are more apt to think of, say, Mozart's Magic Flute...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tempests, Ghosts & Mad Queens this weekend!

We launch our new series, The Masques of Orpheus this weekend! Here's a sneak peak at the program:

Tempests, Ghosts & Mad Queens:
A Masque for voices, players and dancers…
Featuring Opera Roanoke’s Young Apprentice Artists
November 2: The Jacksonville Center for the Arts, Floyd, 7:30 pm
November 4: The Waldron Theatre, Roanoke, 7 pm

Named after the original singer-songwriter-composer, the Greek bard Orpheus is considered one of the ancient founders of music itself. The Masque was an early form of “festive entertainment” featuring “singers, dancers, actors, poets and players.”

Opera Roanoke’s Masques of Orpheus is a new series of innovative programs of entertainment featuring a variety of music and theatre, poetry and dance.

from Sweeney Todd
by Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930)
Prologue: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd

from The Magic Flute
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Opening scene: Zu Hilfe! Zu Hilfe!
Tamino, Three Ladies

Aria: Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen
Queen of the Night

Duet: Papagena! Papageno!
Papagena, Papageno

from Candide
by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Aria: Glitter and be gay

from The Tales of Hoffmann
by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)
Entr’acte and Barcarolle

from The Medium
by Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007)
Monica’s Waltz and The Black Swan

from Three Shakespeare Songs
by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Full Fathom Five
The Cloud Capp’d Towers

Be Not Afeard
by James Lego (b. 1990)
*World Premiere Performance

Epilogue: The Ballad of Sweeney Todd

Our dynamic artists will be decked out in gothic costumes and make-up to fit our Halloween theme. Edgar Allan Poe will be our guest host from the beyond in this original evening of music, theatre, dance & poetry not to be missed!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Autumn Leaves at the Taubman Museum

L2P | Fall 2012 | Nature & Culture | landscape & soundscape | SMW

This installment of Listening to Paintings is focused on Nature & Culture or Landscape & Soundscape. Or, how human creativity interacts with the world and how aspects of culture affect it. We start with Burtynsky’s brilliant exhibit of large Oil-inspired photos and note the commentary his perspectives inspire. We pair the beloved standard, Autumn Leaves with his hauntingly beautiful photograph of rusty iron scraps piled up like fall’s most enduring symbol. Ferrous Bushlings inspires a reading from Lloyd Schwarz’s contemporary poem, Leaves, whose image of “flame and rust” is embodied in Burtynsky’s picture. (Poetry excerpts are courtesy of The American Academy of Poets:

Leaves – Lloyd Schwarz |Autumn Leaves | Burtynsky’s Oil
1. Every October it becomes important, no, necessary
to see the leaves turning, to be surrounded
by leaves turning; it's not just the symbolism,
to confront in the death of the year your death,
one blazing farewell appearance, though the irony
isn't lost on you that nature is most seductive
when it's about to die, flaunting the dazzle of its
incipient exit, an ending that at least so far
the effects of human progress (pollution, acid rain)
have not yet frightened you enough to make you believe
is real; that is, you know this ending is a deception
because of course nature is always renewing itself—
the trees don't die, they just pretend,
go out in style, and return in style: a new style.
3. You'll be driving along depressed when suddenly
a cloud will move and the sun will muscle through
and ignite the hills. It may not last. Probably
won't last. But for a moment the whole world
comes to. Wakes up. Proves it lives. It lives—
red, yellow, orange, brown, russet, ocher, vermilion,
gold. Flame and rust. Flame and rust, the permutations
of burning. You're on fire. Your eyes are on fire.
It won't last, you don't want it to last. You
can't stand any more. But you don't want it to stop.
It's what you've come for. It's what you'll
come back for. It won't stay with you, but you'll
remember that it felt like nothing else you've felt
or something you've felt that also didn't last.

II. Virginia Crossroads | pastiche | modernism | Color & Light…

Goolsby’s suburban landscapes | Clingempeel’s encaustics
Sulkin’s photos of “arbitrary objects,” “provoking more q’s than a’s…
Krisch’s photos of severe landscapes, Antarctic icebergs, waters & mountains
Freed’s "James River fragments" | "Heavenly Grass" by Paul Bowles & T Williams

Line | texture | pastiche | polyphony | harmony | chromatic | color & light | chiaroscuro

We comment on all the parallels between the so-called “plastic” arts and music, and the overlap in terminology between painting, music and poetry. The above terms are applied equally to all three lyric forms. Composers use a “palette” of harmonic “color” to paint musical pictures while “all art aspires to the condition of music” as art critic Walter Pater reminds us in his studies of Renaissance Art. And it is in the Renaissance where our forms truly merge.

As Caravaggio and his contemporaries master the art of chiaroscuro (literally “bright – dark”) through the use of color, light and shadows their musical colleagues like Monteverdi and Gesualdo are experimenting with the chromatic possibilities of harmony by exploiting the dissonances between the traditional steps of the “do-re-mi-fa-sol” scale.

We connect Clingempeel’s evocative encaustics: bright-dark nebulae, cells, glow-in-the dark creatures or abstract experiments back to ancient Egypt, and remember how tried and tested this method of creating color and texture is.

(encaustic = ancient technique of heating beeswax & adding pigment for color & texture)

We note Sulkin’s photographs of “arbitrary objects,” images of Rauschenberg-like combines or found-art collages that “provoke more questions than answers.” We pause to consider how central this truth is in the classroom and in life. It’s the journey not the goal, or as Sondheim says in his brilliant song, Someone in a Tree: “It’s the ripple, nor the stream | Not the building but the beam | That is happening…”

We read Carl Sandburg’s epigrammatic postcard of a poem to Autumn's "Harvest moon:"

Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.

Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.

One of the questions we posed in this room, looking at Sam Krisch's gorgeous photos from Antarctica, was whether or not the Roanoke artist had the Taubman's bold architecture in mind when he took one of his iceberg images in particular. Check it out on the artist's website: and then see it in person at the Taubman.

Goolsby’s suburban landscapes also prompt more questions than answers, and like Clingempeel’s encaustics, we appreciate these canvases for the technical accomplishments and their abstract beauty as much as we try to “read” what the artist is depicting in his dark contemporary landscapes. Connecting to Burtynsky’s industrial images, Goolsby is also concerned with how human culture has altered nature’s landscapes. We note his use of impasto technique, combined with a number of other brushstrokes and applications of paint in these engaging canvases.

impasto (impastare = to knead or to paste) = thick oil or acrylic texture; thick paste

Before we sing Paul Bowles’ folk-like setting of Tennesse Williams’ Blue Mountain Ballad, “Heavenly Grass,” inviting our audience to take a walk with the bard while we sing the simple, gently melancholy song, we read a Robert Frost poem to connect to Freed’s Japanese print – inspired etchings and prints of James River images. Frost’s October, Freed’s “Short Days” and Bowles’ wistful tune combine to evoke this season with pitch-perfect details.

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
To-morrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know;
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away;
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes' sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes' sake along the wall.

III. Un-usual Landscapes, [found] objects, movements & riddles…
We next spent some time with Harold Little’s land- and city-scapes, his apparent homage to Van Gogh in his landscape with cornfields, crows and cryptically hidden deer. One must approach his canvas up close to count how many bucks and does are hiding in his corn stalks. Another cryptic landscape functions as an allegory and a memento mori (another “old master” form), as well as being a representational autumn landscape, replete with glowing Harvest Moon. We read another Sandburg poem to mark this spot.

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.
The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman,
the mother of the year, the taker of seeds.
The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things
come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go,
not one lasts.
(Autumn Movement – Sandburg)

Riddles – Little’s hidden images, more open-ended details...

We then read one of our beloved Edgar Allan Poe’s hermetically sealed poems. A Valentine is dedicated to another gifted writer and friend of the poet’s, Franny Osgood. The first letter of the first line, the second letter of the 2nd line, the 3rd letter of the 3rd line, etc spell out the name of Poe’s subject: Frances Sargent Osgood.

A Valentine – Poe
For her this rhyme is penned, whose luminous eyes,
Brightly expressive as the twins of Leda,
Shall find her own sweet name, that nestling lies

Upon the page, enwrapped from every reader.
Search narrowly the lines!- they hold a treasure

Divine- a talisman- an amulet

That must be worn at heart. Search well the measure-

The words- the syllables! Do not forget

The trivialest point, or you may lose your labor

And yet there is in this no Gordian knot

Which one might not undo without a sabre,
If one could merely comprehend the plot.
Enwritten upon the leaf where now are peering

Eyes scintillating soul, there lie perdus

Three eloquent words oft uttered in the hearing

Of poets, by poets- as the name is a poet's, too,

Its letters, although naturally lying

Like the knight Pinto- Mendez Ferdinando-

Still form a synonym for Truth- Cease trying!
You will not read the riddle, though you do the best you can do.

Un-usual folk | Folk song as “found object” | Theresa Disney’s portrait poems |
Appalachian composer John Jacob Niles: Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair

We then sang another folk song, from Appalachian composer John Jacob Niles, who traveled through these here parts collecting songs he heard locals singing. “I wonder as I wander” and “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” are but two examples of these songs he heard, wrote down and arranged. Like the objects and crafts, quilts, prints and portraits in the eclectic “Un-usual Folk” exhibit, this folk-song proved a perfect filament to connect the various strands of art in and around the American galleries.

IV. Our fourth and final movement in this Autumn Leaves edition of Listening to Paintings paired two contemporary American art songs for which I accompanied Amy. We shared colorful – however contrasting – songs by Richard Hundley and John Corigliano under Anne Ferrer’s fantastic silk-sail-air-balloon sculpture, Hot Pink. Variously evoking sea creatures, French pastries and the idea of floating in air, Ferrer’s vision was a perfect canopy atop our renditions of Hundley’s Astronomers and Corigliano’s Halloween-esque “Song to the Witch of the Cloisters.” Honoring visionary women artists, we shared Amy Lowell’s bright poem, Autumn, and excerpts from Gertrude Stein’s fantastic “Tender Buttons.”

Autumn – Amy Lowell ("polyphonic prose" = modernist mix or pastiche...)
They brought me a quilled, yellow dahlia,
Opulent, flaunting.
Round gold
Flung out of a pale green stalk.
Round, ripe gold
Of maturity,
Meticulously frilled and flaming,
A fire-ball of proclamation:
Fecundity decked in staring yellow
For all the world to see.
They brought a quilled, yellow dahlia,
To me who am barren
Shall I send it to you,
You who have taken with you
All I once possessed?

From Tender Buttons – Gertrude Stein

In any kind of place there is a top to covering and it is a pleasure at any rate there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense. It shows what use there is in a whole piece if one uses it and it is extreme and very likely the little things could be dearer but in any case there is a bargain and if there is the best thing to do is to take it away and wear it and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning gratitude…

Light blue and the same red with purple makes a change. It shows that there is no mistake. Any pink shows that and very likely it is reasonable. Very likely there should not be a finer fancy present. Some increase means a calamity and this is the best preparation for three and more being together. A little calm is so ordinary and in any case there is sweetness and some of that

We may have no idea what Stein means, but her polyphonic poetry is a pleasure to recite and sounds like a “rich and strange” music to the ears. As a postscript, we dedicated Bernstein’s touching lullaby, “Take Care of This House” (originally written for the musical flop, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) to our friends at the Taubman Museum of Art, with best wishes for a bright future.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

10 reasons to love Opera around Roanoke this fall

While we are still savoring the fond memories of our first-ever Wagner production in Roanoke (see below), we have many more reasons to celebrate opera this fall.

Here's a list of 10 things I'm looking forward to over the remaining 10 weeks of 2012.

1. The Met "Live in HD" kicks off this Saturday, October 13 with Donizetti's delightful comedy, L'Elisir d'Amore (The Elixir of Love). The quartet of stars are among opera's brightest. Anna Netrebko & Matthew Polenzani have received rave reviews for their portrayals of the young lovers. Come early to the Whitman Theatre at Virginia Western Community College for a FREE LUNCH provided by our good friends at McAlister's Deli. I'll introduce the season and the production at 12:30, prior to the 12:55 curtain.

2. Our original series of music & art programs, "Listening to Paintings" (L2P is our version 2.0 shorthand) continues at the Taubman Museum of Art October 20 at 1 pm. I'll be pairing vocal solos and poetry with the Taubmnan's new exhibits and holdings from their permanent collection.

(Here's a picture from our last collaboration featuring a Flying Dutchman - inspired craft made in ArtVenture on a Spectacular Saturday in September.)

3. Don't miss the Met "Live in HD" broadcast of Verdi's great Shakespearean drama Otello, October 27. This one features the beloved American soprano Renee Fleming as the tragic heroine Desdemona opposite the South African tenor Johann Botha's interpretation of Shakespeare's Moor. Botha is one of the most exciting dramatic tenors of our time, and his voice is as beautiful as it is powerful.

4. Speaking of Verdi, the next installment of our Verdi-inspired "Joe Green" Tree Project continues November 1 at 1 pm at Patrick Henry High School. Verdi planted a tree for each of his operas, and beginning with our new production of Il Trovatore last fall, we launched this project. The "Joe Green" (Giuseppe Verdi in English) project is another way Opera Roanoke demonstrates our commitment to enhancing the quality of life in our community.

5. Our newest series of programs, The Masques of Orpheus launches Nov 2 at The Jacksonville Center for the Arts in Floyd (7:30 pm). Inspired by the original Greek bard, Orpheus - he of the lyre (or lute) - this series of scenes programs will add dance and poetry to the music and theatre to form an innovative and engaging program of entertainment. Our dynamic young Apprentice Artists will join me for a Halloween-themed program called "Tempests, Ghosts & Mad Queens."

6. "Tempests, Ghosts & Mad Queens" appears in Roanoke at the Waldron Stage of our home at Center on Church November 4 at 7 pm. If you're unable to make it to Floyd, be sure to catch this original evening of music, theater, dance & poetry. Rumor has it Edgar Allan Poe himself will host an evening featuring arias, duets and scenes from The Magic Flute, Bernstein's Candide and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.

We'll also feature a cappella songs from Shakespeare's The Tempest by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and present a world premiere performance of a piece written by Apprentice Artist James Lego. His setting of "Be Not Afeard" from The Tempest is for 6 female voices and piano, and its harmonies are "rich and strange" as the noise-filled Isle where Shakespeare set one of his greatest dramas.

7. And that great drama happens to be the next entry in the Met "Live in HD" series. The exciting young British composer Thomas Adés will conduct his operatic version of The Tempest November 10. Don't miss this brilliant new opera featuring the great baritone Simon Keenlyside as the mystical sorcerer Prospero. Adés, like many a creative genius, invigorates the tradition within which he works by honoring it with originality. That is to say, while the music of The Tempest is decidedly modern, he pays tribute to the centuries-old tradition of opera with recognizable arias, duets and ensembles sung by characters immediate in their appeal to us.

8. After singing and conducting, my favorite performance-related pastime is lecturing. I'll be presenting a short history of opera called "Orpheus through the Ages" to the Athenian society of Roanoke November 15 at WDBJ7. I'll talk about the ancient myths that inspired the development of the original form of musical theatre and share examples from 4 centuries of operatic tradition. I never tire of sharing my passion for this powerful form of live musical drama.

9. If you love the Met "Live in HD" series then December will be full of operatic presents. On three successive Saturdays great dramas come to the Met's stage. December 1 brings Mozart's La Clememza di Tito, another ancient drama re-imagined by one of opera's greatest composers. Written in the last year of his life, Tito is not as popular as the late operas that bookend it, Cosi fan Tutte and The Magic Flute. It is every bit as inspired and is a favorite among Mozartians everywhere.

December 8 brings a new production of Verdi's middle-period masterpiece, Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball). One of the Verdi greats we hope to bring to our Roanoke audiences in a near-future season, this opera has everything we love about Verdi. Fully-drawn, complex human characters, intrigue, drama and passion are brought to life with Verdi's searing melodies and rich harmonies. If you don't know this opera, don't miss this broadcast.

December 15 winds up the fall season of broadcasts with one of opera's most popular stories, Aida. This is grand opera MAX and is Verdi at his best, overlapping sweeping historical and political drama with the intimate dramas of personal relationships, loyalty and love. Come see the music come to life in the famous "Triumphal March" replete with elephants and everything but the kitchen sink. Or come hear the drama of one of opera's greatest love triangles, as the rival Princesses Amneris and Aida vie for the love of the tragic hero, Radames.

10. Lastly, if you want to hear the most popular oratorio of the holiday season, Handel's Messiah, Steven White will be conducting members of the RSO and the Roanoke College Choirs December 16 at the Jefferson Center. Yours truly will be the tenor soloist, and I believe this will be a special afternoon of a beloved masterwork.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Images from The Flying Dutchman

Here are some images from the final dress rehearsal of The Flying Dutchman taken by our photographer Dean Ratliff.

We'll proceed from the the opening storm through the drama to the climactic final scene.

Here's a great close up of Ryan Kinsella's brooding Dutchman.

Matthew Curran's Daland meets the Dutchman.

The Sailors cheer the welcome south wind and head for home...

And at the top of Act II we meet Senta, Mary and the women at work.

Here are three of our Young Apprentice Artists (from L to R):
Gracie Moore, Aurora Martin and Paige Kenley
(Carla Dirlikov as Mary is to the far left; Choristers Amelia and Clair bookend the 3 young artists)

Daland introducing his daughter Senta (Julia Rolwing) to the object of her obsessive desire, The Flying Dutchman.

Here we transition from the Act II house to the Act III ship in one of our stage director Crystal Manich's brilliant solutions in presenting a complex music drama.

The Norwegians' drinking song is interrupted by the Ghost sailors...

...who haunt the decks 'till the Dutchman departs forever...

Erik - our fabulous tenor, Bryan Register - watches in horror as the Dutchman addresses Senta

The Dutchman reveals his ghostly identity, shocking everyone...but Senta...

Who vows to her dark and stormy lover to be true to him 'till death...

And takes a fateful leap to prove it! (Brava Julia!)

And in Wagner's rapturous postlude they are ultimately and irrevocably joined together.

If you missed The Flying Dutchman, we hope we'll see you at our next production. Our dynamic Young Apprentice Artists will be presenting "Tempests, Ghosts & Mad Queens" a program of scenes and ensembles. It is the first in a series of multi-genre programs called The Masques of Orpheus, combining music, drama, dance & poetry in an intimate setting.

We're at the Jacksonville Center in Floyd on Nov 2 and the Waldron Stage at our downtown home in Center on Church Nov 4.

If you caught The Flying Dutchman and would like to share your opinion with readers of the Roanoke Times, check out Mike Allen's "Arts & Extras" blog here:

Friday, September 21, 2012

Top Ten Things we love about The Flying Dutchman

September 21 is not only Gustav Holst's birthday but it is also opening night for Opera Roanoke's 37th season and our premiere Wagner production. Holst was one of dozens of composers influenced by Wagner. Though he forged his own style, Wagner's imprint continues to ripple across the universe of classical music. This promises to be an exciting weekend for culture lovers in Roanoke!

Here's a preview of my "opera insights" talk an hour before each of our 2 performances (tonight & Sunday afternoon).

Top Ten Things We Love about The Flying Dutchman

1. Overture: though still a mélange of tunes and themes from across the score mashed up together, Wagner’s 10’ curtain raiser is a tone poem distillation of the entire opera, an early clue to the intertwining of the two main themes & the first of three key appearances of the so-called “redemption” motive (listen for the cadence that sounds like a traditional "Amen...")

2. Dutchman’s opening Monologue (Die Frist ist um…Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schlund… Dich frage ich, gepriesner Engel Gottes… Nur eine Hoffnung…)
Shakespearean torrent of experience, passion & longing = King Richard (II or III)

3. Senta’s Ballad: perfect union of form & content – the Ballad is the story of TFD and uses his music – Senta’s mirror image motif unites them… And both of their motiven mirror the open 5th with which Beethoven launches his great 9th Symphony...

[Her rejection of the women's chorus “dumb singing” is Wagner thumbing his nose at traditional opera – an example of bourgeois banality starkly contrasted with the truly artistic and poetic soul…]

4. Erik’s Dream: Auf hohem Felsen leg ich träumend…the Epitome of Romantic poet, dreamer, wanderer and lover of nature & beauty...

[Senta’s comment on “the other one” with her Father in Erik's oneiric vision –
der düstre Blick – his melancholy look… they are all romantics here!]

5. a. The Dutchman’s materializing before Senta’s eyes – a visual and musical poem – one of the highlights of our production & one of its most compelling images…

b. Dutchman’s and Senta’s Duet (and the sensually beautiful impressionist strains that punctuate the silence before they sing a note together – a magical sequence and the embodiment of the idea or state of being we call “spellbound…”

6. The Transition from II to III – Wagner ideally wanted TFD done complete with no breaks between numbers, scenes or acts (and wrote versions accordingly to allow for an unbroken performance – as we will do b/w II & III – or to allow for a break and an intermission – which we will take at the end of Act I). The themes are undergirded & punctuated with a churning rhythmic motif that could be a nervous heart beating or the endless rolling of the sea… The stage picture as the cast enters, crosses and literally transforms the set from the house back to the ship is fantastic…

7. The unexpected entrance of the Ghost Chorus (on tape – thanks to the Jeff Center's Music Lab) interrupting the Norwegian revelry at the top of Act III and literally spooking everyone away!

8. Erik’s Aria: The romantic poet’s impassioned – and ultimately futile – entreaty to Senta. Often perceived as a “weak” character, our Erik is a convincing true-to-life – and per opera’s M.O. – larger than life – character – passionate, faithful & genuine…

9. The Dutchman’s dramatically revealing exit – I get chills just thinking about the moment, punctuated by another eerie entrance from the ghost chorus...

10. Senta’s Liebestod (Love-death) and the opera’s resolution – a masterstroke from the revolutionary composer soon after The Flying Dutchman to be known as “the Master”

(Mahler anecdote: GM running around Vienna distraught upon hearing the news of Wagner's death - a close friend thought Mahler's father must have died from observing the young Wagnerian's behavior...)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Debunking a few operatic myths 'ere the ghost ship sails...

Let's debunk a few of the false myths about opera in general and Wagner in particular.

1. Opera is:
a. elitist; b. incomprehensible; c. boring; d. all of the above

Pray tell me thou didst not select d. Opera has always been an entertaining form of live music. It is the original "musical theater." The melodramatic plots of soap operas and the ridiculous wit of sit-coms can both be traced back to operatic stages. Film as a medium is indebted to Wagner above all artists and soundtracks would not exist were it not for opera. As I have said before, it may be an "acquired taste" for some, but don't knock it till you try it.

Please don't say you "don't like opera" if you've never been to a great production of one. And having a bad experience with anything - a sport, a type of cuisine, an ex - can adversely effect one's inclinations. I've met more folks who've had a positive experience at the opera, orchestra or theater (and are thus inclined to appreciate the live arts) than those whose negative experiences (poor performance | production | setting | etc...) have prevented them from enjoying the magic of live "classical" art.

I just talked to a friend who informed me her first experience of an opera was none other than The Flying Dutchman. Wagner's first masterpiece remains her favorite opera, and I know she will love our production of it at the Jefferson Center this weekend.

2. Operatic plots are ridiculous.

Come on! Are not most of our forms of entertainment variations on the theme of the "willing suspension of disbelief" necessary to enjoy any work of fiction? The Flying Dutchman has been a familiar legend in our collective imagination for over 200 years. Along with the other gothic romantic legends of vampires, monsters and ghosts, The Flying Dutchman is a familiar story with familiar music (see Bugs Bunny: What's Opera Doc? You can find it and a myth-debunking commercial for Opera Roanoke's production on YouTube). Opera amateurs and professionals have not helped the cause by subscribing to the misconception that operatic plots are ridiculous, nonsensical and implausible. We apologize with "but the music's great!" and do ourselves a disservice. Homer and Dante and Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Caroll and Tim Burton are also "ridiculous." That's why we love them.

Most of opera's plots are timeless myths, legends, adventures and historically-based epics, fantasies or dramas. Opera is no more ridiculous than any other form of entertainment. It just happens to be among the most powerful, immediate and original genres of art the human imagination has been inspired to create. Come "hear the drama" and "see the music" to believe how true it is...

3. Wagner is too
a. heavy; b. long; c. difficult d. etc, etc...

The Lord of the Rings as fiction or film is not everyone's cup of tea but it has been beloved by scores of people from all over the world for generations. The same can be said of Wagner's epic Ring of the Nibelungs. After The Flying Dutchman, Wagner's music dramas were 4-hour affairs whose riches reveal themselves to those interested in spending so much time at the theatre or at home listening or watching a recording. But Dutchman is in three swift acts just over 2 hours long. It is no longer than Disney's recent Pirates of the Caribbean movies (who cribbed its plot and characters).

As the conductor Robert Shaw used to say, falling in love requires three things: being in the right place at the right time for long enough time. If we don't spend time with Wagner how do we know whether or not we love his music. The personality and the opinions of Wagner the man are another matter. As another great conductor, Daniel Barenboim has said: no composer more than Wagner presents a greater gulf between the genius of the work and the odiousness of its creator's personality. We can both appreciate how Wagner's life and work intersect and we should be able to separate how independent they are.

Judge The Flying Dutchman on the merits of the music and the quality of the production. If you come to Opera Roanoke's newly christened ghost ship production Friday or Sunday, we think you'll be as excited about this musical drama as we are.

Come to the opera this weekend. Carla and Mini Wagner want you to.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Approaching the Dutchman: Wagner's motives & mythology

Wagner was the first among the great composers of romantic opera to write his own libretti. Starting with The Flying Dutchman, he referred to his operatic scripts as poems. Newcomers to Wagner might find his deep interest in mythology a familiar portal through which to enter his unique world.

He called the Flying Dutchman a "mythical poem." His title character represents "a primeval trait of man's essential nature." This figure is the restless and ambitious wanderer - familiar across mythologies and legends from Homer's Ulysses to the "Wandering Jew" Ahasuerus (a medieval Christian legend about a man who cursed Jesus and was cursed in return to wander the earth until the "Second Coming" of Christ. The Wagnerian scholar Isolde Vetter refers to the Dutchman as "The Ahasuerus of the Oceans"). According to Wagner, this complex archetypal character possesses "heart-enthralling power." The music he composed for the Dutchman is among his most gripping; it is heart-stopping in the sheer force of declamation required of the baritone who sings him to life.

The Flying Dutchman - cursed to sail the seas forever unless he can find true love on his one day ashore every seven years - is the first of Wagner's "rootless wanderers." Like Ulysses, he is a familiar figure across human dramas as the exile, the loner, the rebel (with or without a cause) and/or the outcast. Wagner's greatest bass-baritone role is Wotan (similar to Odin in Norse Mythology and recently recreated by the actor Anthony Hopkins in the film version of the Marvel Comics story of Thor). Other great Wagnerian wanderers include Siegmund and Parsifal.

Like the Vampire, the Dutchman desires a woman who is enthralled by "the dark side." Wagner's first "redeeming woman" is Senta. Like Mina with Dracula, the operatic heroine is haunted by visions and dreams of this mysterious and darkly elegant nobleman, a figure from a brooding chiaroscuro portrait believed to be imaginary...

Wagner is known for developing a complex system of motives called leitmotiven (leading motives) that characterize both his singing actors and their conflicting emotions, states of being and fates. The Flying Dutchman is the first of his mature music dramas to explore the possibilities of a system he developed further than any previous composer.

The two most famous vocal scenes in the opera are the Dutchman's Monologue in Act I and Senta's Ballad in Act II. The Dutchman's "aria" is Shakespearean in scope, range and depth as he tells his story and pours out his haunted soul. Wagner called Senta's "aria" a "poetically condensed image of the whole drama." The Flying Dutchman was the first in a series of dramas where the composer attempted to dispense with the "tiresome operatic accessories" of the Italian and French styles. Remnants of those more traditional - and to 19th century audiences, familiar - forms remain. Both solos resemble the romantic operatic tradition of the scena: recitative, aria and cabaletta. As Verdi would later do (following Wagner's lead), the traditional "numbers" become integrated as seamlessly as possible into the entire fabric of the musical drama. Wagner preferred his three acts to be performed without a break, with one scene literally flowing like water into the next.

The secondary duo of principal characters (so frequently overshadowed by the Dutchman and Senta) are rounded and compelling creations. Senta's father, the Norwegian captain Daland resembles an operatic type found in Beethoven's Rocco (from Fidelio, performed in Roanoke in the 2007-2008 season). Daland's music has a conventionality that is purposeful - this opportunistic petit bourgeois businessman is in sharp relief with his spellbound bad-boy-loving daughter. Senta's terrestrial boyfriend, the "hot-blooded" young hunter, Erik is among the first of Wagner's poetic and romantic tenors. I see Erik as a complex "other" compared to the Dutchman and not as the disgruntled cipher he is sometimes assumed to be. His first "aria" is the recounting of a disturbing dream about Senta and the mysterious ghost pirate by whom she is enchanted. The dream proves to be prophetic and even Erik's impassioned serenade in the final act cannot dissuade Senta from following what she believes to be her destiny. She will save the Dutchman from his curse, and join him as either a "Bride of Death" or a "Saving Angel" whose sacrificial love redeems the "fallen one."

Our outstanding cast will engage and enthrall (and even entertain!) our audiences this weekend. I can't wait to be a part of it. Even non-musicians and operatic neophytes will recognize the familiarity of this music. Both the Dutchman's and Senta's individual motives are dramatically intertwined. Wagner brilliantly links the two characters musically, reinforcing their mutual attraction and connection by joining their motives and combining their themes at pivotal moments across the drama. This connection is reinforced by our fantastic young stage director, Crystal Manich. I shall not divulge the moving "coup de theatre" with which our new production concludes; inquiring minds shall have to see the drama and hear the music in person this weekend at the Jefferson Center...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Production week of The Flying Dutchman

I cannot believe our premiere Wagner production launches next weekend! We believe Wagner will nod approval from whatever realm his own ghost happens to be wandering...

Here's what his statue looks like in Venice, the city where "the master" died.

My faithful companion, Mini-Richard accompanied me to another screening of the classic film version of The Flying Dutchman at the Taubman Museum. Like his operatic nephew, Billy Budd he's playing the part of a proud foretopman atop our newly arrived TFD t-shirts (designed my stepdaughter, Jessica Davis).

In a case of Opera Roanoke trivia and / or "meaningful coincidence," Billy Budd is Britten's opus 50. Our principal guest conductor, Steven White celebrates his 50th birthday next Sunday, the day of our matinee (and final) performance of The Flying Dutchman. Billy Budd was Steven's most recent conducting assignment at the Metropolitan Opera (I wrote about a performance of it I attended with Steven backstage last May as he and I continued our work on OR's Wagner production. Inquiring minds can see the posts below from a wonderful week in NYC at the Met as their 2011-12 season came to a grand conclusion).

Here is one of the Taubman museum's great landscape paintings in its American Galleries permanent collection. This is William Bradford's 1875 nautical canvas, The Voyage of the Polaris. The arctic setting makes it a perfect companion for the Northern European sea setting of the ships in The Flying Dutchman.

Our set is being loaded into Shaftman Performance Hall at the Jefferson Center as I write this. Here is a sketch of the main deck of our Norwegian schooner, courtesy of our design team, Jimmy Ray and Laurie Powell Ward.

Our first rehearsal on stage is tomorrow evening, September 16. I'm slated to be a guest on the WDBJ7 Morning Show Monday (from 5 - 7 am) where we'll unveil the set as a teaser before next Friday's opening night. Don't miss this fabulous operatic ship before it sails away!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Ships ahoy at the Taubman!

Over the course of its two-hour screening, over 60 visitors to the Taubman Museum of Art stopped in to catch some of The Flying Dutchman. As many children attended as adults, but many more of the Kinder danced to Wagner's exciting score than did their Ältern.

We did have assistance from an impromptu "Tanzmeister" (Dance master) who led some of the kids in some wavy moves in the auditorium while the sailors sang on screen.

Along with the viewing of the expressive and beautifully stylized 1975 film of Wagner's opera, the Roanoke Library led craft making events in the Taubman's Art Venture space. Here several of my new friends proudly display their Dutchman-inspired art.

Always a child at heart, I joined in the fun, with a little help from Mini Wagner.

And when no one else was looking, Mini Richard cheered his first great masterpiece.

Though I didn't snap a picture of it, the image of two young boys, ages 4 & 7, watching in rapt silence as the Dutchman bid farewell to Senta is emblazoned in my memory. It made for a memorable final scene, in which several children were fixed to the screen as their parents watched them being enchanted by the special magic of opera. If Mastercard were around to shoot one of its commercials, the script might read:

"Cost of materials to make Art Venture crafts: $50;
Cost of the DVD of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman: $30;
The sight of your children completely entranced by their first opera:

Come hear the drama and see the music and believe Opera Roanoke is the place to experience it. And come to the Taubman Museum next Saturday, Sept 15, at 11:30 to see the film and make your own Flying Dutchman art.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Opera at the Taubman Museum: The Magic of Mythology

Tomorrow (Saturday, Sept 8 at 11:30 am) I will be introducing the first film version of Wagner's romantic opera, The Flying Dutchman. More information on this free "Spectacular Saturday" event at the Taubman Museum of Art is in the flyer below.

A variety of posts below this one discuss Opera Roanoke's upcoming premiere production of Wagner's exciting musical drama. As early as last May I began to write about the origins of the Flying Dutchman legend and Wagner's interest in mythology and the "gothic craze" that accompanied the 19th century tide of literary and artistic romanticism across Europe and the US.

The opera takes place on and around a pair of ships, one of which is the infamous Ghost Ship captained by the Flying Dutchman himself. Below are a couple of photos from our first staging rehearsal with our sailors' chorus. Here they are at work on deck (in the rehearsal hall of the Jefferson Center, using a combination of real props and some stand-ins).

And here we have the Norwegian captain Daland's Helmsman (yours truly) steering an unwieldy music stand (we'll have quite a nice wheel on our imposing set, which I will preview in an upcoming entry).

In addition to the screening of the Flying Dutchman film tomorrow at 11:30 at the Taubman, our new group of friends Bravo!
(Blue Ridge Advocates for the Valley's Opera)
will be hosting a cocktail party at the Penny Deux lounge in the Patrick Henry Hotel in Downtown Roanoke tomorrow evening starting at 6 pm.