Friday, November 22, 2013

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions to all musicians...

Today is St Cecilia's Day. Cecilia is the Patron Saint of Music. November 22 is also the birthday of Benjamin Britten, whom many consider to be the greatest composer not only of English opera, but the greatest the UK has ever produced. Today marks his centenary. Having devoted a significant portion of my studies and career to his life and music, I have been looking forward to this celebration of "Britten 100" for some time. A wonderful introduction to the composer and his beloved home in East Anglia, in the seaside town of Aldeburgh can be found on the Guardian website. The video ends with excerpts from his famous first opera, Peter Grimes, performed on Aldeburgh Beach to mark the centenary.

BBC Radio 3 is also celebrating the occasion with weekend-long broadcasts from Aldeburgh and Snape, where Britten and his partner, the tenor, Peter Pears built a concert hall. Britten 100 is live on the BBC and archived for online listening.

HM, Queen Elizabeth II attended the grand opening of the Snape Maltings Concert Hall in 1967. Britten concluded the program with Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia. The text of John Dryden's famous poem is below. Handel's music and Dryden's poem were both so important for composers their influence can be heard in Mozart's The Magic Flute. "The Power of Music" is a recurring theme, transcending boundaries of historical period, culture and style.

Amy and I will be singing in Handel's Ode for St Cecilia at Greene Memorial United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 24, at 4:00 p.m.

Britten's earliest homage to St Cecilia was his brilliant a cappella setting of W. H. Auden's densely textured "Hymn for St Cecilia's Day." It features a memorable refrain which choral conductors have borrowed for program titles for the last 70 years.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions 

To all musicians, appear and inspire: 

Translated Daughter, come down and startle 

Composing mortals with immortal fire.

The full text of Dryden's and Auden's respective poems are below. Insatiable readers should also forbear and read Alexander Pope's Ode, which follows. I particularly love the alliterative list at the end of the 6th section when Eurydice (the widow of Orpheus) is evoked:

Yet ev'n in death Eurydice he sung,
Eurydice still trembled on his tongue,
Eurydice the woods,
Eurydice the floods,
Eurydice the rocks, and hollow mountains rung.

Pope's 7th and final verse opens with this harmonious quatrain:

Music the fiercest grief can charm,
And fate's severest rage disarm:
Music can soften pain to ease,
And make despair and madness please.

Poems for St Cecilia | 22 November

John Dryden (1631-1700): A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day (1687)

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
'Arise, ye more than dead!'
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music's power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell,
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound:
Less than a God they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell,
That spoke so sweetly, and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

The trumpet's loud clangour
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger,
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, 'tis too late to retreat!

The soft complaining flute,
In dying notes, discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whisper'd by the warbling lute.

Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion,
For the fair, disdainful dame.

But O, what art can teach,
What human voice can reach,
The sacred organ's praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place,
Sequacious of the lyre;
But bright Cecilia rais'd the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appear'd
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.


As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator's praise
To all the Blest above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky!

W.H. Auden (1907-1973): A Hymn to Saint Cecilia (1940)

In a garden shady this holy lady 

With reverent cadence and subtle psalm, 

Like a black swan as death came on 

Poured forth her song in perfect calm: 

And by ocean's margin this innocent virgin 

Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer, 

And notes tremendous from her great engine 

Thundered out on the Roman air. 

Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited, 

Moved to delight by the melody, 

White as an orchid she rode quite naked 

In an oyster shell on top of the sea; 

At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing 

Came out of their trance into time again, 

And around the wicked in Hell's abysses 

The huge flame flickered and eased their pain. 

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions 

To all musicians, appear and inspire: 

Translated Daughter, come down and startle 

Composing mortals with immortal fire.

I cannot grow; 

I have no shadow 

To run away from,

I only play. 

I cannot err; 

There is no creature 

Whom I belong to, 

Whom I could wrong. 

I am defeat 

When it knows it 

Can now do nothing 

By suffering. 

All you lived through, 

Dancing because you 

No longer need it 

For any deed. 

I shall never be
Different. Love me. 

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions 

To all musicians, appear and inspire: 

Translated Daughter, come down and startle 

Composing mortals with immortal fire.

O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall, 

O calm of spaces unafraid of weight, 

Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all 

The gaucheness of her adolescent state, 

Where Hope within the altogether strange 

From every outworn image is released, 

And Dread born whole and normal like a beast 

Into a world of truths that never change: 

Restore our fallen day; O re-arrange. 

O dear white children casual as birds, 

Playing among the ruined languages, 

So small beside their large confusing words, 

So gay against the greater silences 

Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head, 

Impetuous child with the tremendous brain, 

O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain, 

Lost innocence who wished your lover dead, 

Weep for the lives your wishes never led. 

O cry created as the bow of sin
Is drawn across our trembling violin. 

O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain. 

O law drummed out by hearts against the still 

Long winter of our intellectual will. 

That what has been may never be again. 

O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breath 

Of convalescents on the shores of death. 

O bless the freedom that you never chose.

O trumpets that unguarded children blow 

About the fortress of their inner foe. 

O wear your tribulation like a rose. 

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions 

To all musicians, appear and inspire: 

Translated Daughter, come down and startle 

Composing mortals with immortal fire.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744): Ode on St. Cecilia's Day
I. Descend ye Nine! descend and sing;
The breathing instruments inspire,
Wake into voice each silent string,
And sweep the sounding lyre!
In a sadly-pleasing strain
Let the warbling lute complain:
Let the loud trumpet sound,
'Till the roofs all around
The shrill echo's rebound:
While in more lengthen'd notes and slow,
The deep, majestic, solemn organs blow.
Hark! the numbers, soft and clear,
Gently steal upon the ear;
Now louder, and yet louder rise,
And fill with spreading sounds the skies;
Exulting in triumph now swell the bold notes,
In broken air, trembling, the wild music floats;
'Till, by degrees, remote and small,
The strains decay,
And melt away,
In a dying, dying fall.

II. By Music, minds an equal temper know,
Nor swell too high, nor sink too low.
If in the breast tumultuous joys arise,
Music her soft, assuasive voice applies;
Or when the soul is press'd with cares,
Exalts her in enlivening airs.
Warriors she fires with animated sounds;
Pours balm into the bleeding lover's wounds:
Melancholy lifts her head,
Morpheus rouzes from his bed,
Sloth unfolds her arms and wakes,
List'ning Envy drops her snakes;
Intestine war no more our Passions wage,
And giddy Factions hear away their rage.

III. But when our Country's cause provokes to Arms,
How martial music ev'ry bosom warms!
So when the first bold vessel dar'd the seas,
High on the stern the Thracian rais'd his strain,
While Argo saw her kindred trees
Descend from Pelion to the main.
Transported demi-gods stood round,
And men grew heroes at the sound,
Enflam'd with glory's charms:
Each chief his sev'nfold shield display'd,
And half unsheath'd the shining blade:
And seas, and rocks, and skies rebound
To arms, to arms, to arms!

IV. But when thro' all th'infernal bounds
Which flaming Phlegeton surrounds,
Love, strong as Death, the Poet led
To the pale nations of the dead,
What sounds were heard,
What scenes appear'd,
O'er all the dreary coasts!
Dreadful gleams,
Dismal screams,
Fires that glow,
Shrieks of woe,
Sullen moans,
Hollow groans,
And cries of tortur'd ghosts!
But hark! he strikes the golden lyre;
And see! the tortur'd ghosts respire,
See, shady forms advance!
Thy stone, O Sysiphus, stands still,
Ixion rests upon his wheel,
And the pale spectres dance!
The Furies sink upon their iron beds,
And snakes uncurl'd hang list'ning round their heads.

V. By the streams that ever flow,
By the fragrant winds that blow
O'er th' Elysian flow'rs,
By those happy souls who dwell
In yellow meads of Asphodel,
Or Amaranthine bow'rs,
By the hero's armed shades,
Glitt'ring thro' the gloomy glades,
By the youths that dy'd for love,
Wand'ring in the myrtle grove,
Restore, restore Eurydice to life;
Oh take the husband, or return the wife!
He sung, and hell consented
To hear the Poet's pray'r;
Stern Proserpine relented,
And gave him back the fair.
Thus song could prevail
O'er death and o'er hell,
A conquest how hard and how glorious?
Tho' fate had fast bound her
With Styx nine times round her,
Yet music and love were victorious.

VI. But soon, too soon, the lover turns his eyes:
Again she falls, again she dies, she dies!
How wilt thou now the fatal sisters move?
No crime was thine, if 'tis no crime to love.
Now under hanging mountains,
Beside the falls of fountains,
Or where Hebrus wanders,
Rolling in Maeanders,
All alone,
Unheard, unknown,
He makes his moan;
And calls her ghost,
For ever, ever, ever lost!
Now with Furies surrounded,
Despairing, confounded,
He trembles, he glows,
Amidst Rhodope's snows:
See, wild as the winds, o'er the desart he flies;
Hark! Haemus resounds with the Bacchanals cries —
— Ah see, he dies!
Yet ev'n in death Eurydice he sung,
Eurydice still trembled on his tongue,
Eurydice the woods,
Eurydice the floods,
Eurydice the rocks, and hollow mountains rung.

VII. Music the fiercest grief can charm,
And fate's severest rage disarm:
Music can soften pain to ease,
And make despair and madness please:
Our joys below it can improve,
And antedate the bliss above.
This the divine Cecilia found,
And to her Maker's praise confin'd the sound.
When the full organ joins the tuneful quire,
Th'immortal pow'rs incline their ear;
Borne on the swelling notes our souls aspire,
While solemn airs improve the sacred fire;
And Angels lean from heav'n to hear.
Of Orpheus now no more let Poets tell,
To bright Cecilia greater pow'r is giv'n;
His numbers rais'd a shade from hell,
Hers lift the soul to heav'n.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Art is science, science is art

Collaboration and cooperation are more than buzzwords here in Virginia's Blue Ridge. Among the many colleague organizations with whom we are proud to partner, The Science Museum of Western Virginia is one. Several of our apprentice artists joined Amy and me for their final "Butterflies @ 5" presentation of the season in late September. The following poem was inspired by the few minutes I spent gawking at the moon rock the museum had on display.

At the Science Museum of Western Virginia

This like a dream | Keeps other time, | And daytime is | The loss of this
(from “This Lunar Beauty,” W. H. Auden)

The crystal shivers through
your impossibly old body,
moon-rock, lunar idol,
fascination block on view
here beneath the butterfly
pavilion. I quiver,
circling the pedestal
supporting your extra-
terrestrial mass, which
I expect, any nanosecond
now, to break out, shatter
glass, and streak free
across a room that can’t
possibly cage 33 million millennia.

(September 2013)

No less a scientific genius than Thomas Edison
wrote to the operatic genius, Giacomo Puccini:

"Men die and governments change,
but the melodies of La Boheme will live forever."

(Mark Fisher:
Sounds of an Atlantic Spotted Dolphin)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Opera Review: Musicians Star in the Magic Flute by Timothy Gaylard

Below is a review of Opera Roanoke's October 21st performance of The Magic Flute,
presented by Washington and Lee University.

Musicians star in The Magic Flute by Timothy Gaylard

Opera Roanoke brought a welcome performance of Mozart's beloved The Magic Flute to Lexington last night. The almost sold-out house responded positively to an evening of entertaining theatrical and musical delights. In the overture, the orchestra, comprised of select members of the Roanoke Symphony, demonstrated a cohesive and tight ensemble under the deft direction of Scott Williamson. In particular, the wind section impressed with playing of virtuosic bravura and expressive color. For the rest of the evening, Maestro Williamson and his players provided magnificent support to the vocal cast.

The opera itself featured very talented singers, some of whom were performing their roles for the very first time. At the core of the comedy in this work is the character Papageno, here played by the young baritone Joseph Lim. Not only did he sing beautifully but he endeared himself to the audience with his wit, defiance and petulance. As a serious foil, the role of Tamino was expertly sung by Michael Gallant, whose tenor voice easily negotiated the taxing high tessitura of the part. In the part of his beloved Pamina, soprano Shelly Milam acted with effective pathos and strength and sang with lyrical sweetness. Lindsey Russell, as the Queen of the Night, gamely donned a male costume, but sang with the appropriate force and range, including the famous high Fs, dispatching them with pin-point accuracy. Bass Matthew Curran played the wise Sarastro intelligently, letting his noble humanity shine through and singing the low notes of the role with distinction.

In smaller roles, there were some especial standouts. The Three Ladies, sung by Chelsea Bonagura, Stacy Dove, and Leah Melfi, blended well and vied comically with each other over Tamino in the first scene. Tenor Adam McAllister was suitably scary and menacing in the unsavory part of Monostatos. Andrew Ellis and Andrew Otter were particularly impressive as the Armored Men, intoning powerfully the choral tune in the finale. Keith Reed's baritone was sonorous and weighty in the crucial part of the "Speaker" who leads Tamino on the right path to enlightenment. Anna Sterrett, was amusingly coy as the disguised Papagena and then transformed herself into an energetic and playful Pocahontas look-alike; the "Pa-pa-pa" duet with Papageno revealed a bright and agile soprano voice.

The audience was also treated to the visual delights of animals, birds, a butterfly, and an attractive temple facade, indicating in part at least the historical location of Williamsburg, instead of the traditional setting of ancient Egypt. Members of the chorus did well in convincing us of their American heritage and they sang with a full and effective sound. When the curtain came down, the audience gave the performers a well-deserved standing ovation.

Timothy Gaylard is Professor of Music at Washington and Lee University.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A few of my favorite things about our Flute

A random & subjective list of ten (or so) favorite things about our new production of
The Magic Flute:

The death of the monster by the Three Ladies (Chelsea, Stacy & Leah) & their awesome power.

(Sabrina and Jonah, our Southwest Va Ballet dancers as the dragon, with the 3 divas far right)

Papageno (Joseph), AKA: "Nature Boy" and "Travel Buddy."

Our 3 Spirits (Miranda, Angela & Logan) dressed as Mozart triplets.

The Queen of the Night's (Lindsay's) first aria.

The Speaker (Keith) as Thomas Jefferson, exuding gravitas.

The Queen of the Night's second aria.

The taming of the wild animals with the Magic Flute.

The hypnotizing of the slaves with the magic bells.

Sarastro (Matthew) as George Washington, and his revolutionary low notes.

(Pamina, Shelly Milam, as Sarastro, Matthew Curran, looks on)

Pamina & Tamino (Shelly & Michael) emerging unscathed from the trials of fire and water.

The Papagena - Papageno (Anna & Joseph) duet and chicken dance. Seriously.

(Anna Sterrett, Papagena and the 3 Spirits: Miranda Jones, Angela Lee and Logan Truesdell)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Mozart's Supreme Achievement, Part II

Here is a brief continuation of yesterday's exploration of the thoughtful question, "what does The Magic Flute have to say to audiences today?"

I have enjoyed reading the Bach and Mozart scholar, Christoph Wolff's new book, Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune, which explores the last 3 years of the composer's life in Vienna from the perspective of his increasing success and rising popularity. Wolff's chapter devoted to TMF is called "What's in a Name?" and, like Cairns (see below), he sees Flute's manifold variety and unity-through-diversity as a major asset. The 35 year-old composer had integrated a "philosophy of music drama in which genre boundaries become porous and conventions increasingly irrelevant."

I don't know how many times I've been asked what the difference is between opera and musical theatre, but The Magic Flute often forms part of the discussion. The short answer is, "whatever the composer calls his or her musical-dramatic work." Mozart called his Da Ponte operas "humorous dramas," and though TMF is referred to as a "Singspiel" (a musical comedy), Mozart called it, "Eine Grosse Oper" (a Grand Opera). It is "grand" in vision and scope, and it is witty and breezy as an Italian dramma giocosa. Like Whitman, Mozart "contains multitudes" within his remarkable imagination.

At the risk of hyperbole, Mozart was able to articulate his creative vision with a clarity achieved by a near-perfect union of form and content. This impossibly flawless balance - the grace and beauty we ascribe to Mozart - is one source of his art's inexhaustible power, and the unmatched universality of this "second-to-none" genius.

To return to practical examples of TMF's success and popularity, it was one of the first pieces of musical theatre to feature "hot off the press" editions of sheet music. Wolff cites its "unusual degree of popularity," noting the individual numbers appearing for sale "in competing editions...only a few weeks after the premiere - something that had never happened before."

Flute was more than just a passing fad with the Viennese public. Wolff reminds us one of its principal themes is "the power of music." This was neither a slogan nor abstract concept. As mentioned below, the Orpheus legend and the origins of music are an important source for Flute. Orpheus "mate" in Christian hagiography is St. Cecilia, patron of music. The 17th century poet, John Dryden's "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day" was the source for 2 major works by Mozart's idol, G. F. Handel. Both Alexander's Feast and Ode for St. Cecilia's Day.* Wolff strengthens the connection between the works by mentioning the German translation of Dryden's poetry, Die Gewalt der Musik (The Power of Music).

Mozart composes the "power of music" throughout his "grand opera" (that is also a "musical comedy" - remember, he is working with "nearly unrestricted possibilities," and is "impervious to labels"). This strength emanates the principal characters, especially the polar opposite royals, the Queen of the Night and Sarastro. If not as extroverted or dynamic in the young initiates/lovers, Pamina and Tamino, it courses like an inexorable undercurrent of passion whenever they take the stage and sing.

The power of music is further evidenced by the orchestration of TMF. Not only is this score Mozart's richest - clarinets and basset horns, three trombones, divided strings - it features the "magic" instruments which set it apart. Tamino's "golden" flute, Papageno's panpipes and glockenspiel all play key roles, and thus, take "center stage" in both the drama and the score.

And what a score! For musicians and conductors, the score is what defines the opera from the pit. As if creating an uncannily brilliant prism, Mozart's orchestration across the final decade of his life continued to develop and evolve. This is nowhere more apparent than in the 7 operas from Idomeneo through Flute.

The orchestra - though small by 19th century standards - displays astonishing variety. 30-some players in the pit play nearly 20 different combinations of instrumentation across a score with 21 individual numbers! Come hear the "humorous drama" as our friends in the RSO bring this score to life. Click on the Jefferson Center link for tickets.

(*Yours truly and my more talented, lovelier half, Amy will be performing Handel's Ode at Greene Memorial UMC. Click here for more info.)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Mozart's supreme achievement: The Magic Flute

"The coherence of the Magic Flute style - a fusion of [popular] song, Italian bravura aria and buffo ensemble, German chorale, fugue, religious chorus... learned and popular, sacred and profane, spirit and earth, the musical analogue of the drama's high theme of reconciliation - is...Mozart's supreme achievement as a music-dramatist."
(from Mozart and His Operas, by David Cairns)

That is one way of saying Mozart's operatic "swan-song" has a little bit of everything and something for everyone in it's 2 & 1/2 adventurous hours.

My colleague - and our friend on the Arts beat at the Roanoke Times - Mike Allen, asked me "what does The Magic Flute have to say to audiences today?" One version of my answer will appear in his upcoming story (check out the Roanoke Times on Tuesday, Oct 15 for the story).

The chapter devoted to The Magic Flute in Cairns' book (it is the sacred number 7, no less) is entitled "Mozart the Visionary." In a presentation on Mozart's final trio of operas at the W & L Alumni College this summer, I gave The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito subtitles to match Cosi fan Tutte. The latter is also known as "the school for lovers." In that vein, it's not difficult to dub Clemenza "the school for mercy," and Flute, "the school for enlightenment."

On one level, The Magic Flute is purely an allegory for enlightenment values. A vengeful Queen seeks to murder her enemy and usurp his seat of power, using dark forces and any means necessary. The "enlightened" Sarastro embodies the near-universal ideal of "lux ex tenebris" - light out of darkness. (Sarastro was likely based on the Viennese polymath, the scientist and scholar - and master mason - Ignaz von Born). Young initiates embark on a quest and undergo trials. This is at once a mythic romance and a fantastic adventure tale. Inspired by epics like the Odyssey, the Orpheus legend, and ancient Egyptian myths, The Magic Flute is an operatic example of the "timeless classic."

On a deeper level - and Mozart, contrary to the caricature presented in the play and film versions of Amadeus, was a deep thinker with wide philosophical interests - The Magic Flute is a profound meditation on finding meaning in life, answering its questions, and facing its challenges.

(The "Cabinet of Reflection," an image from the original libretto)

In his two male protagonists, the prince Tamino (tenor), and the bird-catcher, Papageno (baritone), Mozart gives us men who are both "stock" characters and real human beings. This is but one sign of his theatrical gift. Tamino accepts the challenge of rescuing the imprisoned princess, and along the way, proves his worth on repeated occasions through old-fashioned virtues like courage, common sense, patience, trust, and fidelity. Papageno is an "everyman" everyone of us can recognize: selfish, opportunistic, and cowardly. His spirit and wit, however, endear him to us, and thanks to that proverbial "second chance," he comes out of the trials with his feathers intact, if not unruffled.

So what does The Magic Flute have to say to audiences today? It has a lot to say, and it uses an astonishing variety of means with which to communicate. Like the great operas and plays in whose company it holds forth, it is a mirror within which an audience may see itself reflected. This device is used literally in Ingmar Bergman's wonderful film version from 1975.

If you want to come to the theatre to be entertained, Flute is a great opera to just sit back and enjoy. The scenes are short and varied, the dialogue (in English, no less) has its share of slapstick moments, and the music is nothing short of Mozart's best. It is a feast for the ears. If you come to the theatre to be moved, then Mozart will not fail to reach out and touch you, as if the distance between 1791 and 2013 mattered less than the short space between the Jefferson Center stage and the front row of Shaftman Performance Hall.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The New Season!

Though Roanoke is experiencing a balmy "Indian Summer" as September comes
to a close, the Fall Arts Season is off and running with panache that
quarterbacks can't fathom in their wildest dreams. Whether you're a football
fan or not, I hope you'll carve out some time on an upcoming October weekend
for some soaring drama at the opera. Tchaikovsky's gorgeous autumnal drama,
Eugene Onegin, is the first MET offering, and Mozart's beloved Magic Flute
launches Opera Roanoke's 38th Season Oct 18-21.

The MET "Live in HD" season kicks off this coming Saturday at 12:55 at
Virginia Western Community College.

(Click on the "HD" link to view Met diva, Anna Netrebko
singing Tatiana's monologue from Act 1 of Eugene Onegin)

Join me at 12:30 in the Whitman auditorium for a preview of not only the MET season but Opera Roanoke's season as well.

Our partners at the Jefferson Center are now the online ticket agents for the MET series (click on the Jefferson Center link to go to the online box office).

"Live in HD" patrons may still purchase tickets at the door at Virginia Western, but VWCC will no longer sell tickets online.

Even more exciting for us here at Opera Roanoke today is the arrival of our guest artists for The Magic Flute. We begin staging rehearsals tomorrow, October 1, backstage at the Jefferson Center, in preparation for opening night, October 18. 3 weeks from tonight, we will "run-out" to Washington and Lee University for our 3rd and final performance.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A few new (or renewed) friendships among Mozart's 626

To end another memorable week with our friends at the W & L Alumni College,
here is a list of just a few of Mozart's works we weren't able to spend as
much time discussing or listening to as we might have liked.

New (or current) Favorite K. #’s and operas, in no particular order:

K. 538: Concert Aria for Soprano, Ah se in ciel
K. 563: Divertimenti for String Trio, “Puchberg”
K. 511: Rondo in a minor for piano
K. 540: Adagio in b minor for piano
K. 201: Symphony N. 29 in A
K. 504: Symphony N. 38 in D, “Prague”
K. 543: Symphony N. 39 in E-b, “Masonic”
K. 477: Masonic Funeral Music
K. 466: Piano concerto in d minor
K. 468: Gesellenreise (Masonic song)
K. 516: Quintet for Piano and string quartet in g minor
K. 370: Quartet for Oboe, violin, viola and cello in F major
K. 581: Clarinet (“Stadler”) quintet
K. 498: “Kegelstatt” trio for Clarinet, viola and piano in E-flat major
K. 126: Il Sogno di Scipione (azione teatrale by Metastasio, after Cicero)
K. 366: Idomeneo, re di Creta
K. 621: La Clemenza di Tito
K. 623: Laut verkünde unsre Freude (Masonic Cantata)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A rare gem this Saturday at Noon, "Live in HD" at the MET

This Saturday at 12:00 pm the Met's "Live in HD" series presents a rare gem
in Riccardo Zandonai's gorgeous opera, Francesca da Rimini. Roanoke audiences can enjoy an afternoon at the Met in our local home for these HD broadcasts at Virginia Western.

Zandonai was one of a handful of composers born the generation after Puccini, Strauss and Debussy. Along with Ottorino Respighi (famous for tone poems on the Pines, Fountains, and Festivals of Rome), Zandonai forged a style that combined Puccini's innate lyricism with the colorful harmonies and orchestrations of Debussy and Strauss. Francesca da Rimini is a great opera to simply listen to. It is even more compelling in the Met's grand and traditional production.

The story of Francesca is from Canto V of Dante's Inferno, where Dante and his tour-guide through hell, Virgil cross through Limbo to enter hell proper. They meet a "who's who" of mythical and literary figures killed for crimes of passion. Achilles, Helen of Troy, Dido, Cleopatra, Tristan and other figures from both classical antiquity and the popular medieval romance legends populate the outer-most circle of Dante's Inferno.

Francesca tells Dante her tragic love story (and the poet based this episode on a scandalously true story). Zandonai's opera is based on a play by D'Annunzio dramatizing this doomed romance. It is remarkable how many different artistic representations have been inspired from a few lines of verse in a 14th century poem about a couple history would otherwise forget. One of the reasons this episode has attracted so much attention is an unexpected twist (not in the plot of Francesca's story, but in the Inferno itself). Dante is narrating this supernatural journey, and after hearing the tragic love tale he tells us, "my pity overwhelmed me and I felt myself go slack; / swooning as in death, I fell." The poet is overcome with emotion and faints. How operatic!

The plot centers around the arranged marriage of Francesca to the powerful Malatesta family. Since the eldest Malatesta is disabled (a "hunchback" like Rigoletto), Paolo, il bello - "the handsome" - is sent in his stead to meet Francesca. They fall in love at first sight over one of the most glorious cello solos in classical music. You can imagine how the story might play out from there, especially when you throw a jealous younger sibling (also in love with Francesca) into the mix.

(Ingres: Francesca & Paolo, with Gianciotto spying)

No fewer than 19 operas are based on Francesca (Rachmaninoff's one-act vies with Zandonai's for most popular). Tone poems by Tchaikovsky and Rossini and 1/2 dozen others join as many different dramatic versions of the story for the theatre. Rodin's famous sculpture, "The Kiss" was originally entitled "Francesca da Rimini."

I know I will be asked "why haven't I heard this opera before?" and "why isn't this great opera performed more?"

The boring but true answer comes down to numbers and the financial risk for companies in mounting unknown operas. This is compounded when said opera calls for a large cast and orchestra, and begs for a lavish production. Here the Met delivers. Francesca and Paolo have an afterlife that would really make Dante swoon!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

March madness at the Opera!

The next two months promise to be the most exciting of the season for Opera Roanoke. The Met "Live in HD" series brings a new production of Wagner's sublime final opera, Parsifal, March 2 at 12 noon at Virginia Western Community College.

March 8 is the date of our next Young Apprentice Artists' "Masques of Orpheus" series. This interdisciplinary program in an intimate setting is called "American Circus" and features, songs, duets, scenes, dances and poems from American stages. The Jacksonville Center for the Arts in Floyd hosts us March 8 at 7:30. The program will be presented March 16th at the Kendal in Lexington at 3 pm.

March 9 finds our Young Artists and me at the Taubman Museum of Art at 2 pm for a one-of-a-kind "performance art" program in the John Cage "Sight of Silence" exhibit. This "Happening" is modeled on Cage's own innovative performances combining music, dance, theatre, spoken word and more in an improvisatory setting.

Here's one of his "New River Watercolors:"

March 16 offers local audiences the rare opportunity to hear Riccardo Zandonai's romantic opera, Francesca da Rimini. Influenced by Puccini, and inspired by one of Dante's greatest tales, this opera returns to the Met for its first "Live in HD" broadcast.

Our season of Operatic adventures concludes April 26 & 28 with the popular Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, The Pirates of Penzance.

Last week, our office was pleasantly surprised to receive a copy of the Wagner Society of New York's quarterly newsletter, Wagner Notes. Their NY-based reviewer wrote about our fall production of The Flying Dutchman, saying:

"Opera Roanoke gave its audience an afternoon so splendidly played and stirringly sung that those who witnessed it left with smiles on their faces. This was the company's second venture into Wagner territory...Let's hope, given the pleasure of such a fine afternoon, that this is not their last."

In the meantime, I hope to see many of you at any and all of these "Opera around Roanoke" events, starting with this Saturday's matinee "Live in HD" broadcast of Parsifal. Don't let its length deter you. Like any great epic, a work of such proportions has a cumulative effect that is profoundly affecting to one willing to commit an afternoon or evening to experiencing it. By savoring the wealth of its material, the depth of its characters, and the transcendent vision of its totality, the participant in this "Sacred Stage Festival Play" (Wagner's label for his last opera) cannot help but leave the auditorium moved, even changed.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What happens in Vegas... Rigoletto Live in HD, Feb 16!

The Met's new production of Verdi's Rigoletto is the talk of the town this month. The director Michael Mayer has transplanted "this licentious, decadent world of a court where the Duke is in charge of everything" from 16th century Mantua to the 1960's Vegas of the infamous "Rat Pack" - singers, actors, pranksters and 24-hour party people. The court is replaced by a casino, and the assassins "safe house" is replaced with a strip club.

The Met's website is a great source for information on the production, including video clips, info on the cast and a synopsis of the opera.

Several of our opera patrons have asked for my take on this production's concept. It promises to be provocative. The neon-bright set is vibrant, and the casino atmosphere is anything but dull. The singing is exceptional. The blue-eyed Polish tenor Piotr Bezcala is in top form as the Duke, appearing for his opening aria with a white dinner jacket holding a mic, and like Sinatra, surrounded by beautiful women. The dynamic German soprano Diana Damrau is Gilda, the daughter of the title character Rigoletto, the Duke's jester. The Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic plays Verdi's Shakespearean title character. Rigoletto is torn by love for his daughter, fear over the curse he's brought upon himself (from his rapier-like jests and insults as the Duke's prankster), and hell-bent to avenge the loss of his donor's honor by the lecherous Duke.

Rigoletto was a lightning rod for the censors in Verdi's day. From the on-stage debauchery to the title-character's deformity (he is a "hunchback") Verdi wrestled and wrangled to see his musical drama come to life with his concepts intact. In that sense, the controversial new production is in keeping with the spirit in which the opera was created over 150 years ago. Regardless of one's opinion of any new production of Rigoletto, the music is the Duke of this opera.

From the terse and ominous prelude to the opening party scene and the curse which sets the drama spinning; from the chilling duet between the title character and the assassin he will eventually hire, across a trio of duets both beautiful and thrilling, to the tragic conclusion, Rigoletto is simply a great opera. And Verdi knew he had struck gold. The most famous aria is the tenor's "song" in the final act, "La donna é mobile." Verdi knew it would be encored so he withheld it from rehearsals until just before the premiere, lest it leak prematurely and its thrilling final cadence lose the impact of surprise. While Verdi had already composed several enduring masterpieces, Rigoletto was the first in a trio of great operas (Il Trovatore and La Traviata)that cemented his reputation as the greatest opera composer of his day.

Join me at Virginia Western Community College 1/2 hour before the 12:55 curtain for more information about the opera and this exciting new production. Viva Verdi!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Battle of the Opera Queens at the MET "Live in HD" this Saturday!

If you were going to pick only 1 MET "Live in HD" broadcast to see this season,
this weekend's premiere production of Maria Stuarda would be the heavy favorite.

The central chapter in Donizetti's trilogy of operatic "Tudor Queens," Maria Stuarda has one of the most famously explosive scenes in all of opera. It is unbelievable this 1835 musical drama is not reaching the Met stage until 2013. We are lucky to have the chance to experience this gripping historical character drama Saturday, January 19, at 12:55 pm, in the Whitman Auditorium of Virginia Western Community College.

Come early, at 12:30 for an "opera insights" talk to learn more about Donizetti's scandalous opera. The plot centers on an imagined confrontation between the imprisoned Catholic monarch, Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots) and England's protestant Queen Elizabeth. This infamous scene climaxes with Mary hurling imprecations at Elisabeth, calling her "figlia impura di Bolena" ("impure daughter of Anne Boleyn") and "vil bastarda" ("vile whore"). This scene was so contentious that not only did the King of Naples ban its performance, but the two prima donnas singing the Queens literally got into fights during rehearsals.

The Met's new production features the world's leading mezzo-soprano, Kansas native Joyce DiDonato as Mary Stuart. Rising South African star soprano, Elza van den Heever makes an acclaimed Met debut as Elisabeth.

If you come early, you'll have a chance to hear local star, Amy Cofield talk about her experiences working with Joyce DiDonato at Houston Grand Opera.

This is romantic opera at its finest - great singers bringing great characters to life through the inimitable medium of opera. As we like to say around Opera Roanoke, come hear the drama and see the music!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

"On fire with desperate love..." Epic Berlioz at the Met, "Live in HD"

"To me the subject seems magnificent and deeply moving - a guarantee that Parisians would think it flat and tedious."

Thus Hector Berlioz described his epic masterpiece, Les Troyens (The Trojans), the next broadcast of the Met "Live in HD" series Jan 5 at 12 noon at Virginia Western Community College.

Troyens is the epitome of a grand and visionary epic so far ahead of its time it would take a century to be fully realized. The 5-act, 4 hour opera was originally - and to Berlioz's despairing chagrin - divided into two parts. Acts 3-5, "The Trojans in Carthage" premiered in 1863. The first two acts, "The Capture of Troy" were not performed at all until 1890, 21 years after its composer's death. The original 5-act version of Les Troyens had to wait until 1957. The Met first produced it in 1973, and Met Music Director, James Levine (one of the work's most devoted champions) calls it "the biggest epic piece written for a single evening." Though it is shorter than many of Wagner's epic 4 + hour operas, Les Troyens requires a huge cast and chorus. Berlioz described his adaption of The Aeneid as "Virgil Shakespeareanized," and the composer's life-long devotion to the Bard is a sweeping tribute to both Virgil and Shakespeare.

Franz Liszt's mistress, Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein inspired Berlioz (with flattery, of course): "Your passion for Shakespeare combined with your love of classical antiquity would be sure to produce something new and splendid." The Princess could not have been more prophetic, and today's audiences are fortunate to have a resourceful company like the Met to fulfill such ambitions by bringing this great opera to life.

Like every great opera composer, Berlioz loved his heroines. The Trojans features a striking pair of them: the trojan princess Cassandra, and the founding Queen of Carthage, Dido. The trojan princess - a prophet cursed to have her true predictions unheeded by her people - dominates the first part of the opera. The Met's Francesca Zambello production features a striking Trojan horse, a symbol of dramatic potency and cutting irony.

While Wolfgang Petersen's "epic" film, Troy was a 3-hr trek that felt much longer, Berlioz's drama moves compellingly along. As the Met's program annotator, David Hamilton writes, this plot "flows convincingly from ceremony to intimacy to humor to passion, and inevitably, to tragedy."

Both heroines are grand tragic figures, with some of the richest music Berlioz ever wrote. Knowing he would not live to see the first part of his opera produced, Berlioz wrote, "Oh my noble Cassandra, my heroic virgin, I must then resign myself: I shall never hear you - and I am like Corebus, 'on fire with desperate love for her.'"

He was on "fire with desperate love" with all of the subjects that ignited his vivid imagination. Berlioz is first among great composers who also wrote vividly readable prose. Here is another example from his memoirs, about his experience reading Virgil under the tutelage of his father.

"How often, construing to my father the fourth book of the Aeneid, did I feel my heart swell and my voice falter and break!... When I reached the scene in which Dido expires on the funeral pyre, surrounded by the gifts and weapons of the perfidious Aeneas... and I had to pronounce the despairing utterances of the dying queen... my lips trembled and the words came with difficulty, indistinctly. At last, at the line ‘Quaesivit coelo lucem ingemuitque reperta,’ at that sublime image—as Dido ‘sought light from heaven and moaned at finding it’—I was seized with a nervous shuddering and stopped dead. My father, seeing how confused and embarrassed I was by such emotion, but pretending not to have noticed anything, rose abruptly and shut the book. ‘That will do, my boy,’ he said. ‘I’m tired.’ I rushed away, out of sight of everybody, to indulge my Virgilian grief." (from Memoirs, by Hector Berlioz, transl. David Cairns)

I can't wait for Saturday's broadcast of this opera. I look forward to introducing it to our audience (I'll start talking 1/2 hour before the curtain, so 11:30 am). But I most look forward to 4 hours of glorious music and engaging drama - one of history's greatest stories brought to life with some of the greatest music written for the stage.

I unabashedly align myself with Berlioz in professing my love for his ultimate Queen:
"I have fallen in love, utterly in love, with the Queen of Carthage! I adore her, this beautiful Dido."

(Susan Graham as Dido)

Synopsis (from
Act I
After ten years of siege, the Greeks have departed from Troy, leaving behind a giant wooden horse as an offering to Pallas Athena. Only the prophetess Cassandra, daughter of the Trojan king Priam, wonders about the significance of their enemies’ disappearance. In a vision, she has seen her dead brother Hector’s ghost walking the ramparts. She has tried to warn her father of impending disaster and now urges her fiancé, Coroebus, to flee the city, but neither man will listen to her. When Coroebus begs her to join the peace celebrations, she tells him that she foresees death for both of them.

The Trojans offer thanks to the gods. Hector’s widow Andromache brings her young son, the heir to the throne, before King Priam and Queen Hecuba. The warrior Aeneas arrives and reports that the priest Laocoön is dead. Suspecting the wooden horse to be some kind of a trick, Laocoön had thrown his spear at it and urged the crowd to set fire to it, when two giant sea serpents appeared and devoured him and his two sons. Priam and Aeneas order the horse to be brought into the city to beg pardon of Athena. Cassandra realizes that this will be the end of Troy.

Act II
Aeneas is visited by the ghost of Hector, who tells him to escape the city. His destiny, he says, is to found a new empire that someday will rule the world. As the ghost disappears, Aeneas’s friend Panthus runs in with news that the Greek soldiers who emerged from the horse are destroying the city. Aeneas rushes off to lead the defense.
The Trojan women pray for deliverance from the invaders. Cassandra prophesizes that Aeneas and some of the Trojans will escape to Italy to build a city—a new Troy. Coroebus has fallen, and Cassandra prepares for her own death. She asks the women if they will submit to rape and enslavement. When Greek soldiers enter, the women collectively commit suicide. Aeneas and his men escape with the treasures of Troy.

Carthage, North Africa. The people greet their queen, Dido. In the seven years since they fled their native Tyre following the murder of Dido’s husband, they have built a flourishing new kingdom. Dido’s sister Anna suggests that Carthage needs a king and assures her sister that she will love again. Visitors are announced who have narrowly escaped shipwreck in a recent storm—they are the remaining survivors of the Trojan army, with Aeneas among them. Dido welcomes them. When news arrives that the Numidian ruler, Iarbas, is about to attack Carthage, Aeneas identifies himself and offers to fight alongside the Carthaginians. Dido accepts, and Aeneas rallies the united forces of Carthage and Troy, entrusting his son, Ascanius, to the queen’s care.

Act IV
Aeneas has returned victorious to Carthage. During a royal hunt, he and Dido seek shelter from a storm in a cave. They discover their love for each other.
It is several months later. Narbal, the queen’s adviser, is worried that since Dido fell in love with Aeneas, she has been neglecting her duties. He fears that in welcoming the Trojan strangers, Carthage has invited its own doom. Dido enters with Aeneas and her court to watch an entertainment of singing and dancing. She asks Aeneas to tell her more about Troy’s last days. When he talks about Andromache, Hector’s widow, who married Pyrrhus, one of the enemy, Dido sees a parallel to her own situation. Alone, she and Aeneas again proclaim their love, as the god Mercury reminds Aeneas of his duty and destination—Italy.

Act V
At night in the Trojan camp by the harbor, a young sailor sings a homesick ballad. Panthus and the Trojan captains are worried about omens and apparitions that remind them of their failure to move on. Aeneas enters, torn between his love for Dido and his duty to leave Carthage. He makes up his mind to see the queen one last time. But when the ghosts of Priam, Hector, Coroebus, and Cassandra appear, urging him to leave, he orders his men to set sail before sunrise. Dido appears. Aeneas swears that he loves her but must leave her. She curses him. As dawn breaks, the queen asks her sister to persuade Aeneas to stay, but the Trojan ships are already on their way out to sea. Furious, Dido orders a pyre built to burn his gifts and remembrances of their love. Now resolved to end her life, she bids farewell to Carthage and everything she held dear.
The pyre has been set up. Priests pray for Dido, who predicts that her fate will be remembered: a future Carthaginian general, Hannibal, will avenge her against Italy one day. Then she stabs herself with Aeneas’s sword. Dying, she has a vision of Carthage destroyed by eternal Rome. As the Roman Capitol is seen like an apparition in the distance, the Carthaginians curse Aeneas and his descendants.