Thursday, December 8, 2016

MET "Live in HD": Spectacular new production of stunning new opera

I am moving this blog to my new website, so this will be one of the last posts here.

I returned yesterday from a visit to my alma mater for an excellently performed double-bill of Ravel and Puccini, followed by another visit to the MET for the premiere production of the most compelling operatic score of the 21st century, Kaaija Ssariaho's L'amour de Loin. Check out the MET website, which is a great resource for opera lovers in general, in addition to their current repertoire.

After a couple days reflection, I will say this production is the best new production I've seen at the MET in at least 10 years, and must rank as one of the most important new productions the MET has done in its history. Besides being only the 2nd opera composed by a woman to appear at the MET (the other was by Ethyl Smyth, in 1903), it featured the conducting debut of only the 4th woman to appear in the MET pit, the Finnish dynamo and contemporary specialist, Susanna Mälkki. The musical performance was supreme. This score is atmospheric and dense with layers of sound that envelop the listener like mists, or enchant one like the lull and depth of the sea. I find her one of the most compelling voices in contemporary music today, and one of the most important composers to emerge in the century-plus-long history of modernism. It's time more people listened to creative women. Their voices, like Saariaho's and Mälkki's are vital and distinct.

The cast consists of a trio of great all-star American opera singers. Eric Owens plays the historical troubadour Rudel, in love with an historical Countess of Tripoli, astonishingly sung by Susannah Phillips. The "love from afar" is mediated by an original character sung by the young mezzo, Tamara Mumford. She is an androgynous pilgrim who floats back and forth between the lovers across a light-show sea. The set is hypnotically represented by 28,000 LED lights strung across the stage and pit, spectacularly rendered by Robert Lepage and his Quebec team. For anyone disappointed or unimpressed with the controversial Ring cycle he mounted several years ago, this is a production that finally captures the magic of his Cirque de Soleil successes. If you see no other new production this season, see this one. Click here for tickets. As a colleague, and former OR Apprentice Artist I randomly saw at the performance said to me, "The Met should do more productions like that."

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Tokyo Songs - 30/30 Poetry Project

Happy Holidays, Friends:
If you are new to my involvement in Tupelo Press's 30/30 Project, click here to learn more about
this "poetry marathon" I've embarked upon to write 30 poems in 30 days (published daily on Tupelo's site) and help raise funds to support a fellow non-profit organization.

I'll be writing about my recent travels to Tokyo and Venice, and interweaving themes connecting one of my favorite composers, Benjamin Britten (who took frequent composing sabbaticals in Venice, and drew profound inspiration from Japanese Theatre). If my courage and pen do not fail me, I will also share some new poems about my mother, whose first Yahrzeit we recently honored (and whose generosity made my Venetian sabbatical possible).

Below, with notes and accompanying photos, is my poem for December 3. I took the pictures while on a recent concert tour of Japan, sponsored by our fabulous friends at Appalachian Dream.

Below the poems and photos are a couple of notes about references within the last series of haiku and tanka.

Lastly, I'll be moving my blog to my new website soon. Check out for more music, poetry, art, and whatever aesthetic miscellany I may be up to.

Edo Songs

Uprooted stump curled
like a dragon’s neck staring
down Fuji’s fierce slope

Dragonfly sentries
of the Japanese garden
Spirit animals

like the giant black
Butterfly watching the five-
story Pagoda

[Your Fairy Queen soul
would summon them to your side
keeping this world safe]

quietly rippling under
Edo’s brilliant sun

carrier of tales and dreams
tell me a secret

whispering Ugetsu’s loves
will she return here

singing the madwoman’s song
O Curlew River
reveal your dragon’s-tooth roots
admit me into your depths


[The verse in brackets was included in earlier series of these haiku.]

*Sumida is one of Tokyo’s most important rivers (gawa). It is the name of a famous Noh play on which Benjamin Britten based his operatic “parable,” Curlew River,
a work he composed in 1964 while on sabbatical in Venice.

The title role (like all female roles in traditional Japanese theatre, and Britten’s first parable) is played in drag. Britten’s partner, Peter Pears, created the leading role of the “madwoman.” Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice, was the crowning role of Pears’ career, and marked the tenor’s belated Metropolitan Opera debut (at 64).

Ugestu is a 1953 film by Kenji Mizoguchi.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

30/30 Project: Poem for Day 1

If you haven't heard about my participating in Tupelo Press's "30/30 Project" where I'll write 30 poems in 30 days this month, click here.

Here is the poem for that first day, followed by a brief note on it. Thanks for reading.

Venetian nocturne

Sitting alone on
the Fondamente Nuove
smoking staring out

Looking up at me
as I stroll along the quay
wishing after stars

She’s solitary
and furtive as a night-bird
will she fly away

Scott Williamson
(Venice - Roanoke; July - Nov 2016).

This series of haiku was inspired by a night time stroll I regularly took while in residence in the Cannaregio neighborhood (sestiere) of Venice. I was there for a month this past July - August, renting a fabulous Air BnB apartment after the settling of part of my mom's estate. I had long wanted to take a mini-sabbatical and work on artistic projects. One of my goals this trip was to retrace the footsteps of beloved artists and composers from Monteverdi to Bernstein, and in particular, to follow the itinerary of Benjamin Britten.
(View of the moon over the Venetian lagoon, from "I Felzi" apartment)

My apartment was a 90-second walk to the main thoroughfare (both pedestrian and marine) of the area, the Fundamente Nuove. Most Venetian arrivals and departures stop there; it affords views of the mysterious cemetery island, San Michele (where Stravinsky is buried), in addition to popular outlying islands like Murano (the "mecca" of glass-blowing). The Venetian hospital (the Ospedale) is the next stop over, and so while Venice is a relatively crime-free city, what few sirens there are (and they're all attached to the only motorized vehicle in the city: the boat) happen to be in this neighborhood. And yet how quiet the nights are! It was one such night where I saw the woman described in this poem.

The last line of an earlier version read "should I have said hi", and was entitled "Donna tristessa".

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New website and 30/30 Project

Dear Friends of Opera Roanoke:

Check out my personal blog here for a link to my new website, and info on an exciting new poetry project with Tupelo Press!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Some Enchanted Collaboration: Rodgers & Hammerstein & South Pacific

Their fourth original collaboration, following Oklahoma, Carousel, and Allegro, South Pacific was the first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on a contemporary story. Prefiguring later successes like The King and I and Flower Drum Song, it was their first show to deal with the “exotic,” and the “culture clash” between east and west. James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tales of the South Pacific (1947) appeared while World War II was fresh in the country’s consciousness. Tales reads more like a succession of linked short stories than a through-composed narrative. The chapter which first caught the song-writing duo’s attention was the central story, “Fo’ Dolla’”, about the Tonkinese mother and daughter pair of Bloody Mary and Liat, focusing on the latter’s love affair with the young Marine Lieutenant, Joe Cable. Not insignificantly, R & H found this story too closely related to Madama Butterfly, and decided one of the supporting tales “had to be the main story.” “Our Heroine” depicts the relationship of Ensign Nellie Forbush and the French plantation owner, Emile De Becque. R & H retained the love story of Liat and Cable, which allowed for parallel resonances in the libretto and the score. Another brilliant dramatic move was including the buffo character, Luther Billis (who appears in separate stories from those aforementioned) to pair with Bloody Mary.

In the heyday of the “integrated” or “book” musical – where, like its progenitor, opera, the elements of narrative, lyrics, music, staging and scenery are unified to form a “total work of art” – South Pacific was hailed upon its opening “as one of the finest musical plays in the history of American theatre.” Hallmarks of the Rodgers and Hammerstein style are apparent from the striking opening scene, which features no fewer than four memorable numbers: “Dites-moi,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Twin Soliloquies” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” The lengthy first act is followed by a swiftly-moving closing act, which favors aptly placed reprises of themes over new material. As in the greatest operas, the contributions of Hammerstein and his co-author, Joshua Logan (also the show’s director) are overshadowed by the beauty and efficacy of the composer’s music. Hammerstein himself bowed to his younger colleague's gifts, astutely observing that Rodgers “writes music to depict story and character and is, therefore, himself a dramatist.” In a 1960 article for Opera News magazine, Rodgers wrote about the integrated musicals of his day and made the case that they should be considered “American Operas.” The casting of the Metropolitan Opera basso, Ezio Pinza as De Becque supports this claim. The greatest evidence, however, is found in the scores of Rodgers and his colleagues like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, and Leonard Bernstein. These “Broadway Operas” feature a signature marriage of European operatic idioms with a distinctly American musical style. That these “golden age” musicals are now the purview of regional opera companies as much as they are a part of the theatre repertoire is a tribute to their staying power, and the creative genius which brought them to life.

South Pacific came to life on Broadway, April 7, 1949, and ran for over five years and 1,925 performances. It was only the second musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. With its frank depiction of racial and cultural issues within a contemporary setting, it was ahead of its time. While audiences today may wince at the apparent “political incorrectness” of its language – “there is nothing like a dame” and “help us lick the Japs” stand out – Rodgers’ biographer, Geoffrey Block, leaves the analytical ivory tower of academia to make a cogent point at the conclusion of his comprehensive essay, “World War II, The Musical”:

Musical comedies depict life, not necessarily as it is, but as we wish it. The more we see ourselves, or prefer to see ourselves, as having grown beyond the prejudices, sexism, materialism, or the dramatic or musical style of a previous era, the more difficult it may be to accept that a work, frozen in time, actually seizes a moment and reflects that moment honestly. As we become further removed from a show’s time and place, a musical that captures its moment can become a slave to that moment, despite its universality.

While “Some Enchanted Evening” may be the romantic heart of this beloved musical, “You’ve got to be carefully taught” is it’s soul.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, / Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate - / You’ve got to be carefully taught!

As Cable confronts the dissonance of his own prejudice, he holds up the mirror of art to illuminate universal issues which show no signs of aging into obsolescence. To be sure, South Pacific is a musical comedy. But this poignant drama of love, lost and regained - with all its inherent human virtues and failings - make it much more than the sum of its many entertaining parts.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Verdi's "poor sinner" returns: Opera Roanoke presents La Traviata

I had the pleasure of talking about our production of La Traviata early today on the WDBJ7 Mornin' Show with Neesey Payne. Here's a link to the first of our three segments.

Last weekend, our friend at the Roanoke Times, Mike Allen wrote this feature about our production, and the personal story behind it.

If you're interested in reading more about my thoughts on the opera and our production, here are the program notes from our upcoming playbill.

…that poor sinner: Verdi’s La Traviata

In more than one letter to colleagues following its infamous 1853 premiere at Venice’s La Fenice, Verdi wrote: “La Traviata was a fiasco. Was it my fault or the singers? Time alone will tell.” Time indeed did tell, upon a new Venetian production at the San Benedetto theater in 1854. Verdi wrote, “Then it was a fiasco; now it has created a furore.” La Traviata capped one of the most remarkable 18-month periods in operatic history, following on the heels of the successful premieres of both Rigoletto and Il Trovatore.

La Traviata is based on the novel-cum-memoir by Alexander Dumas fils, La Dame aux camélias (The Lady of the Camellias, often called "Camille" in English). The son of the more famous author of The Count of Montecristo, Dumas fils was one of several prominent artists – others included Théophile Gautier and Franz Liszt – Marie Duplessis counted as lovers. “The Real Traviata” (to borrow the title of a new biography about Duplessis) was transformed from a poor peasant girl who endured the tragically common abuse of being prostituted by her father into “the queen of Parisian courtesans.” She learned to play the piano, became a connoisseur of opera, and collected a library which included the great authors of Europe. She died from consumption in 1847, two weeks after her 23rd birthday. Her grave in Montmartre quickly became a site of pilgrimage.

Dumas’ story owes much to an earlier French romance of a “fallen woman,” the Abbé Prevost’s famous Manon Lescaut, itself the inspiration for operas by Massenet and Puccini. Verdi found the tale of the famous courtesan and her tempestuous affair with a young artist compelling, “a subject for our time,” and entitled his original version Amore e morte (Love and Death). The story of the love affair, considered “bold and contemporary” for its frankness, and the tragedy of the heroine’s early death have the makings of myth. The “intensely human and yet heroic” title character elicited some of the greatest music for the stage by one of the genre’s giants. Verdi’s humanism, his identification with heroic and independent outsiders and rebels is everywhere apparent in his musical portrait of Violetta. An excerpt from a letter to a hopeful producer from Naples following its disastrous premiere unites these concerns:
So you like my Traviata? That poor sinner who was so unfortunate in Venice. One day I’m going to make the world do her honor. But not in Naples, where your priests would be terrified of seeing on the stage the things they do at night in the quiet.

Our new production attempts to do her honor by heeding Verdi’s wishes that Traviata be performed in a contemporary setting. The Venetian censors insisted on the title change of the opera, and out of deference to them, the producers – against Verdi’s protestations – insisted on a 17th century “period” setting, replete with powdered wigs and aristocratic costumes. This tradition continued in Italy well into the 20th century. While not setting our Traviata in the present day, we believe moving it to the art deco- and Coco Chanel-inspired world of the 1920’s & 30’s brings Verdi’s drama into even sharper focus, while maintaining a true sense of style and historicity. Regardless of its setting, Verdi’s music insures La Traviata will live as long as we human beings continue to find in musical theatre the heightened experience of emotion, vicarious feelings of passion, and that catharsis which is a sui generis virtue of grand opera.

Following the success of La Traviata, Dumas fils would write about the resting place of his “Lady of the Camellias”, in a later version of his book: “That grave now has its legend. Art is divine: it creates and it resurrects.”