Category Archives: Opera

After Minnesota revision, Glass’s ‘Appomattox’ wins raves

Appomattox Washington National Opera

When Philip Glass’s opera Appomattox, with text by playwright Christopher Hampton, premiered in 2007, critical reaction was muted — to put it kindly.

SF Gate called the opera “ambitious and maddeningly inconsistent.” The New York Times said the opera about the end of the Civil War was “preachy,” “ponderous,” and “prone to melodrama.”

For Glass and Hampton, it was back to the drawing board. First, Hampton revised his text for presentation as a standalone play — without Glass’s music — at the Guthrie Theater in 2012. Hampton completely reimagined the story’s second half, drawing parallels between the Civil War and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

Personally, I was unimpressed — but Glass was sold. “My God,” said Glass after seeing the new version, “we’ve got to rewrite the opera.”

That rewritten opera, now focusing closely on voting rights in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 rejection of the central components of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, opened Saturday night at the Washington (D.C.) National Opera. This time, the critics are much happier.

The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette — a critic infamously averse to puffery — wrote that the new opera “sears across the stage like a firework of light and color and rage and pain and beauty.” The New York Times also appreciated the revisions (“This new act is altogether brighter and more confident,” writes Corinna da Fonesca-Wollheim), but still thinks the opera could use “another round of revision.”

Back to Minneapolis?

Production photo: Washington National Opera

Olive Oil and Opera

Tenor Bryan Hymel (photo by Dario Acosta)
Tenor Bryan Hymel (photo by Dario Acosta)
Tenor Bryan Hymel surprised patrons with live, impromptu singing at his favorite Italian grocery in New Orleans.

Bryan Hymel grew up in New Orleans, La., and like many people from that region, Hymel’s surname is French.

But it turns out Hymel also has Sicilian heritage, as he describes in the video below, produced by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Celebrating his Italian roots, Hymel turned up at Central Grocery, his favorite Italian grocer in New Orleans, where he sang for customers as they shopped and as they enjoyed fresh sandwiches from the deli:

Given his roots, is it possible that Hymel is genetically predisposed to sing French and Italian songs so well? Perhaps; after all, Hymel’s debut recital album, Héroïque, features his performances of a number of heroic tenor roles of French opera. The album is featured on this week’s New Classical Tracks.

Joyce DiDonato, English National Opera top 2015 Opera Awards nominations

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Everything’s coming up Joyce DiDonato: the 45-year-old American soprano is the only singer to be nominated in two categories of the 2015 Opera Awards. DiDonato is nominated for the Female Singer award as well as for the Operatic Recital category — for her album Stella di Napoli.

Among companies, the English National Opera dominates with four nominations, including the overall Opera Company award and the World Premiere award for Julian Anderson’s Thebans.

This year’s awards will be presented on April 26 at the Savoy Hotel in London. See the complete list of nominations here.

Photo courtesy Joyce DiDonato

Meryl Streep to play not one but two opera singers

Actress Meryl Streep (Brigitte Lacombe)

Yesterday, we speculated on which actors might play composers in an imagined series of biographical films. Today, we’ve learned actress Meryl Streep has been cast (in real life) to play two different opera singers in two different films.

Streep is to star in a biopic of the famously awful opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins for director Stephen Frears, reports Variety.

The three-time Oscar-winning actor will take the role of Jenkins, an heiress who used her wealth to embark on a singing career that took her to concert halls across the U.S. in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s despite her complete inability to hold a note or stay in time. Hugh Grant is in line to play the soprano’s partner and manager, St Clair Bayfield, with the film titled simply Florence.

And, as reported this past summer, Meryl Streep is to star in an HBO film as legendary opera singer Maria Callas, the U.S. network has confirmed.

Based on the Tony-winning 1995 play by Terrence McNally, Master Class shows Callas in later life, teaching students at New York’s Juilliard school.

Video fun with overdubbing

Marni Nixon is an American soprano and a highly successful overdub singer for film actresses.

In this week’s Flicks in Five, Lynne Warfel describes the use of overdubs in films. Overdubbing doesn’t necessarily mean an actor can’t sing; for example, as Lynne points out, Audrey Hepburn was a fine singer, but overdubs were used in My Fair Lady simply because it would have taken too much time (and time equals money) to transpose the film’s entire score to Hepburn’s mezzo-soprano range.

Sometimes actors will lip-sync to a backing track recorded in a studio, often because the desired audio quality can’t be achieved on a sound stage (or because an army of studio musicians aren’t immediately to hand on a TV set — Glee, I’m looking at you).

But overdubs can also be a source of good fun. For example, here’s one person’s re-imagining of Phantom of the Opera if it were overdubbed by Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog:

And this one is more of a lip-sync, but here’s Mr. Bean giving his performance of the soprano aria “O mio babbino caro” from the opera Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini:

Finally, this video combines Muppets and actual operatic singing, as Sesame Street‘s Murray Monster and Ovejita travel to Lincoln Center to join Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who — using her real voice — performs Rosina’s aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. There’s a bit of informative intro and a couple vocal exercises singers will recognize, but the music starts right around the two-minute mark.

What opera characters need Google Glass?

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Wolf Trap Opera of Vienna, Virginia has announced that at a July 25 production of Carmen, tech journalist David Pogue will be onstage as a supernumary (a non-singing chorus member), using Google Glass “to capture brief bits of the onstage action. His short video clips and still photography will be shared to Wolf Trap’s online and social properties in near real-time, providing a ‘second screen’ experience and offering a unique perspective of the onstage action at the Filene Center.”

If this experiment is a hit with audiences, what’s next? Here are a few of my own ideas:

• Outfit John the Baptist with Google Glass in a production of Salome, allowing the audience to look straight into the aroused eyes of the distraught antiheroine while she sings to the prophet’s disembodied head.

• Broadcast a live video feed from a Google Glass headset worn by Despina in Così fan tutte, subtitled with what the maid is actually thinking about the onstage shenanigans. (“These jerks deserve each other.”)

• Put Google Glass on a soprano singing the role of Aida, and allow audience members to use a hashtag to give her feedback in real-time. (“That last aria was a little pitchy.” “Maybe move a few steps downstage to heighten the drama in this next scene.”)

• One word: Valkyriecam™.

Criticizing the Critics

Mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught (photo courtesy IMG Artists)

Here’s the story that’s been tearing up the Internet in the last day or so — at least in the classical music department. It even shows up on the News Cut blog from MPR’s Bob Collins.

The Irish singer Tara Erraught recently appeared in the title role of the opera Der Rosenkavalier. As Bob notes, “five different male writers used stocky, chubby, puppy-fat, scullery maid, unsightly, and unappealing to describe her ‘performance.'”

Did the critics cross a line? Were their editors asleep at the switch? Would a male singer have been treated differently?

As this summary in The Telegraph suggests, opera singers, music writers, and the opera-loving public have not been slow to join the debate.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

An 'Arabella' preview

Last night I sat in on the final dress rehearsal of the Minnesota Opera’s production of Arabella by Richard Strauss. If you go, here are a few things you might notice. First of all, there is no overture to set the scene. Music Director Michael Christie walks into the pit, the oversized orchestra of 62 musicians plays a few notes, and the singers are off. This opera is an athletic feat of endurance, especially for Jacqueline Wagner, who plays the lead, and her betrothed Mandryka, sung by baritone Craig Irvin. These musicians are well-trained Olympians.

The composer intended this music to be a bit frenetic; however, the tension is relieved every time Arabella graces the stage. Wagner’s elegance as an actor and her rich, velvety voice melts more than one suitor’s heart. There is plenty of comic relief starting with Arabella’s sister, Zdenka, sung by Elizabeth Futral. Zdenka was a wild child, so even as a young woman she dresses and behaves as a boy. She even proclaims, “I will be a boy until I die.” However, she does discover her womanhood in Act II.

You’ll also notice the detailed whitewashed set as the curtain goes up on Act I. The scene is a hotel in Vienna in the 1920s. As Arabella blossoms, so does the color on the stage, in the form of flowers, the Downton Abbey-styled costumes and the set itself.

One incredible highlight is the love duet in Act II between Arabella and Mandryka. Irvin and Wagner are beautifully matched; if you aren’t moved by this duet, you don’t have a pulse!

And because this was a press event, live tweeting was not only permitted, but encouraged. Here are some of the photos I live-tweeted from the rehearsal to give you a taste of the production: