Posts Tagged ‘opera’

Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and… Benjamin Britten

I think it started with Whitney Houston. Then Mariah Carey. And then it spread to any R&B singer with a record deal. And then American Idol. And now, just about every YouTube video you see.

It’s melisma. In singing, it’s any discrete changing of pitch while sustaining a single syllable. A common technique in baroque vocal music as well as ancient church practices of all western religions, it has become the hallmark of virtuosity. “Good” singing has become measured in extraneous flourishes, grace notes, and the extending of a phrase well past any reasonable proportion.

So what is there to do? Read the rest of this entry →

05

Nov 2010
21:11

Review: Jerry Springer – The Opera

Jerry Springer The Opera is the best piece of theater I’ve seen in San Francisco this year. Irreverent, blasphemous, profane, sure. That’s a given. What’s surprising is how effective this immensely challenging work is, how well suited this subject is to a full operatic treatment.

And there should be no doubt about it, this is a full opera. The score is sophisticated and varied, a kaleidoscopic blend of musical theater, baroque oratorio, pop, rock, and occasionally branching into it’s own dissonant vocabulary. And it is fiendishly difficult, not just for the soloists, but for the entire ensemble. Ray of Light has assembled an astonishing array of singers for this production, one that has renewed my faith in the depth of talent here in San Francisco.

The first act is simply a rendition of any episode of Jerry Springer, with the slight modification that everyone on stage (with some important exceptions), is singing. All the obligatory Springerisms are on display, Read the rest of this entry →

27

Sep 2010
12:09

The Little Death Vol. 1 (aka Who Would Jesus Do?)

Please. Please please please. PLEASE!

As reported a few months ago, Richard Foreman has left the building. To be precise, he’s left the performance space on the second floor of the St Marks Church in the Bowery. In his wake remains the Incubator Project, the spin off of his Ontological Hysteric theater, dedicated to fostering works from emerging experimental theater artists.

This year is the Incubator’s first full post-Foreman season and the summer kicked off with a charming, if somewhat slight exploration of the tension between religious abstinence and post-adolescent sexuality via a poppy, toe-tapping two person opera, The Little Death Vol. 1.

The tone is set as soon as the doors open, the two performers (composer Matt Marks and collaborator Mellissa Hughes) greet the audience from behind a table, bright eyed, earnest, and wholesome, offering homemade chocolate chip cookies and lemonade (and copies of the CD).

He was right THERE!

The walls are painted a garish yellow, the brightly lit space transformed into some rec room or middle school gymnasium. (I had never before seen the space without any scrims or curtains. It was disorienting. Ghosts of Foreman productions past seemed to haunt the room. “Last time I was here, there was a padded, one eyed green thrash-spewing demon pacing about right THERE.”)

We were all encouraged to put our names on the complementary nametags and watch for the step as we took our seats. It was all very quaint and sweet and strangely out of place, ironic, considering that the space really is a church.

What follows feels less like an opera than a somewhat staged concert presentation of a series of songs. The songs themselves are infectious concoctions, part Lemon Jelly, part Aphex Twin, part Michael W Smith with gestures to a panoply of other styles. The lyrics are minimal, songs rarely consist of more than two or three phrases, first repeated by one character, and then the other. The entire libretto consists of maybe twenty distinct sentences. The characters are drawn in the broadest of strokes, with almost no distinguishing personalities. He’s horny and a maybe a little religious. She’s religious and maybe a little horny. That dynamic remains fairly static throughout. Not much happens, no one really changes. It’s tough to get any drama or nuance out of material so slight and vague.

Yet despite the wisp of a plot involving a boy named Boy and a girl named Girl, the show is somehow still an awful lot of fun. Both Marks and Hughes are charming performers and the roles seem to have emerged from genuine aspects of themselves. Marks is affable and passively desperate. Hughes is positively aggressive in her refusal to submit to any sort of non church sanctioned pleasure. Add the never seen but often invoked Jesus, and they form their own trinity, a bizarre love triangle of repression, devotion, and lust.

But the music is the star of this show, the driving force, the thing that grabs your attention and makes you forgive the lack of… well… the lack of much of anything else. Having spent some time with the CD (I sprung for the “CD, Lemonade, and Two Cookies” package), it’s not clear that a staging really adds much. The tracks are all prerecorded, including overdubbed and altered versions of the performer’s voices for harmonies. (In the performance I saw, the live voices were too often lost in the mix.) And listening to an album doesn’t drag along the expectations of character development or narrative drive, both of which are in short supply.

So why not just leave it as an album? In retrospect a staging imposes cumbersome theatrical conventions and expectations on a perfectly good art/pop album. And if you’re looking for a wider audience, why not do what most good art/pop albums do? There’s a reason the Buggles didn’t write “Opera Killed the Radio Star”.

Ah… I see. They’re not dumb. They’ve got that angle covered too. They teamed up with the Brooklyn video collective Satan’s Pearl Horses and put together a video for their breakout single “I Don’t Have Any Fun”. And what do you know? It’s fun!

But doesn’t this sort of make a strong case that the song is not tightly melded to the staging? It’s a separate thing that can be adapted to multiple visual/theatrical contexts but not particularly rooted in any one? The songs are “formless” relative to the staging (as in the formless vs definite discussions from months ago). They can be translated from one visual realization to another.  Some will be more effective, but there is a separability. Even theatrically, this narrative feels “formless”.  With characters this broad and lyrics so sparse, the scene could be injected into just about any story that calls for a boy to want a girl who isn’t sure she wants him.

These aren’t criticisms as much as observations. It’s what the piece is. Right now. After all, it’s just volume 1. I expect that there’s more to the story.  Some gaps that will get filled. Probably some more begging, some more praying, a bit more bleeding, and a lot more toe tapping. For now we’ve got an incomplete opera rooted in a contemporary popular idiom that doesn’t suck. And in my book, that is some very Good News.

21

Jul 2010
1:07

Review: Fresh Voices X, Goat Hall’s festival of new works

Reviewed:
Letter from Linda (Alden Jenks, text:Frank Polite)
Sutter Creek (Robert Denham)
Medea Alone (David Garner)
Theresa Kren (Mark Narins)
The Hunger Art (Jeff Myers, text: Royce Vavrek)

A recurring theme in this blog seems to be how hard it is to get people to care about new music or theater.  An artist blows hundreds of hours creating something, it gets performed once (maybe twice if they’re lucky), some friends and family may mumble some befuddled congratulations, but more often then not, the tree falls in an rather empty forest.

I believe that composers want feedback, preferably positive, but barring the most thin skinned of temperaments, negative feedback would be preferable to the icy silence that accompanies most new works.  Well considered, articulate, direct and honest feedback is perhaps the best gift you can give an artist. In that spirit I decided to write a bit about the works presented by Goat Hall’s Tenth Annual Fresh Voices festival last weekend.

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20

Jun 2010
21:06

Tobias Picker spotted dining at Applebee’s

Tobias Picker is kinda a big deal. It’s safe to say that any composer who gets an opera commission from the Met is kinda a big deal. Any composer who gets an opera produced more than once is kinda a big deal. You can count the number of living composers who have had multiple operas professionally produced more than once in their lifetime on one hand. (John Adams, Jake Heggie, uhh… help me out here…)

I would venture a guess that this weekend marked the first time in his life that Mr Picker celebrated the opening night of one of his operas at Applebee’s.

We opened Emmeline this weekend at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, and the production is proving to be quite a success. Mr. Picker himself has been incredibly generous with his time, making himself available for consultation during tech week and participating in several Q&A sessions after the performances. And he’s had nothing but wonderful things to say about our modest production (certainly modest by Metropolitan Opera standards). He’s particularly smitten by our own Emmeline, Carrie Hennessey, and with good reason. Her performance is nothing short of breathtaking, certainly worth the price of admission and a two hour drive alone. The remarkable girl’s chorus from Cinnabar’s Young Rep program also garners special praise. Never before has this very difficult music been performed by a group of girls aged 13-16, and they sound great.

But for all his gracious words and generosity of spirit, I think none of the cast or crew expected Mr Picker to actually join us for our post show celebrations at the local Applebee’s. But join us he did, as we all enjoyed some celebratory spinach artichoke dip and deep fried mozzarella sticks (compliments of the house, thanks Applebee’s!)

Here’s photographic evidence of a table consisting of teen age girls, spinach dip, and one of the most successful opera composers alive.  At the Applebee’s off of the Old Redwood Highway in Petaluma, California. This is made entirely of win.

Guggenheim Fellowship winner Tobias Picker dining at Applebee's (with Cinnabar Artistic Director Elly Lichenstein)

A Picker-eye view of post opening Applebee's festivities (with spinach dip)

30

May 2010
13:05

Woot! Tech Week!

Yep. It’s tech week here in MvT world. We’re in hunker down mode in preparation for this Friday’s opening night performance of Emmeline at Cinnabar Opera Theater up in Petaluma, CA.

It takes fifty minutes to get from my house to Cinnabar. And that’s without traffic. That should give you a sense of how much I enjoy working with this company. Lord knows I wouldn’t make that drive otherwise.

Cinnabar is an absolute gem, producing professional productions of operas that are often contemporary and always in english. I’ve performed in their productions of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West and Menotti’s The Consul. They were also the first company to commission a piece from me (I wrote the music for their adaptation of Alice in Wonderland a few years ago). The converted barn that serves as their theater is my favorite performance space in the Bay Area: comfortable, intimate, and unassuming. As an extra bonus it’s right next to a goat farm. And goats are cute! The residents of Petaluma better appreciate how few small towns have their own opera house, much less an opera house capable of staging the West Coast premiere of a fairly significant addition to the repertoire.

Tobias Picker’s Emmeline had its world premiere at the Santa Fe opera in 1996 and was then picked up by the New York City Opera in 1998. It’s unabashedly tonal (with some notable exceptions during moments of emotional stress and turmoil), unspeakably tragic, and deeply moving. We haven’t managed to get through the piece without breaking into tears yet.  (I’m using the royal we.)

The vast majority of the heavy lifting is handled by Carrie Hennessey in the title role. If the curtain is up, you can be sure that she’s on the stage. The rest of us all are largely supporting players. In a particularly awkward turn of events, I get to play Carrie’s father (umm, I am older than Carrie, but not THAT much older) and Will Hart Meyer’s GRANDFATHER (ummm…Will is roughly the same age as Carrie… soo… uhhh… do the math).  I suppose those sorts of casting problems are bound to crop up when 20 years pass between the first and second act.

Anyways, Tobias Picker himself is going to be at the first dress rehearsal tonight. So I should, you know, probably make sure I actually know my part. Ya know. Like a professional and all that.


25

May 2010
13:05

#operaplot winners announced (irony and post-modernism are shut out)

The judge has spoken and the winners have been announced. (I was kinda hoping that Jonas Kaufmann would record this momentous announcement in rich Wagnerian tenor in a full orchestral setting).

With almost 1000 entries, narrowing the field to 5 winners was surely a daunting task and there was no doubt that many worthy entries would be passed over. The decision was bound to be a highly subjective one, depending largely on the sensibilities of the judge and his/her own sense of humor.

By almost any measure, Kaufmann has shown himself to have very conservative tastes. The winning entries are largely straightforward summarizations with the only the gentlest of twists. The most “modern” opera is Elektra (1909). It appears that Kaufmann had little appreciation for anachronism, post-modernism, or any pop culture references at all (with the exception of Daniel John Kelley’s txt-speak paraphrasing of Eugene Onegin). Based on these selections, I would guess that were Kaufmann to take a Meyers-Briggs test, he would test very high on the Sensing (as opposed to the iNtuiting) axis.

As a result, there are easily dozens of very clever entries that are going unnoticed, and that’s a shame. I’ve done pretty well myself (the extra effort of recording the Oedipus #operaplot paid off with a “Best creative use of an #operaplot” mention and my Gen-Yers misunderstanding of La Boheme was appreciated by the folks over at the English National Orchestra) but many of my favorite entries from other #operaplotters have been tragically overlooked. Regular readers know I have a deep appreciation for the ironic and the post-modern (and a complicated love-hate relationship with genre mashing). I rank so far on the iNtuitive axis that I have a hard time even making conversation with Sensors (my own wife is an N, and problems still pop up because she’s JUST NOT N ENOUGH DAMMIT!) Clearly my list of the five strongest #operaplots would look quite different. In fact, it would look more similar to the five randomly selected #operaplots that received Decca CDs than Kaufmann’s official list!

So, my fellow ironists, satirists, and post-modernists, I solemnly commit myself  to attaining a level of professional fame and notoriety sufficient to  reach the exalted position of #operaplot judge so that your ironic, satirical, and post-modern #operaplot entries can receive the recognition that they deserve!

More #Operaplotting

Instead of working on my own opera I seem to be spending the night trying to summarize other operas in under 130 characters. Hmmm… Maybe in a few years people will be trying to summarize Failing That in under 130 characters. Assuming I’m finished in a few years.

Here’s the latest batch:

La Boheme

“OMG, so, it’s like a remake of ‘Rent’, only they used, like, CLASSICAL music. What a cool idea, right?” Cue facepalm. #operaplot (via GenY)

Turn of the Screw

Mix one part Mary Poppins and one part Sixth Sense. Turn until screwed. #operaplot

The Ring Cycle

How do you summarize an opera with over 130 characters in under 130 characters? Damn you Wagner. #operaplot

Das Rheingold

Something about three girls in a river and a dwarf stealing their gold. Ummm… never made it past the first scene. #operaplot

OK. That’s enough. I need to try to get some “real” work done.

28

Apr 2010
23:04

Operaplot: easily digestible operachunks.

If you’ve been following my tweets, you may have noticed that it’s #operaplot season!

What? You haven’t heard about #operaplot, the brainspurt of that blogging genius over at The Omniscient Mussel? Well, it’s high time you learned.

The rules are simple. Summarize an entire opera in one tweet (ie 140 characters, including the hashtag #operaplot). You have until Friday at midnight to submit up to 25 summaries. Then the whole lot of them will be shipped off to celebrity judge, tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Hopefully he has a good sense of humor.

The winners will be able to choose from a bounty of prizes donated by opera companies around the world, the biggest includes a trip to Ireland!

The entries are coming in fast and furious now, it’s kinda fun to watch them show up on the feed.  There’s a big trend towards writing limericks or couplets. Not really my style, but some of them are cute.

Here are my entries so far:

The Rake’s Progress

Country bumpkin moves to city,dumps Daisy Duke for Uncle Jesse lookalike. If you call that progress,you belong in a nuthouse too. #operaplot

Peter Grimes

What?!? ANOTHER apprentice!? What happened to the last one? OK, ONE more, but then I’m cutting you off. The borough’s talkin. #operaplot

The Consul

Magda:”Baby’s sick, Grandma’s sick, Dad’s missing. HELP!” State:”Take two forms, call back in the AM.” Single Payer:The Opera? #operaplot

Porgy and Bess

SBF iso SBM. Car,mule,legs optional. Happy dust OK. Just broke up w bf,so off to NYC for week. Write 2u l8r. (account deleted) #operaplot

And my personal favorite (hoping to get to Ireland with this one!):

Nixon in China

@kissinger23, new idea for comeback: covertly fund musical with me as the hero. Focus on positive. Can we get Bernstein? #operaplot

See! It’s fun! Go ahead and write some of your own! (Although if you’re starting a twitter account just for this, it may take a few days for your entries to show up in the feed…)

28

Apr 2010
12:04

Live! Nude! Opera!

Disclaimer – this essay doesn’t have a lot to do with nudity or sex. The title and photo are there to draw your attention to a topic that you may otherwise find fairly dry and uninteresting, even though I happen to care about it a lot. Specifically this is an essay about how opera survives drastic restagings and reinterpretations, and the dichotomy of form and content. While sex and nudity are discussed, this is still a bait and switch technique, and as much as I resent such marketing tricks and believe they cheapen the content they try to promote, those sensationalistic tricks really do work.  At least in the short term. (Just ask Calixto Bieito.  Or the folks who market his productions. More on him in a bit.)

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