Last-minute change of Soloist at CMF

Jennifer Koh will be replaced by Adele Anthony for Aug. 3 concert

Violinist Adele Anthony. Photo by Marcia Ciriello

Violinist Adele Anthony. Photo by Marcia Ciriello

By Peter Alexander

Violinist Jennifer Koh, who was scheduled to perform Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion at the Colorado Music Festival on Sunday, Aug. 3, has had to cancel her appearance.

She will be replaced by Adele Anthony, a native of Tasmania who studied at the Juilliard School and won the 1996 Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition in Denmark. She has since collaborated with leading artists in concerts and festivals around the world.

Sunday’s performance with the CMF Chamber Orchestra will be led by guest conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni, one of three official candidates for music director of the festival. In addition to Bernstein’s Serenade, the program will feature Carmen Suite by Rodion Shchedrin.

Koh has suffered a concussion in an accident that forced her to cancel her appearance in Boulder. While she is the kind of young and engaging soloist that Boulder audiences would enjoy hearing, the opportunity to hear Anthony, who has a truly outstanding pedigree in the violin world, is also something to relish.

Upon learning of the news and securing Anthony to take over as soloist, CMF released the following statement on its Web page:

Important Update: Due to health issues, Jennifer Koh has had to cancel her appearance for the August 3 concert.  We are thrilled that Adele Anthony has stepped in to replace her. Adele began playing the violin at the age of 2 1/2 in Tasmania. She studied with Beryl Kimber as an Elder Conservatorium Scholar at the University of Adelaide until 1987, and has attended the Aspen Music Festival several times as a Staling Fellow. At New York’s famed Juilliard School, Miss Anthony worked with three eminent teachers: Dorothy DeLay, Felix Galimir and Hyo Kang. She has collaborated with Gil Shaham (to whom she is married, with 3 children) in the United States and Spain in concerts and recordings marking the centenary of the death of legendary Spanish violinist and composer Pablo Sarasate. An active recording artist, Ms. Anthony’s work includes two releases with Sejong Soloists: Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (Naxos), and Sejong Plays Ewazen. 

NOTE: This post was updated 7/31/14 when it was confirmed that Koh had a concussion. Her condition is not believed to be serious.

It’s about to get even nastier at the Metropolitan Opera

General Manager Peter Gelb threatens a lockout

By Peter Alexander

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

The New York Times reports today that Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb is threatening to lock out workers from the Met within a week:

The labor strife at the Metropolitan Opera took on a new urgency Wednesday when its general manager, Peter Gelb, sent the company’s orchestra, chorus, stagehands and other workers letters warning them to prepare for a lockout if no contract deal is reached by next week.

This is a continuation of the struggles at the Met that I reported earlier. This is in part a New York labor dispute, in which every side will act tough up to the last minute. But in the case of the Met, it is more than that.

In fact, a lot of the fight is about Gelb himself. There has been criticism of his leadership almost from the day he took over as the Met’s general manager in August 2006, particularly over the lavish productions he has mounted. These have included Robert Lepage’s mechanically lavish but visually dull staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle—a production so immense that the Met had to spend something between $1.5 and $5 million just to reinforce the floor. The production as a whole cost something around $16–20 million.

A scene from Wagner's "Das Rheingold" in Robert Lepage's production. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Criticism of the production has been harsh, with the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini calling it “the most frustrating opera production I have ever had to grapple with” and The New Yorker’s Alex Ross declaring that “Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.” And those were among the kinder assessments.

As a result, many critics and others have called for a return to the Met’s more traditional Ring staging by Otto Schenk—a move that would concede that the Lepage staging was a a $16-million gamble that failed.

Rigoletto, production by Michael Mayer at the Metropolitan Opera. Piotr Beczala at the Duke of Mantua. Photo: Sara Krulwich, New York Times.

Rigoletto, production by Michael Mayer at the Metropolitan Opera. Piotr Beczala as the Duke of Mantua. Photo: Sara Krulwich, New York Times.

Another controversial production was of Verdi’s Rigoletto, placed in Las Vegas. Featuring a Sinatra-like lounge singer for the Duke, a Don Rickles-like insult comic for Rigoletto, and even a gratuitous pole dancer in the final scene, it became known as the “Rat-Pack Rigoletto.” 

Gelb justified his approach as a way of attracting new, younger, affluent and more hip audiences to the Met. But the history seems to be that these splashy productions attracted a lot of attention when they opened, but audiences fell off significantly when they were revived a year or more later. And that represents a situation that a major opera house like the Met cannot sustain. Productions of the standard operas have to remain profitable, year in and year out.

So there are legitimate questions about the direction of the Met under Gelb’s direction. And all of that controversy is coming to a head as the union contract deadline approaches. Gelb is not one to back down, especially with his own reputation part of the battle, and New York unions are not known for their compliance.

It’s hard to foresee an easy settlement. But it would be a great shame if Gelb’s tenure as director, which was supposed to “save” the Met as it faced changing demographics and an uncertain future, were to end up damaging one of the country’s most esteemed cultural and musical institutions. And while none of this has direct impact on Colorado’s musical culture, any longterm troubles at the Met will assuredly affect the entire operatic world, both nationally and internationally.

Stay tuned.

The Crisis in Classical Music: Latest thoughts and developments

The future of classical musicians and institutions and why we should all think about it

By Peter Alexander

In 2014, almost all stories about classical music have a subtext: crisis.

The crisis boils down to two trends: the increasing cost of doing business—salaries, facility and production costs—combined with decreasing income—aging and shrinking audiences, loss of revenue from tickets and recordings, declining contributions. Just about all of our classical music institutions have to address both trends.

Sometimes the crisis is the actual subject of media stories, as in my earlier post about financial issues at the Metropolitan and other opera companies around the country. But whether previewing concerts at the Colorado Music Festival, discussing candidates for CMF music director, or previewing the 2015 season at Central City Opera, that crisis is always part of the story.

Several recent articles I have seen touched directly on the crisis and the future of classical music:

Controversy continues to rage about the claim by Metropolitan Opera general director Peter Gelb that the Met has to retrench because opera attendance is falling everywhere. While Gelb’s remarks are partly a negotiating tactic aimed at the powerful musicians’ and stage hands’ unions, they touched issues that many people have been thinking about.

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

They also aroused a whole hornet’s nest of responders. One commentator known for his gossipy style, Norman Lebrecht, even accused Gelb of lying. Arts blogger Greg Sandow, who writes explicitly on the “the future of classical music,” gave a measured response to the furor that—having actual facts and figures about classical audiences—is definitely worth a read.

Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal had its own appraisal of Gelb’s remarks, and several other bloggers joined the fray, here and here. There’s more, if you are willing to search the internet.

co_symphony

Colorado Symphony in Boettcher Concert Hall

Closer to home, Colorado Public Radio reports that the Colorado Symphony has found a creative way to cover some of their overhead costs: paying the rent for Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall in part with tickets that the city’s arts agency, Denver Arts and Ventures, can distribute to people who would otherwise not be able to attend symphony performances.

On the basis of CPR’s story, this appears to be a classic win-win. The orchestra saves on their costs, they likely don’t lose any ticket sales, and the city has the opportunity to increase the reach of one of its flagship cultural institutions.

This is a promising idea. We should all watch how it plays out for both the orchestra—which faces a new challenge in 2015 when Boettcher Hall is closed for renovations—and the City of Denver.

UPDATE: Read this story by Ray Mark Rinaldi in the Denver Post on the future of the Denver Perfroming Arts Complex and  Boettcher Concert Hall.

Apart form these two organizations, the question remains just how much of a crisis classical music faces in 2014. First some perspective on the question. As long as I have been working in classical music, there has been talk about crisis. The audiences have been getting older for so long that, Lazarus-like, the thread of their lives must have been retied by someone.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that audiences have been shrinking for some time—shrinking more in some places, less in others, and in a few happy outliers, growing. (The figures graphed by Greg Sandow are particularly illuminating.)

The shrinkage has reached the point that directors of classical music institutions are talking openly about it—whether it’s Peter Gelb saying the Metropolitan Opera is facing bankruptcy, or Central City Opera’s Pat Pearce seeking ways to find new audiences, or Andrew Bradford, the new executive director of the Colorado Music Festival, saying “I don’t buy at all this argument that . . . classical music is dying.”

Time for Three at Colorado Music Festival

Time for Three at Colorado Music Festival

The critical word here is institutions. Young musicians are finding exciting and creative ways to reach audiences. Of the many examples I could cite, look at Time for Three: This young alternative trio of classically-trained musicians who mix anything and everything into their repertoire without compromising their standards has been very successful in Boulder and around the world.

Composer Michael Daugherty

Michael Daugherty

Or Steve Hackman, the director of CMF’s “Musical Mash-up” series, who combined his conservatory training with a love of popular music to build a whole career around various ways of crossing musical boundaries. (Or in a similar vein, think of the many composers who have successfully incorporated popular idioms into their work, including George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein in earlier times, or Michael Daugherty and David Lang today.)

But the large institutions—symphony orchestras, opera companies, music festivals—with their extensive costs for personnel, facilities, and logistical support, are struggling to maintain their financial viability. Part of the problem is that most of those institutions do only one thing well: present performances of a very specific repertoire. That one thing is what their founders wanted, so that’s what they were meant to do. But now that we are in more eclectic times, with all of us sampling from a wider pool of entertainment choices, musical styles and cultural trends, the large institutions can come across as Johnny One-Notes, and that is no longer enough.

We know that large institutions are rarely nimble. And nimbleness is required to respond to changing times. Obviously, individual artists and small, self-contained groups, can be more nimble. That is why Time for Three and Steve Hackman and Michael Daugherty can more easily build their own individual careers.

What all of these success stories have in common is the blurring of the line between classical and pop styles. I have written about this before, and it is the whole basis of CMF’s popular “Musical Mash-up” concerts.

If the one mashup performance I have attended at CMF is any indication, it is a very successful venture for the festival and may be a harbinger of things to come. I was impressed by three things: Chautauqua Auditorium was sold out; the audience included all ages, with people that looked like the typical symphony audience alongside much younger listeners; and the audience had an almost rock-concert vibe, with cheering and applause throughout.

Apart from the artistic validity of the mashup enterprise, that was an audience that any orchestra would love to have. So much so that at some point, artistic validity becomes, not irrelevant, but something that has to be addressed within the mashup genre, not from outside of it.

I believe that point has now been reached: the mashup (or crossover, or whatever you want to call it) horse is out of the barn, and it’s not going back. CMF is not alone in this enterprise—look at the program of symphonies around the country, playing film music, sometimes live with films, bringing in pop artists, commissioning new works that cross boundaries.

Like it or not, mashups of one form or another will be part of the future of our musical life. And not only for orchestras and festivals: opera has embraced a similar aesthetic by presenting Broadway musicals. The use of popular idioms in opera is as old as Porgy and Bess and as new as Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking presented this summer at Central City. (And that is overlooking the fact that for most of its life, opera was a popular idiom!)

The more you consider these trends, the more you realize that any decision made by our classical music institutions—programming, hiring, choice of soloists, venues, the pricing of tickets, outreach programs, and so forth—is, or should be, made with eyes on the future. If the directors of those institutions are thinking that way, shouldn’t we, the audience, think that way, too? After all, they are asking for our financial support, not the other way around.

# # # # #

To explore the subject a little further, here are two excellent articles by Sandow again: “Pop Fiction” and “Why Classical Music Needs Rock & Roll.” I think both are important reading for anyone thinking about the future of classical music.

REACTING TO CLASSICAL MUSIC IN A NATURAL AND VISCERAL WAY

Introducing Carlos Miguel Prieto, second candidate to lead the Colorado Music Festival

By Peter Alexander

Carlos Miguel Prieto. Photo by Peter Schaaf.

Carlos Miguel Prieto. Photo by Peter Schaaf.

Each of the three candidates to take Michael Christie’s position as music director of Boulder’s Colorado Music Festival will conduct concerts this summer at Chautauqua. When each candidate visits Boulder, I will take the opportunity to introduce him (and yes, they are all male). I will ask each candidate about his interest and ideas for the festival, and give him a chance to introduce himself to the public. I hope this will give a clearer picture of the strengths of each candidate.

Carole Miguel Prieto is the second candidate to visit CMF this summer, with concerts July 17–18 and 20. (Read about the concerts in Boulder Weekly. To learn more about Prieto, you can read his full press biography here.)

Here are his answers to the questions I asked:

 PA: Now I have some questions that I’m going to ask all of the music director candidates this summer. First: What interests you or attracted you to the Colorado Music Festival?

 CMP: The quality of the orchestra. I know musicians from the orchestra and their energy and their enthusiasm.

Colorado itself: I’m very close to Colorado all my life, I’m a huge Colorado fan, and even part resident of Colorado.

And in the conversations with the board I was surprised at the fact that they didn’t balk at some of my suggestions of odd repertoire, so the combination of all those three.

What are the strengths of the festival?

 Anything that I would answer would be an assumption because I do not know the festival. What I have heard from musicians, and what I have heard form the board, it seems to be a festival where the audience is very close to the orchestra, which is what I think classical music should completely be about. Also, once again, the kind of adventurous programming that has been done is a good thing. So a combination of these things: the programming, the quality and energy of the orchestra, and the fact that the audiences seem to be close to the orchestra and close to what’s happening in the music.

 

Carlos Miguel Prieto with one of his orchestras.

Carlos Miguel Prieto with an orchestra.

What ideas for programming would you have for a festival like this?

 Well, I’m music director of another festival in Mexico, which is also around the orchestra. This is a 35-year-old festival. It may be longer (than CMF)—it’s 10 weeks—but I like to explore topics and then pick the music around those topics. Sometimes there are topics that don’t have to do with music itself, but with history or things that everyone can relate to.

For example, I’ve done years in my festival in Mexico City that center around the idea of military music. There is so much (music) about military or war. That year we played the five or six Mozart piano concertos that start with the idea of military, you know this (march) rhythm that is in I think six different piano concertos. So little things that allow you to build comprehensive and yet very varied programs—and that you can also illustrate with painting, photographs, poetry, with culture, with ideas, with conferences. I’ve learned that for festivals of limited length variety is good.

I’ve also built programs around the idea of borders, especially borders between the United States and Mexico. And also borders of countries that have a lot of back and forth: Austria and Hungary, Germany and Austria, and so forth. I like ideas because I think they catch people’s thoughts—similar to the programs that I’m doing (at CMF), that center around a story. Actually the three ballets that I’m doing are around the same story, the story about the girl being wanted by two characters.

But once again I’m kind of speaking in a void, because I don’t know too much about the history and what’s been done here and what people like. I like conversations about programming and I like people to criticize or say, you know, we’re tired of this piece, we don’t want to hear it again. I’m actually blessed that I conduct so many concerts in the year that if one place doesn’t like one piece, then another one will. I think there’s a lot to be said in hearing what some people in the audience may be interested in and what the orchestra musicians may be interested in.

We hear a lot about the crisis in classical music, but CMF’s new executive director, Andrew Bradford, says he doesn’t buy that argument Do you think there is a crisis, and if so what should an organization like CMF do about it?

 I don’t buy it in the least. Attendance in New Orleans of the Louisiana Philharmonic has been getting larger and larger over the last 10 years. And where I live most of the time, Mexico City, we have one of the youngest audiences in the world. We sold out the Palace of Fine Arts during Mexico v. Netherlands (in the World Cup). And the percentage of audience that was watching soccer was 97%! Of course it helps that Mexico City is 24 million, but this idea that classical music doesn’t have an audience, this is a mentality of just looking at your own back yard, because there are orchestras and festivals that sell out the first day they start selling. Experiences like that just tell you that we need to be imaginative.

Carlos Miguel Prieto

Carlos Miguel Prieto

Of course, there is a problem of lack of music education, no doubt about it, but people react to classical music in such a natural and visceral way that I think when we accept things like that (that classical music is in trouble), we’re accepting a self-fulfilling prophecy. One should not program, or think about what we do in a defensive way, but rather than in a very positive and enthusiastic way, because when you start selling what you do in a way that assumes that nobody is going to buy it, then nobody really does buy it.

There’s a way to react to that, that for me is like the worst, which is safe programming, or just programming of the blockbuster pieces, which are great in themselves, but when you do a whole season of blockbusters because you want to sell a lot of tickets, this is the beginning of your demise. What will you do the next years? There’s only so much that people want to hear if you only think about blockbusters. So I think that we have to be imaginative, we have to be positive. Of course, the way we sell it has to be intelligent, it has to be new, it has to be diverse, but I don’t accept explanations like that because I’ve experienced first-hand the opposite.

You’ve given me a lead into one of my more informal questions: Since this is the world cup year, I’m asking if you are a soccer fan, and if so what team do you support? You must be disappointed that the two countries of your heritage, Mexico and Spain, went out before the quarterfinals.

 Yeah, yeah! Well, especially because of how Mexico was beaten, because Mexico was four minutes away from beating Netherlands and lost in a kind of disappointing way.

I’ll tell you a story. In this concert in Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), this beautiful marble palace in Mexico City, one minute before we started the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, with a fine Venezuelan pianist by the name of Gabriela Montero, one minute before she comes out we were watching the game backstage and Mexico scored. So you could hear everyone backstage celebrating, and then we played the Rachmaninoff concerto in this kind of state of exhilaration. And then when we went backstage and heard that Netherlands scored two goals—that was like the worst backstage thing that I could ever imagine!

You should see what I’m seeing right now. I am in Hannover, Germany, and in three hours Germany is playing Brazil. Germans are not like Americans with football teams and like that, but every single car has the German flag, everyone has their faces painted with German colors. There’s something about the World Cup that I think is just absolutely marvelous, which is that it makes people rally around their team, and it also makes people forget about other things and think soccer for about a month.

For me sports and music are actually very similar, in the sense that you have to work at it every day and with this kind of combination of discipline, love, yet with like this all-out enthusiasm.

NOTE: Due to an interrupted cell phone connection to Germany, I did not get to ask Maestro Prieto the other questions I have asked the others candidates, but I can add that one of his favorite outdoor activities is skiing, which, as he has mentioned in other interviews, has brought him to Colorado for many years.

Prieto programs favorites for festival

Concerts include Diaghelev Ballets and music by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

Carlos Miguel Prieto. Photo by Peter Schaaf

Carlos Miguel Prieto. Photo by Peter Schaaf

Carlos Miguel Prieto brings two very different programs to the Colorado Music Festival.

The Mexican conductor, the second of three candidates for the position of music director of the festival, will lead the full Festival Orchestra in a program of early 20th-century ballets on July 17 and 18, and the Chamber Orchestra in a program of 18th/19th-century classics on July 20.

“I wanted to do two very contrasting programs,” Prieto says, “one with a very colorful orchestra of early 20th-century dimensions, and [one] with a completely classical-period program.”

Read more at Boulder Weekly.

New Formula for Central City Opera’s 2015 Season

“The one thing you cannot do is stand still”

by Peter Alexander

2015OverviewFromAdPat Pearce knows he is navigating difficult waters.

The general/artistic director of the Central City Opera is facing the same problems as every opera company in the country: falling revenues and shrinking audiences. Tied to both the recession and to changing demographics, these are the twin elephants in the opera house—and for that matter, the concert hall, the theater and the museum gallery—throughout the country.

Fortunately, the problems have not been as drastic for CCO as the recent and well publicized troubles at Opera Colorado, the San Diego Opera, and even the staid Metropolitan Opera in New York. (I wrote about those companies in an earlier post on this blog.)

“Everyone has been affected by what’s been happening,” Pearce says. “Some people were better able to navigate it, but everyone is looking to do things differently.”

Pearce believes that it’s not enough to bring in new audiences, if you don’t also find new sources of income. And the other way around: income is not enough if you are not finding the audiences for the future of opera.

Pelham "Pat" Pearce

Pelham “Pat” Pearce

“The smartest people will do both—raise more money and get new audiences,” he says. “Nobody has figured it out yet. (But) the one thing you cannot do is stand still.”

With that in mind, Pearce and CCO have charted a new course for their 2015 season. As Pearce explained in the press release announcing the coming season, “We are adjusting our strategy . . . to create a deeper connection with our current and future audiences.”

To help connect with new audiences, CCO will take three one-act chamber operas on the road next year, visiting communities around Colorado with full productions featuring casts of professional and apprentice artists and orchestra (if called for). The three touring operas will represent an intriguing mix of styles and periods: The Prodigal Son, a church parable by Benjamin Britten; The Blind, an unusual a capella concept opera by Lera Auerbach; and Don Quixote and the Duchess (Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse) by the French Baroque composer Joseph Bodin de Boismortier. (See descriptions of these unusual works below.)

Locations and dates of these performances will be announced soon. In the meantime, Pearce estimates that there will be a total of 9–12 performances of the three in churches and other venues around the state. Each production will also have a performance in Central City during the summer season.

These traveling productions will compliment two productions to be performed in repertory in the beautiful Central City Opera House. Continuing a recent trend at Central City and other opera companies around the world, one will be a Broadway musical—Man of La Mancha—and one will be from the traditional grand opera repertoire—Verdi’s La Traviata.

For the past three years plus the current season, CCO has taken a production down the mountains and into Denver as a means of seeking out new audiences. Three of those years, the Denver performance has been a Broadway musical.

“We’ve been in experimentation for three or four years, some of which worked and some of which didn’t” Pearce says. “The reason we did the (Broadway) musical theater pieces in Denver was to see if we could find a new audience.”

CCO.Interior.3x4-large

Central City Opera House interior. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

In fact, those performances did bring in new audiences, as planned, but attendance remained more or less level, meaning that about the same number of people who were regulars in Central City did not make the trip to Denver. It was that outcome that led to intensive strategic planning over the past year and the development of CCO’s new format. Pearce said that every possibility was considered, including selling the company’s Central City property and moving their headquarters to Denver.

Fortunately, that scenario was quickly rejected as the CCO administration recognized how much their success is tied to their unique location in a Colorado mining town, and their historic jewel-box opera house. “Partly what people pay for is the experience here (in Central City),” Pearce says, looking around at the audience gathering on the opera house grounds.

“Part of our brand is this experience.”

 


For those unfamiliar with the one-act operas on CCO’s 2015 season schedule, the company has provided the following descriptions:

One of Benjamin Britten’s three church parable operas, which also include Curlew River and The Burning Fiery Furnace, The Prodigal Son is based on the Biblical story of the same name. With a libretto by William Plomer and a score dedicated to Shostakovich, this one-act opera centers on the well-known parable about a son, bored with life on his father’s farm, who asks for his inheritance to go seek an exciting life in a far-off city where he is deprived of his fortune and left penniless. When the son returns home to ask for forgiveness, his father receives him with open arms, but his angry older brother who has loyally worked his father’s fields doesn’t feel the same. The Prodigal Son will be performed in English at church venues in Central City and throughout the state.
“It’s not the characters who are blind,” said composer Lera Auerbach in a New York Times interview about the one-act opera The Blind. “The message is that we are the blind. With all our means of communication we see each other less and connect to each other less. We have less understanding and compassion for other people…” First performed in October 2011, this unconventional a capella opera for 12 singers requires that audience members be blindfolded so they can enter the world of its sightless characters. Adapted from an 1890 play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the story is about a dozen blind people who are taken by their priest on an outing. When the elderly priest suddenly dies, they are stranded on an island left helpless and scared. The group realizes that they never really knew the priest as a person as they stumble upon his cold, dead body. A Russian- American composer, Lera Auerbach wrote The Blind in 1994 while she was a student at Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival. Central City Opera’s production is in partnership with American Opera Projects, the company who presented the opera for the 2013 Lincoln Center Festival in a production touted by the New York Times as “An adventurous, eerie and thoroughly engaging example of immersive theater.” The Blind will be performed in English at non-traditional venues in Central City and across the region.
As its final traveling one-act production for 2015, Central City Opera presents Don Quixote and the Duchess (Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse), by French baroque composer Joseph Bodin de Boismortier. This piece is adapted from Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote with a libretto by Charles Simon Favart. First performed in Paris in 1743, the opera is based on one episode in the novel. The story follows a Duke and Duchess who amuse themselves by creating an elaborate ruse to fool the title character. The story is rich with incisive, quick and ironic turns. A rarely performed piece, this production will be the regional premiere of the opera and will provide a completely different take on the same story of Don Quixote presented as part of Central City Opera’s production of the musical Man of La Mancha also being presented in 2015. Don Quixote and the Duchess will be performed in English in both Central City venues and across Colorado.

 

CENTRAL CITY OPERA 2015 SEASON

July 11 to August 9, 2015

Productions in Central City:

LA TRAVIATA by Giuseppe Verdi

MAN OF LA MANCHA by Leigh, Darion & Wasserman

­­­­­­­­­­_______________

Touring productions throughout Colorado:

THE PRODIGAL SON by Benjamin Britten

THE BLIND by Lera Auerbach

DON QUIXOTE AND THE DUCHESS by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier

Season details

Opposite poles attract success at Central City Opera

Dead Man Walking and Marriage of Figaro are worth the trip into the mountains.

By Peter Alexander

Central City Opera House. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Central City Opera House. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

The two productions currently running at the Central City Opera (CCO) are not so much contrasting shades of opera as opposite poles.

At the dark end of spectrum is Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, a setting of playwright Terence McNally’s powerful libretto, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. The true story of a nun’s efforts to reach out to a brutal death row convict, the book also inspired the 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. This seems unlikely material for operatic treatment—the drama is largely psychological and very little happens in the conventional sense—but Heggie and McNally have created a gripping work of musical theater that keeps the audience riveted, even as they know the inevitable outcome.

The opposite pole is represented by Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, one of the greatest and most luminescent operatic explorations of human emotions ever created. A politically and socially dangerous work written on the eve of the French Revolution, it cloaks its subversive message with the light of compassion and humor in Mozart’s transcendent setting of a masterful libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.

As different as they are, these works are given wholly satisfying and powerfully moving productions by the Central City Opera company. With strong casts, well conceived productions and thoughtful direction, both operas are well worth the drive into the mountains—even if you don’t need an excuse to drive into the mountains.

In his notes for Dead Man Walking, director Ken Cazan observes that the opera “doesn’t tell the viewer what to think and feel. . . . [It] poses questions, not answers.” Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about the work is how well it conveys understanding and sympathy for all of the characters, even the murderer Joseph De Rocher.

Dead Man Walking execution scene. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Dead Man Walking execution scene. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

If the work has a flaw, it is the sustained intensity of its emotional expression. Though unavoidable considering the subject matter, the unrelenting high tension of the music leaves no scope for the shattering musical climax we might expect. As a result, the ending, when De Rocher finally faces his execution, provides a dramatic resolution but not a musical one. The final scene, where Sister Helen returns to the tender hymn that opened the opera, “He Will Gather Us Around,” rounds out the opera on a quiet note that feels inconclusive.

But perhaps that reflects the reality that the questions faced by the opera’s characters—questions of guilt, of punishment, of retribution and redemption—remain unanswered for the characters and for us, as they must always be.

As the murderer De Rocher, Michael Mayes gave a committed and muscular performance—even singing while doing pushups in one scene. His voice conveyed menace and danger from his very first entrance, only softening in the second act when he sang of being “Down by the river with your woman.” The transformation from the threatening figure of Act I to someone who could admit his fear and his guilt and tell Sister Helen “I love you” at the end is an accomplishment of both vocal and dramatic artistry.

Jennifer Rivera ably filled the role of Sister Helen, who is onstage for most of the opera. The throbbing orchestral accompaniment, the range and contours of her part push her into an intensity of expression that make vocal control difficult. Fortunately, she was able to convey small contrasting moments of humor and tenderness as well as the overarching spiritual struggle that defines her role.

Of the many supporting roles, several stand out: Maria Zifchak as De Rocher’s mother was especially moving in the final scenes when she has to face her son’s death; and Robert Orth as Owen Hart commanded attention as an angry father whose daughter died at De Rocher’s hands, but who manages to move toward acceptance by the end.

Other, more one-dimensional supporting roles are well handled: Thomas Hammons as the warden; Jason Baldwin as the unsympathetic Father Grenville; Karina Brazas, Claire Shackleton and Joseph Gaines as mourning parents. Jeanine De Bique was on target but vocally strained as Sister Rose. John David Nevergall added a light touch as the Motorcycle Cop.

Dead Man Walking: Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Dead Man Walking: Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

The coloring of vowels by the singers to suggest the Louisiana locale of the story was only intermittently successful, and considering the universality of the questions we are asked to ponder, I am not sure that it is necessary.

One of the pleasures of opera at Central City is seeing the creative ways the company makes use of its limited stage and wing space. Alan E. Muraoka’s minimalist stage designs were highly effective, using angled fences to convey the enclosed space of the prison as well as the emotionally closed world of the convicts. In other scenes, pieces of furniture—two chairs, a table and a chair—or the execution gurney that De Rocher is strapped to, Christ-like, at the end, were sufficient to set the changing scenes and illuminate the changing relationships.

Ken Cazan’s direction was efficient and effective, especially in making use of the limited space to convey relationships among the principal characters. John Baril lead Central City’s fine orchestra with a firm hand.

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CCO’s production of The Marriage of Figaro has been updated from the 18th century to Spain in the 1920s. Director Alessandro Talevi justifies this through the political situation of the time. “Spain . . . .was deeply conservative and religious in conflict with dynamic progressive movement of secularism,” he writes, establishing a parallel with the pre-revolutionary Europe of Mozart’s time.

Act II Finale, Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Mark Kiryluk

Act II Finale, Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Mark Kiryluk

I am not sure the intellectual justification is necessary, or even helps for that matter.

For the most part the setting and costumes were successful, the 1920s being long enough ago that audiences readily accept the social hierarchies and conflicts of the plot. That said, I do have one reservation, in that British costume dramas are now so familiar to American audiences that many must have thought of Downton Abbey, and the Count reminded me inescapably of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. These resonances do not enhance Mozart’s masterpiece.

The one essential of any production of the opera is a Figaro who can command the stage. CCO is fortunate to have a vocally secure Figaro in Michael Sumuel, whose genial presence was always welcome onstage. He sang expressively, handling Figaro’s wide range of emotions with aplomb.

Michael Sumuel as Figaro and Anna Christy as Susanna. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Michael Sumuel as Figaro and Anna Christy as Susanna. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

As Figaro’s intended bride Susanna, Anna Christy was a secure vocal partner in her many duets and ensembles with the other cast members. It is her relationship to each of the other principal characters that drives the plot, and Christy was a solid anchor for the drama. In spite of an occasionally nasal sound, her expressive phrasing brought her character warmly to life.

Another critical role is Cherubino, a “pants” role taken by a female mezzo as an adolescent boy who is in love with every woman he sees, from the young Barbarina and Susanna to his godmother the Countess. Tamara Gura was excellent from her first entrance, moving with all the awkwardness of a teenager. I found her unusually convincing throughout, and her aria “Voi che sapete” was especially charming.

As the Count, Edward Parks was perhaps too measured at the outset, neither commanding enough nor bombastic enough in the first two acts. He grew into the role, however, and by the end his confession and plea for forgiveness brought the opera to an effective end.

Anna Christy as Susanna and Sinéad Mulhern as the Countess. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Anna Christy as Susanna and Sinéad Mulhern as the Countess. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Sinéad Mulhern played the countess with grace and delicacy. Her lovely voice lost quality when pushed, but otherwise her portrayal was pleasing.

Madeleine Boyd’s flexible sets made effective use of the limited stage, even if they recalled an English country house. Talevi’s direction captured the comic qualities of the libretto perfectly, with one exception: the unnecessary comic business during the Count’s Act III aria badly upstaged the singer and undermined the emotion of the scene.

Conductor Adrian Kelly led the performance ably, setting solid tempos and supporting the singers well for most of the opera. The opening overture was full of energy but occasionally smudged, a minor flaw that recurred during the opera as well.

Unfortunately, Central City does not have a genuine harpsichord at its disposal—perhaps due to limited space in the pit or the difficult of caring for a natural instrument at 8,500 ft.—and has to resort to a Kawai electronic keyboard. This is unfortunate whatever the reason. The sound may be adequate for amateur keyboard players who fancy 18th-century music, but it is not suitable for a truly professional performance.

But make no mistake: All reservations aside, this is a sparkling production, full of comic energy and good spirits. The stark contrast between this Figaro and the darkly impressing Dead Man Walking only enhances them both.


Central City Opera

The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart
2:30 pm July 15, 16, 20, 22, 26
8:00 pm July 10, 12, 18
Central City Opera House
For tickets, click here

Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie
2:30 pm July 13, 19, 23, 25
8:00 pm July 11, 17
Central City Opera House
For tickets, click here