Grace Notes: DeVotchKa in Boulder, ‘Turandot’ in Denver, choruses everywhere

Season-ending performances provide broad choices for audiences

By Peter Alexander May 2 at 10:40 p.m.

The Longs Peak Chorus, the Longmont chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS), will end their 2022–23 season of performances with a concert titled “Celebration.”

“Barbershop Harmony,” or “Barbershop Quartet” singing, is four-part a-capella singing for male voices. The most common format is to have individual quartets of four singers, although the music is also performed by larger groups of male voices, such as the full Longs Peak Chorus. Barbershop quartets have been featured in popular entertainment, such as The Music Man by Meredith Willson. 

Artistic License Barbershop Quartet

The occasion for the celebration is the 75th anniversary of the group, which was chartered with the BHS in 1948. Their concerts Friday at Saturday at Niwot High School (7 p.m. and 2 p.m.; details below) will also feature the quartet Artistic License and mixed choirs from local high schools.

Barbershop quartets are often associated with the “Gay Nineties,” or the 1890s, as was the case in The Music Man. Quartets usually wear coordinated outfits, often in a Gay Nineties style with straw hats and vests.

The visit by Artistic License and the inclusion of high school choirs are part of Long Peaks Chorus’s outreach to local music educators and students. Artistic License will visit local schools and spend time with choirs and their directors for clinics and coachings.

The program for the performances will feature classic four-part harmony as well as larger a-capella arrangements. 

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Longs Peak Chorus,  Ron Black, director
With Artistic License quartet and local high school choirs

7 p.m. Friday, May 5
2 p.m. Saturday May 6

Niwot High School Theater


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Boulder’s Cantabile Singers and artistic director Brian Stone will end the concert season this weekend (May 5 and 7; details below) with a tribute to the culture of the Chickasaw Nation.

The main work on their concert program will be Ilhoba”by the Chickasaw composer and pianist Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. Subtitled “The Vision,” Ilholba’ is based on a Chickasaw garfish dance song and will be performed in the Chickasaw language to a text by the composer.

Tate is an American Indian composer and pianist who has written symphonic music, ballet and opera. His works have been commissioned by major orchestras and performed around the world. He has gained a reputation as a composer who can successfully express American Indian culture through classical orchestral music.

Three other works complete the program. “Stomp on the Fire” by Andrea Ramsey uses the voice and percussive sounds of the body together. Chante Waste Hoksila (My kind-hearted boy) is a traditional Lakota lullaby that has been arranged by Lakota spiritual leader and composer Linthicum-Blackhorse in honor of the children of Uvalde, Texas. Finally, the “Wichita Baptist Hymn” uses two melodies from the Southern Plains Wichita tribe as transcribed by tribal member Tracey Gregg-Boothby.

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“Ilhloba’: The Vision”
Cantabile Singers, Brian Stone, artistic director

  • Jerod Tate: Ilholba’
  • Andrea Ramsey: “Stomp on the Fire”
  • Lakota trad., arr. Linthicum-Blackhorse: Chante Waste Hoksila (My kind-hearted boy)
  • Andrew Marshall, arr.: “Wichita Baptist Hymn”

7:30 p.m. Friday, May 5
3 p.m. Sunday, May 7

First Congregational Church, Boulder


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The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra will enter new territory Saturday when they team up with Colorado Indie rock band DeVotchKa (Russian for “girl”).

The four members of DeVotchKa

For one thing ,it will be their first appearance with the unique group that combines four acoustic performers with a wide variety of instrumental possibilities, including theremin, bouzouki, guitar, accordion, sousaphone, double bass, flute and percussion—among others. For another, the orchestra’s executive director, Sara Parkinson, will take a step beyond her usual administrative duties to conduct the performance—at the request of DeVotchKa member Tom Hagerman with whom she has collaborated in the tango quartet Grande Orquestra Navarre.

While this is a new role for Parkinson with the Phil, it is not really new for her. She has conducted opera, choirs, and orchestras in Boulder and with the Dallas Opera’s Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors.

DeVotchKa has a distinctive sound that derives largely from the inclusion of the sousaphone, accordion and the electronic theremin, along with more traditional instruments including guitar, flute and trumpet, along with a solid rhythm section. They have a passionate following in Colorado, and gained wider recognition after their music was featured in the Academy Award-winning film Little Miss Sunshine in 2006.

DeVotchKa describes their sound as a “blend of various musical genres, including Romani music, punk rock, and Eastern European folk music.” Their four key members are Hagerman, Nick Utra, Jeanie Schroder and Shawn King. The band was formed in 1997.

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Devotchka with the Boulder Philharmonic
Sara Parkinson, conductor

7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6

Macky Auditorium


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Opera Colorado’s upcoming production of Puccini’s popular Turandot is selling rapidly. 

The two-thousand-plus capacity Ellie Caulkins Opera House is already sold out for two performances (May 6 and 24) and two other performances are currently listed as “limited availability” (details below).

Based on a play by Carlo Gozzi, Turandot is the tale of a cruel princess who seeks revenge on all men for the death of an ancestor. Besieged by suitors, she poses three riddles to the men who attempt to woo her; if they fail to answer correctly, they will be killed. After seeing the Prince of Persia fail and go to his execution, Calaf, Prince of Tartary, impulsively declares his suit.

Calaf successfully answers the three riddles, but offers to face execution anyway if Turandot can guess his name before dawn. Liú, a servant girl in love with Calaf, kills herself rather than reveal his name. Calaf himself reveals his name, but Turandot, rather than have him killed, declares that his true name is love.

Puccini died before completing Turandot. The score was completed by the composer Franco Alfano in time for the opera’s premiere, April 25, 1926, but the conductor of the premiere, Arturo Toscanini, chose to end the performance where Puccini had stopped writing. Subsequent performances generally use the Alfano completion, although it has never been highly regarded. Other completions have been attempted, but none have caught on.

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Giacomo Puccini and Franco Alfano: Turandot
Opera Colorado
Ari Pelto, conductor; Aria Umezawa, stage director

7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6 SOLD OUT
7:30 Tuesday, May 9 (limited availability)
7:30 p.m. Friday, May 12 (limited availability) 
2 p.m. Sunday, May 24 SOLD OUT

Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver


Opera Colorado presents beautifully conceived production

Korngold’s rarely performed Die tote Stadt soars

By Peter Alexander February 26 at 11 p.m.

Opera Colorado opened their new production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt under difficult circumstances Saturday (Feb. 26): last- minute vocal paralysis of the star soprano, Sara Gartland.

Her indisposition was capably overcome with the help of dramatic soprano Kara Shay Thomson and some artful directorial sleight-of-hand. Thomson, who didn’t have time to learn the staging but knew the music, sang from the pit while Gartland acted the role onstage.

Die tote Stadt: Act II scene rendering by Robert Perdziola

Korngold wrote Die tote Stadt in 1920, when he was only 23, and later went on to write hugely successful Hollywood film scores, winning two Academy Awards. Unsurprisingly, the score of Tote Stadt has an expressive immediacy that connects with audiences.

The opera, too long neglected, soared in a beautifully designed and conceived production that featured a generally strong cast. Conductor Ari Pelto kept things well under control. He and the orchestra seemed comfortable with Korngold’s cinematic and emotionally descriptive style.

Robert Perdziola’s beautiful and evocative designs colorfully combined the interior of protagonist Paul’s apartment and a replica the O.L.V.-Kerk (Church of Our Lady) church tower in Bruges, Belgium, the symbolically “dead city” of the opera’s title. A large scrim at the back allowed for spectral appearances from his fantasies, including his beloved late wife Marie and a procession of nuns that appear during his fevered dreams.

Jonathan Burton (Paul) and Sara Gartland (Marietta/Marie). Photo courtesy of Opera Colorado

This unit set served all three acts effectively, with plenty of room for the scene to shift from Paul’s artist’s studio to the canals of Bruges. A boat with dancers and commedia dell’arte characters and the procession of nuns parade in and out of the scene, as they do through Paul’s nightmares.

With a ringing sound and a secure top, tenor Jonathan Burton was effective in the long and difficult role of Jonathan, a young artist who suffers delusions that Marie has returned to life. His belief that the dancer Marietta is Marie reincarnated is the dramatic crux of the opera and places Paul at the emotional center. The Heldentenor demands of the part stressed his voice by the end, although the resigned reflection of his final scene came through affectingly.

He was a better singer than actor; the intensity of his role, as Paul spins into madness, came through more potently in his singing than his movements or posture. That may be why a moment that should be chilling—when a maddened Paul dreams that he has strangled Marietta and, imagining the corpse at his feet, sings “now she is exactly like Marie”—elicited out-of-place laughter from the audience.

Kara Shay Thomson. Photo by Devon Cass

Singing as Maria/Marietta, Kara Shay Thomson was at a disadvantage standing in a corner of the pit. Neither elevated above the orchestra nor singing out toward the audience, she was not always clearly audible. If the words were sometimes muffled, she sang the role with confidence and solid sound, ascending comfortably to the highest reaches of the part.

The vocally indisposed Sara Gartland was the very image of the dancer Marietta. She moved comfortably about the stage, and her emotions were often visible in her posture. It is difficult to maintain the intensity of a role when only mouthing the words, and she did not always succeed, but her dance scene in Act II was effective.

Baritone Daniel Belcher has a bright, steely voice well suited to his part as Frank, Paul’s friend. He ably conveyed Frank’s stability and groundedness in dealing with Paul’s delusions. As Brigitte, Paul’s housekeeper, Elizabeth Bishop’s warm, plush voice helped shape her role as a caretaker. She had the best diction of the cast; otherwise you would have had difficulty relying on the German text to follow the story. Young tenor Jonathan Johnson made a solid impression as Viktorin, director of Marietta’s dance company.

Stage direction by Chas Rader-Shieber served the story. The large stage area never looked too wide as the singers interacted. Only when the singing Marietta was in the pit on one side of the stage while the acting Marietta was on the other was there any (unavoidable) awkwardness. 

NOTE: In the second act, Marietta dances a scene with shrouded nuns that might not make sense to modern viewers. This scene comes from a French grand opera, Robert le diable (Robert the devil) by Giacomo Meyerbeer. In that original scene—a third-act ballet that would have been familiar to Korngold’s 1920s audiences—dead nuns rise from their graves to perform a scandalous dance celebrating drinking, gambling and lust. The choice of this scene to fuel Paul’s imagination of Marietta and her company is deliberately provocative and suggests Marietta’s debased character, Paul’s derangement, or both.

Before the curtain, Opera Colorado artistic director Greg Carpenter came onstage to thank the opera company’s board for agreeing to present his “favorite opera.” I join in his appreciation, for being able to see an opera that I had never before seen live, produced on a high professional level.

If you love opera, you should not miss the opportunity to see this engaging, late-Romantic work that is rarely performed in the United States. Three performances remain at Opera Colorado (Feb. 28, Match 3 and March 5; details and tickets HERE).

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Opera Colorado
Die tote Stadt by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Libretto by Paul Schott (Erich and Julius Korngold)
Ari Pelto, conductor; Chas Rader-Shieber, director

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28, and Friday, March 3
2 p.m. Sunday, March 5

Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Performing Arts Complex


Is the Metropolitan Opera in danger?

Opinions vary, but some details emerge.

By Peter Alexander

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Anyone who follows the world of opera has noticed the news.

First, the San Diego Opera was going to close. Then it was saved by a public groundswell, and the longtime artistic director, Ian Campbell, was gone (and his massive salary as well). The company has announced a three-opera season for 2014–15.

Here in Colorado, Denver’s Opera Colorado had to cancel the anticipated premiere of Lori Laitman’s Scarlet Letter. The company was left with a two-opera “season,” including a bare-bones presentation of Carmen with the orchestra on stage and tickets prices up to $167.60. In case you have missed this saga, the various missteps by the company have been dissected by the Denver Post music critic, Ray Mark Rinaldi.

The troubles these two companies find themselves in are clearly financial. Unlike Broadway, where only most investments fail, opera has never been a money-making proposition; it has always depended upon financial support way beyond the cost of tickets, either from the court (early opera in Italy, 18th-century Versailles or Mozart’s Vienna, for example), or wealthy aristocrats (18th-century London), or the government (all across Europe today), or private donors (in the United States). To music historians, the financial ups and downs of opera in London are famously convoluted, with one scheme appearing after another, and all of them failing eventually. Handel, after all, turned to oratorios like Messiah because they were essentially opera on the cheap—all the singing, fewer singers and none of the sets and costumes. Similar histories crop up over and over again, wherever opera is produced. The culprits are usually the salaries of super-star singers, or the cost of fantastic productions, or sometimes the ineptitude of the management. Or all three. But the result is always, and always will be, the same: Opera costs way more to put on than any business can sustain without massive subsidies.

Here in the U.S., we like to imagine that our leading cultural institutions are rock solid. They have a dependable donor base and they are well run within a reasonable budget.

Dream on.

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

There is no larger or more established or more revered cultural institution in the country than the Metropolitan Opera, but its history is not one of outstanding management. (If you want details, read this fascinating, and disheartening, account by Johanna Fiedler.) And now Peter Gelb, the current general manager, says the company stands “on the edge of a precipice.” This comes after several massively expensive new productions mounted by the company, including one that required a $1.4 million investment just to reinforce the Met stage so it could support the set (Robert LePage’s Ring cycle; the cost of the reinforcement has been variously reported, up to $5 million), and another that included a $169,000 poppy field (Prince Igor). But amid criticism of his spending on those productions, Gelb says it is the labor costs that are out of control. They may or may not be, depending on your perspective, but it seems that is not the only problem.

It is no accident that Gelb is raising the alarm just when the Met is in negotiations with unions whose members make the company go, most notably the musicians’ union. This being New York, it is hard to separate facts from negotiating tactics, but a new analysis of the Met’s finances by the Wall St. Journal brings a few facts and some clarity to the issue. For one thing, we can learn that some of Gelb’s expensive and highly promoted new productions have not done well after their first year. But read the whole article to get the full meaning.

Another analysis can be found in The Guardian.

And just to put all of this in an even more interesting light, two of the world’s other major opera companies—the Chicago Lyric and Vienna State Opera—have recently announced that they have completed very successful, even record-breaking, seasons. The timing is at least inconvenient for Gelb and the Met management.

CCOperaLogoPreferredI will have more to say about the current condition of opera in a future article on the announcement of Central City Opera‘s 2015 season, which is going in an interesting new direction. In the meantime, for some perspective on the San Diego Opera and the Metropolitan’s various concerns, I recommend this article written by Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed. Google searches on the principals and the organizations involved will turn up many more.