Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Posts Tagged ‘Opera Education

Embracing my Geek!

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…well, I’m embracing my Geek -as come to find out, I get rather squirrelly when it comes to things opera -but especially when it comes to things touching on Verdi, his contemporaries and associates..
On the bookshelves in the back of my mind, I keep a catalogue of operas that I would love to find recordings of, as they are, invariably, operas no one would ever do live -being too obscure; too costly; too much of a dig into musical depths of history..!
Foremost on my list is an opera that was written by Franco Faccio.
Faccio was a schoolmate of Arrigo Boito; Boito came to be the librettist for Verdi, and created the librettos to two of the maestro’s greatest works: Otello and Falstaff, both after Shakespeare..
-but Faccio; I knew that Boito had written a libretto, based on Hamlet (Amletto) for faccio, who composed an opera from it – charting a course of much tribulation, and no more than two serious productions, which did not come off very well; but Boito, and Verdi as well, had great faith in Faccio (who, incidentally, went on to be an amazing conductor; on the podium at the premieres of Verdi’s operas Aida and Otello).
..-sorry- (squirreling about in the Geek)..
It has been many years that this work has intrigued me, especially for all the godparents at its birth.. But I’d never imagined coming across anything on the opera .. as it’s far too obscure..
So imagine my surprise in receiving a flier from Opera Delaware (-who- honestly- I’d never signed up to received anything from) alerting me to their season this year – which includes a full production of Faccio’s opera AMLETTO!!
..the history alone and convolutions of this work’s inception and initial productions, makes this event of great importance..

And as Washington National Opera mount their Ring cycle, it is also heartening to know that there remain companies who wish to investigate .. adventurous ..if potentially ruinous, journeys which resonate full of the ‘unknown’.. and envelope a willing audience in the rich tapestry of Italian opera history.. Thank you, Opera Delaware!


…down the stream of things

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…the school year has begun well; this is my third year in the Washington National Opera/DC PS, Guest Artist Teaching program. I am working in 3 schools this term.

The Look-In presentation, at the Kennedy Center, was terrific; it flowed with an engaging narrative that was delivered by ‘archetypal’ characters, created by students from the Duke Ellington School for the Arts. Engaging, informing, entertaining, illuminating –and fun!

When I arrived at the Ross Elementary School, for my first session after the event, I found my class excited to engage in some ‘out-of-the-box’ conversation; the most intriguing concept they were considering was whether or not opera was opera because “people” sang it.

I asked them to consider that question; was opera “opera” because it had people, or could opera be something with no ‘people’ at all..?

My 5th graders, already seasoned by a previous year’s class on opera, really grappled amongst themselves with this question –but finally determined that ‘people’ were not needed for opera to be ‘opera’; opera could be something where inanimate objects were given “voice” to sing.

My next session with this particular class is next week –and I found something to reinforce the direction of their thinking; it is the Gatto duetto –the “Cat Duet”- attributed to Rossini. As it happens, as I was scrounging through You Tube for an example of this, I found a clip that had been done by the Washington National Opera, in 1996, at the Kennedy Center!

Hopefully this will spark all kinds of conversation!

What do you think..? -We might even move onto Ravel, and his fantastical work of l’Enfant et les Sortileges!

…in these sessions, all things are possible!

…a veil over Salome

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The DC opera season has started. Washington National Opera began with the lyric gallows swing of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, and is now tilting into the eroticism of Strauss’s Salome –an uncanny offering to my mind, reflecting the present zeitgeist, as plattered heads seem the political metaphor of choice these days.

Things were equally cut throat for Richard Strauss; the opera’s premiere was met with outrage and hyperbole; venom and swoon in equal measure. With Salome, Strauss seared his audience from inside out.

The opera remains one of the most graphic, aural spectaculars ever written; the strings winnow and scream in a sinuous wallow of voluptuous resonance; the writing for bass sculpts both cistern and temptation, and etches the moral murk in which John the Baptist hulks, enchained. It is a compelling and unrelenting work, ravishing in its atonality and instrumentation.

…needless to say, much too contentious for elementary school students, so we won’t be using it as our opera showpiece for this year’s “Opera Look-In”, part of the Washington National Opera/DC Public Schools program.

Instead we’re putting together a presentation that creates something of a ‘library stroll’ through a diversity of operatic scenes; the vignettes offer music by Bizet, Mozart, Rossini, Puccini, and Donizetti, and are presented by students from the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, as well as members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Maureen Bunyan will be the compère for the event, which will be given in the opera house at the Kennedy Center next week.

This is my third year as a Guest ‘Teaching Artist’ representing the opera company. I will be working in three different elementary schools this time, located in wards in the SE, NW and NE of the District.

There is a pre-‘Look-In’ visit this week, as orientation for the students; we go on to follow up the “Look-In” with a session to glean what moved the students, and to identify what kinds of threads they would like to pull together in creating their own opera, which is then presented in May of next year.

The students are always so direct and honest in their observations and connections; with the array of musical offerings they’ll encounter at the Kennedy Center presentation, I’ve no doubt this year’s schools’ programs will be diverse and imaginative-

..leaving the tour de force of Salome, for later fodder..

opening doors

with 2 comments I stood in the shade of the tree line, trying not to puddle in the 95 degree heat and humidity of this past Saturday, I watched something incredible..

I have always been an advocate of ‘opening doors’ –of finding ways to engage a mind that might not normally be aware or available to some connection of music that I know and love. I don’t ever want to foist this on anyone.. But as I was introduced to the world of music by loving and adventurous souls, I am always pressed to do so as well..

But this Saturday I watched a young man from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts perform a short piano program of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and jazz improvisation.

This same young man is a composer, and had contributed music to a work that was being created by the Duke Ellington School, under the keen eyes of the composer Anthony Davis, called When God Made Lonely. It is an operatic updating of Porgy & Bess. many times –I thought, as I watched-  had someone opened the door, leading us here..?

Classical composition for African Americans is not a hot elective! Generally classical music is considered an ‘elite’ art form –and opera –well.. something even more archaic and ‘white’.

..but doors opened in the minds of many before this instant in time, and once opened, allowed a whole train of passion to connect with words and music and inform another generation of musicians and music lovers..

There was a story I heard, and have little reason to doubt: the Austrian conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, believed in voices. If a voice could work the magic of the music, then it would be the voice he would choose.

In the 60’s Leinsdorf was contracted to RCA; they had committed to doing a Verdi opera series under his direction and had a particular compliment of cast in mind. Leinsdorf looked over their choices, and demurred, firmly. Eventually RCA was… brought, to defer to the maestro’s choices in singers.

This occurred over the casting in the recording of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. The cast which the maestro desired were comprised of the three greatest African American voices of the era: Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett and Reri Grist.

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It remains a classic, and incomparable example of craft.

…does it matter who opens the door..? Personally, I don’t think so.

As my grandmother used to say to my father when he was a young man:

…you sit by that door, and wait for it to open.. And when it does, you be ready to walk through..

Each of us have a hand on the handle to a door that opens onto some landscape we love; each of us, can open that door to others.. and show what makes inside so wonderful..

Each of us are advocates, and can impact anyone waiting outside our door..


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…I’ve been working on the Opera In Color concert.

This past week the Music Collection at the Library Of Congress confirmed that they would be facilitating a display at the upcoming Juneteenth Community Celebration.

This event is FREE, and is being sponsored by the Washington National Opera on Saturday, 19th June at Fort Dupont, in the National Park in Anacostia, in collaboration with the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative.

Picnickers are encouraged to come at noon; there will be musical performances while folks gnosh, then beginning at 3PM there will be a concert presentation of opera selections, some from works written by African American composers, sung by members of the chorus from WNO’s Porgy & Bess production.

About a month ago I had reached out to Jeffrey Mumford and the William Grant Still foundation, asking to be able to use works by these composers in the concert. The response to my request, from Jeffrey and Judith Anne Still, was generous and supportive, and I soon found myself with various pieces to use in the concert mix. In addition there will be pieces by Anthony Davis and Clarence Cameron White.

The through line I have been able to create came together with some wonderful serendipity.

Clarence Cameron White (1880 – 1960) was a virtuoso violinist and composer. He studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, in Ohio, and also taught at the Washington Conservatory of Music from 1903 – 1907.

In wanting to highlight a composer with DC roots, I noticed that not only is Jeffrey Mumford a native of Washington, DC, but that he has also been a composer in residence at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.

In looking at the opportunities these two African American composers had, through the ‘Juneteenth ‘doorway, is to appreciate what ramifications emancipation immediately produced. Were it not for that Act, Clarence Cameron White, or any other number of eminent African American composers and musicians, would not have had the right or opportunity, to formal musical education in a conservatory, college, or school of any kind.

An even more significant ‘closing of the circle’ came to light in researching the piece I intended for inclusion in the Opera In Color concert.

Clarence Cameron White’s opera, Ouanga, is based on the life of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a slave who led a revolution and became the first Emperor of Haiti. The opera was written in 1932, and was first performed, in concert version, in the same year.

Though Ouanga had several presentations in subsequent years, the presentation, on May 27, 1956 was one of the more historic -as the opera was performed by the National Negro Opera Company, and presented on the stages of the old Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall.

An incredible footnote to this presentation date, is that it is just a little over one year after Marian Anderson’s historic debut on the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera (January 7, 1955).

In having this realization, I felt it astonishing to note that there is very little sense of general awareness of this historical continuity -nor is there much exclamation about the fact of this significant opportunity, for a black company of singers, in a period of endemic institutional racism.

The National Negro Opera Company, originated by Mary Cardwell Dawson, started in Pittsburgh, but by the late 1940’s had moved, along with Mrs. Dawson and her husband, to residence in Washington, DC, where the company presented many seasons of operatic fare for the District’s population.

While consulting the Library of Congress score of Ouanga, I also did some research in the collection the LOC houses on the National Negro Opera Company, and found written correspondence between Clarence Cameron White and Mrs. Dawson, with specific regard to the specific opportunity in 1956, and presenting the work on the stage of the old Met.

The letters are very moving, and illuminate Clarence Cameron White’s struggle for platform; they also reflect the composer’s steely determination to assure Ouanga’s proper place in history, as well as mark the musical heritage of “Negroes” in the art form of opera.

Reading through these letters of correspondence is a vivid lesson of racial history and advancement, and gives dimension to the vision and reach of these two African Americans who were driven by a passion for an art form, allied with an unbending belief that the art form was not only relevant to blacks, but must be accessible to blacks, with the intention of nurturing others to aspire to create works in, and for, the future.

Several of these letters, and other collateral material, will be part of the artifact display presented by the Library Of Congress at the concert site on June 19th.

General promotion will be up on the National Park Service site shortly.

making time

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..the one thing there never seems to be enough of –time.

The last two weeks have been very full of presentations; ones at schools, and then, this past week, two days of ‘Showcase’ day presentations, where all 17 schools, that were involved in the WNO DCPS program, came together, at the opera company’s studios in Takoma Park, to show one another the results of their work.

The two days of the Showcase were spectacular and engaging to all the schools and students involved. One class’ reinterpretation of Falstaff included an ‘updating’ of their costumes, resulting in a ‘Falstaff Fashion Show’, complete with runway depictions of how Falstaff and the Merry Wives would look in 20th century costume.

Many school classes decided that Falstaff had received a bum rap, at the hands of Meg and Alice, and created presentations which afforded Falstaff a moment of revenge, or, better yet, justice.

In all the cases though, the creativity was incredible, and all the students were delighted to view what other classes had come up with.

Fun as it may have been, keeping the attention of a room full of 4th & 5th graders is no easy thing –but, by and large, the two days of presentations were captivating to the students, and we had consistently appreciative audiences.

Many of the students had their parents also attending the Showcase, and were performing for proud and beaming relatives.

Those presentations concluded, it was time to turn my attention to an upcoming presentation of my own..

Many weeks back I had a call from Joe Cacaci, one of the Artistic Directors of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, asking me if I had a short play at hand that BPL could use in their Gala season opening.

At the time he asked, I didn’t have such a thing; to be honest, I’d never written a short [ten minute] work before. But after saying ‘no’, and going to bed that evening, I found myself sitting upright in bed the next morning with the remnant of a conversation in my head which I believed I could make into a 10 minute skit. So hurtling out of bed that morning, I proceeded to write out the play, and was able to turn it over to Joe –and have it accepted into the Gala’s proceedings.

This is the opening of the third season of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, and the guest artists involved are a heady batch for any writer to be playing with. In my case, Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) and Jay Thomas (Murphy Brown) are in my piece called, Groundwork.

Writers, actors and BPL’s artistic team all come together tomorrow, up in Great Barrington, to begin rehearsing for Friday night’s event. The show is being held at The Mahaiwe Theatre.

It promises to be an incredible evening, a very full week -with loads of photos to follow!

reaching out

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Soon to be made public, after the last details are finalized.

In about a month, in the afternoon of June 19th, at Fort Dupont in the National Park in Anacostia, there will be a concert given at the open-air theater there. The concert is being called “Opera In Color”, and is a presentation of selections from operatic works by black composers. The concert is being given as pat of the day’s “Juneteenth Community Celebration”, which is being sponsored by the Education Department of the Washington National Opera. The selections will be performed by members of the cast from WNO’s recent production of Porgy & Bess.

This is the first presentation of an education initiative that has hopes of becoming an annual event, as well as an ongoing opportunity to reach deeper into DC communities.

In a gift of luck, I have found myself involved in fashioning the program for this first concert event, and meeting some very supportive people along the way.

To my mind there are any number of black composers, working in the art form of opera, who should be on a list of presentation and given platform. Some names come out of history, and some others are contemporary. Working within the bounds of a specific amount of performance time, and wanting to present something of a ‘time line’ of composers and progression, I identified Clarence Cameron White and William Grant Still, as an appropriate place to start.

Clarence Cameron White’s opera, Ouanga, was written in 1931. A copy of the score is in the Library Of Congress, where I’ve been spending some time, researching composers, and pouring over the Library’s incredible collection of scores, artifacts and memorabilia. There are many distinctions to this opera, but one of the most interesting and important is that Ouanga was performed on May 27th, 1956, at the old Metropolitan Opera House, which was at 39th & Broadway, in New York,  and was presented by the National Negro Opera Company, which was a resident company in Washington, DC, run by the indomitable Mary Cardwell Dawson. What is incredible to note in this, is that the performance occurred just over a year after Marian Anderson’s historic debut, of January 7, 1955, on that same Met stage.

Reaching out to William Grant Still Music, I found my inquiry answered by the composer’s daughter, Judith Anne Still, who was very responsive to the idea of the program, and kindly offered us selections from her father’s opera Troubled Island for presentation. Composed in 1939, to a libretto by Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey, the opera premiered at the New York City Opera on March 31, 1949. This event marked the first time that such a substantive work, by a black composer, was presented by a major opera company.

Looking to platform some contemporary works, I reached out to the composer Jeffrey Mumford, who is a native of Washington, DC, and an internationally esteemed composer and educator who has taught at the Washington Conservatory of Music. In addition to his compositional activities, Jeffrey is presently Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lorain County Community College, in Ohio, where he is engaged in building a Composition Program, as well as running a concert series, called “Signature Series”.

Jeffrey was also very engaged by the concept of the Opera In Color Concert, and kindly offered two vocal pieces, for mezzo and piano for inclusion.

Bruce Taylor, head of the WNO Education Department, reached out to the celebrated composer, and virtuoso performer,  Anthony Davis, and received selections from the composer’s opera Amistad.

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The day’s events are free of charge. I will link information on the event in upcoming blog posts, and as items are finalized.

A very important journey begins with this concert, plat-forming black composers presenting themselves in an art form often deemed archaic, if not exclusively white and European, to show the veins of vitality, innovation and individuality, in subject matter and musical language, that moves forward through the form, and strives to communicate aspects of black history, black artistry and contemporary social dialogue, in a medium that reaches a world view.