Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘opera

A View From The Bridge (1)/…beginnings

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..beginnings are such nerve wracking moments.

But imagine the excitement of Washington National Opera, gathering exceptional artists together to give the sixth production of a work by a major living American composer. Compound the excitement with the knowledge that the composer will be present and that the opera has garnered, at each presentation, adulation, greater stature, and a deepening renown and suddenly, this ‘beginning’ is an event. And it brings WNO’s production team and company talents into an even brighter spotlight.

William Bolcom’s A View From The Bridge has been on WNO’s books for several years. Even so it has been a managed campaign- to wrestle a host of performing schedules into alignment, and then pin the date when costumes, sets, musicians, singers, conductor and director will be available, and, beyond that, present. After all, opera productions do not just happen, or leap, fully directed out of the wings!

This ‘Rehearsal Journal’ is witness to the work of the last weeks, bringing this work to a Washington audience and the Kennedy Center stage.

Though three of the cast members have been with this production from the opera’s premiere, each presentation of the work brings a new and additional team of performers to the ensemble. These performers must be rehearsed, not only in the music of the opera but in its staging, familiarizing themselves with its design, sets and movements.

Frank Galati was the original director of the work, but director Amy Hutchison has nurtured the piece through four of its subsequent productions. She is on her way to D.C. to direct our introduction to the work. However, even before her arrival, the WNO production team is smoothly preparing the way, verifying and binding schedules, while dressing the rehearsal floor with neon tape to indicate the positions and dimensions of the set.

The chorus, too, is hard at work in preparation.

The vast space of the Takoma Park rehearsal studio is stuffed with excitement, as choristers engage with the syncopations and dance rhythms of Bolcom’s work.

..my beginning is at the chorus’ third rehearsal; the work was completely new to them at the start of the week, and already they have memorized two-thirds of the opera.

Ken Weiss, who is acting Chorus Master for this production, may smile easily, but his ear keeps a keen eye on diction. “I’d like to hear more ‘m’ on ‘Man’. Remember the back of the house. I don’t know if I’ll hear it otherwise.”

The chorus responds, singing, “A man works. A man eats, sleeps, raises a family”..

“Yes. Great. Good.” Ken goes back to an earlier point. “Not just the words, the intent. He sings, “..when the tide is right.” Stops. “It’s an eerie moment and eerie experience.”

The chorus falls into his meaning; hushed and articulate, they sing, “..when the tide is right.” Ken smiles.

I hear what he means, what it is he wants the sound to convey: something imminent and foreboding, something..

Dr Joy Schrier has stepped in to fill Ken’s place at the piano.

I have moved forward on my seat to hear her playing Bolcom’s music, listening to the simple, haunting keys the composer has chosen to underpin this first moment of ‘..something’.

I am excited to realize that I will soon be able to meet the man who has created this work, whose piano score not only speaks of his knowledge of creating theatre, but of his clear assimilation of American music’s antecedents.

Tomorrow’s rehearsal will be the first to bring the production team, Maestro John DeMain, William Bolcom, and the principals of the cast together.

I will follow my curiosity and find a moment to speak with the composer, because this American opera pulses with the sound of the real deal.

_____________

Stepping out of the past now.. I want to offer some flavor of this amazing composer.

This is a clip of Bill Bolcom, in a 2009 interview, discussing his Graceful Ghost Rag..

And this is a clip of the music:

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mini operas

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…as far as ‘Minterisms’ go (‘serendipity’; ‘synchronicity’; and the like).. this one wasn’t one of my best; I came upon the announcement while randomly reading opera reviews..

..For some reason I was trying to get some ‘editorial’ judgment on a particular version of Strauss’ Die Liebe Der Danaë, and came upon such a review in an earlier online posting of Opera Today.

I read the review (which said to grab the CD, whenever it was possible) –but was distracted out of the last sentence, by an article in a side column, which announced that ENO (English National Opera) was in process of accepting global submissions to it’s Mini Opera opportunity..

I went to the site –very excited to read its contents –only to go slack jawed when I noticed that the open call had already been in place for more than 7 months!

It seemed I was reading the announcement –5 days before the deadline..

-but became so engaged by the scope of the company’s vision, and the selections of stories (out of which librettos were being solicited) that I suddenly found myself.. well, starting to write a libretto!

The full process of submission is through my own blog site..

I’ve finished the full, first draft of my piece; I’m letting it.. breathe- a day or so (I’ve 3 left!), and will then post it here, not only for those judges vetting submissions, but for all who would be interested in reading the dabbling of a fervid hope!

I have chosen to write a libretto (5-7 minutes) on Neil Gaiman’s story, The Sweeper Of Dreams..

My piece is called, Below Above.

..more soon.

Well.. 3 days, to be exact!

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

May 17, 2012 at 4:03 PM

…touching the past

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These days of instant ‘access’, where information remains available for placing and plucking in the ‘cloud’, and history can be found in motion at You Tube, museums, to my mind, seem often to be overstepped, and their place as primary sources that can offer more visceral ‘context’ to an investigation of history or excavation of information, are second thoughts for the average Indiana Jones..

…but there remains something almost mystical in the act of walking into an edifice that contains exhibitions of the past, where you know that artifacts and tangible effects of crucial detail and consequence lay in subbasements, in temperature controlled environments, sequenced, dormant..

For me, being able to ‘touch’ the past, to have it in its original ‘state’, tangible in the same space where I am, is an opportunity to revel in imagination of a previous moment in time; this is the excitement that I have connected to, in my exploration of the soprano Madame Lillian Evanti.

Madame Lillian Evanti

..she was a native Washingtonian, born, Annie Wilson Lillian Evans; in the first phase of her professional life, Miss Evans taught kindergarten in DC Public Schools; subsequently, in the heart of her passion as a singer,  married, she took the stage name of Evanti (a conflation of her maiden name, and the initial letters of her husband’s –“Tibbs”) creating the European flare of her moniker; having studied music and dedicating herself to the bright flame of her voice, Madame Evanti left American, and conquered Europe with a premiere in Delibes’ opera Lakme, in Nice, France, in 1925.

All this information is readily available online; what is not, is the full portrait of this woman, whose character, drive, network, self-promotion and artistic acumen, made her a true African American pioneer -in a music art form that most of America, at the time, considered (at the most ‘generous’ end of the spectrum) incompatible for negroes.

Wishing to discern the nuances of temperament, and the details of thought that sculpted her life’s journey, I reached out to the Anacostia Smithsonian Museum who are the curators of Madame Evanti’s papers and artifacts, to be found in the Evans-Tibbs collection.

Jennifer Morris is the archivist and she facilitated my visit, maneuvering us down tight back hallways, and through a maze of stored exhibition furniture.. up, past corridors lined with offices, and across stairwells with large picture windows that looked out into the winter meadow surrounds of the museum.. and ultimately leading to a short hall at the end of which was the Archive Reading Room.

The rectangular space was chilled and bright; a long wood table with chairs took up the majority of the space.

On a steel gurney, ready for perusal, were three cartons of material from the collection..

I arrived at 10AM; I left that room at 12:45PM, having not looked at the clock once, far too astonished and aware of the items passing through my hands..

There were many nuggets of discovery waiting for me in these cartons; one in particular widened my eyes: in a nondescript manila folder, marked “Correspondence”, I came upon a small, short letter, on personalized light grey/blue stationary..

Written in ink, in swift, wide character, Madame Evanti’s handwriting appeared as breathless as her note; dated “1932”, she wrote to her mother in short sentences, ‘whispering’ the unheard of event of “a private audition with Giulio Gatti-Cassazza” (then General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera); she went on to exhort her mother “not to mention it to anyone”, as it was “unusual” and a “private audition”; she wrote that she was going to perform two arias, both Bellini -one from I Puritani, the other from La Sonnambula. She went on to mark in afterthought, in the margin of the note, that Tullio “Serafin has prepared them” with her, and that she was also “going to be there with Tetrazzinni”, the (world famous) soprano, who was a supporter. After her audition, she would be “going to hear Roland Hayes”.

..the files illuminated the diverse musical ‘questing’ and scope of this artist, as the cartons I perused included Madame Evanti’s copies of her music scores, each full of notations; her comments on the front piece of her copy of Die Meistersinger  was: “..Collosal score ..Monumental work ..Comic opera ..Majestic music set & stage..”

There were also notated scores for Seigfried; Tannhauser; Lucia di Lammermoor; Cosi fan tutte; Parsifal; Le Coq d’Or; and Gli Ugnotti -the Italian translation of Meyerbeer’s, French opera, Les Huguenots.

..and at the end of the first session of research, I discovered Madame Evanti the composer; several of her works were in the files, written out in her hand. Some –immense and choral; other’s pieces for “public occassions”..

There were songs for children as well, tender, spirited, and clearly written with her own child in mind..

I hope to “premiere” one of these songs, in the February presentation.

..but here’s a lingering thought on Lakme, in a modern performance:

In a different context..

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Incorporated into the WNO/Kennedy Center/DC Public School “Creating Opera” program, is a presentation of an operatic work, out of the WNO season, which is reduced to a one hour, kid friendly, bite size performance.

This year’s presentation is Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte –an operatic jewel, refracting a dissection of characters; a comedy, and a six hander: 2 sisters, their 2 lovers, a rumpled philosopher, and a maid.

In brief: the philosopher baits the 2 lovers to test the fidelity of their girlfriends; the men, staunch in their belief in the steadfast character of their loves, agree to impersonate a pair of foreigners, and test the other’s amour..

The first assault fails; the ladies remain faithful –but with the cunning connivance of the maid, who has tossed in her lot with the philosopher, the stakes are raised, and the game gets heated; one lady falls to persistence, going so far as to hand over a locket (given to her by her lover), to be used as goad by her new beau, behind her back, in the face of her old one!  The second sister is then assailed with passion, fueled by a deep furnace of vengeance, to which she succumbs.

In the end, all is revealed, and the wisdom of the age is collected in the refrain: cosi fan tutte..

Loosely translated to mean, ‘they’re like that’, but taken in context and application, comes closer to –“women are like that” –fickle, ‘flatterable’, and fawning, failing.. but loveable, if they are accepted as fragile and not tested.

..I did mention that this was a comedy, didn’t I? Yes; a comedy of 18th century manners, humor and social comment, that continues to vex easy distaste by cutting close to the bone of sexual politics, and political incorrectness. An uneasy romp under the yoke of Mozart’s mastery, driving our ears to savor a musical landscape of searing and volatile emotional complexities, that can wring and anger our heart..

At first I wondered how best to offer this meal to 5th graders, and wondered further how they would take it..

I tried not to shade my synopsis of the basic elements of the story with my own 21st century lens; I did put the bare bones forward..

And in response-..in one class, the 5th graders rounded up the story as one on issues of friendship; they then created a list of the attributes of a ‘good friend’ –  loyalty; trustworthiness; caring; honesty – which instantly begged the question if these were attributes the men in “Cosi” exampled; there was a resounding, emphatic, and very disapproving choral cry of “no”!

To a person, these students felt that the actions of the Philosopher, who instigated this test –which they argued was more of a “bet” than “experiment”- was probably someone who had had “his heartbroken”, which left him “angry with love”, and ready to sour anything that even looked like happiness!

In another class of 5th graders, they argued the point that the philosopher, though “deceitful”, was not entirely to blame for the carnage of what transpired thereafter; they argued that the women had some responsibility, but that it was the men who were most at fault, as it was the men who could have turned their back on “bad friendship” and the suggestions of the philosopher. And they went further, totting up a list of attributes, that the philosopher exhibited that should have given fair warning to the men that he was a bad influence, and was working with “bad judgment”.

Even more interesting was the discussion that broke out in this class when it came to speaking about the maid’s involvement; half the class at first lumped this girl with deceitful complicity –until the other half, put her “social position” into context, pointing out that she was a “maid to the women”, and probably suffered under their general selfishness, and daily orders. They recognized that the maid might look at this alliance, with the philosopher, as “opportunity” to pay back her mistresses with some “bad behavior” of her own. Once that point had been made, the class, as a whole, stepped back from blaming the maid for anything, except taking advantage of the opportunity.

In the end, it all, always, came back to the men..

And that’s when the conversation really grabbed hold, and lead to the opportunity of speaking about “free will”, and the choices we make in life.. that elicited current examples of “peer pressure”, and conversation on the daily hurdles students face to be true to their own convictions..

.. in a different context, it seems that the art form is reasserting its universality; Kettle has given their chip the ‘uptick’ of being better than the rest, and not just a potato chip, through a new series of commercials, without a spoken word of dialogue:

 

.. oddly enough I find myself relieved by all this; not only is an opera written in 1790 engaging 5th grade students in 2011, proving itself as relevant and opportune with fodder for conversation, comment and unease, as it had originally.. but the art form has again merged with  contemporary humor, offering its unique convention for broad entertainment and connection..

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

November 6, 2011 at 2:11 PM

Passing on the fudge..

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Classes have begun; public schools and DC colleges. And, luckily, I find myself engaged in dealings with both!

Last week I gave an introductory lecture on Tosca to the incoming class of Stanford in DC, an opera they are going to see at the Kennedy Center this Friday evening.

..the class had started the morning touring, visiting monuments, and the Mall, and being given a succinct orientation in neighborhoods and institutional layouts.

I wanted to start the talk with some trivia; some delicious entry into the ’suspension of disbelief’ the art form requires..

..so many famous dubious accounts of peril and mayhem are associated with Tosca; there is the one of a very rotund and famous soprano: in the last scene, warbling her way to the highest reaches of the set’s parapet, turning to the audience, unleashing the note perfect cry of exit, and leaning into her fall off the rampart of the Castel Saint Angelo, ostensibly to her death – only, in fact, to reappear, in the reflex of a prodigious ‘bounce’ off the trampoline meant to catch her!

.. and then there is the folklore; an instance with Tito Gobbi and Birgit Nilsson, a pair of singers who always delivered performances of chilling vocal excellence, and, in the case of Gobbi, a perfect portrayal of evil.. His Baron Scarpia was an unwavering concentration of a malignant soul, driven by his lust for Tosca, and his determination, if not of conquering her, then cornering her into submission to his desire..

..one hot performance at the Met, in New York, as Tosca strained to discern some way out of the predicament of Scarpia’s intentions, her hand fell upon the knife, left beside the plate of the Baron’s unfinished dinner, and snatching it aloft –the diva found herself plunging a stiff,  unripe banana into Gobbi’s chest!! He was forced to die –the libretto required it, as did the momentum of Puccini’s music –but it was with some ghost of a glint of unease, no doubt in the hope that the audience would be attached to the act of his murder, and not the instrument of his death..

Or the mess of pulp left on his waistcoat.

-…then there was the Tosca where the prop person had forgotten to lay out the knife, on the dinner table, for the diva to “discover”.. and the poor intrepid singer found herself with her fingers in the jam pot –literally- and maintaining that gift for managing the impossible, flung a handful of jam into her Scarpia’s face! Her Baron, au fait with improvisation, did not hesitate, and cried “-murder –murder –the jam is poisoned!” -in Italian of course, perfectly in tempo; and exhibiting the agony of arsenic poisoning, died on cue.

For many of the Stanford students, this opportunity of an evening at the opera is their first contact with the art form..

In the end, I didn’t relate any the ephemera of devoted opera gossip, and chuckle, but told them the story of Puccini’s heroine, and how this opera is one of the hinges, which couples the end of the 19th century, to the 20th.

The opera was based on the play, La Tosca, written in 1887 by the French playwright, Victorien Sardou.

Puccini saw the play in an Italian translation, presented by a touring company in 1889; he didn’t receive the rights to the work, until 1895.

On the evening of the 14th January 1900, Puccini’s opera, Tosca, premiered in Rome.

In 1901, almost exactly one year later, in an uncanny moment of ‘succession’, the acknowledged master of Italian opera, Giuseppe Verdi, died; Puccini was seen as his heir, and Tosca, playing throughout the world, was the work which moved Italian opera into a new era, fully fusing music and theatre, into a unison of dramatic purpose, unheard of before that time..

The heart of this work beats with passion and violence; murder and ecstasy; revolution and religion; it covers 24 hours of life, in less than 2; its musical landscape is lush, passionate, descriptive, wrenching, violent, and frenzied enough, to keep an audience on the edge of their seat, through scenes of torture and attempted rape..

..But for me, Puccini’s most dramatic masterful instant comes in his abrupt halting of the action of Cavaradossi’s torture, to give one precious moment’s respite to Tosca (and the audience), allowing her a fervent prayer, that gives perfect compass of this woman’s borders- in life, in love, in belief..

Vissi d’arte. Vissi d’amore… out of which the story, and our protagonists, hurtle to their imminent destinies..

Written by tomminteroffthestoop

September 21, 2011 at 12:14 PM

Dangerous love..

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..the compass of dangerous love is perfect ground for opera..

Here are some glorious moments, skirting imminent betrayal, or self destruction..

Dalila’s seduction..

Leonora pleads with the Count de Luna to free her imprisoned lover.. The Count, agreeing, is deceived, as Leonora, taking poison, knows that he will only have victory over a corpse..

Amonasro, gets his daughter to betray herself and her love..

..and then there’s Strauss’ Elektra..

..who waits in the darkness, in the dirt of the courtyard, longing for the avenger, her brother, to still the ghost of their murdered father, by murdering their mother…

..and then there’s Magdalena -in love with the Duke, who knows her brother has been hired to murder him -and Gilda, who knows it is her father who has paid for the murder; two women, in love with the same disaster of a man.. desperate to cheat the fate that awaits him.. But it is Gilda who sacrifices herself for this love..

but a vivid mad love.. goes to the madwoman Electra, in Mozart’s Idomeneo..

A moment’s pause..

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..to take in the fact that its past the middle of summer!

TV commercials have already turned to the ‘back to school’ tide, and offer exuberant examples of the full fall color palette..

kids in school back packs..

beaming, and ready for a return to the classroom!

..thinking that I’ve missed summer altogether, in this moment’s pause I realize that I’ve made a few summer discoveries –an author: Charles Ferguson; I’m a sucker for biographies on historical figures, and wandering through the DC second hand wonderland of Second Story Books, I happened across Naked To Mine Enemies, an epic breadth, describing the life, and context of the power of Thomas Wolsey, Chancellor of England, and Cardinal in the Roman church; instrument of Henry VIII, Wolsey’s sharp mind made him an unsavory model to the nobility of the time, and a turn in their hereditary affairs; Wolsey was a meteor, in social distinction, hurtling upwards from the ‘nothing’ birth of a commoner, to stand, unbowed, before all the greatest titles in the land, as advisor to the single greatest power in England.. a king, who used this relentless pick axe of intellect to crack the last walls, standing as restraint against his authority.. wars with France were out maneuvered by Wolsey; the ‘great matter’ of the king’s first marriage, and desire for divorce, was the wedge which split the issue of papal authority, and sovereign rule; Wolsey could not maneuver this outcome to his designs; the King did for himself, breaking with Rome to establish the church of England, with the monarch of England, perpetually, as its Head..

..the moral shudder, at the ravaging shifts in the concepts of power –man’s; God’s; people’s; ruler’s; economy- is particularly fascinating, explosive, and exploitative, in this period of Tudor times..

The book itself –a ‘real’ book (now the ‘treat’, as Kindle puts the texture of print into a realm of redundant pleasure), a 1958 printing, aged, and a little musty- lets me reminisce on my childhood uses of summer; new books, adventures of reading that created images and revelations to wallow and wander through, as deep daylight beat down hot, making the tarmac of the city, tacky and pliant at once..

..there would always be the discovery of some new music in summer as well –well, at least new to me..

This summer I’ve discovered Robert Aldridge, and his opera, Elmer Gantry..

Mid-century, American robust, full of eclectic references of various styles, although nothing of mimicry; a ‘big tent’ musical landscape at once unique, big boned, inflammatory, romantic and ominous, built as scaffolding through a sharp edged story of usury, idolatry, fanaticism, glory and religious carnage..

..unsettling that the core of the piece pulses with resonant zealotry, and the theater of current revival politics..

Absorbed in the opera, I forgot the film –itself a searing presentation of ‘old time religion’, greed and graft, portrayed by two actors of monumental talent and fearlessness: Jean Simmons and Burt Lancaster..

Listening to the opera.. I heard the poetry of the libretto, by Herschel Garfein, sculpted out of mid-fifties plain wit, mob sense, and fervent purposes..

The ending is incendiary, taunt, and the kind of coup de theatre that does justice to Broadway, and Sinclair Lewis.

..but in its meat, this Elmer Gantry is full of craft and inventive melody that is, indeed, propulsive, and effective Broadway.. leading me to consider that musical theater’s hope for that boulevard, is in its vein of things ‘operatic’..

-leading to a different slant on the argument, of ‘musical theater vs. opera’; another thing read and digested this summer, written in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini: Opera? Musical? Please Respect The Difference

..and now I’m smiling..

-because this is summer.. having the time to rope one thought to another, follow one course, then slip into a diagonally opposing one, only to nap in between impulses, knowing that the sun will hang out longer, and the days’ ..duties ..will.. dawdle.. into..

whatever..