Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Washington National Opera

In The Smoke Of The Sting .. a journey of ‘otherness’ for Pianist & Baritone

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..woke now -to the changes in directions buffeting country and personal journey..

Fully woke. And working.

It is my honor to be in process of collaborating with two esteemed artists -Ms Dana Kristina-Joi Morgan, and Jarrod Lee- in a performance piece I have written for Washington National Opera entitled “In The Smoke Of The Sting”, a music journey which threads the words, determination, and courage of three Champion boxers -Joe Louis, Emile Griffith and Muhammad Ali- through music and poetry, and arias from operas written about these men.
The intimacy of this salon piece invites us all to experience the nature of discrimination that was a daily fight to these men, who endured the truth that being titled ‘Champion’ did little to stop the public’s disquiet at such prominent ‘otherness’.
Current dates/locations of presentation that I will update should there occur any changes:
2/14/2017, 10:30 am, Anacostia Library
2/15/2017, 12:00 pm, National Postal Museum
2/18/2017, 2:00 pm, Takoma Park Library
2/22/2017, 10:30 am, Francis Gregory Library
2/24/2017, 6:00 pm, The Sitar Arts Center
2/26/2017, 3:00 pm, Westminster Presbyterian Church
2/28/2017, 7:00 pm, Shaw Library
3/1/2017, 7:00 pm, Petworth Library
3/2/2017, 2:00 pm, Bellevue Library
3/7/2017, 7:00 pm, Woodridge Library
3/9/2017, 7:00 pm, Mount Pleasant Library
3/14/2017, 7:00 pm, The Hill Center
…the energy and focus of Dana and Jarrod speak to how fierce artists work under & through all conditions – and capture attention, with fierce artistry!

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!

Kennedy Center Millennium Stage: Washington National Opera preview of APPOMATTOX

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..ahead of the current production premiere of Philip Glass‘s opera APPOMATTOX, I was asked by Washington National Opera to sculpt a thread of narrative to give some context to music, and resonant issues of civil war/civil rights.

 
The result was an entirely collaborative effort with WNO’s music Administrator, Ken Weiss, participation by Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, and Greg Watkins, as the event’s Narrator, in a program of readings and song, presented on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage.

 
The evening’s performance was streamed live by the Kennedy Center.

Cedar Hill

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..it was in 2010 when I was first at Cedar Hill having created an enrichment program for Washington National Opera, in collaboration with DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities. That presentation was called Black Women In Opera Celebrate Black Women In Community.

On October 24 2015 there is to be another gathering at Cedar Hill, with new partners and ongoing collaborators. This event is an original enrichment for Stanford in Washington, and is being shared as programming enrichment with Stanford in New York; to be creating for these two constituencies of students is a marvel for me, as well as an incredible opportunity for facilitating connection to DC history, as well as threads of a national, historical narrative, through the life of the last resident owner of Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglass.

Several skeins of education weave through this event, by way of Douglass.

In November 2015 WNO is mounting a production of Philip Glass’ opera Appomattox. Though its initial incarnation was premiered in 2007 with the San Francisco Opera, there was work to be done on the piece and the Washington National Opera commissioned Glass to re-visit it. It is this reimagined creation which will receive its premiere in DC.

With this unique event I found myself in a position to pull several threads of opportunity into one tapestry; SIW has kept to a track of offering enrichment programming on issues and paradigms of diversity. In seeking to further expand their students’ view into contextualizing conversations on race, civil liberty, and our nation’s gripping tatter, into the harrowing march of civil war, the fact of the opera and the site of Cedar Hill became cause of a mutual exposition.

Cedar Hill was Frederick Douglass’ house and acknowledged home from 1877 to 1895. Here he would often have evenings of song performed in his parlor with the windows opened wide, so that his community could enjoy the music too. This was a purposeful exchange of society, as it was meant to offer opportunity to singers and musicians of color, so that all could see that music, in itself, held no barriers, but was available to be performed for anyone who would take it up.

Douglass, a man of exacting proportions of intellect and endeavor, by the late 1800’s was very widely traveled and accustomed to a wide variety of music; he shared knowledge easily, and with a deliberate taste for assortment.

Salon opportunities of socializing at his home included the music of spirituals as well as ‘parlor songs’ -a term for the American response to the fashion of European ‘art songs’, and performed by singers in the intimate settings of recitals, or salons.

Here are some selections of spirituals, and ‘parlor songs’ that might have had moment on Cedar Hill.

 

 All God’s Chillum Got Wings -Spiritual

Ain’t That Good News -Spiritual

Think On Me -composed (1850’s) by Alicia Ann Scott

 

Douglass would have heard original “art songs” in his traveling through Europe, and during the period of 1885 – 1887 he would have come across the songs of Johannes Brahms who was contemporary to this time, prolific and well known as a composer of the German art song called “lied”..

 

Sommerabend – composed (1885) by Johannes Brahms

 

At twilight the summer evening lies

Over green fields and forest;

Golden moon in the blue sky

Shines down, hazy, fragrantly refreshing.

By the brook chirps the cricket,

And the waters are stirring,

And the wanderer hears a ripple

And a breathing in the stillness.

Yonder, alone, by the brook,

The beautiful mermaid is bathing;

Arm and neck, white and lovely,

Shimmer in the moonlight.

 

Though not heard on Cedar Hill, Charles Ives is an American composer creating at the beginning of the 20th century. He took the many models of Europe, but sieved the form through American folk music and American ethnic rhythms into a style of classical interpretation that spoke of American origins and ‘soundscapes’.

Ives utilized the model of ‘art song’ to inform a growing musical language, reaching into atonality.

 

Afterglow –composed (1922) by Charles Ives

 

Moving forward into the musical landscape of American composer Philip Glass ..

Appomattox presents us with many of the characters of the civil war period, but central to this narrative is the character of Frederick Douglass. In its entirety  the opera skews time and weaves a tale that presents dynamics of power, with issues of civil liberty, through an assortment of historical characters that include President Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, as well as President Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Philip Glass’ musical idiom is essentially referred to as “minimalism”, in that his use of orchestration and rhythmic dynamics are spare and utilized to accentuate and articulate patterns of speech and sketch specific emotion.

At first fully embracing this style of idiom, Glass, as he progressed from enfant terrible, to eminence grise, emended his identity to that of “being a composer of music with repetitive structures”.

These are some samples of Glass’ music.

The piece, Dance, was created in 1979, and was a work done in collaboration with Lucinda Childs (choreographer) and Sol LeWitt (artist); it was premiered in Amsterdam, then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

 

Dance 8 – composed (1979) by Philip Glass

 

Moving closer to composition of Appomattox, Glass’ Symphony No.8 was written in 2006.

 

Symphony No.8  – 1st movement (partial) -composed (2006) by Philip Glass

During the program at Cedar Hill on the 24th October, along with a selection of parlor songs performed by local performing artists, there will be selections from Appomattox presented as well.

..in seeking to create this full program I have revisited a great deal of Douglass’ writings and speeches..

These are two which resonate with the wide dynamics of compassion and Abolitionist fire that was embodied within the man..

 

Douglass the Abolitionist; content of ‘July 4th’ speech (1852)

 

Douglass as Statesman; giving the oration at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument, in Lincoln Park (1876)

A View From The Bridge (3)/Drama. Music. Melding.

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Arthur Miller’s play, A View From The Bridge, is an exploration of cultural crosscurrents in an adapting immigrant community in 50’s America.

It is also an unflinching view of a marriage, strained with too much unspoken, festering with human wants that ultimately erupt in a public tragedy of classic proportions.

As theatre, the work is a raw coil to an inexorable end. It is also a very visceral opera, with a score that makes our ears full witness to the anguish of a man’s disintegrating moral compass.

The confluence of music and theatre articulates the dimensions of a unique type of sung drama. Kim Josephson, who is the originator of the role of Eddie Carbone, is adamant as he says, “This work comes out of a particularly American tradition of theater. Arthur Miller is an American cultural institution. And Bill Bolcolm responds in a particularly American manner to the text. It reconfigures the stage. It is new opera. And people are up on their feet by the end of it.”

The morning after dinner with the composer, I attend the first Production Meeting.

Though they have been in detailed correspondence over the months, this ‘at table’ discussion is the first time the members of the full production, as well as artistic team, get to meet.

Beth Krynicki, the production’s Stage Manager, facilitates the introductions, identifying departments, director, conductor and assistants.

Christina Scheppelmann, Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera, welcomes everyone and expresses her deep regard for this particular work. She is proud of WNO’s involvement in bringing it to Washington audiences.

The meeting proceeds. It involves questions and answers to finalize issues of costumes, scheduling, props and design, the “fight” choreography, and ‘supernumerary’ criteria. (‘Supers’ are stage extras in non-singing roles.)

There are music issues to discuss as well. The score of the work has traveled through several productions, countries, and years. The copied score being used is the one from the Met production, which is the most extant version available of the cuts, cues, new music, and adjusted time markings of the opera.

To everyone’s satisfaction, the meeting has stayed within an hour. The principal cast now arrives. Maestro John DeMain greets the composer. Bill beams, “It’s like a reunion.”

Catherine Malfitano, Gregory Turay and Kim Josephson premiered their roles in Chicago. John Del Carlo and Richard Bernstein came to the cast when it premiered at the Met in 2002.

Bill is introduced to the newest members of the production. Christine Brandes has the role of ‘Catherine’, and Kirk Eichelberger has the role of ‘Louis’.

Bill looks to the last member of the cast. “Hi. Who are you?”

Greg Warren.”

“Oh. You get to go ‘Yeah’”.

“Yeah!”

Greg has the role of Mike, and is a former recipient of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Award.

With palpable excitement everyone moves to take a music stand and a chair. Bill and the production team spread out over three, six foot tables. Everyone in the room is working from a copy of the score.

Maestro DeMain is seated in a conductor’s chair that is slightly raised above the rest of us. He opens the oblong volume of the orchestral score. He takes his baton in hand and, before instigating a single note of music, looks at the composer.

With this gesture, it is no small thing to realize that we are at another moment in the chain that forges into history of this opera. We are witnesses to the wishes of the composer, his thoughts – his intentions. We will all leave this room with that first-hand information, to participate- whether through conversations or the reprisals of roles -in the onward momentum of this new, American operatic work.

A View From The Bridge (2)/Connecting with Bill Bolcom

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In life, as in theatre, you should always be ready to make room for the unexpected.

…leaving my first rehearsal: Cindy Oxbury, the Assistant Director, asked if I’d like to find some time with Bill Bolcom? I said “yes”, assuming this meant for the following day when the composer would be in town. –Ah, no; I’m working with a collection of ‘get-it-done’ professionals! [Note to me: for the duration, be careful what you ask for.]

The composer was on a train from New York, but in response to a previous query as to his arrival and evening plans, Cindy had a waiting email from his assistant, suggesting: ‘He has to eat, maybe you can get together with him for dinner.’

Two phone calls and an hour of rest later, Bill Bolcom was off the train and walking into the River Inn with us.

Conversation was an easy interaction to have with him. Dressed in smart black casual, he was very excited to be in DC for the opera. But he became even more engaged as talk began to press into unanticipated terrain.

I mention having read about his working with Eubie Blake.

Bill’s face picks up a warm smile. “I think Eubie was my last real mentor. When Joan Morris and I were married, you know he came to the wedding and played the Wedding March. In ragtime. -…I think what I really learned was how to be – well.. Eubie felt that ‘composing’ and ‘performing’ were two aspects of the same thing; he didn’t see himself as one or the other. Neither do I.”

I am glad to have this ‘entry’ to segue into the rhythms of jive and bounce, still in my ear, caught scatting throughout the piano score. “I felt your affinity with jazz very evident in the piano reduction; the currents are so clear. The opera is full of jazz syncopations.”

Bill nodded. “Eubie never liked to call it that; he used to work in a brothel. There, ‘jazz’ is what you did in bed. So he always called it ‘ragtime’. Yes, it’s in the work. There’s also ‘doo-wop’, ‘blues’, ‘swing’, the whole soundscape you’d expect to encounter pouring out of open windows in a Brooklyn immigrant neighborhood of the 50’s.”

But the mesh which binds the neighborhood’s disparate ‘soundscape’ is the composer’s personal musical language, which honors not only the jazz roots of American music, but the ‘song craftsmen’ who best put a handle on making American dialects and idioms lyrical.

Gershwin. Kern. Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin is American music. The American song – ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’, ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ – these people were models for the nexus of ‘word’ and ‘note’; the whole bolt together is out of heritage – the insoluble amalgam.”

We are finished with the meal by this moment in the conversation. There is a little wine left in Bill’s glass. He eyes me, pleased and slightly suspicious. “You’ve got me thinking. I answer questions all the time. Suddenly, I’m having to re-enter situations and look at them differently. That’s good.”

..it is best, however, for people trying to understand the wrestle when speaking of “American opera”; it comes out of a source which has no monolithic style, but is a crucible of acculturation.

And suddenly, we’re speaking about Arthur Miller…

___________________

Bill, in a 2009 interview, even more expressive of his association with Eubie Blake..

A little of the artistry of Eubie Blake; from a performance at the age of 98..

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