Monday, June 29, 2015

Les Troyens: 2.5 and Counting

Back in the fall - this seems a million years ago now - I swapped my Troyens subscription seats from a night assigned to Davida Karanas for Cassandre to one of the nights when Anna Caterina Antonacci was singing. I now wish I had not, what with Karanas leaving the production and Michaela Martens coming in, but I think I was sick or recovering from being sick that Saturday night, and anyway I did get to see Martens at the second performance.

What I did not expect, and neither did anyone else, was that star tenor Bryan Hymel would sing the first two performances, then get sick and miss the third, fourth, and fifth performances. So last Thursday, I heard Corey Bix as Enée. David Gockley came out to announce that Hymel was indisposed, which by then I had known for about two hours anyway, because when I arrived at the opera house I could see the ushers putting the announcement in the programs. Gockley mentioned that the part is "one of the five most difficult" tenor roles as a graceful way to tell us to give Bix the benefit of the doubt. 

As I've noted, there aren't very many active singers who even know this role (I count nine at most), and the ones who do know it mostly have big careers and are not available to cover each other. I suppose if Roberto Alagna were on vacation and SFO asked him to sing a couple of Troyens performances, sure, he might do it, for the glory and the paycheck. But you can't count on a famous singer's availability in this situation. (That 1983 SFO Otello where Placido Domingo flew across country on a private jet, had a police escort from the airport, and the curtain went up at 10 p.m. or something? It was opening night, and saving the day must have been irresistible.)

So yes, I am completely happy to give Bix the benefit of the doubt, and more. I give him major props for a credible performance under difficult circumstances in, yes, one of the most difficult of tenor roles. He has a sizable, hefty, dark-toned tenor; unlike Hymel, he's not a high-note singer and so Enée is not a perfect fit. (Okay, must state clearly: Enée is a perfect fit for WHO, exactly?) He paced himself carefully, a smart thing to do in this situation, and this role, and sounded good in the big duet, which calls on the tenor's lyric capabilities rather than heroic.

It was, overall, an honorable performance, and SFO is lucky to have him on hand.

For those of us who've heard both Hymel and Bix, it's also an object lesson in what makes a star. Bix is a big, tall guy, and yet he didn't present as a heroic figure; Hymel looks like a gods-driven man of action, somehow giving the impression that he is about to run off and found the Roman Empire dash across the stage and into battle when he's standing still with a sword in hand. And Hymel's vocal self-confidence and ability to pop out those high notes make a huge difference in this opera.

At least some of this is teachable; you can learn how to present with self-confidence, or more self-confidence, with various kinds of training, whether martial arts, public speaking, or acting. Bix made what looked like a self-deprecating gesture during the bows, which I took as a modest acknowledgement that he wasn't quite what the audience was hoping for. I think he is going to have a decent career, probably in the regional companies, because there certainly IS a need for reliable singers with good, beefy voices at all levels. And he has sung a few major roles with more visible companies; Bacchus at Glimmerglass, Erik with LA Opera, and so on. So keep an eye on him; maybe he will make the jump to stardom.

As for the rest of the performance, I'm still not entirely happy with Antonacci. Sitting in the dress circle, I could hear her better than in the orchestra, but her voice still seems too lyric, too small, for this role in a huge house. At the end of Act I, for example, Cassandre is obviously supposed to flood the hall with sound, but Antonacci just can't do it. "La prise de Troie" sagged a few times, and I think it might have been because Runnicles had to tone down the orchestra to properly support her without drowning her out. A friend pooh-poohed me when I mentioned her voice size as an issue, saying it's Enée and Didon who are supposed to fill the hall, but look at the great Cassandres of the past 50 years and you see a string of dramatic voices: Crespin, Verrett, Ludwig, Norman. (I have a fantasy that a certain dramatic soprano with a great lower register might be learning the role, and she would be a sensational Cassandre, based on the available evidence, including a known ability to outsing a very large orchestra.)

On the other hand, Susan Graham. Oh, man, she was even better than opening night, really heartbreaking. She cracked a couple of times in the parting scene with Enée, which reinforced what she is putting into the performance. A great, great assumption; I'm lucky to be seeing it.

More to come, because I have a ticket for Troyens no. 6.

If Only I Gave a Damn About Fidelio.

To SFS last night, for the last of their semi-staged? concert? performances of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. I am afraid that it merely confirmed my past experience of the piece, that while it's got a lot of decent music, it's not a very good opera. There's a decent opera somewhere in the story (I said that about another opera recently....) but Beethoven and his librettist don't manage to find it.

And that is because not only does not much happen in the opera, which has about five minutes of dramatic tension, but the first act is really a waste as far as advancing the plot goes. It is all about how poor Marzelline has fallen in love with the young man Fidelio (actually Leonore in disguise) and therefore rejects a more suitable match, a young man who adores her. Hey - we know she will be disappointed, and I hate how the libretto treats her; it doesn't give her even a couple of phrases at the end of the opera to express her disappointment and shock. A better opera composer would have paid attention to her and demanded some way to resolve her situation.

Okay, about advancing the plot. There really isn't one! If it's about Leonore's struggle to free her husband, it might include how she discovers where he is, how she disguises herself as man (which would be something of a big deal for an 18th century woman), and how she gets the job in the prison, with appropriate obstacles along the way, including how Marzelline falls for her and she fends off Marzelline. Instead, we are dropped into the story just as a crisis is about to occur. There is no dramatic buildup at all.

The stripped-down presentation at SFS reinforced how weak the opera is. Without sets or props and with the entire cast in varieties of black, there's nothing to pay attention to except the musical flow and what the cast is doing. Couldn't they have found a nice flintlock pistol for Nina Stemme to pull out of her jacket in the prison scene?? As it is, she is left standing putting up her hands to keep Don Pizzaro from killing Florestan. What??

I left my program home, so I can't check whether there was a director or not. I liked the conducting and playing well enough; while I think there probably could have been more musical drama, even great conducting wouldn't fix this opera. (I will haul out Toscanini some time soon and see what he does with the thing, though.)

The singing ranged from good to great. Back in 2011, when Nina Stemme starred in SF Opera's Ring production, I drafted a never-published blog post expressing some concerns about her singing: the short top, the way she braced herself against the stage when any high notes were coming, and the difficult-sounding attack. None of that has improved. Her top is turning strident, even when she's warmed up; she had problems getting the notes out cleanly in "O namenlose Freude" and "Komm, Hoffnung" had moments of struggle as well.

She is still a fine actor and her lower and middle voices are still impressive, but it does seem that she is on a vocal downswing.

Alan Held and Kevin Langan both have long experience as Don Pizzaro, the villain, and Rocco, the hapless jailer, and they were both excellent, able to assume their roles vividly even with no props, sets, or costumes.  Nicholas Phan and Joelle Harvey both sang gorgeously, with fresh and beautiful voices and as much charm as is possible for these roles.

And then there was Brandon Jovanovich. Um, wow. Jovanovich gave far and away the most interesting performance among the singers. His Florestan is a real, suffering human among the cardboard characters on stage, and he does it largely through extremely beautiful and dramatic singing and a detail physical portrayal. What a voice! It is gorgeous and has exactly the right weight for the part. His diction is excellent; there's obviously plenty of power in reserve, too. And Stemme's vocal problems were altogether too obvious in "O namenlose Freude," which Jovanovich dispatched with ease...and she did not.

As usual, the SFS chorus sang magnificently, both during the male-prisoner-only music of Act I and the joyous finale.

Friday, June 26, 2015

To NY Bookfile

Not publishing that comment. Take it somewhere else. If you want to respond to my specific point about Scalia's dissent - that he wouldn't extend equal protection to women under the 14th amendment because the authors of the amendment, in 1868, wouldn't have - then maybe. Maybe.

From Scalia's Dissent

I take this quotation to indicate that Scalia also believes that the 14th Amendment doesn't extend equal rights to women:
When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, every State limited marriage to one man and one woman, and no one doubted the constitutionality of doing so. That resolves these cases.

London Friday Photo

St. Paul

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The ACA is Here to Stay.

And I burst into tears when I saw the news. 6-3, and thank you CJ Roberts and Justice Kennedy for your reading abilities.

From the Times article:
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the words must be understood as part of a larger statutory plan. “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” he added. “If at all possible, we must interpret the act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.” 
“In this instance,” he wrote, “the context and structure of the act compel us to depart from what would otherwise be the most natural reading of the pertinent statutory phrase.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


You'd better buy your tickets right away if you want to see Les Troyens at San Francisco Opera. For tomorrow night's performance, Thursday, June 25, there are 80 seats left; for Wednesday, July 1, there are 118. That's in a house that seats nearly 3200.

As John Marcher said the other day in his review, seeing Troyens has somehow become A Thing to Do in San Francisco. And does that ever make me happy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tenor Roulette

A friend said something on Facebook the other day about his upcoming Troyens ticket: So I am playing tenor roulette, then? And two of us replied, with opera, you're always playing roulette.

Yes, that's right. You just never know who will cancel or why. The last SFO Jenufa lost its Jenufa and Kostelnicka less than two months before the run. Janice Watson had just learned Eva for the SFO Meistersinger, and she had a new baby, and Jenufa was too much for her. Patricia Racette stepped in. Elizabeth Connell, scheduled for Kostelnicka, had to head for England, where her house had been burglarized. Kathryn Harries took that role.

See also: that Otello that Ben Heppner was supposed to sing here, where I think four tenors subbed for him, and the Tristan in NYC that was billed as "Heppner & Voigt, together at last!" Except that they were both in and out for most of the run.

We're now 4 performances into Troyens, and so far it's Bryan Hymel 2, Corey Bix 2. Everyone is hoping Hymel will be back on stage for performances 5 and 6; if not, Bix will be singing.

I was idly thinking of who, among living tenors, even knows the role, which is set on the high and heroic side. It's not like trying to find someone to sing Rodolfo, which is in the repertory of every lyric tenor.

Here are the lucky few, several of whom are no longer capable of singing the part, for reasons of voice, age, or health. (Several added as an update following a comment from the invaluable and well-informed Rob Gordon.)
  • Jon Vickers (in his late 80s, rumored to be in poor health)
  • Giorgio Lamberti (retired)
  • Placido Domingo (there is no way)
  • Gregory Kunde
  • Ben Heppner (retired)
  • Bryan Hymel (felled by the SF fog?)
  • Corey Bix (covering Hymel)
  • Marcello Giordani (more or less fired from the part in favor of Hymel at the Met in 2013; retired the role when he dropped out of the run)
  • Brandon Jovanovich (Rumored to be learning the part and said in an interview that he planned to sing Enée)
  • Roberto Alagna (sang it in Europe in 2013 and 2014)
  • Jonas Kaufmann? An article on Hymel indicates that Kaufmann was to sing the ROH production.
  • Lance Ryan
  • Richard Crawley 
  • Sergei Semishkur
  • Leonid Zakhozhaev
  • Viktor Lutsyuk
Undoubtedly somebody else in Europe. Who sang Enee at...was it Deutsch Opera, Karlsruhe, or both, a few years back?
Surely I'm missing someone. And if my name were, say, Stuart Skelton, I'd think about learning this part. He and Jovanovich have that rare combination of vocal weight and purely beautiful sound, and they sing an overlapping and somewhat unusual repertory. They are the two tenors I would most want to hear as Enée.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Some Ranting and the Ciociara Media Round-Up

Republished with a small Update below.

My review is posted.
Also, Nicola Luisotti interviewed by Jason Victor Serinus.

So if you read through all of the above, you'll see that Joshua Kosman and I are scarily on the same page, although as usual he is sharper and more elegant than I am. I swear that this is the only exchange we had about Ciociara before I filed my review, although I did see the URL of his story on Facebook:

[Several of us - Joshua, me, Anne Midgette, Georgia Rowe,Paul Selar, and Zachary Woolfe - are on the same page. I am sure that Allan Ulrich is too, but paywall.]

Now, ranting a bit. I cheered when I saw Joshua's comments about Tutino's esthetic stance. What he isn't quite telling you is that at the Ciociara press conference last month - and you can see streamed video on the SFO web site, right here - Tutino, David Gockley, and Francesca Zambello all found ways to pound on modernist opera.

I was frankly appalled. I don't believe in denouncing musical styles wholesale, and the modernist styles have been central in the development of Western art music in the last century or so. To hear powerful figures such as Gockley and Zambello talking about music that makes audiences flee (yes, those were the words used) was especially appalling.

Zambello got pretty specific, too, referring to German operas she had directed at Santa Fe in the 90s. Well, gosh, Santa Fe Opera just happens to have an online archive, so I looked up the operas in question. I presume she was talking about Wolfgang Rihm's Oedipus and Hans-Jurgen von Bose's The Sorrows of Young Werther. I will have to look them up some time.

I'm also appalled because it's not as though American opera houses are swimming in that awful modernist opera. San Francisco last performed anything I'd call modernist decades ago, with Henze's Das Verratene Meer (1991) and Reimann's Lear (1981, 1985). Related: check out the New York Philharmonic's repertory during the Boulez years, and it's not all Le marteau sans maitre and Schoenberg, not by a long shot.

[Update, 6/22: What was I thinking? SFOpera has produced those awful serialist operas by Alban Berg within living memory. Lulu, 1965, 1971, 1989, 1998; Wozzeck, 1960, 1962, 1968, 1981, 1990, 1999. Yes, it has been 16 years since we saw one of these masterpieces at SFO! Thank goodness for Opera Parallele, which did a fine job with Wozzeck a few years back; the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen, which performed Wozzeck more or less in concert; West Edge Opera, which puts on Lulu in Oakland in just a few weeks.]

Lastly, you don't pound on a style that has actually got an audience, even if it's a smaller audience than that for Madama Butterfly. The opera audience is fragmented in exactly the way that the general audience for classical music is fragmented. Some people won't go to Lulu, some people won't go to Poppea, some people won't go to Verdi, some people won't go to Wagner, some people won't go to Nozze. Yes, I know that you think everybody loves Mozart, but I have friends who hear his works as nothing but "diddly music." They'll go see Janacek, though!

And then there are people like me, who just want to see the good stuff, in any style and from any era. Monteverdi, Mozart, Lully; Handel, Verdi, Donizetti; Wagner, Berg, Strauss; Martinu, Schreker; Shostakovich, Britten, Adams; Janacek, Birtwistle, Saariaho. We'll take them all, and we don't want to hear operatic leaders denouncing any of them.

Kirill Petrenko to BPO

A surprise when I woke up this morning:

Updated list of open spots:
  • New York Philharmonic
  • National Symphony Orchestra
  • City of Birmingham SO (Rumors of Edward Gardner)
  • Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
  • Milwaukee Symphony
  • Hong Kong Philharmonic
  • Shanghai Symphony Orchestra
  • San Diego Symphony
  • Orchestra Nationale de France
  • Vienna Staatsoper / VPO

And closed:
  • LSO: Simon Rattle appointed, 3/2/2015
  • Orchestra de Paris: Daniel Harding, 6/11/2015
  • Berlin Philharmonic: Kirill Petrenko appointed, 6/22/2015
  • BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Thomas Dausgaard succeeds Donald Runnicles in September, 2016

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Meyer Sound Interview on KQED

Word reaches me that John and Helen Meyer, of Meyer Sound, will be interviewed on KQED on Monday, June 22, from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Meyer Constellations systems are used in any number of interesting locations, including Oliveto Restaurant, Zellerbach Concert Hall at the UC Berkeley campus, and the Zellerbach A space in Davies Symphony Hall, SF, which is where the highly successful SFSoundBox series is held.

Silicon Valley correspondent Rachael Myrow conducts the interview, which will cover John Meyer's career, Meyer Sound, and the work the company has done over the years with the Grateful Dead.

In the Bay Area, you can listen at 88.5 FM. Elsewhere or if you prefer streaming, go to

For audience call in questions, phone 866-733-6786 or email questions to

Friday, June 19, 2015

Planning Ahead? Women's Self-Defense Class, Oct/Nov

I'll be teaching a six-week women's self-defense class in the fall.

Six Saturdays, October 10 to November 14, 2015
10 a.m. to 12 noon 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
$125; discount for early registration; open to all regardless of ability to pay.
LGBT welcoming

Class location:
Mind Body Dojo
7512 Fairmount Ave.
El Cerrito, CA

Located up Fairmount from El Cerrito Plaza BART, El Cerrito Plaza, San Pablo Ave.
Nearest freeway exits: Central Ave, from both 580 and 80

The class teaches alertness, awareness, and avoidance; basic kicks and strikes; escapes from common attacks; home, street, and car safety. Suitable for all women age 16 and above; techniques easily adaptable for your particular needs and abilities.

I've studied martial arts since 1982 and have more than 20 years of teaching experience.

Sign up by sending email to or calling (510) 842-6243.

SFO Les Troyens: Orchestra Ticket Available, June 25

A reader has a ticket available to next Thursday's performance of Les Troyens at SF Opera. It's Row V, left aisle, $233, but the seller will entertain offers of less than that. If you're interested or know someone who is, contact me ( and I will make the connection.

London Friday Photo

St. Paul's Cathedral,
London, May 2014

Thursday, June 18, 2015

End of an Era

And via a Met cast change announcement, to boot. Text, with commentary following:
Hei-Kyung Hong will add a new role to her extensive repertory when she sings her first performances of the title character in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Met next season. Hong will sing Cio-Cio-San on February 19, 22, 27, March 2, and March 5.
Hong replaces the originally announced Patricia Racette, a celebrated Cio-Cio-San at the Met since 2007, who has decided to retire the role from her repertory. While Racette will no longer be on the Met roster for 2015-16, she will return to the company—where she has sung 18 roles, including seven acclaimed interpretations of Puccini heroines—in future seasons.

“It is with deep gratitude yet heavy-heartedness that I have decided to retire my beloved Cio-Cio-San,” Racette said. “She has been a part of my life for many years! Of all the productions of Madama Butterfly in which I have had the privilege to bring this character to life, the Met’s production will always occupy a special place in my heart.”

Hong, a winner of the 1982 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, made her company debut in 1984 as Servilia in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. She has gone on to sing more than 350 Met performances in 24 roles, most recently Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen, the Countess in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème, a role she has sung more than 60 times at the Met and will repeat with the company next season.

These performances of Madama Butterfly, conducted by Karel Mark Chichon in his Met debut, will also star Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, Massimo Giordano as Pinkerton, and Artur Rucinski in his Met debut as Sharpless.
Wow, for several reasons. One is that Hong is likely to be a terrific Cio-Cio-San; she has a very beautiful voice, bulletproof technique, and great musicianship. I have never seen her live, and I don't know what combination of circumstances, promotion, and her own choice have meant that her career hasn't been bigger. I'm glad the Met is giving her this plum role, considering that they have plenty of singers on the roster who know the part, including whoever was engaged to cover Racette.

So I'm happy for Hong, but sad anyway. I saw Patricia Racette's Butterfly in 2007, in a performance that lives on as one of the greatest in my operagoing experience and probably the one closest to perfection. I know something must have been not-exactly-right, but I couldn't tell you what it was. Fantastic conducting from Donald Runnicles, who loves the piece to bits; great, great individual performances and ensemble from Racette (a stunning Cio-Cio-San), the late Zheng Cao, SFO debutant Brandon Jovanovich, and Stephen Powell.

Beyond the specifics, when a singer of a certain age retires a favorite part, you know that she's thinking about the long term, about the demands of each role and what it takes out of her voice. Racette just turned 50, she's been singing professionally for around 25 years, and she has taken more than a few chances with what's basically a lyric voice: Elisabetta di Valois, Tosca, the Trovatore Leonora, Minnie, Salome. I admire her guts in taking these roles on and she has been one of the most consistently excellent and moving singers of her generation. She has been a great Butterfly, and I'm glad I got to see it. I'm glad, also, that there's a Met DVD of the production she refers to, for me to see and for others who didn't have the chance to see her in this signature role.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Troyens News

Bryan Hymel didn't sing at Troyens number 3 last night. He was sick, and cover Corey Bix went on instead. This must've happened too late for a cast change announcement, not that it would matter.

I hear that Bix sang well in what must have been a pretty high-pressure situation. Congrats! And best health wishes to Hymel, whom I hope to see a week from tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Met Orchestra Musicians

Last year, when Peter Gelb was making threats, the Met Orchestra Musicians started their own web site. After the labor troubles settled out, they kept it up. They've had a ton of informative (and sometimes funny) articles appearing on the site. For example:

Monday, June 15, 2015

LA Chamber Orchestra 2015-16 Season

The season announcement press release for the LACO just arrived. No music composed by women, no women conducting, far as I can tell, but certainly there's some fine music here.

Saturday, September 19, 2015, 8 pm, Alex Theatre
Sunday, September 20, 2015, 7 pm, Royce Hall
    Jeffrey Kahane, conductor
    Michael Barenboim, violin
    DERRICK SPIVA        Prisms, Cycles, Leaps (world premiere)
    SCHUBERT            Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, “Unfinished”
    BEETHOVEN             Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61

Saturday, October 17, 2015, 8 pm, Alex Theatre
Sunday, October 18, 2015, 7 pm, Royce Hall
    Jeffrey Kahane, conductor
    Richard Goode, piano
    Wade Culbreath, marimba
    TIMO ANDRES            Word of Mouth (West Coast premiere)
    MOZART            Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, K. 456
    EMMANUEL SÉJOURNÉ    Concerto for Marimba and Strings
    HAYDN                Symphony No. 88 in G major

Saturday, December 12, 2015, 8 pm, Alex Theatre
Sunday, December 13, 2015, 7 pm, Royce Hall
    Peter Oundjian, conductor
    Stefan Jackiw, violin
    BARTÓK             Divertimento
    MENDELSSOHN        Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
    BEETHOVEN            Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60

Saturday, February 20, 2016, 8 pm, Alex Theatre
Sunday, February 21, 2016, 7 pm, Royce Hall
    Matthias Pintscher, conductor
    FAURÉ              Pavane, Op. 50  
    SCHOENBERG            Chamber Symphony No. 2, Op. 38
    RAVEL                Ma mère l’oye (“Mother Goose”)
    BEETHOVEN            Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93

Saturday, March 19, 2016, 8 pm, Alex Theatre
Sunday, March 20, 2016, 7 pm, Royce Hall
    Jeffrey Kahane, conductor/piano
    David Shostac, flute
    Allen Vogel, oboe
    Richard Todd, horn
    Kenneth Munday, bassoon
    Joshua Ranz, clarinet
    GERNOT WOLFGANG        Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds (world premiere)
    MOZART            Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622
    MOZART            Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466

Saturday, April 16, 2016, 8 pm, Alex Theatre
Sunday, April 17, 2016, 7 pm, Royce Hall
    Matthew Halls, conductor
    Joshua Roman, cello
    PROKOFIEV            Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, “Classical”
    MASON BATES        Cello Concerto (Los Angeles premiere)
    HAYDN                 Symphony No. 101 in D major, “The Clock”

Saturday, May 14, 2016, 8 pm, Alex Theatre
Sunday, May 15, 2016, 7 pm, Royce Hall
    Jeffrey Kahane, conductor
    Matthew Aucoin, guest conductor
    Marc-André Hamelin, piano
    MATTHEW AUCOIN        Sound Investment commission (world premiere)
                        Matthew Aucoin, guest conductor
    MOZART            Piano Concerto No.17 in G major, K. 453
    SCHUMANN            Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61

DISCOVER Bach’s Cantata No. 140, “Sleepers Awake”
ThursdayJanuary, 23, 20168 pm, Ambassador Auditorium

Thursdays, November 12, 2015February 4March 24April 21, 2016, 7 pm, Zipper Hall, downtown Los Angeles; and Saturday, May 21, 2016, 7:30 pm, USC’s Bovard Auditorium

Thursdays, March 10April 7May 5, 2016, time to be announced, Ann and Jerry Moss Theater
at The Herb Alpert Educational Village at New Roads School, Santa Monica

Santa Fe Opera Cast Change Announcement, Rigoletto

Still waiting for my Ciociara review to get posted at SFCV, which gives me the chance to discuss a highly entertaining cast change announcement that came from Santa Fe Opera the other day. It has some local relevance too.
SANTA FE, NM – General Director Charles MacKay announced today that tenor Bryan Hymel, who was to have sung the role of The Duke of Mantua in all performances of Verdi’s Rigoletto, has withdrawn from the July 4, 10, and 15 performances. Bruce Sledge, praised as a “clarion-voiced, impressive tenor” by The New York Times for his performance in Maometto II in the 2012 season, will replace him. Mr. Hymel will sing all remaining performances beginning August 4 through August 28. 
Mr. Hymel is currently performing one of the most taxing roles of the repertory, Aeneas in Berlioz’s The Trojans, at San Francisco Opera. “With the desire to make a debut with San Francisco Opera in a role that has defined my career and the excitement to return to Santa Fe Opera in a role I love, I now realize I cannot commit appropriately to both performances in San Francisco and rehearsals in Santa Fe,” said Bryan Hymel. “It is in the best interest of both companies, my colleagues, and me personally that I withdraw from the first three performances in Santa Fe. I wish my colleagues there all the best for opening night, and I look forward to performances as The Duke in August.” 
“We have all looked forward to Bryan Hymel’s return to Santa Fe following his stellar performances in the title role of our Faust in 2011,” said Charles MacKay. “Since then he has become one of the most sought-after tenors in the world, and we look forward to his return in August with keen anticipation. We feel truly fortunate that Bruce Sledge, another outstanding tenor, is able to step in as The Duke for our July performances of Rigoletto.” 
No stranger to Santa Fe Opera audiences, tenor Bruce Sledge made his Company debut as Count Almaviva opposite Ana María Martínez as Rosina in The Barber of Seville (2005). He returned to rave reviews as Paulo Erisso in Maometto II (2012) and was seen last season in the dual roles of Vladimir Vladimirescu and the Fisherman in the double bill of Mozart’s The Impresario and Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol. “Bruce Sledge sang with appealing lyricism as Vlada’s henpecked husband,” said Opera News of his 2014 performance, “then performed to glorious poetic effect as the Fisherman.”
Here are the key dates: the last San Francisco Troyens performance is on Wednesday, July 1; the first Santa Fe Rigoletto is on July 4. Rehearsals usually start about three weeks before a production opens (rehearsals for Troyens probably started four or five weeks beforehand, though). So we have Rigoletto rehearsals starting...around June 13, last Friday.

Yes, I think it's a bad idea to rehearse in one opera when you're singing in another 1100 miles away! Not to mention, if you can sing Enée, a dramatic role, do you have any business singing the Duke, which the lightest of light tenors have been known to sing??

Friday, June 12, 2015

1.5 Troyens and Counting

Back to the opera house tonight for "La prise de Troie," that is, the first two acts of Les Troyens, just to see Michaela Martens in her debut. And a mighty impressive debut it was: she has a vibrant, beautiful voice, the kind that carries a touch of sorrow in it. She was less the crazed and desperate Cassandre and more the sorrowing, dignified Cassandre. I was up in the balcony, where the voices tend to be more immediate than in the orchestra section, but I'd bet her voice is significantly larger than Anna Caterina Antonacci's.

All else was much as in the primo; I thought there was a bit of lagging at some point in the first act, but nothing major. You don't get a very good look at the horse from Row G and probably have to be a lot farther forward to see the whole thing, alas. The offstage effects are just as wondrous from up there, though.

I realize that I neglected to call out the excellent performance by Jordan Bisch as the Ghost of Hector. He is a wonderfully spooky presence and has the perfect sepulchral sound for the part.

Tattling: An awful lot of people must have lost track of the six o'clock curtain, because there was way too much milling around and chatter and people being seated between Acts I and II. And there was chattering (and shushing) after the music started.

David Littlejohn

I heard last week that journalist, arts writer, and professor David Littlejohn had died at 78, following what I gather to have been some years of declining health. None of the major papers has done an obit yet, including the Wall St. Journal, for which he'd written opera reviews and other articles for some years, but the Berkeley J-School has a fine obituary on their web site.

Twenty years ago, when I was in the process of turning into a crazy opera person, I picked up a used copy of his book, The Ultimate Art, which collects essays he wrote as program notes for San Francisco Opera. I've read it a couple of times and go back to the essays for inspiration from time to time. He was a great writer with a fine appreciation of the specifics of opera and of what makes it such a great art form. I even quoted him once, in a review of Don Giovanni, which he'd called "the impossible opera."

I was lucky enough to eventually meet him; a mutual friend who knew I admired The Ultimate Art and his reviews introduced us one night at the opera house. I knew this was planned and brought along my copy of the book for him to sign. I also asked him a question about his essay on Shakespeare operas: did he still feel that Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream was an inferior opera? No, he had gotten more familiar with the opera changed his mind about it. I was glad to hear that, because, well, it's one of my favorite operas and I'd seriously disagreed with his printed take on it.

I ran into him off and on over the several years since them, and chatted with him when I could. I heard him give a terrific lecture a couple of years back on Ring productions he'd seen and what he thought of him. (I disagreed with him on his evaluation of a couple; that's what makes horse races.) I've heard from a couple of friends about what a great teacher he was, and I wish I'd had the opportunity to take a class from him. I know I would have learned a lot from him.

I also know that SF Opera had a seat for him for Les Troyens, and I'm tremendously sorry that he didn't get to see the production. He would have had interesting things to say about it.

RIP, David Littlejohn. I'm so sorry we won't get to chat again.

UPDATE: I'm pleased to see that the Chron has published an obituary for Mr. Littlejohn.

One Week, 2.5 Operas

As regular readers know, I have a fair number of time constraints in my life, most notably working 40 miles from home and my jujitsu classes. The classes used to be on Sunday afternoons at 4:15 and Tuesday nights at 8:15; really awful times for any number of reasons. Few people want to start working out at 8:15 p.m., and Sunday afternoons? Prime concert time, plus seeing friends time, or going to a museum time, etc.

Earlier this year, I moved the dojo to El Cerrito, to a very nice space. I'm now teaching Tuesday and Thursday nights at 7:30, which works with my work schedule. I'd love to be teaching at 7, but I can't reliably get to El Cerrito that early.

Anyway, this week has all sorts of things happening: the openings of Les Troyens and La Ciociara, and the Missa Solemnis at SFS. I need to go to both opera openings; I want to see the Missa (the first bring-up in 2011, was....not good), and I also want to see Michaela Martens as Cassandre. (Honestly, if I could I'd probably go to all of the Troyens performances, because it might not be performed here again in my lifetime.)

I am still getting over the damn cold I caught almost three weeks ago; going to the first Missa performance Wednesday night, between being out at class T & Th, was not happening. I can't see Martens on the 20th, opposite Ojai North and a friend's annual party. Can't go to the Missa when I have to be at the opera tomorrow night.

So: I bought a cheap balcony seat to Troyens tonight. The Troy scenes start around 6 and run roughly 80-90 minutes, depending on curtain time and how fast Runnicles goes tonight.* It'll be over by 7:40. That's plenty of time to get across the street for the Missa, which lasts less than 90 minutes and will be done around the second Troyens. I am not going back across the street for Act V, though.

* Asterisk because the 1998 Tristan varied, performance to performance, by as much as 20 minutes, and it was not variation in the length of the intermissions, either.

London Friday Photo

Lloyd's of London
May, 2014

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Les Troyens Media Round-Up

The ink-stained yakkers on the latest sensation:
  • Joshua Kosman, Chron, whose review has been updated to discuss the fabulous chorus. (Yay!) He is more of a fan of Graham than I was; he is right about the dramaturgy and also about the fact that it hardly matters. 
  • Janos Gereben, SF Examiner, accompanied by a photo that clearly shows the Troy set before it opens up
  • Stephen Smoliar, The photo of the Trojan horse might be a spoiler for some. 
  • Greg Freed, Parterre Box, says about what I do in fewer and funnier words.
  • Mark Swed, LA Times. He was not very impressed. He also cites the 1969 ROH staging as responsible for the work's modern revival, missing Rafael Kubelik's 1958 complete Troyens, also at the ROH. 
  • Georgia Rowe, Mercury News. The disk suspended over the Act IV ballet is the city of Carthage from Act III.
  • Steven Winn, Classical Review. Steven was sitting two rows ahead of me, so I guess Antonacci stopped carrying in Row O.
  • John Rockwell, Classical Voice America (reviewing the June 16 performance)
  • Heidi Waleson, WSJ
  • Opera Tattler: Antonacci, Martens
  • John Marcher, A Beast in a Jungle. Well, as Joshua said, he adds in all that stuff because he can.
  • Lisa Hirsch, SFCV
Watch this post for updates; Patrick Vaz has a ticket and I assume John Marcher will be attending. Also, the Music Critics Association of North America is in town this week and perhaps there will be more reviews.

I miss Rich Scheinin's perspective on this one (and on the upcoming La Ciociara).

Odd ends:
  • I wish the production had found some way to put "Je vai mourir" on the set rather than in front of the drop curtain.  
  • The scene with the two sentries sounded to me a bit like an homage to the scene with the two armed men in Die Zauberfloete.
  • I've now heard several reports from people who couldn't hear Antonacci very well, but only Greg Freed and I call this out in our reviews. He and I and one of the audience members were in the orchestra, two were in the balcony, one was in the dress circle.
  • Did Wagner know this score? Given the brass writing, especially, inquiring minds want to know.
  • Mark my words, Sasha Cooke will be singing Didon in a future bring-up of this opera.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

More Troyens

My Troyens review will be going up shortly at SFCV; as always, I'm worried that I haven't been sufficiently effusive, especially since this was one of the most overwhelming productions I've ever seen. I was sufficiently stunned afterward, in a good way, that I went home and basically stared at the computer for several hours, writing a few paragraphs that I had to toss, because they were terrible, and start over.

A few minor points I couldn't quite make in the review:
  • Boy, was this ever a reminder of how much I miss hearing Donald Runnicles on a regular basis. He was as good as it gets.
  • If the production is ever sold off, I'll be first in line to buy a few of the Carthage costumes, which were just made for someone like me. Also, they are gorgeous.
  • There's not much logic underlying the choice of Crimean War era costumes for the Troy acts, but it also doesn't matter or in any way undermine the sheer power of the work and the whole of the production.
  • There was ballet, and for once it did not bore me to tears, perhaps because of the ever-inventive M. Berlioz himself.
  • The production takes a pretty good run at the scenario he wrote for the Royal Hunt & Storm, although it would have been more effective if they'd just disappeared into the cave.
  • Can I possibly attend on the 12th or 20th and see Michaela Martens?

Monday, June 08, 2015

This is More Like It.

Ojai notices that women compose too, or maybe Peter Sellars, longtime associate of Kaija Saariaho, noticed. From the press released I received earlier today:

For the 2016 Festival, Peter Sellars is shaping a program deeply rooted in the cultures of Ojai, starting new traditions and setting out fresh agendas for the 70 years to come. The Festival will take place June 9-12, 2016.

As the 69th Ojai Music Festival opens this week (June 10-14, 2015) with Music Director Steven Schick, the Festival’s 2016 Music Director Peter Sellars shares thoughts on his distinctive approach to programming the Festival:

The Ojai Valley has long been recognized as a rare and beautiful natural site that invites retreat, renewal, and regeneration, from Chumash ceremonial life to Krishnamurti's legendary talks under the trees. The valley has both grandeur and a human scale that inspire and allow the deepest human questions to resonate, and create a setting for the most personal search for answers. The magical play of light across the canyon and the heady aroma of orange blossoms bring the senses to life, awaken the mind, and create a profound aura of openness and well-being.

Music incites many of the same thoughts and emotions, with similar immensity and intimacy and awe. The 70th Ojai Music Festival will gather this powerful energy and spirit of inquiry and reflection into a weekend of peak experiences and secret revelations.

For the first time the composer Kaija Saariaho will come to Ojai. We will feature two of her most potent and visionary works. Her new chamber version of ‘The Passion of Simone’, a meditation on the life of the courageous French philosopher Simone Weil, written to a wise and humane text by Amin Maalouf, will receive its American premiere with the extraordinary young soprano Julia Bullock. It is a work of startling integrity and permanent challenge in dark times, with a flame of hope that burns brightly and intensely in the darkness.

Kaija Saariaho’s newest operatic creation is a sequence of two Japanese Noh plays in English versions by Ezra Pound, entitled ‘Only the Sound Remains’. Again Ojai will offer the American premiere. These two plays will be performed in the tradition of Japanese Takigi Noh in the amphitheater at the Ojai Valley School Upper Campus, lightly held in the gentle grasp of a protective arroyo under a radiant early morning sky for ‘The Feather Mantle’, a play of illumination, transcendence and evanescence, and just before midnight under an intense starlit sky for ‘Always Strong’, the harrowing and haunted story of a young warrior’s spirit struggling to return to life on earth.

From Tahrir Square in Cairo, Dina El Wedidi and her band come to America to present a new song cycle that paints a personal picture of the realities, aspirations, disappointments, and determination of the Egyptian revolution. Dina El Wedidi epitomizes the new Egyptian women of a rising generation, her gorgeous and unmistakable voice alive with courage, allure, and the breath of freedom. Her band includes traditional Egyptian and modern electronic instruments, and for these performances she will bring three extraordinary older women from the Egyptianzār tradition who are singing in full-throated solidarity with the activism and vision of Dina and her generation.

Julia Bullock will also be the center of a unique and poignant evening honoring the brilliance, daring, public courage, and private tragedies of Josephine Baker, the black icon who created a declaration of independence with her black body, and blazed a trail of irresistible challenge and charm in France in the same years that Simone Weil pursued her feminist vigil on behalf of a larger humanity. Our Ojai evening will be a very personal portrait of a fearless civil rights pioneer and visionary who paid dearly for every forward step. And kept stepping.

The final Sunday of the 2016 festival will shift into an exuberant children’s festival for the first part of the day, featuring music written and performed by, with, and for children and anyone who is ready to listen to the world with fresh ears. Those programs will then expand and flow into a huge street party culminating in sheer communal pleasure, the joy of improvisation, increasingly wild juxtapositions, spontaneous jam sessions and very, very good times.

Among the featured artists at the 70th edition of the Ojai Music Festival, we are extremely pleased and proud to welcome, in addition to ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), Roomful of Teeth, the path breaking vocal collective, participating in the Kaija Saariaho premieres and surprising new works written for and developed by the group. Classical Indian music will be performed in breathtaking settings at specific times of day to reflect the shifting of the light, and films will be screened during those times when we crave the dark. Talks and lectures that illuminate and amplify our current history with cultural and philosophical perspectives will alternate with sessions focused on spiritual thinkers offering quieter moments of contemplation and peace.

The Ojai Valley sunrises and sunsets will do the rest.

–2016 Music Director Peter Sellars

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Gloire à Berlioz

Still working on the review, but Troyens was overwhelming and wonderful, greater than the sum of its parts. What a piece! What amazing scale! What spectacle! What a cast!

Yes, you could say I was happy with it. More after I file, which will be sometime tomorrow.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Some Troyens Trivia

Thanks to the SF Opera press office for answering a couple of my questions:

  • They're using the Barenreiter edition of the opera.
  • No ophicleide; the part will be played by a tuba.
  • No saxhorns; their parts will be played by trumpets, horns, and the tuba.
Yes, I'm sorry the company didn't hire an ophicleide and the saxhorns, but them's the breaks.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Thursday, June 04, 2015

"An unbelievable, an amazing performance"

The Belmont Stakes is on Saturday (post time 6:50 Eastern, 3:50 Pacific), and because American Pharoah has won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, there's some hope that, for the first time since 1978, there might be a Triple Crown winner. And there's a lot of ink being spilled about what has to happen for American Pharoah to win. Here's a typical article, talking about the track, the jockeys, how you have to pace the horse. There are trainers talking about their horse and rider losing focus or never having it in the first place, where a favorite took off after a very fast pace horse and ran out of gas.

Of course there is that one exception to every rule: Secretariat. All Ron Turcotte had to do was make sure he had a clear path. They went for the lead on the first turn, which is maybe a furlong past the gate. He went head-to-head with Sham, briefly falling a neck behind, but in retrospect, well, Secretariat was just toying with the other horse. He never gave up the lead and just drew away from the field. His world record time of 2:24 for 12 furlongs on dirt is still standing.

Chic Anderson, the caller, termed it "the most sensational Belmont Stakes in the history of the race." He was right.

Italie! Italie!

The stage directions for the Royal Hunt & Storm, Act Four, First Tableau, Les Troyens:
An African forest; morning. At the back, a high crag; below and to the left of it, the opening of a cave. A small stream flows along the crag till it merges in a natural basic bordered with rushes and reeds. Two naiads appear for an instant and vanish; a moment later they can be seen bathing in the pool. Royal hunt: Hunting calls resound far off in the depths of the forest. The frightened naiads hide in the reeds. Tyrian huntsman pass, with dogs on leashes. Young Ascanius gallops across the stage on horseback. The sky darkens; it begins to rain. The storm grows....It becomes a tempest, with sheets of rain, hail, lightning, and thunder. Repeated horn calls are heard amid the tumult of the elements. The huntsman scatter in different directions. Finally, Dido and Aeneas appear, she dressed as Diana the huntress, bow in hand and quiver on shoulder, he in semi-military dress. Both are on foot. They enter the cave. Immediately the nymphs of the forest appear, with disheveled hair, on top of the crag, and run back and forth, shouting and gesticulating wildly. In the midst of their yells, one word can from time to time be heard: Italy. The stream swells and becomes a foaming torrent. Several other waterfalls form at different points on the crag and mingle their noise with the noise of the storm. Satyrs and sylvans, with fauns, perform grotesque dances in the darkness. A tree is struck by lightning, shatters, and catches fire. The wreckage of the tree falls on the stage. The satyrs, fauns, and sylvans pick up the flaming branches and dance with them in their hands, then disappear with the nymphs of the forest. The storm passes. The clouds lift.
Well, okay, then. I am not expecting to see all of this on the War Memorial stage (please, no horses), but I assume the above is one of the ballet sequences.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


The Bayreuth Festival is the only festival in the world that can sell out all of its tickets without bothering to tell the audience who will be singing. With the curtain up on July 25, less than 2 months away, the casting finally went up last week. From the main schedule page, click an opera's name in the right-hand column, then click Cast.

My personal highlights? Annette Dasch and Klaus Florian Vogt as the not-all-that-happy couple in Lohengrin, Wolfgang Koch as Wotan, and Anja Kampe as both Sieglinde and Isolde.

J.M.W. Turner at the de Young

The de Young show J.M.W.  Turner: Painting Set Free opens on June 20, 2015 and runs through September 20. The show is evidently the first to focus on Turner's late work, from 1835 to 1850. It will feature a number of extremely famous paintings, including War and Peace, as well as some watercolors recently identified as documenting a fire at the Tower of London.

There is even an operatic tie-in: the show includes "a suite of paintings depicting the classical lovers Dido and Aeneas dating from 1850, the year of his last exhibits at the Royal Academy in London." See Les Troyens and visit this exhibit for a complete artisitc experience!

Full details on the exhibition here. And if you haven't already seen it, now's the time to take in Mike Leigh's wonderful Mr. Turner.