Friday, June 28, 2019

Return of Opera at the Ballpark!

This fall, San Francisco Opera will again have a simulcast to Giants Stadium! (Not the current "naming rights" name of the San Francisco baseball stadium.)

It'll be a broadcast of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, on Saturday, September 21, 2019 at 7:30 p.m. You can sign up right now on the SFO web site.

Current casting includes Bryan Hymel, Nadine Sierra, Lucas Meachem, James Creswell, Timothy Mix, and others.

Friday Photo

Cimitiere de Montparnasse
Paris, October, 2018

Monday, June 24, 2019

Friday, June 21, 2019

Friday Photo

Auto Shop Signage, Downtown Oakland
May, 2019

Auto Shop Signage, Laurel District, Oakland
May, 2019

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Verena Wagner Lafferentz

Catching up on old news: Richard Wagner's last surviving grandchild, Verena Wagner Lafferentz, died in April at age 98. She was the youngest child of Winifred and Siegfried Wagner.

I remember standing in front of the Wagner family tree in Haus Wahnfried, Bayreuth, in 2015, and being shocked to discover that one of Siegfried's children was still alive. I'd somehow completely missed her existence, overshadowed as she was by brothers Wieland and Wolfgang and their roles at the festival.

She had led a retiring life after World War II, and remained silent on the matter of her family's relationships with the Third Reich and prominent members of that rightly-reviled regime. She was romantically linked to Hitler, according to her Wikipedia page, which features a photo of Verena, her older sister Friedelind, and Hitler, and married to Bodo Lafferentz, a Nazi officer and party member who was many years her senior.


Friday, June 14, 2019

Sunday, June 09, 2019

SFO Orlando Media Roundup

Sasha Cooke, Orlando (center); Christian Van Horn (Zoroastro), right.
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

What we all think. More coming!
Short version of most of the above: Everyone loves Sasha Cooke, in general, but thinks she is badly miscast. Mostly looking side-eye at the conducting, mostly liking the production.

Handel's Orlando, San Francisco Opera

Sasha Cooke, left, as Orlando; Christian Van Horn, right, as Zoroastro, in Handel's Orlando
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Handel's Orlando is back at San Francisco Opera, after an absence of 34 years. This is the opera with the asterisk in the list of operas that I've seen: I am pretty sure that I saw either Handel's Orlando or  Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso at SFO back in the 80s. However, I didn't save either tickets or programs or have any system for keeping track, so, I'm not sure which. I remember thinking "I'm not a big Handel fan and I don't care that much for Vivaldi's instrumental music, so maybe I should try the Vivaldi." Did I? Only ancient ticket sales records know the truth.

In any event, in the intervening decades, I've become quite the Handel fan and I've seen eleven or twelve of his operas and oratorios, so I was glad to see Orlando turn up on the schedule for this year.

And now...I am disappointed. It's possible that some of the problems in the production will clear up during the run, but I'm not really hopeful, because, well, they are big problems.

First off, I was not at all happy with the conducting of Christopher Moulds. The orchestra was too loud for an awful lot of the opera, at least from where I was sitting, uncharacteristically, in the Grand Tier, row A. Now, this could just be the opera house acoustics and it could also be a function of the set, which doesn't always give the singers much to bounce off. And the orchestra numbers around 40, which is not big for a 3200 seat house but is big for a Handel opera.

Volume aside, Moulds's conducting also lacked what I would call propulsiveness and thrust, a sense of coherent forward movement. This is completely separate from tempo; I have heard very slow performances that nevertheless always had forward momentum. I'm looking at you, Sir Mark Elder, and your amazingly wonderful Die Meistersinger, which clocked in at nearly six hours and somehow never felt draggy. What this takes is a feel for the shape and balance and harmonic movement of an opera, and somehow this was missing. I mean, I have some doubts about Moulds's tempo choices as well, but I don't have specific enough notes to get into that.

Sasha Cooke as Orlando
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera
The makeup and costume artists and director did a great job of turning 
a very feminine singer into a young man.

Second big problem, alas and alack, I don't feel that Sasha Cooke, a lovely singer whom I've liked in so many roles, was a good choice for the title role. Her acting was wonderful; by the end of the piece I was really convinced that she was a young man, perhaps a particularly delicate countertenor. But the vocal range is just all wrong for her: she is a high mezzo and this role needs a singer whose money notes are a lot lower than Cooke's money notes. I here note that Marilyn Horne was SFO's first Orlando, both here and in the Vivaldi, and, well.

Lastly, I think the production, which sets the opera in a rehabilitation hospital in England during World War II - a hospital for the shell-shocked - works reasonably well. It is a potentially very powerful updating, the second of this type that I have seen this year, because the Tcherniakov Les Troyens that I saw in Paris sets the Carthage acts in a rehabilitation center for soldiers who are, yes, shell-shocked from battle. (Yes, this means Christian Van Horn has spent a lot of time in the moral equivalent of a white coat this year, since he was that production's Narbal.)

But but but. The production is much too polite. There are an awful lot of powerful emotions on stage, from Dorinda's despair over Medoro's love for Angelica to, most crucially, Orlando's mad scenes. They were the least demented mad scenes imaginable; there was just not enough physical portrayal of the characters' states of mind, especially Orlando's despair and jealousy. And this is really necessary to put across the opera.

Heidi Stober (Angelica); Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (Medoro) in Orlando
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

I liked Heidi Stober (Angelica) fine; debuting soprano Christina Gansch (Dorinda) sang well, with some acid at the top of her range. I think that both Stober and Gansch were underdirected; neither of their situations really moved me.

Christian Van Horn has tremendously flexibility, especially for a bass, although the very top notes sounded a bit pressed. I think one of his arias might have been cut, based on a very odd harmonic progression at a crucial moment, but I need to check the press notes to see if this is right.

Young Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who took over the role of Medoro after David Daniels was arrested, sang gorgeously and acted well, although....someone should teach him 1) how to use a cane 2) how to limp convincingly.

Special kudos to the squad of comprimarios, who had a lot to do as doctors and nurses and were marvelous all around. Primarily on their account, I'm sorry not to have curtain call photos. And let me also note that I love the look of the production, from the Art Deco sets to the wonderful 40s clothing and hairdos.

A note that might be minor or might be significant: I would have personally hesitated to put a swastika and a photo of Hitler in the projections, and I would also have hesitated to show psychiatric torture during the production, which is very likely what electroshock therapy was in the 1940s. I was also not really thrilled with Orlando's repeated attempts to choke Dorinda. Find some other way to represent his tortured jealousy.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Update on Closing SFS Program

The final repertory for the first half of the program and the cast for L'enfant et les sortilges:
The first half of the program features an eclectic mix of chamber works by Debussy, Ravel, and Fauré. Pianist John Wilson performs excerpts from Debussy’s playful Children’s Corner and the sensual La Plus que lente, joined by members of the San Francisco Symphony. This is followed by the Allegro molto movement from Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, featuring SFS musicians Helen Kim on violin, Matthew Young on viola, Sébastien Gingras on cello, and pianist Sayaka TanikawaMezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson sings Debussy’s Noël des enfants qui n'ont plus de maison” withPeter Grunberg on piano and, rounding out the first half, pianists Grunberg and Wilson perform Ravel’s The Enchanted Garden from Ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose), inspired by children’s stories from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French collections, especially Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose Tales, published in 1697). 
That's right, it's all chamber music, which has me scratching my head. They must really need the rehearsal time for the Ravel.

And here's the cast, not including conductor Martyn Brabbins.
Highly acclaimed for her “passionate intensity and remarkable vocal beauty,” mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard stars as The Child in these performances of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges—a role she recorded with Seiji Ozawa and the Saito Kinen Orchestra on the Decca Classics label, winning a 2016 Grammy Award® in the category of Best Opera Recording. Leonard made her SFS debut in 2013 and has been featured in several notable performances since then, including Tilson Thomas’ From the Diary of Anne Frankin November 2018, Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles in September 2017 and the semi-staged On the Town in May 2016, and Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole in June 2015. The accomplished cast also includes sopranos Anna Christy (The Fire, The Princess, The Nightingale), Nikki Einfeld (The Bat, A Country Lass), and Marnie Breckenridge (The Bergère, The Screech-owl); mezzo-sopranos Ginger Costa Jackson (A Herdsman, The Chinese Cup, The White Cat) and Jennifer Johnson-Cano (Mama, The Dragonfly, The Squirrel); tenor Ben Jones (The Little Old Man, The Tree Frog, The Teapot); baritoneKelly Markgraf (The Comtoise Clock, The Black Cat); and bass-baritone Michael Todd Simpson (The Armchair, A Tree).  

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Yikes: MTT Taking Medical Leave something of a shock: Michael Tilson Thomas is withdrawing from all engagements between  June 17 and September 3, that is, the rest of the SFS season after the Mahler 9.. He's having a ("cardiac procedure", which I take to mean "heart surgery." Here's the press release, which includes the complete repertory for the last program, which Martyn Brabbins will conduct.

Wish MTT the best of health and the best possible outcome of the upcoming procedure.


Michael Tilson Thomas announced today that he is withdrawing from all engagements beginning June 17 until September 3 in order to undergo a cardiac procedure. The operation, which will take place in Cleveland, is scheduled to follow his performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 with the San Francisco Symphony on June 13, 14, 15, and 16.

“I deeply regret missing concerts and projects that I have been greatly anticipating,” said Tilson Thomas. “On the advice of my doctors, I need to undergo this procedure at this time in continuation of treatment for a heart condition I have managed for many years. I expect to make a full recovery in time to return to the San Francisco Symphony for the opening of my 25th season as Music Director.”

Previously scheduled engagements from which Tilson Thomas is withdrawing are performances with the San Francisco Symphony and appearances at the Music Academy of the West including concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra. 

“The entire San Francisco Symphony family supports Michael and is sending positive thoughts to both him and his husband Joshua at this time,” said Mark C. Hanson, CEO of the San Francisco Symphony. “We look forward to seeing him on the podium for Mahler’s 9th next week, and then following his full recovery over the summer, for the opening weeks next September of his extraordinary final season as Music Director.”

Conductor changes for SFS concerts affected are as follows:

June 2022: Conductor Joshua Gersen will lead the Orchestra in a program that includes the SFS premiere and co-commission of Steve Reich’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Yefim Bronfman. Replacing MTT’s Street Song for Symphonic Brass will be Arvo Pärt’s Fratres for Strings and Percussion and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. Gersen made his SFS debut in 2013 and has led the Orchestra multiple times in both Davies Symphony Hall and in experimental SoundBox programs. 

June 27, 29, and 30: British conductor Martyn Brabbins will conduct the SFS in a semi-staged production of Ravel’s L'Enfant et les sortilèges June 27, 29, and 30, featuring mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as L’Enfant. Created by the visionary team of animator Grégoire Pont and director James Bonas, the staging uses advanced projection techniques to capture the fantasy and poetry of Ravel’s spellbinding and luminous tale. Brabbins premiered this dazzling and popular production at the Opéra de Lyon in 2012, reviving it in 2013 at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, and again in Lyon in 2016. First half repertoire now also includes Debussy’s Children’s CornerLa Plus que lenteNoël des enfants qui n'ont plus de maison and Ravel’s The Enchanted Garden fromMa Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose).

July 10: New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New will make her debut with the Orchestra on July 10 at Stanford University’s Frost Amphitheater in the inaugural concert of the Symphony’s new summer series at the renovated and historic outdoor venue, presented by Stanford Live. The all-Tchaikovsky program features Gil Shaham performing the composer’s Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 5 which replaces the previously announced Symphony No. 4, and the “Polonaise” from Eugene Onegin. Gemma New conducts the inaugural concert in addition to her scheduled performances leading the SFS July 13 and 14 at Frost in a program featuring Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Beethoven’s majestic Symphony No. 9 with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and vocal soloists.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Museum Mondays

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier
Bust of Saïd Abdullah of the Darfour People
Art Institute of Chicago, March, 2019

Previously: Museum Mondays

Sunday, June 02, 2019

International Orange Chorale: Re-Set

The International Orange Chorale (IOC)'s June, 2019 program is mighty interesting: as usual, the chorus performs an assortment of recent music from many places, by many composers. They'll be singing works by:

  •  Ola Gjeilo
  • Graeme Langager
  • Frank LaRocca
  • James MacMillan
  • Frank Martin
  • Stephen Paulus
  • Brian Schmidt
  • Urmas Sisask
  • Nicholas Weininger
  • Eric Whitacre
  • David Wikander
  • The premiere of "Te Puse Collares" by 2019 Composer-in-Residence, Robin Estrada
Also:  Former Director Paul Kim is flying in from Denmark to conduct a movement Martin's Double-Choir Mass, while founding Director Jeremy Faust is flying cross-country to conduct the Whitacre. 

They're performing the program twice:

Saturday, June 8, 2019
7:30 p.m.
2138 Cedar St.
Berkeley, CA

Saturday, June 15, 2019
7:30 p.m.
St. Mark's Lutheran
1111 O'Farrell St.
San Francisco, CA

Admission is free; donations gratefully accepted.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Earth to SF Opera: You Can Do Better Than This.

War Memorial Opera House
Photo by me

I've got email from SF Opera that I have to say is among the most ham-handed emails I've gotten recently from an arts organizations. Let me count the ways.

1. The top story is about legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, who starred back in the 1980s as both Handel's and Vivaldi's Orlando. There's a link to an exclusive interview with her....and if you click that link, what you get is a PDF version of a story that must be running in the program for this month's Orlando (Handel).

Yes, right, a PDF. A PDF that is unreadable on a phone. A couple of years ago SFO, at I'm sure significant cost, redesigned their entire web site to be more mobile-friendly, but their email links to a PDF. C'mon, put it on a web page so that people can actually read this article.

2. "Family-friendly Hansel & Gretel": because there's nothing more friendly than a family with starving children whose mother sends them out to pick berries in a forest known to be occupied by a terrifying, child-imprisoning witch.

3. Nozze di Figaro is described as a side-splitting romp. People. Really, it's more complicated than that.

4. The next lines are "Prefer something a little more arresting? You can't go wrong with the opera that rocketed Puccini to success, Manon Lescaut." People. C'mon. You know which is the greater opera, and, yes, more arresting.

5. "The season starts with the most powerful love story of all time, Gounod's adaptation of Shakespeare's classic, Romeo and Juliet starring two of the brightest stars of our generation -- soprano Nadine Sierra and tenor Bryan Hymel. Don't miss out!"

Where to start. Whether this is the most powerful love story of all time is highly debatable, partly for cultural reasons - glorifying one European story over everything else in the world is just foolish and offensive. Also, because it's basically two headstrong adolescents doing a lot of stupid headstrong adolescent things and winding up dead as a result. We shouldn't be glorifying this particular story, however beautiful the language of Shakespeare's play.

Also, that sentence is so poorly written that it's saying that Gounod's version is the most powerful, etc. Hey, Gounod's nothing is the most powerful, etc. There are any number of operas that have more powerful and compelling love stories, with better music. I'll say Tristan und Isolde and Les Troyens and leave it at that. (It would be too perverse to mention Lulu, right?)

And what is that "brightest stars of our generation"? What generation is meant here?

Lastly, I believe I've already voiced my skepticism about who will sing Romeo in September.

6. There's a link to the upcoming Opera America conference, and an invitation to "check out some of Opera America's expert-led panels, etc." Well, I suppose one can somehow check them out from afar, because the cost of attending Opera America is really staggering: I looked this up a month ago, and the fee was something like $700. Make no mistake: this is a price for institutions and well-off individuals.

Oh, and: it's sold out. Yes, this email went out when the conference was already inaccessible even if you happened to have the ridiculous price of admission. Seriously, did the person who wrote this email know how expensive it was? This isn't something you can just attend casually!