New York City Opera


Comedy And Madness

If it wasn’t for comedy and madness, would opera exist?  What is it that could drive people away from speech and towards singing in such a way that would not only be acceptable as a premise but natural?  It takes a certain level of absurdity . . .


I’m not mocking the form, I love it and I write it – there are things that can be done dramatically in opera that are impossible in any other medium, like simultaneity of action in which the characters express themselves while musically relating to one another, or the way that the music can go beyond the words a character sings, telling us more about that figure than they know abut themselves.  And sung narrative is at the core of human civilization, embodied by Homer but far older than his work and found in cultures across the globe.


And because I love opera, I’m realistic about it.  All that singing . . . it’s absurd.  So the absurd stories and ideas tend to work, hence comedy and madness.  Tragedy, yes, but tragedy in opera is almost too easy, just as tragedy in music is far easier to convey successfully than happiness and humor – think of the sense of strained levity in the final movements of Mahler’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, with their relentless major keys.


Madness is not to be confused with mad scenes.  Ideally, those serve a dramatic purpose, but in the big houses today, the prevailing focus is on star power, and mad scenes have become something to base marketing campaigns around rather than an integrated, dramatic moment.  It’s mad to sing opera, the fans are mad for the diva, watch her ham it up as she goes madder than Crazy Eddie!


In the overall repertoire, there’s few operas devoted entirely to madness – the most famous is Wozzeck, and it’s possible to view the Ring Cycle and Don Giovanni as dramatizations of the struggle between lunacy and lucidity – and even fewer comic operas (I’ll leave operettas to the torturers in “Bananas”).  New York City Opera has started the Spring portion of their season with one of the great comic operas, L’Elisir d’Amore, and an evening-length program of madness that, beyond it’s considerable achievements, stands as a landmark in the realization of dramatic music.


“Particularly the early, funny ones . . .”



All pictures © Carol Rosegg

Donizetti is the great middle-brow pleasure of opera, and he’s both over and undervalued.  His bel canto style is exemplary, his music often beautiful and his drama propulsive.  This all makes him easy to take in, so to many people he’s the beginning and end of opera and to others he’s just cheese.  He was a skillful craftsman who produced good works that are still mainstays because they give such pleasure.  The style is both dated and enduring, and what I appreciate most about Donizetti is how his indulgence in the sheer beauty of singing is balanced with solid characterization.  He made comedy, and it is pretty.


L’Elisir D’Amore is, along with Il Barbiere di Seviglia, the finest comic opera for both music and humor.  It has a light touch but enough humanity to not evaporate with bland effervescence.  The City Opera production, from Jonathan Miller, understands and respects the work.  Miller borrows the diner setting quite freely from Peter Sellers production of Cosí fan tutte, and it works better here.  Where Mozart’s comedy has a bitter point to make, Donizetti is working with basic young love, the only conflict is between Adina’s two suitors, the braggart and soldier Belcore, and the bumbling gas jockey (in this production), Nemorino, mediated by the conman Dr. Dulcamara.


Ensemble works like these are City Opera’s bread and butter, where they consistently deploy deep and talented casts of relatively unknown singers, in this case the debuts of David Lomelli as Nemorino, José Adán Pérez as Belcore and Stefania Dovhan as Adina.  They are not stars, and partly because of that and also because young singers get far better stage and acting training nowadays, what you get is a performance that tells the story, that entertains, amuses and touches.  It looks great and it sounds great.


It really works.  This is an opera about a transformation, the hero Nemorino going from sad sack to almost rakish.  The tale is told through the music and by Lomelli on stage.  Nemorino’s music is simple and choppy at the start, where he sings about his love for the woman who won’t give him the time of day, Adina.  He slowly gains personal and musical confidence through the ministrations of Dulcamara’s ‘tussin, and is an entirely different figure after the great aria, “Una furtiva lagrima.”  Lomelli sang this very well with his youthful, slightly heady voice – though with some curiously missed intervals in the aria – and acted it even bette, going from befuddled Stan Laurel to swaggering Elvis Presley.  He’s not a star by name, but the evening revolves around his performance and he delivers the goods, and it was appealing that, during the extended ovation, he couldn’t in the end keep a straight face.


Pérez is charismatic and funny, he walks from his waist, his torso pitched backwards, his legs swiveling stiffly like a toy soldier which is perfect, of course, and he projects easily and confidently.  Nistico is the veteran in the cast and his voice is a little underpowered for the largish house, but his acting is easily comic without the old-fashioned exaggerations of opera and the newer ones of television.  His Dulcamara is not the blowhard I’ve seen in other productions, he’s quick and shifty, eager to sell and get the hell out of town.  His apposite number is conductor Brad Cohen, whose take on the music is clean, brisk and unassuming.


Dovhan has the hardest role: Adina is vain, cruel and spiteful.  Nemorino must love her for something other than her looks, and that means whoever plays the role has to be inherently sympathetic and emotionally attractive.  She has a lovely, strong voice and looks smashing in her blond wig, but she doesn’t project that internal nature the characterization relies on.  The difference is slight but important; where Lomelli gives us personal transformation as a process, Dovhan goes from one attractive and irritating state to another, more attractive and sympathetic one, in the space of Adina’s response to “Una furtiva lagrima,” the aria “Prendi, per mei sei libero.”  She does so beautifully in that space, however.  But this is less than criticism, I’m merely pointing out that the production is in no way required to prove that comic operas are the greatest of operas, merely that they be fully entertaining and satisfying, which this L’Elisir is.


Tales of extraordinary madness


The mad operas, on the other hand, entertain in the way something fascinating, troubling and involving entertains, and make an argument, if not for the status and stature of the individual parts, then for the opera house as a place for deeply affective, thought-provoking art.  There is madness, deep madness, on display at City Opera, and it comes in the form of three monodramas; Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Neither, a collaboration between Morton Feldman and Samuel Beckett, and the stage premiere of John Zorn’s La Machine de l’Être.


The production, by Michael Counts in his City Opera debut, integrates all three works, via staged segue that connects the end of La Machine to the beginning of Erwartung, and then by the use of identifiable players and stage language in Neither, which comes after intermission.  It’s a connected journey through the impenetrable, unknowable landscape of madness, and it is compelling.  The result is flawed, the flaws are a lingering irritant but are overpowered by the strength of the material and the performances.  The flaws prevent perfection and that is entirely appropriate for dramatic ideas that by their nature cannot be circumscribed or resolved.


The problems come from a strange inability on the part of Counts and his crew to fully realize their own ideas.  All the elements are there: set design, costumes, fundamental conception, but some of the specific results are atrocious.  In the opening La Machine, the ensemble is clothed in full hijab with only the eyes showing.  A couple, model types, remove these outer garments in part or full from selected figures, including soprano Anu Komsi (in her City Opera debut) and a man wearing a red suit.  Later, this same pair removes the hijabs from Kara Shay Thomson, also making her debut in Erwartung, and her ensemble.  In Neither, the mixed ensemble is in matching black suits and white shirts


It’s simple stagecraft and needs to lead to something else to work.  What comes out of it, though, is mostly terrible direction.  The blocking is amateurish, literally ‘blocky,’ chunks of people moving from one point to another or standing still.  The singers go from left to right to center and back again, with almost no usage of the upstage-downstage axis (I won’t entirely fault Counts here, I realized during the performance that pretty much every opera I see staged seems to exist on some artificial two-dimensional surface, as if a “Flatland” virus infects directors once they pass through the stage door).  The choreography, by Ken Roht, is incomprehensibly bad, a series of steps and, mainly, hand gestures that have been adapted from Janet Jackson videos.  For the daring that George Steel showed in making this program, and the extremely high quality of the music and the performances (the orchestra and conductor George Manahan play three difficult, un-idiomatic works with utter confidence and musicality), this seems almost offensively disappointing – neither the audience nor City Opera got their money’s worth at the premiere.


But in terms of the music, the singing, the playing, the ideas, they got an unforgettable, unquantifiable success.  Zorn’s piece is based on drawings made by Antonin Artaud during his institutionalization.  The work Artaud produced during this period, including his swan-song, Pour en Finir avec le Judgement de Dieu, is incomprehensible and while many hold it in high regard it is just as likely that it is utter nonsense.  But that’s the beautiful point of Zorn’s score and conception.  The piece is for orchestra and singer, who has sounds but no text, and is the finest example of his notated music for other ensembles.  The score incorporates his aesthetic of musical jump-cuts and switchbacks with exceptional skill and conception: musical events come and go quickly, like sub-atomic particles bubbling up from the fabric of space, while the overall texture flows with the sensuousness of Debussy.  It’s the most richly, complexly beautiful music he’s made, and the vocal line on top is the most beautiful of all.  It holds longer textures, soars and swoops, makes great idiomatic use of the voice, and is very, very difficult.  Komsi sang with great tone, strength and phrasing, only momentarily, and understandably, taxed by the music’s demands.


As she sang, comic-book thought balloons rose from the stage and settle above the heads of the man in red and another figure.  These were screens, and on them appeared animation that broke down Artaud’s drawings into pieces, then recreated them.  In a piece where the composer deliberately offers no stage direction, this was a brilliant and imaginative effect.  I’m not sure what Counts thinks of the piece, and of Artaud, but he avoided the clichés of dramatic madness and let us see, in motion, the material that led to the music.  This is perhaps the first true, essential work of multi-media because it does nothing more than gives us the core concept via all its extant means.  Eventually, an image sets the man’s thought bubble arising out of sight, and as he reaches for he it also rises past the top of the stage, disappearing into his own mind.  The final notes are met with the image of Artaud’s eyes captured briefly in time, before their screen flashes into flame.  In Zorn’s work, nothing is fixed, the skittering mess of madness is captured in dazzling, almost apprehensible detail, before it literally vanishes.


Erwartung connects to this in two ways.  One is via another brilliant stroke of staging. where Thomson has her own thought bubble/screen, on which we see a gorgeous abstraction of the change of seasons through flowers and leaves, easing us into the autumnal mind of the character.  Musically, though Zorn’s voice eschews atonal rigor, the shifting, almost pointillistic musical structure is a close cousin of Schoenberg’s own depiction of a mind muttering to itself.  I am no fan of his dramatic work, I think his method denatures meaning from words, but Thomson is such an expressive, forceful performer that I was gripped by expectation every moment.  Counts makes this a tale of a woman who not only wonders what has happened to her lover, if he is dead, but who has actually killed him, with his body lying on stage, impaled by a knife, and used as a prop.  As she sings, she is accompanied by several versions of herself, like small-bore Furies.  Again, the blocking and choreography is dreadful, enlivened by a moment when one drags the body across the stage by its feet, deadened by a dull, repetitive and predictable descent of each into the stage depths.  And yet, toward the end, the body rises in the most remarkable physical feat I have seen onstage, the performer Jonathan Nosan coming up first via his waist, from there pivoting upright like a human puppet dragged upright by its master.  It is breathtaking and makes dramatic sense, as he embraces Thomson, and she eventually pulls out the dagger.  She’s mad, and we cannot know what is dream and what is real, if anything is, but she has found some kind of peace.  This is in contrast to Zorn, where he accepts what is out of his control – in his company Schoenberg’s conservatism comes through, his need to bring everything back into acceptable bourgeois bounds.


There is a powerful stage element that distracts from the blocking and choreography in Neither, the amazing lighting design by Robert Wierzel.  His colors are clashing, somehow simultaneously bright and washed out, evoking a queasy, compelling, unsettled visual madness that is some kind of combination of an insane asylum disco and “The Corbomite Maneuver.”  The light is a perfect complement to Feldman’s involving, disturbing stasis of the mind.  Beckett is the poker faced arena where active agency and nihilism fuse, producing absurdity.  His brand is not screwball, it’s melancholic, meditative, creating an inner universe.  Is there a better composer/librettist pair?  Beckett’s mature narratives are separated from any notion of reality, and Feldman’s score is equally untethered from the musical reality of structure, elements that mark beginning, end and intervening large and small scale phrases.  The music not only drifts into being, but drifts from pitch to its microtonal variants.  It has a color and a physical quality: imagine standing on the beach, battered by rough surf, staring up at a solid gray sky where tenuous clouds, so misshapen they barely have definition, float at such a slow pace that the eye cannot discern the path they follow, if any.  Add to this the soprano line, sung amazingly well by Cyndia Sieden, that sits implacably in the upper register, just short of a screech.  Seiden still articulates the words, and the demand from composer and librettist seems almost mad itself.  This is a character trapped in a null-state, a prison of her own intellect and imagination.  The madness is almost voluptuous, as if the disease in the mind can be handled and caressed enough that familiarity turns loathing into something close to love.  It is the dreadful shudder of both fear and longing, the experience of opening one’s eyes to finally see that thing that was long thought too horrible to confront.



This is the realm of music and drama as expressions and explorations of the most difficult aspects of life.  Where comic opera not only entertains but connects us through simple human bonds to the characters and then to the rest of the audience, madness like this, not a gesture but a world, connects us to our questions and even fears.  We wonder, as we not only listen and watch but find ourselves avidly attentive to what is unfolding, if this makes sense to us, and as we seek to find a way to unravel and understand these works, we thrill.  “Monodramas” places us at the edge of where we fear to step, and asks if we wish to leap.


That City Opera is presenting the belated New York City premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place is notable and important as an event. That the work itself, and the production, are so powerfully affecting makes it one of the most memorable and aesthetically satisfying nights at the opera in memory.

© Carol Rosegg

A Quiet Place as it exists right now is not a great work, but it is a brilliant work, and the brilliance heavily outweighs the flaws. It’s a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, itself an excellent piece of musical theater, following the main characters Sam and Dinah (Patricia Risley, dynamic but underpowered at times) into the future (present). The initial premiere was met with such great unkindness that Bernstein and librettist Stephen Wadsworth reworked the opera, interpolating Tahiti into the second act. The original second act is an unknown quality, but as the piece currently stands the Tahiti music detracts from the overall context. Bernstein’s musical and dramatic vision was, for him, exploratory and experimental but not haphazard. Perhaps it was the combination of long stretches of atonal music coupled with Wadsworth’s excellent but emotionally abrading libretto that turned off the audiences and critics at the debut in 1983, but heard today those parts of the opera are tremendous, superior in depth, power and interest to the Tahiti music, no matter how much that pleases the crowd.

A Quiet Place is about a death in a family, and the immediate aftermath. Nothing, ultimately, is resolved, as nothing can be – closure is a myth. It’s as realistic a subject there is in opera, and the libretto treats it with even more realism, defining the characters as real people, not the usual quasi-heroic figures whom we struggle to find some aspect to identify with. Bernstein furthers this conception brilliantly, with music that explains and enhances the characterizations as well as any opera does. As a composer, he serves the drama completely, giving the characters exactly what they need to express themselves in the moment. This does mean that there is a great deal of atonal music, but it’s misleading to call this an atonal opera. During most of the first act, Bernstein avoids establishing any key, and so avoids a musical and emotional resolution that would ring false for a section that takes place in a funeral parlor and disintegrates into anguish and chaos. Of course the music is unsettled, because the characters are unsettled.

This is not Schoenberg, however (his resolutely atonal Moses und Aaron, for all it’s fame, is unable to musically convey character by its very nature). The characters are not following strict serial procedures; amidst a long vocal line there are substantial, clear tonal stretches. It’s just that there’s no eight bar phrase ending on a perfect cadence. The power of this hits home towards the latter part of the act, when Sam’s son Junior (sung and acted with beauty and power by Joshua Hopkins), makes his entrance. While the other characters are supposedly sane, Junior is schizophrenic, and his music, completely tonal, is extraordinarily affecting and a brilliantly ambiguous emotional contrast – is Junior thinking more clearly than everyone else, overcome with grief? It’s both so full of artifice and so real.

Compared to this, the appearance of Tahiti seems bland and obvious. The older work does not have the same emotional realism or complexity, it’s an unfortunate release valve on the intensity that had been built. The third act returns the opera to its moorings, with the same emotional power and musical skill, but through more tonal means, as the characters seek, fail, and then eke out some small success at emotional reconciliation. The power of the “Good Morning” aria sung by the daughter, Dede (an excellent Sara Jakubiak), as the curtain rises literally like the sun, is both discrete and a display of Bernstein’s mastery of a rich tonal idiom. The core of the story is the emotional conflict between Sam (Louis Otey, also very fine) and Junior, and this comes to the fore as they play tag, confront each other, fight and embrace with as much love as anger. Bernstein and Wadsworth balance all this so well, the quality of the original work is gripping and searing throughout. This is opera as drama in the ultimate sense. A Quiet Place is a rare work that, through the attenuated, artificial means of characters singing their every thought, touches the audience with the immediacy of an intimate conversation with a loved one. A complete triumph for City Opera: top notch, fluid and sensitive playing from the orchestra and conductor Jayce Ogren, excellent physical production from Christopher Alden, who puts the characters in normal settings, a funeral home, a living room, the streets, with just enough psychological complexity to enhance realism with dreams, and superb costumes from Kaye Voyce, who dresses the characters in a disturbing balance of seventies flamboyance and blandness. The run ends November 21, go.

The other domestic drama City Opera is staging this fall is Richard Strauss’ Intermezzo . If juxtaposing the two works does nothing else, it will establish Bernstein as, without any doubt, a serious composer of serious music that belongs in the repertoire. Strauss already has the honor set in stone, although I for one would like to see more doubts expressed about his work. Strauss can write music, lay notes down on the page, I have no doubt about that. But as to what he seems to be expressing, that strikes me as questionable. To be perfectly blunt, I find Strauss a phony.

Intermezzo is a relatively autobiographical work – Strauss wrote the libretto – about a composer, his wife, and a screwball type romantic misunderstanding. The structure is screwball in that it contains both a ridiculous conflict and a deliberate, knowing extension of the conflict, but without any real zaniness or much humor. Perhaps there is humor in the words and music, but Strauss has awful comic timing. The problem is his music. He was an exceedingly skillful composer and enjoyed, perhaps more than anything else, letting us know how skillful he was all the time. His style is busy-ness, constant, almost frenetic activity, music that not only underlines the vocal content but underlines itself. It’s as if he doesn’t trust our responses and has to constantly remind us how we are supposed to feel, like the overdone movies of Paul Thomas Anderson. I seriously question his aesthetic judgement, even in supposed masterpieces like Der Rosenkavalier. Also, although I am not myself in the middle of an angry, loveless marriage and raising neglected children, I can understand and sympathize with what Bernstein is trying to tell me. I find that I cannot, however, sympathize with the domestic foibles of the Viennese bourgeoisie between the wars. This is Strauss’ life, and it’s not interesting to me. So, I find Intermezzo like I find all of his work, a polished, dazzling nothingness.

Mary Dunleavy and Nicholas Pallesen, © Carol Rosegg

That being said, I’m alone in this interpretation, and many people love Strauss. They will be pleased by this production, which is literal, straightforward and charming, with the period appeal of an early society talkie. The leads are lively and sing well, Mary Dunleavy dominating the show as the wife, Christine, and Nicholas Pallesen sympathetic as the composer and Strauss stand-in, Robert Storch. George Manahan conducts the orchestra, which sounded a little stretched in the first few scenes but caught their footing eventually and played lustrously. For what it’s worth, this is well-done Strauss.

This Week, 25 October 2010

Where I’ll be, where I wish I’ll be, where you might want to be:

  • Tuesday October 26: Le Poisson Rouge to see Steve Lehman’s Octet.  Some of the smartest, toughest, musically sophisticated, interesting and exciting jazz being made these days.
  • Wednesday October 27: R. Murray Schafer opens this year’s Ear To The Earth Festival (a rare appearance from the composer and author of the most important book about listening there is).
  • Saturday October 30: The best thing about A House in Bali is the music, and the composer Evan Ziporyn is bringing more of his work and his own playing to Zankel Hall.
  • Sunday October 31: Intermezzo at City Opera.  I am deeply fond of City Opera, so much so I’m looking forward to their production of this work by a composer, Richard Strauss, who I loathe.  Trick or treat!


My interview with New York City Opera‘s Artistic Director George Steel is up at Classical TV, give it a look.  I cannot overstate how great it is to have City Opera back and Steel in charge.  It’s a company that places the most emphasis on the works, not on the stars and gala trappings of opera productions.  The singing and playing are top notch, the theater is in great shape and there are plenty of affordable tickets (although it seems A Quiet Place is sold out), and the crowds are the most socially diverse that I see at any musical events.


This promises excellent high concept, an opera on the life and times of a 1940s B-movie actress; libretto is aphoristic and tight, maybe too tight but we’ll see . . . if Oceanic Verses made a claim to portray multifaceted womanhood, here’s an actual facet . . . queasy, drifting strings over phased electric guitar ostinato, Gordon writes punk music for the orchestra, thank goodness, three women singing on top, idiomatic vocal lines over this music, threatening and exciting, very effective . . . like a B movie about a nightmare coming to life, loving this so far . . . low strings join in now, bottom end adding lots of emotional resonance . . . that was Scene 9, love to hear what came before! Scene 11, nice combination of Gordon’s own style with clichés of B horror movie music, here you want such a thing because it is part of the story he is telling, clichés should be kept safe and used only in appropriate circumstances! [Battery may not last to end of piece, I will have posted then continue with Twitter feed] . . . Gordon’s style is repetitive, hypnotically so, he’s witty in this, but not arch or ironic, he enjoys the story and the material, he’s not mocking something easily mocked, he’s fundamentally sympathetic to his leading lady, his Diva . . . would like to see this on stage, the music is strong and it’s the kind of subject that a director and designer would have great fun with. Characters singing to each other in short, repeated texts, something out of Glass or Meredith Monk, it really works in something that can be stylized, and certainly this is a subject for that. Acquanetta hints at unsuspected depths . . . [posting now with some few minutes left in performance, before reserve power runs out].

“Oceanic Verses”

Not clear what this is about, but perhaps the music will illuminate . . . quasi-mythical tableau of an ancient and perhaps imaginary Italy . . . plangent opening, string harmonics, tubular bells, rubato, declamatory vocal line, but this singing from Helga Davis is atrocious, she may be a good singer but she’s all wrong for this kind of music . . . Prologue dispensed, here is Scene 1, triple-meter feel-good style ‘world’ music, the film is that of the sun on the horizon . . . now there’s an aria for “Man,” a bass-baritone, with text from Dante . . . derivative, now here’s the Middle Eastern/Renaissance flavor . . . this is not going well, it’s doing everything you would expect and what it is leading one to expect is the obvious, the clichéd . . . tonal, has very strong tonal centers and resonance, but it’s stating the obvious as if it were something profound . . . percussion line under the stentorian singing is very glam-metal, but without the wit . . . this vocal writing is frankly infantile, it has no art and the taste of the cover of a bodice-ripper . . . Scene 2, the music doesn’t differentiate what is supposed to be happening, and the movie seems to have disappeared, but since it had almost no content I hadn’t noticed . . . very weird, slightly harsh and pointless ululation solo now . . . Prestini is trying to capture the quality of traditional Italian folk songs, which stretch tunings and are full of ululation, but she either lacks understanding of what the material is or the technique to adapt it in any way that makes organic, musical sense within her piece . . . this scene of women in the fields presents itself as the central focus, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be that . . . now voice and marimba, exceedingly obvious and treacly . . the film is now the eye on a face . . . this is wrong in so many ways, one on top of the other . . . waves on a beach and Italianized, folked-up Délibes . . . the movie actually dumber and more amateurish than the music . . . the music has nice, simple and lyrical in the strings, but at this point it’s hard to care . . . now a waltz, and a bearded dude is playing the squeezebox and singing Italian, badly, oh il mio papa! Sorry, I forgot that’s there’s a didgeridoo in the orchestra . . . this is like Eros Ramazzatti singing music from The Lion King as orchestrated by Enya, when it could use a healthy does of Paolo Conte . . . Fundamentally, this is sentimental in a completely immature way, and the musical choices come out of that, and it’s also completely self-serious . . . hold on, squeeze-box fu! This appears to be the conclusion, at least I hope it is, and the dramatic importance of the music has noting to do with anything that has gone on. Actually, it doesn’t seem to know how to end, so maybe it never will . . . I don’t know what the future holds for Oceanic Verses, but I think it needs to be rethought from scratch.

“Revolution of Forms”

This is the one I’m most excited about. Anthony Davis has done interesting work in opera already, Prieto is an excellent contemporary jazz musician, the librettists are experienced and talented. On the opposite side, there’s real danger already in two composers collaborating, and with two librettists added things could either succeed gloriously or fail dramatically. But that’s opera!

Music hasn’t started yet, but this is a good looking libretto; punchy, aphoristic, neither prose nor poetry, the kind of words on a page that allow a lot to be filled in by music, as opposed to the previous libretto where the words left nothing for the composer to do but to accompany. Kneeplay 1, Golf Course, 1961, with Che and Fidel; combination of contemporary music writing and Afro-Cuban rhythms, crafting has it really working, firmly in the Bernstein aesthetic, which is a great American aesthetic; Scene 1, School of Modern Dance in Havana . . . something like a son rhythm going on, with syncopated strings and chorus, polyphonic, polyrhythmic, this is really, really good . . . relaxed, sweet meringué with Greek chorus, musically great . . . Not a complaint, but I think I’d like to hear how this sounds with the voices of the characters switched, the lead Porro as a baritone, not a tenor, Garatti and Gottardi as tenors. There’s something about the music that centers it in the abdomen, and I think that the baritone fits the power the best . . . Scene 2, Porro’s Office; now with his wife, tenor sounds better – this is the way my mind works, since I’m an opera composer . . . this music is a real pleasure, has the attraction of the Afro-Cuban rhythms, but it’s not pandering or ‘cross-over,’ it’s serious, sincere and fully expressive of it’s own drama . . . Scene 3; a dark swagger . . . there are characters with and against each other, individuals arrayed against the masses, the orchestra conveying and intermediating the music of each, this is not only very well done but also really stretches into the kind of things that only opera can do, this piece is ambitious, understands its own form and possibilities, and is really successful. Really hope they get this on stage. I see dancing . . . and it is good.

“Evangeline Revisited”

Libretto is in French with English translation, what will they sing? . . . Cello solo starts Act II, Scene 1, in Longfellow’s study, minor key, mournful, agitated via dissonance . . . pulse is coming in, varied between fast and slow, like the way Mahler uses it in Das Lied . . . Longfellow is sung by a countertenor, interesting choice not explained by composer . . . singing in French, music and vocal line impassioned . . . highly melodramatic . . . music is lyrical and even lush . . . Soprano line equally impassioned, coloratura . . . libretto is dense, seems way too wordy, perhaps that’s why they are singing in French, it just is easier and sounds better to string out so many words. It’s composed of paragraphs, which I feel is not the way to write a libretto, it’s not prose, prose doesn’t work, which is why Terrence McNally’s ones don’t work. Music directly underlines what the singers are saying and feeling . . . it’s clear, but the combination of words and music seems more like a lecture, to my taste, than musical art . . . okay, that coloratura pitch is way overdone . . . singers are giving it their all . . . now Act II, Scene 5, camped in the Ozarks . . . music throughout has been Neo-Romantic. Quiet her, after the hectoring opening scene . . . Nice use of tubular bells as a melody instrument . . . this music for the Shawnee Woman is the best yet, although everything is still in a slightly too high, too overstated pitch and emotional range for my taste, which Evangeline I now reinforces, but perhaps the needed contrasts are in the parts of the work we are not hearing. Music is polished and quite nicely shaped here . . . this is very much in the Puccini tradition, in the way the characters sing to each other, I’m curious what staging does for it . . . this takes fewer chances than the previous work, and so succeeds in a less absolute way, how satisfying that is is a matter of taste, mine prefers Poulenc to Puccini, but your mileage may vary.


Libretto is the interior monologue of a salesgirl fetching shoes from the stacks, on the page it scans nicely, with nice rhythm and shape good variation in phrase lengths. George Steel is introducing the program in general before the music begins . . . there is usually a good demand for tickets, and there was a small line outside for stand-by tickets, but there’s still at least 25% empty seats. Steel is calling for applause for the City Opera orchestra, which is deserved as they have sounded great in everything I’ve heard this year. And so, Inventory . . . complex opening gesture, with skittering flute . . . very nice setting of the libretto, emphasis on clarity, articulation, the shape and meaning of the words coupled to the musical expression of emotional meaning and changing emotional states, this is the fundamental craft of writing operatic music. Music offers a complex comment on the vocal line, aesthetically appropriate and fiendish to play. These are essentially reading sessions, but the orchestra is handling the music pretty well. I think an hour of rehearsal and they would master it.

The voice is opening up nice and big here, Lisa Vroman sounds quite good, lines are:

I’m sure that I’ve met you before
You bought blood oranges in Pucelli’s
And your smile is Botticelli

Interesting piece, well crafted. It’s an interior experience which is great subject for opera. Also, the interior drama and seemingly mundane setting are a good combination. Hopefully they’ll get this produced.

Bono Vox

I’m at the Skirball Center just off Washington Square Park, part of the NYU campus. The orchestra is filing in and warming up and the first performance will begin at 2PM EST. Vox is City Opera’s performing lab/workshop/panel/concert hybrid which presents excerpts from operas that are in various stages of development, and hopefully headed towards the stage. While the works may not be finished, or may be subject to further revision, that each is on the program this afternoon shows that there is substantial material to hear. I’ll be offering my stream-of-consciousness thoughts as they go, so stay tuned.

This Saturday’s program is as follows:

2PM – 3PM:


Composer Brian Current, Librettist Anton Piatigorsky, Conductor Carolyn Kuan. The single character, Shopgirl, sung by Lisa Vroman

Evangeline Revisited

Composer Julian Wachner, Librettist Alexis Nouss, Conductor Scott Dunn. The characters are:

Longfellow – Daniel Bubeck
Evangeline 2 – Amanda Pabyan
Shawnee Woman – Krysty Swann
Evangeline 1 – Kerri Marcinko

3:20 – 4:40PM:

Revolution of Forms

Composers Anthony Davis and Dafnis Prieto, Librettists Charles Koopelman and Alma Guillermoprieto, Conductor Steven Osgood, Chorus Master Charles F. Prestinari. The characters are:

Ricardo Porro – John Rodger
Vitttorio Garatti – Ross Benoliel
Roberto Gottardi – Matthew Curra
Alina – Michelle Areyzaga
Quintana – Gabriela Garcia

with the New York City Opera Chorus and Adonis Gonzalez, piano, Charles Flores, bass, and Cliff Almond ad Juan Castellanos, percussion

Oceanic Verses

Composer/Librettist Paola Prestini, Film by Ali Hossaini, Conductor Robert Trevino, Chorus Master Charles F. Prestinari. The characters are:

Queen – Helga Davis
Marinaio – Claudio Prima
Mother – Hila Pittmann
Man – Christopher Burnett

With women of the New York City Opera Chorus



Composer Michael Gordon, Librettist Deborah Artman, Conductor Robert Trevino, Chorus Master Charles F. Presinari. The characters are:

Acquanetta – Heather Johnson
Ape – Amelia Watkins
Brainy Woman – Katherine Jolly
Director – Matthew Curran
Doctor – Jon-Michael Ball

With the New York City Opera Chorus