MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

El último sueño de Frida y Diego at San Diego Opera

Guadalupe Paz as Frida Kahlo and Alfredo Daza as Diego Rivera; photo credit: Karli Cadel

My review of the world premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s new opera about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, which sets a libretto by Nilo Cruz, is available here at Musical America (no paywall through the weekend):

SAN DIEGO  — At the center of El último sueño de Frida y Diego (The Last Dream of Frida and Diego), Frida Kahlo decides to cross over from the underworld and return to the realm of the living. It’s a conceit that cries out for operatic treatment, and composer Gabriela Lena Frank and librettist Nilo Cruz oblige with an inspired fusion of music and poetry. 

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Filed under: American opera, review, San Diego Opera

Tobias Picker’s New Opera Awakenings

Here’s another premiere that was forced to cancel: Awakenings, the latest opera from Tobias Picker, which has been scheduled to open at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Its source is the fascinating book by Oliver Sacks — who had been a good friend of Picker — about those who survived an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica in the 1920s.

Sacks drew on his work with this patients in the 1960s for Awakenings, originally published in 1973, which prompted W.H. Auden’s verdict that the book is a masterpiece. Harold Pinter was inspired by Awakenings to write his play A Kind of Alaska; a movie of the Sacks book was made in 1990, starring Robin Williams.

The writer and physician Aryeh Lev Stollman, who is Picker’s husband, wrote the libretto. The world premiere production was to have been directed by James Robinson and conducted by Roberto Kalb, with Jarrett Porter creating the role of Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Here’s a link to an interactive conversation that was held by OTSL about the planned production.

Filed under: American opera, Tobias Picker

The Mother of Us All Tonight

This evening at 7pm EST, the Met Museum hosts the digital premiere of The Mother of Us All by Virgil Thomson to Gertrude Stein’s libretto about Susan B. Anthony and the women’s suffrage movement.

The production, which was filmed during live performances at the Met’s sculpture court in the American Wing in February, is a collaboration between Juilliard and the New York Philharmonic (and part of the latter’s ongoing Project 19 initiative.

Watch the premiere on Facebook, YouTube, or at the bottom of the Met’s page here.

Louisa Proske, the production’s brilliant director, offers an introduction here:

Filed under: American opera, directors, Juilliard, New York Philharmonic

Anthony Davis’s New Opera The Central Park Five

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Cedric Berry as Yusef Salaam, Orson Van Gay as Raymond Santana, Derrell Acon as Antron McCray, Bernard Holcomb as Kevin Richardson, and Nathan Granner as Khorey Wise image (c) Keith Ian Polakoff

I was privileged to have the opportunity to review the remarkable Anthony Davis’s new opera on an urgently relevant subject. The Central Park Five opened this past weekend at Long Beach Opera and will again be presented this Saturday and Sunday.

SAN PEDRO — “Now, I am awake,” the protagonists of The Central Park Five sing collectively in the Prologue. Projected headline images telescope the timeline: these are the five men of color who were accused in 1989, while still only teenagers, of the vicious beating and rape of a white woman who had gone out for a jog in Central Park…

 

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Filed under: American opera, Anthony Davis, Long Beach Opera, Musical America, review

Proving Up in Omaha

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Opera Omaha production of Proving Up, photo (c) Emily Hardman

Missy Mazzoli’s opera Proving Up, which just opened at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, made a strong impression on me when I got to see the premiere staging by James Darrah at Opera Omaha’s ONE Festival in the spring. Here’s what I wrote for Musical America:

April 27, 2018
Proving Up both opened and closed ONE Festival—I saw the final performance, on April 22—and the production was specially tailored to its non-traditional location in a gallery space at KANEKO, a set of warehouses in Omaha’s historic Old Market district that have been converted into the headquarters of the artist Jun Kaneko.
In this followup to their acclaimed collaboration Breaking the Waves (also directed by Darrah), Mazzoli and Vavrek have again hit pay dirt, crafting a suspenseful, gripping, and unsettling work of music theater. In the synergy achieved at ONE with an imaginative design team, a first-rate cast, and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) led with complete commitment by Christopher Rountree, they have also created another durable proof of the vitality of contemporary opera.
Proving Up draws on material notably different from the Lars von Trier-inspired Breaking the Waves. Mazzoli remarked in a talkback discussion after the performance that she wanted to explore the impact of the American Dream on those who have been motivated to follow its promise but ended up failing. The mortgage crisis and Occupy Wall St. movement provided initial impulses, but the last U.S. presidential election—and the questions it raised about American values and myths—naturally left an imprint on Mazzoli’s and Vavrek’s ideas.
The opera adapts a short story published by the American writer Karen Russell in her 2013 collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Set “somewhere in the plains of the young State of Nebraska” just after the Civil War, Proving Up centers around the ordeal of the Zegner family, who have taken the risk of leaving the settled East Coast behind to claim their parcel of land according to the promise of the Homestead Act.
Actual ownership can only be gained after a five-year period by following a set of stipulations, including the (fictive) requirement to have a home with a glass window. Pa Zegner has managed to obtain this holy grail and agrees to share it with his neighbors so that together they can “prove up” and obtain their deeds from the awaited government inspector. How he came by the coveted window is the dark counterstory, suggesting an array of related but inconclusive narratives of retribution, vengeance, or patterns of a fateful curse.
On the surface, it operated like a gothic horror tale; but thanks to Vavrek’s well-constructed libretto and Mazzoli’s memorable characterizations—as well as the pacing and deft use of symbolism in Darrah’s staging—Proving Up had a compelling mythic resonance.
For the KANEKO space, Adam Rigg designed a 72-foot-long runway box filled with dirt as the stage—a vast grave encompassing the two small graves of the Zegner daughters. This stage divided the audience, which sat on a motley collection of old chairs, into two halves facing each other.
Wooden panels at one end formed the house and, at the other, made a sculptural formation hinting at the distant horizon. The ICE players were seated in full view on the latter side, with Rountree facing the singers (and audience). Pablo Santiago’s lighting was especially outstanding: following the spirit of the production as a whole, he recalibrated its traditional mood-setting role, making it an active character that refracted the narrative’s sustained sense of foreboding.
Mazzoli’s score for a Turn of the Screw-like chamber ensemble (three winds, two brass, a percussionist, piano/harpsichord, harp, and strings, with vernacular sonorities like harmonica used in unexpected ways) proved resourceful, original, and effective. She evoked various aspects of the natural landscape—above all a sense of dryness corresponding with the drought that contributes to the Zegners’ doom—but also convincingly depicted the extreme emotional states to which this small cast of characters is driven.
Mazzoli showed a gift for giving her characters personality with her vocal writing, using exaggerations of range to powerful effect for the terrifyingly mysterious Sodbuster (Andrew Harris) who looms in the final scenes. John Moore conveyed the ruthless drive of the patriarch but also made him pitiable, while Talise Trevigne covered a vast emotional spectrum in solos that laid bare Ma Zegner’s anguish and anger alike. In a multilayered performance, Michael Slattery captured the mixture of innocence, curiosity, and fear of the youngest son Miles, who is entrusted with the task of sharing the window. Abigail Nims and Delaram Kamareh sang in haunting harmonies as the ghostly Zegner daughters, and Sam Shapiro acted the non-singing role of the incapacitated older son.
The story’s local color has obvious relevance for audiences in the American heartland who may have descended from 19th-century homesteaders. But Proving Up is made with the imagination and purpose to speak to anyone capable of being moved by the larger questions it raises. The production’s next stop will be in New York in September; redesigning it for the Miller Theatre space promises to be an epic challenge in itself.

Filed under: American opera, Missy Mazzoli, Musical America, review

Opera Omaha’s Inaugural ONE Festival Proves Up to Its Ambitions

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Proving Up by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek, directed by James Darrah, with John Moore, Talise Trevigne, Michael Slattery, Cree Carrico, Abigail Nims, Andrew Harris, and Sam Shapiro; photo (c) Emily Hardman

My coverage of the inaugural ONE Festival at Opera Omaha is now live on Musical America. (I’m afraid there’s a paywall.)

I devoted Part 1 to the world premiere of Proving Up, the brilliant new opera by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek in James Darrah’s staging:

Part 1

Part 2

Filed under: American opera, directors, Musical America, new opera, Opea Omaha, review

Alice Goodman: New York Times Profile

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Alice Goodman in Fulbourn, England. Credit Nadine Ijewere for “The New York Times”

My New York Times story on the poet and librettist Alice Goodman is now online:

When “Nixon in China” had its premiere at Houston Grand Opera on Oct. 22, 1987, there had never been anything quite like it. No previous American opera — perhaps no opera, ever — had so boldly dealt with recent political history…

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Filed under: Alice Goodman, American literature, American opera, John Adams, librettists, New York Times, Peter Sellars, Uncategorized

The Apple of His Eye: Review of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

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EDWARD PARKS (STEVE JOBS) AND JONAH SORENSON (YOUNG STEVE JOBS) PHOTO CREDIT: KEN HOWARD FOR SANTA FE OPERA, 2017

My review of the new Mason Bates/Mark Campbell opera is now out on Musical America:

SANTA FE, N.M.—“Hope or hype? … Score or snore?” Early into The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the snappy questions pour out in rapid-fire succession from an ensemble attending the first public announcement of the iPhone in 2007.

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Filed under: American opera, Mark Campbell, Mason Bates, Musical America, review, Santa Fe Opera

Connecting the Dots: Steve Jobs on the Opera Stage

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Edward Parks III, who will create the role of Steve Jobs; photo: Dario Acosta/Santa Fe Opera

My feature for Opera Now on The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the new opera by Mason Bates and Mark Campbell being premiered later this month at Santa Fe Opera:

Six years after his death at the age of 56, Steve Jobs has achieved an almost mythical status as the cultural icon and technological innovator behind Apple.

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Filed under: American opera, Mason Bates, Santa Fe Opera

Only Connect: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

My preview feature on the highly anticipated new opera by Mason Bates is in this month’s issue of London-based Opera Now (available only via subscription).

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will have its world premiere production at Santa Fe Opera starting 23 July. Co-commissioning companies that will stage the opera in future seasons are San Francisco and Seattle Opera.

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mason Bates

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