Thursday, March 24, 2016

Crazy In Love: LUCIA/DIDO at Heartbeat Opera

In Tiny Thoughts, we respond to a performance based on how a friend would recount their outing to the theatre.

What's the deal with this show?
A young company in town, Heartbeat Opera, presented an ambitious double-bill for their festival's opening night: a ninety-minute adaptation of Lucia di Lammermoor with the complete Dido & Aeneas, both with small orchestral ensemble.

Carla Jablonski and the Dido ensemble, photo by Russ Rowland

How was the piece?
Of course Lucia and Dido are both celebrated classics of the repertoire - however, their stunning music and timeless themes are countered by imperfect plot progression that hamstrings the drama, and it all just goes on for too damn long. The directors here managed some brave adaptations: Lucia was cut in half, and Dido had many of the interludes cut or rearranged and roles merged.

How was it executed? 
Lucia's centerpiece was the title character's own mental and physical isolation - the production was bookended with the stark image of a single patient strapped to a metal hospital bed.

Photo by Russ Rowland featuring Jamilyn Manning-White

For someone who has seen Lucia before but doesn't know it intimately, the story unfolded swiftly with a focus fixed on how powerless Lucia is to determine her own fate. There were costume choices that hinted at an Italian mafioso or urban gang context, which framed Lucia as even more of a sacrificial lamb, a woman whose worth lies only in whom she marries.

Dido was presented as a five-singer ensemble, with ladies in waiting also serving as witches, and often the entire ensemble singing the many choral interjections. Similar to Lucia, this ensemble energy helped focus the action on manipulating the title character into her own demise. It's hard work, bringing down the kingdom of Carthage - you need some bad-ass characters to do it, and this production delivered. It was also the funniest and sexiest Dido I've seen. (Note: Dido is usually neither funny, nor sexy.)

The Dido ensemble, photo by Russ Rowland

But what made this evening remarkable wasn't just the smart adaptations, it was how both productions used a collaborative instrumental ensemble and a facile use of space and texture to create a sparkling, unexpected theatrical experience.

I could list so many moments in both Lucia and Dido that made you go "whaaaa?": characters digging into a stage which is also earth - a percussionist following the soprano's every cadenza - an ace bandage that becomes a love bond and also a wedding corset - an old bathtub that becomes a witch's brew and a poisonous pond - instrumentalists who suddenly stand, enter or exit and become part of the set, part of the action - an electric guitar, a toy piano or a dissonant chaos adding unexpected sound and texture - indeed, there were surprises.

Photos by Russ Rowland

Theatre nerds call these surprises "revelations," as in revelation of space, of thing, of character. It's when something becomes something the audience didn't think possible. A tiny "wow." This is something opera often lacks. How cool to see an opera company also make great theatre.

Who were the stars?
Props go to Jamilyn Manning-White, who carried the title role of Lucia with her firecracker energy, palpable fragility, and focused soprano.

Photo by Russ Rowland featuring Jamilyn Manning-White

John Taylor Ward stood out for his slimy and sinuous portrayal of the chaplain Raimondo in Lucia. He then turned around and played a quite convincing Aeneas (a difficult antagonist role that gets few scenes but makes everything happen) with his white silk shirt and arrogant air. He then also managed to support the witch scenes as a hooded, quadrupedal figure.

I don't know many baritones who will successfully sing a role like Aeneas, nail a comprimario role like Raimondo, and then get down on their knees and play an unnamed witch-dog. Cheers to to the "Heartbeats" for finding one.

Photo by Russ Rowland featuring John Taylor Ward

Cheers are also due to Christopher Preston Thompson, who played the Sorceress with an edgy trans punch - stepping into a bathtub in platform heels and fishnet tights, fearlessly playing his tenor and countertenor instruments, radiating the vocal and emotional counterpoint to Carla Joblonski's imperial Dido. (Full-disclosure: Christopher is a good friend of ours, and was excited to make his fishnet-tight debut.)

Christopher Preston Thompson, flanked by witches John Taylor Ward, Anna Slate, and Marie Marquis, photo by Russ Rowland

And enough cannot be said about the fantastic arrangements of both ensembles, led by Daniel Schlosberg and Jacob Ashworth; the way solo singers became connected to the instruments, instrumentalists seemed affected by the music and story - it felt like a competitive sporting event that had never happened before. This is a quite a feat with music that is hundreds of years old.

Photo by Jill Steinberg, with Bill Solomon, Jamilyn Manning-White and Daniel Schlosberg

What was the venue experience like?
I thought I'd been to every church-come-theatre on West 46th Street, but I was wrong. This one was Theatre St. Clement's, and their space is a cavernous black box that feels almost grand. The red velvet stairs through the building add some charm, and the lower floor had a reception room that served as a space for the gala reception.

Hearing Co-Artistic directors Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard speak at the reception was really illuminating. They have a giddy excitement and genuine friendliness around their art and their company that is wonderfully refreshing, especially in an industry that still depends too much on elitism, intellectual garbage and exclusivity.

A name like Heartbeat Opera might seem a bit corny until these artists convince you they are, in fact, bringing it to you from the heart.

The artistic directors as their silly sweet selves.

All in all, was the outing worth paying a babysitter?
If you're an opera fan, I think I chose the best night to experience it for several hours. It was genius that the gala happened between the two shows rather than after, so at least we could drink in between and then skedaddle afterwards. All in all it was a compelling night for opera in our new century, and we're looking forward to Heartbeat's next main event. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Tiny Thoughts: Dog Days

In Tiny Thoughts, we respond to a performance based on how a friend would recount their outing to the theatre.

What's the deal with this show?

The New York premiere of an opera composed by David T. Little with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, about a family trying to survive in their suburban house after an apocalyptic war has left them isolated and hungry.

Presented by the PROTOTYPE Festival at NYU's Skirball Center.

How was the piece?

The piece is pretty fantastic. It's riveting vocal writing that has all the jagged edges of modernity while still landing in a rich, belly-warming way. Mr. Little weaves electronic "found sounds" into a relatively traditional nine-piece ensemble. It's important to note that unlike many new operas where the instrumentalists have had little time with the score, in this case the ensemble, called Newspeak, was one Mr. Little created himself and has performed with for years.

Lauren Worsham with James Bobick standing over John Kelly, with Newspeak in the background
Rather than a typical narrative cycle, this piece grows in tension until the very horrifying, inevitable end. It may take thirty minutes too long to get there, but the end result is so harrowing and thrilling, we forgave the extra half hour. And Vavrek deserves credit for extrapolating a great deal from the short story by Judy Budnitz.

How was it executed? 

With a minimal unit set and projections, the production by Robert Woodruff showcased the performances, which were overall extraordinary. The projections provided aerial shots of the family scampering for ration drops, rendering them animals hunted, or perhaps missile targets. However, despite both the instrumentalists and singers being amplified and well-balanced, my friends and I had a hard time understanding a lot of the words, and wondered why there weren't supertitles on the giant projection screen.

One reason for the difficulty in comprehension was that some cast members sang in a vernacular diction, whereas some used the more traditional Mid-Atlantic pronunciation and as a result were not understood consistently. I often wonder when the opera world will fully make this switch into modern American singing.

In the short story, the "dog" of the title is literally a man in a Halloween dog suit, while the dog of the opera was more disturbing. Played by artist and choreographer John Kelly, the dog resembled a sinewy, homeless hippie, covered in patches of fur and dirt and duct tape, panting and pawing through an unfeeling wasteland.

Who were the stars?

With any new work, the stars are the creators, Mr. Little and Mr. Vavrek. Beyond that, the piece seemed to be a vehicle driven and dominated by soprano Lauren Worsham as the preteen Lisa. It came as no surprise to learn that the original story was told from her character's perspective.

Ms. Worsham's aria to the mirror, in which the projection screen becomes a giant fluorescent reflection of her desperate face, is worth the time of the entire evening. Lisa fights through the searing pain of her isolation by searching for lost friends in the reflection, and adoring her own, skinny, hallowed image, telling herself how beautiful she is, how she finally looks like a model. Heartbreaking to say the least.

It was one of those moments where you forget you're watching an opera, the lines just seem to pour from a human's soul. In the final scene, she copes with a sudden loss with such determination despite her frailty - Ms. Worsham held us silently in the palm of her starving hands.

In an understated performance as Lisa's mother, silken soprano Marnie Breckenridge heroically portrayed the spiritual heart of this dying world.

What was the venue experience like?

I was surprised to find online that the Skirball Center seats nearly 900 - we were in parterre seats off the orchestra and it seemed much cozier. At the Saturday night performance of this much-buzzed about production, it was a celebrity parade of opera people.

So which would be better - having no intermissions so we can focus on the art and not who we feel compelled to say hello to - or having a bigger bar to allow for the networking and socializing sessions before and after the show? As it was, the management started flickering lights at us to get us out of the lobby afterwards. Felt a little sad after such a thrilling theatre event.

All in all, was the outing worth paying a babysitter?

I think seeing Lauren Worsham do anything is worth paying a babysitter, but this piece is particularly significant for its deft use of a minimal, visible chamber ensemble, use of amplification and video art, a fiercely timely subject matter, tour-de-force performances, and an evocative, satisfying soundscape - all elements new opera needs today.

Tiny Thoughts: Verdi by LOFTOPERA

Again we have some Tiny Thoughts on a show we saw last fall, touching upon the basic points of what I would tell a friend if they asked, "How was the show?"

So what's the deal with this show?

It was a staged concert of Verdi duets, performed at The Muse, a giant warehouse-turned-aerial-studio in south Bushwick, Brooklyn. 

How was the piece? Or the stuff they chose?

The founders promised to showcase big dramatic Verdi singing, and that they did. There were scenes from Luisa Miller, Traviata, Aida, and Trovatore.

The cast with musical director and pianist Sean Kelly

How was it executed? 

There was a clever symmetry to the presentation, with four singers on four square platforms in a square formation with the grand piano in the middle of it all. Each singer seemed to be enthroned on an island that only the music could penetrate. Lighting was stark floodlights, scorching performers and audience alike; at one moment I felt it was a boxing match I was watching, fighters trying to sing each other out of their various rings, sweat and saliva flying. Exciting!

The polished wardrobe of the singers failed to reflect the visceral surroundings, but it was a nice juxtaposition to see well-heeled opera divas drinking my local Brooklyn beer.

It was also the perfect length - under ninety minutes with no intermission, and started at 9pm so I had time to get dinner after work. Bonus!

Who were the stars?

The director John de los Santos gets props for staging a concert in a way that felt like something visceral, and spatially epic. The four singers were well matched -- baritone Joshua Jeremiah was a fun watch from the first row -- he made you believe Germont had fallen in love with Violetta at first meeting, but was still driven to hurt her. The bright, blazen color of his baritone could start a fire. The mezzo Karolina Pilou had a fascinating color as well, like dark granite in the low range. The tenor Dominick Rodriguez was solidly heroic, just hit everything right. Soprano Suzanne Vinnick was lively and used formidable chest resonance and dynamics, though her performance was muddied by an unwavering outpouring of emotion.

What was the venue experience like?

We walked in and didn't know anyone -- what a great surprise to see fresh faces at an opera event! Especially when we had to walk down a few deserted, dark streets to get there. I finally bumped into one old-school opera colleague and he said,

"No, I've never been to this area of reminds me of Soho in the 80s, but without the buckets of cocaine."

Instead, there were Brooklyn brews a flowing, and there was a magically naughty moment when Jeremiah went to get another beer from the bar during the Brindisi finale. Yes, a bar should indeed be open during the show, AND be five feet from the stage.

I only wish there had been an aerial show as well.

Babysitter principle?

Absolutely, what a great date night. The Muse might be hard to get to, but the nearby Nowadays bar made the evening complete. Many audience members were also sporting their light blue wrist bands, showing we'd all been for a drink, or three, before the show.

Tiny Thoughts: Fleeting Animal

Last fall we began the season bustling our butts around seeing shows, and decided to try a new way of writing about them, especially those that do not get much press.

Then a sudden personal tragedy befell our team the last week of September and we have been derailed for a few months. But now we're back, and thought, what the hell, let's post some notes from the fall, albeit belated.

We're calling this new series of micro-reviews Tiny Thoughts. The purpose of Tiny Thoughts is not so much to judge a performance as it is to humbly give credit to outstanding performers and creatives, and ask some more pointed questions than just value judgements:

What is exciting about THIS SHOW, RIGHT NOW? Why is is worth PAYING A BABYSITTER to hoof it to the venue and sit through it?

We hope to present an encapsulation of what a thoughtful, clever friend would tell you about the show after seeing it - she might not mention everyone who contributed, but she's not going to talk dirty about anyone, either.

So we begin with a very unusual piece performed in six different Vermont towns in September 2015. The opera was based on a beloved book by David Budbill about rural Vermont life called Judevine, which has since become a the kind of local classic that Vermont high schoolers all have as required reading. So here we go:

What is the deal with this show?

It's a revival of an opera from 2000 by Eric Nielsen about poor rural Vermonters, and essentially a love story between a single mom living in a trailer and a Vietnam vet who struggles between rebuilding his life and managing deafening depression.

What's the piece like?

There are moments of absolutely bittersweet wonder in the score, which is sampled here. It blends modern harmonies with moments of blues and swing. The tough part is the sparkle moments are weighed down by cringe-worthy, stereotypical local color, which ultimately is much less interesting than the central love story. There is also an unfortunate subplot about provincial racism that really derails the central conflict of the story. What could have been a heart-rending ending was also derailed by predictable, trivial details about one of the main characters.

Tenor Adam Hall and soprano Mary Bonhag

How was the piece produced?

The show was designed to tour, so the set and lighting was minimal. The more complex challenge was for the vocal ensemble, who had very difficult roles and music to sing. There was also so many different theatrical styles used in the staging by Margo Whitcomb - albeit fitting for a cross-genre score - that the audience had to constantly adjust. There was a musical theatre softball scene, moments of abstract movement involving fabric and stones, and other more naturalistic styles. Perhaps most uncomfortable was the subplot about racism, and yet somehow the ensemble lacked enough singers of color to confidently pull off a fun scene of blues riffing. And I must mention that there were not only simulated gunshots, but the prop guns were pointed directly at the audience, which flies against any theatrical code of conduct I know. However, the music was indeed impressively executed by conductor Anne Decker and her seven-piece ensemble TURNmusic

Who were the standout artists?

Cheers go to Maestra Decker and her ensemble. The soprano Mary Bonhag gave a committed performance with a silvery soprano. The women in the ensemble -- Jessica Allen, Stefanie Weigand, Rebecca Bailey, and Lisa Raatikainen -- were also remarkable in their presence. Baritone Thomas Beard lent a surprisingly powerful, colorful voice to the production as the Vietnam vet William. 

What was the venue experience like?

We saw the production at Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Vermont, which is a gorgeously renovated, historic hall. There was also a companion gallery exhibit, a really beautiful touch.

Babysitter principle? 

I would have been upset to pay the babysitter an extra hour for all the irrelevant scenes in the show, but the rarity of opera in Vermont means it was certainly worth the outing. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Lessons From the North Pole

A member of our team had an exciting holiday season working for Santa Claus and performing over 50 shows of original music on the North Pole Express. 
Beyond the typical family fun, she writes below about how watching thousands of children of all ages play together was a truly fascinating experience. Here is her summary of takeaways:


Lessons From the North Pole:
(Or, Riding a Magical Musical Steam Train to the North Pole for Six Weeks with Hundreds of Families and Dozens of Elves and Santa Claus:)

10. No matter what your color or creed, family is family is family.

9. If you've got a bell, jingle it. Then give it to mommy.

8. Having a safe place to play is a true blessing and privilege.

7. Contracting every cold known to man will only make you stronger.

6. The most tremendous gift to give a child is your attention and affection.

5. You all know more words to those carols than you thought you did.

4. Our imaginations are limitless and fearless and can take us great places. They can also create invisible snowball fights between passing trains.

3. The Mikado is the emperor of Japan, a charming operetta, and the type of my locomotive engine.

2. Everyone has more fun while wearing color-coordinated pajamas.

1. Believing something magical will happen is magic in itself.

Merry Christmas from Katerina Kozy!