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By Erica Miner
Former Lyric Opera of Chicago General Director and Commendatore dell’Ordine Della Stella Della Solidarietà William Mason learned the ropes of opera artistic administration from such luminaries as Carol Fox and Ardis Krainik. As the newly minted Artistic Advisor for a reborn San Diego Opera, the modest, unassuming Mason shares his considerable wisdom and talks artistry and prudence in his new role. 
EM: Welcome to San Diego, Bill. We are so excited to have you on board to help create the company’s future vision and keep it thriving. You’ve been called an “Opera hero,” and Carol (Lazier, President of the SD Opera Board) has praised your “reputation second to none.” Please tell us about your background. 
WM: I worked at NYCO (New York City Opera) for a season, fall and winter ’71, was in New York for a while as a tech and “fly man”, at San Francisco Opera in 1979 and 1980 and stage-managed around the country. In fact I stage managed three shows here in San Diego. But I’ve spent most of my opera career in Chicago. 
EM: I’m really curious about “Commendatore dell’Ordine Della Stella Della Solidarietà”. That’s quite an honor. 
WM: It really was because of Maestro Bruno Bartoletti. I sang with him when I was a kid, the Shepherd Boy in Tosca. He became like an older brother to me, then a colleague and close friend. Unbeknownst to me he started working on this for a couple of years in advance, because I speak Italian and I know Italian opera and love things Italian. At some point I got a letter telling me I’ve gotten this award, “Commendatore, ” etc. Nice little ceremony at the Italian Consulate there. But it’s nothing huge, you know (laughs). I got a little plaque and a button. It was very sweet. 
EM: When you sang as a kid, you worked with some of the greats, including Björling, Steber and Tebaldi. Do you remember much about that? 
WM: Before Lyric Opera of Chicago existed, New York City Opera used to come there on tour. My parents liked music and didn’t know much about opera, but in 1951 for my tenth birthday they took me to see Rigoletto, my first opera. In those days before television was around much, there were a number of smaller amateur opera companies. I joined one of them, the Children’s Grand Opera Company. In ’52-’53 we sang the Children’s Chorus when New York City Opera came on tour. When Chicago Lyric was formed in 1954 I auditioned for the role of the Shepherd, and got it. I became passionate about opera. From ages ten through seventeen or twenty I was just consumed with it, and learned a lot of Italian and French repertoire. In 1962 when I asked what I could do with the company, they put me to work with Maestro Pino Donati, who became my mentor and second father. He spoke very little English, so I had to learn Italian. In those days Lyric Opera was called “La Scala West.” Italian was almost the first language. I was Donati’s gofer and assistant with the scheduling for a number of seasons, then I became assistant stage manager, then I did some stuff as an assistant director. I was at City Opera, then Light Opera of Manhattan in 1972, then director of production at Lyric for a few years, then went to San Francisco as Artistic Administrator, then went back to Chicago. When Carol Fox died and Ardis Krainik took over I was head of artistic and production. When Ardis retired because of illness they made me General Director. 
EM: That’s quite a journey. 
WM: Somewhat early in my career I thought, “I sang in the first season. Wouldn’t it be nifty if I could be General Director in the fiftieth season?” And it happened. I’ve had the most wonderful life in opera, it’s been so good to me. Somebody once said, “It’s only work if you’d like to be doing something else.” I feel I’ve rarely worked. 
EM: You started on the stage, then came full circle.
WM: I’d thought I’d never work again, but I got a call from Mark Scorca of Opera America about SD Opera. I thought, “I’m so retired, I can’t get back to an office and working. A lot of people can give artistic advice.” But I saw what was going on here, so many members of the Board had resigned, and after a very gentle but persuasive email from Mark I thought my experience might be very useful. In Chicago we had a wonderful, dynamite Board. They provided leadership when they needed to and stayed out of things that didn’t need getting into. We didn’t do things the right way but we did them a right way. It was a great experience working with those ladies and gentlemen. And I thought that was something I could help pass on to the company here. What I see is that the remaining Board members are a terrific bunch - all of them bright, accomplished people, who know what they have to do. I sometimes refer to this as “San Diego Opera 2.” When someone has been here for thirty years as head of the company there’s a tendency for it to become somewhat of a rubber stamp operation. Fortunately Carol and others, after having thought about it, said, “Wait a second … we can’t let this die.” 
EM: Everybody, even Carol, was surprised at how the city just banded together. Do you think NYCO’s tragic demise affected the mindset in any way? 
WM: I really don’t know, but I think all of a sudden a lot of people, certainly those who have come to the opera, thought what it would mean to them if the opera weren’t here. Even people who didn’t come to the opera suddenly realized being without the company would be a loss to the city. I really can’t understand the thinking of those folks who thought it would be a good idea to shut it down. You’re talking about an organization that altogether probably pumped tens of millions of dollars into the city’s economy, so I think the imperative was to do everything possible to keep it afloat, and make the changes necessary to do so. That’s what I see here. I just came out of a wonderful meeting where this was all discussed. Hopefully people will realize how important our culture is. I don't know what’s the problem in America that people don’t believe that. 
EM: We’ve been very lucky in San Diego with the patronage of people who have generously contributed to help make our arts groups into wonderful organizations. 
WM: Yes. It’s somewhat strange, but this may be the best thing that ever happened for the company. I think there were a lot of people in the community who first of all probably didn’t even know there was a San Diego Opera. With all this publicity they were aware there was a company here, and realized it was an important thing. Now the company will get out there with more communication and engagement. I’m very positive about where this company is going. 
EM: So you don’t mind too much coming here one week a month. 
WM: Particularly in November and December (laughs). But no, I’m really enjoying working with the people. They’re a nice bunch, they’re committed, they’re bright. I came out for about ten days in June, and if I didn’t think they had the wherewithal to make this work I would have said, “Thank you very much.” But having seen that these people can make it happen, I’m delighted to work with them. 
EM: We’re very fortunate to have you. 
WM: Thank you. I don’t necessarily want to tell people what to do, just sort of enable them to find their path. Ultimately they will know what will work in the community and what won’t. I’m just there to provide some suggestions, however I can help. 
EM: It seems like you’re brimming with experience and information about things they can come to you and ask. 
WM: I hope so. I like to think they will (laughs). 
EM: Have you seen any changes in the past month since your first time here? 
WM: Things done to fill the gap. Not surprisingly, when the company announced the cancellation some of the artists went out to find other engagements and some were successful. So there have been those things to fill, production things to take care of and finalize, some looking at budgets. I’ve been on the phone a lot, emails back and forth. Trying to put together this fiftieth anniversary concert. Those things are ongoing, as will some strategic planning. I think changes will be a more gradual process as the synergy between the Board and staff starts to take hold, and will become more obvious as we proceed over the months. 
EM: Has the atmosphere improved since you were last here? 
WM: Excellent now. I can only imagine what it must have been like for these people. It must have come as a total shock, no idea it was coming. I was told the voting was not even on the agenda. People were taken by surprise, putting it mildly. But that was the past, something I only hear about anecdotally. What I’m concerned about is the present and future. I think there’s a wonderful atmosphere now, and a very grateful, optimistic attitude, certainly among the staff. People who thought they were not going to have jobs are delighted to have jobs. 
EM: We’re delighted to have an opera company. About financial issues. I know you helped keep the Lyric afloat, that while you were there you had a stunning record on audience attendance and being in the black. Supposedly SDO is not in the red. How do we stay clear of that? 
WM: It’s an interesting point. Fundraising was never my strongest point, but having been brought up by parents who had gone through the Depression, one thing that was always impressed upon me was you don’t spend money you don’t have. I’ve adhered to that in my personal life as well as in running Chicago Lyric Opera. You’ve lost some Board members who were substantial givers, some of them may come back, some may not - but it’s expanding now. There are some wonderful stories about people who came out of the woodwork, people sitting up in the balcony who came up with some very sizable donations. So it will be about getting out into the community, finding support where there’s not been support before. With what has happened here, the almost failure of the company, people had to take notice about how many people thought it was important to keep the company. You’ve got to go to people, and make them realize this. Ardis said it always boils down to money. That will be the large task that lies ahead for the company. They’ve got to build more, establish contacts, get out to people, talk to people, make them realize the importance of the arts to the community.
EM: What about cutting back expenses from previous seasons? 
WM: Obviously opera is not cheap, so you’ve got to find ways of doing it. Judiciously allocating your money. One of the things I’ve been doing is going through budgets and finding ways we can save money, or where you have to spend money. You’ve got to put on a first rate product. I’m a big believer in the word “balance” - you’ve got to balance the artistic and the financial. You can’t cut to the point where you’ll lose the artistic but you can’t spend so much money on the artistic that you’ll lose the financial. So what the company has to discover in the next couple of years - and it will be a couple of years’ process - is, what is that balance point. As they raise more money, what can they spend it on. I think prudence should dictate things in the next couple of seasons. It’s really a delicate act, because you’ve got to move forward. This is the time to strike out and do things that have not been done before. You have a city where you can perform outdoors twelve months a year. So you can be out in plazas or shopping malls with some good young voices, having a year round presence in the community. I would hope and trust that would start to engender some more fundraising. It’s all that combination of moving forward with the artistic part and the fundraising. 
EM: That’s a great point, because the outdoors may be what distinguishes this city from so many others, even L.A. There, you’ve got the Hollywood Bowl, and everything else is so far apart and hard to get to. But here everything is smaller and closer. 
WM: I don’t know the city yet, but I hear about places where things can be done. I understand they’ve got some sort of outdoor thing at the zoo. I don’t begin to know what the possibilities are. But the people here do, and they’re coming up with ideas as to how we maintain a twelve-month a year presence in the community. 
EM: That’s a wonderful concept. 
WM: I think it was something everybody here was aware needed to be done. Perhaps it wasn’t done for reasons I don’t pretend to understand, but I don’t think it was for lack of those thoughts being presented. So now it’s possible to move forward with those ideas. 
Next, Part 2: Bill Mason talks artistry and prudence
Photos used by permission of San Diego OperaErica Miner can be contacted at

2 years ago | |
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by Rodney Punt

LA Opus has been notified that eminent pianist Sir András Schiff, a frequent visitor to Southern California, has been awarded Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in the 2014 Birthday Honours. BBC News had this to say about the recent announcement:

"Schiff has been hailed as the greatest musician Hungary has produced since the composers Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly. Alongside his brilliance as a pianist, he has a reputation as one of the great musical thinkers. His lectures on Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas remain a central tenet of music broadcasting."
A British citizen since 2001, Sir András Schiff was recently awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal in December 2013 and the International Classical Music Award 2012, in the category “Solo Instrumental Recording of the Year” for his recording of “Geistervariationen” with works by Robert Schumann (ECM). Recitals and special cycles, such as the major keyboard works of J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann and Bartók, form an important part of his activities. Since 2004 he has performed complete cycles of the 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas in 20 cities, and the cycle in the Zurich Tonhalle was recorded live.
With renewed interest these days in the "Classical Style", Schiff will probe some of the later sonatas of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert in a North American tour in early 2015 that includes the cities of New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Ann Arbor. His local solo recitals are under the auspices of the LA Phil at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The LA Phil programs, one each in the Colburn Celebrity Series 1 & 2, are as follows:
Wed FEB 18, 2015, 8:00pm (CCS-2)
HAYDN Piano Sonata in C, Hob. XVI:50
BEETHOVEN Sonata in E, Op. 109
MOZART Sonata in C, K. 545
SCHUBERT Piano Sonata in C minor, D. 958

Wed MAR 4, 2015, 8:00pm (CCS-1)
MOZART Sonata in B-flat, K. 570
BEETHOVEN Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110
HAYDN Sonata in D, Hob. XVI:51
SCHUBERT Sonata in A, D. 959

Further details and tickets: LA Phil tickets

Photo of András Schiff used by permission of Kirshbaum, Demler & Associates.Rodney Punt can be contacted at

2 years ago | |
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By Douglas Neslund
The final concert of the season in most musical organizations is usually regarded by most as lighter, less formal, even a bit frothy. Some might include something of a fashion show above and beyond the memo’s instruction to “wear something black.” It’s a chance for the leadership to thank patrons and invite them back for the Fall season to come, and perhaps more wistfully, a chance to thank departing members for their contributions.
The Los Angeles Master Chorale’s final concert of the 2013-2014 season, the organization’s Fiftieth Jubilee year, was no different, except in one regard: the quality and gravitas of the musical items on the menu reflected a serious affirmation of Artistic Director Grant Gershon’s determination to bring newly minted choral works to the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage.
The concert opened with what might have been the best of the evening’s five works, Shawn Kirchner’s Inscapes suite, set to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). In the preconcert lecture, Mr. Kirchner disclosed that he chose a sonata form, traditionally understood to be: allegro, scherzo, andante, allegro and four of Hopkin’s poems to match.
The initial movement could be subtitled “Young People’s Guide to the Professional Choir” and could not have better underwritten Maestro Gershon’s introductory remark that Kirchner writes, unlike most composers, from the middle (the inner voices) of the choir outward, creating a choral tapestry. Exactly so. No dynamic was ignored, no tessitura boundaries unexplored. His generous reliance on major-minor harmonies makes Kirchner’s color palette accessible to a wider range of audiences, although few choruses could replicate the deliciously exquisite performance heard in Disney Hall, including beautifully sung solo work by sopranos Suzanne Waters and Elyse Willis.
Shawn Kirchner 
The second movement began in a most precarious and exposed above-the-staff series of pianissimo notes that formed a theme shared throughout the choir, a playful episode that set the scene for the dark, elegiac Binsley Poplars, the poet’s mournful reaction to the destruction of trees nearby his Oxford home.
“As kingfisher’s catch fire” returns mood and tempo to the lighter side, once again testing the Master Chorale’s limitless skills with the knowing hand of a true craftsman.
A close second in quality of composition was another world premiere, this time on a commission to Esa-Pekka Salonen paid by Master Chorale members to celebrate LAMC’s Golden Jubilee. The composer chose to set the final stanzas of Dante’s Paradiso from his epic Divina Commedia, commenting that what lies above the “god” concept in the universe is Love. The iPad Air-equipped Salonen uses Dante’s formal structure to excellent effect, with “Iri da iri,” a chant-like musical theme passed around the choir, with the remaining choristers forming a thick wall of vocal miasma as a downstage curtain, a highly effective choral deployment. The Master Chorale commissioners got excellent value for their money.
In between the Kirchner and Salonon bookends were works of two other composers with a strong ethnic flavor: Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Los Cantores de las Montañas and Francisco Nuñez’s “Es Tu Tiempo.” Ms. Frank’s composition consisted of six vignettes first performed by the Master Chorale two seasons ago, each in the style of the people and using their instruments: two guitars, bongos, piano and bamboo flutes from the gruppoHuayucaltia conducted by LAMC Associate Conductor Lesley Leighton. Eight Master Chorale soloists punctuated the vignettes with excellent tone and a clear delivery of their respective texts: sopranos Anna Schubert and Caroline McKenzie; mezzo sopranos Callista Hoffman-Campbell and Tracy Van Fleet; tenors Brandon Hynum and Bradley Chapman; and bass Gregory Geiger. Particularly effective was bass Ryan Villaverde, both as singer and narrator.
New York’s own Francisco Nuñez was blessed to use the honor choristers of the recent Master Chorale High School Choral Festival, singing side by side with Master  Chorale members, and with instrumental accompaniment by students from the Ramón C. Cortines High School of Visual and Performing Arts. These students will never forget this unique opportunity to fulfill one of the Master Chorale's primary missions.
Francisco Nuñez
Mr. Nuñez both conducted and danced, and implored the unfortunately non-capacity audience to clap along on the chorus reprise. Since every other event in this gala concert season sported a full house, it was a surprise to see virtually no one sitting in the highest balcony, and plenty of fabric to be seen all throughout Disney Hall. The timing of this concert coming after schools closed for the summer doubtlessly had much to do with this.
Finally, just before intermission, another world premiere: David Lang’s “the national anthems” utilizing a chamber choir drawn from the Master Chorale and the excellent Calder Quartet. Really fine solo singing from soprano Zanaida Robles and mezzo soprano Adriana Manfredi helped to alleviate the hypnotic and episodic minimalistic effects.
The old joke is that minimalists invent a theme and then photocopy pages of it in repetitious, ultimately boring stretches of ditto-ness. One must admire the persistence of conductor and performers when performing such a work. Thematically, the text is purported to be an amalgam of national anthems from around the world, utilizing snippets of text and stringing them along in as drama-absent a manner as possible. If the listener fancied hearing snippets of an actual national anthem, he or she would suffer ear strain. At least the Lang piece chugged along and finally stopped, unexpectedly. Coffee was served at intermission.

And we’re off to Season 51 come October. One might be tempted to think that Maestro Gershon’s preconcert promises of a new season of expanded vision, less standing in choral rows dressed in tuxes, but choreography? more expansive use of Disney Hall resources? Never fear … passion and rejuvenation are promised!
L>R: Francisco Nuñez, Shawn Kirchner, Gabriela Lena Frank, Grant Gershon

Master Chorale bids a fond farewell to six whose service has come full circle:
Samela Beasom, 29 yearsMarnie Mosiman, 13 yearsGreg Davies, 11 yearsWingate Greathouse, 6 yearsRisa Larson, 6 yearsMatthew Kellaway, 1 year

Photo credits: Patrick Brown, used by permission
2 years ago | |
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Violinists Thereza Stanislav and Alyssa Park in Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa             

By Rodney Punt
Listening to Jacaranda Music’s last concert of its eleventh season, two opposing thoughts struck me. One was astonishment that its first decade (the anniversary was last October) had flown by so quickly and the other was amazement that the series hasn’t always been here. It’s hard to imagine the Southern California music scene without Jacaranda’s “Music at the Edge of Santa Monica” shaping and defining it.
The sobriquet is accurate; the series holds forth a few blocks from the edge of the Pacific Ocean (in the acoustically superb First Presbyterian Church) and it is known for its edgy mix of eclectic music. Featured works have extended as far back as the beginning of the eighteenth century and as near to the present tense as world premieres. But it’s not the chronological span of its repertoire that defines Jacaranda so much as its mission to crown the essential musical canon of the twentieth century.
It was a troubled, messy hundred years, along with its music, and Jacaranda has taken on its significant sounds one concert step at a time. Take for example the evening that tweaked my interest a few weeks ago, one of those typically diverse affairs where the connections may not be all that apparent, even as you read the extensive (and delightfully idiosyncratic) program notes of Artistic and Executive Director Patrick Scott, who helms the series with Music Director Mark Alan Hilt. 
The program on this evening was something of a victory lap for Jacaranda. Titled “Abandon,” it included works by Mozart and Debussy that had featured on earlier occasions, with two obscure pieces by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. On paper the kindredness of these composers to each other seemed remote, but in the hearing, each work shared within its own delicate frame an aural sensation not unlike that of parting curtains on a summer’s day to reveal intense outdoor illuminations.
Jacaranda Winds, with Hilt, in Mozart's "Grand Partita"
The Serenade for Winds (Gran Partita) is a work of early maturity composed during Mozart’s heady first years in Vienna. Describing its elusive beauties in technical terms is as hopeless as examining how a box-pinned butterfly flies. Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus has a lyrical passage that comes close to its magic, as the playwright’s alter ego, Antonio Salieri, muses on the celebrated slow movement:
“It started simply enough, just a pulse in the lowest registers, bassoons and basset horns like a rusty squeezebox. It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it a sort of serenity. And then, suddenly, high above it sounded a single note of the oboe. It hung there unwavering – piercing me through – till breath could hold it no longer and a clarinet withdrew it out of me and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling… I was suddenly frightened. It seemed to me I had heard the voice of God.”
The “Jacaranda Winds” dream-team of fine players -- stand-ins for the voices of God -- were led by a supple and expressive Hilt. Mozart intended the oboes and clarinets to have the featured roles, and they were indeed glorious here. But in truth the composer gave each of the sonorities its moment in the sun: the oboes of Claire Chenette and Claire Brazeau, the clarinets of ?Joshua Ranz and Andrew Leonard, the basset horns (alto clarinets) ?of Gary Bovyer and Steve Roberts, the bassoons of ?Anthony Parnther and Maciej Flis, the horns of ?Allen Fogle, Paul Klintworth and Sarah Bach. All were ably underpinned by Nico Abondolo's string bass. (Special recognition must be granted, however, to Anthony Parnther, whose bassoon provided magnificent passagework and the ultimate in tonal purity.)
Maria Casale in Debussy's Danses Sacrée et Profane
Claude Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane ?delivered another opportunity for aural sheen. The work, for harp and a string quartet with added bass, is a spiritualized mélange of erotic religious dances. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the steamy side of ancient cultures was in titillating musical vogue. (Strauss’s Salomé and Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps come to mind.) A friend of Debussy's devised a literary fraud, purporting to have discovered, then translated, risqué poems etched on the Greek tombs of antiquity. We can thank those arty concoctions for the composer's delightful work, which sings in an ethereal sensuality comparable to Maurice Ravel’s more famous harp vehicle, the Introduction and Allegro.
Maria Casale's effervescent pedal harp was given extra visual sizzle by the instrument’s radiant sheen, far surpassing the more burnished colorations of other golden harps. With the First Presbyterian Church’s solemn cross just above Casale’s harp, all that was needed was a good dose of stage fog to evoke the Elysian Fields on a libidinous day. Casale's stunning virtuosity, with good support from her strings, put the work over in fine form and it was a great hit with the audience.
Two works by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt rounded out an evening of raptures. Darf Ich of 1995-99 and Tabula Rasa of 1977 are separated by twenty years, but they share similar musical territory. Their  composer is often described as a “holy minimalist” for his aim to achieve musical “tintinnabulation” while straddling interweaving strands of sin and forgiveness; also for his spare musical textures that seem to stop time and look deep into the heart’s sad recesses. 
Shalini Vijayan and Jacaranda String Ensemble
Darf Ich, for solo violin, string ensemble and chimes, was written in memory of Yehudi Menuhin. Shalini Vijayan provided the seraphic solo in the short concertante work that meditates, with piquant dissonances and high-flying sighs, on falling tears over a grieving multitude. Jacaranda’s program notes suggested the performance might have been a Los Angeles premiere.
Tabula Rasa is a two-part work for two solo violins, string ensemble and a prepared piano. Pärt specialist Paul Hillier has described its first movement as a series of separated silences that grow shorter until overwhelmed by a loud cadenza, with a quiet second movement that slowly unwinds into another silence. I found the unwinding portion the most compelling, with its undulating waves of floating tenderness and wistful dissonance. Both Pärt works featured solos of gently stabbing notes in the highest reaches of the violin’s E-string, becoming in the second one a haunting, obsessional trope.
Both works were conducted with sensitivity by Hilt. Richard Valitutto's prepared piano added the spooky atmospherics and the "Jacaranda String Ensemble" supporting sonics in the second piece. But it was the solo violins that emerged as the evening's stars in both works.  In the imitative passages of Tabula Rasa, Thereza Stanislav and Alyssa Park lobbed to each other stratospheric notes of uncanny beauty and perfect intonation, that had required laser-like concentration from both to bring off properly.
With Shalini Vijayan in the earlier work, the three soloists in these relatively short pieces by Pärt seemed almost like luxury casting. In fact, all three violinists are regulars on the series. Park and Vijayan are in the Lyris Quartet, Jacaranda’s house ensemble, and Stanislav, a frequent guest soloist, is Assistant Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at nearby UCLA. The evening reminded those present that the last century produced works not just of noisy angst but also of profound delicacy and inwardness.
Southern California’s good fortune is to have instrumentalists who regularly provide such stylish interpretations as were on this occasion encountered. But it was also the sensibility and resourcefulness of of Jacaranda Music's leadership that had brought these artists and works together, enabling their audience to “abandon” all earthly concerns for a couple blissful hours. The concert was a fitting close to Jacaranda's current season and to its past and newly launched decades of matchless connoisseur programming.
Stanislav and Park (in blue hues) take bows with Jacaranda Strings and Hilt
What: Jacaranda Music, "Abandon" [W.A. Mozart: Serenade for Winds (Gran Partita")Claude Debussy: Danses Sacrée et Profane?, Arvo Pärt: Darf Ich; Tabula Rasa]
Where: First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica, California
When: Saturday, May 10, 8:00 pm?
Who: Soloists Maria Casale, harp; ?Shalani Vijayan, Alyssa Park & Tereza Stanislav, violins; Richard Valitutto, prepared piano. ?Jacaranda Winds?: Claire Chenette & Claire Brazeau, oboe; ?Joshua Ranz & Andrew Leonard, clarinet; ?Gary Bovyer & Steve Roberts, basset horn; ?Anthony Parnther & Maciej Flis, bassoon; ?Allen Fogle, Paul Klintworth & Sarah Bach, horn. Jacaranda Strings: ?Kevin Connolly, concertmaster; ?Alwyn Wright, Jenny Takamatsu, Rafael Rishik, Susan Rishik, Katie Sloan, violin; ?Jerome Gordon, Caroline Buckman, Patrick Rosalez, viola; ?Tim Loo & Alisha Bauer, cello; ?Nico Abondolo & Steve Dress, double bass. Mark Alan Hilt, conductor.
All photos by Andrea Sanderson are used by permission of Jacaranda Music.Rodney Punt can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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2 years ago | |
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by Ewa Gorniak Morgan
Listening to live music is always like a journey: you're going someplace, perhaps a different planet, it may be more or less extravagant, or even unknown, you may be doing it for the pleasure or the emotion, or for pure curiosity, but you must return safely. 
Yet before you do, you're in the hands of your guide, needless to say, the conductor, whom you have to trust. Hopefully, he'll steal your heart en route only to give it back in better shape.
The second conversation in a series of interviews with contemporary masters of the baton; 
after John Axelrod in Naples, I meet with  JEFFREY  TATE in Venice.

When Jeffrey Tate conducts Sibelius's 6th Symphony and Elgar's 7th at La Fenice in mid rainy march the magnificent Venetian theatre is full. The atmosphere is somehow special: it feels like a good friend coming back home, though for a short visit only. 
Mr. Tate, currently Chief Conductor at Hamburger Symphoniker, has a full schedule but likes returning to Venice. His gesture is festive but contained and he gets up only once from his habitual conductor's high chair. When the last notes of each symphony fade into silence he keeps his left hand suspended in the air for a while longer, he lowers it slowly and gently as if he wanted to say “wait, don't move yet” and perhaps give you a pat on the shoulder: “so long, my friend!” Only then, the audience can finally burst into ovation.

Ewa Gorniak Morgan: You started as a coach at the Royal Opera House playing the piano. Could you already imagine the instruments behind each key?
Jeffrey Tate: Maybe not as exact as that but certainly in order to be a useful répétiteur you have to know the sound that you are attempting to reproduce. Obviously a piano can never reproduce the exact sounds of an orchestra. However, in the short time when I was actually studying to become a coach I learned that as a pianist I could make sounds that were very close to what a singer would hear and I became quite known for doing it well. You need to know what your expression is and it also depends on what you're playing. It may be more difficult to reproduce the sounds of a Mozart orchestra, surprisingly, than it is to reproduce the Wagnerian orchestra because the latter means big sound and piano can do that well. It is more difficult to play all those colors that Mozart's strings would have... extremely difficult; I never thought I was particularly good at it.
EGM: Is it the natural turn of events to become a conductor after being a pianist? 
JT: It is the old-fashioned way. Just like in the German system - with a small opera house in every little town - if you wanted to be a conductor you had to start like that. It's a natural process, too: you learn about breathing, about accompanying, and also the daily routine of the theatre. Conducting an opera is more demanding than conducting a symphonic concert, therefore if you can master the art of conducting operas first, then you're ready to conduct symphonies. Just think of Karajan or Bruno Walter, name them all... Until about 20 or 30 years ago all the great names came that way. I never thought that I was going to be a conductor, anyway. I enjoyed being a coach enormously and would have been happy to have stayed one. I felt lucky at Covent Garden working at a very high level from the very beginning with people like Solti, Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Klemperer, Josef Krips – it was quite a reputable list. I learned a lot in a very enjoyable way. What happens today is a bit different because a lot of young musicians who want to be conductors go straight in. Though even Karajan himself would have already encouraged that, I am much more comfortable having gone the old path.

EGM: It brings to mind words of an Italian critic which I overheard on the radio lately: “molto talento poco mestiere” [a lot of talent, little artistry] referring to a young conductor who evidently was promising but didn't have enough experience.
JT: If you are young that's what happens. Age brings “mestiere," that is, experience. It is with age that one becomes aware of the mysteries and hidden corners, while when you're young you're more concerned about making an effect on the audience. I started rather late and am an exception to many rules. Having begun as a medical doctor I didn't go through a conservatory at all. As a conductor I'm self-taught and have learned by doing it. I think that these young talents will attend to mystery if it's in them but I don't expect it of them. Young conductors can do things that I can't do having the sort of energy that I no longer have. What you do learn, actually, is that you can get more with doing less. You don't need as much gesture, as much attacking.... You can produce much more of a better music by simply letting it happen. That's very interesting as a function of getting older. Young conductors interfere too much and then there is no mystery.

EGM: You started with a piano which had to represent the whole orchestra. If orchestra is an instrument how would you describe it? Is it an instrument at all?
JT: It should be. Your function as a conductor is to produce that instrument; it has to be a unity. It is singular thus you are quite right saying “an instrument.” You have to produce singular purpose which will produce the effect of one singular instrument. When you achieve that, then you can start to mould. I like to say that conducting is a little bit like making pottery on a wheel, you actually feel music between your fingers and at a certain stage you can mould the sound.... but one needs to get to that stage first, of course.
EGM: What happens when you add voice to it? What's the relationship between music and words?  JT: It depends very much on the music, you can't generalize. Some things are basically the voice with a musical aura around it, so one has to be discreet. In other instances, the orchestra becomes very relevant, a good example is Strauss, and it's equally important to the voice for the drama. When I'm conducting an opera I always make sure that the voice is in the full front, with the orchestra present but rather subordinate, so that the singer can produce the best sound possible. I'm very angry with conductors who keep the orchestras loud enough to make the singer force the voice, while for that sound to be beautiful it has to be least forced possible. It's fundamental for singing that the voice should speak naturally and freely. It can be very tough to create the balance between the voice and the orchestra but it's possible, even with Wagner. I enjoy that a lot and lay an enormous importance on creating enough room for the voice to speak properly. In fact, you have to do the same thing within the orchestra: the woodwind instruments also need space to produce a beautiful and not a forced sound.
EGM: Do you let the words carry you?
JT: Both music and words are equally important. It's not really a battle in the sense of “prima la musica dopo le parole.” If the words didn't exist the music would be unlikely to exist; they have to be equal. The word influences the way you phrase and the dynamics, it adds color to the voice and carries the meaning. In Italian repertory the direct connection between meaning and melody is less clear than in German one. When you get to Strauss, the melodic line is formed by the way the word is accented. In Italian opera one finds a more generalized approach to meaning which is probably why I've always preferred the German repertory. I greatly enjoy this very intimate connection between word and sound.
EGM: You must be talking about lieder...
JT: I love lieder. If I went on playing the piano, which I never did quite well enough, I would have loved to be an accompanist. The lied is the most pure example of the combination of music and words. If you said: could you live without the orchestra? I probably could. But, could you live without Schubert lieder? I probably couldn't. There is nothing more wonderful than Winterreise
EGM: And Four Last Songs?
JT: The Four Last Songs don't really fall in the category of lieder the way Schubert's songs do. Strauss is a good lieder composer but not a great one, in my opinion. The Four Songs are wonderful because of their total aura in the orchestra sound, in the nostalgia and the extraordinary color that surrounds the voice. That's very, very special. But they do not necessarily explore the meaning as deeply as Schubert or Schumann does. Strauss is a difficult character. He was a man of enormous gift who squandered this gift so often. I love performing Strauss and I feel a great affinity with him. This excessive gift, however, combined with slightly vulgar elements make him immensely human but not exactly a Mozart or a Schubert.
EGM: You once said in a BBC interview that as child you used to sit by the piano and improvise placing a book you were reading on the music stand instead of a score. That is an intimate connection, too.
JT: It's been a long time since I've done that. It's really a personal matter. I've always been interested in drama or, if you like, in what words mean and the emotion connected with words. I was interested in acting which is about how to stress a word to give its full emotional form. As a young man I did quite a lot of it. As a répétiteur I wanted to learn how music affected words. Music is a little bit of a straitjacket for the word. When you produce a play you can choose which words to stress but you can't do it as a conductor because the composer has already done it for you. Your duty is to find out what the composer means in a way that he stresses a word and in the speed that he gives to the sentence where the stress lies. You're a little hampered, but you must discover the truth. That's what intrigues me about producers of operas as opposed to the producers of plays: they're much more constricted because the composer has actually produced it for them. If a new production tries to put an opera in a different light it is quite often against what the composer has made the word in the sentence do. You have to be very careful. People who impress me most are those who can bring a fresh light to bear without distorting what the composer did to the text as such.
EGM: Words endowed by meaning are related to the past while music moves forward and that creates a conflict?
JT: I never thought about that. Words carry a lot of baggage behind then, that's true, but also music does. If you listen to Strauss, Wagner, or Mozart, they carry the baggage of their time as well; it's not related to now but to then and that you can't stop. Don't forget that as a conductor I'm a reproducer, not a creator. I have to look back into what was the composer's mindset when he wrote the music, so, perhaps, I'm always tied to the past. If I were a writer I could give the word the relevance of now. I admit I'm not a great avant-gardist and am very rarely happy with what I'd call a complex modern school; though it's technically interesting to do, it doesn't move me. In that way I'm a conservative, I stopped with Britten, Shostakovich, maybe Henze. I'm a retrospective conductor, I deal with the past.
EGM: Words may change their meaning but emotions don't change...
JT: That is absolutely true and that's why we go on performing. The set-up may seem completely artificial but the emotion involved is alive just as in Così fan tutte. That's why I do it and one has to ask themselves “why?” in this busy world. I'm in a funny business that makes me feel outside of what's happening. I am able to recreate the music of the past and earn my money doing it which is an amazing thing. I feel very privileged.
EGM: But you also like Lutoslawski...
JT: I love Lutoslawski. I actually met him once at a festival where his piece Paroles tissées written for Peter Pears was first performed. I sat next to him and his wife at a fantastic concert of Brahms with Richter and Fischer-Diskau, then we talked. I found him a wonderfully distinguished man and a great person. Lutoslawski's 4th Symphony is one of these pieces that I carry around in my bag with me to perform as often as possible.
EGM: How close is conducting to composing? How much of a composer is in a conductor?
JT: You have to have compositorial insights to conduct well. When I was much younger I tried composing but what came out was a sort of a pale imitation of somebody, it was never the truth. That's the profound difference. The composer has to compose to express himself. Conductors can compose, but listening to the symphonies by Furtwängler or Klemperer you can hear their mind ticking. These are very clever, very musical people who know what it is about but it's not necessary for them. As far as I'm concerned I am a conduit, or a vessel, that tries to reproduce somebody else's thought. I am necessary, so to speak, because if I didn't exist the composer would have a problem. 

EGM: If you found yourself on a desert island and this island were Venice, though of course we know that it's far from being a desert, how would you feel?
JT: I love Venice. It's one of my places. It's so magically different from anywhere else on this planet. This is the way life really should be. This should be the city of the future: we all go on boats, there are no cars, all you hear are human voices, footsteps, you hear a drop of water or someone opening a shutter. If you are aware of sounds as I am, it's a magical place. We all know about the visual side, which is also fantastic, but for me this is the most human place. When I come here I feel extraordinarily alive and correct. If this place can exist then we aren't quite so bad as a human race. I sometimes get very depressed about what we're doing to the planet killing species and ways of life. Venice is an example for us all. I wish we could recreate it in other places but we can't, it's an organic thing. We are lucky that Venice exists and that nobody destroyed it.
EGM: You've returned to play at La Fenice many times.
JT: It means a lot to me. I've been here often and they are good to me. I love being here. It seems the right place for music. This is the city where culture is absolutely central to the way the city thinks and that for me as a musician is a wonderful thing.

Photographs of La Fenice theatre by Michele Crosera, courtesy Teatro La FenicePhotographs of Jeffrey Tate courtesy Artists Management ZurichPainting by Robert Morgan, La Fenice - Watergate, 2013
Special thanks to Ireneusz Janik, Music Library at Academy of Music in Lodz
Ewa Gorniak Morgan can be reached at
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By Erica Miner
On Thursday, April 17, controversy over the closure of San Diego Opera took a startling turn when a Town Hall meeting with the theme, “San Diego Opera Moves Forward: Alternative models of Opera in America” for supporters of the company’s survival, and a meeting of the Opera’s Board of Directors, took place simultaneously. The atmosphere at the former (which I attended) was upbeat and hopeful and ended with cheers from the overflow crowd at the Civic Plaza Copper Room. The latter reportedly was chaotic and contentious and resulted in walkouts and multiple resignations from Board members, including its president, Karen Cohn.
Those who have followed SDO’s journey since General Director Ian Campbell made his shocking announcement on March 19 of the company’s impending closure are familiar with the circumstances. Citing declines in ticket sales and donations, and the near-depletion of a $10 million dollar endowment, Campbell encouraged SDO’s board to shut down the company’s operations at the end of the current season, with the final performance scheduled on April 13. The board voted 33-1 in favor of Campbell’s recommendation. 
Volatile reaction came swiftly from company members, longtime SDO supporters and opera lovers, not only locally, but also across the entire US via the Internet and social media. 400 employees, including singers, San Diego Symphony musicians, stagehands, staff members and many more, were in danger of losing their incomes. Battle lines were drawn as San Diegans stood up to voice their opposition to the planned closure. 
Before long it was evident that the implications reached far beyond San Diego. In fact, the situation aroused concerns nationwide about the future of opera. Well-established New York City Opera had already closed in recent months. The Met was having labor disputes that portended possibly insurmountable difficulties. The potential demise of SDO had opened a Pandora’s box of fear and worry among opera aficionados. So many people love opera; how could this beloved art form suddenly be poised on the chopping block? 
However, it also became clear that SDO was not going to go down without a fight. The crusade to save the company has received almost daily coverage from local media. A group of employees, staff and opera supporters formed a “White Knight Committee” (WKC) to fight the closing and to pressure the board to rescind its decision. Via emails and the Internet the WKC called for opera lovers to sign an online “Save San Diego Opera” petition; over 20,000 signatures signaled an overwhelming desire to keep the company alive. Company singers filed a lawsuit to force SDO to submit arbitration over their contracts. Little known facts about the company’s financials began to circulate. Campbell was mercilessly criticized for giving up on the company, and for drawing a salary that was inordinately generous, given the company’s financial precariousness. The high-rent penthouse SDO offices were cited as exceedingly posh and expensive.
Clearly, if the opera were to survive change was needed, in the form of economizing, cutting down expenses, and choosing new leadership. The WKC and its proponents insisted the opera was salvageable and mounted a persuasive campaign to prove their hypothesis. Nightly features began to appear on local San Diego TV stations. “Can the Opera Be Saved?” was a recurrent theme in the media, one of many arias that were being composed in the opera within an opera of the company’s saga. Soon, public outcry motivated a pressured Board to extend the closure deadline to April 29. The “Save SDO” movement gained momentum at an accelerated pace, resulting in the April 17 “San Diego Opera Moves Forward” Town Hall Meeting at Civic Plaza. 
420 attendees in the Copper Room and numerous others who watched via live stream on monitors in the hallway listened carefully as three opera-expert panelists discussed viable alternatives to keep SDO alive. Nicolas Reveles, the Opera’s Geisel Director of Education and Outreach and well known to San Diego opera aficionados as the company’s superbly knowledgeable pre-opera lecturer, moderated the discussion. Presenters Marc, Scorca, President and CEO of the national organization Opera America, and David Devan, General Director of Opera Philadelphia, informed the audience as to the types of business models that other US opera companies have implemented to bring opera into the 21st century.
Reveles started by defining opera. Grand Opera in a 3,000-seat theatre no longer was relevant to SDO, he claimed. New business models using smaller theaters and different types of operas such as musical theater, Baroque operas with smaller casts and orchestras, and Mexican-themed operas such as Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, which was performed in the 2012-2013 SDO season, were necessary to enable the company to adhere to the realistic budget realities of our times and to attract audiences. Opera is an art form that tells stories in music, using classic issues involving community, politics, and (audience laughter here) political corruption.

Scorca cited difficulties in the state of opera over the past decade: increases in the “Opera Price Index” of two to two-and-a-half times the cost of living increase; a decrease in audience attendance of as much as 24% in top-level companies; more sophisticated audiences resistant to subscriptions; competition for audiences in entertainment and philanthropic dollars. Nonetheless he gave examples of a positive nature. In recent years the number of opera companies across the US has increased from 120 to 500. Opera is now a multimedia art form; young artists of unprecedented high quality are creating their own companies and finding donors. Specialty companies are commissioning new works. Smaller venues are being balanced by HD transmissions in stadiums. Companies such as Dallas Opera, which cut back from five to three productions, are now able to slowly increase the number of productions while still reducing costs.
Devan presented a similar view in what amounted to a much-needed pep talk for a crowd hungry for good news. He pointed out that, just as Philadelphia was not New York, San Diego was not Los Angeles, and needed to come up with its own unique “SDO plan.” As a smaller city, Philadelphia had faced a challenge he called “subscriber crisis.” Opera, competing with such media as Netflix, was a waning model, too costly to remain the same, an art form that needed to reach beyond the opera house, with a civic footprint as important as its product footprint. Philadelphia Opera reinvented itself by creating partnerships in innovative co-productions with such established musical entities as the Philadelphia Orchestra and Curtis Institute of Music; balancing major opera performances in large venues with chamber operas in smaller venues; creating a Composer-in-Residence program; broadcasting at Independence Mall; and fueling innovation by asking people to commit to investing in new ideas through a “Venture Philanthropy” concept. These efforts have garnered numerous positive results, including an increase of 24% in ticket yield among the coveted 25 to 34 age group. He emphasized that “Version 2.0” for San Diego would necessitate a long-term plan. The enthused listeners seemed more than willing to devote the time and energy needed.

 As the meeting ended, news filtered in via text from the Board meeting. Board President Karen Cohn had resigned along with twelve other Board Members. Ian Campbell and his former wife Ann Spira Campbell had walked out prematurely. A cheer emanated from the crowd when it was announced that the San Diego Opera Association had deferred its previously announced April 29 date for closure of operations to at least May 19, to permit the reconstituted Board and the Special Committee led by Board secretary Carol Lazier to explore opportunities to continue the Opera Association's mission.
Later news revealed that Lazier, who earlier this month had donated $1 million to explore new ways forward for the opera company, was named acting board president. New hope emerged for a retooled, “fiscally responsible” 2015 SDO season, with advice coming from outside experts including Opera America. A meeting of the Opera Association Members is being organized for the near future. Whether plans for a resurrected San Diego Opera with new donor and fundraising options will come to fruition remains to be seen. What is clear thus far is that passionate lovers of opera in our city have not been willing to give up the battle. That fervor seems unlikely to diminish any time soon.
Logos used by permission of
Photos used by permission of John Menier

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1994 Zauberflöte, after Schinkel Photo Monika Rittershaus (c) Staatsoper Unter den Linden
by Rodney Punt
In an era when opera's standard repertory has coalesced around a few famous composers -- Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Wagner, and a handful of others -- it is the stage productions that differentiate one  Traviata or Boheme or Carmen from another. Name directors like Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars or Francesca Zambello top theater marquees in new and old works, each with his or her own signature style. Yet far less is known by the public of the art of stagecraft and how it has evolved over time than of the works and vocal stars of opera.
Jacket design: Jill Shimabukuro, after P. B. Algieri
The current emphasis on staging is what makes important and timely the arrival of Evan Baker's new single-volume survey of four centuries of European opera production: From the Score to the Stage: An Illustrated History of Continental Opera Production and Staging (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
In this large, richly illustrated book, written in lucid and accessible prose, Baker, a former dramaturge and stage director himself, lifts the veil from behind the scenes of opera. He traces the long journey of stage production from the genre’s origins in seventeenth century Italy, where arias strung together to tell a story were melded into the grand public events of ducal courts, to the lavish nineteenth century spectacles of the Paris Opéra, and on to the next century’s pared down post-war abstractions. Baker wraps up the survey in 1976, when the most ambitious operatic project in history, Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, was given a celebrated modern staging by director Patrice Chéreau for the centennial of the work’s premiere at Bayreuth. While Baker considers in his epilogue the current era of Regietheater ("director's theater" innovated in Germany), he leaves for another day the definitive study of its still evolving vogue.
From the Score to the Stage focuses on Continental Europe’s three most important operatic traditions: those of Italy, France and Austria/Germany, with occasional reference to other European practices. Dividing his history into nine half-century chapters, Baker captures the flow of artistic and technical advances as they criss-crossed Europe. The introduction of gas lighting in 1822, for instance, heightened staging possibilities everywhere, making obsolescent the spare luminescence of candlelight. The electronic age further liberated light as a tool for emotional expression; suddenly, tinted hues could precisely and subtly project heightened psychological states. 
Schinkel's1815 Zauberflöte design. Photo (c) BPK, Berlin
Personalities known only as names today come alive in this survey: Italy’s formative opera impresario Marco Faustini; the protean librettist and stage director Pietro Metastasio; the entrepreneurial Emanuel Schikaneder who revived Mozart’s career with the libretto and stage direction for Die Zauberflöte; Italy’s Domenico Barbaja who introduced roulette to finance opera; music publisher Giovanni Ricordi, who promoted Rossini and Donizetti; his grandson Giulio Ricordi who encouraged Verdi to write Otello and Falstaff; and two game-changing early modernists: Alfred Roller, the Secessionist set designer, and Max Reinhardt, the stage director who transformed opera acting.Stage innovations add novelty to opera productions. The reader will discover how the brothers Galliari incorporated “practicals” (three-dimensional elements like steps and stairs) in mythological settings; how trap doors were used in Meyerbeer’s Robert Le Diable and later Gounod's Faust for fantastical effects, and how the stage of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck matched its shocking music with expressionistic sets and lighting. Baker's own translations from German, French and Italian texts help clarify obscure meanings from source material for the stories.
Wieland Wagner's Walküre. Photo (c) NUFDR-W-S, Bayreuth
One of the author's most interesting chapters deals with management at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus after the Second World War. During this period of austerity, Wieland Wagner (Richard’s grandson) had taken over production and made a controversial decision to pare down traditional stage sets in favor of an abstract lighting scheme. Audiences were initially shocked. Baker:Wieland Wagner’s visual aesthetics and psychological ideas influenced opera staging styles throughout Germany. His new style, now known as Neu-Bayreuth, signaled a complete break with the past. Wieland’s interpretations provoked the audience into thinking for itself about the scenic and dramatic situations unfolding on the stage. His aesthetics required only minimal scenery and lighting as integral parts of his productions. His blocking of the singers freed them from the old idea that specific instances in the music dictated their movement, and stars who could not act had no place in his productions.
Anyone associated with the production and planning of opera, not to mention also audiences and students of theater and cinema, will want to own From the Score to the Stage, which, for its comprehensive scope and sheer panache, has no competitor. Whether read cover to cover or used as an easy-to-navigate reference on particular topics, it is the indispensable single-source guide to the opera stage. 
Illustrations from 'From the Score to the Stage'used by the author's permission.

Rodney Punt can be contacted at

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By Erica Miner 

For two magical hours, Ferruccio Furlanetto lifted an embattled San Diego Opera from its doldrums to the lofty heights only such an artist can invoke, in his exquisite rendering of Jules Massenet’s noble, genteel Don Quixote.

This timeless work about an ageless man existing in a materialistic world devalued of spiritual ideals premiered at the Opéra de Monte Carlo in 1910, toward the end of Massenet’s life. Written in a style uniquely different from his usual, this work incorporates a pastiche of fascinating elements. Massenet's orchestration is at times delicate, at times almost Wagnerian, reflecting his admiration for the German composer and his use of leitmotifs. His obsession with Spanish music and culture, a pervading characteristic of late nineteenth century French composers, is evident in this opera’s distinctive Spanish flavor as it is in Le Cid and his first full-length opera, Don César de Bazan. The influence of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is clear. Massenet even quotes from his compatriot Léo Delibes’ mythology-based battle-themed ballet, Sylvia. Massenet’s personal identification with his protagonist Quixote also showed in his tender feelings for his original Dulcinée, Lucy Arbell, and in his anxieties about death, which, along with love, is one of the opera’s key themes.

The iconic role of chevalier de la longue figure is a pinnacle for an artist with Furlanetto’s legendary status as a singer and actor, with his consummate command of vocal color, emotion and intention. It provides a supreme opportunity to show the deep humanity of a character within a fairytale setting, a personage whom Furlanetto feels every man should be in life: a man, young of heart, whose age is only on the exterior; who goes weak in the knees, whether from worship of an ideal or from his age, with unrelenting passion; whose fervent prayers come straight from the heart; who with pure adoration toward life and nature unconditionally loves whatever surrounds him. In our recent interview, Furlanetto affectingly expressed the Don’s principles: “He’s exactly what men should ideally be for three hours in their life: love for everything that’s around us, whether it’s nature, sky, air, other persons, animals.”

It is difficult to imagine any other singing artist today who could so totally live this character under the skin and capture his essence - his profound sadness without regret; his appreciation of the delicatesse and sacredness of women; his ability to absolutely own his pains, joys, and rapture - with such a degree of dignity as Ferruccio Furlanetto. He creates an atmosphere so magical that he is able to dominate the stage for the entire evening, expressing his visions and dreams with an innocence belying the character’s chronological age, without any pretentiousness. Furlanetto’s quixotic idealism showed whether singing to Dulcinée or to Sancho Panza. Not one soupçon of imperfection surfaced in his singing. The richness never quit, even in the throes of death.

Supporting him was a duo of expert singers whose character portrayals were outstanding. Argentinean bass-baritone Eduardo Chama was the Don’s perfect foil as Sancho Panza, thoroughly in synch with Furlanetto both vocally and dramatically, embodying his share of a relationship in which both characters deeply care for and respect each other. He skillfully balanced his vocal, dramatic and comedic approaches between the lighter, more Mozartean aria early in the opera and the heavier, more imposing singing required of him in the later acts. His La Donna É Mobile monologue was utterly convincing in its vocal sonorousness, consistency, and characterization. As Dulcinea, German mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung sang with spirit and vocal assuredness, effectively showing the contrasts between her character’s capriciousness and her eventual ability to be touched by the depth of Quixote’s soul.

Joel Sorensen as Rodriguez, Simeon Esper as Juan, Micaëla Oeste as Pedro, and Susannah Biller as Garcias, the lively quartet of Dulcinea’s suitors, contributed vocal and dramatic vivacity to the narrative. (And who doesn’t love seeing a woman, albeit dressed as a man, sporting a sword?)

Conductor Karen Keltner demonstrated her remarkable affinity for French repertoire by making the score come alive, alternating between highly charged energy and graceful delicacy. Keturah Stickann’s stage direction made use of her background as a choreographer by adding subtle touches and details to the characters’ movements, all of which seemed natural and well integrated, and marrying the cleverness and poignancy of the libretto with affecting, uncontrived actions.

San Diego Opera is justifiably proud of having created this production. Ralph Funicello’s simple, handsome set designs were superbly effective, giving each of the five acts its own individual atmosphere, and his imaginative solution for the horse and donkey worked well: both were very lifelike and moved nicely for the needs of the characters. The lit up, spinning windmills with their realistic knight-errant attached were fascinating to watch. Marie Barrett’s magical lighting design was strikingly highlighted by the splendid carpet of stars on the sky drop. Kristina Cobarrubia’s vivacious flamenco-style choreography, made more charming by the participation of children, and the symbolic love-rejection-heartbreak mime adding poignancy to Act Four, were enhanced by Missy West’s beautifully detailed costumes. Kudos should go to the expert stage crew for the numerous quick scenery changes required of them during the evening.

Many here in San Diego consider Ferruccio Furlanetto our own National Treasure. As Quixote he embodies, heart and soul, un chevalier en aventure toujours en posture - a knight-errant searching for adventure always at the ready. For those few hours on stage he lives, and we experience, the best of human qualities. In our interview he touchingly evoked the noble Don’s gentility: “His world is collapsing, and like an elephant he goes in a very specific place because he knows he has to die. But he dies beautifully, purely like the rest of his life, with a transparent soul, through which you can see everything: present, past and future.”

Furlanetto also conjures these ideals in terms of the need for a continuing operatic tradition in his “Magic Island” video: “When at the end Don Quichotte is dying and he’s telling Sancho, ‘Do you remember I promised you castles, land, even an island? Now that we are at the end, take this island, the island of my heart… of my poetry… as an inheritance’… I think that music is this island. Music with the emotions that can transfer to somebody who has a sensibility for it, is amazing… something everybody should receive, put in his heart, and keep forever. It makes everybody better... for a few hours you can live in what would be your ideal place.”

The symbolism of this “magic island” would not be lost on any of us here in San Diego. But what matters most about last night’s opening is the incredible work of a devoted team of soloists, choristers, dancers, musicians, directors, designers, stage hands, staff, and countless others who, under exceptionally difficult conditions over these past weeks, banded together to create a distinctly unique “magic island” for its audience. This was an accomplishment that, no matter the eventual outcome of the Opera’s current situation, will forever endure in our hearts and minds.


Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Last photo by John Menier, used by permission of UCSD-TV
Erica Miner can be contacted at

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First Congregational Church of Los Angeles

By Douglas Neslund
First Congregational Church of Los Angeles was filled Friday night to hear Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s immortal Requiem in D minor, which was completed by Xaver Süßmayr after Mozart's death. The conductor, Daniel Suk, organized the Dream Orchestra, an assemblage of primarily professional instrumentalists and 22 members of “Opera Chorus of Los Angeles,” who were joined by the young scholars of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Choir. The young people were gifted an opportunity to sing one of the true gems of all music alongside the professionals.
Soloists were soprano Golda Zahra Berkman, mezzo-soprano Cassandra Zoé Velasco, tenor Vladimir Dmitruk, and bass Patrick Blackwell. As a quartet, they were uneven and unblended. Ms. Berkman is but 15 years of age and on this occasion suffered ongoing pitch problems. Mr. Dmitruk spent most of his solo opportunities on the loud side of moderato. Ms. Velasco and Mr. Blackwell sang well but in the disconnected manner of singers who probably had not much experience singing together as a musical unit. John St. Marie prepared the combined choruses.
Daniel Suk and his Dream Orchestra
The Dream Orchestra, with Minh Nguyen playing the church's iconic pipe organ, were excellent as pros would be expected to be, but were rarely called upon to play softer than mezzoforte, and often much louder. When the assembled participants were asked to maximize their collective forces,  the result was deafening. Inasmuch as the writer sat near the front, it is possible that those sitting in the back of the church might have needed the extra musical volume due to acoustical considerations.
That said, this was not a concert concerned with nuance, phrase shaping, subtlety, or acknowledgement of historical performance practice. One could, however, find moments of Mozartean beauty. But chances for serenity or reflection offered in movements such as the Lacrimosa, were missed.
One wishes, in semipro events like this, that funding for two more rehearsals could have been found to elevate the performance to its maximum potential. Without a doubt, Mr. Suk would agree.
The enthusiastic audience was distractingly clap-happy, even in brief pauses within a movement.
The concert coincided with the 46th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I’ve got a dream” speech, a portion of which was declaimed by Teryne Chatman. An additional dedication at the death of Conductor Emeritus of the Los Angeles Master Chorale Paul Salamunovich was graciously given. Malotte’s “Lord’s Prayer,” in a choral-instrumental arrangement, followed the Requiem in something of an odd pairing, and which also served as an encore, bringing the festive evening to a close. 

Most of the costs for the event, including a sumptuous reception afterward, were generously paid for by Ms. Berkman’s parents, Jilla and Shallom Berkman, owners of Urth Caffé.
Photo of First Congregational Church of Los Angeles from Internet sourcesPhoto of Daniel Suk and the Dream Orchestra by San Marino Tribune, used by permission
2 years ago | |
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