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By Erica Miner
Once more, with feeling! This year’s SDO Valentine offering, Donizetti’s 1832 comic masterpiece, Elixir of Love, echoed last season’s midwinter love fest, the composer’s Daughter of the Regiment. Both operas inspire warm sentiments that evoke love’s passions. After last night’s performance, I went home with Elixir’s nonstop romantic tunes dancing in my head like auditory sugarplums.

No wonder Elixir, the most widely performed opera of its day, was a breakout hit for Donizetti. That the composer, with the help of poet Felice Romani’s clever libretto, could complete such a brilliant work in only one month, is a tribute to his genius: the nineteenth century equivalent of Fast and Furious meets Gone in Sixty Seconds - or in this case, thirty days. Comedy is about pain, and this “dramedy” delivers in generous amounts the amorous suffering of its sympathetic hero Nemorino without over-exaggerating its melodramatic pathos.

In his San Diego Opera debut, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti’s lovable Nemorino fit squarely into the classic portrayal of the underdog romantic hero. His ability to bare his feelings, and the contrast between his naïveté and his love interest Adina’s sophistication, were well played. As with Donizetti’s Daughter, the expectations to deliver in a celebrated and notoriously difficult aria (in this case Una Furtiva Lagrima), and the pressure of being compared with history’s greatest tenors, including Filianoti’s mentor Alfredo Kraus, were intense. Filianoti sounded stressed in the aria but came through valiantly, a testament to his background of performing at world-renowned houses such as the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Berlin, Vienna and Bayerische Staatsopers, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. One hopes as the run progresses he will be able to relax more into both the role and the aria.

As the spirited, shrewdly intelligent Adina, Tatiana Lisnic sparkled in her SDO debut. The young Moldavian soprano showed a canny understanding of her character’s strengths and weaknesses, flipping between sharp-witted shrewish young woman and love-struck pushover at any given moment. But her most impressive strength was her gorgeous voice, perfectly suited to the demands of the role, and her ability to maintain absolute control and consistency from the stunning high C’s down to the chest tones of the lower register. Her experience in singing Mozart was shown to full advantage as she spun out lustrous tones and handled the role’s frequent fioratura with seeming ease; and she succeeded at staying in perfect sync vocally and dramatically with her tenor costar. No doubt her appearances, her first in San Diego and in North America, and in Paris and Vienna, will snowball into a major career in the very near future.

Those who were delighted with American bass Kevin Burdette’s Company debut last season as Sgt. Sulpice in Daughter of the Regiment must have been thrilled with his performance as Dr. Dulcamara. Unlike the typical Falstaff-like buffoon often seen in this role, Burdette was all spindly limbs and angularity: an operatic Jim Carrey, both in looks and in comic genius, whose pratfalls were done with convincing ease. His versatile range of roles both traditional and contemporary, and his experience in opera companies such as the Met, Santa Fe, and Teatro Colòn in Buenos Aires, served him well, as he negotiated the complex range of vocal and dramatic demands without overplaying the character’s boisterousness and tomfoolery.

Familiar to audiences from his frequent appearances here since his 2002 SDO debut, Malcolm MacKenzie sang Belcore with vocal assuredness. His opulent baritone filled the house without sounding forced, reflecting the recognition he has received as a winner of the Metropolitan Opera Western Regional Auditions and a finalist in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. He played his role as the military authority figure with understated comic flair: an appealing Belcore whose offhandedness and ambivalence seemed jovial rather than gratingly arrogant.

Since her Company debut in 2011, San Diego native Stephanie Weiss has performed with Deutsche Oper Berlin, Berlin Staatsoper Opera, and Opera Orchestra of New York, among others. Her vocally substantial Giannetta was an agreeable change from the lighter soubrette voices usually cast in the role: always audible and full, with pleasing tones, and never lost in the shuffle of other competing voices.

American conductor Karen Kamensek interview gave an impressive SDO debut, conducting with authority and a clear, concise stick. Born in Slovenia and raised in Chicago, her unique list of credits ranges from her current post as music director of Staatsoper Hannover to appearances with Volksoper Wien, Opera Australia, Symphonie Orchester Wien, and the world premiere of Philip Glass’s Les Enfants Terribles at the Spoleto Festival USA. Her tempi felt rushed at times, but overall she showed great command of her craft.

Stephen Lawless created a wealth of clever moves for his characters on stage. The veteran British stage director, who debuted here in 2007, has appeared worldwide in opera houses and in recordings and telecasts for BBC, and with a profusion of celebrated companies on multiple continents. Some of his maneuvers seemed over the top (e.g., Nemorino’s off-color activity at the rear of the stage in Act 2), and it was difficult to see and hear Filianoti when he was hidden behind the threshing wagon, but such details as Nemorino pulling on Adina’s skirt to keep her from abandoning him came off splendidly.

Johan Engels’ sets were a true evocation of the countryside setting of threshers and the heaviness of their labors, though I found the massive gates distracting at times and would have preferred to see the entire company rather than having them hidden behind the gates. Joan Sullivan Genthe’s lighting worked in effective sync with the sets, and the subtle pinks and blues of her sunset faithfully evoked an amorous atmosphere and the promise of love. Charles Prestinari’s chorus sang robustly as always, and they plunged into their very stage-active roles with aplomb.

If you believe in romance, and would like to extend your Valentine’s weekend into a weeklong celebration, Elixir of Love could be your perfect date night. I highly recommend you take in one of the remaining performances on Feb. 18, 21, or 23.

Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner

Conductor Karen Kamensek exudes authority, gives off a distinct overachiever vibe and projects wisdom beyond her years. The sparkle of her eyes, her upbeat attitude, and her infectious enthusiasm for her craft point toward an intriguing debut this Saturday, February 15, in San Diego Opera’s romantic comedy Elixir of Love. As current music director of the Staatsoper Hannover in Germany, she has had wide experience conducting a vast array of opera genres.
EM: It’s a delight to welcome you here for your debut in this Donizetti classic. Do you feel comfortable in that genre? Do you prefer comedies to dramas?
KK: They’re different. I’ve done this piece often, so it’s really “programmed in” for me. We have great singers with great comedic timing. I haven’t met the orchestra yet, so I’m hoping they’re also lighthearted. This is like the Gilbert and Sullivan of Italian music, so hopefully it will be light enough, and happy. Important in comedy are quick tempi, too. Of course with a piece like this you have to have a mastery of the language and know how to react to things. Daughter of the Regiment is different because it’s in French, at least we did the French version in Hannover. And Maria Stuarda is totally different, it’s light, but it’s a drama. I sometimes laugh about Verdi and Donizetti and Bellini, they’re talking about death and blood and still it’s (sings) very lighthearted and in major keys (laughs), but that’s the paradox of it. There’s no recipe to emotion.
EM: And yet you’re doing Tannhauser here next season.
KK: (laughs) Yes. Totally different.
EM: Tell me about your background. You’re originally from the Midwest?
KK: I’m born in Chicago, raised in southern Indiana. I went to IU (Indiana University), then I moved to New York and gigged and struggled like everybody else. Then in 2000 I went to Europe, got a lucky break.
EM: Did you always want to be a conductor?
KK: I did. I’m a product of watching the Met broadcasts on Saturday afternoon, a crazy eleven year old in front of the TV.
EM: Was music in your background at home?
KK: My parents are from Slovenia, they immigrated just before I was born. Mom was a musician, a flutist and conductor and had a children’s chorus, but gave all that up when she came to America and raised us. I started very early, piano at four, violin at eight. I had a great musical background in my public school. We had our own little sistema there. That’s very popular now, but we had it back then. I had a lucky break with teachers. Orchestra and chorus every single day. I played violin in the orchestra. I had a tough choice to make in college, but it was clear I wanted to conduct so I got a piano degree first and then conducting. But my string background comes in very helpful. I often correct my own parts or ask if we can do something a certain way. The musicians see through me pretty quickly, though. They ask, “Did you play violin?” (laughs).
EM: As a violinist I always appreciated a conductor who knows string playing. Tell me about New York.
KK: I started working at the Met, I was coaching a lot, worked with Philip Glass, did the New York City Opera tour of Bohème, then ran into a dry patch and got a little bit desperate, didn’t know if anything was going to happen. Then I got a lucky break assisting (conductor) Simone Young. Her manager saw me conduct and that was the end of all the assisting.
EM: I really enjoyed working with her at the Met. Do you think women conductors are beginning to get their due, or at least gain a foothold?
KK: I think so. One likes to focus on conducting because it’s such a public job. I don’t think it’s any different than other “male dominated” professions. I know just as many young male conductors struggling to get in as female conductors. You have to be tenacious enough to follow through. I think females naturally ask themselves the question, “Is this the kind of life I want?” It’s a very aggressive lifestyle, a lifetime commitment, a lot of responsibility. And there are more opportunities for conductors in Germany. Especially if you have piano skills. If you don’t, it’s tough to break in to that profession. But I got lucky.
EM: Describe some of the responsibilities you encounter as a conductor.
KK: You have auditions, administration, negotiations, publicity, programs. Planning, hiring, soloists et al. And interminable amounts of meetings. Of course you have a whole hierarchy working for you but still you’re the decision maker and that takes up a lot of time.
EM: Do you find all of that challenging, or would you rather just focus on the music?
KK: Mixed. I’d like to be able to focus on one project at a time and not twelve at one time (laughs). As a music director in Germany my weeks are easily sixty hours in the theater, and that’s a lot.
EM: As a conductor you’re just hitting your stride. You have forty-five years to go, hopefully.
KK: Great! (Laughs.) We’ll see. I have over fifty operas in my repertoire, which is fantastic for me. 
EM: Do you play all of them too?
KK: If I wanted to, yes, but I hardly get any time at the piano. I played cembalo for my own Mozart operas. I coach when I can, do a little chamber music here and there.
EM: You’ve worked in Europe, Malaysia, and also in the States. How would you compare them? Any particular area that you enjoy more than anywhere else?
KK: Different. I haven’t conducted much in America. This is my first opera premiere in America here in San Diego. I’ll be back again next season for Tannhauser, and in San Francisco for Susannah in September. So these are my first experiences. Rehearsal time is limited in the States, and we have a luxurious amount of time in Europe. For operas we have an immense rotation in the orchestra, sometimes you’re rehearsing three fully rotated orchestra for one production. That’s a bit stressful because you’re chronically repeating yourself and getting criticized for it.
EM: As an orchestra player, I’m familiar with that syndrome.
KK: You learn your repertoire very fast here in the US. We’re putting this (Elixir) up in two weeks. For a new production in Europe I would have fourteen rehearsals from beginning to end. Here I have five.
EM: Is that because opera is more subsidized there, or because of the mindset?
KK: Both. From what I’ve heard, American orchestras are much quicker. Their sight reading capabilities are much higher. It’s more of a competition here. Positions in Europe are tenured, there’s a certain amount of security that comes with that, a mentality. More of a sense of tradition there, too. They play behind the beat. Generally I’m surprised by how quickly American orchestras react to the stick. Both have pros and cons. My experience up until now with American orchestras is, “My God, she’s going to rehearse. Most people let us out a half hour early,” and I use rehearsal time until the very end.
EM: Are you excited about your SDO debut?
KK: I am. I’m very much an “in the moment” kind of person, I’ve seen how precipitous events have brought me here. The years when I was desperate for work I thought I couldn’t make the apparatus move to push in the direction I wanted to; but looking back I wish I’d been a little calmer about the process. That’s what I mean about tenacity. In the moment where I actually gave up and said, “I’m done,” the universe sort of shifted and said, “All right, you mean it this time.” And then everything in quotes came to me. But I was very tenacious. If it weren’t for Simone giving me a chance and actually saying okay, I’ll take the risk, who knows where I would have been? Things came together the right way at the right time.
EM: Timing means so much. As for repertoire, you mentioned fifty operas. Is there any repertoire you prefer - German, Italian, French?
KK: Sounds like a discussion I had with my manager (laughs). He said, “You’re like a Jack of all trades, we can’t specialize you anywhere.” I tend to go toward the English operas. The Brittens. And American operas. That interests me. I’m itching to do Susannah in San Francisco. It’s done so rarely in Germany. What’s still missing in my repertoire is some Strauss, though I’ve done Ariadne. Of course I’ve done Wagner, and Verdi. I do Mozart with great pleasure. I haven’t done much Handel. I’ve said no to some things like Armida. There are conductors out there, incredible experts who are going to do better service to that. I’m a little young for specializing.
EM: Working in Germany, do you feel more of an affinity for Wagner and Strauss, or do you love to do Verdi just as much?
KK: I love Verdi just as much. I also find it very difficult. I thought I would have an affinity for Onegin when I did it for the first time because of my Slavic background, but I tend to go toward Janacek. Tchaikovsky’s more of a puzzle to me. Things like Rusalka are closer to my language. I thought I’d gravitate more toward Beethoven but I prefer Mozart. Puccini, yes, I do it, but I’m a big Britten fan. 
EM: Which Britten operas?
KK: I’m doing Midsummer Night’s Dream when I get back from here. I’ve done Death in Venice and Turn of the Screw. Haven’t done Grimes or Billy Budd yet.
EM: You’ve got a long way to go, so much ahead of you, which is exciting. How many new operas do you do a year in Hannover?
KK: Two premieres a season and maybe one revival. I was doing much more when I was in Hamburg, five or six different pieces. Before that, in Freiburg, I did three premieres a season.
EM: If you could write your own wish list of operas over the next several years, which would you like to do?
KK: I’d like to finish the Ring cycle. We did half of it last season and we’ve decided to replace it in Hannover, so I still have Siegfried and Gotterdammerung to do. Dutchman. Parsifal can wait. I’m doing Meistersinger right now. Rosenkavalier, Salome, Elektra. Wozzeck I’d like to do again. Any of the other Strausses. Fledermaus. Puccini’s missing. Fanciulla, Rondine. I’d like to do Boris Godunov again.
EM: As far as nineteenth versus twentieth or twenty-first century opera, do you gravitate toward something in particular?
KK: I probably will always gravitate toward the modern by nature. I’d love to do Rake’s Progress.
EM: What about the composers of now - Jake Heggie, Tobias Picker, John Adams?
KK: I absolutely would love to do any of that. Any world premieres. I loved doing Nixon in China at IU. The American minimalists are still popular in Europe at the moment. In Germany we’re also trying to promote German composers, naturally.
EM: Before we wrap up, tell me a bit about your work with youth orchestras. Do you feel it’s an important part of your growth as a conductor to develop future audiences and musicians?
KK: We all give back somehow, and I’m the product of an amazing educational system, so I’m thrilled that people ask me to conduct youth orchestras, that I have something to offer. I’m a product of youth festivals, Germany especially. That’s where I learned the ropes.
EM: Do you feel there’s a difference between youth orchestras in the States and Europe?
KK: No, not ever. They all feel they’re a part of something. I did, too, when I was their age.
EM: I have a feeling a lot is going to happen for you in the future. I can’t wait for Elixir.
KK: Thanks so much.
Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner 

In part one of my recent interview with Director Andrew Sinclair, he shared his insights and experiences directing San Diego Opera, from Aida to the 2014 opening of the powerful verismo opera Pagliacci. In part two, Sinclair delves further into the subject of character in opera.

EM: In Pagliacci you gave a whole new spin to the ending when, instead of Canio, Tonio declares, “La Commedia è finita.”

AS: Opera is about people. It’s not about how it looks. These days, not all, but for a lot of contemporary directors, it’s a very visual concept. Once in Europe, at the end of Tosca Act Two, I didn’t do crucifix and candles. Which I think probably caused a scandal with the public. I know Toscas who did not want to do crucifix and candles because they just don’t feel it. So I said to the soprano, “Are you absolutely wedded to the idea of doing crucifix and candles? Maybe there’s something else that works.” And she said, “Andrew, when I sing Turandot in Germany, I make my entrance as Turandot from the stomach of a giant teddy bear. There’s a huge mobile phone next to me on which Calàf answers the riddles. Why would I worry about crucifix and candles?” (Laughs.)

EM: I feel the same way. As you said, it’s about the characters, and it sounds like your approach was the best for the situation.

AS: I also like to think what happens when the opera’s over. What happens to Butterfly’s child, for instance. I think he has a terrible existence. Because Kate doesn’t really want him. There are a whole lot of ways you can do the end of Butterfly, too. There’s no doubt she kills herself, but there’s a production somewhere else where I think she kills Suzuki, kills the child… I don’t know, talk about Euro trash. And in certain operas like Butterfly, I prefer to run acts two and three together.

EM: We did that at the Met, too.

AS: A lot of sopranos say it’s hard. Butterfly’s a mighty “sing” for any soprano, but to have a break and then try and crank up the tension again in what is really a very short act - it’s much better to play it straight through.

EM: The music between the end of act two and the beginning of act three is seamless anyway. I think that kind of inexorable march to the end works for Butterfly.

AS: Exactly. It’s like you spend the night watching with Butterfly, Suzuki and the child. And it’s the same with Salome. It takes place in real time. You live through this bizarre evening and you really feel you’ve been through the wringer.

EM: As far as doing Pagliacci on its own, I think it works well, but I can’t imagine doing Cavalleria Rusticana on its own.

AS: Nor can I. Of course they’re paired with other pieces. Pagliacci is sometimes paired with Tabarro and Schicchi, but if you’re going to do two there’s no doubt Pagliacci and Cavalleria are going to stand very well together. But Pagliacci is the stronger piece.

EM: I do have a soft spot for Cavalleria.

AS: So do I. When I first started loving opera I preferred Cavalleria. But I think I didn’t understand the problem with it. The first time I did both “Cav and Pag” was in Singapore. I already I knew I was going to do a new production of them for Australian Opera. The difference between what I did in Singapore and what I did in Sydney was phenomenal because I started looking at the drama differently. The first was conducted by Karen Kamensek, who’s doing Ballohere, and we had a fantastic time.

EM: Speaking of Singapore, I know you’ve also worked in Hong Kong. Do you find differences working in Asia as opposed to in Europe, and if so, what would they be?

AS: In Asia they don’t plan ahead so much. It’s all done in a short period of time. As a director you have problems because singers don’t want to display affection on the stage. They don’t want to kiss on stage.

EM: That’s tough in opera. And what about committing murder?

AS: Well, I was very interested when the Chairman of Singapore Opera said, “I want to do Salome.” And I went, “Really?” And he said they have to get used to the fact there are other popular operas, not just Bohème, Traviata, and Carmen. So they asked me to do Salome. Then they asked if I knew anyone who might sing the role. “We don’t have anyone in Asia.” I wasn’t sure whether they meant vocally or just someone who would be prepared to do that sort of part. We were very lucky because we had a wonderful Salome. Very experienced soprano. Then they asked if I knew someone who would sing Herod. And maybe Jochanaan. So I ended up casting the four main roles which was quite interesting. Then they said that sort of opera was not done by Asian conductors unless they conduct in Europe all the time. So I found them a conductor as well. It was all very interesting. But I was very nervous about doing this piece. I remember having dinner with someone from Management, about six months before we did it and I said, “I think you’re very brave, it’s wonderful you’re doing it.” And he said, “Yes, do you think you could maybe wrap up the head?” I said, “No. If you need the head wrapped you’re talking to the wrong director.” The Jochanaan was coming from London, so the people who made the head for Covent Garden were able to send the same head. We got to the final scene, and Salome said, “Andrew, I have to have more blood.” I mean, the thing was just gushing with blood by the end. Nobody batted an eyelid about it in the opera house. But there was a moment in the dance where she pushed Herod back on the steps of the cistern and put her foot in the middle of his chest. And the audience just gasped (laughs). Dominatrix.

EM: Totally her character.

AS: Absolutely. I had the most wonderful time doing Salome. She’s a very interesting person. You can’t play a murderess without showing why she does what she does, and what kind of background she comes from. A very dysfunctional family, the debauchery of the court. She’s had no proper childhood. And someone kills himself over her. I had her just step over Narraboth’s body like she didn’t even notice. She doesn’t understand what Jochanaan says but he’s an escape, a life away from here. She makes advances to him, she reminds him of what desire is.

EM: He stirs up everything in her. And there’s nothing she can do about it.

AS: Exactly. He gives her a sexual feeling which makes her feel vulnerable. And she doesn’t want to feel vulnerable.

EM: Her ego can’t take it either.

AS: That’s when she decides to have revenge. She doesn't know how, but she thinks, “If I silence that voice, I regain power.”

EM: A pretty powerful and unexpected emotion from a fifteen year old.

AS: At the end, she says, “Why don’t you look at me, Jochanaan?” The lips are not moving and suddenly she realizes she’s killed the one person that provided her with escape. And when Herod says to the guards, “Kill that woman,” she says, “Yes. I have nothing to live for.” And she becomes a sympathetic figure. A very confused teenager.

EM: It’s shocking to think young girls can be capable of that. No wonder Salome closed after one performance at the Met In 1907. It’s not real but you still get caught up in it.

AS: Speaking of real, I worked with one singer in Lucia, and she was worried about something I was doing. “But if I do that, well…” she said, “The public thought I had a wonderful marriage and in fact my husband was quite violent with me. I’m afraid if I do that somehow they’ll know.” And I said, “I’m not going to tell them unless you tell them.” I didn't push it and she came the next day and said, “You’re right. We have to go all the way.” And she found it cathartic.

EM: There’s no other way in opera. Even in the pit, I felt the same way. You can’t help but be drawn in by the characters and their pain.

AS: Yes. It’s all about the people.

Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at
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By Erica Miner

This season’s San Diego Opera Opening Night incited passion, drama, and nonstop thrills for the audience. The festive atmosphere at the Civic Theatre provided the perfect complement for the exciting intensity of one of opera’s grittiest dramas, Pagliacci.

The first opera to be written in nineteenth century verismo style, Pagliacci reflected an actual incident in the childhood of its composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo. The boy’s magistrate father adjudicated the case of an actor who killed his wife while they performed on stage. The event touched the composer deeply enough to inspire him to write what became his best known opera. Usually paired with another one-act opera such as Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, this Pagliacci worked beautifully on its own.

Director Andrew Sinclair, a favorite at SDO since his debut in 2000 and veteran of productions from Tosca to Aida (see my interview with him), delivered a rendering that was true to this opera’s stark, graphically violent nature. He probed the depths of his characters’ neuroses and weaknesses in this grim tale without resorting to melodrama or excess, intensifying the intrigue with creative techniques. Staging a pantomime between Nedda and Beppe during the Intermezzo and giving the final shocking line, “La Commedia è finita,” to baritone Tonio instead of the tenor protagonist Canio, were among the devices used to add poignancy and edginess to the already violent plot line. All of the lead singers managed to cut through the massive, almost Wagnerian orchestration with impressive robustness and energy.

Having debuted at SDO as the Duke in Rigoletto, tenor Frank Porretta gave an aggressive and multidimensional performance as the beleaguered clown Canio, alternating between dominance over his consort Nedda, abject self-pity, and helpless surrender to his inevitable fate. Vocally powerful, Porretta proved himself capable of mastering roles such as Radames, Otello and Calàf, which he has performed in major opera houses throughout the world.

Internationally recognized soprano Adina Nitescu is known for her impressive interpretations of such opera heroines as Tosca and Cio-Cio San. In her SDO debut, she created the perfect foil for Porretta’s Canio. Her temperamental, fiery rendering of Nedda convincingly portrayed her inner conflict, torn as she was between her duty to Canio and her inexplicable desire to take flight like the birds winging through the skies. Her imposing voice seemed a bit heavy for this role, but was a worthy match for Porretta’s powerful instrument.

Stephen Powell (see interview), who debuted in SDO’s Turandot in 1997 and has also performed here in the world premiere of The Conquistador, has sung at the Met Opera and other major houses in this hemisphere, and later this season will appear with Los Angeles Opera. In his first ever appearance in the role of Tonio, he captured the audience’s attention with his vocal beauty and brilliance from the opening note of the difficult Prologue - a tour-de-force for any baritone - to his final, “La Commedia è finita!” His highly nuanced rendering of the tormented hunchback vividly presented the dark, conflicted character’s desires for love and revenge, toying with the audience’s sympathies, or lack thereof, depending on the circumstances.

Familiar to San Diego audiences from his appearances in Romeo et Juliette, David Adam Moore was appropriately steamy as Nedda’s lover, Silvio. The young, multitalented Moore, who has appeared with major companies across the US, has a great love for art songs, and also composes, used his lush baritone to perform with persuasive passion and lust, equally adept at expressing his love for Nedda and his frustration at being powerless to help her.

Joel Sorensen’s Beppe added much-needed innocence to a cast of unforgivingly tough characters. Last seen in the past season’s Murder in the Cathedral, his light, pleasing tenor meshed seamlessly with the voices of whichever other singers he was supporting. His Intermezzo pantomime with Nedda gave new depth to Beppe, who often is depicted as a background character.

Yves Abel, who debuted here last season conducting The Daughter of the Regiment, handled the switch from romantic comedy to harsh realism without a hitch. His San Diego Symphony musicians proved more than capable of keeping up with the maestro’s extraordinarily lively tempi, especially in the opening Prelude. So, too, did Charles Prestinari’s choristers, who as usual excelled vocally as well as dramatically in both of their highly active scenes.

John Coyne did a fine job of creating the impression of an Italian village with a vast countryside in the background. His sets meshed beautifully with Ed Kotanen’s attractive costumes, which were simple for the townsfolk and boldly colored for the “play within a play” performers. Michael Whitfield’s lighting effectively portrayed the transition from a golden, peaceful sunlit day into evocative twilight and threatening evening darkness.

With such an exciting, passionate opening to this season, one must make sure to catch at least one of the remaining three performances of Pagliacci. After that, we look forward to SDO’s next offering, Donizetti’s enchanting comedy, The Elixir of Love.

But for now, La Commedia è finita.

Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at

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By Douglas Neslund

There is nothing small or insignificant about Johann Sebastian Bach. He is measurable only in the gigantic: his music, his appetite, his physical size, his ego, his family, his ambition and finally, his place in the pantheon of musical genius. "It is Bach," John Eliot Gardiner declares, "making music in the Castle of Heaven, who gives us the voice of God — in human form." People make pilgrimages to Leipzig to hear his music performed, as it is daily in Thomaskirke. and to weep in gratitude over his grave for his enormous gifts left to us. Somehow, it is not impossible to believe that, were he to return from the grave, Bach would be immensely pleased.
However, he might have wished to be born earlier in the Baroque period, as that style was waning in popularity as he aged in favor of the newer Classical period. And by the time of his death, Baroque performance was virtually extinct. Nevertheless, the aging Bach managed to piece together a major work that we know as the B-minor Mass (BVW 232). Bach had written four other mass fragments in the Lutheran format (Kyrie and Gloria), but the evangelist composer had not written a mass in the form of the Roman Catholic Ordinary.
In semi-retirement, Bach had more time to compile and compose than in his earlier years, when new Cantatas and other liturgical-oriented music must be written, each with its own deadline to be met. Among the hundreds of choral items already in his oeuvrewere works that met his needs for the new Mass. He found an early Kyrie and Gloria that he had once referred to as “unworthy” in an introductory letter to Augustus III, the new sovereign of Saxony.   In this setting, those movements are anything but “unworthy.”
In the pre-concert lecture, Maestro Grant Gershon, clearly explained how it is that Bach stands so large in the musical landscape: he could calculate (if that is the correct term) the horizontal counterpoint concurrently with the vertical chordal structure, where most other composers were one-directional.
So how did the music sound, you ask? By far and away, it was a most satisfying performance. One could quibble about a tempo here, the use of hiccups in places Bach did not indicate in the score, but in the main, a really well worked-out approach. If one may make a prediction here, it will be fascinating to hear the next iteration of the B-minor Mass in seasons to come. Maestro Gershon has spent, as has the Master Chorale, a lot of time thinking through the piece, and rehearsing it to a polished state of resolution superior to most other extant performances and recordings. But one has a feeling that he and they will present us with even fresher and more distinctive ideas as time ripens the work in their collective minds.
The opening chord - “Kyrie” - almost took the audience by surprise. The Master Chorale was ready for it, as was Steve Scharf’s excellent Master Chorale Orchestra. At this point, Maestro Gershon chose to employ the melody, broken as it was, into two-note hiccups (not indicated at the outset in the original score, but to be found later in the orchestral parts), the result of which was more reverential than penitential, but the gorgeous altos’ tone melted even the stoniest ear. The “Christe” duet was sung by soprano Suzanne Anderson and mezzo Adriana Manfredi; for those sitting further away from the stage than the immediate orchestra section, their contribution was unfortunately virtually inaudible. When the second “Kyrie” arrived, Maestro Gershon chose to employ the hiccup (Ky/ri/e) as each choral section introduced the main musical theme, but upon reiteration of the theme, had the Master Chorale revert to legato, allowing the melody to coalesce into place.
“Gloria in excelsis” was joyously sung with all pistons firing. All the rehearsing paid off in clarity, with successive thematic entrances highlighted but not driven. The result is a revelation especially of the inner workings of the choral lines. But “Et in terra pax” became another string of broken two-note phraselets when first sung by each section in turn, which is indicated in the score for the strings, but not for the chorus. “Laudamus te” belonged to mezzo Callista Hoffman-Campbell, who sang it with satisfying strength and musicality, brilliantly accompanied by Concertmaster Joel Pargman. “Gratias agimus tibi” was again a total choral effort that was right in so many aspects: involvement in the emotional value of the text as well as beautiful choral landscaping and phrase shaping.
Soprano Elissa Johnston (aka the Maestro’s life partner) and tenor Jon Lee Keenan shared the “Domine Deus” duet. Both singers are consummate musicians and handled the sometimes low tessitura with a reliance on textual delivery. Mr. Keenan’s otherwise musical voice tended to thin out on a certain vowel sound. “Qui tollis peccata mundi” brought the full chorus of 110 singers back into play, with the same beautiful results as before. “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris” was mezzo Niké St. Clair’s assignment, and she did not fail to deliver a rich, beautiful tone. “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” employs an accompaniment played by Steve Becknell on the double French horn together with a pair of bassoons accompanying the normally stentorian singing of Steve Pence, whose voice sounded at less than normal strength. “Cum Sancto Spiritu” revived the joy of the “Gloria” chorus, although the speed taken meant the sopranos couldn’t quite manage a couple of their high notes as they flew by. Nevertheless, this provided a good place for an intermission (in spite of the official programme’s advisory that there would not be one).
While patrons enjoy their halftime coffee etc., a note about how different contemporary conductors approach the end of a section or movement. Baroque performance practice has undergone an enormous change over the past 60-75 years. Back then, slow used to infer piety. In a sacred work, allegro (which actually means “lively” or “happy”) could not be taken literally, as it might infringe on the “holiness” of the performance. Or so it was thought. Starting with Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt and others in the late 1960s, Baroque performance practices begin to light up with speedier tempi and greater attention to the use of ancient instruments (or authentic copies thereof), and the use of emotion inherent in the texts. As it turned out, some conductors became addicted to the ever-faster speeds, resulting in chaos and lost textual meaning.
But in our own performance, Maestro Gershon chose to keep one of the cherished attributes of the clichéd mid 20th century performance practice: that of slowing, sometimes drastically, as a movement arrives at an “end station or cadence,” and then taking a page from the retro-revisionist book, making a separation between the penultimate note and the final chord. Except on this occasion, those separations became a feature of their own. In several such places at the cadence in question, not everyone on stage looked entirely sure where the final note would fall as the momentary space varied from time to time.
Opening bars of the "Credo"
The performance continued with “Credo in unum Deum.” Initial sectional entries were sung legato the first time, and then articulated in subsequent entries of the main theme. As to tempo, the Credo is indicated alla breve, but the note values are doubled in the score. One would think that Roger Wagner, whose inaugural Los Angeles Master Chorale’s performance 49 years ago of the B-minor Mass in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was the inspiration for this weekend’s celebrations, might have opted to take the tempo a couple of metronomic ticks slower.
Soprano Suzanne Waters and mezzo Michele Hemmings duetted in “Et in unum Dominum” before the traditional emotional shift to the agonizing sorrow in “Et incarnatus est,” said to be Bach’s very last composition, and “Crucifixus,” both of which were sung by the Master Chorale with the most exquisite pianissimos of the performance while losing none of their incisive textual delivery. “Et resurrexit” bursts out and forward, leaving sorrow behind and proclaims the victory of life over death. Baritone Vincent Robles sang the “Et in spiritum Sanctum” that would likely benefit from a bass-baritone voice, given its occasional dip into the bass range. The “Confiteor” movement is a strange bird, seemingly written by another hand. But here, Maestro Gershon achieved a masterful touch in making the inherent cantus firmus sing out whenever it appeared. Suddenly, the movement makes musical sense. “Et expecto” burst forth with the three “Bach” trumpets blaring perhaps just a bit too enthusiastically.
Maestro Gershon allowed perhaps three or four seconds to elapse between the final notes of the “Et expecto” and a subito downbeat of “Sanctus.” The oceanic triplets washing across the stage and from side to side are marvelous invocations of angelic hosts singing “holy, holy, holy.” Clarity, together with holding back a bit on the opening waves allowed the Master Chorale to find ever-increasing power and joy before the music suddenly shifts into “Osanna in excelsis,” sung with precise diction and choral balance.
Pablo Cora employed his light tenor to good effect in the “Benedictus” before the “Osanna” returned with all the initial joy in place. No greater change of emotion could be envisioned than the transition from “Osanna” to “Agnus Dei” – one of the most iconic alto solos ever written, in which the soloist, on this occasion the excellent Janelle DeStefano, must negotiate awkward vocal leaps that take the singer from one tonality to the next, requiring a literal leap of faith that it will all work out. There are traps rhythmically as well: normal phrases are sometimes lengthened by a couple of measures. Calculating how much of a breath to take, and how to preserve it enough to achieve the phrase ending –a great challenge well met by Ms. DeStefano.
The wind section of the orchestra deserves high praise for various obbligato accompaniments in solo sections of the score. Lisa Edwards contributed continuo support on the smallish portative organ, which was difficult to hear.
All of which leads us to the grand finale: “Dona nobis pacem,” a soaring prayer for peace resting on the fugal phrase: sol-la-ti-do that again and again emerged from the choral tapestry, building, slowly and inevitably with the orchestra to a thrilling, sublime, spine-tingling finish.

Photo credits: Various Wikipedia sources and David Johnston, used with permission

2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner

Veteran opera director Andrew Sinclair, director of this season’s opening San Diego Opera production, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, knows what makes opera tick. In this interview, he shares his wisdom about the true guts of opera: catharsis, raw emotion, and tears.

EM: What a delight to meet you. I’ve heard such great things about you from people who have worked with you at SDO. I know you’re a favorite here. I interviewed Zandra Rhodes last season. She spoke so highly of you. What fun to do Aida with her in that splendid production.

AS: She’s absolutely wonderful. And I love this company.

EM: They love you. Of all the many productions you’ve done here, do you have any favorites?

AS: That’s hard, because I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad experience with this company. I think it says a lot about the company and the singers it employs. I particularly enjoyed doing Tosca, partly because it’s one of my absolutely favorite operas. The construction of the piece is really so perfect. The length of the acts, the way the drama is driven, and the music of course is fabulous. I’ve had a lot of association with Tosca in other parts of the world. It also was interesting for me to do Maria Stuarda, a piece I’m very fond of. The Pearl Fishers was a big challenge. It’s very beautiful music but it’s an extremely bad libretto. I had to really think of something to make that work. It wasn’t just me, it was Zandra and John Malashock as well, that made it into a dramatic piece. Of course we’ve done it thirteen times in various parts of the country. But as I said I’ve never had a bad experience here.

EM: Which opera has been the most difficult? Pearl Fishers had its challenges, but what about Lohengrin?

AS: Lohengrin was a production I already knew because it came from Covent Garden, and actually - this is going to really date me - I was the original stage manager when the production was new. Then I became assistant director and came back to the opera house freelance to assist on a revival. I’ve directed my own productions of Lohengrin elsewhere in the world. It’s hard because there are a lot of people involved. People said, well, they just come on stage and they stand. But they all have to react. And it’s actually that background which brings the whole picture to life, so in terms of numbers, that’s hard. Aida’s hard. I’ve done two different Aidas here, and again it’s the numbers of people. When I was asked to do it last year I said I’d done two before and didn’t want to do any more because it’s a lot of work with very little reward for a director.

EM: So, moving so many people about the stage…?

AS: Moving people about the stage is not in any way rewarding, I can tell you (laughs). It has its own sort of private hell. But Ian asked me to do it and because it was Ian and this company’s been very good to me, I agreed. And I’m really glad I did, actually, because I found something new about Aida. It’s basically a very intimate piece. And it’s a victim of that one big scene. Everyone says, “Oh, well, you can have horses, you can have camels…” Horses, elephants, camels, it’s about people. And my problem had always been with Aida herself.

EM: The character?

AS: Yes. Because we know what she is from what she tells you. She’s an Ethiopian princess who’s been captured, and the first time we see her is as a slave. Somehow for me that image never goes away. And the music (sings from the Prelude) is very beautiful but it’s very sad, very wistful. And I thought, I have to find a way to make Aida strong. We had a wonderful Aida in Latonia Moore, marvelous. So I decided I was going to put her in the Prelude. So that you saw this proud woman.

EM: Yes, I loved that.

AS: Then we discover she’s having an affair with a member of the enemy army. And you have a conflict. Then it becomes interesting. We had a great Amneris in Jill Grove. We’d done the boudoir scene one day, and I said, “How much do you think they confide in each other?” She said, “I don’t really think so. She’s a slave, a princess, she doesn’t want anything to be known about her.” I said, “Why don’t we look at it this way. Imagine you’re both princesses, which in its way brings a certain loneliness because of your rank. Your countries are at war with each other. So really the person you’ve become closest to, as Amneris, could be your own personal slave. Why don’t we just have a conversation as Aida and Amneris talking one day.” And so they started. Jill said, “Aida, do you have a boyfriend?” “Well, I did back in Ethiopia, but I don’t know if he’s around anymore. What about you, Amneris?” “Well, there’s somebody I like a lot and I think he likes me…” So this went on, and we established a relationship between Amneris and Aida, which makes apparent betrayal by Aida greater for Amneris. We did the scene again and it was totally different, it was amazing.

EM: That’s brilliant. There’s nothing like a little “improv” to get the juices flowing.

AS: Latonia’s done Aida a lot. But every time she comes to rehearsal she rehearses as if it’s her first, and gives the same energy. So I came away thinking, yes, I wouldn’t mind doing Aida again now because having gone down that road I don’t think I’ve quite finished with it.

EM: So there’s always a different approach.

AS: Yes, and that’s where we’re very lucky. Because often we get to do pieces more than once. I’ve done Lohengrin a lot, Lucia, Butterfly, Bohème. Now this will be my tenth Pagliacci. And it’s very different from the first time I did it. I think the way I’m doing it here is different from the way they’re used to singing it. People think of it as a sweet little troupe doing a sweet little show which goes wrong. We’re playing it about people who are at a stage in their lives where life is pretty grim. My own feeling about Canio is that possibly he was very talented and started to have a career and either the drink got to him first or it was the nerves that made him drink, but for whatever reason…

EM: Before he knew his wife was unfaithful?

AS: Absolutely. And I don’t necessarily think Nedda is his wife. He calls her “sposa” - if you look at the wonderful black and white Fellini film, La Strada, it tells the story of Canio and Nedda in a very different way. So Canio is now doing these traveling shows and the only money they earn is from when they perform. I think Canio is a very good man, he gave this hunchback Tonio a job when nobody else would. He says to Nedda, “I found you a starving orphan on the street and took you in and gave you a name. And my love.” Then there’s Beppe who I think possibly ran away from home to join the Circus. So if we try and think back about these characters and what their history might have been, it does tell us quite a lot of what’s going on. Canio is under tremendous pressure, I think. Which the others don’t realize necessarily. And clearly they’ve been here before in this village - the chorus sings, ‘Ritornanno’ - and they’re favorites. Also as in La Strada, gradually the female character starts to become the principal character everybody loves and everybody laughs at more than the star of the show. She’s very loved, men come up at the end of the performance, and women, and congratulate her. So perhaps Canio subconsciously is getting resentful about that, and becomes incredibly jealous.

EM: They’re both the stars of the show. Is it because she’s getting more attention?

AS: I don’t think he wants it anymore, he’s got too much on his mind. He has his drinking buddies in the village but he doesn’t want to be social with people, and I think the villagers clearly notice a big change in Canio this time from the last time. So gradually there’s getting to be a bigger divide. Also Tonio, I think he’s grateful to have the job initially, but sometimes just being laughed at and ridiculed all the time - it takes its toll. He sees the way Canio treats Nedda and he thinks, “I wouldn’t do that.” And when he finds himself alone with her it gives him the courage to declare his feelings for her.

EM: Which is a big leap for him. He’s outraged when he finds out what’s going on.

AS: Yes, enormous outrage. In this production, once the show starts, we do it so you see backstage as well, you see all the props being handled and things like that. When Canio comes back, clearly he’s had a lot to drink before the show, he goes on stage. Tonio loves it. This is going to be a disaster. He’s one of those characters who doesn’t think things through. The idea of revenge is great, but for how long. Then when Canio starts becoming violent with Nedda, it’s too good. So Tonio’s actually the one who puts a knife in Canio’s hand, and of course Canio kills Nedda, kills Silvio, and in this production - I want to tell you exactly what happens - it’s Tonio who has the last line, “La Commedia è finita.” I believe that’s the way it was originally written. Over the years it’s changed to Canio.

EM: It’s great when you can do something different that the audience doesn’t expect. People come in with certain fixed ideas. Nice to push the envelope now and then.

AS: I think so, because we’re not being unfaithful to Leoncavallo and the libretto at all. It’s just that we’re doing it slightly differently. It’s another way of seeing the characters. It’s not about how it looks. These days, for a lot of contemporary directors, particularly in Europe, it’s a very visual concept. Opera is about people.

EM: Amen to that. So you approach from backstory, but between Pagliacci, which is more intimate, as opposed to Aida, do you approach the staging differently?

AS: I approach it the same way. It’s still about people, first of all, and their relationships. It’s just that Aida has a lot more people in it, and so have the scenes. But you have to remember that Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci may be one-act operas, but they’re big pieces. They’re like a three-act opera condensed. They’re hard. 

EM: So that’s a particular challenge. What about doing Pagliacci on its own?

AS: It’s the first time I’ve done it on its own. Often it kills a piece to interrupt the action. Doing Pagliacci all in one without a break, interestingly, I think it stands very well. Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci were never intended to be paired. It just happens they were. And they were both by two young, talented composers. Cavalleria has fantastic music. But there’s no doubt Leoncavallo is the more mature composer and dramatist. Pagliacci is the stronger piece.

EM: The opera also feels more mature.

AS: Exactly. In Cavalleria, for instance, there’s this big duet between Santuzza and Turiddu. You get to where it’s going dramatically, and then it’s repeated. It’s like Mascagni didn’t know when to leave that bit alone and move forward with the drama.

EM: It took Verdi a while to figure that out, too.

AS: Absolutely. But Leoncavallo is remarkably mature in his sense of drama. We stage the Intermezzo in this production as well, and in fact when I do “Cav and Pag” we stage both Intermezzos. I think important things can be said and they don’t detract from the music. I know Maestro (Yves Abel) is absolutely happy with it.

EM: At the Met we always did the two together. I’m looking forward to seeing Pagliacci on its own.

AS: It’s a very short night, but it’s okay because of the content.

EM: Dramatically it’s so cathartic, so intense, you soak up every element of the drama that way.

AS: I agree. Now that I’m doing it on its own I think it strengthens the piece.

EM: Speaking of actors and backstory, you started out as an actor.

AS: Yes. I trained in Australia and started doing some small things. But I was getting too nervous. So this is much better - and much easier, of course (laughs).

EM: Do you feel a special empathy for your actors, since they not only have to act but sing, too?

AS: Absolutely. I think what singers do, and what we ask them to do these days, is extraordinary. Occasionally you come across singers who genuinely can’t act. They do their best, and I feel for them as well, really. But when it feels real to them, it’s cathartic.

EM: Also for the director, conductor, musicians. It’s not real but you can’t help being drawn in. You can’t imagine the things I would feel while I was playing. I’d be sitting there in tears.

AS: I love it when a production moves me that way. When we staged the Intermezzo the other day, Adina Nitescu and Joel Sorenson played it in such a way… (hesitates) that I cried. So did other people in the room. They just added a slightly different dimension to it.

EM: It’s magical when that happens. It means you’re doing something right.

AS: Yes. You think you don’t cry in your own production unless it’s so bad (laughs). But no, they really did touch some things.

EM: About genres, any you especially enjoy doing?

AS: To be very honest I don’t particularly care for the French repertoire. There are exceptions. Not Pearl Fishers, but it was very good that I did it. The exceptions are Dialogues of the Carmelites, Manon, which really can be wonderful, though it’s very difficult. Werther has wonderful moments. And Pelleas and Melisande. I’m afraid that’s it. I didn’t ever want to do Faust, though I’ve seen very good productions, or Romeo et Juliette, or Lakmé, or Carmen. For me the Italian rep is where I’m probably happiest. There’s German rep I want to do. Arabella is my biggest wish piece. When I first saw it at Covent Garden I remember being absolutely enthralled.

EM: Stunning piece. It’s one of my favorite Strauss operas as well.

AS: It has a kind of Rosenkavalier trio, a duet in the first act, and that fantastic final scene. I absolutely adore it. But nobody’s asked me to do it. I fear it will have to remain on the wish list.

EM: I’m going to try and channel the gods into making Arabella happen for you. Meanwhile, you’ve given me so much wonderful stuff today. It was delightful as I knew it would be. And I’m looking forward to seeing some of those changes you’ve told me about.

AS: I hope we don’t frighten the audiences away.

EM: From what you’ve told me I think they’ll react in a positive way.

AS: Thank you so much. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

EM: You’re very welcome. I’m certain I will.

Photos used with permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner

He has great analytical skills, approaches his roles with remarkable intelligence, and even accompanies himself at the piano. Baritone Stephen Powell, who sings his first Tonio in San Diego Opera’s opening production of Pagliacci this season, embodies the phrase, “multi-talented.” True to form, the affable performer enters the room singing.

EM: Are you going to sing for me, too?

SP: I hadn’t thought of that (laughs).

EM: Where are you from originally? 

SP: I’m from Pennsylvania, born and raised in West Chester.

EM: You started out as a pianist?

SP: I was a piano major at Northwestern. But I quickly found out I wasn’t cut out for eight hours a day of practicing piano by myself. And everybody’s really good when you get to that level. But I loved music, so I started to do a lot of accompanying, which I still love, and play for a lot of violinists and singers. That’s how I began to learn opera repertoire.

EM: Were you singing yet at that point?

SP: I’d always sung for fun. In high school I was in musicals, a rock band - which was a lot of fun - and sang in the choir. For the ensemble requirement, I sang in the University chorale and the vocal jazz ensemble. I dabbled in a lot of things to try and figure out what I wanted to do. I loved everything I was doing but needed to center on something, to focus on a vocation, as so many people do in college. But I always knew it had to be music. I was in a work study program doing recitals, practice sessions, rehearsals and recordings and started playing for many studios, in particular for Norman Gulbrandsen, who eventually became my voice teacher. He had heard that I sang, too, and he said, “I’d love to hear you sing someday.” And I said, “Ah… no, I’m fine.” But eventually I sang for him and he encouraged me to take lessons. At the end of the day he would do a half hour lesson with me, run scales and such. He was very generous with his time.

EM: And did you enjoy that more than you imagined?

SP: I did. I didn’t think of it as a focused vocational avenue yet, but I realized there was something there worth pursuing. By my junior year I had switched from being a piano major to a theory and composition major.

EM: Where did that come from?

SP: Composition was also an interest of mine. I really wanted to be Billy Joel growing up. I wrote a lot of songs on my own with my brother, who was also a voice major in college. But composition at that time was very modern electronic music, Milton Babbitt sort of thing. I didn’t love writing it, but it allowed me to take other courses outside my piano major, and freed me up to do other things and still get my degree. By that time I was studying fairly regularly with Mr. Gulbrandsen, still playing a lot of piano. So I graduated with a theory and composition degree, which was worth pretty much nothing.

EM: Except that you know how to analyze a score.

SP: I do, and sometimes it helps. After that I spent four years working in music, teaching piano and accompanying recitals and auditions in Chicago, taking lessons and doing anything I could to make a living. I sang with Chicago Symphony Chorus. Looking back now, I realize some of the best musical experiences I had were in that chorus, with Georg Solti conducting. He was one of the greatest musical minds of all time.

EM: What a fantastic opportunity.

SP: Fabulous. In ’89 we did a tour of London and Salzburg, Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust. So I got to travel. But my voice teacher was encouraging me to pursue singing, and I thought, “Oh my God, opera, the stories are so silly.”

EM: But you did get the exposure.

SP: I did. I sang in the chorus for Don Giovanni and had a lot of fun, but I didn’t think of it as a vocation. I loved playing opera and enjoyed the music, but I was also a gigging musician, freelancing in a wedding band playing piano and singing pop music till three a.m. with a guitar blaring in my ear. Getting by. I was twenty-five when Mr. Gulbrandsen, who had moved from Northwestern to De Paul, said, “I want you to come get your Master’s degree in voice.” I said, “What, really?” They were doing Figaro, and my voice teacher said, “You need to audition.” After talking with friends and family I decided to get my Master’s, paying my way by playing for opera workshops, vocal classes and auditions. I auditioned and got the role of Figaro - I had worked on the arias and played the role for many singers - and I thought, “What am I getting myself into?”

EM: Not just any role, either.

SP: Yes. I got hooked. After all this searching, finally being on stage, being able to act, with the language, the text, the character, the music all combined, it made sense. I found my niche. I pursued it with vehemence and got my two year degree in one year, then right out of De Paul I auditioned for the Lyric Opera apprenticeship program and got in. I was there from ’93-’95. Then I went to New York and started singing. I joined New York City Opera in the fall of ’95.

EM: What was your first role at City Opera?

SP: I was on a weekly contract, so I had five or six operas that year. Papageno in Magic Flute, plus Mikado, Rosenkavalier, and the musical Cinderella, with Jean Stapleton and Jane Powell, which was a thrill. Then my agent called and asked if I wanted to cover William Stone in Hindemith’s Mathis Der Maler. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but when I looked at the score I realized I should have thought about it a little. Meanwhile I was learning two other roles. Then Bill blew out a vocal chord and suddenly I was “on” for the Opening Night of the season, singing from the pit while Bill walked the part on stage. That was my debut! I remember thinking, if I could get through that, nothing’s going to bother me from here on. That’s turned out to be true, but I learned to be careful what I say yes to.

EM: And your first stage role at city opera was Papageno?

SP: Yes. That’s where I met my wife (soprano Barbara Shirvis). She sang in Mathis, and Pamina in Flute, and we sang together in Mikado and Rosenkavalier. We pretty much couldn’t get away from each other. We’ve been together ever since. My Met debut the fall of ’96 was Marullo in Rigoletto. Now I’ve moved from lyric, like Figaro and Ford in Falstaff, to more dramatic roles.

EM: Now that you’re able to get into the heavier ones, which roles do you enjoy the most, or feel most comfortable with?

SP: It was a slow progression from the lyric repertoire to the lower tier Verdi like Germont and Ford. Now I’d say Rigoletto is my favorite role. I just did Iago for the first time last year and Falstaff at Virginia Opera, and those were fantastic. They’re actually best suited for me now. This summer I did Rodrigo (Don Carlo) for the first time.

EM: Of Rodrigo, Falstaff and Rigoletto, which was the most challenging, and why?

SP: Falstaff because of the character, the range, and especially the amount of text. Also Iago. I’d like to keep doing it where I feel as comfortable with it as I am with Rigoletto. But with Falstaff I felt like I’d worked pretty hard. The physical aspect, wearing a fat suit - it’s not heavy, but hot and cumbersome - the running around and sheer amount of movement, plus the text and the singing and comic timing, it was tough but it engaged my mind, which is what I need. It involves me the most and makes me the happiest. That’s why I found opera to be so good for me, because there’s so much going on. I always have something to think about.

EM: The role of Tonio in Pagliacci at San Diego Opera is brand new for you. Are you happy to do something different?

SP: I am. Especially because I got it so late, the fact that the role itself is not enormous gives me a chance to learn it quickly. Of course I’ve know the Prologue aria for years. I haven’t really sung it but I’ve played it and heard other people sing it. There’s some pretty physical stuff - the duet with Nedda where she whips me and there’s a struggle and I have to run around a lot, that’s a real workout. We’re about to stage Act Two today, the play within the play, so I’m interested to see what we’re going to do with that. I’m enjoying it. It’s right in with the other things I’m singing, stylistically and sort of my fach.

EM: And you get to open the show. All the attention on you. That’s got to be fun.

SP: Yes, I like that. It’s a great opening. Fantastic.

EM: Have you worked with Andrew Sinclair before?

SP: We did Pearl Fishers at City Opera a while ago, maybe 2005 or ’06. He’s a great guy. He’s got lots to say, is always very prepared. Really a pleasure to work with. I’m looking forward to being able to focus just on Pagliacci for one evening.

EM: It must be a great luxury.

SP: It’s nice to learn it that way, too. Especially for the first time.

EM: What else have you sung here?

SP: This is my eighth or ninth time at SDO. The last was Sharpless (Madama Butterfly). My first year, ’97, I did three operas, small roles. Dancaïro in Carmen, Nuñez in the new opera Conquistador, Ping in Turandot. The next year I came back and did Guglielmo in Cosi Fan Tutte with my wife - she did Fiordiligi that year. And I did Slim in Of Mice and Men.

EM: How would you compare doing contemporary repertoire with traditional roles?

SP: I like them both for different reasons. With new repertoire it’s always interesting to hear what people are writing, musically how they’re setting dramas today. I admire guys who can come up with things that sound new or at least make sense and aren’t like something else. It’s pretty difficult to find your own language these days, after what Strauss and Stravinsky did. Jake Heggie’s doing pretty well, and of course John Adams. I did Klinghoffer once in The Death of Klinghoffer at Brooklyn Academy of Music. That was a lot of fun. I thought there was a lot of good music in that, and dramatically it made sense how he set the story and the text. That’s really what matters, ultimately. The musical style isn’t as important as balancing the characters with the music. They haven’t done Conquistador here again. It’s hard to get a new opera re-produced.

EM: You have to weigh and balance whether you can get audiences to come. Falstaff is one of the most brilliant operas ever written, yet for some reason it doesn’t sell.

SP: You shake your head, wondering why it doesn’t. It’s a masterpiece. I really loved it. I hope I can do it again.

EM: As do I. Getting back to your piano playing, I don’t think I’ve ever known a singer who was such an accomplished pianist. How does that work into your process as you approach a new role such as Pagliacci?

SP: One of the great things about having piano skills is not needing anyone to help me learn the music. I never thought of that thirty years ago, but it’s very helpful. First I highlight and translate and get a recording. Once I know what I’ve got, I’ll play it through myself, get the harmonies in my ear, figure out what I have to do with the other singers. When I know it well enough, I’ll listen to a recording for ten minutes, then go to the piano and play, then listen to someone else singing and go back to the parts I liked, see if it fits my voice to do the same thing. I also record the accompaniment on my iPhone so I can bring it with me wherever I go, sit with my score and listen. It’s great because you can go back ten or twenty seconds and just keep repeating it over and over. A fantastic tool for learning. Sometimes it helps to get another perspective.

EM: Technology does come in handy after all. A whole new approach to singing. Is there any role you haven’t done that you’re eager to sink your teeth into?

SP: In 2015 I’m doing Di Luna in Trovatore, which I’ve always wanted to do. I’d like to sing Renato in Ballo, too. But now I’m just starting to do those roles, so they’ll come. Boccanegra in the concert version, which I did in Poland, was interesting. And I’d like to do Macbeth.

EM: That’s one of the most beautiful Verdi operas but it must be difficult, since he started writing it early on and went back to it later. Do you find any problematic inconsistencies in that role?

SP: Definitely. But you can overcome them dramatically with textural choices, emphasis in different spots. Verdi sets the characters so well with his music, they’re so clear dramatically. That’s one of the reasons I’d like to do it, so I can figure that out. Scarpia is another favorite role I’ve started to do. It’s huge, difficult. Hard to sustain that tessitura. I sang that with my wife. She enjoyed that. She got out her aggressions on stage - with a rubber knife (laughs).

EM: What about Wagner?

SP: I’ve been approached a couple of times about doing Wotan. I’ve said no. I need time first for these roles I’m doing now before I approach the other. Wotan is huge, not only the type of singing but the length. It’s brutal. Even if you sing correctly all the time it can take a toll. I’ve heard guys wreck their voices. I’ve not wanted to do it as badly as I wanted to do Rigoletto. Verdi was always my ultimate goal. Now I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m enjoying it. Take the next five years and sing them a lot.

EM: Maybe there is some Wagner in your future, but you are right where you want to be, so you should relish it.

SP: I do. I’m pretty happy doing this right now.

EM: You look happy, and I have no doubt you’re going to sound happy, too. I’m looking forward to Pagliacci.

SP: Thanks, I am too!

Photos used by permission of Christian Pollard and Virginia Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at

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Los Angeles, California
Rodney Punt

After the Rose Parade and Bowl, Vienna’s New Year’s Concert is a televised staple for many on the first day of every year. While Angelinos have the option to attend the actual parade and football game, the concert is strictly a flat-screen experience with its live action a couple of continents and an ocean away.Enter Salute to Vienna!The spectacular re-creation of Vienna’s world famous Neujahrskonzert returns to the Walt Disney Concert Hall for a tenth appearance on Sunday, January 5 at 2:30 pm. The light-hearted, energetic show is a great way to introduce the irresistibly charming music of the old Austro-Hungarian empire to the entire family.The music this year includes the best of the Strauss family waltzes, marches and polkas. Excerpts from Strauss's Die Fledermaus and Lehár’s The Merry Widow promise to be the Schlagsahne on the party cake.

Conductor András Deák from Budapest will ensure idiomatic accents from a large orchestra. Two Viennese singers, soprano Alexandra Reinprecht and tenor Martin Piskorski, will enchant with musical stories of romance and perhaps even a touch of mitteleuropäische intrigue as dancers in ravishing costumes animate the stage to round out the fun.Salute to Vienna is an enchanting way to celebrate the New Year and work off what may still be hanging you over from a few evenings before. ---ooo---WHAT: Salute to Vienna!WHERE: Walt Disney Concert Hall -- 111 South Grand Ave., Los Angeles, Ca 90012

WHEN: Sunday, January 5 at 2:30 pm 

TICKET PRICES: $42.00 - $126.00

PURCHASE TICKETS: (800) 745 3000 Or at


Photo used by permission of Attila Glatz Concert Productions

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By Rodney Punt
As one of the world’s preeminent countertenors, Brian Asawa has been a fixture on the opera circuit for two-decades. The Los Angeles native’s career had jump-started as the first countertenor to become the Grand Prize Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1991. Other top honors ensued. His professional life launched at the Santa Fe Opera in 1993 and the singer has seldom looked back, or had time to. He has conquered North American stages in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Seattle, Toronto, Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Center, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and enjoyed equal success in the international houses of Sydney, Cologne, Brussels, Lyon, Amsterdam, Bavaria and London’s Covent Garden.

Between these dizzying peregrinations, Asawa has called the Bay Area home. This month, for a combination of family and professional reasons, he has relocated to his native city. This first recital after his permanent return was in the pleasant sanctuary setting of the West Los Angeles United Methodist Church last Sunday afternoon. Located in the tidy if modestly appointed Sawtelle district of West L.A., its members are by tradition Japanese Americans, as is Asawa himself. The church’s exterior grounds have gently evocative memorials sprinkled about in the style of Japanese gardens. The recital itself was a fundraiser for a congregation that includes the singer’s mother and family.
And a very fine program it was. It launched with a trio of selections each by Alessandro Scarlatti, G.F. Handel, and Franz Schubert, and rounded out later with sacred and secular holiday songs from around the world. Between these, a new work by San Francisco based composer Kurt Erickson, Four Arab Love Songs, inspired Asawa’s and pianist Mark Salters’ most moving, also most novel, performances. Its world premiere tour had begun in Long Beach on October 26 and will conclude early next year with recitals in San Francisco and Washington State. This was its second performance.

Erickson’s songs form a mini-cycle of medieval Arab poems from Spain’s Andalusia region dating from 900 to 1100 AD. Their poets -- with lapidary names like Ibn Hazm, Al-Asad Ibrahim Ibn Billitah from Toledo, Yusf Ibn Harun Al-Remedi from Cordoba, and Bakr Al-Tartushi from Eastern Andalusia -- are near-lost identities from Islam’s Golden Age. (Erickson told me in a later telephone conversation that he discovered the obscure texts in a used-book store.)
In their confessional humanism and indulgent humor, these epigrammatic songs reveal an Arabic sensibility far removed from the religion-drenched dogmas of today’s Middle East and North Africa. Their sinewy vocal lines, ably conveyed by Asawa, have clever onomatopoeic counterparts in the piano’s atmospherics, fully exploited in the interplay between Salters and his singer: exaggerated strutting motifs in “The Rooster”, an erotic-neurotic soundscape, at turns barbaric or quixotic, in “Split My Heart”, buzz-cut rhythms for the shaved-head exploitations of “Slave Boy”, and an obsessive one-note repetition of the word ‘you’ in “Absence.” The devices captured the spirit of the poems and established a lineage of emotional tone-painting that Erickson has inherited from the songs of Franz Schubert.

Music lovers are generally more familiar with Domenico Scarlatti, Alessandro’s keyboard specialist son, than his opera-composing father. Baroque opera revivals have brought Alessandro’s name back into public view, and, on the basis of the three arias that opened the recital, with good reason. Asawa took the audience on a lyric journey from the promise of the sun’s gilded rays at morning to love’s suffering and later the mortal blows of a lover’s glance. His assured, pleasing trills were shown to good advantage in “Son tutta duolo” and his rich lower register in “Se tu della mia morte.”
If there is one composer to whom today's countertenors are most indebted, it is George Frideric Handel, whose Italian opera career in London was eclipsed during his lifetime by his later output of English language oratorios. Today's revival of the Baroque master's operas are the core of the countertenor repertoire. On this occasion, Asawa featured selections from both genres. Handel's familiar ‘Where e’re you walk” can, in lesser singers, become cliché; here Asawa beautifully reimagined it as a fresh and spontaneous outpouring. "Sparite, o penseiri" found him equivocating between two lovers. Likewise, he brought out, in a bumptious rendition, the temporizing humor of “La tigre arde di sedeno," the text comparing hot love to a tiger’s anger or, if losing that lover, to a turtledove’s sorrow.

Salters and Asawa at WLA United Methodist Church
Schubert’s own uncanny ability to conjure subtle moods was explored in the next set. In “Liebesbotschaft,” the first of his Schwanengesang (Swan songs), the distance between Salters’ fast-rippling piano piano and Asawa’s dense poetry may have compromised precision in their joint execution. “Im Abendrot” made up for it with its paean of glowing sunset gratitude to the deity, notable for Asawa’s impressive breath control, allowing his voice to easily caress the song’s exquisite, long-breathed serenity. Goethe’s “Rastlose Liebe”, in an oppositional mood, conveyed the breathless energy of young and restless love.
Nodding to the holiday season, a set of four works -- the French traditional “Il est né, le divin enfant,” Britten’s “A New Year Carol,” Vaughn Williams’ “Wither’s Rocking Hymn” and Hugo Wolf ‘s Ach des Knaben Augen” -- focused on the birth of the Christ child. Concluding the afternoon was lighter fare: the secular “Drummer Boy” and “A Christmas Song” followed by Adolphe Adam’s “Oh Holy Night.”
The varied program had showcased Asawa’s youthfully bright voice, fine technique and impressive range. Asawa doesn’t just stand and sing; he instills each of his selections with a veteran stage actor’s ability to convey a song’s emotional climate and unique character. His versatile piano collaborator, Mark Salters (opera co-director and vocal coach at nearby Cal State Fullerton), maintained a close empathy while revealing his own fluid virtuosity. The church’s acoustic was full and mostly free of distracting reverberation.
As lovely as the Christmas themed dénouement was, it was the millennium-old poetry from Islam’s Golden Age that haunted this listener and, in a significant way, captured the urgency of the universal human condition. In our troubled age, the songs of those Arabic poets of so many years ago chimed with this holiday season’s renewing hope for human compassion, tolerance and inclusiveness.
What:   A Solo Christmas RecitalWho:    Brian Asawa, Countertenor -- Mark Salters, PianoWhere: West Los Angeles United Methodist ChurchWhen:  Sunday, December 8, 2013, 2 pm
Top photo of Brian Asawa by Marco Borggreve is used by permission of the artist.
Bottom photo by Rodney Punt is used by his permission. Punt can be contacted at:

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