Thursday, October 21, 2010

An Atheist's Letter to God

Dear Wotan,

I never could believe in an all-loving shepherd-type God who let too many sheep wander off or die of unnatural causes. Nor could I worship a God who was supposed to reward the righteous when I see evil-doers thrive and the good die horrible deaths. BUT...a god just like the rest of us with all our moral failings is one I could relate to. I could learn from a God like you--not to break my agreements, not to sleep around, not to be greedy for power--useful lessons all.

At the temple of the Metropolitan Opera House, as you spoke and sang through James Morris, I could feel your pain. I could understand your desperate attempts to find your way out of a dilemma. I could even drop my feminist leanings and want you to triumph over naggy whiny Fricka. I could feel your love for and anger towards your rebellious favorite daughter. I could weep for your need to allow your beloved Siegmund to die. I imagined how disappointed you must have been in your L’il Abner of a grandson. Your diminishment left me grief-stricken. You had to leave that world of gods and demons and giants to destroy itself so we could begin all over. What a god you were Wotan!

But now, you have disappeared altogether; you have left your message to be spoken and sung by Mr. Terfel who doesn’t get it. I don’t give a fig for what happens to you anymore. As a matter of fact, Fricka’s point of view, as interpreted by Ms. Blythe is looking ever more attractive. I can’t believe that you could have fathered all those demigods on earth. Who could be seduced with that stringy hair hanging in your face, I ask you? And what on earth, dear god, happened to your home? What happened to the mountain tops and the craggy peaks? Who replaced it with post-modern machinery and neon? At least the pit-dark cave of your nemesis Alberich still exists, but then evil always has a home on earth.

Well, the entire creation myth has a new strange emphasis and I for one don’t like it. Perhaps when Brunnhilde comes on the scene next Spring, things may get back to being a myth I can believe in. Meanwhile, I’ll just have to remember the way your earthly temple used to be and try to resurrect my memory of good old Mr. Morris.

Yours sincerely,

Meche Kroop

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beginner's Luck

One of the benefits of working with The Opera Insider is that all of a sudden, I'm being showered with Press Tickets to shows around New York. How fantastic not only that I get to see them but that these companies and organizations are trusting me with their art and allowing me to see and write about it.

Last night I visited Merkin Hall in New York City for the very first time ever to see a recital by two young up-and-coming singers: mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke

and 26-year old tenor and 2009 Met Council Audition winner, Paul Appleby

with the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS). I have seen a few of the NYFOS recitals before, and have always left the hall at the end of the evening happier and lighter on my feet than when I walked in (even with my walking cast, it was still true last night). The programming is unfailingly inventive and the charisma of its founders, Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, shines throughout the evening. Last night's theme was "Beginner's Luck," focusing on the lives of young people as they navigate the hurdles of youth and young adulthood.

I was particularly drawn in by Steven Blier's short presentations before each set of songs. He has seen these two artists grow and develop over the last five to ten years, and they are obviously very close friends so his personal stories of the songs or song sets mixed with biographical information about the composers, poets, and music really made the evening so much more enjoyable.

To me, once Paul Appleby started singing, no one else had a hope of catching my attention. He IS everything a singer should be and HAS everything a singer should have: charisma, a fantastic voice, physical energy and strength, good looks, cheekiness and humor, flexibility, and above all else, an understated humility about his remarkable ability to convey intimate emotions. I was taken in by every note he sang.

Appleby is a member of the Lindemann Young Artist Program at the Met, and I am sure we will see much more from him in the future. If this is what the future is, then I am content.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

HD - Friend or Foe to Opera?

It was only late summer ennui combined with a great hunger for my favorite art form and the opportunity to sit outdoors in the Lincoln Center Plaza FOR FREE (thanks to The Neubauer Family Foundation, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s) that overcame a former near-insurmountable reluctance to see opera productions on video. Neither Hi-Def nor Lo-Def tempted me.

After several evenings spent at the Met’s Summer HD Festival I am ready to admit to a great deal of worth in what amounts to a new art form. Is it “as good” as live opera? That is not really the issue. One doesn’t need to compare artichokes with sunchokes. So let’s take a look at some of the differences.

It seems to me as if the major difference is the role of the HD Director. This individual seems to determine the visual focus for the viewer, deciding what part of the stage or which singer deserves our attention at any given moment. The viewer loses the right to decide where to focus. A good director has great instincts for when to focus on the singer, when to focus on the tableau on the stage as a whole, when to highlight an important set element, which singer in a duet to put in the camera spotlight, or what degree of close-up to offer.

I was most impressed by Barbara Willis Sweete for her direction of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Of course, she had a most excellent production to “film.” Not only was the opera sung as close to perfection as possible but it was cast with an eye to visuals--meaning that the singers all looked just right for the part. Close-ups were consequently most welcome and seeing the facial expressions added a new dimension to the experience, one not available at the Met even with opera glasses. The poignancy of the drama was thereby enhanced.

On the other hand, Gary Halvorson had much less to work with in Puccini’s Turandot. The Zeffirelli production shines on stage with its lavish grandeur but on the HD version it appeared dark. The intimate scenes did not work nearly as well on the big screen and Maria Guleghina in the lead role was not visually appealing in extreme close-up. Halvorson did better with Carmen but then again, Alagna and Garanca are simply more convincing in close-up as Don José and Carmen.

And so, it would appear that HD is a hybrid form (or even a completely new form perhaps?) comprising not just orchestra, singing, and stagecraft but also cinematic and video values which can add or detract. BUT to the central question: is it good or bad for opera? I vote for good. There are folks all over the country without access to live opera who deserve to experience opera in some form or other; and there are people who have never been to a live opera who are being introduced to it in HD form and who will become fans of opera because of it.

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Old friends, a choreographed orgy, panic, and skin-tight jeans

I saw that a few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled "Meeting new friends." Well, today I write a short note about meeting old ones.... and about people making stuff up.

I hadn't seen Kate in over four years, and to be honest, we hadn't known each other that well when we were together at Chicago Opera Theater back in 2006 (by the way I started that sentence thinking it was only three... then did the math, and realized that we met even longer ago than that!) She was a mezzo at the time, as was I, but made the switch to soprano soon after. It was absolutely fabulous to see her again and reaffirmed my belief in the fact that singers are truly a one-of-a-kind breed: We TRUST each other almost implicitly, almost from the word "go" and no matter how long we've been apart" We have to, really. And considering my first-ever professional gig involved a choreographed orgy, I certainly had to learn fast!

We met at the phenomenal restaurant Kashkaval on 9th Avenue between 55th and 56th street and gorged ourselves on hummus, red pepper dip, grape leaves, artichoke dip, and tzatziki while sharing stories of fach-changes, Met performances we'd seen (and loved or hated), mutual friends, and the like. A couple things kept coming up: age, real quality in singers, the difficulty of the business, and the fear of getting to a certain age and never having sung that first Tosca (for her), or that first Mimi (for me... she's done a few of those already!)

This business is one of panic:

I'm not singing enough.
I'm singing too much.
I don't have the right rep.
I have too much of the same rep.
I don't have an agent.
I do have an agent but s/he doesn't do anything for me.
I don't sing Handel.
I only sing Handel.
I'm too old.
I'm not old enough.

We are programmed from the time of grad school (I can't speak to undergrad since I did not begin studying voice in a regimented fashion until I reached grad school at age 24 but I assume even from undergrad onwards), to "play by the rules" or that's it. That means: have five contrasting arias in four (or five) different languages and styles, dress conservatively and elegantly for your auditions, always have your materials ready, etc.

Fair enough. All this is true and having five contrasting arias is not a bad idea of course. But if your voice REALLY does do one thing better than another, why try to fake it by making it do something it's not naturally born to do? Of course we need to be flexible, but at what cost? We spend so much time trying to make ourselves be as universally appealing as possible that we oftentimes forget the real meat of the matter. Why can't a soprano sing Charlotte if she has a great low range? Or Cherubino? Or Musetta? Oh wait, no, that's now acceptable. Who makes these rules? Who decided a few years ago that if you brought in "Quando m'en vo" as a mezzo you weren't completely off your rocker? When I was in grad school just five years ago, this was not considered acceptable. Now it is. It's a bit like skin-tight jeans. Who decided that was ok?

Excuse the rant but going back to another point made above, about the quality of singer, she, like I, had had several experiences sitting at the Met - the pre-eminent opera house arguably in the whole world - that left her cringing and writhing inside. I have left several operas at intermission there because the singing was so bad or because I actually got to that point where I had to agree with the masses who say "opera's just so boring." How do we expect to keep the art form alive when we so often settle for mediocrity and genericness?

I've decided to sing on my terms. Like it or not (and more often that not, I don't), I'm 31 now, and I'm done with pandering to people who want to put me in a box and label me. I sing Liu... and I sing Stephano. I sing Louise (almost!)... and Cherubino. And that's ok, folks. If you can do it, do it. Let us make our own paths, speak our own natural language, forge ahead in those areas in which we truly excel, and let's try to keep originality and fire onto the stage.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Vertical Player Repertory presents “Playthings of the Gods: Essential Myths”

Vertical Player Repertory’s “Playthings of the Gods: Essential Myths”

I was eager to finally see a performance by the Vertical Player Repertory (VPR) after an unsuccessful previous attempt – a friend had inadvertently purchased tickets to a Brooklyn performance of the play A View from the Bridge rather than VPR’s performance of the opera. For this performance, “Playthings of the Gods: Essential Myths,” fortune smiled upon me. I arrived at the correct performance at the correct place at the correct time, and I’m glad I did.

VPR is known for creative stagings in unusual venues, and last night’s performance continued this tradition. The program, which integrated music of the 17th and 20th centuries with readings by prominent actors, and which was performed on a candlelit stage at the stunning Christ Church Cobble Hill, was surprisingly effective. Co-creators Judith Barnes and Hayden DeWitt had clearly put a great deal of thought into the selections and their order. For example, a reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis was followed by Britten’s canticle Abraham and Isaac, and the composer’s The Journey of the Magi followed a reading of the T.S. Eliot poem to which it was set.

Soloists were strong across the board, and the quality of their acting matched that of the singing. I found the performances of two Britten canticles particularly affecting, and was impressed that tenor Daniel Neer and alto Hayden DeWitt as Abraham and Isaac, respectively, and baritone Phillip Cheah, who joined them for a performance of The Journey of the Magi, scaled their voices down when necessary to ensure that they blended well as an ensemble and that the audience could hear Britten’s intricate harmonies. (Cheah was equally comfortable as a countertenor, playing Oberon in the finale of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Other highlights included Melanie Long’s performance of Chers Corinthiens from Milhaud’s Médée and Judith Barnes’ performance of Britten’s cantata Phaedra.
The eye-catching costumes, designed by Deborah Houston, contributed to the drama. Also notable was the fine work of the instrumentalists (Kelly Savage on harpsichord, Motomi Igarashi on the viola da gamba, and music director Lloyd Paguia Arriola on piano) and the enthusiastic chorus.

My only quibble was with the acoustics of church, which created echoes (at least from where I was sitting), and made it difficult for the audience to understand the texts, despite the excellent diction of the performers.
That aside, it was an entertaining, thought-provoking evening -- the kind that makes you want to go to church again on a Saturday night.

-- Rachel Antman for The Opera Insider

Friday, October 1, 2010

Faust in Swedish at Folkoperan

Well, this trip has certainly been full of firsts for me. Last weekend I had the chance to visit Stockholm. It is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to and I loved every moment of being there. The city is made up of dozens of little islands all interconnected by bridges. Everyone walks or cycles, and thanks to some absolutely glorious weather, I was able to be out almost the entire weekend. Here are a couple stunning views to give you an idea of the beauty of the architecture and city layout.

The Royal Opera House is stunning, and I was sad that I wasn't able to go see a production there. Here is a view of the front of the house as well as from the back behind some beautiful gardens.

I did, however, have the chance to visit the Folkoperan, or "People's Opera," something along the lines of English National Opera in that they do all their productions in Swedish (so the general public will feel that opera is accessible, of course) but with a touch more bohemian flair than it's London partner. Their current offering is Gounod's "Faust." It's another opera I don't know nearly as well as I should or would like to and so it was a special treat to see it in a full production (though there were significant cuts to the score). I was totally up for seeing an opera in Swedish, and the beautiful sing-songy nature of the language lends itself extremely well to singing. My sources tell me the translation was accurate and in no way offensive or distracting... though of course I can't really comment on that personally.

What I can comment on, though, is this idea of a "concept opera.." or so I've heard it called. Of course had I been able to read the program (a secondary part of this "making opera accessible to the people" idea includes no English translations in the program either, which is certainly understandable but would have helped me in this instance), I might have understood what the Director, Mira Bartov, was going for. Her "concept" - somewhere between 1950s domestic, 1970s hippie, and 1990s dominatrix, mixed with a touch of old world Parisian flair - was visually pleasing and was not overly distracting. However, if there was a message she was trying to convey through it, I certainly missed it. Her staging at times greatly supported and at other times clashed with the sweeping melodies in the score.

The singing was, apart from one clear standout, acceptable. I always fear that when a young singer is heralded as the next young star, he or she risks tackling too many or too many large roles before he or she is ready. This is certainly what I felt was the case with, Daniel Johansson, the tenor who played the role of Faust. His schedule is packed to the gills this year, and he is on everyone's radar in the opera world here. However, other than some very powerful high notes, I did not find anything particularly remarkable about his voice. He kept his vocal and physical focus well through to the very end, but his voice sounded tired at times and the high notes were pressed. I worried during a few moments whether he could sustain till the end given how much power and strength he was asking his voice to give.

His presence was certainly perfect for the role: tall, handsome, manly, strong... but his voice was lost under heavy orchestral moments and in the trio with Mephistopheles and Valentin, he was barely audible below his uppermost register. Marguerite was sung by Ulrika Mjörndal, whose voice had something of an old-time, 1940s black-and-white film quality, maybe the opera equivalent of Katharine Hepburn. The voice was round and warm, but the top notes sounded a bit blasted, at times sort of popping out from the rest of the range, which was otherwise quite consistent. There was a bit of a lack of chemistry between her and Faust, but I rather think this may have been more because of the staging and cuts, rather than because the intentions weren't there. Marguerite's brother, Valentin - portrayed here as a Vietnam era soldier, I think, was sung incredibly by Daniel Frank. What a voice! Not a baritone by any stretch of MY imagination, and I hope that he will consider exploring the tenor rep in the future. His upper register was absolutely stunning, and he was certainly one of the strongest actors on stage that night.

For my money - and here I think this is truly a question of objectivity not subjectivity - the highlight of the evening was baritone Kosma Ranuer as Mephistopheles. His voice was sonorous and rich throughout, and his characterization of the devil imposing, yet calm (the most terrifying combination in my opinion). He didn't miss a beat in his portrayal of evil, and you could also see exactly how his powers were impossible to resist. I had the opportunity to meet Kosma afterward the show, as well as an editor for Opera Now magazine. Naturally, he was as humble as could be. I certainly hope that audiences in the rest of Europe will have the chance to see this marvelous talent sometime in the very near future.

The cast was rounded out by Marie Alexis as Siebel and Eva Marklund as Marthe, who I wish had had a larger role as her voice was pleasing throughout. There was no chorus (budget cuts) and this certainly took away slightly from the overall drama of the piece.

Overall, it was a unforgettable evening (not least of which because I now know how to say "My brother is a soldier," in Swedish and an eye-opener into the world of opera Sweden, and to a certain extent the trends in opera in Europe today.