We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, June 30, 2014


The Fox Family and the Forester

It is difficult to believe that Leoš Janáček wrote his own libretto for The Cunning Little Vixen based on a child's comic strip.  As if a child could comprehend those deep philosophical ideas!  The 1926 work deals with man's relationship to the natural world and shows a deeply compassionate but unsentimental view of the cycles of birth and death.

The feisty vixen is captured by the Forester who brings her home as a pet.  When she attacks the rooster and hens, she is tied up.  But she escapes in search of freedom and finds a mate. After a shotgun wedding, they start a family but she meets her sad end (as people also sometimes do) due to an overweening sense of invulnerability.

Staging this opera with its anthropomorphisation is always a challenge but it has been done successfully thrice this year--once by Juilliard, once by the New York Philharmonic and this past weekend by Manhattan School of Music Summer Voice Festival.  We are happy to report that Pat Diamond did a splendid job. directing with much flair. 

The young singers managed their roles well and sang beautifully.  Sadly, diction was poor with the exception of the fine baritone Isaac Assor (The Forester) who made every word count.  We regret never having heard the work in Czech but acknowledge that Czech is a most difficult language to master. 

But we also notice that the English adaptation by J. David Jackson did not quite fit the stresses of the English words to the musical stresses.  This probably contributed to the difficulty we had in comprehending the words.  There were no titles to help.  If you want a word-for-word translation you can find it at http://www.supraphon.com/en/catalogue/librettos/.  We  warrant you will enjoy the risqué dialogue and the Vixen's protofeminism as much as we did.

Fortunately, the effective acting made the action clear.  Sopranos Kelsey Fredriksen and Mikayla Sager were adorable as the feisty Vixen and her mate Golden Mane.  We enjoyed Chorong Kim as the Forester's dog.  Bass Richard Burgess Block played the Badger and the Parson.  Baritone Sean Currlin sang the role of the Poacher who takes the Vixen's life.

Abigail Shapiro as the Rooster and Erica Reynolds as the Hen captured perfectly the body language of the fowl.  Furthermore, their costumes (David O. Roberts) were outstanding.  In a triumph of imagination the hens were dressed as housewives with white doilies and red ribbons as headdresses.  The rooster, naturally, sported a coxcomb.

All the animals and insects were cleverly costumed, especially the Hedgehog (tenor Michael Papincak) who also sang the Innkeeper.  Wigs and Make-up Design by Derek Robertson were particularly effective for the foxy couple.

Set design by Ann Bartek was minimal--a brick wall with flowers painted on and another white wall behind a table and chairs.  Lighting by Scott Bolman was effective in suggesting various times of day.

Musical values were superb.  Conductor J. David Jackson brought out all the folk motives and harmonies we love so much in Janáček's music.  The orchestra responded with a warm enveloping sound.  The vocal music leans toward the conversational and only The Forester has an aria.

To us, the point being made was how much alike are humans and animals.  We humans are animals; we are not them but we are OF them.  Respect for their well-being is called for.  They live, they hunger, they mate, they thrive, they suffer, they die, just as we do. An unintended consequence of the opera may be some second thoughts about hunting!

© meche kroop

Saturday, June 28, 2014


Monica Hershenson Thuris, César Torruella, James Stoia, Sophia Benedetti, Brian Long and Roman Laba (photo by Kate Hess)
Falstaff is the supremely confident work of an octogenarian at the top of his game, composed for the love of the art, not to please opera houses, impresarios or singers.  It is Giuseppe Verdi's one successful comedy and might never have been composed without the persuasion of his librettist Arrigo Boito who pulled him out of his well earned retirement.

Similarly, we would like to use our persuasion to lure you away from your usual Saturday night entertainment to attend the final performance of this delightful work presented by the scrappy Utopia Opera in Lang Recital Hall of Hunter College at 7:30.  You will have chuckles aplenty due to the fine dramatic instincts of the cast; you will hear some excellent voices and fine music coming from the 15-member live orchestra conducted with gusto by William Remmers.

What you won't get are lavish production values because Utopia Opera operates on a slender shoestring, the better to keep ticket prices affordable for everyone.  But who needs lavish production values?  It's all about the music and the establishment of coherent characters.  Polymath Mr. Remmers is responsible for the stage direction but gives credit to his cast for the many original ideas they contributed.  This was truly a collaborative effort.

The success of Falstaff rests on the broad shoulders of the eponymous hero (anti-hero).  Sir John, in material extracted from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and also from Henry IV, is a self-deluded buffoon of dubious moral character, enthusiastically rejecting the concept of honor and scheming to seduce two local married women for their money.

But, he must also win our sympathy and be lovable.  This seemingly impossible task was accomplished successfully by baritone César Torruella who exhibited just the right color in his voice as well as dramatic chops.

Stunning in her portrayal of Mistress Quickly, husky-voiced mezzo-soprano Monica Hershenson Thuris acted as go-between, luring the hapless Falstaff into the trap laid by the two "merry wives".  We had to stifle our laughter every time she sang her "Reverenza" with a deep bow.  Likewise her sardonic "Povera donna".

The two wives were likewise excellent as they plotted their revenge.  Soprano Hannah Spierman portrayed Alice Ford; her jealous husband was sung by baritone Stan Lacy who did justice to Ford's monologue in the first act.  The other wife, Meg Page, was well sung by mezzo-soprano Eva Parr.

Every opera should have a romantic interest.  The Ford daughter Nannetta requires a comely young lady with a high bright soprano and Sophia Benedetti totally filled the bill.  Her suitor Fenton was sung by tenor James Stoia and their romantic duets were harmonically fulfilling.

Tenor Stuart Homan produced an entirely different coloration for his excellent portrayal of Dr. Caius to whom has been promised the hand of Nannetta.  What a pleasure it was to see how the women outwit the men on that issue.

Tenor Brian Long as Bardolfo and Roman Laba as Pistola made a fine pair of ladri and added significant moments of comedy, particularly at the end during the marvelous fugue scene when they....(never mind, you just have to see for yourself).

The fifteen musicians played well but we must single out the fine oboist Rebecca Bellacera whose English horn theme in the letter scene stood out and the keyboardist Jeremy Weissmann who had us searching for the harp.

The clever and motley costumes, roughly of the 1980's, were devised by the singers themselves.  This was truly a collaborative project and proves that ingenuity trumps a big budget.

© meche kroop

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Manhattan School of Music Summer Voice Festival--the cast of "NINE"
Winner of 5 Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway in 1982, Nine stared Raul Julia and was directed by Tommy Tune.  It was born in a workshop in 1973, birthed by Maury Yeston who was ultimately responsible for the clever lyrics and tuneful music.  The book was written by Arthur Kopit.  The show was revived in 2003 with Antonio Banderas in the title role.

The book is based on the Federico Fellini film 8 1/2, a semi-autobiographical account of the midlife crisis of a famous Italian film director who has signed a contract for a film and is suffering from a dearth of ideas.  He is quite the womanizer and his marriage is consequently suffering.

Because of the dozens of roles for women this seemed to be a good choice for MSM's Summer Voice Festival, co-directed by Neil Rosenshein and Elizabeth Young.  The young performers appear to have put a lot of work into the production which was wonderful light summer entertainment.  Happily, one could hear natural healthy young voices unamplified, a great advantage and much to our liking.

The show was beautifully directed by the talented Bill Fabris who negotiated the melding of reality, memory, dream and fantasy; likewise he provided the simple but effective choreography.  The only set elements were a podium from which the lead Guido Contini, in the stunning opening scene, conducts the voices of the women in his life.  There was a sparkly rear-curtain as backdrop and some evocative lighting by Evan Roby.  Appropriate period (1960's) costumes were by Colleen Durham.

Musical Direction was by Dan Gettinger who played the piano score, augmented by percussion, drums and harp.  And what music he made!  The standout number was "A Man Like You/Unusual Way" a duet for Guido (Robert Erlichmann) and his muse Claudia (Samantha Williams).  "Ti Voglio Bene/Be Italian" was nicely sung by Lieke van den Broek as Sarraghina.

"The Script/Folies Bergeres" allowed Alexandra Clint to shine as Lilliane La Fleur.  Erica Reynolds as Luisa, Guido's wife, was convincing in "My Husband Makes Movies".  As Carla, Guido's mistress, Viktoria Falcone had a sexy number "A Call from the Vatican", which brought down the house.  Hannah DeBlock portrayed Guido's mother and Brenna Feeney portrayed Our Lady of the Spa; she was the only character not costumed in black but rather in a stunning white classical garment.

Admittedly, there is no one around like Raul Julia and Antonio Banderas; but we wished Mr. Erlichmann had put a little more oomph into Guido's character; although he is in crisis we needed to see something of the charm underneath that would have made all these women fall under his spell and made us in the audience care about him.

We also wanted more vocal projection from the entire cast.  The lyrics to those marvelous songs deserved better diction.

Next Monday and Tuesday there will be further performances and we are confident that you will enjoy yourself.  Some of the roles are double-cast but the music will be the same!

© meche kroop

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Ira Siff, Master Teacher (amongst other things)

Since the very first time we attended a performance by the young artists in Martina Arroyo's summer program we have been convinced that opera will survive the many threats people talk about--financial and artistic.  We found ourselves marveling over each performance, saying to anyone who would listen "Wow, that was the best Contes d'Hoffman (insert anything in its place) we have ever seen!" or "I never enjoyed L'Elisir d'Amore that much".

It Italy under Berlusconi, funds for "high culture" have evaporated and the patrimony of that country is nearly on its deathbed.  But here in New York opera is alive and well in the hands of the conservatories giving exceptional training to ambitious young singers and in the hands of small opera companies giving these artists opportunities to be on stage.

Prelude to Performance is a program that provides comprehensive post-graduate training to these gifted young artists.  Those talented and fortunate enough to get accepted receive the most refined training free of cost over a period of six weeks. The roles must be memorized in advance so the students can focus on stagecraft, movement, dramatic interpretation, psychological motivation of the character, diction and even historical perspective.  This is a total immersion program!

Individual coachings are augmented by master classes given by superb teachers like the beloved Ira Siff who spent three hours yesterday coaching the singers who will assume the roles in the upcoming La Traviata and Il Barbiere di Siviglia (July 10-13) and also to those who will cover these roles.  

We were fortunate enough to sit in on Mr. Siff's class and were duly impressed by the wisdom and experience he offered so generously; we were equally impressed by the alacrity with which the students absorbed his suggestions given in the most supportive and unthreatening manner without a trace of any attempt to control.

We were particularly impressed by his work with soprano Cecilia Lopez who will be singing the role of Violetta.  She sounded completely amazing to our ears at the beginning but after working with Mr. Siff there were numerous subtle improvements based on a deeper understanding of the character's psychology.  

In "E strano...Ah forse lui" Violetta can deliver the first one rather matter
-of-factly to set up the repeat in which she realizes just how strange her unexpected feelings are. She is struggling with her ambivalence and Verdi's elaborate markings of the score, when obeyed, are blueprints for the illustration of her emotional state.  For example, there are several instances of three staccato notes followed by two accented notes--a heartbeat motif.  We have never heard this before but we certainly will be hearing it from now on!

In the "Sempre libera" there are also staccato notes that here indicate Violetta's frenetic state as she builds up a case for being a party girl.  This is the only act in which our soprano gets to use her coloratura for which Ms. Lopez has great aptitude.

This was only one of five coachings in the three hour session but we hope we have given you a flavor of the finely detailed work which took place.  

If you are in town in July you needn't complain about the dearth of opera.  You will have an opportunity to hear opera the way it is meant to be heard and seen--with sets and costuming (always apropos) and full orchestra at the Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College.  DO NOT MISS!

One final point given to you (unsolicited by Ms. Arroyo)--all donations to the Martina Arroyo Foundation are tax-deductible and support opera the way YOU want to see and hear it with fresh young voices given the finest training.  Do consider this!

© meche kroop

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Marc Molomot and Emalie Savoy (photo courtesy of On Site Opera)

In its short life On Site Opera has been garnering acclaim for their unusual and unusually creative site-specific productions.  Last night, we were dazzled by Artistic and Stage Director Eric Einhorn's stunning production of Jean-Philippe Rameau's one act Pygmalion. This was the sole performance to take place in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum amidst her collection of freakily realistic statues of the famous and the notorious.

During Rameau's gorgeous overture, a pantomime was presented in which Pygmalion the sculptor is working on one of Madame Tussaud's statues (or pretending to, in any case).  It reminded us of Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca. Another statue, beautiful and glamorously gowned, is wheeled in and unloaded, this one being a real girl--superb soprano Camille Zamora who was obliged to stand stock still for a very long time.

Rameau wisely embroidered Ovid's tale of a sculptor who falls in love with his marble creation; in his version, Pygmalion has a devoted lover named Céphise who is threatened by his obsession with the statue.  Soprano Emalie Savoy was NOT obliged to stand still but was given the opportunity to use her gorgeous instrument and astute phrasing to evoke sympathy from the audience.  Casting aside her native glamor, Ms. Savoy, clad in a simple cotton dress, was totally convincing.

In a mournful aria in minor key, Pygmalion addresses the gods, in despair over his divided love.  Céphise protests.  Pygmalion blames the gods and prays for relief from Venus. Unfortunately, it was a bad night for haut-contre Mark Molomot who failed to convince dramatically and was vocally weak.  We do love counter-tenors but his voice was not pleasing and his phrasing was unmusical.

That naughty boy L'Amour arrives on the scene, wittily portrayed by the scintillating soprano Justine Aronson who was just as wittily costumed (by Candida K. Nichols) in a suit and tie looking every inch the mischievous child--sometimes pouty, sometimes petty, sometimes tyrannical.  He uses his arrow on the bowstring as if he were bowing a violin.  He brings La Statue to bewildered life and Ms. Zamora is most convincing in her "what am I doing here" mode.

A chorus of Graces (Lauren Kelleher, Raymond Storms, Christopher Preston Thompson and Seán Kroll) sing the praises of L'Amour in a thrilling ensemble replete with panegyric harmonies.  Eloise DeLuca and Jordan Isadore dance in a variety of styles to Rameau's varied rhythms.  Choreography was by Jordan Isadore.

A marriage ceremony ensues in which Pygmalion and La Statue both hold onto L'Amour's bow.  In Rameau's 1748 production, L'Amour finds another lover for the discarded Céphise but in Mr. Einhorn's production, the latter leaves a letter for Pygmalion and he returns to her.

Rameau's music was played by the New Vintage Baroque Orchestra, conducted from the harpsichord by Jennifer Peterson, and one could not have wanted anything more. 

The entire experience was pure delight in spite of a few problems inherent to the site.  Singers were obliged to compete with the air-conditioning and the titles, projected onto a patterned surface, were nearly illegible.  Sight lines were poor unless one sat on the front row.

Subsequent performances (June 19, 20 and 21) will be at the Lifestyle-Trimco Showroom amidst a flock of mannequins and, hopefully, these glitches may be resolved.  Note that the 6/19 performance will be Google Glass Enabled (bring your own Google Glasses!) which will be a fine opportunity to learn how new technology can be used to serve a centuries old art form.

The story is, of course, a very old one and has inspired a play by G.B. Shaw, the musical My Fair Lady, much literature and many operas.  We even find contemporary resonance in film (Lars and the Real Girl) and in Japanes anime.  Viva Ovid!

© meche kroop

Saturday, June 14, 2014


Chad Kranak and Joanie Brittingham (photo by Robert J. Saferstein)
Aaron Copland's The Tender Land premiered sixty years ago at the now defunct (and sorely missed) New York City Opera.  If it has been performed since then we have missed it and are doubly glad that the Chelsea Opera decided to revive it for the final work of their tenth anniversary season.  Originally written for television, its intimate nature makes it far more suitable to a small company like Chelsea Opera.

Like most 20th c. operas, it strikes us as a play with music--and what fine music it is indeed.  With the impressive Maestro Samuel McCoy on the podium, the excellent Chelsea Opera Chamber Orchestra comprising thirteen musicians filled St. Peter's Church with Copland's accessible music.  The score reduction is attributed to Murry Sidlin.

The opera was well cast with soprano Joanie Brittingham starring as the young Laurie Moss; her petite stature gave no evidence of the substantial size of her voice but went a  long way toward convincing us that she was perhaps 18 years old and about to graduate high school.  She successfully colored her voice to sound young and then (spoiler alert) added more mature coloration when she stands up to her possessive family and leaves home for the wider world outside the farm.

Her splendid performance was matched by tenor Chad Kranak in the role of Martin, an itinerant farmhand who stops by the farm and wins her heart.  Mr. Kranak also has a lovely instrument and his love duets with Ms. Brittingham were, well, lovely.  His "should I stay or should I go" ambivalence was well reflected in his singing and acting.

Accompanying Martin is his drifter buddy Top who is the "player" in that duo, always on the make, a less winning character perhaps but the voice of reality which Martin needs to hear.  Baritone Peter Kendall Clark, often seen/heard at Chelsea Opera, did not pander to the audience but used his ample sound and dramatic presence to bring out every unlikable nuance of the character. 

The production was anchored by mezzo Leonarda Priore, co-founder of Chelsea Opera, who totally convinced as Ma Moss who worries about her two daughters.  We have heard Ms. Priore in recital but it is on the stage that her talent best expresses itself.  We were moved by her aria (actually, a folk song) "Long Time Ago", sung with beauty and deep feeling.  The piano accompaniment was done by polymath Assistant Conductor Dean William Buck, composer and conductor and co-founder of the excellent Brooklyn-based Loft Opera.

Another superb performance was delivered by bass Steven Fredericks as Grandpa Moss whose ample rumbly voice was perfectly expressive of the loving but controlling patriarch of this family, often making us wonder how they all have his name and why there is no father around.

In the role of the postman Mr. Splinters, tenor David Kellett fit right in with the Depression Era and the Midwestern locale.  Only Evelyn Carr as younger sister Beth stood out as being stagey and actorish.  The ensemble of friends and neighbors were excellent.

The libretto by Horace Everett is burdened by every cliché one could imagine from that time and place.  Nonetheless, who could not identify with a young woman's coming of age, spreading her wings and leaving home for the world outside?

There were some special moments in the evening beside Ms. Priore's solo--a chorale "The Promise of Living" with tenor joined by soprano and then additional voices one by one was thrilling to hear. 

The budget of Chelsea Opera is small (donations always welcome) and production values are modest.  A picket fence and a table and a chair made up the set; a rocking chair on the porch would have made sense.  More might have been done with the lighting to suggest the time of day but these are small quibbles.  Costumes were rustled up from the TDF costume collection and were appropriate to time and place.

There is only one more performance today at 4:00 PM and there may still be a few tickets available.  Last night the house was packed in spite of the deluge outside and the back-breaking pews inside. Bring a cushion!

© meche kroop

Saturday, June 7, 2014


Justine Aronson, Miori Sugiyama, Michael Brofman, Kyle Oliver, Takaoki Onishi
Art Song is alive and well in Brooklyn, thanks to Michael Brofman, founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn Art Song Society, last night winding up its fourth season.  This recital was an installment of The Hugo Wolf Project and comprised a couple dozen of Wolf's Mörike Lieder.  There was something for everyone, ranging from the profound and spiritual to lively paeans to Nature with a few humorous songs thrown in for good measure, the latter being our personal favorites.

Mr. Brofman always manages to attract superb singers that do justice to his programming. Perhaps the most riveting performance was by rising star baritone Takaoki Onishi who is a born storyteller.  Accompanied by the fine pianist Miori Sugiyama, he conveyed all the humor of "Der Tambour" and all the horror of "Der Feuerreiter", arguably two of the finest of the Mörike Lieder.  His technique is flawless and simply dissolved into the drama of the song making everything appear effortless.

Baritone Kyle Oliver has a warm voice with pleasing overtones and a welcoming stage presence.  He carried the lion's share of the program and had gone to the trouble of memorizing the dozen songs and performing them beautifully without a score.

Mr. Brofman worked exceptionally well with him as piano partner, bringing out the nuances of each phrase.    In "Fussreise" we heard the birds singing and in "Auf eine Christblume I" we heard the prancing elf just after a dramatic key change.

We love the way Mr. Oliver sang "Storchenbotschaft" which reminded us of one of Mahler's songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  Two storks come to visit a shepherd, the punchline being that his wife has given birth to twins. This lied permitted Mr. Oliver to show his storytelling side and it was most effectively charming.

In "Der Jäger" we appreciated the psychological insight--after a quarrel, a man goes off a-hunting, imagining his woman warm and happy while he is wet and miserable.  Then he imagines the converse.  Finally he decides to go home and reconcile.  That tale has a modern feel to it and we relished the irony.

The soprano on the program, Justine Aronson, we are pleased to say, has a most gorgeous instrument-- bright, resonant and appealing.  We are pleased because we will be reviewing her upcoming performance in Rameau's Pygmalion, presented by On-Site Opera.

Ms. Aronson connected well with each song she sang as well as with Ms. Sugiyama, her piano partner. We particularly enjoyed "Agnes", the mournful tale of an abandoned woman.  Another favorite was the humorous tale she told of an elderly woman advising a young one "Rat einer Alten".  Ms. Sugiyama had some elfin music of her own, giving "Elfenlied" a lovely delicate touch.

Our only disappointment was that Ms. Aronson used a music stand.  We are sure there was a good reason for it but it presented a barrier between her and the audience.  It was impressive how much contact she was able to make in spite of the handicap and cannot wait to hear her unencumbered.

The B.A.S.S. has some exciting plans for the next season. We are only going to give you a hint.  Think Gallic.  Think Six.

© meche kroop