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.

Thursday, January 5, 2017


Suchan Kim, Seung Hyeon Baek, Michael Fennelly, Victor Starsky, Ashley Bell, Augusta Caso, Jordan Pitts, Nicole Guberman, and Jason Tramm

There can never be too many small opera companies in New York City and we felt privileged to attend the stunning debut of New York Opera Collaborative at The National Opera Center last night. A collaboration between Host and Co-Producer Andrea DelGiudice (herself a renowned spinto soprano, voice teacher, and Vocal Director of the Narnia Festival) and Artist Manager and Co-Producer Peter Randsman (whom we recently met judging a vocal competition), this venture brought in such a large audience that extra chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the crowd. Somehow, good news travels fast on Planet Opera.

Most of the cast was known to us and we expected to hear some fine performances in this concert version of Puccini's beloved masterpiece Madama Butterfly. We were not disappointed. Voices were glorious all around and the Italian diction perfectly clear--a good thing when there are no titles to read. Each singer created a believable character--there was nothing generic in any performance.

New York Opera Collaborative shares our mission of keeping opera alive; it was created to sponsor and mentor young artists and to give them a chance to try out new roles in a safe environment. Several of the young artists will go on to perform these roles with other companies like Heartbeat Opera (one of our favorite companies) for example, or as a Studio Artist with Sarasota Opera. We found ourselves wishing that the cast had committed the roles to memory since being on the book presents a barrier between fellow artists and between artist and audience. The dramatic skills each brought to the role was in evidence but a bit difficult to sustain, what with the glancing and page turning.

Soprano Ashley Bell wore the role of Cio-Cio San as well as the kimono and tabi she sported. The intensity of her "Un bel di" was shattering and she brought every skill in her armamentarium to bear on her delivery. The remainder of her performance was marked by a bright clear tone, excellent phrasing, and a wide palette of colors. She convinced us as a naive and hopeful 15-year-old, a deluded bride, an angry woman when challenged, and a resolute and noble figure who refuses to live without honor. It was a bit difficult to imagine her motherly feelings without a child present but the colors of her voice did the trick.

In the thankless role of the arrogant US Naval Lieutenant Pinkerton, tenor Victor Starsky played his role to the hilt. He sang with a lovely legato. Our wish for him is the same as our wish for most tenors--that they learn that sometimes less is more--singing high doesn't mean singing loud. Mr. Starsky sounded the best in the tender passages at a pianissimo level. His transformation to a place of anguish and remorse at the end of the opera was quite moving.

As Suzuki, mezzo-soprano Augusta Caso sang with a lovely rich tone and was quite believable as the voice of reason, whether she was comforting or confronting Butterfly. We have heard Ms. Bell and Ms. Caso sing together on a prior occasion and find them extraordinarily well matched. Their duet was a true high point of the evening.

Our favorite character in the opera is Sharpless--he is the one with "eagle vision", able to predict but helpless to forestall the coming trainwreck. Baritone Seung Hyeon Baek, recently so astonishingly effective in Cardona Opera's Cav&Pag, was able to capture the dignity and humanitarian nature of the man, while producing his customary burnished sound that falls so pleasantly on the ear. Significantly, he sang off the book and more credit to him.

In what amounts to a cornering of the baritone market by Koreans, Suchan Kim did double duty as the angry Bonze and the suitor Yamadori, whom he wisely portrayed as a serious suitor, avoiding all the silly kitsch that has become a boring accretion to the role. In this case, we know that Butterfly does not reject him because he's a fool but because she is faithful to her Pinkerton and still believes he will return to her.

In the role of Goro, we heard Jordan Pitts whose sweet tenor fell on the ear like warm butterscotch. He too avoided overplaying the part and we were able to focus on his mellifluous sound. It is still sounding in our ear.

Soprano Nicole Guberman is new to us and, since Kate Pinkerton has few lines to sing, we can only say that we very much want to hear more of her.

Conductor Jason Tramm, sitting off to the side, was totally immersed in his conducting and seemed to be breathing along with the singers. We always enjoy that kind of involved conducting.

At the piano, we had Michael Fennelly whom we have heard countless times but not in a full length opera. He is so noticeably involved with both the score and the singers that there was never a lapse of support. He seemed to know exactly when to exert full power on the keyboard and when to lighten up and give the singers plenty of room. We were able to hear subtleties in the score that we never noticed with a full orchestral reading. Such nuance is appreciated.

In spite of the music stands, this was one of the most affecting performances of Madama Butterfly we have heard. What an auspicious debut! We count ourself in for this company's future performances.

(c) meche kroop

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