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.

Sunday, December 29, 2019


Rebecca Hargrove, David Wannen, John Charles McLaughlin, Sarah Caldwell Smith, David Auxier, David Macaluso, Cáitlin Burke, Matthew Wages, and Amy Maude Helfer

Delighting audiences since 1885, W.S.Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's comic operetta The Mikado has been brought up to speed by an inventive framing device. Possibly borrowing a page from Mike Leigh's 1999 film Topsy Turvy, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players' Director and Choreographer David Auxier-Loyola has written a prologue hinting at how G&S came up with the idea for The Mikado. In this prologue, he himself portrayed the dour Gilbert with David Macaluso taking the role of the genial Sullivan. 

At an impasse, their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte opens a trunk of mementos redolent of the Victorian obsession with japonaiserie. Meanwhile, members of the D'Oyly Carte Company invade the space with their varied complaints. Making a big splash was the powerfully voiced Cáitlin Burke who would play Katisha, the "daughter-in-law elect" of the Mikado. We had the same thrill of recognition that we experienced seeing the film, as words were tossed about that would make their way into the operetta.

The device added a great deal to our appreciation although it did make for a long evening. Yet we were never bored and the three hours sped by. We have nothing but good things to say about the cast, the orchestra conducted by Joseph Rubin, and the production values.

Why has this operetta endured since Victorian days? One had only to look around the Kaye Playhouse to see heads wagging in time with the music and arms subtly waving back and forth; one had only to listen to the crowd emerging at the end humming the tunes. Good music will do that! Furthermore, Gilbert's lyrics are not only hilarious and clever but responsive to the rhythms of the English language in a way that very few lyricists have managed to achieve.

The more you hear Sullivan's music the more you appreciate it. Last night we were particularly taken with his complex writing for ensembles, particularly in the madrigal "Brightly Dawns Our Wedding Day".

We also enjoyed the contemporary updating of "I've Got a Little List", sung by Ko-Ko, the tailor who has been given the role of Lord High Executioner. Similarly we got a big kick out of "Let the Punishment Fit the Crime" sung by the Mikado himself. These are not the actual titles of the songs but rather how they are commonly known.

Nanki-Poo, son of the Mikado in the disguise of "A Wand'ring Minstrel" was sung by the sweet voiced tenor John Charles McLaughlin who gave a sympathetic and engaging performance.

His self-absorbed beloved Yum-Yum was adorably realized by the superb soprano Sarah Caldwell Smith who is well known to us from the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live. "The Sun, Whose Rays are All Ablaze" was beautifully rendered.

Impressing us with his comic chops was David Macaluso who kept the audience in stitches with his physical humor, accompanied by generous facial expressiveness. In the prologue, he portrayed Arthur Sullivan.

Matthew Wages, who is well known to us from several performances with Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live, made a very humorous Pooh-Bah adopting different expressions, different vocal colors, and different gestures for each of his many occupations, from solicitor to Chancellor of the Exchequer to Bishop of Titipu.

David Wannen made a regal Mikado and clearly enunciated all of the miscreants of society on his list--and the appropriate punishments for each. We wondered whether the updatings were written by Mr. Auxier who portrayed Mr. Gilbert in the Prologue and Pish-Tush in the operetta itself.

We enjoyed Amy Maude Helfer as Pitti-Sing as much as we enjoyed her recent performance as Ruth in Utopia Opera's Pirates of Penzance. She has a great flair for G&S. 

Almost stealing the show as the vengeful Katisha was the sonorous voice of Cáitlin Burke. Her final scene with Ko-Ko was a marvel of actors working off one another. He cannot stand her but must marry her so that Nanki-Poo can wed Yum-Yum. He serenades her with "Willow, Tit-Willow" so successfully that her rage melts and she becomes an almost-nice person.

Adding to the success of this production is a wonderful set by Anshuman Bhatia. A railway station stage left bearing the sign"Town of Titipu" and a tailor shop stage right appear before a painted backdrop looking a bit like a Japanese woodcut of mountains. A few branches of flowering trees and a bench provide a place for wooing.

Benjamin Weill's lighting was exemplary. When Yum-Yum sings about the sun's glory, the stage is warmly lit with golden tones. When she comes to the verse about the moon, the lighting becomes dark and tinged with cool blues.

Quinto Ott's costumes were colorful and playful. The women's Victorian gowns revealed the armature underneath that served to create the shape that was popular in that era. Those of the Mikado and Pooh-Bah were appropriately over embellished.

Much work had been done to appease the Asian community's objections and the production managed to be politically correct whilst holding to the intent of the piece. We have no idea what the cast wore in 1865 but this reminder that the work is about Victorian England and not about Japan made it seem just right.

Victorians needed to see their hypocrisies, bureaucracies, sexual repression, and political chicaneries exposed and ridiculed. Perhaps today we need a work that ridicules political correctness! But where could we find another Gilbert and Sullivan?

© meche kroop

Monday, December 23, 2019


Talents of the World at Zankel Hall of Carnegie Hall

Talents of the World has been promoting the classical vocal repertoire since 2002 but only began their Annual International Voice Competition recently with three successful competitions so far. Their World Festival at Carnegie Hall began last year, a festival we enjoyed so much that we put this year's festival on our calendar the day it was announced. Perhaps you have read our review of their "Three Tenors" recital a few days ago.

Imagine filling up Zankel Hall during your second year! The word had gotten out and the hall was filled with those who love serious vocal music. Of course, it being Christmas season, there were plenty of Christmas songs on the generous program, which kept us entertained for nearly three hours. Songs are good if they are tuneful and well sung, no matter the genre.

Because we are so eager to support young talent, let us begin with the young artists to whom we were introduced at the competition earlier this month. We were overjoyed to get another chance to hear soprano Alina Tamborini perform "Adele's Audition Aria" from Johann Strauss' light-hearted operetta Die Fledermaus. We have attended coachings of this aria and we can tell you that Ms. Tamborini needs no coaching. 

Everything was perfect from her sparkly stage presence, to her vocal technique, to her humorous acting. Every gesture and facial expression seemed spontaneous, belying the hard work that must have gone into it. It is truly her "signature piece", offering opportunities for impressive handling of the fioritura--leaps and trills aplenty! It was sung in English with successful enunciation; none of the clever lines were blurred.

Another upcoming superstar is soprano Sooyeon Kang, whose performance of "Meine Lippen sie küssen so heiss" was a perfect choice, highlighting her expressive phrasing, pure tone, and fine German diction. We could understand the words, even in the upper register where her voice blooms with beauty.

Baritone Bryan Murray has been winning competitions as if he were gathering flowers; we were there for most of them. He pleases the judges as successfully as he pleases the audience. His Figaro is a knockout! Just when we thought we'd seen the ultimate "Largo al factotum" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, along came Mr. Murray with a few interesting gestures and sensational aptitude for the patter section.

Mr. Murray has remarkable stage presence as well as a full Italianate tone. As he strode the stage with the confidence of a, well, a Figaro, he was completely convincing.

Last night was our introduction to a terrific tenor, Joel Ricci. It is rare to find a young tenor who is confident enough not to push his voice. Mr. Ricci sings with ease, allowing us to relax into his warm sound without protecting our sympathetic throat from aching. With no setting or costumes, his voice created the garrett scene in which he meets Mimi in "Che gelida manina" from Puccini's La Bohême. 

The dynamic variety and Italianate phrasing were lovely and served him in good stead when Mimi, portrayed by soprano Maria Vetere, joined her Rodolfo in a very convincing flirtation. "O Soave Fanciulla" was so romantic and tender we could fall in love ourself! Mr. Ricci was on the make and Ms. Vetere was rather resistant. From where did she get her willpower!

Another highlight of the evening was getting to hear President and Founder of Talents of the World David Gvinianidze singing the Russian romance "Chrysanthemums" by N.Harito. He has a lovely rounded baritone sound and a soulful interpretation that entranced us, although we have no idea what the text was about. What impressed us the most was the way he spun out a pianissimo like a silken thread.

Our host for the evening and Director of Talents of the World, Olga Lisovskaya, had us on the edge of our seat with "O Luce di Quest'Anima" from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix. She possesses a formidable instrument of great beauty and impressive coloratura technique, including a trill to kill.

Bass Zachary James, on loan from The Metropolitan Opera has a kingly sound that was just right for King Arthur's aria "If Ever I Would Leave You" from Lerner and Loewe's Camelot.

Baritone Gocha Abuladze has a substantial instrument with an appealing texture. We would have enjoyed his performance more if he had inflected his various arias with some variety. There was not much difference between his Don Giovanni and his Escamillo.

There were several glamorous sopranos on the program beside Ms. Lisovskaya. If no one sang we might have considered the evening a fashion show. Maria Maksakova sang the aria Lady Macbeth sings at the banquet; it was not listed on the program but her voice was just right for Verdi as it was for Dvorak's "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka. The audience loved her spirited "Russian Gypsy Romances". 

Petite Lyudmila Fesenko produced a sizeable sound in Dunayevsky's "Zazdravnaya". The aforementioned Ms. Vetere conveyed all of Aida's grief in "O Cieli Azzurri" with a particularly heart-rending "Mai piu". Anni Kolkhida sang Lara's "Granada" in superb Spanish with generous sound. 

We would like to point out here that the female singers utilizing the "tag team" approach that we heard at the Three Tenors concert a couple days ago were far more successful than the men. Several sopranos who "could have danced all night" in  Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady enhanced each other with cooperation instead of competition.

They also joined Ms. Lisovskaya for the sweet "Ding Dong Merrily on High" by Tabourot. Everyone joined in for "Libiamo" from Verdi's La Traviata and also for our favorite Christmas piece--Leontovych's "Carol of the Bells, much enhanced by the piano.

There were three excellent pianists for the evening--Stanislav Serebriannikov, Vera Danchenko-Stern, and Victoria Ulanovskaya--and a lovely violinist Sofia Khurtsilava. There was also a quartet of male dancers, one of whom dropped to a split in front of a glass of wine, proceeded to lift it in his teeth, and then drink it. Now that's something one doesn't see every day!

Aprile Millo was the special guest and sang two Georgian songs--"Do Not Sing to Me" which she dedicated to the late and much missed Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Rachmaninov's "Spring Waters". Our guest for the evening had heard Ms. Millo in her prime and found her voice to still be beautiful. But we cannot tell a lie. A singer who buries her nose in the score does not touch us at all. There was absolutely no connection and we found ourself focusing on the piano, which is what we usually do when the singer doesn't connect.

Nonetheless, by all accounts, it was a splendid evening! 

© meche kroop

Saturday, December 21, 2019


Lauren Flanigan, Amanda Villegas, Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, Daniel Sumegi, Mark Delavan, Stephen Gaertner,
and David Adam Moore performing in Comfort Ye

Comfort Ye marks a quarter century of superfine singing to support feeding the homeless. This is Lauren Flanigan's baby. The marvelous Ms. Flanigan has given to New York City in at least three ways: first with her triumphant operatic performances, secondly with her Music Mentoring House which houses and fosters young musicians, and finally with her community activism. Those looking for an icon of social justice need look no further.

Comfort Ye is a musical event we look forward to every year, an event at which Ms. Flanigan's numerous opera friends share their talent for a worthy cause--the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, helmed by Greg Silverman. The focus of feeding the homeless has evolved this year into a concept that is more dignified and healthier than giving out canned goods. The food pantry at St. Paul and St. Andrew's is set up like a market with fresh food for clients to select as needed. Audience members were encouraged to pay cash so that the food pantry could purchase what they need wholesale and stretch the food dollars. Audience members opened their hearts and their wallets; many brought blankets, coats, and toys as well.

The entertainment was priceless, including both the already famous and the going-to-be-famous. Musical Director Kamal Khan provided most of the accompaniment. Stars of the world stage dropped in unannounced to add to the already generous program. To list every vocal contribution would take more time and space than we have so let us try to hit the highlights.

Ms. Flanigan herself performed Lady Macbeth's Act I aria and we are pleased to report that her voice has lost none of its luster and her interpretation has only gained in dramatic effect--powerful and seductive, well suited to this power hungry character. The mood was so sustained and so gripping that an errant cell phone could not break it. She was accompanied by the supremely gifted young collaborative pianist Nicole Cloutier.

Soprano Sharleen Joynt is new to us but we became an ardent fan within the first minute of her performance of the showpiece "The Bell Song" from Delibes' Lakmé. With clarion tone and impeccable technique, she had us entranced. The lengthy melismatic passages, the fine trill,  the well-negotiated leaps, and a stunning downward portamento conspired to emphasize the exotic nature of Delibes' melodies. She was similarly dazzling in "Der Hölle Rache" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.  It was truly unforgettable.

Tenor Thomas Massey made some beautiful music in "De' miei bollenti spiriti" from Verdi's La Traviata. We just wrote about tenors who push their high notes and expressed a wish to hear some floated notes; we were overjoyed by Mr. Massey's easeful tenor tone that sounded natural and unforced with masterfully musical phrasing. Alfredo is the perfect role for this engaging young tenor.

He is also well suited to the role of Rodolfo as evidenced by his duet with the excellent baritone Stephen Gaertner as Marcello. The two "Bohemians" joined voices in mourning their lost loves in Puccini's moving tragedy La Bohême. The expression on their faces at the end of the duet was priceless.

Mr. Gaertner further distinguished himself in the Prologo to Leoncavallo's Pagliacci; it was so convincing an invitation to the commedia dell'arte that we wanted to stay for the show!

There was plenty of baritone talent on hand. Mark Delavan performed "Nemico della patria" from Giordano's Andrea Chénier, using his powerful vocal resources and legato phrasing to create a believable character, a victim of politics who is filled with bitterness.

David Adam Moore may have a darker colored baritone or perhaps it was the material he chose but his selections touched us deeply. "Der Leiermann" is the final lied of Schubert's tragic song cycle Die Winterreise. The tragic romantic hero comes to the end of a journey both geographic and spiritual. The song is mysterious and open to interpretation. Mr. Moore's delivery was so intense that we felt the same grief that we feel upon hearing the entire cycle.

His performance of "Urlicht" from Mahler's Second Symphony was likewise deeply felt.  In both cases, we found Mr. Kahn's accompaniment to be a great contribution. Probably it's because lieder highlight the piano-voice partnership, whereas a piano reduction for an opera aria thrusts the focus onto the voice.

A stunning performance of "Es gibt ein Reich" from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos was given by dramatic soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs. We were swept away by the power of her instrument which filled out each phrase; nonetheless, there was no sacrifice of subtleties of color and dynamics.

Another large voice did total justice to "Acerba voluttà" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. Mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti conveyed all the mixed feeling of the Princesse de Bouillion, even getting us to feel sorry for her. There was some impressive strength in the lower register, making this a perfect role for Ms. Gigliotti.

Rebecca Ringle, another mezzo-soprano, used the fioritura of "É sgombro il loco" in the service of the character Smeton in Donizetti's Anna Bolena. We liked the precision and accuracy.

Amanda Villegas Beck used her powerful soprano to create an entire scene for us in "Dich teure Halle" from Wagner's Tannhäuser by utilizing the entire width of the performing area so that we seemed to be in the very hall Elisabeth was greeting. 

Baritone Stefanos Koroneos departed from the printed program and gave us the marvelous character Dulcamara peddling his wares to the credulous crowd in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore. Mr. Koroneos sure knows how to create a character and was just as entertaining as Gianni Schicchi in the eponymous Puccini opera. He has a real flair for humor and the staccato passages were particularly well executed.

Bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi has an instrument the tone of which makes us think of the bass clarinet, one of our favorite instruments. The way he varied his coloration and dynamics in Prince Gremin's aria from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin was nothing short of five stars.

We will skip over the popular music and Christmas songs, although we did appreciate the selections from Händel's Messiah rather more with just the piano reduction than we have with full orchestra. It seems strange but the work seemed to have more intimacy.

We will not close before mentioning the spirited performance of the Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble. Of the three selections we greatly preferred the Nigerian Christmas carol "BeTeLeHeMu". If you guessed that stood for Bethlehem, you were correct. The audience participated under the direction of the Rev. Eugene Palmour.

Lest we forget, a strange medley on paper--Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" and Richard Strauss' "Allerseelen"-- worked beautifully in the hands of Mr. Kahn and the voice of Ms. Flanigan.

Before adjourning, the cast that remained on site joined forces for Adam's "O Holy Night". This yearly event makes its mark on all who attend. It's not just the feast of music but the spirit of generosity that marks us!

© meche kroop

Friday, December 20, 2019


David Gvinianidze, Johnathan McCullough, Zoya Gramagin,  Olga Lisovskaya, Nina Mutalifu, Yulan Piao, Giovanni Formisano, John William Gomez, WooYoung Yoon, and Tianchi Zhang

You will never hear us complain when we get more than we bargain for. We came to hear "Three Tenors" and we heard four, the fourth being Tianchi Zhang, a welcome last minute addition to the program. We were impressed by the sweetness of his sound at last year's Talents of the World concert and he lived up to his promise. We also got to hear some splendid sopranos and two baritones. L'abbondanza!

Let us address the tenors first. We loved the variety of the selections (opera, operetta, canzone Napolitane, and English Christmas songs). We enjoyed the opportunity to hear four tenors side by side, the better to appreciate their diverse colors. We became aware of the two very different aspects of the tenor voice that appeal to different people.

Many people in the sizable audience at Weill Recital Hall seemed enamored with high volume "money notes" which, to our ears, sounded pushed-- to the point that our own throat felt constricted in sympathy. What we personally appreciate is a floated high note for which we generally hold our breath lest we interfere with the delicate tickling of our ears.

The "tag team" presentation of famous arias on the program, with each tenor singing a different verse, seemed to yield a feeling of competition between the tenors resulting in a great deal more pushing than we would care to hear. The occasional pianissimi seemed like gems among boulders. We felt puzzled that the audience seemed to be more impressed by volume, even at the expense of beauty of tone; but then, they also applauded between the cantabile and the cabaletta. Has our own taste become too epicurean? We think not. We hold to our position.

We are always learning and our "take home" from last year was that singers should play to their strengths. Our "take home" this year is that putting tenors in a competitive situation, no matter how friendly, brings out the worst in them. We admit that the gestures and facial expressions, as each tenor yielded to the next, were entertaining but it was at the expense of the music.

Solos were more to our liking. Mr. Zhang overcame our indifference to song in English with a beautifully enunciated performance of d'Hardelot's "Because" and overcame our loathing for the music stand with a performance of "Silent Night" in Mandarin. This was a new experience for us and showed the beauty of the language itself and the simplicity of the melody without all the accrued baggage. Still, our vote goes to "De' bollenti spiriti" from Verdi's La Traviata for Mr. Zhang's Italianate legato phrasing and sweet resonant tone.

WooYoung Yoon's facility with language served him well in "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Lehár's Das Land des Lächelns and in "Ah, lève-toi soleil" from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. We enjoyed his ringing tone and expressive gestures as well as his ardent delivery. There were times when we thought that more variety of dynamics and color would have taken the performance from a 9 to a 10.

Giovanni Formisano had his best moment in, of all things, "Maria" from Bernstein's West Side Story. The lower tessitura and pianissimo passages gave us a better appreciation of his strengths and we wondered whether he was meant to be a baritone. One would have expected him to be at his best in his native tongue but, well, there it was--perfect English, ardent delivery, and lovely sound.

John W. Gomez' high point was "No puede ser" from Sorozábal's La tabernera del puerto, a favorite zarzuela of ours. He performed it with the requisite passion. We enjoyed the variety of colors and dynamics.

We weren't expecting sopranos but were thrilled to hear them. Zoya Gramagin made a spectacular Carmen, singing Bizet's seductive "Habanera" with conviction as well as interestingly textured tone. We thought of her as a falcon, which is what the French call a darkly colored dramatic soprano. Whatever you call her voice, it was a pleasure to hear, well-centered and even from the lower register to the top.

We first heard Nina Mitalifu singing in Italian with Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance. Then we heard her sing in Uighur for the Eurasia Festival and were so impressed that we asked her to sing her Uighur songs at one of our Around the World in Song concerts. Since then, we have heard and admired her singing in Russian and French. 

Last night we loved her waltzy "O Paris gai séjour" from Lecocq's Les Cents Vierges, an opera completely unknown to us. There was ample variety in the central section to show off what she can do with her magnificent instrument. (What can't she do!) The sinuous melismatic passages included a fine trill and the return included some graceful coloratura.

She performed quite charmingly as Zerlina with baritone Johnathan McCullough as the lustful Don Giovanni. Mr. McCullough came to vivid life in this scene; he was a lot more involved than he was in Hamlet's aria from the Thomas opera. We like more drama in our drinking songs!

We only got a tiny taste of the artistry of soprano Yulan Piao but enough to admire her sparkling well-focused instrument. Her perfect blending with Mr. Yoon's tenor in "Tanzen möchte ich" from Kalman's The Csárdás Princess has a reason; Mr. Yoon and Ms. Piao are indeed newlyweds. Ms. Piao did look and sound every inch a princess.

Baritone David Gvinianidze, Founder and President of Talents of the World, was joined by soprano Olga Lisovskaya, Director of Talents of the World, for the festive and rhythic "Spagnola" by Di Chiara. They are obviously far more experienced artists and were uniquely able to modulate their voices to the size of the room. It was a spirited and winning performance.

Accompanists for the evening were Stanislav Serebriannikov and Bradley Pennington, both of whom rose to the challenge of accommodating many different styles of music and many different voices.

Talents of the World will have a Christmas Ball on Sunday night and we hope you will join us for a night of revelry, singing, and dancing. There will be some vocal superstars on board and special guest Aprile Millo.

© meche kroop 

Monday, December 16, 2019


Myriam Phiro onstage at Birdland

Guest review by Ellen Godfrey:


French-Canadian jazz and cabaret singer Myriam Phiro brought her cabaret tribute to Birdland, the popular New York City jazz club, to honor the legendary Edith Piaf. This year marks 103 years since her death. Ms. Phiro has given sold out concerts in many cabaret and jazz clubs including Joe’s Pub, the Rainbow Room, and 54 Below, just to to name a few. She has performed her Piaf tribute in many of these and in other venues. The great chanteuse, Edith Piaf, was an idol of Ms. Phiro, who was inspired to share her love of Piaf with her audience.  Her “Piaf” cabaret included many of her songs as well as information about Piaf’s life.

Despite her fame and her musical accomplishments, Piaf had a hard and sad life.  Edith Piaf, whose nickname was “the little sparrow,", was born on December 19, 1915 in Belleville, a suburb of Paris.  Her father was a street singer.  Her mother abandoned her to a bordello, where she lived for several years. When she was 14, she joined her father as a street performer.  A night club owner, Louis Leplee, discovered her in Pigalle in 1935 and was so impressed with her voice that he hired her immediately.  She became not only a singer, but also a songwriter and cabaret star. 

She was the most famous singer in France and sang often at the Olympia Music Hall there.  After the end of World War II, her fame continued to grow and she started touring the world.  She was popular in the United States and performed many times on the Ed Sullivan show and in several theaters in New York City.  She also composed many of her own songs such as “La Vie in Rose” and “Milord.” She had a huge following wherever she went.  

Unfortunately, like  Judy Garland, another great singing star of the time, she began drinking and taking drugs.  She died in 1963 at the age of 47, leaving behind a legacy of recordings, books, and films.

Myriam Phiro received huge applause as she entered the stage on Thursday night, dressed in a simple long black dress, the only color that Piaf ever wore for her concerts.  Ms. Phiro has a warm personality and immediately made the audience feel at home.  On-stage, she was accompanied by a three piece orchestra: pianist and accordionist Hyuna Park, double bass player Yoshi Waki, and percussionist Alex Raderman.  

All three of them blended together in the jazz format and kept the show moving with some improvisation and lots of enthusiasm. Later in the program, two more talented musicians were added, each one playing along with Ms. Phiro: Adrien Chevalier, a jazz violinist from Provence, whose family are violinists, and Linus Wyrsch, a well known jazz clarinet player.  Each of them accompanied Ms. Phiro with great style. 

She opened with her jazz trio accompanying her in the Rod Stewart song “I Wish You Love,” which was performed with a jazz beat.  Ms. Phiro has a charming warm soprano voice that filled the space beautifully.  She started singing in French, then switched to English, and then returned to French. She did this language switching in several of her songs.

For her second song, “C’est magnifique”,  written by the great Cole Porter, she told the audience that they would be singing along with her when she gave them the signal to join in with “ou la la la.” The audience had great fun singing together.

After these two songs, Ms. Phiro began the celebration of what would have been Edith Piaf’s 103rd birthday.  She interspersed information about Piaf’s life between some of her songs.  Her wonderful pianist, who supported the singer so well, picked up an accordion and showed her great musicianship in this instrument as well. She played the Piaf song “L’Accordeoniste”, in true cabaret style.  Ms. Phiro sang it of course, in beautiful French with a smoky quality to her voice. Although she sings in the “Piaf” style she does not try to imitate Piaf’s voice. The song starts slowly, then gets more and more frantic as she realizes her boyfriend will probably not be returning from war.

Other well-known Piaf songs were “La Vie En Rose”, seeing the world through rose colored glasses; “La foule” in which the crowd carries a woman in love through the crowd and loses a man she finds; and “Sous le ciel de Paris” describing the life under Paris skies. While all of Piaf songs were about love or loss, they all have a different sound and a different rhythm-- some slow, some soulful, some happy, and some sad. Ms. Phiro always found the right atmosphere for each song

Ms. Phiro surprised us by telling us that she was in love, not just with the songs, but with the double bass!! The double bass player gave her his instrument and she sang two songs while accompanying herself on the bass. A multi-talented lady!

The cabaret that Ms. Phiro put together was delightful and she and her musicians received great applause when the show ended.  I hope that Ms. Phiro will continue to present these wonderful cabaret performances.

Piaf’s blue house still stands in Belleville and has been turned into a small museum, whose hours are very irregular.  I was lucky enough to have seen it and just standing in front of it brought back many memories of her wonderful career.

© meche kroop


Saturday, December 14, 2019


Curtain Call for Mercadante's I due Figaro at Manhattan School of Music

We entered the theater at Manhattan School of Music rain soaked, windblown, and grumpy.  Three hours later we walked out smiling from ear to ear and barely aware of the weather. Opera will do that to you! Part of our glee was the result of seeing so much talent onstage at one time; part of it was because the opera itself is so very very delightful.

Most opera lovers are aware of the Beaumarchais plays known as the Figaro trilogy. Mozart selected the second play for his beloved Le Nozze di Figaro with libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, which premiered in 1786. In 1816, Rossini chose the first part for his own enduring opera buffa, Il barbiere di Siviglia, with libretto by Cesare Sterbini. The third part La mère coupable was set by Darius Milhaud in 1966. Not beloved. Not enduring.

So from what source did Felice Romani get his libretto for this effervescent work that was set by Saverio Mercadante? It was based on a French play by Richard-Martelly who had his own take on the interactions of the very same characters--Count Almaviva, his wife the Countess (formerly Rosina), the wily Figaro, and the lovelorn Cherubino. Apparently these characters were so beloved and so reminiscent of stock characters drawn from commedia dell'arte that writers just couldn't abandon them. They have delighted us ever since; marital disappointment and infidelity have not gone out of style, nor have young lovers facing obstacles!

So how did Mercadante's opera get lost until 2011 when Ricardo Muti rediscovered it? Jane Vial Jaffe's program notes indicate a number of artistic and political issues that delayed its premiere from 1826 until 1835--"its inherent social criticisms and immorality offended both the court and the church". By 1835 when censorship relaxed, opera buffa had sadly gone out of style.

Fortunately, Dona D. Vaughn, Artistic Director of the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater, recognized the potential of the work--fortunate for the talented group of singers who appeared to be having the time of their lives and also for the audience who seemed to be enjoying themselves beyond the usual pleasure of opera going.

Credit must be shared by Ms. Vaughn, the gifted cast, the gorgeous costumes of Tracy Dorman, the clever set of Shoko Kambara, and the fine playing of the MSM Opera Orchestra under the baton of Stefano Sarzani who also provided the continuo.

The story made little sense on the page but Ms. Vaughn's direction made everything clear. The Count and Countess have a marriageable daughter named Inez who is in love with Cherubino. Figaro, far less charming than he was in the earlier iterations, is plotting to get her married off to one Don Alvaro, with whom he plans on splitting the dowry. Susanna, no longer sweet and innocent, is just as manipulative as her husband and schemes with the Countess and Inez to foil Figaro's plan.

The casting was absolutely perfect, both vocally and dramatically. Yu Ding has enviable stage presence and a robust but sweet-toned tenor. With Italianate phrasing he created the character of the Count, one which seemed rather consistent with the Count in the Mozart opera. He is often clueless and easily swayed by Figaro and Susanna who know just how to manipulate him. Nonetheless, Mr. Ding's Count seemed to be a more forgiving man, having acquired some better behavior at the conclusion of Mozart's opera.

Mezzo-soprano Xiao Xiao created a lovely dignified Countess who, in spite of a gorgeous aria expressing her disappointment in love, still wants her daughter to have the same opportunity to marry for love. Her voice is warm and affecting and served to illuminate the character.

As Inez, Jiyu Kim utilized her high soprano to excel in the high-flying coloratura passages. Her petite frame served well in her portrayal of a young innocent girl.

Mezzo-soprano Alanna Fraize was a marvel in the breeches role of Cherubino. She made ample use of facial expression and gesture to create a believable man in the throes of love, desperate to achieve his love object. There was plenty of fioritura for her to play with and we enjoyed every note.

It was difficult to believe that bass-baritone Evan Lazdowski is still an undergraduate. His performance as the conniving and greedy Figaro was spot on with effective vocalism and character creation.

Susanna was effectively portrayed by soprano Blair Cagney who has a nice full well-centered tone, superb coloratura, and a way of conveying wiliness without malice.

New to this part of the trilogy is the character of Plagio, wondrously created by Daniel Choi. Plagio is a young playwright and serves as a "meta" device. Figaro has promised to help him write a play and his play is the story of the opera. Mr. Choi made an adorable wide-eyed presence onstage, hiding here and there, observing the ongoing action, just as we were. The characters in the opera wrote his play for him!

Tenor Sehyun Lee took the role of Don Alvaro, the suitor whom Figaro was promoting. His unmasking at the end was the deus ex machina.

The story is filled with tropes of the era. Disguises, people hiding and spying on each other, false identities, and plots to deceive. Certain situations provide resonance with situations in the other two parts of the trilogy, i.e. Cherubino hiding in the closet. We still find them funny!

The music is filled with lavish melodies and also musical devices reminiscent of other bel canto operas. Mercadante utilizes Rossinian ensembles in which each character goes crazy but with his/her own vocal line; often he doesn't even wait for the end of the act.

We have been trying to select our favorite musical moments and it sure is difficult. The first act trio of Inez, the Countess, and Susana was delightful and the Countess' aria about love was moving. The duet between Susanna and Figaro in Act II utilized a Spanish rhythm that reminded us that we are in Seville.

Further evidence of location could be found in Shoko Kambara's clever set design which was like a cartoon. There were two orange trees flanking the door to the palacio. The courtyard had a pig roasting on a spit and picnic tables set up for the betrothal celebration. For the garden scene, the door was lifted and greenery lowered. For indoor scenes, closets were lowered for the characters to hide in.

Ms. Dorman's gorgeous costumes also bordered on cartoonish, in a very beautiful way. Peasants were dressed in becoming pastel dresses, the accurate length for that period. The aristocrats were resplendent and extremely fancy. Even the wigs by Bobbie Zlotnik were perfect and just a bit exaggerated for effect. K. Meira Goldberg's choreography was delightful.

We cannot stress how thrilled we were with the performances and their ensemble nature. Chorus Master Jackson McKinnon elicited impressive performances from his 13-member chorus of peasants.

We have rarely enjoyed a comedy this heartily and hope you, dear reader, will take advantage of the two additional performances. Even if you see a different cast you will definitely be pleased. We know the other cast and they are just as talented.

© meche kroop

Friday, December 13, 2019


Megan Gillis and Kathleen Spencer

What a pleasure it is to watch City Lyric Opera thrive! Co-Founders and Artistic Directors Kathleen Spencer and Megan Gillis, singers themselves, know exactly what singers need and have established an artist-centric company, a niche of which we heartily approve.

Last night, a gracious Upper West Side lady (and we do mean "lady") hosted a salon in celebration of the holiday season. With Amir Farid at the piano, there was plenty of singing, both professional and audience participation. Sets were well paced with plenty to eat and drink during the intermission.

We love being introduced to new singers so we had a field day, as they say. Mezzo-soprano Taylor-Alexis Dupont who sang in Porgy and Bess at The Metropolitan Opera appeared in a total wow of a red dress to deliver as passionate a delivery of Richard Strauss' "Zueignung" as we have ever heard. Clarion tone and fine German diction added up to a stellar performance.

It was a good night for mezzo-sopranos. Stephanie Feigenbaum was not new to us. We enjoyed her performance as Nancy in Britten's Albert Herring with Utopia Opera and also as the good witch Melissa in a Caccini opera with Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble. Last night she showed us two different aspects of her talent.

"What a Movie" from Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti was delivered with perfect English diction, generous use of gesture, and just the right degree of irony. We were reminded of our own guilty pleasures and how we sometimes knock the things we enjoy because they are thought to be "beneath us"--like James Bond movies, for example.

Later, she sang "Make Someone Happy" from the forgotten musical Do Re Mi for which Comden and Green wrote the lyrics and Jules Styne composed the music. What a change from irony and histrionics to a quiet sincerity!

Baritone Joshua Miller sang a Charles Ives song called "Down East" that reminded him of his Maine roots. His mellow instrument and clarity of phrasing were joyful to hear.

Sadly, an unavoidably late arrival prevented us from hearing tenor Kameron Ghanavati sing a song by Ben Moore and soprano Celeste Morales singing Hugh Martin's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "I'll Be Seeing You". We were told they were both excellent and we are sure to catch up with them some other time.

Special Programs Manager Nehemiah Rolle led a discussion among the artists on the topic of what the holidays meant to them. It was an interesting idea and allowed those of us in the audience to see them as people, not just performers. We got to hear some charming stories.

There was group singing of "Winter Wonderland" and "Auld Lang Syne" (endless verses of it) but your faithful writer just moved her lips lest she send the entire group fleeing from the room!

At this time of year, think generously of the boutique opera companies that fill out the cultural landscape of our fair city with such beauty. City Lyric Opera deserves your support!

© meche kroop

Thursday, December 12, 2019


Casey Candebat as Max in Heartbeat Opera's  Der Freischütz (photo by Andrew Boyle)

We cannot recall ever returning to an opera during the same run to hear a different cast. This "first" for us came about because there was so much going on musically, dramatically, and scenically that we couldn't grasp it all in one visit. In all honesty, if we weren't completely booked we would see it again. And again.

To get the singing on the table right away, the "Red" cast was just as fine as the "Green" cast we heard a few days ago. Tenor Casey Candebat employed his fine instrument and persuasive acting to create a sympathetic "underdog" whom we wanted to see succeed. As his dangerous "friend" Kaspar, baritone Daniel Klein was chilling.

Soprano Katherine Whyte evoked similar sympathy as the anxious bride-to-be Agathe, singing with full and luxurious tone. As her cousin Ännchen, Nicole Haslett delighted with her high-lying tone and cheerful personality. In fact, their duet was one of the highlights of the evening with the two personality styles contrasting as much as those of Tatiana and Olga in Eugene Onegin.

The other singers were as mentioned in our prior review of the "Green" cast, contributing their superb characterological interpretations and fine singing. 

We came to opera through our interest in theater and therefore are always paying attention to theatrical values. The direction by Louisa Proske and Chloe Treat could not have been more effective. There were many small touches that we became aware of by taking a new vantage point on the opposite side of the theater. 

The overall situation was that of "theater in the square" with the entire black box theater utilized to create an immersive situation, making us feel somehow complicit in the story. We forgot our liberal tendencies and felt like a member of this Southern small town, recalling our youth in North Florida where there were barbecue joints and honky-tonk roadhouses and what we called "cracker houses" similar to the set created by Sara Brown, who must be some kind of genius.

She created a building that served as a roadhouse, but which converted, by the raising of shades, into one of those "cracker" houses. We could peer inside and see a woman sewing, perhaps sewing Agathe's wedding veil. We could see the religious statues and cross, reminding us of what it's like to be surrounded by fundamentalists with their superstitions. We could see the bridesmaids preparing for the wedding. We could see Agathe and Ännchen sitting on the porch, as they do in the South. We could feel the tension of a community that values their guns and hunting; we felt the toxic masculinity of the gun culture that makes life difficult for a man who can't compete on that level.

We had a better view of Samiel (Butoh dancer azumi O E) lurking in the shadows, emerging from her identity as a member of the community (the seamstress), removing the mask and revealing her evil origins and later rolling under the house to hide. Does evil lurk everywhere?

We were nearly shaking in our seat during the Wolf Canyon scene. Oliver Wason's lighting contributed greatly to the eerie effects of the smoke and azumi's dancing (as Samiel) heightened the terror. The musical contributions of Daniel Schlosberg were amplified by the electronic alterations wrought by William Gardiner. It was far more effective than any horror movie we have ever seen.

Our position gave us a better view of the chamber orchestra and the versatility of the musicians in realizing Mr. Schlosberg's reduction of the orchestral score. If we haven't previously made it sufficiently clear, the music is astonishing in its variety and complexity. There was gentle folk music for the female chorus with each bridesmaid singing a different verse. Claire Leyden's verse included the unrolling of her hair curlers in rhythm with her charming singing. This was just one of countless little moments that struck us as original and memorable.

What also became visible from our new vantage point was that one of the figures appearing in Max's terrifying visions in Wolf Canyon was his own "shadow". If, dear reader, you are wondering whether we figured out the ending, we still have not. Max's "shadow" (the intense Eric Delagrange) reappears and seems to both confront the community with their collective guilt and also offer clemency and the end of gun culture; but he carried a machine gun and seemed brutal. We will need to think about this some more.

In any case, what you experience depends upon where you sit. Perhaps if you sat higher up near the positions taken by the Sheriff and the Governor, you would have had a different experience. It is quite revolutionary for the action to take place in the midst of the audience!

Good storytelling doesn't shrink from moralizing. Bullying leads to desperation and desperation leaves people open to manipulation by evil forces. Punishment can be leavened with mercy and forgiveness.

There are four more performances and hopefully a few tickets left. Please don't miss this revolutionary take on a rarely seen opera!

© meche kroop