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.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022


An International Group of World Class Artists in Support of Ukraine

Dear Reader! If you can't wait to read about the brilliant concert produced by Natalie Burlutskaya of Spotlight Artists Management, so graciously hosted by St. John's in the Village, please scroll down to avoid our rant.  Since this is our "soapbox" we feel the need to say something about the crisis in Ukraine. Tyrants must be stopped in their tracks.  Appeasing Hitler did not stop him from trying to take over the world.

There is nothing new about major world powers trying to colonize other countries and deprive them of their independence. The USA fought courageously to free itself from the yoke of Great Britain. Mexico had to drive the Spanish out. Of course, in all fairness, it is not lost on us that the USA is not innocent of meddling in foreign countries who want to be free of our influence.

Yet, there is something particularly egregious about Putin waging war on his smaller neighbor and murdering his own people, mostly innocent women and children, to gratify his swollen ego. We are reminded of the narcissistic men who cannot control partners who want to leave them and react by maiming and murdering them. Unfortunately, there are no shelters or safe houses for the beleaguered Ukrainians in their own country.  The men are demonstrating remarkable bravery defending their homeland whilst their wives and children are fleeing to other countries--a version, we opine, of a safe house.

We have no faith in "thoughts and prayers". Those who are not in a position to affect national politics must be content with sending money. We urge you to support any four-star charity that is helping with food and medical supplies. Ms. Burluskaya created last night's benefit to help musicians in two cities of Ukraine. We must each of us find a way to help.

And now, let us speak of the artists who donated their gifts to raise money for this project. The cast comprised artists from Russia and Ukraine, Argentina, Turkey, China, and the United States.  Music knows no politics, no prejudice.  We are all on the same team. 

Before we get to the singers, we must credit the collaborative pianist Alexander Chaplinsky who put heart and soul into his fingers and brought forth an entire orchestra from a sole piano. We were not surprised to learn that Mr. Chaplinsky is also a conductor because we could hear the inner lines as clearly as the melody and the bass. Each section of the orchestra was right there in this amazing performance.

The program opened with his own arrangement of the Ukrainian Anthem which was filled with "soul". The program ended with his performance of "Golden Gate of Kiev", one of the episodes from Musssorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, marked by majestic chords and rhythmic vitality.

Just prior to that we heard the charming Galina Ivannikova singing a Ukrainian folk song called "Black brows". We did not understand the lyrics of Konstantin Dumitrashko but the haunting melody touched a place in our memory and filled us with hope and happiness.

Many of the evening's selections reflected upon the theme of fascism. (Make no mistake! Putin's government is fascistic and not particularly communistic.)
Puccini's opera Tosca is about artists fighting fascism in the person of Baron Scarpia. Soprano Dilara Unsal made a perfect Tosca in "Vissi d'arte", singing with passion for her art. Her vibrato was affecting and there was a lovely diminuendo.

Ms. Ivannikova sang Joan of Arc's aria of willingness to fight for her beloved homeland from Tchaikovsky's eponymous opera. There was some lovely phrasing and an admirable smoothness in the wide skips.

Menotti's The Consul is an opera about a displaced individual being crushed by an indifferent  bureaucracy. In "Papers"  Zoya Gramagin's expressiveness gave voice to a woman's anger, desperation, and despair. The unaccompanied phrases were particularly well rendered. Her eye color was "tears"; her occupation was "waiting". 

The evening was not all gloomy.  There was also romance (both happy romance and betrayed love) and lightheartedness. From Verdi's Ballo in Maschera, Ulrica's conjuring of supernatural forces was given particular menace by Ema Mitrovic's chilling contralto, convincingly bringing the seer to life. With incredible strength at the bottom of her range, the brilliance at the top was particularly impressive. We also enjoyed the dynamic variety.

Particularly moving was Amelia's "Morrò, ma prima in grazia" performed by Ms. Gramagin. The guilty wife's pleading with her husband melted our heart, if not her husband's! Portraying Renato was Jonathan R. Green whose big resonant sound gave life to a betrayed husband. He began with brutal coloration but later in the aria he gave us a different color--the hurt underneath the rage.

Sara Pearson performed an aria of a betrayed woman--Marguerite's aria from Gounod's Faust. She produced a lovely legato line whilst Mr. Chaplinsky delivered rapid figures in the piano representing the sound of spinning. We enjoyed the graceful portamenti and the lovely pianissimo ending.

One of our favorite young singers is Joseph Parrish whose deeply resonant tone is never booming but rather subtly colored. His portrayal of Aleko in Rachmaninov's opera of the same name was yet another example of betrayal. Mr. Parrish gave the character a range of sorrow by varying his dynamics. Although his voice is sizable, he is also able to rein it in for some stunning pianissimi. Mr. Chaplinsky's piano was admirably lyrical.

Later in the program he demonstrated another side of his artistry, singing "Deep River", an Afro-American spiritual which he sang with all the respect one would give to an art song--phrasing, coloration, and dynamic variety. We have never heard it sung like that and were deeply moved.

As far as art songs go, what is deeper than those of Schubert?  Another young artist of whom we are very fond, Xi Chen, performed "Der Lindenbaum" from Winterreise. This is our very favorite song cycle and we are waiting eagerly for the day when he learns the entire cycle. 

He also won an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience by his performance of the well known "Parlami d'amore, Mariu". His is a huge voice which he employs with a lovely legato.

Our stunning contralto reappeared for "Amour viens aider ma faiblesse", Dalilah's aria from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalilah. Just as she effectively created the character of Ulrika, she also created a seductive temptress-- by means of vocal coloration and bodily gesture. We reckon that the audience got seduced!

Regular readers recall how fond we are of duets and we were not disappointed. We got to hear one of our favorites--the "Barcarolle" from Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffman performed by Ms. Pearson and Ms. Gramagin in affecting and well-balanced harmony.  We must note Mr. Chaplinsky gorgeous introduction which set the mood before the singers began. We tried not to sway in our seat!

The lighter pieces we mentioned earlier were eagerly greeted as they provided some relief from the sad and the serious. The lovely young soprano-turned-mezzo Eugenia Forteza made a charming and believable Cherubino as she performed "Non so piu cosa son" from Mozart's Nozze di Figaro. We have watched Ms. Forteza for a number of years and take particular delight in her artistic growth. This aria should definitely be her signature piece. Were we auditioning we would definitely give her the part!

She also sang "Somewhere" from Bernstein's West Side Story which the program notes indicated was a "dreamlike world of peace"--something we all are wishing for.

There were also instrumentalists on the program.  Accompanied by Yuliya Basis, violinist Andy Didorenko performed "Meditation" from Bortkiewicz' Four Pieces for violin and piano. They also performed. Mr. Didorenko's own composition "Reminiscence" in which he treated the piano as an equal partner to his violin.  It is a lovely piece and was dedicated to his Ukrainian hometown.

What a full and generous evening! The energy in the sanctuary of St. John's in the Village was at a high level and the audience responded to every offering with gratitude and warm applause. 100% of the proceeds is going to people who lost their homes as a result of heavy shelling. Musicians from Kharkiv National Theater of Opera and Ballet are among them. Spotlight Artists Management stays connected with Dmitry Morozov, the Principal Conductor, learning about the situation first hand,  and avoiding the funds being stuck in huge foundations or national banks.

© meche kroop

Tuesday, March 8, 2022


Nathan Granner and Marnie Breckenridge in Gordon Getty’s opera “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”

There is nothing new about filming opera. Indeed one can find almost every opera in a filmed version on YouTube. The past decade has shown a major advance with the advent of opera in HD.  In this case, the film directors have become as important as the stage directors in that they can focus the attention of the audience on a particular singer or some small but significant stage object that only front row audience members might have seen during the live performance.

Last week at the Walter Reade Theater, we were introduced to a further advance in the field, which is "opera reimagined for film". It was easy to perceive "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" as a film with award-winning music composed by Gordon Getty, music which amplified the drama. The story began life as a 1934 novella by James Hilton and tells the story of a revered teacher at a British boarding school in the early years of the 20th c.

The eponymous teacher (tenor Nathan Granner), long a bachelor, had his life changed by falling in love with and marrying the lovely Kathie (soprano Marnie Breckenridge). Her lamentable death in childbirth did not put an end to his personal and professional growth. There is yet more sorrow as he lives to witness the death of several of his former students in World War I. There is not much conflict, just a difference of opinion with  snarky new Headmaster Ralston, played to the hilt by bass-baritone Kevin Short, who wants Latin taught in a new way. Parental support of Mr. Chips prevails.

As a film, this hybrid worked reasonably well. There is a narrator--Merrivale, well played by baritone Lester Lynch; there is a succession of scenes that tell the story logically with clearly inserted flashbacks; there are some "tricks of the trade" best known to film people (of which I am not) that permitted the overlapping of images of Mr. Chips as a young man with his younger self. The students of the school were somehow projected onto the set although they were obviously not present.

The set worked fairly well although a revolving element, commonly used on the theater stage, kept revolving and revolving at one point, and to no apparent purpose.  The turn of the 20th c. costuming was apropos with Kathie wearing a gorgeous dress.

Director Brian Staufenbiel managed to coordinate the diverse element to form a cohesive whole with the orchestra, conducted by Nicole Paiement, recorded separately.

The opera side of this synthesis was a mixed bag. The instrumental writing left nothing to be desired. It neatly supported the onstage drama in a most effective way, which led us to think of this as an award-winning soundtrack to a film. However, the vocal lines did not "sing" and there was no melody to speak of (or to sing of). We wish contemporary composers would take a page from Broadway's book and give the audience the tunes our ears are hungry for.

The singing of the members of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, on the other hand, was pure delight as they joined their voices in singing what was probably a hymn or an anthem. One may scoff, but it had melody.

The cast of four did everything they could to make the prosy text musical. Since Mr. Getty wrote the libretto himself, there is no one else to blame for the lack of musicality. Mr. Granner was outstanding, not only for his velvet tone but for fine phrasing that almost compensated for the meandering vocal line. Ms. Breckenridge made a lovely Kathie and we were sorry her character got killed off so early in the film. Mr. Lynch was a believable Merrivale, a former student who is sharing his memories of Mr. Chips. Mr. Short was equally convincing as the hostile new headmaster who had to change his tone when he needed help from Mr. Chips at the end of the film.

There were several scenes that just begged for an old-fashioned aria or duet.

This work was originally conceived as a staged opera and, like so many other projects derailed by the pandemic, had to be reinvented.  The world premiere took place last November as part of Festival Napa Valley and Mill Valley Film Festival. This New York premiere was presented by Festival Napa Valley and New York City Opera.

We invite you, dear reader, to add your comments. An experiment like this is sure to arouse all kinds of opinions.

© meche kroop