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, November 19, 2023


 Maestro William Remmers and the cast of Utopia Opera's H.M.S. Pinafore

There are two types of people in this world--those that love Gilbert and Sullivan and those who do not know their works. Darlings of the Victorian Age, Arthur Sullivan's tuneful music and W.S. Gilbert's clever lyrics enchanted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, transformed musical theater forever, and inspired countless pirated versions, versions for children, and even a version in Yiddish.

The richness of Sullivan's musical invention has inspired more musical analyses of key changes than we can absorb and Gilbert's satire encompasses the British class system, the patriotism of the British empire, the two-party system, and the conventions of opera. Musical quotations and plot satires abound. As just one example, the switching of babies recalls Verdi's Il Trovatore.

We have no doubt that their work appealed to each of Great Britain's social classes for different reasons, which accounts for their popularity. Indeed, their works offer something for everyone. They originated the use of naturalistic scenery and costumes; engravings from that period are charmingly detailed.

Such sets and costumes were missing from Utopia Opera's production this weekend of H.M.S. Pinafore but the musical values and enthusiastic performances made up for the lack. We do not know any theatrical production off-Broadway that offers equal bang for the buck. Proof of the proverbial pudding could be seen in the full house and rapturous applause of the audience, augmented by a generous quantity of whooping and hollering.

One feature which made us very happy was the projected titles, allowing us to appreciate the extraordinary cleverness of Gilbert's libretto. Certain arias are so famous ("I'm called Little Buttercup" and "I am the Captain of the Pinafore") that we know them by heart; others are less well known but were found to be equally memorable. Minus sets and costumes we were free to focus on the music and the text.

If anyone reading is not familiar with the story, it takes place on a vessel of the Queen's Navy (satirically named after an article of female clothing). The 
Captain (played by renowned interpreter of the role Richard Holmes) has a lovely daughter (Christina Krawec) who he would like to marry off to The Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter, KCB First Lord of the Admiralty (played by Maestro William Remmers himself). Naturally, the girl is in love with a "common sailor" named Ralph Rackstraw (Jeremy Sivitz) but he is an unsuitable match by virtue of his "lowly social class".

The couple plan to elope but their plan is foiled by the nefarious Dick Deadeye 
(Benjamin Spierman). The deus ex machina is provided by Little Buttercup (Stephanie Feigenbaum). Of course, Jack will have his Jill and everything ends happily.

Every moment of the production was worthwhile but a few scenes stand out, largely involving the rubber-bodied Maestro Remmers who managed to conduct the sizable orchestra and portray Sir Porter simultaneously with the mere addition of a cap. This would suggest a very special rapport with the orchestra and some anticipatory rehearsal. Remmers' delivery of "I am a Monarch of the Sea" was classic; the text refers to one W. H. Smith, a politician who had recently been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty despite having neither military nor nautical experience.

In an atypical arrangement, the 18 members of the orchestra were situated upstage with the singers downstage. The orchestra comprised the usual string quartet plus string bass and a very competent wind section--a. pair of flutes, an oboe, a pair of clarinets, a pair of cornets, a bassoon, a pair of horns, a pair of trombones, and a percussionist.

We enjoyed the chorus of sailors and particularly admired the voices of Henry Horstmann as the Bosun's Mate and Jonathan Fox Powers as the Carpenter's Mate.

The female chorus did a fine job as the "Sisters, Cousins, and Aunts" who accompanied Sir Porter. Some of the funniest moments of the show involved a particularly intrusive Cousin Hebe (Angela Scorese) whom Sir Porter kept trying to silence and dismiss.

Much of the humor comes from watching characters taking themselves seriously in such preposterous circumstances. We can only imagine the delight experienced by the audience in 1878!

The complicated history of this career-making comic opera is fascinating but way too detailed to get into here.  Likewise the strained interaction between Gilbert and Sullivan which was depicted in a highly recommended film a quarter centry ago by Mike Leigh entitled Topsy Turvy.

© meche kroop

Friday, November 17, 2023


 Curtain call at Manhattan School of Music for Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

We lost count of the number of times we have seen the Shakespeare play but the production we saw last night of Benjamin Britten's operatic adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream  best captured the spirit of the work. Shakespeare's text in iambic pentameter has its own music and, in our opinion, does not inspire memorable vocal lines. However, Britten's instrumental music creates a soundscape that evokes a world of fantasy and magic. The opening scene gave the chamber orchestra, so well conducted by esteemed Maestro George Manahan, frequent glissandi that tickled the ear.

The success of the production rests firmly on the professional level performances of the Manhattan School of Music Graduate Opera Theater and the Director John de los Santos who has a long list of professional successes but is known to us mainly through his work at MSM and New Camerata Opera. His work on this piece is marked by originality, creativity, and imagination. It is also marked by some ribaldry and naughtiness of which Shakespeare would have surely approved.  (Ask us about the toilet plunger and the ass' ass.)

We did not miss the opening scene of the play which takes place in an Athenian courtroom. The opera begins in the forest, the land where fairies lead their magical lives and play tricks on mortals. The gods in Wagner's Ring Cycle display as many characterological defects as the humans; similarly the fairies in Britten's opera are beset by romantic problems just like the mortals.

Titania, played by the tiny powerhouse soprano Sofia Gotch-Caruana, does not want to relinquish the changeling infant to her demanding husband Oberon, played with appropriate majesty by Haolun Zhang whose ethereal counter-tenor, effectively accompanied by the celeste, fulfilled the role with excellence.

The lovely Hermia (mezzo-soprano Ya Gao) has fled Athens with her beloved Lysander (tenor Isaiah Traylor) because of parental disapproval. The couple are so adorable together that we are cheering for them right from the start.

In contrast, poor Helena (soprano Madison Marie Fitzpatrick, well remembered from last year's Caccini opera) is pursuing Demetrius (baritone Ross Macatangay) who rejects her because he is in love with Hermia and wants nothing more than to take Hermia away from Lysander.

That Shakespeare created this romantic mess five centuries ago gives us pause. His work endures because of his keen insight into human behavior which seems not to have changed in half a millenium!  How do you think this romantic situation can be resolved? By the help of the fairies of course!

Oberon enlists the help of the sprite Puck, a non-singing role that was well spoken and extremely well-danced by Johannes Linneballe who made use of the entire stage as his playground. We saw no choreographer listed in the program; shall we assume that this gifted member of the graduate vocal program self-choreographed?

Shakespeare himself said "The course of true love never did run smooth"; so, of course, Puck's performance of Oberon's instructions is mistaken and the bewildered Helena winds up fighting off two lovers and poor Hermia is abandoned. Of course, things are set aright but the complications, emphasized by the music, keep us involved.

Thinking about Wagner's Ring Cycle and the gods interfering with the lives of mortals, we notice also a setting apart of a less genteel and less educated working class, i.e. the "rustics" who win a competition to provide entertainment for the wedding of Theseus Duke of Athens (the smooth-voiced baritone Donghoon Kang) and Hippolyta Queen of the Amazons (the regal Xiaowei Fang).

The six "rustics" provided comic relief and a welcome break from the romantic struggles of the Athenian upper classes. Outstanding among them is Benjamin R. Sokol as Bottom the Weaver who wants to play every part in the play within the play, another grand insight of the Bard.  Don't we all know someone like that? Mr. Sokol garnered plenty of laughs during the process of casting Pyramus and Thisbe but even more when he is transformed into an ass and becomes the love object of Titania who has been tricked by her manipulative husband. Did we mention how well he sang?

The other rustics were also excellent: William Velasco de Jesús as Flute, reluctantly playing Thisbe in drag, Xingxiang Liu as Snout, Gregory Gropper as Starveling, Jon Carr as Snug, and Liyuan Liu as Quince, trying to direct the project. Each performer evinced a different personality.

In contrast, the fairies comprised a unified chorus and worked more as an ensemble. We heard Suzana Ikeda, Margaux Frohlich, Nadine Nagyeong Li, Abigail Williams, Zixuan Zhang, and Morena Galan.

In the final scene, order is restored and Britten has his fun lampooning the golden age of opera with the performance by the rustics of "Pyramus and Thisbe" including murder and suicide. The bored Athenians gently decline to see the Epilogue. "All's well that ends well", as they say. All are successfully matched and we have been royally entertained by this superlative cast. We are left hoping that they enjoyed themselves as much as we did.

Let us not fail to credit the excellent costume design of Ashley Soliman. The fairies were fantastical with extravagant attire whilst the Athenians were costumed in contemporary streetwear with the rustics in contemporary workmen's attire. The Duke and his bride were appropriately elegant. Abbey Wiker's scenic design was simple but effective with multi-leveled playing areas and vertical sliding elements that altered perspective.

We are also left reflecting upon how often Shakespeare's works have inspired operas. The ones that came to mind first are Verdi's use of Macbeth, Othello, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. We also thought of Thomas' Hamlet. We will think upon this more and invite you Dear Reader to make any additions in the comments below. Obviously Italian opera of the 19th c. had far more interesting vocal lines which we attribute to the musicality of the language, as opposed to Shakespeare's iambic pentameter.

© meche kroop

Friday, November 10, 2023


Heartbeat Opera Gala Drag Show--"The Golden Cock"

Our beloved Heartbeat Opera has been undergoing major changes for the past couple years.  We are excited about an upcoming Eugene Onegin; they can be expected to put a most original stamp on it, as they usually do. We will withhold judgment until we see/hear it.  But there is never any doubt in our mind about the joyful entertainment provided at their annual drag show.

What we love about them comprises the wildness and originality of the costumes, the imaginative script, the bawdy gay humor, the clever play on words, the excellence of the musical values, and the sneaky topicality.

With Russian operas and Russian singers being cancelled (both literally and figuratively), how completely outrageous it was to do a send up of Rimsky-Korsakov's final opera The Golden Cockerel, composed in 1907 but not performed until after his death. It is rarely produced but six years ago we had the pleasure of seeing it twice! It is the story of an autocratic king who invades an innocent country (!) and gets advice from a bird.  The music is just as glorious as one might expect and the not-so-hidden message was as true today as it was in the early part of the 20th c. and six years ago.

The story was, of course, fractured and splintered to provide opportunities for typical Heartbeat hijinx and double entendres. Rimsky-Korsakov's music received lots of stage time but so did several other Russian composers. Our companion joined me in identifying most of them including Rachmaninoff's "vocalise" and Tatiana's waltz from Eugene Onegin. We also heard some Rossini for good measure.

Musical values are always excellent with Heartbeat Opera. The chamber orchestra comprised Co-Musical Directors Jacob Ashworth (violin) and Daniel Schlosberg (piano) with Angela Shankar playing clarinet and saxophone and Deanne Cirielli enchanting us with her harp. It was impressive that four musicians could create such a full sound, but with Mr. Schlosberg doing the arrangements, we would expect no less.

The singing was exceptional as well with bass John Taylor Ward towering over everyone else. Tenor Elliot Paige is another "regular" that we always look forward to seeing and hearing.  Countertenor Daniel Moody made a fine showing as well. The female voices had less stage time but were also excellent--soprano Ariana Wehr and contralto Sara Couden. Special guest artist John Holiday provided a rare treat as well with his inimitable countertenor

The show was created by  Mr. Ashworth and Nico Krell who also directed. The extravagant costumes were designed by David Quinn. The Master of Ceremonies was Maxim Ibadov. One thing about the annual drag show that impresses us is how well everyone works together; the ensemble feel is unmistakeable. Everyone seems to be having fun and this mood is infectious. The audience was filled with smiling faces.  Yours could be among them if you read this in time.  There will be two shows at Roulette tonight, Friday November 10th. It is well worth a trip to Brooklyn. In these troubled times, there is nothing like gay humor to lift one's spirits!

© meche kroop


Thursday, November 9, 2023


Woo Young Yoon and Alice Chung

Competition is fierce in the opera world.  Too little money, too many talented singers, too few positions. Opera Index is well known for a fair competition, a devoted membership, and generous awards. The selection of winners is highly anticipated and the 2023 winners have just been announced. However, last night's recital celebrated the artistry and versatility of  mezzo-soprano Alice Chung and tenor Woo Young Yoon, winners from last year. Both artists are well known by us and much admired. Watching their respective careers flourishing brings us joy. 

Ms. Chung is a powerhouse performer and has a very special gift for drawing us into her vision no matter what character she is inhabiting; it is far more than a portrayal. One lives through the scene with her and you experience the character just as she does. All of her exemplary technique is used in the service of the character and the scene. Of course, one cannot miss the consistency from one end of the register to the other, nor the scintillating vibrato, the impeccable phrasing, the effective dynamic variation, and the linguistic accuracy.  

We have written before about her performance of a Korean song by Choi Young-Sup entitled "Longing for GeumGang Mountain" and the reason why South Korea's art song tradition is so recent. Rather than repeat it, we urge you Dear Reader to enter Ms. Chung's name in the search bar. Last night the song was performed as a duet with tenor Woo Young Yoon with verses performed alternatively and then in harmony, to lovely effect.

Ms. Chung's songs in Russian were impeccably sung, as noted by our Russian-speaking companion. Rimsky-Korsakov was the first classical composer we were exposed to as a child and we still find his compositions magically colorful. We heard "When golden cornfields sway" and "Elegy" each given heartfelt involvement. An aria from Tchaikosky's Maid of Orleans went directly to the heart.

The artist's facility in French we could judge for ourself. By a strange coincidence, an aria we hadn't heard in years until last night was also on Ms. Chung's program. "Connais-tu le pays" from Ambroise Thomas' Mignon was performed with full attention to the mixed feelings of longing, nostalgia, regret, and hopefulness.

We knew vaguely about an opera written by Leoncavallo derived from the same Henri Murger stories that Puccini spun into the gold of La Bohême. Leoncavallo's version was rapidly eclipsed by Puccini's. Hearing Ms. Chung sing an aria from the Leoncavallo opera gave us the idea that Leoncavalllo's music was not the reason for the opera's disappearance. Reading the libretto written by the composer himself suggests that his storytelling lacked the emotional weight and continuity of the Illica/Giacosa adaptation. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the music and the performance.

What we enjoyed even more was an American song that we have always found trite and saccharine.  Leave it to Ms. Chung to transform "Somewhere  Over the Rainbow" from Harold Arlen's Wizard of Oz into a meaningful and highly personal meditation on wistful hopefulness. We will never hear it the same way again! 

Our very favorite part of the evening was the "Seguidilla" from Bizet's Carmen which we are sure was directed (and very effectively directed) by the artists themselves. It was unusually exciting to watch Carmen work her wiles on the hapless Don Jose, using every trick in the Book of Seduction. Mr.Yoon was equally effective as her victim, resistant at first and eventually succumbing to Carmen's spell.

Mr. Yoon is a fine tenor with an appealing voice and impressive versatility. As a fan of bel canto, we particularly enjoyed his  "A te, o cara", a song about love from Bellini's I Puritani. He was as ardent as a tenor should be, and quite different in performance style from the other characters he portrayed. 

His Rodolfo from Puccini's La Bohême was both shy and expansive as he courts his neighbor Mimi in the opening scene. Mr. Yoon conveyed youthful passion in a manner that older singers cannot. Ask any young man who is trying to impress a desirable young woman with bravado whilst also dealing with fear of rejection!

However, his creation of the character of Alfredo in Act II of Verdi's La Traviata was completely different. Here was a young man who has snatched his prize away from the glamorous life in Paris and has her all to himself out in the country where they are experiencing their newfound love with "new relationship energy". He is deluded into believing that their love will last forever, that she will regain her health, and that his bourgeois father will be won over. That's quite a task for a tenor but was successfully conveyed by Mr. Yoon in "Lungi da lei...de miei bollenti spiriti"

We further enjoyed the passionate "Be My Love" from Brodszky's The Toast of New Orleans and were reminded how much clearer English diction is when sung by people whose first language is not English. There was not a moment during the entire evening when we wished for projected titles.

We noticed some lovely spun-out decrescendi in several pieces which gave us a better picture of Mr. Yoon's artistry than his fortissimi in the upper register which seems to be a thing among young tenors. Perhaps it is the enthusiastic applause from the audience that eggs them on, but we personally prefer the planissimi sections that draw us closer rather than blasting us away.

The excellent accompanist for the evening was Yeontaek Oh, whose gifts were most noticeable to us during a contemporary piece by Jake Heggie, in which the vocal line did not engage us as much as his playing. Had the singing not been so arresting we might have paid him more attention during the remainder of the concert.

© meche kroop

Wednesday, November 8, 2023


 William Hicks, Cameron Pieper, Jason Duika, Dylan Davis, Olivia Manna, and Jacob Beranek

Action for Artists is relatively new on the scene as an institution for supporting young artists with financial grants, educational resources, and mentorship, designed to bring their career aspirations into reality. This goal, as you know Dear Reader, is dear to our heart. This is a time that is particularly difficult for young artists, many of whom lost career momentum due to Covid.

Last night at The National Opera Center they celebrated their second year with a gala benefit concert by presenting their 2023 awards to five worthy recipients: three singers, all accompanied by the excellent William Hicks (Founder and President of AFA), a pianist, and a composer.

Mezzo soprano Olivia Manna (from heaven) enchanted us with her warm  resonant instrument and the finesse with which she employed it. We enjoyed hearing the wide range of her repertory from lied to opera to Broadway. Unlike other opinions we do not perceive Broadway music as different from opera. A well trained voice should be able to do justice to all kinds of song. 

From Ms. Manna's operatic repertoire we heard "O pallida" from Act III of Pietro Mascagni's L'amico Fritz. The gypsy Beppe (a trouser role) tells Fritz about his view of love, both the pain and the pleasure. Most opera lovers have not heard this charming but rarely produced opera but many know the "Cherry Duet". The aria Ms. Manna selected is a great choice for a mezzo and permits varying colors from one verse to the next.

Another selection was also chosen from a rarely hear opera--Ambroise Thomas' Mignon. In "Connais-tu le pays" the eponymous heroine sings of her homeland with sorrow and longing. The aria was sweetly sung.  Given appropriate delicacy was Richard Strauss' "Allerseelen" which was seasonably appropriate since All Soul's Day has just passed. "All the things you are" from Jerome Kern's Very Warm for May is an all out love song and an American classic, sounding extra special sung by a fine operatic voice.

Jason Duika is a hearty full-voiced baritone with uncanny acting ability. We reviewed his performance as Hérode in Massenet's Hérodiade about four years ago and this is what we wrote.  His virile instrument is of fine and full tone and his delivery of "Vision fugitive" was impassioned and moving. Now imagine how his voice has grown in four years! 

In addition to his performance as the self-important Escamillo in "Votre toast" from Bizet's Carmen, he presented two frightening villains. We might call this "many shades of menace". He was scary as Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca, even scarier as Iago reciting his misanthropic creed from Verdi's Otello, and scarier yet in "Eri tu" from Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. Each aria was given a different coloration and Mr. Duika used gesture and facial expression to illuminate each character.

Tenor Dylan Davis also chose a variety of material to demonstrate his versatility. He has the kind of powerful tenor that is beloved by audiences. We thought the arrogant Duke singing "La donna è mobile" from Verdi's Rigoletto was a better choice than the shy Nemorino from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore singing "Una furtiva lagrima" which usually melts our heart but did not on this occasion. Maybe big Verdian voices just don't do "shy".

His expansive singing seemed well suited to the impassioned "Bring him home" from Claude-Michel Schönberg's Les Miserables. To those of you who have heard the show in the original French, you may agree with me that the French is far superior. There is a long story with which we will not bore you about how the 1980 work was loosely "adapted" into the very successful English version seen by most people on Broadway and then (dig this!) re-translated back into French!

"Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Franz Léhar's Das Land des Lächelns was given a similarly expansive treatment. The audience loved it but our personal taste involves less "grandstanding". Methought he held his "money notes" just a couple seconds too long.

Pianist Cameron Pieper opened our eyes to the glories of Bach in "Fantasia and fugue in a minor" but closed our ears with two tortuous pieces by Elliot Carter which had us murmuring inaudibly "Stop, stop, I'll tell where the money is hidden". Mr. Pieper obviously enjoyed exploring the subtleties of these pieces but we did not enjoy the listening.

Finally, we were treated to a video of the Juilliard Symphony performing Jacob Beranek's Pilgrimatic Overture.  It was quite interesting to see the wind instruments picking up the themes which would have been very difficult to see in a live performance.

We wish all five winners of the 1923 Encouragement Awards the successful careers they deserve.

© meche kroop

Sunday, November 5, 2023



Douglas Sills and Kevin Chamberlin in Stephen Sondheim's The Frogs by Master Voices

(photo by Erin Baiano)

In 405 B.C.  the playwright Aristophanes won first prize for his play Frogs in which his hero Dionysos and the slave Xanthius travel to the Underworld to bring back Euripides to fix the problems of Athens, suffering under a lengthy war with Sparta. A debate (agon) between Euripides and Aeschylus persuades Dionysos to bring back the latter instead of the former. The topic is a serious one but handled with a lot of humor, much of it sexual. The frogs would seem to represent the "sheeple" who resist using art to effect political change.

In 1941, Burt Shevelove, a graduate student at Yale University, adapted the play, directed it, and staged it in the university gymnasium. It took three decades for the work to be revised with music by Stephen Sondheim and again be produced by The Yale Repertory Company. Nathan Lane uncovered the script shortly thereafter and began revising and sketching fresh ideas. Sondheim wrote some new songs. The work has had a checkered production history and mixed critical responses. It was last seen at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in 2004.

We personally would go to Hades to bring back Mr. Sondheim whose grasp of character and artistry at setting the English language have not been matched. We are grateful to Ted Sperling, Conductor and Director of Master Voices for presenting a concert version at the Rose Theater. Although there were no sets, Tracy Christensen's costumes went a long way toward creating each character. Nathan Lane took on the role of narrator, bridging gaps between scenes; the actors were universally superb in spite of using scripts in hand. Thank goodness they were not standing at podiums!

As in the original, the bitter pill of political despair is sugar-coated with humor, much of it bawdy. The musical numbers were always engaging and the choreography by Lainie Sakakura was brilliant. Dancers clad in green body suits tumbled and leapt around the stage. All the parts were astutely cast. Of course the massive chorus of voices was superb.

We knew we were in for a treat right from the start with an hilarious scene advising audience members how to behave. True to the original, Dionysos (Douglas Sills) and his slave Xanthias (Kevin Chamberlin)  plan to go to Hades to bring back a playwright whose work could possibly help "Athens" in troubled times. They establish some rather negative opinions of frogs and then consult with Heracles (Marc Kudisch) in a very funny song "Dress Big" in which the god known for his prowess instructs the somewhat effeminate Dionysos how to walk with a swagger and talk tough.

Then there is a very funny scene with Choron (Chuck Cooper) who will take them across the river Styx for a price. There is some THC-fueled humor about cruise lines and their responsibilities, or lack thereof.

Upon arrival, the pair of travelers get to meet the extremely swishy god of the Underworld --Pluto (Peter Bartlett). There is a great deal of humor about how wonderful life is in Hades where no one has to worry about dying because they are already dead. 

Once the pair meet up with George Bernard Shaw (Dylan Baker), the tone gets a bit more serious. Says Dionysos " I want to take him back to earth with me. You see, the world is in such a mess. Everyone lives in fear now. Our leaders have filled us with fear. And that's the way they like us. Frightened and vulnerable. So, they can do as they please. And I just think if Shaw were to write again, he could show us the truth about ourselves and how we live." 

It certainly does appear that Shaw has all the answers embedded in his scathing wit. "Basically, we have two kinds of leaders--ineffectual and corrupt". What will shake up the complacent "frogs" of the world? Says Dionysos about his trip, "Look, I'm no hero. I made my way here through a river of frogs. It wasn't easy. They tried to stop me. The frogs like things the way they are. 'Earth is well enough', they say. 'Let well enough alone.' And I'm afraid more and more people are starting to think the same way."

And then comes the twist.  Shakespeare (Jordan Donica) appears on the scene and the agon begins. Shaw denigrates Shakespeare but Dionysos decides to take The Bard up to earth instead of Shaw. "In order to change things, we need to touch people's hearts as well as their minds. Remind people what's right with them as well as what's wrong with them. If we really want to be heard, the words should be poetic. Bernard... I have decided that you shall stay here in Hades."

What a perfect summation of the role of art in our lives! We personally have been touched by Shaw and Shakespeare, but, above all, by Sondheim.

© meche kroop

Saturday, November 4, 2023


 The fantastic cast of Bye Bye Birdie  

Consider yourself fortunate if you can snag a ticket to the musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie being performed by the Musical Theater Department of Manhattan School of Music. We are far from expert in the field of musical theater; on the few occasions on which we risked attending a Broadway musical, we recall leaving disgruntled by the shallowness of the material and the deafening amplification. Nonetheless, last night we had a huge grin on our face from the overture to the curtain call.

For this delight we credit the extremely talented cast which was supported by an excellent production team, including an orchestra conducted by David Loud, comprising excellent student musicians. We found no mention of them in the program.

The work dates back to 1960 at which time it received many awards and mostly excellent reviews; it ran for two years.  The tuneful music by Charles Strouse worked hand-in-hand with the charming lyrics by Lee Adams. The book by Michael Stewart, with its references to celebrity worship and adults' disdain for the younger generation, seems rather contemporary. A somewhat disguised version of Elvis Presley's induction into the United States Army presented opportunities to satirize these themes.

There are two lead couples and all four artists offered dramatic and musical delights based upon inborn talent, astute direction by Katie Spelman. and a great deal of hard work, the latter of which an audience rarely thinks about.  Those "kids" worked hard and deserved all the applause they received.

We were very impressed by Bella Pacheco Rarick who portrayed Rosie Alvarez, the secretary who does all the work and gets little reward from her boss Albert Peterson (Niko Charney). All she wants is for him to give up the music business and settle down as a schoolteacher with her as his wife. Fat chance she has since Albert is tied to the apron strings of his controlling and manipulative mother; Mrs. Peterson strongly disapproves of Rosie's Latin American heritage and misses no opportunity to insult her. (Did we find this offensive?  Of course not!) This is a period piece and her bigotry is amusing and provokes Rosie's star turn in the number "Spanish Rose" in which she lays it on with a Latino vengeance. We were inspired to learn more about the show and found out that the role was originated by Chita Rivera who must have been a child in 1960.

Mr. Niko is similarly talented as her love object and boss; he has written a hit song and found his life plan derailed by his client's fame. His best number was a song we are sure we have heard before--"Put on a Happy Face". He did a fine job portraying  a man who is pulled in many directions--his love for Rosie, his managerial duties toward the singer named Conrad Birdie, and the outrageous demands of his mother.

The formidable Mrs. Peterson was played by one Jake Koch in high camp, wearing sensible shoes and a fur coat. Peals of laughter greeted her every over-the-top movement. This artist is a real stage animal!

The teenage girl Kim Mac Afee, chosen as a publicity stunt to give the Army-bound Conrad his "last kiss" was portrayed by the adorable Kate Jones who inhabited her role completely. She cannot be much more than 16 years old herself and is close enough to the teen years to sing the satiric "How Lovely to be a Woman" with convincing delusion. She has just gotten "pinned" (received a fraternity pin) by her boyfriend Hugo (Marcus Cruz) who spends the entire show in rivalry with the famous Conrad Birdie. He was also convincing in his portrayal and very funny in his drunk scene.

We loved the Mac Afee family! We marvelled at the young artists' ability to assume roles belonging to different generations. Lauren Fitzgerald was so convincing as Kim's mother that we forgot she was a student. Her grumpy husband was played by Ben Hahn and it was such fun watching him trying to get on camera at the Ed Sullivan Show. Deacon Smith was completely endearing as little brother Randolph walking around in pajamas with feet. This may be the time to mention the costuming by Mieka van der Ploeg which was colorful and very reflective of each performer's character.

The difficult role of Conrad Birdie was played by Jacob D. Dueker who sang "Honestly Sincere" and the vaguely familiar "A Lot of Living to Do" with lots of swagger and a decent recreation of the "scandalous" body movements of Elvis Presley. Unfortunately he seemed a bit miscast, lacking the dangerous bad boy vibes that the role required.

There are, of course, no "small roles" and Maci Terry made the most of her brief scene as the tap dancing Gloria Rasputin enlisted by Albert's mother to lure him away from Rosie. 

All of the ensembles were excellent, especially the teen aged girls in "The Telephone Hour" and the adult chorus joining in for "Kids", another vaguely familiar song. Have we mentioned that these artists, appearing so professional, are all undergraduates?  Astonishing!

We are still smiling several hours later, and we are also thoughtful. Although we detest moving our favorites in the opera canon to the 1950's, we enjoyed seeing a story taking place in that period, so apparently authentically recreated. Who is alive today who remembers the 50's? Our knowledge of this epoch comes from film and TV. The passage of over six decades have wrought so many changes to our culture that this period seems as alien to us as the 18th c. And yet, we find resonance in things that never change from Mozart until today--generational rivalry, romantic jealousy, irrational idolization of public figures, etc.

As we have often averred, Broadway musicals are the true inheritors of the operatic tradition. Fie on boring prosy libretti and tuneless academic music! The public knows what they like. A good laugh, a good cry, relatable characters, and tunes you can hum.  Bring 'em on!

© meche kroop