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, April 28, 2024


 Myra Huang and Fleur Barron

Our happiest moments come from witnessing the growth of young artists that we admired as students. Often their career development takes them far from New York City and there is a considerable interlude during which we lose track of them. Such was the case with the truly gifted mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron. It has been at least ten years since we heard her sing in a master class at Manhattan School of Music, led by Martina Arroyo and Maestro Jorge Parodi.

Ms. Barron sang a duet from one of our favorite zarzuelas --Luisa Fernanda, and Mo. Parodi gave her a few pointers in Spanish diction. What we noticed about this lovely Singaporean-British mezzo-soprano was the expressiveness found in her face as well as her voice. We are happy to report that she continues to make excellent use of these assets and created a recital last night at the 92nd Street Y that impressed us with its directness and connection with the audience.

Buttenweiser Hall was the perfectly sized venue for a recital of this nature, and one can see from the photo above that the artist dressed in stylish informality that served to amplify the accessible nature of her performance. What made this important was that she took the audience on a journey "home" with many songs that were difficult in nature.

However, let us begin with the most accessible, Modest Mussorgsky's Nursery Songs. They were composed in two cycles between 1868 and 1872. The first cycle In the Nursery comprises five songs, of which we heard four. The second cycle At the Dacha comprises four songs, of which we heard one. Sadly the last two songs have been lost. We hope some day they will show up somewhere because these songs are touchingly effective at limning the qualities of childhood.

They also offer major opportunities for the singer to assume various roles and adopt several moods-- the insistence upon storytelling,  the enthusiasm for physical activity, the evasion of responsibility for accidents, the tenderness toward dolls, and the gravity of bedtime prayers. We always love hearing this cycle but never have we heard the songs performed with such dramatic effectiveness. Ms. Barron easily adopted the persona of the child in its various moods and also that of the nurse and mother. The expressiveness of her voice was matched by the expressiveness of her face. This, for us, was the highlight of the recital.

We also enjoyed the songs of Charles Trenet, affirming our opinion that, sung without amplification, cabaret songs are raised to the level of "art song". If Steven Blier has not yet discovered this treasure trove, he probably will in the future! In "Si vous aimiez", the composer/lyricist fancies himself unique because he experiences deeper joy and suffering than "the other" does. In "Boum!" the lyrics are full of onomatopoeticisms and reminded us of a German cabaret song in which the heart beats to a "boum"-- the title of which we cannot recall. If you, Dear Reader, know the one we are thinking of, please leave a comment below.

Although contemporary music is not our favorite, we found much to like about Huang Ruo's "Fisherman's Sonnet" which began with rippling effects in the piano and featured expressive dynamic variation.  The piano wa similarly interesting in Chen Yi's "Know You How Many Petals Falling". We love the sound of Mandarin, which is musical even when spoken. The gentle folksong "Northeast Lullaby" was particularly lovely and involved a humming passage. 

Alex Ho's post modern piece "Four miniatures for our littler selves" involved what seemed to be a prepared piano with Ms. Barron sticking her head underneath the raised lid and making odd sounds. Fortunately she prepared the audience beforehand. We found it an original curiosity of limited artistic value.

However, this reminds us to mention Ms. Barron's incredible audience rapport, enhanced by a conversational naturalism. We were less impressed by the audience who, sheeplike, followed the lead of an individual who found it necessary to applaud at inopportune times. Audiences should learn to watch the body language of the singer which generally indicates a stopping point. Otherwise, the mood is broken and the beginning of the next song is obliterated.

We would also like to applaud the excellent collaborative work of Myra Huang. How interesting that we wrote about her also about ten years ago when she accompanied Susana Phillips at a George London Foundation recital at The Morgan Library. We still recall her performance of the "Meditation" from Massenet's Thaïs, in duet with a violin. We have always admired her consummate collaborative skills. Her career has taken off as successfully as Ms. Barron's and she is now part of the Lindemann Program and is also on the Collaborative Piano faculty at Manhattan School of Music.

There were other riches on this very personal program, including a pair of songs by Brahms to texts by Klaus Groth about homesickness, which set the tone for this program about "home". One might speculate on the meaning of this subject to an artist who sings all over the world. We have often wondered if they get homesick!

© meche kroop

Saturday, April 27, 2024


"House of Mad'moiselle" performed by Ballet Hispanico
(photo by Benjamin Rivera)

We are a Swan Lake/Giselle kind of balletomane; but we like to explore art forms that are new to us. Our attempts to broaden our horizons in the opera world have been disappointing, as have our attempts to appreciate modern ballet--until last night, when we attended a fine program by Ballet Hispanico at the New York City Center. Instead of the boring herky-jerky movements reminiscent of a health club exercise class which we deplored at our last excursion into the world of dance, we enjoyed a stimulating, colorful, and ultimately satisfying evening.

Although Ballet Hispanico has been around for over a half century, we have not seen them in the past 15 years since Cuban-born Eduardo Vilaro took over as Artistic Director. If we saw their performances before his reign, we cannot recall them. The company has become a major force on the New York cultural scene and has danced all over the world. 

Their mission is to foster the work of Latinx choreographers (very much in line with our mission of encouraging young Latinx opera singers) and to provide excellent training for dancers. If we take last night's performance as evidence, they have definitely achieved their goal. The dancers seem to be bursting with energy, alive with enthusiasm, and superbly disciplined, operating successfully as a unit. Artistic values were high with interesting usage of pendant lights lowered from above. Upstage scrims were given intense washes of color.

It was an interesting experience to watch abstract dances. We are reminded of abstract art which may mean something quite different to each viewer and also something different from what the painter had in mind. It is within our nature to create stories; when the curtain rose on Mr. Vilaro's "Buscando a Juan" the two male dancers, under swinging hanging lights, seemed to be a creator and a robot who was manipulated to achieve humanistic movement. But then the robot moved freely and was not only accepted by a group of dancers but elected to a leadership position. Was this even close to what the choreographer had in mind? We have no idea but we enjoyed our fantasy.

The sculptural movement of the dancers was effective in a manner that we have not seen since a long ago performance by Lars Lubovich. There was an organic flow to the movements that we found immensely satisfying.

However, it was the second piece on the program that delighted us the most.  It was wacky, weird, and wonderful. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "House of Mad'moiselle" involved a very tall muscular "woman" in platform boots (Adam Dario Morales) portraying a superstar surrounded by adoring fans, all of whom wore bright fluorescent scarlet wigs and tucked matching fluffy scarves into their costumes (conceived by the choreographer) that looked like wagging tails as they moved.  And moved, they did! 

There was a moment when the "superstar" was alone on the stage and crouched down in a posture of despair and our thoughts meandered down the speculative path that so-called celebrities are all about "show" and inwardly are lonely sad people.

The third piece on the program was instantly forgettable.  "18 +1", choreographed by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, left no impression. Ghabriello Fernando's costumes were just drab. We wished that the program order had been different. "House of Mad'moiselle" would have sent us out the door dancing and smiling. Nonetheless, the evening was a worthwhile "walk on the wild side".

© meche kroop

Friday, April 26, 2024


 Curtain Call for La Rondine at Manhattan School of Music

Puccini's 1917 opera La Rondine is about falling in love in a moment; we fell in love with the work a couple minutes after Maestro Marcello Cormio raised his baton. There is no doubt that Mo. Cormio was completely in touch with Puccini's lavish melodies as well as the master's use of dance rhythms. As a matter of fact he appeared to be dancing on the podium and his obvious enthusiasm for the work was communicated to the student orchestra which responded in a manner that a professional orchestra might envy.

Puccini appears to have rewritten many of his operas; we believe we have seen several versions of his Madama Butterfly and we are rather opinionated about our favorite. That he also wrote three versions of La Rondine was unknown to us until we did some reading.  Director Katherine M. Carter wisely chose the first version in which our heroine Magda has agency. A century later, we are in a position to admire a woman who weighs her options, thinks about the future with a clear eye and makes her own decisions. We will not give away the ending here because we hope you will go and see for yourself, since there are several more performances this weekend.

It might have been tempting for a self-serving director to have moved the plot to contemporary times but we are very glad that Ms. Carter did not. It just doesn't ring true to tell a story about a "kept woman" who feels like an outcast, not when females college students have no shame about becoming "sex workers".

One could make a case for La Rondine being considered an operetta due to its lively tunes, its use of tropes familiar to us from Johann Strauss Jr.'s Die Fledermaus and its sharing of tunefulness with the operettas of Victor Herbert. However, we make no such distinction between opera and operetta. It is simply gorgeous music lending gravity to a story that resonates with us. Who has not regretted fleeing from a tempting situation in their youth, then hoping to recreate that situation years later. One recognizes that one cannot put one's foot in the same river twice. The river of time flows on and cannot be stopped.

The lovely Magda, so convincingly portrayed by the silver-voiced soprano Seolbin Oh, occupies a grand apartment, presumably paid for by her "patron" Rambaldo (the fine baritone Blake Stevenson who somehow manages to look and act like an older man) who provides her with costly gifts. She has a sassy maid named Lisette (the funny Sanne Vleugels) who thinks nothing of purloining her mistress' clothes for a night on the town. She has charming friends--Yvette (Abigail Williams), Bianca (Hailey Hye-In Ji) and Suzy (Grace Verbic)-- gorgeously costumed by Rodrigo Muñoz--who gossip about the newest trends in romance. Attending her salon is the poet Prunier (the sweet voiced tenor SeongBeom Choi) who gets to sing the opera's most famous aria "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" which becomes a duet when Magda adds her verse.

A young man arrives (as one does in La Traviata) who is the son of a friend of Rambaldo; the women fuss over Ruggero (tenor Fernando Silva-Gorbea)  and recommend that he spend his first night in Paris at Bullier's. Everyone leaves and Magda, dreaming of a missed opportunity of her youth, decides to go to the same nightclub. Of course, she winds up sitting with Ruggero. Of course they fall in love. Of course Lisette and Prunier show up. Of course Rambaldo also shows up.  And Magda breaks off her relationship with him.

As in Act II of La Traviata, the couple spend an idyllic time in the country and get to sing a beautiful love duet.  However, Ruggero's father does not show up to chastise him. On the other hand, his mother wants to welcome Magda (now calling herself Paulette) to the family and is anticipating a grandchild. And this is where our storytelling ends. You will have to see what happens for yourself.

You will also have to make up your own mind Dear Reader, whether this is a comedy or a tragedy. For us it was neither, rather a bittersweet tale that reminds us that we do not always get what we want and that every event in our lives has its own time and place. Thus, the resonance that makes this work of art meaningful and relatable. We learned (thanks, Wikipedia) that in 1995, one of those self-important directors of Eurotrash created a version in which Magda drowns herself at the end! This version was picked up by the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera. We are so happy that Manhattan School of Music and Ms. Carter did not burden this beautiful work with a toxic ending. One wants to leave this very human story with a wry smile, not sobbing in grief. We can save our sobs for Butterfly, Violetta, and Mimi.

We would like to give a shout to the many members of the Ensemble who provided such a lively and believable atmosphere to the scene at Bullier's with choreography by Stephanie Sutherland. Chorus Master Jackson McKinnon is to be praised as is set designer Brendan Gonzales Boston who created a glamorous Parisian salon as well as a stunning red nightclub.

© meche kroop

Thursday, April 25, 2024


 Curtain call at Juilliard for Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito

What sort of work might please a newly crowned Emperor in the late 18th c.? How about a tale of a beloved magnanimous Emperor from Ancient Rome named Titus? An old libretto by Metastasio was tailored to meet the demands of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by one Caterino Mazzolà, after Antonio Salieri repeatedly declined the commission for a work to celebrate the coronation of   Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Bohemia. It is believed that Mozart rose to the occasion and composed the opera in 18 days, possibly beginning his labors on the 4 day coach trip from Vienna to Prague.

The story is a simple one and quite direct. Newly installed  Emperor Tito (tenor Andrew Turner). is beloved by his friends, two noblemen named Sesto (mezzo-soprano Ruby Dibble) and Annio (mezzo-soprano Lucy Joy Altus), but not so beloved by the daughter of the former deposed ruler named Vitellia (soprano Evelyn Saavedra) a vengeful and narcissistic character. She is furious not only because of her father's fate, but also because she wants to be Empress and Tito has preferred others. She manipulates Sesto, who is madly in love with her, into murdering Tito.

Meanwhile, Sesto's sister Servillia (soprano Shelén Hughes) is so in love with Annio that she refuses Tito's proposal of marriage in a confession that is so brave that Tito can do nothing but admire her honesty.

This is indeed a family drama writ large on the political stage. The entire point is that after the Senate condemns the guilty Sesto for his failed assassination attempt, Tito forgives all and tears up the death warrant. The ambivalent confusion of Sesto was extremely well limned. What a weak man won't do for love (lust)!  The one psychological dynamic that didn't read true is the sudden burst of honesty on the part of Vitellia who confesses her role in instigating the assassination plot. We must say that Ms. Saavedra's acting was persuasive in spite of the unrealistic plot turn.

This opera is not nearly as famous as the three operas Mozart wrote with Da Ponte and we can see why. Although the music is as fine as Mozart every wrote, the plot lacks the entertainment value of Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovani, and Cosi fan tutti, all of which are comedies with serious messages. La Clemenza di Tito is an opera seria, the last of a dying breed. Perhaps if the opera were heard as often as the other three, or Zauberflöte, the melodies might lodge in our ear and provide a more rewarding experience. The famous duet "Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio" is perhaps the most famous and heard often in recital. Last night it was given a beautiful performance by Ms. Saavedra and Ms. Dibble.

Ms. Hughes had her chance to shine in "S'altro che lagrime" in Act II, and Sesto's noble aria of forgiveness was handsomely performed by Mr. Turner. Ms. Altus had a fine aria in "Torna di Tito a lato" demonstrating real care for Sesto's fate.  As they say, there are no small roles and baritone Shavon Lloyd's appearance in the role of Publio was just fine.

Not only was the singing of excellent quality but the Juilliard Orchestra gave their customary exemplary performance under the baton of Maestro Nimrod David Pfeffer. In spite of the fact that the orchestra was not in its usual sunken position, Mo. Pfeffer controlled the dynamics so effectively that there was not a single instance in which a singer was drowned out. We particularly enjoyed the passages in which the Bass Clarinet wove around the vocal line.

Stephen Wadsworth's direction made the most of a mostly static plot. A decision had been made to dress the artists in late 18th c. garb. We have no idea what the singers wore when the opera made its premiere in 1791. We would have preferred to see it in togas but were relieved that it was not performed in contemporary clothing. The distancing to an earlier period allowed us draw our own contrast with contemporary times in which a ruler might pardon those guilty of crimes for reasons which we find cynical--like political advantage, whereas Tito pardons out of love and magnanimity.

Charlie Corcoran's scenic design was simple and effective. A ramp leading up from ground level to an upstairs door and a simply demarcated area at ground level. The entire stage was surrounded by a frame.

Sara Jean Tosetti's costumes were effective with the two female character dressed in a manner that reflected their very different character. Costumes for the breeches roles were convincing and Tito looked suitably imperial.

Juilliard Vocal Arts has once again filled a major gap in New York City's cultural landscape, providing a most satisfying experience to the audience and valuable performance opportunities for students. Before we end we would like to commend Chorus Master John Arida for melding many voices into an exceptional unit, notable for clear diction. This, Dear Reader, is a rare achievement.

© meche kroop

Sunday, April 21, 2024

MORTE (more or less)


Jorell Williams, Melissa Harvey, Maestro Neal Goren, Laurie Rubin, and Joshua Dennis

In the first scene of Nadia Boulanger's only opera La Ville Morte, one of the characters saw something he couldn't describe. That is exactly how we feel about the performance of said opera last night at The NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. As regular readers already know, we approach every opera  without reading advance materials. We have our very own criterion; let the work speak for itself. We would be surprised to find anyone in the decent sized audience who could have understood what happened onstage.

Upon returning home, we consulted Wikipedia (faut de mieux). "The story follows the lives and loves of an archeologist, Léonard, his sister Hebé, Alexandre, a colleague, and his wife Anne, amidst the ruins of Mycenae." 

It took us awhile to figure out how the characters were related. Hebé (performed by the fine soprano Melissa Harvey seems to have an affectionate relationship with Anne (played by the equally fine mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin). Two men arrive separately. One is the fine tenor Joshua Dennis (whom we have written about many times since he launched his career at the Santa Fe Opera), and the other is baritone Jorell Williams (whom we have also written about many times in the past dozen years).  The relationships described in Wikipedia took some time to figure out.

The libretto was based on a play written by Gabriele D'Annunzio. The story is as obscure as that of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and if you are a fan of the Symbolist movement you may enjoy that sort of non-storytelling but we do not.

Still, Nadia Boulanger was a major star in the musical firmament, responsible for teaching many other composers, and this is the only opera she wrote. She wrote it with her mentor (and possibly lover) Raoul Pugno in the early years of the 20th c. but its performance was prevented by the outbreak of World War II. The score was lost and had to be reconstructed. Unfortunately, the orchestrator neglected to include a harp. Other than that we heard some really beautiful passages for the winds and something interesting going on in the string section of the chamber orchestra presided over by Maestro Neal Goren, so well remembered for his Gotham Chamber Opera. 

We recall spending many interesting evenings with Gotham Chamber Opera. Some we loved (Charpentier's Le descent d'Orphée aux enfers), Montsalvatge's El Gato con Botas, and a Martinú comedy called The Bridge) and a few we didn't relate to. We were quite disappointed when GCO folded and were particularly happy to witness Maestro Goren's conducting once more.

In sum, Dear Reader, the orchestral music was well worth hearing, even if it wasn't exactly what the composers wrote; we enjoyed hearing two male singers with whom we have a long history; we were pleased to be introduced to two female singers who were unknown to us. So, the evening was not a total loss. However, we and our two musician friends left puzzled and unsatisfied. That the work received significant applause (and was well received in Athens when performed by the Greek National Opera) did not make us any happier.

A word about the direction by Robin Guarino, whose interpretation of Haydn's Orlando Paladino we enjoyed about ten years ago--we think she did the best with a non-story and inscrutable characters whose lines were not those of real people. Andromache Chalfant's set comprised a rather bare room with a single chair, a room in the form of a box that was elevated and reached by a ladder and a metal staircase. In front of this at ground level were reams of white fabric meant to represent a few different elements. Also there was a table with gold artifacts, puzzling until we read in Wikipedia that the male characters were archaeologists. Jessica Drayton's projection design comprised some abstract motifs which added to the inscrutability. Candice Donnelly's costume design was nondescript.

© meche kroop

Thursday, April 18, 2024


 Master of Ceremonies Kim David Smith with cast of Tiergarten
(photo by Kevin Condon)

Death of Classical never ceases to amaze us. It might be the intimate candle-lit concerts at The Crypt or the intimate concerts in a mausoleum at Greenwood Cemetery. Last night's extravaganza was anything but intimate. It seems as if all of New York (or at least all of arts-loving New York) had packed into the grand hall of St. Mary's on the Lower East Side for an extravaganza created, written, and directed by the multipotentialite Andrew Ousley, a virtual fountain of original ideas.

The serious starting point for this evening of fun was Mr. Ousley's fascination with turning points in human history. Thus, we were taken from Weimar Berlin backwards through World War I, the American Revolution, the Salem Witch Trials, the Fall of the Roman Empire, and all the way to Adam and Eve. Each turning point was brought to life by song and/or dance accompanied by The Grand Street Stompers.

Our tour guide through history was Kim David Smith, the Australian cabaret star who has won the hearts of New Yorkers. We have written about his compelling act a number of times and always hope he will sing William Bolcom's "Black Max". Mr. Smith oozes a rare combination of danger, sex appeal, and humor with a sly wink. Although we would not hear "Black Max" last night, we very much enjoyed his performance of "Pirate Jenny" from Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht's Threepenny Opera, illustrated by shadow imagery  (created by Foreshadow Puppetry). Similarly, we enjoyed his performance of "The Alabama Song" from the same team's operetta The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Aside from Mr. Smith's prodigious talent, we were quite taken with his costuming (Fay Leshner) and uncredited make-up,  including red sequined lips.

We think of Death of Classical as Rebirth of Classical. Rebirths always assume new forms. Tiergarten contained multitudes. That is, there was entertainment for just about everyone. This particular opera lover delighted in a riveting performance of Azucena's aria from Verdi's Il Trovatore performed by Melina Jaharis. The tender duet from Monteverdi's L’incoronazione di Poppea was given a fine performance by Ariadne Greif as Poppea and Luke Elmer as Nerone, a performance that was romantic and sensual.

Amara Granderson gave a stirring performance of "Strange Fruit"  a song written and composed by Abel Meeropol (under his pseudonym Lewis Allan) and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939, and subsequently by many other famous artists. If we are not mistaken,  Mr. Smith himself sang it some time ago.   Aaron Reeder put his heart and soul into the oft recorded spiritual "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord".

We were so taken by Mr. Smith's performance of "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" written by Scottish-born Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle in 1971, that we were compelled to read and re-read the lyrics. We defy anyone to read the anti-war lyrics (referencing Gallipoli in World War I) without weeping.

Fortunately the evening came to a close with the somewhat hopeful "Lost in the Stars" which actually comes from a tragic musical with book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson and music by Kurt Weill, based on the very sad novel Cry, the Beloved Country  by Alan Paton. 

If Mr. Ousley intended for us to enjoy the entertainment, and then to go home and think about the message, he certainly succeeded!

© meche kroop

Wednesday, April 10, 2024



The cast of Viktor Ullman's Der Kaiser Von Atlantis

Citizens of the United States are prone to taking much for granted. Among the many rights and privileges we possess, one of the most important is that of freedom of artistic expression. With a few exceptions, like desecrating the flag or saying scurrilous things about minorities, artists are free to hold a mirror up to society and to show us what we tend to avoid or deny. Fascist dictators (is that redundant?) exert total control over music, art, and theater to present an idealized and dishonest view of society. Those that expose the lies are silenced, imprisoned, or killed.

 Viktor Ullman's opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, was composed in 1943 in the Nazi showcase concentration camp Terezin, with libretto by Peter Kien.  The opera was seen in rehearsal after which both men were hustled off to Auschwitz and tragically exterminated.  The opera has been produced in Europe but has been rather neglected in New York with the exception of a production by Opera Moderne in 2012 and one in 2015 by Juilliard Opera Theater.

The tragic circumstances of two talented lives cut short lends import to a work that easily stands on its own.  For this, we thank Ullman's fellow prisoners who managed to rescue the work when Terezin was liberated as well as the spiritualist who purportedly communicated with Ullman's ghost in finishing the instrumentation!  For bringing the work to life this week  we thank Manhattan School of Music Graduate Opera Theatre.

Now, what about the work itself?   Ullman's music is at times rather jazzy, referencing composers of many periods. Although we have heard it scored for and played by 13 instrumentalists, including a saxophone, a banjo and a harmonium, we heard it performed last night by two pianists (Eric Sedgwick and Anya Gershtein) and a percussionist (Tarun Bellur).  Under the musical direction of Djordje Nesic, it never sounded 
boring or "academic".   

It's a one act piece of great cynicism which makes one think of Brecht and Weill.
The story is an ironic one in which the Kaiser (a stand-in for Hitler) tries to co-opt Death which results in Death taking a holiday.  No one dies.  The world is filled with the walking dead.  A better image for prisoners in a concentration camp could not be imagined!  In the middle of this, a soldier and a girl find love.  At the end, Death takes the life of the Kaiser.

With great appreciation for the direction of John de los Santos assisted by Daniel Isengart, we were not forced to make the obvious connection with the threat of a would-be dictator in our own midst, nor was the point driven home by having the Kaiser sport a Hitlerian mustache. Nor were the subjects wearing striped pajamas.  The audience was wisely left to make their own connections. This always draws us into the work whereas overly explicit references or attempts to make a work "relevant" tend to push us away.

The cast was uniformly excellent. Kaiser Overall was played by Gregory Gropper whilst the role of Death was performed by Donghoon Kang who recently received a well-deserved major award from Opera Index. The role of Der Lautsprecher, the Kaiser's mouthpiece, was well performed by Brian Linares and the part of Der Trommler was taken by Morena Galán, whose undergraduate work at Mannes College of Music we followed with great interest. 

There was a moving scene with more lyrical music  performed by Samantha Noonan and Scott Rubén La Marca (recently seen as the fickle Count Belfiore when the MSM Graduate Opera Theater produced Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera).  Both begin as enemy soldiers trying to kill each other; but since Death was taking a holiday, they wind up loving each other--an optimistic note in a dark story.

Also remembered from La Finta Giardiniera was Victoria Magnusson who excelled as Harlequin, much as she won us over in the role of Serpetta in the Mozart. Rounding out the production was Margaux Frohlich who did an independent study project (with Benjamin Sokol) on the artists, actors, and musicians who were interred at Terezin. We believe it was she who gave a short speech at the conclusion of the opera about her ancestors who were victims of Nazi brutality.  As if the work was not sufficiently powerful!

What word could we use to describe our experience? "Entertained" is far too light-hearted. It might be more accurate to say that we were shaken and driven to think about the many places in the world today, some in our very own hemisphere, where dictators manage to enslave a populace. It doesn't matter whether we call their regimes "Fascist" or "Communist" or "Religious Fundamentalist"; they all have the same goal of concentration of power in the person of a sociopath with the result that the people suffer. Let us not think that we are immune. Democracy must be fought for to be won and vigorously supported to be maintained.

Should you be fortunate enough to find a ticket for tonight's performance, do not fail to read the historical background provided by Heather O'Donovan's essay.

© meche kroop

Saturday, April 6, 2024


Philip Stoddard and Katherine Henley

(photo by Russ Rowland) 


                Katherine Henley and Claire Leyden

                 (photo by Russ Rowland). 


How interesting that our companion for the evening (an opera singer) came up with the same thought as we did at the conclusion of Heartbeat Opera's production of The Extinctionist. "This would have made a great play!" Upon return home we took a look at the program for the first time, only to learn that the work was adapted from a play by Amanda Quaid!  She wrote the libretto for this work, which is the first commission ever made by this risk-taking company.

There seemed to be two interwoven themes at play. One was a woman's fear of bringing a child into a dying world and the other theme being marital discord over the issue of starting a family. Fortunately, the play is not polemic and leaves the audience to decide for themselves. Good theater makes us think. We have heard that art is a mirror that gets us to see ourselves plainly.

Th woman in the story is well performed by Katherine Henly and her ambivalence about pregnancy resulted in palpable anguish. That she is the only character who feels threatened by catastrophic global warming makes us focus on her dilemma. On the one hand, a potential child comes to her in her dreams and we learn that she and her best friend, winningly played by Claire Leyden, had long planned to get pregnant at the same time (as did two sisters of our acquaintance). On the other hand, she is terrified by what she alone perceives as the end of the world as we know it.

A meeting between the two women had our main character shocked and distanced by her friend's rapture at being pregnant. "How could anyone bring a child into the dying world?"--a thought we ourself have shared.

The woman and her husband had been trying to achieve pregnancy for some time and one gathers that they may have married believing that they both wanted the same thing. The husband, ( played by Philip Stoddard) is not exactly sympathetic.

The most awkward scene we have ever seen onstage was the woman being given a pelvic exam by her gynecologist and later given a diagnosis which we will not reveal. We do wish the production team had consulted  a genuine doctor as we found a couple inaccuracies in the dialogue and action; but perhaps the scenes with the physician (played by Eliam Ramos) were meant to be the woman's perception, rather than reality.

The work was well directed by Shade Ghaheri and Kate Noll's scenic design was stunning.  The couple's bedroom was tasteful and modern, indicating that they were financially comfortable. It occupied one side of the wide stage whilst the other side served at times as a living area and at others as a gynecologists examining room. Bare trees and dying plants were scattered about the stage.  Reza Behjat's lighting design subtly contributed to the mood of each scene  Projection design by Camilla Tassi was apt, as is seldom the case. Scenes of weather disasters served to remind us what stirred the woman's anxiety. Costume design by Haydee Zelideth and Asa Benally was apt. The child puppet, created by Afsaneh Aayani, was adorable.

So, Dear Reader, as drama it worked.  But, and this is a big but, this was billed as an opera. Was the music good? Yes, it was. Dan Schlosberg's original composition for piano, violin, viola, electric guitar and percussion would make an excellent curtain raiser on any symphonic program. 

Although the instrumentals served to heighten the mood, the vocal lines were entirely unmusical. We wondered how the cast managed to learn their parts. And to sing with such excellent diction! This is a common feature of contemporary operas and the reason that they are rarely seen a second time. We want to leave the opera humming a melody.  Our brains are programmed to want this!

It is likely that some of you, Dear Reader, will disagree with us and that is fine. We all attend live events for different reasons. We would just as soon have seen the play.

© meche kroop

Friday, April 5, 2024



Sara Zerilli, Charlotte Jakobs, Chun-Wei Kang, Ariana Troxell-Layton, Jennifer Robinson, A. Scott Parry, Vincenzo Fiorito, Brandon Pencheff-Martin, and Jacob Soulliere

We have long thought that the best opera composers would be former-singers. With their knowledge of the voice and how it is best utilized, they would know how to highlight the singers' gifts and how not to write music that is awkward and difficult to sing.

Proof of the proverbial pudding could be found at last night's production by Manhattan School of Music Undergraduate Opera Theatre, a performance of Pauline Viardot's one-hour take on the familiar fairy tale, a pure Gallic bonbon, written to be performed in her home by her very own students. For once, the Director's Notes taught us something, instead of the usual justifications for the director's distortion of the given work. 

This one hour opera was written in the mid 1860's  and performed in the early 20th c.  by Viardot's  students when she was rather advanced in years, having retired from the stage. None of the sadistic parts of the Perrault fairytale were in evidence, nor any of the Disneyfied padding. This was a simple story of a neglected young woman whose good heart wins the affection of a prince, even though she doesn't know his identity. And it's also the story of a grasping family that has scapegoated her. Her kindness wins out in the end.

We had the thought that Ms. Viardot wished to exemplify the values of the French Revolution (Liberté, égalité, fraternité) as well as the Christian values of charity and humility.  Only Marie (splendidly sung by Ariana Troxell-Layton who colored her fine soprano instrument  with sweetness) has compassion for the beggar who comes to the door. He is, of course, the Prince in disguise; the role was well acted and admirably sung by Vincenzo Fiorito.

In contrast, the two step-sisters were portrayed as entitled "Karens", not particularly evil, just self-centered and grasping. Soprano Charlotte Jakobs as Maguelonne and mezzo-soprano Sara Zerilli as Armelinde made the most of their roles, employing facial expression and body movement to tell us everything we needed to know about their characters. 

Soprano Jennifer Robinson was everything one could hope for in the role of Marie's Fairy Godmother, demonstrating a stratospheric coloratura instrument of crystalline purity which she colored with benevolence. The scene between Marie and La Fée delighted us; hearing two such fine sopranos gave us hope for the future of opera.

Similarly, the tender duet when Marie and Le Prince fall in love was melodic and emotionally touching.

Marie's stepfather was portrayed as a former dishonest merchant who has risen in status to that of Baron Pictordu. We did not quite catch how that was accomplished but there was a reference in the libretto that must have been a secret joke in Ms. Viardot's circle. His part was well performed by baritone Jacob Soulliere and the role of the Royal Chamberlain, who gets to be Prince for a Day, was performed by tenor Brandon Pencheff-Martin.

We were delighted, not only by the fine youthful voices, but also by the staging. Director A. Scott Parry had the audience laughing when Marie, instructed by La Fée to produce a pumpkin, struggled to carry it; it was thrown out the window and its conversion into a coach was suggested by sound effects, allowing the audience to use their imagination. When instructed to produce some mice, Marie distastefully produces a couple mouse traps with the requisite presumably dead mice (more laughter) which were also thrown out of the window to become horses. Isn't imagination wonderful!

The set was minimalistic as were the costumes. Everyone wore black  with some simple accessorizing like The Baron's bathrobe and La Fée's scarf given to Marie to magically create a gown.

Four years ago we attended this precious jewel of an opera presented by City Lyric Opera with a chamber orchestra. We remember loving the instrumentation but did not miss it last night due to the fine pianism of Music Director Chun-Wei Kang. We would also like to throw a bouquet to Elsa Quéron who coached the French diction. It is remarkable that we understood the language even at the highest register!  Now that's something unusual! Still, projected titles were on hand for those who do not speak French.

In sum it was so fine that we would happily see it again tonight but last night was the last performance.  We cannot believe that these were undergraduates!

© meche kroop

Thursday, April 4, 2024


Jiwon Park, Luna Seongeun Park, and Zhedong Ren

There is something so special about a vocal graduation recital. The young artists get to show off everything they have learned at the conservatory.  Generally, several languages are included as well as a variety of composers and styles. Last night, a sizable audience braved the storm to celebrate with the lovely soprano Luna Seongeun Park who is receiving her Master in Music degree from Mannes College of Music.  She chose well among her colleagues to join the celebration. There was excellent collaborative pianist Jiwon Park, violinist Joseph Jin who joined her for some charming Korean songs, and tenor Zhedong Ren who took the role of the seductive Duke in a duet from Verdi's Rigoletto.

But it was Ms. Park who was the star and centerpiece of the evening. Her tutelage at Mannes  (under the expert guidance of master teacher Arthur Levy) is coming to an end.  But just look at what this lovely young lady has in store. She has already been accepted at Juilliard Vocal Arts as a candidate for an Artists Diploma. She will be singing this summer at the Verbier Festival.  She has received many awards, including a substantial one from Opera Index.

The recital was not just an exciting event for Ms. Park and her parents, who flew in from Korea for the occasion. It was an artistic success and a worthwhile reward for those who braved the inclement weather. She opened with a trio of songs by Richard Strauss which well suited her brilliant soprano instrument. She tossed off the challenging notes at the upper register with abandon. Well, that was the effect, although we know how much serious study it involved. 

"Der Pokal" was performed with bright ringing tone and all of the excitement of a festive toast. In contrast, "Glückes genug" was given a gentle romantic coloring. Our favorite was "Allerseelen" which, when well sung, as it was, fills us with a sweet melancholy. Ms. Park seemed to caress the initial consonants to great effect and employed dynamic variation to enhance the mood. It also offered the pianist a gorgeous introduction.

The songs of Clara Schumann should appear on more programs and we were glad to hear three of them. In "Die stille Lotosblume" she seemed to be completely immersed in the imagery of the song and we wondered if it were one of her favorites.

We have never seen Dominick Argento's opera Postcard from Morocco and, having read about it, probably never will. However, as a stand alone piece, "Lady with a Hand Mirror" offered Ms. Park an opportunity to create a humorous character and to use a very fine trill in the process.  We could envision this as a great encore piece.

Quatre chansons de jeunesse by Debussy reminded us of Impressionism combined with Surrealism. "Pantomime" was given a playful twist.  "Clair de lune" involved some impressive staccato passages. "Pierrot" gave the pianist an opportunity to play a familiar melody and gave the singer a lovely vocalise. We enjoyed the ecstatic "Apparition".

Violinist Joseph Jin joined the pair onstage for two sweet Korean art songs that were filled with tender plaintive melodies and produced the emotional state of sehnsucht, best translated perhaps as longing. The Korean language certainly sings beautifully, even if one doesn't understand the words. We suspect the composer Wonju Lee is contemporary because, as we have learned from other Korean singers, the tradition of art songs did not begin until after the Japanese occupation.

The final piece on the program was the Act I duet between the seductive Duke (sung by tenor Zhedong Ren) and the lovestruck Gilda. Mr. Ren's voice harmonized beautifully with Ms. Park's once he overcame her astonishment at his unexpected appearance and some shy reluctance. We enjoyed this duet so much and we wished Ms. Park had continued on with the "Caro nome". Well, that leaves us something to look forward to!

Of course, an encore was demanded by the audience and it was another lovely Korean song with the typical accessible melody, beautifully sung and accompanied by some stirring arpeggi in the piano. A fine ending to a lovely recital!

© meche kroop

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

EUGENE ONEGIN (the Cliff Notes)

 Edwin Joseph and Emily Margevich
(photo by Russ Rowland)

Last night at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, we attended the premiere of Tchaikovsky's heartbreaking opera Eugene Onegin, performed by Heartbeat Opera (no relation);  at least we heard a 100 minute adaptation of the opera. The co-adaptors were Director Dustin Willis and Artistic Director Jacob Ashworth who also conducted the chamber orchestra.

We have been writing about Heartbeat Opera since their inception ten years ago (under different leadership-- by Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard). They have always put a unique spin on the classics, some of which thrilled us and some of which dismayed us or puzzled us.  This production had some very rewarding moments, some insightful ones, and some puzzling ones.

Chief among the delights was the singing. Soprano Emily Margevich made a believable and touching Tatyana. In the lengthy letter scene, she showed us all the unbridled passion of an adolescent girl with all of  its concomitant terrors. She reminded us of Juliet in the early scenes of the ballet version of Romeo and Juliet, almost dancing around her bedroom, trying to put her wild thoughts into words. It was a commendable performance.

As the "older man" she falls in love with (probably an older man of twenty-five) we found baritone Edwin Joseph thoroughly believable and as fine in his singing as was Ms. Margevich.

Flirtatious sister Olga was finely realized by the excellent mezzo-soprano Sichel Claverie and as Olga's devoted fiancé and childhood sweetheart Lensky, we thought tenor Roy Hage performed admirably, delivering a poignant "Kuda, Kuda". Also fine were Shannon Delijani as Madame Larina and Tynan Davis as Filipyevna, the nursemaid. Rounding out the cast was Lloyd Reshard, Jr as Prince Gremin.  More about him later.

Spoiler Alert! If you plan on seeing this production, and we hope that you do, you may want to stop reading here, especially if you are new to this standard of the Russian repertory. One difficulty for us was making the effort to block our memories of prior productions and comparing them. Still, we couldn't help seeing the falling Autumn leaves as Madame Larina and Filipyevna peeled apples or potatoes in the opening scene nor could we not hear in our mind's ear the chorus of peasants in the background, here omitted.

In this production, the nearly bare set made use of wooden frames and planks, metal step-ladders, and reams of fabric. One could see right through the performing area to a kind of workshop/storage room "backstage". The two older women were busy doing something we couldn't make out and Madame Larina appeared to be pouring something from a flask and drinking.  Vodka perhaps.

For the name-day scene, a raised platform was erected right in front of the audience with an abundant buffet set up upon it. Olga, dressed as a clown, sings the aria usually sung by the French tutor Monsieur Triquet. At this point, the chamber orchestra (comprising strings, French Horn, Clarinet doubling on Bass Clarinet, Harp, and Guitar) goes mad, out of tune and cacophonous with electric amplification. Perhaps this is to mark the flip from pleasant drama to tragedy as Olga flirts with Onegin, angering Lensky who then challenges Onegin to a duel.

Equally. puzzling was in the final act, when Prince Gremin sings his aria into a microphone (!) and then is wheeled off like a dressmaker's dummy (!!).

There are a number of liberties taken with the opera, chief among which is the subtext of a homosexual relationship between the two men. Was this "concept" suggested by the director? It is no secret that Tchaikovsky was homosexual and that he himself received a letter from a pupil whom he later married to no good effect. But does that mean that his stories have a homosexual subtext? There are a few scenes between the two men that were unconvincing and if Mr. Willis wanted to persuade us that Lensky's jealousy was directed differently than in the Pushkin verse novel upon which the opera is based, he failed.

There were several other puzzling episodes. What was the intent of having Maestro Jacob Ashworth interact with the singers, at times abandoning his post, so to speak? And watching the singers participating as stage hands constructing and dismantling the set?

The final scene, in which Onegin tries to persuade Tatyana of his love, is staged in a frame, reminding us of a marionette theater. The rest of the cast and some of the musicians are watching. When she bids him to get up, it is not an Onegin begging for her love, but an Onegin who has pressed her to the floor and lain on top of her. And then, off to the side, a bereft Onegin is cradling the dead Lensky in his arms.

Those puzzling moments aside, a good case could be made for an abridged version of the opera. Tchaikovsky's libretto uses much of Pushkin's text from the latter's verse novel, but he also altered certain things which one could learn from reading the original. So the current revision is not an insult. However it would have been better had it made theatrical sense. 

As far as the alteration of the music, lots of classical works have been altered or re-orchestrated and symphonic works have been reduced; we were not disappointed in this case.  As much as we love the orchestral original, the arrangement was interesting and the melodies we know and love were preserved. We cannot tell from the program who was responsible since the program indicates  Dan Schlosberg under "newly arranged".   Our guess is that Mo. Ashworth newly arranged the music and Mr. Schlosberg might have newly arranged the libretto with "co-adaptors" Mr. Willis and Mr. Ashworth.

We spoke to some women after the performance, women who had never seen or heard the opera. They loved it. Much can be said for a "virgin experience".

© meche kroop