Linnea Leonard Kickasola

Linnea Leonard Kickasola is an opera singer who has performed leading and supporting roles in the U.S. and Europe with companies such as the Chattanooga Opera, Lyric Opera of Waco, Delphi Theatre, Operafestival di Roma, and the Sound Symphony Orchestra. She was a 2007-2008 Resident Artist with the Opera Company of Brooklyn.

She received a MM in Vocal Performance from New England Conservatory and a BM in Vocal Performance and a BA in English and Piano from Covenant College. Linnea is also a worship director for Astoria Community Church (PCA).

She lives in New York City, with her husband, Joe, a filmmaker and professor, and daughter, Bronwyn.

St. Matthew Passion

Jonathan Miller’s staging of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion is the most faithful and moving interpretation of this classic work that I have ever experienced. Composed in the 1720’s for the Good Friday service, the St. Matthew’s Passion is one of Bach’s masterpieces. Operatic in scope, but intimate in perspective, the Passion is set to texts taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel, woven together with devotional texts written by Christian Henrici, a German writer with whom Bach worked closely. The music is composed for two orchestras and two choirs, with a full complement of solo voices and instruments as well. The music shifts from complicated counterpoint to direct hymn-like melodies, even as the perspective moves between the Evangelist’s narration, Jesus’ words, the shouts of the crowd, and the believer’s reflection on the events. Bach ties it all together in a way that is both magnificent and completely natural; Miller’s simple, yet inventive staging honors this work in a way that allows it to be seen and heard more clearly by modern audiences who may have grown resistant to its power.

I have seen Miller’s staging of the Passion on two different occasions and both times I was struck by the timelessness of Bach’s work and the respectful and honest way it is unveiled by this production. Miller’s staging is extremely simple. The two orchestras and two choirs form a large circle on the stage, facing one another. In the center are a few very simple props: a table that serves both for the Last Supper and for Pilate’s bench, a few chairs. Everyone is dressed in unremarkable street clothes. A few small props are carried in by soloists, but many things are mimed. The two choirs, which at various times portray the crowds, Jesus’ friends, and the voice of the watching believer are seated randomly, some on chairs, a few on the sides of the stage, or stand or walk around. The soloists portraying Jesus, the Evangelist, Peter, Mary Magdelene, and others sing in the center of the circle, moving to different areas of the stage as the story demands.

The choral and solo singers all sing without any music, something that allows them to act very naturally and move freely. Removing a barrier as small as a musical score has the immediate effect of increasing the intimacy and connection between the musician and the listener. The mish-mash of street clothes create another interesting effect. There is no apparent continuity – some wear nicer street clothes, others wear tennis shoes and wrinkled shirts. At first I found myself wondering why some people would choose to perform in certain outfits, no matter how comfortable, but as I continued to watch the various performers and their individual reactions, which were easier to follow as they all looked different from each other, I found myself thinking of all these different souls and their reactions to Jesus and his Passion story. The goal of most concert wear, especially for choirs and orchestras is to mask the individual in service of the whole. While the choirs and orchestras sang and played with remarkable precision and unity, I was yet reminded that they were made up of individual souls all seeking to engage with this story and this Savior. We believe these are regular people caught up in a story much bigger than themselves.

The singers were not the only ones liberated from their scores. During a number of the arias, the obbligato instruments which dueted with the soloists often stood up from behind their stands and moved to join the soloists as they sang to another character or to each other. The physical movements of the vocal and instrumental soloists often mimicked the intertwining of their musical parts in a fascinating way. A good example of this was the aria, “Have mercy, Lord” (“Erbarme dich”), which was beautifully sung and played by countertenor Daniel Taylor and violinist Robert Mealy. This aria follows immediately after Peter has denied Jesus three times, heard the cock crow, and remembered Jesus’ words predicting his betrayal. As Peter sits weeping, the soloist and the violinist weave around him, expressing his sorrow, and turn to Jesus to plead for mercy for him (“have mercy, Lord, ah, let my tears persuade thee”). Besides the dramatic expression of the music, this staging also emphasizes the beauty and complexity of the two solo lines Bach has woven together.

One of the great advantages of this interpretation of the Passion is that it shows so clearly the relevance and accessibility of Bach’s work for a modern audience. Bach certainly uses the musical languages of his day, but he does this so deftly and with such an innate sense of their power and dramatic usefulness that they do not seem outdated or incomprehensible. A good example of this is his use of counterpoint to knit together two opposing ideas in one piece of music. In the alto/soprano duet with chorus, “Alas, my Jesus now is taken” (“So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen”), the soloists express the sorrow of Jesus’ humiliation (“Moon and stars for grief the night forsaken”) while the chorus reacts in shock and anger with increasing agitation (“Free him! Stop there! Bind him not!”). In all of the staging and musical interpretation there was never a hint of irony or the need for a modern “re-telling” of this story of the Passion. The complete commitment of the production and all of the performers was both refreshing and incredibly moving. The respectful unveiling of this masterful work was more revelatory and believable than any re-interpretation could have been.

Behind Bach’s sublime music, there is also great power in the text of this Passion. Sung for this performance in Robert Shaw’s simple yet poetic English translation, Henrici’s text manages to weave together both the dramatic story (in Matthew’s words) and our corporate and personal response to this story. The two choruses, in particular, swing between portraying the jeering crowds around the cross and the humble sinner overwhelmed by the mercy granted to him. The highpoint of this work for me always comes right after Jesus has died, when the chorus sings these words without accompaniment, softly, intensely, and as one voice:

When comes my hour of parting,
Then part You not from me.
When shades of death are dark’ning,
Your love my light shall be.
When anxious fears shall rend me,
And break my heart in twain,
O comfort and befriend me,
Through Your own grief and pain.

This piece always reflects for me the intensely personal nature of Jesus’ salvation, and you could sense the rapt attention of everyone listening. I was not the only one wiping away tears.

The quality and commitment of all of the musicians was very evident. As the Evangelist, tenor Rufus Müller was a particular standout. Many tenors who sing the Evangelist have a thinner, almost nasal tone to their voice, but Müller’s voice is warm and rich. At the same time he makes use of many different vocal colors and textures to illuminate the text he is singing. The story came to life in the sensitivity with which he turned certain phrases, such as the stark quality of the “cock crow” line, and his economy of gesture which allowed certain dramatic gestures, his pointing to Judas, for example, to impact all the more.

Jonathan Miller

Curtis Streetman, the bass who played Jesus, has a compelling physical presence which he used to good effect. But his voice lacked some of the resonance of the other soloists, which meant that his lines did not always ring out like they should have.

Mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella, with a rich, warm sound, was particularly good in “Ah, now is my Jesus gone!” (“Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin”). The other voice I particularly liked was tenor Nils Brown. Daniel Taylor, the countertenor, sang with a ringing tone and excellent diction, and soprano, Suzie LeBlanc, and baritone, Stephen Varcoe, gave particularly sensitive interpretations of a number of arias.

British conductor, Paul Goodwin, led the Clarion Orchestra and the REBEL Baroque Orchestra with precise attention to musical detail and brisk but sensitive tempi. There were a number of excellent instrumental soloists as well, with Lisa Terry’s viola de gamba solo a particularly good example.

In Bach’s church in Leipzig, all of the Lenten services preceding the Good Friday service contained no music at all. Imagine then the effect of the St. Matthew Passion on the enraptured congregation after such a fast. The audience for BAM’s production of the Passion may not have realized they had been fasting as well until this performance evoked some of that original wonder and awe.

Opera Grows in Brooklyn

The March 20th presentation of Opera Grows in Brooklyn at Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO was well attended by a standing-room-only audience excited about seeing contemporary opera in a non-traditional space. A joint production by three young opera companies – Opera On Tap, Remarkable Theater Brigade, and American Opera Projects – the evening featured opera settings as diverse as a subway train and medieval England.

The first scene of the evening, put on by Remarkable Theater Brigade, was a twenty-minute version of Christian McLeer’s “electro-acoustical-oprusical” G Train: The Musical. In the scene, five unrelated characters are thrown together when the G train on which they are passengers stalls and they are unable to understand the garbled messages from the train conductor. The music ranged from rap, through opera, and into musical theater. Almost all the singing was accompanied by an electronic soundtrack with a heavy rhythmic beat and audio samples from the New York subway. While it was an interesting mixture of musical styles and the comic setting was familiar to anyone who spends time on New York subways, the electronic accompaniment was turned up too high, making it difficult to hear the singers very well or understand what they were singing. Most of the singing sounded decent, but the pastiche of styles did not really give the singers much opportunity to shine vocally, and the overly loud electronic accompaniment was frustrating for the listeners. Some of the more interesting musical moments included a fugue where the characters sing about subway etiquette (“to avoid people’s eyes, we all have a technique, I pretend to be asleep…to read, etc.”), but overall the quick change of musical styles felt pretty jumbled. Perhaps the full-length version of G Train: The Musical, which premiered in 2005, has a better flow. The scene was performed by Julia Amisano, Chas Elliott, Monica Harte, Kevin Misslich, David Schnell, with musical direction by composer Christian McLeer and stage direction by Monica Harte.

After an intermission for the audience to refresh their drinks at the bar, American Opera Projects took the stage to present several scenes from Act I of Jack Perla’s opera Love/Hate. This performance was presented in collaboration with Manhattan School of Music; eight MSM students sang the roles, Silas Huff conducted, Mila Henry accompanied on the piano, and Caren French directed. Love/Hate examines the blossoming love affair between a college professor and her sexually confused tech-geek boyfriend by exploring contemporary dating and mating patterns. Perla, in from San Francisco for the rehearsals and performance, seems influenced by another San Francisco composer, Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking). One example is the musical theater influences in Love/Hate which could be heard in the singing style at times as well. The mezzo-soprano singing the character of Laura, in particular, had a good mastery of the crossover sound of singers like Audra McDonald who bridge those two musical worlds. While it was clear that many of the singers were still students, the scenes were well prepared and included some interesting directing choices. It was difficult to follow the story line from these two scenes, but they provoked interest in seeing the whole show.

Opera On Tap rounded out the evening with a contemporary exploration of a more familiar opera “librettist,” William Shakespeare. His play Cymbeline was set by composer Christopher Berg, and the two scenes presented from the opera were staged by Christopher Carter Sanderson, complete with period costumes from medieval England. The OOT cast (Matthew Curran, Erika Hennings, Jessie Hinkle, Jose Pietri-Coimbre, Jessica Miller-Rauch, Anne Ricci, and DeAndre Simmons), accompanied on the piano by the composer, were the strongest singers of the evening, and the lyricism of the score gave them real opportunity to show their vocal strengths. OOT began as a company with the goal of presenting opera as fun and appropriate entertainment for more casual venues like bars. Why should jazz and rock musicians get all the fun? Most of their shows feature themed aria and scene concerts in places like Freddy’s Bar and Backroom (Brooklyn), Barbes (Brooklyn), and the Parkside Lounge (Manhattan). They have also have done regular performances at Galapagos Art Space. While they’ve succeeded in creating a relaxed and spontaneous atmosphere where opera lovers and neophytes can kick back, have a few beers, and enjoy some good singing, as the company has grown they have begun to branch out into more structured performances like these as well.

Galapagos Art Space has only recently moved to this new location in Dumbo from their original space in Williamsburg. Driven out by rapidly rising rents, they have ended up in a larger and more exciting space in a beautiful spot right at the base of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. While their old space was known for its indoor lake in the entryway, the new space boasts ground floor seating suspended over a much larger lake of black water (dyed with India ink) that shimmers in the light and may even improve the acoustics, which were quite good. With a full bar in back, balcony seating on the second floor, and a good-sized stage, Galapagos’ new space is well suited for a variety of concerts, theater, and dance events. Most of the seating is in semi-circular banquettes, which makes it feel much more like a club, but somewhat limits the audience size.

While Opera on Tap and American Opera Project have collaborated a few times in the past, this is their first collaboration with Remarkable Theater Brigade and the evening was an exciting new level of work for these young companies. Brooklyn and the rest of the city will benefit from future collaborations like these. Check out the individual websites for upcoming shows from each company.

Art of the Theater in
Adriana Lecouvreur

The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Adriana Lecouvreur.

Adriana Lecouvreur, Francesco Cilea’s only successful opera, seems to have inspired either great fascination or fervent distaste in its audiences over the years. Premiering in Milan in 1902, it first came to the Metropolitan Opera in the 1907-08 season. After that it did not return to the Met stage until 1963 and has since been revived every decade since.

A prime example of the Italian verismo movement that flourished at the end of the 19th century, Adriana Lecouvreur is not as well known as Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni) and Pagliacci (Leoncavallo), verismo operas that have become staples of the repertoire, but its frank emotionalism and dramatic intensity are very similar. Verismo means “realism” and the composers of this school sought to dramatize common people–their love affairs and tragedies – with a level of passion and emotion previously granted to mythological characters or nobility.

The Real-Life History of Adriana Lecouvreur

Those who are drawn to Adriana Lecouvreur are entranced by the soaring vocal lines and the opportunity for emotional fireworks in the dramatic exploration of the main characters – in particular, the soprano role of Adriana. Those who revile the opera generally find the story ridiculous and the music less symphonic than they would wish.

While the story is certainly melodramatic, it is based on the real lives of Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692-1730) and Maurice of Saxony (1696-1750). She was the famous actress of her day and he the illegitimate son of a future king of Poland, notorious both for his martial exploits as well as his love affairs. Maurice and Adrienne had a nine-year affair, during which Maurice tried to create an independent kingdom for himself in the Baltic with Adrienne’s financial support.

A duchess who was a jealous rival for Maurice’s affections paid to have Adrienne mocked on stage during a performance of Corneille’s Phedre. History reports that Adrienne turned her lines from the play back on her rival, who ran from the theater amid much mockery. Adrienne died shortly after of unknown and suspicious causes. Eugène Scribe, a famous French playwright, wrote the play on Adrienne’s life that served as the direct source for the opera libretto.

Cilea’s music, in true verismo fashion, does nothing to downplay the emotionalism of the characters, but the story itself is not more melodramatic or preposterous than many opera plots. It is also important to realize that the opera is in large part about the life and drama of the theater and those who make it their home.

The real Adrienne had such significant theatrical skills that she is credited with raising the social status of actresses from servant class to being accepted in polite society. The role of Adriana in the opera is performed best by those singers who understand the necessity of truly embracing the verismo style – legato singing, using crescendo and decrescendo, with an emphasis on diction – while also understanding the theatrical style of the day.

The best example of this comes in the Act III party scene when Adriana is manipulated by the jealous duchess into performing a monologue from a play. She chooses a recitation from Racine’s Phedre which denounces adulterous women, effectively silencing and condemning the duchess with her words. In the opera, the scene from Phedre is written to be declaimed in the style of Racine, with Adriana only breaking into song at the very end. The scene requires theatrical training which goes beyond singing preparation, but if done well, it dramatically evokes a theatrical past.

A Production for Today

The Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Adriana Lecouvreur, using sets from the 1963 production but restaged and updated by director Mark Lamos with updated video backdrops, is a warm and enjoyable production with much good singing. The greatest draw is Placido Domingo, the famous Spanish tenor, singing Maurizio in an impressive repeat of his Met debut 40 years ago in the same role opposite Renate Tebaldi.

The title role in the opera is sung by Maria Guleghina. The Ukrainian soprano is best known for heavier roles, such as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, so there was some speculation as to whether her voice was flexible and sensitive enough to sing the melting lines called for in the verismo style. While she tempered the inclination to sing full volume for every scene and did achieve some lovely floating lines, some of the pianissimos were under pitch and certain scenes which required more nuance, such as the soaring opening aria “Io son l’umile ancella” (“I am the humble handmaiden of creative genius”), struggled to sound under control.

The role of Maurizio requires less nuanced singing with its emphasis on heroic declamation and passionate lovemaking, but Domingo’s singing was a prime example of the verismo style with warm legato lines and throbbing high notes. Only in the party scene when Maurizio is describing the battle was there a sense that he was singing more cautiously to preserve the voice, but all of the climactic moments of the arias and duets were rock solid. That Domingo is still singing this well 40 years after his debut is a testament to the care he has taken with his voice. He brings a great wealth of experience and knowledge of vocal style to his performing that is not always heard onstage, even at this level.

Olga Borodina tore into the role of the Principessa de Bouillon, Adriana’s jealous rival, with great abandon. Her dramatic aria that opens the second act was tempestuously and beautifully sung, and she was a fiery focal point in her duets with Maurizio and Adriana. The Russian mezzo sings with a lovely dark color that moves richly through her whole range and she seems temperamentally well-suited to these dramatic roles she has been playing recently at the Met.

Italian baritone, Roberto Frontali, sang the role of the Michonnet, with great warmth and beauty. Michonnet, Adriana’s manager who loves her but cannot find the courage to tell her, is sometimes played and sung in a more comic manner, but Frontali brought real dignity and vocal strength to the role.

The Met orchestra sounded very good under Italian conductor, Marco Armiliato. The tempos moved well, but he also brought out the delicate lines and varying colors of the score.

Adriana Lecouvreur is no longer playing at the Metropolitan Opera, but you can find out more and listen to clips from the opera on the Met’s website.

Streaming Live:
Orfeo ed Euridice

The Metropolitan Opera has pioneered a bold new approach to bring opera to the masses by streaming live high definition broadcasts of operas into movie theaters around the world. Since December 2006, they have screened 14 productions over two seasons, with 11 more scheduled for the 2008-2009 season.

The recent performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was a feast for the ears and the eyes, although at the HD screening the eyes had the greatest advantage. At the live broadcast the energy heightened immediately as we watched the opera house audience taking their seats. The screened program then cut to scenes of backstage preparations at the opera, accompanied by interviews with some of the artists involved. For the Orfeo screening, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato led us on the tour, interviewing conductor James Levine and director/choreographer Mark Morris about the production.

From the opening notes of the overture, the orchestra played with vibrant sound and buoyancy. Levine’s conducting revealed both the beauty and the simplicity of the music, moving ably between haunting moments of pathos and lively dance scenes.

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe triumphed in the very demanding lead role of Orfeo. Though her character rarely leaves the stage, she sang with rich and glorious sound that never seemed to tire. She also rose ably to the singular challenge of a mezzo-soprano playing a male character while HD cameras zoomed in for close-ups. From her first steps on stage she was convincing and moving as a husband mourning his dead wife, and she navigated the scenes of despair and joy without ever dropping character. (The male role of Orfeo was composed originally for a castrato, a man who had been castrated as a boy, thus retaining his soprano singing range. These male roles are now sung by mezzo-sopranos or countertenors).

While the beauty and power of Blythe’s voice shone in the screening, the microphone did seem to compromise her sound in certain ways. There was a slight huskiness in the miked sound that is not present in her voice in the opera house, but I blamed it on the inability of the mic to handle the full power and size of her instrument. The smaller, brighter voices of Heidi Grant Murphy and Danielle de Niese did not seem as much affected by their electronic transmission.

De Niese played a lovely and affecting Euridice. She sang with a fluid, warm tone that well matched her sensitive portrayal. There were a few small points where I wished for a weightier sound, but it was hard to judge whether I would have felt the same way in the live space or not.

Indeed, my two greatest questions in judging the success of these live broadcasts remained the sound quality and the enhanced visuals. Opera is meant to be heard in a live theater space, where the sound waves bounce off the walls around you and travel through your body, creating an experience that cannot be rivaled by any electronic mediation. I knew the theater sound would not be the same as a live space, but was curious to see how great the change would be and how much that would affect my experience. There was certainly some muting of the colors and power of the singing as heard through the microphones, particularly for the larger voices, but a greater difficulty was that the orchestral sound was not correctly balanced with the singing. The orchestral sound was much more present in the screening than it is in the theater. This was distracting in a number of places in the opera, particularly when it threatened to overcome the vocal sound in an imbalance that I know was not heard in the opera house. Part of the problem is that the acoustic and spatial sound of the orchestra playing in the pit is lost in the screening. It was bothersome that the orchestral sound seemed to be coming from the same spatial place as the singing sound (which did not match what our eyes were seeing), but it also sounded like the orchestral and vocal sounds were improperly mixed. One of the great miracles of the trained singing voice is the way that the resonance and intensity of a single voice can cut through the sound of a whole orchestra. I often found myself missing that interplay of resonances.

Visually, I was very curious to see how the stage acting of opera would translate to a movie screen. The acting techniques required to communicate to a 3800 seat opera house are much larger and broader than those required to communicate on HD video, particularly a 10 camera production that includes many close-ups. Stage acting looks bizarrely overdone on camera in most cases, and I was curious how the presence of the camera crew might affect the singers’ acting. It was impressive to see a great level of naturalness and believability in the acting, with no overdone opera gestures. The nuanced expressions and subtle acting choices, particularly of Blythe and de Niese, read very well on camera. Not having seen the live performance in the opera house, it was not possible to know whether the acting seemed more subdued in turn to the live audience, but judging from the strong reviews and impassioned audience reaction it did not seem to be the case. Perhaps the close-ups of true emotion on the singers’ faces in the HD screening help make up for the less affecting experience of hearing the sound through speakers rather than live in the space.

The HD close-ups certainly allowed the creativity and wit of the chorus design to be seen in a way that would have been difficult in the opera house. Isaac Mizrahi, in his costume design debut with the Met, said his design is meant to be the ultimate Greek chorus -everyone who has ever died. The various pans of the chorus singing in the screening allowed the quick-eyed to catch glimpses of Einstein, Queen Elizabeth, Gandhi, Marie Curie, Liberace and many more.

One interesting aspect of the ability to see so many faces on stage clearly for the first time in a performance like this was the mixture of facial expressions on the dancers’ faces. Some of the dancers were better actors than others, but overall, one was struck by the emotion conveyed through bodies and movements rather than through facial expressions, which were often rather flat. Morris’ choreography was woven in an integral way throughout the opera, making the multiple dances seem not just traditional set pieces but rather a natural extension of the drama playing out on stage.

An interesting aspect of Barbara Willis Sweete’s video direction, with ten possible camera angles, was that many different parts of the whole could be focused on during a musical section, a dance or a chorus scene. During the overture, for example, there were multiple shots of different instruments playing, the conductor conducting, the hands of various instrumentalists, etc. While there was a certain fascination involved with seeing various close-ups of the orchestra pit afforded to no one in the opera house, I was also aware that my overall appreciation for the overture as a piece of music was diminished by switching my attention between all these different points of interest. In a similar way, the cleverly choreographed dance scenes in the opera were usually shown with a number of close-ups on various dancers, making it difficult take in the full effect of the choreography as it filled the stage. I could not help but feel that choreography that was designed to be danced and seen on a whole stage suffered from being seen in pieces. I did enjoy seeing the detail of the dancing in small sections, but felt that the video directing did not spend enough time on wide shots.

Overall, the HD video strengths were also its weaknesses. The intensity of seeing the singers and dancers and set up close is a rare experience in an opera house the size of the Met. As a singer myself, it is fascinating to watch the technical details of a singer’s vocal production, and moving to see sensitive acting wedded to expressive singing. However, as interesting as these details are, the overall experience of the opera as a whole, the great sum of the parts, was weakened by being seen and heard in a way that opera was not created to be performed. Mark Morris described Orfeo ed Euridice as true to the original conception of opera as the greatest of the arts (music, theater, dancing) combined. The HD transmission did justice to each of these aspects, but did not sum them up in the way an experience in the live space can.

One of the big questions raised by this screening is whether this approach will bring opera to new audiences, a goal for struggling opera houses everywhere. These HD performances are selling out all over the country, but at least in my screening, the audience looked very similar to a Saturday matinee at the opera house-I was by far the youngest person in the audience. While I thoroughly enjoyed the screening, I would not choose it over a live experience in the opera house. But for those who do not have access to the Met or a similar quality of opera house, these screenings are wonderful opportunities to hear world-quality singing and see innovative and challenging new productions of both well-known and new operas. I can also see the advantage for demystifying the opera experience for someone who may not have ever been in an opera house before, or had never had an all-encompassing experience of opera well done. Since video is a much more familiar medium and these productions are well-directed and engaging, I do believe live HD screenings could open the door for someone to be drawn to live opera in a theater as a result.

Participating movie theaters include ones in every state except Alaska, as well as 30 other countries around the world (with theaters being added on a regular basis). See for information on participating theaters and schedules. The remaining productions this season are Madama Butterfly (March 7), La Sonnambula (March 21), and La Cenerentola (May 9).

The Day Boy and the Night Girl

Photo by David Wentworth

Is classical music dying? Not if American opera composers have something to say about it. Whereas there is evidence that American symphonic composing has been in a weak state for some time, American opera has been experiencing a resurgence of life in recent years. Joseph Kerman, an important music critic, suggests in his new book, Opera and the Morbidity of Music, that one of the signs of opera’s ascendance has been its ability to acquire new audiences in recent years. He goes on to say, “And to the most damaging charge the culture levels at classical music, its inability to renew itself, opera gives the lie. Music must generate an expanded repertory that will arouse critics and attract audiences; opera is doing this. That opera’s primacy is seldom brought out in premature wakes for classical music is exasperating.” As evidence, Kerman points to well-known composers such as Philip Glass and John Adams, but also adds, “In the last twenty years a long list of operas by well-, little-, and unknown composers of all descriptions have drawn on a whole shelf of classic novels and plays: Little Women, McTeague, Ethan Frome, An American Tragedy, The Great Gatsby, Our Town, A Streetcar Named Desire, A View from the Bridge, and more.”

I had the pleasure recently of performing a scene from a new American opera, The Day Boy and the Night Girl by Jordan Wentworth Farrar. The scene was the culmination of a concert of scenes from American chamber operas that have been produced by the After Dinner Opera company over its 60-year history. This small company has faithfully produced hundreds of American operas over the years, including works by Seymour Barab, Duke Ellington, Amy Beach, Lee Hoiby and many others. They are currently raising money to produce Farrar’s opera next year. Farrar’s music is tonal, with haunting melodic themes interspersed with tightly stacked vocal harmonies. We singers danced through the whole scene, which required particular concentration on physical grace and choreography in addition to the technically difficult singing. It was both challenging and exciting to be a part of this new and unusual work.

Photo by David Wentworth

A few days after the performance, I spent some time in conversation with Jordan Wentworth Farrar about the story behind this opera.

What is your educational background? Did you train as a composer?
I studied psychology and music in college, but never formally studied composition. After college I was studying opera in Spain, but my Italian boyfriend kept insisting that opera was dead and convinced me to join a rock band. In the interest of improving the song quality, I began composing songs for the band. This led eventually to composing several film scores. I have played and sung in a number of rock bands over the years, one of which included a string quartet, and these were great places for exploring composition, as these bands had great energy but no ego about being expressive or the snotty attitudes you sometimes see in opera.

What inspired you to write an opera?
I was in a vocal master class and listening to some amazing singers. I was suddenly struck by an idea for an art song for a particularly good singer. The scene was from one of my favorite stories, The Day Boy and the Night Girl by George MacDonald. That original scene eventually turned into the whole opera. I have not actually read the story in a number of years and purposefully did not go back and reread it while composing the opera, as I wanted it to serve more as an inspiration to the opera rather than the opera being an exact setting of the story.

How long did it take to finish the opera? What is its structure?
It’s taken about three and half years of work to finish the piano/vocal score, and I am deep into the orchestration now. The opera is through-composed in the manner of Puccini or Strauss. There are arias that can stand alone, but they flow from and into the music around them. The music is written for full lyric voices in contrast to some of the recent trends in American opera toward a more musical theater sound. I have also written it with the voices of many of the great emerging artists I have heard in recent years (who are often just as good as the voices I hear at the Met or other big houses) in mind. I hope that it will be sung by emerging artists. The Met awarded grants of $50,000 to 10 different composer/librettist teams in 2005 to compose new American operas. There was an article in the New York Times about a year ago discussing how very little progress has been made on many of these projects. Some of the composers are still waiting to get material from their librettists, others are still developing ideas. For me, having a specific vision of what I wanted and doing both the libretto and the composing myself has worked better.

What kind of support have you received?
I was introduced to Louisa Jonason, the director of the After Dinner Opera company, who was looking for a new American chamber opera to produce. The After Dinner Opera company has produced hundreds of American chamber operas since it was founded by Richard Flusser in 1950. Louisa was very supportive of my work and has been raising money to produce The Day Boy and the Night Girl in December of 2009. Thus far almost $40,000 has been raised for the production.

What are the plans for producing the opera?
The plan is to perform the opera with full cast and an eleven-piece orchestra in the Dicapo Opera Theatre space in New York City in December 2009. This spring I’m working on doing a recording of the opera with singers who are currently preparing the music. After a New York run, I’m hoping to do a run of shows in Houston as a fundraiser for the Houston Children’s Hospital. I’ve composed the opera with chamber opera spaces in mind and could easily see it being done in churches or other small theater spaces. For more information on future performances, watch

Are you planning to continue composing opera?
Yes, I think I’ve found what I want to do with my life! I’ve already begun composing my second opera, based on a short story I wrote some years ago. It combines magic realism with a murder mystery.

Doctor Atomic or: How Opera Learned
to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Few productions this season at the Metropolitan Opera are receiving the kind of attention and publicity that the new production of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic has. The Met’s innovative general manager, Peter Gelb, has given his full support to the production, including the significant addition of the first permanent sound system in the Met theater to play the recorded sounds (musique concrete) that are part of Adams’ musical score.

Adams composed Doctor Atomic at the request of then general director of the San Francisco Opera, Pamela Rosenberg, who wanted an American version of the Faust legend and thought that J. Robert Oppenheimer’s story would be a good fit. The opera premiered in 2005 in San Francisco, and has since been performed in Amsterdam and Chicago, before the new production was created this year for the Met, an unusual turn for an opera this young. The strong cast is headed by an excellent Gerald Finley, who premiered the role of Oppenheimer and has sung it in every production since then. This, combined with the innovative design crew of director Penny Woolcock (directing her first stage opera after a career in film) and stage designer, Julian Crouch (known for his theatrical work), has generated great excitement and some controversy in the opera world about the new production. I came to the performance with every desire that it succeed and, while I found it an exciting and thought-provoking night of theater, in the end I felt it disappointed as opera. I found myself wondering if it would make a better symphonic choral piece, or as one friend suggested, an oratorio, although the theatrical possibilities seem to demand a dramatic setting. While there is much that is praise-worthy about the production, and it is definitely worth seeing, I do not believe it ultimately succeeds as an opera.

Adams says he believes that in order to be relevant, contemporary opera must address the issues of our lives. His past operas such as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro) have pointedly addressed contemporary topics, and Doctor Atomic is no exception. It focuses on the final twelve hours before the testing of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity site in Los Alamos, NM, but also attempts to tell the story of the scientists and soldiers who built the bomb. The libretto for Doctor Atomic is unique in that it was compiled by Peter Sellars from a variety of found sources. Adams describes the process in an article for NewMusicBox:

The libretto to Doctor Atomic . . . contains everything from interview transcripts with physicists and other people involved in the creation of the bomb to declassified government documents, memoirs by Edward Teller and General Groves, and even poetry by Baudelaire, John Donne, and from the Bhagavad Gita. Oppenheimer was an immensely literate scientist, and he held poetry, especially these works, dear to his heart. In fact, in the agonizingly tense hours leading up to the Trinity test shot, while other scientists relaxed by playing poker and making a betting pool on the bomb’s yield, Oppenheimer went off by himself, took out a copy of Baudelaire poetry and tried to calm himself by reading a few stanzas. (No wonder the FBI found him a deeply suspect individual!)

During a panel discussion on the making of Doctor Atomic (with John Adams, Peter Gelb, Penny Woolcock, and Julian Crouch), it was obvious that all of those involved in the making of the opera had become fascinated with the characters and stories that intersected in the creation of the atomic bomb. From the disciplined military general Leslie Groves tasked to oversee the wide variety of “crackpot” scientists assembled to invent the bomb, to the conflicted character of Kitty Oppenheimer, a scientist in her own right who was frustrated by her “faculty wife” position in Los Alamos, to the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer himself, a highly intelligent scientist with wide literary and aesthetic interests who was both inspired by and conflicted about the making of the bomb, the people and history of this time period are clearly a rich mine of creative inspiration. The concept of a libretto composed of these peoples’ documents and recorded conversations, combined with poetry that influenced them, seemed like a compelling and innovative way to set this contemporary story.

Unfortunately, the libretto turns out to be the greatest flaw in Doctor Atomic. I came away from the performance feeling that I had seen very little in the way of character development or story, and had I not heard the panel discussion, would have understood almost nothing about who any of these people were or what drove them. The effect of hearing snippets of telegrams and classified reports, along with official letters, excerpts from books on atomic energy combined with lengthy poems (some of which related more directly to the topic at hand than others), left me feeling I had heard a rather disjointed and vague documentary, rather than watched real characters come alive on a stage. Without a clearer story line or some insight into the personal reflections of the characters (something a standard opera libretto is well able to do), I was left feeling that the people on stage were mere ciphers, acting as the mouthpiece for a specific perspective on the history of the bomb.

Points of Entry
‚Ä¢ Check out the Metropolitan Opera’s special “minisite” for Doctor Atomic, including features, video, historical background, event listings, and a rehearsal blog.
• There are several upcoming performances of Doctor Atomic at the Met. See dates and times and purchase tickets on their website.
• Not in New York? Select movie theaters around the world will be showing uDoctor Atomic in HD on November 8 at 1:00pm ET.

Kitty Oppenheimer’s character was one of the best examples of this problem. While she was, by all reports, a fascinating and intelligent woman who both encouraged her husband’s success in building the bomb and yet was frustrated by her narrow role at Los Alamos, in the opera she is given only long, rambling settings of poetry (mostly of Muriel Rukeyser) that depict her as some sort of archetypal “eternal feminine,” serving only as a moral reminder of the consequences of the bomb. She is joined in several of her scenes by Pasqualita, a fictional Native American maid who represents the real population of Tewa Pueblo Indians who were trucked in every day to do the menial work at Los Alamos. Pasqualita also functions mainly as a stereotype – the pagan earth mother.

In the panel discussion, Woolcock discussed how intrigued she was by the combination of the differing worldviews of the three groups working together at Los Alamos. One of the effective ways she portrayed their differences was in designing different walks for the different characters, based on descriptions from the time. The Tewa people all move very slowly, in marked contrast to the scientists and soldiers who tend to rush about. The scientists lead with their heads, while the soldiers lead with their chests. Much less effective was one of the scenes of nervous anticipation before the bomb’s first test explosion where the Tewa were arrayed across the top of the set wearing animal headdresses and stern expressions. Below them, the chattering groups of scientists make wagers on the energy load of the bomb explosion and worry about safety concerns. While there are interesting comparisons to be made between these diverse groups of people and their varying worldviews, the directing, musical score and libretto rarely made these distinctions in human and nuanced ways, more often lapsing into cliché.

But there is another problem. An opera libretto is the bones upon which the meaning, found in the music and the sung voice, must be hung. The strange effect of this is that more banal librettos can actually make better operas, while lines of erudite poetry can fail to come alive when set to music. One reason for this is that poetry is written to be read and re-read, not set in a musical tempo in which the words flash by more quickly than they can be comprehended and savored. Secondly, some of the greatest lyrical poetry already contains so much music in the words, that to add sung music in an attempt to transcend it succeeds only in diluting its power. A good example of this can be found in the introduction to Donald Jay Grout’s A Short History of Opera, where he quotes this passage from Shakespeare:

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

Grout compares it to a selection from Nahum Tate’s Dido and Aeneas:

When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble in thy breast. Remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.

As Grout says of the passage from The Tempest, “it would require a composer of genius equal to Shakespeare’s to add music to such lines as these.” The second selection, while lesser poetry, serves as the perfect bones to one of the most heart-rending arias in operatic history. To be a good libretto, the words need to point to an emotional expression that only music can fully express.

Unfortunately, many of the Baudelaire and Rukeyser poems in the Doctor Atomic libretto function better as poetry than libretto, leaving the audience confused by long soliloquies that are hard to follow and convey little clear emotion, especially when they are not supported by a story line or the personal thoughts of the characters speaking them. Strangely enough, however, the setting of the John Donne poem, Batter my heart, three-person’d God, an aria for Oppenheimer that ends the first act, is one of the more effective and beautiful parts of the opera. Donne would appear to be a poet, like Shakespeare, whose words are so full of meaning and expression that it is hard to imagine music being an effective addition to them. In this case however, this particular poem being sung by Oppenheimer at this particular point in the story (as he contemplates the finished yet untested bomb he has built), adds a weight of personal meaning that the music is well-suited here to support and elucidate. This poem was one of Oppenheimer’s favorite poems (he said later that the bomb test site Trinity was named for it), and Adams sees it as Oppenheimer’s true prayer that God batter him, so that those divided parts of himself that see both the bomb’s beauty and its destruction could be made whole again. Gerald Finley masterfully portrays Oppenheimer’s soul-searching in this aria.

Other parts of the libretto see strong uses of some poetic fragments, such as the chorus’ lines from the Bhagavad Gita in response to the sight of the bomb:

At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous,
Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,
Terrible with fangs, O master,
All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am.

The use of recorded sounds (musique concrete), in opera is still relatively unusual and controversial in some circles. Adams remains very committed to the use of recorded sound in his composition, since he believes that modern composers should be using the sound-making tools of the day as instruments, even as composers of the past adapted their music to newly invented instruments. I can understand his desire to have metallic and mechanical sounds present in his portrayal of the building of the atomic bomb, but I was disappointed by the way this sound seemed to stand outside the musical score, rather than being woven into it in a way that would truly recognize it as another musical instrument. Both of the opera’s two acts begin with an extended period of recorded sounds meant to set the stage by evoking both the era and the mood of the Los Alamos site. Strangely, each of these was a mish-mash of vague, overlapping sounds that seemed poorly recorded and oddly combined. I’ve heard better sound design in other theater shows, and the extended sequences left me longing for the presence and energy of the orchestral sound, which, when it entered, effectively left the recorded sound behind. Oddly enough, I did not notice much other musique concrete in the rest of the score, except for the end of the opera, where it is used very effectively in the countdown to the bomb explosion. The drawn-out final countdown and the quiet aftermath of the explosion are the most powerful moments in the opera and are worth attending the opera to hear and feel. It is here that Adams’ vision of using contemporary themes and modern technology to make opera relevant is most clearly realized.

A more controversial use of technology in Adams’ operas is that he requires that the singers be lightly miked, because he says that “this allows them to sing more effortlessly and it also makes the text intelligible.” This is highly controversial in opera because the wonderful resonance of the human voice cannot be fully captured by a microphone, and historically, miking voices has not produced effortless singing as much as it has bad singing technique. While some opera singers may bellow (a critique of Adams’), good technique allows a singer to fill a hall over the sound of an orchestra without requiring obvious effort. Thankfully there was no obvious sound of the singers’ voices coming through the speakers at the Met, but I did notice that an over-emphasis on pronunciation of words seemed to be interfering with the tonal quality of the singing at times. This seemed most noticeable with Sasha Cooke, who nonetheless sang a strong and lovely performance of Kitty Oppenheimer.

The preeminence of words, above the music and the voices, causes many of the problems in Doctor Atomic. I also came away from this performance having reaffirmed that I do not come to the opera to be told how to think about something, I come to the opera to have people and history come alive for me. There were scenes in Doctor Atomic where this happened in breathtaking ways, but they left me wishing the rest of the opera had risen to this standard.

A Human Art:
Sound and Spectacle in “La Gioconda”

The Venetian system for denouncing
your enemies, it plays an important
part in the plot of "La Gioconda"

Opera in current American culture is passionately loved by a few and generally misunderstood, feared or even reviled by most others. Its complexities can require specialized knowledge or a willingness to set aside certain expectations to wholly appreciate the art form, but it is at its heart deeply human, with the power to move us in rare and unique ways.

In T.S. Eliot’s essay “Poetry and Drama”, he compares the ability of poetry and prose to express our deepest feelings:

“It is a function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it. The painter works by selection, combination and emphasis among the elements of the visible world; the musician, in the world of sound. It seems to me that beyond the nameable, classifiable emotions and motives of our conscious life when directed towards action – the part of life which prose drama is wholly adequate to express – there is a fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus; of feeling of which we are only aware in a kind of temporary detachment from action . . . This peculiar range of sensibility can be expressed by dramatic poetry, at its moments of greatest intensity. At such moments, we touch the border of those feelings which only music can express.”

The comparison between the music of great poetry and the music of opera is an apt one. Reading Shakespeare silently on the page can be like looking over an opera score; reading a soliloquy out loud may be similar to listening to an opera recording; but these pale in comparison to Shakespeare alive on stage or opera seen and heard in its true context. In other words, there is more being communicated in opera than the basic plot points of the story. The most critical elements of the drama are being expressed by the music in its dramatic context. The elements of stagecraft, acting, the concerted efforts of the orchestral musicians and the glory of the human voice all combine to communicate to minds and hearts and bodies in a way that can transport us.

But the main difference between opera and straight theatre is that the performers sing. The human voice developed to its highest capacity is made up of powerful vibrations that resonate in the bodies of the listeners as well as the singers. Some critics have argued that part of the power of opera to move us is related to the intense resonance created in order to fill a huge hall with a single human voice.

Listening to opera is a physical experience, but it also involves recognition and wonder. David Littlejohn, in his book, The Ultimate Art, says the human voice is “the instrument for which all others are metaphors.” He goes on to say,

“The awesome emotional power of great voices brilliantly used is, I believe, potentially far greater than that of any organ or violin, any orchestra or synthesizer, more compelling than colors on canvas or words on a page. There before you is a body, like yours, with a throat and larynx, like yours, drawing out of itself (as you may dream of doing, but cannot) sounds that vibrate and seize beyond the power of any nonsinging actor. It seems to me the most captivating and beautiful thing that a human being can do on a public stage in living time.”

But for all its glories, opera is a very complex art form that requires a huge number of factors to be working in perfect conjunction. The audience who will enjoy it the most will have the capacity to compromise and allow a suspension of disbelief to bridge the gaps between odd plot twists, body types that may not match character, stodgy directing choices, uneven singing – and allow themselves to dive in wholeheartedly, knowing that there will be moments of revelatory beauty that can transcend all difficulties. Littlejohn describes that kind of audience this way, “I do believe that an unusual ability and willingness to yield, to give in to a work of art is important: somehow to dissolve yourself and let the work include you.”

The Metropolitan Opera’s current production of “La Gioconda” is a prime example of an opera that requires some suspension of disbelief (as regards plot, in particular) but which amply rewards the listener with passionate spectacle and above all, glorious, almost inhuman sounds that pour over the audience.

Points of Entry
‚Ä¢ Read more about the history of “La Gioconda”.
‚Ä¢ Buy tickets for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “La Gioconda”, presented on October 2, 6, and 9 in New York City.

La Gioconda (“The Merry One”) premiered in 1876 with music by Amilcare Ponchielli and libretto by Arrigo Boito, and is based on the Victor Hugo melodrama, Angélo, Tyran de Padoue (“Angelo, Tyrant of Padua”). The opera is set in early 17th century Venice, a place of towering passions, crumbling power and moral decay. The story manages to jam in almost every imaginable dramatic plot twist – ove triangles, political and romantic betrayal, murder, sleeping potions and the like. But while the production provides plenty of romantic spectacle, aided by sumptuous sets of a towering ship and the Venetian palazzo Ca’ D’Oro, among others, this production is worth attending primarily for what you will hear.

While La Gioconda is famous for giving extensive singing roles to each of the major voice parts (soprano, mezzo, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass), in this performance it was the women who commanded our attention, both vocally and dramatically. This production is most noteworthy for the return of Ewa Podleŝ to the Met stage for her first performances since 1984. The Polish contralto has a cult following all over the world and her performance as La Cieca, the blind mother of La Gioconda, the Venetian street singer, begs the question why she has been so long absent from the Met stage. Hers is a voice which, while interesting enough in recordings, demands to be heard live in the acoustic space where it blooms and envelops the listener. When she first opened her mouth to sing in the opening scene of the opera, you could almost feel the collective shiver go through the audience, and after her aria they roared their approval. Listening to her voice is like diving into a deep well. The colors and tonal shape are wonderfully different from many of the other voices performing today.

The contrast with Deborah Voigt’s more frequently heard voice was rather startling, particularly in the first act, where her lighter, almost tentative singing at times seemed to be conserving energy for the later acts of the opera. The American soprano, who is making her mark as one of the world’s foremost Straussian and Wagnerian sopranos, initially sounded like a lighter lyric voice next to the dark colors and round tone of Podles, but in the stringent demands of Act IV in particular, the power and brilliance of her sound returned in full force. Her acting was passionate and impetuous throughout, conveying the downward spiral of La Gioconda’s extinguished hopes, and providing a dramatic foil for Olga Borodina’s regal and impassioned portrayal of Laura, the Genoese noblewoman. Their duet in Act II is one of the great vocal battles in opera and they did not disappoint, each matching the other for intensity and power of sound. The Russian mezzo sang with a wonderful combination of rich, dark color and cutting edge that rang out over the orchestra. Her no-holds-barred rendition of “Stella del marinar” produced a sustained ovation.

Next to the glorious singing and varied tonal quality of the women, the men performed competently, but for the most part did not shine vocally or dramatically. Italian baritone, Carlo Guelfi, as the Venetian government spy, Barnaba, was the most impressive, both for the warmth of his tone as well as the consistency of his acting, although neither matched the intensity of the three women. Venezuelan tenor, Aquiles Machado, sang ably as Enzo Grimaldo, the exiled Genoese noble and lover of Gioconda and Laura, but the size and tone of his voice, which occasionally sounded reedy on top, did not match that of either of his lovers, and his acting was wooden, making it harder to believe that these two women, in particular, would sacrifice so much for his sake. Bulgarian bass, Orlin Anastassov, making his Met debut as Alvise Badoero, the Venetian head of the Inquisition and husband of Laura, did not make much of an impression in his opening scene, but warmed up, both vocally and dramatically as the wronged and vengeful husband in Act III.

One of the highlights of the evening is a non-vocal one. The most widely known music in La Gioconda is the ballet scene, “The Dance of the Hours,” famously used in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Christopher Wheeldon’s masterful choreography, weaving together classical and modern influences, and beautifully danced by Letizia Giuliani and Angel Corella, successfully banished the animated dancing elephants within a few bars of music.

The Met Chorus and Children’s Chorus both sang with power and precision, although the stage direction of the chorus was particularly static. It is disappointing to see a chorus of this ability not used more creatively.

With the length of the opera at a full four hours, including three intermissions, this production is not for the faint of heart, but for sheer theatrical value (the cheapest seats are $15) and an immersion in glorious sound and romantic spectacle, La Gioconda is not to be missed.