Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Macbeth, LA Opera

On Thursday evening October 13, Los Angeles Opera transmitted Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth live from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in the center of the city, to a pier in Santa Monica and to South Gate Park in Southeastern Los Angeles County. My companion and I saw the opera in High Definition on a twenty-five foot high screen at the park.

COC’d Up Ariodante

Director Richard Jones never met an opera he couldn’t ‘change,’ and Canadian Opera Company’s sumptuously sung Ariodante was a case in point.

Jamie Barton at the Wigmore Hall

“Hi! … I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

Toronto: Bullish on Bellini

Canadian Opera Company has assembled a commendable Norma that is long on ritual imagery and war machinery.

The Nose: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.



Danielle and Grant Knox (Photo: Matt Dilyard)
16 Aug 2007

Ohio Light Opera Festival

For twenty-eight years now the Ohio Light Opera Festival (OLO) has held forth in Wooster in the summertime, presenting no less than 99 different works (their big 100th comes next year), familiar and forgotten, by the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Offenbach, Sigmund Romberg, Carl Zeller and Emmerich Kálmán — to refer only to the authors of the seven undertaken this year.

Ohio Light Opera Festival, Wooster, Ohio

Carl Zeller, Der Vogelhändler, August 3
Emmerich Kálmán, Die Herzogin von Chicago, August 4

Above: Danielle and Grant Knox (Photo: Matt Dilyard)


The audience is almost as ancient as the repertory, and as faithful as fairy tale royalty. (Matinees sell out; license plates document the region, from Georgia to Wisconsin.) The performers, however, are young and enthusiastic, and production values (aside from some desperate excuses for baroque court wigs) impressive. The old scores brim with melody and sentiment, are played by a full orchestra, and are all sung in English by a chorus that refuses to stand and deliver — they can all dance up a storm, and they do. Delectable waltzes, polkas, and czardas flood sultry Midwest evenings. It’s a wonderful cause and a wonderful occasion, and I wish I’d enjoyed the performances more than I did.

Operetta in its heyday was the less serious, more popular, highly localized form of musical play — and to this day translation is a problem. Offenbach has always had difficulties coming off outside France, Gilbert and Sullivan never appealed in France, and zarzuela is confined to Spanish-speaking lands. But when the United States was full of immigrants, there was a large audience for foreign product, which inspired local product. Broadway operetta came of age with the runaway success of Lehar’s Merry Widow in 1905; then an Irishman, Victor Herbert, and two transplanted Austrians, Romberg and Friml, covered the twenties, but local boys like Kern and Rodgers soon proved they could handle it.

Zeller’s biggest hit, Der Vogelhändler, opened in Vienna in 1891 and was playing New York — in English — before the year was out. Kálmán reigned with Lehar — and was every bit as good — in Vienna and Budapest from before World War I till World War II, but his shows were as likely to premiere in New York, London, or Zurich. (He died in 1953 in Paris, at work on his last, Arizona Lady — yes, they’ve staged it in Wooster.)

The reason pre-war operettas, with rare exceptions like Show Boat and G&S, no longer hold the stage here, aside from the unfashionable style of the music and the idiocy of most of the plots, is that singers no longer know how to sing them. Voices that should fill a room with an achingly romantic waltz sound shrill or shaky or simply unsensuous with microphones, while the voice with a mic sounds ridiculous singing over a full orchestra without one. Broadway singers depend on mics today to a disgraceful extent, even in the tiniest theaters — they are no longer trained to project, and they no longer try to. A recent evening of grand old American operetta standards performed by young Broadway performers at New York’s Town Hall (which the unamplified voice can easily fill) proved a disaster: squealing sopranos, dull baritones, lyrics inaudible or else blasting our ears when they did use mics. OLO performs in a 394-seat house, and a singer who can’t fill that size room should probably not be singing outside the shower. And yet, over and over again, the lyrics of the soloists could scarcely be heard — even in Row H center — and the big sensual voices for which this repertory was created were not on hand. Part of the problem may lie with an overly loud orchestra, but surely someone in the company can point this out to the conductors and take it down a few notches. Or was it that, like Broadway performers today, the singers were concentrating too hard on their dancing to bother putting a lyric across? Were they that embarrassed by the translations? Operetta translations are often grotesque … but I couldn’t hear enough to determine if that was true at either of the performances I attended.

Der Vogelhändler and Die Herzogin von Chicago appealed to me precisely because I’d never heard them before, and both scores had been warmly recommended over the years. Each boasts a wealth of melody that puts anything now on Broadway to shame, but that’s almost a given. Both have cardboard characters and ridiculous plots in which true love, frustrated, conquers in the end. In Der Vogeländler (The Bird-Seller, sometimes Englished as The Tyrolean), Suzanne Woods as the Princess-in-disguise got her voice and her points across, notably in the show’s hit tune, “If You Give Roses in Tyrol,” but winsome Karla Hughes and comic Sandra Ross vanished into the woodwork as soon as the band struck up. The sprightly duet of two corrupt professors was probably comic, but not a word reached the ears. Paul Hindemith (no, really, that’s his name) and Todd Strange made likeable comic villains, and the latter was occasionally loud enough — because he screamed. Peter Foltz made a capable title character, Zeller’s attempt to give Papageno more sentiment and some spine.

Emmerich Kálmán’s Die Herzogin von Chicago (The Duchess of Chicago) dates from 1928, when the youth of Budapest and Vienna were gaga for jazz — had any American shows reached Central Europe yet? The dance tunes certainly had. Nothing daunted, Kálmán cannily wrote a jazz operetta, inserting fox trots, Charlestons, saxophones and snippets of Rhapsody in Blue among the waltzes and sentimental serenades. The wisp of a plot concerns a bankrupt Balkan prince who falls for the spoiled daughter of an American millionaire. She won’t marry a man who won’t do the Charleston and he won’t marry a girl who won’t waltz — even if she has just purchased his decrepit family castle for six million smackers. True love naturally conquers, in a spirit of musical compromise.

The staging was, once again, enthusiastic to a degree, with full marks for dancing choristers and the orchestra pouring forth delicious tune upon tune. The Duchess, “Mary Lloyd,” was played by Danielle Knox, who looks like the millions she spends, acts and dances with flare, and has terrific legs, of which we saw a great deal — all requirements for a 1928 operetta diva. But when she sang, alas, not a word reached the ear. Her prince (and real-life husband — scuttlebutt has it they met while performing at the festival) was Grant Knox, whose voice is not beautiful but whose diction was the clearest all weekend. The rival princess was neither singer nor actress nor beauty, and smirking Jacob Allen, a tap dancing American entrusted with the comic duties, lacked the energy to carry the evening. The most expert and stylish performances — but alas no singing — came from Gary Moss, playing the caddish fathers of both lovers.

There’s such a treasure of music at OLO, and such a blessed enthusiasm for it, that one would like to have the company at one’s mercy, to test whether the orchestra really does need a more controlling hand than it gets from its conductors, or if the theater acoustics are defective, or if it’s the fault of the singers — many of whom have studied in opera programs and surely could project if they wanted to — that the experience was so unsuccessful. Regulars around me (though, when asked, they admitted they couldn’t get the words either) seemed very happy with what they were getting, but I doubt a theatrical experience of this order will appeal to youngsters introduced to the operetta repertory by such presentations. This is as sad a conclusion as one of Lehar’s pessimistic endings.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):