Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

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.

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.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.



Ricky Ian Gordon (Photo: Duncan Hannah)
22 Jul 2008

Gordon creates masterpiece in “Green Sneakers”

Eugenia Zukerman asked for a 10-minute chamber work — a piano quintet, perhaps — and she got Green Sneakers for Baritone, String Quartet and Empty Chair, which lasts exactly an hour.

Ricky Ian Gordon: Green Sneakers for Baritone, String Quartet and Empty Chair
Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival

Above: Ricky Ian Gordon (Photo: Duncan Hannah)


She was delighted — as were all those who heard the world premiere of “Sneakers” at Colorado’s Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival on July 15.

“I met Ricky two years ago,” says Zukerman, who as its artistic director had invited Gordon to be 2008 composer-in-residence at the Festival. “I had heard his Orpheus & Euridice, and he wrote me a flute obbligato for several of his songs. I was eager to have him in Vail and to commission a new work by him.”

In September, however, Gordon called Zukerman; he said he was working on a big piece and could not stop. “He read me the poems that were the libretto for the work,” Zukerman says. “They were gripping. I told him we would do it!”

Zukerman first contacted Gordon about a year ago, when he was in Salt Lake City for the second production of his opera The Grapes Of Wrath. At the time she suggested collaboration with the Miami String Quartet, an ensemble with a long Vail association. Gordon remembered a set of poems that he had written following the AIDS death of his long-time companion Jeffrey Grossi in 1996. He saw a new score taking shape on stage around an empty chair.

“I had a sense of the atmosphere that the work would have,” says the composer, who goes on to explain the title. There was a day after Jeffrey’s death when I was staring into our closet from the vast desolation of our bed,” he says. “These sad little green sneakers suggested a text about the day we bought them together. It poured out of me and ended up a cycle of poems that tells the story of that day and the period after it — all the way up to Jeffrey’s death.”

Jesse-Blumberg.pngJesse Blumberg
Gordon knew that the vocalist for Sneakers had to be Jesse Blumberg, the baritone who had created the role of Connie Rivers, the wayward husband of Steinbeck’s pregnant Rosasharn, for the premiere of Grapes a year earlier at Minnesota Opera. “In watching rehearsals of Grapes I noted Jesse’s artistry — his charisma, his honesty and his simplicity as a performer,” Gordon says. “Because of the honesty and intimacy of these poems I knew that a performer who was false in any way would kill Sneakers. It had to be a singer who was essentially an open vessel. Jesse is like that with his unusual combination of strapping casual masculinity and comfort in his own body. He’s unsaddled by any kind of ego that gets between him, the music he is singing and the words he is conveying.”

Gordon sent Blumberg the texts and asked whether he would be willing to perform Sneakers. “He wrote back almost immediately that he would be honored,” the composer says. “I am honored to have him.”

Gordon compares Blumberg with veteran mezzo Frederica Von Stade. “Like her, Jesse has a quality that many great singers have.” he says. “It is the inability to sing a single note without imbuing it with his entire personality, his opinion about life. Each note screams with life and dances.”

Green Sneakers originally ended with “Provincetown,” a poem that documents Gordon’s search for others who had survived the loss of a lover. But, once at work on the new score, he added as an epilogue “Sleep,” a poem (or lullaby) that he had once written for Grossi as a birthday gift. “I wanted to end the piece with a lullaby,” Gordon says, “and with a celebration of what we had together.” Grossi’s death is an experience that the composer had treated in his 2005 song cycle Orpheus & Euridice.

In Sneakers, however, the objectifying veil of myth is absent. Here Gordon faces Death head-on. The immediacy of the first person makes the narrative overwhelmingly direct. “I have questioned whether this was the right thing to do — to tell a story this baldly and to expose myself and my life with Jeffrey this way,” the composer says. “And my explanation is that after Jeffrey died I sought solace in reading everything I could find about grief. I was grateful to those who were generous enough to reveal in great detail the ways in which they endured loss and bore their own tragedies. So maybe there is a sense of mission here. Perhaps others have gone through what I went through and this might bring them some peace, identification, or understanding.”

Miami_String_Quartet-PMcGui.pngMiami String Quartet (Photo by Paul McGuirk)
It is amazing that in this his first work for string quartet Gordon has perfected an idiom that goes to the edge of tonality to create a microcosm of pain and despair that has all the markings of a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk. Indeed, at the premier, members of the Miami String Quartet were no longer mere strings, but humanized voices that formed a seamless dramatic unity with Blumberg. Yet, despite its obvious personal intensity, Sneakers is in no way confessional.

Like Orpheus, but in its own way, the new work elevates its contents to the level of universality. There is nothing of “letting it all hang out” in the score. Gordon locates models in Handel’s cantata Lucretia and in Britten’s Phedre, pieces where one singer tells and lives the story simultaneously. Because of its intimacy I approached the story in a ‘classical’ way with a prologue, an epilogue and interludes throughout,” he says. “That not only gives the listener time to think and reflect, but also gives the performer space to gear up for the next event. Even the use of a string quartet felt like a slightly distancing formal device.”

Praised for his Monteverdi and Bach, Blumberg at the premiere made this story his own, singing with a richly nuanced voice and, at 29, the stage presence of a veteran actor. In the most wrenching moment of Sneakers he went to the piano and played a phrase before turning to the epilogue of Gordon’s libretto. “This introduces the epilogue,” Gordon says. “In the score, there are two versions. One is very easy, essentially for two fingers, which any singer could play. The strings come in softly under the piano and take over when the singer leaves the keyboard. There’s the harder version, which is the one Jesse bravely opted for. He played the introduction to the epilogue, which, if the singer had no piano skills, would be hard, but luckily, with Jesse, you get everything. That’s why I hope it is he who does many productions of this piece, because along with being a wonderful singer and artist, he is brave!”

On the printed page Sneakers is a traditional song cycle: 14 free-verse poems plus two instrumental sections. The total absence of stage directions calls for a director, whom Gordon found for the premiere in Jonathan Solari, whose previous experience has been largely in spoken theater. “It was my job to support what Ricky had written,” says Solari, who went to work on the piece with Blumberg in Gordon’s New York apartment weeks before coming to Vail. We pushed the furniture aside and sat down with the music to develop a staging that peers into the soul of the narrator,” he says. Solari focused on having Blumberg interact with the string quartet and he wanted the audience to have an image of Jeffrey in the vacant chair on stage.

Where does Sneakers leave Gordon, a dozen years after Grossi’s death? Is this closure? “No, it’s not closure,” the composer says, “but a kind of unbelievable fulfillment, as if I have made something out of an experience that was excruciatingly painful as well as exultingly joyous. For what kept me alive — and probably Jeffrey for longer than anyone expected him to live — was a tremendous love, for which I will always be grateful and treasure as my good fortune.”

With the repetition of “Sleep Dear,” the final words of Green Sneakers, one heard in Vail a distant echo of the “Ewig” that concludes Mahler’s monumental Abschied. For this is a song of today’s earth, a farewell lamentation that transcends death.

Wes Blomster

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):