Recently in Performances
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
“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.
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.
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 took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
24 Apr 2010
Shadowboxer — The Inner Life of Joe Louis
An opera about boxer Joe Louis might seem like a futile undertaking:
according to 1930s New York Times reporter Meyer Berger, “Joe
Louis avoids meeting people, hates conversation (even fight talk) and says less
than any man in sports…”
Despite the countless articles on
Louis’s life and career that appeared in newspaper sports pages and
gossip columns of the 1930s through the 50s, his 1978 autobiography, My
Life, was the only public statement the boxer ever made about his personal
life. The nature of opera is to delve into human psyche, but we know so little
about Joe’s innermost thoughts and feelings — how could it be possible to
write an opera about one of organized sports’ most notoriously silent
Composer Frank Proto, librettist John Chenault, and director Leon Major
struck out to do just that. Shadowboxer is an opera that addresses the
issues of racial stereotyping and segregation, the blessing and curse of modern
celebrity, and one man’s struggle to overcome his inner demons to become
a hero to millions of his fellow Americans. As an elderly Louis (a role split
between Jarrod Lee as Old Joe, Duane Moody as his younger self, and Nickolas
Vaughn as Joe the Boxer) looks back on his life, he remembers both the
tragedies and triumphs he experienced as an African-American in a sport
dominated by white athletes. The opera is comprised of flashbacks that occur in
Old Joe’s mind, and many of these memories bleed into the
character’s reality. These trips down memory lane focus on the
boxer’s early career, Joe’s marriage to Marva Trotter (Adrienne
Webster), and his famous bout with German boxer Max Schmeling (Peter
Burroughs). Shadowboxer chronicles Joe’s philanthropic
contributions to the US armed forces during WWII, the discrimination he
experienced during his enlistment in the US Army, and his financial ruin at the
hands of the Internal Revenue Service. The opera fast-forwards to Louis’s
descent into substance abuse and madness and the revival of his celebrity
status in his later years. Though he led a turbulent and somewhat sad life, Joe
Louis’s ascension to the throne of the world heavyweight boxing
championship made him a true American hero at a time when the country was
firmly divided along racial lines.
Librettist Chenault sees the title Shadowboxer as having a double
meaning: “[The term] shadowboxer fits with the boxing world… but
in particular reference to Joe [it makes us ask] how do we peer behind the
curtain, how do we move that aside and look at the interior life of Joe?”
An exploration of the mind and spirit of such a well-known but private
individual is both a confining and liberating task. To interpret the factual
account of a life through the medium of opera is, in some respects, liberating;
through music and words, Proto and Chenault create an emotional context for
historical events. On the other hand, the distillation of a real person with
complex emotions into an operatic performance of a few hours is somewhat
constricting. Chenault, a poet and playwright, studied Louis’s
autobiography, and much of his libretto comes from Joe’s own words.
Proto, Chenault, and Major chose to place the 1938 Louis-Schmeling fight at the
center of the work and present the rest of Joe’s story as an ascent to
and decent from this historic event.
The music of Shadowboxer sets this work apart in the world of
modern opera. Proto’s inclusion of an on-stage eight-piece jazz combo in
addition to the full pit orchestra is unprecedented, and he uses this ensemble
to great effect. It is not uncommon for jazz to inspire operatic music –
composers like Max Brand and Ernst Krenek of the German Zeitopern
tradition incorporated elements of jazz and popular music into their works of
the 1920s and 30s, and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess makes
use of jazz rhythms throughout its entire score. Rather than taking on a
secondary role, however, jazz exists side by side with traditional operatic
music in Shadowboxer. Although this work does not feature any 1930s or
40s jazz standards, Proto says its music is “descended” from the
music of the time when Joe Louis was in his prime, and the onstage jazz band
takes on a life separate from its counterpart in the pit.
Proto’s imaginative score is a versatile vehicle for the University of
Maryland Opera Studio. Featuring a cast of performers, including graduate
students in the UM Opera Studio, undergraduate voice majors, Opera Studio
alumni, invited guest artists, and UM faculty (Professor Carmen Balthrop is
stunning in her role as Joe’s mother, Lillie Brooks) Shadowboxer
is accompanied by student instrumentalists. This world-class production leaves
no doubt in my mind that these musicians are professionals of the highest
caliber. Webster and Balthrop give outstanding vocal performances, as does
VaShawn McIlwain in the role of Joe’s trainer, Jack Blackburn. All of the
soloists are extremely competent, although some have problems with projection.
Proto’s choice to add eight extra instrumentalists on stage level places
them in direct competition with the singers for that sonic space, and some do
no project well over the jazz combo accompaniment. While Lee’s portrayal
of Old Joe is beautifully acted and impeccably sung, he is sometimes
overpowered by the instrumentalists. At times, the audience is forced to rely
on the closed captioning shown on screens placed to the left and right of the
stage to follow the dialogue. This necessity becomes distracting, and I found
myself watching the screens during the scenes featuring Joe’s paramours
(Madeline Miskie, Amelia Davis, and Amanda Opuszynski) to catch all the words.
Balance issues aside, the cast members do an excellent job communicating with
the audience through their commanding stage presence. The transcendent nature
of this abstract work requires performers that connect with the audience, and
this group rises to the challenge.
The production of Shadowboxer exists firmly in the tradition of
modern opera. The set features a deconstructed boxing ring, complete with
lights and ropes strung at odd angles, and the canvas is represented by three
large white screens that hang at the back of the stage. In addition to
providing context for an opera about a boxer, this set provides a backdrop for
the projection designs of Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White. The practice of
replacing sets with projections has been widely used in modern opera
productions of the past decade, but director Major had a different vision for
the incorporation of this technique. Rather than illustrating Louis’s
life through a series of images, Malone and White’s projections serve as
snapshots of his memory that support the singers and provide a context for the
action. The projections contribute an element of realism by weaving familiar
images (like the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Nazi occupation of Europe) in
with Old Joe’s abstract recollections. Projections also facilitate an
imaginary exchange between Old Joe and boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Jack
Johnson. Ali and Johnson are represented by a trumpet (Brent Madsen) and tenor
saxophone (Anthony Bonomo), rather than singers, and their words are projected
on the screen backdrops. Bonomo’s and Madsen’s improvised solos are
masterful and compelling, but their scene still seems out of place, as it has
no parallel in the rest of the work. A return to the quasi-reality of
Joe’s memory seems confusing after this unreal exchange. Even in an opera
that takes place almost entirely in one character’s head, this sequence,
in my opinion, is too abstract.
Overall, the UM Opera Studio has staged an excellent production. In the
words of conductor Tim Long, “It’s really nice to be working on a
new opera...because you don’t have to fit the mold of what people have
done for centuries. We can create that mold.” This work is a breakthrough
modern opera, and hopefully future productions will follow in the footsteps of
the visionary artists who created Shadowboxer.
University of Maryland