Friday, February 27, 2009

This Sunday: Opera Up Close

Opera Up Close: The Cosi fan Tutte Preview
Sunday, March 1, 4-6 p.m., MMoCA Lecture Hall
General Admission: $20

Join General Director Allan Naplan as he explores Cosi fan Tutte in an entertaining multimedia presentation. Gain insight to the Madison Opera production and the history and music of Mozart, and enjoy the special segment "From Ten Chimneys to the Met," a look at Wisconsin native Alfred Lunt's historic production of Cosi at the Met.

The Real Mozart, Part 2

Expanding on an earlier post, here are more excerpts from Mozart's letters:

To his Father, Leopold Mozart, April 1784
Herr Richter, a clavier-player, is making a tour on his way back to Holland, his native country...There is a great deal of execution in his playing, but, as you will hear, it is too broad, too laboured, and without a trace of taste or feeling. Otherwise, he is the best fellow in the world and without a trace of pride. He fixed his eyes on my fingers while I played to him, then said suddenly, "My God; I work at it till I sweat and yet get no success--while you, my friend, simply play at it!" "Yes," said I, "but I too had to work in order that I might be exempt from work now."

To his Wife, Constance Weber, Apri 1789
Dearest little wife, if only I had a letter from you! If I were to tell you all the things I do with your dear portrait you would often laugh, I think! For instance, when I take it out of its case, I say, "Good morrow, Stanzerl! Good day, little rogue!--pussy-wussy! saucy one!--good for nothing!--dainty morsel!" And when I put it back I slip it in little by little saying all the time, "Nu-nu-nu-nu!" with just the peculiar emphasis this very meaningful word demands, and then, just at the last, quickly, "Good night, little pet--sleep sound!"

To his Friend, Michael Puchberg, June 1790
I am here to conduct my opera [Cosi fan Tutte]. My wife is getting a little better. She already feels some slight relief, but she will have to take the baths sixty times--and go away again in the autumn. God grant it may do her good!--Dearest friend, if you can help with the present pressing expenses, oh do so! I am staying in Baden for the sake of economy, and only go into town when absolutely necessary. I have just been obliged to part with my quartets (that difficult work!) for a mere song, so as to get ready money.--I am now working at some clavier sonatas for the same reason. Adjeu. Send me what you can most easily spare.

To his wife, October 1791
I am just returned from the opera [The Magic Flute]. It was quite as full as ever. The duetto, "Man and Wife," etc., and the glockenspiel in Act I were encored as usual--the boy terzett in Act II in addition. But it is the evident quiet approbation which best pleases me! It is apparent that this opera is rising rapidly and steadily in estimation.

Here we learn what Mozart looked for in a clavier player, and what distinguished his own playing in the eyes of his peers: his effortlessness. We see a completely goofy and yet tender note to his wife Constance, a common mixture in his comedies. At the time Cosi fan Tutte was premiered, we learn that his wife was ill and money was tight, which forced him to beg from friends and most depressingly forced him to put down meaningful work in order to write "mere songs" for fast money. Lastly, we hear of the triumphant reception The Magic Flute was receiving, and that it was the audience's silence (something uncommon in that era) that he most valued as a sign of success.

Mozart was always cocky, but one senses that with The Magic Flute he was beginning to take his gifts more seriously, to realize the consequences and possibilities of his greatness. But it was just two months after he wrote of that opera's "steady rising in estimation" that he died at age 35:

Mozart died on 5 December, 1791. There was not money enough for fitting obsequies. He was buried in the "common grave." Few friends followed the coffin, and even these turned back half-way on account of the bad weather. It is now impossible to identify with any certainty the spot where rest his mortal remains. (Hans Mersmann)

A memorial stands today in St. Marx Cemetery in Vienna, where Mozart was buried. I was in Vienna four years ago and went on a small pilgrimage of sorts to St. Marx. It was a freezing, blustery, cloudy day, and I had gotten off at the wrong tram stop so found myself walking well over a mile in search of the cemetery. There were practically no signs, no shops selling Mozart souvenirs or anything else to indicate the historic location amongst the columns of modest apartment buildings in the neighborhood. And the cemetery itself--overgrown and dead in winter--was empty, with no other tourists in sight. In essence, despite the new monument to Mozart at St. Marx, it felt rather insignificant, casual, an afterthought, like the paupers' grave it was on the rainy day Mozart was buried.

The reality is that Mozart likely had his best years ahead of him. He lived, loved, and worked passionately during his short life to all of our benefit, but it had not yet brought him the creative freedom of a steady, well-paying post. In an appeal for financial assistance that his wife wrote to Emperor Leopold II six days after his passing, she says, "The picture becomes all the more pathetic in that he was taken from the world at the very moment when his prospects for the future were brightening upon all sides." We are only left to wonder what could have been, grateful for what we have.

Letters of Mozart. Edited by Hans Mersmann. Translated by M. M. Bozman. Dorset Press, New York: 1986.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Getting Cosi in rehearsal

John Bellemer (Ferrando), Mary Mackenzie (Despina), Joshua Hopkins (Guglielmo), Laura Vlasak Nolen (Dorabella) and Jessica Jones (Fiordiligi) in rehearsal

Pardon the bad pun in the post title, it was bound to happen! The artists for Cosi fan Tutte arrived on Sunday and have been rehearsing since Monday. I swung by rehearsal today and took a few pictures; check out the slideshow below.

The cast was having a lot of fun. Cosi requires a certain silliness to pull off, and everyone seems to be enthusiastically on board. Today they were working on Act I, scene iii, during which Guglielmo and Ferrando (in disguise as Albanians) threaten to poison themselves if they are not given the chance to win over the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Some dramatic issues discussed this morning were: Does Despina, who is now leading this plan of seduction, know who Guglielmo and Ferrando are beneath the disguises? Do the sisters suspect anything? What's the hierarchy in this web of deceit? (It was concluded there are at least three levels of deceit at this point in the opera, by the way). It's all very entertaining, mostly because it is really only the audience that sits at the top of this hierarchy, we are the only ones who know what's truly going on, as much as Don Alfonso likes to think he's in control.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A visit to the UW Voice and Swallow Clinic

On Friday afternoon, I brought the Madison Opera High School Apprentices to the UW Voice and Swallow Clinic, a great resource for singers in the community. Our guide was Sarah Melton, a speech pathologist at the clinic, and she talked to the apprentices about healthy practices for young singers. It was also a bit of an anatomy lesson, a chance to see and learn exactly what muscles are used to produce those vibrations we sometimes call arias. The grand finale was for each of the apprentices to get "scoped," a procedure that involves a scary looking (but harmless) camera taking live video of one's vocal folds flapping back and forth, rendered in slow motion by, of all things, a mini strobe light. You can click the first link above to browse the Voice Clinic's page for singers. Go here for information on "Explore the Voice," a free, day-long seminar on vocal health sponsored by the Voice Clinic and Madison Opera on May 16. Much more on that later, but for now enjoy these pictures from Friday.

Speech pathologist Sarah Melton with scope in hand; brave apprentice in back. The scope rests on the tongue while peering down at the vocal folds.

Watching a re-play of the scope results. The vocal folds slowly come into focus as the camera gets to the back of the mouth, an exciting moment that was generally met with "oohs" and "ahhs." Google "vocal folds" at your own risk!

Anyone else see the resemblance?

Friday, February 20, 2009

What a night!

Madison, Wisconsin was treated to a truly special performance last night. Simply put, Danielle de Niese was awesome. She displayed a huge arsenal of vocal nuance, brought passion to every note, charmed the audience, and looked stunning throughout. But two other things stood out to me that say much more than the vocal fireworks, glitz and glam: her programming choices were smart and challenging, and she so clearly is a very generous and gracious person, treating us to two encores and signing autographs and taking photos well after her final bow.

The Madison Opera High School Apprentices
were thrilled to meet Danielle.

The star with her Madison Opera bodyguards.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Danielle DeNiese tonight!

She's earned raves from critics and fans around the world, she was the youngest soprano ever on the Met's roster, Playboy has deemed her one of classical music's hottest stars, and she's singing in Madison tonight. Danielle DeNiese, Wisconsin Union Theater, 8 pm tonight. Don't miss this chance to see one of opera's biggest stars in an intimate recital of Handel, Bizet, Wolf, and Barber.

Monday, February 16, 2009

NEA funding stays in the stimulus

An important bit of news for all of us: the National Endowment for the Arts will receive $50 million in the stimulus package, after it looked dubious for the last two weeks. We're especially proud it was a Wisconsin representative who stood up for the arts! Note well that Madison Opera's beloved production of The Tender Land last year, and this year's Opera in the Park (which reached over 13,000 people last summer), were partially funded by the NEA. Hundreds of people are employed to bring our productions to life, and they're just doing their job like anybody else, something that is often forgotten.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Geisha make-up with Jan Ross

Yesterday I had the unique pleasure of attending a "Who's New in Madison" luncheon at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens on Madison's East Side. Madison Opera's Hair and Make-Up Supervisor Jan Ross was the guest speaker, and she was invited to give a demonstration on geisha make-up. You can see how the process unfolded above. (It just so happened that the "Who's New in Madison" member transformed by Jan was Madison Opera volunteer Martha Abrams.)

Jan has been involved with Madison Opera from the very start, having worked behind-the-scenes at the company's first full production of La Boheme in the East High School auditorium in 1963. She's worked with the San Francisco Opera, Indianapolis Opera, and pretty much every performing arts troupe in Madison along the way, but Madison Opera has always been her home. At the luncheon, she walked guests through the make-up process for the geishas in Madama Butterfly, something she's done professionaly at least eight times! Jan says that geisha make-up is relatively easy, though it can be tricky to create the perfect shapes for the eyes and lips. One of her all-time favorite make-up jobs was doing the broken nose on Rigoletto in the 2006 Madison Opera production (see below), and she also let it be known that the make-up room is the place to be for backstage gossip...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cosi recap

Cosi fan Tutte is just over a month away. Here's a recap of recent Cosi related posts:

Mid-winter fever?

Somebody is playing a cruel trick on us here in Madison, melting all of our snow, shining the sun, raising temperatures to above 50 degrees. We are still on record pace for snowfall this winter, and it was only 2 weeks ago that I heard a weatherman say "High of zero," but all of a sudden it feels like spring is upon us. I was at a barbecue on Lake Monona this past Saturday; I think that captures the current climate confusion pretty well.

And with the changing weather has come a change of pace in the opera office. Cosi is now very much so upon us. All of the text for the program is due next week, rehearsals start the 23rd, and we're off...To top it off, this is right when plans for next season need to be finalized. Oy!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Around town: Candide and Danielle de Niese

Four Seasons Theatre presents Leonard Bernstein's Candide at the Wisconsin Union Theater tonight and Sunday. Madison Opera's chorus master Andy Abrams is directing the production, which also features Madison Opera chorus members Doug Swenson (as Candide) and Megan Cullen (as Paquette). Really, a whole slew of Madison Opera friends are involved with Candide, too many to list, so check it out! You can read more about the production in 77 Square.

And don't forget that the ever glamorous and in-demand soprano Danielle de Niese will be making her way to Wisconsin in just two weeks, performing at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Thursday, February 19 at 8 p.m. (Madison Opera is a presenting partner for this event). She's also doing a master class with the UW School of Music on the 18th at 4:30 in Morphy Recital Hall. It seems Lindsay Christians was busy last week; read her interview with de Niese in 77 Square here.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Listen to Cosi online

Opera Today has a page devoted to Cosi fan Tutte, on which they provide a free, streaming recording of the opera. Just follow this link to download, and it should start playing in your iTunes or other desktop media player!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Comedy or drama? The Cosi Dilemma

NPR's "World of Opera" offers an insightful introduction to Cosi fan Tutte that captures the dilemma that has come to define the work: is it comedy or drama? The answer of course is that Cosi is both, the problem being that it in turn veers to the extremes of both. It's all fun and games, disguises and accents, until Fiordiligi and Dorabella begin to yield to the temptations foolishly put forth in jest by Ferrando and Guglielmo. Many think this dichotomy is rooted in the difference in tone between da Ponte's libretto and Mozart's music: critics of the last two centuries have called da Ponte's libretto shallow, arguing that only
Mozart's music infuses any complexity. Undeniably the sheer beauty of the music forces one to at least occasionally take the on-stage antics seriously.

Mozart is always complicating matters though, because he is also a master of jovial tunes that so perfectly capture the naivety of the characters, and some argue that to take Cosi too seriously, to impose any sort of modern psychology on it, is to miss the point: Mozart and da Ponte were writing to entertain with this one.

It's easy to talk in circles about this, which is one of the joys of the work. Make sure to listen to the brief audio introduction provided by NPR, and they'll tell you why Cosi falls somewhere in between I Love Lucy and Perry Mason.

Photo: A scene from Cosi fan Tutte, with Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise, testing the faithfulness of their ladies Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Courtesy Sarasota Opera; Madison Opera will be using the sets and costumes of this production.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Eye on the cast: John Bellemer

Tenor John Bellemer will sing the role of Ferrando in our upcoming Cosi. Like Leonardo Vordoni (of Madama Butterfly) and Laura Vlasak Nolen (also of Cosi), Bellemer was at the Wexford Festival in Ireland this past summer earning high praise, with the London Times calling his work "outstanding." Brian Kellow of Opera News recently wrote that he has "a warm, rich tenor and gave a performance to remember as Bonconnion [in Richard Rodeny Bennet's The Mines of Sulphur.]" Bellemer is presently in Bilbao, Spain, performing the role of Toni in Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers at Teatro Arriaga, a much anticipated production that has been well received by the Spanish press (from what I can glean). To conclude, we have an awesome cast for Cosi and can't wait for rehearasls to start!