Monday, December 21, 2009

Word on the street is opera makes a great gift!

Local news outfits 77 Square, Madison Magazine, and The Well-Tempered Ear are all encouraging you to keep Madison Opera in mind this gift-giving season.

77 Square's holiday gift guide includes a section "For the opera lover," which recommends tickets to The Turn of the Screw paired with the Henry James novella, or tickets to The Flying Dutchman with the full score on the side (for the real aficionado). Jacob Stockinger of The Well-Tempered Ear seconds these recommendations, along with related DVDs.

Madison Magazine's article "Seize the City!" offers 62 things every Madisonian should try in the new year. At number 15 is The Flying Dutchman. They write, "Not only is it a story filled with stormy seas, a deal made with the devil and the promise of redemption through true love—it’s also the Madison Opera’s first staging of an opera by Richard Wagner."

If you already have tickets but are looking for a way to show your support this holiday season, we recommend making gifts to the Opera in honor of a friend or family member!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Casting for Miles and Flora draws on budding local talent

Madison Opera is excited to announce the casting of Alistair Sewell and Jennifer DeMain in the roles of Miles and Flora for Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. To classical music lovers in Madison, these are familiar names: Alistair is the son of Maestro Andrew Sewell, music director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and Jennifer is the daughter of Maestro John DeMain, Madison Opera's artistic director and the Madison Symphony Orchestra's music director.

Casting the children in The Turn of the Screw is notoriously difficult. The roles require exceptional vocal skill combined with adept musical and dramatic proficiency. After an extensive audition process, General Director Allan Naplan was thrilled to discover Mr. Sewell, 13, and Ms. DeMain, 17, were suited perfectly for the parts.

Boy soprano Alistair Sewell will be making his Madison Opera debut as Miles. A former member of the Madison Boy Choir, Alistair continues to sing regularly and last year appeared as soloist in Howard Blake’s The Snowman with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong. Alistair is currently a member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony - Philharmonia Orchestra, as a cellist, and also participates in the chamber music program. He is the first trumpet in the 8th grade band and jazz band at Jefferson Middle School. Alistair has a keen interest in acting, movie making and composition, and has performed several of his own compositions locally. He works regularly as a model with the Rock Agency in Madison and has studied with acting coach John Kirby in Los Angeles. In 2009, Alistair appeared as Wally in the production of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town at the Masterworks Festival in Winona Lake, Indiana.

A performer of diverse talents, Jennifer DeMain is currently completing her senior year at Edgewood High School in Madison. At Edgewood, she has appeared as Juror #4 in Twelve Angry Jurors; Rosemary in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; Minnie Fay in The Matchmaker; and Nicky Cricker in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In addition to her work as a vocalist, Jennifer is principal cellist of the Edgewood High School String Orchestra, and pianist for the Edgewood High School Jazz Ensemble. She began on stage at the age of five as a super in Madison Opera's production of Help! Help! The Globolinks and later joined the Madison Opera Children's Chorus for productions of Carmen, La boheme, Turandot, and Il trovatore. Other credits include the children's chorus in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking with South Australian Opera and work locally with Children's Theater of Madison and Four Seasons Theater. Jennifer currently studies voice with Andrew Abrams.

Performances of The Turn of the Screw will take place in The Playhouse at Overture, January 28-31, 2010.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Holiday tradition gone bad. Really, really bad.

Here is a clip that has been making its way around the internet for a few years now but is always worth revisiting, especially in this season of many "Messiahs": it's what Alex Ross calls "the great 'Messiah' train wreck", aka "organist on crack" (click to listen to the .mp3). So spectacularly bad its good. One can't help but wonder what was going through the minds of those poor singers during the final chords.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Benjamin Britten: A Musical Life [Part 1]

Opera-goers tend to hold certain associations with the giants of opera composition. Apocryphal or not, they are the quick definitions that come to mind at the mention of a composer's name. One tends to think of Mozart as a child prodigy, a playful flirt, a tortured genius. Wagner? Gesamtkunstwerk visionary, megalomaniac, anti-Semite. Verdi? Political revolutionary. Rossini? Funny fat man. Bizet? French one-hit-wonder. Britten?...Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?

Though Benjamin Britten was the most prolific and successful opera composer of the mid-2oth century, though his works are already staples of the repertory at opera houses around the world, his name does not yet ring familiar for most people. Even the casual opera subscriber (in the U.S., that is) would likely be hard-pressed to name more than one Britten opera, let alone any information about the man beyond his nationality.

The Britten-Pears Foundation--our lead sponsor for The Turn of the Screw in January--has done an admirable job of combating this trend. Following the Foundation's example and utilizing the full resources of their brilliant website, we will be exploring Britten's life in a multi-part series on The MadOpera Blog in preparation for our new production The Turn of the Screw.


Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England on November 22, 1913. Lowestoft is about 3 hours northeast of London on the coast, and the sea will have deep personal and musical significance for Britten throughout his life. His childhood home in Lowestoft is now a bed and breakfast.

Britten was the youngest of four siblings. His father was a dentist, and his mother an amateur musician. The Britten-Pears Foundation reports that his mother encouraged all of the Britten children musically, though while South Lodge Preparatory School, young Benjamin developed a passion for sport as well, specifically tennis, swimming, and cricket.

Music ruled, though, and Britten first scribbled down notes at the age of 5. At the age of 7, piano lessons began and viola lessons followed shortly. By the time he was 14, he was studying composition with Frank Bridge, whose composition The Seas had "knocked him sideways."

To fully gauge the depth of young Britten's musicality, explore this timeline with audio samples of his earliest compositions. They range from jovial, childish ditties to more self-conscious imitations of classical forms, but all nonetheless plainly exhibit a burgeoning talent.

In September 1928, Britten began to board at Gresham's School in Norfolk. He enjoyed sports and music at school but was homesick, though this did not thwart his creativity. While at Gresham's, he began to set poetry to music, and at the age of 16 he won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London. He lived with his sister Beth and studied composition with John Ireland, who was known for a style branded "English impressionism," heavily influenced by Debussy and Ravel. But despite writing his official "Opus 1" (Sinfonietta) and developing his skills at RCM, Britten did not feel musically at home in the conservatory setting. With more time and freedom, Britten would begin to come into his own.

*Facts and photos via The Britten-Pears Foundation website.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Eye on the Cast: Caroline Worra

Madison Opera's casting high point promises to be the gifted Caroline Worra as the Governess in The Turn of the Screw...
Opera News, "Hot Tickets"
Soprano Caroline Worra has been hailed as "a new soprano powerhouse" by The New Yorker. In Time Out New York, the composer Mark Adamo had this to say: "Caroline's an immaculate musician and vocally complete, but that's only where a singer starts. Her sound is utterly her own--rich, bright, crackling with intensity--and every time I hear her, she's a bolder, more inventive actress." From January 28-31, you can hear her sing the role of The Governess in Madison Opera's production of The Turn of the Screw.

There's a reason our casting of Ms. Worra as The Governess caught the attention of Opera News magazine: she is known for excelling in contemporary repertoire. I first heard her as a stunning Eurydice in Philip Glass's Orphee at Glimmerglass Opera in 2007; with that same company, she earned a Grammy nomination for a recording of The Mines of Sulphur and high-praise for creating the title role in The Greater Good: The Passion of Boule de Suif. Earlier this season, she was Miss Rose in the world premiere of Stephen Schwartz's new work, Seance on a Wet Afternoon.

But to focus only on her work in contemporary opera would ignore her huge range. She's recently performed Marguerite in Faust with Opera Memphis, and this month, she is in Chicago at the Lyric Opera for Hanna in The Merry Widow. Perhaps these two videos of Caroline (Verdi's Il Corsaro and Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress) capture it best.

Rehearsals for The Turn of the Screw start January 11th, and we can't wait!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Click/Read/Watch/Listen: The Turn of the Screw

It's that time again. Notebook ready? Study up on Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw with our guide to the best online resources available: Click/Read/Watch/Listen [pdf].

Explore the life of Benjamin Britten, from his early compositions to apotheosis as England's great composer of the 20th century. Watch video of his BBC broadcasts with tenor Peter Pears or a cheesy and controversial 1982 film version of the opera (dubbed with fantastic vocal performances, I might add). Read the full text of Henry James' original novella or a humourous abridged version of Myfanwy Piper's libretto. There is much to discover and the links await, so go click, read, watch and listen.

Turn of the Screw painting by Christian Andrew Grooms.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Funny and true: "Why Opera is a Manly Art" and "Bad Reasons to Hate Opera"

Two funny pieces about breaking down opera stereotypes recently came to my attention. The people over at The Guy's Manual, an online series sponsored by MSN and Grape Nuts cereal, have come up with a list called "Why Opera is a Manly Art." In Vancouver, a writer inspired by Vancouver Opera gives us "10 (Bad) Reasons to Hate Opera."

"Why Opera is a Manly Art" is great for its range and wackiness: they start with "Mozart lent his cool factor to the genre" and end with "it will deceive your woman into thinking you're sensitive." It's all lighthearted with a grain of truth. I particularly enjoyed this opening from writer Marc Freeman:
Do you remember that scene in "The Untouchables" when a weeping Al Capone attends the opera "Pagiliacci" while his henchman whacks Sean Connery's Jim Malone? No one called Capone a sissy then and no one will call you one now. After all, there's more to being a music man than playing "Guitar Hero." Here's why you can let your manly manliness emerge at the opera house.
In "10 (Bad) Reasons to Hate the Opera", David Tracey gives us the typical complaints from opera-haters and then shoots them down. For instance, the No. 3 bad reason is "It's expensive." Tracey writes that while some seats have to be expensive to cover the huge cost of putting on an opera, there are always cheap seats to be found. In Madison, that means $16 or $20, not bad considering an evening ticket at Sundance Cinemas can be $13. He also points out that for the unitiated looking to just hear what opera sounds like, you can tune into the free Met Opera radio broadcasts, which in our neck of the woods run on WPR 88.7, starting Dec. 12.

I also like bad reason No. 2, "It's boring":
If sex, murder, war, obsession, torture, love, politics and more murder don’t interest you... you might take a good look in the mirror. Maybe you’re the boring one?
Reason No. 7, "I don't own a tux/gown," has a Vancouver-centric response that easily translates to Madison:
This is Vancouver, where "elegant attire" means your fleece liner matches your raincoat.
Check them out, and let us know if you have anything to add to either list!