Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Turn of the Screw...a sneak peek

The Turn of the Screw is currently sold-out for this weekend, but we do still have seats available for tonight: go ahead and get your tickets now! The opera clocks in at 2 hours, so DVR "The Office" and come out for a night of music drama you won't soon forget. To quote our director, "Let the haunting begin..."

Interested in reading more about our new production? Check out these previews:

Monday, January 25, 2010

Benjamin Britten: A Musical Life [Part 2]

We left off a month ago (sorry for the delay!) with Benjamin Britten as a young man at the Royal College of Music in London beginning to find his musical voice. In 1933, he composed the choral variations for unaccompanied voices A Boy was Born. When the work was broadcast by the BBC in February 1934, Britten immediately gained recognition as a composer of great promise. The same year, his Phantasy was chosen for performance at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Florence. While away at the festival, Britten's father passed away.

By this time Britten was already signed up as a composer for Boosey and Hawkes publishing house, and he soon also was employed by the General Post Office Film Unit. The GPO produced a series of documentaries that examined aspects of English life, particularly in the world of industry. It was here that Britten first collaborated with the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote the narrative for some of the films with Britten's music. During this period, Britten also used a text by Auden for his symphonic song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, written for the Norwich Festival in 1936. A new play by Alan Bennett, titled "The Habit of Art," examines the creative relationship between Britten and Auden (pictured left).

In 1937, Britten was devastated by the sudden death of his mother. Shortly after, a close friend of his, Peter Burra, was killed in a plane crash. However it was out of this latter tragedy that he came to know the young singer Peter Pears: they were both left to sort out Burra's papers, and in turn became friends. This friendship would develop into a life-long personal and artistic partnership. Throughout the late 1930s, Britten was receiving commissions for film music from the BBC and for incidental music for the theatre.

Despite new fame in his native country, Britten was frustrated by the opportunities or lack thereof available in England and so in 1939, he and Peter Pears followed Auden and the playwright Christopher Isherwood to the United States. They gave concerts throughout the US and Canada, with the goal of ending up in Hollywood where they had a tentative film commission. However, they ended up on Long Island, and when war broke out in September 1939, despite their wanting to return home, they were encouraged to stay in the US in order to increase sympathy for Britain there. After the US entered the war, Britten and Pears tried to go home again but faced enormous difficulty getting visas.

Britten and Pears at Jones Beach on Long Island, NY

And so their little trip across the Atlantic would last three years, until 1942. While in America, Britten write his Violin Concerto, which was premiered by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and other instrument works including Young Apollo for piano, string quartet and string orchestra, Canadian Carnival and the Sinfonia da Requiem in memory of his parents. Most significantly, however, was another collaboration with Auden.

In 1940, Britten and Pears moved into a house in Brooklyn Heights with Auden and other artists, where they collaborated on the operetta Paul Bunyan, based on the classic American folk tale. It premiered at Columbia University and was well received, though both Britten and Auden would distance themselves from the work later. This was Britten's first full music drama, though there would be many more to come as he matured into the mid-twentieth century's most prolific and arguably most popular operatic composer.

Come back to the MadOpera Blog throughout the week as we examine Britten's life and work in anticipation of The Turn of the Screw, which opens Thursday, and visit the wonderful Britten-Pears Foundation website for much more information on the composer.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Turn of the Screw in rehearsal

Last night, our fantastic cast was at work rehearsing the final scenes of Act II of The Turn of the Screw in the Rotunda Studio at Overture.

"Easy to take, easy to take...take it! take it!"
Alistair Sewell as Miles and Gregory Schmidt as Quint.

"You're cruel, horrible, hateful, nasty. Why did you come here?"
Jennifer DeMain as Flora and Jamie Van Eyck as Miss Jessel.

"Ah! Don't leave me now!"
Caroline Worra as The Governess holds Miles in the final moments of the opera, directed by Doug Scholz-Carlson.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

New video: The Turn of the Screw interviews

Director Doug Scholz-Carlson, soprano Caroline Worra, and tenor Gregory Schmidt take a few minutes to talk about Madison Opera's new production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw:

Friday, January 8, 2010

Opera Up Close: New time & details

For the rest of the 2009-2010 Season, Opera Up Close will begin at 1 p.m. at the Museum of Contemporary Art Lecture Hall, instead of the traditional 4 p.m. start time.

Additionally, Opera Up Close: The Turn of the Screw Preview will offer a slightly different program than usual. As in the past, General Director Allan Naplan will offer an engaging presentation on the music and history of the opera and host a discussion with our guest artists, including Caroline Worra, Gregory Schmidt, John DeMain and Doug Scholz-Carlson. However, following this segment, we are excited to offer a complimentary screening of the classic 1961 film The Innocents. Based on The Turn of the Screw, the film is a masterful telling of Henry James' chilling ghost story, which of course also serves as the basis for Benjamin Britten's opera.

Opera Up Close: The Turn of the Screw Preview
  • New time: 1:00 - 3:30 p.m.
  • Same date: Sunday, January 17th
  • Same location & price: MMoCA Lecture Hall, $20 (FREE with valid student ID)
  • Special addition: a complimentary screening of The Innocents

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Madison Opera Book Club, Take 2

Last year, the Madison Opera Book Club was started in conjunction with our spring production of Faust. A fun discussion took place at the Sequoya Library on the classic "deal with the devil" myth as retold in the book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. This year, the Book Club is back to read The Turn of the Screw by Henry James in preparation for our production of Benjamin Britten's operatic adaptation of the ghostly tale. Anyone can join: just pick up a copy of the text, read it, and come to the Sequoya Library on Saturday, January 16th at 2 p.m., preferably with some things to say!

The novella is short by nature and the chilling tale makes for a quick read. But though the page count is thin, James' writing is rich. Some of the key questions to consider when reading The Turn of the Screw include:
  • Are the ghosts real?
  • How reliable is the governess as a narrator?
  • What is the nature of the children's corruption by Quint and Miss Jessel?
  • Do they maintain any innocence?
In Claire Seymour's controversial analysis, The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion, she discusses potential reasons Britten might have been attracted to the story, based on patterns in his other operas:
  • themes of innocence and experience
  • battle of good vs. evil, with a morally ambiguous moderator in between
  • no moral absolutes, James' texts offers an "unstable ethical field"
  • the novella is "full of emptiness", literally and metaphorically, which invites a theatrical version to fill in gaps
If you know the text, perhaps you will contend some of these assumptions. But either way, in transferring this particular work to the stage, Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper faced numerous difficult decisions right from the start. For one, Britten decided almost immediately that the ghosts were real, and in the opera they are characters with fully articulated words and music, even though they do not speak in the book. Would another interpretation have worked on stage?

This and more, next Saturday, January 16th, at the Sequoya Library meeting room, 2 p.m.

Helpful links:

Monday, January 4, 2010

Best of 2009: Carmen and Faust make Madison lists

Happy 2010! What better news to start the new year than finding Madison Opera on local "Best of" lists for 2009?

Lindsay Christians of 77 Square noted Carmen on her "Best of the arts 2009" list:

I noticed many groups of opera newbies at Madison Opera’s sold-out “Carmen,” a fantastic production featuring Katharine Goeldner in the lead. As an introduction to opera, this production of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” was a treat, with familiar melodies, passionate characters and a saturated color palette in sets and costumes.

While the leads (including Adam Diegel and Hyung Yun) were uniformly gifted, I was most impressed with Candace Evans’ smoothly integrated direction and the strength of the supporting cast. Madison Opera has set the bar high for future performances, which can only mean good things in 2010.

Marc Eisen of The Isthmus included Madison Opera's Faust from May in his "Favorite concerts of 2009" column:

I'm a fool when it comes to opera. I love the sound of the music, and that's pretty much it. The lyrics seldom interest me, and the plots, with their creaky Brady Bunch lameness, can be wincingly bad. (True confession: I fell asleep at the Lyric Opera's humdrum, zzz-inducing Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci double bill in February.) But, wow, the Faust legend! Now, that's a story worthy of the Greeks. What can be more primal than a bitter old man trading his soul to the devil for a return to youth and a chance for sex with a young woman, whom he leaves pregnant and abandoned? (Today, we have a pill to facilitate that devilish transaction.)

The plot got me, and so did the cast and staging by director Bernard Uzan. I scribbled in my notes that Mexican tenor David Lomeli, as Faust, is destined for greatness. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger's Mephistopheles was ominous and unsettling, practically scary. The third act featured a shocking scene of Satan getting the best of a wimpy Christ who steps down from the cross. Bad move, Jesus. I'm surprised Bishop Morlino wasn't out front picketing.

Opera that makes you think is rare. This was a great night for the Madison Opera.