From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, Vancouver and Toronto

by Jonathan Pell

Last week I was in Vancouver for the annual conference of Opera America, the service organization for opera companies throughout North America.

The event consists of several days of meetings, seminars and presentations and is held in a different city every year.  Last year we were in Philadelphia, and previous conferences were in Boston and Los Angeles.

A highlight of the conference is always an opera production given by the host company, and this year there were performances of Tan Dun’s TEA: A MIRROR OF SOUL.  I had seen the piece once before in Santa Fe about six years ago, and was once again struck by the extraordinary “sound world” created by the composer to evoke an eerie, mysterious world. Continue reading →

From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, San Diego

by Jonathan Pell

Last night I attended a performance in San Diego of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s ASSASSINIO NELLA CATEDRALE which had its premiere at La scala in 1958, and was based on T. S. Eliot’s verse drama MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL.

Created for the great Italian bass Nicola Rossi Lemeni, it has been rarely revived in the more than fifty years since its creation, but every so often a great singer, like Ferruccio Furlanetto can persuade a company to mount a production, which is really a showcase for the artist appearing as Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The music has many influences, and one can hear traces of Wagner and Debussy, but most obviously, a touch of Respighi.  It is a static work, in many ways more like a religious pageant or oratorio than an opera, but it is a worthy star vehicle for someone of Mr. Furlanetto’s stature, and was magnificent.  There are ten other solo roles, but none of them really matter.  The other major principal role in the opera is taken by the chorus, and in San Diego the chorus rose to the challenges of the complex choral writing. Continue reading →

From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell – Chicago

by Jonathan Pell

Thursday morning I flew to Chicago for a weekday matinee of Puccini’s LA BOHEME, starring Anna Netrebko, Joseph Calleja, Elizabeth Futral and Lucas Meachum.

The production was borrowed from the San Francisco Opera (which was also seen in Dallas in 1998) with scenery by Tony Award winning designer Michael Yeargan.  Michael, who was born and brought up in Dallas proudly once told me that he decided to become a designer because as a young boy he had attended a Dallas Opera school matinee. Having seen his first opera, Michael just knew that he wanted to be a theatrical designer when he grew up.

The Chicago production was superbly conducted by French maestro Emmanuel Villaume, but without its original stage director, the production relied almost entirely on him and the experienced singers to create any dramatic tension.

Awkward blocking and lost opportunities that traditionally tug the heartstrings simply failed to move me. Continue reading →

From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell – DC II

by Jonathan Pell

After a day of meetings, I attended a free concert at the Kennedy Center at 6:00 p.m. with some of the singers from the Washington National Opera’s young artists program and three of the cover singers who had been engaged to stand by for the current productions playing in repertory. The Kennedy Center sponsors these short 45 minute concerts 365 days a year, and includes performers from all the various disciplines. Tonight just happened to be opera.

Then at 7:00 (I guess Washington is an “early to bed” sort of town) I attended a new production of Bellini’s NORMA. It starred Angela Meade in her first stage performances of this iconic role (she had previously sung it in concert a couple of summers ago at Caramoor) and Dolora Zajick. The two of them were vocally well matched and their stunning duets were a highlight of the evening.

The production itself was a rather dull grey unit set, and was statically staged. Part of that is the opera itself, which is difficult because it lacks something dramatically, but Bellini’s music is ravishing. Young conductor Daniele Rustioni (he’s still only 29) led a masterful performance and really kept the piece moving without rushing, and still allowed his two heroines the time they needed to sing beautifully.

It was wonderful to hear how far Angela Meade has come. It was only a few seasons ago that she was in Dallas singing Queen Elizabeth in our school matinee performances of ROBERTO DEVEREUX, and now she’s here singing NORMA and was in the Metropolitan Opera’s HD transmission of ERNANI last year. I wonder if all the kids who came to see her in Dallas in those DEVEREUX performances realize just how lucky they were to see her?

I head back to Dallas in the morning, and am eager to check up on how rehearsals are going for TURANDOT and ASPERN PAPERS which both open in a few weeks!

From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell – DC I

by Jonathan Pell

It is cold and rainy in Washington DC and none of the famous cherry trees are in bloom yet (although the annual festival is next week) so I am disappointed.

Saturday afternoon when I arrived I heard six of the eight singers in the Washington National Opera’s young artist program, and there were two of them who really stood out for me--a tenor named Yuri Gorodetski from Belarus and baritone Norman Garrett, who received his undergraduate degree from Texas Tech. It was really great to hear how Norman has progressed since winning the People’s Choice Award in the 2011 Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition and hearing him again last summer at the Glimmerglass Festival.

Yesterday I went to a performance of MANON LESCAUT, starring Patricia Racette, who was radiant in the title role. It was her first production of this rarely performed Puccini opera, and she was terrific. As her brother, baritone Giorgio Caoduro, who made his American debut as “Figaro” in the Dallas Opera’s 2006 production of BARBER OF SEVILLE, was also very good, and it was wonderful to meet his wife and 11 month old son, Enrico.

Tonight I will hear a performance of a new production of NORMA, starring Angela Meade and Dolora Zajick, and then back to Dallas in the morning.

I should also mention one other thing.

The cover of the new brochure promoting Washington Opera’s next season, much to my delight, is a full page photograph of our production of MOBY-DICK, which will be the highlight of WNO’s 2014 winter season. I couldn’t have been more pleased!

From the Desk of Artistic Director, Jonathan Pell – NYC – 4

by Jonathan Pell

Thursday’s auditions were extremely productive and I heard most of the singers currently involved in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artists Program, as well as some of the singers from the Juilliard Opera Center. It is a day like this that makes me really sad that we aren’t able to do more productions because there are so many talented singers I would like to be able to engage.

Thursday evening I took a night off from the opera (there wasn’t anything on that night that I hadn’t already seen) so I went to see Holland Taylor’s one woman play based on the life of former Texas governor Ann Richards, which turned out to be quite informative as well as entertaining. Holland Taylor, perhaps best known from her year’s on the sitcom TWO AND A HALF MEN, not only wrote the play but stars in it as well. With the help of an extraordinarily good wig she looks startlingly like Ann Richards, and she captures the inflections, mannerisms and spirit of the woman. I don’t know how New Yorkers will respond (the play had just started “previews” a few nights before), but as someone who lived in Texas during Ann Richards’ term of office I found the play fascinating.

Friday was the opening night of a revival of the Nicholas Hytner production of Verdi’s DON CARLO at the Met. The production still looks beautiful (Bob Crowley is a brilliant theatrical designer) but the evening wasn’t one for the memory books. Other than Ferruccio Furlanetto and Eric Halfvarson, both electrifying in the confrontation scene between King Phillip and the Grand Inquisitor, the singing was disappointing and the conductor seemed just to plod along.

Saturday night I ventured down to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of the new venues for the New York City Opera, and their new production of Thomas Ades’s opera POWDER HER FACE. Based on the scandalous life of the late Duchess of Argyll, when it was premiered in the UK nearly twenty years ago it was an audacious work that introduced the then 24 year old composer to the music establishment.

It is still audacious, and the production while very clever, aimed to shock, and succeeded brilliantly. Extremely well performed by a fearless young cast, it certainly caused quite a stir and the capacity crowd really seemed to enjoy it.

From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell – NYC 3

by Jonathan Pell

Other than the blustery arctic winds, today was a perfect day in New York.

Today’s auditions resulted in my discovering two really fine singers, and a few others that might prove interesting.

The second singer of the morning (I usually start at 10:00 a.m.) was a gifted young baritone still at Juilliard named Tobias Greenhalgh, who recently sang the role of “Malatesta” in their production of Donizetti’s DON PASQUALE. He started with “Bella siccome un angelo” from that opera, but what really impressed me was his extraordinary performance of Pierrot’s tanzlied from Korngold’s DIE TOTE STADT. He sang with remarkable artistry for someone so young and relatively inexperienced, and he is certainly a singer on whom to keep an eye (and ear.)

I then met Terrence McNally for an early dinner before the theatre. He and a friend were off to see Arin Arbus’s new Off-Broadway production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and I was going to ONCE, the musical that swept last year’s Tony Awards.

Terrence is currently working on the libretto for a new opera, GREAT SCOTT, to be composed by Jake Heggie which The Dallas Opera has commissioned and which will open the 2015-2016 season.

Terrence, his friend Tom and I compared notes on the new opera productions at the Met we had recently attended, discussed the current Broadway season, and talked a lot about the new opera for Dallas.

We then rushed off to our respective theatres, and I was even more excited about seeing ONCE when Terrence admitted having seen it four times! I don’t know why it has taken me this long to see it! It is an enchanting evening of musical theatre, based on the 2006 film, completely fresh and original and unlike any other musical I have ever seen. Beautifully simple and simply beautiful.

Brilliantly staged by director John Tiffany, the sets and costumes were designed by Bob Crowley, with whom we are in discussion to design a new production for Dallas Opera. Tiffany won a Tony for best direction of a musical and Crowley won his 6th Tony Award for designing this production. What at first appears to just be an Irish pub in Dublin morphs into multiple locations with nothing more than a few props and a new light cue. Simply amazing!

Mr. Crowley also designed the Metropolitan Opera production of DON CARLO that I am seeing Friday night.

Tomorrow is another full day of auditions, and so I had better get to bed…

From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell – Minneapolis

by Megan Meister

Doubt, Father Flynn (Matthew Worth) must defend his name after a suspicious Sister Aloysius (Christine Brewer) accuses him of sexually abusing an altar boy. (Minnesota Opera) Doubt, Father Flynn (Matthew Worth) must defend his name after a suspicious Sister Aloysius (Christine Brewer) accuses him of sexually abusing an altar boy. (Minnesota Opera)

Welcome to balmy Minneapolis/Saint Paul where the high today was -1 and the low tonight will be 18 degrees below zero!

Why did I fly up here? To attend a performance of a new opera of course!

Tonight was the third performance in the run of the world premiere of DOUBT, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play and Academy Award nominated film by John Patrick Shanley, with libretto by the author and music by Douglas Cuomo.

The reviews that I have read have been quite good, and now I know why.

An excellent cast, headed up by Christine Brewer, Denyce Graves and Matthew Worth, in an intriguing production staged by Kevin Newbury and designed by Robert Brill (who designed the scenery for MOBY-DICK in Dallas) made for a thought provoking evening in the theatre.

The production has attracted a lot of pre-production attention, and colleagues of mine were here tonight from Pittsburgh and Arizona Opera, as well as from Opera America, while representatives from other companies have been or will be here throughout the run of five performances.

I remember thinking when I first saw the play on Broadway that it had the “bones” to make an interesting opera, and it certainly succeeded, particularly in the confrontation scene between Christine Brewer and Denyce Graves, as the principal of a parochial school in the Bronx circa 1964 and the mother of the first black student enrolled there.

I chatted with Denyce after the performance and she wanted to be sure that I told everyone in Dallas I said hello to them for her—so now I have!

Matt Worth, who was terrific as the charismatic young priest around him much of the “doubt” of the title revolves, sang beautifully and with exemplary English diction that made the supertitles superfluous. He is looking forward to making his Dallas Opera debut in a future season (sorry, my lips are sealed) but in the meanwhile he has “Starbuck” in MOBY-DICK at Washington National Opera next season to keep him busy, among numerous other engagements.

I am glad that I was able to be here, but happy to be returning to Dallas in the morning, where I have been promised it will be 70 degrees!

I also have our concert on Saturday night to which I look forward, with superstar Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani, under the baton of a wonderful young American conductor, Evan Rogister. It is a terrific program, and Marcello will be joined by up and coming young soprano Jan Cornelius for an evening of musical favorites and a few novelties as well.

See you there!

From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, Buffalo

by Megan Meister

I was in Buffalo, New York over the weekend to judge the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Great Lakes Region finals, and although everyone thought I was crazy to accept an invitation to go to upstate New York in January, it was actually warmer there on Sunday afternoon than when I got back to Dallas last night.

I was joined on the jury by Deborah Birnbaum, a well known and highly regarded voice coach in New York and Gayletha Nichols, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, who organizes these extraordinary events around the country every year. We only had nine singers, representing the best singers sent on from three districts (Four City, Michigan and Pittsburgh districts) as opposed to the nearly fifty singers who a separate jury had heard the day before in the Four City District auditions the day before.)

These were nine extraordinarily talented young singers, and selecting one to go to New York in March to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House for semi-finals wasn’t easy.

I couldn’t be more delighted, however, that the winner (representing Pittsburgh, where he has been in the Pittsburgh Opera Young Artists program for the last two seasons) was none other than tenor Juan José de Leon.

Juan received his undergraduate degree at the University of North Texas and his masters from Southern Methodist University, and was a winner of the Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition in 2010, and made his Dallas Opera debut in 2011 in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. I didn’t even have to exert any undue influence over my colleagues on the jury! In fact, I remained quiet until after they had spoken about how well Juan had sung to remind them of his Texas roots. Juan has continued to develop and grow as an artist, and we all can be very proud of the vocal progress he has made. I think he has an excellent chance to go on to be one of the winners in New York, and I know that all of his friends in Dallas wish him the best in the next round of this prestigious competition.

From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, Philadelphia

by Megan Meister

Last weekend I was in Philadelphia to judge the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions along with my colleagues Doris Yarick-Cross, artistic director of the opera program at Yale, and Peter Russell, general director of the Vocal Arts Society in Washington, DC (and former director of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.)

We heard almost forty singers between the ages of 21 to 30, and ranging in experience from practically never having sung in public to artists who already have contracts to perform with major opera companies.

There were several outstanding singers, and quite a few more who displayed great artistic promise.  First of all, there was a 24 year old tenor from Mexico named Diego Silva, who we were able to send on to the next round of auditions, who was very impressive.  Ultimately, there were eight other singers whom we were in agreement should be heard in the regional level of the Met auditions, but for me the most remarkable singer was a 25 year old bass named Brandon Cedel, who was the last singer in a very long day.  From the very first phrase of Purcell’s “Arise Ye Subterannean Winds” we knew that we were in the presence of a major talent.  In these auditions, the judges are expected to choose the second selection, and I was able to persuade my colleagues on the jury to request the cavatina from Rachmaninoff’s opera Aleko, a favorite aria of mine.  Mr. Cedel sang it superbly, and everyone in the room sensed that we had just heard something truly special.

The greatest pleasure that I have had over my many years in the opera world has been helping identify and encouraging young talent.  Plucking some promising young artist from relative obscurity and giving them a “break” early in their development gives me enormous pleasure.  The circumstances have varied—I might have heard them in an audition or competition out of town or in some young artists’ program somewhere (or even at an audition for the Dallas Opera chorus.)  It doesn’t matter where it was, but I have taken great pride in having been instrumental (no pun intended) in launching such remarkable talents as Raymond Aceto, Clifton Forbis, Latonia Moore, Jay Hunter Morris, Ava Pine and Vivica Genaux, among many others.   There have also been a long list of singers to whom I was able to offer engagements in leading roles at the very beginnings of their careers, people such as Cecilia Bartoli, Stephen Costello, Renée Fleming, Rod Gilfry, Eric Halfvarson, Brandon Jovanovich, Patricia Racette and Ruth Ann Swenson, all of whom have gone on to have major international careers.

I hope that there will be many more names added to this list in the years to come, but don’t be surprised if one of them is Brandon Cedel.