From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell – Chicago

by Megan Meister

I sat at the gate in an airplane for two and a half hours this morning at DFW hoping my flight would be cleared to take off for Chicago.  High winds had slowed air traffic into O’Hare and I had auditions scheduled this afternoon with eleven young singers from the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center and a ticket for this evening’s performance of ELEKTRA.

After the announcement of a second delay I began to think that I would have to get off and give up, but we finally pulled away from the gate after some of the passengers who had left the plane re-boarded and I arrived in Chicago without further incident.

The auditions were good and I was happy to have the chance to once again hear soprano Kiri Deonarine, who won the Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition in 2010.   She was supposed to make her Dallas Opera debut next season, but I agreed to release her from her commitment to sing a very small role with us so that she can make her Metropolitan Opera debut in a more significant part.

The primary reason I wanted to come to Chicago today, however, was to attend the last performance of a new production of Richard Strauss’ 1909 masterpiece ELEKTRA, and it was, well, electrifying!

The production was superbly conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric Opera’s music director and directed by recently knighted Sir David McVicar, who created a stunning production.

David made his American debut with The Dallas Opera about twelve years ago with an unforgettable production of Massenet’s MANON, and these two operas couldn’t be more dissimilar!

I was overwhelmed by his staging of ELEKTRA, and the way he developed the relationships between the characters and the marvelous “stage pictures” he created.

The set and costumes by John Macfarlane and the lighting by Jennifer Tipton were highly theatrical but they merely created the environment in which three singers could create unforgettable performances in this incredibly challenging work.

Jill Grove (who was the “First Norn” in TDO’s GOETTERDAEMMERUNG about ten years ago) was a terrifying “Klytemnestra” (and I mean that as a great compliment.)  She created a wonderful characterization of this monstrous woman while still singing a role that is often merely “barked.”

Emily Magee, who appeared as “Chrysothemis” has also appeared with The Dallas Opera (in productions of DON GIOVANNI and MARRIAGE OF FIGARO) and sang radiantly and looked gorgeous (the only character in this production who was allowed that privilege—everyone else was meant to look grotesque.)  She was really glorious in the role.  Emily’s birthday is Halloween, so of course I told her that the only reason I flew up from Dallas was so that I could wish her a happy birthday in person!  She is scheduled to return to Dallas in a few seasons and I can hardly wait!

Perhaps the most remarkable performance though was from Christine Goerke in the title role.   I have known Christine since she was in the Met Young Artists program, and I was chairman of the Tucker Foundation’s auditions committee the year she won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award.  In those days she sang mostly Handel and Mozart, and some of us predicted that she might one day maybe sing NORMA (which she eventually did) but no one could have predicted that one day she would be one of the foremost ELEKTRAs of her generation.  I was simply stunned with how beautifully this role was sung, with a combination of delicacy and power that was simply breathtaking.

There was not a weak link in the large cast, with wonderful singing from Alan Held as “Orest” and Roger Honeywell as “Aegisth” just to single out two other outstanding performances.

This was an evening I will remember for many years to come.

I should add though that Dallas did a spectacular production of ELEKTRA about fifteen years ago with an incredible cast led by Marilyn Zschau as “Elektra”, Nadine Secunde as “Chrysothemis” and Helge Dernesch as “Klytemnestra”, directed by John Copley and conducted by Graeme Jenkins.

It was pretty extraordinary, too!

From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell – San Francisco – Part II

by Megan Meister

Tenor Stephen Costello (“Greenhorn” in MOBY-DICK) with his voice teacher Bill Schuman in San Francisco.

It was such a thrill to see MOBY-DICK again last night, with most of the original cast intact from the world premiere in Dallas, along with the original conductor, Patrick Summers and stage director Leonard Foglia.

A large group of Dallas Opera patrons had flown out to San Francisco for the weekend to attend the performance, but they were not the only people on their feet cheering at the end when composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer came out for their bow at the end of the evening!  It was a really exciting performance!

The major cast change was the assumption of the role of “Captain Ahab” by Jay Hunter Morris, and he was intense and compelling in this challenging role.  He had already done the opera in Adelaide and San Diego, but he has grown enormously in the part.  He sings it magnificently, but what has been interesting to see is how his characterization of this complex character continues to grow in depth.

As many of you know, Jay’s career began as a member of The Dallas Opera chorus many years ago, and he has returned often to sing leading roles with the company, including “Steva” in JENUFA and “Bacchus” in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS.  Since he became an “over night” star with his recent appearances as “Siegfried” in the Metropolitan Opera RING cycle, people seem to have forgotten how long this road has been for Jay, and his great success is well deserved.

Stephen Costello, Morgan Smith, Jonathan Lemalu, Talise Trevigne, Robert Orth and Matthew O’Neill all returned to the roles that they created in Dallas, and were simply stunning last night.  Each of them were in top form and gave indelible performances that fortunately will be captured for posterity since this production has been recorded for future telecast on PBS’ Great Performances series.

Today it is back to Dallas and a return to rehearsals for AIDA which opens our 2012-2013 season on October 26th.

From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell – San Francisco Part 1

by Megan Meister

San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House illuminated at night in the mist

I am in San Francisco to attend a performance of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s MOBY-DICK on Saturday night with almost 40 Dallas Opera patrons who wanted the chance to see and hear it again.  I flew out a day early so that I could also go to Bellini’s rarely staged opera I CAPULETI E I MONTECCHI (THE CAPULETS AND THE MONTAGUES) starring Joyce DiDonato, who will star in Jake Heggie’s next opera, GREAT SCOTT, which will open The Dallas Opera’s 2015-2016 season.

Joyce sang the role of “Romeo” opposite the “Juliet” of Nicole Cabell, and they were simply wonderful.  They seemed to “feed” off of each other, and their arias and duets were simply stunning.

The opera is filled with beautiful music, but is dramatically inert (the libretto is not based on the Shakespeare play, but on the original source material) and this eccentric production, created originally for Munich, didn’t help much.

Conductor Riccardo Frizza did a lovely job accompanying the singers in the true “bel canto” tradition and the orchestra played extremely well for him.

Although Bellini’s choral writing only calls for men, there were just as many women on stage to give French fashion icon turned costume designer Christian Lacroix a chance to display his talent for bizarre haute couture gowns.  I am sure these “super” women were thrilled to have the chance to clamber up and down the bleacher style steps in the final scene of the first act in their original Lacroix dresses, but it simply looked awkward.

I ran into Gene Scheer in the lobby before the performance, and he was thrilled with how MOBY-DICK had gone the night before.

I also ran into Tony Award winning playwright Terrence McNally at the intermission and we had the chance to talk a bit about GREAT SCOTT for which he is writing the libretto.  He was backstage to see Joyce after the performance, of course, and we ended up sharing a cab back to our neighboring hotels.  He is bursting with enthusiasm about collaborating with Jake and Joyce (and The Dallas Opera) on GREAT SCOTT, and I know it will be an amazing project of which we will all be proud.

From the Desk of Jonathan Pell, Artistic Director – LA Opera Part II

by Megan Meister

The LA Opera poster for Verdi’s I DUE FOSCARI, starring Placido Domingo

I DUE FOSCARI was only Verdi’s 6th opera, coming after NABUCCO and ERNANI, but a few years before his great middle period, and long before the masterpieces he created at the end of his remarkable life.  Had he not written TROVATORE and TRAVIATA (to say nothing of AIDA, OTELLO and FALSTAFF) I think today’s audiences would consider FOSCARI one of the greatest operas written in the middle of the 19th century!

What a surprise!  I cannot recall ever having heard even a note of this opera before, and simply reading a synopsis of the libretto didn’t prepare me for the extraordinary power of the piece.

Based on an English play by Lord Byron, in turn based on historical events concerning the long reign of Francesco Foscari, Venice’s longest serving Doge (the elected ruler of this far reaching naval power)  the libretto was by Francesco Maria Piave, a Venetian by birth.  It was originally offered to the Fenice Opera House, but was turned down by the theater as “unsuitable.”

The Teatro Argentina, an opera house in Rome, another city state in those years before the unification of Italy, however, had no compunction whatsoever about presenting an opera depicting the corruption in Venetian politics, and the powerful censors in Rome demanded not a word of the text be changed.

The plot is slight.  The doge’s son, Jacopo, the second Foscari of the title, has been accused of treason, found guilty although he is innocent, and banished to Crete.  In order to return to his beloved Venice to see his wife and family, he really does perform an act of treason (by illegally writing to the head of another state) knowing that his letter will be intercepted and that he will be returned to stand trial.

The doge is torn between his love of his son and his sense of duty to the citizens of Venice, where he has ruled for more than 30 years.

Ultimately, Francesco Foscari decides he cannot interfere with his son’s fate, Jacopo is banished and not being able to face deportation again, he dies before the ship even leaves the harbor.

No unrequited love story.  No mistaken identities.  Just a father’s anguish and a wife’s love of a man unjustly accused of a crime.

I know it doesn’t sound like much of a story, but the skill of Piave’s libretto in setting up the emotional conflict and the power of Verdi’s music (where one can already hear the seeds of RIGOLETTO, TROVATORE and OTELLO in particular) make for a thrilling evening in the theater.

The production was wonderfully conducted by James Conlon, who obviously has a passion for early Verdi, and starred Placido Domingo in the baritone role as the father.  Mr. Domingo made his US opera debut at The Dallas Opera more than 50 years ago, and his performance in the demanding role was a “tour de force” and in a man his age, nothing short of a miracle.  He truly deserves all the acclaim he receives and is a living legend.

The role of his son was superbly sung by young Italian tenor Francesco Meli, who is already launched on an important career, having recently debuted at La scala in Milan and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

This was a night I will long remember.  As I said in my posting yesterday, I thought this might be like stepping back in time and attending the world premiere of a new work of a promising young composer.

That was exactly what it felt like!

I walked out of the theater thinking that this Verdi kid might just turn out to have the sort of talent to write music to which we’ll still be listening in two hundred years time!

From the Desk of Jonathan Pell, Artistic Director – LA Opera Part I

by Megan Meister

The LA Opera poster for DON GIOVANNI

I flew out to Los Angeles yesterday to hear the singers in the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program and to attend performances of Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI and Verdi’s I DUE FOSCARI.

Six new singers join two returning artists to comprise the “class” of 2013, and among them is soprano Amanda Woodbury, whom some of you will remember was the 2nd place winner and audience favorite recipient in last year’s Dallas Opera Vocal Competition.  It will be wonderful to see how she develops in this prestigious program.

Much to my surprise and delight I unexpectedly ran into mezzo-soprano Susan Graham before the performance (who was in Los Angeles visiting friends) and we had a chance to “catch up.”  Susan is terribly excited about finally making her Dallas Opera debut this spring, and is thrilled to have the opportunity to sing “Tina” in THE ASPERN PAPERS.

It intrigued me that Susan wanted to see this Peter Stein production of DON GIOVANNI, because she had been the “Donna Elvira” when this production was first done several years ago at Lyric Opera of Chicago.  What a different perspective it must be to be “out front” watching it from being on stage performing it!

Last night’s production starred Italian heart throb Ildebrando D’Arcangelo in the title role, and he was terrific.  Serbian-Israeli bass David Bizic was making his US debut as “Leporello” and he was also wonderful.  Another singer making his US debut was Russian tenor Andrej Dunaev who was an excellent Don Ottavio.  Romanian mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu, who sang “Stephano” in ROMEO AND JULIETTE two seasons ago in Dallas, was the delightful “Zerlina” and Julianna Di Giacomo and Soile Isokoski were both very good as “Donna Anna” and “Donna Elvira” respectively.

Tonight I am looking forward to hearing Verdi’s rarely performed I DUE FOSCARI, with Placido Domingo and Francesco Meli as the father and son Francesco and Jacopo Foscari of the title, with soprano Marina Poplavskaya as “Lucrezia.”

I have never had the chance to see a production of this opera before, so for me, it will be like going back in time to 1844 and attending the world premiere.

Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, Glimmerglass Part III

by Megan Meister

Yesterday was a busy but rewarding day, starting in the morning with auditions with the rest of the apprentice artists.

There were many colleagues joining me at Glimmerglass this weekend, and these auditions were attended by representatives from several artists’ managements, schools of music and various opera companies.

There were two very interesting singers, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Lauricella (whose audition was interrupted by a fire alarm going off but she seemed unphased by the disruption) and a young baritone from Texas, John Boehr.

John, who has been a winner in the Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition, is already set to make his debut with us next season.  This was his second season as an apprentice at Glimmerglass, and a lucky one for him.

One of his assignments was to cover Dwayne Croft as “Professor Harold Hill” in THE MUSIC MAN, and now that the production is being taken to Dubai in October for four performances, John will be taking over the role opposite Elizabeth Futral since Dwayne will be at the Met.

Yesterday’s matinee of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s LOST IN THE STARS, an adaptation of Alan Payton’s CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY, was a performance I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

A deeply affecting story about Apartheid in South Africa in the 1940′s, this revival of a nearly forgotten work was a powerful theatrical experience that boasted a towering performance by Eric Owens as “Stephen Kumalo” a Black South African minister whose son is arrested for murder.

In a simple, but infinitely reconfigurable set of corrugated metal walls created by Michael Mitchell, a South African designer, the action played out simply and powerfully.

Superbly conducted by John DeMain, who was given permission by the Kurt Weill Foundation to tinker with and improve the ending, the work has now been restored to the repertoire and needs to be seen and heard by more people than were able to attend the performances in Cooperstown.

The production was wonderfully and sensitively directed by Tazewell Thompson.

As magnificent as Eric Owens was in the central role, he was by no means alone in bringing this piece back to life.  The rest of the cast included wonderful performances by Sean Panikkar (“Cassio” in the Dallas production of OTELLO which opened the Winspear Opera House in 2009) as a cross between a narrator and a Greek Chorus, and two outstanding apprentices in featured roles, Brandy Lynn Hawkins and Chrystal E. Williams, both mezzo-sopranos who had stood out in the auditions I heard on Friday in more traditional repertoire.  Several young members of the ensemble were brought over from South Africa to lend the production remarkable authenticity.

I was emotionally drained by this extraordinary performance and to be perfectly candid, didn’t really want to see another performance last night, which I thought would dilute the experience of the afternoon.

I am certainly glad though that I didn’t miss the performance last night.

Glimmerglass Festival’s Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello staged a brilliant modern dress version of Verdi’s AIDA, which included a controversial touch of “waterboarding” Radames during Amneris’ “judgment scene.”. It was incredibly powerful.

The singing was merely good with one exception (Eric Owens, who was really wonderful as Amonasro, in a grueling double performance day) but perhaps not at the highest international standards for these demanding roles.  This young and attractive cast, though, was deeply committed to the concept and gave wonderful performances nonetheless.

The orchestra and chorus played and sang beautifully under conductor Nader Abbassi, head of the Cairo Opera, who has conducted this opera many times, including performances at the Pyramids of Giza.

A wonderful weekend at Glimmerglass has come to an end, but next summer sounds quite interesting with productions of Wagner’s THE FLYING DUTCHMAN, Verdi’s rarely performed early comedy, KING FOR A DAY, a new work by composer David Lang on a double bill with Pergolesi’s STABAT MATER, and Nathan Gunn as “Lancelot” in Lerner and Loewe’s CAMELOT.

The elephants on the front lawn outside the Alice Busch Opera Theater at Glimmerglass (made from grapevine and willow by artist Elizabeth Schoonmaker) that were director Francesca Zambello’s response to the inevitable question about this summer’s production of AIDA—”Will there be elephants ?”

Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, Glimmerglass Part II

by Megan Meister

The opera house at Glimmerglass.

Yesterday morning before the apprentice auditions I was able to make a quick stop at the Fenimore Art Museum, renowned home of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art (a part of which was recently shown at the Dallas Museum of Art) for a special opera exhibition.  Featuring costumes and original design sketches on loan from the Metropolitan Opera archives, there were pieces from ARMIDE (operas based on the same libretto as the version done here, but by Gluck and Rossini, not Lully) and AIDA.  It was a small exhibition, but quite interesting for opera lovers visiting Cooperstown.

I was to hear 26 apprentice singers yesterday, but 3 of them cancelled.  It is the final weekend of the festival, and I am sure that they are all exhausted since many of them are in all four productions.  I will hear another group of apprentices this afternoon before the matinee, so perhaps one or two of the singers who had to cancel yesterday will rally for today.

Perhaps I am prejudiced, but several of the singers who really impressed me yesterday have Dallas connections.

Mezzo Catherine Martin (who attended UNT), and baritones Norman Garrett and Thomas Cannon (who was a Dallas Opera Emerging Artist and sang in our most recent production of MADAME BUTTERFLY), all have been finalists in the Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition, and all stood out in yesterday’s auditions.

Two other mezzos made strong impressions, Brandy Hawkins and Chrystal Williams (another product of the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, which produced several of the best apprentices I heard recently in Santa Fe) but perhaps the most promising singer was a 20 year old Mozart tenor from South Africa named Makudupanyane Senaoana.  He seemed to sing the aria “Ich baue ganz” from THE ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO in one breath.

Yesterday afternoon following the audition was an hour long recital in the theatre given by tenor Noah Stewart, who is here this summer to sing “Radames” in AIDA.  He was plugging the release of a new CD that has already risen to number one on the classical chart in Great Britain and has just come out in the States.    It was a “crossover” program taken mostly from what is on the recording, and he was exquisitely and sensitively accompanied by Michael Heaston, who is head of the music staff at Glimmerglass, and who has been the head of the music staff in Dallas for many years.

Last night’s performance was an enchanting production of Meredith Willson’s THE MUSIC MAN, starring Dwayne Croft and Elizabeth Futral, both of whom have sung with The Dallas Opera.  Part of the Glimmerglass mission statement under Francesca Zambello is dedicated to performing one classic American musical every season unamplified and with the original orchestrations.  Having singers the calibre of Dwayne and Elizabeth guarantee that these shows will be well sung but the joyous surprise is how adept these two are with the dialogue since speaking on stage seems to be such a challenge to most opera singers.

Utterly natural in their delivery, they looked and sounded great.

This production was slightly updated from 1912 to circa 1940 for no apparent reason other than to allow Elizabeth to look smashing in trousers and Dwayne to look snazzy in a “zootsuit.”

Energetically staged by Tony nominated director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge and authoritatively conducted by John DeMain, it was a wonderful evening of old-fashioned musical theatre.

Needless to add, the audience went wild at the end clapping rhythmically at the curtain call while the orchestra reprised “Seventy-six Trombones.”

Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, Glimmerglass Part I

by Megan Meister

Otsego Lake, the setting for the Glimmerglass Festival.

The Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York is my last stop on my summer travels.  This is only the second season under general and artistic director Francesca Zambello and is filled with interesting repertoire in unusual productions.

Last night was Jean-Baptiste Lully’s ARMIDE, first performed in 1686, and was a co-production with Toronto’s Opera Atelier, a company dedicated to performing Baroque opera.  The entire cast from Canada was brought to the festival intact, and it was interesting to observe a production so dedicated to early performance style, both musical and theatrical.

The sets and costumes were colorful, but alas the singers for the most part were not.  Obviously cast for their youth and beauty and ability to move gracefully, only soprano Peggy Kria Dye in the title role was completely successful vocally.

More a ballet with occasional arias, the production style was a little too precious for my taste, but the audience seemed to love it.

I have auditions this morning and again tomorrow, and will hear all the apprentice singers (who make up the chorus and sing some of the smaller roles.)  This summer’s repertoire required an unusually large group and I will hear about 40 young singers over two days.

Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, Santa Fe Opera Part VI

by Megan Meister

Last night was the second of two apprentice concerts showcasing the young singers who participate in this extraordinary program.  These forty young artists are selected from across the country (I was told that this year there were nearly one thousand applicants) and last night’s program was every bit as interesting and exciting as the first concert last week.

Extended scenes from eight different operas, fully staged and costumed with scenic elements and accompanied by piano, featured a wonderful array of talent.

As with last week’s posting, I can’t mention them all, but outstanding performances were given by baritones Zachary Nelson and Jonathan Michie, who couldn’t have been more contrasting in style, in scenes from ANDREA CHENIER and GIANNI SCHICCHI respectively.

Tenors Matthew Newlin and Matthew Grills both stood out in large ensemble scenes taken from the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning opera SILENT NIGHT (Mr. Newlin) and Puccini’s GIANNI SCHICCHI (Mr. Grills.)

There were also two sopranos who stood out for me, first was Lindsey Russell as a fleet voiced “Zerbinetta” in a scene from the prologue from ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, and second was Sara Heaton as “Juliette” simply lovely in the wedding quartet from Gounod’s ROMEO AND JULIET.

I return to Dallas this morning, but head out again on Wednesday for Cooperstown, New York and the Glimmerglass Festival, the last stop on my summer travels searching for the world’s most talented artists to bring to the Dallas Opera.

Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, Santa Fe Opera Part V

by Megan Meister

Last night’s performance of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal’s ARABELLA was utterly delightful.  Wonderfully directed by British director Tim Albery (who returns to Dallas in April to stage THE ASPERN PAPERS) and conducted with romantic sweep by Sir Andrew Davis, this was Santa Fe Opera at its best.  Long known for its tradition of doing a major (and some minor) Strauss opera nearly every season, this is not an easy opera to pull off.  The romantic troubles of a young countess whose family is broke and dependent on her to make a brilliant marriage to save them is a fairly thin story line, but somehow Hoffmannstahl’s text and Strauss’s music make this trivial story compelling.

Erin Wall as “Arabella” was simply radiant (although perhaps her glow was partly because she is several months pregnant, a fact which was cleverly disguised by the costume department.)  A former winner of the Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition, it was a thrill to hear this wonderful artist in this demanding role. Her duet with soprano Heidi Stober, as her sister Zdenka (disguised as a boy because their impoverished parents cannot afford to raise two daughters) was just one of the musical highlights of the evening.

Another soprano (and another winner of the Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition) Kiri Deonarine, sang “Fiakermilli’s fiendishly difficult coloratura aria in the second act with real panache and received a rousing ovation from the audience who were obviously charmed by her performance.

In stunning sets and costumes designed by German designer Tobias Hoheisel, the entire cast seemed inspired.

Tomorrow night is the second of two Apprentice Concerts, designed to showcase the talented young singers who flock here every summer to become the Santa Fe Opera chorus and sing small roles and cover major ones.  Last week’s concert revealed a number of extremely promising young artists, so I am really looking forward to tomorrow night’s program.