SF Symphony & Michael Tilson Thomas: BRILLIANT!

The San Francisco Symphony started the New Year and their music director Michael Tilson Thomas’s 25th and final year with a brilliant concert. The ovations given to MTT promise that his devoted audience will not let him go easily. Among his many gifts, Maestro MTT is a magician of the art of program design. January 5 – 12, SFS and MTT presented Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, Opus 23, (1837) by Hector Berlioz; Meditations on Rilke (2019), by Michael Tilson Thomas; selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-1898), by Gustav Mahler; and La Valse (1920), by Maurice Ravel. Each work was performed with zest, deep feeling, flawless musicianship. There was a distant but worthy relationship between Meditations on Rilke and Des Knaben Wunderhorn that increased the audience’s appreciation of both. Do you have a great-uncle who is related only by marriage to someone who is your great-aunt living in another state, but you are crazy about him? It’s that kind of relation.

Hector Berlioz (1801-1869) French

The Overture to Benvenuto Cellini premiered in Paris, in 1838. The Overture was a hit, but the opera for which it was written was not. The story goes that all composers wanted to have their music performed there; regrettably, performances there were famous for being sloppy and under rehearsed. “The Overture was extravagantly applauded,” wrote Berlioz, “the rest was hissed with exemplary precision.” What a grand disappointment! The Overture in the SFS’s rousing performance on January 12 was full of musical interest from gorgeous melodies to a lively allegro. There is a melody for the woodwinds that represents Harlequin at a carnival. In fact, the Overture has so much character and rhythmic variation that it could be heard as a compact opera in itself. Far from a lightweight curtain opener for the evening, this Overture deserves the fine performance it received. Hearing it again will reward the listener with more insight to its structure and colors and great enjoyment.

(born December, 1944) American, born in California

MTT has composed other works in which a text is the inspiration or accompaniment for the music. These include Three Songs to Poems by Walt Whitman (1999); Poems of Emily Dickinson (2002); and From the Diary of Anne Frank (2018) for narrator and orchestra. The premiere performances of Meditations on Rilke at Davies Symphony Hall, Jan. 5 -12, created a great event. In addition to the SFS, mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke, and bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny embodied the Rilke poetry which became exciting and lovely songs as MTT created them. The singers were a great pair for these songs. The composer-conductor tells that these songs came about by reflecting on events in his father’s life. A fine pianist, his father and friends got stuck without money in Oatman, AZ. His father filled the cafe-bar’s need for a piano player. His playing merged classical works, Gershwin and Irving Berlin songs with performances of requests such as the Bear Fat Fling. It is not 100% clear how that experience in the 1930s relates to MTT’s choice of poems by Rilke for his new songs, except that the Rilke works do resonate with sounds originating in contemporary classical music, maybe a bit of Mahler, perhaps a reference to Schubert, but over all Michael Tilson Thomas. This work was a huge favorite with the audience and has dazzling musical complexities woven in among the moods and melodies that unite it.

Rainier Maria Rilke (1875-1926)Bohemian (Czech)-Austrian

Rainier Maria Rilke is read by some to be a mystic and by others to be an existentialist poet trying to find peace in a time of anxiety and isolation. His work is lyrical and searching, such a fitting partner to MTT’s music. His consolation for his readers was “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to learn to love the questions.” The San Francisco Symphony promises the release of recordings of this and other MTT music later this year.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) born in Bohemia (now Czech Republic)

Four Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn provided a brief but satisfying venture into Mahler-land, a destination MTT has made his own. Sasha Cooke returned to sing the folk song styled works from a collection that was published in 1805. The Romantic movement embraced the music and stories of national or ethnic origins, even when it was written and arranged anew. The four songs performed by the SFS and Ms Cooke expressed the trials of living in the country, loss of love and loss of life. The songs might begin with a cheerful outlook but also  were somber and alluded to barely hidden sadness. Ms Cooke delved into these emotions with understanding and appreciation for both the lyrics and the wonderful music. It was a performance revealing a root of the Romantic experience of life.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) French

La Valse, poeme choregraphique pour orchestre is such a fabulous, swirling piece that the listener feels as though she has been lifted up, repeatedly turned fast in the air, and, before long, danced so quickly and become so dizzy that she sails through the air forgetting that eventually she will fall. It is an emphatic, ever growing dance that dances itself. The room spins, but the dance does not care. Ravel originally planned a tribute to Johann Strauss. By 1920, after World War I and the destruction of much of a generation, the gracious image of waltzing was no more. The sound of this work becomes a terror. The ballroom where it takes place seems haunted by evil. It is a piece of music not to be missed, especially if the listener is willing to imagine himself in that scene and, by doing that, understand better the cost of war. Bravo, Ravel! Bravo, San Francisco Symphony!

The Dancer’s Garden: How to buy it!

Thank you all for your queries about buying The Dancer’s Garden. Your interest is profoundly appreciated. Here is how to buy it:

Choose which edition you prefer. Both have the complete text and more than 60 full color photos by the author, Leslie Friedman, plus 10 by photographer, Jonathan Clark, and one by actor Dennis Parks. Both are printed on fine, glossy paper. Both are hard back books.

Version A:  Costs $45. That price includes tax and mailing cost.

Version B: Costs $75. It is printed on extra heavy paper. It comes with a photographic print by Jonathan Clark. It is signed and suitable for framing. It also can fit into the book. The price  includes tax and mailing cost.

Please mail a check made out to The Lively Foundation to The Lively Foundation/550 Mountain View Avenue/Mountain View, CA 94041-1941

We will send you The Dancer’s Garden right away. Thank you again!

 

Artist in Residence: Dr. Leslie Friedman, Dancer, Choreographer, Writer

This is an article by author Don McPhail. It appeared in the November issue of OMVNA (vol. 31, Number 4) which covers the Old Mountain View, CA area.

ARTIST IN RESIDENCE: Dr. Leslie Friedman, Dancer, Choreographer, Writer

With quiet energy and a generous nature, Leslie Friedman is a local treasure. Her willingness to share and motivate other is distinctive. Residents who have participated in Leslie’s dance classes or the International Dance Festival@Silicon Valley which she founded and directs may be surprised to learn that this same unselfish teacher is an award winning, world-renowned dancer and ambassador of art. All of Leslie’s classes, the Festival, and other Lively Foundation events take place at Mountain View’s Masonic Lodge, in the heart of Old Mountain View.

Leslie Friedman’s extraordinary background is documented on The Lively Foundation’s website/blog  www.livelyfoundation.org   Leslie’s remarkable career as a dancer and choreographer has earned her acclaim from audiences and critics alike on four continents. She has performed with the support of the US State Department and host countries in Russia, China, India,England, Spain, Poland, Egypt, South Korea, Japan, and more. A writer and former history professor, she received her Ph.D. in Modern British History from Stanford. She taught at Stanford, Vassar, and Case Western Reserve before returning to dance professionally.

An invitation to introduce American modern dance to the artists of India’s National School of Drama led to a Fulbright Lectureship to support her work and travel. Beginning at Viswa Bharati University, home of Tagore, India’s Nobel winning poet, she performed across India: new Delhi, Bangalore, Madras, Calcutta, and Jaipur. Her work was so well received that each place invited her back for more performances.

Representatives of Indian arts institutions, US consulates or Fulbright in India took her to the next plane or train, but she traveled as she danced: solo. She was welcomed by people with whom she maintains long friendships. On China or Bulgaria she says, “I met wonderful individuals and learned so much.”

The success of her first India trips led to more. She performed and taught in Sri Lanka, Egypt, and Tunisia on that journey. Word of her beautiful dancing and ability to relate to new people and places spread, leading to more journeys touring her art. Next: Budapest, Pecs, and Gyor, Hungary; Barcelona and Madrid, Spain; Moscow and Leningrad, USSR. She knew these were peak experiences and was thrilled to be doing what she loved for appreciative, knowledgeable audiences.

The US State Department and The Place, London’s foremost theater for modern dance, co-sponsored her performances there. She taught her choreography to London’s Ballet Rambert. In China, she taught modern dance and created choreography for the national ballet academies: Beijing, Shenyang, and Shanghai. She introduced modern dance to Poland’s national ballets, making four extensive trips to Poland and Romania performing and choreographing.

Lively Foundation Artistic Director Leslie Friedman

She continued performing concerts across the US and the Bay Area. She and her company performed education performances about the the Gold Rush for thousands of students from San Jose to Marin. She created several firsts: concerts honoring the many holidays at year’s end; benefit concerts for breast cancer patients; Heroic, Beloved, a concert for Women’s History Month performed in multiple states’ universities and arts centers.

For this writer, Leslie Friedman’s delight in sharing her art is most inspiring see in the context of tumultuous historic events going on around her as she keeps dancing.

Current bookThe Dancer’s Garden, published in April, 2019

Current project: International Dance Festival@Silicon Valley, Founder & Artistic Director

San Francisco Opera’s Manon Lescaut: Heartbreaking, Breathtaking Music

Tonight, 11/26, is (now “was”) this season’s last performance of Puccini’s first masterpiece, Manon Lescaut, at the San Francisco Opera. It puts the “Grand” in its rightful place in “Grand Opera.” The Hedgehogs attended the matinee, Sunday, November 24, and still think about it, hear it and see it in the minds’ eyes and ears. All of the performers were eye opening and heart rending in their characterizations and superb voices. The leads, Lianna Haroutounian, as Manon, and Brian Jagde, as Des Grieux, both made their role debuts. They were stellar. Ms Haroutounian captures the pathos, silliness, beauty, and tragedy in Manon while fulfilling all that Pucinni could desire through her voice. Mr. Jagde is ardent, naive, and heroic with a soaring voice and powerful presence.

Manon Lescaut (Lianna Haroutounian) meets Chevalier Des Grieux (Brian Jagde).

Brian Jagde

The Conductor was the first reason we chose to see this opera. Nicola Luisotti was SFO’s Music Director, 2009-2018. He is such an appealing artist: full of energy, radiating the joy of being in music, and able to summon the greatest music from his instrument, the SF Opera Orchestra. They made the music shimmer, explode, and embrace the voices. It was an extraordinary range of music and one felt as though Puccini was being channeled through Luisotti.

Nicola Luisotti,Conductor, principal guest conductor at Madrid’s Teatro Real, recently conducted La Traviata, Aida, and Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, La Forza del Destino at the Paris Opera, Il Trovatore at Milan’s La Scala

The story follows Manon from her arrival at a coach stop on her way to enter a convent to her death on the desert plain of Louisiana. (A program note reminds us that in 1731 when Abbe Prevost wrote the novel, Louisiana could refer to the whole Territory, not only to the swampy, hurricane prone state.) Chevalier Des Grieux falls in love with her on the spot. He invites her to stay with him. The innkeeper helps them escape because just a few minutes earlier he had arranged with Manon’s brother, Lescaut, to help Geronte de Ravoir carry her off to seduce her. This “seduce” is a euphemism for “rape.”

Anthony Clark Evans (L) was Lescaut; (R)Philip Skinner as Geronte de Revoir. Both were totally believable as they embodied their roles and created their complex characters through vocal power.

Lescaut first appears to be a bad brother. He is willing to help a wealthy rake abscond with his sister for the prestige and money to be gained. Later, he realizes his sister is terribly unhappy and yearns for the peaceful love she experienced with Des Grieux in their cottage. In Act II, he runs to tell Des Grieux to come to Manon at Geronte’s palace. Manon has indulged in jewelry and fashion but still loves Des Grieux. They decide to run away together. Lescaut will help, but Manon wants to take her jewels with her. In the minutes she spends scooping up pearls, Geronte and his guards capture them. Another plan goes astray as Manon, in prison wearing rags, awaits being branded and shipped off to the New World. Des Grieux demands to be shipped away with his love and other convicts.

Lianna Haroutounian, Manon, dances a minuet as Geronte and friends look on. Zhengyi Bai is the Dancing Master (above center).

As we near the year 2020, the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the USA, it is impossible not to notice Manon’s plight. A bit of a nit wit, she is also a teenager with no sign of education in a society with few alternatives for females. The convent. A financially secure marriage. Although women appear in the opening market scene and in Manon’s boudoir, Manon is the only named female character in the opera. There is no female friend, relative or rival. She is alone at the stag party that is her world. She introduces herself saying that her father dictated her fate. Through time, her life is molded by her brother, by Geronte, less so by Des Grieux, and quite a bit by her inexperience and ignorance. A painful moment for the audience came in seeing her dance a minuet for an audience brought together by Geronte. Bewigged older men watch her. She thinks she is dancing beautifully and proudly in her gorgeous gown. From the view of the rakes, she is a delectable performing monkey exciting their desires.

Brian Jagde, as Des Grieux, Lianna Haroutounian, as Manon, face death in the New World.

The lovers’ ends are inevitable. Their last acts show them wandering alone on a desert without food, water, or a sense of where they are. One line explains that they ran away from the others so that they would not be separated. Life: as Tina Turner’s song states, What’s love got to do with it? Better not to consider if she would have been happier safe in the convent. Abbe Prevost’s novel was immediately banned by the French. Even now there is a lot to object to in the story, though our objections come from other issues. As an opera, Manon defines the genre.

Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. Brian Jagde by Liesl Kundert, Nicola Luisotti by John Martin, Antony Clark Evans by Simon Pauley, Philip Skinner unattributed, all scenes from the opera by Corey Weaver.

 

 

MIKA SHIGEMATSU: A Lively Tribute

The Lively Foundation salutes our friend, opera singer Mika Shigematsu. She passed away in October, 2019, so soon after receiving a cancer diagnosis, in September. A mezzo-soprano cheered in performances around the world, The Lively Foundation featured an interview with her in the first issue of The Hedgehog, the international arts review, November, 1996. Ms Shigematsu came to San Francisco early in her career and flourished in the Merola program and as an Adler Fellow of the San Francisco Opera. Here is the cover of the issue with the title article: NEW FACES OF OPERA, the introduction, and the interview. It brings tears to our eyes.

NEW FACES OF OPERA  That beautiful voice you hear singing in Italian may well have come from Osaka, Shanghai, or Atlanta. New voices are revising the operatic images of old: an enormous woman in blonde pigtails and brass breastplates or a handsome, but too well-fed tenor. Opera has grown more popular around the world and through the US. Accessibility through good recordings and TV has created an interest in the extravagant art form and led singers from diverse origins into major American opera companies. Leslie Friedman introduces you to three young singers to watch.*

MIKA SHIGEMATSU: Mika Shigematsu remembers the exact moment she decided to become an opera singer. Watching TV at home in Osaka, she turned the channel to NHK, the national station. The Japanese government broadcast Italian opera from La Scala once every four years, and she had switched it on at just the right time. There were no musicians in her family, no one knew opera, but she decided she must do it.

She played koto and sang in a choir, but she knew she had to learn more. Her school music teacher told her she would need to attend Osaka College of Music. Suddenly, she “needed voice lessons, piano, many tests to enter.” Her family “just hated it” and told her to forget it, but she was persistent. There was only one chance to pass for music college, and she made it.

Looking back, Shigematsu sees the evolution of her own voice. Her success came from working very hard, but also from a breakthrough in understanding how to use her body and voice together to build a new technique. She was not a star in college and took additional lessons to improve. She joined Kansai Nikikai Opera after graduation, but felt that her roles — major ones like Venus in Tannhauser –were not right for her.

She almost gave up. She told her mother she would enter a major competition and either win or quit. She recalls working terribly hard and being embarrassed because she did so poorly. In the process of preparing for the contest, she felt something entirely new develop between her “brain and body.” Rather than quit, she continued and won first prize the next year. She was the first mezzo-soprano to win in 24 years.

She came to the United States in 1989 on a Japanese government scholarship. She studied in New York, where she found part of her training came from hearing many fine artists in concert almost every day. She says her “ear was learning.” Although she was supposed to return after one year, she told her teacher and opera company she would become even better if she stayed longer.

An audition for the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program was “the key,” says Mika, that opened many stage doors for her–not only to performance opportunities, but “letting me see what I need in the real world.” She was in the Merola training/performing program twice and became an Adler Fellow in 1994, performing the role of Emilia in Rossini’s Otello.

Mika feels that Japanese students may make a mistake by going to Europe for study instead of to the United States. This is where she found real opportunities “to grow, to have the water and sun I need to sing.”

Mika Shigematsu

This sprightly young woman with extraordinary vocal power walked through the huge hall of San Francisco’s Opera House before its closing. She claimed that when she first arrived she felt overwhelmed by the place. To Mika Shigematsu’s audience, it seems just the right size for her. (Future performances include debuts in Seattle as Cherubino in LE NOZZE DI FIGARO and in Genoa as Charlotte in WERTHER. She appears as Rosina in IL BARBIERE DI SEVIGLIA in Tokyo and San Francisco.)

*Pictured on the cover are Scenes from San Francisco Opera productions, clockwise from lower left: Zheng Cao as the Kitchen Boy in Rusalka, with tenor Michel Senechal as the Gamekeeper (1995); St Petersburg Maryinsky Theater Acrobatic Troupe in Fiery Angel (1994); Mika Shigematsu as Rosina in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia with tenor Roberto Sacca as Count Almaviva (1996); Pam Dillard as Mercedes in Carmen (1996). Interviews with Pamela Dillard and the late Zheng Cao also in The Hedgehog, Vol. 1, No. 1.

Photos courtesy of San Francisco Opera: cover page photos, upper & lower left, Marty Sohl; upper & lower right, Larry Merkle; Mika Shigematsu, Lisa Kohler.

 

The Dancer’s Garden: Great Review (first published review, too)

The Dancer’s Garden by Leslie Friedman (The Lively Foundation, 2019)

This is a wonderful, quirky, perky series of ruminations on gardens, flowers, plants, trees, cats, people, indeed life. It has magnificent photographs mostly taken by the author herself but also some by her husband, the distinguished photographer and printer, Jonathan Clark, the proprietor of that fine private press, appropriately named The Artichoke Press. Leslie herself, a member of the Institute, is well-known primarily as a dancer and choreographer but is also a fine historian. Some years ago, to an extent sidelined by hip problems, she decided to turn more attention to her garden in Mountain View. In this delightful book she tells us about the various growing things, mostly flowers, that she deals with, their characteristics, difficulties and rewards. She and Jonathan expand their horizons, coping with so many growing things, not only flowers but pine, apple, and orange trees. They rescue abandoned cacti from the neighborhood. The author has an amazingly direct way of dealing with what she is putting into the earth, the satisfactions and beauty (so wonderfully captured in the photographs) when they flourish; the sadness when they die. She makes being a gardener such an immediate, connected, and personal matter.

In the text, Leslie recounts her adventures with a wide range of growing things, most vividly oxalis, chrysanthemums, poppies, narcissus, camellias, primroses, magnolia, all beautifully illustrated. She is very insightful on how to deal with all these and other growing objects, and how they can be menaced by birds, notably crows, as well as by cats, humans, too much water and too little water. There is such a splendid sense of engagement with the ambitious enterprise of having a garden. As she writes towards the end of the text about fruit (but it may be about any of the myriad aspects of nature that she has nurtured): “When I had acquired my first new hip, my first foray into the garden was to see the apple blossoms. The apples would arrive later than the peaches. The oranges come when we run out of apples. We change partners, but it is the same dance.” Leslie Friedman has choreographed a garden and other growing things much as she has both performed and created dance. As she concludes her book: “It is a wonder.” It is an exhilarating read.   Peter Stansky, Frances & Charles Field Professor of History, Emeritus, Stanford University. Professor Stansky is the author of many books, most recent is Leonard Woolf: Bloomsbury Socialist ( Oxford University Press, 2019) with co-author, Fred Leventhal This review appeared in the journal of the Institute of Historical Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2, Fall, 2019

For information about purchasing the book, please contact The Lively Foundation, livelyfoundation@sbcglobal.net

 

SF Opera’s FIGARO: Magnificent Music & Funny, Too

This will be a short review article. We have spent too much time searching for superlatives for the superlative cast of The Marriage of Figaro.  Mozart’s opera of 1786 is now being presented by the SF Opera. There is no time to waste: go buy your tickets. This is a spectacular performance of an opera which will delight your intellect, satisfy your brain’s beauty receptors, activate your physical response network. Future dates: October 19, 22, 25, 27, November 1. Curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m. except for the 2 p.m. matinee on Oct. 27. Be there.

Michael Sumuel, American bass-baritone is Figaro

Mr. Sumuel is a perfect Figaro. He is handsome, he has great presence, his voice is just wonderful. He communicates wit, grit, and intelligence laced with revolutionary spirit. He is in love with Susanna, but he has not let love mess with his brain. Not too much. Figaro is the character invented by French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Despite his aristocratic name, Beaumarchais “got it” about relationships between servants and those they serve. His play, The Marriage of Figaro, was written in 1778. The American Revolution had knocked the British back across the Atlantic. Louis XVI’s censors were not happy about Beaumarchais’ play, so the wily playwright changed the setting to Spain. Louis XVI had reason to be jumpy: the play opened in 1784; the French Revolution opened 5 years after. In the play, the servants are as smart or smarter than the spoiled nobles. They have to be to stay employed and still keep their personal identities.

Michael Sumuel with Jeannine De Bique, Soprano, Ms De Bique sang Susanna making her debut in this role and her first performances with the SF Opera. Ms De Bique is originally from the Barbados.

Among the privileges said to be enjoyed by the aristocrats was the despicable practice of the “right of the first night.” That meant that the lord of the manor could replace the groom for the bride’s wedding night. In the opera, Figaro and Susanna find ways to put off Count Almaviva’s advances toward Susanna and get the Count to allow them to marry. The Count is a philandering cad who has neither work nor hobbies except for trying to assaul every female within range. He does this despite being married to a beautiful woman who, though continually wronged by her husband, is true to him and, mostly, still loves him.

Hungarian baritone Levente Molnar sang the Count

American soprano Nicole Heaston sang the Countess.

Ms De Bique completely embodied Susanna. She is saucy, smart, loving but aware of the snares she must dodge. Her voice is such a delight. This is her first Susanna; it surely is the first of many. She and Mr. Sumuel make a great pair. He is strong and adorable; she is adorable but still strong. Neither one is anyone’s fool. Ms De Bique and Ms Heaston are also a good pair as  ladies who make complicated plots to fool their husbands. The plots are so complicated that they never work in the favor of the plot planners. Ms Heaston’s Countess is a knowing, understanding wife but never taken in by her less than noble Count. Her lovely voice was deeply touching in her aria as she observes herself trapped in her position and yearning for the Count to realize who she is.

Nicole Heaston and Italian mezzo soprano Serena Malfi as Cherubino

Cherubino, a teen age Lothario around the palace, longs for the love of the Countess. Ms Malfi in this “trouser role” was superb. From the first note she sang, her liquid, velvety voice captivated everyone. The Count is fed up with Cherubino and sends him to the army which he avoids. Plots have sub-plots and the sub-plots spawn sub-sub-plots. These marvelous singers are also flawless performers with great timing and ensemble interaction. They are funny, laugh out loud funny. Take a look, and listen well, for example, at mezzo soprano Catherine Cook as Marcellina and bass  James Creswell as Doctor Bartolo. Wonderful singers who are excellent in their ridiculous roles.

Marcellina and Doctor Bartolo turn out to have significant roles in Figaro’s life, a special surprise to all three.

Each character was played with conviction. This made them even funnier. The voices were splendid throughout.

Tenor Greg Fedderly as Don Basilio.

If the glory of Mozart’s music and the glorious voices of the stellar cast cannot get you to the box office, the opportunity to see an opera character with Don Basilio’s coiffure should do it. Throughout the performance, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was outstanding. Conductor Henrik Nanasi was a great favorite with the audience. Together the orchestra and maestro captured the delicacy, precision, and tunefulness of the score. The libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte will never go out of style. It is sharp, and its humor reveals serious depths.

Tickets range from $26 to $408, Contact 415/864-3330, visit sfopera.com, or go to the Box Office at 301 Van Ness.

Photos by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.

San Francisco Opera: Terrific & Tragic Billy Budd

The San Francisco Opera’s presentation of Billy Budd ended with the matinee, Sunday, September 22, and still the music and drama play in my mind. The voices: absolutely first rate. The acting, set, costuming, direction, orchestra and conductor: all superb. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Lawrence Renes, captured Britten’s oceanic sound as well as the delicacy of the piccolo solo as Billy waits for execution. Readers, you may have missed this production of Billy Budd, but I hope this report encourages you to attend the opera when and where you have the opportunity. The excellence of this production promises greatness in the rest of SFO’s season.

John Chest, American baritone, portrayed Billy Budd. Eager, confident, honest, with a voice that possessed Billy’s “handsomeness, beauty, goodness” and pulled the listener into his heart while breaking the heart of the listener.

Benjamin Britten, major 20th century English composer, wrote the music set to a libretto by the great English author, E. M. Forster(Passage to India, Room with a View, Howard’s End) and Eric Crozier, a librettist and theater producer who directed Peter Grimes, Britten’s first opera, 1945, at Sadler’s Wells theater, in London. He also wrote the libretto for Albert Herring, another Britten opera. Billy Budd is based on an unfinished novella by Herman Melville. His manuscript was discovered one hundred years ago; this year is the two hundredth anniversary of Melville’s birth, in 1819. Now considered one of the central, most significant American authors, even Melville’s Moby Dick, disappeared soon after publication. He had critical and financial success with his first two novels, Typee and Omoo, but, after his later works were ignored, gave up writing novels, tried poetry, and then, in 1888, began Billy Budd. Melville passed away, in 1891.

Benjamin Britten (Nov. 1913-Dec. 1976)

Both Britten and Melville had a close relation to the sea. Britten was born in Lowescroft, a fishing port on England’s east coast. Melville actually was a sailor on whaling ships and in the Navy. His travels took him around the world. He had first hand knowledge of the closed  community on board ship and knew about the English tradition of “impressing” ordinary folks, kidnapping men and boys, to be in the Royal Navy. Britten’s music for Billy Budd captures the surging sound and rhythm of the ocean. The opera does not try to follow the novella exactly. Forster uses the characters, setting and part of the story line as a way to jump into some themes which Melville did not develop. These include the spiritual resolution offered in song by Billy and by Captain Vere. Melville did not appear to have a strong focus on religion or a specifically Christian understanding of death. Also, in the opera, there seems to be more awareness of what contemporary music writers refer to as “homo-erotic” sensuality. Having spent six months or more at a time on ships, Melville would know about relationships, but to the extent it appears in Billy Budd or Moby Dick it is more a reflection of reality than a theme.

American tenor William Burden portrayed Captain Vere with straightforward nobiity. His voice projected clarity, balance, humanity; it is a voice one could hear with pleasure for a long voyage.

The opera opens with Captain Vere, now old, beginning the story of what happened on his ship, HMS Indomitable, in 1797. In Michael Grandage’s brilliant production, the audience is enveloped in the ship. Built on the stage in a horseshoe shape opened toward the orchestra and house, the set shows the decks of the ship, the men/SF Opera Chorus kneeling on the deck/floor continually to scrape the salt off the ship. The production fit the opera ideally; I can only imagine it now with this set and direction. It also worked so well that the violence –flogging the Novice and hanging Billy –happened offstage as in classic Greek drama. The atmosphere is close; there is nowhere to go. There are no families, no pub, no market. The common sailor’s life is dictated by work enforced by cruelty. Three new sailors are brought aboard. They have been impressed and taken from the ship ironically named the Rights o’ Man. Claggart, the master-at-arms, uses the name of the ship as his first attack on the new sailor. Billy calls out farewell to friends and to the ship giving Claggart the opportunity to call Billy a revolutionary who must be watched.

American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn portrayed Claggart. He embodied the evil of the character. His powerful voice could command, insinuate, strike like a snake. 

From his first appearance on the Indomitable, Billy, has “handsomeness, beauty and goodness.” When he is under pressure, he stammers. He is liked and even admired by the men and hated by Claggart. The hatred has no special reason. It is total hate like Iago’s for Othello, a man who is better than he in so many ways. The audience feels apprehension that something terrible will happen and waits in suspense to know how it will unfold. Claggart preys on the weak Novice who was brutally flogged. He threatens the Novice with more violence if he does not cooperate in setting up Billy. At first, the Novice refuses because Billy is kind and good, but fear defeats him. This cast of seventy-five artists, forty-four of them from the SF Opera Chorus, is astoundingly good. Each projects a character, and all create a true crew. There are moments that lighten the tension. For example, in Act I, scene 3, the crew gathers to sing a late 18th century version of Rap, with each man’s rhyming verses entertaining the crowd. Billy offers to get Dansker tobacco. American bass-baritone, Philip Skinner, sings Dansker with a great, satisfying voice appropriate for a brave, true friend. Billy’s tobacco has been taken from his kit. He fights with Squeak who was set by Claggart to make trouble for Billy. American tenor, Matthew O’Neill as Squeak with presence and just the right voice creates the character willing to betray Billy who is then betrayed himself. The men are eager to attack the “Frenchies,” but fog and still winds keep them from a battle.

The crew of HMS Indomitable ready to attack the French.

Claggart (Van Horn) presses his case with Vere (Burden).

Then Claggart tells Vere that Billy is fomenting mutiny and has gold coins to bribe the crew. Given a chance to defend himself, Billy stammers. In frustration he strikes Claggart who falls dead. Vere calls three officers to serve as a court-martial. They can believe Billy, but Billy struck and killed an officer. By the Laws of War, he must die. The three officers are horrified by what they have done and ask Vere, the only witness, to stop the process, but Vere says he cannot.

Billy taken away for execution.

Surely one of the  most chilling, touching and beautiful songs in the opera is Billy’s solo while he waits to be executed. He is frightened and does not want to die. He imagines himself under the water, gone. Then, he imagines that he will be anchored by, what? Is it faith? Is it heaven? He sings, “I’m strong and I know it, and that’s enough.” He sings, “I’ve sighted a sail in the storm, the far–shining sail, and I’m content.” Vere reappears looking back through time and repeats Billy’s words about that sail. Vere also says he could have stopped it. And there’s the eye-opening, hair raising moment. He had said there was nothing he could do. He had to follow the letter of the law although he knew he was killing an angel. Now, he says, both that he could have done something and that he is “content.” In the battle between good and evil, Claggart won, but he only won by being killed. The optimism that the Goodness of the Good will find a safe harbor and that the humane regret of Captain Vere will somehow reach a contented resolution does not seem very Melville-like. The ambiguity of human life does, though. Imperfect and unfinished, just like the novella Billy Budd, that is what we are. Perhaps wisdom is to decide to be content. Perhaps.

Photo of John Chest by Andrey Stoycher; Billy taken for execution, Claggart with Vere, whole crew by Cory Weaver, courtesy the San Francisco Opera. Future operas of SFO’s season: The Marriage of Figaro, Oct. 11-Nov. 1, Manon Lescaut, Nov. 8-26, Hansel & Gretel, Nov. 15-Dec. 7.

 

Merola Grand Finale: LIVELY AT THE OPERA

The Lively Foundation was delighted to invite our music loving friends to attend the GRAND FINALE of the Merola Opera at the SF Opera House. Every voice was extraordinary on August 17 when our Lively group of twelve attended. Through their Merola months, the artists perform full length operas, the Schwabacher Concerts of select opera acts, and recitals. The Grand Finale is their graduation celebration. Their performances are with the full San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

In the Grand Finale, the “Merolini” perform a selection of arias, choruses and groups. In some “greatest hits” performances, there will be one or two pieces which are fabulous and maybe one or two which do not please. Each audience member might have his or her favorite or least favorite. In this performance, each presentation truly made the audience open eyes wide, catch the breath, and applaud. The applause only slowed because the next selection would begin a few breaths after the previous one ended. The program presented the song in its setting, so each selection is performed in the dramatic context of the opera from which it came. This allowed the performers to engage in their characters and show the audience their acting ability. It was done so successfully that for the time of that scene the audience experienced the pain or joy in the moment of the story.

Named in honor of the first director of the San Francisco Opera, Gaetano Merola, the program brings singers who are already beginning their careers to San Francisco for twelve weeks of intensive training and performing. Merola is widely considered among the finest training programs in the world. International stars launched by Merola include Ruth Ann Swenson, Susan Graham, Deborah Voight, Anna Netrebko, Dolora Zajick, Brian Asawa, Rolando Villazon, Thomas Hampson, Quinn Kelsey, Conductor Patrick Summer and so many more.

Among memorable moments were Alice Chung, Mezzo-Soprano, as Gertrude and Timothy Murray, Baritone, as Hamlet, Stefan Egerstrom, Bass, as the Spectre, in Hamlet by Thomas. (L to R) Timothy Murray and Alice Chung

Ms Chung’s presence was powerful even as Mr Murray castigated her for the death of her husband, Hamlet’s father. Their voices gave the Mother-Son relationship a new dimension beyond the usual lascivious Queen and up-tight Prince. Esther Tonea, Soprano, as Fiordiligi; Michael Day, Tenor, as Ferrando; and Edward Laurenson, Baritone, as Don Alfonso, gave Non son cattivo cornico…L’abito di Ferrando sara buono per me…Fra gli amplessi from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti the lilting, teasing buoyancy of this opera of practical jokes in the war of the sexes.

(L to R) Esther Tonea and Michael Day

A tense scene from Maria Stuarda, by Donizetti, had all 2,000 listeners on the edges of their seats. Chelsea Lehnea, Soprano, sang Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I of England); Salvatore Atti, Tenor; Conte di Leicester; Rafael Porto, Baritone, Lord Cecil. The Queen cannot make up her mind: should she sign the execution order and have Mary, Queen of Scots killed or not? As the threesome debates the political pros and cons of allowing Mary to live or killing her, the voices soared. It was a gut wrenching and magnificent experience demonstrating the expressive and musical gifts of opera.

In a lighter scene, Elisa Sunshine, Soprano, sang Marie, in Donizetti’s La Fille du regiment (Daughter of the Regiment) and Andrew Dwan, Bass-Baritone, was Sulpice, who acts as her adoptive father. Both voices were outstanding. Ms Sunshine surely deserves her last name. Her actions as well as her musicality made her performance an absolute delight. What can I do now? Running up against a word limit when the Grand Finale’s incredible artists have not all been given their well deserved salutes? A rush to mention more does not do them justice. Hat’s off to Laureano Quant, Baritone, who sang Sir Riccardo Forth from Bellini’s I Puritani, Kneeling, down stage center, he reached into our hearts. Brandon Scott Russell, Tenor, sang the Prince from Dvorak’s Rusalka with a voice and presence that were surely royal; Jeff Byrnes, Baritone, was Germont, the father trying to spare Alfredo, his son, sung by Salvatore Atti, Tenor, who has lost himself to Violetta, in Verdi’s La Traviata. Mr. Byrnes, with a baritone which gets that musical term “burnished,” makes the father figure sympathetic. His distress is in his voice as the foolish lover, besotted Mr. Atti, his son, runs after that woman.

Keep track of these names! Soon you will see them perform around the US and the world. How exciting to be able to say, I was there when Anne-Marie MacIntosh sang Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, or Brennan Blankenship sang Stephano in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. Cara Collins, Anna Dugan, Victor Starsky, Amber R. Monroe, Hyeree Shin, Patricia Westley, Edith Grossman, Nicholas Huff. Each one a star. No kidding, keep this list!

New York City History Found & Lost

Introduction:  In studying history I was fascinated to learn how details of ordinary life can fill in the whole picture of an era or a place. In her essay below, Nancy Fryer Croft, art restorer and art historian, demonstrates how the search for a particular kind of silk reveals the dramatic changes in New York City from the late 1990s to the present. Part of this essay appeared first in the Vassar College Reunion Book, June, 2019.  Leslie Friedman

New York used to be a place where you could buy virtually anything, and have several kinds of that thing to choose among. While I was working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the late 1990s, an exhibition was organized featuring two nearly identical versions of Jan van Eyck’s St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, one from Philadelphia’s Johnson collection, and the other on loan from the Turin museum. Philadelphia’s painting is barely postcard-sized, and set in a maroon velvet mat within its frame. The staff wished to reframe the only slightly larger Turin picture in a similar manner for the exhibit, so that the settings for the two paintings would be comparable. A conservator had been all over Philadelphia looking for maroon velvet like that of the Johnson mat, checking home furnishings as well as apparel fabric sources, but all she could find was far too purple.

St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Jan van Eyck, 1430-1432, dimensions 5 X 5 3/4

I went to graduate school in art history after Vassar, and only later switched to art conservation. I was ahead of my conservation classmates in the program, since I had already gone beyond the art history requirements. Although I had no background in Far Eastern art, I was given several Tibetan thankas to treat, scroll paintings mounted in antique textiles. Old silks are invariably in poor condition, and I became familiar with the multitude of fabric shops on West 38th and 39th Streets, near 7th Avenue, in the heart of the garment district. I would get swatches from scores of variants of the colors I needed, sometimes subtly off-black, or navy with a brownish cast, so I could choose a mounting fabric compatible with the ancient textile back in the conservation lab.

I told the Philadelphia conservators I was fairly certain I could find some maroon velvets in New York whick might be suitable for the reframing, and spent the next day around 7th Avenue, gathering swatches. Back in Philadelphia the following day, the curators and conservators were delighted with my finds. They held the little samples of cloth next to each painting, and finally came to a consensus on one with “just the right liver-ish tone” (I believe it was a bolt leftover from something Donna Karan had made).

Most of those fabric stores are now gone, as are nearly all of my other favorite resources. I also mourn the loss of the city’s little auction galleries, which I found nearly so instructive in teaching discernment as are the great museums. I’m glad to have experienced something of an earlier era in my city, a time of neighborhood hubs of diverse crafts and trades, with shops stocked to the dusty ceilings and quirky shopkeepers. Money, however, has always trumped all in New York, and real estate and art, whatever their human values, have become commodities.

by Nancy Fryer Croft