– Notes from the talk delivered by Susan Galbraith at The Smithsonian on August 16th –
On a good day in the Greater Washington area there are more than 15 opera companies of various ilks and sizes. Not all present regular programming. Some, like Lorin Maazel’s Castleton (still in hiatus after the maestro’s death), or Wolf Trap run summer festivals and training institutes. Some specialize in concert versions or reduced score versions and are primarily opportunities for young singers to gain experience in roles in the repertoire. A few companies are committed exclusively to developing and presenting original works, including ad hoc companies that have produced works at DC’s Fringe festival. Ryan Brown conducts both operas.
I have chosen works from three companies that represent qualities that for me have to be present in totality:
1) outstanding level of singing and musicianship
2) commitment to dramatic/acting values and
3) unique missions to the Washington scene
Washington National Opera (WNO):
First there is WNO’s musicianship. If there were still any doubts that the company is world class, you had only to see the audience this past spring making their pilgrimage from around the world to see the four-evening 17-20 hour Ring Cycle. Hearing Philippe Auguin lead the orchestra and seeing Artistic Director’s Francesca Zambello’s bold staging of Wagner’s masterpiece will be a cherished memory of a lifetime. And it was Wagner! Great, yes. But exciting and entertaining – who knew?!
As you would expect, the company presents big classical opera. Bookending the 2016-2017 season are two classic opera repertory favorites: opens the season, Marriage of Figaro this Fall and Madame Butterfly as the season finale. If you are a person who wants an introduction to standard repertory, you can’t go wrong with these two operas.
Take the season opening:
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART / LORENZO DA PONTE’s The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) is a comic masterpiece and perennial favorite with lots of fun mix-ups where love triumphs in the end or, as it is marketed, ”seduction, jealousy, deception…just another wedding day.”
You can take advantage of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program and save the sticker shock of big opera by attending the journeyman singers’ performance on Sat., Oct. 1 at 7 p.m.
Or if you prefer your opera with beer and plenty of leg room, come to Nationals Park for a free streaming of The Marriage of Figaro, this year’s Opera in the Outfield Saturday, September 24 at 7 p.m. It’s a ball!
If you are already an opera lover – you’ve drunk the kool-aid of grand-scale opera — you’ll go for the performances. Amanda Majeski, a “gleaming soprano” seen at Chicago Lyric, the Met and other international stages will sing the role of Countess Almaviva. Joshua Hopkins plays her wandering husband, and he stole the show in another Mozart classic two years ago at WNO as Papageno in The Magic Flute. Ryan McKinny, who performed this spring in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, will play the barber Figaro.
Something you should be aware of on the opera scene is the importance of “cross-over.” Mostly this has to do with the understanding of influence and break down of barriers between genres of opera, the American musical, and other music-theatre forms. Zambello is committed to cross fertilization in the works she produces and also in the shaping of performers and performance technique in what is happening between the WNO and what might be seen as Zambello’s summer company, the renowned Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y. Moving artists back and forth between the two companies is creating excellent stage sense in these singers, more “crossover” talent, and a chance to test, deepen and remount productions.
But to my mind, the most important aspect of WNO under Zambello is her commitment to the Americanization of opera and opera audiences.
DEAD MAN WALKING by Composer Jake Heggie with a libretto by American playwright Terrence McNally
Based on Prejean’s real-life memoirs, which also inspired the 1995 film, Dead Man Walking, the work was hailed as one of the most gripping and important operas of the new century. For its landmark premiere in 2000, the New York Times called this mesmerizing drama “a masterpiece of words, music, and emotions.” And London’s Guardian raved it “makes the most concentrated impact of any piece of American music theater since West Side Story.“
Jake Heggie’s instant modern classic—about a death row inmate convicted for murder and the kindhearted nun who takes on his final appeal— becomes a searing emotional journey powered by an unforgettable score that is infused with American popular styles.
Kate Lindsey, an “extraordinary mezzo-soprano, who has sung at the Met and Royal Opera House of London will make her WNO debut as Sister Helen Prejean. Michael Mayes, who is a favorite in Heggie’s works, will sing the guy on death row, his signature role. Susan Graham, who originated the role of Sister Prejean 16 years ago, will return as the convicted man’s mother.
Zambello directs Dead Man Walking. No other American director working today gets more dramatic power or emotional truth from opera singers. She is staking her legacy on the development of NEW AMERICAN works. From what I’ve seen she finds a way to honor the composer’s intentions while telling the story and making a work relevant. If you go to one opera this season, I’d make this the pick.
If you feel the need for more education on any given opera, check out the Opera Insights events. Offered sometime during each of the operas presented, Opera Insights take you inside the composer’s mind, behind the scenes of planning a production, and into the history and social context of each opera. I’ve found these events informative and they make my enjoyment of the operas so much keener. They happen usually one hour before the opera starts and are free to anyone with a ticket. Put Wednesday March 8 on you calendar for Opera Insights Dead Man Walking.
As I said, WNO is committed to developing new works. The company has two programs that insure promising young creative teams get mentored and the chance to see productions of their works. Mid-January as part of its American Opera Initiative, the company will present an hour-long opera,
THE DICTATOR’S WIFE
It is describes as a “bitingly satirical work” about the wife of a dictator who has committed atrocities and now is cowering in the bathroom while she tries to come to terms with the atrocities he has committed. Young American composer-on-the-rise Mohammed Fairouz and prominent Pakistan writer/librettist Mohammed Hanif have joined to create what will be a world premiere opera.
There is one more opera in this season I am looking forward to immensely. That is CHAMPION by composer Terence Blanchard with a libretto written by Michael Cristofer which will be presented in March of 2017. Blanchard is of course a five-time Grammy award winner jazz great, and this score promised to be filled with jazz-influenced vocals, bluesy harmonies, and Afro-Carribean beats. Cristofer is a Pulitzer prize winning playwright, a “legendary screenwriter, and a powerhouse actor of stage and screen, who started his acting career here in Washington D.C.
Champion is the story told through music-theatre of Emile Griffith, the closeted gay welterweight boxer whose knockout of a homophobic rival led to unexpected tragedy. It will be a new WNO production of new work that premiered at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Arthur Woodley, a “towering bass” who originated the role will give us his “champion.” Washington’s own Denyce Graves will play his mother.
While WNO continues to dominate the opera scene for its depth of programming, there are two operas that I have put on my must see list from companies I ardently admire.
One will be presented by URBAN ARIAS, an opera company whose brand is “short, smart, and contemporary.” If you like your opera gritty as graffiti, you’ll want to make this company your go to for a smart opera “fix.” Robert Wood is the conductor and Artistic Director and is quite the visionary. He does not settle for anything under par!
THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT is based on the best selling work of Oliver Sachs and he is listed in the credits as having collaborated on the libretto along with Christopher Rawlence and Michael Morris. The composer is Michael Nyman of film score fame, including The Piano.
Dr. P., a talented singer, who suffers from visual agnosia (a special form of visual blindness or neurological confusion.) His exceptional musical ability helps him compensate and allows him, in large measure, to return sense to the world by defining it through music.
Robert Wood conducts, and the opera will play only four performances: Saturday, October 15, 16, 21, and 22 at 8 p.m. Do see this company in what promises to be a fascinating music-theatre event.
THE OPERA LAFAYETTE is the third opera company I follow consistently and may seem an unusual choice to some. It is a company that neither specializes in new works nor commits to the most popular grand opera repertoire. Rather, its mission is to live and breathe in that rarefied world of Baroque and pre-Baroque Opera. Nevertheless, Opera American cites it as an outstanding company in Washington and one of the best in the country. That founder and conductor Ryan Brown makes his home in our city feels like an honor for us and his company should be considered a national treasure.
Brown’s exceptional abilities have made him a musician’s conductor. He not only commands pretty much sold out performances here and in New York City but his was the first American company to receive an invitation to bring a production to Versailles and perform in front of original Marie Antoinette sets.
Brown also his known to bring in exceptional singers whose expressiveness can be appreciated even more fully in less than giant halls. Last season I got to experience the extraordinary counter-tenor John Holliday, who is built like a fullback and sings like an angel, in a production of Catone in Utica directed by Tazewell Thompson.
While the first on this season’s program is essentially a concert by a famed Baroque specializing tenor Paul Fouchecourt, the next in the season should be a treat.
LEONORE, OU L’AMOUR CONJUGAL by Pierre Gaveaux, composer, and Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, librettist
Before Fidelio, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote Léonore, ou l’amour conjugal, a version he modeled on an opera by Pierre Gaveaux and Jean-Nicolas Bouilly. Revolution is in the air. A political prisoner awaits death in his cell. A woman puts herself in mortal danger to seek justice.
Both the Beethoven and Gaveaux works are grounded in the tradition of 18th-century opéra comique. A long-time champion of this French genre, Opera Lafayette aims to recapture the origins of Fidelio, a touchstone of the operatic canon. Opera Lafayette will perform Gaveaux’s Léonore, ou l’amour conjugal this season, with performances of Beethoven’s version to follow in fall 2017. Both operas in The Léonore Project will feature a Quebecois artistic team and cast of lyric voices to highlight the close relationship between the two works.
The work, like so much of Opera Lafayette, feels like a precious endangered species. To catch a rare siting in our fair city, be there for its one DC performance Sunday, February 19, 2017, at Lisner Audiorium.
Then, May 31, also at Lisner, at 7:30 p.m, they present
LES INDES GALANTES – PART IV by composer Jean-Philippe Rameau and librettist Louis Fuzelier.
Set in North America, this multinational love story finds Damon, a Frenchman, Don Alvar, a Spaniard, and Adario, an American Indian, vying for the hand of Zima, daughter of a chief. She chooses Adario, and all celebrate in “Forêts paisibles” (“Peaceful forests”), an idyllic depiction of diverse cultures living in harmony with nature and one another. This ballet héroïque was inspired by an 18th-century visit of American Indian chiefs to France. Together, the cast, Opera Lafayette Orchestra, and Gallery Voices, an acclaimed chamber vocal ensemble, highlight the incomparably rich music of this most famously gifted of French composers.