High Notes

From Amarillo to Austin, the state’s opera companies are staging top-notch productions for longtime fans and newcomers alike. Aria ready?

July 2007By Comments

La Cenerentola, Houston Grand Opera

This has been a grand season for grand opera. Several companies in Texas celebrated anniversaries by staging productions of old favorites, exploring less often performed pieces by the major operatic composers, and even premiering original work. Dallas Opera reached fifty and produced four operas never before seen there, including Puccini’s overlooked gem La Rondine. Austin Lyric hit twenty and presented the American premiere of Philip Glass’s Waiting for the Barbarians. The revived San Antonio Opera topped ten and marked the occasion with a couple of wonderful war horses La Traviata and The Pirates of Penzance and two special concerts by operatic superstars Frederica von Stade and Placido Domingo. Houston, in its fifty-second year, dazzled us with brand-new productions of several operas, including the stunning La Cenerentola and Aïda and an enchanting Hansel and Gretel.

And what about the sixty-year old Fort Worth Opera? The oldest opera company in Texas decided to go the festival route, so successfully pursued by Santa Fe Opera, mounting productions of Falstaff, Madama Butterfly, and the world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri’s Frau Margot. Of course, it takes a while for a festival to develop the kind of following that Santa Fe Opera commands. Diehard opera fans in Texas will still be heading off to New Mexico in July and August to see some of the region’s best performances under SFO’s open-air shell, with its magnificent views of dramatic sunset skies and cool green mountains.

If you haven’t been to the opera house lately, it ain’t your daddy’s stuffy, formal evening out anymore. Remember those bad old days when we got all dressed up, perhaps enjoyed the music until the grand diva stopped singing, then left bewildered because we had no idea what had happened? Today, more casual dress is encouraged; for a while the Dallas Opera even advertised a Jeans Night. Oh, and about that rude stereotype: The leading lady is most likely svelte and sexy these days, and projected supertitles let you know what’s going on.

Going to the opera doesn’t even have to bust the budget. All the major companies have tickets available at reasonable prices, and I have heard excellent opera productions performed by young singers in Amarillo, Garland, the Houston Heights, where tickets were available for a tenth of the price one might have to pay for a front orchestra seat at the Wortham Center in Houston. So what are you waiting for? From one opera lover to another, here is my overview of the past season—ranked according to my favorite companies—and a glimpse into the next.

1. Houston Grand Opera has built a national and international reputation for innovation and, especially, for premiering new operas, thanks largely to the vision and 33-year tenure of former general director David Gockley, who left in 2005 to take over the troubled San Francisco Opera. It can take years for new management to make its mark at a major company, and for me, the first sign was subtle that Anthony Freud, the London-born new general director and CEO, was on the right track. Almost hidden in the small type of the season ticket solicitation was the mention of a special promotion: For those who wished to introduce opera to children, a package of three operas in a selection of four could be purchased for the adult price plus a nominal fee for the youngster’s ticket.

The offerings were ideal for the purpose: Hansel and Gretel, La Cenerentola (Cinderella), Aïda, or The Cunning Little Vixen. In particular, the new production of Hansel and Gretel caught my eye. It was to be directed by master puppeteer Basil Twist, fresh from acclaimed puppet versions of opera produced in New York City. I jumped at the chance to introduce the operatic genre to a talented young relative from rural East Texas who was already interested in the theater.

So in December my grandniece, her mom, her grandmother, and I all piled into a van and watched one of the most enchanting productions I had seen in a long time. Although I immediately missed Engelbert Humperdinck’s swelling orchestration in the overture, that turned out to be an adult thing: My grandniece, of course, didn’t miss it, and I came to enjoy the clarity of HGO Studio head of music Kathleen Kelly’s new eight-piece chamber orchestra version. Then the curtain rose on little Hansel and Gretel, in a cottage dominated by a table that loomed over them, transforming the adult singers into children again.

Houston Grand Opera: Hansel and Gretel

Thanks to the magic of puppetry, a cat kept time with its tail (and later lapped up the spilt milk that caused mother to send the children out in the forest to gather strawberries for supper). Mama was big—about nine feet tall—and Dad was even bigger when he showed up a little tipsy and with plenty to eat. Meanwhile, out in the witch-haunted woods a kindly sandman puppet lulled the children to sleep, and fourteen diaphanous angels on strings hovered eerily over the nestled pair. Everyone, surely, knows the famous Grimm Brothers fairy tale.

Houston Grand Opera presents an Operacast: Meet Rosina, the Evil Witch (a look at HGO's Hansel & Gretel)

Because opera is first of all sung, I have to say that every member of the HGO Studio’s young cast sang the clever English text beautifully and with such good diction that we didn’t need the supertitles, but the fifteen-foot tall puppet-and-singer apparatus that was the witch absolutely stole the show. Liam Bonner, the talented baritone on top, managed not only to sing but also to manipulate the witch’s long arms and act comically evil as three puppeteers tucked under an enormous skirt wheeled him about the enticing cookie-encrusted house. The witch convincingly menaced the gingerbread children and even gobbled one down in a way both funny and mildly horrifying. Of course, all the gingerbread kids came magically back to life as children when Hansel and Gretel pushed the witch into the oven. Imagine—dozens of Houston children emerged from their gingerbread casings, having seen the making of this brilliant production literally from the inside out.

The moral of this gender-bending tale certainly wasn’t lost on those lucky young Houstonians: never trust a thirteen-foot tall baritone in drag offering sweets to little boys and girls. All the children in the audience, including me, loved it.

The rest of the season might have seemed anticlimactic, had not each production continued with similar excellence.

In January, I was back in town for Faust, Charles Gounod’s French version of the ultimate German tale. Special energy came from the commanding presence of bass Samuel Ramey, the leading American Mephistopheles of our generation, who bristled with devilish malice as his voice descended to a brutish growl in one famous scene. The following evening I saw HGO’s La Cenerentola, Gioacchino Rossini’s Italian version of Cinderella, and the company pulled out all the stops, inviting back international star and former HGO Studio artist Joyce DiDonato to sing the lead and hiring the Comediants, a Barcelona-based team, to produce, direct, and design its new co-production, which will also be seen in Barcelona, Geneva, and Wales. Beyond the delightful singing and comic acting from all the principals, I especially liked the gesture of dozens of the prince’s soldiers simultaneously taking out hankies to commiserate with Cinderella over her ordeal at the hands of her loutish stepsisters and conniving stepfather.

As visually striking as the colorful sets and costumes for La Cenerentola had been, Zandra Rhodes’s eye-popping designs for Aïda were even more impressive. Bold and stylized, they evoked a storybook Egypt of great pomp and ceremony. The audience loved the Triumphal March’s elephant-of-the-imagination, a princely pachyderm, indeed, consisting of little more than the suggestions of the famous six blind men and the elephant story. The singing of the international cast shone with moments of real beauty that transcended occasional chewing of the exquisite and fragile scenery by the evening’s Amneris.

Of course, we still had Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen to look forward to, but I was also eager to find out about Freud’s long-term plans. I was delighted to hear that he will continue commissioning new operas and emphasizing audience development and educational programs. Grammy winning music director Patrick Summers’s contract was renewed through 2014. The biggest revelation, though, was Freud’s intention to offer all the operas created by fellow-countryman Benjamin Britten over the next few years, beginning with Billy Budd. What a great opportunity for fans of opera in English. And the special three-opera program for adults and youngsters will continue—with the choice of any of next season’s operas. Next season: Verdi—A Masked Ball, Donizetti—The Daughter of the Regiment, Mozart—The Abduction From the Seraglio, Mozart—The Magic Flute, Jake Heggie—Last Acts (a world premiere, written for Frederica von Stade), Puccini—La Boheme, and Britten—Billy Budd. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713-228-6737 or houstongrandopera.org.

The moral of this gender-bending tale certainly wasn’t lost on those lucky young Houstonians: never trust a thirteen-foot tall baritone in drag offering sweets to little boys and girls. All the children in the audience, including me, loved it.

2. As it celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, the Dallas Opera is also under relatively new management, and again—hail, Brittania!—the director is English. From Yorkshire originally, Karen (KAH-ren) Stone trained as a singer and performed widely before deciding she had a greater talent for leadership. After serving as the assistant stage director under the legendary British renaissance man Jonathan Miller and directing productions at the English National Opera, she embarked on an opera management career, spending most of her directorial time in the German-speaking world in Freiburg, Cologne, Munich, and Graz, Austria.

The fiftieth anniversary season was carefully planned to bring out the tried and true opera lovers of Dallas as well as those who were tired of the same old thing. Working with surveys and reviewing years of audience feedback, Stone and Dallas Opera’s longtime music director, Graeme Jenkins (also British), settled on a list of five great operas, four of which had never been seen at the Dallas Opera. At the top of patrons’ must-haves was Verdi’s Nabucco, the powerful drama that inspired a generation of Italians to cast off Austrian domination and establish the nation of Italy (the choral “Va’ pensiero” became an unofficial national anthem). Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, based on Schiller’s imagined confrontation between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, was the next excellent choice, followed by La Rondine, Puccini’s seldom seen masterpiece, and Wagner’s Lohengrin, a treasure of his mature style. Finally, they sweetened the deal with an all-time favorite, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

I went to La Rondine (The Swallow) after reading up on the libretto and the opera’s history. Although I cherished the one Rondine aria I knew from a recording, “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” (a song of such intense musical longing that knowledge of the words is completely unnecessary), the storyline struck me as a tired combination of the plots of Der Rosenkavalier and La Traviata: A Parisian courtesan rejects her wealthy lover for a poor but virtuous young man from the provinces, only to let the young man go when he proposes because she realizes that her past will ruin his life. But as any fan knows, opera can transcend the failings of any story with passionate music, and Puccini was the maestro supremo, with La Boheme and Madama Butterfly already behind him when he undertook the Viennese commission on the eve of the Great War. Now I know—trust Puccini.

Veronica Villarroel delivered a passionate performance as Magda, and Massimo Giordano of Naples sang her sweet-natured lover Ruggero as if he were born to it. Still, most of the entertainment came from the comic duo of soprano Caroline Worra as Magda’s maid Lisette and Gordon Gietz as the flippant Prunier, the supposed champion of romantic love. Both were refreshingly funny and also excellent singers in their supposedly secondary roles. The supporting cast and chorus also sparkled.

Lohengrin turned out to be one of the most technically perfect performances of the fifteen operas I attended.

Lohengrin, the Dallas Opera’s final work of the season, also surpassed every expectation: It turned out to be one of the most technically perfect performances of the fifteen operas I attended. Every singer-actor conveyed his or her character with the utmost fidelity to the psychology of Wagner’s music drama—and looked the part to boot. Handsome Christopher Ventris was the unworldly knight of the Grail in form and voice. Lovely Nancy Gustafson played Elsa of Brabant as an unstable young woman driven to the edge of insanity by her accusers, the evil pair Frederick of Telramund and his wife, Ortrud. The villains were embodied in Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus and Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet, a powerful duo who might have stolen the show in a lesser production. As Dallas Opera’s general director Karen Stone boasted, “You would have to go to a venue of the caliber of Bayreuth to experience anything like it on the opera stage today.” One could only agree that Dallas Opera had truly ended the season with a most satisfying bang.

What does the future hold for Dallas Opera? A new venue, for one, as the company looks forward to moving out of the Music Hall at Fair Park, which has become a limitation. Next year that gigantic hole near the Meyerson Center in the Dallas Arts District will be transformed into a state-of-the-art center for the performing arts to house the opera and ballet companies. General director Stone is proud of the opera’s outreach programs, which are calculated to ignite the interest of the young in opera, and vows to continue pleasing Dallas audiences with offerings they will want to take the trouble to see.

Next season: Verdi—Macbeth, Lehár—The Merry Widow (starring Dallas favorite Ruth Ann Swenson), Richard Strauss—Salome, Gershwin—Porgy and Bess (with Gordon Hawkins and Indira Mahajan), and Puccini—Tosca (with Catherine Nagelstad and James Morris). The Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 1st Ave. 214-443-1000 or dallasopera.org.

3. Every opera company has to balance “high-risk” productions (meaning: few people will pay to attend) with low-risk presentations (meaning: you couldn’t keep them away with a gypsy’s curse). Certainly one of the lowest risk operas in the repertory is Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and that ever-popular drama is what Austin Lyric Opera chose as its season opener. But there are dangers in hearing a work that becomes overly familiar.

Every regular opera fan will have heard dozens of talented singers interpret the same music, live or on recordings. As I listen to Cio-Cio-San sing those melodies indelibly burned into my brain, I am unconsciously comparing the poor singer on stage, note for note, with every other performer I’ve ever heard, or perhaps the mixture of all of them, the ideal Cio-Cio-San, who captures every subtle nuance that Puccini intended. I envy the person hearing this music for the first time. Essentially, the competent singer distinguishes herself on stage through her acting.

More and more Asian women are singing the role, and since ALO double-cast this production, patrons had the choice of trying out Shu-Ying Li’s version or Jee Hyun Lim’s. I heard the latter, a Korean beauty who very much looked the part, and moved about the stage gracefully. I know I enjoyed her singing, but it may have been the ideal Cio-Cio-San in my brain that I was actually listening to.

I gained a new degree of disgust for the Pinkerton character, however, as tenor Eric Fennell entered Cio-Cio-San’s immaculate home, lit a cigarette, and later ground it out on the floor. Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant, hurried to sweep up the butt before anyone noticed the insult. Somehow, that little touch, in an otherwise well sung production, really made this one stand out.

High-risk is the name of the game whenever a U.S. opera company premieres a contemporary opera. Fortunately, ALO’s American premiere of Philip Glass’s latest, Waiting for the Barbarians, with a text based on Nobel prize-winner J. M. Coetzee’s novel, surpassed ALO’s expectations in attendance and critical acclaim. Part of that success is certainly due to the fact that Glass is America’s best-known contemporary composer and has built an audience in Austin with frequent visits and concerts at the University of Texas. But it may also have been due to the subject matter: Coetzee’s imagined empire resorts to torture when threatened by an enemy it knows little about. The contemporary parallels to the underlying moral dilemma our nation faces were not lost on the Austin audience.

Austin Lyric Opera: Waiting for Barbarians

ALO finished its season with another sure crowd-pleaser, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, but the Austin opera fan base is concerned about the future of ALO after the recent resignation of both the artistic director and the managing director of ALO. Not to worry. According to Steve Davis, the chairman of the board, the change was the result of a board decision to combine the two jobs into one, as is done in most opera companies of Austin’s size (budget $4 million). “We saw a unique opportunity with the move into the new Long Center for the Performing Arts,” he told me. The board is confident that the new $77 million facility opening in March 2008 and the opportunity to shape a season as soon as 2008 for an acoustically excellent 2,300-seat hall will attract strong candidates to the job.

Next season: Simply the Best:An Opera Concert, in the interim venue, Riverbend Center; Bizet—Carmen, to inaugurate the Long Center; and Johann Strauss—Die Fledermaus or The Bat, in an “Austintacious” version created in collaboration with Austin’s famous comedy troupe, Esther’s Follies. Riverbend Centre, 4214 N. Capital of Texas Hwy. 512-472-5992 or austinlyricopera.org.

4. The story of the San Antonio Opera goes something like this: there was the grand era of opera in the 1880s to the 1920s, when touring companies brought the latest works to town; then for decades the Metropolitan Opera toured yearly; after that the San Antonio Symphony in its glory days in the fifties under Victor Alessandro regularly performed operas, an effort later supported by an Opera Guild. Then the stages fell silent because of the symphony’s financial woes. Finally, the Opera Guild began renting busses to take fans to see opera in Houston, Dallas, and Austin—which it continues to do, by the way.

But ten years ago the bundle of energy that is Mark A. Richter started San Antonio Pocket Opera, which evolved from opera accompanied by piano in the 400-seat San Pedro Playhouse to fully orchestrated opera in the 2,200-seat Lila Cockrell Theatre. Along the way the organization’s name changed to the San Antonio Opera.

Richter, who was born and raised in San Antonio, became interested in classical music while playing the viola in school orchestras. Eventually, he studied music at the city’s University of the Incarnate Word, developed a high lyric tenor voice, and sang widely all over the city. His first foray into opera production brought Mozart’s The Impresario to the stage on a $6,000 budget. Today, the SAO budget is within striking distance of a million, and Richter hopes to make the leap to a well-staffed organization. Its two major events in June, the first with Frederica von Stade and friends and the second with Placido Domingo in the Alamodome, gave the company a boost in the right direction.

The first offering, back in September was La Traviata, Verdi’s tale of passionate love, guilt, and sorrowful death by tuberculosis. The production succeeded with good ensemble work and some powerful singing from the principals, especially the talented Mexican soprano Olivia Gorra, who sang Violetta with a minimum of histrionics—a tasteful gesture of raising the hand to the mouth to suppress a cough. Gaston Rivero of Uruguay played her lover, Alfredo, memorably. Lawrence Harris, a former offensive lineman with the Houston Oilers, also delivered a fine performance as Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father. By the end, I was not the only member of the audience dabbing away a tear.

SAO’s second production, The Pirates of Penzance, is usually performed by amateur Gilbert and Sullivan societies, but this company showed how a professional opera company is able to enhance the quality of an audience’s experience. Texan Kelly McClendon as Mabel sang with a rich, full operatic voice and good vocal technique, as did David Gaschen, the production’s Frederic, (who was taking a break from his other gig, as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway). The showstopper, however, was Alastair Donkin, a veteran of the revered D’Oyly Carte company, who rendered Major General Stanley with consummate style, delivering the most rapid patter song (“I am the very model of a modern major general”) ever. He topped it all off with a cartwheel at the end. It was nothing short of thrilling.

Next season: Puccini—La Boheme, Donizetti—Elixir of Love, and Puccini—Tosca. Lila Cockrell Theater, 200 E. Market. 210-225-5972 or saopera.com.

5. I arrived in Amarillo early to see what the buzz about high culture on the High Plains was all about. Last year the town opened a $32 million, 1,300-seat venue to display its symphony and ballet companies and the Amarillo Opera, the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts. Assuming that it would be open a few hours before the evening performance of Donizetti’s comic masterpiece Don Pasquale, I went straight to the building. After admiring the roller-coaster roofline and attractive stone, brick, and colored-glass façade I wandered inside and took a brief tour.

Amarillo Opera: Don Pasquale

The sandstone building material, my guide told me, imitated the stratified geology of nearby Palo Duro Canyon. Gazing up in the lobby at the gleaming metal plates on the ceiling high above us, she pointed out that they were actually cattle-car paneling, a nod to the ranching traditions of the Panhandle. I looked inside the Carol Bush Emeny Performance Hall into a brilliant orange shell. Its geometrical wood paneling reminded me of a geodesic dome structure. A proud board member later told me that was a tune-able feature of the building’s acoustic design and added that he “just couldn’t say enough good things about Mila.”

Mila Gibson, the founder and general director of Amarillo Opera, is the powerhouse behind Amarillo Opera. In 1988 she starred in the company’s first production, Madame Butterfly. She also directed the other singers, the chorus, the costuming, and the marketing, and even helped build the sets. Since then she has assembled a full professional staff and rallied the city behind her. Gibson was a voice teacher at Amarillo College at the company’s founding, and has maintained the AO’s ties to that institution, which shared credit for this production of Don Pasquale.

Don Pasquale ranks as one of the funniest of comic operas—Pasquale is an old bachelor who decides to take a young wife, have children, and disinherit his ne’er-do-well nephew, but is thwarted by a doctor friend who pulls a complicated practical joke on him. This production featured some excellent singing and comedic acting by local favorites. Jeryl Hoover, who also serves as the mayor of Fredericksburg when he’s not onstage, played Don Pasquale appropriately broadly, evoking chuckles throughout the evening. Eric Barry, “the Pavarotti of the Panhandle,” embodied Ernesto, the lazy nephew, lounging about while gnawing on a chicken leg, a clever bit of acting that made the audience laugh. A high point of the evening was his limpid singing of the third act serenade, “Com’ e gentil.” John Dooley, who played Dr. Malatesta, kept up the high energy level. And Nicole Franklin, from nearby Borger, was a delight as Ernesto’s clever girlfriend, Norina, singing the demanding arias with such a contagious smile that my facial muscles almost gave out. Everyone in the audience was thoroughly entertained.

Next season: Musica Variada, Bizet—Carmen, Lift Every Voice, Floyd—Cold Sassy Tree. The Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Buchanan. 806-372-7464 or amarilloopera.org.

6. Houston’s valiant little Opera in the Heights celebrated its tenth season this year with an ambitious four-opera program—including two by Mozart—each presented by alternating casts. I caught up with the company for the first evening of its final production of the season, Don Giovanni. With sunset illuminating the large stained glass windows of the three-hundred-seat Lambert Hall on Heights Boulevard, artistic director William M. Weibel thanked supporters who had hosted singers in their homes, then asked his Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Zerlina—Victoria Tralongo, Vanessa Salaz, and Clea Nemetz, respectively—for their impressions of the ladies they were to sing. Then, under Weibel’s direction the 23-piece orchestra gave a solemn reading of Mozart’s great overture.

When the curtain went up, I was first impressed with the lavish sets and costumes, and then, over the next three and a half hours, with the high level of singing. Andrew Nolen as Don Giovanni and Jorge Ocasio as his servant Leporello especially distinguished themselves, but the whole cast performed well. Throughout the evening, I noticed that Weibel appeared to be singing silently along with each voice. Finally the stage’s trap door opened up, demons dragged the wicked Don down to perdition, and the triumphant cast sang the grand finale.

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