Tag: opera

Adams, Nixon, and New Music Excitement in California

Joy! Joy! Joy!: Hye Jung Lee as Madame Mao in San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China. Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

Joy! Joy! Joy!: Hye Jung Lee as Madame Mao in San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China. Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

The Spirit of ’76 finally touched down at the San Francisco Opera with the first local performances of John Adams’s Nixon in China, a quarter century after the work’s creation. Just prior to the work’s 1987 premiere in Houston, there had been a reading in San Francisco with piano accompaniment at the Herbst Theater, a recital hall, but this marks the first time it has been staged in the Bay Area, which has been Adams’s home for more than 40 years. The work was commissioned by David Gockley when he was general director of the Houston Grand Opera. With Gockley now at the helm of the San Francisco Opera, co-commissioners of Adams’s Doctor Atomic and The Death of Klinghoffer, this appearance of Nixon in China feels like a missing puzzle piece being put into its proper place.

Most followers of contemporary American music are probably familiar with the basic background behind Nixon, which has received multiple productions and two recordings. The opera—conceived by director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman, and Adams—is inspired by Nixon’s 1972 trip to Beijing to meet with Mao Tse-tung and China’s Premier Chou En-lai. In the course of three acts during which the line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred, five distinct character portraits emerge: of Nixon, Mao, Chou, Pat Nixon, and Chiang Ch’ing, or Madame Mao.

The opera contains some of the most memorable, charming, propulsive, lyrical, witty, and fresh writing of Adams’s career but, even so, 25 years is enough time to have passed that it does have the sound of a different era. Adams recently said in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, “I was surprised by how minimalist the music is. When I started opening the score again, I hadn’t really looked at it or conducted it in 10 or 15 years—and compared to what I now do, I was shocked by all those bald arpeggios, bar after bar! It’s a kind of writing I would never do now.”

Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

But for those who haven’t heard Nixon before, the music itself remains surprising and shocking. I had the great fortune of seeing it with a group of traditional opera-goers who had never heard a note of the piece and was reminded that, despite our easy access to recorded material nowadays, live performances of major works like this are essential if they are to have an impact on a local audience. As is my custom, I attended the June 17 performance on a standing-room ticket; just before the start of the performance, a stranger generously offered me an empty seat in her box. My box-mates were in their 50s, more or less contemporaries of Adams, Sellars, and Goodman, and knew very little in advance about what they had come to hear. But it was particularly gratifying to me that, at the first intermission, it was immediately apparent that no explanations or apologias were necessary: these first-time listeners were thrilled by the energy of the landing of Air Force One in the first scene; they grasped the banal yet complex portrayal of Nixon that develops from him singing “News” twelve times in a row; they accepted the ambiguities of the language and the action. Nixon was in a language that was immediately comprehensible to them, and by the time Madame Mao sang her final “Book!” my hostess declared that she could see herself becoming a Nixon groupie.

Of course this reaction wouldn’t have been triggered without strong performances by all the principals and the orchestra and chorus, under Lawrence Renes’s baton. (The short preview video above gives a sampling of the cast singing all the greatest hits.) Baritone Brian Mulligan’s Nixon was physically and vocally youthful and vibrant, sung with a warmth and lyricism that prevented the character from ever slipping into caricature. The punishingly high part of Mao was sung securely and admirably by tenor Simon O’Neill, with a stridency entirely appropriate to the figure he was portraying. But the person that everyone will likely remember when they recall this performance is the petite 29-year-old Hye Jung Lee, just two years out of the SF Opera’s Merola young artists program, who completely took over the stage from the moment she declared, “That is your cue!” and shot Kissinger. “I am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung,” she fearlessly announced, and one could easily see how millions of people would “hang/ Upon her words” through Lee’s powerful and astonishingly precise performance.

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That same weekend, across the bay in Berkeley was another performance of a John Adams work in a much more modest venue. The Friction Quartet, a group of young musicians who have all studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, performed the second movement of Adams’s String Quartet as part of a triple-bill at the Subterranean Arthouse, a small (above-ground) “community art space” near the UC Berkeley campus. (You can hear part of the Friction Quartet’s performance of the Adams quartet at the conservatory’s Hot Air Music Festival on YouTube.)

Living Earth

The concert was organized by composer Brendon Randall-Myers, who was leaving the next day to move to the East Coast, and was a manifestation of the enthusiasm for new music that is coming out of the conservatory right now. The other performers, guitar/percussion duo The Living Earth Show and members of the chamber ensemble Nonsemble 6, are all recent graduates of SFCM and approached this program of contemporary music—which also included two works by Randall-Myers, a piece by Timo Andres that was also performed at this year’s Switchboard Festival, and works by Adrian Knight, Kevin Villalta, and Frederic Rzewski—with exuberance and a complete lack of pretense.

Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge

This was best exemplified by Nonsemble 6’s performance of a section of Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge, which is “for any number of musicians playing melody instruments and any number of nonmusicians playing anything.” According to Rzewski’s performance instructions, “nonmusicians are invited to make sound, any sound, preferably very loud, and if possible are provided with percussive or other instruments.” Nonsemble 6’s solution for this was to write out their cell phone numbers and tape the papers to their stands. They then encouraged the audience members, many of whom seemed to be friends and colleagues, to call and text the numbers during the performance so that the rings would allow the nonmusicians to participate.

As it turned out, the ringtones weren’t loud enough to register, so the audience switched to other methods of making very loud sounds, including, but not limited to: stomping on the ground; snapping a leather belt; taking shoes off and pounding them on the walls; clapping; and making vocalizations that started as good-humored “boo”s, which then transformed into “baa”s. In the end it felt more like a raucous jam session than an actual performance of Moutons, but one couldn’t deny the infectiousness of the joyful abandon in their music-making.

Opera Company of Philadelphia Appoints Missy Mazzoli as Composer-In-Residence

Missy Mazzoli

Missy Mazzoli – Photo by Stephen S. Taylor

The Opera Company of Philadelphia, in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group in New York, has announced that composer Missy Mazzoli has been selected as its second composer-in-residence. Mazzoli, currently working on her second full-length opera, was chosen from over 100 applicants for the position and now has the opportunity to follow a personalized, three-year development track focused on the advancement of her career as an operatic composer.

“Missy has already proven herself as a significant composer with stories to tell,” says OCP General Director David B. Devan. “This program will connect her with world-class professionals who can mentor and collaborate with her to support her continued growth as an artist.” For the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the program complements the American Repertoire Program (ARP), a commitment to producing an American opera in each season for the next decade, announced in 2011.

The composer-in-residence program, funded over five years by a $1.4 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, provides a living stipend ($60,000, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer) and benefits to two composers, each following a three-year track, with the goal of “fostering tomorrow’s American operatic masterpieces through personalized creative development and intensive, hands-on composition.” Mazzoli will begin her appointment on September 1, 2012. She joins Lembit Beecher, who was appointed in September 2011.

In February 2012, Mazzoli premiered her first full-length opera, Song from the Uproar, at The Kitchen in New York. The Wall Street Journal called the work “powerful and new”, while The New York Times said that, “in the electric surge of Ms. Mazzoli’s score you felt the joy, risk, and unlimited potential of free spirits unbound.” Her new, 25-minute opera entitled SALT, a multi-media collaboration based on the biblical story of Lot’s wife, will premiere at UNC Chapel Hill in October 2012. Mazzoli attended the Yale School of Music, the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, and Boston University, and is published by G. Schirmer.

(—from the press release)

Ensemble Parallèle Tackles Harbison’s Great Gatsby

John Harbison’s grand opera The Great Gatsby, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999, received its first production in a decade in a new chamber version created for San Francisco’s Ensemble Parallèle. Though founded by Nicole Paiement nearly 20 years ago, the ensemble has only recently turned its full attention to chamber productions of contemporary opera, filling a niche that Bay Area audiences are apparently very happy to explore.

This well-attended production of Gatsby, staged over three nights on the main stage at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, featured a slightly abridged version of the score (approximately half an hour was cut) in a newly commissioned re-orchestration by Jacques Desjardins. The original 80-piece orchestra was reduced to 30, including a stage band for party scenes. Before authorizing the chamber orchestration request, Harbison had asked Desjardins first to try his hand at scoring one of the large parties set at Gatsby’s estate.

Though only a short while ago I might have described Ensemble Parallèle as plucky, right now they’re actually flat-out audacious. Never mind their tight budgets and bare-bones administrative structure; somehow their productions have quickly become known as must-see events in town. In just the past two years, they have presented fully staged productions of Philip Glass’s Orphée with circus artists, a new chamber orchestration of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts (in the abridged version) paired with a new composition by Luciano Chessa as a prelude. Prior to that, they presented the world premiere of Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar; just announced for next season is Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata.

At the core of the ensemble are Paiement, a Bay Area new music dynamo who is the group’s conductor and artistic director, and her husband Brian Staufenbiel, who designs the productions and is the stage director. The casts are mostly drawn from singers with strong ties to the Bay Area, and while Ensemble Parallèle is not a repertory company, certain voices and faces become familiar from production to production. The company is a resident ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where Paiement is director of the New Music Ensemble and of BluePrint, a new music series sponsored by the school.


L-R: Marco Panuccio (Gatsby), Susannah Biller (Daisy), Julienne Walker (Jordan), Jason Detwiler (Nick), Daniel Snyder (Tom)

It is explicitly part of Ensemble Parallèle’s goals to promote chamber opera as a way to make the opera-going experience more intimate, and also to give large-scale, large-budget works another life that remains true to the original intent but in a more easily presentable form. On these points, their new version of Gatsby was certainly successful. It wasn’t nearly as opulent as the original version I saw at the Met in 1999, but I didn’t feel that we lost out in this “translation,” as Desjardins says. The substantial and straightforward sets by Staufenbiel and scenic designer Matthew Antaky were enhanced by Austin Forbord’s video design, which included the Eckleburg billboard at the top of this post, watching over the proceedings.

Hearing and watching this music performed in a 700-seat hall naturally made for a more intimate experience than the Met, yet the music was still well-served. Though the performances were solid across the whole cast, special notice can be given to Susannah Biller, whose portrayal of Daisy Buchanan was expressively sung with gleaming, youthful energy.


“Such beautiful shirts!”

Nevertheless, the cast had to struggle with the challenges that are inherent in Harbison’s theatrical adaptation. The principal characters are not people we find sympathetic: in Act Two, when Gatsby and Tom push Daisy to the point of publicly rebuking her husband, shrieking, “You’re reVOLting!”, one can’t help but agree with her, and unfortunately his companions do not elicit much more warmth from the audience either. And while Harbison’s music often ingeniously evokes the Jazz Age without slipping into a feeling of pastiche, to my ears it interacts awkwardly with the libretto, in the setting of the text as well as the choice of texts that are musically emphasized.

Even so, I am grateful to Ensemble Parallèle for finding a novel way to bring this music to San Francisco’s ears and for allowing me a chance to revisit what I remembered of the opera from a dozen years ago. For those who are interested in hearing the work, the Met has released the recording of the January 2000 broadcast as a 3-CD set.

Fast Forward

This March features an explosion of new music activity in the Bay Area, starting with the 17th annual Other Minds Festival, three nights of concerts at the SF JCC’s Kanbar Hall that are already underway (March 1-3). Concurrent with that is BluePrint’s concert Anosmia at the Conservatory on March 3, as well as new-music choir Volti’s series of performances March 2–4. The San Francisco Symphony launches its American Mavericks Festival with five programs in Davies Symphony Hall on March 8, before taking it on tour to Ann Arbor and New York.

Back at the Conservatory, the Hot Air Music Festival (March 4), an eight-hour marathon concert in its third year, features one of two SF performances of David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion this month; on March 23-25, San Francisco Lyric Opera teams up with Butoh-based physical theatre troupe Bad Unkl Sista to dramatize the story at ODC Dance Theatre.

ODC Dance Company is also premiering new music in the first program of their season, with composer/cellist Zoë Keating performing live with members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra (5 performances, starting March 15). And the Kronos Quartet continues its three-year residency at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with Fragile, an installation piece created with movement artists Eiko & Koma, also starting March 15.

Disclosure: I will be performing at the American Mavericks Festival, am the Artistic Advisor and often sing with Volti (though not in these concerts), and am employed by the Kronos Quartet. Gatsby production photos by Steve DiBartolomeo.

Sounds Heard: Stefan Weisman / Anna Rabinowitz—Darkling

The transformations that opera is undergoing right now make it an exciting time for those working with the form. Composing an opera continues to be a major career goal for many composers, but the task of actually mounting a full production—at least as it has been traditionally defined through history—is daunting, to say the least. As of late, much contemporary opera has been reducing its footprint by relying on smaller forces for performance and documentation. Darkling, with music by Stefan Weisman and libretto by poet Anna Rabinowitz, is one such example of an opera that packs a punch even though served in a relatively small container.

The libretto for Darkling is a collage of text snippets culled from letters, photographs, and other memorabilia from Eastern European Jews that serve to illustrate the tumultuous period (both from a personal and an historic perspective) between the two World Wars. Twenty-three very short movements, ranging from less than one minute to a little over five minutes, are sandwiched between a longer prologue and epilogue. Layers of spoken word, singing, and the occasional chunk of archival audio are intertwined with a supporting bed of string quartet music that makes for an intimate listening experience.

Interestingly, for all of the work’s nonlinearity, both the text and the music are built upon the same very solid foundation—Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush.” While Rabinowitz created a book-length acrostic poem (!) from the text scraps with the poem at the core, Weisman found inspiration from composer Lee Hoiby’s setting of the poem, sprinkling tiny seeds of content from that song into his music. Perhaps this shared thematic element explains why the music so effectively supports the text without ever getting in the way. However, so crucial is the poem to this work that it is surprising neither it nor the acrostic are reprinted (or even excerpted) in the liner notes.

This 2-CD incarnation of Darkling (it was originally produced by American Opera Projects) is a compelling listen—the texts, given carefully nuanced deliveries by a cast of rich voices perfectly suited to storytelling, are so engrossing that at times I forgot that music was happening as well. But like a well-crafted film score, that the music is unobtrusive and sometimes melts into the larger dramatic structure is a positive.

It would be fascinating to experience a live production, to discover how the many layers and fragments are handled in three dimensions. However, this aural version of Darkling is beautifully recorded, strongly conveying the feeling of a radio play. Even though the fragmentary nature of the storyline means that there isn’t exactly an “ending” so to speak, the opera nonetheless paints a vivid and satisfying picture of a challenging historical period.