Review: Kentucky Opera’s “A Woman in Morocco” Complex and Challenging

Kentucky Opera A Woman in Moracco

Kentucky Opera concludes its 2014-15 season with a new production of the 2014 opera “A Woman in Morocco,” by composer Daron Hagen and librettist Barbara Grecki, as part of its Composer Workshop series. In partnership with the University of Louisville, the workshop series showcases new operas in early stages of development, giving composers a chance to hone a work with a professional company before making the production available for wider distribution. This is the second time Hagen and Grecki have worked with Kentucky Opera: their three one-acts “New York Stories” were presented in 2010 through Kentucky Opera’s Studio Artist Program.

Hagen’s ninth opera is set in mid-Twentieth century Morocco at a hotel run by English ex-pat Teddy Forsythe (Joe Flaxman), which also acts as a front for human trafficking. The plot unfolds in a lobby and hotel room — confined, as it were, by the dark and disturbing subject matter. Any glimpse of the outside world comes through soundscapes of street noise, calls-to-prayer and a recurring BBC radio broadcast featuring a sultry jazz singer performing a song called “Love comes with a knife.”

Lizzy Holmes (Danielle Messina), a young journalist, arrives at the hotel and immediately becomes enamored by a charming staffer, named Ahmed (Joe Shadday). Their love affair unlocks a web of other love affairs and soon we’re engrossed in overlapping love triangles, while Lizzy unravels through drug addiction and the experience of seeing a kidnapping and murder. Hagen’s complex score works to underline these issues with leitmotifs, musical cues assigned to different characters, and music that never settles or rests. This isn’t a show with “numbers,” so when singers get soaring arias, they emerge naturally from this intricate texture. Hagen has a gift for writing sensually-rich tunes and uses this skill to release the music at important moments.

Danielle Messina was clear and confident portraying Lizzy’s metamorphosis from innocent Midwesterner to fragile addict. Her vocal prowess, self-assured and nimble, served her through this emotional descent. Ahmed, eloquently sung by Joe Shadday, uses his charisma to gently guide Lizzy through a kief-haze into squalor. With a captivating voice, Erin Bryan was strong as Lizzy’s friend, the curious Asilah.

A particularly captivating device occurs during Lizzy’s letter writing scenes to her sister Claire. The content of her letters and Lizzy’s inner monologue were delivered by the women of the cast, each character singing a thread in the harmonic fabric. These ensemble pieces, which included Natasha Foley (also portraying Asilah’s sister Habiba) and Krista Heckman, were vocally lush and homogeneous.

Sporting a consistently despicable swagger and wardrobe, Flaxman played a sleazy Teddy Forsythe. His frequent accomplice, the loathsome American businessman Harry Hopkins, was sung by Brent Smith whose brassy tone added a certain cockiness to his role. We were allowed brief moments of empathy towards the male characters, but those feelings were easily trumped by their unwavering filth. It’s through Harry we meet Claire, on a mission to find her sister Lizzy, portrayed by Melisa Bonetti, a singer with a mellow, warm voice.

Acting out everyday emotions and gestures (a kiss or embrace, a friendly exchange, etc) will always come easier than a struggle with another person, abusing someone, or driving a knife into someone’s heart. They are uncomfortable places to go, but essential to be convincing, and opera must be believable musically and dramatically. While Messina’s struggles were palpable, and Shadday seemed genuinely conflicted, others needed more emotional investment in their character’s despicable nature.

Words were sometimes difficult to understand in ensemble moments (like Lizzy’s letter-writing scenes) or anytime a singer turned away from the audience, even in the intimate Victor Jory Theatre. Given the complexity of the story, supertitles would have helped the audience. Conductor Roger Zahab confidently led a 10-piece ensemble (from behind a scrim) that held together despite several rough patches.

Grecki’s story is wholly original and equally familiar. While the behavior Harry, Teddy or Ahmed, or even Lizzy, is unpalatable, their essential struggle is universal: love. “A Woman in Morocco” doesn’t preach about the perils of human trafficking; Hagen and Grecki assume we’re all on the same page regarding its atrociousness. It doesn’t even suggest a solution to the problem. It does make clear that love can be ambiguous and even dangerous at its worst.

Kentucky Opera presents “A Woman in Morocco” for two more performances May 15th and 17th at the Victor Jory Theatre at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville.

Remembering Dallas Tidwell

Dallas Tidwell

Clarinetist Dallas Tidwell passed away yesterday. He was 64. Tidwell was Associate Professor of Clarinet at the University of Louisville, and played in the Louisville Orchestra as principal and second for 27 years. He was a founding member of the Kentucky Center Chamber Players, an ensemble that performed their final concert in March after more than 30 years of concerts. Tidwell was active as a performer and advocate of new music, working with composers Frederick Speck, Marc Satterwhite, Philip Rhodes, Dan Welcher among others. He has played on recordings through the Centaur, Koch, D’Note, Troy and First Edition Labels.

Tidwell was loved and respected throughout the Louisville music community. Here are some reflections from those who worked with him. If you would like to add yours, please do so in the comments:

“I’ve been so fortunate to have enjoyed such a long friendship with Dallas. When I returned to U of L in the early 90’s wanting to do some accompanying, it didn’t take long before he enticed me into the clarinet studio with all of the wonderful literature waiting to be learned and performed. Throughout these many years, I was always impressed with his knowledge, his attention to detail, his gift for inspiring his students, and most assuredly, his own talent for the clarinet which inspired me as a frequent collaborator with him. But even beyond music, he helped me grow in my knowledge, appreciation, and love for food, automobiles, works of art, house projects, and the list goes on and is practically endless. Words cannot express how much I will miss him, and I am a much better person for having known him. Rest well, my dear friend.” – David George, pianist

“I always looked forward to any LO concert in which we had hired Dallas to play. He was an absolute professional, always the most prepared member of any clarinet section he was in, and always the most fun! He had been fighting this illness for a few years. If he was tired or in pain because of it, he never showed it. I was lucky enough to visit him and his family a few weeks ago, and he seemed to be approaching death in the way he approached life: with an incredible spirit, pride, humility, and a smile. He seemed to be at the top of his game up to the end. I admire him immensely. Without even trying, he taught us all how to be a class act as a musician and individual. I’m so fortunate to have met his amazing family as well, and my thoughts are with them.” – Andrea Levine, principal clarinet, Louisville Orchestra

“I had the pleasure of performing with Dallas in the Louisville Chamber Winds. He was always so kind, always a smile and always willing to help in whatever capacity. This amazing orchestral player would sit all the way in the back of the section and play whatever part was needed, never asked for accolades and just was “one of the clarinetists”. His purpose was to play music and he enjoyed that at all levels of performance. As the page turner for KCCP for a season, I was privy to the rehearsal process of the group. It was a joy to watch him create within this amazing group of players. His attention to detail and his flexibility to meet the demands of all types of music was absolutely impressive. The last moment we shared was just a few weeks after Henry was born. We ran into each other in a restaurant and he and Edie were fussing over the baby. I asked how he was feeling and, as usual, ‘I’m doing pretty well, so far!’ He then asked me how I was doing and if I had started playing so soon after the baby. I said, ‘Yes, started practicing again this week.’ Edie and Kristen were so shocked, considering it had only been a week and a half since the surgery. Dallas looked at me and said “Good for you. We have to always keep the music going.’ So subtle and yet so profound. Thank you, Dallas, for the reminder to continuously fight for the music.’ – Carrie Ravenscraft, clarinetist

“He was always teaching the art of musicianship. Technique, though important, was secondary to phrasing and capturing the composer’s musical intention in the music. He constantly strove to teach his students the art of making music. His ability to foster a competitive yet respectful studio environment is a magic I will never understand. His students were a part of his family.” – Samantha Holman, clarinetist

“I had the privilege of studying with Mr. Tidwell during my time at U of L and learned so much, not just about playing clarinet but about being a better person. He could always be persuaded to take some private lesson time to talk about racing and life and anything and everything. He will forever have a special place in my heart.” – Carolyn Fassio, clarinetist

“Playing clarinet is supposed to be fun, not work. If you are not having fun, you are doing it wrong.” -Dallas Tidwell (via Samantha Holman)

Tidwell last performed on Classical 90.5 on April 9, 2014. Listen to the complete Lunchtime Classics featuring the Kentucky Center Chamber Players

Minnesota Orchestra Live from Cuba

Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vanska, March 2014 - credit Greg Helgeson

(Photo credit: Greg Helgeson)

Classical 90.5, in partnership with American Public Media, is proud to bring you two live, historic performances of Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra from the Teatro Nacional in Havana, Cuba! These are the first performances and broadcasts of an American Orchestra from Cuba since President Obama moved to normalize relations in December 2014.

On Friday, May 15, Osmo Vänskä will lead the Minnesota Orchestra in a concert of Beethoven masterworks that will prominently feature Cuban artists. In addition to Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont and Eroica Symphony, they’ll be joined by the Cuban National Choir, Coro Vocal Leo and pianist Frank Fernandez for Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy.

The Saturday, May 16 concert includes the unforgettably Mediterranean melodies that comprise Leonard Berstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story as well as Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite.

These landmark performances will take place Friday, May 15 and Saturday, May 16 at 8pm on Classical 90.5 and wuol.org!

Louisville Orchestra Season Finale Broadcast

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Classical 90.5 presents the final Louisville Orchestra concert from the 2014-15 season Thursday evening at 8 pm. The music, which is conducted by LO Music Director Teddy Abrams, begins with John Williams’ The Cowboys Overture, featuring music written for the 1972 film The Cowboys starring John Wayne. Abrams ends the program with his interpretation of the Symphony No. 5, Op. 67, by Ludwig van Beethoven. (You can read Daniel Gilliam’s review of the concert here)

The trio Time for Three – Nick Kendall, violin, Zach De Pue, violin and Ranaan Meyer, Double Bass – appear on the program also. TfT has been exciting audiences wherever they appear with their unique arrangements and grouping of instruments. Listen to Alan Brandt’s interview with the three musicians:

Featured Album & Giveaway: Goodyear’s Rachmaninoff

Stewart Goodyear credit Andrew Garn CAMI

(Photo credit Andrew Garn for CAMI)

Stewart Goodyear follows his first album of concertos on the Steinway & Sons label with two monumental Rachmaninov concertos, recorded with the Czech National Symphony conducted by Heiko Mathias Forster.

Listen to the album this week on Classical 90.5 and enter to win a copy for yourself!