American Opera Series 2015

Photo: Ben Gibbs

(Photo credit: Ben Gibbs)

The Metropolitan Opera broadcasts are on break until this fall, but we’ll continue to showcase some of the great opera companies in the United States on Saturdays at 1pm. View the complete schedule here.

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.

Bourbon Baroque’s Dido and Aeneas

Bourbon Baroque

Louisville’s period instrument ensemble Bourbon Baroque will be presenting Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theater on Saturday, March 14 at 8:00pm.

Co-artistic directors of Bourbon Baroque, Austin Clark and Nicolas Fortin sat down with Daniel Gilliam to discuss their upcoming production.

How this production of Dido and Aeneas is different from the rest

“This production of Dido and Aeneas is the quintessential example of what our mission is for Bourbon Baroque. We have gathered together a group of a variety of disciplines to create a visual concept for this production that includes contemporary dance, pantomime actors on mask, as well as of course the orchestra, the chorus, and minimalist costume and scenic design.”

How Bourbon Baroque puts on an opera without being an opera company

“I am a big fan of surrounding yourself with smarter people. I think it makes it so that you don’t feel like you have everything on your shoulders. Obviously with the opera form that is a whole contingency of collaboration…. Through my own personal musical work and musical theater direction, I have met many people in the theater community and through those projects and introductions I have formulated this wonderful Baroque dream team, a local group that is going to help us make this happen.”

On Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

“It is based on the Aeneid by Virgil and retells the story of the sad and unfortunate fate of Dido getting betrayed by her lover Aeneas… It’s beautiful music, very intricate fast paced one hour opera with dance music. The characters are making the story in front our eyes, but always with short and compelling interjections of 24 piece chorus in our production.”

On working with the Youth Performing Arts School

“This program is great for us because the YPAS students are able to dedicate the time needed to make the music really speak. When I’m coaching young musicians, particularly singers, I’m like, well it’s one thing to learn the notes but it’s quite another to then add on that extra layer, all the gestures and the Baroque styling, which I am often equating to musical theater. Musical theater has their own little bitty ways of doing things and if you can understand that then you can understand that the Baroque music has it’s own toolbox of vocal techniques that makes things really sell.”

On the short orchestral suite to begin the evening

“There is a short 20 minuet orchestral suite that we’ve actually performed a handful of times before. It’a a piece that we really hold true to what we do with Bourbon Baroque and that’s of course the central component of collaboration. We are performing Georg Philipp Telemann’s La Putain.”

You can purchase your tickets to see Bourbon Baroque’s Dido and Aeneas here.

Metropolitan Opera: Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

meistersinger

The Metropolitan Opera Saturday Matinee broadcasts are back on Classical 90.5. This week is Wagner’s epic comedy, back at the Met for the first time in eight years. James Morris and Michael Volle share the central role of Hans Sachs. Johan Botha reprises his indomitable Walther, and the elegant Annette Dasch is Eva.

Dolores Claiborne as an Opera

This Saturday we’ll broadcast Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy’s opera adaptation of Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne from San Francisco Opera’s premiere production (get a preview below).

But first, watch Opera America’s “Creators in Concert,” with guest Tobias Picker, this evening at 7pm through their website.