Friday, June 22, 2012

Your chance to critique the critic!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Be sure and check out the Facebook page for Operaville and the blog-inspired novel and companion CD at

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

San Francisco Opera: John Adams’ Nixon in China

June 17, 2012

John Adams’ 1987 work, a project fostered by wunderkind director Peter Sellars and Houston Grand Opera director (now SFO director) David Gockley, created a watershed moment in modern American opera when, much to everyone’s surprise, it became a popular hit. The opera has maintained a place in the repertory ever since, and opened the way for a wave of new American works, including more recent SFO creations like “Dead Man Walking,” “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” and “Heart of a Soldier.”

Considering all that, I wish I could say I liked it. Following the hyper-intellectual trends of the day (postmodernism, deconstructionism), the creators of NiC gave their libretto to a poet, Alice Goodman, and decided to blow up the whole concept of opera as a storytelling form. Given the most tragic figure who has ever occupied the White House – a veritable American Macbeth – Goodman created a narrative that devolves from historic meeting to lively debate to an open-mic poetry reading featuring the most banal thoughts of the world’s most powerful figures.

A further irritation is the Glass-inspired harmonic cycling of the minimalist movement. In the short run, the device can be thrilling and rhythmically propulsive. But minimalists always seem to let this sonic freight train run non-stop, when it might be a good idea to try something different once in a while.

As far as presentation goes, SFO has thrown an enormous amount of talent and energy into the production (it’s almost worth seeing for the voices alone). After a breathtaking animation of Air Force One (Sean Nieuwenhuis, projection designer), the screen rises to Erhard Rom’s set design of the airliner, a visual so stunning it drew applause. (The production is from Vancouver Opera.)

Baritone Brian Mulligan steps to the tarmac and delivers the opera’s most memorable piece, “News is a mystery,” centered on artful opera buffo repetitions. The act proceeds to a lively debate with Mao, featuring rousing heldentenor bursts from New Zealander Simon O’Neill and funny echoes from a trio of yes-girls, then to a banquet that spins wildly out of control, thanks in part to baritone Patrick Carfizzi’s clownish, skirt-chasing Kissinger.

This is where the opera seems to run out of gas. An overlong tour of the countryside with Pat Nixon (soprano Maria Kanyova) is followed by an overlong performance of the ballet “The Red Detachment of Women” (featuring an excellent solo by Bryan Ketron). The rest of the opera is stolen by Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee, who plays Madame Mao as if her hair were on fire (in a good way). Lee is a gradute of SFO’s Merola Program, and bears watching.

The highlight of the navel-gazing third act is Nixon’s reminiscence of his wartime hamburger stand. Chou En-Lai’s musing about whether “anything we did was good,” is supposed to redeem the act (and perhaps the opera), but by then it’s too late.

It could be that NiC’s surprising endurance stems from the very absurdity of its concept (its title taken from Rossinian farces like “The Italian Girl in Algiers”). It could also derive from a continuing fascination with Nixon (the average opera-goer being plenty old enough to remember the trauma of Watergate). But the opera assumes so much background knowledge on the part of its audience, its popularity seems destined to die off.

Through July 3, War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $21-$389, 415/864-3330,

Image: Hye Jung Lee (Madame Mao Tse-tung). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is author of the novel “Operaville,” available at, and “How to Sing,” a poem forthcoming in the literary magazine Confrontation.

Monday, June 18, 2012

San Francisco Opera: Verdi’s Attila
June 15 2012

The appearance of a famed composer’s less-than-famous work is likely to reveal two things: a number of hidden treasures in the score, and a big, glaring reason that the opera isn’t performed more often. SFO’s lavish co-production with Teatro alla Scala brings out both.

Just to begin with the negative, the libretto by Temistocle Solera and Franciesco Maria Piave is a mess, a war opera with no battles and an overgrasping, ill-focused central narrative. (Perhaps this is no surprise; Verdi fired Piave, hired Solera, then returned to Piave for Act 3.)

It’s almost as if they started with too much raw material: a devastating raid that leads to the founding of Venice, Pope Leo I convincing Attila not to attack Rome, and an Italian girl, Odabella, who marries the Hun general in hopes of killing him.

Surprisingly, much of this turns out to be close to the truth. Odabella is a conflation of the Roman Emperor’s sister, Honoria, who offered her hand to Attila in hopes of avoiding an arranged match with a Roman senator, and Attila’s actual wife, Gudrun, suspected of stabbing the general to death much after the action in the opera. Focus more tightly on this intriguing relationship, and you’d have an effective story. (In later years, of course, Verdi demonstrated a ready ability to handle small-world romance and big-world politics simultaneously.)

Musically, the opera is a showcase for rousing choruses and fight songs, plus a few jewels of longing and grief. As the opera opens, the Huns have lain waste to the northeast Italian city of Aquilea . Alessandro Camera’s set paints a morbid picture: a dozen bodies on pikes, the remains of an amphitheatre and a brooding storm in the distance. Add a squadron of Huns in black leather fighting gear, and you’ve got a scene more butch than a Texas rodeo.

Ian Robertson’s chorus provides a magnificent presence, especially in the opening act and in the banquet scene, where they create an eerie effect of mass whisperings. The principal voices, meanwhile, are forces of nature, beginning with the face-off between the Roman general Ezio (Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey) and Attila (Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto) in “Avrai tu l’universo, Resti l’Italia a me” (“You may have the universe, but let Italy remain mine.”).

The opera portrays Attila in a surprisingly sympathetic light, as the only straight shooter in a world of deceivers. Furlanetto exploits this aspect well, especially in “Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima parea,” in which he relates an unsettling dream about the dangers of attacking Rome.

Playing the Aquilean warrior Foresto, Mexican tenor Diego Torre moves a bit stiffly but deploys a powerful spinto voice, particularly in his call to build the new city of Venice, “Cara patria già madre reina.” As Odabella, Venezuelan soprano Lucrecia Garcia is downright awkward, but her singing makes up for a lot, ranging from her thunderous response to Attila, “Allor che I forti corrono,” to a tender elegy for her slain father, “Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo.” In the latter, Garcia floats a sustained piano that drops into a descending phrase, gaining power as it falls. It’s a beautiful demonstration of vocal control, and announces a young soprano that we should keep our eyes (and ears) on. Another beautiful moment arrives at the end of Act 1, as Samuel Ramey, who sang Attila in SFO’s 1991 production, appears as Pope Leo I. Considering his stature as a singer, it’s not much of a stretch for Ramey to play royalty.

Camera’s sets take an intriguing journey from ruined amphitheatre to ruined 19th century theatre to dilapidated 20th century moviehouse (complete with a screening of the movie “Sign of the Pagan,” with Jack Palance as Attila). The historical parallels would be more apparent to an Italian audience, but it certainly carries weight on more general terms as a comment on the mythologizing process. Christopher Maravich’s lighting design is (forgive the pun) brilliant, notably the shimmering radiance accompanying the pope and his entourage. Nicola Luisotti and orchestra deliver a muscular, assured performance, especially in the horn passages of the first act.

Through July 1, War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $21-$389, 415/864-3330,

Image: Ferruccio Furlanetto (Attila). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the novel “Operaville,” available at His poem, “How to Sing,” is forthcoming in the literary magazine “Confrontation.”

Friday, June 15, 2012

San Francisco Opera, The Magic Flute

June 13, 2012

By Michael J. Vaughn

The moral thread of Die Zauberflöte is such a brilliant chaos that it can be nudged in provocative directions by merely shifting its visual environment. For SFO’s new production, Artist Jun Kaneko has created such a captivating re-imagining that it sometimes feels like someone held an art exhibit and an opera broke out.

Kaneko’s background drawings carry the crayon roughness and primary-colors of children’s art, but are pulled into surprising, elegant complexities. Animated projections (Clark Creative Group) convey the sense that these works are being created on the spot, and also serve some important theatrical functions: illustrating the creative process itself, conjuring a fantastical world that is almost alive, and smoothing out the flow of an opera with an enormous number of scene changes. A sudden burst of black scrawls accompanies the entrance of the Queen of the Night, and the tests of fire and water are powered by tendrils of orange and red ceding to waves of blue and green.

A second fresh element is the new English translation by SFO general director David Gockley, which makes sense in a number of ways. First, a primary luxury enjoyed by Mozart in Schikaneder’s theater outside Vienna was the freedom to create a work in the same language spoken by the audience. Secondly, the rhythmic similarity between German and English provides a smooth musical transition. Thirdly, the move opens up an extra level of humor fueled by the subtleties of language. Gockley makes free use of slang and topical humor: the Three Ladies’ reference to their boss as a “flaming queen,” Papageno’s claim that he practices “sustainable bird-catching,” and a running reference to the opening scene’s “Chinese-inspired dragon.” And who wouldn’t love a line like “I’d cook her eggs and tasty grits, make love until we called it quits”?

It’s almost too bad that the company offered a pre-performance announcement of Alek Shrader’s cold, because I doubt if anyone would have noticed. Shrader sang Tamino with the clearest of lyric tenors, and only began to fatigue toward the end of the evening. Soprano Heidi Stober provided the most touching musical moment, a performance of Pamina’s “Ach, ich fühl’s” threaded with a spinning, vibrant tone. Russian coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova performed the Queen’s famed showpieces with stunning agility.

Baritone Nathan Gunn opted for a more likeable, less goofy Papageno, opening up a deeper empathy for the birdcatcher’s moments of doubt, but still getting the most of his many funny lines (“Brotherhood, Schmotherhood!” he exclaimed, and I would have to agree). His outfit – always a central concern for Zauberflöte buffs – is a Rubik’s cube bodysuit augmented by an egg-holder backpack. Soprano Nadine Sierra, an SFO Adler Fellow, joined him with a vivacious Papagena.

Tenor Greg Fedderly performed an energetic, sleazy Monostasos, and it was lovely to hear the rich music for the boys’ trio sung by actual boys: Etienne Julius Valdez, Joshua Reiner and John Walsh. The Three Ladies were a familiar and welcome group: former Rhinemaidens Lauren McNeese and Renee Tatum, and Melody Moore from last season’s world premiere of “Heart of a Soldier.” The Ladies’ costumes took an interesting trip from Mouseketeer to Motown girl-group. The men’s chorus gave a powerful reading of the temple chorus, “O Isis and Osiris.” Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson gave Sarastro an imposing presence but not quite enough thunder in the challenging low notes.

Conductor Rory Macdonald led the orchestra in an extraordinarily clean, crisp performance. Stage director Harry Silverstein’s understated approach to movement worked well with Kaneko’s wild sets (perhaps the same kind of challenge offered to lighting designer Paul Pyant, who had to avoid conflict with the everpresent projections). Tamino’s flute calls brought forth a whimsical assortment of elongated woodland creatures, similar to Central American woodcarvings; the cuteness award goes to the birdlings representing Papageno’s future offspring.

The inherent contradictions of the opera may, in fact, be a principal reason for its constant popularity. Like Hamlet, it offers an unsolvable labyrinth of meaning and intention. If the Queen is so terrible, for instance, why does she provide protective instruments to Tamino and Papageno? And although the Queen resorts to violent measures, what gives some pseudo-religious priest, spouting abstract ideals with no real substance, the right to go around abducting other people’s children? When Kaneko went to stage director Silverstein for his interpretation, he answered, “…none of the people in Mozart’s world are either simply good or bad. Rather, their lives and needs have driven them to do what they feel is necessary and correct.”

Jun Kaneko’s book “Magic Flute,” a chronicle of the production’s creation, is available in the San Francisco Opera Shop.

Asides: Had to love the moment when the temple speaker called for silence – immediately followed by someone in standing room knocking over a loud, jangling bottle.  The show is a co-production with the operas of Washington, D.C., Omaha, Kansas City and Carolina. I cannot recall another production where the designer received a bigger ovation than any of the performers.

Through July 8, War Memorial Opera House, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $21-$389, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of "Operaville," a novel and companion CD available at  His poem, "How to Sing," is forthcoming in the literary magazine Confrontation.

Photos by Cory Weaver:

Albina Shagimuratova (The Queen of the Night).

Nathan Gunn (Papageno). 

John Walsh, Joshua Reinier, and Etienne Julius Valdez (The Three Boys) with Heidi Stober (Pamina).

Alek Shrader (Tamino) and the animals of the woods.    

Greg Fedderly (Monostatos).