Wednesday, June 26, 2013

FREE on Amazon Kindle

Michael J. Vaughn's hilarious sex novel, Operaville. June 26-27 only.

"An amateur opera critic finds himself in an affair with the world's greatest diva in this rollicking, erotic comedy from the author of Gabriella's Voice."

Friday, June 21, 2013

San Francisco Opera: Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

June 19, 2013

As an atheist, I have no particular stake in saving the soul of Christianity. The religion has a 2,000-year track record of misogyny based mostly on the beliefs of its founder, Saint Paul, and the early decision of church leaders at the Nicene council to exclude gospels that gave more prominent roles to women. The recent interest in Mary Magdalene, based on an alternate gospel uncovered in Egypt in 1945, seems to come from a desire among exasperated Christians (largely Catholic women) to instill a stronger female element in the life of their Messiah. This certainly explains the success of The Da Vinci Code, in which author Dan Brown posited the idea that Jesus fathered a child by Mary Magdalene, a child who would later become known as The Holy Grail.

Composer Mark Adamo seems to have a definite stake in saving Christianity, declared by the chorus in his opening scene. A group of archaeologists at the 1945 dig lament the sexism of their religion ("So poisonous, this story - it has hurt me all my life"), and are about to burn their bibles when they uncover the gospel of Mary Magdalene. A chorus of passers-by declares that perhaps this is a way out of the church's conundrum. As the chorus reaches a pitch, Mary Magdalene herself appears, establishing an intriguing device - ancient characters interacting with modern archaeologists - that will reappear throughout the opera. Mezzo Sasha Cooke wanders the ruins, describing her search for her lost lover in a bona fide set piece (a recent and welcome departure from the 20th-century tyranny of through-composing).

For Christians and non-Christians alike, the bracing feature of this first act is the involvement of Jesus (here called Yeshua) with a woman, and the grounding of religious icons in a full-blooded humanity. The earthiness is present immediately, as Mary is about to be stoned to death by her former lover's enraged wife. The preacher Yeshua appears to save her with the proverbial "casting the first stone" argument. This rescue creates a bond between the two, and Mary becomes determined to join the preacher's inner circle.

Watching a woman storm the apostolic man-club is a satisfying sight, along with a host of other scenarios: Yeshua's mother, Miriam, describes a bastard son who replaced his real father with God; Peter opposes Mary's inclusion with a weirdly furious jealousy (hinting at the latent homosexuality that has also been attached to Saint Paul); a pair of Roman policemen (Daniel Curran and Brian Leerhuber) bring the comically callous presence of the ruling powers into the argument.

Adamo's musical approach is captivating. The primary device is the use of sustained vocal lines over bursts of percussion and brass, hinting at the subterranean tragedies to come while taking full advantage of his singers: Cooke's radiant mezzo, Nathan Gunn's calming baritone as Yeshua, William Burden's strident tenor as Peter, Maria Kanyova's pyrotechnic, sometimes screeching soprano as the frantic Miriam. He also shows great affection for his choruses, the large passers-by chorus as well as a small chorus of archaeologists, and indulges in striking a capella passages as well as playfully harmonic duets; a series of these is used to bring about the reconciliation between Mary and Peter at her wedding to Yeshua. The culmination arrives in the gorgeous, melodic lament for Mary, "This is how I lose you."

Sadly, that lament is about where the opera loses itself. A libretto based on textual arguments might hold a roomful of theologians, but what about the rest of us? As Yeshua approaches his date with the cross, the barrage of overgeneralized platitudes wears out its welcome - helped not a bit by Adamo's self-proclaimed affection for the repetition of pivotal lines. ("When you're not afraid to lose something, then you'll know how to hold on to it" makes more appearances than a Seinfeld re-run.)

Another problem derives from Adamo's effort to bridge the gap between contemporary speech and biblical speech. At times this results in fetching verse and wordplay ("We realize it rankles those chains around your ankles"), at others it results in oversimplified lines that would be more at home in a Broadway musical. (You could actually see Yeshua rising from the tomb with "The sun'll come out tomorrow...").

In short, where the first act had the invigorating surprise of Magdalene as a full player, the second act is an anticlimactic snuff film, preceded by all manner of dull philosophizing. (Compare this with truly active operas: Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, SFO's recent 911 opera, Heart of a Soldier.)

The single set by David Korins is beautifully versatile, achieving its changes through the lighting design by Christopher Maravich. Michael Christie did a superior job of conducting, holding together all the elements of Adamo's ambitious score, and it was an evening-long pleasure for this drummer to take in the electrifying percussion parts (particularly the xylophone). Mary's final exit is marked by a haunting effect among the strings, bursts of glissando that sound like dying fireflies.

Through July 7 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $22-$340, 415/864-3330,

Images: Sasha Cooke (Mary Magdalene). Act I. William Burden (Peter), Nathan Gunn (Yeshua), Sasha Cooke (Mary Magdalene) and Maria Kanyova (Miriam). Photos by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and the author of the novel Operaville, available on

Monday, June 17, 2013

San Francisco Opera: Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann"

SFO's new co-production with Barcelona Gran Teatre del Liceu and L'Opéra National de Lyon often seems more like Cirque de Soleil, what with its astounding bag of stage effects and gymnastics. And if you guessed that this has something to do with Olympia the singing robot, you're dead-on. Soprano Hye Jung Lee makes her entrance in a metallic dress, seemingly hovering inches above the stage. As it turns out, she is strapped into the business end of a crane, operated by three stage hands in the darkness upstage. Lee proceeds to perform Olympia's coloratura showpiece, "Les oiseaux dans la charmille," while in flight, finishing with a full 360 and singing her finale while dangling over the orchestra pit. As if this isn't enough, she spends the subsequent scene rollerblading, delivering a neat cross-check on her would-be lover Hoffmann.

Even so, the production's most arresting image may belong to the third act. Playing Antonia's late mother, mezzo Margaret Mezzacappa is videoed in the orchestra pit, singing "Chére enfant!," and projected as a twenty-foot purple negative image on the back wall (projection designer Charles Carcopino). The same scene features Dr. Miracle, bass Christian Van Horn, riding the chandelier like an elevator.

Director/costume designer Laurent Pelly and set designer Chantal Thomas drew inspiration from Belgian symbolist artist Leon Spilliaert, employing a noirish pallette of blues, grays and blacks that evokes a dystopian mood similar to that of the film "Brazil." The performers prove just as captivating as their surroundings, beginning with tenor Matthew Polenzani, who demonstrates a fine ability to go from the poet's spinto rages to his lirico raptures. His most touching moments are his description of the sleeping Olympia and his passionate plea to Giulietta, "O Dieu! de quelle ivresse."

Soprano Natalie Dessay casts her particular brand of enchantment over the musically doomed Antonia, excelling in disarmingly simple moments: stolen passages of nostalgic song in her bedroom ("Elle a fui, la tourterelle"), or a shared love song with Hoffmann, "C'est une chanson d'amour," sung on a breeze of a conversation. At the end, she expires with a silken thread of tone, scattering songsheets across her bed.

Van Horn makes the most of his four devils, particularly as he conducts the cruel killing-by-song of Antonia, and moves about the stage with the deft grace of a phantom. He has his chance to "shine" in the Diamond Aria, a lovely piece set over matching low strings. Tenor Steven Cole makes an entire separate genre out of his three wacky-servant roles, especially in Frantz's self-insulting "Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre." Tenor Thomas Glenn matches the dank laboratory setting with a hilarious Frankensteinian version of the mad inventor Spalanzani (with plentiful help from makeup designer Gerd Mairandres). The stage swap of mezzo Angela Brower and her double, chorus regular Kathleen Bayler, was convincing enough to create a little confusion about who, exactly, was playing The Muse/Nicklausse, but it was certainly Brower who delivered the final, poignant plea to Hoffmann to use his heartbreak to rekindle his creative flame ("Des cendres de ton coeur"). Sung beautifully, and words that any writer would fall for.

Ian Robertson's chorus is madly energetic, particularly the men of the tavern, who swarm around their alpha-male poet like bees around a queen, and the slightly robotic mob of lab-coated scientists who come to witness Olympia's unveiling. The Act IV furnishings move about Giulietta's Venetian digs exactly like gondolas, a beautifully witty touch, and the theft of Hoffmann's reflection is accomplished with a video monitor that gives a live simulcast of the devil Dapertutto while blocking out Hoffmann, who stands directly beside him on stage. Patrick Fournillier's orchestra performed with a rigorous muscularity, although I admit I was a bit too distracted by all the visuals to pay the attention they deserved.

Through July 6, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $22-$340. 415/864-3330. www/ See the video trailer.

Images: Natalie Dessay (Antonia) and James Creswell (Crespel). Hye Jung Lee (Olympia) and Matthew Polenzani (Hoffmann). The Act III set. Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel Operaville, available at

Friday, June 14, 2013

San Francisco Opera: Così fan tutte

June 12, 2013

The mathematical symmetry of Così fan tutte is a thing of beauty, and a master harmonist like Mozart must have drooled over the possibilities: two sisters, soprano and mezzo, constantly together; two best friends, baritone and tenor, constantly together.

From that thought, we wander into a mysterious area of music one might call timbral matching. When two singers with complementary timbres deliver a harmony just so, it produces a "ping" so enchanting that it seems to radiate from the stage. This sensation, likely a product of interlocking overtones, may be heard in Exhibit A: tenor Francesco Demuro, playing Ferrando, and baritone Philippe Sly as Guglielmo. Both possess classically lyric Mozartean voices (Demuro edging toward Verdi), and their unison passages produce "pings" by the truckload. At times, for the listener, it's almost an out-of-body experience.

These two also excel in their individual endeavors. Demuro, a memorable Duke of Mantua last fall, gives a captivating performance of "Un aura amarosa," particularly in a gorgeous piano restatement. Sly, attempting to seduce Dorabella out of her fiance's locket in the duet "Il core vi dono," sings with heart-melting tenderness.

Returning to timbral mathematics, we have Exhibit B: soprano Ellie Dehn as Fiordiligi and mezzo Christel Lötzsch as Dorabella. Here, the timbres are more distinct: Dehn on the creamy, lyric side, Lötzsch a little more edgy and dramatic. The "pings" are noticeably absent, particularly in contrast to the men. Interestingly, this difference serves its purposes in other ways. A balanced, even tone suits the moral propriety of Fiordiligi, whereas an edgier tone fits the saucier (some might say easier) Dorabella. Lötzsch's performance is just sexy all around; she unleashes a single rolled R in Act Two that could seduce a pope (and singing most of a scene in her undergarments certainly doesn't hurt). Dehn masters the ridiculously wide intervals of "Come scoglio" (see novel excerpt below), but is even better in the elegant legatos of "Per pietà, ben mio," backed by lovely passages in the horns.

As our ringmaster, Don Alfonso, bass Marco Vinco is a pure delight and a pure rascal, equipped with a captivating stage laugh and the sly movements of a confidence man. When he adds a bowler to the Edwardian suit and silk vest,bone could swear he was about to start pitching snake oil. The richness of Vinco's tone serves as a grounding force to the emotive lovers, and he is absolutely the captain of the comedy. As Despina, soprano Susannah Biller went a little too far to the side of the hardened professional - the role is much more enjoyable when Despina appears to be doing it for fun. Biller did well, however, in the disguise scenes, particularly as a notary resembling Groucho Marx.

The WWI Monte Carlo setting (a 2004 co-production with Opéra de Monte-Carlo) is a suitable enough update, the eve-of-war finale adding to the intensity of Da Ponte's discomfiting libretto. Robert Perdziola's designs for the sisters' wedding dresses and hats are extraordinary, and the garden of umbrellas signifying the beach is a playful delight. The Albanian boat is a campy marvel, bringing laughter every time it scooches up to the shoreline.

Stage director Jose Maria Condemi does a fine job of exploiting the small comic opportunities, particularly when Ferrando slides down the back of a settee into Fiodiligi's lap, and when Don Alfonso signals the disguised men that they are mistakenly trying to seduce their own fiancees. Nicola Luisotti conducted from the fortepiano, and threw some sassy improv commentary into a few of the recitatives. Watching Luisotti conduct the Act One sextet was particularly fascinating. He would point directly to a singer as they were about to begin a flight away from the ensemble, carry them through it, then point at the next soloist and repeat the process.

The use of language was particularly amusing. Tasting the cocoa, Despina declared "So good!" in accented English. Later, the supertitle translated her description of the sisters' whereabouts thusly: "They're in the garden, bewailing their fates to the mosquitoes." The company pre-recorded the orchestral introduction to the Act Two serenade, "Secondate, aurette amiche," and added some clicks and pops so it would sound like it was coming from an on-stage gramophone.

Through July 1, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $22-$340,, 415/864-3330.

Images: Ellie Dehn (Fiordiligi). Philippe Sly (Guglielmo), Christel Lötzsch (Dorabella), Ellie Dehn (Fiordiligi), Francesco Demuro (Ferrando)and Susannah Biller (Despina). Marco Vinco (Don Alfonso) and Susannah Biller (Despina). Photos by Cory Weaver.

Following is an excerpt from the novel Operaville. Maddalena Hart is a fictional singer, but the protagonist's description of her performance may offer some insight into the role of Fiordiligi. Operaville is available at

If you were a singer in Mozart’s company, you really couldn’t lose. He would write the role to accentuate your strengths, and dance artfully around your flaws. Thus was created one of the scariest roles in the canon: Fiordiligi of Cosi fan tutte, her stunning rollercoaster vocal lines inspired by the awesome high and low registers of Adriana Ferrarese.

It’s quite possible, however, that that’s all she had. Other than Fiordiligi and a few productions as Susannah in Le Nozze di Figaro, Adriana had a pretty lackluster career. This came from two important shortcomings: she couldn’t act, and she couldn’t do comedy.

Aha! you say. (Go ahead – I’ll wait.) So why was Adriana so successful in the decidedly farcical Cosi? Excellent question, and here’s your answer: because Fiordiligi is the square peg, holding firmly to her church-girl principles even as all around her are screwin’ around. This custom-crafted role came about either through good fortune or because Adriana was sleeping with the librettist, da Ponte. The torridness of the affair (owing largely to the married status of both participants) doubtlessly contributed to the libretto’s conflicted views on love and fidelity.

Regardless, given the way that Mozart treats Fiordiligi as his own personal yo-yo, any normal soprano should be forgiven for not being entirely up to the part. Fortunately, we’re not talking about normal sopranos – we’re talking about Maddalena Hart. Hart’s easy top notes are the stuff of legend, and her bottom end is not to be disregarded. For recorded evidence, note the low sobbings at the denouements of Boito’s “L’altra notte” (Mefistofele) and Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon” (Rusalka) from Hart’s Favorite Arias album. The depth of these passages has won the singer much-deserved comparisons to Tebaldi.

Naturally, it’s not just having the notes, it’s how the notes are deployed. Many a singer has come to these clifftop drops and landed on the low notes with all the tender sensitivity of a professional wrestler. Hart manages to make the descent more deftly, like a hang glider, dipping her toes to the precise mid-point of the pitch before catching the next updraft. Not once does this seem like work, and not once does she lose her supremely intelligent sense of dynamic flow. Hart often creates the impression that none of this is so unusual, that these are just everyday conversations that decided to take wing.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

San Jose Stage Company: "Reefer Madness"

June 8, 2013

The musical version of "Reefer Madness" is so over-the-top looney, a first-timer might miss the very serious discussion going on beneath the farce. It all goes back to 1930, when the Treasury Department established the Bureau of Narcotics, and a young up-and-comer named Harold Anslinger saw an opportunity to make his career: an all-out war on a newly popular drug named marijuana.

Anslinger had a hard time getting his enterprise off the ground, but he soon found a rather powerful ally: William Randolph Hearst, who hated Mexicans, who saw hemp as a threat to his investments in tree-based paper products, and who had enough newspapers to make his lies work. (Any similarity to Fox current entities War on Terror are completely Koch Brothers apt.) Their partnership was helped tremendously by the use of the drug among black jazz musicians, and the ever-fertile ground of American racism.

Anslinger hit the peak of his daring in 1936 by funding an educational film titled "Tell Your Children: Reefer Madness." Over the years, however, the film's over-the-top fearmongering made it a cult classic among the very people it was attempting to vilify. The most ridiculous of Anslinger's claims was that pot would turn you into a homicidal maniac. "Marijuana," quoth he, "is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind... You smoke a joint and you're likely to kill your brother."

San Jose Stage's production is based on the movie musical written and composed by Dan Studney. It takes the extremes of the film and ups the ante. The earnest narration (by the excellent Galen Murphy-Hoffman) and the uber-erotic atmosphere give the show a "Rocky Horror" edge that adds to the delicious fun. It doesn't hurt that the cast is tremendously hot (both cheesecake and beefcake), and that Jean Cardinale has come up with some awesome costumery.

I had imagined that the score might stick to period jazz, but Studney wanders freely, indulging in some funk wah-wah, a Doors quote, a little Santana here, a little Handel there. Basically, whatever he needs. The choreography by Brittany Blankenship and Carmichael "CJ" Blankenship is wild and inventive, and director Tony Kelly gets a tremendous amount of energy and sharpness from his cast. The performers are backed by a four-piece combo that interacts with the characters and gives the score a solid feeling of immediacy. The principals are all pretty great, but Will Springhorn, Jr. reaches a Belushi-esque level of bombasticness as the fried college boy Ralph.

Through June 30, San Jose Stage, 490 South First St., San Jose. $16.50-$45. 408/283-7142,

Photo by Dave Lepori.