Monday, December 29, 2014

A Farewell to David Cox

The Earth has lost a great soul. David Cox was the godfather of San Jose State's concert choir, and went on to lead the charge as a singer and stage director in the first decade of Opera San Jose. Sadly, we were never as close as we might have been, but our careers ran alongside each other, and I name-checked him in a novel (for his brilliant work on Eugene Onegin). I was honored that he spent some of his chemo time reading my opera novel, Gabriella's Voice (chastising me for not including better arias), and we had a spirited debate over the role of critics. He told me to always keep in mind the hours of toil that go into a singer's work, and that I will do. Farewell, friend. Bravo! for a life grandly lived.

OSJ Soprano Lopez Signs with the Met

Cecilia Violetta Lopez in The Pearl Fishers. Photo by Pat Kirk.
Two weeks after the passing of Opera San Jose's founder, Irene Dalis, recent OSJ resident Cecilia Violetta Lopez has signed a contract with Dalis's old stamping grounds, New York's Metropolitan Opera. Lopez will understudy the role of Sylviane in the company's production of Lehar's The Merry Widow this April and May. The assignment will come just after her performance with Virginia Opera in La Traviata.

To those at Opera San Jose, the signing comes as no surprise. "She is an amazing actress," said OSJ's music staff director, Veronika Agranov-Dafoe, "in addition to having a very beautiful, buttery, velvety timbre to her voice. She lights up on stage; she has this innate glamour in her stage presence."

That natural, calm stage presence was one of the attributes that always stood out in Lopez's OSJ performances. In the unique OSJ arena, where young singers come to blossom and develop their skills, it usually takes a while for standouts to "announce" their talents, but for Lopez it came in her debut, a September 2012 performance as Leila in Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. Looking back at my review, I was definitely in "gush" mode:

"Her opening lines, as Léïla is welcomed as the guardian virgin of Ceylon’s pearl dives, bring an immediate recognition of vocal quality: a lyric instrument, laced with energy. Her first set piece, an incantation to the goddess Siva, reveals expressivity and dynamic range, as well as the basic pleasure of listening to her sure, unforced tone. Having checked off the basics of vocal quality, the critic then waits to hear if the singer’s brain is connected to her throat. The question was fully answered by a cadenza in the second-act cavatina, “Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombré.” Taking a moment to drift in a bath of sudden silence (always a magical substance at the operahouse), López launched a passage of virtuosic phrasing, both in her tonal colorings and in her lovingly crafted crescendos. The bonus came in López’s acting. In the third act, pleading for the life of her lover, Nadir, she delivered a profound emotional authenticity. Denied her lover’s pardon, she sparked into anger, in the form of a laser-like top note and and an evil eye you would not want to be on the receiving end of. The OSJ community is accustomed to welcoming new singers who have talent but a certain rawness, so it’s exciting to consider where a singer with such a head start might end up."

To those accustomed to seeing Lopez in leading roles, the prospect of her covering a minor role might seem disappointing, but life at The Met is different. I once had a friend who starred in Carmen with SF Opera's Merola program, and then made her Met debut as a page in the opera Fedora. I believe she had three lines. The important thing, of course, is to get that foot in the door.

Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic and author of the novel Operaville.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

How to Sing

From the collection Fields of Satchmo, FREE on Amazon Kindle, Dec. 24.

How to Sing

Catch the vowel, plastic wonder.
Extend. Spin to the realm of
vibration, incarnation of breath,
trick of tone

Pop the consonant, Shakespearean
neutral, crack another egg,
open to the lips, toothcarve,
tongueshift, ceramic wind,
sonic floret, bouquet, filigree

Puzzle the syllables into streams,
meander, slice the clock into
boxes, lay them inside.
Push the edges. Swing.
Sustain. Work the quiet.
Erupt. Goof around.

Reasons we do it:
erectus matesigh,
a shout carried long,
a sob lifted.
It seems to make us
human, takes the prison of
self and flares it
across the landscape.

It’s possible to connect the
song to a thing we miscall
the heart, but you need to
close your eyes and
briefly give up your life.

Have a drink. Have two.
Fill your lungs with sky.
Draw the spectrum across your
larynx; you are a stringed
instrument, gorged with overtone,
rimmed with bellstrike, a
cellular call to the
oscillating world.

One day, when the green flash
gives way to a blue moon,
you may find that the
song is singing you.
You may then call yourself
a singer.

Long Island University
Brookville, New York

Friday, December 19, 2014

Operaville: A Meeting with the Diva

Available at

Author's Note: Thanks to my work as an opera critic and journalist, I've had the chance to meet several bona fide divas - Deborah Voigt, Frederica von Stade, Irene Dalis, Licia Albanese - and, for the most part, have found them to be extremely down-to-earth, far from the spoiled prima donna stereotype. I determined to make my fictional diva, Maddalena Hart, similarly earthy, which is what makes this first meeting with a catatonically star-struck opera blogger, Mickey Siskel, so much fun. My apologies to Samuel Ramey for the fart joke.


For once, my opera-day schedule is devoid of adventure. A half-day pressure wash above the Lexington Reservoir, top of a freakin’ mountain, it’s hard to believe that places like this exist. Much as I hate driving that dirt road to my cabin, I cannot resist the chance to get myself clean. So I take my clawfoot bath, sunlight ticking in through the madrones, doll myself up in the usual black suit, then pick out a striped burgundy tie that Katie gave me.
            So I’m all moussed up and back on Interstate 280. It’s pretty hot outside, so I’ve got the AC blasting away like a Wagnerian tenor. I slip in a Foo Fighters cassette to give myself some audio contrast, and I’m feeling good.
The luxury of time allows me to scout the curbside parking spaces, and I nab one just outside the Civic Center garage, with a meter that stops nicely at 7 p.m. I arrive at the press room a half hour before curtain, and I relish the chance to sit on a couch with a coffee as I scour the program. This one’s got a vastly entertaining piece on the life of Alexander Pushkin, although the language drifts into that neo-Dickens that opera writers feel obligated to adopt.
Just across from me is a television monitor showing the stage. They’ve given the production a full-size title screen, a Russian village in the style of Chagall, Yevgeny and Tatyana drifting overhead, accompanied by a flying cow and a violin. I’ve always wondered if they use this monitor just to track the show, or if they force late-arriving critics to sit here and watch the first act on TV. Fortunately, I have yet to test the system.
I finish my coffee and article and head for the refreshment table, where Delores has arrayed a fine selection of crackers and spreadable cheeses. It’s good to be a critic. Delores is occupied with her twenty-some guests, so I finish my munchies and slither into the hall.
Tchaikovsky is such a mixed blessing he’s almost a frappé. The orchestrations are lush, the vocal lines soaring and graceful, but he’s certainly in no hurry to tell a story, and not overly fond of quick tempos or jaunty rhythms. I saw Joan of Arc last year, and it literally put me to sleep. “How could you possibly make Joan of Arc boring?” you ask. Mostly by following that brilliant Russian tradition of keeping all the action strictly offstage. That way, all the characters can gather to discuss it after-the-fact. It’s like skipping the football game so you can get to the exciting post-game wrapup.
Pushkin was hardly innocent of this himself ; his works are more dependent on social commentary and descriptive details than plot. But somehow his verse novel inspired Tchaikovsky’s most entertaining opera. Perhaps because the composer and his co-librettist, Shilovsky, preserved much of Pushkin’s language and were happy just to skim the cream from his story. They didn’t even call it an opera, opting for the phrase “lyric scenes” and trusting that their audience had already memorized the original novel.
The cast is certainly promising. The title singer is Jesus Cortez, a Venezuelan baritone who came up through SFO’s residency programs and is threatening to become the company’s biggest find since Anna Netrebko. Playing Lensky, Yevgeny’s best pal, is Ramon Vargas, a tenor who utterly knocked me out in last year’s Elixir of Love. That pure, lyric – dast I say Pavarottian – tone, delivered with such ease, and a remarkable level of comfort on stage. With the two of them, the papers are calling it “the world’s first Latino Tchaikovsky,” but of course at the opera it’s just another night.
The most preposterous role is Tatyana, a teenager who is rarely played by anyone under 30. It takes at least that long just to develop the required vocal skills. But for once it’s not Maddalena’s singing that’s impressing me so much as her acting. I’ll save the details for later, but her handling of the Letter Scene is a revelation.
It’s a traditional production, sometime in early 19th-century Russia. They’ve outfitted her in a white country dress with floral patterns in blue. Her honey-blonde hair hangs long down her back. She’s gorgeous, as usual.
At the end of the act, I’m entirely wired on the performance. I’m loitering between the lobby and the south hall when I find a woman in a beaded silver-blue dress advancing my way. It’s Delores.
“Mickey! I’m so glad I found you.” She hands me a blue envelope. “Sorry, have to run. Ta!”
She heads off to the lobby, leaving me feeling like the straight man in a Neil Simon play. I open the envelope to find a photographic note card portraying a collection of pineapples, mangos and bananas in Mozartean gowns and waistcoats. The caption reads Cosi fan tutti-frutti. Inside is a handwritten note in a smooth cursive.

Would love to talk with you about your writing. Please meet me at Jardiniere one hour after curtain.
Grazie – Maddie

I scan the walls, looking for hidden cameras.

The rest of my evening is its own rather enjoyable brand of hell. I need to take in enough to support a reasonably intelligent review, but how is one bit of it going to penetrate my brain when I know that I will soon be talking to Tatyana herself? (She turns down Onegin, standing in her regal scarlet ball gown, nicely married to royalty, every woman’s dream revenge for a first love scorned. And yet, she is heartbroken.)
The worst part is that post-performance hour. I understand all the cleanup, undressing, meetings with friends and fans, but it leaves me with sixty absolutely unkillable minutes. The ushers are eager to clear everybody out, so all I’m allowed is my visit with Miss Tebaldi and the adjacent men’s room. Five minutes. After that, I figure it’s a good idea to fetch my car and re-park it nearer to my final destination. Ten minutes. Then I take a stroll around City Hall, but it’s getting cold. I am downright euphoric to find a copy of the Bay Guardian, sitting alone in its box, and I make my way to the bar to sit and read.
Jardiniere is like the most elegant retro-‘60s Eichler living room you’ve ever seen. Entering the double glass doors, you encounter a wide curve of staircase to your left. Straight ahead is a horseshoe bar with cut-glass ornaments, and along a brick wall to your far left you’ll find a series of long, straight couches with square leather cushions, the seating enclaves marked off with armchairs and glass-topped coffee tables.
The hostess, a young brunette dressed in black pants and shirt, leads me to one of these couches, nicely sheltered by the bottom of the staircase. Looking up, you can see dining-room tables next to the upstairs railing, patrons peering over as if there’s some kind of a show down here. A nice-looking redhead in the same black uniform perches on an ottoman and takes my order, a lemon-drop martini. But no appetizer. I’m hungry as hell, but I don’t think my stomach would be able to handle it.
The place is pretty full, but not packed. It’s hard to figure the demographics – locals? business types? tourists? – but the clothing and hairstyles project a general air of wealth. I open my paper and pretend to read, but the final fifteen minutes are horrible. Every voice that jumps out of a conversation, every opening of a door yanks on my strings. I feel like an actor doing his first Hamlet. I can’t pull this off! They’ll never buy it. What’s my first line? Oh shit. Why couldn’t Maddalena Hart remain in the comfortable realm of mythic figure? What the hell does she think she’s doing, fraternizing with commoners?
She’s wearing blue jeans. Black pumps, a gray suit jacket over a black blouse. And a gray fedora with a silver band. She stands in the open area, looking around, and her gaze settles on me. She smiles. Why the hell would Maddalena Hart know my face? Perhaps I’m mistaken, perhaps I’ve got myself thinking that every woman who comes through that door is a diva. But here she comes, and those enormous green eyes cannot possibly belong to anyone else. I rise from the couch and I manage not to fall on my ass. She smiles and takes my hand. I hope I’m not sweating. I hope my breath doesn’t stink.
“Hi.” One word, two letters. That’s all I’m going to venture.
“Excuse the film-noir hat. I don’t exactly have a Britney Spears paparazzi problem, but we are near the opera house, and for some reason the hat seems to throw them off.”
“Oh. Yes. I…” Three words. I’m useless.
She nods toward the armchair. “May I?”
Silly question. She can sit wherever she wants. She can set fire to my hair. What am I, the armchair police?
“Yes,” I say. “Please.” Okay. That was pretty good.
She sits down and crosses her legs. Her face is very large. That sounds odd, but I have heard that it’s advantageous for performers to have large heads. I’m sitting across from an album cover. Cripes. The waitress arrives and asks about a drink. Maddalena is wearing pink fingernail polish. She dangles a hand over her knee. Her hand is very white.
“Whatever he’s having.”
“Lemon-drop martini?”
“Ooh! Yes.”
The waitress leaves. Maddalena studies me, as if I’m supposed to say something. She has heavy eyelids, a sleepy look. Bedroom eyes. Lauren Bacall.
“Lemon-drop, Mickey? Isn’t that a little gay?”
“Well, I’m… I guess… Sweet tooth.” I’m pathetic.
She runs her left ring finger along her lips, done up in a subtle pink, almost mauve. Her lips are almost as pillowy as on the album covers, with those little crinkles at the edges. Her speaking voice is husky, tired from the night’s work, though clearly soprano, her accent that enunciated American that verges on European. No trace of her native New York.
God, Mickey. How do we get you past this celebrity thing? I know there’s a real person in there, and I want to talk to him. But you’re all decoupaged into place, like I’m talking to a Rodin. Would it help if I farted?”
“I’m… sorry?”
She leans forward and lowers her voice. “Opera singers have tremendous control. It’s all in the diaphragm. Backstage at the Met, we have competitions. Watch out for that Samuel Ramey. If he’s had cabbage or Brussels sprouts, he has been known to fart the overture to Giovanni.”
It’s that last image that gets me. I chuckle.
“That’s it?” she says. “A little snort? This is some pretty top-notch material, buddy.”
I attempt to sip from the lemon-drop, and I realize what a precarious vessel is a martini glass. But the sweet and the cold of it does me well.
“I’m sorry. It’s just… you’re stupendous. You’re everything I…”
Maddalena places two fingers to my lips. “No! Don’t even start. I know exactly what you think of me, so… just… No!”
Maddalena Hart’s fingers on my lips. I’m going to pass out. She sits back and gives me a sly smile, a little wider on the right. She flicks her tongue along her front teeth. I’ve heard that singers do this, always adjusting the equipment.
“I get more flattery than a person should. There’s a certain pressure, having to answer to all that admiration. As for tonight’s performance, I’d rather read about it on your blog.”
The waitress arrives. Maddie gives her lemon-drop an appraising sip.
“Mmm. The citrus feels good on the throat. And, where was I? The blog! The level of understanding, so much more important than flattery. It’s like this: I’ve been reworking Fiordiligi with my voice coach, Luigi Corazonne. I do this every few years; it keeps my performances fresh. So I asked the staff at SFO to gather all the reviews for me. I wanted to see what kind of impression I was making.
“Most of them? Garbage. Either critical for all the wrong reasons or favorable for all the wrong reasons. Drives me insane. But way down at the bottom I find a printout of your blog, and I am mesmerized. This historical/critical hybrid, I’ve never seen anything like it. And all these connections between Adriana and the role. We all know the basic story, especially the loony tessitura, but I have never seen all the threads drawn together like that. The affair with da Ponte. The custom-composing by Mozart, Adriana’s lesser-known shortcomings.
“I felt like I had never fully understood why the part was written that way. And your description of the drops – the hang-glider, the toe-dipping. That was so affirming, because that’s the flaw in almost every Fiordiligi I’ve ever seen. I was so determined not to stomp those notes. Visualization is drastically important to me, and now I have this lovely image to help me whenever I sing the part.
“I’ll tell you, Mickey, most of the critics out there are so damn sure that they know everything about opera, and never do they land on something like that. It’s all bluster. When did they all give up on learning? I didn’t. You didn’t. And no offense, but I get the feeling that your operatic knowledge is anything but encyclopedic. But maybe it’s the humility, the not knowing, that opens the way to discovery. Where did you come from, Mickey, and how do you come up with this stuff?”
Maddie Hart the opera star is tapping her finger into my chest. I cannot force a word past my mouth. I’m an imposter. She immediately makes matters worse by taking off the fedora and unpinning her hair. She shakes it out with a hand and lets it settle along her shoulders, revealing subtle gradations of platinum, straw and sand. An elderly woman in a black sequin gown creeps up from behind, program in hand.
“Ms. Hart? I hate to interrupt, but you were fabulous tonight! Could I trouble you…?”
She hands Maddie the program and a pen and waits as she signs the cover.
“Thank you so much!”
“Thank you for coming to the show.” The woman walks away, and Maddie turns to me with a smile.
“You see what I mean about the hat? It’s like an invisibility cloak. But opera singers have the most well-behaved fans in the world. I would hate to put up with those obnoxious movie fans. I asked you a question, young man!”
She slaps me on the knee, another injury to my sense of reality. In doing so she leans forward, allowing me a generous view of her cleavage.
“I’m sorry. What was the question?”
She gives me a broad stage laugh. I can see the little wrinkles at the corners of her eyes.
“Let me rephrase it. How did you arrive at this unique approach to critiquing opera?”
“Oh. Well… I…” Hell. I was just going to have to tell her the whole mediocre truth. It has to be some sort of felony to perjure yourself to a diva. I take a deep breath.
“Absolute ignorance. I came to opera late in life, with little musical knowledge. So I listened to everything I could get my hands on, and I read everything I could. But still, it wasn’t enough. I had to see it firsthand, but I couldn’t afford the tickets. I have this friend who works at a community newspaper, and she said the local performing groups were always offering her free tickets, whether she wrote about them or not. With print media dying off, and arts coverage being hacked to pieces, they’re desperate for any recognition they can dig up.
“So she told me I should start a blog about opera, and request comps from the regional companies: Opera San Jose, West Bay Opera, Mission Opera. If they gave me any trouble, she could vouch for me. But they gave me no trouble at all. Fortysomething guy, corporate demeanor, no problem.
“After that, however, came the real puzzle: how was I supposed to write about these operas? I didn’t have enough expertise to offer much of an opinion about the singers. Or the production values, or the directing. So I covered my tracks with research, and I discovered that almost every opera ever created has some fascinating backstage story. So I connected that to my reviews, and I came up with something that was, at the least, entertaining.
“The rest is in the details. I had my newspaper friend hack up my stories until I became a decent writer. I learned to upload photos, and made sure I got the credits right. I double-checked the calendar and ticket info. Then I sent an email to the opera to make sure they read it.
“A year later, I began to find my reviews being quoted on singers’ websites, and on the season brochure for West Bay Opera. I sent a query off to San Francisco Opera and was absolutely shocked when they gave me tickets for the entire fall season. The second production was Figaro, with Maddalena Hart as the Countess. But that’s the story. I’m an imposter. I snuck in through the back door. And now I’m sitting here talking to my favorite singer.”
“Favorite singer?” she says. “Or most famous singer?”
“Absolute favorite.” I’m about to tell her the car story, but I decide that it would be too much. “How far back in my blog did you read?”
She gives me an embarrassed smile that takes off twenty years. (Perhaps embarrassment is a youthful endeavor.)
“Okay. You got me. I searched your blog for every reference to me, and I didn’t read about any other singer. But I was pressed for time! Honestly!”
I raise an accusing finger. “Aha! So you are a soprano.”
Now that our flaws are on the table, the conversation rambles freely, and it’s easier to forget the golden identity of the person with whom I am speaking. And I have always found this to be true: find two people with a passion for opera, and the time melts away. In this way, Maddalena Hart is everything I have wished for: an intensely focused performer with a need to constantly poke and prod at the secret meanings and nuances of her craft, to do anything to increase her understanding and sharpen her skill. I try my best not to sound like I’m interviewing her, but I do pick up some tidbits that are bound to pop up in my review.
Maddie and I close down the bar, and we find that my car is parked directly behind hers. She opens her door, tosses her bag and fedora inside, and turns to receive whatever farewell I might offer. The lights of City Hall strike the low overcast and fall over her in a soft mist, spelling out the brighter tresses of her hair, glimmering in the corners of her eyes. Even if she were not Maddalena Hart, I would be in love with her. I take her hand and bring it to my lips. Being a diva, she knows how to accept this, with a smile and the subtlest dip of her knees.
“I can’t even tell you,” I say. “So I won’t. Thank you for appreciating my appreciations.”
“Thank you, Mickey. I can’t wait to read your…”
Maddie stops and looks down, rubbing her eye as if a piece of dust has landed there. She looks up with tears on her cheeks.
“Don’t ever stop writing, Mickey. You do lovely work.”
She kisses me on the lips. Then she gets in her car, gives me a wave and drives off. I wave back. Maybe five minutes later, I remember to get in my car and start it up. I doubt very much if I will have a problem staying awake.
On the lips. I wait until I can see the Stanford dish, and then I play “Song to the Moon.”

Photo by Paula Grenside.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Divine Miss Dalis

The legendary diva/impresaria Irene Dalis passed away recently, and the entire city of San Jose is in mourning. There simply isn't another person who has done more for this city's culture. With its European-style residency program, her Opera San Jose has sent hundreds of singers into the opera world. With all this in mind, I thought I would reprint this blog post from 2008, in which I recounted my first meeting with Miss Dalis.

The Divine Miss Dalis

At the same time that I became arts editor at the Spartan Daily, I began to hear about Irene Dalis, a San Jose native who starred at the Met for 20 years, then returned home to begin an opera workshop at San Jose State. I set up an interview, and spent almost two hours in her office, talking about her life. She wasn't at all what I expected from an opera star. She was certainly refined, with a thick head of silver hair and sharp Greek features, but she had a definite blue-collar edge, and smoked cigarettes, which probably contributed to the gravelly edge of her speaking voice. She heaped upon me an overhelming amount of information about opera. In that way characteristic of opera singers, she kept referring to title roles, and expecting me to naturally know the corresponding opera. Being a young journalist, and not wanting to appear as uninformed as I was, I said nothing and figured I would look them up later. Before I left, she handed me a half-dozen gorgeous, mythic-looking black-and-white head shots from various roles during her days at the Met.

I was a little tired from all this listening and questioning, so I retired to McDonald's to take in a couple burgers. I returned to my table to find my book bag missing - and with it the cassette tape containing 90 minutes of Irene Dalis interview. I spotted a homeless-looking dude walking outside with what looked to be my book bag, and, motivated by the thought of reconstructing that whole damn interview from scratch, I pursued. I thought I had lost him, but took a lucky turn at the corner and found him in a vacant lot, just standing there with my bag.

"Hey! I said. "That's my bag."

"Oh," he said, looking at the bag that had magically appeared in his hand. "Sorry." And handed it back to me.

This was not the way I had expected it to go. I wondered if I should call the cops. But the guy left, and I was just so grateful to have that interview back that I let him go.

A couple weeks later, my article appeared in the entertainment supplement of the Daily, with all six of those head shots on the cover. It was quite cool. And little did I know that I would spend the next 25 years covering Irene Dalis's opera company.

After graduation, I just wanted to find some gigs. I was going the freelance route, and hoping the flexible schedule would allow me to work on my first novel. I got an internship at Good Times magazine in Santa Cruz in the summer of '84, and they decided to send me out to review some theater. I was apparently not entirely bad at it, and after my internship became the regular theater critic. Feeling my oats, I pursued the same job at a new alternative weekly Metro, in San Jose, and got that job, too. One of the groups I would cover was Opera San Jose, created out of that workshop that Irene Dalis had started at San Jose State.

A little side story: a couple years before, the San Jose Symphony decided to put on Rigoletto, with lead singers borrowed from the San Diego Opera and the chorus culled from our choir. It was quite fun: I got to wear a cape, participate in an abduction and gang rape (don't you love Verdi?) and learn some snappy Italian choruses that still come back when I see the show. I also came terribly close to losing my virginity at a post-show party. I was admiring a cleavage-wrapped tattoo on a signorina, and she invited me to come to a dark room and take a closer look. We were about to attempt the coup de grace when one of her idiot friends told her she was leaving and needed a ride home. Alas! I had to hang on to the virginity another year (cursed wench!) But don't say opera ain't an inspiring artform.

I was a little intimidated about actually reviewing opera, but I did have enough musical education to discuss the qualities of different voices, and enough sense to talk about the show when I didn't know enough to actually critique it. I also made regular intermission visits with the Opera's marketing manager, Larry Hancock, who is such a font of opera knowledge he should have Grove's tattooed somewhere on his person. I was delighted to find old choir-mates across the footlights. Julia Wade, a paralyzingly good-looking redhead who somehow ended up on my lap at a choir party once (I had no idea what to do with her). Elaina Lappaleinen, the untouchable soprano blonde goddess who I would interview years later when she played Lulu at San Francisco Opera. Ravil Atlas, my tenor-pal; I met him in the hallway outside Dr. A's office at my freshman audition. He would eventually go on to an international career, and is now in London, composing his first musical. Another tenor was Stephen Guggenheim, who hosted the post-opera party at which I almost lost my virginity, and who would soon make the jump to San Francisco Opera's prestigious Merola Program.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

San Francisco Opera's La Boheme

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo. Photos by Cory Weaver.
November 19, 2014

Once in a while you have to begin an opera review by simply saying, “Wow!”

As in, who is this Michael Fabiano guy playing Rodolfo and where did he get that voice? It wasn’t evident right away. During the fratboy hijinks that begin Puccini’s opera, he struck the listener simply as a young man gifted with a strong tenor and ideally suited to the role. About halfway through his introduction to Mimi, “Che gelida manina,” that voice began to grow – and he was making a demanding aria look way too easy. Fabiano’s tone is supremely broad, just as forceful as the best spinto but without a spinto edge. (Not that that edge is undesirable – many aficionados treasure it – but it’s rare to hear this kind of power without it.)

Fabiano is the first person to receive the Richard Tucker Award and the Beverly Sills Artist Award in the same year (2014), and appeared in SFO’s 2011 production of Lucrezia Borgia with Renee Fleming. I also heard from an old college classmate who reported, “He’s always sounded like that.” The kid is going places.

Christian Van Horn (Colline), Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo), Dale Travis (Benoit), Alexey Markov (Marcello) and Hadleigh Adams (Schaunard).
In the face of all this ease and suavity, soprano Alexia Voulgaridou’s “Mi chiamano Mimi” seemed a bit labored, but by the café scene she was warmed up, and her opening to the “death duet,” “Son partiti?”, sung over a bed of plaintive minor strings, was vastly memorable. Playing Marcello, baritone Alexy Markov was wise not to compete with Rodolfo’s power, and also played the painter with a more serious aura than usual. In Act III, after the deliciously Italian squabble with Musetta, his intense reaction underscored the ironic flip-flop of the scene, the M’s breaking up yet again just as Rodolfo and Mimi are getting back together.

Nadine Sierra as Musetta.
And what a Musetta! Soprano Nadine Sierra plays the famed Waltz in a luscious vamp, her voice equal parts oil and vinegar, assisted by generous space from conductor Giuseppe Finzi, and finishes with a long, dazzling diminuendo. She makes mincemeat of her poor benefactor, Alcindoro (played by the invaluable bass-baritone Dale Travis, who also plays the landlord Benoit) and absolutely conquers the scene. Assisted by a superb children’s chorus, a bird-seller done up like The Magic Flute’s Papageno, a perfectly San Franciscan family of black parents, a white kid and an Asian kid (Ethan Chen, who delivers his lines with bravado), and a genuine walk-through band of brass and drums, this is probably the best Café Momus scene I’ve ever witnessed. (Kudos to stage director John Caird.)

Among the bohemians, baritone Hadleigh Adams lends great fun and energy as the musician Schaunard, and Christian Van Horn gives an extra measure of profundity to philoospher Colline’s Coat Aria. (Oddly, Van Horn is also playing a philosopher in SFO’s production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola). Opera San Jose fans, meanwhile, will find one of their alums, baritone Torlef Borsting, playing the customs house officer.

The Cafe Momus set.
David Farley’s set design is a star performer unto its own. The backdrops are composed of canvas paintings, arrayed in an almost cubist patchwork. Between acts 1 and 2, and 3 and 4, half of these ascend to the flies, while the rest spin around to form the following scene. It’s a trick worthy of David Copperfield.

Part of Boheme’s remarkable legacy is that it reveals new wrinkles even after dozens of viewings, and the following are a few examples:

--The theme underscoring the garret opening is very similar to “Mia gelosa,” the title character’s leitmotif in Tosca.

--The Mimi-Rodolfo meeting is the most gloriously composed coffee date ever (even in the painfully male tendency to lay out one’s own awesome qualities before asking the girl a single thing).

--A great line from Benoit: “Skinny women are malicious.”

Alexia Voulgaridou as Mimi, Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo.
--The fake duel of Act IV is accomplished with a fireplace poker and shovel, which allows for much percussion, but still I miss the traditional baguette epee.

--The most powerful quality of the opera is a Woody Allen ability to juggle comedy and tragedy at the same time (e.g., the interruption of said swordfight by the entrance of a dying Mimi). Life is exactly like that.

--A thought on Rodolfo from an actual bohemian (me): the thing that really scares him about Mimi is that her illness will ruin his chance to become a great writer.

This last point was also made by William Berger in an excellent article in the SFO program, “Everything You Know About La Boheme is Wrong,” in which he also made this lovely cross-genre reference:

“When Mimi dies, it is sad – we hear a “shiver” and the orchestra wanders harmonically unanchored into any one key (as if to say something’s vaguely wrong, but neither we nor the characters on stage are sure what exactly yet). It is only when Rodolfo finally figures out what has happened that the orchestra thunders out the unforgettable chords in the inherently sad key of c-sharp minor. (This is the key of the evocative adagio first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata; other readers might also recognize this key from Led Zeppelin’s equally moody song “No Quarter,” with the lyric ‘walking side by side with death…’”)

SFO’s program notes are routinely divine (especially the regular articles by Thomas May), but this one will especially please my Zephead friends. I add my own contribution below: my poem “Marcello’s Lament,” first published in the 1992 issue of Eclectic Literary Forum (Tonawanda, New York).

Through Dec. 7, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Alternating casts. $25-$370, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and a widely published author and poet. His series of poems inspired by operas appears in the collection Great Showtunes of the American Stage, available on Amazon Kindle.

 Marcello's Lament

(For Robert Pesich)

"To the ancient Egyptians, these stars (of Orion's Belt) were the resting place of the soul of Osiris, god of the underworld and a symbol of creativity and the continuity of life…"
            --National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky

Starving tenor finds the stone on a
black sand beach covered in driftwood

(If I said the wood was white as bones
I would be giving it away)

He kneels on the sand
where the ocean comes through the rocks
and reaches into the ribs of a burnt-out cello
plowing a pyramid of blackened chars
until he fingers the edges of its mineral heart
and pulls it into the sun

(If I said it was as red as Betelgeuse
I would be lying)

The stone is a jealous stone
it takes away his lovers
takes away his sleep
leaves his pockets thin and sallow

She is
Musetta, the woman you cannot
but if you hold her to your ear
she will sing you bright waltzes
and turn her lollipop eyes at you across the café

But the song and the glance are not enough
so Marcello takes the stone and grinds it up
spreads it across his Sunday salad

(If I said the dressing was Roquefort
I would be saying too much)

The fragments trunkle their way through his veins
and gather at the aorta
pressing northward to make his heart skip
on nights when Artemis neglects her duty
and mountainside lanterns
burst like meteors through the Paris streets

Years after Mimi's last breath
he comes back to the sea to
bare his skin to the inkwell sky
and wait for Orion's Belt to burn him down
leaving a coal as red as Betelgeuse
for the timpani waves to steam away

Photo by Michael J. Vaughn

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

San Francisco Opera: Rossini's La Cenerentola

Efrain Solis as Dandini, Zanda Svede and Maria Valdes as Tisbe and Clorinda.  
November 16, 2014

With a rather straightforward rendition of Rossini’s second-favorite comedy, SFO managed to bring out the serious underlying themes in the work as well as the usual chaos, producing a vastly entertaining three hours. This was due largely to an experienced cast supremely in tune with the Rossini style.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1969 set is a work of art unto itself, composed of multi-story flats that don’t pretend to be houses and castles at all but more the covers of storybooks, festooned with illustrative drawings of mermaids, gargoyles, knights and nymphs. Whenever the performance slowed down (which wasn’t often), I found my eyes drifting over these imaginative figures.

Karine Deshayes as Angelina, Rene Barbera as Don Ramiro.
Under the stage direction of Gregory Fortner, Rossini and librettist Jacopo Ferretti’s characters are surprisingly human. The sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, are not as caricaturized as usual;  their ugliness comes through more in their tackiness and greed.  The curtain rises on Tisbe (mezzo Zanda Svede) obsessing over her dancing and Clorinda (soprano Maria Valdes) obsessing over her beauty. (In a modernized production, I picture them taking selfies.) Svede plays her part with the energy of a human spring, while the taller Valdes plays the oaf. The “dance” moves they use to approach the Prince are indescribably hilarious.

Playing their father, Don Magnifico, baritone Carlos Chausson is a Rossini master, investing his portrayal with every gag available. In the beginning, as he goes on about his troublesome daughters (“They’re certainly a pair of gargoyles”), he’s even likeable. What he is most magnifico at are the patter numbers. Perhaps it’s the supersonic tempi employed by conductor Jesus Lopez-Cobos, but I had never noticed how unceasingly rapid is Cenerentola’s score.

Efrain Solis as Dandini, Rene Barbera as Don Ramiro.
Relative newcomer (and SFO Adler fellow) Efrain Solis does a lovely job with the baritone role of Dandini, the Prince’s valet, who tests the daughters’ character by pretending to be the Prince. He makes the most of Dandini’s enjoyment of this flip-flop, and with his wig, moustache and purple suit resembles a young Eric Idle. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn lends a quiet nobility to Alidoro, the mysterious philosopher who takes the place of the standard fairy godmother.

The vocal fireworks come largely from our charming Prince, Don Ramiro, tenor Rene Barbera, who showed some telling sparks in the first act, then opened the second by tearing down the house with the electric cadenzas of “Si, ritrovarla io guiro.” (A handy bonus is Barbera’s relative resemblance to his “double,” Solis.) An alumnus of SFO’s Merola Opera Program, Barbera is making his company debut with this role. I say, bring him back as often as possible.

Karine Deshayes as Angelina.
Mezzo Karine Deshayes is just as able, and agile, in her vocal turns as Angelina (Cenerentola, Cinderella), displaying robust top notes and navigating the finale of finales, “Non piu mesta” (originally drafted for Almaviva in Barber) with aplomb. She played the part with an understated charm, with one flaw. Surrounded by such young performers, and constant references to her character’s “bright-eyed innocence,” Deshayes might be too old to be playing a teenager. Opera gives a broad leeway on this matter (note the roles that Domingo has played over the years), but in this context, at least, I found it distracting.

Jean-Piere Ponnelle's second-act set. Photos by Cory Weaver.
Sometimes you can judge a performance by what comes through in the story, and what this production reveals is an Enlightenment idea that originated in Athens, was furthered by Jesus of Nazareth, inspired the founding of the United States, and found brilliant expression in Il Barbieri: the notion that one’s worth derives from one’s qualities and actions, and not from one’s birth. What’s even more satisfying is that Rossini and Ferretti deliver this serious, radical concept beneath a pile of laughter.

Angelina’s ball gown was a stunning black number with constellations of diamonds. The many courtiers of the men’s chorus dressed in 19th-century tuxedos and fox-hunting suits, while the principals stuck to the leggings and waistcoats of the 18th. The chorus was pivotal to the comedy, adding an epic size to the chases, food fights and freeze-frames. I always feel like composer and librettist could have mined more laughter from the bracelet-search (a substitute for the usual glass slipper) but that’s probably due to my fondness for Sondheim’s gruesome, crazily funny treatment in “Into the Woods.”

Through November 26, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $25-$370, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of the best-selling ebook The Popcorn Girl, which is free today (November 19) on Amazon Kindle.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Opera San Jose: Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers

Nathan Stark as Mustafa, Lisa Chavez as Isabella. Photos by Pat Kirk.
November 15, 2014

With its reputation for tragedy and pathos, opera, at times, is sorely underrated as a comic form. Which is too bad, because there’s nothing like laughing one’s butt off while being bathed in elegant music. This was most definitely the experience of Opera San Jose’s brilliantly Marxist (as in Marx Brothers) presentation of Rossini’s early-career smash.

The setup of Angelo Anelli’s libretto is tremendously clever. The Turkish Bey, Mustafà, is tired of his submissive harem and wants one of those irresistible Italian girls (a nice play to Rossini’s home audience). Giving his right-hand man, Haly (Silas Elash), the assignment to find him one of these girls, he adds, “If you have not found one in six days, I shall have you impaled on a stake.” Conveniently enough, an Italian ship wrecks nearby, supplying the local pirates with all kinds of treasure (including the Mona Lisa!) and an actual Italian girl, Isabella, who just happens to be searching for her lost lover, Lindoro, who just happens to be a slave belonging to Mustafà. Got all that?

It’s almost as if stage director Michael Shell sized up all this silliness and said, “I will milk this thing until someone dies laughing.” He began by outfitting his men’s chorus in roly-poly fat suits that jiggle with every move. The suits provided a background of snickers and chuckles all night. Much of the remaining laughter was generated by bass Nathan Stark, who plays the Mustafà with a stout voice and an impressive package of comic skills: pratfalls, dance moves, striptease, hisses, gasps, barks, and a series of rubberized facial expressions that make one susect that he is, in fact, a cartoon character. Matthew Hanscom gives a similar performance as Isabella’s feckless chaperone Taddeo, employing a blinding grin that seems to take over half his face.

Michael Dailey as Lindoro.
The vocal highlight comes from tenor Michael Dailey, a former OSJ resident artist whose lyric voice has become even more lyric, particularly in Lindoro’s introductory cavatina, “Languir per una bella” and the patter duet with Stark, “Se inclinassi a prender moglie.” With his striking looks and calm demeanor, Dailey also gives the opera, in Lindoro, an eye in the storm of wackiness. (A second “eye” is Mustafà’s main girl, Elvira, played with elan by soprano Isabella Ivy.)

The strong spine of the story is Isabella, a particularly strong female character (and a precursor to Rosina from Barber). OSJ has just the right performer in mezzo Lisa Chavez, who possesses a powerful, agile instrument (exhibiting beautiful clarity in her bel canto ornamentations), and that ineffable ability to command the stage. She also projects that irresistible quality of the girl-next-door who nonetheless knows how to engineer a seduction.

The great reward of this cast is how they work together, and the hilarious tableaux constructed by director Shell. Taking one of Rossini’s standard sanity-questioning choruses, he turns Mustafà into the centerpiece of one of those complicated German clocks, the other characters taking turns striking him like a bell. In another, he sets them all adrift on a rolling couch, pushed across violent seas by a trio of roly-polys. And the ceremony for awarding Mustafà the title of Papataci – flying pasta everywhere! – is so crazy I’m going to make you see it yourself.

Matthew Hanscom as Taddeo.
Steven Kemp’s set design is based mostly on painted flats with interwoven Turkish patterns, but equipped with enough secret openings for an episode of Laugh-In. Ming Luke led the orchestra in a particularly breezy performance (breezy being a particularly Rossinian quality), accentuated by the fetching flute motif of the overture. It was also fun to follow the recitatives. Veronika Agranov-Dafoe is so in tune with her singers that the harpsichord seems like an extra character, commenting on the action. The costumes, designed by John Lehmeyer, run along the lines of a Perils of Pauline episode, which is vastly fitting to the story.

Through November 30, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$111, 408/437-4450

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year critic and author of the novel Operaville, available at