Monday, June 13, 2022

San Francisco Opera: Don Giovanni

Amitai Patti as Don Ottavio, Adela Zaharia as
Donna Anna. Photos by Cory Weaver.

June 10, 2022

This production of Giovanni is the third in Michael Cavanagh's American House Trilogy, designed to cast a new light on the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, also including Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte. Figaro was set at the birth of America, Cosi in the Great Depression, and Giovanni in a post-apocalyptic era. This latter is the result of private greed and natural disasters - sadly, all too likely.

The setting provides many parallels to modern-day America. A womanizing oligarch wreaking havoc on society to feed his private obsessions? Say it ain't so! What's surprising is how, in the experience of the performance itself, there is a decided undertone of "meh." Considering the talent onstage (and the pyrotechnics), I found this curious, but I later realized that Cavanaugh's approach undoes something essential about Da Ponte and Mozart. These operas are comic, sometimes farcical, but they use their humor to smuggle in all kinds of profound, sometimes ugly truths (the noble class is not noble; pure fidelity doesn't exist; love is all about power). I am so found of this approach, in fact, that I use it as a touchstone for my novels.

Christina Gansch as Zerlina, Cody Quattlebaum
as Masetto.

All that said, it feels like this production is simply trying too hard, a distinctly non-Mozartean trait. Which explains the feeling of "meh." We need more of the funny to whet the appetite for the heavy.

I am the last critic to disapprove of modified settings. In fact, I enjoy the approach, because it often brings out new aspects of masterful works. A fine example in this production is the throughline of Zerlina, the peasant bride being wooed away from her wedding by Giovanni. Soprano Christina Gansch sang and performed the part brilliantly, highlighting the treasure trove of music given to this single role: "La ci darem la mano," her duet with Giovanni, and the arias "Batti, batti" and "Vedrai, carino." These latter two share the theme of pain. In the first, Zerlina offers herself to her fiancee Masetto for painful punishment; in the second, she offers Masetto the healing qualities of love after he has been beaten silly by Giovanni. If you're following the "Fifty Shades" trail here, this leads nicely to a scene only included in the lesser-performed Vienna version of the opera, in which Zerlina threatens the captured Leporello with torture. Cavanagh accentuates the scene by affording her an electric chair and a collection of handtools worthy of the "Saw" horror franchise.

Nicole Car as Donna Elvira.

Vocally, the standouts were all female, especially soprano Adela Zaharia's heart-rending performance of Donna Anna's "Non mi dir." Soprano Nicole Car as Donna Elvira is a delight any time she opens her mouth, and also presents enough stylish outfits to fill a catwalk.

Baritone Etienne Dupuis and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni are well-cast as the swaggering Don and his beleaguered servant Leporello, but the excessively earnest tone of the production seems to mute their interplay. There are exceptions that show the possibilities, particularly the de Bergerac-like scene in which Leporello dresses like his boss and mimes a serenade to Elvira as Giovanni supplies the vocals. At one point, Giovanni actually takes Leporello's limbs and uses him as a human puppet.

The person who really had the most fun was costume designer Constance Hoffman, for what is the post-apocalypse than a global thrift shop? The straight-laced Ottavio wears nothing but elegant business suits, while Giovanni sports an 18th-century waistcoat beneath his leather coat, and Leporello is clad in a street person's denim. Zerlina and her girlfriends wear the petticoat/vest combos of steampunk-Burning Man, while Masetto goes for overalls and plaid shirts. And then, for Giovanni's final banquet, a band of white-faced Mozarteans shows up, looking a little zombified.

Etienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni.

The final question for DG connoisseurs is always, "How are they going to drag the Don to hell this time?" Cavanagh's answer is "very impressively." The Commendatore is not the standard statue but a 24-foot-tall bust that cracks in two and swallows Giovanni amid a sea of flames, both real and projected. Yowza! (Set and projection design by Erhard Rom.)

Conductor Bertrand de Billy led his orchestra in a reading leaning on the legato, very smooth, befitting the nature of the production.

Through July 2 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $26-$408, 415/864-3330, Proof of vaccine, picture ID and masks required.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 35-year opera critic and author of 26 novels, available on

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Opera San Jose: Bernstein's West Side Story

Teresa Castillo as Anita, Noah Stewart as Tony.
All photos by David Allen.
April 16, 2022

If West Side Story teaches us anything, it’s that idealistic young lovers are a danger to society. Our man Tony has the Sharks/Jets turf war down to a two-man fistfight (a deal any reasonable cop would take in a second), but then his girlfriend insists there be no violence at all, and what are the results? Dead bodies, everywhere.

The performance of musical theater by an opera company is always an intriguing move, and sometimes the results are grand. In recent years, San Francisco Opera, brought Jerome Kern’s Showboat and Gershwin’s Porgy ‘n’ Bess to great heights, in the latter case performing the original operatic version the composer envisioned. And West Side Story certainly qualifies for this treatment, considering the art music cred of Leonard Bernstein and the groundbreaking jazz/Latin/classical fusion of his work. The primary question is, how far do we take this?

As a fan of the 1984 recording with Bernstein, Te Kanawa, Carreras, Troyanos and Horne, I’m all for letting the operatic voices fly, and I certainly had early indications that OSJ was going to do the same. This came from tenor Noah Stewart as Tony. Stewart performed “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” with full operatic force, and the kind of stunning results that OSJ followers have come to expect from him. The richness of his lower tones in the opening bars of Maria, climbing steadily to its ending top notes, illustrate the song’s tremendous vocal range. Bernstein was writing for virtuosi. (Stewart is also Black, which creates an interesting wrinkle for a character forced to play middleman between whites and Puerto Ricans.)
Trevor Martin as Riff, Antony Sanchez as Bernardo

Sadly (for me), the rest of the cast opted to adjust their voices to a musical theater level, albeit one still backed by operatic training. One of the more stunning scenes to come out of this was the famed clash between Anita and Maria in “A Boy Like That.” Mezzo Natalie Rose Havens performs the number with dark passion and is answered by soprano Teresa Castillo and Maria’s lyrical, desperate plea, “I Have a Love.” Anita accedes to Maria’s wishes by singing with her on a low harmony, producing a deeply touching moment of sisterhood.

The majority of the roles have no opera in them at all, so the musical-theater adjustment is generally just fine. Baritone Trevor Martin plays Riff with a smart cool; baritone Antony Sanchez delivers a suave, graceful Bernardo.
Natalie Rose Havens as Anita

The production numbers are dazzling, beginning with the mambo at the gym (led by Sanchez’s excellent dancing). The Somewhere dream sequence, unrolling as soprano Natalia Santaliz sings from the balcony, paints a dazzling, imaginative picture of an idealized Manhattan as choreographer Michael Pappalardo takes us into Central Park, the subway and a movie theater using only movement and popcorn boxes. Sarah Riffle adds beautifully inventive lighting. The sequence reflects the vision of stage director Crystal Manich, who has lived in both New York and Puerto Rico.

The other remarkable choreography comes from fight director Dave Maier, creating scenes so vigorous I thought some Shark or Jet was going to end up in the pit. The fatal knife fight between Tony, Bernardo and Riff was particularly stunning.

Anita’s “America” came off well, with the help of her charming foil, soprano Christine Capsuto-Shulman. OSJ used two of their better singers in non-singing parts: bass Philip Skinner as big-voiced Doc and Michael P. Mendelsohn in a fierce performance as Lieutenant Schrank.
The Jets in flight

The Jets “Gee, Officer Krupke” was a bit of a letdown, a little too busy for its own good. It would be better with a few less physical gags and a little more emphasis, even exaggeration, of the laugh lines (“I got a social disease!”). Christopher James Ray is a bit of a dancing conductor, and had an excellent feel for Bernstein’s rhythms. And it was tremendous fun to hear a real drummer (Jim Kassis) at the opera. Steven C. Kemp’s set design was an ever-evolving puzzle of raw elements - chain-link fences, tenement balconies - projecting the grittiness of mean Manhattan streets.

A funny moment came early on, as Anita tried to drape Maria in her dancing gown. The gown decided to fight this process, leading to nervous moments as Bernardo and Chino (Jared V. Esguerra) waited to make their entrance. Eventually, Anita won the battle. Ya gotta love live theater.

Through May 1 at California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $55-$195. 408/437-4450,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 35-year opera critic and author of the opera novels Gabriella’s Voice and Operaville.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Opera San Jose: Carmen

Carmen (Nikola Printz) and Don Jose
(Noah Stewart). Photos by Chris Hardy.

February 12, 2022

On the eve of the Super Bowl, the cast of OSJ’s Carmen seemed a little like a team that wasn’t quite ready for the kickoff. It was a shame, since the first act, with its population of tobacco ladies, soldiers and villagers, is usually bursting with energy. Perhaps, after two years without a full-length, live-audience production, it was a case of opening night jitters.

Well. Things changed quickly in the second act, as the scene moved to Lillas Pastia’s tavern. It’s not that this opera has never seen its touches of flamenco, but this was the real deal, a quartet of veterans from the Flamenco Society of San Jose, and they intended to raise the roof (or punch a hole in the floor). What ensued was so rowdy that conductor Joseph Marcheso was struggling to match tempos between his pit orchestra and the wild party going on upstairs. (Marcheso has compared conducting Carmen to keeping an ill-fitted sheet on a mattress, and this was an apt demonstration.)

Flamenco dancers in the Lillas Pastia scene.

In any case, once the party was finally revved up, the gifts of this particular cast began to show themselves. Working a little backward, let me first compliment bass-baritone Leo Radosavlevic, who brought a saucy humor to the ill-fated officer Zuniga. His drunken appearance at the tavern door, ready for a midnight foray at Carmencita, was hilarious. As for his later dispatch, which fits under the category of the opera’s many stage-director options, he was politely escorted outside by smugglers El Remendado and El Dancairo (Jared V. Esguerra and Rafael W. Porto), who then returned, cleaning their knives. (And shame on you heartless operagoers who would laugh at a man’s death!)

The smugglers also joined in on the Rossinian patter-quintet “Nous avons en tete une affaire,’ which has become my favorite little gem in this opera, singing along with Carmen, Frasquita (Teresa Castillo) and Mercedes (Stephanie Sanchez). That Berlioz could write anything, and it’s a shame we lost him so young.

Amalinaltzin De La Cruz and her friend Escamillo
(Eugene Brancoveanu).

The appearance of Escamillo the toreador brought to mind the night before, when I sat at my karaoke bar and watched a succession of men launch desperate Valentine’s Eve pitches at a pretty brunette. They would do well to watch baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, whose Escamillo is handsome but not vain, egotistical but generous, who knows when to make an advance and when to back off, and who even shares his scene with a cute little girl (Amalinaltzin De La Cruz) to show he’s good with children. Brancoveanu’s clean, rich tone is always a delight, and he also got the best outfit, a caped black-and-green suit (Alyssa Oania, costume coordinator).

Playing Micaela, soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh seemed at first a little deep in her vibrato, particularly in the heartwarming duet about Jose’s mother, “Parle-moi de ma mere.” But there was plentiful payback in the famed mountain aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante,” in which that heaviness returned as power and passion.

Nikola Printz as Carmen

For every Carmen production, there is a different Carmen, the character - the part is so malleable and full of micro-choices. Mezzo Nikola Printz brings the same tonal clarity and deft phrasing that I so enjoyed in November’s Dido and Aeneas, but where this sense of moderation had its greatest effect was in the drama. In general, Carmen is a woman trapped between passion and survival, but Printz’s calm strength pulls the needle toward business. This Carmen is all about the welfare of her tribe, with romance serving as an irresistible recreation, sometimes useful, sometimes dangerous. (Printz also did quite well on the castanets, which can be a challenging aspect of the role.)

Don Jose is also a changeable figure, and in this production tenor Noah Stewart gives him a wide range. Stewart cuts a striking figure, which gives the character a strong starting point - a self-assured young man, devoted to his mother and loved by his hometown girl. This makes the mountain-scene switch into jealousy and competitiveness seem almost abrupt, and the knife-fight with Escamillo impressively fierce (with a little foreshadowing of OSJ’s next production, West Side Story). Vocally, Stewart possesses a strong lyric tone with just a bit of smoke on the edges. The combination makes it a potent carrier of emotion, most dramatically demonstrated in the Flower Song. Stewart’s rendition is heartbreaking and beautiful, the picture of a man giving in to a perilous romance as if he were approaching the gates of hell.

This ability to convey pathos also drove the final scene, making it as creepy and tense as anything produced by Hitchcock. Between the strength of Printz, the escalating desperation of Stewart’s Jose and the guidance of stage director Lillian Groag, this was a face-off propelled by an ever-tightening suspense.


Under the category of stage-director options, the final killing was a neck-slash, achieved from behind as Carmen was climbing the steps, facing away from the audience. Quite effective, but I still think it could be more visceral. Marcheso’s orchestra shone in the lovely Act 3 entr’acte and the lively Act 4 entr’acte, the latter based on Spanish songs compiled by Manuel Garcia. The regular appearances of the fate theme (you’ll know it when you hear it) were accompanied by a mime. I’ve never seen this before - the rumbling minor chords and evil tarot cards are generally omen enough - but it was an interesting touch. The set design by Giulio Cesare Perrone was pretty standard, but I did like how the mountain boulders resembled Pinnacles National Park.

Through March 3 at the California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $55-$195. 408/437-4450, Vax plus booster, photo ID and mask required. 

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 25 novels, including the opera novels Operaville and Gabriella's Voice, available at

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Opera San Jose: Purcell's Dido and Aeneas

November 13, 2021

Nikola Printz as Dido, Efrain Solis as Aeneas.
Photos by David Allen.

Opera San Jose could not have picked a more perfect way to welcome back live audiences than Purcell's brief and lovely Baroque masterwork. Taken from the most famed section of Virgil's
Aeneid, the opera offers a remarkably captivating account of the doomed affair between the Carthaginian queen and her Trojan suitor.

Purcell's spare orchestration, played here without any exotic early-music instruments, gives a rare amount of space to some magnificent voices. Chief among these is mezzo Nikola Printz's performance as Dido. In their opening aria, "Ah Belinda!, I are pressed," Printz expresses the queen's fear of her feelings for Aeneas with an elegant sense of legato and phrasing. Their attention to dynamics is revealed time and again through lovingly crafted lines, and dramatically they carry the core of the opera's emotional arc.

Nathan Stark as the Sorcerer.

Playing Aeneas, baritone Efrain Solis displays an impressive range of coloration, from the charcoal-edged intensity of his lower range to a free and light eloquence in his higher, more tender entreaties. The absolute showstopper is bass-baritone Nathan Stark as the villainous Sorcerer. With the help of makeup designer Heather Sterling fierce touches (black veins!), Stark deploys his powerful instrument to scare the hell out of us.

Through all of this is a talented and active chorus, providing a running commentary in the Greek fashion and, under stage director Elkhanah Pulitzer and choreographer Michael Pappalardo, a tremendous amount of motion and dance. The most entertaining of these scenes is a crew of drunken sailors, trying their best to return to their boats ("Come away, fellow sailors").

The production design is lovely and imaginative, especially Ulises Alcala's Indian-influenced costumes. Dido's first-act dress is bridal white with black floral designs at the hem. In the third act, the designs are red, providing between them symbolic omens of ill fortune and death. Aeneas appears in a festive pink suit and leather vest. The dancer playing Venus in a skit wears a huntress outfit with dazzling golden boots and armor.

To modern ears, the score offers elements that seem oddly ahead of their time. Purcell left certain passages open to improvisation; cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak and guitarists Robert O'Connor Miller and Timothy Sherren composed these parts before the performance.  At the conclusion of the opera, as Printz sings Dido's well-known lament, "When I am laid in earth," before going off to die, quite literally, of a broken heart, rose petals fall from the heavens (delivered, according to the libretto, by mourning cupids), creating the kind of exquisite image that we have all so terribly missed.

Through Nov. 28, California Theatre, San Jose. Proof of vaccination and photo ID required, and masks must be worn inside the theater. $55-$195,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 35-year opera critic and author of the opera novels Operaville and Gabriella's Voice, available at

Friday, December 18, 2020

Review: East of the Cookie Tree


Review of East of the Cookie Tree

by Michael J. Vaughn

Michael J. Vaughn’s EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE, written with jauntiness and immediacy, presents us with a dizzying array of responses. What at first glance appears a carefree road trip in which Daniel Maryland, a professional actor, wending his way from San Francisco down to two weddings, one in Gilroy, California and another in Malibu where he is tasked to serve as the officiant for longtime friends, unfolds to become a multi-faceted odyssey deftly calibrated to ignite and captivate the interest of every reader. We are treated to a beguiling cast of characters, most notably the adorable and intermittently manic 19 year-old runaway/stoway, Gina Candiotti, who harbors a horrifying familial secret, Willie Craig, the charismatic older idol of the silver screen, the saucy young Cherry who demonstrates an uncanny capacity for executing and expeditiously rendering an erogenous maneuver with our lead character, Daniel, Shelby, the gorgeous and accomplished wedding planner with whom the officiant, also nicknamed, the Rev. and Umpqua Man, enjoys an exhausting tryst, and finally, the Larroquette House which in many ways is a character in its own right. In actuality, all of Vaughn’s characters, whether they be the countless members of the hospitality industry who populate the book or those who dominate greater stretches of the novel’s trajectory, prove memorable because of their authentic dialogue or distinctive eccentricities. 

There is outright intoxication felt at the opening festivities of joyous reunions among two separate groups of close friends gathered for intended nuptials all emceed by the main character, Daniel Maryland,  Shakespearean actor, commercial spokesperson for a nationally renowned insurance corporation, musician, burgeoning fine artist, neophyte wedding officiant for friends, and beloved “Uncle Danny” to numerous unofficial nieces. Daniel possesses an irrepressible charm and luxuriating in the witty, erudite exchanges between the main character and his retinue of animated and engaging friends makes for a lengthy montage of heartfelt interconnectedness we all long for during this somber pandemic, despite the fact EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE transpires during pre-COVID 19 days. Daniel Maryland is a pied piper of sorts who acts as a magnet of positivity and Merlin for sparking the innate creativity of all fortunate enough to be drawn into his orbit. Perhaps it is precisely because he casts this transformative spell on his readers that the psychological bombshell that erupts upon young Gina’s arrival at her home in Eugene, Oregon carries with it the unsettling and explosive impact it does.  That said, in retrospect, as readers we can acknowledge the author has consistently introduced a multiplicity of hints, hints seeded at select intervals, that adeptly foreshadow the darker undertones of the narrative. Against the backdrop of the surreal, carefree ambience of the lifestyles of the rich and famous runs the ominous undercurrent of existence in the everyday world plagued by post-apocalyptic West Coast wildfires replete with hellish orange skylines, and inescapable and volatile contemporary social issues, most expressly, systemic racism.

EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE also provides provocative exposure not only to some of the finest Shakespearean dialogue, but compelling references to outstanding musical and cinematic interludes that help enliven the romantic, upbeat and non-formulaic wedding ceremonies and receptions featured in this spirited novel. The author also shares insights into the main character’s newest vocation as a fine artist whose talent is quickly appreciated by the discerning eye of an upscale gallery owner. We can traverse the pages of EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE, part archetypal road-trip, part magical musical mystery tour, and through-the-looking-glass “classic” cinematic romp into the landscape of what esthetic and philosophical perspectives occupy the inner recesses of a 21st century Renaissance Man’s kaleidoscopic mind. 

While Daniel Maryland’s character may have entertained periods of self-deprecation during his lengthy career as a Shakespearean actor, one can only aspire to capture a single ray of the light Vaughn’s memorable character imparts in his incomparable gift for embracing, inhabiting, and surfing the waves of an inspirational and always indomitable life force.

— Calder Lowe, award-winning editor and widely-published author

EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Applauding My Critics, Part 2: Bill Burman

A shot from one of Bill Burman's many plays.
In the movies, they have an expression called "meet-cute," generally the initiating event of all romantic comedies. Bill Burman and I had the artistic equivalent. I met him because his wife and my girlfriend worked together. Halfway through our first double date, Bill asked, "Are you the Michael Vaughn?"

It wasn't as flattering a question as it sounded. As it turned out, fourteen years previous, Bill assembled his first evening of satirical skits, titled A Prayer and A Fart. Bill was betting his future career - playwriting or perhaps something more reasonable - on the outcome of this first production. It was a success, owing largely to a review from a critic at Good Times magazine named Michael Vaughn. I had just condemned him to years of starving artistry. (It wasn't my fault - his skits are hilarious.)

My reward for this act was years of friendship and some of the most insightful reviews my books have ever received. Bill well knows the ins and outs of storytelling, and always delves into the technical challenges faced by writers. He is a particular fan of my dialogues, and coming from a playwright that's an especially flattering observation.

One could point out some definite conflict-of-interest here, but I don't think Bill would have expended so much care and energy if he secretly thought I sucked. I also get the feeling if I ever really went off the rails, Bill would be the first to say, WTF are you doing, Vaughn? That said, please enjoy these takes on my novels.

(See my author page at Amazon for all titles.)

Climies (four stars)

Reviewed in the United States on May 10, 2020
Verified Purchase
A novel in which self-proclaimed "patriots" react badly to a disaster is hardly comfort reading at this juncture in time, and I confess I had to stop reading this book several times because of certain recent events and go watch an old episode of Columbo to take myself out of the present and the dark future Vaughn portrays in "Climies" As the title implies, it is a politicized future where those of the pejorative nickname are sparring with "patriots" over the reality and consequences of climate change AFTER the disaster has already happened. Vaughn invites us to tour the likely results of our current equal time for science and deranged conspiracy theories free-for-all.

But of course Vaughn's writing is too refined to be a political screed. As usual, his latest novel is populated by complex characters such as Boss, the grizzled leader of the anti-climate science motor cycle gang menacing the Skyline community of "climies" struggling to survive in a world where the Pacific has swallowed up most of the Bay Area. And Vaughn doesn't allow a mere man-made catastrophe to dampen his joy in describing natural beauty in a transformed environment, luscious meals, futuristic technologies and the intriguing vagaries of human relationships. The plot is as imaginative as you'd hope from a science fiction novel, and though it is dark overall, it has a sort of pick-up-the-pieces hopefulness that takes the edge off a bit. My only complaint is that it seemed to end too soon for me.

A Painting Called Sylvia (five stars)

Reviewed in the United States on October 25, 2019

Reviewed in the United States on December 9, 2017
"Figment" is Michael J. Vaughn's 20th novel, but in a way it's his "8 1/2." Like Fellini in his classic, Vaughn's fictional self parties with a menagerie of his own characters, and takes on society's attitudes about struggling artists, his critics, and a world where only the vapid thrive. Certainly he could be accused of self-indulgence, but as Michelangelo argues in the famous Monty Python sketch where he is confronted by the Pope over his interpretation of the Last Supper, which features 28 apostles, a kangaroo, and three Jesuses, "It works, Mate!" Vaughn explores the tenuous line between creator and creation/reality and fiction with a wild, sexy, road trip up and down his beloved Pacific Coast, through dive bars and funky cafes, and the crazy heart of Left Coast bohemia. As always, the dialogue and descriptive writing are a joy to read, although occasionally, the hipster banter becomes tiresome. And Vaughn's ability to write strong, well drawn female characters has never been more apparent. His protagonist, Channy Adams, while apparently suffering a mental breakdown, refuses to stop pulling the thread that may unravel her whole existence or reveal its ultimate source. Vaughn took some huge risks in "Figment," and for me, they paid off.

Double Blind (four stars)

Reviewed in the United States on October 25, 2007
Verified Purchase