Sunday, April 7, 2024

Through the Darkness, Laughing


Matthew Kropschot as Mooney.
Photo by Dave Lepori.

San Jose Stage

Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen

April 6, 2024

Hangmen takes us to a Manchester pub in 1965, shortly after the executioner/publican, Harry, has been involuntarily retired by the UK’s abolition of hangings. Harry (Will Springhorn, Jr.) is a little miffed by the situation, and expresses his vast array of opinions to a journalist, Clegg (Matthew Locke). The subsequent article turns Harry into a local celebrity.

At first, quite frankly, the play seems like a bloody mess. The regulars are all yell-talking (the way drunks do) in broad Northern accents, and one wonders how a storyline’s going to fight its way through. Soon, however, one begins to see the logic of McDonagh’s delivery system. The newly ego’d Harry initiates the process by tossing out a heady pronouncement from the bar. Said idea is duly amended by the surly Inspector Fry (Michael Champlin) and amusingly misinterpreted by bespectacled regular Bill (Nick Mandracchia, looking a little like Elvis Costello). The half-deaf elder, Arthur (Randall King), asks what’s going on, and his assistant Charlie (Michael Storm) explains in overly blunt (but completely accurate) terms. Arthur then delivers his appellate summary, which, thanks to King’s masterful timing, is always funny.

Into this well-oiled philosophers’ den walks Mooney (Matthew Kropschot), a blond Yardbird from swingin’ London equipped with scads of charm underlain with a Deniro-like menace. As it turns out, Mooney is conspiring with Harry’s former assistant, Syd (Keith Pinto), to “bring Harry down a peg.” The problem is, the youngster is getting a little addicted to his powers. After escorting Harry’s teenage daughter Shirley (Carley Herlihy) to a seaside town, he returns to the pub to deliver a rambling but mesmerizing monologue about the perils that he may or may not have just set into motion. The entire second act plays out in suspense-saturated air, as McDonagh continually leaves us hanging (pun absolutely intended).

Springhorn, Jr. provides a solid sphere of narcissism and delusion around which Kropschot spins his dazzling satellites. Herlihy endows Shirley with an endearing packet of adolescent tortures, while her desperate mother Alice, played by Judith Miller, provides the play’s emotional center. Julian Lopez-Morillas makes a late entrance as Harry’s former boss, Pierrepoint, delivering a dressing down on all and sundry that verges on pyrotechnics.

Director James Reese succeeds in extracting a maximum dose of humor out of a very dark story. I found myself continually laughing and then thinking, “Why am I laughing at this?” If I had to come up with a tagline for the production, it would be, “Stupidity is much more dangerous than injustice.”

Through April 28 at The Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. $34-$74., 408/283-7142.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 40-year opera and theater critic and author of the novels Punks for the Opera and Mermaids’ Tears, available on

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Jerry Springer The Opera: WTFFF?

Richard Thomas’s

Jerry Springer the Opera

3Below Theater

February 24, 2024

Seeing Jerry Springer the Opera is something like being dumped into a latrine and coming back out with a handful of diamonds. You’ll be richer for the experience, but you will need to do some laundry. And take a shower, you stinky fuck!

Sorry. It’s just that this show is filthy, and it really revs up the potty mouth. Thomas makes it worse by taking the worst of these swear-bombs and turning them into little neoclassical ditties. My favorite is “What the fucking fucking fuck!” (You see, on the real Jerry they would bleep that out.)

Okay. So let’s attempt a plot summary. Mr. Springer - Ric Iverson, who does a dead-on impression - leads us through a typical episode, beginning with blue-collar dude Dwight (Joseph Meyers), who can’t seem to resist putting his dick into anything that moves. He informs his fiancee Peaches that he’s been having an affair with her best friend, Big Black and Beautiful Zandra, and then informs both of them that he’s also been boinking Tremont, a “chick with a dick.” (Thankfully, the confessional stops short of farm animals.)

Photo by Dave Lepori.

Next we have Montel (Jared Lee), who says he wants his girlfriend to treat him like a baby. Like a real baby. And then disposes of his tear-away suit, revealing a ripped bod and a diaper. (Lee also has a great tenor voice. I sorta hate him.)

And so it goes in Springer-land, until Jerry is shot by his warmup guy who’s really Satan, which should surprise no one. He wakes up in the underworld, where he’s ordered to host an episode of Jerry Springer in Hell. Either that, or face a punishment that includes barbed wire up the ass (“Barbed wire up the ass! Barbed wire up the ass!”)

The biblical tropes that follow are a little too predictable, but the Springer element certainly puts them in a new light. When Satan (Stephen Guggenheim) faces off against Jesus (super-bod Lee again), he says, “I have two words for you!” And then spends three or four minutes crafting a Mozartean fugue that begins with the syllable fuh and doesn’t end for a lo-o-ong time. Jesus, meanwhile, tries to dispel the devil’s anger with counterpoint. The sheer breath control from these two is dazzling.

The true opera fan, at this point, may be asking, But is this really opera? To which I would say, well, kinda. We’ve got genuine Handelian runs, Verdian choruses, Wagnerian anthems - sometimes just musical theater sung with operatic technique. One thing’s for sure: 3Below’s unique roster of hybrid opera/musical theater singers are perfectly suited to this weird fucking show.

It’s fun to see Joseph Meyers play horndog Dwight (and later, Elvis as God), because we also get to enjoy his gorgeous lyric tenor. Krista Wigle brings her big opera house soprano to Baby Jane, who does play-by-play on the second act, and Nina Edwards brings a similar bearing to Mary, Mother of God. B. Noel Thomas creates a stir with her baritone-to–soprano range, particularly as the Valkyrie, who repeatedly tries and a fails to act as Jerry’s conscience. Operatic veteran Jesse Merlin has a similar effect as chick-with-dick Tremont, suddenly unleashing a basso profundo. The cognitive dissonance is crazy.

It could be that a good healthy dose of cognitive dissonance is precisely what we need right now, as the whole fucking country goes off its rocker. Thomas and lyricist Stewart Lee premiered this show in London in 2003, and probably didn’t anticipate that the United States would eventually become the Jerry Springer Show writ large.

Oh, and those diamonds. After bathing in all this raunch, the effect of a surprising moment of sweetness is particularly sharp. Lyric soprano Lori Schulman (the unfortunate girlfriend of Diaper Man) expresses her simple desires in “I Wanna Sing Something Beautiful,” followed by hoochie mama Lynda Divito’s similar “I Just Wanna Dance,” a musical theater yearning song along the lines of “What I Did For Love.”  Fred Isozaki gives an oddly effective stage aside as security man Steve Wilkos. Much later, a KKK song-and-dance number seems intentionally similar to Springtime For Hitler.

And yes, there’s even some payback for all of Jerry’s crap-meistering. He’s introduced to hell by a litany of deaths cause by his guests’ appearances on his show. Baby Jane is walking around with a plumber’s wrench in her skull. Toward the end, he’s left to talk his way out, repeatedly slipping and falling on a ladder with each failed attempt.

As for my Final Note, I can’t really tell you what this show is about. That may be the point. I will tell you that opera singers singing about lesbians, drag queens and shitting in one’s diapers is one of the funniest things that you will ever witness. And if you should find the show offensive, I have two words for you: Fuh-uh-uh-UH, Fuh-uh-uh-uh-uh… Well, you get the point.

Through March 17, 3Below Theater, 288 S. Second Street, San Jose., 408/404-7711. $25-$65. 

Michael J. Vaughn is a 40-year opera critic and author of the novel Punks for the Opera, available at

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

A Riveting Rigoletto

Photo by David Allen


Opera San Jose

February 17, 2024

The opening scene of Opera San Jose’s Rigoletto is so intense and perfect that it may lift you right out of your seat. It has a lot to do with Steven C. Kemp’s uber-masculine set, black pillars with blood-red draperies. And Mr. Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costumes, dark with metallic inlays, which make the Mantuan court look like some badass medieval street gang.

It has mostly to do with the jester Rigoletto and his boss-enemy, the Duke. Eugene Brancoveanu brings to the former a servile desperation with an underlying air of danger, like a veteran with PTSD issues. Instead of the traditional hump, he sports a painful-looking scar across his temple (Christina Martin, makeup design), revealed later to be a kind of brand maintained by the Duke to keep him under his thumb. Brancoveanu has a magnificent baritone, equipped for rough postures, but capable of drawing back for the jester’s more frail moments. He also deploys fine touches, like the butterfly tra-las he lets fly during the court dance, or the odd commedia poses he strikes at key moments.

Our Duke is Edward Graves, an imposing presence with a delicious lirico spinto tenor. On the Duke of Mantua Continuum, from Don Giovanni playboy to pure evil Caligula, Graves errs on the side of “I will do whatever I want and you will like it.” This adds extra force when he very intentionally humiliates the Count Ceprano by making free use of his wife, then blithely dismisses the stentorian threats of Monterone (bass-baritone Philip Skinner) as the poor man demands the whereabouts of his daughter. When Monterone subsequenty lays down a curse, Brancoveanu nearly melts into the stage with anxiety. Graves, meanwhile, finds his vocal apex later with “Bella figlia dell’amore,” with which he somewhat unnecessarily seduces the assassin’s sister Maddalena.

The machismo continues with the assassin Sparafucile, who accosts Rigoletto outside his home and offers his services. Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam’s tone is like blackened barbecue ribs, and his stage presence is fringed with menace.

Rigoletto arrives home to his daughter and reconfirms his security demands to housemaid Giovanna in the fetching cabaletta “Ah! Veglia, o donna.” This and his later pleas to the courtiers are the most heartbreaking moments in Brancoveanu’s performance.

Melissa Sondhi plays Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda with a sweet, light tone. The lightness is no sin - Gildas tend to go this way - but Sondhi’s voice pales next to her powerhouse males, and the top notes of “Caro nome” are hesitant and pinched. The lack of power is also an issue for mezzo Melisa Bonetti Luna as Maddalena. She does, however, capture the twisted sister’s sexiness, and her misguided affections for the Duke.

Stage director Dan Wallace makes some intriguing choices. To Rigoletto’s scar he adds a case of syphilis for the Duke, who is shown having his pox bandaged by a servant. Wallace also works with fight choreographer Dave Maier to construct a final killing that is brutal and chaotic. In a sense, Maddalena’s multiple dagger-thrusts are much more real and upsetting than the traditional approach, in which the disguised Gilda accepts Sparafucile’s knife like someone embracing a lover.

Under conductor Jorge Parodi, the orchestra plays beautifully, beginning with that deceptively simple, lushly powerful overture. It’s almost like a content warning on a movie: This will NOT be a happy story.

Through March 3 at the California Theatre, 345 S. 1st St. $55-$195., 408/437-4450.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 40-year opera critic and the author of the novel Punks for the Opera, available at Amazon.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Punks for the Opera!

In Michael J. Vaughn's new novel, Punks for the Opera, marketing wiz Marina Quantrill takes two surprising new connections and creates Punks for the Opera, a benefit for San Francisco Opera's community outreach program by four area punk bands. Halfway through the evening, things are not quite the blockbuster she was hoping for, but things are about to change...

Snatcher takes the stage in very unexpected clothing. Macy wears crisp white breeches, a scarlet waistcoat over a Cramps T-shirt, and a black tricorner hat. Jane has a powdered wig, a foot tall. And Lily wears a pink 18th century French ballgown with panniers to either side. Replacing the usual inner layers is a black bodysuit with skeleton bones. Lily plugs in, works the guitar strap around her ship-like dress and guffaws.

“Haw! Whattyathink?”

She sashays, model-like, and the forty patrons shout their approval.

“Just a little something I picked up at the opera. Sergeant Macy? Lady Jane? Shall we rock ‘n’ roll? One two three four!”

The sight of a Mozartean skeleton grinding away on guitar is vastly entertaining. Marina floats away on the cloud of absurdity that she herself has initiated. Macy seems to be enjoying herself as well, even though her military getup has exiled her further into the Land of the Cute. If it’s possible, the band is edgier and tighter than ever, and the crowd responds by moshing.

“This is one helluva show.”

Linda Ortega has crept up to Marina’s shoulder.

“Linda! I wondered where you were.”

Linda adopts the sunny voice of a cult member. “I have a table out front with the most delightful pamphlets!”

“These costumes are amazing. Thanks for getting Callie out here.”

“Least I could do. You’re doing my job for me.”

“Hey, I’m just trying to sell CDs.”

“Sure, sure. Well, just wanted to say hi. I’m gonna go back outside. My ears are a little sensitive.”

Linda disappears. The eyes of the men (and a couple women) follow. Lily cuts off her song and stops for a commercial break.

“Hey! Thanks to our fearless band manager, Marina, we have a brand new CD. Five bucks apiece. Just head to that gorgeous woman in the red shirt and hand her a Lincoln. Proceeds go to San Francisco Opera’s school outreach program. Also, our fearless tavern owner Jay is throwing in a cut of the bar, so bottoms up! The drunker you are, the better we sound. And now, back to noise!”

They creep into Primitive. Red light washes over the stage. Marina notices something else about Lily. She has this rare ability to let a musical moment spell out before rushing to the next. Too many musicians look like they’re already thinking about the next song. Marina sells four CDs and feels a little better. Then she gets a tap on the shoulder. She expects another customer, but this one’s different: a perfectly made-up Asian lady with a small face, delicate features and a dazzling smile. She also seems vaguely familiar.

“Hi. Are you Marina?”

“That I am!”

“I’m Betty Yu. I’m a reporter for channel five? We were covering some storm damage on the seacliffs here and I saw a flyer for ‘Punks for the Opera.’ Well naturally, I gotta check that out. And now with the costumes! Is it okay if we shoot?”

“Oh! Absolutely. Um, how long will you be here?”

Betty looks at her cameraman. “Well, not too long. I need to get Ben back to his pregnant wife or he’s gonna be in trouble.”

Marina laughs. “Reason I ask is that we have a special performance coming up and I’d love for you to see it. Tell you what, I’ll have the band do two more songs, then we’ll cut to the surprise.”

“Fantastic! Ben, you’re on.”

Ben wends his way through the crowd like an explorer dodging undergrowth. Marina swims toward Lily. At the end of the song, she waves like a maniac to get her attention. Lily kneels on the stage, the gown swimming around her, and Marina talks into her ear.

“Channel five is here! Can you do your two best songs - maybe Halloween and Sick - and then make way for the guest stars?”

“Gotcha boss. How cool!”

Lily hops back up and returns to the mic. “Hey! Channel five is in the house. So I want you to be your rowdy best and please keep the freakin’ obscenities to a minimum. This is Every Day is Halloween.”

She looks back to make sure her players are set and counts them off. Ben stands at stage left to catch performers and watchers, and switches on his bright lights. The room is a pandemonium of bouncing bodies and raised arms. Marina watches for a bit, then sneaks out into the cold ocean air. Veronika and Linda are gathered next to a keyboard.

“Hi! Channel five is here.”

“I know,” says Linda. “I told her to talk to you.”


Linda gives her a crafty smile. “It’s your gig. Plus, I wanted to see how you operate under pressure.”

“Very good! Um, well, here’s what I want. We need to do the surprise performance in five minutes.”

“Oh wow,” says Veronika. “Okay. I’ve got my singers warming up in the van.”

She quick-walks across the lot. Marina looks at Linda.

“Go on in. Enjoy it. I’ll keep things motivated out here.”


“TV’s not guaranteed. But you may have hit the jackpot.”

“Fingers crossed!”

She re-enters to find Snatcher at the end of Halloween. Ben is now upstage, shooting Lily from behind as she works the crowd. The dress is a pink ghost, spectacularly weird. She cranks to a stop and the crowd goes apeshit, coked out by the presence of a TV camera.

“OK. We’re gonna play one more and then we’ve got something really special. This is a tender love song called You Make Me Sick. One two three four!”

The choice is perfect, hard-charging, a touch of Ramones, exactly what’s needed to draw out the contrast with opera. Marina finds Betty in her same spot, enjoying herself immensely.

“I love this!” she shout-talks. “I’d like to get some interviews. Maybe your lady in pink there. Whose idea was this?”

“Mine. My roommate is the bass player. A friend of mine works for the opera. We thought, why not bring them together?”

“Great! Let’s get you on tape, too.”

“And maybe the soprano?”

“There’s a soprano?”

Marina smiles. “There’s always a soprano.”

The band slams to a halt and the moshers yell their heads off. Lily grins.

“Okay. We’re gonna take a break, but in a couple of minutes we have a special treat. Go buy a CD. And a drink.”

The stagehands reappear, this time carting in a desk and chair with various accouterments: a blotter, a framed picture, a letter opener, a phone. A bearded man in a business suit comes out and sits in the chair, already in character, talking on the phone, making some notes. He gives off the air of a boss, perhaps a CEO.

Veronika sets up an electric keyboard to stage right and plays a few passages to check the sound. Oddly, Lily hasn’t moved. She waits at stage left, studying something on the back of her guitar, still plugged in and strapped on.

The patrons are all abuzz about the mystery of it all, but they quiet when Veronika stands at her keyboard. She looks to someone near the exit, then to Lily. She raises a hand and brings it down. Lily plays a resounding chord and lets it ring out, collecting some feedback. Veronika plays a sweep of dramatic downward chords, a theme that will appear later in the scene.

A woman stalks onstage in a red vinyl jumpsuit, skin-tight, her dark hair lacquered into triceratops blades. She’s a fiery-looking Latina, a bit like Linda but with sharper, more feline features. The immediate impression is that she’s some kind of pop star, a Britney Spears or Lady Gaga. She charges the CEO and sings in angry bursts, colored in the peculiar tang of Italian.

The CEO replies in a rich baritone, a conciliatory manner.

“Oh my God,” says Betty. “It’s Tosca.”

“Really?” whispers Marina. “You’re good.”

CEO circles the desk and tries to touch Popstar, but she flinches away like someone evading a scorpion. She fires off another round of complaints. Veronika lifts a hand from the keyboard and points to Lily, who plays another resounding chord. Veronika cuts her off and returns to the keyboard for that same downward sweep. Popstar releases a note so piercing that it stuns the crowd (a punk crowd!) into silence.

CEO returns to Popstar’s side and sings to her in sinister tones. He waves a hand toward stage right, whereupon a stagehand hiding behind the Greek column produces a harrowing cry of pain.

“They’re torturing her boyfriend,” says Betty. “And Scarpia - the villain - is willing to let him go in return for sexual favors.”

“Scumbag,” says Marina. A guy with a mohawk shushes her.

Popstar agrees to the deal. CEO kisses her hand and returns to his desk to make a phone call. Veronika points to Lily and fans her fingers, producing a quieter, spelled-out chord from her guitar. Veronika plays a slow introduction.

Popstar, overwhelmed at her predicament, comes to kneel at the front of the stage. Marina realizes that the singer is even more beautiful than she thought, with full lips and dark, fathomless eyes. She begins her lament with long, full notes, capturing her listeners. Marina imagines that she’s heard these lines before. Although she’s singing in Italian, her expressions and the music seem to indicate something like the grievous cry of Jesus, “Why God hast thou forsaken me?”

The volume grows with her anguish, all the way to a stunning top note that fills every square inch of the bar. She finally releases it, quieting and descending into an afterthought of exhausted acceptance. When she finally lets go of the final note, the punks go wild. The soprano keeps her eyes down, shaking with sobs even as the applause rolls over her back. Veronika restarts the music, Popstar rises, goes to the CEO’s desk and watches as he signs her boyfriend’s release papers. She reaches for them, but he tucks them into his pocket. The inference is clear: she’s going to have to earn it.

Jubilant, the CEO makes his advances. Popstar puts him off as politely as possible, but matters quickly progress to a classic chase around the desk. After a few laps, the CEO stops to rest, hands on knees. At this point, Popstar discovers the letter opener on his desk and hides it behind her back. CEO finally recovers and makes a lunging advance, but he is met by a knife to the gut. Lily plays another big chord. The moshers let out little syllables of surprise: Ooh! Whoa! Aigh! CEO drops to the stage and sings a few ragged lines as he fights for breath. Popstar stands over him, taunting him as he dies. The music stills to a murmur. She drops the knife, pulls the papers from the CEO’s pocket and dashes from the stage. Lily plays one more burst, followed by a quiet finishing passage from Veronika.

It takes a moment for the Winters congregation to understand that it’s over. They’re cued by Betty, who begins the applause. Popstar comes back to take a bow, then helps the evil baritone to his feet. Linda comes out to Lily’s microphone.

“That was a scene from Puccini’s great opera Tosca. Our lady in red is Jocelyn Rosina Puentes, and our evil Baron Scarpia is Efrain Solis. They are both from our Adler Fellowship Program, and they both participate in the school outreach program that tonight’s show is benefitting. Our keyboardist and conductor is Veronika Agranov-Dafoe, with guest guitarist Lily Kakes! Thanks so much to Snatcher and the other great bands tonight for putting this on, and be sure to buy up those CDs!”

The opera troupe trots off, quickly replaced by Macy and Jane. Lily comes to the mic.

“Holy crap! That was fucking amazing. Okay! Back to rockandroll. One two three four!”

And they’re off.

A Barber with Style


The Barber of Seville

Opera San Jose

November 11, 2023

It’s pretty rare to find an opera production that checks off absolutely every box, but Opera San Jose’s definitely got one. Their Barber is vocally scintillating, brilliantly funny, and madly entertaining.

Beginning at the beginning, the overture just makes me smile. Regardless of certain (ahem!) animated connections, or the fact that it was appropriated from Rossini’s earlier opera, Aureliano in Palmira, those familiar, playful passages warm up an operagoer’s heart in the most delightful fashion.

First thing, we’ve got a gang of street musicians, skulking about as if they’re about to pull a bank heist. Their maestro, Fiorello, is bass-baritone Joshua Hughes, the first of many solid supporting players, which has become an OSJ trademark. After a comically loud tuning up from the large orchestra fifteen feet below them, this modest octet does a fine job mimicking their parts as their client, the Count Almaviva, sings a serenade to his mysterious ladylove.

And what a voice Almaviva has! For ‘tis Joshua Sanders, the selfsame tenor whose lyric tones graced OSJ’s recent Romeo et Juliette. Sanders plays Almaviva in a nicely assertive fashion, diving into the screwball personae he uses to sneak into his lady’s place of residence. The best is a hippy-dippy rendition of the music teacher Don Alonso.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, in comes this barber guy to brag about his many skills and connections. Baritone Ricardo Jose Rivera performs the famed “Largo factotum” as if he were merely conversing, making it up on the spot. It’s the perfect approach to a probably-overexposed piece, and just breathtaking to watch. Rivera performs similar tricks throughout the evening, persistently pushing his high-speed patters to the red line.

At this point, a little tired from laughter, I’m thinking, Come on, OSJ! You’re running up the score. You’re showing off. Ah, but things are just beginning.

Because in comes Nikola Adele Printz, the gender-fluid mezzo so fondly remembered for OSJ’s first post-pandemic, in-person production, the 2021 Dido and Aeneas. Printz’ vocal weaponry is almost impossible to describe, ramping gradually from the delicate lyricism of “Una voce poco fa” to its pointed cabaletta, “Io sono docile.” Rosina declares herself to be a meek, submissive lamb, but one who can grow tiger’s claws when crossed. (That all-important “but,” or Italian “ma,” is the center of the piece, and delivered this time with a stab to Rosina’s needlework.) Printz’ cadenzas are moderate, but their top notes are anything but, so assured and stunning that they send chills down one’s spine. Printz also exhibits a superhuman range, dipping into baritone in a later scene to make fun of Rosina's male pursuers.

A more gradual appreciation comes for Dale Travis as Bartolo, the creepy guardian hell-bent on scamming his young ward into marrying him. Travis is opera royalty, recipient of the San Francisco Opera Medal Award, and has been playing these kinds of parts at least since 1987, when he sang Don Pasquale at OSJ. His portrayal of Bartolo is first-class schmuckery, delivering lines of patter that would send the layperson into a coma all while pretending to be a frail old man.

The other star of the production is Adrian Linford’s set, a series of sliding walls that act as a kind of travelogue. A few seconds of tugging and you’re at Figaro’s barbershop, a village square, Bartolo’s front door, Bartolo’s interior. One of the more brilliant moments has the beleaguered Bartolo nudging aside one wall of the village square while the other follows him from behind like an eager puppy.

This all matches well with Stephen Lawless’s innovative direction. Lawless and lighting designer Thomas C. Hase take the stock Rossini device of the shock-frozen cast (singing of their confusion while standing mannequin-still) and turns it surreal. Lawless’s chaos-theory approach reminds one of the Marx Brothers, except for the Act I finale, the sliding panels closing in on the performers from all sides, which recalls the dumpster scene from Star Wars.

The strong supporting players continue with bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian, who plays con artist Basilio as a bedraggled Father Guido Sarducci (younger readers, ask your parents). He makes his entrance as a “blind” beggar, shaking down the locals. Mezzo Courtney Miller continues her stellar work in the domestics field, and how beautifully democratic is it that Rossini gives the disapproving maid Berta her own aria, “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie”?

Linford’s costume designs are all impeccable, but the clear standout is Rosina’s dress, butter-yellow with blue piping, tiers of lace descending gracefully to the floor. Wig designer Y. Sharon Peng, meanwhile, gets her own one-woman exhibition as Figaro shows what wonders he has worked on his male customers.

Through Nov. 26 at California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $55-$195. 408/437-4450. In Italian with supertitles in English and Spanish.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 40-year opera critic and author of 29 novels, the most recent of which, Punks for the Opera, is available at

Image: Joshua Sanders as Count Almaviva, Nikola Adele Printz as Rosina. Photo by David Allen.

Friday, November 3, 2023

Revolutionary Opera

Van Sciver’s Girondines

Mission Opera
October 29, 2023
Santa Clarita, CA

A few months ago I had the pleasure of reviewing a CD, a new work from composer Sarah van Sciver and librettist Kirsten C. Kunkle. Girondines tells the story of six extraordinary women who took on the Jacobins during the violent chaos of the French Revolution. The most famous of these (perhaps infamous) is Charlotte Corday, whose bathtub assassination of Jacobin leader Marat was portrayed in the well-known painting by David.

The work posits the notion that these women likely met and discussed the intense political issues surrounding them. Though it begins as an elevated tea party, it evolves into something like a trial, with each woman bearing witness to her small slice of these momentous times. It also gives us a chance to find out who gets the guillotine, who escapes, who survives undercover, and becomes an intriguing study of how different people respond to great trauma.

When I learned that the work, which first premiered in Delaware, was receiving its West Coast premiere near Los Angeles, I had to see it. Primarily to answer one particular question: how would such a unique piece, constructed with anything but an ordinary narrative arc, make the journey from concert piece to full-fledged opera?

The answer is, largely through the increasingly popular medium of projections. The composer herself assembled hundreds of images, many of them classic paintings of the Revolution and its participants. It’s a dazzling combination, providing a “big picture” background as the performers contribute their individual perspectives. It also lent an active feel to what might have been a dangerously static piece.

The Renaissance woman label could also be applied to librettist Kunkle, who also sang the role of Corday and choreographed ballet interludes performed by Savanna Gonzalez. At the moment of Corday’s execution, someone in the pit let out a very convincing scream; this turned out to be the composer, seated at the piano (apparently she didn’t have enough to do).

The piece is challenging and tricky, demanding a great deal of commitment from its singers. Kunkle sets the standard with Corday, whose commentaries on the Jacobins’ Reign of Terror are thrilling and a bit lunatic. Kunkle’s soprano is impressively agile, and she displays a great ability to manipulate her vibrato. Her date with the executioner is given the proper degree of impact with a sudden disappearance and the sound of the guillotine’s scrape and thud.

Bits of humor and intrigue are provided by Laurice Simmons Kennel as Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Marie Antoinette’s portraitist, and by Kaitlyn Tierney as the playful society figure Madame de Stael. Claire Pegram lends an extra dose of pathos to Madame Roland’s prayer that she be the last of the sisterhood to go to the guillotine. As scientist Marianne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier, Marisa Robinson conducted a seminar in enunciation and phrasing. Kunkle’s libretto is written in unadorned prose, which van Sciver manipulates in unexpected ways. The combination demands a great degree of focus from its singers.

The great finesse of van Sciver’s score comes through double on the stage, notably the conversational fugue as the tea party increases in fervor and cross-purposes. The orchestra included cello, harp, and David Oleg Manukyan’s expressive work on violin.

The CD of Girondines is available on most music platforms. More info at or

Michael J. Vaughn is a forty-year opera critic and author of 29 novels. His latest, Punks for the Opera, will be available soon on Amazon.

Photo by Wesley Jow. (Kirsten C. Kunkle as Charlotte Corday.)

Monday, September 11, 2023

Opera San Jose's Romeo et Juliette

Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette

September 9, 2023

Opera San Jose

OSJ opened its 40th anniversary by bringing back R&J after a 17-year absence, and it’s a welcome return. The score is beautiful, pointing backward to Mozart, forward to Massenet, and despite its everpresence in modern culture (in both original and West Side forms), the story still offers poignant and infuriating moments.

The production is also the first that Shawna Lucey has stage directed since becoming OSJ's general director and CEO. Her work in this production immediately establishes the primacy of dance-like movement. This begins with a lengthy dance interlude featuring Antara Bhardwaj, Maansa Kavuri, Juan Magacho and SNJV, mixing balletic and classical Indian styles in an enchanting fashion. The choreographic feeling translates to the players, as well, notably Romeo, whose movements evoke a graceful, mannered feeling.

The cast is superb, beginning with our two leads. As Juliet, Melissa Sondhi introduces herself with the sprightly showpiece “Je veux vivre,” displaying a shimmering, agile soprano. Joshua Sanders exhibits an equally lyric tenor, and one can hardly wait to hear them together. Fortunately, the opera contains four duets, and Gounod delights in unison singing. The balcony scene duet, “O nuit divine,” is especially spine-tingling.

But these two don’t stop there. Both demonstrate an ability to take their lyric voices into dramatic territory, with tremendous results. For Sondhi, this comes with the fiery “Amour ranime mon courage,” the scene in which Juliet considers taking the friar’s death-simulating potion as an escape from her terrible situation. When Romeo discovers Juliet’s apparently dead body laid out on a tomb, Sanders unleashes his own surprising power and intensity, leading into the excruciating, tragic finale. The dynamic range exhibited by both singers is remarkable.

Not that the rest of the cast is wanting. Robert Balonek brings boisterous energy to the bawdy Count Capulet. Courtney Miller has entirely too much fun as Juliet’s scheming nurse, Gertrude. Mezzo Melisa Bonetti Luna shines in the trouser role of Stephano, taunting the Capulets with “Que faisto, blanche tourterelle.” Kenneth Kellogg lends “rizz” and presence to the Duke of Verona.

The center of the tribal conflict is represented by two veteran presences. Alex Boyer plays Tybalt with a powerful tenor and swaggering presence. Baritone Efrain Solis lends a dashing, comic aura to Mercutio, especially in the Queen Mab ballade, an gibe at his suddenly peace-loving friend Romeo. When the two fighters engage in their ill-fated duel, it’s a bit like a good pro wrestling match. Everyone knows it’s fake, but we’re all still a little concerned that someone’s going to get hurt. Romeo’s running-through of Tybalt is especially convincing (fight director Dave Maier).

The choruses, children and adults, are filled with energy, performing the village scenes with great exuberance (Johannes Lohner, chorus master). The choral reaction to Juliet’s wedding-day collapse is exceptionally powerful.

Steven C. Kemp’s set design offers some intriguing ideas: a first half of verdant spring driven by hate to the second half’s starkly apocalyptic vista: the ruins of a church lying in a nuked-out wasteland like a foundering ship. Unfortunately, the ivy-covered walls of the early going resemble furry Astroturf.

I had an equally hard time understanding Caitlin Cisek’s costumes, which were loosely medieval but not always flattering, particularly in the case of Romeo’s hobbit-like togs. I had a change of mind, however, when I looked into Cisek’s approach: she wanted each character’s garments to reflect whatever that particular person was going through in his/her life. Mercutio, for example, wore tight, athletic-looking clothing, forever prepared to participate in his favorite sport of swordplay. In the bedroom scene, Juliet wakes in transparent, lacy lingerie, while Romeo wears simple pajamas, reflecting both her sexual awakening and his adherence to sentimentality. This, along with many other elements, adds to a distinctively feminist reading of Juliet, who really was (especially for her time) a remarkable figure, determined to break away from the patriarchal strictures of church and family.

Joseph Marcheso gave his usual sublime reading of the score (apparently his first performance of this particular opera), wringing a maximum intensity from the many edgy scenes. Every time the strings came out with Gounod’s lovely R&J motif, I felt myself floating with rapture.

Through September 24 at California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. In French with English and Spanish supertitles. Jasmine Habersham sings Juliet on 9/15 and 9/24. $55-$195,, 408/437-4450.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 39-year opera critic and the author of 28 novels, including the acclaimed Mermaids’ Tears, available at Amazon.

Photos by Kristen Loken.