Thomas Cimarusti on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly

Wednesday, October 15, 2008.  7:30 p.m.  Downtown library auditorium.

Thomas M. Cimarusti is Assistant Professor of Musicology at Texas Tech University. Upon completion of his Masters degree in musicology from Brigham Young University, he pursued doctoral studies at Florida State University where he recently defended his dissertation, “The Songs of Luigi Gordigiani (1806-1860), “the Italian Schubert.” He has presented papers for the Music Libraries Association, the American Musicological Society, and the International Association of Music Libraries. His publications have appeared in The Organ Encyclopedia and Perspectives on Ernst von Dohnányi. He recently completed an edition of Dohnányi’s Piano Quartet in F# minor, the score of which he provided for the North American premiere in New York. Mr. Cimarusti’s research interests include verismo opera, musical paleography, watermarks, nineteenth-century Italian song, and the music of Astor Piazzolla.

Tales of the henpecked husband and other such birds

A Waterbird TalkHow do you deal with a nagging wife? Some would say to there are only a few responses suitable to the situation, “Yes dear” and “I’m sorry dear.” Others would say to lavish her with praise and make her think you are listening. Yet others would say there really is no solution to the problem except perhaps to not get married in the first place. In A Water Bird Talk our male archetype finds another way to cope with his woes. He talks about birds! In a clever twist of phrase our darling lecturer takes advantage of his captive audience to recount the woes of his unlucky life, or perhaps his unlucky choice of wife. His lecture on birds soon turns in to the feverish soliloquy of the henpecked husband. As he describes the peculiar habits of the birds they become hilarious metaphors for his own life.

The composer Dominick Argento, now in his 80’s, is generally regarded as America’s preeminent living composer of lyric opera. He is particularly well-known for sensitive settings of complex, sophisticated texts as in his song cycle in “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.” In A Water Bird Talk Argento incorporates material from the Russian author Anton Chekhov as well as passages from John James Audubon’s book The Birds of America. He calls this particular opera a monodrama as there is only one character singing.

Dominick Argento once said in a radio interview “My interest is people. I am committed to working with characters, feelings, and emotions.” Perhaps it is this commitment that allows us to relate so freely to the unlucky husband. Argento tells the story of real people in real situations. In fact, it is something many men can relate to today despite the time disparity.

Argento’s commitment to character, feeling, and emotion can also be felt in the instrumentation of the piece. Specific instruments are chosen to represent each of the birds and in turn the feeling our lecturer is trying to portray. For example the oboe and chimes are used to represent the pied-billed grebe that in turn represents the lowest form of bird life or the henpecked husband.

With the creative composition and light-hearted portrayal of the unfortunate husband this opera is sure to make you laugh.

A Water Bird Talk
Ardean Watts Contemporary Chamber Series at Westminster
September 24 & 25, 2008
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Utah Opera Costume Showcase – Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly CostumeNote: Melonie’s costume designs will be featured in the Utah Opera Costume Showcase after the Opening Night performance of Madame Butterfly.

When I design costumes for a show, the research is thrilling.  It’s what I imagine being an archaeologist might be like: the more you look, the more pieces you find to fit the puzzle. I never feel like I’ve completed the research process, but there does come a point when there’s enough information on the page and swimming around in my brain that I have to get it onto paper. That’s when I start drawing the characters. All that information combines with ideas and concepts I’ve thought about for the show, and they become something unique and interesting to each character. Once the pencil drawing is done, I like to photocopy my designs because sometimes my ideas of what color the clothes should be changes. In other words, in case I mess up.

I’ll be honest, I enjoy painting far more than drawing as I truly love watching the colors I’ve mixed on my palette soak into the heavy paper and be manipulated to create highlights and shadows. I usually let it sit over night and look at it again the next day – probably because it’s always very late by the time I finish, and I’m not thinking clearly any more. After some tweaking, I step back and am amazed to find something that I can be truly proud of. Something that is historical and, hopefully, artistic.  Something that is a part of me.  That is what excites me the most.

Madame Butterfly Costume

OPERA America course for Madame Butterfly

OPERA America is offering several on-line courses this year, two of which coincide with our season and therefore are offered FREE of charge to us and our patrons.  The “Madama Butterfly” course begins next week.  Should you sign up for the course, you’ll receive an e-mail message once a week full of information about Puccini and this opera, as well as musical excerpts you’ll enjoy hearing ahead of time, before attending a performance.  No tests, no papers, no required comprehension even, all just for interest and pleasure.

Just email me at pfowler(at) if you’re interested, and I’ll put you on OPERA America’s list for the opera courses this year.

Ode to Joy: Behind the Music

Behind the Music BeethovenDelve into the truths, triumphs, and “Behind the Music” of the tunes of your favorite artists featured by Utah Symphony. Today’s feature: Ode to Joy. Was it really an ode to a life of joy or trials, turbulence and torn love that inspired a final Ode as Beethoven ended his career writing his 9th and final symphony?

From the beginning of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven was destined for one full of fame, fortune and friction.  Named after his grandfather, a musician of the Roman Catholic Flemish Court, and one of three survivors of the seven children his parents bore, Ludwig van Beethoven was destined to carry the musical weight passed through generations of his family. In addition to his grandfather’s legacy, his own father was a tenor in the Electoral court and his first music teacher.

Beethoven studied as a young man with famous pianists such as Haydn, gaining a quick reputation as a virtuoso pianist in his early teens.  Studying abroad, Beethoven quickly returned home as his mother passed on and he raised his siblings while his father battled being an alcoholic.

Even as his name began to grow among Europeans and his talents were esteemed, his health began fading. Beethoven’s hearing gradually began deteriorating from a ringing in his ears to almost complete deafness as he continued to compose masterpieces, conduct, and perform. His encroaching deafness led him to contemplate suicide, and it is now rumored that he also battled bipolar disease. There is also speculation that he suffered from irritability brought on by chronic abdominal pain beginning in his 20’s attributed to lead poisoning that later resulted in his death.

Beethoven never married, but he was engaged to Giulietta Guiccardi, whose father was made thwarter of the lovers, and she joined in marriage to a noble man. Nevertheless, he had a close and devoted circle of friends all his life, thought to have been attracted by his reputed strength of personality. Towards the end of his life, Beethoven’s friends competed in their efforts to help him cope with his incapacities.

Completed in 1824, the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 “Choral” was the last complete symphony composed by Ludwig van Beethoven.  It incorporated part of An die Freude (“Ode to Joy”), a poem by Friedrich Schiller written in 1785.

In the first performance of Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Beethoven pounded out the beats he couldn’t hear (his hearing now completely gone). According to one witness, “the public received the musical hero with the utmost respect and sympathy, listened to his wonderful, gigantic creations with the most absorbed attention and broke out in jubilant applause, often during sections, and repeatedly at the end of them.” Beethoven was given five standing ovations – people waved handkerchiefs in the air and raised their hands and hats so Beethoven, who was now deaf, could see the response. Never before had the theater seen such an enthusiastic response from the audience. In the end, he truly conducted an “Ode to Joy,” which may be a tribute to his life. Though it was hard, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming, his was a fulfilled life that would be celebrated, at least nightly, somewhere around the world to this day.

Join us this Friday, and Saturday, September 12th and 13th at Abravanel Hall to experience the same audience ovation as our own Keith Lockhart and the Utah Symphony Chorus praises Beethoven in performing with the Utah Symphony in Ode to Joy!

Utah Symphony presents “Ode to Joy”
September 12 – 13, 2008
Abravanel Hall
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Utah Opera Young Artist Ensemble 2008-2009

A few days ago, Jon blogged about the “Who wants to be an Opera star?” program that the Young Artist Ensemble presents to the schools in Utah. We thought it would be fun to let everyone get to know our Ensemble Artists a bit – especially since they’ll be contributing the blog occasionally. Also, we’ve recently announced auditions for our 2009-2010 Ensemble Artists, so if you really have always wanted to be an Opera star, this may be your chance!

Chanel Wood, soprano. The first music Chanel ever heard was church music, but in her family’s church in Texas, there are no pianos, guitars or organs—only singing!  So she learned to love singing with other people when she was very young.  In elementary and middle school she sang whenever she could, but she was mostly really into basketball.  In eighth grade she sang with a children’s theater in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. During that show, she had to act, dance and sing all at the same time, which Chanel loved.  That’s when she decided she wanted to be a performer someday.  Her love of musicals like Oklahoma and Into the Woods grew into a love of opera when she studied singing in college. Her mom, dad, and little brother Brian like to listen sometimes, but their dogs, Grace and Harvey, have never been very interested in opera.  Chanel has always liked sports—she plays basketball, jogs and skis—and this summer she started swimming and playing Frisbee.  She’s excited to be living in Utah where she hopes to try lots of other new things.

Gretchen Windt, mezzo soprano, is from Chicago. She has a very musical family.  Her mother is a music teacher, her older brother is a conductor, her younger brother is a composer, and her younger sister is a pianist. Her mother started teaching her piano when she was six years old, and she played piano for the next thirteen years.  She started singing in high school musicals including Fiddler on the Roof and The Pirates of Penzance.  When she went to college, she started singing opera and loves the chance to play different characters . . . even boys!  She also likes playing tennis and traveling (she last visited the Smoky Mountains), and she loves animals (she’s even a vegetarian).

Dominick Chenes, tenor, was born in Las Vegas and completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music there. Dominick has received many awards from the National Association of Teachers of Singing and an encouragement award from the Metropolitan National Council. Also, Dominick has performed many roles with the UNLV Opera Theatre. For the past three years Dominick has traveled to Europe to take part in the American Institute of Musical Studies and the International Institute of Vocal Arts. In these programs, Dominick was able to study with some of the world’s greatest teachers and conductors.

Brent Reilly Turner, baritone, was born in Singapore, but moved to the US before his first birthday.  In the US, Brent has lived in Ohio, Texas, and Florida.  Brent has also lived in other countries including Indonesia and Australia but did most of his growing up in Orlando, Florida.   He got his performing start at Walt Disney World, singing with Mickey, Goofy, Belle and many others. Brent loves to sing, but he also is a big sports nut.  While in school, Brent played football, baseball, soccer, basketball and volleyball, and is currently a certified soccer referee.  Brent also loves to play guitar and keyboard, and was in band for four years.  He has four brothers, two younger and two older.   All five Turner boys are musicians, with talents ranging from playing bass guitar and sax  to composing and conducting.

Emily Williams, pianist, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. She began taking piano lessons at six years old. While she loves listening to and playing classical music, she also loves all other types of music. Additionally, because she lives in Utah, Emily loves the mountains, hiking, and camping, as well as snowshoeing in the winter. She also enjoys reading and cooking meals and treats for herself, family, and friends.

Creative Flash From the Costume Shop

Utah Opera Purses

In a burst of creativity the costume shop has discovered another outlet: The Purse. From a wall 11 feet high filled with small scrap rolls of leftover fabrics we look for something that strikes us. Polka dots? no too retro. Brocade? Does anyone remember what show that was from? Ahhhh! Red fabric from the original Carmen character! Once we have made a choice, maybe a few for inspiration, we start manipulating the fabric to gain an idea of what the shape wants to be. Should we use a foam base? A zipper? Maybe a magnet for a closure. What about those leftover trim and ribbon scraps? There is magic in our cupboards just waiting to spill out. What we have ended up with are expressions of the Opera characters we costume. Inside each purse we sew a tag. This tag has the Opera name the fabric was used in and the character. Each piece is original, tweaked by the costume artisan to be one of a kind. We are having such fun! Hopefully you will get to see the results of our collective creativity!

Wagner Singers Competition

Well…back from a lovely evening. This…on the heels…of one of the hottest days in Seattle. Much hotter than it was in SLC today. Go figure. I managed to spend the day walking miles over the city including up and down Nob Hill, Queen Anne and into Pike Place Market. A good day.

I had dinner tonight tonight with and agent and a critic. You would think this was like swimming in shark infested waters. However, the agent I have known for nearly fifteen years (is this possible?) and the critic was new to me but we had a lovely meal, nonetheless. The lovely thing…and somehow we landed on this topic…we all basically said that we were working towards the same end: forwarding an art form. What a great base from which to begin a friendship!

I forgot to mention that I had the great privilege to be introduced to Ben Heppner. He is not only the reigning Wagner heroic tenor of our generation, he’s one heck of a nice guy! I had a lovely conversation with him during the intermission and…guess what? His daughter has just settled in none other than Salt Lake City. There may be something with which to work there!

Tonight was really fun. I’ve long believed that all opera lovers enjoy a good young artist competition. What’s not too love? You start with great operatic music and then add young singers who are passionate about the art form and are giving it their all to break into the business and become a star. What better recipe could one ask for? What makes this particular competition special is the fact that it combines these factors with the magnificence of the music of Richard Wagner. (Note: I think I’ve shared this but I am a devotee of the music of Wagner.)

It’s worth sharing that Seattle Opera has a penchant for Wagner operas. The former general director began a tradition that the current one has transformed into something quite special. Seattle Opera presents the Ring Cycle every four years and other Wagner works in between and has established a world wide reputation for the quality of these presentations.   Their current General Director is also recognized as one of the leading figures in Wagnerian opera.  Basically, next to Bayreuth and the Met you might as well go to Seattle to see Wagner done well.  So…that’s why coming here for a Wagner singers competition is a worthwhile thing.

Here’s the other reason: the purpose of this competition is not to decide who is the best current singer of this particularly demanding repertoire.  What this competition is about is finding the next generation of Wagner artists.  Fun, yes?  In fact, by rules of the competition, no applicant may have sung a significant major role in a Wagner opera.  So what we heard tonight were young-ish artist who may have a significant career in this repertoire but quite honestly aren’t ready to take on such demands immediately.  Trust me, singing an aria and singing a role are two entirely different things.

 So we heard arias from Parsifal, Meistersinger, Tannhaüser and most of The Ring; all with orchestra and on the stage of the McCaw Opera House.  What a wonderful night.

 Tonights competitors were again an international lot representing Australia, Great Britain, Germany, South Africa, Sweden, Canada and the United States.  As mentioned before, Speight and Maestro Asher Fisch heard semi finalists in Munich, London and New York before choosing eight finalists to come to Seattle.

 I’m going to begin offering the opportunity to join me on such trips and I couldn’t think of a better one than this competition which should happen again in two years.  I think you might really enjoy it.

 When I hear who the winners were, I’ll be sure to post again…

Back on the road – Seattle

Well folks, I never quite wrapped up the Santa Fe trip.  I guess I suffer some from…look at that…Michael Phelps just won another gold medal…attention deficit disorder.

Quickly…Santa Fe was another magical experience.  The last night we were there included a dinner hosted by the outgoing General Director, Richard Gaddes (he’s retiring) at “the ranch” and a wonderful performance of Handel’s Radamisto.  I must admit, while baroque opera plots tend to be somewhat convoluted by nature, Radamisto may take the prize.  I won’t go into the story as…really…in baroque opera it doesn’t matter anyway.

What DOES matter is orchestra and singers; the rest is details.  Yes, cool staging is great and this was a typical David Alden production which means someone is cross-dressing and the major set element is going to be a big, dominating wall.  We were not disappointed (note: while typical elements, David Alden does do some incredibly imaginative stuff in his productions).  David Daniels was the star vehicle for this production…he was great in the slow numbers and almost great in the faster pieces.  The big news is Heidi Stober once again stole the show.  Some of you will remember Heidi Stober from Utah Opera’s Ensemble Program, the young artist training program.  She was also First Lady in our Magic Flute a few years ago.  Heidi has gone on to become a real phenom in the world of opera.  This coming season she has a lovely multi-production contract with the Berlin State Opera.  We’re so PROUD of her!  She even managed to steal the show while dressed in a male, fat-suit with a fez atop a comb-over wig.  No mistaking the voice, however.

So…with a great Handel opera under our belts, we proceeded home…well…almost…we had a little mechanical issue with our vehicle…but…it only delayed us a day and what a place to have to spend it.  For those of you truly interested, ask me THAT story when you see me.  It’s kind of interesting.

Now, here I sit in my hotel in Seattle.  I must admit, I’m a huge fan of this city and this time of year it is even more amazing.  I refer to July and August in the Emerald City as the great lie: no rain, warm and lots of sun.  Not exactly what Seattle is known for.

So…why Seattle in August?  Principally, I’m here to see the second installment of Seattle Opera’s International Wagner Competition (IWC).  The first one was two years ago and it was a wonderful event.  The General Director here, Speight Jenkins, says this year’s talent is even better.   If you are unaware, Seattle is known for its commitment to the works of Richard Wagner which makes it a perfect place to hold the competition.  Speight hears singers in Munich, London and New York and brings the finalists to Seattle.  I can’t wait.  (I’ll write later about Seattle Opera’s dedication to the Ring Cycle, scheduled to happen again next summer.)

In the mean time, I took in Seattle Opera’s production of Aida this evening.  Now, Seattle Opera usually has two casts, especially for the popular operas.  I chose the “Silver Cast” as I know the artists in the “Gold Cast.”  Usually the Silver Cast members are a bit younger and from other countries.  This was the case tonight.  The title role and the Radames especially were interesting.  Watching people new to their role and still developing their talents is always a fun experience; you know the talent is there and to be part of seeing them grow is a whole different type of excitement.  Notable was  Margaret Jane Wray as Amneris and the conductor, Riccardo Frizza who delivered a lovely orchestral experience.  The sets and costumes were simple but evocative of ancient Egypt.  No major statement here, just good old fashioned grand opera.

More tomorrow…

Musician’s Note: Mormon Tabernacle Choir with the Utah Symphony

Julianne JohnsonA fantastic opportunity awaits you this Friday, August 15th: The chance to hear your world-renowned Utah Symphony along with its equally famed guests, Mack Wilberg and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We’ll be performing in our own heavenly backyard, the breathtakingly beautiful and refreshingly cool hillside venue at Deer Valley!

What could be better for the grand finale week of the Deer Valley® Music Festival?

I feel very fortunate to have had firsthand experience with both of these groups. Soon after returning to Salt Lake City from graduate school, I accepted an invitation to join the Tabernacle Choir. What a thrilling experience it was to be a part of this unique organization – essentially all amateurs, but in fact, as we know, one of the greatest and most beloved choirs in all the world. Its sheer numbers generate the kind of excitement and fervor you’ll feel listening to its stirring signature piece, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, but it can move you equally deep in your heart with tender renderings from Brahms Requiem to the lovely songs Shenandoah, and Waters Ripple and Flow.

As a singing member, in additional to performing weekly “from the crossroads of the West,” I traveled with the choir on tours to Nashville, Louisville, Washington D.C., Mexico City, Munich, Paris, and London. After relinquishing my spot in the choir (having in the meantime joined the Utah Symphony), I nevertheless have very fond additional memories of traveling with the choir on its tour to Eastern Europe in 1991, when in such cultural capitals as Budapest, Warsaw, and Moscow I can attest to the joy that the choir’s singing brought to those listeners who found themselves lucky enough to get tickets.

Of course, the Utah Symphony has taken marvelous tours as well, bringing our music to many areas of the United States over the years, as well as to South America (summer of ’71), England (’75), and the European Continent in ’66, ’77, ’81, ’86, and ’05. I have had the privilege of participating in all of these tours except the earliest two, as I joined the orchestra in the fall of 1971.

In Utah we are indeed blessed to have two such preeminent musical organizations which are so outstanding and revered throughout the world. To experience them together in the same concert just does not happen every day, so please do not miss this concert! I believe it will remain happily in your memory for a long time to come.


Julianne Johnson
Violin, Utah Symphony

Mormon Tabernacle Choir with the Utah Symphony
Friday, August 15, 2008 at 7:30 PM
Deer Valley Snow Park Amphitheater