Online Course for The Marriage of Figaro

I have signed up for several online opera courses from OPERA America over the past few years, and am amazed and glad that OPERA America offers them to Utah Opera free of charge whenever one of our productions matches up with one of their course offerings. Many of our patrons took a 4-week e-mail course on Rossini’s Cinderella last season, and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly this past October. And now OPERA America, the umbrella organization for all American opera companies, is offering us all another FREE 4-week course, this time about Mozart’s classic The Marriage of Figaro.

The course consists of an email message once a week for four weeks running that links you to the opera course website. There’s a button on the screen for each week’s lesson as it becomes available. You can always go back and check a previous week’s lesson. The lessons consist of short articles about the opera: the time period in which it was produced, the biographies of the librettist and composer—especially while writing the opera, the public and critical response to the opera, the musical style of the opera, the ‘big hits’ to listen for….There are musical clips you can listen to, as well as interviews with current artists involved in productions of the piece. Utah Opera’s Figaro for this production, Ryan McKinny, and our conductor, Christopher Larkin, are both interviewed as part of the course. Pictures of past productions are featured, and the teacher for the course can be emailed with comments and questions.

It’s the kind of thing you can just skim through to glean details you might not already have known, or that other kind of thing, when you have time to take an hour to read the text for each lesson thoroughly and listen to all the musical clips and interviews. I’ve used the courses both ways, and have found any effort well-rewarded when I go to the theatre with informed expectation and anticipation to experience the opera production my company is offering.

Patrons who signed up for Madame Butterfly earlier this season are already signed up for the course on The Marriage of Figaro. If you would like to join the course, simply comment on this blog post (make sure to include your email address in the ’email’ field), and I’ll get you on the list—your name and preferred e-mail address is all I need.  This course begins on Feb 17. Sign up by Friday, February 13th, to receive the first mailing on time.

While I’m blogging on this topic, I might as well mention that you can extend your learning even further by taking advantage of our “Toast to Vienna” Festival—a month-long outpouring of events (opera and symphony performances, Vienna Boys’ Choir concert, films, dance and cuisine lessons, lectures) all about the city of Vienna.  Our opera production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is at the center of this festival.

Musician's Note: Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4

Erich GrafTchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony is a member of one of the “basic food groups” for classical concert audiences. I have been asked on many occasions how I deal with the “endless” repetition of popular orchestral works. My mentor, Julius Baker, told me that if I “did things right” that I would always continue to improve. Every time the Utah Symphony repeats a popular work like Tchaikovsky’s 4th, I revert back to that statement. Over the years, I have been able to keep popular works fresh by comparing my current performance with my previous one.

Erich Graf

Principal Flutist

Musician's Note: Carnival of the Animals at DVMF

Erich GrafIt’s a smorgasbord this week at USUO’s Deer Valley® Music Festival!

Utah Opera highlights soloists in a concert conducted by the inimitable and popular Gerald Steichen–NEWS FLASH! The orchestra really likes him, too!! Enjoy a return engagement by the Georgia Guitar Quartet, this time performing a cappella at the Deer Valley® Music Festival.

Additionally, this week includes one of my all time favorites—Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. This cleverly-conceived masterpiece is truly a multi-purpose work—equally appropriate to the formal concert stage or to the intimacy of a concert for children. The instruments and sections of the orchestra assume the roles of zoo animals and “speak” music that uncannily resembles the voices of the animals they portray. The work is accompanied by scrumptious poetry written by Ogden Nash. This presentation is enhanced by an off-stage instrument petting zoo. Bring your kids and get your “zoo-ducation!”

I hope to see you this week in Park City!


Erich Graf
Principal Flute, Utah Symphony

Some words before the weekend…

With the rare convergence of the presentation of a major work for solo instrument by one of the 20th Century’s most remarkable composers, with my almost complete lack of familiarity with this piece, it is my conceit for this weekend’s concerts that we are hearing a “Utah Symphony premier,” of a work by Benjamin Britten, no less.

Britten’s Violin Concerto is a spectacle of lyricism and color. In the three movements, listen  for:

I. Vocal lyricism, sparkling orchestration
II. A diabolic scherzo; think Shostakovich
III. Variations on a repeated bass line; processional tranfiguring

Enjoy the performance!

Learn more about this weekend’s concert >>

The audition road…continued…

I know you’ve been waiting with expectancy for the wrap up of my latest fall tour.  Well…here it goes.

It was an interesting end.  Last Wednesday, was the opening night of Trilogy at Juilliard.  It was a short evening of rarely performed one-act operas by Modest Mussorgsky, Ernst Krenek, and Benjamin Fleischmann.  Honestly, I had never seen anything composed by the latter two composers.  In his notes, James Conlon (this project was his brainchild), who conducted the evenining wrote about the importance of re-investigating short works that had either short or no history performance.  All in all, the three one-act operas performed back to back without intermission lasted a little over ninety minutes.  I don’t think any of these works (the Krenek piece was literally a little over twenty minutes in length) could stand on its own but combined created a lovely evening.  Beyond this, it gave the Juilliard orchestra an opportunity to shine under one of current day’s finest conductors, James Conlon, and a most interesting experience to the school’s singers.  The standout being a Chinese bass-baritone named Sheng Yang.  I happened to be there on opening night and it was a veritable “who’s who” evening within the industry.  I have a hunch this production will be seen elesewhere.

The next morning, I took the subway to Penn Station and boarded a train to Philadelphia.  I arrived a full 25 minutes before my first appointment due to delays.  Here’s the neat thing.  Philadelphia is one of those cities where it’s possible to get just about anywhere downtown within minutes.  The train station (unlike the airport) is adjacent to downtown so I hopped a cab to my hotel, threw my bags in the room and traveled to my appointment a pied and arrived just in time.  My appointment, was to hear three hours of auditions at the Academy of Vocal Arts (see last post).  What an interesting place.  I hadn’t been before so was surprised that one this country’s most honored opera training programs takes place in an old brownstone house in the middle of the city.  No high tech, modern University structure, but a remodeled house(!).  It’s even complete with one the world’s smallest theater stages.  The whole space for the theater (including stage, orchestra area and seating) is smaller than a high school gym.  Fantastic!  Here young artists are carefully handled over three to four years and allowed to have wonderful operatic performance experiences without feeling the need to make themselves heard in a large hall.  Very healthy.  The result was that all of the singers had healthy techniques, above average language skills and were — on the whole — good communicators of text and drama.  We actually have one of them coming to perform in March.  Her name is Nina Yoshida Nelsen and she’ll be performing the role of Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro.

That evening, I saw Italian Girl in Algiers and there is a high likelihood that you will see that same production here in Salt Lake City soon!  One of the stars was Daniel Belcher as Taddeo whom you have seen recently as Dandini in Cinderella and in the title role of The Barber of Seville.  Yes…he’s already contracted for this as well!

The next day I moved on to Pittsburgh…more on that later…


“Music makes better people.”  Plato

A break from tradition

Benjamin Britten was a war-time composer from England. One of the major differences between him and his contemporaries from other countries is that he was free from oppressive dictates from the government. While music like other art forms is often a reflection of one’s surroundings, Britten was also free to express those influences in whatever way he chose. Many times his expression broke with what his contemporaries were doing. Elgar and Vaughn Williams personified what embodied a great English composer. Britten made a conscious effort to break from what he considered the complacent, narrow-minded, and amateurish mainstream of English music. This resulted in several outcomes. Britten’s music was harder for the general public to relate to at first, which in turn made his music more obscure. It was a little too new for people. Given these set backs there are some redeeming qualities that helped to propel Britten’s music forward. Eventually Britten would be recognized as one of the greatest English composers.

Britten was a prolific composer. From his childhood onward he could sit down and produce pages of score. He could meet deadlines. While he may not have found great acclaim in the musical realm of his time, his ability to produce works with efficiency befriended him with producers. This ability also lent itself well to the developing technology of the time. It was not long after each of his works premiered that they were recorded. This made his music readily available to the younger generation. Another saving grace was his break from traditional music. From many different influences he was able to create a distinct sound in his music. While this sound did not produce an immediate resonance with audiences it would come to be known at the “Britten sound.”

One aspect that should not be overlooked it that Britten was the foremost composer of English opera. He brought recognition and respect to that musical genre that had not been approached for years. While his operas made him famous his orchestral works also carried the mark of genius.

But it was in the context of war that Britten wrote his violin concerto. Britten started the concerto just before he left England for America as a conscientious objector. The violin concerto is one of only a few concertos Britten wrote. He also wrote it in a time when violin concertos were very popular. What sets this concerto apart is again that distinctive Britten sound. Britten was able to fuse his influences into seamless and unique masterpieces. At times it seems you are listening to a Spanish march. Other times Stravinskyesque phrases can be heard. The violin concerto combines virtuosic brilliance with nostalgic lyricism. Indeed the contrast is somewhat unexpected but not wholly out of place. Like so many other composers who produced in times of conflict this concerto reflects turbulent times in a way uniquely Britten.

Britten’s violin concerto will be performed by concertmaster Ralph Matson at Utah Symphony’s November 21 and 22 performance entitled Shostakovich’s Response.

Shostakovich’s Response
November 21 & 22, 2008 @ 8 PM
Abravanel Hall
Keith Lockhart, conductor
Ralph Matson, violin

Learn more and buy tickets online at >>

He answered and he answered well

One of the most interesting phenomenons in music is it lives in any circumstance. From the slave ships to the royal courts, music rallies our spirits or expresses the anguish of the soul, it rejoices or cries. The production of such pieces is evidence that the human spirit longs to be expressed and fortunately music is one of those unique outlets that can express what words cannot. Shostakovitch was not the first to use music to escape oppression or explain his environment but how he did it is a story worth recounting.

It was 1937, the height of Stalin’s Great Terror. Dmitri Shostakovitch at 31 had already found  some success as a composer and concert pianist. His musical association with politics started at the very beginning of his career. At age 12 he had written a requiem for two leaders of the Kadet party. At age 20 he had written his first symphony. The trouble started with his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Stalin didn’t like it. It was denounced for formalism which is more or less not conforming to what the Soviet government deemed uplifting music, in theory, because it was too concerned with features of structure. In reality Stalin just didn’t like it. Shostakovich’s dilemma was that if he wrote the music that reflected his feelings he would be condemned by the government but if he wrote “safe” music he was denounced for formalism.

The solution? Shostakovitch wrote his Fifth symphony and subtitled it “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.” With his brilliant intellect he found an answer in his creation of musical double talk. He wrote a symphony that impassioned the people while at the same time appearing to sing the praise of the government. Perhaps the government officials had caught on, but how could they publicly punish something that so blatantly went against what they were proclaiming to practice especially when the people so connected with the piece? The result was (ironically) rehabilitation, which basically meant that the charges against him were cleared because there was no evidence found against him.

The sentiment that sings through the music and so enraptured the audience is a depiction of what life was really like under a communist regime. It didn’t paint any pretty pictures but clearly stated things how they were. Somewhere in the midst of the piece is the triumph of the human spirit, a spirit that has been blown and bent but not broken, in the end stronger if it does not succumb to the oppressive gloom that surrounds it. Shostakovitch said of this symphony. “The idea behind my symphony is the making of a man. I saw him, with all his experience, at the centre of the work”

It was a heroic feat. Once again music had triumphed and persevered over circumstance.

Israel Nestyev a critic from Moscow and contemporary of Shostakovitch said of him. “Not a single other artist – no painter, dramatist, or film-maker – could think of using their art as a means of expressing protest against Stalin’s Terror. Only instrumental music was able to express the terrible truth of that time.”

So in the midst of this great terror came one of the 20th century’s greatest composers. In the end the Fifth symphony was a great response, a response to the people and a response to the government. It was a message that music lives. The Russian musicologist Inna Barsova quotes from Liubov’ Vasilievna Shaporiny’s diary for 21st November 1937 concerning the premiere of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony: “The audience was beside itself and gave a frenzied ovation – a deliberate protest against the persecution to which poor Mitya has been subjected. Everyone repeated one and the same phrase: ‘He answered and he answered well.'”

Shostakovich’s Response
November 21 & 22, 2008 at 8 PM
Abravanel Hall
Keith Lockhart, conductor

Learn more or buy tickets on >>

Thinking on friends.

It’s been a tough couple of weeks in the world of opera.   In my last post I referenced the challenges of New York City Opera and this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Early in the week, we heard that our friends in Orange County, California, at Opera Pacific had decided they had no choice but to close down shop.  Basta finita.  Done.  A company folded.

A little later we heard that Baltimore Opera has decided it doesn’t have the financial resources to finish the current season.  Two weeks ago Michigan Opera Theatre decided not to go through with one of this season’s productions.  Both Los Angeles and Washington are looking at not presenting Wagner’s Ring Cycle as planned.

I’ve heard from several singers and agents about companies around the world shortening their seasons, canceling productions, canceling contracts, etc.  Almost to a one, the endowments of performing arts companies have lost –like your and my retirement accounts — anywhere from 25 to 40% of their endowments.

Times are tough and, more importantly, lives are being changed as artists with families are learning that a significant portion of their income for the year is gone despite signed contracts.  In my discussions with colleagues around the country, it is clear that the situation is going to get worse before it begins to get better.

Ironically, the attendance of Madame Butterfly was the highest in recent memory.  To me this suggests two things: that the Utah economy is not quite as volatile as the rest of the country and; that in difficult times, the arts are needed more than ever.  To the former, the talking heads we watch on the television tell us that while our local economy is not as mercurial that we haven’t seen the worst yet.  It’s quite possible that the current economic challenges will require some sort of change to our company and what we can offer you.  To the latter, we must all take advantage of the trove of artistic experiences we have in Utah.  We are positively rich in artistic opportunities and, as the challenge before us grows, we can and must connect with the people around us through experiences that allow us to collectively rise above the mundane realities that affect us making us all stronger to deal with the challenges we face together.  In doing this, we add richness and power to our own lives while ensuring that such experiences will continue to be available to us and the children of the future.


“Music makes better people.”  Plato

On the audition road again…

In the Menotti opera, The Old Maid and the Thief, the character of Bob has a wonderful aria that begins, “When the air sings of summer, I must wander again.”  For me, it’s autumn.  Every year immediately following the close of our fall opera it’s time to hit the “audition road.” This is the time where we hold auditions for the artists that you will eventually see and hear in the Capitol Theatre and also for the young up and coming artists that we will invite to be a part of our Ensemble Program for Singers and Pianists.  Despite the amount of time required on planes and in hotel rooms away from beautiful Salt Lake City, it is an exciting one; a point of departure for future opera seasons and beginning new relationships between Utah Opera and unknown artists.

Currently, Dr. Susanne Sheston and I are in New York holding auditions specifically for main stage productions (e.g. the operas that occur in October, January, March and May in the Capitol Theatre).  We’re using a new venue call the Liederkranz Club on the Upper East Side (just off 5th Avenue, equidistant between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim) which is a strange, yet surprisingly productive location for the auditions.  We had a long history of auditioning (as did many other companies) at Riverside Church near Columbia University but they made a policy change which resulted in the quadrupling of their rental rates.  From what I can tell, few — if any — companies now hold auditions there.  It’s turned out well and we’ve had some weather that allows a lovely walk through Central Park each morning.

So…one of the questions that comes up often at the post-performance Q&A sessions is, “how do you find such great singers?”  The answer is fairly easy, five hours a day for four days of hearing one singer every seven minutes.  We used to do to six and seven hour sessions (not including a 45-minute lunch) but found we can be more selective in our initial screening process and save rental costs and still be as effective.  Still…this is a lot of time in a basement or ballroom sitting in an uncomfortable chair.  However, when a truly impressive singer comes in and begins singing it is amazing how soon one forgets about the numbness of one’s posterior!  To her credit, I gave over the management of the scheduling singers to Susanne a few years ago and she has done a marvelous job.  It seems like every year we hear a more consistently high level of artists in our auditions.

I can’t tell here which operas we’re auditioning for (our Marketing Department doesn’t like to be scooped), but can share that we’ve heard a good number of wonderful young tenors as well as some singers particularly suited to Verdi/Wagner/Strauss that have been very exciting.

When we’re not chained to our chairs for these hours, we schedule meetings with stage directors that will be coming to Salt Lake City to discuss direction of the operas and also meet stage directors that I am considering introducing to you.  If there are performances where we can see artists we are considering (difficult to find now with the demise of New York City Opera), that is where we spend our evenings.  To that end, I’ll be attending a performance at Juilliard on Wednesday where I will see a director’s work and, of course, some of the best young singers who are about to leave the safety of the conservatory and see if they can make it in a very challenging career.

On Friday, I leave for Philadelphia to hear the artists in the Academy of Vocal Arts (another high-level conservatory), see Opera Company of Philadelphia‘s Italian Girl of Algiers (am considering bringing their physical production for our future) and then on to Pittsburgh Opera Saturday to hear their young artists before seeing the next installment of The Grapes of Wrath.  I’ll finally come home, ten days after leaving, on Sunday the 17th and will look forward to my own bed.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


I interrupted Governor Hunstman at lunch…

Making a run to the local soup kitchen for lunch today netted my co-workers and I more than we expected. While in line, Carmen, our milliner, noticed Governor Huntsman at a table. We continued through the lunch line thinking that it was kinda’ cool to see an elected official out and about in one of our local haunts. I had brought in a stack of postcard advertisements for this weekend’s Vivace event, to leave on the counter. As it was directly behind the Governor, I couldn’t help but give in to the impulse.

“Governor Hunstman?  My name is Jen Jenkins.  I work for Utah Symphony and Opera…have you heard of Vivace?”

Turns out Governor Huntsman is on the board, knows our previous CEO Anne Ewers (she is in Philidelphia now, he saw her a few weeks ago), and actually opened our costume shop after it was newly remodeled a few years ago. Talk about cool! He let me ramble on for a few minutes about our group of 20s, 30s, 40s, single/married/partnered peeps who love to discuss classic music and opera events at after parties. I couldn’t help but invite him to an event, as I think Vivace is as classy as it gets.

If you are interested in participating in a group that gets their funk on to the classics, and keeps it real, come hang with us. You never know where the ride might take you. And thanks for your sponsorship, Governor. It warms the heart to know that art invested in and championed by locals is a statewide affair.