Madame Butterfly

No other opera in history is as beloved as the Puccini jewel.  Is it because of passion between the tenor and soprano?  Or is it the heart-wrenching tragedy of ultimate sacrifice made by a mother?  Perhaps it is the soaring melodies and colorful use of Japanese folk melodies that intertwine to create one of the most special musical moments in the history of the art form.

Whatever it is, no one can deny the powerful effect this exotic work has on our ears, hearts, and collective soul.  If you haven’t seen Madame Butterfly, now is your chance to understand why so many people love opera and, particularly, this cornerstone masterpiece.  If you have experienced the power of Madame Butterfly, let yourself fall into Puccini’s world all over again.  Better yet, bring someone with you so he or she can “Embrace the Romance” of opera.

Utah Opera presents
Madame Butterfly
October 18, 20, 22, and 24 at 7:30 PM
October 26 at 2 PM
Capitol Theatre

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Light in the Darkness

The extreme northern region of Europe, otherwise known as Scandinavia, is known for its peculiar Sun cycles. Being so far to the North at times the sun will only just barely dip below the horizon thus it is called the Land of the Midnight Sun. The unusual weather in Finland as well as the exceptional beauty of the landscape has influenced many artists over the years. This has produced a distinctly Finnish styling to their works. Jean Sibelius is no exception.

Sibelius reflected the influences of his time in many ways but there are two that are particularly evident in his music. The first was the political mood and kindled nationalism and the second was the haunting beauty of his native Finland.

The time in which Jean Sibelius wrote his only violin concerto was a period of great change. This late romantic period is also known for the rise of Finnish nationalism. The people were trying to identify what uniquely belongs to them. Sibelius became a dominant character in the development of the Finnish culture through his music. In fact it could be said that Sibelius epitomized the Finnish character in his music. He allowed the music to grow organically stripping away the unnecessary elements. Many of his works were also based on Finnish poetry and national sentiment. One particularly patriotic example is his work titled Finlandia.

The other influence that so colored Sibelius’ work was his overwhelming connection to nature and in particular his native landscape. Erik Tawaststjerna a biographer of the composer wrote of him:

“Even by Nordic standards, Sibelius responded with exceptional intensity to the moods of nature and the changes in the seasons: he scanned the skies with his binoculars for the geese flying over the lake ice, listened to the screech of the cranes, and heard the cries of the curlew echo over the marshy grounds just below Ainola. He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colours.” (Tawaststjerna, Erik; Robert Layton (Translator) (1976–1986). Sibelius)

Both of these influences can be seen, or rather heard, in the Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47 (1903/1905). But there is one final element that is perhaps more telling than the rest. Sibelius loved the violin. He studied long hours to become a violin soloist only to discover that he had embarked on this journey too late. The violin concerto with its virtuosic passion allowed Sibelius to live his dream vicariously.

Perhaps it is fitting that this concert that features a Finnish composer and a Finnish conductor be entitled Land of the Midnight Music.

Utah Symphony presents
Land of the Midnight Music
October 10 & 11, 2008 @ 8 PM
Abravanel Hall

Hannu Lintu, conductor
Henning Kraggerud, violin

Strauss ~ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
Sibelius ~ Concerto for Violin in D minor
Schumann ~ Symphony No. 2 in C major

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Pagliacci Designs for the Costume Showcase

My fellow designer, Melonie Mortenson, recently posted some designs for two characters in Madama Butterfly. These designs have been specifically created for a Costume Showcase which will be presented after the opening performance of Madama Butterfly for Utah Opera’s 2008-2009 season.  I chose to design two characters from the opera Pagliacci.

A one act opera, Pagliacci is a tragic story of two actors, husband and wife, who perform onstage together. Afterward, the wife is murdered by her husband.  I was intrigued by the story of the characters, but also by the fact that their performing art was Commedia del Arte.  These performers traveled presenting comic performances to wide audiences in Italy, France and Spain.  As a matter of fact opera finds it’s roots in the Commedia art form.

But back to the designs, I thought of a design concept which would illustrate both the farcical nature of the performance that the actors give, and the tragedy that closes the performance. In order to show both I chose to create vinyl outer costumes, through which undergarments could be seen which give a

view into the hearts of each character. I also love to incorporate modern sculptural elements into my designs. I feel that costumes can heighten the emotions expressed by the character and underscore their performance.

Here are my designs for the upcoming Costume Showcase. I hope you will check back with us for upcoming blogs on our process from designs to 3-D interpretation!

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!