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

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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

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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.

Musician’s Note: Fans of Beethoven’s Ninth Unite!

Llew HumphriesIf you’re a fan of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, then you’ll want to be sure to reserve your seats for this weekend’s performance of Anton Bruckner’s 4th Symphony. Bruckner was so heavily influenced by the genius of Beethoven’s 9th that he modeled his own symphonies on the same basic scale and shape.

The 4th “Romantic” Symphony starts quietly and transforms into a most glorious cathedral of sound. Granted, as a brass player I am biased and some might argue that I live for just this kind of music.  Not true!  This is, however, a great opportunity to hear what is arguably one of the finest brass sections in the nation.

The evening begins with Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. Britten was invited to compose the work as a commission for the 2,600th anniversary of the ruling dynasty of Japan. As a dedicated pacifist, Britten used the opportunity to register his feelings about war – the result being that his work was never performed in Japan. Composed in 1940, the Requiem is a masterful work that takes you on a journey from the brutal inevitability of death to the hope of eternal rest.

The middle work of the evening is the beautiful and contemplative Adagietto movement from Mahler’s 5th Symphony. This has to be one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed – and it doesn’t have any horns!

Please join my colleagues and me on this journey from music for the cathedral to a glorious cathedral of music.

Bruckners 4th – A Big Brass Show
October 31 & November 1 at 8 PM
Abravanel Hall
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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!