Opera in the Heights begins its 20th anniversary season with a new conductor. Read my conversation with Eiki Isomura at Houstonia Magazine.
Status Report on Opera in the Heights
A year in review: Read my report on the (soap) Opera in the Heights at Houstonia Magazine.
Relish the Clemency in OH’s La Clemenza
“I must win the loyalty of my people through love,” sings the beneficent Tito in Act Two of Mozart’s rarely performed opera La Clemenza di Tito. Opera in the Heights bravely took on this neglected late opera and performed it with heart, reminding me that it had been one of Mozart’s most popular operas until about 1830, and perhaps it should be again.
It is another rarity when a sovereign rewards honesty with amnesty, even when a subject confesses to plotting his assassination. And as such, La Clemenza is a plot that relies on the ensemble numbers that are so celebrated in Mozart’s other operas. Watching the Emerald cast—a passionate collection of talented young singers—it was clear they had taken great care of the trios, the quartets, and the chorus numbers.
The early chorus march “Serbate, o dei custodi” led by tenor Zach Averyt in the role of Tito, was full and lively. The fiery trio “Vengo! Aspettate!” between Justin Hopkins, Jennifer Crippen, and Celeste Fraser (which comes when Publio and Annio tell a shocked Vitellia that Tito wants her as a consort) rang together with attention to the harmonic subtleties while also communicating Vitellia’s veiled despair.
Hopkins, a bass-baritone whose full, light timbre as Leporello stole the show in OH’s production of Don Giovanni last season, was a stand out again. Making her OH debut as Sesto, mezzo soprano Vera Savage left an impression vocally and otherwise. The victim of Vittellia’s seduction, Sesto is a desperate man. Sure, we’ve seen trouser roles before—when a female singer dons the character of a man—but have we seen a woman in a trouser role slowly strip off her suit and tie in an act of frustrated passion to stand confidently in only underwear? Savage pulled it off with panache.
Stage director Keturah Stickann has done exceptional work with the Lambert Hall stage. The blocking was smart, never feeling overcrowded, and the window cut-out at center stage proved a visual treat. The stage, papered from floor to ceiling with newspapers and charcoal pitchforks, bespoke a timely present-day obsession with gossip and misconceptions. The costumes designed by Dena Scheh—sharp suits set against decadent gowns—were tasteful and divinely popped against the newspaper background.
The orchestra, under the new direction of interim conductor Eiki Isomura, was reliably solid. Even so, there were a handful of unfortunate moments when the singers lagged behind the orchestra. Isomura notes in the program that initially he felt intimidated by La Clemenza. While he seems in many ways to have conquered this (a triumphant downbeat to the overture surely testified as such), overall he directed with a slight awkwardness, as though he were still getting to know the score and his musicians.
It’s not often that opera celebrates the deep virtues of forgiveness, generosity, and love, where the opera ends with a chorus of loyal subjects asking the gods to grant their sovereign a long life. More regularly, audiences are confronted with prolonged death, lingering deceptions, and questionable moral codes that no doubt delight us (Don Giovanni, for example), but are nevertheless commonplace in the genre. Here, we are left with a uniquely comforitng blanket absolution thanks to the zeal of OH’s cast and the warm familiarity of Lambert Hall.
In a press release yesterday Opera in the Heights announced Eiki Isomura would be taking over as interim conductor effective immediately, replacing Enrique Carreón-Robledo.
It’s surprising news, to say the least, given the accolades that Carreón-Robledo has received as OH’s artistic director. At least from an outsider’s perspective, Carreón-Robledo was the strongest part of OH, as his most recent, stunning production of Hänsel and Gretel attests. Of course, appearances aren’t always what they seem, I suppose. But in this case it seems unlikely. Carreón-Robledo is the most enthusiastic, passionate conductor I’ve seen, and I will miss him.
Let’s hope this “new artistic direction” actually has some substance. It’s hard to imagine the company without their intrepid leader.
OH’s Hänsel and Gretel will Knock Your Socks Off
Just because a story is about children doesn’t mean it’s only for kids. Opera in the Heights’ production of the Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 Hänsel and Gretel (with libretto aptly written by his sister, Adelheid Wette) is a marvel. With singing this good, Hänsel and Gretel is no trifle.
No doubt this opera was a success because of many talented people, but Artistic Director and conductor Enrique Carreón-Robledo has truly outdone himself here, particularly with the score. It’s supposed to be for a much larger orchestra, and the parts are difficult. But the sound was full and vibrant. More than once I watched the violinists’ fingers scatter across the fingerboard to pull off Engelbert’s perilous arpeggios with total adeptness. And my hat goes off to cellist H. P. Scott Card who played some astoundingly graceful solos with genuine poise.
And where to begin with the Emerald Cast’s singers—all of whom were excellent? Singing the plucky part of Hänsel, Hilary Ginther proved a gifted mezzo-soprano with a knack for comedy. Her voice, even in the cross-gender role of a young boy, has an impressively pure timbre—accurate and daring and exciting to listen to. Soprano Katie Dixon as Gretel complemented Ginther with a certain sweetness that I expect blossoms into something quite rich and golden when in a more serious, adult role. As the parents Gertrud and Peter, soprano Cassandra Black and baritone Brian Schircliffe exemplified an ideal combination of light humor and profound talent. As the only male voice against a cast of women, Schircliffe’s hearty baritone particularly soared over the stage.
Perhaps most memorable was Jenni Bank, the hunch-backed villain Knusperhexe who flew in on a broom in the third act and made this opera her own. She might have been baked into gingerbread cookies, but her voice is what I’m still marveling over. With a complex mezzo-soprano timbre, flush with color but technically exact, it was a surprise that Bank could also cackle and crackle her evil spells “Hocus pocus!”
Stage Director Mary Birnbaum, finally, was a real catch for this production. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen from OH before. The set, by Robert Roldan and Joshua Slisz, was bare but tasteful. Wispy pines, accompanied by an ethereal mist, set the magical mood of the fairytale. Walls rolled around cleverly to turn the forest into a charming gingerbread house. And the period-piece lederhosen costumes, by Dena Scheh, were right on the mark.
Introducing the opera, Executive Director Allison Hartzell said, “This children’s chorus will knock your socks off!” and she wasn’t kidding. The seventeen-strong choir from HITS Theatre strolled out and delivered beautiful singing. And they were visually delightful to boot, not only because of their gingerbread outfits, but also because of some smart blocking.
I admit that I was surprised by this performance. It’s utterly fantastic. There are only two more shows—one tonight and one Sunday afternoon. Go see it.
For tickets and other info, visit Opera in the Heights’ website.
Rigoletto at Opera in the Heights
Opera in the Heights opens its 2014-2015 season with a popular classic that Houston Grand Opera did just last year. Read my review at Houstonia.
OH Preview: A New Executive Director and Lucia di Lammermoor
Some might say that opera is a dying art, but when Stephanie Helms thinks of Opera in the Heights, she sees a young, uncommon life form. As OH’s new executive director, Helms intends to engage the community more than ever and build the company while maintaining its distinct identity: “We are not HGO. We are not the Met. We are Opera in the Heights,” Helms said this afternoon in her new office on Heights Boulevard.
Helms is in the unique position of fostering the small-town atmosphere that sets OH apart while also focusing on development. From 2006 to 2011, Helms worked for Houston Grand Opera. She returns to Houston from OPERA America in New York City where she oversaw the design and construction of the National Opera Center. “I loved my time at HGO, but I like being a part of this smaller organization,” Helms said. “Singers have this language when they’re on stage with each other…if you’re in a big house, in the audience, you don’t see that, but in a small house you get to see…that chemistry that happens between singers on stage then extends into the audience and everyone is having this experience together.” Although much of what she has planned will take time to implement—music classes and choirs for children and adults—Helms is enthusiastic: “I get so excited about it I can hardly speak coherently about it.”
As Helms begins her tenure at OH, her cohort is preparing for the final show of the season: Gaetano Donizetti’s tragic Lucia di Lammermoor opens this Friday, March 28. You may know the murderous tale from Walter Scott’s 1819 novel The Bride of Lammermoor, from which it was originally adapted. But the opera’s literary influence has lingered—it is also the opera that overcomes Flaubert’s fated Emma Bovary and acts as a turning point in E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread when uptight Philip dives from his box seats in ecstasy while the biddy Harriet exclaims “Call this classical! It’s not even respectable!”
Although she describes herself as a theatre nerd with a soft spot for Puccini’s La Boheme, Helms uses what she called “normal people language” to discuss Lucia. Even though Lucia boasts perhaps the most famous mad scene in all of opera, Helms said she is enchanted by the music: “I think people will say, well, this is Lucia—isn’t that the one where she kills people or she’s bloody? And you think, oh, dark, depressing….Yes, she has a fantastic mad scene at the end. But it’s not terribly hard to digest. It’s nice, it’s light, it’s beautiful.”
Lucia also has a reputation for being a coloratura soprano’s dream: the score offers countless moments to show off. It is common for a singer to write in her own cadenzas or flourishes. The renowned mad scene can be astonishing when it’s done right. The Met’s stunning 2011 production with Natalie Dessay in the title role stands as remarkable proof that this long-awaited scene can make or break the whole opera.
And the intimate setting of Lambert Hall could make the mad scene positively scintillating.
“The times I’ve been most moved by opera have been at HGO” Helms said. “I love that they’re able to bring a perspective to art on a national and international scene….There’s real huge value in that…but there is real huge value in packaging it in a way that is very accessible…to people who might not otherwise even think about attending the opera,” Helms said. “I don’t know if I could do this any other way.”
Lucia di Lammermoor runs March 28 – April 6. For tickets and more info, check out their website.
“You’re special, baby”: 1960s Don Giovanni at Opera in the Heights
What does Mozart’s 1787 Don Giovanni look like in 1960? Sure, a lot of opera productions don’t stick to the period in which an opera was actually written. But Opera in the Heights’ Don Giovanni embraces 1960 from the set and costumes to even the English subtitles projected above the stage. Lines like “You’re special, baby” drew mixed reactions, I noticed looking around. Sometimes Mozart’s score felt mis-matched against Don Giovanni bragging “I’ll rock your world.” But as I overheard in a debate at intermission, “Yeah, but a player is always a player.”
Peter Sellars’ famous re-setting of Don Giovanni in the Spanish Harlem ghetto of New York City has always been a favorite of mine. Last night, with Donna Anna dancing lasciviously and chugging Jack Daniels followed by Masetto’s crew sporting tight jeans and leather jackets, it was like a mash-up of provocative Sellars and West Side Story.
I find Donna Elvira less deranged and more admirable, although opinions vary. Making both an OH debut and a role debut as Donna Elvira, Soprano Julia Cramer (Ruby Cast) struck just the right character balance. While Donna Elvira is a bitter, spurned lover, she also inspires some sympathy. I’ve always been impressed, rather than disappointed, that she recognizes Don Giovanni for the cad he is and still loves him to the end, vowing to spend her days in a convent after he is pulled down to hell.
The updated libretto took a few liberties with Elvira, stating Don Giovanni had left her pregnant instead of ambiguously “shamed.” But even without this added touch, Cramer’s voice would have pulled anyone over to her side. She’s a sharp singer with a warm timbre and versatile ability to change emotional tone—she conveyed the whole spectrum of Elvira’s multi-dimensional character expertly.
The singing at OH just keeps getting better. I was excited to see Michelle Johnson return as Donna Anna. I first heard Johnson singing the part of Leonora in Il Trovatore a few seasons ago. Her voice was memorable then, but has since blossomed into a force. As a soprano, Johnson proved last night she’s about to rock the opera world with a new kind of powerful presence. As her unfortunate fiancé Don Ottavio, Zach Averyt’s tenor voice was out-matched by Johnson. While his vibrato was a bit too wide, he got the cowardly sentiment of Ottavio just right. Also making an OH debut and a role debut as Don Giovanni, baritone Brian K. Major ruled as equally sexy and despicable. Major sings without reserve—full-bodied and broad—but also proved to be a captivating actor.
Bass-baritone Justin Hopkins, in the part of Leporello, stole this show. Although I’m morally opposed to shameless conquest counting, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” is always a Don Giovanni high-point for me. Ripping off names in a rolodex and tossing them across the stage, Hopkins didn’t disappoint. His voice is unlike any other bass-baritone I’ve heard: a thick, rich timbre that is surprisingly light and flexible. Whether it was dancing over fast libretto or a sinking into a slow passage, Hopkins made it look easy.
Artistic director and conductor Enrique Carreón-Robledo is catching Houston’s attention for a reason. Generally, I don’t like to compare OH to Houston Grand Opera. I’ve written before about the intimacy that sets OH apart and their commitment to fostering up-and-coming artists. The companies are altogether different. That said, thinking of the Rigoletto I saw last week at HGO, there were moments last night when the singing was so spot-on, the passion so heightened, that OH could give HGO a run for its money.
Don Giovanni at Opera in the Heights runs January 31 – February 9. For ticket info, check out their website, and be on the alert for their season-closer Lucia di Lammermoor which opens March 28.
Half Plus Seven: Opera in the Heights’ Don Pasquale
Harrison Ford and Michael Douglass did the math—half your age plus seven. Don Pasquale didn’t, and that’s why this opera is so much fun. Opening this Friday, November 15, Opera in the Heights will delve into this ancient trend with Donizetti’s clever, comedic opera. Old or young, if you’ve never really gotten opera, this is a good place to start.
For Don Pasquale, marrying a younger woman is less about status and more about patriarchy and lineage. What else is an old, rich man to do when his nephew Ernesto—the only conceivable relative to whom he might leave his fortune—refuses to marry the woman Don Pasquale chooses for him? Obsessed with siring an heir of his own, Don Pasquale seeks out the blooming (and presumably fertile) Norina—his very own Anna Nicole Smith in a convent disguise. A dash of the didactic rounds out this comedic affair: Norina, Ernesto, and their faithful friend Dr. Malatesta concoct a romantic ruse that quickly humbles Don Pasquale.
Don Pasquale plays to OH’s strengths. Delight waits in every aria, and comedy is something at which OH excels. A standout last season, OH’s Falstaff came off with an expert balance of hilarity and grace. And if OH’s season-opener La Traviata is any indication, the orchestra will make Donizetti’s score something you’ll want to hear, too.
Known for its bel canto-style arias, Don Pasquale makes for some lush singing. Bass-baritone Stefano de Peppo returns to OH as Don Pasquale with a voice made for the bel canto rigmarole (give him a listen here). Be on the alert in Act III when Eric Bowden sings “Com’e gentil” as the heartthrob Ernesto—it’s one of the great opera arias. Julia Engel and Katie Dixon share the role of Norina—an OH debut for Dixon and an anticipated return for Engel, who sang the role of Nannetta in Falstaff last season. Wesley Landry and Octavio Moreno also split the role of Dr. Malatesta.
OH fosters a new generation of opera-lovers on both sides of the curtain. It takes care to showcase up-and-coming opera stars and offers $12.00 student tickets to any performance. While this opera was written in 1842, the story is no less timely than today’s Huffington Post. If you go see this show, expect to have fun, and bring an (age-appropriate) date.
Don Pasquale opens Friday, Nov 15 and runs through Nov 24. For tickets and more info, check out their website.