Make Way for the Orchestra! La Traviata at Opera in the Heights

Behind every great opera is a superb orchestra. Wagner envisioned a totalizing opera space in which the audience couldn’t see the mechanisms behind the art and hid the orchestra away in a pit. And in most opera houses, the orchestra remains concealed in some dark, (sometimes unsavory) underground space. But at Opera in the Heights, the orchestra resides in plain view right off the side of the stage. Beyond the pleasure of being able to see the timpanist swing wonderful round strokes, this arrangement also highlights one of Oh!’s greatest strengths in Verdi’s La Traviata: a superb orchestra.

La Traviata marks the beginning of an ambitious season for Oh! with two Donizetti operas—Don Pasquale and Lucia di Lammermoor—and the great Mozart opera Don Giovanni. With Artistic Director Enrique Carreón-Robledo at the helm, it promises to be a musical delight. His effusive enthusiasm came across in the quality of the orchestra. It leaned into emotional passages and tore through fast arias unlike any previous Oh! production I’ve heard.

As brilliantly as the orchestra sparkled in this production, though, Soprano Julia Ebner, singing the part of Violetta in the Emerald Cast, would have charmed and inspired even if she had been entirely alone on stage. Ebner made her Oh! debut last season as Juliette in Romeo et Juliette, and she is a welcomed return in this part. The great test for any soprano in this role is “Sempre libera” at the close of Act One. After a round of serious singing, Ebner floated over the vocal hurdles with true agility. On top of being technically impressive, Ebner captured the tragedy in Violetta’s character beautifully, directing lyrical lines instinctively with nimble dynamic control.

First performed in Venice in 1853, La Traviata has become an opera staple—hugely popular and lavishly performed. Its frequent performances don’t seem excessive, though, in large part because of the prepossessing music. Opera scholar George Martin remarks part of why La Traviata’s popularity outdoes  Aida, La Bohème or Carmen is because it calls for a smaller cast and orchestra and is best heard in a smaller opera house. Oh! captures an intimacy that a larger opera house would swallow.

Oh!’s orchestra masters the music and does so in the uniquely intimate space of their hall—it’s a win-win for this Verdi opera.  With only four first violinists, it is difficult to manage clear rising scales and match high pitches, especially when passages are paralleled in octaves by the second violins and flutes. But last night’s musicians, led by concertmaster John Cramer, made this feat look easy. The clarinet solo in Act Two was exquisite and full of the overwhelming emotion vivid throughout the libretto and score, adding, almost inconceivably, to Violetta’s heartbreaking plea “Love me as much as I love you!” The finale in Act Two—a rousing number with a full stage of remorse, lament, love, and duels—came together seamlessly because of the solid orchestral foundation lining up all the independent parts.

Stage Director Lynda McKnight chose to set this production in present-day Paris. The stage was a modern silver and white, the costumes were replete with an “I heart Paris” T-shirt and Converse shoes, and the pajamas Violetta died in were a simple cream set you might find at Target. Without the period-piece guise, the music was ever more highlighted as timeless. The violin solo in Violetta’s last living moments seemed to weep—and the audience could look over and see the bow strokes as if the violin, too, were another voice in the opera.

Verdi’s La Traviata runs until Oct 13 with Donizetti’s Don Pasquale on its heels opening November 15. For more info, check out Opera in the Heights’ website.

“Time and Tension”: Liminal Space rocks Studio 101

Appreciating what some might term “noise” as music brings John Cage and his four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence” most readily to mind. But Liminal Space’s season-opening concert of electro-acoustic music recalls an earlier moment in twentieth-century music philosophy: Luigi Russolo’s futurist manifesto The Art of Noises, written in March, 1913. It advocates a shift to accept the sea of sound mankind inhabits, to consider what was previously perceived as “noise” to be a new realm of potential timbre, and to embrace a new musical reality while begging the “modern orchestra” to “Let us go!” This concert, titled “Time and Tension,” offers just such an escape from conventional restraints.

Liminal Space is a contemporary music ensemble in Houston comprised of composer and electric guitarist George Heathco and percussionist Luke Hubley. This concert marks the opening to their second full season, which promises a line-up of Steve Reich, D.J. Sparr, and Orianna Webb. The final concert in May will feature all nine works from a specially-commissioned project Liminal Space created called The New Music Initiative. If the commissioned work performed at this concert is any indication, it’s not going to be a concert to miss.

It’s hard to imagine a lighter way to open a time-and-tension-themed performance than with composer Jacob TV’s The Body of Your Dreams. Arranged for guitar and marimba by Liminal Space, the aural backdrop to this piece is a late-night infomercial for a weight-loss product. The tape, strategically mixed to repeat inelegant but embarrassingly familiar phrases like “Ladies listen to this: that cellulite and flabbiness…that cellulite and flabbiness…” was wildly funny. A dotted rhythm provided some continuity while music and recorded speech spun above it in a strange but groovy combination akin to Robert Ashley’s opera That Morning Thing. A somber mood struck as a voice confessed “I’ve had problems with these love handles on the side.” But the piece picked right back up with success stories and grand promises of finally getting that body you’ve always dreamed about.

The jovial mood of The Body of Your Dreams faded quickly as Heathco scraped his guitar pick down his strings for the night’s world premiere. Written by Hugh Lobel, The Lotus City Songbook is set in three movements and is part of Liminal Space’s commissionary series. The program notes cited an imagined a day in the life of Buddhist figure Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who embodies compassion and listens to suffering of existence. The rhythm swayed between duple and triple meter; hardcore guitar solos rocked over a steady xylophone beat.

Decibel levels, oddly, might have been the breaking point for noise, at least in Russolo’s terms. Percussionist Brandon Bell joined Hubley and Heathco for the last two pieces of the evening, Diving Bell and the two-movement Tension Studies. Diving Bell is scored for amplified triangles with electronics. This translates as two performers bending over two parallel racks of triangles, tapping or scraping the triangles, and then moving a microphone around the instruments. In a nutshell: triangle, microphone, feedback. At times, the feedback became that excruciating screech—the familiar sound of someone awkwardly adjusting a microphone—that makes a person compulsively protect their ears. Moving into Tension Studies, the collaboration of all three performers and their electronics produced a sound that felt like it hit not only your face, but your whole body. In the closing measures, Bell picked up a hammer and pounded a foreign mound of metal.

This closing music wasn’t easy to listen to, but that certainly didn’t make it less awesome. And this sentiment is, in part, what makes Liminal Space a revolutionary ensemble in Houston right now. The first time I heard Liminal Space was at a concert devoted to David Lang’s music last season (Theodore Bale was kind enough to invite me to be a guest contributor about it at his blog). Like this concert, it was a combination of peaceful, humorous work and tumultuous pieces that represent what I would cite as the relentless twentieth-century quest for new music in an old world. Liminal Space brings this tension to Houston, unafraid and unassuming.

Liminal Space’s next concert is December 11 at The Barn—I wouldn’t miss it if I were you. Check out their website for more info: http://liminalspacemusic.com/

Diva on Repeat: Art Installation at Fresh Arts Part 2

A little repetition can be surprisingly refreshing. At a glance, the second part of Soprano Lisa Harris’ performative installment “No Matter How Hard I Try I Can’t Look The Same As I Did Yesterday” seemed identical to the first. But a true performer knows that every performance is unique unto itself—nothing is ever exactly the same.

Titled “Being Alive,” Friday night’s performance is the final part of a two-part installation at Fresh Arts following the first, “Memory,” which was performed September 13. Friday, September 27, will mark the end of the installation with a closing party at Fresh Arts.

The same heavy velvet curtains draping over projections of Liza Minnelli and the same Sondheim bouncing off the concrete surfaces made for an uncanny audience experience—had we all stumbled into the same performance? Simply standing in a different part of the room than last week, I realized when Harris spoke into the mirror, she actually responded to a dialogue in one of multiple sound recordings running through the room: The recording asked “Can you give us a little more attitude” and Harris replied “I’ve got plenty of attitude!”

As an audience member remarked during the closing question-and-answer with Harris, this installation broke its icy separation from the audience with an easy interplay between performer and her audience, even including a sing-a-long with that catchy Streisand classic “People.” The chalk circle of insecurities—“wounding, dismemberment”—still marked the floor, but as Harris looked at her image in the mirror and announced “I’m happy,” it was clear this night was about overcoming those psychological hurdles every performer faces.

Harris stated after the performance she wanted to pull us into her vulnerability. Moving from a retrospective mood last week to “Being Alive,” Harris brought an organic vivacity to something that could have been a blasé repeat. And largely, it had to do with engaging the audience. Is a performer ever really alone on that stage? In Harris’ own words, “We all just did this performance together.”

For more info about Lisa Harris, check this out: http://lisaeharris.tumblr.com/

 

Behind the Diva: Art Installation at Fresh Arts

 

Who doesn’t want to know what’s behind the diva? In a performance installation at Fresh Arts titled “No Matter How Hard I Try I Can’t Look the Same as I Did Yesterday,” Soprano Lisa Harris offers a glimpse at what happens behind the scenes—and the mystery is worth the time.

Harris’ Friday night performance, “Memory,” was the first of two installations at Fresh Arts. “Being Alive,” the anticipated second part, will follow on September 20.

Located at the edge of a railroad, the space in Fresh Arts uniquely captures the artistic environment of Houston itself. Those entering the space were greeted by long black velvet curtains draped over the floor, an old baby grand piano, and a vanity surrounded by characteristic light bulbs. A small space without carpet, all sound bounces off the walls, making the space an ultimate site for Harris’ rich soprano voice.

Strategically, the installation revealed the inner consciousness of a performer. Before Harris entered the space, a video projection of her singing “Memory” dressed in a white cat costume as a child hit one wall. On two other walls were a collage of more recent pictures of Harris, dressed and undressed, so to speak, as a performer. In a circle surrounding a pillar in the center of the room were phrases marking the inevitable identity crises of any performer from “Inflated or Heroic Act” to “Wounding, Dismemberment” and “Alienated Ego.”

When Harris did enter the space, she went straight to the piano. Harris looked through Cole Porter sheet music and a Cats score, talking to herself about each piece as though entirely alone. She made no eye contact with the audience, reinforcing the concept that the audience was allowed into a singer’s intimate experience while still invisible. Later, Harris explained she wanted to show the “psychology of the dressing room” where the performer puts on a new identity like one might a new dress.

When Harris moved across the room from the piano to her mirrored vanity, she pulled her audience deeper into her consciousness while repeatedly rehearsing phrases like “Hi, I’m Lisa Harris and I’d like to sing for you today” in the mirror. As she brushed on makeup and threw her hair under a bright, golden-sequined hat, the audience watched itself reflected in the mirror behind her.

Harris took up her last position by her pianist, Kathy Elder, to “warm up” before she presumably took the stage. Opening with “Memory,” Harris’ voice—full of passion and technically superb— inevitably stole this show. After a round with Stephen Sondheim’s “So Many People” and “Send in the Clowns,” Harris brought supreme poignancy to the installation with the Funny Girl Barbara Streisand classic: “People.” While a train rumbled by outside, Harris let this song capture the night’s sentiment as the veil of the performer fell to reveal the person underneath.

The second and final installation happens next Friday, September 20 from 6-8pm at 2101 Winter St. For more info, check this out: https://www.spacetaker.org/culture_guide/event/no-matter-how-hard-i-try-i-can%E2%80%99t-look-same-i-did-yesterday