Intermission: Get Your Glass On

Need an opera fix between productions at Houston Grand Opera and Opera in the Heights? Do you have five hours and a good internet connection? Generously, Théâtre du Châtelet’s production of Philip Glass’, Robert Wilson’s, and Lucinda Childs’ Einstein on the Beach is free to stream online.

I first experienced Einstein in Mexico City at the Palacio de Bellas Artes (the origin of the banner above) in 2012. Watching a video is, of course, not the same as actually being enveloped by this opera, but it is a rare treat to see in any form. Through blazing beams of light and shocks of red, grand trains and mystical spaceships, singers and dancers in crisp white shirts and suspenders deliver repetitive melodic cycles of movement and libretto for about five uninterrupted hours. Entering this opera means entering another time dimension entirely. Labeled as non-narrative, musicologists tend to think of Einstein as the peak of modernism for Glass; even without a defined plot, it captivates unlike anything else out there.

Most of Houston is already shut inside under a pile of blankets watching bad television and waiting out this cold snap. What’s an afternoon spent enjoying a magnum opus of twentieth-century opera that radically redefined the genre altogether?

Grab a sandwich and settle in: click here for Einstein.


“You’re special, baby”: 1960s Don Giovanni at Opera in the Heights

Photo by Amitava Sarkar


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.

Smashing Third Act: Rigoletto at HGO
Photo by Lynn Lane


Verdi’s Rigoletto is built to be great. Love, revenge, and murder supported by an expert score that anticipates every nuance on stage makes this opera not only beloved, but practically fool-proof. Houston Grand Opera’s Rigoletto, a co-production with The Dallas Opera, leans on the inherent strength of this opera a bit too much. While the singing and set elicited a shrug, a breathtaking third act finally showed HGO’s talent for Verdi.

As if in a whirlwind of genius, Verdi wrote this opera in forty days. Knowing how successful it was going to be, he even withheld the famous “La Donna e Mobile” aria until right before the performance so that it wouldn’t get leaked. And, as he predicted, it blew his audience away at the 1851 premiere in Venice.

The plot is timeless: A barefaced womanizer, the Duke of Mantua runs through as many women in a day as most people do cups of coffee. One woman, after being tossed out by the Duke, dies of shame, and her father flies in a rage to confront the Duke. He is, instead, greeted by the teasing Rigoletto, and the father hurls a curse on his head. The curse works through the second act, and at the close, Rigoletto is holding the dead body of his own daughter—a scene that rarely fails to evoke sensational agony.

Whether due to the cold snap or the quick casting change, the singing was average. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, in the title role of Rigoletto, struggled a bit to project. As Kurwenal in Tristan and Isolde last season his voice was an absolute force, but as Rigoletto, his voice and acting came off as stuck. Due to personal reasons, Elizabeth Zharoff was replaced by Uliana Alexyuk as the angelic Gilda. Alexyuk captured the purity of Gilda well—a soprano with a unique bell-like quality—but apart from some supreme high notes, her notes were often flat and her acting without animation.

The exception was Stephen Costello, who ruled brazenly as the Duke of Mantua with a tenor voice of steel. Normally, when a handsome but unprincipled Duke tries the pick-up line “Love brings us closer to angels,” it’s going to end with a drink in his face. Not so with Costello’s voice, which has a golden timbre hard to resist.

The set was underwhelming. An accordion frame-work of squares set the stage. A two-story box rolled in from one side in the second act as Rigoletto’s apartment and from the opposite side in Act Three as the assassin Sparafucile’s shack. The lighting shifted from dim blues, yellows, and reds unremarkably. The most stunning visual effect came in the first few minutes when, during the overture, a shockingly red box opened up in the middle of the stage where Rigoletto was leering at himself in a giant mirror. It set the whole mood of the opera—a violent glimpse of inner consciousness that comes to fruition, finally, in Rigoletto’s closing lines “weeping my life’s blood behind the jester’s mask.”

The last scenes, set off by ominous chimes, revitalized this opera. Conductor Patrick Summers consistently proved his expertise throughout, but here especially, when the emotional mood is already so delicate but charged. When Rigoletto dragged the body bag across the stage, still ignorant his daughter had taken the place of the Duke inside, the chorus hummed that chromatic line so eerily alongside the strings in the same melodic arc that I actually shivered. Whether it was Verdi’s initial genius or the work of this production, the third act—exceptional, despairing, ethereal—was absolutely smashing.

You can catch Houston Grand Opera’s production of Rigoletto January 24 – February 9. For tickets and more info, check out their website.

HGO’s Arresting American premiere: Weinberg’s The Passenger

Photo by Lynn Lane

A beautiful thing is not always easy to watch. Houston Grand Opera opens the new year with the American premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger –a story that moves from a pristine ocean liner to an austere scene in Auschwitz. The program notes describe it, aptly, as “draining” and “unrelenting.” Even so, I noticed more people stayed to watch the final act of The Passenger than had lasted in the more digestable Die Fledermaus earlier this season. There’s a lot of talent and passion behind HGO’s production:  for such a traumatic narrative, it proved aesthetically arresting.

A tattered black curtain opens on a bright, white ocean liner where Liese, a former SS officer, catches a glimpse of another passenger. Her husband Walter, a German dignitary, confronts his panicked wife, and she confesses her past and her fear that this passenger might have been her prisoner from Auschwitz. The scene moves back in time to Auschwitz where a doomed love story between two prisoners, Marta and Tadeusz, ends with a wrenching aria about forgiveness, forgetting, and everlasting memories of suffering.

The singing is superb. As Liese, Michelle Breedt is an example of what a mezzo-soprano should sound like: warm in her lower register and rich at the top of her range without ever sounding strained. Soprano Melody Moore, singing the part of Marta, has depth behind her voice that was necessary to portray this character. Her final aria was exquisitely controlled, yet emotionally unbarred. Making his HGO debut in the role of Tadeusz, baritone Morgan Smith made me wish Weinberg had written more for Tadeusz. While some baritones’ timbre can easily become muddled, Smith’s voice rang out consistently with strapping purity.

The visual is divine. Hats off to the creative team behind this production. The stage is divided between the stark silver chrome of the ocean liner above and the dark dismal reality of a concentration camp below, making the quick shifts in time smooth. Lighting Designer Fabrice Kebour deserves special accolades. Rows of spotlights moved like a grid accented by fog that set, rather incredibly, the emotional stage behind the visual. It was class to the core: there was nothing that looked like kitsch, which is more than I can say for the music.

Weinberg’s score is not great. The music that situates the ocean-liner aurally is best described as something that is supposed to resemble jazz. When time shifts back to Auschwitz, the score looks to folk music and Yiddish motifs that feel over-determined. It seemed a bit clever that the strings moved in parallels when the prisoners sang their personal stories, but the score felt overworked in its representation of the narrative, and missed, somehow, setting the characters apart musically in their arias.

In no way did this reflect poorly on the orchestra, though. Conductor Patrick Summers was more animated and enthusiastic than I’ve seen this season. The strings melted the air, especially in the reduced chamber moments. Walking bass and saxophone, despite the lackluster score, managed to insert a disconcerting peppiness to contrast with the horrifying reality of Auschwitz.

Finished in 1968, it’s taken a while for The Passenger to see the stage. Violent scenes, like when a female prisoner is brutally beaten by a group of male SS officers, do not make for light entertainment. While the score and libretto are flawed, the opera stands as an important cultural piece and opens up a narrative that is hard to watch, let alone discuss in an artistic medium. On leaving, I admit I felt frustrated by Weinberg’s score until I noticed a woman still staring at the stage with tears running down her cheeks. Despite the opera’s structural flaws, HGO’s skillful execution of The Passenger calls for pause.


The Passenger runs January 18 – February 2. For information and tickets, visit Houston Grand Opera’s website.



“It’s Dynamite!”: Ashley’s Mixed Blessings, Indiana at Roulette

Although I should expect it by now, the voice in Robert Ashley’s compositions always catches me unaware and unprepared. Last week, I took a quick trip to New York to hear his latest work at Roulette on Wednesday, December 11. A world premiere, Ashley’s Mixed Blessings, Indiana threw the voice as an instrument onto new compositional ground, continually growing in urgency and building in layers until a burst of light and sound brought closure, showing yet again why Ashley is a foremost composer of our time.

The Swiss trio Ensemble Tzara performed Ashley’s composition, which was bookended by David Sontòn’s La metta da fein and Timothy McCormack’s Interfacing with the Surface, both US premieres. In the middle of these exceptional instrumental pieces, Ashley’s use of the voice was especially set off—to hear a performer’s voice, suddenly, changed my perception of the whole concert. The trio is made up of horn player Samuel Stoll, cellist Moritz Müllenbach, and synthesizer player Simone Keller. Although Ashley’s use of voice tends toward the emotionless, hearing each performer’s voice added a sense of the human to a radically electronic, futuristic sound.

Open, sustained notes in cello and synthesizer began the piece, acting as a foundation for the first vocal part. As the work progressed, all three performers rotated in 16 sequences of speak-singing at the microphone in the center, continuously shifting the instrument color and voice timbre. Understated rhythm from the synthesizer, especially, added texture to the underlying chords.

Ashley created the text from a random set of leaflets advertising books in today’s trivial American literature. The resulting hissing and cracking of consonants was the Rhaeto-Romanic translation of book titles, authors, abstracts, hard- and soft-cover numbers, e-book numbers, and empostazium labels from the randomly-selected set of leaflets. At the first instance of the heavily accented “E S B N”  and “W W W punckt!” I heard a ripple of laughter, but the performance took a more serious turn with a lighting shift from soft blue to green that marked Keller’s first turn at the microphone.

Because the voice plays such an intricate role in Ashley’s compositions, the choice of performer—the individual timbre of a voice—is critical. Not just anyone can perform a given part. Each performer in Ensemble Tzara had a distinct, select tone that danced over the heavy language. The initial switch from Stoll to Müllenbach, for instance, felt drastic. Stoll spat out words vengefully, while Müllenbach spoke calmly in a profound, monotone voice that slowly developed into a more urgent tone conjuring visions of enchantment or incantation.

Stoll and Müllenbach took several turns at the microphone before Keller did, adding a sense of intentionality to her voice. Once all three voices were in the mix, rotations happened more quickly, more seamlessly. The lighting shifted at what felt like a faster rate until a marked change to red at the end. The sequences began to blend, somehow, coming together finally (but remarkably, I had to remind myself, still remaining separate) in a genius, closing chord.

The following night I caught Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Met—naturally a drastic change from Ashley’s work, but I found myself thinking more about Mixed Blessings, Indiana than listening to the supple soprano voice of Marina Poplavskaya. I will never forget the first Ashley opera I encountered, That Morning Thing, and how it changed my perception of opera as a genre that can be familiar, approachable, unpretentious, and overall, deeply American. As I left Lincoln Square, the last thing I heard at Roulette the night before coalesced: Ashley buoyantly asserting across the theatre “It’s dynamite! It’s retro-disco!”


Check out press pieces, videos of Ashley’s work (including my favorite, That Morning Thing), his biography, info about upcoming performances, and almost anything else you might want to know about Ashley at his website:

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.

Putting Lipstick on a Bat: HGO’s Die Fledermaus

Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus should come with a disclaimer: “The operetta you are about to see is where substance meets the void.” Houston Grand Opera’s production, though, does a fine job with an operetta that is itself vacuous. With marvelous sets and robust singing, HGO’s performance made me wonder if I should reconsider this waltzing, drunken affair.

Die Fledermaus follows Verdi’s Aida, which opened HGO’s season last week. Thomas Rösner conducts this production from Opera Australia with attention to the elusive intricacies of the waltz perhaps only an artist straight from Vienna could muster. Set Designer Richard Roberts brings a genuine amount class to this production. Channeling a lavish 1930s Art Deco vibe, the white leather sofas, chrome trimming, zebra-print pillows, tall staircases, and high windows all made for a visual feast. It was appropriately scaled and balanced easily with the other aspects of the production.

Strictly in terms of genre, Strauss’ light operetta drastically differs from Verdi’s grand opera, but both productions prove HGO’s singers are something to hear this season. Soprano Laura Claycomb hammed up the role of wannabe actress Adele with a garish American accent, but her singing betrayed Claycomb as a serious artist. The fullness of her high notes and the accuracy with which her voice danced through Strauss’ ditties delighted and impressed. Making her HGO debut as the dallying Rosalinde, Wendy Bryn Harmer charmed with a smokier soprano timbre, which she played to stupendously in Act II. Apart from yet another gratingly put-on Hungarian accent, her rendition of csárdás was genuinely beautiful.

Baritone Liam Bonner, singing the part of the rascal Gabriel Eisenstein, has a divine instrument—I wish I could hear him sing the role of Billy Budd (which he will with the Los Angeles Opera later this season) instead. Die Fledermaus packs punch after punch of arias that showcase the voice, adding to this operetta’s reputation for light consumption; but how much better it would have been to hear any of these talented artists really dig into a meaty opera by Benjamin Britten.

Strauss wrote Die Fledermaus in a six-week blitz. Critics who are quick to criticize Die Fledermaus as trivial often dangle the fact that the original production in April 1874 was cancelled after only sixteen performances. But this was not because Strauss was too hasty or careless in his composition; in fact, it was only pulled off stage because of a pre-booked visiting opera, and Fledermaus made an extremely popular return to the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. And, as a quick browse through shows, it persists today as a fashionable choice and an audience favorite. Since 2012, it has seen 535 performances of 121 productions in eighty-six cities. Britten’s Billy Budd  has only found its way to thirty-four performances of five productions in five cities in the same time bracket search.

These shocking (and, in my opinion, sad) statistics ask a larger question: why do audiences love Fledermaus so much? It’s not because of any semblance of poetic language. Though its libretto has seen many translations, HGO’s production uses the English text. Lines like “a night of allusion / happy in our delusion” and “Kling kling kling sing sing sing” got old fast, though admittedly its German standard isn’t much better: “Ja, sie hat Recht, gehn Sie hinaus / Sonst wird noch ein Skandal daraus!” The score—an endless triple meter—is an unwelcome waltzing mass still whirling through my head. No tonal risks, no harmonic surprises. Really, nothing to spike my blood pressure.

As the program notes emphasize, Die Fledermaus hit Vienna right after a devastating depression and seemed to lift society’s spirits, or at least distract them for a moment in the theatre. Prince Orlovsky urges his guests to embrace delusion and drink up, sinking into memories of being young and frivolous. Everyone ends with a glass of champagne in their hands to perpetuate the farce. Sure, reality bites. Is that anything new? There’s validity in distraction, but if distraction is the point, shouldn’t more artistic tact be employed to sustain the illusion?

Repeatedly, Die Fledermaus shows self-awareness of being a lowbrow spectacle. Rosalinde’s warning “Don’t remove the mask I wear or you will see a sight you cannot bear,” echoed on a wider plane. When the lights came up on the “pretentious” opera audience in Act III, it felt like getting caught red-handed watching Keeping up with the Kardashians.

HGO presents a technically proficient rendition of an operetta that is what it is. HGO promises Stephen Sondheim’s intrepid musical A Little Night Music later this season as a complementing alternative to “high” opera. Sondheim’s work might prove a more worthy context for HGO’s admirable execution.


Die Fledermaus runs Oct 25 – Nov 10. For tickets and more info, check out Houston Grand Opera’s website.

The extensively featured Viennese Waltz. Photo by Felix Sanchez

HGO’s Aida: Exquisite Singing, Geometric Dying

Verdi built balance into Aida. The four-act plot balances with the steady musical structure; exoticism miraculously balances with the universal trope of love. Houston Grand Opera celebrates Verdi’s bicentennial this year, opening its 2013-2014 season with Verdi’s beloved opera. Stunning singing battling against an overpowering set, though, proved that great parts do not always make a synchronized whole.

Aida –a co-production with English National Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Norwegian National Opera–begins HGO’s 59th season that remembers not only Verdi’s bicentennial, but also Wagner’s.  Das Rheingold, the first installment of the Ring Cycle, closes out the season that promises some rewarding Weinberg and Sondheim in between. Strauss’ Die Fledermaus follows most closely, opening October 25.

The triumph of this production was Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska who makes her HGO debut in the role of Aida. “O patria mia,” her big aria in Act III, inspired an enthusiastic chorus of bravos from the audience. In the aria, Aida laments the loss of her country and contemplates death in the Nile. It ranges from powerfully loud notes to whisper soft phrases—both difficult extremes to successfully pull off. Not only is it technically impressive, but the aria is built to be emotionally fraught. Although the key is F major, Verdi’s orchestration creates a “false tonic” of A minor. The height of the vocal line is a high C. Monastyrska’s vocal instrument proved its versatility here. Hers is a voice with breadth. She can achieve emotional intensity in any range, at any dynamic; that said, Monastyrska won me over (and, it seemed the whole house), when her voice was at its softest.

Joining Monastyrska in vocal excellence was Tenor Riccardo Massi as the dreamy Radames and Mezzo-Soprano Dolora Zajick as the jealous Amneris. Massi is a rare combination of voice and looks—both supremely perfect for the role of the Egyptian champion who inspired two princesses to fall madly in love with him. The timbre of his tenor voice is far from thin—a tricky thing to achieve when the score insists on such high notes. Consistently, Massi’s swarthy voice reached the height of scales easily. Zajick, in the role of Amneris, realized the complex character of a woman who inspires both sneering and sympathy. The ending relies on Amneris, the grieving lover outside the tomb, to bring closure to a tragic double-death. Equipped with a full mezzo instrument, Zajick brought the curtain down with class.

Mere weeks before Aida premiered in Cairo, Egypt on December 24, 1871, Verdi found himself at the first Italian production of Wagner’s Lohengrin in Bologna. While he enjoyed the prelude, musicologist Julian Budden writes that Verdi found much of it excessive from the slow-paced dialogue to the sustained pedal points. He was understandably upset when critics compared his operas to Wagner’s. After Aida’s premiere, one critic wrote “to deny that Verdi has been influenced by Richard Wagner is like denying light to the sun.” Verdi obsessively set to manage subsequent productions, making sure the instruments and sets adhered to his original directions—surely misinterpretation was the reason he had egregiously been compared to Wagner.

Yet, Wagner’s influence persists in HGO’s production. Given how much Verdi worried about the set, I imagine he would have balked at what Set and Costume Designer Zandra Rhodes conceived for this production. Rhodes captured an unfortunate side of Wagner’s totalizing theory for opera in the set: an obsessive affinity for triangles, hieroglyphics a four-year-old might have drawn, and creations pulled straight from Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!. I couldn’t look away, but I wanted to. The pyramid-like triangles persisted as though someone were afraid the audience might forget the opera was set in Egypt. This continued through to the end when a series of triangles forming the tomb actually closed in to signal suffocation for Radames and Aida, who weren’t the only ones feeling like Desdemona in a geometric death. The color palette could have been brilliant—a bright blue, gold, and orange appeared like sigh of relief in a simple gradient screen in the last act (see photograph below by Lynn Lane). Though the backdrop was framed by those pesky triangles, it hinted at what this set could have achieved. With such strong singers and Verdi’s masterly score, this production didn’t need flashy sets.

Abounding in symmetry, Aida balances on a delicate operatic scale. The phrases are even eight and sixteen bar passages without much leeway; the libretto of Aida’s striking Act III aria is two-fold, breaking with the traditional couplet writing and instead returning in rounds to “O patria mia.” A critic who saw the original Cairo production wrote “No one who concerns himself seriously with art has failed to notice in Aida a strange duality.” It is, then, incredible to overturn this inherent balance. Aida’s renown relies on its magnificent music. A pity this production’s overworked sets tip the scale to outweigh Verdi’s brilliant composition.

Houston Grand Opera’s Aida runs Oct 18 – Nov 9. For tickets and more information, visit its website here.

Photograph by Lynn Lane
My favorite triangle, though there were many. Photo by Lynn Lane.


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: