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 operabase.com 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: 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