Tuesday, August 15, 2017

That's One Less Turandot Performance I'll Have to See

Toni Marie Palmertree
Photo: Valentina Sadiul

Toni Marie Palmertree will sing Liu in all of the September performances of Turnadot, replacing Maria Agresta, who has withdrawn owing to illness. Here's most of the press release:

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (August 15, 2017) — San Francisco Opera announced today a casting update for its season-opening production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, running from September 8 through 30 at the War Memorial Opera House. American soprano Toni Marie Palmertree will sing Liù, replacing Maria Agresta who has withdrawn due to illness. Originally scheduled to portray Puccini’s tragic heroine on September 24 and 30, Palmertree will now perform in all six September performances.

Palmertree scored a triumph last season when she substituted for an ailing colleague on two hours’ notice as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’sMadama Butterfly. The occasion marked her first time portraying the character on stage and her first leading role with the Company. San Francisco Classical Voice remarked: “The young soprano not only met the challenge, but she claimed her place among the finest vocal interpreters of the role heard here recently.” Currently in her second year of a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellowship, Palmertree has sung the Priestess in Verdi’s Aida, the Heavenly Voice in Don Carlo and appeared in Company productions of Jenůfa and Dream of the Red Chamber. She recently starred in West Bay Opera’s production of Puccini’s Il Trittico, portraying Giorgetta in Il Tabarro and the title role in Suor Angelica.  
San Francisco Opera inaugurates its 95th season on Friday, September 8, with Puccini’s Turandot, staged in the iconic production by English artist David Hockney and conducted by Company Music Director Nicola Luisotti, and two opening night galas. Saturday, September 9 features the opening of a new production of Richard Strauss’ Elektra. The festivities continue on Sunday, September 10, withSan Francisco Chronicle Presents Opera in the Park, an annual Bay Area tradition celebrating the opening of the opera season with a free concert in Golden Gate Park.  
Puccinis 1926 masterpiece is set in fabled Peking and follows the courtship of a beautiful and untouchable princess by a mysterious stranger who must triumph in a deadly game of riddles to win her love. The opera is renowned for its powerful choruses and extraordinary vocal highlights, including Turandot’s commanding “In questa reggia” (“In this palace”), Liù’s dramatic death scene and Calaf’s famous Act III aria, “Nessun dorma” (“No one sleeps”). Left unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death, Turandot was completed by Italian composer Franco Alfano and had one of the 20th century’s most spectacular operatic premieres. 
 An internationally acclaimed artist who is known for a diverse repertory of roles, Martina Serafin returns to the War Memorial Opera House stage in one her most celebrated portrayals as Princess Turandot. This season, the Austrian soprano also performs Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera and Opernhaus Zürich; Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala; and the title role of Tosca at London’s Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Serafin made her San Francisco Opera debut in 2007 as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Hawaii Friday Photo

Waimea Canyon, Kauai, March, 2017
The photos I have don't begin to do the location justice.

Monday, August 07, 2017

San Francisco Opera Cast Change Announcement: Elektra

Don't panic: it's not Christine Goerke.

Stephanie Blythe won't be making her role debut as Klytemnestra next month after all; she has withdrawn "for personal reasons." Rehearsals are starting this week; I hope Ms. Blythe is well and that it's just a matter of "maybe this role isn't for me after all," a decision any singer can make.

Stepping into the part is Michaela Martens, who sang Cassandre in one performance of Les Troyens two years ago and did a good job with it.

Here's the part of the press release about the swap (the rest is economiums to Goerke, Pieczonka, Nanasi, etc.):

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (August 7, 2017) — San Francisco Opera announced today a cast change for Richard Strauss’ Elektra, which opens on Saturday, September 9, in English director Keith Warner’s new staging at the War Memorial Opera House. American mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens will sing the role of Klytemnestra, replacing mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe who has withdrawn from the production for personal reasons.

Martens made her 2015 San Francisco Opera debut as Cassandre in Berlioz’s towering Trojan War epic,Les Troyens. She returns to the Company to sing her first performances of another demanding operatic role, Klytemnestra, the murderous and guilt-ridden mother of Elektra in Strauss’ 1909 opera with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal based on the Greek tragedy by Sophocles.

Known for her vivid portrayals of some of the most challenging mezzo-soprano roles in the repertory, Martens has performed on many of the world’s leading stages including the Metropolitan Opera, Munich’s Bavarian State Opera, Vienna State Opera, Grand Théâtre de Genève and English National Opera. Her other roles include Judith in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle; Kostelnička in Janáček’s Jenůfa;Herodias in Strauss’ Salome; Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin and Kundry in Parsifal. She will reprise her Klytemnestra with Houston Grand Opera in January 2018. Martens is a former Merola Opera Program participant, a past winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and holds a degree from The Juilliard School.
 Conductor David Robertson, who led Martens in acclaimed performances at the Metropolitan Opera (John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer) and Carnegie Hall (Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary), said of the mezzo-soprano: “She thinks deeply about what it is she does, but then lets that thought inform her instincts so that nothing she does ever feels calculated. There are things that she does both in the singing and sometimes when she’s not singing that are so strong. They come from the way she inhabits the roles.”

Three Terrifying Things Before Breakfast

It was one of those mornings. Here's what terrified me:

1. Alex Wellerstein's post at Restricted Data, ostensibly about a conference in Japan, that also discusses the situation with North Korea.

2. The link in Wellerstein's post to this Jon Chait column, which reproduces some of Trump's January discussion with Malcolm Turnball. The president of the United States can't understand the following details of Australian - US policy:

  • Australia doesn't allow refugees who arrive by boat to enter their country.
  • This is to discourage use of an extremely dangerous sea crossing to reach Australia.
  • The US agreed to accept up to 1,250 refugees who arrived in Australia this way.
  • These refugees are not in prison.
  • The US can vet the 1,250 to our heart's content to make sure it's safe to admit them to the US.
I think David Frum is right that it is very, very bad that a conversation between the US president and a world leader was leaked. What if it had been an Obama conversation when the Iran nuclear deal was being negotiated? But that conversation demonstrates the mental incapacity of the president to such an extent that you understand why it was leaked.

3. The possibility that the US will default on its debt, owing to the intransigence of a small number of our elected representatives in Congress. This could introduce another terrible worldwide recession, and there is no way that the current administration would respond effectively to it. It's not even clear that they think a default is a bad thing. Here's Paul Krugman adding to my anxiety.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs Media Roundup

Here speaketh the reviewers:
I promised commentary on the reviews, and I swear I will get to that this week. 

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Santa Fe Opera

iPhone announcement
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

I was at the second performance of the new opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, music by Mason Bates, libretto by Mark Campbell. As readers of this blog and my Twitter feed are aware, I had  reservations about the subject going into the premiere, which came on top of being less of a Mason Bates fan than many. I have also seen two operas with Campbell librettos, which contributed somewhat to my skepticism; more about this below.

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

So, the good news about the opera: the production is really terrific, using a bunch of rectangular structures on wheels to divide up the stage in many ways and, with beautiful and imaginative projections, represent various outdoor locations, Apple´s offices, a garage, Jobs´s childhood home, etc.  See the photo above for the structures in a fairly pure form. Initially, they were brightly lit and resembled the outside of an Apple store.

The lighting is gorgeous. The singers are amplified, which I did not know in advance, but it was obvious from the first vocal entry. It´s done well enough, though there was one two minute period when I had some problems hearing soprano Jessica E. Jones. It was certainly necessary for making the guitar in the orchestra audible with what sounded like a pretty big orchestra in the pit. Whether it was necessary for the singers, I am doubtful, but it is not the only thing about the opera that was School of John (Coolidge) Adams.

The performers are unimpeachable, which did not surprise me at all. I believe I have never heard baritone Edward Parks before; he sings the role of Jobs and as far as I can remember, he is on stage for the entire opera. He was absolutely tireless and sang and acted very well. He's got a serviceable voice, not a remarkable voice, but that is sufficient.

Garrett Sorenson (Woz) and Edward Parks (Steve Jobs)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

All of the other roles are subsidiary to that of Jobs, and because I have not seen the libretto (yet), I am not sure what the line division among the other roles is. I think it´s likely that the second-largest role is that of Steve Wozniak (Woz), friend of Jobs from their teen years, co-founder of Apple, and designer of large parts of early Apple hardware. This role was sung by tenor Garrett Sorenson, and he was just about perfect vocally and dramatically. He is the emotional foil of Jobs within Apple, the nice guy to Jobs´s asshole. I have seen him before, but I had to look it up: he was Narraboth in San Francisco´s last Salome.

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Sasha Cooke (Laurene Powell Jobs)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

Sasha Cooke, taking the role of Laurene Powell Jobs, got very high billing in the cast, and she is as always wonderful, but oh man! The part is seriously underwritten. The same is true of the role of Chrisann Brennan, Jobs´s girlfriend and the mother of his first daughter Lisa, sung by Jessica E. Jones More, lots more, about this below.

That is not a set or a projection in the background; that is the landscape behind the opera house.
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Wei Wu (Kobun Chino Otogaway)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

The bass Wu Wei was impressive as Kubun Chino Otogawa, spiritual mentor to Jobs over a long period of time. He's got a splendid voice and I'd love to see him in a standard role or two. More on this part below as well.

And some more good news: for this opera, Bates has composed a score that is consistently lively and inventive, with considerable charm as well. The publicity all says that this opera was his idea, and it has inspired him to write some terrific music, music that I liked better than just about anything I have heard from him in the past. The vocal lines are mostly well-written and by and large he sets the sometimes-awkward text very well. The orchestra burbles along with a fascinating assortment of sounds, some of them based on sound effects from the Macintosh computer line. There´s a guitar in the mix (obviously amplified); the orchestra is imaginative and often very beautiful. Was that a duet for alto flutes I heard at one point (possibly two)? I can´t say, because I haven´t located the orchestra breakdown yet. There is some beautiful pastoral music when Jobs and Chrisann take an LSD trip; it also registered on me as a loving pastiche of the genre.

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Jessica E. Jones (Chrisann Brennan)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

There are some minor issues: the extremely high-energy score gets tiring to listen to after maybe 50 minutes to an hour. It could use more repose, more breaks from the relentless energy. I certainly could have done without the disturbing subsonics in one scene.

Rhythmically, it is very school-of-JCA circa the 1980s and early 90s; one of my notes says ¨somebody has been listening to Nixon in China.¨ And, you know, that is a good thing! Nixon is one of the great postwar scores, and composers ought to listen to it, especially composers who are writing an opera about a public individual, because it is the progenitor of every other such opera in the last 30 years.

I would say that the most successful and memorable stretches of music in the opera are the many purely orchestral sections and the two duets between Jobs and Woz. By duets, I mean non-conversational sections where the two men are really singing together and bouncing off one another. And right there, I am starting to get at some of the problems with the opera.

So, the libretto is a big problem, and so is the length of the opera, and of course I have no way of knowing the process by which Steve Jobs became a one-act, 90-minute opera with no fewer than 18 brief scenes. But it is too short for what it is trying to accomplish and it misses a couple of golden opportunities to properly develop the female characters in keeping with the overall plot, which is ostensibly supposed to show not only how Apple and Jobs revolutionized tech, but how Jobs evolved (and presumably improved) as a person.

I have been wondering since the performance whether Steve Jobs was originally a two-act opera that got reduced in size along the way. One reason for this is that at around the 50 minute mark, there is a section that dramatically and musically sounds exactly like the close of a typical first act. The music reaches a huge climax and the libretto sets up some kind of significant dramatic conflict. My notes unfortunately do not say where in the opera this is, so you will have to wait until the CD release (yes, there is one coming) before I can pinpoint its location, unless one of my fellow ink-stained wretches has also commented on this and has more detailed notes than I do.

In any event, the libretto does rather rocket around, geographically and temporally. It shifts from 2007, when Jobs was already sick with the cancer that eventually killed him, back to the 1970s, forward to the 1980s and 90s. Sometimes you are outdoors, sometimes in a home or office. It is very cinematic, and given its length and familiar subject, it is in some way exemplary of the sort of thing Greg Sandow was espousing a decade ago as the future of opera. (Note: I didn´t agree then and I don´t agree now. The success of productions of the Ring and Les Troyens are evidence that operagoers have a long enough attention span that 90 minute operas do not need to become the norm.) The many short scenes encourage a telegraphic survey of the events and they really short-circuit the character development we are supposed to be seeing in Jobs.

We get plenty of scenes of Jobs-the-jerk, in how he treats Chrisann when she becomes pregnant and in his treatment of Apple employees. He is truly horrible to Chrisann, blaming her for the pregnancy and ordering her to get an abortion.¨How can you do this to me?¨he sings, as though it was deliberate and he had nothing to do with it. ¨Get rid of it.¨

Here´s the first big miss in the libretto: it´s the perfect setup to give Chrisann an aria of some combination of regret, longing, shock, confusion, and rage (take your pick; I can imagine any of these). Bates and Campbell duck it, and the next we see her, it´s years later and Chrisann, broke while supporting herself and their daughter, begs Jobs for some financial assistance...which he refuses. (Yes, he is an asshole.)

Here´s the second big miss: Laurene Powell comes along; she and Jobs fall in love and marry; he turns into a better person. But all we get about how and why is that she is someone who kicks his ass when he is a jerk. She is a counterbalance to his worst self.

Well, so? This is not really anything extraordinary! It is not uncommon in long relationships for the partners to call out each other´s bad behavior and ask or demand better. And in the Jobs marriage, this is very briefly conveyed even though there is a hint, at least, that they may have once nearly broken up over his behavior. Missed opportunity: an aria for Laurene about what the relationship felt like to her and what she needed from him.

Also missed: an aria of self-reflection from Jobs himself! There just isn't anything really persuasive, merely a bunch of hints and aphorisms about how he becomes a better person. We need a window into his interior life and we do not get it. Yes, this would take something long, in an opera where the scenes average five minutes in length. I rather suspect it would take an aria the length of ¨Tu che le vanita,¨ which might be Verdi´s longest, and greatest, aria.

All of this really limits the extent to which we can be moved by Jobs´s life and transformation. We see very little about it that is intimate or convincing, and without that, we are entertained but not moved.

Oh, I see you asking, but what about the spiritual mentor? Well, we don´t get much from that direction, either. Some aphorisms, some humor, some really embarrassing moments. Like Chrisann and Laurene, he is more a prop in the story than he is a real person. You could say I am made uncomfortable by this: Woz is the best-developed secondary character, and that is a big problem given that it seems that this is a redemption story in some way, and the redeemers are Laurene and Otogawa. I do own that Woz is well-developed and truly a mensch; he is the guy who behaves well when Jobs does not.

There are some other embarrassing aspects to the libretto: some of those Jobs/Otogawa conversations take place in 2007 and 2009, and Otogawa died in 2005 trying to save his young daughter from drowning. Jobs witnesses his own memorial service and comments on it. This comes across as mawkish sentimentality.

More profoundly, we never see or hear a word about Jobs's kids, beyond Laurene lamenting that they miss him when he's working hard and is never home. We get a one-liner about how he and Laurene "adopted" Lisa, his daughter with Chrisann. She was thirteen years old when Powell and Jobs married, so you really want to know what exactly that throwaway line means. His relationship with her, and perhaps Laurene's, would have been more complex than you can convey in a couple of sentences; in this opera, he spends way more time denying paternity than he does relating to his child.

[Updates follow]

Since I wrote the bulk of this review, I've had a couple more thoughts on potential additions to the opera that could improve it dramatically and emotionally. The first is that although Fitzgerald's famous line about second acts is quoted, the opera skips entirely over Jobs's amazing second and third acts: after he was booted from Apple, for good reasons, he went on to found NeXT Computer, fund Pixar as an independent company, and return to the company to rescue Apple from the hole his successors let it fall into. These are astonishing accomplishments by any standard, but there isn't a word about it. He is just mysteriously back at Apple presenting the iPhone, with no explanation. This is a blank that needs some type of filling in.

I mentioned this to Joshua Kosman the other night before Le Coq d'Or, and he made the persuasive argument that leaving this out means the opera never presents Jobs riding in as the white knight, which would interrupt the story of his personal evolution. True, and yet it's an awfully big part of his legend and revolution.

I referred a couple of times above to Nixon in China and some musical aspects of Steve Jobs that come from that trailblazing and brilliant opera. I've never much liked JCA's reasons for using amplification; to a great extent I think it boils down to his distrust of singers and discomfort with operatic singing style. Other composers need not adopt these views: if singers can be heard over Richard Strauss's enormous orchestras, so can your singers. Trust your singers, ask them questions, work with them about what their strengths and weaknesses are.

One reason Nixon in China is so successful is its amazing libretto, by the poet Alice Goodman. For the libretto, she didn't write lines for Richard Nixon; she invented a character "Richard Nixon" and gave him an inner life and thoughts that are true to Richard Nixon while clearly being her imagined version of the man. Steve Jobs, the character in Steve Jobs the opera, remains opaque and somehow unknown because Mark Campbell takes him literally - except for the embarrassing business with Otogawa and so on - and does not succeed in expressing Jobs's inner life in a way that illuminates the life the man lived.

[End updates]

I mentioned earlier that this is the third opera I've seen with a Campbell libretto. The others also have significant dramatic weaknesses. In the case of Kevin Puts's Silent Night, I must say that I am not familiar with the source material, a film that is evidently popular and moving. I found the opera episodic and dramatically diffuse, and without seeing the film, I can't say whether it was because the libretto too closely recreates the film. (I also did not love the music.) The other opera is Laura Kaminsky's As One, which has gorgeous music and a libretto co-written by Kimberly Reed and partly based on her life. I wrote extensively about As One when West Edge Opera performed it in 2015; I won't repeat those comments here.

I want to note that some of the best parts of the libretto were the funniest, which led me to think that Campbell could write an excellent comic libretto. That led me to wonder why there aren't more operatic comedies being commissioned and composed. People need to laugh as well as cry!

In closing, I think that The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is pretty successful, with attractive, inventive, and entertaining music, an outstanding production, and admirable performances all around. Michael Christie conducted and did a fine, fine job, perhaps excepting one episode that is just too loud (but maybe Bates is to blame for this). I predict that it will sell plenty of tickets in its future runs at San Francisco Opera and Seattle Opera, and that is a good thing. I also think it's possible that it will get some revisions in the next few years, and I do think it can be significantly deepened and made more emotionally satisfying. I would want a better sense of what was going on inside Jobs himself, who remains enigmatic to the end.

Opera for All Voices

I somehow managed to file an important press release from San Francisco Opera without reporting on it. I stumbled across the same press release, more or less, on the Santa Fe Opera web site yesterday and accordingly made an update to my future seasons page.

These two companies are the lead commissioning organizations for a consortium of companies seeking to expand the range of composers represented on stage, the stories that are told, and the scope of commissioned operas. (You might think of this as the ¨fewer white men¨ initiative.) The first two commissions are already in place, plus the press release announces how future commissions will work. Those commissions are to Augusta Read Thomas and Laura Kaminsky. The Kaminsky commission will be performed at SF Opera in 2020, presumably in the fall  of 2020-21, because we know already that The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will be performed in the 2019-20 season. San Francisco won´t try to bring up two new operas in one season.

The whole press release is after the cut.

John McCain is Still a Lying Liar

Yes, he came to his senses - or really wanted to screw over Trump - and cast his vote the way I hoped, but here´s what he said about the Affordable Care Act:
“I’ve stated time and time again that one of the major failures of Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by Democrats on a strict party-line basis without a single Republican vote,” he said in a statement explaining his vote. “We should not make the mistakes of the past.”
That´s bullshit. A year of hearings, most of them public, preceded the passage of the ACA;  more than 180 Republican amendments were attached. As it became clear that NO Republicans would vote for it, President Obama asked what was needed to gain Republican support. He got no reply at all. Republicans would not make substantive contributions because they were determined to oppose the ACA and the Obama agenda from day one.

Apparently McCain and nearly every other Republican has managed to forget this bit of recent history.

I´m glad McCain cast this vote, but he has voted with Trump 90% of the time. His nomination of the know-nothing Sarah Palin as his VP paved the way for the even more ignorant and dangerous Donald Trump.

And you should check out his Vietnam War record. He crashed two planes and had to pull special strings to continue flying. That is how he got captured. Yes, he endured a great deal after being captured, but he was a reckless airman who should not have been flying at all.

Hawaii Friday Photo

Poipu, Kauai, March, 2017