Encompass New Opera Theatre Presents "Anna Christie" at Baruch Performing Arts Center

by Steven Pisano

20181003-DSC05805(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

Of all the great American playwrights of the last hundred years, Eugene O'Neill has plumbed deeper and darker into the classic American identity than any other. Yet somehow, his work has not attracted composers who might turn his stage creations into operas. Perhaps they've thought there was little to offer on top of O'Neill's own symphonic and often operatic writing. (Personally, I've long believed that any number of Tennessee Williams's plays would make great operas, but that's another story.)

The Encompass New Opera Theatre is now presenting the world premiere of an opera based on O'Neill's early play Anna Christie at the Baruch Performing Arts Center through this Sunday, 10/21. Anna Christie won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, but is probably best remembered in its movie version, where Greta Garbo first spoke on screen.

20181003-DSC04489Composer Edward Thomas and librettist Joseph Masteroff have created a condensed version of the play, directed by Encompass's artistic director, Nancy Rhodes. Masteroff, who died just last month at the age of 98, will long be remembered in Broadway circles as the book writer on the classic shows She Loves Me and Cabaret--and for lovers of failed musicals, 70, Girls, 70. Meanwhile, Thomas is still going strong at 94!

The production is simply staged, but carries a strong punch. Veteran actor Frank Basile brings vibrant vocal power and a palpable humanity to the role of Anna's father, Chris Christopherson (a.k.a., Old Chris), which is very much the central character of the drama. In fact, when O'Neill first penned the play, he originally named it Chris Christopherson, and only changed the name after transforming Anna from a pure young woman to a prostitute looking for redemption.

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Melanie Long sings the role of Anna with a beautifully silky soprano that has great texture. Her Anna is strong and proud. 

Jonathan Estabrooks gives a multifaceted performance as Mat Burke, a sailor rescued from a shipwreck in a storm. At first, he is rough, dirty, and sings like a sailor, but as he and Anna begin to fall in love aboard the coal barge that Old Chris captains, his arias grow noticeably sweeter.

In a character actor highlight, Joy Hermalyn brings a salty humor and world-weariness to the barfly Marthy Owen. Mike Pirozzi brings earthy charm to the role of Larry the Bartender.

Thomas's score is expertly crafted and tuneful, strongly underscoring the emotional swings of the action: from tender scenes of love, to brash brawls on the barge. Credit must also be given to conductor Julian Wachner, who expertly wrings a lush, large sound from the small orchestra.

Tickets for remaining performances can be purchased at the Baruch box office or here. More photos can be found here.

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"Frankenstein" and Other Works in Green-Wood Cemetery

by Steven Pisano

20181009-20181009-DSC04065(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The composer Gregg Kallor has an affinity for the macabre. His musical setting for Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" debuted two Octobers ago in the burial crypt of the Church of the Intercession in Upper Manhattan, and this last week selections from his opera-in-the-making based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein were performed in the catacombs of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Produced by Andrew Ousley at Unison Media in collaboration with the innovative On Site Opera, Frankenstein featured the baritone Joshua Jeremiah as the Monster, the tenor Brian Cheney as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and the mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano. Music was provided by Kallor himself on piano and longtime collaborator Joshua Roman on cello. Sarah Meyers was the director. Although only three scenes of the work-in-progress were presented, it is clear that Kallor has grand plans.

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Carnegie Hall's Opening Night with the San Francisco Symphony, Renée Fleming and Audra McDonald

San Francisco Symphony Carnegie Hall Gala - 5Carnegie Hall opened it's 127th season last Wednesday with Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony in a pops-style program that skewed heavily towards Americana and Broadway (with a little Liszt thrown in.) Which is precisely the sort of crowd-pleasing concert that the occasion called for, not unlike the all-Bernstein concert MTT programmed for the last time San Francisco opened the Carnegie season in 2008

The program was dominated by Gershwin, bookended by his visceral, dancey Cuban Overture (1932), and ending with An American in Paris (1928). In between, the orchestra played Liszt's Mephisto Waltz: a Romantic showpiece not quite rising to MTT's characterization of it as "incredibly daring."

The bulk of the program consisted of a selection of show tunes, sung by six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald and celebrated soprano Renée Fleming, who is working to establish her Broadway cred with her recent run as Nettie Fowler in Carousel and her new album, Renée Fleming: Broadway. 

McDonald played to her strengths with Gershwin's "Summertime" and "Vanilla Ice Cream" from Jerry Bock's 1963 musical She Loves Me, investing both with deep meaning and substance. Fleming began in familiar territory with the lilting Aria from Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (with SF principal cellist Michael Grebanier) before transitioning to "Fable" from Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza, which she said was "one of my favorite musicals." Her voice is still a miracle, penetrating and powerful, yet accessible and intimate. 

The vocal part of the program ended on a politically-charged note, with McDonald and Fleming singing a medley of Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods and Richard Rodgers "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific. "Seems appropriate for our times," McDonald said, a not-so-oblique reference to recent events. To drive the point home, they then offered an encore of Laura Nyro's 1969 anti-war rock anthem "Save the Country."

"I got fury in my soul, fury's gonna take me to the glory goal 
In my mind I can't study war no more.
Save the people, save the children, save the country now"

MTT, who will be stepping down as San Francisco Symphony music director after next season, has been appointed a Carnegie Perspectives Artist, and will be returning later this season with the Vienna Philharmonic (March 5-6) and his other ensemble, the New World Symphony (May 1-2), who will be performing two of Thomas' own works. As for Carnegie Hall, upcoming highlights include concerts by the Czech Philharmonic (Oct 27-28), the Mariinsky Orchestra (Oct 30-Nov 1), and recitals by pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Oct 25) and Yuja Wang (Oct 26).

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"The Mile Long Opera" on The High Line

The Mile Long Opera17Composer David Lang has never been comfortable with standards of music presentation. Thirty years ago, he - along with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe - founded Bang on a Can for the express purpose of upending concert hall conventions. Instead of a neat two hour program with a 15 minute intermission, their Marathons run continuously from six to ten hours. And, Lang's music in particular seems to go our of its way to be subversive: among his recent works is a "symphony for broken instruments" (2017) and "harmony and understanding" (2018) for orchestra and audience. 

Four years ago, David decided to eschew the concert hall altogether with "crowd out" (2014), commissioned by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Berlin Philharmonic, and performed outdoors by "1,000 people yelling." He followed that up two years later with "the public domain" (2016), written for 1,000 singers (including your's truly) performing on Lincoln Center Plaza.

Now Lang, along with architect/designer Liz Diller, has come up with his third work for 1,000 performers, "The Mile Long Opera," which is being performed this week along the entire length of The High Line on the west side of Manhattan. (The final performance takes place tonight, starting at 7pm.)

I attended last Thursday's performance, and it is, first and foremost, an impressive feat of logistics and stage design - if you can call the High Line a stage. Some 40 professional and community choirs from around the city have been recruited to participate, comprising a patchwork as diverse as the city itself. There were choirs of Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Ukrainian, and Hispanic descent. There were baptist choirs, new music ensembles, women's choruses. Even Opera on Tap was there.

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