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Songs About "The Song of Songs" at YIVO

by Steven Pisano

20181206-DSC05028(All photos by Steven Pisano)

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was established in 1925 in Poland, with support from leading intellectuals of the time such as Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. It moved to New York in 1940 during the outbreak of World War II. YIVO houses the largest collection of materials on Eastern European Jews in the world. But, more than just an exemplary research institution, YIVO also runs many entertaining programs that feature classes, seminars and performances of music, theater, and art.

Last Thursday night, YIVO presented a musical program entitled Sweet Is Thy Voice: "The Song of Songs" in Concert as part of its Sidney Krum Young Artists Concert Series. Singers Lucy Fitz Gibbon, Marie Marquis, Kristin Gornstein, and Jonathan Woody were accompanied by Miki Sawada (piano), Matheus Souza (violin), Colin Brookes (viola), Clare Monfredo (cello), and Ian Rosenbaum (percussion).

The program's name comes from "The Song of Songs," or "Shir hashirim": an unusual book in the Bible because it is not about God or laws, but about love - both romantic and erotic. Both Jews and Christians have long extolled its beauty.

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"Greek" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

by Steven Pisano

20181204-DSC02063(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The composer Mark-Anthony Turnage made his mark in London almost 20 years ago with his second opera, which was based on the Sean O'Casey play about Word War I, The Silver Tassie. He came more immediately to the attention of New York opera lovers five years ago with the splashy and sensationalistic Anna Nicole, based on the colorful true story of Anna Nicole Smith.

But Turnage's first opera, Greek, based on Steven Berkoff's play of the same name (which itself was based on the Sophocles drama) has never been seen in New York. Until now. The production now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival (with one cast change) is the same Scottish Opera production that played earlier this year in Glasgow, and before that at the Edinburgh Festival, to glowing reviews.

It is always interesting to see the early work of artists who have gone on to produce larger and more mature works, and Greek is no exception. Written in 1988 during the years of Margaret Thatcher's tumultuous governance in Britain, there is a strong political undercurrent to the story, and thirty years on, none of it sounds dated in today's tedentious political climate.

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"Dragus Maximus" by Heartbeat Opera at Roulette

by Steven Pisano

20181026-DSC01337(All photos by Steven Pisano)

Each fall, to kick off its season, the edgy Heartbeat Opera presents a combination drag and opera extravaganza, which also serves as a fundraiser. This year's production over the weekend at Roulette was called "Dragus Maximus: A Homersexual Opera Odyssey," directed by co-artistic director Ethan Heard and conceived with co-artistic director Louisa Proske.

Drae Campbell was Homer, who was the narrator for the evening. Peregrine Teng Heard (Ethan's sister) was the voiceover of Aphrodite, goddess of love, who guided and prodded Homer on his adventures encountering various mythological beings, each of whom sang an aria from an opera with some kind of connection to the action. Later in the show, Aphrodite was personified on stage by Wo Chan (also known as the drag performer Pearl Harbor).

John Taylor Ward, who starred in Heartbeat's production last year of Mozart's Don Giovanni, sang "Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori" from Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, dressed as the blinded Polyphemus. Dressed up as a life-sized house fly, Ward also paired with Jamilyn Manning-White, as Eurydice, in the "Fly Duet" from Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld.

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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.

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