04 September 2015

Interview: Tatiana Daubek & Gonzalo Ruiz on House of Time’s Upcoming Season

Quartet performance.

Twenty-five years ago, I interviewed the legendary Czech soprano Jarmila Novotná, and my essay about her led a few years ago to my meeting her granddaughter, violinist Tatiana Daubek. One happy consequence of that new association has been the opportunity to hear several concerts from House of Time, the chamber ensemble of which Tatiana is a founding member. The programs are consistently intriguing, presenting varied repertoire that combines rarities with more-familiar works in unfamiliar settings, played on period instruments. Oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz has unlocked most of these treasures from “libraries and listening,” as he puts it, and he often provides lively commentary from the stage.

Each concert I’ve attended has found me by turns beaming, meditating, chuckling, and (once) crying. Trust me: they’re terrific. Now House of Time is gearing up for its third season here in New York, and preparing to venture into 20th-century repertoire. With the first concert looming on September 18, I sat down with Tatiana and Gonzalo to look at the time ahead — and the time gone by.

Quartet rest.

House of Time got started, Tatiana and Gonzalo recall, when they were invited to play for a private party. Their hosts “didn’t want random musicians,” Tatiana says; “they thought it would be much better to have a name.” Casting about for inspiration, they landed on “Cronologgia,” a play on words (“cronologia,” or “chronology,” “chronos,” or “time,” and “loggia,” or “dwelling”).

This appealed to them at first, because it would permit the group to perform music of several different periods. “Why have a name like ‘So-and-So Baroque’ when you’re doing 19th-century repertoire?” Tatiana says. But ultimately the group decided that “Cronologgia” “sounds like a disease,” and they settled on the English translation. “We liked having a name that lent itself to any repertoire, any style of music that we want to play.”

“I don’t like to put limits on what we do, in terms of dates,” Gonzalo says. “The main focus in the rest of our musical life is the 18th century. But we have been branching out, into the 17th century, a lot into the 19th century. At our first concert this season, we have our first 20th-century piece, and we’re planning a substantial late-20th-century piece for next season. It really is about paying attention to the music in its chronological context, rather than just mixing and matching. Not that we don’t combine periods, but if we do it’s probably for a reason.”

In his research, Gonzalo comes up with little-known material, some of which he isn’t sure had ever been performed before House of Time got to it. This season, the group will also perform new arrangements of Handel’s Il Pastor Fido and Rameau’s Zaïs, custom-made for the ensemble’s players.

“It’s a very Baroque approach to use the instruments you have around,” Gonzalo says. “We in the post-Romantics tend to think of orchestration as an intrinsic part of the piece. That’s certainly true for a lot of 18th-century repertoire, but by and large what we call orchestration was part of the performance, rather than intrinsic to the music. I like to take a piece of music and make it work for the instruments that we have.”

Gonzalo Ruiz,
photographed by Tatiana Daubek.
(Yes, she’s a photographer, too.}

Those instruments are of the period in which the music was written. Over the centuries, instruments have changed as music has changed, Gonzalo explains, recalling that, while a 21st-century pianist can figure out how to play an 18th-century harpsichord, he didn’t know what to do with a Baroque oboe the first time he got his hands on one: the instrument had evolved so much.

“Really, when you start focusing on older music, you want to play the older instrument,” Gonzalo says. “It’s like the way Blue Grass fans prefer acoustic to electric guitar. There’s a relationship between the art and the tools. Using the right tools doesn’t guarantee you anything, but it is a good start. …Music vanishes as soon as you make it, so the process is the product, in a sense. We feel more comfortable using those tools.”

Like Tatiana, Argentine-born Gonzalo has music in his genes. His father is a conductor, and while the family lived in Paris, he asked his own teacher, Nadia Boulanger, how to get little Gonzalo started in music. She declared that “C’est trop tard!” (It’s too late) for the boy, who hadn’t yet turned four. Smitten five years later with the sound of the oboe — confounding his father, who had hoped for the violin — little Gonzalo was taken to the conservatory, where he was told, “No, you’re too young, you’re too small, and the oboe class is full.”

Tears ensued, but alone the next day he rode his bicycle back to the conservatory to ask again, and his parents had to bring him home. When the oboe teacher heard this story, he contacted the Ruiz family and gave Gonzalo lessons on the sly, until the family moved to the U.S., and he pursued a more conventional education.

And then came the Baroque oboe. The more he learned, the more he realized that “I had a sound in my head that I wasn’t hearing in real life,” and that he found himself enjoying the sound of Baroque oboe-playing less than he enjoyed the sound of playing on other period instruments. “I’ve become more flexible in my tastes since then, but I started Baroque oboe-playing with a sense of mission: ‘There’s something to be done, and I may as well be the one to do it.’”

Today, he says, “There’s been a lot of progress and improvement in the Baroque oboe world, and I like to think that I’ve made my contribution to it.” His CV attests to that: he’s won accolades for performances with leading ensembles; he’s taught at Oberlin, the Longy School, and Juilliard, as well as many master classes; and his students now play with the best groups in the country. He’s got a Grammy nomination, and examples of his work are in the music collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sound in Gonzalo’s head is now in the heads of a lot of other people.

Tatiana Daubek.

Tatiana started violin at the age of seven, “but I really found my calling and my teacher in high school.” She followed that teacher, Julia Bushkova, from the Interlochen Arts Academy to the University of North Texas, where she studied for another five years. Still, she says, “From the age of seven to fourteen, I also led a pretty normal kid life.” By the time she got to Interlochen, “I knew that music was very important to me, and I didn’t want to live without it in my life.”

Bushkova recommended that Tatiana study Baroque violin (“and that’s quite rare, coming from a Moscow Conservatory, traditional teacher,” Tatiana observes). The Baroque violin teacher at UNT was Cynthia Roberts, another important influence on her career. “Once I started playing some of the more obscure stuff, composers I hadn’t heard of and composers I had never played before, I thought, ‘Wow, this stuff is really good!’”

She obtained a graduate degree in “regular” violin from Boston University while continuing to study Baroque on the side, then got into Juilliard’s Baroque program, then just taking off. Her teacher there was Monica Huggett, the head of the new program, with whom Gonzalo has worked for 20 years. “She is a force of nature,” Tatiana says. “I feel like music radiates from her all the time. She just plays and doesn’t care what anyone thinks.”

Today House of Time also includes members Paul Dwyer (cello), Leon Schelhase (harpsichord), Avi Stein (harpsichord), and Beiliang Zhu (cello and viola da gamba), as well as “guest stars” for individual concerts. “The Venn diagram of our best friends and the best musicians we know has a huge overlap,” Gonzalo says. “So far, everybody that’s played in House of Time is somebody that we really like.”

He contrasts the group’s concerts with those in which instrumentalists are hired by a contractor, or orchestras “where your colleagues hopefully are friendly, but you didn’t have anything to do with it. We’re very picky about whom we invite to play with us.”

Working with people they know well makes performances more dynamic, it seems, as the players respond to one another. “I like the unpredictability, no matter how much you rehearse,” Gonzalo says. “As it’s going, you’re like following a thread, not an exact road map. There’s just too many things to react to.”

“And every person that’s onstage obviously will create a different road map each time,” Tatiana agrees.

Also unlike other chamber groups, which tour and play in other group’s concert series, Gonzalo says, “We are focused on building our own audience and putting on our own concerts here in New York.”

“We’re bumping up the level every year,” Tatiana says. “Every season we’re that much better prepared, we have that much more visibility, and our audience is still growing.” They’ve just released a (gorgeous) CD of works by François Couperin and Marin Marais, and they’re pleased, too, with the success of a recent Kickstarter campaign, which means that the upcoming season is nearly in the black already.

“In some ways, we still are kind of doing everything ourselves,” Tatiana says, and Gonzalo has learned that, “when I try to wear too many hats, I do something terribly wrong.” Tatiana’s lesson has been, “Don’t wait ‘til the last minute. …Things always take more time than you expect. But that’s sort of true everywhere.” Even in the House of Time.

To purchase tickets and more information on House of Time’s upcoming season, visit the ensemble’s website, here.

Tatiana appears in Joyce DiDonato’s music video for NPR, recorded at the historic Stonewall Inn — and I appear, too, seated just behind Tatiana. This photo was taken just after the wrap.

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01 September 2015

‘The Music of Madeline Kahn’ at the Metropolitan Room

It’s show time!

On Saturday, September 12, New York City’s Metropolitan Room will present “The Music of Madeline Kahn” as part of its “Gone Too Soon” series. Produced by Joseph Macchia and directed by Peter Napolitano, the tribute will feature music from just about every phase of Madeline’s career. I’ll be the host, and afterward I’ll be signing copies of Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life. Because this book hasn’t required me to do nearly enough crazy things yet.

So far, the cast includes several of Madeline’s colleagues:

Walter Willison and Joan Copeland, co-stars of Two by Two, the Richard Rodgers–Martin Charnin musical in which Madeline had a featured role (1970–71). After our event at the Drama Book Shop in June, Joan took me and a friend aside and sang her solo from Two by Two: she’s 93 now, and believe me, you’re in for a treat.

Michael Cohen, music director of the revues Madeline performed at the Upstairs at the Downstairs club (1965–67). He’s also the composer of the brilliant Weill parody, “Das Chicago Song.” I wrote about Michael’s opera here.

Lawrence Leritz, who started as a Madeline fan and later worked with her when he guest-starred on Cosby (1999).

I interviewed all of these people for Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life, of course, and Lawrence and Walter (who was pretty much on 24-hour call for seven years to provide me with his memories and advice) were especially helpful to me. Having them along for this ride is a tremendous comfort to me — besides which, they’re terrific performers.

We’ll also feature performers inspired by Madeline. From Broadway, Ann Harada, of Avenue Q, Cinderella, and TV’s Smash; and Sarah Rice, the original Joanna in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. I wrote about Ann’s wonderful show Christmas Eve with Christmas Eve here, and about Sarah’s beautiful Ivor Novello tribute here.

From opera, sopranos Janice Hall and Rosa Betancourt. I’ve written often about Janice and her fascinating career, which also encompasses cabaret and spoken theater — here, here, here, here, and here (for starters). And Rosa was the marvelous Musetta in Fort Worth Opera’s La Bohème in 2013.

And from cabaret, Adam Shapiro, Hanna Burke, Minda Larsen, and Julie Feltman. Adam and Julie have knocked my socks off in everything I’ve seen them do — and I’m looking forward to getting to know Hanna and Minda, about whom people rave. (In the good way.) Our music director is Jeff Cubeta, who has quickly earned a reputation for being able to tackle any kind of music — just the guy we need!

Doors open at 3:30, and the show starts at 4:00. The Met Room is a terrific venue, and you can make your reservation by clicking on this link or by calling (212) 206-0440.

Please join us! For one thing, Joel Grey, Madeline’s co-star in Marco Polo Sings a Solo (1977) just called to say that he’s finishing his memoir and won’t be able to participate. This means I’ll be the only Emcee in the room. Oh, well. That’s show biz, kids.

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24 June 2015

Interview: Caroline Worra on ‘The Long Walk’

Soprano Caroline Worra:
The Champion of New Opera.

Though I first heard her in Verdi, soprano Caroline Worra has over the years earned a sterling reputation for new work, singing in premieres and near-premieres with opera companies across the United States. When Mark Adamo’s Little Women opened at Glimmerglass, there was Caroline Worra, who managed to make Amy (my least-favorite March sister) appealing and sympathetic. When Fort Worth Opera brought Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied to the stage, there was Caroline Worra again, bringing life to a modern-day Penelope whose husband’s long wartime odyssey cost them both all that they shared.

I started to count up the contemporary roles in her repertory — The Mines of Sulphur, Lizzie Borden, and Orphée, just off the top of my head, and there are lots of others — but ultimately, it’s not about numbers. To everything she does, Caroline Worra brings clarity: she lets nothing stand between her and her audience, spinning her stories with irresistible immediacy of expression. No matter how difficult or surprising the music, her message comes across.

With Opera Saratoga this summer, Worra will sing three roles in another world premiere, Jeremy Howard Beck’s The Long Walk, an adaptation of Iraqi War veteran Brian Castner’s coming-home memoir. From workshops and sing-throughs to opening night, Worra has been involved in The Long Walk at every step: in fact, “The entire cast has stayed with the project for two years, which is incredible,” she says. “We generally don’t get this kind of luxury.”

The Long Walk’s cast also includes Daniel Belcher, Heather Johnson, Donita Volkwijn, David Blalock, Javier Abreu, and Justin Hopkins. Two years ago, the company assembled to work through about half the opera, with only piano and an electric guitar for accompaniment. “The next year, it was a little bit longer,” Worra says, “and this past March, we read it again with the full orchestration. To be with a piece for this long, in these crucial stages of existence, has been a treat for all of us.”

As Older Alyce in Glory Denied
(with Sydney Mancasola as Younger Alyce in background).
Photo by Ellen Appel, courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

Opera isn’t Broadway, and until recently workshopping has been a rare practice, but it’s an important part of the process for Lawrence Edelson and American Lyric Theater, who commissioned The Long Walk. “I’ve been a part of so many world premieres,” Worra says, “and quite often you get to the venue, and the score is completely published, and it is what it is. And quite often, once you’re into the production space, it’s too late for cuts and edits.” But for The Long Walk, even now that rehearsals have begun, composer Beck, his librettist, Stephanie Fleischmann; stage director David Schweizer, and conductor Steven Osgood “have continued to work together to make sure they are streamlining the piece and creating the correct amount of drama and the pulse for the crucial moments and the drive to the end.”

Perhaps needless to say, singers who can cope with this kind of ongoing editorial work — which may entail learning, un-learning, and re-learning words and music even as opening night approaches — must possess quick minds, first-rate musicianship, and generous, collaborative spirits. Caroline Worra began developing these qualities when she was still an undergraduate, earning her bachelor’s degree in piano. “I enjoy the technical aspect of being able to sing through and learn music that sometimes is almost more instrumental in nature,” as contemporary scores often are, she says. “I’ve found the challenge of taking things that maybe are written in a difficult manner and trying to make it just seem and feel and look and sound natural.”

The themes of Worra’s musical life came together when the piano major began to study voice with Costanza Cuccaro. Cuccaro’s husband, Edwin Penhorwood, is a composer who sometimes played for Worra’s lessons. Penhorwood has written extensively for his wife, and often shared his new work with her pupil. “It was great to be around a composer who was composing brand-new things all the time,” Worra says. “I loved that right away. [Composers] are creating new things, and it’s exciting to me.”

When she first heard Cuccaro sing, “I felt there was something so natural and clear about the way that she sang and the way that she communicated,” Worra says. “That’s what really inspired me to become a singer.” Today, Worra still aims to uphold her teacher’s “natural” expression, even in challenging vocal lines. “I think that’s actually what a lot of composers are trying to do, to write things that will sound natural,” she says. And the singing technique also informs Worra’s acting, because it “really lends itself to a sort of clarity of intent on the stage. This is what helps a lot of some of these roles that I get to do, to be able to rely on that technique that she taught me, so that I can have a very natural acting style.”

Even when she sings 19th-century opera,
it’s sometimes a world premiere:
As Gertrude in Faccio’s Amleto
with Opera Southwest, 2014.

When Cuccaro and Penhorwood left the University of Missouri for Indiana University, Worra followed them there, earning a doctorate in vocal performance, “to learn this craft, to just stay in a protected environment as long as I could,” she says, and she still studies with Cuccaro whenever she can. While in Bloomington, Worra minored in conducting. That study has given her rare insight into the conductor’s job, and as a result, “I enjoy that communication between the conductor and the singer,” Worra says. “That’s really crucial in those new works, when you’re creating things. The conductor and the singer are really dependent on each other.”

In The Long Walk, Worra sings three roles: Brian’s sister, in a birthday-party scene that shows the difficulty he’s facing as he adjusts to life at home; an Iraqi woman, “mourning and singing about how our children are dead, and how angry we are” in a “dramatic and terrifying” sequence; and Brian’s psychiatrist, who diagnoses him not with the post-traumatic stress disorder he’d supposed he had, but with “blast-induced traumatic brain injury,” a side-effect of the explosives he detonated as part of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit during the war. Receiving this diagnosis “helps him to the next stage of recovery,” Worra says. “If you know what’s wrong with you, you have a little more drive and hope, and you can try to recover into as much of a normal life as you can possibly have.”

By now, singing new music is normal life for Caroline Worra — The Long Walk isn’t even the first time she’s gotten to meet the real-life people she’s singing about. “I enjoy every second of getting to work on these new pieces,” she says. “I know how lucky we are to be able to do world premieres. Creating things that nobody has ever seen before is one of my absolute favorite things to get to do.”

Jeremy Howard Beck’s The Long Walk
Opera Saratoga

at the Spa Little Theater in Spa State Park
Saratoga Springs, NY
July 10 (world premiere) and 25 at 7:30 pm
July 13 and 17 at 2:00 pm
For more information and tickets, click here.

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09 May 2015

New Ways to Listen to Weill’s Music

Road of Promise: Tokash, Rifkin, Sperling, Griffey, Delavan, Michelle (left to right), with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Collegiate Chorale. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy of the Collegiate Chorale.

One doesn’t often get the chance to attend performances of significant works by Kurt Weill in two different cities within a single week — but I managed the feat with a production of his Broadway hit Lady in the Dark at Lyric Stage in Irving, TX; and an oratorio adapted from his The Eternal Road, the night after its U.S. premiere at Carnegie Hall.

Lady in the Dark isn’t staged often enough: part of the problem, surely, lies in the Hollywood adaptation (starring Ginger Rogers, in 1944), which jettisoned most of the score and diminished the show’s fame. Another problem, though, is the show’s structure. We’re introduced to Liza Elliott, the high-powered but neurotic editor of a fashion magazine, in scenes of spoken dialogue (written by Moss Hart) that reflect old-fashioned ideas about psychoanalysis and women’s roles. It’s tricky material. The music is presented entirely in three through-composed dream sequences and a bit of flashback — and because it’s from the pens of Weill and Ira Gershwin (in his first collaboration after George’s death), it also demands performers at the peak of their powers.

Seen May 1, Lyric’s production upheld musical standards without fail, and music director Jay Dias presented the complete score with the full original orchestrations (a hallmark of this company). This then was an exceptionally rare opportunity to hear Weill’s score as he intended, and Lyric fielded sterling instrumentalists and a cast entirely comfortable with the vocal material. Fresh lyric voices hoisted the jazzy yet almost operetta-ish numbers with style and apparent ease — but as actors, only a few seemed to catch the wit and energy that guided this show’s creators.

Lady in the Dark: Lutz and Appleby.

Indeed, Ann Nieman’s production seemed altogether too polite for a piece that was — and in many ways still is — revolutionary in its approach to Broadway conventions and forms. Very rarely did any of the cast seem to be having much fun, and the greatest casualty in this regard was the perfectly capable Ryan Appleby as Russell Paxton, a variation on a “nance” role that made Danny Kaye a star overnight in 1941. Presumably out of respect for the more enlightened sensibilities of 2015, Nieman and Appleby miscalculated, giving us a Russell who was restrained, mostly levelheaded, and possibly heterosexual. Appleby sang wonderfully, but because his Russell was no longer a flamboyant stereotype, he had no character left to play.

Mercifully, Janelle Lutz played Liza with absolute authority, alternating aloof rigidity with (when called for) a Rita Hayworth strut absolutely perfect for the period in which Lady is set. Honestly, I didn’t think anybody still knew how to walk in a gown like that; somewhere Tex Avery’s Wolfie must be whistling for her. She underplayed Liza’s sense of humor in the dialogue scenes, and I’d have liked to see her find a few more opportunities to cut loose in the music; “The Saga of Jenny” ended just as she was really warming to it. But she’s terrifically attractive, with a lovely lyric voice, and I’d love to see her as Weill’s Venus, where the character’s playfulness is plainer to see on the page.

The evening’s other standouts were Conor Guzmán and Lois S. Hart. As one of Liza’s suitors, a Hollywood hunk, Guzmán had a grand time poking fun at his own handsomeness, and Hart built in strength over the evening as Liza’s wisecracking but sympathetic best friend. Sets and costumes by Cornelius Parker and Drenda Lewis generally — but not always — looked more ingenious than inexpensive, and the Glamour Dream in Act I proved quite effective visually.

To a degree, Liza’s trouble — “She’s afraid to compete as a woman” — is less potentially wince-inducing to modern audiences than is Billy Bigelow’s penchant for hitting his wife. As a result, some of us have great difficulty enjoying Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, which I saw April 19 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, in Rob Ashford’s production. Yet Carousel has advantages, starting with the fact that so many people already have seen it or even performed it in any of the innumerable productions that pop up around the country all the time. Chicago brought in expert Broadway players Stephen Pasquale, Laura Osnes, and Charlotte d’Amboise, while mezzo Denyce Graves made this her first professional appearance in a musical, opening a new page in her repertory and winning the admiration of a matinée audience largely composed of high-schoolers. As Julie, Osnes might have showed more gumption without stealing the thunder of Jenn Gambatese (a winning Carrie Pipperidge), but really, nobody onstage or in the pit seemed unsure what to do in a Rodgers & Hammerstein show. This is America, after all. We get this. Most of us even forgive Billy.

Carousel: Osnes and Pasquale.

Rodgers’ score (gorgeously played by the Lyric orchestra under David Chase) is openhearted, sincere, slightly sappy at times and also strange and mystical at others — but Billy’s “Soliloquy” sets forth the character’s contradictions and fundamentally good intentions to a degree that redeems him in our eyes. We start to root for him, and continue to do so for all of Act II. In Lady in the Dark, Weill is sassier and more cynical, and in his orchestration we hear more winking winds and sneering brass than the sort of lush and embracing strings that Rodgers deploys so effectively. Only Lady’s poignant “My Ship” approaches anything resembling Rodgers-style emotion, but Liza has to unpack much of her psychological baggage before we hear it whole — and it’s a child’s song, a fairy tale, not something real to which Liza aspires, as Billy aspires to fatherhood.

Consequently, I’m not surprised that the French premiere of Lady in the Dark — in Lyon, in 2008 — more successfully captured the show’s spirit than did the Texas production. The French have little experience of any Broadway tradition, apart from what they’ve seen in Hollywood movies, so they can toy with the form as merrily as they do with almost any part of American culture. In a sense, then, the Lyonnais approached Lady as Weill approached Broadway: “Let’s see how we can use this to our own satisfaction.”*

Weill’s debut in New York was something else altogether, one of the rare glimpses he left us of the importance of his Jewish heritage, the epic Eternal Road. Yes, there were klezmer harmonies and liturgical motifs running through a lot of his work, but this time he set stories from the Torah — and all the while, he was running from the Nazis, absorbing French and American music, and continuing the eternal evolution of his style.

Lady in the Dark, Théâtre de la Renaissance and Opéra de Lyon, with Tina May (center) as Liza, 2008.

Ed Harsh has adapted The Eternal Road as an oratorio, using an alternate translation of the original German title, Der Weg der Verheißung: The Road of Promise. Reducing the piece from six hours to two, and reducing the speaking roles to three (from G*d knows how many), certainly places this music within the grasp of many more producing organizations than ever could have possibly attempted it before — which is to say none, since the premiere in 1937. In many respects, The Road of Promise now feels like an oratorio, but it doesn’t often sound like one, and the comparison is telling between this score and Weill’s cantata Der Lindberghflug, which shows so much of Bach’s influence. In The Road of Promise I heard lots and lots of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Second Symphony, works that immediately preceded Eternal Road — but I didn’t hear much Bach. The reason seems clear enough: Weill wrote this piece as a fully staged drama, and he used a particular, very different musical language toward that end.

Weill’s music for the stage is a very fine thing, of course, and at Carnegie Hall on May 7, I got my first opportunity to hear more than isolated songs from this score. In correspondence with his publishers, Weill always bragged that he’d discovered “an entirely new style” in just about every piece that he wrote, but The Road of Promise does afford even a Weill devotee the thrill of discovery — notably in the choral writing. An ecstatic section in “The Building of the Temple,” for example, sounds like nothing else I’ve heard from this composer, and as delivered by the mighty forces of the Collegiate Chorale, the effect was overwhelming.

Elsewhere one heard echoes of Fauré (of all people) and the German Romantics, with hints at the Broadway lights that beckoned to Weill already. For a story so big, encompassing so many generations, the composer seems to have opted for as many styles as he could manage. This means the score is particularly demanding of its orchestra and conductor, but Ted Sperling’s own career spans so many styles that he seemed unfazed, drawing more flavorful playing from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s than I’ve heard from the Met Orchestra in Mahagonny — for example.

Road of Promise: Anthony Dean Griffey as the Rabbi. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy of the Collegiate Chorale.

As in the original work, The Road of Promise finds Jews seeking shelter in a synagogue during a pogrom in an unnamed European country. A 13-year-old Boy (Eli Tokash, actor) joins the congregation, but he knows nothing of the faith: his father, an assimilationist, has cut him off from his roots. Patiently, the Rabbi (Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor) gives him a crash course in Jewish history, interspersed by the cynical objections of the Adversary (Ron Rifkin, actor) — whose attitude can be summed up as, “G*d, stop doing the Jews so many favors!” At one point, the Boy objects, asking whether the Jews would be better off worshipping idols. “It worked out well enough for the Egyptians,” the Adversary replies tartly.

Sporting a handsomely patriarchal beard for the occasion, Griffey fielded most of the solo singing and quite a lot of the acting. The sweetness and utter clarity of his tone remain a marvel, and though much of his music is lightly accompanied at most, he offered the best English diction of any singer onstage. While Sperling displayed admirable sensitivity to the rest of the company, words were often lost, and I regretted that only the lyrics to some choral sections were projected over the stage (as part of Wendall K. Harrington’s series of projections, mostly showing Biblical scenes from 17th- and 18th-century paintings).

Most of the other singers performed multiple roles, with baritones Mark Delavan wonderfully affecting as Abraham and Moses, and Philip Cutlip particularly incisive as Solomon. Tenor AJ Glueckert fielded many, many roles, and though it was sometimes hard to know who he was supposed to be, his heat and passion contrasted effectively with Griffey’s calm authority — and with the tenor of an unseen fellow who sang the Voice of G*d and who, though billed as “Anonymous,” revealed many of the traits of Ian Bostridge to my ears. Women get shorter shrift here — as they do in the Bible, after all — but soprano Lauren Michelle and mezzo Megan Marino acquitted themselves with grace as Rachel and Naomi (Michelle) and Miriam and Ruth (Marino). Bass-baritone Justin Hopkins made the stentorian most of his appearance as the Dark Angel. (Really, his wings were almost visible.)

The Road of Promise ends with its Jews banished, a fate that once seemed easy when compared with the Shoah that followed the original production. Today, with headlines from Europe and America reminding us that anti-Semitism is hardly ancient history, the piece seems perhaps more relevant than it did even 15 years ago. Thus the oratorio — a concentration of music manageable not only to producers and performers but also to audiences — may serve a worthy purpose beyond Carnegie Hall, whether or not it’s precisely what the composer had in mind. Though I’m admittedly a Weill fanatic, this much seems inarguable: we need more of his music, more than ever.

Kurt Weill.

*NOTE: I reviewed the Lyonnais Lady in the Dark for the Kurt Weill Newsletter (begins on page 20 of the pdf) and for Opera News (but you have to have a subscription to access the magazine’s archive, so I’m not posting a link).

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01 May 2015

Interview: Justin Hopkins on ‘The Road of Promise’

Bass-baritone Justin Hopkins.

Among the cast of the Collegiate Chorale’s upcoming U.S. premiere of Kurt Weill’s The Road of Promise, the name Justin Hopkins stands out. The bass-baritone will sing the role of the Dark Angel next week, and I first encountered him at Fort Worth Opera, in Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox, in 2011, where he displayed a commanding voice, keen musicality, and the skill to deliver a long, emotional monologue — spoken, not sung — with more power than most stage actors his age could muster. To The Road of Promise Hopkins brings a couple of credentials that should serve him well: he’s a former winner of the Lotte Lenya Competition, sharing second place in 2012; and as a veteran of the Philadelphia Boys Choir, he knows his way around big choral works.

“I would not have had a career in music without my experience with the Boys Choir,” Hopkins said. “Number one, it established my love and appreciation for the music that I’m singing today.” He points to Britten’s War Requiem, which he’s just sung for the first time as a baritone soloist — but which was the first piece he performed with the Boys Choir, when he was nine years old. With the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Requiem made an impression, and Hopkins remembers being “astonished at the size and scope of this piece, and how it moved things.” He bought a recording of the piece and listened to it “over and over, while my friends were listening to God knows what. The fact that I performed the War Requiem all those years ago informed my performance this year.”

Hopkins also credits the choir’s director, Robert G. Hamilton, for instilling in him the discipline he’s needed to pursue a career in music, lessons he sums up as “You needed to be in constant focus and attention, but you needed to be passionate. I’ve taken that with me, and that informs my drive and my passion for performing today.” The choir also influenced Hopkins’ musical aesthetics. “Dr. Hamilton was in constant search of contemporary composers at the forefront of choral music,” Hopkins says, and the Boys Choir performed a wide-ranging repertory that embraced classical and modern works, as well as show tunes. “I had a great balance of new and old music from a young age,” Hopkins says, and this steered him toward an “ability to — not to grasp but just to engage in both forms.”

That said, modern and contemporary works often address subjects that are more immediate and accessible to him. He cites the War Requiem, which incorporates Wilfred Owen’s poetry from World War I and recalls World War II, in which Hopkins’ grandfather fought; Hydrogen Jukebox takes on a variety of contemporary politics and mores. Hopkins’ upcoming engagement, the world premiere of Jeremy Howard Beck’s The Long Walk at Opera Saratoga, tells of a soldier’s return home from the war in Iraq. These themes offer “an easier or more direct route to identify with the music” and help “to conjure up the emotional relationship” more than is sometimes true of older pieces.

In Hydrogen Jukebox.
Fort Worth Opera, 2011. Photo by Ron T. Ennis.

The Road of Promise offers a modern look at ancient stories, since Weill’s librettist, Franz Werfel, uses tales from the Bible to respond to the persecution of Jews under the Nazis. Hopkins grew up in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, an exceptionally integrated community where he had Jewish friends (“I attended a lot of bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs”) and tried to learn more about their heritage. Discovering the horrifying history of the Shoah, he could on some level relate that legacy to the African–American experience of slavery and diaspora, he says, locating “a common bond … of racism and oppression.” Now he points to the “great sense of kinship and brotherhood between the two communities,” especially during the early years of the civil rights movement. “The relationship of African–Americans and Jewish–Americans in the United States is very important… I’m actually sad to see that the relationship doesn’t exist as much as it did in the past.”

Kurt Weill himself wrote one of the principal artistic works reflecting the solidarity between Jews and blacks in the 1940s, Lost in the Stars, his final work for Broadway. A protest against South African racism, Lost in the Stars, held a clear message for America, and in 1950, the original production couldn’t go on national tour because it was impossible to secure lodging for black cast members. “It wasn’t that long ago,” Hopkins observes, and now the show’s title number has entered his repertory. “It resonates with audiences much in the way that ‘Ol’ Man River’ does,” he says. “He got it, Kurt Weill — and Kern and Hammerstein — they understood the plight of the community which they were writing about.” And because The Road of Promise incorporates stories that are a part of Hopkins’ own faith, “I feel as if I am able to relate to it on an emotional level that much more.”

For The Road of Promise, Hopkins will be working with conductor Ted Sperling, whom he admires as a performer and as a role model of sorts. “He’s so fluent in so many genres,” and Hopkins would like to see his own career follow a similar path. “I love opera, very obviously, and I love oratorio, in concert performances. I love drama … and I would love to be regarded as a versatile performer who seems as at home on the opera stage as he does on the concert platform and in the musical theater and on the theatrical stage. I’d love to be a jack-of-all-trades, because I love it all. Given the opportunity, I have something unique to offer in each of those areas.” He’ll get no argument from me.

Collegiate Chorale presents
Kurt Weill’s The Road of Promise
Carnegie Hall
May 6 at 8:00
May 7 at 7:00
Click HERE for information and tickets.

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26 April 2015

Preview: Collegiate Chorale Performs Weill’s ‘Road of Promise’

There may never have been a show as big as The Eternal Road, a retelling of ancient Jewish history conceived by Meyer Weisgal, composed by a cantor’s son named Kurt Weill, with a book by Franz Werfel. For the premiere production, in New York’s Manhattan Opera House in 1937, director Max Reinhardt tore out most of the theater’s interior to accommodate Normal Bel Geddes’ set design, which included an entire mountain dotted with multiple playing areas. This left no room for the musicians, so the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the score, accompanied in performance by a live 16-member ensemble — who were in another building and piped in by radio. The cast numbered some 245 performers, including Lotte Lenya, Kurt Kasznar, Sidney Lumet, and the very young Dick Van Patten. When performed complete the piece would run longer than any Wagner opera — though even in the original production, cuts were made and Weill never completed the orchestration for several portions of the score.

The sheer scale of the spectacle as originally conceived would be enough to discourage producers from reviving The Eternal Road, but history plays a part, too. Though Weisgal intended the show to call attention to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and to illustrate the resilience of the people in times of crisis, the creators couldn’t have anticipated the enormity of the Shoah. For a long time The Eternal Road seemed to some almost naïvely optimistic or somehow incomplete, rather than timeless. Yet the piece continued to exert a considerable fascination, not least because it brought Weill to America.

For Weill’s centennial, 63 years after the premiere, The Eternal Road was revived, in a restored edition under its original German title, Der Weg der Verheißung (The Road of Promise), seeing performances in Chemnitz, Tel Aviv, and Brooklyn. That edition’s mastermind, musicologist Ed Harsh, has adapted the piece as an oratorio: reducing the number of speaking roles, trimming the score, and eliminating the need for scenery and costumes, thus putting the work within the grasp of producers who may not be as wealthy as Pharaoh. And now the Collegiate Chorale will present the U.S. premiere of the oratorio, The Road of Promise, at Carnegie Hall May 6 and 7. With a cast that includes Anthony Dean Griffey, Mark Delavan, Philip Cutlip, and Ron Rifkin, this is an event of — well, there’s no better way to say this — monumental proportions.

Conductor and artistic director Sperling.

Indeed, says Ted Sperling, Road of Promise’s conductor and the artistic director of the Collegiate Chorale, “We’ll have 150 choristers, 8 soloists, and a fairly large orchestra, which includes organ and a rather large percussion battery. [The Eternal Road] was a pageant originally, a spectacle, and there will be an aspect of that, that will be respected.” Toward that end, artist Wendall Harrington has been engaged to create projected images “to bring the Bible stories to life visually as well as orally. It will be a little bit more than just a straight-ahead concert in that regard,” Sperling says.

Falling as it does between Weill’s European and American careers, “the musical language does feel to me like a transitional language, even though Kurt Weill probably had no idea what lay ahead,” Sperling says. The composer’s turn from “ernste Musik” toward popular theater music had begun only around 1927, and for all we know he might have drifted back toward the opera house and the concert hall to stay, if Hitler hadn’t come along: Weill had just written the operas Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and Die Bürgschaft, as well as his Second Symphony shortly before he started Eternal Road.

“You can hear the promise of his Broadway material in this piece,” Sperling says, “even though the singing will be more operatic than Broadway, as befits the concert venue and the scale of the work. We’re not going to amplify the singing, so you need singers who can project over the orchestra. But there are arias in this that, with different texts, you can imagine in a Broadway show. At the same time there are big operatic moments. There are big double-chorus moments, with counterpoint back and forth. There are orchestral interludes, to illustrate what’s happening. And then there are scenes between the principal actors, which are spoken. So there’s a lot of variety in the piece.”

Werfel, Reinhardt, and Weill in Salzburg, circa 1935.
Photographer unknown.
Historical images courtesy of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music.

The Weill Foundation (my former employer) asked Ed Harsh “to prepare a version that could live in the concert repertoire, so he selected what he thought were the strongest musical excerpts, and then kept the spine of the story, while reducing the number of characters significantly,” Sperling explains, retaining just the Rabbi, the 13-year-old Boy, and the Adversary, while “let[ting] the musical moments in between sort of take over.”

Having conducted in opera and on Broadway, Sperling has developed an enviable reputation for his comfort in works that don’t fit easily into the conventional “classical” or “show tune” categories. He started early in both worlds, playing violin in an orchestra, studying at Juilliard, and playing piano to accompany singers — “And then, like many kids who play an instrument or sing a little bit, I was drafted to be in school musicals. I played Perchik in Fiddler on the Roof in summer camp when I was six, before I knew what I was talking about!” Meanwhile, his grandmother, a singer and voice teacher, took him to the Metropolitan Opera, and his parents played cast albums at home and in the car.

At Yale, he continued to play in symphonies and work on musicals, and his best friend was Victoria Clark, the classically trained singer who’s become a Broadway star. After graduation, he worked with both Roger Nierenberg at the Stamford Symphony and Paul Gemignani on Broadway. “I was singing in church choirs on Sundays and going on a bus to Stamford to play in an orchestra, and then rehearsing Sunday in the Park with George the rest of the week.”

Moses slays the Egyptian taskmaster,
from The Eternal Road, 1937.
Photo by Lucas-Pritchard.

Broadway struck him as “a world where there was a hunger for new work … where people felt they were being treated well,” Sperling says. “I liked that on Broadway there were all these elements that had to come together, whereas in the classical world at that point, people were very suspicious of new work and not so excited about enjoying it.” This was precisely the conclusion that Weill himself came to when he moved to New York after Eternal Road.

Sperling has sought out opportunities to conduct Weill’s work, and The Firebrand of Florence served as his introduction to the Collegiate Chorale, after the death of Robert Bass: the concert was already scheduled, and Sperling knew the piece, having approached the Weill Foundation about it years before. Since then, Sperling and the Chorale have also presented Knickerbocker Holiday; he’s also stage-directed Lady in the Dark in Philadelphia. He’d love to do that show again, “and I’m eager to do Street Scene at some point, and Love Life. Then there are other pieces, like Railroads on Parade and The Lindbergh Flight. There’s still a lot more to go.” (Which, of course, is music to a Weill fan’s ears.)

Ultimately, what can we expect from The Road of Promise? “I think it would be fun to have an element of surprise,” Sperling says with a laugh. “I know people are looking forward to coming to this concert because they don’t know what they’re going to hear.”

Collegiate Chorale presents
Kurt Weill’s The Road of Promise
Carnegie Hall
May 6 at 8:00
May 7 at 7:00
Click HERE for information and tickets.

End of the dance around the Golden Calf,
from The Eternal Road, 1937.
Photo by Richard Tucker.
(Probably not that Richard Tucker.)

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20 April 2015

Texts from the Aisle

Miranda (far right) and company.

New York’s theater world has been in a tizzy since Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of the hit musical Hamilton, revealed that he’d asked stage management not to let a celebrity come backstage after a recent performance. She’d been texting throughout the second act, he said. While many have speculated that the celebrity in question was the pop star Madonna, there’s been no official confirmation — but many of the text messages have now become public, and we present them here.

Hamilton. He’s the guy on the money, right? I heart money.

He’s Latin. Did not know that about him.

OMG this totally hot guy from Grindr is sitting in the balcony

Remember to schedule cleansing after the show

I don’t care what people say my new album is great

Sure, THESE dancers don’t make the star trip and fall. Need new dancers

Fresh blood keeps the act fresh. Also nutritious and good for complexion

Unidentified celebrities must express themselves.

They totally copied those dresses from Vogue at MTV awards. Call attorney tomorrow a.m.

Thought Andrew Jackson was in this. He has a nice butt

Call my personal asst ask her what money Jackson is on

I know she is sitting right next to me fuck U call her NOW

This explains why Jackson butt twice as good as Hamilton butt

So dark in here I can’t see Grindr guy. Frownie face. Ask them to turn up the lights.

Personally I don’t see what all the fuss is about 50 Shades.

They should have asked me to direct

Lets go to Pyramid later

Is Pyramid still open. Probably not. This city has changed so much. Fuck Giuliani

Jesus they let people bring drinks into theater now. No class

Fuck Giuliani

I heart Broadway. Why my name never comes up when people talk about Gypsy revivals?

Hot guy from Grindr def not using current pic. #chelseainches

Why is that woman staring at me she looks really mad

Dim ur own screen U slut

Fuck U, I’m a bitch & I get exactly what I want

What time is it I have places to be

Going backstage, try to steal some of these dancers

I swear, I smell hydrangeas in here. Call an usher. This must stop

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