Monday, July 14, 2014

Phantom of the Opera goes Color Blind

Finally the longest running show in Broadway history has modernized with color blind casting and it's brilliantly done.  Starring as the latest Phantom of the Opera is the dashing African American Norm Lewis.  It's extra auspicious that Norm is realizing his dream to play this role.


Having seen POTO only once before - May 24, 2003 - I decided to give it another go when I was invited to a Buzzmaker Evening for bloggers.   It was fun to see some familiar blogging colleagues at a pre-show cocktail party and then enjoy lovely orchestra seats.  

I saw POTO the first time with a pal visiting from Texas on a very cold and wet Memorial Day weekend.   It was before I started seeing opera and the show was lost on me.  It was very expensive and my companion was not an easy going visitor.  I only remember feeling very annoyed with the entire weekend.

What a difference almost exactly 11 years makes!  Being an opera veteran may have enhanced my enjoyment this time around.  I was thoroughly entertained by the charming production and I found the cast to be quiet effective.  Norm Lewis and his leading lady, Sierra Boggus as Christine Daae, were fabulous.   It's richly sung and performed.  The story is ridiculously over the top, but opera generally is so it worked for me.   The costumes and sets are eye-popping and the production is larger than life, just like the opera.  It's easy to appreciate why this is such a long running old-fashioned theatrical favorite.

As for the color blind casting, I found myself wondering if most of the audience really was blind to the fact that Norm is African American.  The stage lighting is effectively dim and most of his skin is covered in costume.   He sang it like nobody's business with a gorgeous satisfying baritone.   Either way, the audience was spectacularly satisfied and didn't hold back with their appreciation. 

Any theatrical production should be color blind - theatre is all about suspension of disbelief after all.  It's what actors do regardless of age, creed or color.   The actual opera has been doing it for decades - casting for voice rather than skin or looks so it's only fitting that a show about an opera finally joins its muse.  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

King John at Frog & Peach Theatre

There's a marvelous production of "King John," one of William Shakespeare's rarely seen "History Plays" on through May 18th by the Frog & Peach Theatre Company.  

As is custom, director Lynnea Benson has employed a most talented company of Shakespearean actors to bring the history of King John to life.  Intimate and accessible, this royal family drama comes alive cleverly and concisely.   Some of us only know King John as the tyrant foiled by Robin Hood.  This play tells the rest of the story:  adultery, claims to the throne, illegitimacy, wars, crazy mothers...Eric Doss as King John brilliantly plays the mama's boy ruler who takes the throne only by default after the adored Richard the Lion Heart dies in the Crusades.  It's fun to see him pouting and grasping at power.  Joining him as Queen Mothers are the wonderful Karen Lynn Gorney and Amy Frances Quint.  

Having seen Miss Quint in a number of Frog & Peach productions, I was blown away by her mature and intense performance here as Constance, the mother of a would be successor to King John.  Her grasp of the text was powerful indeed.   She teeters on the edge of desperation and sanity and is perfectly cast. 

Completely enthralling was newcomer Luke Edward Smith as the Bastard of Faulconbridge, dubbed Richard after his resemblance to Richard the Lion Hearted.   Mr. Smith hails from Sydney Australia and has the richest, most pleasing voice I've ever heard (I want him to read everything to me all the time).

David Elyha steals scenes as scheming, red sock wearing Cardinal Pandulph - his deliverance as the conniving man of the Roman Catholic Church during the time of the Crusades brings chills.  

Another Frog & Peach newcomer is Randy Howk as Hubert.  He is the antidote to the Royal madness and brings beautiful calmness and confidence to the stage. 

Additional Frog & Peach company members bringing this story to life are Matthew Gunn Park, Ken Straus (F&P debut), Mark Weatherup (F&P debut), Jonathan Reed Wexler, Jane Morison, Ilaria Amadasi, Victor Carinha, Hamish Carmichael, and Gabriel Christian (F&P debut).  

The Frog & Peach Theatre Company tags itself as "Shakespeare Revisited." Indeed with rock music setting the mood before curtain and during the intermission, simple sets and a cleverly designed mesh of modern and period dress (Nina Vartanian for costumes), this production, as well as all of the Bard's works I've seen this company do, has a very satisfying, kick-ass modern feel.   I go in expecting to be treated to really hearing and being in the text and I'm never disappointed.  

Running during William Shakespeare's 450th birthday month, the Frog & Peach Theatre Company is presenting the perfect way to celebrate the Bard.   Don't miss this opportunity for terrific classic theatre.

"King John" runs to May 18th at the West End Theater, 263 West 86th Street (upstairs at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew).  Tickets will run you less than a movie in Manhattan and will be infinitely more satisfying:  $18!   Seniors are discounted with code ELINOR and students are discounted with code HUBERT for just $12 bucks through May 11th.     Ring the Smarttix box office at 212-868-4444 or purchase online at

Friday, December 06, 2013

Macbeth at Lincoln Center Theatre

I attended Blogger Night at Lincoln Center Theatre's Macbeth on Tuesday.  We were wine and dined by 'wichcraft and swagged with wooden spoons engraved with the production logo and the quote "Double, Double, Toil and Trouble."  It was a great treat to see some friends and see a cool production of my favorite playwright. 

This production of the Scottish play is the largest I've seen live.  It's directed by Jack O'Brien and boils it into a almost overflowing pot that fairly assaults the senses visually and audibly causing the skin to tremble and heart to pound.   The costumes by Catherine Zuber are a character in themselves, particularly as worn as haute couture by a lithe but fragile Lady Macbeth, played Anne-Marie Duff.   Ethan Hawke takes on Macbeth and keeps him on the edge of insanity.  He was completely weird and mad in the role.  I found him enthralling yet loathsome and almost couldn't wait for him to meet his end.

The other principals are Richard Easton as Duncan, Francesca Faridany as Hecate, Brian D'Arcy James as Banquo, Jonny Arsini as Malcom and Daniel Sunjata as Macduff.   The meddlesome witches were gamely and brilliantly gender-bended by John Glover, Malcolm Gets and Byron Jennings.  I especially wanted to re-wind Glover's recitations - he managed to make me laugh and shiver simultaneously.

To experience this production at a discount, visit Telecharge and enter the code MACBLOG for $75 Orchestra/$45 Loge tickets, a 67% savings.

To further immerse myself in all things Shakespeare, I have been watching PBS'  Shakespeare Uncovered.  This week's timely episode features Ethan Hawke as he researches Macbeth in preparation of taking on the role.   You can watch online or check your local listings.   It's a very necessary and satisfying series.  



Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Pipes of Christmas are calling!

We are just weeks away from the annual Pipes of Christmas. It's the best holiday celebration in New York City, and this comes from a cynical soul who has all but given up on Christmas. It also stirs up my wee dram of Celtic blood and makes my soul soar!  I plan my entire December around the Pipes of Christmas concert.

In New York City, the concert is at Madison Avenue Presbyterian on December 14th at 2 and 7 pm. On Sunday the 15th, the concert is held at Summit, New Jersey.

Tickets are available via Smarttix online or by calling (212)868-4444.

The Pipes of Christmas is presented by Clan Currie and is in its 15th year. It's a joyous event that also raises funds to support music scholarships for educational institutions offering Celtic music programs, including the Royal Conservatorie of Scotland, the Gaelic College of Arts, and the National Piping Centre.

The traditional and spiritual concert features music and readings from the Celtic ancestry of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Features performers include James Robinson ("Braveheart"), New England fiddle champion Paul Woodiel, "Riverdance" uilleann piper and flutist Christopher Layer, Gaelic Mod champion harpist Jennifer Port of Golspie, Scotland, and the Pipe Major Kevin Ray Blandford Memorial Pipe Band from Redlands, CA.

The concert will also debut composer Steve Gibb's "Lullaby for a Prince," specially commissioned to mark the birth of HRH Prince George of Cambridge. Gibb, of Inveness, Scotland, debuted his beautiful composition "Balmoral Snow" in honor of HM Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee at last year's Pipes concert.

Opera in concert: Peter Grimes at Carnegie Hall

We joined in the centennial celebrations for British composer Benjamin Britten by attending the concert of Peter Grimes at Carnegie Hall.  The stars were Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role, Susanna Phillips as Ellen Orford, the St. Louis Symphony under the direction of David Robertson, Alan Held as Captain Balstrode, Meredith Arwady as Auntie, Patrick Carfizzi as Swallow, Nancy Maultsby as Mrs. Sedley, David Pittsinger as Hobson, Thomas Cooley as Robert Boles, Liam Bonner as Ned Keene, Keith Boyer as Horace Adams, Leela Subramaniam  and Summer Hassan as the Nieces and the St. Louis Symphony Chorus under the direction of Amy Kaiser.  
I had seen full productions of Peter Grimes both at the Met Opera and the WNO.  I was thrilled to really hear this production, especially for Britten's rich orchestrations, particularly during the storm scenes.  The entire concert was thrilling.   Tony Griffey is magnificent as Peter the loner fisherman, while Susanna brought elegance to the empathetic teacher.  Both Tony and Susanna are superb actors; even without costume and set, they brought a realism to the production.  I loved the entire cast - they brought vocal and acting satisfaction to the production.
Peter Grimes is the ultimate murder mystery opera. Even after experiencing this opera live three times, I still don't know if Peter did it or not.   The story of the fisherman who is perhaps a victim of circumstances and the closed minds of his fellow villagers is heart wrenching. 
The emotion in this music is palpable and the St. Louis Orchestra showed its affinity for this masterpiece.  And the viola!  My God - I really didn't believe a viola was capable of making such a such.  I can still feel it in  my bones.


Back for seconds: Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met Opera

Went back to Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met thanks to Sally and the Rush Ticket program. This production, this cast, this opera made me FEEL about opera again. Viewing it twice was barely enough.

Practical Advice from Renée

Last week, Renée Fleming participated in an online answer/question series via Reddit. Besides it being downright fun and Renée got to show off some of her sense of humor, she shared some really practical advice that I'm taking - you don't have to be a singer to put this to practical use:

Hi Renee! I am a young mezzo currently applying for grad school and I’m thrilled that you are doing this AMA! How did you keep yourself motivated at the transitional points of your career? What are the most important things to remember when competitions, auditions, and applications seem endless?

ReneeFleming:  5 days ago take a piece of paper, and dream.... imagine your career if it was what you wanted, in ten years, twenty.... and then imagine the steps you will have to take to get there - are you making yourself special in terms of repertoire, in terms even more importantly, of personality when you enter an audition... and your image - is it together? it's a very competitive world right now

Read all of the questions with Renée's answers online by clicking here.

Meanwhile, just because I have to watch it over and over again, here's Renée's contribution to David Letterman's Top Ten List. It's not her first time on that stage but it's probably her most unexpected appearance.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met Opera

Noah insisted that I see Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met.  It's the only opera this season we planned to definitely see at the Met and actually purchased tickets for in advance.  I am completely and thoroughly dazzled by every aspect of this masterpiece and production.   The music is other-worldly and I possibly floated right out of my seat.

We started out in the Family Circle, but ended up being upgraded to third row orchestra. It's hard to describe the thrill of being able to see the faces and hear gorgeous gigantic voices over a 200 piece orchestra. And what voices!   Everybody was marvelous: Christine Goerke, Anne Schwanewilms, Johan Reuter, Rosten Kerl and Ildikó Komlósi.  

This was Anne Schwanewilms' Met Debut.  I was fortunate to hear her as the Marschallin in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier in her Chicago Lyric 2006.  It was not a voice or a stage presence I could forget.  I was delighted at the opportunity to witness another thrilling performance from her. 

 I had also heard the dynamic Christine Goerke as Chrysothemis in Strauss' Elektra in 2008.  WHAT A VOICE OF ASTOUNDING DYNAMICS! 

See a pattern here?  RICHARD STRAUSS!   As we were leaving the Met, I found it unable to describe the emotions I was feeling.  It's not that I don't find Verdi, Donizetti, Puccini, Wagner, Massenet (and probably others) fulfilling, entertaining and completely worthy of my time, but Strauss takes me to another place.  It's a complete adrenaline rush and my heart feels like it will beat right out of my chest.  Noah said,  "It sounds like God."  Surely, he must be right. 

There are two opportunities to see it at the Met again...I'm double-checking my calendar because I really think I need to see this one again.  It's rarely produced and it has been at the Met for the last ten years.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

David Sedaris and Lena Dunham at Carnegie Hall

On Thanksgiving Day 2001, my college roommate and I were on vacation in New York. We had just seen the parade and noticed kids dressed in letter jackets with clipboards at the Ed Sullivan Theatre. Being nosey as I am, we checked them out and ended up going to the Thanksgiving Day taping of David Letterman's Show. David Sedaris was the guest and he read from his book "Holidays on Ice." I've never been the same since. Both Davids did me in.

Now, I'm banned from reading David Sedaris in public because I cannot keep from laughing louder than is publicly acceptable.

So I can never resist an opportunity of hearing David Sedaris read aloud.  It's the delivery as much as it is the words, for me.

This evening was billed as "Alone Together at Last:  Lena Dunham and David Sedaris."   Lena writes and stars in the HBO show "Girls."  She also writes essays and has a book on the way.  They were introduced by Zadie Smith.   Lena and David took turns reading from their various essays and stories.  I laughed louder than is publicly acceptable.    Go read David's books.  You won't regret it.  He's also on a reading tour right now - check your local listings.

I had planned to go with my friend Tracee, who would have laughed louder than is publicly acceptable right along with me.  She broke her foot and climbing to the heavens of Carnegie Hall just wasn't possible.   Fortunately, my friend Alicia was waiting in the wings and bonus - it was her first time in the hall.  I do love being with a person on their first time in a New York sanctuary.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Battle of the Two Vivienne Westwood Gowns or The Tucker Gala 2013

The 2013 Richard Tucker Gala marked the one hundredth birthday of its name sake American tenor Richard Tucker with an all American affair. American opera singers Stephanie Blythe, Stephen Costello, Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Greer Grimsley, Angela Meade, Eric Owens, Ailyn Pérez, Matthew Polenzani, Isabel Leonard (2013 Richard Tucker Award Winner), along with Maestro Riccardo Frizza, Members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Choral Society gathered at Avery Fisher Hall for the 38th annual Tucker Gala Concert.

Richard Tucker (1913-1975) is considered one of America's greatest tenors. He sang 724 performances with the Metropolitan Opera plus was broadly recorded. He was profoundly civic and religious minded and devoted himself to helping others both in the music world and general community assistance. After his death in 1975, The Richard Tucker Music Foundation was founded as a "non-profit cultural organization dedicated to perpetuating the artistic legacy of the great American tenor through the support and advancement of the careers of talented American opera singers by bringing opera into the community."

The Foundation offers free performances in New York Metropolitan area and supports music education programs. Each year the Richard Tucker Music Foundation annually awards cash prizes to individual U.S. born singers. There is no application process, only nomination. Prestigous in name and in association to previous winner, it is monetarily generous and acts to further highten the winning artist's career, usually one who is already on the brink of success.  The next top award to be granted will be in the amount of $50,000.

The first winner, in 1978, was Rockwell Blake. Other winners were Brandon Jovanovich, Lawrence Brownlee, Eric Cutler, Matthew Polenzani, John Relyea, Joyce DiDonato, Christine Goerke, Gregory Turay, Stephanie Blythe, Patricia Racette, David Daniels, Dwayne Croft, Paul Groves, Jennifer Larmore, Ruth Ann Swenson, Deborah Voigt, Renée Fleming, Margaret Jane Wray, Richard Leech, Harry Dworchak, Dolora Zajick, Aprile Millo, Roger Roloff, Susan Dunn, J. Patrick Raftery, Barry McCauley and Diana Soviero. The foundation also awards the Richard Tucker Career Grant (notably Susan Graham) and the Sara Tucker Study Grant.

I have seen many of recipients of each of these awards perform in recital or concerts in and around New York and in operas at the Met, the Chicago Lyric, San Francisco Opera, the Washington National Opera, and the Vienna State Opera. Each year the Foundation presents a concert of past winners and current winners. This was my seventh year in a row to attend and I'm already counting the days until next year's concert.

Even though the program was a bit more subdued (and very French) without any of our European friends, the evening was stellar and full of thrills and laughs. Believe it or not, it was a mere 40 bucks* for two and half hours of many of American's greatest voices. You just can't beat a bargain like it and it's seriously my favorite event of the year.

Angela Meade stole the vocal show with her "Tu al cui sguardo onnipossente" from Verdi's I due Foscari.  Her high notes are absolutely on fire!   Susan Graham gave us the most fun with Offenbach's "Ah,, que j'aime les militaires" from La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein, complete with choreography with four cute "soldiers."  Tenor Stephen Costello showed us he knows how to have fun with his "Caro elisir!..Esulte pur la barbara" from L'elisir d'amore by Donizetti, which he did as a duet with his wife, and last year's Tucker winner, Ailyn Perez.   Joyce DiDonato was not to be outdone as she showed off her own fireworks with Rossini's "Tani afeti" from La donna del lago.

Everybody looked gorgeous in their gowns and tuxes...but Renée and Joyce really glammed the evening with their Dame Vivienne Westwood gowns.   Bling was abundant too - especially Susan Graham who was practically weighed down with rocks courtesy of Ann Ziff for Tamsen Z.  Renée didn't hide her envy as she and Susie took the stage for their duet from Lakme.  Special mention goes to the percussionist in the Met Opera Orchestra who was kept busy all night with some fantastic triangle playing.

The evening was filmed for Live from Lincoln Center and will be aired on PBS on January 10th.  Check your local listings and set your DiVaR accordingly.

The Program:
Verdi - Overture to La Forza del destino
Isabel Leonard - Vivaldi - "Ombre vane, ingiusti orrori" from Griselda
Matthew Polenzani (with Andrew Stenson) - Offenbach  - "Kleinzach" from Les contes d'Hoffmann
Joyce DiDonato (with Andrew Stenson & Brandon Cedel) - Bellini - "Se Romeo t'uccise un figlio" from I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Ailyn Perez - Charpentier - "Despuis le jour" from Louise
Stephanie Blythe & Greer Grimsley - Saint-Saens - "J'ai gravi la montagne" from Samson et Dalila
Stephen Costello - Gounod "Salut! Demeure chaste et pure" from Faust
Renée Fleming & Susan Graham  - Delibes - "Viens, Mallika...Sous le dome epais" from Lakme
Angela Meade (with Jennifer Johnson Cano) - Verdi - "Tu al cui sguardo onnipossente" from I due Foscari
Eric Owens (with Andrew Stenson) - Puccini  - Te Deum" from Tosca
Ailyn Perez & Stephen Costello - Donizetti - "Caro elisir!...Esulte pur la Barbara" from L'elisir d'amore
Isabel Leonard - Granados - "Gracia Mia"
Susan Graham - Offenbach - "Ah, que j'aime les militaires" from La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein
Renée Fleming - Refice - "Ombra di nube"
Renée Fleming - Johann Strauss - "Frag mich oft, woran's den wohl liegt"
Joyce DiDonato - Rossini - "Tanti affeti" from La donna del lago
Ailyn Perez, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Stephen Costello, Eric Owens, Brandon Cedel - Rossini - Finale from Guillaume Tell

*I buy the least expensive seats in center third tier, but I also make a separate donation to the Richard Tucker Music Foundation.