Ailyn Perez Debuts as Desdemona in HGO's Otello

Categories: Opera

Photo courtesy of HGO
Ailyn Perez
Otello is a Muslim and several years senior to Desdemona, a Christian who defies her father and family to run away and marry the man she believes is her true love. Perhaps he should have known better but he falls in love with the idea of her being in love with him.

And then there's Iago, the creature so unhappy in his own right that he spreads lies and dissension among those around him. As anyone who has read William Shakespeare's Othello knows, this is not a happily-ever-after fairy tale. Brought to life with gorgeous music by Giuseppe Verdi, the opera Otello remains a classic because of its strong themes and the opportunity it gives singers to shine.

Soprano Ailyn Perez, who has won both the Tucker and the Domingo awards, is making her role and Houston Grand Opera debut in the role of Desdemona, playing opposite tenor Simon O'Neill.

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Steampunk, the Supernatural and Decadence in The Tales of Hoffmann at UH

Categories: Opera

Photos courtesy of the University of Houston
One of the projections that will be on screen during The Tales of Hoffmann
There's a mechanical doll. Also a singer, a seductress and a woman protected by her father. And Hoffman loves them all. Billed as a mixture of "steampunk, the supernatural and romantic decadence,"

Jacques Offenbach's opera fantasy The Tales of Hoffmann is coming back to the University of Houston Moores Opera House for the third time and grad student and teacher Tyler Beck is singing one of the four Hoffman roles.

"This opera has a lot to offer the audience. There's a lot of drama, there's a lot of melodrama but there's also so much comedy and each act is based on a different story by E.T.A.Hoffman," Beck said.

Performed in French with English surtitles, the music can be tricky, particularly for college students. So Buck Ross, the director of Moores Opera Center decided to exploit his "bumper crop of tenors" and switch out the leads not between shows but between acts.

"They'll be dressed exactly the same all the way through," he added. "Thematically it works really well too because we're seeing Hoffman at different stages in his life from innocent to one that's frankly rather drunk and depraved at the end."

The point of a UH college production, unlike professional operas, is to give as many students a chance to shine as possible, Ross said. "The show is a terrific showcase for virtually every singer we've got." So in addition to all the Hoffmans, there's a huge cast, Ross said. "We've probably got 80 singers on stage. It's quite an extravaganza."

Adding in steampunk elements was a natural Ross said. The piece was written in 1881, the show Offenbach did right before that was an adaptation of Jules Verne's A Voyage to the Moon. "Jules Verne is sort of cited as a foundation of the steampunk movement," Ross said. Besides the mechanized doll, "the show is framed in a tavern. We've made it into a giant brewery so we have lots of big tanks and steam and bubblers going all throughout to create that kind of atmosphere. The show is done in three parts with two intermissions and clocks in at about three hours.

The Tales of Hoffman runs October 24-27 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Monday and 2 p.m. Sunday. The University of Houston's Moores Opera House (Entrance 16 off Cullen Boulevard).  .Call 713-743-3313 or visit $20. Students and seniors $12.

OH!'s Erin Kenneavy Explains Rigoletto's Gilda

Categories: Opera

Courtesy of Erin Kenneavy
Verdi's tragedy Rigoletto, being presented by Opera in the Heights, is filled with contrary characters. There's the Duke. An indulgent tyrant, he beds women -- from young, innocent virgins to manipulating women of the court -- as casual entertainment. (The role of the Duke is shared by Dane Suarez and Bernard Holcomb.)

There's the title character, Rigoletto. He's an ugly, hunchbacked court jester who mocks the put-upon husbands who have to stand by and watch as the Duke openly seduces their wives. (Octavio Moreno and Daniel Scofield share the role of Rigoletto.)

There's Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter (played by soprano Erin Kenneavy). Shut away by her father in an effort to protect her from the Duke, Gilda falls in love with a man she sees in church. The man is, of course, the rakish Duke.

The three are on a collision course that will leave one of them dead and one of them brokenhearted. And honestly, we're at a loss as to who to root for.

"That's half the fun - who do I root for? And why am rooting for them?" Kenneavy laughingly tells us.

This story continues on the next page.

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Opera in the Heights Serves up Love, Lust, Sex and Violence in Rigoletto

Categories: Opera

Photo by Deji Osinulu Photography
Daniel Scofield as the title character in Rigoletto
The set-up:
Like the plays of Shakespeare, the operas of Verdi remain as fresh as ever. No matter how many times we see Rigoletto (last season at Houston Grand Opera, to name the most recent production), there is always something new to hear, see, or feel. There are no surprises to the story, even when directors make stuff up so that Verdi and librettist Piave's tale stays relevant, so this old chestnut from 1851 is usually best played straight. That's the way Opera in the Heights presents Verdi's story of love and loss.

The tale is a medieval melodrama of the highest order, adapted from Victor Hugo's play Le roi s'amuse (1832), which did not amuse the French censors, who banned the play for what they perceived to be mocking references to king Louis-Phillipe. Hugo, a champion of free press, sued but lost the battle; the play was banned for 50 years. Throughout his entire career, Verdi butted heads with his own set of censors, and the Austrians who controlled Venice (and its prestigious opera house, Le Fenice) were in no mood to see a monarch, even a French one, mocked or demeaned. They wouldn't allow a musical adaptation without great swathes of the play rethought. Verdi and Piave reset the action to Mantua, made the French king an Italian duke, and amended some minor stage business. That did the trick. Verdi's opera roared onto the stage, an immediate smash. It's never lost its cache.

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Houston Theater District's Open House and Our Theater Awards Issue

Photo by Marie Noelle Robert
For entry level opera-goers: Sweeney Todd
Besides the ballet, the theater companies and the symphony, this year's 21st Annual Theater District Open House will feature food trucks in Jones Plaza, tango lessons from the Society for the Performing Arts and has expanded to include Bayou City Music Center and Bayou Place (known rather more for their rock music than classical works).

And even though Alley Theatre has moved to a temporary home at the University of Houston where its first show of the season The Old Friends opens Wednesday, its personnel will still be on hand to show visitors through its production rooms to plumb the mysteries of costumes and wigs and rehearsal halls.

Perryn Leech, acting board chair of the Houston Downtown Alliance and Houston Grand Opera's managing director, says this year as always gives visitors an up-close-and personal (and free!) look at the Houston arts scene with the added benefit of being able to sign up for discounted subscriptions. "There are good bargains to be had," he says.

Tying in to all the occasion, the Houston Press this week presents its annual Houston Press Arts Guide as well as the third year of our Houston Theater Awards, in which we draw attention to what we believe were the outstanding theatrical performances in our city during the 2013-14 season.

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HGO's Carmen Is the Ultimate in Gypsy Love

Categories: Opera

Photo by Lynn Lane
An opera that plays like a Broadway show -- and that's a good thing
The set-up:
If there's one opera in the rep that lends itself to a Broadway makeover, it's Georges Bizet's evergreen and surprisingly modern tale of bad girl Carmen and her wayward love life. In its original 1875 form, the piece had spoken dialogue between the music passages, what the French called an opera-comique, what we now call a musical.

After a lukewarm Paris premiere - a few of the reviews were downright vicious, some were OK, not one was a rave - and Bizet's early death only four months later, the opera, supplemented with musical recitatives instead of dialogue, made a big splash in Vienna. The wise Austrians turned the tide for this archetypal wild lady of Spain. The work has made a splash ever since. Although there is no critical edition of the score and the opera's been tinkered with even before Vienna, what the Parisians reviled for its coarseness and bad taste has now joined the pantheon of opera masterpieces.

The execution:
Even when sung through, as is this Houston Grand Opera co-production with San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, Carmen's still like a Broadway show. A very great one.

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Start Humming the Torreador Song; Carmen is Coming Back to HGO

Categories: Opera

Photo courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
As far as tenor Brandon Jovanovich is concerned, Bizet's Carmen might be better entitled Don Jose's Girlfriend. "Really the arc of the piece is his transformation from good boy to murderer," Jovanovich says, although allowing that the Gypsy seductress would probably not agree to the retitling.

Jovanovich, last seen at Houston Grand Opera singing the title role in Verdi's Don Carlos, says he's been all over the world singing the four-act Carmen and this will be his 16th different production.

"He's one of my favorite characters. Usually I play a lot of tenor stuff - you're a lover or the love interest. So when I get a chance to play a murderer, by gosh it's OK," he says laughing.

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Das Rheingold a Stunning Spectacle of Music, Voices and Stagecraft at HGO

Categories: Opera

Photo by Lynn Lane
Iain Paterson as Wotan and Jamie Barton as Fricka in Das Rheingold
The set-up:
Well, it's finally arrived! The "it" in question is, of course, Richard Wagner's monumental operatic myth, The Ring of the Nibelung.

The four-part epic, staged by Houston Grand Opera over a span of four years - one opera per season - is a mammoth undertaking: gigantic orchestra, strenuous and career-making roles, and massive scenic effects. The Ring cycle is unlike anything ever created before its complete premiere in 1876. While the 16-hour drama (more-or-less 16 hours, usually more) had no measurable effect on the world of theater, Wagner's aural magic forever changed the course of music. It changed its very sound.

The execution:
The saga, a hybrid of Norse, Icelandic, and German folk legends, opens with a two-and-a-half hour prologue, Das Rheingold, in which all later dramatic and musical themes to be expounded are introduced. The tale begins, no less, with the creation of the world. Wagner never thought small.

Check out our interview with bass-baritone Iain Paterson.

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Das Rheingold Offers Wagner's Genius Without Intermission

Categories: Opera

Photo courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Das Rheingold complete with water tanks meaning at least they can keep watching while they pee

He's a god, in fact the ruler of the gods, but he's only got one eye (he gave the other one up to gain wisdom in a trade that occurred before this opera starts). In Das Rheingold, he's a rash young man, still far from what Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson describes as "the old man raging against the dying of the light" that he'll become by the fourth part of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.

Paterson is here singing the Wotan role in the first-ever Houston Grand Opera production of this classic work (and one that continues in the next three seasons after this).

The story, filled with fantastic sights, is far from simple but on the most basic level: there's an evil dwarf who takes the Rhinemaidens' gold after they've made fun of him and told him it can be used to make a ring that will control the world.

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Lucia di Lammermoor: Complete With a Glorious Mad Scene & Stunning Coloratura

Categories: Opera

Photo by Shannon Langman
Jessica Jones as Lucia and Anthony Webb as Edgar in Ruby Cast production of Lucia di Lammermoor
The set-up:
The heavens opened up Friday night during Opera in the Heights' galloping performance of Gaetano Donizetti's operatic masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), appropriate for this Gothic romance full of ghosts, family dysfunction, vengeance, and omens foretelling disaster. But there was already lightning on stage. Full of dazzling radiance, soprano Jessica E. Jones lit up the intimate space as virginal Lucia driven mad by unrequited love. She supplied her own thunder and sparks to Donizetti's vocal fireworks.

The execution:

Lithe, with a full mane of auburn curls, Jones looked splendid in Dena Scheh's Restoration gowns and equally fetching in Lucia's bridal negligee, now spotted with the blood of her husband, whom she has just stabbed after her arranged marriage. You see, Lucia, heroine of Sir Walter Scott's 1819 "The Bride of Lammermoor." from which Donizetti's opera is loosely adapted, is the prototypical romantic heroine, buffeted by fate and the opportunistic maneuvering of her brother Enrico.

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