Two Young Singers With Houston Ties Win Metropolitan Opera Competition

Categories: Opera

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Photo courtesy of HGO
Reginald Smith Jr.
Reginald Smith Jr., a studio artist with Houston Grand Opera, and Nicholas "Nick" Brownlee, a former Shepherd School of Music at Rice University student have been named winners of the annual Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in New York City.

Along with three others, Adams and Brownlee each received $15,000 in prize money. It also recognizes all five finalists as rising stars in the opera world which has to be a boost to their careers. The competition, held across the United States and Canada is designed to discover new talent for the Met and to encourage the best young singers, according to its website.


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La Tragédie de Carmen Overcomes Its Shortcomings at Opera in the Heights

Categories: Opera

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Photo by Deji Osinulu Photography
Sishel Claverie as Carmen and Jared Guest as Escamillo in the Ruby Cast of Carmen
The set-up:
Do you hear that whirring deep underground? It's composer Georges Bizet spinning in his grave after the beating his immortal opera masterwork Carmen gets under ham-fisted director/auteur Peter Brook in his adaptation La Tragédie de Carmen. Tragedy, indeed.

Poor Bizet. First he had to die prematurely during the opera's premiere run at Paris's Opera-Comique, never knowing what a smash hit he had created; now, he has to endure this.

The execution:
This one-act Reader's Digest version from 1981, closing out Opera in the Heights' season, is an unholy mash-up of the opera, Prosper Merimee's 1845 novella, and tons of directorial flourishes from the radical director who caused a theater stir with such Royal Shakespeare Company productions as the inmates-run-the-asylum Marat/Sade (1964) and the white box, acrobatic A Midsummer Night's Dream (1970). Along with contemporary Robert Wilson, Brook's visual flair is always striking, but his hot-house ideas tend to shock more than illuminate.


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The Opera Hansel and Gretel With a Modern Twist

Categories: Opera

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Hansel and Gretel are lured to the sweet-smelling kitchen of a hungry witch, who turns out to the a 1950s matron. Engelbert Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel has been reset a bit in the production being mounted by The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.

Veteran stage director Pat Diamond, brought in from New York to manage this Rice staging had nothing but praise about the Rice graduate students and the chamber orchestra involved. "It is wonderful to work with a group that is so accomplished and collaborative," he says of Rice's Shepherd School of Music opera students. "Rice produces amazing artists."

Humperdinck wrote his opera derived from the classic tale of the two children sent out into the woods to collect strawberries with the help of his sister, Adelheid Wette. She composed the story line to entertain her children, and Humperdinck expanded these into the opera we know today.

Diamond said his main artistic challenge was, "finding the action in the music and narrative in the music." The well-known, "Evening Prayer" is the staple of many a beginner's piano book and is sung by the children as they lay down to sleep in the woods, the first evening they are lost. "When at night I go to sleep/ Fourteen angels watch do keep," begins the most famous song of the opera. There are seven lead characters and a "children's chorus" made up of graduate and undergraduate women from the Shepherd School,

The Wortham Opera Theatre at the Shepherd School of Music presents, "Hansel and Gretel," 7:30 p.m. March 20, 24 and 26; and 2 p.m. and March 22 at Rice University, 6100 Main, Use Entrance 18 from Rice Boulevard. For more information call 713-348-8000 or visit music.rice.edu/opera. In German with English surtitles. $10-$12.


Audra McDonald Wows at UH's Madison Artist Series

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Photo courtesy of the University of Houston
Audra McDonald
She's played a doctor in a Grey's Anatomy spinoff, Billie Holiday in a new musical commemorating her life, the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, and so many other disparate roles that even she probably can't keep track of them.

Singer and actress Audra McDonald, holder of six Tony Awards and two Grammys on the side, brought her talents to Houston for a one-night-only performance Tuesday to benefit the University of Houston's Moores School of Music through the Madison Artist Series.

Singing at the Wortham Theater, McDonald showed off her strong vibrato and sliding glissandi amid an assortment of show tunes and blues numbers, accompanied by her touring pianist and music director Andy Einhorn.

"The last time I was singing here was in 2006, and I got one of the worst reviews of my life," McDonald said after her opening number.

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OITH Does Well by Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito

Categories: Opera

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Photo by Deji Osinulu Photography
Emerald Cast: Celeste Fraser as Vitellia and Theodora Cottarel as Servilia
The set-up:
Mozart's penultimate opera, La Clemenza di Tito, is music fit for a king, which is certainly appropriate since it was commissioned to celebrate the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II's coronation as King of Bohemia in September, 1791. The celebrations were hastily planned, leaving only about two months to ready Prague for the royal treatment.

An opera seria was required, but when approached to compose it on such short notice, imperial kapellmeister Salieri turned down the offer. The producer of the festivities then turned to the only composer in Vienna who could do justice to such a project, W.A. Mozart.

Offered double the salary he could command in the capital, the young composer eagerly accepted the assignment. Working from an already written libretto by the grand master of opera seria, Pietro Metastasio, Mozart and his adapter Mazzola quickly churned out an opera worthy to honor the "enlightened emperor."


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Soprano Kathryn Lewek Soars as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute

Categories: Opera

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Photo by Lynn Lane
Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night
The set-up:
Mozart's final opera, a grand fairy tale filled with lofty philosophy and low-brow vaudeville, is the work that gave him the most pleasure. Not only was The Magic Flute his most profitable hit, running daily sold-out performances at the suburban, middle class Theater auf der Wieden, but the Viennese had finally warmed up to his incomparable stylish music. He never lived to see Flute conquer the world, for he died two months after the premiere, described at the time in the city's leading newspaper, Wiener Zeitung, as an "irreplaceable loss."

The last few months had been replete with renewed hope and financial security. Although passed over for the prestigious job of imperial kapellmeister, he nonetheless was appointed head of music at St. Steven's, Vienna's foremost cathedral, a cushy post indeed. He had been invited to London for a series of concerts; received two hefty commissions from subscribers in Amsterdam and Hungary; his other operas were fast becoming staples of the repertory throughout Germany. He was busy writing a clarinet concerto, some cantatas for his Masonic lodge, feverishly working on his Requiem; and had a success of sorts in Prague in September with his opera seria La clamenza di Tito. To top off his happiness, wife Constanze had given birth in July to a new son. Things were looking up.


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Houston Grand Opera Announces Its 2015-16 Season

Categories: Opera

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Photo by Bill Cooper
Ana Maria Martinez in Rusalka
It's a season designed to portray the journeys people take, says Houston Grand Opera Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers in describing the upcoming 2015-16 HGO offerings ranging from the Siegfried (and Summers' favorite part of Wagner's Ring Cycle) to the return of Carlisle Floyd now in his 88th year who's written a new opera Prince of Players that takes him far from his usual Americana.

There's a mixture of classic (and classic in new productions) and new with another special holiday offering - this time The Little Prince - and one from musical theater - Carousel. "Of all of the pieces of American musical theater, Carousel is the most profound. It is the piece of musical theater that sits between opera and commercial theater most obviously. But more than that, the themes of Carousel, the idea of a life that didn't get to be finished, having an opportunity to redeem itself I think that Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers finding that tale and getting to write it just as the war was ending, just as as all kinds of households in the United States were facing a future that had lives that did not get to be completed. They took an extraordinary story in which a man on his own journey gets one day to return to his life to try to redeem himself," Summers says.

Audiences will also be able to see Dvorak's fairy tale Rusalka, a new version of The Marriage of Figaro, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and Puccini's Tosca, as well as world premiere's of chamber pieces O Columbia and another yet untitled one about the effects of Hurricane Ike on Galveston.

Summers calls Floyd's world premiere "the centerpiece" of the coming season. "We're in a golden moment at Houston Grand Opera concerning Carlisle because there's no opera company in history that has had such a long and close association with a living composer and with a living composer of Carlisle's talent and reknown. He has been associated with Houston Grand Opera for more than half its history both as a composer as an influence as a co-founder of the Houston Grand Opera Studio."

"It's an opera about the theater of life itself and how acting is for many people how they discover who they are," Summers says. It's told through the life story of an actual person, Sir Edward Kynaston, who was the most renowned Shakespearean actor of the day., but he was renowned for female roles. Sir Edward Kynaston was the last of that generation of actors before a decree came that women should be able to play female roles which of course was a great advance for women but very bad news for Kynaston."

A lot of regular opera-goers are looking forward to the return of Christine Goerke, who last year achieved so much acclaim in New York City when she sang Strauss. Goerke will be singing the Brunnhilde role in Siegfried and has a long association with HGO.

"It is certainly not an overnight sensation. Christine Goerke has been working diligently for 20 years," says Summers, who added he's known her 20 years. "Yes, HGO invested very early on in Christine, casting her in Lohengrin. It was a very controversial decision at the time, which says more about the art form than Christine Goerke. Christine and I had a plan together to lead her into the Wagnerian roles. So the idea to me that she's an overnight sensation is rather hilarious. Voices take time to mature. She is an extraordinary artist."

For more details on the upcoming season, see the next page.

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UH Launches the Opera Winter Season With Frau Margot and The Elixir of Love

Categories: Opera

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Photos courtesy of the University of Houston
Nicole Woodward (left) as Kara; Emily Louise R obinson as Frau Margot
Unrequited love is a mainstay of opera. The heroines in Frau Margot and The Elixir of Love, presented by the University of Houston Moores School of Music experience potions, séances and more as each attempts to keep her suitors, romantic and intellectual, at bay.

Thomas Pasatieri's Frau Margot is a local premiere and the first performance of the work since its initial production in 2007 at the Fort Worth Opera. It tells the mysterious tale of a wealthy widow, Frau Margot, whose late husband was in the process of composing an opera when he died. Many musicians try to get permission to complete the work, but the scornful widow goes so far as to hold a séance to show them that her husband disapproves of the completion of his opera. Pasatieri's work is loosely based on the story of Austrian composer Alban Berg whose opera Lulu was unfinished at the time of his death. His wife did, in fact, hold séances to seek his counsel, just as Frau Margot does.

"The music, like the libretto, is reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock movie of the 1940's. It has a lush, lyric sound that we associate with scores by the great film composers of that era," said the Moores Opera Center's Artistic Director Buck Ross. "It's very accessible to a traditional opera audience."

This story continues on the next page.


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HGO's The Magic Flute: Features Mozart's Beautiful Music and an Exotic Egyptian Quest

Categories: Opera

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Photo courtesy of HGO
Nicole Heaston
When Nicole Heaston, the daughter of a Chicago music teacher, was a child taking piano lessons she was, well, not very good. But her instructor urged her mother to listen to her daughter as Heaston sang along with her playing.

In short order Heaston became a member of the Chicago Children's Choir, sang in high school where her teacher pushed her to transition from alto to soprano and after an undergraduate degree and a master's and a stint with HGO Studio Artists, became a professional opera singer.

When Lisette Oropesa had to withdraw from Houston Grand Opera's upcoming production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, Heaston, who has sung the role of Pamina at the Met and other opera stages including Houston and who now lives in Katy, stepped in - although she had just 20 days to learn a different English version than the one she'd performed before.

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Ana Maria Martinez Soars in HGO's Madame Butterfly

Categories: Opera

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Photo by Lynn Lane
Ana Maria Martinez in HGO's Madame Butterfly

The set-up:
The girl in the chrysanthemum kimono never stays too far away too long.

Depicted through Puccini's most rhapsodic melodies that use a subtle pentatonic framework for its swirling overlay of Japanesque atmosphere, Madame Butterfly, a universally beloved opera, is continually on the annual top-ten list of most performed operas.

Written after Tosca, this beautiful and disturbing work (1907, then revised four more times until its present form) Madame Butterfly never fails to wring the audience's appropriate sympathetic response. It's bold and modern in theme, lush in score, and fairly wrenching in emotion.

Houston Grand Opera's production is blessed by Ana Maria Martinez in the title role, who conveys a feisty stubbornness in Cio-Cio-San, as well as bringing her patented shimmering sound, and by tenor Alexey Dolgov, as bounder Pinkerton. His bright tenor trumpets through Puccini's hothouse music. His music is so triumphant and Italianate, you'd think he was some sort of hero. Puccini never clues you in on his wickedness. Pinkerton fools us like he fools Butterfly. Puccini fools everyone.

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