Pre-Show Blog: Heart of a Soldier

Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

I was fortunate enough to see the world premiere of this opera last night, and now that I’m writing about it on the tenth anniversary of the Sep. 11 attacks, it makes the whole event seem that much more real and the art that much more meaningful.

Based on the book of the same name by James B. Stewart, Heart of a Soldier tells the story of Rick Rescorla, a Cornish-born soldier who fought as an American in the Vietnam War and used the same militaristic strategy and sense of humor to get 2,700 people out of the World Trade Center safely during the Sep. 11 attacks. During the course of the opera, Rescorla sings “all the real heroes are dead”. Though he had very heroic moments in Vietnam, his self-professed ‘real hero’ status was achieved when he went back into the crumbling World Trade Center for one last sweep… and never emerged.

Several operas of recent years have been written by American composers in the hopes of being ‘the great American opera’ – one that speaks to the core of American values with accessible music that resonates with a large audience. I believe that Heart of a Soldier will prove itself to be in contention for this title. The subject matter alone strikes interest in the hearts of Americans, but in combination with a powerful (but still recognizably contemporary classical) score and a great American artist in the title role (the illustrious Thomas Hampson), the makings of a future standard are already at work. Yes, the score contains the typical elements of a Classical or Romantic Era opera (drinking song, large chorus, epic love duet), but these sections are executed in a way that makes them distinctly contemporary, and, even more than that, contemporary American music. Future composers, take note: if you want to perfectly combine the forms of old-school opera with the sound of modern music, look no further than this opera.

In terms of singing, the performance is largely driven by Mr. Hampson, who gives a winning turn as Rick Rescorla. The role gives Hampson lots of room to play with different sides of the same coin; at one moment, he is proving his masculine mettle against his future best friend (Daniel J. Hill, sung by the delightfully steely-voiced tenor William Burden), the next, pulling out all the charisma he can muster to woo the beautiful Susan Greer/Rescorla (portrayed with great warmth and humor by soprano Melody Moore). Hampson’s lyric baritone voice is capable of both unshakable confidence and sweet, sweet tenderness. After finishing his Act II aria, I remember thinking to myself, “This is an artist”.

I mentioned it during my Opera Challenge, but I admire Mr. Hampson not just for his wonderful stage presence, but for his contributions to the academic side of music. I had posted a link to the Marquis di Posa essay he wrote a while back, and I’m glad to have found another essay written by Hampson regarding Heart of a Soldier. As if you needed any more incentive to see this opera, the same honesty and heart that is apparent in this essay also translates to Hampson’s portrayal of Rick Rescorla on the stage. Click here to read the article from The Guardian.

Thomas Hampson as Rick Rescorla (Photo Credit: Cory Weaver)

Heart of a Soldier (Christopher Theofanidis & Donna Di Novelli)

Cast Includes: Thomas Hampson (Rick Rescorla), Melody Moore (Susan Rescorla), William Burden (Daniel J. Hill)

Conducted by Patrick Summers

Directed by Francesca Zambello

Performance Dates: Sep. 13 (7:30 pm), Sep. 18 (2 pm), Sep. 21 (7:30 pm), Sep. 24 (2 pm), Sep. 27 (8 pm), Sep. 30 (8 pm)

Venue: War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco (301 Van Ness Avenue)

For More Information: http://sfopera.com/Season-Tickets/2011-2012-Season/Heart-of-a-Soldier.aspx

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The Pre-Show Blog Series

Hello all! Thank you for being so responsive to the 30 Day Opera Challenge that I posted… it was so much fun for me to make my personal tastes known to the public and force myself to explain exactly why something does or doesn’t work on the operatic stage.

In fact, it’s been such a thrill for me that I had an idea for the future of Backstage at the Opera. I’d like to take advantage of the fantastic classical music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area and write posts analyzing the operas, oratorios  and important orchestral works being performed by the major classical music venues in the area. The format will generally follow what I did for the 30 Day Opera Challenge – I’ll probably start with a synopsis of the work, add some biographical info about the composer and historical background of the piece at hand, then delve into some light analysis and personal opinion before presenting a clip or two of my favorite musical/dramatic moments.

Since I started training as an opera singer, I have found that by associating myself with these classical music companies both as a performer and an audience member, I have unknowingly become an advocate for the local classical music scene. I strongly encourage anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area to attend the performances I mention in these blog posts, and I’ll make sure to include company information and performance dates with each post. If you’re reading from outside the area, check out the companies near you and go see some music! Chances are that a lot of the pieces I’ll talk about will be performed in your area sometime in the future. I will also post supplemental materials that will be useful (favorite recordings, DVD’s, any related books, etc) for those who live outside the area or for the avid fan who wants to really dig deep into a particular work. But above all, I urge you to take this information and go see performances!

Take a look at the music calendar for Fall 2011, which is posted as a separate tab on the header of this blog. I’ll try my hardest to post about each and every one of these, but as you already know, sometimes my crazy crazy schedule gets in the way of posting all the time. Occasionally, I’ll have so much blogging to do on upcoming performances that I’ll post my pre-show blog after the first performance (like today). Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy this new series!

Always yours,

La Tua Zerlina

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Opera Challenge Day 30

day 30 – not very famous opera that you find beautiful: Satyagraha (Philip Glass)

This is it – the final post in the 30 Day Opera Challenge! I have so enjoyed writing about my operatic favorites, and I’m glad to start so many great conversations about opera over the last month (plus change). Thank you, dear readers, and I hope you’ll be interested to see what’s next for this blog… But first, Satyagraha.

You know a work is truly a masterpiece when it transcends steep boundaries and reaches out to people from all different walks of life. This is exactly what Satyagraha does. The plot revolves around Gandhi and his influence on other progressive leaders through time, but the score, with its moving, tranquil quality, inspires the same feeling in the listener. This summer, after I had a long conversation on the open nature of Catholicism, I listened to this opera. It moved me immensely on both a spiritual level and a musical level, and it has since become one of the favorite recordings in my collection.

Click below to hear the beginning of this opera, sung in Sanskrit:

Always yours,

La Tua Zerlina

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Opera Challenge Day 29

day 29 – first aria you fell in love with: “Un bel dí, vedremo” from Madama Butterfly (Puccini)

This was the one that started it all. I distinctly remember what happened when I fell in love with this aria: It was late on a temperate spring night in Southern California, and I was reading the play M. Butterfly for my freshman theatre criticism class. I thought to myself, this character is singing an aria from Madama Butterfly right now, why not play it and get into the mood of the play? So I typed in “Un bel dí, vedremo” on YouTube, picked the video with the pretty Greek woman in it, and listened.

And that was when it hit me. Opera is theatre in a different language. It is just as powerful, if not more so, than words alone. And with the right interpreter, it has the potential to move hundreds of strangers simultaneously.

That was about three and a half years ago. Little did I know the great influence that opera has had on my life ever since.

If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably heard Maria Callas’ version of this aria before, but the thing about Callas is that her musical inflections were so rich with dramatic content that it is impossible to hear this aria the same way twice. Every time I hear her wonderful, focused sound shooting out the first notes of this aria, I know that I’m in for a treat.

Behold, La Divina herself.

Always yours,

La Tua Zerlina

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Opera Challenge Day 28

day 28 – good character you would like to play in some opera: Adalgisa from Norma (Bellini)

I feel like I’ve spent so much time with Verdi that I’d like to expand my Italian horizons. Of course, I’m dying to sing the epic Verdi mezzo roles (Azucena, Eboli, Amneris, etc.), but because I don’t yet have the training or mature instrument to sing those roles quite yet, I’ve been drawn to bel canto and lyric repertoire. Adalgisa has a very honorable demeanor, and when she realizes that her passion for a man makes her a romantic rival of her superior, she is willing to bend over backwards to make the situation right. Her music is a bit more lyric than other bel canto mezzos (which I don’t mind one bit!), and it suits her stout-hearted nature quite well. I’ll definitely be learning this music as soon as I get the official OK from my teacher!

In the meanwhile, enjoy the musical stylings of one of the world’s most in-demand mezzos of today: Kate Aldrich. If you haven’t heard the name before, this is a name to pay attention to. She’s sung Carmen at the Met, Rosina at La Scala, Amneris in a landmark Zefirelli production in her early career, and roles ranging from Sesto (La Clemenza di Tito) to the title role in Cenerentola to a mezzo version of Salome. Her rich, warm instrument has the agility of a coloratura mezzo, but is capable of handling the weight of more dramatic roles. In my opinion, Kate Aldrich is right up there with Ms. Joyce DiDonato for the title of Wonder Woman.

Here’s Ms. Aldrich’s rendition of “Sgombra é la sacra selva”:

Always yours,

La Tua Zerlina

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Opera Challenge Day 27

day 27 – best lied composer

Aaaaaand we know my history with German music as well. Prepare yourselves for Diva Move #3.

day 27 – best orchestral composer: Ralph Vaughan Williams

I was introduced to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams when one of my singer friends first gave me the music for “Love Bade Me Welcome” from the song cycle Five Mystical Songs. Though Vaughan Williams is a contemporary composer, his composition style blends that tension of 20th Century music with the lush orchestrations and phrases found in neo-Romanticism, bringing forth an irresistible musical identity.

Behold, one of the masters of English song – Thomas Allen – performing the vocal music of one of the greatest English composers. The video combines the last three selections from Five Mystical Songs, but I invite you to pay particular attention to “Love Bade Me Welcome” and its transcendental power.

Always yours,

La Tua Zerlina

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Opera Challenge Day 26

day 26 – best classical opera composer

You know what? I’m pulling a diva move on the next two categories. I really think I’ve gushed about Verdi enough over the last month to assure you that he really is my favorite operatic composer. If the question reads how I originally saw it (as the best opera composer from the Classical Era), the answer is undoubtedly Mozart, whom I have also gushed about to no end. Therefore, Diva Move #2. I’m changing this category to…

day 26 – best performance of opera scenes: Metropolitan Opera Gala 2008

As a singer who is still in school, I have become increasingly aware that programs of opera scenes are looked down on as merely student works or budget-friendly escape plans for companies down on their luck in tough economic times. I feel compelled to disclose to you that I once felt that the term ‘opera scenes’ had a strongly negative connotation… until I saw the Met Gala from 2008. This night of scenes completely transcended my definition of opera scenes, and upon viewing this video, I am now a believer in putting the best fragments of operas in combination with each other on one program.

This gala was the big evening that featured Renée Fleming in scenes from three of her greatest characters: Act II from Verdi’s La Traviata, Act III from Massenet’s Manon, and the Final Scene from Strauss’ Capriccio. In true Metropolitan Opera fashion, no expense was spared; Fleming was accoutered in original designs by Christian Lacroix (who designed two gowns for each of the Traviata scenes), Karl Lagerfeld (the Manon gown), and John Galliano (a slinky black-and-white gown for Capriccio). The sets were drawn from traditional productions of each opera, the chorus was in full force, and the supporting cast included an all-star list of operatic soloists (including two of my favorite singers, Ramón Vargas as Alfredo and Des Grieux and Thomas Hampson as Papa Germont).

Though it certainly doesn’t hurt that the spectacle aspect of the performance was in full swing, we all go to the opera to see a fine piece of theatre. And in the end, that’s what was presented. In this clip from Act II, Scene Two of La Traviata, the effervescent Violetta has a sudden change in demeanor when forgiving Alfredo of his curse. Only Ms. Fleming would be able to turn this wild woman into a regal countess in no time, and her rich, creamy voice adds a wonderful reflective quality not frequently seen at this level. Enjoy!

Always yours,

La Tua Zerlina

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