Marion Lignana Rosenberg
Paul Kellogg and Susan Baker at the 2004 New York
City Opera Gala.
Brandon Jovanvich as B.F. Pinkerton and Chen Sue
Panariello as Cio-Cio San in the New York City Opera
production of Madama Butterfly.
Pamela Armstrong in The Marriage of Figaro.
The set of Ariane et Barbe-Bleue designed
by Louis Désiré.
Carol Vaness as Ariane.
The Mines of Sulphur.
Rachel Portman, composer of The Little Prince.
The Little Prince.
York City Opera
New York State Theater
Gala dinner and performance
Early September in New York City: The first tingle of crispness
in the air begins to chase away summer's heat, and
the fall cultural season revs up.
One of the first and most cherished highlights
of New York's cultural calendar is the gala opening
night of New York City Opera. In 2005, a stunning season
of unusual works and beloved favorites kicks off on September
7 with Capriccio by Richard Strauss, with music
director George Manahan conducting a cast led by Pamela
Armstrong, one of the company's dazzling young stars.
But this year, City Opera is offering
a range of events that arguably trump even opening night
in importance. Three Fridays in August featured City Opera
artists serenading lunchtime crowds in Bryant Park. And
on the heels of the first-night gala comes the Opera-for-All
festival — a two-day event designed to open City Opera's
doors to a larger, younger audience.
“The populist mission is still
a significant part of City Opera's intention,”
says Paul Kellogg, the company's artistic and general
director. “Like all performing arts organizations,
we are always looking for ways to reach new people, and
Opera-for-All is an exciting way to bring the opera experience
to a broader audience.”
Opera-for-All consists of two evenings
for which every seat in the house will be priced at $25.
On September 8, Manahan leads City Opera forces in season
highlights, with an appearance by singer-songwriter Rufus
Wainwright, one of today's hippest opera buffs, and
a postconcert celebration on the New York State Theater
The next night's performance of
Puccini's Madama Butterfly — a breathtaking
production that triumphed during the company's recent
tour of Japan — will take audience members backstage
and into the orchestra pit, with behind-the-scenes video
presentations before the show and between acts. As a bonus,
the first 100 Opera-for-All ticket buyers will have the
chance to purchase opening-night seats for $25.
“The operas that attract less experienced
opera-goers are usually the ones people have heard something
about — such as Bohème, Carmen, Butterfly,”
Kellogg remarks. “We wanted to offer something that
is both a sure crowd-pleaser and a great, great opera.”
Opera-for-All, supported by the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation,
96.3 FM WQXR and CIT Group, Inc., and spearheaded by City
Opera's Board under the dynamic leadership of banker-turned-champion
of the arts Susan Baker, looks to be one of the most exciting
events in a season filled with surprises.
“We hope that Opera-for-All will
create a certain buzz and a festival atmosphere that will
bring young people to us,” says Baker. If we can give
them a wonderful experience – great music and a good
time as well – we think that many of them will return.”
There was magic in the air during last season's City
Opera revival of Puccini's La Rondine. Time
stood still when soprano Pamela Armstrong launched into Magda's
“Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” one of Puccini's
most rapturous arias. Armstrong's luminous tones arched
and shimmered, lighting up even the darkest recesses of the
theater. After her final phrases, audience members exhaled
as one before erupting into euphoric, star-is-born applause.
Armstrong, who opens the City Opera season
as Countess Madeleine in Richard Strauss's Capriccio,
remarks on the joys and challenges of these roles. “As
a soprano, I find both Strauss and Puccini to be wonderful
composers. They both knew how to write expansive, luxurious
vocal lines. They also both wrote in a speechlike way, and
that doesn't always make the lines easy to sing!”
Blessed with good looks, a creamy voice
and great communicative warmth, Armstrong has the makings
of a stratospheric career à la Renée Fleming,
another artist who drew early raves at the New York State
Theater. “City Opera has been a family to me since my
debut in 1996,” Armstrong notes. “I think it is
important for more established singers to offer something
back to those companies who helped so tremendously in building
Capriccio, Strauss's farewell
to the stage, gives off a mellow glow and addresses the question
that has dogged opera from its beginnings: Which comes first,
the music or the words? Countess Madeleine mulls over the
matter as a poet and a composer vie for her affections, her
voice soaring above Strauss's opulent orchestrations.
Strauss called Capriccio “a
conversation piece for music,” and it has a reputation
as a connoisseur's opera. Armstrong's advice for
newcomers to this urbane masterpiece? “Listen and watch
for the simple actions or inaction. Strauss gave everything
to the musicians within the score. I think there is a simplicity
to this opera that, hopefully, we can bring to our audience.”
Ariane et Barbe-Bleue
Over the years, City Opera has launched the careers of some
of opera's brightest stars, including Beverly Sills,
Plácido Domingo and Samuel Ramey. Once they reach the
top, many opt for the richer fees offered by larger companies
and the great European houses. But Carol Vaness, one of City
Opera's homegrown superstars, returns to the company
this fall to sing the female lead in Paul Dukas's rarely
performed opera, Ariane et Barbe-Bleue.
The dark-haired, fiery-eyed soprano, whose
fierce intelligence has illuminated such monumental roles
as Bellini's Norma and Verdi's Lady Macbeth, sang
with the company from 1979 to 1983. The varied repertoire
she performed — La Clemenza di Tito, Don Giovanni,
La Bohème, The Marriage of Figaro, Pearl Fishers, Merry
Wives of Windsor, La Traviata, Tales of Hoffmann —
would become the hallmark of her bold and wide-ranging career.
“I've always sung what fits
my voice, not what fits everybody else's ideas of fach
(vocal category),” Vaness says. “I think that
people make a mistake in trying to stick singers in boxes.
City Opera fits me very well because of how they like to do
productions. Artistically, you find a way to study more, to
delve deeper — at least I always did.”
The soprano reflects on Ariane, the heroine
who defies the fearsome Barbe-Bleue (Bluebeard) and tries
to free the many wives he has imprisoned in his castle's
dungeon. “She is strong, beautiful, gentle, smart, certainly
curious” — all qualities radiated by Vaness herself.
“She is the one person in the opera who has a sense
of self, and she leaves with regret, not defeat. She regrets
that these women cannot find themselves the way she knows
Self-knowledge is something that the soprano
seeks to instill in her students at Studio Vaness, her thriving
teaching practice. “Is this your calling? Do you have
a choice in your heart and your soul?” she asks her
protégés. “If you do, I think you'll
always choose something else when things get hard.”
Her eyes glow with the mystery and hope
that ripple through Dukas's otherworldly opera as she
ponders music's power to transform pain into something
beautiful and healing. “You have to have the strength
to overcome things as a singer. You can draw on everything
you've been through and arrive at the other end with
Mines of Sulphur
At first glance, opera, which arose in Renaissance courts
and academies, and cinema, a staple of today's popular
culture, seem to have little in common. But in their modern
guise, both forms combine words, images and music to electrifying
effect. A growing number of artists are “crossing over”
between the forms, creating films from operas — Franco
Zeffirelli's La Traviata, Francesco Rosi's
Carmen — and also operas from films: Orphée
by Philip Glass, based on the Jean Cocteau classic; and Howard
Shore's forthcoming The Fly, inspired by the David Cronenberg
City Opera's fall season features
two operas by composers best known for their work in film:
The Little Prince by Rachel Portman; and The Mines
of Sulphur by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, who wrote the much
admired sound tracks for Indiscreet, Murder on the
Orient Express and Enchanted April.
Both operas possess the taut pacing and
dramatic plausibility that film buffs have come to expect.
The Mines of Sulphur, which premiered in 1965, is
set on an isolated English manor. A thriller combining
Hamlet's play-within-a-play, the ambiguity of Hitchcock's
Vertigo and a final twist worthy of Edgar Allan Poe,
the opera smolders with the lurid hues of a nightmare. (Chandos
recently issued the world-premiere recording of The Mines
The Little Prince
At 44, Rachel Portman has a gaggle of honors to her name.
A celebrated composer of movie sound tracks (Chocolat,
The Joy Luck Club), in 1997 she became the first woman
to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score for her lush,
graceful music for Emma. She turned her hand to opera in 2003
and created an instant classic in The Little Prince,
based on the beloved children's tale by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Portman's road to fame, though, has
had its bumps.
“When I was at university in Oxford,
I discovered that the kind of music I wanted to write wasn't
the kind of music that pleased my professors. It wasn't
‘modern' enough,” she recalls by phone from
her home in England. “What I wanted to do was describe
emotions and tell stories. I wanted to communicate in music.
So that pushed me aside into theater, and then I wrote the
music for Hugh Grant's first film. I found my right
The Little Prince has played to
ecstatic acclaim from young and old alike since its premiere
at Houston Grand Opera. (The captivating BBC production is
available on DVD from Sony.) Portman's music is sweeping
and richly colored, sprinkled with starlight and unfailingly
true to Saint-Exupéry's whimsical characters:
the oddball Baobabs; the ballerinalike Rose; the sly, insinuating
Snake; and the soulful, wise-beyond-his-years Little Prince
“People in the musical establishment
don't like it when someone from film moves over to opera,”
Portman remarks. “But I didn't write the opera
for those people: I wrote it for children and grown-ups to
go to together. I wanted to write an opera that would be meaningful
and moving to children.”
Amazingly enough, The Little Prince
was composed before Portman received the final go-ahead from
the Saint-Exupéry estate. “We were turned away
several times. If I hadn't believed so strongly that
it would happen, I don't think we ever would have completed
Portman's faith in her opera echoes
an important message from Saint-Exupéry's masterpiece:
“The heart sees far more clearly than the eyes.”
More Bold and Refreshing Offerings
Seven of this season's ten operas are from the 20th
or 21st century — but no less melodious and inviting
for that. In addition to a Dukas rarity and two local premieres,
the repertory includes both traditional and innovative takes
on classic works.
Rossini is represented by two
masterpieces. The Barber of Seville, whose bubbly
tunes and zany horseplay have made it a favorite for nearly
200 years, features up-and-coming star Jennifer Rivera as
Rosina in a handsome traditional staging. Il Viaggio a
Reims, depicting a group of eccentrics en route to the
coronation of France's Charles X, is one of the master's
lesser known comedies. Its virtuoso writing for a huge cast
(with one ensemble for 14 voices!) and strikingly up-to-date
dramatic sensibility explain its long neglect. Leading the
cast are Maria Kanyova (last season's poignant Violetta
in La Traviata) and elegant baritone Daniel Mobbs.
Gilbert and Sullivan lampooned
Rossini and all the great composers of their time, and a new
staging of Patience promises pratfalls and in-jokes aplenty.
Michael Ball, who starred in the original London productions
of Les Misérables and Passion, makes
his City Opera debut as Reginald Bunthorne, “the fleshly
poet” based on professional provocateur Oscar Wilde.
The ensemble features Myrna Paris and Kevin Burdette, City
Opera stalwarts who combine superb musicianship with wicked
Puccini scores three-of-a-kind,
with contrasting productions of two favorites alongside the
company's poetic staging of Madama Butterfly. Turandot
is spectacular, gleaming with gold, silver and rainbow-colored
gems in the magical designs by theatrical genius Beni Montresor.
Tosca thrills in Marl Lamos's spare, psychologically
acute staging, which updates the opera to fascist-era Italy.
Lignana Rosenberg writes about the arts for The New York
Times, Newsday, Time Out New York, Playbill and other
Image 1: Michael Loccisano/Patrick McMullan; Image 2 and 3:
Carol Rosegg; Fourth image: Ken Howard for Los Angeles Opera;
Image 5: Courtesy of New York City Opera; Image 6: George
Mott; Image8: George Hixson for Houston Grand Opera.