Category: NYC

The ending scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

 

On Thursday night, the Met opened its season’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

The protagonist, Leonore, is the most positively impactful woman in all of opera. Disguised as a man named Fidelio, she earns the trust of Rocco, the prison warden. He brings her to her husband Florestan, a prisoner locked in a cellar cell. Once there, Leonore defends Florestan from Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison, by threatening him with her gun. Because of her actions, Leonore is hailed as a heroine of “noble courage.” Joy reigns as the couple is safely restored when Don Fernando, the minister, arrives.

Representations of constructively influential women in opera are rare. Most are throwing themselves off of castle parapets (Tosca), displaying a deranged, febrile madness (Lucia di Lammermoor), or even stripping for kings (Salome). The Met picked an important moment to portray an antithetical example. Adrianne Pieczonka, a Canadian soprano playing Leonore, said, “And with what’s going on in the world, I think it’s great to have a strong woman—a brave, courageous woman on a mission.” The only thing missing is a direct reference to Trump.

Given its backdrop, how was this politically charged opera vitalized? Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter—performed by Hanna-Elisabeth Müller in her Met Opera debut—sang wonderfully. Her voice had a sweetness that was maintained throughout her range. Jaquino, Rocco’s helper—played by David Portillo—sang with appropriate anguish over Marzelline’s spurning of his love.

In the subsequent ensemble number, Rocco and Leonore (Fidelio to these folks) joined Marzelline and Jaquino. Rocco—sung by the role-switching Falk Struckmann (formerly Don Pizarro in the Met’s 2000 production)—rang richly in his low register, but thinned out up high. As the night went on, however, his upper tones took on a rounder, fuller shape. Rocco’s employer, Don Pizarro—invigorated by Greer Grimsley—sounded diabolical in his “Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick!” aria. Grimsley’s repeated “Ha’s!” menaced his adversaries (and the audience!).

After Pizarro’s aria, Pieczonka presented her “Abscheulicher!” solo. Here and elsewhere, I observed her physically reaching upward for climatically high pitches. Her action affected her sound quality: her high register was quavering, forced, and over-vibratoed. In contrast, Müller visibly sunk down into her upper range. As a result, her highs maintained depth and quality. A casting switch between these two sopranos would be beneficial—but admittedly impossible—for this production.

Act 2 starts with a jolt: Florestan calls out “Gott!”, a desperate heavenly plea. Florestan—enlivened by Klaus Florian Vogt—has a many-colored voice: his timbre sounds like the mixing palette of a master painter. His unique hues transmitted the hopeful content of his singing.

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Klaus Florian Vogt as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Some of Sebastian Weigle’s tempo choices detrimentally affected tonight’s performance. In “Gut Söhnchen, gut, hab immer Mut” the tempo was inappropriately slow. I have courage—“Ich habe Mut!”—but apparently not enough to show any vigor. And, in Pieczonka’s “Abscheulicher!” aria, the orchestra sounded safe, even calculated, during accelerandos. The correct energy can be achieved in upcoming performances by a reconsideration of phrasing and articulation.

The horns, however, turned in an excellent performance in the “Abscheulicher!” obbligato. Their tone was pure and their phrasing smooth and effortless.

The singer’s performances were framed by Jürgen Flimm’s production. Flimm’s work, staged for the fourth time at the Met, effectively recontextualizes Fidelio in the mid-20th century. In the first act, the principal themes of hope and freedom are juxtaposed against a starkly bare prison. For the final scene, Robert Israel, the set designer, depicts triumph with a backdrop of wispy clouds strewn across a light blue sky: it is little wonder that the words for heaven and sky are the same in German.

At this euphoric ending, Don Fernando has arrived, ousting Don Pizarro from the stage. The role was performed by Günther Groissböck with an imperial, declarative style, suiting the character well.

After, the chorus, winds, and low strings exclaim joyfully. Freude und Freiheit—Joy and Freedom: Beethoven affirms cherished values with his distinct emotional directness.

During the curtain call, I saw that the bronze heroic figure—which looms in the background of the ultimate scene—was taken off of his horse, placed dejectedly on the ground. To complete the coup, I think, appropriately, Leonore should be put in his former position—a nobly “nasty woman” who deserves her high praise and honors.

 

Beethoven’s Fidelio runs through April 8, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live April 1, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org

With an oddly coherent one-two punch of homey Canadian sensibility and electrifying Broadway wit, Come From Away has come to town. Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical has taken the musical world by a storm, wooing New Yorkers and out-of-towners like Justin Trudeau alike.

The New York Times dubs the musical “the catharsis we need in this American moment,” and it is not wrong, for Come From Away manages to lift us out of our modern political turmoil and transport us back to a time of astounding unity — albeit one that was extremely sobering. It takes place during the week after the September 11th attacks, in a remote Canadian town called Gander where 38 airplanes had to land unexpectedly after U.S. airspace shut down. A humanitarian crisis arises at the outset of the show: aboard these planes sit 7,000 people — a number equal to the town’s entire population — all of whom desperately need food, water, medication, and shelter. The musical captures a miraculous display of humanity in which the townspeople all come together, abandoning their personal responsibilities to spend an entire week tirelessly feeding, housing, clothing, and entertaining the passengers. As the small-town locals intermingle with these “Come-From-Awayers” from more than a hundred different countries, we lament that it takes such sadness to make people come together and celebrate life.

The cast of "Come From Away", Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2016

Particularly noteworthy is the musical’s ability to highlight the ways in which people of different identities experience their time in Gander. A gay couple, for example, initially feels the need to hide any trace of romance from potentially conservative locals and fellow visitors, but soon enough they find that everyone around them accepts them as they are. One of the pilots involved was actually the first-ever female captain in American history, and she spends the time in Gander ruminating about the last time she was not allowed to fly: when the all-male captains of her youth told her she was not fit for the skies. A Muslim chef experiences the most persistent intolerance, however, as some members of the group associate his religion with the terrorist attack and therefore do not want him to help out with the food preparation despite his expertise. These individual stories of hardship, and sometimes triumph, form a mosaic of humankind that could not stand out more from — or yet fit better into — the backdrop of Gander.

The space itself was a reflection of this mosaic superimposed upon rurality. For the musical, Gerald Schoenfeld Theater transformed into small-town Newfoundland, with thickets of evergreens bracketing the stage like the dense forest that frames rural Gander. On the stage itself, a rotating surface showcases each character from multiple angles, amplifying their individuality even during moments of solemn stillness.

The music served as the driving force behind this recurring paradigm of unification through individuality. The cast shone as a single entity in numbers such as “Welcome To The Rock,” while standouts like “Me And The Sky” sculpted the emphatically different characters in all of their joy, ambition, and desolation.

A grippingly beautiful take on a bleak moment in history, Come From Away is a must-see contemplation of what we can do in our darkest hours when we come together. Those who seek a fantastic feel-good musical that does not gloss over the trials of life should hasten to see it.

Tickets to Come From Away can be purchased here. For more information on how to get rush tickets to the show, message LionBot “How can I get rush tickets to Come From Away?”

Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus.

Currently out on Broadway is August Wilson’s Jitney. This play is an intricate, multidimensional story about cab (jitney) drivers in 1977 and their worlds colliding after their jobs are threatened. Jitney encompasses the human struggle to deal with family, success, and love. Through extremely complex characters, Wilson creates a narrative that highlights themes of generational differences, failing your parents, and creating a better life for yourself. Below is an interview with cast member and actor Keith Randolph Smith, who plays Doub in the show. 

Photo Courtesy of jitneybroadway.com.

Photo Courtesy of jitneybroadway.com.

What is the role of August Wilson’s work in today’s society? Especially since Jitney is on Broadway now and Fences is in theaters.

This is an opinion, but August plays a part in expressing culture. He is a storyteller and poet. He has a poet’s ear for language and distilling feelings and thought into a rhythmic miracle language that is truly showing the dignity that these characters have. It allows people in the culture to recognize themselves and their parents, uncles, etc. It also allows people not within the culture to witness conversations and modes of behavior and topics that they wouldn’t be privy to. His work is a chance to share the culture of African Americans. Wilson had love for his characters and gave them such dignity in going about their daily lives.

This is the first time Jitney is on Broadway – why is now a good time?

You know how old folks say how things always happen in the right time? I could never understand it or explain it. There is a reason it is happening now – I don’t know why, but economics, theater availability, interest, etc come into play as well. It works right now because of the political landscape, where people are being marginalized, though they are part of the mosaic of the United States. Workers, these drivers in the play, create an industry for themselves. In this time, 1977, yellow cabs wouldn’t go everywhere, so these jitneys came into being in Pittsburg to get people to get groceries and get rides when you needed them.

Do you have a favorite line from the play?

The exchange between Doub and Sheila:

“Becker’s boy is getting out of the penitentiary today.”

“No kiddin’. Time goes along and comes around. It goes and never stops.”

There is a scene in the play that discusses two wrongs not making a right and how that statement loses meaning when you are continuously wronged. What do you think about this statement? How does it apply to today?

Booster and Becker have a discussion of just epic proportions, spiritual matters, moral, and ethical matters. Booster comes out of a place after killing this girl by thinking more with his heart than his head. He tells his father he was wrong and that he did it. He’s debating morals and ethics and says there’s a reason he did it. They have a point of view and both feel they are right. It’s the definition of a tragedy. On one hand, Becker believes Booster is wrong for taking a life — that it’s not in your realm of power — but Booster thought he was right, he didn’t want to go to prison for something he didn’t do. He would rather go to prison for something he did do, rather than a lie. August gets you to understand the other side and presents it to you. It’s tough because many people are spiritual, philosophical, ethical, etc, but you can’t justify it even with telling me your thought process. So, August isn’t getting into that – but is highlighting the relationships both of these men had and that they both lost the women they love and blame each other for that loss.

What is the message you think families should take away from this show?

Family was big for August. I try to talk to people after the show. They say they’re are going to call their father on the train. The past couple of weeks, people have lost people, and it was felt at the theatre. There was an actor who just saw it, and he died. So, that’s why people want to do that. Generational differences have been around forever. The parent’s job is to teach you things so you can live on your own. Then, when they get older, the circle of life comes around, and you take care of them. The young have to help them with technology. The people in the play in the station make a family. You are born into a family, and then there is the family that you choose. We all play various roles like that with each other. There are so many levels to it — generational and familial. I love the play, not just because I’m in it.

Do you have any advice for the Columbia community?

I mean, I was a theatre major. I just like the fact that you guys are in school. As corny as it sounds, you are the future and the world. It’s good to know that a lot of bright people are at Columbia getting prepared to change and love the world and help everyone else, no matter in what field. But, especially in politics. I saw a bit of what recently happened at UC Berkeley. It brings up a question of: do we shut down what we don’t want to hear? Should we present many viewpoints? We don’t want to be the ones on the wrong side of history where we could do something but we didn’t. I just hope that everyone at Columbia is living consciously about the world they live in, especially those in the arts. Your work and all of our art is a reflection of what we are going through and the world: that goes into all of your choices. I have less years ahead than you do, so I really want your peers to stand up. Like Bob Marley said, “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!”

August Wilson’s Jitney is playing at the Samuel J. Friedman theatre. Tickets can be purchased here, and $30 rush tickets are available for purchase on the same day of each performance.

Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus.

The demon barber of Fleet Street has arrived in New York, and he’s come with a vengeance. With performances starting on February 14th, the Tooting Arts Club Production of Sweeney Todd has opened off-Broadway after previously playing in London. In following the style of the London production, which was hosted inside of Harrington’s Pie shop, the team has completely redecorated the Barrow Street Theatre in a similar fashion.

Indeed, upon entering the small theatre, one goes from a standard entrance into what looks and feels like an actual pie shop. This experience is intensified with a special addition: the option to purchase a pre-show pie and mash. Best of all, the pie and mash is created by none other than owner of The Perfect Pie company and former White House pastry chef, Bill Yosses. The pies come out hot and fresh and were a fantastic experience as audience members get ready for the show.

“Whatever pie you like, he will make it, and it will be the best pie you have ever eaten.” – President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of Sweeney Todd NYC.

“Whatever pie you like, he will make it, and it will be the best pie you have ever eaten.” – President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of Sweeney Todd NYC.

As quick as Yosses dishes out his signature pies, the pie shop quickly switches into performance mode as the actors begin mingling with the audience and preparing to take over the kitchen.

After clearing customer dishes, the lights dim and the actors get ready to start the show. For this production, the orchestra is pared down to the bare necessities: a piano, a violin, and a clarinet. Even though they were small in number, the orchestra performed beautifully, adding the perfect musical flair that helped to convey the tones of any given scenes.

The show’s interactive format worked fantastically with this Sondheim classic: actors walk along pie shop tables and are entering the theatre from numerous entrances. From the start, the viewer feels as if they themselves have been thrust into the lives of these character struggling to seek revenge and find love in an unforgiving world. In this musical thriller, Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker) is a loving husband and father and professional barber until a Judge Turpin, enamored with his wife, sends him off to Australia. Upon his return several years later, he learns his daughter, Johanna, is a ward of the Judge and, after finding his old shaving razors, enacts a plan with nearby pie show owner, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, to kill many of his customers and turn them into pies as he waits to seek revenge on the Judge that ruined his life. Indeed, the show represents many of these horrific scenes with a stunning combination of music and lighting in order to showcase the power of the characters and add significance to the scenes in which these people–who have their own lives and experiences–are turned into cheap pies sold to anyone.

Within the show, the actors themselves phenomenally portray the characters they play. In particular, Siobhán McCarthy plays her character Mrs. Lovett astonishingly well as she effortlessly develops the character from a optimistic pie shop owner to a woman clearly gone mad, clinging at anything she can to keep her devious plan with Todd alive. 

Jeremy Secomb and Siobhan McCarthy star as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett respectively in the production of Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theatre. (© Joan Marcus)

Jeremy Secomb and Siobhán McCarthy star as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett respectively in this New York City production of Sweeney Todd. Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.

Her performance is equally matched by Jeremy Secomb, who drives fear into even the audience in his chilling take on Todd. Within every scene he appears, Secomb quite easily asserts his character’s dominance in the theatre while also beautifully revealing the complex layers of Todd, a man heartbroken over the loss of his family yet driven by anger and blood hungry revenge.

With its intimate environment, phenomenal casting, and great pie to boot, this show is one that every person should run and see.

Tickets to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be purchased at sweeneytoddnyc.com with tickets currently being sold through August 13th.

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Nonken

Marilyn Nonken’s Fight for “New” Music

As two star-crossed lovers sang pleading lines of despair, I took a survey of the audience around me. Besides the gentleman fast-asleep on my right (he got started five minutes into Act I) and the three composition students I recognized from Music Theory III, there was a noticeable dearth in the Met Opera’s seats. Maybe it had something to do with it being a lethargic Wednesday night, or perhaps it was indicative of declining ticket sales. More likely, though, the timeliness of the opera was to blame: it – Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin – was written in 2000.

Contemporary music is thwarted by negative stereotypes. Concert-goers think of it as generally unpleasant and discordant – something to be avoided as much as possible. Concert programming confirms these negative beliefs. “Beethoven, Mozart, and ever more Beethoven!” ticket sales scream.

So, what is a contemporary performer to do? The pianist and musicologist Marilyn Nonken (GSAS 1999, Historical Musicology) believes acceptance problems can be solved through education.

Nonken’s recent book, The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age, challenges the “unmusical” claims about modern music.

“I think there are misconceptions about what contemporary music is, that newer music simply isn’t musical in the same way,” she explains with a tone that shows her passion for the music.

“I suppose why I talk so much historically about contemporary music relating to the past is to try to get away from that idea.”

Nonken presents challenging ideas in her work. She believes that musicians can look back at composers such as Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy and find “through-lines” to the present-day. Their music works through ideas similar to the ones electronic music composers are grappling with today; “New” Music is not as new as some may think.

Not many musicians see “New” Music the same way that Nonken does. Instead, most musicians prefer to play what she calls “great” music, i.e. the standard, traditional repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven et al. Nonken believes pedagogues are responsible for this trend.

“Within any music school there will be teachers who will tell their students don’t waste your time [playing contemporary music]. Don’t do that, it’s not worth it,” she tells me, sarcastically pantomiming the uneasiness of teachers telling their students not to touch “New” Music.  

“There’s this idea that if the player is really gifted and really talented that they should be playing ‘better,’ older music.”

What Nonken describes as the “business of piano” – to prepare for and win competitions – is the culprit for these teachers’ beliefs.

“You can’t play Feldman for the Van Cliburn,” Nonken jokingly gibes.

Pianists will not prepare programs including much music written post-1945, such as Feldman’s works, for the Van Cliburn competition because of the ideas on what “great” music is. They simply won’t win if they do.

As the Director of Piano Studies at NYU, Nonken fights against misconceptions about contemporary music. For instance, she requires graduate piano students to play a work written after 1945 for their auditions. One student, who did not have any music post-1945 in their repertoire, suggested “playing” an especially famous silent work.

“Someone wanted to bring in Cage’s 4’ 33” — I would take it!” Nonken enthusiastically yet with a hint of frustration exclaims.

“Bring that to your audition just to make that statement — if that’s the best you can do, play that! It’s the mindset, so I think that’s something always to fight.”

Nonken’s interest in championing new works began while she was at The Eastman School of Music. Unlike many of her peers, who were spending hours practicing “great” music, Nonken was giving life to the scores of her classmates — in practice rooms, dorm rooms, and cafes. She was excited by these collaborations.

“I actually found that this music was really interesting — this process of working with composers is interesting. You can actually make a difference, you could play a piece that’s never been played,” Nonken fondly recalls.

Without her, their music would have remained black dots and lines on a page. By realizing their works, Nonken gave her classmates the chance to develop their skills.

She even won competitions for her peers with her recordings. Nonken found value and meaning performing their works — an importance she says she would not have felt as “the nine-millionth person that year playing” famous, traditional repertoire.

Nonken has continued performing and premiering new works since her years at Eastman. When I walked into the lobby of her East Village studio, I was amazed by the number of CDs on display. Recordings of modern works by Morton Feldman, Tristan Murail, and Joshua Fineberg stared back at me – all physically representing Nonken’s support for modern music.

CDs on Shelf

Nonken’s recordings become the definitive versions of each new work. With that she sees a definite responsibility – a duty perhaps not as apparent in playing the standard repertoire.

“I don’t think that responsibility is there when you’re playing music of Chopin or Beethoven because there’s a million recordings out there,” she explains to me, recognizing that that may sound sacrilegious to many musicians.

“But if you go out there and play a piece that people might not have another chance to hear and don’t really do it well, in a way that’s representative – if you turn people off – you’ve blown that opportunity for that composer to make their case.”


Recent portents seem to indicate newfound acceptance. Despite Nonken’s quip, the 2017 Van Cliburn competition is commissioning Marc-André Hamelin to write a piece for the preliminary round. Miller Theatre is continuing their “Composer Portraits” series this season, which highlights the works of living composers. And the Met Opera, ever a bastion of “great” music, has staged works by contemporary composers, such as John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, and the aforementioned L’Amour de loin, in recent years.

Yet, these are exceptions. Musicians and audiences still maintain a preference for “great” music. They want it to be played as much as possible in concert halls, with “New” Music ousted as a distantly removed, unapproachable Other.

Nonken continues to crusade against the notion that “New” Music is not worthwhile to listen to – in her teachings, writings, recordings, and performances. Championing the music of today, Nonken is building the “great” repertoire of tomorrow.

She encourages you to hear her play music by Tristan Murail at Spectrum on February 11 at 7 PM. Come listen as she continues her fight against misconceptions about “New” Music.

“How Eye Hear It” runs alternate Sundays. To contact the writer or submit a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com