Girl at the Opera

A New Make
Sunday July 20th 2014, 12:20 am
Filed under: Intermission,New York


Alex Waterman, director of Robert Ashley’s Vidas Perfectas, introduced tonight’s performance by remembering what Ashley said to him about re-making his television opera Perfect Lives: “Don’t sell them a used car–make them a new one.” The performance tonight in Marfa, TX, of the Spanish-language version was classically Ashley while inhabiting a vital new magic.

Whether you know Ashley’s operas or not, keeping old opera new is a popular topic right now.  The Economist‘s opera blog posted a piece just last week about Sir Mark Elder’s vision of a La Traviata at this year’s Glyndebourne festival that, he promises, will be new, fresh, and full of exciting discoveries. A tough promise for such an old work. And as the comments show, opera lovers fall passionately on either end of the spectrum about new and old works (and how those distinctions are defined) and staying true to the composer’s intention (whatever that might mean).

Tonight was the final performance of a four-night tour through west Texas, and the finality added an energy akin to a last hour spent with a loved one.  The fearless and talented Ned Sublette, Elio Villafranca, Elisa Santiago, and Raul De Nieves performed the last three out of seven episodes: El Parque (The Park), El Bar (The Bar), and El Patio De Atras (The Backyard). El Parque opened quietly. A strong groove had the floorboards shaking with unconsciously tapping toes by El Bar. But El Patio De Atras was truly spell-binding. Behind a row of old Panasonic televisions, the stage was framed by powerfully colored hanging banners–orange, purple, turquoise, red–that met at the back in two blocks of green. In the last act, these two green blocks opened slowly to the outside where Santiago was standing in a spotlight dressed in a floating gown alone. It was beautiful.

Ashley died this March, but if this production says anything it is that he is very much still alive. Near the end of his introduction, Waterman dedicated the performance to Mimi Johnson and Ashley, saying “They were supposed to be here tonight, but they couldn’t make it”–as though something had just come up in Ashley’s schedule. It was a fitting statement given how strongly Ashley’s influence comes through in this production. It may be a new car, but it still has the peaceful ingenuity I love in Perfect Lives. How much is Ashley and how much is Waterman–that’s harder to say. Who knows what some time will do to this work. What will Perfect Lives look like in 2050? I’m not sure, but I can’t wait to find out.


Summer Intermission: Some Notes
Wednesday July 09th 2014, 4:12 pm
Filed under: Houston Grand Opera,Intermission,New York

As the summer opera-hiatus drags on—alas, will October never arrive?—a few notes:

Opera is not far away! Alex Waterman directs the late Robert Ashley’s Vidas Perfectas over two weekends in west Texas. Vidas Perfectas is a Spanish iteration of Ashley’s seven-episode television opera Perfect Lives that premiered in the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York this spring. It is perhaps his best-known work—a composition that pushes feverishly against traditional and stuffy attitudes about opera to focus on the American vernacular and, most of all, American storytelling. Catch the first four episodes in El Paso on July 12 and the final three in Ciudad Juárez on July 13. The tour moves to Marfa for another two performances on July 18 and 19 (for more info, check out Ballroom Marfa). I’m catching the last night—look out for a review—and you can also watch video recordings of all the episodes (previously filmed in February) here.

The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones writes a noteworthy spotlight piece on Brian Eno—a composer who continues to thrill and bewilder my notions of musical content. And, surprisingly, Alex Ross takes a more generous approach than some Houston critics (myself included) to Weinberg’s The Passenger, which came through Houston in January and now sees its way through New York.

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Symphonic Spectacular!
Monday May 26th 2014, 1:43 pm
Filed under: Houston Symphony

Houston Symphony Pops’ closing concert of its centennial season veers from Rocky to a “Conductor Think Cap”–read my review at Houstonia Mag.

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Houston Symphony plays Mahler’s 8th
Saturday May 10th 2014, 2:38 pm
Filed under: Houston Symphony

A transcendental performance: read my review at Houstonia here.

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Casual Friday
Friday May 02nd 2014, 12:09 pm
Filed under: Intermission

Morgan Sorne at G Gallery


On Wednesday at the luminous G Gallery in the heights, four celebrated poets read from their work—Ange Mlinko, Paul Otremba, Joseph Campana, and Nick Flynn. And then, standing in a meager circle of electronic equipment and percussion instruments, musician and performance artist Morgan Sorne set one poem from each poet to music. The four resulting pieces, built looping and layering vocal samples, were unlike anything I have heard in Houston. What Sorne does is something new—and I mean that in its fullest sense. There’s word he’s going to give a concert here in October, and you won’t want to miss it.

So you missed Sorne on Wednesday, but do you have plans tonight? Catch the International Contemporary Ensemble tonight at the Wortham playing John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony, Louis Andriessen’s Life, and Steve Reich’s Radio Rewrite as part of Da Camera’s 2013-2014 season. The renowned ensemble alone promises to be sensational; the program of these twenty-first-century greats makes this concert another must-see.

And if it’s just been a long week and you’d rather kick back at home, this video of “mad scientist of music” Mark Applebaum tests the idea of what music is altogether, opening with a pretty smart concept of boredom. His Concerto for Florist and Orchestra will complete your Friday night and round out your week by putting any absurdities you might have experienced into perspective (catch the performance in its entirety here).

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HGO’s Carmen at Houstonia Magazine
Monday April 28th 2014, 10:57 am
Filed under: Houston Grand Opera

It might be that Das Rheingold is just a hard act to follow. Or maybe not–read my review of HGO’s season-closer Carmen at Houstonia Magazine.

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Need a Spring pick-me-up? See Houston Symphony: Bronfman plays Beethoven’s 4
Friday April 18th 2014, 10:15 am
Filed under: Houston Symphony

I grew up listening to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, otherwise known as the Emperor Concerto, every Saturday afternoon. With its lyrical opening line, fast turns, and harmonic vivacity, the last movement of his Piano Concerto No. 4 has always struck me as a prelude to the majestic following concerto—beautiful, but not up to the heavenly standards Beethoven reached with Concerto No. 5. But Yefim Bronfman, the great Soviet-born Israeli-American pianist, shows why Concerto No. 4 holds its own against the mighty Emperor.

This Easter weekend, Houston Symphony presents a three-concert series with Smetana’s overture to The Bartered Bride and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major, Opus 88 alongside Bronfman at the piano for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (and, if you’re lucky as I was on Thursday, Bronfman will grace the audience with a stunning encore). It is also Music Director Designate Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s final appearance with Houston Symphony until next season’s opening weekend.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts with energy, and he’s not afraid to move as though the music were actually dancing through his lithe fingers and across his body. Any concert of Smetana, Beethoven, and Dvořák reliably makes for a pleasant night of quality classical music. Under Orozco-Estrada’s baton, this trio is delightful and surprisingly invigorating.


Bronfman plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 tonight, April 18, and tomorrow, April 19. Visit Houston Symphony’s website for tickets and more info.

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Das Rheingold at HGO Redefines Wagner’s Total Work of Art
Saturday April 12th 2014, 12:57 pm
Filed under: Houston Grand Opera


Photo by Lynn Lane. Iain Paterson as Wotan, Meredith Arwady as Erda, Andrea Silvestrelli as Fafner, Stefan Margita as Loge, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Fasolt

What is a total work of art? Those familiar with Richard Wagner will jump in first to correct the English with the German “Gesamtkunstwerk” and describe, starry-eyed, Wagner’s vision of a totalizing performance space in which all the arts—architecture, music, poetry—are perfectly fused. But Houston Grand Opera’s Das Rheingold, a co-production with Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, and Maggio Musicale, Florence, makes me wonder if we ever really understood a total work of art until now. Extraordinary doesn’t even begin to describe the experience.

Das Rheingold is the first in Wagner’s epic tetralogy, the Ring Cycle. This opera lays the narrative foundation. As its title suggests, Das Rheingold establishes where the magical gold originates, how it gets forged into a powerful ring, and how it portends the inevitable demise of the gods and Valhalla.

What you might not expect, though, is that this production also establishes that the two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, are supported by 800-pound cranes that come from the same metal shop as Sigourney Weaver’s fighting machine in Alien, and that Loge, the god of fire, is a devil with a Segway. Don’t be surprised to find yourself pondering factory farming as golden forms, hung by their heels, are rolled across the background in an assembly line or reminiscing about the Matrix as golden embryos are packed and sealed against a complex set of data and industrial piping. And I haven’t even gotten to the acrobatics, fire breather, and flying fish tanks yet.

Individually, these elements would be strange (although Loge on a Segway is a stroke of genius no matter what). What set designer Roland Olbeter, costume designer Chu Uroz, lighting designers Peter van Praet and Gianni Paolo Mirenda and video designer Franc Aleu have made together is no less than a visual artistic masterpiece. Architecture: check.

The vocal cast is a power house. The three Rhinemaidens, Andrea Carroll, Catherine Martin, and Renée Tatum, open the opera with a trio de force while still managing to seductively splash around in square, suspended tanks. Baritone Christopher Purves, in the role of the unsightly Alberich, dances around below them while exemplifying vocal agility. As Fricka, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton tears it up with a voice full of passionate steel. Iain Paterson reigns as Wotan with a mighty bass-baritone—forceful and commanding.

Most memorable of all, tenor Stefan Margita offers an invigorated interpretation of Loge, and it’s not just because he’s floats around the stage on mechanized wheels. Costumed in a shiny white cape lit up with red LED bulbs, Margita leaves an impression. Das Rheingold is the only opera of the Ring Cycle in which Loge plays a major role (later you’ll briefly see him set a ring of fire around Brünnhilde and, later still, light up Valhalla), and it’s a shame. Margita sings purposefully without it feeling purposeful. He is such a good performer it is easy to forget he’s acting. The tenor timbre that so rarely even borders on the fullness that baritones achieve, is, for Margita, a given of breadth and sophistication. I’m tempted to say he is a total work of art himself.

And the orchestra, conducted by the indefatigable Patrick Summers, captures Wagner’s ideal: although there were a few horn blunders, I hardly cared because the score was practically unnoticeable as a separate entity. Music: check.

But the most pressing reason this production redefines Gesamtkunstwerk is that there is poetry in the experience I can’t put into words. It envelopes you and transports you to another land in another time as only a true total work of art can.

Das Rheingold runs April 11- April 26, and many shows are already sold out, so book it now and don’t miss this singular production.

“What is it?”: Robert Wilson at Rice
Friday March 28th 2014, 11:30 am
Filed under: Intermission

“What we see is what we see, and what we hear is what we hear,” Robert Wilson said on March 27, the second night of the three-night Campbell Lecture Series at Rice University. I know Wilson first as the director of the opera Einstein on the Beach. But his theatrical genius extends before and after 1976, when the opera first premiered. Describing his impressive body of work, Wilson focused on a tension between sight and sound winding eventually to a question of meaning. It is by chance that we find a relationship between what we hear and what we see, he explained.

A few hours before this lecture, I had been editing a piece of writing about duration in Einstein’s musical score. While still relying on constraints of time in its compositional structure, the opening of this opera is not built around measures or time signatures. There is a durational relationship at work between three notes: the first A lasts forty seconds, followed by G for sixty seconds, and then a C for eighty seconds. I confess, although I’m embarrassed to admit it, that somehow I had missed the visual score entirely—Wilson’s grid map of time—which, among many things, swings a bar of light from horizontal to vertical in sixteen magical minutes. I’m left wondering now how we see and hear time. Can it be separated? How is the experience different?

To open his lecture, Wilson stood in silence for just over two minutes before telling a story about an architecture professor he had in college in the early 1960s. While she lectured, three screens flashed images behind her which had nothing to do with what she said. After seven or eight months in her class, Wilson remembers that he began to make associations between these unrelated things. One day, she walked to the podium with a black leather handbag, opened it, and took out a fish carefully wrapped in Saran plastic wrap and laid it on the podium. And then she began to talk about Bauhaus architecture without ever mentioning or explaining the fish. At the end of her lecture she wrapped up the fish, put it in her handbag, and left the room. The next day, she brought an orange and set it on her podium. “I’m still thinking about that orange” Wilson said.

Speaking about Einstein, Wilson insists there is no message to get, although this is not the same as saying it is meaningless. And here, again, the building tension between seeing and hearing returns. Wilson strives to create a visual on stage that will sound clearer than if one’s eyes were closed. As a striking example of his investment in a visual score, Wilson described how he staged Wagner’s entire sixteen-hour Ring cycle without the music. The final product was extraordinary.

It feels almost ironic to seek answers to the durational questions Einstein raises in both its aural and visual score. But it is also comforting to be so perplexed by a work. The reason to be an artist, Wilson said, is to ask questions—not say what something is, but to ask “what is it?” And if we know the answer already, it’s not worth doing.

The Campbell Lecture Series in Rice’s School of Humanities brings a distinguished humanities scholar each year to campus. Wilson’s last lecture in the series is tonight, March 28, at 6pm. He promises to speak about his recent work with Lady Gaga. For more info, visit

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OH Preview: A New Executive Director and Lucia di Lammermoor
Tuesday March 25th 2014, 10:34 pm
Filed under: Opera in the Heights


Jessica Jones as Lucia. Photo by Shannon Langman

Some might say that opera is a dying art, but when Stephanie Helms thinks of Opera in the Heights, she sees a young, uncommon life form. As OH’s new executive director, Helms intends to engage the community more than ever and build the company while maintaining its distinct identity: “We are not HGO. We are not the Met. We are Opera in the Heights,” Helms said this afternoon in her new office on Heights Boulevard.

Helms is in the unique position of fostering the small-town atmosphere that sets OH apart while also focusing on development. From 2006 to 2011, Helms worked for Houston Grand Opera. She returns to Houston from OPERA America in New York City where she oversaw the design and construction of the National Opera Center. “I loved my time at HGO, but I like being a part of this smaller organization,” Helms said. “Singers have this language when they’re on stage with each other…if you’re in a big house, in the audience, you don’t see that, but in a small house you get to see…that chemistry that happens between singers on stage then extends into the audience and everyone is having this experience together.” Although much of what she has planned will take time to implement—music classes and choirs for children and adults—Helms is enthusiastic:  “I get so excited about it I can hardly speak coherently about it.”

As Helms begins her tenure at OH, her cohort is preparing for the final show of the season: Gaetano Donizetti’s tragic Lucia di Lammermoor opens this Friday, March 28. You may know the murderous tale from Walter Scott’s 1819 novel The Bride of Lammermoor, from which it was originally adapted. But the opera’s literary influence has lingered—it is also the opera that overcomes Flaubert’s fated Emma Bovary and acts as a turning point in E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread when uptight Philip dives from his box seats in ecstasy while the biddy Harriet exclaims “Call this classical! It’s not even respectable!”

Although she describes herself as a theatre nerd with a soft spot for Puccini’s La Boheme, Helms uses what she called “normal people language” to discuss Lucia. Even though Lucia boasts perhaps the most famous mad scene in all of opera, Helms said she is enchanted by the music: “I think people will say, well, this is Lucia—isn’t that the one where she kills people or she’s bloody? And you think, oh, dark, depressing….Yes, she has a fantastic mad scene at the end. But it’s not terribly hard to digest. It’s nice, it’s light, it’s beautiful.”

Lucia also has a reputation for being a coloratura soprano’s dream: the score offers countless moments to show off. It is common for a singer to write in her own cadenzas or flourishes. The renowned mad scene can be astonishing when it’s done right. The Met’s stunning 2011 production with Natalie Dessay in the title role stands as remarkable proof that this long-awaited scene can make or break the whole opera.

And the intimate setting of Lambert Hall could make the mad scene positively scintillating.

 “The times I’ve been most moved by opera have been at HGO” Helms said. “I love that they’re able to bring a perspective to art on a national and international scene….There’s real huge value in that…but there is real huge value in packaging it in a way that is very accessible…to people who might not otherwise even think about attending the opera,” Helms said. “I don’t know if I could do this any other way.”

Lucia di Lammermoor runs March 28 – April 6. For tickets and more info, check out their website.

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