US Army Tenor Lends his Voice to Lois Alba Aria Competition

MSG Antonio Giuliano

A last minute addition to the program of the 6Th Annual Lois Alba Aria Competition will be sure to generate extra excitement. This year’s Competition takes place on Sunday, May 15, from 3:00pm – 5:00 pm at Cullen Hall at The University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.

US Army Master Sergeant Antonio Giuliano will fly in from Washington, D.C. to appear as a guest artist in the entertainment portion of the event. MSG Giuliano is a Master Vocalist and National Anthem Soloist and a member of the US Army Chorus.

The tenor heard about the Competition on the internet last year and wanted to enter as a competitor, but his schedule did not permit him to come on the required dates. Again this year he wished to enter, and called Ms. Alba only to find he had missed the deadline for entering.  After hearing samples of his singing, she invited him to come and sing as a guest artist.  To hear MSG Giuliano sing “Nessun Dorma,” click it!

MSG Antonio Giuliano has appeared in opera, concerts and recitals throughout the United States and Europe. As a member of The United States Army Chorus since 1988, MSG Giuliano has represented his country as a soloist and performed for heads of state, kings and queens, and presidents worldwide. He served as soloist at the funeral services for President Ronald Reagan singing an a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace, President Reagan’s favorite hymn.

During his Italian recital debut at the Villa D’Este in Como, Italy, he was invited to study with the late great post-war Italian tenor Franco Corelli in his home in Milan.

Recent vocal recitals include: Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., Steinway Series at the American Art Museum Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. and a recital and master class at Western Kentucky University.

His forthcoming performances in 2011 will include Verdi’s La Traviata and Il Trovatore in concert form in NYC. MSG Giuliano continues his voice studies with Dr. Donald G. Wiggins of New York, a partnership he has maintained since 1990. He resides in Northern Virginia with his lovely wife, Isabella, and their German Shepherd Dog, Gucci.

MSG Giuliano will join two past winners of the Competition (soprano Amanda Grooms and baritone Hee Pyoung Oh) in entertaining the audience while the judges decide the winners.

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A Splendid Trovatore

Today I went to the Met movie and saw Verdi’s Il Trovatore in an HD simulcast. It was done with such perfection that I’ll remember it as a high point in the whole of my opera-going experience. If the Maestro was watching from above, he would have been very pleased. It was first and foremost completely entertaining.

The action clipped along, although I remember past performances dragging. The toe-tapping melodies followed one after another. But, the secret of this performance’s singular success was its dream cast.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna and Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora

Argentinean tenor Marcelo Álvarez played Manrico as feisty and fiery with a handsome, strong, and sure voice.  His acting was pure emotion: anger, love, loyalty.  In his backstage interview he was so demonstrative and colorful, showing a lot of affection toward Sondra Radvanovsky, his Leonora, with whom he said he loved working. In a way he seemed to still be in character, or maybe he is just a lot like Manrico: colorful and dramatic.

Marcelo Alvarez as Manrico and Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora

Sondra Radvanovsky is the red hot Verdian soprano of right now! She has legato for days, incredible control, a beautiful tone, creamy timbre, and is a convincing actress. She has it all and I could listen to her sing all day. This part called for it all: loud and soft, high and low, bel canto trills and long even tones, all contributing to the drama.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang Count di Luna, the other man who loves Leonora. The Russian baritone seems to get more handsome with the years, and his beautiful voice is always so moving. He was an intensely sexy bad guy as he smoldered with anger, then lust. An impeccable singer and actor, he is riveting to watch.

The challenging and intense role of the gypsy Azucena is owned by American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick and has been for many years. It was mentioned today that she made her debut at the Met in this role in 1988.  Her voice is superb and she has it in complete control in service to her character portrayal.  She shows us Azucena as a loving mother, a fierce outsider, a survivor haunted by past events, and a daughter seized by revenge to the point of being demented. It was an inspired performance. It really looks and feels like the real thing.

Azucena (Dolora Zajick) at the gypsy camp

There was more applause and shouting in the movie theatre than I remember hearing for a long time. It was one of those rare occasions when everything comes together just right.  The pace was perfect and without pauses between scenes – thanks to the technology of the rotating stage set. The story is so intensely emotional in every scene, and no time was given to rest, so we in the audience were just as caught up in the frenzy of feeling as the characters were.

Wow!  What a day at the opera!

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Our Town Opera Packs a Punch

I went to Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music production of Ned Rorem’s Our Town last Saturday night, and I am so glad I did.  It was such an excellent performance! The singing, set, acting, everything was so good.

The opera begins in a scene from a small American town – Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire – in 1901.  The Stage Manager is a curious character who is both an ordinary stage manager and a part of the town himself, and who also speaks directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall.  The opera begins as he introduces us to the people in the town.

We soon realize we are in a period of history when things seem a lot simpler and go a lot slower than in today’s world.  Few cars, no computers, not even any television.  People were much more local-oriented without that window on the world in every living room.

George (Brenton Ryan) and Emily (Chelsea Morris) talking at night from their bedroom windows.

Emily and George have been next door neighbors all their lives. In the first act we find them beginning to be attracted to each other, and in the second act, we get to attend their wedding.  We hear the couple’s innermost fears about the future and the big step they are taking. (George: “What am I doing here?”  Emily: “I wish I were dead.”)  Their parents encourage them forward, and once the ceremony is done, they relax with each other and feel very happy.

The third act takes place in 1913 at the town cemetery where a graveside funeral service will soon take place. Emily has died during childbirth trying to bring their second child into the world. Those who are buried in the old cemetery are depicted sitting in chairs and discussing the funeral party and expressing random thoughts about their lives, and then Emily joins them.  She is happy to see her mother-in-law and others she knows. They advise her to relax into this new state and not to fight it.

Emily opts to go back and relive a favorite day of her life: her thirteenth birthday. From her new vantage point, people seem not to realize and appreciate the great gifts they have in everyday ordinary life, and that everything goes by too fast. Of course, this is the play’s message. But the original way it is delivered makes it much more poignant.

In background Tyson Miller as the Stage Manager. In foreground, Emily and George.

The Stage Manager was sung by the superb Tyson Miller who is both a flawless singer and a very impressive actor.  He projected a no nonsense attitude about the events, but with a large dollop of empathy.

Chelsea Morris was a perfect Emily: an old-fashioned wide-eyed innocent sung with a clear flowing voice. George was portrayed by Brenton Ryan whose accomplished tenor voice and sweet character carried the role.  You could not help but wish him well.  When he sobbed at his young wife’s grave, it was heartbreaking.

All the supporting players/singers were excellent. We have come to expect this high level of expertise at the Shepherd School, but this opera was exceptionally well-sung, well-acted, and polished.

This was my first introduction to Ned Rorem, and I would like to get to know him better.  The melodic, traditional music written to reflect the historical period would intermittently become dissonant when the characters had difficult moments. The opera premiered in 2006.

Of course, I had seen the Thornton Wilder play several times in the past, so I knew the story. But, this time during the iconic third act where the departed souls are sitting in chairs and talking among themselves, I was very touched and had to really fight my urge to do a little sobbing myself.

After the performance I went to eat at Poscol with three friends, and we discussed Our Town.  Someone said the opera was more effective than the play because of the evocative music and excellent acting by the Rice students. Agreed.  But maybe also because I am older now, and “know more dead people”, as the character Emily says, than I used to.  The ‘lesson’ of the play is probably even more appropriate to our time where our lives are lived at lightning speed, than to these characters at the turn of the last century.  Or maybe it applies to all humans who get caught up in the everyday busyness of their lives and fail to see the big picture and to count their blessings.

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Nixon In China – A Real Wow!

Nixon in China was a real WOW experience.  I loved the orchestral music and I think you would have, too.  The composer is John Adams, written in 1986-87, in a very minimalist style, really great. It would have two rhythms going on at the same time sometimes, there were tunes every once in a while to go with the action onstage, it was very stylized in parts (they would repeat a word or phrase over and over in a staccato kind of way). I loved the daring “new” music in the old form: opera.

All the characters were so good, Dick and Pat Nixon were done so well. She had a large part, telling about her life and how she felt on this trip to China. Chairman Mao is there as an old man who speaks philosophically with quotes from “The Little Red Book” while Nixon is trying to talk about world issues. Henry Kissinger is there, also Mme. Mao who is a mean little thing; she is involved in the arts, particularly dance, and she produces these ballets that are enactments of communist themes – really awful.  The first act was very literal – about a big meeting of all parties at a state dinner, etc.

The second act was somewhat surreal as the Nixons watch a ballet where they are punishing and whipping this skinny little Chinese lady, and Pat N. can’t stand it, and gets involved in the ballet and tells the character to stop hurting the girl, then Dick gets involved. It’s very bizarre and cool. Oh, and Richard Paul Fink, one of our favorite singers, plays Henry Kissinger. This singer in different, scary garb was a villain in the drama!

The third act shows a row of beds, one for each main character. Each is there in the privacy of their bedroom, and it shows what they are thinking, doing, in their private moments.  What a great idea.  Dick is telling Pat some war stories, saying I haven’t always told you everything.  Then, he tells a story, and she says, you’ve already told me that. Haha! Just like a real long-married couple.  She’s heard it all before.

John Adams, composer of "Nixon in China"

I have to mention the incredibly poetic and beautiful libretto of Alice Goodman – it was a wonder. She added a large dollop of art to events that many of us lived through. It lifts these events out of the every day.

To quote another fan of Nixon in China, Opera Betty, “I am taking down my Donny Osmond poster and replacing it with one of John Adams.”  Amen to that!

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Pure Unadulturated Light

Need to hear a message full of hope and heart at the beginning of a New Year?  Here you are…

I came across the following news story the other day and was shocked to learn what hard times mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao has had over the past two years.  The news clip tells her story:  ABC News.Opera Singer Had only Months to Live…

I first heard Zheng sing in 2000 at Houston Grand Opera (HGO) in the Czech opera, Katya Kabanova.  She played Varvara, Katya’s free-spirited friend, the lone bright spot in the opera. She spread her joie de vivre the best she could in the story about social, political, and personal oppression. 

For that stay in Houston she brought her then-fiancé, Troy Donahue, with her.  He was to die the following year at 65 of a heart attack.

Later, in 2004 she returned to HGO to sing the part of Magali in Daniel Catán’s world premiere of Salsipuedes.

 

 
 
 

Zheng Cao and Scott Hendricks in Salsipuedes

 

Salsipuedes cast: Chad Shelton, Heidi Stober, Ana Maria Martinez, Zheng Cao, Scott Hendricks, Laquita Mitchell. Photos by Brett Coomer

Zheng made a lasting impression on me – to even remember these appearances from years ago! – because she had a beautiful voice and was full of life and a super performer.

I know we all wish her a long life, good health, and all the happiness in the world!

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Don Carlo: Dangerous Times on a Grand Scale

 

Elizabeth (Marina Poplavskaya) and Don Carlo (Roberto Alagna). Photo by Ken Howard

The MetOpera simulcast of Don Carlo on Saturday was bigger than big!  Big political issues (authority vs. liberty), high stakes (your life), high drama (loyalty, love, frustration, heretics burning), and grand scale (Six leading characters, big orchestra, huge chorus).

 It was the 16th century, the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when being non-Catholic meant getting burned at the stake. Spain was the seat of world power, and the rest of Europe cowered in its wake.

 Six characters represent the various factions, ages, and powers.  They are what make us care about this complex situation, because they are mere humans like we are.

 Don Carlo (Roberto Alagna) is the son of Spain’s King Philip. He is betrothed to the lovely Elizabeth of France who he contrives to meet before the wedding.  They instantly fall in love, only to be frustrated by a change of plan at the last minute for political reasons: Elizabeth will now marry King Philip instead. The young people are crushed, but they do their duty. Carlo goes through the entire opera as a man broken by frustrated love.

 Elizabeth (Marina Poplavskaya) becomes queen and pines for Carlo, but is dutiful to his father and her husband, Philip. Ms. Poplavskaya possesses a rare vocal instrument that is equally lovely in the high and the low notes. Her voice could be heard cutting through the huge orchestra with clarity and a singular beauty. That impossibly long golden hair is her own.

 Rodrigo (Simon Keenlyside) is Carlo’s friend and confidante, though secretly he has revolutionary ideas. He encourages Carlo to leave Madrid and go to Flanders to help free them from Spanish oppression.

Rodrigo (Simon Keenlyside) and King Philip (Ferruccio Furlanetto). Photo by Ken Howard

 Simon Keenlyside, he of the fancy collar with lace accents, had the most natural acting style, always seeming very real. He has a manly baritone voice which also comes across as the most natural thing you would expect to come out of his mouth. He is magnetic on stage, a scene-stealer.

 Philip the king (Ferrucio Furlanetto) is a multi-faceted character: indifferent to his son, warm with Rodrigo, lonely in his personal life because he knows Elizabeth does not love him. His big aria addressing this subject at the start of Act IV is iconic in the operatic repertoire for its sensitivity and sympathy toward a powerful monarch. He is shown to have normal human concerns and at that moment, a heavy sadness. Mr. Furlanetto delivers ‘his’ scene with skill and heart.

 Princess Eboli (Anna Smirnova), a lady of the court who loves Carlo, and when rebuffed, schemes to disgrace Carlo and Elizabeth to the king.

 The Grand Inquisitor (Eric Halfvarson) is old, blind, and has unspeakable power over life and death. He is the Church’s high power behind the Inquisition. He and Philip have a tête-à-tête where Philip introduces the idea of execution for Don Carlo, then backs off from such an abomination.  The Inquisition leader presses for the plan, then Philip says in anger, “Must the throne always bow to the church?”

 The orchestral music is the best of the Verdi operas (dare I say it?!).  It is BIG, has much musical variety within the opera, it’s more complex, and more beautiful than in the others. The overture and opening music to several of the acts is magnificent. The conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, led the best opera orchestra in the world in a splendid performance.

 I must mention a couple of ensemble pieces that put the audience on the edge of their chairs. The Act II duet between Carlo and Rodrigo where they pledge undying loyalty and friendship is a bit of glorious music, and it was delivered expertly by Mr. Alagna and Mr. Keenlyside. There was much Platonic affection between the two which made it all the more real.

 In Act III a trio takes place between these two men with Princess Eboli who is angry and bent on revenge after Carlo is cool to her hot advances. It’s an amazing creation.

 There are more I could mention, but there are too many. Verdi is a master of composition for ensembles, solo arias, and orchestra.  He has it all, and lucky for us, we can still experience superlative productions like this through the wonder of modern technology.

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To Cross the Face of the Moon Goes Straight to the Heart

A Mariachi Opera?  I was very curious, so I took myself over to the small and beautifully renovated theatre space at Talento Bilingüe de Houston on Jensen Drive on Saturday night. Houston Grand Opera (HGO) commissioned the truly bilingual opera called To Cross the Face of the Moon / Cruzar la Cara de la Luna.

Let me come clean right now, I am a middle aged white lady whose experience of mariachi music is limited to the wandering musicians at Mexican restaurants.  So what we had that night was a revelation to me: beautiful songs full of heart that told a story with vibrant, complex, and extremely melodic music throughout the opera, played by a 16-piece mariachi ensemble, Mariachi Aztlán from the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg, Texas. The group also sang the choral parts of the opera. They were fabulous!

When the music started I could not stop the big smile that appeared on my face – it is such upbeat, happy music.  The opera began with a wedding in the state of Michoacán in Mexico. The newlyweds Renata and Laurentino are in love and they talk about how happy they will be and the children they will have.

Laurentino (Octavio Moreno) and Renata (Cecilia Duarte) on their wedding day. Photos by Felix Sanchez

As time goes by there are many complications in their lives. Laurentino goes north into Texas to make a better life for his family, and that decision has a huge impact not only on his small family, but on generations to come.  This story is about three generations of the family, some in Texas, some in Michoacán, and how they got pulled apart and how they made their way back together.

Laurentino tells a story of his youth when he would watch the migrating monarch butterflies that would fill the sky – even flying by at night. As he looked up to see them, they would “cross the face of the moon.”  He was full of wonder at how they knew where and when to go.  The butterflies and their migration becomes a symbol of the people who go north to get work, then return south to be with their families.

It’s a very emotional and heart-rending story, and one taken from our own time and place.  One reason it is so moving is that we know the story is based on reality as we know it today. Another reason is that the singers embodied the characters so beautifully, and the ambiance and culture of Mexico was always there – with the mariachi music. And the characters took this portable piece of Mexico with them wherever they went.

Laurentino was sung by Octavio Moreno, former HGO Studio artist, who sang with power and nuance, and was completely convincing as both a young man and an old man.  Cecilia Duarte sang the role of his wife Renata, a character full of life and courage, with a bright and clear soprano voice.  Brian Shircliffe and David Guzmán played Laurentino’s two sons, Mark and Rafael. Brian’s lovely baritone voice and David’s effective tenor combined very nicely in duets.

Another standout was Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo, who has been a featured mariachi performer for over 20 years. She sang the role of Lupita with a gorgeous earthy mezzo voice that delivers a punch.

Brittany Wheeler and Saúl Avalos were excellent in their supporting roles.

The composer of this remarkable musical evening is José “Pepe” Martínez, musical director of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, considered a very top-tier mariachi ensemble. He co-wrote the book  lyrics with Leonard Foglia, who was also the director. Mr. Foglia is a longtime opera and theatre director, librettist, and novelist.

The performance was a complete triumph!  Who could resist its true-to-life story and its life-affirming music?  I walked out humming and drying my cheeks.  Although the run at Talento Bilingüe is over, I feel sure this gem will reappear soon.  It is just too good to neglect. If you see it advertised in the future, my advice is – buy a ticket right away.

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