Monday, September 18, 2017

Artist Profile: Judith Skinner, contralto

When I reported on Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma! at The Glimmerglass Fesival I was delighted to learn I have a friend in common with Judith Skinner, the powerhouse contralto who played both Maria in Porgy and Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! I was further delighted to learn that Judith and Talise Trevigne, who played Bess, have been friends for 18 years. My original plan was to write a joint profile on the two, or a profile with a sidebar article, but I wound up with too much material for either option, so I present this stand-alone profile of Judith. My profile of Talise will be published separately.

We met on a lovely July morning in Cooperstown, and soon were talking about the season at Glimmerglass.

Judith Skinner
Photo:  judithsskinner.com
About being cast in two roles:

Talise is the one who actually said, "Let's see if we can get one show together in our lifetime," so I sent my audition materials for Maria. Then they asked if I’d also consider being in Oklahoma! But I wanted to do it. It was crazy—a month of rehearsals going back and forth, back and forth. Crazy but fun. There are worse jobs. There are worse things you could be doing instead of doing something you love to do. I'm definitely happy about that. And happy that we did our first show together.

About the very different vocal demands for the two roles:

Kathryn LaBouff, who is our diction and dialogue coach, helped me a great deal with Aunt Eller by helping me find where in my register I needed to speak that so that it wouldn’t become very strenuous. She loved the way I was doing it, but she helped me fine tune things. I couldn’t tax myself so much that I couldn’t jump into an opera the next day and sing. I couldn’t mark (sing half voice) in rehearsal, because I had to train my body to be able to do this every single day and do it fully. I think that helped me a great deal. I felt like tech week lasted two weeks because we were teching both shows. It has become easier. And I don't feel it as much. There will be one day when I do both shows on the same day—that will be the test!

As Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!
(with Michael Roach as Will Parker)
Photo:  Karli Cadel for The Glimmerglass Festival
We have to train our bodies, because it's all muscle memory. We sacrifice a lot, but we do it because it's what we love. We're like athletes. To look at us you would not think that, but, we are. And we have to rest. We have listen to our bodies and rest when our bodies tell us to rest. I try to sleep a lot. I drink lots of water. I do a lot of cardio just to keep the body warm and you've gotta keep it moving.


About Porgy and Bess and discussions about race:

I don't have any racial issues with Porgy and Bess. I think the story is a beautiful story that is poignant today. There are people on drugs, there are people trying to get off of drugs, and there are drug dealers who try to keep people on drugs so they can keep in business. People can look at it today and see parallels to life today, and can understand everything that's going on there, and love is love.

When I was graduating from college, people warned me about doing Porgy and Bess early in my career and getting stuck with in that role. At that time nobody was producing Porgy and Bess, so I did lots of other roles before my first Porgy.

As Maria in Porgy and Bess
Photo:  Karli Cadel for The Glimmerglass Festival
About her character, Maria:

This production is a little different for me. I've done productions where she has her shop, but she was a little hustler herself and that's how she was making her money there. Sportin' Life was her competition. I've done a number of productions where she gets drunk at the picnic. This is the first time I've done a production where Maria was considered more of a pillar of the society, part of Catfish Row. She was the person that people came to for advice. She was very religious. I've never done a production where Maria was this religious before.

I could see the parallels between her and Aunt Eller from the beginning. Once I read these, I thought, "Oh, I get it. I’m in charge! I'm in charge this summer, no problem, I'm in charge."

Judith and Talise with some goofy guy
On the Glimmerglass production:

I love the dignity and the level of respect that this production has brought to the characters. Francesca (Zambello, director of the production at Glimmerglass) really kept dignity in the forefront. And it makes the music shine even more. John DeMain (conductor of the production) wouldn't allow anyone to make their roles into caricatures. He would explain why you shouldn't do that because he wanted to have a level of respect and dignity that these characters and the music deserve.

You could tell the relationships and how deep the relationships went. And Francesca brought that out of everyone, so even with the minor characters within the ensemble, it became like it was a family of people that lived in this community. We all knew each other, we knew each other's kids. When people live that close together, you know everything that's going on with them.

So when Bess leaves with Sportin' Life, and we discover this baby that's sitting in a basket on the other side of the stage. (Bess has been taking care of Clara’s baby after Jake and Clara are killed in the storm.) The entire community know they have to take this child in and we have to raise him. It was so poignant in that moment. I think that brought it all together and gave a totally different level of understanding of what "community" meant.

On her background:

I am actually a native New Yorker, which is rare to find in New York City. Most singers are transplants to New York. I went to the Fame School (New York’s School of Performing Arts, featured in the 1980 movie Fame). I went there for music, the clarinet and to work. I’ve definitely been doing music and theater since I was a kid!

I came to opera weird because I wasn't trying to be an opera singer. I went to college for theater, although I'd started studying voice in junior high school. I was helping another student with an aria, because I had learned it in high school. The head of the opera department heard us and opened the practice room door, and said, "That was not you, so it had to have been you." And she sat down at the piano and said, "Just sing it for me, just humor me." And I sang it. Two days later, they offered me a scholarship to study voice through opera department.

As a contralto, I think I've gotten a hell of a lot more than I ever would expect. What's next? There's a lot up in the air, so I couldn't really say.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Aida at Salzburg

I've just read a scathing review (link) of Aida at the Salzburg Festival. No, not critical of the performances, but of the opera itself. The reviewer seems to hate Verdi operas on principle, and Aida in particular. He thinks the characters shallow and the stories ridiculous. To put it mildly, I disagree.

Here are two YouTube clips from the production in question. Anna Netrebko sings Aida, Francisco Meli as Radames. (I'm not sure I'd have cast either in those roles, but you be the judge.)




Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Thoughts on Glimmerglass 2017


At the Alice Busch Theater,
The Glimmerglass Festival
I've been coming to The Glimmerglass Festival since 2011. The Siege of Calais was my 20th opera at Glimmerglass. (It would be 28 had I not missed the 2012 and 2016 seasons.) That doesn't count the operas I was fortunate to see more than once and the additional programs such as Deborah Voigt's Voigt Lessons in 2011 or Jonathan Miller's open masterclass on the last act of La Traviata in 2014. I've seen Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's programs, in which she introduced opera scenes related to the law, more than once, and I've seen Girl's Night Out, a cabaret program of Glimmerglass Young Artists, several times. I've been granted interviews with great singing artists and with General and Artistic Director Francesca Zambello herself. Regular readers will not be surprised to hear again how fond I am of the place. I am quite grateful to Glimmerglass and to the PR Director/Diva Brittany Lesavoy for helping make all of this possible.

This season's programming had a common theme of home, community, belonging. This is plain to see in Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, and The Siege of Calais. Less so in Xerxes, but it's there. That's a theme that's been on my mind a lot lately, probably in part because I'm in my 50s now, but also in part because of a career change in my non-musical life. That's part of why the first three shows made me quite misty at times.

With my new pals Judith Skinner
and Talise Trevigne
Highlight of the festival outside of the operas: Meeting Talise Trevigne, who played Bess in Porgy and Bess, in the parking lot Saturday night. I was pulling in, she was already out of her car and walking toward the theater, and she hugged me through the car window! (Watch for an article based on my interview with Talise and Judith Skinner, who played Maria in Porgy and Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!)

Best food: Lunch Saturday at The American Hotel in Sharon Springs.

More fun food: The Village Restaurant in Canajoharie for delightfully low-brow diner food.

Even more fun food (are you sensing a theme here?): Lunch on the dock at the Blue Mingo Grill, overlooking Lake Oswego.

Lodging: This year we didn't stay at the B&B we'd used many times before, but tried something different with a cabin near Canajoharie reserved through AirBnB. Hubby was a bit wary, having never used AirBnB before, but he wound up liking the cabin more than I did. I think we'll try something else next time we come.

Amusements: We haven't gone to the breweries or wineries this year, but there is still lots to do and see in the area. Dear hubby was finally able to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, while I was otherwise occupied, and we've found lots of cute shops and restaurants. I've added to my collection of dog art. And dog T-shirts. And to my waistline.

Unfortunately, there were no extra programs I could see during my time here. This weekend has been only opera performances. I don't really have any more to say about the opera productions. Sort of a quiet end to my time at Glimmerglass this year.  I expect to be back.

Xerxes at Glimmerglass

The Glimmerglass Festival has created a sumptuous and nuanced production of Mr. Handel's Xerxes (Serse). This opera was innovative in many ways--use of shorter arias and accompanied recitatives to move action forward, inclusion of a comic character, and a storyline that is not as complicated as those of earlier operas. These changes to the opera seria form London knew contributed to the cool reception the opera received in 1738, but also help make it one of Handel's most popular operas in our own time. The story is still convoluted, involving rivals for a maiden's affection, the maiden's scheming sister, and the wacky servant of one of the rivals. Oh, and the fiancée of one of the rivals, disguised as a man. In the end the maiden gets the man she loves and the jilted fiancée gets the man she loves.

John Holiday as Xerxes
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
We were fortunate to see the first and second performances of the Glimmerglass production, and found it up to the high standard we always expect, both visually and vocally. From the very beginning, we were delighted by the clarity and sweetness of the reduced orchestra's playing, skillfully conducted by Nicole Paiment. The opera opened with the familiar aria "Ombra mai fu", bane of many a freshman voice student's existence. With maturity one learns to love the piece again, especially when it is performed by a singer like guest artist John Holiday, Jr.  Mr. Holiday still displays the agile vocal technique, pleasing sound, and very sure stage presence as Xerxes that we so admired two years ago in Cato in Utica at Glimmerglass. His show-stopper aria at the end of the opera nearly brought the house down. Xerxes experiences quite a range of emotion, and Mr. Holiday gave us this contrast with apparent ease.

Allegra De Vita as Arsamenes
Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
Arsamenes, brother and rival of Xerxes, was sung by guest artist Allegra De Vita, whom we also admired in Cato in Utica.  We still love her rich and even sound and her commitment to her role's many conflicting emotions. We believed Arsamenes' love for Romilda, the maiden who attracts these two gents.

The remainder of the cast were all Glimmerglass Young Artists. Romilda was sung by Emily Pogorelc, and her sister Atalanta, who also loves--or at least wants--Arsemenes, was sung by Katrina Galka. Both were made up with long, flowing blonde hair and attired in similar costumes, and did indeed look like sisters. Both were also very good singers, giving us all of Handel's florid and lyrical passages with equal grace. Ms. Pogorelc was all propriety and grace as the virtuous Romilda, while Ms. Galka was all scheming, fiery temperament as Atalanta.

Katrina Galka and Emily Pogorelc
Photo:  Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
The servant Elvino was performed with gusto by Calvin Griffin. We enjoyed his Leporello-like antics and his fine singing. Spurned fiancée Amastris was sung by Abigail Dock with skill and artistry. Her numerous rageful arias displayed vocal range and agility. Ariodates was sung by Brent Michael Smith with sonorous dignity.

Abigail Dock and Calvin Griffin
Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
There is much to discuss about the production. We quite liked the musical direction by Nicole Paiement, and her leadership of the talented cast and the orchestra. We weren't so sure about the stage direction by Tazewell Thompson. Although opera of this period often didn't involve much movement, which would not be very successful now, we wondered about some of the movement included in this production. we found many of the stage movements either arbitrary or heavy-handed. In particular, the frequent movement back and forth, onto and off of the raised platforms on the stage during angry arias didn't really make sense.

Visual elements also concerned me. While we quite liked the costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti and Lighting by Robert Wierzel, the various elements of the scenery by John Conklin and how they operated together confused me. We didn't mind the raised, raked platforms on stage or the backdrops suggesting ancient Rome. But elements of scenery flew in and out for reasons we couldn't discern, often at unexpected angles to the ground.

You might disagree with my quibbles. It has been known to happen. On the whole, however, do we recommend seeing Xerxes?  Of course we do. The singing alone is worth the price of a ticket.

Xerxes full cast, 2017
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival




Monday, July 17, 2017

Cooperstown under siege!

Three out of four Glimmerglass Festival productions this season have brought me to tears, and that includes the opening performance of Mr. Donizetti's The Siege of Calais (L'Assedio di Calais). (I will see Xerxes, which did not have such an effect, a second time and write about it then.)

Aleks Romano and Leah Crocetto
Photo:  Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
The Siege of Calais is based on events in history, when Britain's King Edward III held the French port Calais, located at the narrowest point of the English Channel, under siege in 1346-1347. When Calais, after struggling to defend its walls for so long, could do nothing but admit defeat, the King promised to spare the town if it delivered six nobles to be executed. (We at Taminophile Enterprises don't think the King would have kept his word, knowing what history shows us about the clemency of British monarchs of the age, but that's beside the point.) The King was convinced by his wife to spare the six, and by extension the town. In the opera this is followed by a happy ending finale with lots of impressive singing by the soprano. This probably didn't happen on the battlefield.

Impressive singing we had in abundance from Leah Crocetto as Eleonora, wife of Aurelio. This is pure Donizetti soprano writing, and very beautifully sung by Ms. Crocetto. We heard her in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia as Elisabetta in Don Carlo. We think this role suits her much better, although she sang Elisabetta well. We'd love to hear her tackle other big Donizetti roles. Ms. Crocetto had a wonderful dramatic and vocal chemistry with mezzo Aleks Romano as Aurelio. We saw Ms. Romano in May at Opera Delaware as Arsace in Semiramide, and praised her singing then. We liked it even more now. Donizetti's duet writing in this opera rivals the great duets from Norma and Semiramide, and the two women sang these duets with precision, skill, and great artistry.

Adrian Timpau as Eustacio
Photo:  Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Apart from these two guest artists, the entire cast was comprised of Glimmerglass Young Artists, as is the casting practice at Glimmerglass. Standouts include Adrian Timpau as Eustachio, mayor of Calais and father of Aurelio, and Michael Hewitt as Edoardo/King Edward III. Mr. Timpau had the vocal heft and the dignity to play the Mayor well. Michael Hewitt, who was excellent as Jud Fry in Oklahoma!, gave us the same good singing and sure-footed stage presence as Edoardo.

Michael Hewitt as Edoardo III
Photo:  Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
We were happy to have Joseph Colaneri in the pit, as he led the orchestra quite crisply through Donizetti's score. Director Francesca Zambello gave the story shape and flow, and made the second act especially moving, but I'm not sure I understood all of her choices. I did not object to the idea of updating the story to a similar conflict in our own time (regular readers take note), and I was OK with the visual concept, but I found the execution by Scenic Designer James Noone and Lighting Designer Mark McCullough a bit busy, cluttered, and dark. Perhaps the excess was to drive home the feel of destruction and decay.

This is a production to see, as a Donizetti rarity and an opportunity to see and hear great performances.


The six martyrs in prayer
Photo:  Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival