Orninthology: “Yardbird” in Philadelphia

That Yardbird, Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette Wimberly’s new Charlie Parker opera, should begin with its famous subject’s death is not surprising. Opera is often fixated on greatness and endings. Like Oscar, Opera Philadelphia’s other new opera this season, Yardbird concerns not its celebrity protagonist’s achievements but rather his legacy and renown. The subject—Oscar Wilde or, in this case, Parker—is a kind of synecdoche for American regional opera as a whole. His cultural authority is asserted rather than argued. His creations lie in the past while his descendents squabble over ownership of his life.

It’s a shame that this opera doesn’t work dramatically, because musically there is much to enjoy, and the performance is excellent.

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Don Carlo in Philadelphia

Don Carlo is a big and ambitious opera for Opera Philadelphia, even in the four act version. I’m happy to report that with this production the risk has paid off: the cast, led by Eric Owens and Leah Crocetto, does the best singing I’ve heard from Opera Philadelphia in years. Tim Albery’s generic period production is rather bland, but it’s well-acted and appropriately dark. In a city which has long been dismissed as “not an opera town,” this is a production any regional company would be proud to perform.

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Ariadne auf Philadelphia

Prepare yourselves, for Curtis Opera has given us the Gilligan’s Island-themed Ariadne auf Naxos we’ve all been waiting for. But while that might be this production’s most memorable feature–we always have a tendency to identify productions by a signature, the [opera] with the [gimmick], like “the Così with the hippies” or “the Bohème with the UFO”–it’s hardly the production’s only feature.

This is a co-production between Opera Philadelphia and Curtis, but the performers are Curtis students (with one alum, no prizes for guessing which role). The 600-seat Perelman Theater is an ideal space for this opera and for these singers. Like most Curtis productions, the performers are enthusiastic and all at different points in their development. And, like most Curtis productions, it’s inventive and more than the sum of its parts.

Ariadne auf Naxos. Opera Philadelphia and Curtis Opera co-production, 3/4/15. Production directed by Chas Rader Schieber, sets by David Zinn, cosumes by Jacob Climer, lights by Mike Inwood, conducted by George Manahan with Heather Stebbins (Ariadne), Ashley Milanese (Zerbinetta), Kevin Ray (Bacchus), Lauren Eberwein (Composer).

Let’s start with the production first. The prologue is set in a Brutalist bunker of some modern one-percent Richest Man (sets are by David Zinn). The Composer is an earnest prepster while the comedians are relaxed Californian types.  While the setting is contemporary, nothing is really updated–this is a text which is colloquial enough that it doesn’t have to be and the modern dress fits in very well. It’s a shame that the very concise surtitles leave out many of the funniest lines (and sometimes they just don’t make sense–why change the desert island to just a desert?). It’s also laid-back and almost naturalistic in style, without being slow–or at least it is less cartoonish than one often sees (a few moments such as Bacchus’s wig excepted). This works well in the small theater.


Considering what we know about the Richest Man, it’s quite fitting that the opera should take place among a vaguely sea-themed collection of pricey modern art (a Damien Hirst-esque shark and golden skull, an ocean photograph, some neon art). Ariadne is surrounded by a circle of stones. The opera seria people, including the nymphs and Bacchus, are all in white, while the comedy crew eventually roll/walks in, Flintstones style, in the Professor’s bamboo car.

Personally, I’ve always hoped for a Lost or Survivor Ariadne, but Gilligan’s Island is more visually distinctive and, well, probably fits the opera audience demographic more closely (even though it aired well before the entire cast–or I–was born). My careful internet research (=Google) suggests that Zerbinetta is Ginger, Harlequin is Gilligan, and the other comedy guys are Thurston Howell III, the Skipper, and the Professor. It’s a pretty good, entertaining frame for the piece, contrasting the arty (but, of course, extremely commodified) world of high and modern art with the world of TV. It was obvious that this audience is more on the side of TV. I don’t think I needed this production to figure that out. But the uproarious response to the references brings out the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy in unusually direct, vivid fashion. The two sides also interact more than in many productions–particularly the nymphs.

The ending is a more difficult matter. To be fair, no one knows what to do with this: Bacchus arrives and is transformed, Ariadne is transformed, there is talk of a “love cave,” they both sing about this very loudly (personally I love this incredibly garish music but it is a difficult thing to deal with in context) and at length but it’s unclear if there is any way to depict transformation visually. It’s not Daphne. I’ve seen it staged straight, straight again, ironically, and as high kitsch, and, yeah, it’s always still a puzzle. This production puts Bacchus in the white clothes of the seria characters, and the effect is rather of an elderly cult leader finding his new acolyte. I’m not sure if that’s really where we want to go.


(I brought a number of Swarthmore German and music students to the dress rehearsal of this production, though I also went to opening night and am reviewing that here. I am saying this to thank Curtis and Opera Philadelphia for having us and to quote one of our students, who said, “Bacchus has to be a pick-up artist, right? You wanna get onto my ship?”)


Now for the singing: honestly, I’m not quite sure of the best approach–this is presented by Opera Philadelphia and the students are all extremely talented, but they are students and there are some things they haven’t quite mastered yet. The most complete performances in the cast were given by Lauren Eberwein as the Composer and Ashley Milanese as Zerbinetta. Eberwein has a full, slightly dark mezzo which is just the right color for Strauss, and she has no problem with the high notes. She ripped through the role with unwavering committment and enthusiasm. The soft parts weren’t as easy as the loud parts and her German could be better, but it was an exciting performance. Milanese is also exciting, and already has the technique to sing a very accomplished Zerbinetta. Her voice is light but not thin, the coloratura is good, and her only real hurdle is a spotty trill. Acting-wise, she was likeable and effective without quite putting together all the pieces into a full character.

As Ariadne, Heather Stebbins has a big, bright, cutting voice. She’s also a convincing, specific actress, was touching in her opening scenes, and did all the heavy lifting in the finale. But her ideas weren’t always coming through in her singing, which lacked a degree of finesse and control. She is definitely a talent to watch, however. Class of 2012 tenor Kevin Ray sang Bacchus, and he got through the part with somewhat leathery, unvarying tone. (Why do so few Bacchuses react to their own transformations, by the way?) In smaller roles, Johnathan McCullough was an agreeable Harlequin, Dogukan Kuran a good Wigmaker, and the three nymphs had serious blending problems. As the Major-Domo, Dennis Chmelensky had extremely good German (he may BE German? not sure).

One disappointment was the orchestra, under George Manahan. This is hardly ever a problem for Curtis but the prelude and prologue showed some rhythmic uncertainty and ensemble issues. The second half was better, and some of the solo playing was outstanding.

Still, I highly recommend this opportunity to see a fun production in a small theater. The production runs through Sunday; it is sold out but returns may be available.

Postscript, 3/9: I read this Inquirer review with interest (and only after I wrote the above). I think I understand the criticism that the cultural references are too specific, but it’s not something that occurred to me at all because, well, I’m not so tuned in with Gilligan’s Island. It took some research for me to figure out how specific they were. I am kind of amused, however, that the newspaper’s high art critic is so much more receptive to high art references (Hirst, Richter) than low culture ones (TV).

Previously here in Ariadne auf Naxos:
By the book at the Met Opera (the inspiration for my blog’s header image)
A very old production at the Wiener Staatsoper
An unusual, interesting production at the Theater an der Wien
“Ur-iadne”: the 1912 version at the Salzburg Festival with some of the kitschiest sets I have ever seen


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Wilde at Heart (“Oscar” in Philadelphia)

Opera Philadelphia has made an admirable committment to commissioning and performing new opera. They have programmed two new works this season and are developing more for the future. One reason this is admirable is because it comes with great risk: the road to successful new operas is littered with unsuccessful new operas. Unfortunately I must put their current production, Oscar, into the latter category. Based on the final years of Oscar Wilde’s life, the opera was previously seen at Santa Fe but is now receiving its regional premiere, again with David Daniels in the title role. But it is not a satisfying work. Theodore Morrison’s bland, anonymous music fails to elevate Morrison and John Cox’s uneven hagiography of a libretto.

Theodore Morrison,
Oscar. Philadelphia premiere, Opera Philadelphia, 2/6/15. Directed by Kevin Newbury, sets by David Korins, costumes by David Woolard, lights by Rick Fisher, conducted by Evan Rogister with David Daniels (Oscar Wilde), Heidi Stober (Ada Leverson), William Burden (Frank Harris), Dwayne Croft (Walt Whitman), Reed Lupalau (Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas), Wayne Tigges (Justice/Isaacson), lots more.

The opera begins with Wilde–or Oscar, as this chummy libretto calls him–already convicted but awaiting the reading of his charges and his sentence. The first act is largely static, with Wilde confined by public opprobrium to a nursery in his friend Ada Leverson’s house. The second act finds him imprisoned, subject to inhumane treatment by the obligatory sadistic prison guard, and finally a brief scene shows him in Paris. We are guided through the plot by the specter of Walt Whitman, who occasionally reads from Wilde’s Wikipedia entry (not really, but that’s what it sounds like) and Wilde’s lover Bosie, played by a dancer in the opera’s most obvious gesture to Britten’s Death in Venice.

The story of Oscar Wilde’s fall from wit to prisoner is a compelling one (particularly if we include Salome along the way), but it’s not the story this opera tells. Wilde is solely a noble martyr, no wit involved, and the result is not very interesting. Wilde’s trial and sentence on charges of “gross indecency” was an outrage, and one he suffered with as much dignity as one could. But as a story the opera is broadly drawn and obvious. The other characters are either deeply sympathetic friends of Oscar who want to save him (these include Leverson and local tenor Frank Harris as well as a friendly prison guard) or they are sadists who want to see him suffer (the jailor, the judge, various short roles). It’s not just black and white, it’s also that the only available character attributes are goodness, sympathy, and evil, all defined vis à vis attitudes toward Oscar.

It seems ridiculous to write a Wilde opera with no more than a few one-liners and the drama relies too much on telling rather than showing. I’m not sure if writing faux-Wilde would be advisable (and this libretto sounds thoroughly American, a single random Cockney prison guard excepted), but why eliminate the voice that made him famous? This voice and his downfall have already coexisted in Moises Kaufmann’s play Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde, but the opera prefers a cardboard saint who says things like “I am moved by your chivalry and nobility as a friend.”

When Wilde’s writing does appear (a letter to Bosie, a setting of a bit of The Ballad of Reading Gaol), it is immediately obvious for its razor-sharp command and intensity. But the libretto isn’t without some moments of dramatic possibility itself: the moment when nursery’s toys come to life to reenact part of his trial (why the majority of it is related by Frank rather than seen is less clear), and the scenes of Wilde performing his pointless labor and later conversing with a guard in the prison infirmary. Unfortunately the finale, in which Wilde is promoted into immortality like a reverse Don Giovanni, is just ridiculous.

But whatever the libretto an opera lives or dies based on its score, and on that account Oscar disappoints. Morrison’s music never creates dramatic momentum and leaves the libretto’s bold, contrasting colors in wan pastels. It’s tonal and the words are fairly easy to understand, and it is mostly content to simply be pleasant. Morrison relies nearly exclusively on ostinato accompaniments (very short patters repeated over and over) to create tension and the effect becomes monotonous. The vocal writing is angular and, perhaps inspired by Daniels, involves some baroque coloratura. Daniels gets some big solo moments, notably an aria about beauty in Act 1 and one beginning with baroque-like waves in Act 2, and these moments of stillness, along with some of the choruses, are much more rewarding than the dialogue. The orchestration is playable but unmemorable. (Many contemporary opera composers are absolutely brilliant orchestrators—Adès and Benjamin, just to name two—so this really sticks out, perhaps disproportionately.) It is, in all, a very modest, unambitious score and never makes a big impression.

This project is a labor of love for Daniels. His Wilde suffers nobly but mopes endlessly, surely the fault of the material but nonetheless a problem. His countertenor audibly separates him from all the voices surrounding him (and if only there had been some kind of major concertante using this with the prisoners in Act 2!) and he can sing with great directness and sincerity, even though the tone sometimes sounds very thin. Of the cast I liked Heidi Stober’s high soprano best. Not only is her tone clear and precise, she also sang with a beautiful range of color and dynamic range, and she’s a good actress too. William Burden’s sense of line is not as fine but his tenor still is easy and sweet–alas his character, Frank Harris, was so boring despite being repeatedly described as “rowdy.” Wayne Tigges boomed menacingly as the judge and prison chief. As Walt Whitman, Dwayne Croft spoke nearly as much as he sang, but he did sound fine. Conductor Evan Rogister kept excellent balance between voices and orchestra (this is one advantage of Morrison’s orchestration) and kept things moving relatively quickly.

As Bosie, Reed Luplau dances very prettily in somewhat balletic fashion (the choreography is by Seán Curran), but the effect isn’t quite enough to convince me of the transcendent power of beauty, probably because the dances seem more like interludes than dramatic development. Kevin Newbury’s production is efficient and classy, doing a lot of realistic scene-setting with a single set of looming walls, from a library in the opening to the cluttered nursery to the dreary prison. It all moves seamlessly and the blocking and direction of the singers does as much as it can. There is, unfortunately, only so much it can do.

Opera Philadelphia’s next new opera will be Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, music by David Schnyder and starring Lawrence Brownlee, in June. Next season will include, as already announced, Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, also starting at Santa Fe this summer.

Photos copyright Opera Philadelphia/Kelly & Massa.


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The Barber of Philadelphia


Opera Philadelphia’s production of The Barber of Seville is an everything-but-the-castanets Spanish extravaganza. Loosely inspired by Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, it largely sustains a manic, self-consciously kitschy style, anchored by Jennifer Holloway (Rosina) and Kevin Burdette (Bartolo), two singers with excellent comic skills.

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