The Death of Opera? Young Singer Showcase, Pupu and Puccini, Great Performances II

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Some have been predicting the death of opera, citing declining ticket sales at the Met and other venues.

But the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival is doing its best to reverse that trend.  They’ve created a pipeline of singers from high school students (Young Singers), to college and post-graduate music students (Developing Singers), to those in the first years of budding professional careers (Vocal Professional Fellows) – all under the tutelage of Faculty who are performers sought after by Operas around the world.

To many, the Young Singers are truly exciting, since they are the future of opera. At their concluding performance which played to a large and enthusiastic audience, the staging was a far cry from the usual take-turns-and-sing-your-song-at-the-front-of-the-room format. All of the nine students were on stage all the time. While each was showcased as a soloist or in a duet, there was a seamless transition between the numbers, in spite of the fact that the songs ranged from 17th, 18th, and 19th century-composed operatic arias to 20th century musical theater, and some were in English and some Italian. Dressed in minimal black, those not singing created movement and tableaux which dramatized the emotion of the songs or created humorous counterpoint. The incredible pianist Ronny Michael Greenberg was the musical director as well as the sole accompanist; he moved smoothly from style to style and allowed the voices to shine. Scott Skiba, as Program and Stage Director, created what felt like a performance in two acts rather than a string of songs, and the young people were comfortable not just with their voices, but with their bodies as well. There was a lot of stretching out on the floor – something older (and heavier!) singers might have trouble doing!

Young Singer Showcase – photo Sarah Anderson

Bringing opera to young 21st century audiences?  Seeing Stacee Firestone and Christina Lopez from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaroshare the information they are singing about on their cellphones makes you believe there are ways to make these old classics relevant to today.  The Young Singers were from different grades, and in high school, a year can make a big difference.  That said, in terms of an operatic future, Stacee Firestone stood out; her Solveig’s Song from Grieg’s Peer Gynt was haunting and lilting, with just the right amount of vibrato, and she hit the high octave with no change in tone quality. But all the Young Singers demonstrated that they are on their way to the next level…

Livia Brash – photo Steve Roby

… which will be Developing SIngers.  The current year’s group provided the cast for the three main performances:  Alcina, Little Women, and Sweeney Todd. In Honoka’a, the Alcina singers gave us “Pupu and Puccini,” pairing Italian food with Italian music at Cafe Il Mondo.  Besides Puccini, Rossini, Verdi, Donizetti and Cilea all were represented.  While people are enjoying food, and before they have consumed too much Italian wine, it is harder to get them to respond to slow, tragic scenes as opposed to more lively ones. Male soprano Elijah McCormack was memorable in Verdi;  he sings “you want to know” to an assassin who wants to identify the king with a clear, lively, unembellished style befitting a king’s page. Tenor Chris Hochstuhl and soprano Melanie Mendel’s duet from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amorewas performed with panache;the hero’s “love elixir” is alcohol; his efforts to win the girl of his dreams while drunk have expected results, although the spirits don’t seem to make him go off-key!  Some of the performers seemed to be more comfortable in this setting than on the stage of Alcina, Jesse Mashburn, Nicole Steinberg, Annie Chester and Samantha Burdick sang and acted their parts with conviction.  Sitting at a table with food and drink is a lovely way to hear opera.

And the faculty!  The Great Performances – there are two – give Big Island classical music lovers a unique opportunity to hear world class opera singers in their own back yard.  Soprano Jennifer Tung excels in Baroque pieces, with her dexterous handling of sixteenth note passages; soprano Jennifer McGregor gave us a few more modern lyric songs including from Erik Satie and Michael Gordon. This year’s newcomer Rachel Copeland is a wonderful third soprano; besides her voice’s light touch and capacity for ornamentation, she brings energy and drama to her performances.  Baritone Daniel Belcher, also new this year, has a compelling stage presence and ability to bring out the smallest nuances in the emotions behind the text; you pay close attention and you smile when he sings.  Both tenors Justin John Moniz and Brett Sprague are capable operatic singers, but they really excel at musical theater.  Moniz is a Sondheim lover and at Great Performances I he treated three Sondheim songs with exquisite tenderness.  Sprague gave us a rollicking rendition of “Sit down you’re rocking the boat” from Guys and Dolls; he performed it with such exuberance that you did not want to sit down but to get up and shout.  Judging from the applaus-ometer especially from the section with his students, he must be a fabulous vocal coach as well!  He was one of the workshop instructors for the Young Singers as well as a coach for the other participants in HPAF.

But opera and music theater would not happen without orchestra and piano. In the first Great Performance concert, two pieces without vocals were played which featured the violin and cello; Great Performance II focused on woodwinds;  Sue McGinn elicited golden tones from her 24k gold flute.  Pianists Val Underwood, Ronny Michael Greenberg, as well as the other instrumentalists, most of them with stellar accomplishments playing in orchestras and festivals around the world, complete the HPAF’s extraordinary complement of musicians that gather once a year on our island. It is rare, if not unique, to have so many diverse musicians, so many different kinds of music performed, so many talents from high school to middle age, so many faces young and old of those who love opera gathered together for a few exhilarating weeks.

Like Mark Twain’s death, “the reports (on the death of opera) are greatly exaggerated.”  HPAF, by producing excellent performances of old operas, by performing new ones, and by creating a pipeline of opera singers for now and the future, is helping to assure opera’s timeless appeal. 

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