Wednesday, June 29, 2011

90.7 FM's "Cityscape" Features Union Avenue Opera

KWMU 90.7 FM's broadcast of Cityscape this Friday, July 1st, features a discussion of Union Avenue Opera's 17th Festival Season. Host Steve Potter welcomes onto the program UAO Artistic Director/Conductor Scott Schoonover as well as Soprano Alexandra LoBianco and Tenor Adam Herskowitz, appearing as Princess Turandot and Calaf in the upcoming Turandot.

(Alexandra LoBianco & Adam Herskowitz)

Cityscape airs on KWMU 90.7 FM at 11:00am-Noon on Friday, July 1st and will be repeated at 10:00pm that evening. You may also listen to archived audio of the program on KWMU's Website.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Union Avenue Opera: 17th Season Overview

Union Avenue Opera prepares to raise the curtain on its 17th Festival Season. After great success with last season’s local premiere of Tchaikovsky’s psychological drama Pikovaya Dama (Queen of Spades), the comedic operetta The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan, and the romance of La fille du régiment (Daughter of the Regiment) by Donizetti, the company brings two well-loved operas and one local premiere to the stage.

Audiences will experience the passion and pageantry of ancient China in Puccini's Turandot, laugh through a whimsical Italianate telling of the Cinderella story in Rossini's La Cenerentola and plumb the depths of human evil and goodness in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking.


Artistic Director and Conductor Scott Schoonover is set to conduct both Turandot and Dead Man Walking. Conductor Elizabeth Hastings makes her UAO conducting debut with La Cenerentola.

Chicago-based Stage Director Mark James Meier returns to stage the upcoming Turandot. UAO Principal Stage Director Jolly Stewart will return next month to stage La Cenerentola. Stage Director Tim Ocel returns to stage Dead Man Walking.

Set Designer Patrick Huber has designed a festival set for the summer season. Costume Designer Teresa Doggett is at the helm for Turandot and Dead Man Walking, and Michele Siler will make her costume design debut with UAO on La Cenerentola.


Union Avenue Opera welcomes back artists from past seasons:

Cast of Turandot: Alexandra LoBianco (Turandot), Christia Starnes (Liù), Todd von Felker (Ping), Clark Sturdevant (Pang), Andrew Papas (Pong), Jon Garrett (Emperor) and Nathan Ruggles (Mandarino).

Cast of La Cenerentola: Keith Boyer (Prince Ramiro), Kara Cornell (Tisbe), Gina Galati (Clorinda), and Scott Levin (Alidoro).

Cast of Dead Man Walking: Jordan Shanahan (Joseph De Rocher), Debra Hillabrand (Mrs. Patrick De Rocher), Marlissa Hudson (Sister Rose), Robert Reed (Warden George Benton), Cecelia Stearman (Jade Boucher), Jon Garrett (Howard Boucher), David Dillard (Owen Hart), Stephanie Tennill (Kitty Hart), Victoria Carmichael (Sister Lillianne), Joy Boland (Sister Catherine), Clark Sturdevant (Father Grenville), Philip Touchette (Motor Cop), Thomas Sitzler and Nathan Ruggles (Guards).

Several artists will make their UAO debut:
  • Tenor Adam Herskowitz (Calàf, Turandot)
  • Bass Aaron Stegemöller (Timur, Turandot)
  • Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer (Angelina, La Cenerentola)
  • Baritone Kenneth Mattice (Dandini, La Cenerentola)
  • Baritone Adam Fry (Don Magnifico, La Cenerentola)
  • Mezzo-soprano Elise Quagliata (Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking)

Turandot runs July 8, 9, 15, 16. La Cenerentola runs July 29, 30, Aug 6, 7(Mat). Dead Man Walking runs August 19, 20, 26, 27. All performances at 8pm, except for the La Cenerentola matinée at 3pm. Turandot and La Cenerentola are performed in Italian. Dead Man Walking is performed in English. All operas will be presented with projected English supertitles. Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 N. Union Blvd, St. Louis.

To purchase tickets (running $30-52) and find more information about UAO, please call 314.361.2881 or visit

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"The Death of Klinghoffer" at Opera Theatre June 15 through 25, 2011

Copyright: Ken Howard, 2011

If you want to know why The Death of Klinghoffer, the 1991 opera by John Adams and Alice Goodman, poses such a challenge for audiences, you need look no further than the title. The murder of wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer by the hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 is the key incident of the work, yet it takes place offstage. As with most of the dramatic moments in the story, we encounter it only at a remove, retold by others and commented upon in often obscure language by the chorus. The fact that the current Opera Theatre production is still often compelling and fascinating is an indicator of just how strong all the performances are. With material like this, nothing less than the best will suffice – and “the best” is what we got on opening night.

Mr. Adams and Ms. Goodman were apparently aware of the work’s challenging structure. They originally regarded it as more akin to the dramatic oratorios of Bach or Handel than a conventional opera. Not surprisingly, therefore, most performances of it have been concert versions.

For this first fully staged American production since 1991, director James Robinson has added on-stage action that mostly amplifies and clarifies the text, helping to create some moments that have an undeniable impact. Examples that come immediately to mind include the opening choruses of exiled Palestinians and Jews, the hijacker Mamoud’s soliloquies on the romance of distant radio stations and the freedom of birds (beautifully realized by bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock), and the hallucinatory “Night Chorus” that concludes the first act. But the result is still, at least for me, a work that lacks any real dramatic impact, appealing more to the head than the heart.

A detailed and highly recommended synopsis of the opera is available on Wikipedia, but the basics will be familiar to those who remember the events of 1985: four hijackers take over the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and demand the release of fifty Palestinians held in Israeli jails. When their demands are met with silence, they murder Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish American, throw his body overboard, and threaten to kill others. Once negotiations begin, the remaining passengers are set free and the captain and Klinghoffer’s wife are left to deal with their grief and anger.

Some events, including a fictional confrontation between Klinghoffer and the hijackers, are played out in real time, but for the most part characters either give us their own spin on events or reveal their inner lives in soliloquies. There are even a couple of roles – the Austrian Woman and the British Dancer, both played brilliantly by mezzo Lucy Schaufer – whose superficial blather would work as comic relief, were the overall background not so grim.

Individual scenes are separated by choruses that comment on the action, usually in oblique and poetically complex language that contrasts sharply with the more prosaic text assigned to individual characters. The music for these chorales is, to my ears, the most powerful and complex in the opera (which may explain Mr. Adams’s Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer, composed in the same year as the opera), presenting a considerable challenge to Chorus Master R. Robert Ainley and his forces. It’s a challenge they meet brilliantly, producing ensemble singing of the highest order. Even when the words seem deliberately opaque, the vocal sound is beyond reproach.

The strong choral singing is matched by impressive performances in the named roles. I have already commented on the fine work of Mr. Allicock and Ms. Schaufer. There are also impressive interpretations from baritone Christopher Magiera as The Captain, baritone Brian Mulligan as Klinghoffer, and mezzo Laura Wilde (a Gerdine Young Artist) in the “pants” role of the hijacker Omar. Mezzo Nancy Maultsby is appropriately and believably tragic as Marilyn Klinghoffer (a performance rendered even more remarkable by the fact that the role is actually intended for a contralto) and baritone Paul La Rosa is an impressive figure in every sense of the term as both the First Officer and the brutal hijacker “Rambo”. Tenor Matthew DiBattista isn’t given much to work with as the lead hijacker Molqi, but his powerful, ringing voice makes the most of it.

Conductor Michael Christie leads the orchestra of St. Louis Symphony musicians (augmented by keyboardists Adam Burnette and Andrea Grant) through Adams’s demanding music with consummate skill. The composer himself was in attendance on opening night and I think he couldn’t have asked for a better reading of this score.

Allen Moyer’s set is dramatic and attention grabbing in its simplicity. Massive flats painted to look like a riveted steel hull shift quickly and easily to change scenes, assisted by a wide scrim that descends as needed to project still and moving images. It all enables the large chorus to appear and disappear quickly and helps compensate for the often-static nature of the drama.

If all this leaves you with the impression that I’m feeling somewhat ambivalent about The Death of Klinghoffer, you’d be spot on. It seems to me that I should like the piece much more than I do. Its heart and head are in the right place, it doesn’t take cheap political shots, and it aims high. But ultimately the work suffers from the same theatrical inertia that sank the first Adams-Goodman collaboration, Nixon in China. I think it’s worth seeing – especially given how rare a staged performance is – but you should be prepared for the possibility of a less than satisfying experience.

Performances of The Death of Klinghoffer continue at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus through June 25th. For more information, visit or the company’s Facebook page, call 314-961-0644 or follow them on Twitter @OTSL.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Pelléas and Mélisande" at Opera Theatre June 5 through 24, 2011

Copyright: Ken Howard, 2011
Opening night for Pelléas and Mélisande was an evening of notable firsts. It was the first local performance of Debussy and Maeterlinck’s elusive and compelling drama, the first OTSL appearance by noted bass John Cheek, and the first time (at least in my memory) that a director was loudly booed by some members of an audience that had just given a standing ovation to the conductor and singers.

And, brother, did he ever deserve it. Stage Director David Alden (making his first and, with any luck, last appearance with the company) has taken a subtle work in which nearly everything of importance is implied rather than stated outright and turned it into a heavy-handed catalog of psychosexual dysfunction that would not be out of place in a cable movie of the week. Imagine a play by Harold Pinter done in the style of (say) Charles Busch’s Die Mommie Die! and you’ll have some idea of the crashing dissonance involved.

The story of the opera is a classic romantic triangle. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version, adapted from Wikipedia. Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. He marries her and brings her back to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. There, Mélisande becomes attracted to Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas, arousing Golaud’s jealousy and driving him to bizarre lengths to learn “the truth”. At one point Golaud forces his own child, Yniold, to spy on the couple. Pelléas prepares leave forever but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time. As the two finally confess their love, Golaud rushes out and kills Pelléas. Mélisande dies shortly after, having given birth to a daughter, with Golaud still begging her to tell him “the truth”.

Pelléas was Debussy’s only opera, and he seems to have poured his heart into it. Seeking a refuge from the long and ponderous shadow of Wagner, he was drawn to the consciously anti-naturalistic work of the poet and dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck who, like other artists in the early 20th century Symbolist movement, believed that dramatic truth should be suggested rather than shown. His setting follows the original play closely, mirroring the playwright’s subtlety with an evocative score that unfolds in a series of tableaux rather than in conventional solos and choruses. It is, in short, a nearly perfect match of music and text.

Or it was before Mr. Alden got his hands on it. Again and again throughout the production, he imposes interpretations on scenes that are entirely unjustified by any plausible reading of the text or music and often actively contradict both. This nonsense reaches its peak (or its nadir) in Maeterlinck’s Act IV Scene 3, in which an elliptical little scene involving Yniold and a shepherd is played out as a hallucination that ends with the shepherd (who is actually a sinister doctor in this version) injecting Yniold with a sedative. I would have laughed had I not already been so annoyed by the incredible arrogance all of this implied. Does Mr. Alden really think his neo-Freudian clichés are more interesting than the repressed sexual tension implied by but never stated in the music and libretto? It would seem so.

But enough of this. Let us consign the director’s concept to the ash-heap of history and concentrate on the musical performances, which are as consistently right as the stage direction is wrong.

And let us begin with the orchestra. Led by OTSL Music Director Stephen Lord, they deliver a luminous and compelling reading of Debussy’s hypnotic and consistently fascinating score. This is a work in which the orchestra is as essential to the drama as the characters, and Mr. Lord integrates everything seamlessly.

The singers, despite being saddled with absurd and demeaning blocking, all deliver performances that are beautifully sung and acted. Yes, their characters largely contradict the libretto, but that’s hardly their fault. The important thing is that they all sound terrific.

Baritone Gregory Dahl, who was such a commanding presence in OTSL's Salome, proves to be equally impressive as the conflicted Golaud. He has a dark, powerful voice – almost more of a bass-baritone – that contrasts nicely with the clear and ringing tones of his fellow baritone Liam Bonner, who makes a striking OTSL debut as Pelléas.

Former Gerdine Young Artist Corinne Winters has a radiant soprano that’s ideally suited to the role of the inexplicably troubled Mélisande. She also seems to understand the repressed sensuality that is part of the core of this character.

A familiar figure in many of the world’s most celebrated opera houses, bass John Cheek, brings authority and yet another great voice to the role of King Arkel. It is, happily, an understated performance in an evening otherwise given over to heaving bosoms and rolling about on the floor. As Yniold, boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo (who made such a strong impression as Charlie in The Golden Ticket last season) once again displays a remarkably clear and well-developed voice along with acting skills well beyond his years.

Adam Silverman’s lighting and Paul Steinberg’s set are so strikingly ugly that I’m forced to conclude that they are exactly what the director wants. The former is all harsh glare and deep shadows, while the latter looks like an art deco living room complete with chandelier. For outdoor scenes, a stiff curtain covered in what looks like cheap wood grain contact paper is lowered to suggest the forest. To me, it mostly suggested a 1950s suburban rec room.

As you have no doubt gathered by now, my bottom line is that (to paraphrase an old Monty Python sketch) this is not a production for seeing; this is an production for running away from and avoiding. If you’ve never seen Pelléas and Mélisande, this is not the way to make its acquaintance. You’d be better off with one of the many audio recordings, especially those by some of the opera’s champions such as Ansermet, Boulez, or von Karajan. I’d suggest one of the video versions available on Netflix, but it seems that taking this lovely work rife with musical and verbal depictions of nature (Debussy’s love of the sea is especially apparent here) and stuffing it into claustrophobic interiors has become in vogue recently.

Performances of Pelléas and Mélisande continue at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus through June 24th. For more information, visit or the company’s Facebook page, call 314-961-0644 or follow them on Twitter @OTSL.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

UAO Season One Month Away

In a month, Union Avenue Opera will commence its 17th summer festival season with Puccini's Turandot, followed by Rossini's La Cenerentola ("Cinderella") and concluding with the midwestern premiere of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking. Rehearsal for the season is fully underway, as artistic director and conductor Scott Schoonover has begun preparing the ensembles of all three productions as well as the children's ensembles of Turandot and Dead Man Walking. In two weeks, the cast and crew of Turandot will converge in St. Louis to begin a three-week staging process before the season opening.

Season Subscriptions and Single Tickets are currently on sale. 3-Opera Season Subscriptions run $85-$111. Single Tickets run $30-52. Student Rush Tickets ($15) will be sold 15 minutes before curtain time (cash only). Tickets may be purchased online at the UAO website or by calling the Box Office at 314.361.2881

Visit Operatic Saint Louis throughout the coming months to view further exclusive content and information on UAO's 17th season and special events surrounding each production.