Category Archives: Modern opera

Glass’s ‘Satyagraha’ on tap in Met’s 2011-12 season

Satyagraha / Catherine Ashmore

Satyagraha by composer Philip Glass is an opera in three acts for orchestra, chorus, and soloists and will be presented this fall as part of the New York Metropolitan Opera‘s 2011-12 repertory.

Commissioned by the City of Rotterdam, Satyagraha is the second in Glass’s trilogy about men who changed the world. The opera is semi-narrative in form and is a moving account of Mahatma Gandhi‘s early years in South Africa and his development of non-violent protest into a political tool, a method that Dr. King would later embrace.

“Satyagraha” is a Sanskrit word meaning “truth force,” and the subtext of this opera is, as you may have deduced, politics.

Each act is dominated by a single historic figure  in a non-singing role who is overlooking the action from above: the Indian poet Ravindranath Tagore in Act I the Russian author Leo Tolstoy in Act II, the American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in Act III.

. . . you should embrace action for the upholding, the welfare of your own kind. Whatever the noblest does, that too will others do: the standard that he sets all the world will follow.
–from the libretto of Satyagraha

The opera premiered on September 5, 1980, in Rotterdam by the Netherlands Opera and is set to text from the ancient Sanskrit scripture the Bhagavad Gita.

It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008, under the direction of Philip McDermott and designer Julian Crouch (artistic directors of London’s Improbable theater company). The Met version was considered adventurous, employing improvisational puppetry and aerialists to illuminate this work.

The revival. a collaboration with English National Opera, will again feature Richard Croft as Mahatma Gandhi. Satyagraha opens November 4 and runs through December 1, 2011.

 The following YouTube clip provides a flavor of it.

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, 21st Century Opera, Modern opera, Video

the anniversary of an opera that launched legendary tenor’s career

Plácido Domingo as Don Rodrigo in his US premiere at NYC Opera, 1966

Today (July 24) in 1964 marks the premiere of composer Alberto Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Don Rodrigo, a three-act opera based on the last Visigothic king of Spain, was Ginastera’s first. It was a 12-tone opera, a method of composing devised by Schoenberg that gives all 12 tones in the chromatic scale (more or less) equal importance thereby avoiding a key.

The NY Times called Don Rodrigo brilliant in the 1964 review of its premiere though it was considered unsuccessful in Argentina, despite being commissioned by Municipality of the City of Buenos Aires.

Less than two years later, on February 22, 1966, Plácido Domingo had his international breakthrough by singing the (difficult) title role of this opera at the US premiere of the work by New York City Opera, which coincidentally marked NYC Opera’s inaugural performance at New York State Theater at Lincoln Center (now the David H. Koch Theater).

Because of this Lincoln Center premiere of Don Rodrigo, a 25-year-old Spanish tenor became a household name.

The YouTube clip below has interviews with Domingo and Julius Rudel, General Director and Principal Conductor at NYC Opera from 1957 to 1979.

The excitement Rudel shares about his company moving to Lincoln Center and the sheer joy that Domingo conveys about premiering at Lincoln Center are palpable.

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Filed under 20th Century Opera, Modern opera, opera firsts, Premieres, tenors

COC nabs three Dora Awards

The Canadian Opera Company (COC) swept the Opera Division Monday evening during the The Dora Mavor Moore Awards, an annual ceremony honoring the best in Toronto Theatre. All totaled, the COC won three awards that evening:

  • Orfeo ed Euridice, directed by the Toronto-born Robert Carsen, won the award for Outstanding Production (Opera Division).
  • Alan Oke, front, as Gustav von Aschenbach

    Alan Oke, who played Gustav von Aschenbach in October 2010’s Death in Venice, won the award for Outstanding Performance (Opera Division).

“Scottish tenor Alan Oke sang the role superbly, with a flexible lyrical sound, wonderful pitch and clear words, conveying all of Aschenbach’s tortured speculations and desires within the very specific reaches of Britten’s melodic limning of his character.”Globe and Mail
  • Harry Bicket, who conducted Orfeo ed Euridice, won the award for Outstanding Musical Direction (General Theatre Division).

Hearty congratulations to everyone at the COC on their successful season.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Baroque Opera, Modern opera, North American Opera, Opera Awards

Moses und Aron — an anniversary glance

 Today marks the anniversary of the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg‘s Moses und Aron  in Hamburg, Germany, in 1954.   

John Tomlinson as Moses, Metropolitan Opera, 2003

Moses und Aron is an important operatic work if not a popular one. This, despite the fact that the libretto, also written by Schoenberg, mirrors the exile of Jews from Egypt in search of the Promised Land as told in the Book of Exodus; few tales other than mythological favorites are better known and more enduring than Biblical sagas from the Old Testament.  It’s hardly the subject matter that makes this a less-accessible opera. Even more interesting is that once Moses und Aron began to be performed, the director’s vision almost invariably required Moses to be in modern dress while incorporating other modern elements or flourishes that chafed against the expectations of audiences familiar with a tale thousands of years old.   

The first two acts of Moses und Aron were completed between 1930-32. It was never performed in its entirety in the composer’s lifetime because he hadn’t finished it before he died. However, a selection, “Dance of the Golden Calf,” was performed in public 11 days before he passed away.   

This piece interests me holistically as a commentary on the time period in which it was written, the composition of  a man of Jewish descent, who lived in Central Europe during the rise of Aryan movement and later the Third Reich. Though Schoenberg converted to the Lutheran religion in 1898, he was unable or unwilling to renounce his Jewish heritage, returning to the Jewish religion in 1933, resulting from the sanctioned anti-Semitism overtaking Europe.   

After his family’s own exile from their vacation residence in 1921–now open only to Aryans–Schoenberg grappled with what it meant to be of Jewish heritage in Europe during the 1920s:   

For I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed not perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but I am a Jew.   

Moses und Aron, Act 1, Metropolitan Opera

Musically, the work is based on a single tone row, itself constructed from cells, which lends the piece what others perceive as atonal qualities. Prior to a reader of this blog suggesting I take a closer look at Schoenberg’s seminal work, I might not have given it a glance.  I don’t profess to understand or appreciate modern opera.   

But this work has moved me to a different place in my (provincial) thinking. If one is writing about the subjugation and exile of the Jewish people in ancient times or in Europe in the early- to mid-20th century, what musical language could be more appropriate? How else would an intelligent composer living during Schoenberg’s time express the mounting horrors of his life and time?  His musical vocabulary grates against conventional expectations for what opera should sound like, and, as a result, is sheer genius and unforgettable.  

Here are two excerpts of Moses und Aron from the Vienna State Opera’s 2006 production conducted by Daniele Gatti and directed by Reto Nickler. A bit of trivia, apparently Schoenberg had severe triskaidekaphobia and took one of the A’s out of Aaron’s name as it is more commonly spelled in naming his work.  

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Filed under anniversary, Modern opera, North American Opera, Premieres