Madama Butterfly – Part 1 Synopsis.

Well, it’s opera time in Asheville and there is a stunning performance waiting for you. This time around that Asheville Lyric Opera presents an ambitious and well-omened version of Giacomo Puccini’s classic Madama Butterfly.  This tragedy in three acts is the story of an American soldier (Lt. B.F. Pinkerton-tenor)  who buys himself a Japanese bride (Madama Butterfly[Cio-Cio San] – soprano) only to discover that all is not for the best in this never quite possible world.

Madama Butterfly is a truly beautiful and intricate opera with several intertwining plot lines, there is Pinkerton’s “girl in every port” attitude versus the staunch monogamy of Butterfly’s expectations, there is the culture clash between the American and the  Japan of 1904, there is the conflict between Butterfly and her family as she renounced her native Buddhism for Christianity in order to marry Pinkerton – a high irony that in that his behavior is far from Christian!, and there is the interpersonal conflict between Butterfly and her friend/bridesmaid Suzuki (mezzo-soprano) who knows that Pinkerton is not coming back to Butterfly.

And then we discover that Butterfly and Pinkerton have a son, one that Pinkerton did not know about. After that things really get messy.

I will not reveal the ending here as my first viewing of Madam Butterfly in St. Louis was shall we say a virginal inauguration to the show. I did not know how it would end and so I followed the story in open mouthed anticipation and felt the full impact of climax and closure. If you want to know how it ends Wiki or Google it…

and if you already know, well, the story is an eternal, perennial favorite in the operatic genre and I’m sure you’ll want to come see it again anyway.

Especially as the Asheville Lyric production features some truly wonderful singers and interesting innovations in dress and staging. All in all, a triumph for a small production opera company.

I’ll see you there!

Diana Wortham Theater, Asheville, NC     Friday 7 and Saturday 8  at 8pm.

 

La Bohème at the Asheville Lyric Opera – GO SEE IT!

The Asheville Lyric Opera Presents La Bohème

This weekend, the Asheville Lyric Opera is offering us something special in their second ever performance of the classic opera, La Bohème.La Bohème is a beautifully interwoven series of character sketches about four young people that follows the arts and the whims of cupid across a background of 1830’s Paris at it’s liveliest.

And while it is not strictly speaking a true drama but rather a flowing train of consciousness through these peoples’ lives set to some truly fine music by Giacomo Puccini [1858-1924] it is none the less breathtaking and easily followed.

The opera itself is largely drawn from the Scenes de la Vie Boheme, a book by Henry Merger [1822-1861] which was itself a series of largely autobiographical cameo vignettes without any real literary sequence. That makes both the book and the opera somewhat unusual from the first. When you add that there was a good deal of liberties taken over the years by stagers and librettists (Mimi’s muff originally belonged to Merger’s Francine for instance), it is interesting that this opera ever came into existence in a final, highly polished form. Far from any sense of authenticity, as is often misnoted, it is this intriguing distillation from multiple sources that makes the story noteworthy. Only a few of the stories are even vaguely true according to Merger himself and also according to the real life Schaunard, one Alexandre Schanne who wrote his own book of Bohemian memoirs under the title, Souvenirs de Schaunard. And next to none of it was based off the life of one G. Puccini as one popular myth suggests.

But both book and opera do catch the overall flavor and flow of the people and the period very well indeed. The opera perhaps even more so in that in addition to the experiences of the principals, there is the enriching flow of the colors, backgrounds, and especially the music of the times.

There is no one who will argue that Puccini’s La Bohème is not the definitive statement on the theme, either. It is packed full of many of Puccini’s famous arias, and some of his best music. That alone makes it worth the ticket price.

Interestingly enough, this production will also see something of an operatic reunion. The ALO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Robert Hart Baker, will meet again with Jason Baldwin who made a small-role appearance in the millennial debut production of La Bohème. In this offing, Baldwin will be singing the tenor lead as Rudolfo, as Maestro Baker returns to the podium.

Maestro Robert Hart Baker, acting Principal Guest Conductor for ALO, has returned to his Asheville stomping grounds from his new home in York, PA in order to aid his own incredible flair to this performance. (Welcome back, Maestro!)

In addition to his position with ALO, he is Music Director of the Harrisburg Choral Society, conductor of the York (PA) Symphony Orchestra, and the St. Louis (MO) Philharmonic Orchestra.

This version of Bohème will be directed by David Toulson, an ALO veteran and acclaimed opera director who has received many kudos for his works within the LA Opera, Washington National Opera, Tulsa Opera, and Central City Opera.

David Craig Starkey, Artistic and General Director of ALO, had this to say about this weekend’s performance. “Our La Bohème will be traditional in a lot of ways, yes, but it will also have elements that are contemporary. Take our cozy hall, for instance. This hall will create a uniquely intimate quality that will make our production different from others already. This is our interpretation, our specially-designed set—a set that no one has seen before. All that combined, it will be a performance that no one has seen before—a show completely unique to Asheville. We’re so excited to share it with the community!”

Ticket sales for this performance will begin at $16 and I suggest you call soon as a show insider assures me this is going to be a sold out house.

To purchase YOUR tickets, call the Diana Wortham Theatre Box Office at 828-257-4530, or visit their spiffy site at http://www.ashevillelyric.org.

I’ll be there and I hope to see you there!

Cast (as released on official website):

Jason Baldwin as Rudolpho

Angela Amidei (leading opera singer in Denver, CO, and Rome, Italy) as Mimì,

Christina Villaverde (of Florida Grand Opera, and Opera Nova in Costa Rica) as Musetta.

Dominic Aquilino as Marcello

Ardean Landhuis as Colline

Brent Davis as Schaunard.

(pictures to follow)

A Penniless Traveler goes to the Opera – Asheville, NC

I’ve had people tell me they were penniless when they had a hundred dollars in the bank. If I had a hundred dollars in the bank, I’d be thrilled! When I say “penniless” I mean just that. That I do not have any negotiable currency, paper, coins, or plastic.

This week I find myself in hyped up, hipped out Asheville, North Carolina to see the opera and while not penniless, I am going to be working with less than forty dollars. So here are some tips and tricks for that. (If you want to know how to travel with no money, see my previous blog “https://twiztedtails.wordpress.com/2010/09/21/hotel-cheats-from-waystation/ ”)

I should also note that my lodgings are being paid for by my current employer, or this would be impossible. I also got my tickets in advance when money was more freely available.

First off, Asheville is actually easier without a car. Parking downtown and in most of the outlying areas is hard to find, competitive and expensive. Parking garages run in the $2 an hour range, with some rare instances of $5 “special event parking”. Daily parking adds up quickly. Almost all street parking is parallel and tight. A Smartcar is doable but a Ford F350 or any mid to large SUV or truck is a real stretch.

If at all possible, I recommend leaving your car or rental in the hotel lot, or even better catching the airport shuttle, taxi, or some friend going into town.

Asheville actually has a very good public transportation system with buses going to most destinations either every fifteen minutes, every hour, or every half hour, or every hour. Payment is in cash – but make sure you have change – or by bus pass which can be purchased at the bus station on Richland Avenue.

And most of the city is actually in walking distance from most of the hotels (West Asheville being the exception unless you can do a three mile walk.)

Secondly, Asheville restaurants range fall into just a few categories – cheap and fast, cheap and slow, expensive and fast, expensive and slow, and bars. These are all pretty well distributed around the city but the cheap stuff is mostly on the two major strips, Tunnel Road off downtown east and Patton Avenue across the Patton avenue River Bridge on Patton Avenue in what is technically West Asheville.

I got a hotel in West Asheville as I have a car and a gas per diem on this trip (WOW!) and mainly frequent McDonald’s and Burger King because of their dollar menus. $5 bucks is four sandwichs which is two meals. Hotel water and ice are the beverages.

To keep that from getting too monotonous I also went to a dollar store and purchased a box of tea, a bottled water (for the bottle), and a few packets of instant drink mix. I also got a package of cookies, a bag of chips, a box of oatmeal, a box of grits, a box of six Ramen noodles, and a package of eight slim jims. Total cost: $10 after tax.

I use the coffee machine in my room to make hot water for the tea, grits, noodles, and oatmeal. I also hit the free continental breakfast and make a show of getting breakfast for me and “my fiancee” (I have one but he’s not present.) which fills in any remaining mealtime holes.

I packed one bag which contains two shirts, two pants, undies, and one set of formal wear as well as three books, two DVDs, and my laptop. I wash my clothes in the sink with the provided shampoo, wash my body and hair with the provided soap bar, and then hang my clothes off the shower rail to dry. I will steam the wrinkles out of my formal wear by hanging them in the bathroom while I shower.

Instead of going out and spending money I do not have, I watch TV, use the room’s free wifi connection, and watch the DVDs I brought on my laptop.

I will be required to dine out twice this opera week and so I will be sticking to very small meals, salad and water and not drinking any alcohol and then coming back to my room for noodles in private.

And I will go see La Boheme looking like I stayed the night in the Downtown Radisson hotel rather than a cheap room off I-40. Manners and clothing make the man in public after all.

I may even land a gig doing further write ups and then I will be able to review Asheville from the money end. Til then, good journeys and “toi, toi”!

 

FEATURE: Shelby, NC, the Roger’s Theater, and why it’s worth the traffic hassles.

Today was spent in Shelby, North Carolina, a small to medium city located in WNC. What can I say about Shelby?

Well if you have an appointment there leave two hours early. The road system there is among the strangest in the ‘verse. Roads will oftimes run literally parallel with a four lane running next to a two line so that down the same path so that those in the four lane northbound pass literally inches from those on the southbound of the two lane. Imminent collision seems inevitable until you realize what’s going on. 

Road signs are not popular in Shelby, and neither are street numbers or formal place names. In fact, during my quest today the only place everyone could agree on as being in a geographically set location was the only one I knew how to get to…the hospital. 

The main strip – a four lane drag is 74/74 business/74 bypass/108 S all at the same time. Locals call it the drag, the strip, th main road, and the big road. After that forget it. I asked ten people for directions today to a street in downtown Shelby and received three blank stares (Uh…Washington St?) one set of very complex directions full of rights, lefts, churches, and water towers, and six responses to the effect of “ Well, you could go [directions] but maybe you best go [different directions]. What do you think, Shirl?” at which point the process repeats.

I finally bought a map in the Walgreen’s across from the hospital where a handsome and intelligent black gentleman gave me pinpoint precise directions. He was not from Shelby. He asked me not to tell where he was from. Thanks again, guy. 

But what else can I say about the region? Because once you get there it’s delightful.

It has one of the best hospitals in the state – I spent a lot of time there so I know first hand. Excellent mental health care network. Good employment rate. Lot of factories and mills…and some truly glorious architecture. I saw house ranging from New England Salt box to gingerbreaded Victorian as well as some nice Georgian and Edwardian pieces. Eve a few unusual twists on early Pyramidal and Mediterranean. 

But surprisingly, the coolest thing to me is that there is a thriving Arts and Music Scene and that there is also a hugely successful historic preservation group. As a writer and as an architecture buff, I found many things worth my while in Shelby. Houses, churches, and even private residences but for now I will focus on just one of them, tho, with more later for my fellow architectural tour buffs. 

At the confluence of high art and high historical ideals, I actually met one of the interesting people who feels that culture is an invaluable gift to children, students and to the people of his community instead of an onerous task best left to mouldering textbooks.

This individual in the person of a handsome younger man in suit coat and highly polished leather buckle boots was a Mr. Gary Kulas, a very interesting and possibly slightly eccentric (in a good way) man who dreams are large enough for outsiders to come and visit. 

Mr. Kulas’s latest project is the restoration of the intriguing Roger’s Theater in downtown Shelby.

This is a brave move and definitely an intriguing one in this day when the arts are near decease. 

The Rogers Theater, currently being restored to it’s former 1936 art deco grandeur, is located at 213 East Marion Street across from a goodly sized church. Mr. Kulas and crew are usually to be found there and are willing to offer tours and explanations to the curious and the socially conscious alike. 

I did a brief tour today in the company of the Lost Playwrights Society of WNC – all of which are just drooling to see one of their plays preformed in this soon to be available venue. 

The space is a large and interesting one and will in futurity harbor a luxurious and unique three hundred plus seating performance art center and banquet room of an elegance rarely seen in the more modern age. 

The main downstairs room is slated to see performances of live theater, dinner theater, cabaret, comedy, live music and other samplings of the local and international Arts community whereas the upstairs area is to become a full service one hundred and ten seat fine dining venue in what was once the playhouse’s balcony.

I can see that these are indeed not impossible goals. The building is spacious, live and airy and still quite full of the original late thirties energies that made it pop. It is a comfortably shaped hall with high ceilings and nice proportions and once fully modernized (soon to be handicap-equipped) it will be a luxurious one in an Ayn Rand-ish Art Deco Style. 

I will be posting some pictures of the current stage in restorations at my Facebook link and you can read all about the process and the dream of Mr. Kulas at their website www.rogerstheatershelby.com.

You will also find ways that you can help out on their page, and lend your name to the increasingly important Shelby arts scene and to the community at large.

Opera – a curious art form for the curious.

Well, the Asheville Lyric Opera is about to start another season, this time with the fun but slightly cryptic The Magic Flute by Mozart under the baton of Asheville Symphony Maestro, Daniel Meyer. So it’s time for a few remarks on opera the art form and Opera the Social activity.  

I am a long time opera buff, my first exposure in Saint Louis in 1988, my most recent in Asheville in the 2008-9 season and my experience has gone from neophyte to upper intermediate, I hope to advance to expert some day but right now have some health issues dragging me down…BUT that does not mean that I still attend the shows I enjoy and gleefully boycott the ones I hate. 

Opera is like any other art – it has tricks, layers, nuances, and styles, but it should in the end come down to what you like. Anyone treating it solely as an intellectual problem or a status symbol is missing the point. 

Opera was the TV of it’s day, you brought the family, laughed at the jokes, ate from the concessions stands, applauded a good scene and booed a bad one. 

And most of that is still acceptable unless you are a “culture vulture” opera snob – more on those in a bit, but there are still some basic rules and some good ideas. I’ll break it down into “student” levels for you readers out there. 

Beginner: 

Okay, you have never been to an opera before. Perhaps some family member insists? Or you were just curious? Or maybe you are a theater hound seeking some cross-over experience. Well, relax. There is nothing to worry about. It’s just another show. And while there are rules in concert going , there always are and they are always usually just common sense. (Don’t wear a tux to an AC/DC show, don’t bring beer to an opera.) 

At first all the glitz and the cliches might be intimidating but trust me, everyone here, from the Maestro on down, puts their pants on the same way. The primary reason to be here is to enjoy the experience and have some fun. 

Let’s start with some basic preparedness, however. 

It’s a good idea to find out a little about the opera before you go. There are as many types of opera as there are movies or TV shows and that means that some of them are short, some long, some tragic, and some blow your wine out your nose funny. 

Barber of Seville by Rossini is very much the latter, Madame Butterfly by Puccini is much more the former. And then there is Wagner – which is both a whole category unto itself, long, bombastic, full of women in metal underclothes and horned helmets and weird half quasi-androgynous Aryan warrior types, and (unfortunately) what most people think about when they think of opera. 

Most first time opera goers are surprised by how very little other operas resemble this snapshot impression formed by commercials, books by culture vultures, and poorly written TV shows. 

So find out the name of the show and Google or Wiki it. Then you’ll at least have some idea what to expect. Remember that most operas are also in a foreign language – usually French, Italian, or German. There are English ones but they are few and far between. Some solutions to this problem are to

  • learn some basic terms. “Maestro/Maestra” is the conductor. “Pit” is the recessed area for the orchestra, “score” is the book of the music, “libretto” is the “lyrics” and so on.
  • read a plot synopsis or summery (available online)
  • read the libretto. It is a translation of what the singers are saying into English and sometimes even English idiom
  • some theaters now offer supertitles – a running translation of what’s going on on an LCD screen positioned above the stage. (A word of warning on relying on these, sometimes the tech misses lines and sometimes the screen fails.)
  • listen to a CD (many come with librettos) or get a DVD of the show before you go.
  • read your program notes before the curtain rises – these usually include a summery, a cast list, and some background 

The next thing to worry about is how to dress and how to act – and here I will insert a note on culture vultures. 

A culture vulture is a person who comes to the opera for one of three reasons(well that is a vast simplification but for simplicity’s sake we’ll hold to three). 

  1. They are a wealthy usually white -but not always – individuals from a prominent family or who wish to create one and thus contribute to the Arts (always capitalized for them) and who attend “the performances” because that is “what is done.” They will almost always be dressed in formal attire, will usually be above forty years of age, and will usually be WASPs. Beware, these WASPs sting. They are opinionated, have a smattering of opera education, are often snobbish, and will drop names and performances going back centuries. They will also use shortened forms of the shows’ name, as in “the Met’s Boheme was better than Saint Louis’s this year.” and “Butterfly is such an overrated piece, it is just Puccini.” They will know how the composer’s name is pronounced and the show’s, but they will also have read just the summery or a Cliff’s Note version of the libretto at most.
  2. They are opera snobs who believe that a little opera makes them better than the common “ilk”. These types know the composer, the title, a few things about past performances – “bloopers”, opening dates, and so on, and a rough shotgun history of opera in general and tonight’s offering in particular. They will also shorten titles, but worse, they will shorten singer names and refer to them as if they knew them.
  3. They are wannabes and wish-they-weres. They know a lot about the singers and about past “shows”. They will have opera programs and schedules and occasionally even librettos in their bags. The more pretentious ones will have the vocal scores – but and look for this – in good condition. A working singer’s score will contain page markers, pencil markings (never pen since arrangements and cuts change), and notes on what the orchestra and stage crew are doing; not to mention coffee, makeup, chocolate and other unidentifiable stains all over it. So will a real student’s copy. Wannabes read the English, sometimes the music, but almost never the foreign parts, or all three – notation, English, foreign. 

So as a beginner it is wise to avoid these guys if possible and to indulge in a little protective camouflage. 

Dress well. While it is not unusual to see Goth, cyberpunk, anime, and other clique wear at an opera as it is unusually popular with these intellectual and retro misfits, it is guaranteed that no matter how genuine their love of opera or the fact that they bought a ticket that they will receive some hostile looks and even collect a few uncouth remarks from the vultures. Not to mention from the ushers – usually aging vultures, and from security people whom best I can tell have been told to harass everyone but wealthy donor patrons. 

You don’t have to wear a tux, or even a tie, but leave you tee-shirts and jeans at home. Try to wear things that fit known patterns as well. A polo and slacks and loafers, or a button down, tie, blazer, slacks, and more formal shoes. Wearing a suit coat over a “F#ck you” or other “clever” tee-shirt makes you stand out even more than the full Goth kit. 

Turn off your cell phone, leave the iPod, iPhone, Android, etcetera in your car. 

Be polite, try not to swear or to hold incredibly loud or rude conversations, and have your tickets ready.

Here in America, we are oddly a bit more formalized about audience response than our European cousins, so some things are good to know. 

  • Americans and Europeans both applaud after a good aria, scene or act and at the conductor’s entrance, curtain rise, and curtain calls. Americans tend to stick to applause whereas in Europe you will still hear booing or whistling (which is the European equivalent of a “boo”) if someone messes up. They will also stomp their feet. The loosest Americans get is that we will indulge in levels of clap volume from a light patter for “okay you did your job” to heavy applause for a good scene and we will whistle for a real good performer.
  • If you think the performer did well then shouting “Bravo” is encouraged. It’s technically “Bravo “ for the men and “Brava” for the ladies. “Bravissima/o” is just pretentious and ignorant.
  • Laughter is perfectly acceptable…except at a Wagner opera for some reason.
  • Cameras and especially flash photography, and cell phone pics are gauche, rude, and often against the rules. Operas are copyrighted and performances are unique. Would you take pictures of a movie screen? Show the real people that much respect at least.
  • Don’t put your feet up on the chair in front of you, don’t eat or drink, and if you absolutely must cough try to do it before, at intermission, or after. Many theaters provide free cough drops at the door. Take some.
  • And keep the paper rattling to a minimum. Real aficionados do not read programs, scores, librettos, or their emails and texts during the show. The sound and the lights are distracting to the audience and the performers.
  • It is acceptable to talk to the conductor, the musicians in the pit and to the performers but it is usually best to do so after the show or during the prearranged “meet-n-greets”. Before the show a lot of study and last minute rehearsal is going on, at intermission the conductor and the orchestra are usually making corrections and notes of what they just did and on what needs to come next or have gone back stage for a much needed rest, and scenes are being changed and costumes prepped. So if you have a question, compliment or something that needs to be shared or want an autograph try going up in the first five minutes after the last curtain call…or go to any arranged lectures, receptions, and so forth.
  • Oh, and opera singers/players/conductors do not wish each other luck but rather “toi toi” (sounds like “toy toy”) which comes from a rather obscure bit of theater, entertaining, and opera ritual originally from Italian Rome where each performance was referred to as “entering the Wolf’s mouth” (in Rome, wolf=state=guy who funds you) and was a fervent wish that at the end of the show the wolf would spit you out alive and able to preform another day (rather than canceled at best or executed by a capricious and disapproving state at worst.) ptooi, ptooi – and “toi, toi”. 

And that’s really all you need to know as a beginner. 

Intermediate: 

Well, obviously all of the above applies to you as well, but there are a few things I might add. You are either here because you are an actor, a singer, a stage technician, a musician, or an addict. To you I would recommend some extracurricular studies. You might want to get your hands on some more advance materials. (Aaron Copeland’s “What to Listen for in Music” is a good start.) I would also suggest a copy of the libretto, preferably a bilingual one, the vocal score, or even the score. You might want more than one copy of the CDs and DVDs so that you can compare stylistic differences and nuance and the might want to look into some basic history in your field. Some books on music or theater theory, and an attempt at a backstage pass might also be in order. For the last, befriend someone in the cast and buy them a drink or a meal after the show…or look into educational access programs in your region. You might want to learn a little of the original languages as well and maybe try to read along to a DVD in those. It adds a level of meaning -jokes, inside dramas, etc, that are often missed in English. And subscribe to some newsletters…find out about when and where very opera related events are happening and go to them. And muck up your materials, take notes, ask questions, be attentive. 

You might also choose to attend any open dress rehearsals. This is the full show but with interruptions where the singers, conductors, stage crew and technicians can all stop at any time and clean up last minute errors or oddities. It’s a great way to look behind the scenes and see some of the actual work behind the illusion. And it let’s the various performers refine their acts in the face of a real audience. Did you laugh at Don Pasquale’s butt? Moan upon Scarpa’s dreaded entrance? Laugh at Falstaff and cry at Madama Butterfly’s death? They are watching you as you watch them and your reactions have much to do with how the show opens. 

Advanced: 

(Note: Advice here will be limited as I am not really advanced.) 

All of the above applies to you, of course, but you are definitely going to want books on theory, documentaries, CDs, DVDs, scores, librettos, lecture schedules, and as much immersion as you can get. For you, the languages are a must. You would not believe how much is lost in translation and how much a good singer or conductor’s interpretation of the show depends on what the composer actually wrote. And then, depending on how serious you are, you might want to consider some college courses in your field as well. 

Et Voila. And now with all that said, go get dressed, find a partner and go off to the show. Have a great evening of wine, women/men, and song, and “toi,toi.”