Angela Allen

 

‘Tango of the White Gardenia’: breaking the code

New made-in-Oregon chamber opera addresses bullying, identity and the spiritual healing power of art 

by ANGELA ALLEN

For know-it-all critics and discerning music-goers, “community opera” can be code for bad music, lousy singers and shabby production.

Not this time.

Tango of the White Gardenia, a collaboration of Cascadia Chamber Opera (previously Cascadia Concert Opera) and Lincoln City Cultural Center, was a triumph, if on a far smaller scale than Portland Opera, or even Portland State University student productions. Composer Ethan Gans-Morse’s Argentine-influenced music and the touching tango-centered libretto by artistic and life partner Tiziana DellaRovere addressed bullying, identity and the spiritual healing power of art — in this case tango.

Sung in English and helped by projected supra titles, the two-hour opera premiered Sept. 8 at the 220-seat Lincoln City Cultural Center, whose production featured four-musicians-plus conductor, six well-cast singers, and six limber dancers from the imaginative Eugene-based Ballet Fantastique. It now tours to Florence this Friday, then Bend, Astoria and Eugene for further performances with some changes in cast and production crews. (See Oregon ArtsWatch’s preview by Gary Ferrington.)

A scene from ‘Tango of the White Gardenia.’

Tango of the White Gardenia follows two young tango-driven couples through a dance competition, shadowed by dancers/alter egos. As the story unfolds, the characters come to terms with who they are and why they do things that they do. The main character, Sandra, sung expressively by Portland lyric soprano Kati Burgess, eventually understands that being herself is better than trying to be someone else (“the treasure is within you”) — the “somebody else” being Jo-Jo, her bullying counterpart sung humorously and intentionally crassly at times by bad-girl self-declared “fallen angel” soprano Jocelyn Claire Thomas. Jo-Jo’s music is somewhat discordant, just as she is.

The chamber opera portrays the struggle to become oneself as arduous, emotionally and physically. There is even a second-act wrestling match between the two young women, and throughout the piece, both sopranos sing and act well.

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Alfred Walker and Angel Blue: stars on the rise

Winning acclaim this summer in Portland's Opera's "Faust" and Seattle Opera’s "Porgy and Bess," the two stars move on to other roles at the Met and in Europe.

by ANGELA ALLEN

More often than not, he plays the villains (Méphistophélès in Faust) and the weirdos (Bluebeard in Bluebeard’s Castle). She portrays the vulnerable tragic heroines (Violetta, Mimi, Marguerite).

Certainly those aren’t the only roles rising opera stars Alfred Walker and Angel Blue perform. But these parts have given them access to the world’s best stages. Both will sing at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2018-19 season – she reprising Musetta in La bohème, he as the Speaker in The Magic Flute. And more is in view: Blue will sing Violetta in La Traviata in her Covent Garden debut and Walker takes on Jochanaan in Salome at  Oper Köln and Thoas in Iphigenie en Tauride at Oper Stuttgart.

Walker is singing Porgy to her Bess at Seattle Opera through Saturday. (Read my ArtsWatch review.) They met when she sang Clara and he was Porgy in a 2012 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert version of the opera. “Alfred was a great Porgy then and he’s even better now,” said Blue. “He makes the job easier by simply being who he is: talented, fun-loving, and very creative. It is rewarding to work with someone who is open to his colleagues’ ideas and opinions. He is also a great singer with his very strong and supported sound. We blend well together.”


Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

Barrel-chested and imposing in stature, Walker owns a voice loaded with depth and color. Opera News, commenting on his performance in the title role of The Flying Dutchman, called his bass-baritone “inky with clear projection.” Daryl and Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch review of Portland Opera’s recent Faust said Walker “brought an appropriately dark and threatening lustre to his role” of Méphistophélès.

Walker also is gifted with a huge range, from low E to high A-flat. He can reach baritone heights or descend to intimidating lows. With a facial expressiveness that can light up a stage or transport an audience to hell, he is as fine an actor as singer. And his flexible instrument allows him to play a range of characters. “I love my voice for that reason,” he said in a recent phone interview from Seattle between rehearsals of Francesca Zambello’s production of Porgy and Bess. “It keeps the repertoire constantly flowing.”

Recently, Walker was hired for a bass role, but the directors decided the baritone part would be the better fit. Which opera? He can’t say; it hasn’t been announced. But he’s been caught in the bass-baritone change-up more than once.

Blue, who has been compared to the legendary Leontyne Price (Blue calls herself the diva’s “No. 1 fan” and modestly rebuffs the comparison), sings with a bright, vibrant soprano – her stunning timbre has been noted often – and acts with a stage demeanor that can melt hearts.

“The singing was opulent, sturdy, glowing,” the Brownes wrote about her performance in Faust. “Leading soprano Angel Blue (Marguerite) has a perfect voice for this role, and many others to come. Not a light little soubrette voice, this is a three-tool singer: great tensile strength and flexibility (much needed for the famous ‘Jewel Song’) and ravishing high notes.”

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‘Porgy and Bess’ review: Catfish Row Northwest

Seattle Opera’s elaborate new production complements Gershwin’s American classic 

by ANGELA ALLEN

The stars, and there were several, could have carried Seattle Opera’s Porgy and Bess. But they didn’t have to. Conceived by Francesca Zambello, the production was spot-on in so many ways—emotionally attuned, musically uplifting, edgily designed and lit— that there was no need for the fine singers, several on the rise, to work overtime.

A co-production with Glimmerglass, the three-hour opera, with a 30-minute intermission, continues with several performances through Aug. 25 at McCaw Hall. It is selling well, but not sold out.

Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy) in Seattle Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

If you argue with George Gershwin’s music and librettists DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s (with help from Ira Gershwin) portrait of Catfish Row in the mid-1930s, as many have over time, suspend your imagination. Just dive into this piece and leave the cultural politics for another time. Or another discussion. You can’t put this piece into a box: It’s sad, but not a tragedy. It’s funny but not a comedy. Porgy and Bess is utterly moving—hopeful yet stuffed with such tough realities as poverty, fatherlessness, drugs, unfaithfulness, racism, ostracism, crime.

The heart-rockin’ beauty of the music (“Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nuttin,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” and “My Man’s Gone Now”) and the libretto’s variety and cleverness outclass so many operas plagued with dull and stupid words and plots. The songs alone, and you’ve heard them over and over (“Summertime” is one of the most covered songs in history), place the opera at the top of the American repertoire.

John DeMain, 74, who conducted the opera for Seattle in 1987, was back on the podium for this run. He’s led this music many times (the first, at age 32), and his Tony-award-winning Houston conducting helped bring the opera back to life in 1976, so his Porgy history has been a storied one. The music is part of the seamless artistic blend that works so well in this show, with jazz, folk music, klezmer, gospel and classical influences mixed into Gershwin’s Americana pot. Some jazz- and folk-driven instruments are atypical for opera: trombones, saxophones, banjos, clarinets and trumpets, leaving out the strings, except the bass.

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Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival: in vino violins

August concert series mixes listening and tasting in wine country

by ANGELA ALLEN

Pinot noir and salmon surely make a felicitous match, yet imagine an even happier marriage: Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 59 No. 2 paired with J. Christopher Wines’ 2016 “Lumiere” Pinot Noir.

“Both can certainly be enjoyed for their beauty alone, but together the two really shine,” said cellist Leo Eguchi, co-founder with violinist Sasha Callahan of the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival.

Eguchi, who studied physics along with cello, explains the magical pairing, which draws out the best in the wine and the music: “I experience each as a complex balance between dark and light. The wine’s darkly fruited notes match the brambly minor arpeggios of the first movement, while its minerality and high-toned acidity balances nicely with the heavenly calmness of the second moment. Both the wine and the music continue building to an energetic finish, marked by a rich darkness that lingers in the ears and on the palate.”

Whew! Such a comparison might convince you that pinot and a piece of chamber music can even transcend the blissful compatibility of that same Oregon red wine and Columbia River spring Chinook.

Based in Boston, Eguchi and Callahan decided several years ago that wine and music should be savored in the moment, in the vineyard (or barrel room)—and together. The couple, who have been married for 11 years and played together since 2000 as freelance musicians in various chamber groups and orchestras, saw an opportunity and an opening to bring chamber music to Oregon wine country, where such events are scarce. Sasha Callahan’s sister, Eve Callahan, a Portland marketing whiz with a lifelong interest in music, joined the couple to get the festival off the ground in 2016, and remains a large part of its leadership.

The festival’s third season opens Aug. 11 for three consecutive weekends at three Oregon wineries. Concerts dates are Aug. 11-12, Aug. 18-19, and Aug. 25- 26. The event has grown each year and sold out in 2017. This season, organizers added a third weekend with Sokol Blosser Winery and Elk Cove Vineyards, following two weekends at J. Christopher Wines’ barrel room outside of Newberg.

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Chamber Music Northwest review: unexpected stars

Young performers and composer supply the spark in festival's opening concerts

By ANGELA ALLEN

If you think jazz and marching-band musicians are the sole owners of the johnny-come-late instrument developed in the mid-1800s by Belgian Adolphe Sax, you’re not hearing enough saxophone music. In two of last weekend’s Chamber Music Northwest concerts, four guys with saxophones walked on stage in formal dress and set their classical music scores on the stands — and played like crazy.

The sax-only Kenari Quartet emerged the unexpected stars of the “La Musique de France” concert July 1 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall (and the night before at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium). Its members delighted and surprised the audience and further heated up the overheated hall. It was hot in there!

Kenari Saxophone Quartet performed during the first week of this year’s Chamber Music Northwest summer festival. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The quartet was arranged endearingly (and I’m sure, on chance) by height with the shortest saxman Bob Eason playing soprano, Steven Banks, the tallest, on the bari, sided by Kyle Baldwin on alto and Corey Dundee, who also composes, on tenor. These guys, who found one another in 2012 at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, are part of CMNW’s Protégé Project this summer, and boy can they swing on classical tunes— and I imagine on any other type of music.

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Growing Voices

Founded by a pair of Oregon opera stars, VOXnorthwest Voice Studio gives young singers a recipe for success

By ANGELA ALLEN

“I’m not feeling the high note now,” says Karsten George, shaking his head while rehearsing at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall one late-May afternoon.

He’s singing a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and he isn’t quite nailing the top note. His soprano voice is starting to change. He’s 13 and just completed seventh grade at All Saints School in Portland.

“Spin, sing, spin. Take a big rest before the note, then spin, spin, spin,” says Matthew Hayward, Karsten’s voice teacher and co-founder with opera singer Angela Niederloh of Portland’s VOXnorthwest Voice Studio. (Later, Hayward explains through email that “singing is all about the breath and how we use the breath to support the sound. ‘Spin spin spin’ means moving more air at a faster rate through the vocal apparatus, and that helps with freeing the note and letting the body relax.”)

Karsten George and Matthew Hayward at VOXnorthwest Voice Studio. Photo: Angela Allen.

Hayward, a lyric baritone when he’s performing and not teaching, moves away from the piano, sits down with Karsten, and encourages him to relax and reach for notes in Sondheim’s demanding “Not While I’m Around,” which none other than a boy’s pure soprano voice on the verge of maturing can properly render. Karsten loves the song and will perform it at a concert on June 30, the culmination of an intensive classical-music performing camp for kids June 25-30 at PSU. Debuti camp grew out of VOXnorthwest Voice Studio, and several of its students, including Karsten, will participate. For the camp, three theater, dance and music faculty members will teach alongside Hayward and Niederloh.

The hour-long VOXnorthwest concert begins at 7 p.m. Saturday at PSU’s 220-seat Lincoln Hall Recital Hall, where students will present excerpts from Carmen, La Traviata, Sweeney Todd, Magic Flute, West Side Story, The Mikado, among others. There is no charge for tickets.

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‘Aida’ and ‘Rigoletto’: lush Verdi

Portland and Seattle productions' opulence and timelessness overcome oft-staged operas’ overfamiliarity

Two stunning Giuseppe Verdi operas in one West Coast weekend are a treat, unless grandeur is not your thing.

Portland Opera’s Rigoletto, which opened May 4 at Keller Auditorium and continues with performances on May 10 and 12, and Seattle Opera’s Aida, with a two-week run through May 19 at Seattle’s McCaw Hall, were full-blown triumphs. If we’ve seen and heard them time and time again, and though they’re weighted down with sexism and un-fluid gender roles, as the trendy phrase goes, these productions showed frequently staged operas can remain exciting.

Seattle Opera presents Verdi’s ‘Aida’ featuring design by the street and studio artist RETNA. Photo: Philip Newton.

Remember, this music, written by Italians, was first performed in the mid-19th century. Today, the operas can inspire us to discuss and sort out sex roles and gender traps more honestly than in the old days. If we’re willing to suspend imagination, they can challenge rather than frustrate us.

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