Magic Flute

Looking Back 2020: Reports from the orchestra seats

A review of our favorite ArtsWatch music stories from The Longest Year in History

What the hell happened this year?


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


To begin, I’d like to share a bit of MTV Generation perspective with my younger readers, those who may have never known (for instance) a pre-9/11 world. When everything shut down this spring and it all started getting extra weird, I sat dazed in my kitchen, staring out on empty streets and clear skies, and decided to ask around–how much weirder is this than 2001-03? Or, to go a bit further back, how much weirder than “the end of history” in 1989-91, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed and tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and Iraq and Panama, and the New Cold War started?

Naomi Klein will tell you that a disoriented state of helpless confusion is exactly the point of such times (“shock and awe” indeed), while Rebecca Solnit continues to remind us that these times are also opportunities for human communities to come together in solidarity and mutual aid. But regardless of catastrophe’s many and varied uses, it’s mainly just exhausting for us normal humans who must suffer history (and its end) in our daily lives.

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Tumbling statues, voices heard

ArtsWatch Weekly: A culture in crisis clashes over the past; a museum reopens; photos & films; singing amid the vines; a bookstore steps out

THE BIG NEWS IN PORTLAND THIS WEEK has been Sunday night’s downtown rumble through the cultural district, a highly focused and rigorously carried out protest – declared by its organizers to be an Indigenous People’s Day of Rage – in which activists toppled public statues of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, vandalized the Oregon Historical Society to the tune of an estimated $25,000 or more, did lesser damage outside the Portland Art Museum and at Portland State University, smashed store windows, and shot bullets inside an empty restaurant. Police declared the protest a riot, but took no action until after the damage was done. And the story was immediately picked up by President Donald Trump, who tweeted his desire to rush federal officers into the Portland fray. “Put these animals in jail, now,” he tweeted, referring to the protesters, and quickly followed up: “Law & Order! Portland, call in the Feds!”

David Manuel’s “The Promised Land” was controversial when it was installed in 1993 and is even more controversial now after months of racial and political unrest. It was removed for safekeeping from downtown Portland’s Chapman Square in July.

ArtsWatch’s Laurel Reed Pavic was working on a story about the issue of politically and mythologically charged public monuments and how to deal with them when cultural values and understandings of history shift. She quickly updated her analysis after Lincoln and Roosevelt – not the most obvious of targets, although each had specific issues about Indigenous rights – came tumbling down. The symbolic overthrow of monuments, she notes in her essay After the Statues Come Down, is nothing new: “Defacing or damaging public art has always gone hand-in-hand with putting it up in the first place. It happened in the city-states of ancient Mesopotamia and continues to happen today. The visual impact of a former leader face-down on the pavement hasn’t lessened over the past 5,000 years.”

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“Indisputably beautiful”: Taking ‘The Magic Flute’ outdoors

Local singers deliver an unconventional take on Mozart’s classic

The last six months have left us starved for live music, with the country kinda-but-not-really shutting down to handle the pandemic. Luckily for us, last month a cohort of young singers took it upon themselves to stage the first full opera production in Oregon since March. These singers, collectively known as Lark Opera, started with the obvious first task: finding and securing a performance venue. The task became even more complicated when their first scheduled performance, set for September 19th at Utopia Vineyard in Newberg, was smoked out by the fires rampaging through the state that week.

But the smoke cleared, and the second-now-first performance went forward on the 27th at Lady Hill Winery in St. Paul, another of the many small vineyard towns south of Portland. Watching a performance of The Magic Flute lit by the dimming sunset over the Willamette valley, sitting on the lawn and drinking a light, tart, sour-cherry wine seemed a distinctly Oregon way to experience opera. 

Soprano Angelica Hesse, who spearheaded the production, played Pamina, a role she told ArtsWatch she’s wanted to play since her earliest dreams of becoming an opera singer at thirteen. She said that the last few months “have made it clear to me that I can’t go a year without this, that [opera] is something that really matters–and I had the feeling that is the case for audiences too.” 

The eleven singers had earlier taken a Zoom course on The Magic Flute, and like all musicians they were already familiar with the music. With funding from an ongoing Indiegogo campaign and a series of backyard rehearsals (with masks on), they put their new skills to use in an unconventional way. Hesse asked herself, “how do we make this happen?”–and her answer runs through the whole production.

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Punk Papageno in Wine Country

Aquilon Music Festival reinvents Mozart’s eternal opera

July’s three-week Aquilon Music Festival in Willamette Valley wine country debuted in summer 2018, and this year, concert-goers might have a better time pronouncing its French name. 

“AK–will-on,” explains Chelsea Janzen, who will sing Pamina in the festival’s centerpiece opera, The Magic Flute. She adds, tongue in cheek, that Baroque scholar Ian Pomeranz, an Aquilon young-artists’ workshop teacher, “would have a much more refined pinkie-up French pronunciation.”

Punk Papageno set design by Laurel Peterson for Aquilon Music Festival 2019.
Punk Papageno costume design by Laurel Peterson for Aquilon Music Festival 2019.

It was, until recently, an unfamiliar word to the Oregon arts scene. “Aquilon” roughly translates as “god of the northern wind,” and has a sensory connection to Alexander Pushkin’s 19th-century poem, “My Sister’s Vineyard.” The verse finishes with “as soon as the Aquilon blows, it brings with it” [rough translation] “the aromas of spices and exotic perfumes”—a heady thought. The name generates further power with its Northwest association and its connection to Aquilon director Anton Belov, 44, a Russian-born opera baritone who can stir up enthusiasm for just about anything musical.

“What we do is a miracle,” Belov said earlier this summer at Dundee’s bustling Red Hills Market, flashing phone photos of the outrageously colorful in-progress set of The Magic Flute that he and his teen-aged son, Andrew, had been working on the previous night. This time around, the festival’s opera will feature a limited orchestra and a full-blown set; last year it was more “guerilla opera,” he jokes, meaning bare-bones with small orchestra and minimal set. 

Chelsea Janzen at Black Walnut 6/20/2019
Soprano Chelsea Janzen in Dundee’s Black Walnut Vineyard, June 2019. Photo by Anton Belov.

About 700 people attended the festival in 2018 at wineries and at Linfield College, about an hour’s drive from Portland in McMinnville. This year, Belov hopes for 1,000 concertgoers as he watches music and culture gain momentum in wine country. “I want to go four weeks next year,” and he will—if he can get funding.

Aquilon students

Megan Uhrinak, 26, a festival singer who doubles as a visual designer and pitches in to help Aquilon efforts in any way she can, was a former student of Belov’s at Linfield College, where he is an associate music professor. She says that Belov and opera changed her life. She grew up in McMinnville, studied biology until she switched her studies to music, and fell hard for opera after working with Belov. “I found that I loved the way it felt to sing in this style, which is both athletic and full of emotion.” She has performed major roles in Portland State University productions, including the part of sourpuss Arminda in this spring’s well-received La Finta. She played the Countess in Aquilon’s Le Nozze de Figaro last summer.

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