portland state opera

A game of reflections

Gaming-themed opera commissioned and staged by Portland State University places women's voices centerstage

Mirror Game, a new opera commissioned by Portland State University’s Opera program, made its world premiere Nov. 29 in PSU’s Lincoln Hall Studio Theater. The opera is an intriguing effort to bring women into the limelight in a male-dominated tech world.

The historically misogynistic world of opera often casts women characters as victims of culture or the times, or dying of some disease or addiction—though opera directors have lately tried to put more positive spins on such characters as Bess in Porgy and Bess, Madama Butterfly’s Cio-Cio-San, and even “gypsy girl” Carmen, in an attempt to lift them out of the limitations of damsels-in-distress roles. And although I don’t play video games, younger generations tell me there aren’t a helluva lot of strong women characters populating that entertainment genre. So opera in general, and this particular opera’s subject matter, reflect one another.

Mirror Game thankfully does not make heroines of women or total pigs of men – and none of the characters is particularly redeemable. Nor does the opera offer solutions to heal the male-controlled, reputedly sexist Silicon Valley world. But it does give women characters a voice. The opera features six characters (three men and three women), and honestly it’s hard to like any of them much. Selfish self-absorbed entitled Millennials caught up in their phones and selfies, strutting around like they own the world in their high-tops and cropped tops! But it’s easy enough to cheer for the cause: Women deserve a voice – creatively and personally.

The opera was written by librettist Amy Punt, who created The Place Where You Started, which PSU Opera staged four years ago, and award-winning composer Celka Ojakangas, who has not yet reached age 30. The 80-minute opera is lively and engaging, even if you don’t know a thing about gaming – which Mirror Game is about (it has a several truncated love stories, too, and of course, power is a theme). It bursts with video graphics and complex projections and lighting that reflect the gaming world. This is an all-hands-on-deck piece by the PSU Opera crew, which consistently creates shows that far outreach most student operas. Kudos as usual go to veteran stage director Kristine McIntyre for bringing it all together. 

PSU Opera staged the new opera "Mirror Game." Photo by Joe Cantrell.
PSU Opera staged the new opera “Mirror Game.” Photo by Joe Cantrell.

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MusicWatch Monthly: A Septemberful of ‘music’

"Classical" music, "Hip-hop" music, "Queer" music, "Experimental" music

Well, friends, you’ve got a helluva nice September to look forward to. Oregon Symphony provides live backup to the greatest movie of all time and also Wyclef Jean. Cappella Romana performs a bunch of Byzantine music, Kalakendra and Rasika present Indian classical music and dance, Nordic folk band Sver comes to Alberta Rose, and local rapper Fountaine headlines a free Labor Day hip-hop fest.

FearNoMusic and Third Angle swing back into full Relevant Classical mode this month, while Oregon Repertory Singers perform local composer Joan Szymko. Portland State’s Queer Opera presents gender-bent opera scenes and art songs, Dolphin Midwives plays a Harvest Moon Cacao Ceremony, and the Extradition Series imports a Canadian trumpeter.

We’ve even got a few concerts for you outside the Portland metro area, in case the shame trolls decide they want another helping of bananafied humiliation optics, police cover, wasted city resources, and charitable donations.

“Drip, drip.”

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Audrey Luna: on a high note

Portland State alumna returns home for a recital after soaring to the heights of the opera world

by BRUCE and DARYL BROWNE

A shock –a frisson of emotion, of sheer joy amidst a fountain of favorite songs –was the prevailing feeling among audience members Sunday afternoon at the vocal recital of Audrey Luna at Portland State University Recital Hall.

Luna’s name has popped into opera junkie conversation since singing her record-breaking A above high C (A6, do not try this at home) in the premiere of contemporary British-American composer Thomas Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel (with Ms. Luna in the role of Leticia) at the Metropolitan Opera. We scoot forward on our seats in anticipation of more magical record-breaking notes. But there is so much more in the total package on stage, including acting, vocal endurance and, at times, gymnastics, as in another Adès opera, The Tempest.

Luna as Leticia in ‘The Exterminating Angel’

At her PSU recital, Ms. Luna, partnered with PSU faculty pianist Chuck Dillard, offered us the vocal works of three composers: Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy in the first half, and just one song, one glorious rhapsody, by Samuel Barber in the second. These three composers happen to be her favorites.

The five Strauss songs, plucked from three different song cycles, demonstrated his proclivity for athletic vocal lines, with leaps and coloratura for the singer, and a wide palette of harmonic colors. Strauss’ romantic-era vocal works are, according to English soprano Susan Gritton, “a sumptuous wave for the voice to surf, with wonderful opportunities for timbre and line.” Ms. Luna loosened as she rode those waves.

She and Dr. Dillard adhered like velcro on each song. Dillard’s tinkling scales and arpeggios in “Herr Lenz” were a delight. Professor Dillard heads the Collaborative Piano program at PSU, and his work in this recital defines “collaborative” and acknowledges the level plane upon which recital partners exist.

Dillard and Luna performed at Portland State.

The first of several selections from Six Songs (Sechs leider), “Ich wollt ein Strausslein binden,” set to the poetry of German/Austrian Clemens Brentano, was most compelling in tone and expression. “Amor,” from the same cycle, was Ms. Luna’s final offering on the recital, a fireworks display of vocal maneuvering.

With the Debussy, we were lifted even further by Ms. Luna’s rapturous voice and elegant delivery. “Quatre chanson de jeunesse” sets the work of three different poets, each evoking dreamy impressionistic landscapes populated with typical French characters of the time: Harlequin, Pierrot, Cassandre and Columbine. Luna’s command of the language, the images of each word of poetry, was a magic carpet of vocal line, peppered with particularized articulation of each word.

For me, Samuel Barber‘s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was the perfect capstone of the afternoon. A song may be elevated three times over: first by the poet of the original text, second by the music of the composer and last, but not least, by the singer. It was a perfect illustration of a happy wedding of words and music, further heightened by the artistry of Ms. Luna.

There’s not a wrong word by the author, James Agee, a wrong note by Barber, nor was there a misstep by Ms. Luna. The work is new in her repertoire, but it sounded like an old friend. She captured perfectly the essence of the young boy questioning his identity, and wove a magic spell around the stunningly evocative text of Agee. With suave inflections and an afterburner of vocal range, Ms. Luna made us believe and we left transformed. That’s all one can ask.

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‘Albert Herring’ review: keeping it fresh

Portland State University production overcomes the challenges posed by Benjamin Britten’s mid-20th century opera

by ANGELA ALLEN

British composer Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring is a challenging opera for both performers and audiences accustomed to the usual Romantic classics. Though funny, it proved a serious undertaking for the Portland State University Opera this week at Lincoln Performance Hall. Delivered in two acts and several scenes, with three changes of bright creative scenery and lighting, the opera proved an achievement for these students, most of them undergraduates—and it succeeded in overcoming many of those challenges.

Britten composed Albert Herring after World War II and it debuted in 1947, when he directed it at England’s Glyndebourne Festival. The comic chamber opera portrays an uptight Victorian English town, similar to Britten’s own Lowestoft in Sussex. Its stuffy, class-conscious “dignitaries” decide the only person fit to be crowned May “king” (the queen potentials are voted down for their various sins and indiscretions) is the virginal, naive and henpecked Albert Herring.

That star role is sung here by uber-talented tenor Christian Sanders, who worked with the PSU cast this spring. He is a resident artist at the Utah Opera and has sung major roles in such operas as La Boheme, Falstaff, Little Women, the Magic Flute, Gianni Schicchi and Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon. He sang the prince chaplain in the 2013 world premiere of Theodore Morrison’s Oscar at the Santa Fe Opera with renowned countertenor David Daniels. So he’s been around.

Christian Sanders stars in Portland State University’s production of ‘Albert Herring.’ Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Sanders’ maturity and versatility gave the opera, directed by stage veteran Brenda Nuckton, a professional texture. Early on, he played Albert as a tight-lipped insecure nerd toiling in his mother’s grocery store as hilariously he did the last act’s disheveled cad. He uses his 25-quid May Day prize to get thoroughly loaded, despite the town’s expectations of him as a goody-goody. He can still sing when drunk.

Sanders performed his transformative role with stage-savvy sparkle and athleticism, so onstage he convincingly overcame Albert’s awkwardness. The tenor approached the role as an outsider and misfit—and Britten creates these characters regularly—and he made Albert change and oddly–grow.

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MusicWatch Weekly: new sounds from Oregon

This week’s Oregon music schedule boasts numerous new works by today’s composers from the Northwest, Midwest and beyond, mixed in with classics from across the ages and oceans

Big Horn Brass, a baker’s dozen of brass players and two percussionists, feature brassy new music by Cascadia Composers Greg Steinke, Jan Mittelstaedt, John Billota, Greg Bartholomew, and fellow Northwest composer Anthony DiLorenzo at their Saturday night concert at Beaverton’s St. Matthew Lutheran Church. Some other guys named Debussy, Bach and Puccini will provide filler.

New Oregon music by Eugene composer Paul Safar is also on the program when Eugene’s excellent Delgani String Quartet goes all homicidal Friday at Portland’s and Saturday at Springfield’s Wildish Theater. The program features music inspired by murder, with theatrical readings from literary works that inspired them interpolated by actor Rickie Birran of Man of Words Theatre Company. Janacek and Shostakovich will be represented too. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview.

Speaking of new music by Oregon composers, read Gary’s ArtsWatch preview of Oregon composer Ethan Gans-Morse’s new composition commissioned by Rogue Valley Symphony, which the orchestra performs this weekend in Medford and Grants Pass. Beethoven is the closing act.

Estelí Gomez sings new music by University of Oregon composers at  Eugene’s Beall Concert Hall. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

There’s even newer Oregon music for voice Sunday at the Oregon Composers Forum’s Sunday concert at the UO’s Beall Concert Hall. The superb soprano Esteli Gomez, one of the singers in Grammy winning Roomful of Teeth ensemble, returns to sing new music by UO composers.

Joe Kye performs at Portland State Friday.

That same night, Portland based, Korea-born songwriter-composer and looping violinist Joe Kye plays his engaging, often autobiographical songs at Portland State’s Lincoln Recital Hall.

Shades of Sufjan Stevens and his albums inspired by American states! Does a symphony called “Portland” and named after Oregon’s largest city qualify as Oregon music — if it wasn’t written by an Oregonian? Decide for yourself at the University of Portland’s free concert featuring Erich Stem’s orchestral work Tuesday night at Buckley Auditorium. His website bio says nothing about where Stem resides or was born, but Indiana seems a likely suspect. The piece is part of Stem’s project called America By: A Symphonic Tour, which includes a collection of commissioned works from across the country, “each work reflecting the unique qualities and history of a specific location.”

New American Sounds

One of the most frequently performed and commissioned composers of choral music, Minnesota’s Jake Runestad, seem poised to follow Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre as a choral music star, and he’s also written several operas and other works. On Saturday night at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Choral Arts Ensemble and Linn-Benton Community College Chamber Choir team up to present the Music of Jake Runestad, the first major opportunity for Portland to get a healthy sampling of his heartfelt songs and broad, audience-friendly musical range.

Bells toll in Chicago composer Augusta Read Thomas’s new, half-hour orchestral composition, Sonorous Earth (an evolution of her earlier Resounding Earth), which Eugene Symphony performs Thursday at the Hult Center to complete her artistic residency there. Each of its four-movements also uses techniques associated with the major composers who made percussion the defining sound of 20th century classical music: Stravinsky, Messiaen, Varese, Berio, Cage, Ligeti, Partch and Oregon’s own Lou Harrison.

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