Archive for March, 2018

PostHeaderIcon Tragic Tale Between Two Cultures

Silk Road Rising is a theatre company founded in 2002 in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11 the year before. Over the past 16 years, it has produced around 30 plays with two goals in mind. The first was to challenge the hatred that fueled the attacks by the terrorists and the anti-Muslim backlash that soon followed. And the second was to present dramas that showed the similar feelings and aspirations shared by Middle East and South Asian people and Americans.

Its newest production, “Through the Elevated Line”, a world premiere by playwright Novid Parsi, demonstrates he is an accomplished dramatist. The author of at least three other plays, he had the ingenious idea of adapting+ elements of Tennessee Williams‘ masterpiece, “A Streetcar Named Desire” to tell the tale of an Iranian refugee who comes to live with his sister and her husband in their Chicago home. What should be a happy occasion turns into a horrendous tragedy with contemporary overtones. Parsi has written a play with gripping action and strong portrayals by the actors.

Catherine Dildilian as Soraya Salar Ardebili as Razi

Catherine Dildilian as Soraya with Razi,
Salar Ardebili

Parsi replaces the delicate figure of Blanche DuBois with Razi Gol. His sister is Soraya and her husband is Chuck, a hunky, sexy brute quite reminiscent of the “Streetcar” role immortalized by Marlon Brando. Parsi, perhaps deliberately, gives only Razi a last name. Yet, in pluralistic Chicago, a last name provides initial clues about someone’s ethnic identity and living circumstances.

From the first, Razi’s eyes are taking in this strange, new land and its customs. Baseball, beer, beef and bullying are all essential virtues in middle-class America. This is all anathema to a sensitive, strict Muslim who doesn’t drink, is indifferent to sports and reads the poetry of Hafez IbrahimHe is in flight from Iran for some unknown reason, a displaced person in another land and accepted by neither.

While Soraya wants to help her brother adapt to his new circumstances, the situation is soon poisoned by a deep antagonism between Chuck and Razi. A series of shouting brawls soon develop between Razi and Soraya and Razi and Chuck that leave Razi increasingly isolated while Chuck turns evermore hostile.

Parsi does not simply transpose all of Williams’ plot lines but skillfully supplies a few twists of his own. Razi is hiding some dark secrets, being gay is one, and is not as blameless as Blanche. And, while the climactic scene in “Streetcar” is powered by Stanley Kowalski, Parsi has another character supply the tragic denouement.

Joshua J. Volkers as Chuck Catherine Dildilian as Soraya

Joshua J. Volkers as Chuck and
Catherine Dildilian

Deserved kudos must go to the play’s three lead actors: Salar Ardebili (Razi), Catherine Dildilian (Soraya) and Joshua Volkers (Chuck) who endow the production with strong emotion and believability. Philip Winston (Sean) ) was very effective as Razi’s lover. Director Carin Silkaitis kept the pace taut and the tension unflagging.

While I can only rave at the professional staging in Silk Road’s close quarters, I have two reservations which emerged as I watched but which should not keep readers from seeing the show.  I thought Parsi, during the opening scenes, might have provided a more nuanced, building conflict between Razi and Chuck. Rather than have Razi take an immediate dislike to Chuck, the two men might have compared  Iranian customs and its way of life versus American ways rather than yelling at each other right away. It would have been an enlightening argument for the audience to hear. Secondly, Razi had a limited way of expressing anger. His constant high-pitched wails lacked variation and induced a shortness of breath that rendered some of his dialogue incomprehensible.

“Through the Elevated Line” proves that a 1950s play set in New Orleans can address the same themes in 2018 Chicago.

It plays at Silk Road Rising,  77 West Washington Street, lower level, through Sunday, April 15. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling 312/857-1234 x201.




PostHeaderIcon Lyric’s Truly Unlimited Opera

Make haste! You have only until this Sunday (March 25) to catch the exciting new opera, “Fellow Travelers”, that Lyric Opera is presenting at the Atheneum Theatre. It is part of its “Lyric Unlimited” series, following on last year’s successful production of “Yardbird”, about jazz legend, Charlie Parker.

“Fellow Travelers” is a smaller-scale chamber opera. It had a reduced orchestra of approximately 16 musicians and an abbreviated schedule of four performances. It was limited in that sense. However, it was “unlimited” in terms of vocal talent, a great score and libretto, an ingenious stage set (that made imaginative use of basic gray file cabinets) and pure heartfelt emotion. The audience greeted the opening-night performance with lusty, sustained applause. As you can tell, I found it riveting and inspiring!

Joseph Lattanzi & Jonas Hack - Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Joseph Lattanzi & Jonas Hack – Photo by Todd Rosenberg

The opera is set in the 1950s in a politicized Washington, D.C., much like today. Instead of Donald Trump, there’s the demagogic Wisconsin Senator, Joseph McCarthy, and his closeted, ruthless associate, Roy Cohn. It opens with Timothy Laughlin, an aspiring reporter, sitting on a park bench at Dupont Circle, a Washington focal point. He is soon joined by Hawkins Fuller, a State Department official.

Both men share an attraction and soon begin a homosexual relationship, a dangerous move in the midst of Sen. McCarthy’s witch hunt against gays and “Commies”  in the State Department. The opera depicts the dynamics of office politics realistically, interspersed with moments of great tenderness. It ends with  an all-too-common Washington ritual, the betrayal of a good man.

Joseph Lattanzi & Jonas Hack

Joseph Lattanzi & Jonas Hack – Photo by Todd Rosenberg

What makes the opera groundbreaking is that it tells the story of two gay men from a gay perspective shared by its creative team, composer Gregory Spears, librettist Greg Pierce and talented director, Kevin Newbury. The action also depicts Laughlin and Fuller passionately embracing, kissing, and jumping into bed together quite realistically, all perhaps too strong for a full-scale production on Lyric’s mainstage.

Special recognition must be given to the male leads, Jonas Hacker (Timothy) and Joseph Lattanzi (Hawkins), both fine singing actors, Spear’s engaging score and Pierce’s masterfully concise adaptation of Thomas Mallon’s novel of the same name.

“Fellow Travelers” points to a new cultural moment developing in opera. And it’s all to the good. Composers, librettists and directors are turning to real life for opera material, as Mozart and Puccini did in centuries past. There is the aforementioned “Yardbird”, “Dead Man Walking” and “Bel Canto.” I hear that an opera, based on the Vietnam My Lai massacre, is being adapted.

In just the past month, I have seen a very imaginative production of “Elizabeth Cree” by Chicago Opera Theatre and now this triumph, which received its world premiere two years ago at Cincinnati Opera. Such productions, sporting more melodic scores than previously and gripping stories, should  enjoy second lives and adoption by other companies. These are the kinds of operas that will ensure this beloved genre’s bright future.

The remaining performances are March 21,23 and 25. For tickets, go to or call 312/827-5600. Atheneum Theatre is at 2956 N. Southport Avenue.

PostHeaderIcon American-born Conductor On the Rise

James Gaffigan, who is currently leading a thrilling production of Mozart’s comic “Cosi Fan Tutte” at Lyric Opera, is one of the fastest-rising conductors on the music scene. Yet, he claims to be in no hurry to move to the next level. He is enjoying all that he has right now, including the accolades.


James Gaffigan

His conducting career got a major boost when he won the Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition in 2004 at age 25. He is now 38. Early on, he held plum assignments with the Cleveland Orchestra and as associate conductor with the San Francisco Symphony from 2006-09. “From the beginning, I was lucky to have people protecting me. I had very big offers that I had no reason accepting”.  Music insiders protected him from talent scouts and agents looking for new talent. He was determined not be a flash in the pan. He credits David Zinman, head of the Aspen Music Festival where he went at age 19. Another was the Cleveland Orchestra’s Bill Preucil, who offered musical advice, “You don’t need to subdivide this (passage). Just trust us here and we’ll do it.”

Lucerne Symphony Orchestra

Lucerne Symphony Orchestra

Gaffigan has led the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra since 2010 (the initial chemistry was like “a great first date”) and raised its recording and touring profile substantially. He has built the orchestra up into a respected ensemble that has toured Europe, Asia and South America. “Something in my gut told me I had to go to Europe. I learned so much in Vienna and Berlin.” He has guest-conducted all the major European ensembles and finds the distinct orchestral sound and culture of the Vienna Philharmonic, London and Czech Philharmonics, Orchestre de Paris and others fascinating.

Gaffigan is equally at home in the pit. He made his opera debut with the Zurich Opera in 2005 conducting “La Boheme”. He has since conducted at the Vienna State Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Houston Grand Opera and at Glyndebourne in England. “Cosi” is his debut appearance at Lyric. The part about conducting opera that he likes best, surprisingly, is being out of sight in the pit. “No one can see me. I don’t want to be in control but simply want to work with the singers so they can do their best.” He offers high praise for the two female leads in “Cosi”, Ana Maria Martinez and Marianne Crebassa.

However, on the concert podium, a conductor must exert control and Gaffigan does. “I’m very controlling in early rehearsals. There, I know what I want and I aim for that high standard of ensemble and sound.” In performance, he lets the musicians play. He names Michael Tilson Thomas, leader of the San Francisco Symphony, as a key musical influence. “We think about music quite differently. But he’s a genius, a Renaissance person. He’s so well-read and someone with an amazing imagination.”

Gaffigan recalls the time MTT introduced him to his publicist and career confidante, Margaret Carson. Tilson Thomas told Ms. Carson that this young man was “the only real deal there is.” She looked up and asked his name. Gaffigan replied, “James”. And your last name, Carson asked. When he told her,”Gaffigan”, she said, “change it”. He laughed in the retelling and did not take her advice.

Gaffigan is destined to head a major American orchestra within the next five years. He is high on the candidate list that all orchestra managers keep. Now is a uniquely propitious moment in which many top orchestras are playing high-stakes musical chairs. The post in San Francisco opens up in 2020 with a traffic jam developing in 2022 among Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Los Angeles.

Which will Gaffigan choose? He won’t say but finds the whole exercise amusing. “They all assume I will readily say “Yes” if they say they want me. What they forget to consider is ‘What might I want’ “. Such considerations as family, personal goals, the chemistry between him and the orchestra president and especially the musicians are Gaffigan’s priorities. That fateful decision is a few years away. In the meantime, he seems to be having the time of his life.

Gaffigan will lead three more performances of “Cosi Fan Tutte” through March 16. Hurry to catch the next performance this Thursday evening. For tickets and information, go to