Archive for the ‘Music – Classical’ Category

PostHeaderIcon A Born-Again Opera Company

As I was watching Chicago Opera Theater’s fascinating production of “Elizabeth Cree” in February, I almost had to rub my eyes and make sure I wasn’t dreaming. This co-production with Opera Philadelphia of a suspenseful, ghoulish tale with overtones of Lizzie Borden and Sweeney Todd had a well-crafted libretto, a polished musical score, accomplished singing actors and touches of theatrical flair worthy of Harold Prince. This was not the COT I remember from prior seasons.

Under previous artistic director, Andreas Mitisek, I had come to expect unconventional operatic choices, highly creative stagings that didn’t always hit the mark. Credit must be given to Mitisek for generating major donations to the company, including an $800,000 award from the MacArthur Foundation and erasing  a nearly million dollar debt. I will remember his stagings of “Orpheus and Eurydice” in a swimming pool in 2013, a retelling of the Tristan/Isolde story at the Music Box Theatre and “The Invention of Morel” in 2017. But I will easily forget “Macbeth” and Philip Glass’ Walt Disney opera, “A Perfect American”.

Il Pigmalion & Rita

Il Pigmalion & Rita

This season has been an artistic U-turn. COT’s fine opener, “The Consul”, with a star turn by Patricia Racette gave an early indication of good things to come. “Elizabeth Cree” further strengthened that perception. Now, with its final offering, two one-act operas of Gaetano Donizetti, “Il Pigmalione” (1816)    and “Rita” (1841), it is hoping to end a perfect season on a note of success. I am betting they will succeed.

COT’s creative take on these two lesser-known scores is to update these tales of love and romance into a single, seamless score with a modern heroine who bears a striking resemblance to Audrey Hepburn. Soprano Angela Mortellaro will portray Galathea, the sculpture that Venus brings to life to as well as Rita, a tavern landlady and abusive wife of Pepe, sung by tenor Javier Abreu. Francesco Milioto will conduct and Amy Hutchison will oversee the reworked production.

Doug Clayton

Doug Clayton

COT is celebrating its 45th season since its founding in 1973 by Alan Stone. During its history, it has staged over 125 operas, including 66 Chicago premieres and 36 operas by American composers. It is known for its risk-taking nature of bringing lesser-known and contemporary works to public attention. With the 2017-18 season, under the direction of General Director, Douglas Clayton, the company is entering its sixth or seventh incarnation. Even a cat has only 9 lives.

But this incarnation may be more lasting. Helped by a debt-free balance sheet, Clayton recently announced a new strategic plan to be implemented next season. COT will feature an entire season of three Chicago premieres: Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta”, “The Scarlet Ibis” by Stefan Weissman and Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick”. Clayton told ArtsAndAbout the reasoning driving this decision.

In a statement Clayton provided to Arts and About, Clayton spoke of a “golden age of opera in the U.S.” and cited two ways COT will move in the future. “The first is to focus on fully-realized productions…that have never been produced in Chicago. The second place where COT can contribute in a unique and meaningful way is to be the Midwest home for new opera and new opera composers.” To promote the second objective, COT is establishing the Vanguard Initiative that will put its resources into the development of new operas. Its first orchestral workshop production will be “The Life and Death of Alan Turing” in Spring, 2019.

With Lyric’s season on hiatus, you should explore the exciting new developments at COT. But you need to be quick. “Il Pigmalione” and “Rita” will only be around for three performances, starting this Saturday evening. For tickets, go to

Post-Opening Night: Wow! COT has ended its 2017-2018 season with a delightful smash hit! The seamless two-act operas had fine singing, especially by soprano Angela Mortellaro, Donizetti’s equally singing melodies and a story with heartfelt emotion in “Il Pigmalione” and broad humor with comedia dell’ arte touches in “Rita”. Director Amy Hutchinson kept all the elements moving perfectly. The production values could rival those seen at Lyric Opera. And “Rita”‘s set design was spectacular. A perfect date night option for even non-opera lovers but you only have until next weekend to catch the final performances.


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



PostHeaderIcon Bees Do It, Fleas Do It, Let’s Fall in Love

Lyric Opera has come to the rescue just in time! In these early days of 2018, when the world has gone mad with multiple school shootings, Syria and Russian spy meddling, Lyric has prescribed a welcome elixir, an enchanting potion of Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte. “Cosi Fan Tutte”, a delicious bon-bon that  kept audiences enthralled since 1790 yet never grows old because its theme is the eternal war waged in the name of love.

The title, in Italian, literally means “Thus do they (women implied) all” but is usually translated in English as “Women are like that”. Although the current bias holds men as being the worst transgressors, women, since Cleopatra and Elizabeth I, have proven equally adept at using their power and wiles to conquer men. In “Cosi”, men are the ultimate dupes in this tale of “fiance swapping” though, as the opera starts, they are the superior schemers. “Cosi” may play as a comedy but it teaches true lessons about certainty and doubt, real and false identities, a topic that is super-timely in these times.

Opening set

Opening set

As the curtain rises, we see a fashionable hotel (rather than Act One’s traditional coffeehouse setting) where a wise and worldly croupier, Don Alfonso is enlightening two soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, in the ways of love. He bets that he can prove that all women are fickle and that their lovers, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are not icons of purity but susceptible to temptation.

The men protest vigorously but take the bet. They exit offstage and Don Alfonso tells the ladies that they have sailed off to battle while they actually have donned disguises as Albanian friends. The plot is now afoot. Don Alfonso and his accomplice, Despina, the sisters’ maid, play their comic roles to the hilt. The rest of the opera keeps us wondering: Will the sisters relent and give in to the Albanian suitors?. I’ll only divulge that one sister wavers while the other stays true. And Despina proves to be an equal master of disguise, appearing near the end as a notary. You have to see and hear the whole story and be ready to laugh.

Marianne Crebessa & Ana Maria Martinez

Marianne Crebessa & Ana Maria Martinez

This is an opera in which the women rule, musically and romantically. So, it is fitting that Lyric assembled two great ladies to fill the roles, soprano Ana Maria Martinez and mezzo-soprano, Marianne Crebassa. They did Mozart proud, delivering sumptuous arias and blending several duets. Of the men, I thought baritone Joshua Hopkins produced slightly stronger sounds than his partner, tenor Andrew Stenson. Both Alessandro Corbelli (Don Alfonso) and Elena Tsallagova (Despina) also shone. Rising conductor, James Gaffigan, coaxed spirited playing that never flagged from Lyric’s excellent musicians. A special call-out goes to scenic designer, Robert Perdziola, who also oversaw the costumes.

At the end, I witnessed something rare in the opera house. The audience rose en masse, with no prompting, even before the curtain calls began. No one was running to catch the train or hail a taxi. If you too need an elixir as I did at last Saturday’s opening, head to the pharmacy at Madison and South Wacker and catch the delightful concoction Lyric is offering.

Five more performances remain, with the next performance on Monday, February 26. For tickets and information, call the box office at 312/827-5600 or go to


PostHeaderIcon My Favorite Christmas Music

This year, in countless coffee shops, every McDonald’s and department store, the din of treachly tunes like “All I Want for Christmas is You” and “Santa Baby” serenades us. For me, even such classics as, “Twelve Days of Christmas” and”Little Drummer Boy” lose their appeal by the 20th hearing. Thus, by December 25, this incessant din can easily dampen the joy of the holidays even before they’ve begun.

The music that best conveys the true holiday spirit for me are church hymns like “Hail the Herald Angels Sing”, “O Come, Let Us Adore Him’ and “The Holly and the Ivy”. Handel’s “Messiah”, now a Christmas staple, was actually written for Easter.

My holiday musical treat is Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (soon to mark the 400th anniversary  of its premiere performance in 1721).  This rich orchestral suite of six concertos is so inventive and uplifting that it never fails to put me in a jolly mood. And it’s about two hours shorter than “Messiah”.

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.The ensemble that performs this classic work with remarkable virtuosity and elan is the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center  (CMS) who will appear next Wednesday evening, December 20th, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Twenty-one musical artists are scheduled to take part and produce Bach’s buoyant, beautiful melodies. They will only give a single performance. If you have never, or not recently, heard the Brandenburgs, I urge you not to miss it. It’s a Christmas party all by itself.

CMS is one of Lincoln Center’s 11 resident ensembles founded in 1969 when they opened Alice Tully Hall, its resident home in New York.  It began with an elite group of 9 prominent “Artist Members” headed by Charles Wadsworth. Over the subsequent 48 seasons, it has grown to now encompass almost 150 top musicians with a broad mission of public education and musical training for young artists with its CMS Two initiative.

CMS has been headed since 2004 by co-artistic directors, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han who were named to lead the organization in 2004.  The group presents 200 concerts, lectures and master classes each season. In an interview, Finckel revealed that they have 4,000 musical works in their database. CMS made its first appearance at the Harris in 2011-12 when it offered a three program season. Due to great popular acceptance by Chicago audiences, they now offer five appearances each year. They performed their first Brandenburg concert in 2013.

Finckel offers his take on the appeal of the Bach work. “They are probably the most spiritually uplifting secular music. When you hear that music, it just crosses all the lines. Bach wrote them for everybody. And we couldn’t be more delighted.” For a list of the ensemble’s full range of activities and residencies, consult its website at

If you are in need of genuine holiday cheer, schedule a visit to the Harris Theater at or call the box office at 312/334-7777.


PostHeaderIcon Falling Under Wagner’s Spell

Three score and ten years. It’s taken that long for me to have seen two segments of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.  I resisted for so long yet fell completely under the composer’s spell this week! I did see a PBS broadcast over 15 years ago from the Met in New York, under James Levine’s baton, which I saw that on a 13″ Sony, but doesn’t count.

I can now better appreciate the cult that surrounds Wagner and his messy tale of imperfect gods and the quest to recover a magical ring. Devoted fans are known to spend thousands of dollars traveling to whatever city is mounting this high point of the operatic form. Lyric Opera in Chicago is the “Ring Nuts” latest destination. Lyric is mounting one opera of the tetralogy each year through 2019 and  staging the complete cycle in the 2020-21 season. You can be sure Lyric is already processing ticket requests.

In the world of opera, Wagner exists on a different, more mythic, plane from such composer superstars as Verdi and Puccini. Wagner can also be said to be the granddaddy of the multi-part serial. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and no less a figure than  J.K. Rowing, took a page from Wagner’s playbook in crafting their cinematic and literary blockbusters.

Eric Owns & Christine Goerke

Eric Owns & Christine Goerke

But to the opera on stage,  “Die Walkure”. In brief, Lyric has pulled out all the stops. I can’t imagine a better, more perfectly blended cast of internationally-celebrated singers for the four major roles: Eric Owens as the chief god, Wotan, Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund, Wotan’s mortal son, Elisabet Strid as Sieglinde, Wotan’s daughter and Siegmund’s twin and Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde,  Wotan’s favorite Valkyrie daughter. They were assisted very capably by the singers playing Fricka, Wotan’s wife and also the goddess of marriage (who doesn’t approve of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s incestuous affair) and and Hunding, Sieglinde’s cuckhold. Not in the rear by any means were the fine direction by David Pountey and the masterful baton of music director, Sir Andrew Davis, marking his 30th year with the company.

Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde

Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde

It’s challenging keeping the names and the story straight. As “Walkure” begins, Wotan is plotting to recover the gold ring that he had to give to the giants as payment for building Valhalla, his fortress home. Wotan knows that, without the ring, his power is ephemeral. So, he sires two mortal children with earth mothers, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who are separated. When they discover they are brother and sister, they become lovers but this upsets Wotan’s plan and he is forced to agree to Siegmund’s assassination. He dispatches his daughter, Brunnhilde to do the job but she relents to Sieglinde’s pleas for mercy and is banished from Valhalla and reduced to being a mortal.

From Act I’s downbeat to the end of the score, nearly five hours later, I was enthralled by the singing. Two supreme moments that stick in my memory were the impassioned love duet between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act I and the fierce exchange between Sieglinde and Brunnhilde as the former pleads the latter to spare Siegmund’s life.

 Brandon Jovanovich & Elisabet Strid.

Brandon Jovanovich & Elisabet Strid.

Sieglinde appeared in both and Elisabeth Strid, making her Lyric debut, gave a totally convincing portrayal. I hope we see more of Ms. Strid in future productions. Goerke gave one of the greatest Lyric performances I ever witnessed in the 2012-13 presentation of Strauss’ “Elektra”. She was equally compelling, both vocally and dramatically, as Brunnhilde.

Besides the vocal fireworks to delight the ear, Lyric has provided treats for the eye as well. There are flying horses, a wall-like net sporting a dozen hanging Valkyries and a stunning “Valhalla Hall” that descends from above, bisecting the stage into heaven and earthly kingdoms.

The opera’s 5-hour length scares most people away. Don’t let it or you will miss a spectacle full of emotion that aims straight for the heart. I can’t explain Wagner’s musical mastery but it seems to me he knows how to slow time down.  For example, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love duet goes on for a full half hour yet I was so engrossed that it seemed much less. You are caught up, as in a spell, either listening to the lover’s enchantment or with Brunnhilde as she pleads with Wotan to not banish her. During those moments, time melted. By the end, I knew I had lived through a peak artistic journey. My only regret is that I must wait a whole year to learn what happens next.

Die Walkure” is running through November 30. Only five more performances remain. Don’t miss it! For tickets, go to