Archive for the ‘Guest Bloggers’ Category

The latest contribution for our guest blogger, Lenny Small.

Among the most the interesting periods in the more than 400 years of opera are when one operatic style changes to another. With Nixon in China, a minimalist opera, we are in the midst of one of those major changes. The opera devotees who will be in the audience for Nixon in China, (March 16 and March 18), may not realize it but they will be watching and listening to one of those historic moments in opera.

Opera has gone through a long history of change from its Renaissance beginnings in the 16th century period with the operas of Monteverdi up to the present with the new minimalist operas of John Adams and Philip Glass.  Minimalist  opera is part of the overall minimalism art scene of painting, sculpture and music.  In music, the simplest possible material is repeated many times with small changes that are introduced gradually or with the addition of other simple repetitive material that eventually changes in its synchronization to produce a trance-like effect.  It is often referred to as repetitive music that can become hypnotic.

John Cage  laid the ground work for minimalist opera, but it was John Adams who first put his minimalist opera Nixon in China on the stage of major opera houses  in the United States and England for the first time.

John Adams

I could not have been more rudely awakened than when I heard Adam’s music for the first time at a Met HD/live broadcast of Dr. Atomic.  Thus by the time I went to see “Nixon in China” I was better prepared for a full afternoon of John Adams’ music. After two more viewings of Nixon (it was broadcast on Public Television and I recorded it), I was totally entranced by the work. Up until that time, my entire knowledge of Adam’s music had been limited to his movie scores and Dr. Atomic. Adams was still a new voice to me in the field of opera and I was still remembering the romantic works of Verdi, Bellini and Rossini.  On the other hand, Nixon in China reminded me of the first time I heard Richard Strauss’ Salome with its dissonances and atonality. However, by my third viewing of that opera over the years, I have become so engrossed with its music and that I hardly hear the initial discord that I first remembered.

What makes it so easy to be mesmerized by the score of Nixon in China is the fact that the libretto is based on a piece of current history and involves two very dissimilar political societies. It is difficult to imagine this opera being set to any other type of music and be as effective.

I  urge everyone to attend the upcoming performace of  Nixon in China and see for themselves a new style of opera that will change your thinking of  21st century opera.


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Guest Blogger Leonard Small aka Uncle Lenny

I know that sometimes opera is a little hard to understand and appreciate.  It is usually sung in a foreign language, the plots are often so convoluted that it is difficult to follow, and you still haven’t figured out why someone  usually dies  in the last act. Yet for all its challenges, the music can be glorious.  And also more familiar than you might realize. You hear opera constantly on TV commercials for spaghetti sauce, perfumes and automobiles.  It was Rossini and his opera William Tell that supplied the theme music for the Lone Ranger program, and Puccini’s genius is featured  in Cher’s Academy Award winning movie “Moonstruck”.  (Eugene readers will be pleased to know that local musician Dick Hyman served as arranger/conductor/pianist for the soundtrack of Moonstruck. )

Yet a very small percentage (actually under 2%) of the general public has ever been to see or hear a live opera performance.  To demystify it for you, I will tell you almost all you need to know about opera in the next few paragraphs.

Opera is nothing more than a drama that has been set to music, yet it is the most complete of all the art forms. There is not just singing, but orchestral music, often dancing, drama and comedy, poetry, acting, and costume, lighting and scenic design.   It all comes to life after the composer receives a play called a libretto and he sets it to music.

Since an opera is just a play, actors have to be able to communicate with each other. There are two ways that the singers can talk to each other.  One is the recitative which is a form of musical speech that tells the story and moves the plot along.  The other is the aria which is really just a song and expresses the inner most thoughts and feelings of the protagonists. In their time opera arias were the popular songs of their day. They are the songs most people remember the most; for example the Duke’s aria “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto, Musetta Waltz (Quando me’nvo) from La Boheme or Canio’s heart breaking aria  Vesti la Giubba from Pagliacci.

One of the biggest complaints is that opera is usually sung in a foreign language. That problem has been solved because today there are Super Titles which are projected above the proscenium arch and simultaneously translates what is being sung on the stage below.

One last suggestion, if you are going to see an opera for the first time familiarize your self with the music and the story.  The libretto is on the internet and the musical part can usually be found on a CD or better yet many operas have been put on DVDs and are available from your library or from Netflix.

This week is Opera Week! Try it. You might just fall in love.

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This is the first post from our guest blogger, Leonard Small.  Lenny has been an avid opera devotee since the age of 10 when he heard his first Saturday afternoon broadcast of the Met Opera.  More than seventy years later his interest has not waned.  After retirement, he earned a teaching certification and  has been teaching adult education classes on opera appreciation. He welcomes your comments and questions!

Carmen (1875)
Georges Bizet (1838-1875) Libretto: Meihac & Halevy

Though Carmen premiered in 1875 and was a turning point in operatic history, it received a cool response from the audience. Yet it did receive 35 performances that first year, but only 13 the following year. When it was revived eight years later it became a world-wide sensation. By 1904 in Paris alone it had received 1000 performances.  Unfortunately, Bizet died at the early age of 37, only a few months after the opera’s premier. He never lived to see and enjoy his phenomenal success.
Originally, the opera was considered quite shocking and immoral and made audiences feel very uncomfortable.  Bizet’s choice of protagonists- a promiscuous gypsy, a deserting army corporal who becomes a criminal and a sporting idol – was not that unusual, but he made the characters react to love and jealousy in an unconventional way. The heroine was not virtuous and the hero was a bad guy who never mended his ways. What finally shocked the public was that the heroine was murdered in full view of the audience. Up until that time, murders in opera always took place off stage or between the acts.  Bizet had brought the suffering of the contemporary man into the opera house.
Bizet wrote Carmen as an opera-comique in which the set numbers were separated by spoken dialogue.  After it premiered,  competent recitatives were added by a friend of Bizet. The composer himself had intended to write such recitatives eventually so as to make the opera more performable.
With the score, Bizet created local color and remarkable entrance pieces. In the first act Carmen sings a Habanera titled “Love is a rebellious bird” (L’amour est un oiseau rebelle).  It is her answer to all the men who have been imploring her to take on one of them on as her next lover, but she chooses Don Jose, a lowly army corporal.
The Toreador Song (Votre toast, je peux vous le render) in the second act is probably the aria most associated with the opera. In it, the toreador, Escamillo, toasts the soldiers in a tavern and compares them to the toreadors as both take pleasure in combat.  He becomes Carmen’s next lover and in the end Don Jose, in a fit of jealousy, murders her when she refuses to give him up.


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Thank you, Melissa Hart for this wonderful report!  Originally posted on the Register Guard blog.

During my stint as an opera major at UC Santa Cruz, I studied with the formidably talented music lecturer Patrice Maginnis.  Visually impaired, she nevertheless hammered me for my unprofessional presentation as a sophomore in her repertoire class.  “If I hear you smiling while you sing,” she told me once, “you’re out of here.”

I learned to take opera very, very seriously.  So seriously, in fact, that it took me a minute to get the joke on Dec. 30 when Eugene Opera’s new musical director Andrew Bisantz — in a woefully under-publicized but exciting pre-performance talk about this season’s offering of Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” said of the opera’s character Rodolfo and his love for the poor seamstress Mimi, “He tries to light her candle when it blows out, which is a mixed metaphor if there ever was one.”

Puccini himself had an interesting sense of humor; he apparently got the idea for “La Bohème” after visiting the composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo who spoke of working on an opera based on Henri Murger’s work of fiction, “Scènes de la Vie de Bohème.”  Puccini, also gravitating toward Murger’s stories of young artists struggling gaily to survive in the Latin Quarter of 19th century Paris, wrote his own opera based on the novel and made sure it premiered in Turin in 1896, a full year before Leoncavallo premiered his opera.

My former voice teacher might not have found fault with the libretto and music for one of the most popular operas of all time, but what would she have said upon discovering that baritone Michael Mayes, playing the painter Marcello, not only smiled while he sang, but minced and cavorted wrapped in a bedsheet in an exuberant Act IV performance that brought to mind the best of Monty Python in drag.

Numerous young people attended the opera on Thursday, the youngest being a ten-year old boy in a tie and fedora and a three year old who showed up late with her parents and disappeared (perhaps mercifully) after the first intermission.  I imagine both the inexpensive youth/student tickets and the vibrant actors trumped any off-campus kegger they might otherwise have attended.  Their eager chatter at intermission overshadowed my annoyance at an elderly woman in furs and diamonds who, upon sitting down to Bisantz’s pre-performance lecture, waved her hand dismissively  and sneered, “I know all this already.”

Eugene’s “La Bohème” featured a fresh-faced, comely cast that bantered and high-kicked and otherwise frolicked with all the energy of UO freshmen living on Top Ramen but intoxicated by their newfound freedom to pursue painting and poetry and music along with l’amour.  An audible gasp went up from the audience as the curtain rose on Act II to reveal a stunning tableau — snow falling on the principal actors surrounded by dozens of chorus members and child singers from the Oregon Festival Choirs against the backdrop of a painted canvas set depicting the Café Momus.  And when Jill Gardner, scintillating as the coquette Musetta (“Her last name is Temptation”), took center stage with the flirtatious and famous melody “Quando me’n vo,” the people around me rewarded her with whoops of admiration.

Only one performance proved initially less than compelling — that of Yeghishe Manuchryan, who played the poet Rodolfo. In Act I, his aria “Che gelida manina” was supposed to seduce the sweet seamstress, but from where I sat, the orchestra swallowed Manuchryan’s voice and his character seemed less of a mesmerized suitor and more of a pained gentleman who — faced with the sudden appearance of a beautiful young woman — found himself suffering intestinal difficulties.

General Director Mark Beudert appeared before the second act to demystify the tenor’s performance, explaining that Manuchryan felt under the weather and wanted to apologize for any surprises we might experience in upcoming acts.  Upon hearing this, the friend sitting beside me whispered, “Great, so he’s not going to get any better.”

But then he did get better, a whole lot better, and I could finally fathom why a beauty such as Emily Pulley’s Mimi, with her rich throaty soprano, might fall for the starving poet, clad as he was in a suit that looked downright funereal next to Marcello’s smashing red velvet coat.

The morning after the opera, I logged onto Facebook to find a discussion about the Eugene Opera’s performance of “La Bohème” already underway.  My friend had posted the following: “Nothing like a night at the opera with Melissa Hart. Especially the hot chocolate!” causing another friend to respond, “What about the hot baritone?”

Truth be told, the Texan opera singer Michael Mayes looks like a movie star, a fact reinforced when I spotted him at Market of Choice that afternoon, but he can also act like nobody’s business.  In a genre known for its singers’ tendency to “park and bark,” it’s Mayes and his fellow singers with their magnetic vitality that will pack theater seats full of devotees in skinny jeans and hipster fedoras, as well as those in furs and diamond earrings.  As Bisantz pointed out, Eugene Opera’s rendition of “La Bohème” was both “pleasing and scrappy,” and most of the seats on orchestra-level were full.

But lest I imply that the four-act performance was simply a jovial romp through the Latin District with a quartet of oversexed young people, let me say here that the production offered moments of quiet and powerful poignancy.  Near the end of the opera, Rodolfo and Marcello, back in their garret, threw down their respective pens and brushes and picked up the talismans left by their ladyloves.  Rodolfo, clasping Mimi’s pink bonnet, stepped toward Marcello who held Musetta’s orange shawl, and the two men locked eyes in an instant fraught with longing and youth’s sudden insight into mature love.

Anyone who didn’t weep at Emily Pulley’s elegantly macabre consumptive death scene most likely wasn’t watching or — as a running buddy of mine confessed at the first intermission — had been dragged to the Hult Center on a date.  This performance of “La Bohème,” which concluded Sunday, had the power to bring the Thursday night audience to its feet.  As the actors took their final bows, I saw tears glistening in the eyes of the people around me … tears, and, yes, Professor Maginnis, smiles, as well.

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Rembrandt Self Portrait: Could I change this expression without changing the posture?

Completion of the season’s posters is nearly at hand! The paintings are definitely finished, except for the signature, and until Friday they were waiting to be approved by the Artistic Director, Mark Beudert. Seeing the paintings was no surprise to him, as he has seen the composition “cartoons”, and this year, he also saw the model photos I took. He just happened to be in town for a meeting, right after my shoot, so he was able to pick the kind of expressions he wanted. This is a very good thing because changing an expression on a painting character can involve major figure changes. Body language usually accompanies or compliments an attitude, and changing the face often means changing the whole stance or weight shift. This may be easier to do in a computer generated piece, but for a 24×36” oil painting it is a major undertaking, and often very frustrating.

The painting review, which was on Friday morning, usually has other members of the opera organization attending. Always, the captain of advertising, Steven Asbury, attends, as he will be fairly living with these images for the next six months. Usually the head of the Board of Directors for Eugene Opera also is present, but this time, it was only Mark, Steven and myself, with a brief check by Jonna Hayden. This is an important meeting because everyone involved has to be not only happy about the way the images look, but inspired by the feel of the poster. It will be the main emissary for this opera season. Fortunately, everyone is very happy with the finished product, so on we go!

Toulouse-Lautrec's Yvette Guilbert: Could I change this character to refined/conservative?

As is often the case, we are on a tight deadline. Since there are no changes, the paintings need to be rushed over to a professional photography studio, Imagine Photographics, and the only one in town I have found, that can handle the shooting of paintings to digital format. Then we have a few hours to add in the titles digitally. The first year I did the posters for Eugene Opera, I hand lettered the titles. This is an interesting look, and it gave me the opportunity to incorporate the letters into the illustration, but it was decided that the subsequent two seasons be crisp lettering, so the magic of Photoshop allows digital additions. Thank goodness the old days of Letraset rub on lettering is gone! My husband, Don Carson, is also a professional designer, but his work is about 70% computer now, so with me sitting over his shoulder, he will drop in the titles just right.

Degas's Singer with a Glove: How about shy and demure

The digital discs are then delivered to Asbury Designs, and Steven will make the illustrations fit into the many venues in which the posters will be seen. Now they will go through the hands of printers, motion graphics, advertising execs., layout artists, editors, distributors, and many more. So, my work with this project is done, but you can see how many people are involved in bringing new images to you for the 2010-2011 season. I still have artwork to do for the opera, so you will see new spots of art here and there. Be sure to come to the big gala event on October 7th, and I think you will be very pleasantly surprised!

So until then, enjoy this great season!

Nadya Geras-Carson

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Toulouse-Lautrec's "Laundress" 100%!

Last week I was sidetracked, just a little, by my article regarding the search for excellence. Giving at least 100% is always a worthwhile goal, and this is the time for that little extra push, as I am coming down to the wire. Did I mention it was moved forward by a few days? I need to be finished by the 20th now, and life keeps trying to intrude on my working time. So, even though the paintings are not completely finished, let’s get on with the finishing touches.

Beginning and ending a painting are so very different. The beginning is what a former teacher of mine calls “the honeymoon” because it is fast, loose, free, and full of possibilities. The next stage of the painting is the real work, with only a possibility of an enlightening surprise, and a lot of slogging through to implement all the problem solving already done before the painting was ever started. That work before hand was worth every moment, but the plan is already set and just the joy of painting alone is present. There is very little risk taking for an illustration at this stage. A fine art painting is different from an illustration, as the illustration has been approved, and an artist must deliver a piece very like what was seen in the approved stages of the design.

Edward Manet's "The Balconey"

But what has happened while you were in your studio, all alone, working away at a painting, and looking at that painting through eyes that know what the painting is supposed to look like when it is finished? How do you know there isn’t some horrible error somewhere? As an artist you don’t want to notice something as you are loading the paintings into your car!

Here are some of the methods an individual artist can use to help them out, not only at the finish, but also at various intervals during the painting process. One of the easiest but most effective tools is the mirror. Simply hanging a large mirror behind the artist is indispensable. All they have to do, to check on the progress, is to turn around and look at the painting in the mirror, and suddenly the painting is not the same one the artist has been staring at these long weeks.

"The Balconey" upside down. Note the value composition.

It has become instantly a new painting and can be looked at with a fresh eye. Taking a painting off the easel and turning it upside down or sideways can achieve a similar goal, because the artist can see if the composition still works, even though, as it is upside down, the subject becomes irrelevant.

In our current day, we also have the benefit of digital photography to help us see what may be obvious to everyone except the artist. We can take a picture of the painting, input it into the computer, and flip it, rotate it, darken a corner, change it to black and white, and essentially completely change the view of the piece.

Mrs. Fiske and Daughter Rachel by JS Sargeant

30 years ago, we could only accomplish this same treatment by xeroxing an image, or covering the painting with a sheet of amberlith (an all orange gel sheet originally used for color separation work in printing). These two methods achieved the same goal of flattening the images, filtering out all the little details, and leaving just the value relationships to be studied. Unfortunately, these two older tricks could only be used when the painting was completely dry.

How many illustrators, long ago, delivered finished paintings to be photographed, with the paint (especially white, which is the slowest drying, and always used for the little sparkle at the end of the painting process), still wet and glistening?

Mrs. Fiske and Daughter Rachel "Flipped" as seen through a mirror.

No wonder illustrators embraced acrylics!

As an artist, if there is a problem with your work, you need every trick and tool to be an angel looking over your shoulder. These are a few simple suggestions to help you find problems right away. It always helps to have another pair of eyes to see your work in a fresh way, but when you don’t have anyone to volunteer, these are ways to do your best work any time.

Speaking of which, I must get back into my studio! Next week I will be all done, and will let you in on my last touches, as well as the technical finishes (the titles) done in the computer, as a mock-up for the art director. It’s going to be warm out there, and even warmer in my studio, so think of me while you are having that lemonade in the shade!

Nadya Geras-Carson

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Edinburgh Castle Complex

I’m at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, soaking up a dose of creative energy. There’s over 2400 shows playing in the next three weeks, ranging from theater to dance to opera to musicals! I’m here with the Red Chair Players West, the theater group from the Academy of Arts and Academics in Springfield.

Aside from the mind-boggling array of shows, I’m visiting the local museums and continuing my research for La Boheme. Currently there’s an Impressionist Masters show at the Scottish National Galleries, and Holyrood Palace has a wonderful collection of portraits and paintings. I’ll be at the Palace today, camera in hand, looking for more inspiration.

Edinburgh is a lovey city, full of beautiful architecture–it’s so interesting with the juxtaposition of modern next to 18th century, and I love the texture I encounter on every street.

Victoria Street at Dusk

This image is Victoria Street, just off the Royal Mile. It’s a lovely, steeply curving street, with a delightful array of small shops (one of which did major damage to my Visa card). There’s  a tailor’s shop I’m hoping to visit today, an antiquarian book dealer, a milliner, and a knitting shop. As you can see, the street above’s buildings have terraces that look over the shops below.  I spent a good deal of time on this terrace last night, watching the light change. I was particularly taken with the layering of colors and how the setting sun heightened the contrast in different ways on the buildings and street below.

I would love to be able to capture this feeling of depth and texture in the fabrics I use for our chorus for La Boheme–creating an “old world” feel not only with the silhouette, but the drape, patterns, and texture of the cloth. Everything from the iron work to the cobblestone streets to the carved stone detailing on the buildings is filling in the base of information I’ll be working from as I begin pulling costumes from stock and purchasing fabric to build our show.

Next week I’ll be back in Eugene, whereupon I’ll be getting down to the nitty-gritty details of developing the budget and projecting out the costs for producing the costumes. It’s a complex process, balancing the needs of the show with the available budget, and trying to produce the best possible experience for our patrons.

See you next week!

Jonna Hayden, Costume Design

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