Sarasota Opera Presents A Magnificent Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly & wedding guests. Photo by Rod Millington

On a beautiful balmy evening on March 21st, in the fabulous city of Sarasota, Florida, the story of Cio-Cio-San, better known as Madama Butterfly, was the bait that lured opera lovers to the newly renovated and magnificent William E. Schmidt Opera Theatre. Over 1100 adoring fans watched, cheered and wept in unison, to the music of the great Italian composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). Puccini’s librettists were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The opera is based on a story by John Luther Long and a play by David Belasco. The opening night on February 17, 1904 was a fiasco. One of the main reasons was that Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton in the United States Navy, was truly the “ugly American”, had no affection for his bride, had very racist attitudes and completely lacked remorse. Puccini withdrew the work and two acts became three and he added an aria of remorse at the beginning of the last act. The revised work premiered on May 28, 1904 and as a result of the composer’s reworking and making Pinkerton more human with his touching “Addio” aria, Madama Butterfly became a mega hit and has remained so ever since. Puccini still kept working on Butterfly until 1907 when he was finally satisfied. It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with the composer in attendance, on February 11, 1907 with the incomparable tenor Enrico Caruso as Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton and the fabulous soprano Geraldine Farrar as Cio-Cio-San. On November 22, 1910, Enrico Caruso sang Pinkerton to Emmy Destinn’s Cio-Cio-San at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with the Metopera on tour.

The magnificent Sarasota Opera program booklet opened with greetings by Board Chairman and patron David H. Chaifetz and a message of the unity opera brings by artistic Director Victor DeRenzi. The Executive Director, Richard Russell wrote of the opening of the Steinwachs Artist Residences for Sarasota Opera, a 30 unit complex that will house 70 artists not far from the Opera House. (Steinwachs Family Foundation)

The excited crowd hushed as Maestro Victor DeRenzi and orchestra began the first act. Joanna Parisi was Cio-Cio-San. Her entrance aria “Ancora un passo” evolved from backstage until she came into view and her sumptuous soprano had a real cutting edge. In “Ieri con salita”, Butterfly reveals that she has embraced Pinkerton’s religion. In “Un po’ di vero c’è” … Oh quant occhi fisi”, her love duet with Pinkerton, Ms. Parisi went from strength to strength showing an inner fire in her vocal and physical intensity, yet a vulnerability that tweaked at the heart.

Marriage of Lt.B.F. Pinkerton & Butterfly. Photo by Rod Millington

In Act Two, Pinkerton has been gone for three years and Suzuki, Butterfly’s servant doubts he will return, but Butterfly knows that one fine day he will return. The iconic aria “Un bel dì” was sung softly and accelerated into a tour de force of defiance. Ms. Parisi’s upper register, always true to the beat, never grandstanding, packs a wallop and like Cio-Cio-San’s spirit, cannot be contained. When Sharpless (U.S. Consul to Nagasaki), tries to read Butterfly Pinkerton’s letter “Ora a noi” she simply cannot tolerate the thought of his not returning. In “Sai cos’ ebbe cuore”, she tells Sharpless that she would rather die than resume her life as a geisha. The emotional intensity of her output plus Ms. Parisi’s bolts of vocal gold, moved the audience profoundly. The blossom duet “Tutti i fior” with Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant, was etched in our hearts with the two gathering up flowers and scattering them throughout the house awaiting Pinkerton’s return.

As night falls, we hear the Humming chorus and the dimming images of Butterfly, Suzuki and her son Sorrow looking out of their screen/window for Pinkerton’s ship, the Abraham Lincoln. Butterfly’s suicide aria “Con onor muore…Tu, tu piccol iddio was sung with enormous grief and resolution, coupled with defiance and determination. Butterfly’s death is unseen behind a screen as the crashing chords concluded the drama. Like the vintage poster, Butterfly (at least in this production) DOES see Pinkerton running towards her before she dies. Joanna Parisi is a name to watch – Brava!

Lt. Pinkerton (Antonio Corianò) & Butterfly (Joanna Parisi). Photo by Rod Millington

Aside from a stunning Butterfly, there were other memorable riches in this performance. The handsome Italian tenor from Parma, Italy, Antonio Corianò sang the part of Pinkerton. It is very rare to find a good looking tenor, who can act and has a golden quality to his voice. In “Amore o grillo”, sung with Sharpless, Corianò showed his main vocal strengths, a wonderful darkish middle voice and a soaring top voice. His voice was an easy blend with Sharpless and rang out thrillingly in the uppermost reaches, especially in the climaxes to the melody of the Star Spangled Banner. In the love duet, he matched his Butterfly note for note with clear enunciation, strong and ardent phrasing and although one felt he could, he avoided the top “C” and sang the alternate ending. His final “Addio fiorito assil” was sung with all the remorse (and more) that Puccini desired. Once again, Corianò’s voice was like a volcano of tenorial splendor. Corianò’s sobbing after calling Butterfly’s name off stage was more like the finale of La bohème. Pinkerton’s holding the lifeless body of Butterfly and caressing her was the tragic comeuppance for his earlier flippancy. Antonio Corianò, obviously a new audience favorite, was cheered for his vocal gifts and artistry and mock “booed” for his vivid portrayal of this almost heartless character.

Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant was tenderly portrayed by Laurel Semerdjian whose warm ingratiating mezzo made the flower duet something special and for giving new life to her phrase “Povero Butterfly”. One could really sympathize with her conflict in trying to protect Butterfly from her misconceptions. In the end, the sand castle came down with a tsunami Suzuki could not prevent.

Lt. Pinkerton (Antonio Corianò) & Butterfly (Joanna Parisi). Photo by Rod Millington

Sharpless, the American Consul in Nagasaki was in the able and dignified hands of Cèsar A. Mèndez Silvagnoli whose somewhat bland bearing was overcome by a stronger showing of emotion of Act Two. His utterance “Diavolo Pinkerton” however, was almost an afterthought.

Tenor Sean Christensen was an excellent Goro, a marriage broker and was amusing and quicksilver with a plangent and pleasing voice.

Suchan Kim was a most sympathetic Prince Yamadori and his expressive baritone made his portrayal a memorable one.

The part of the Uncle Bonze, was acted and sung with exceptional fierceness by Young Bok Kim. Uncle Bonze ruins Butterfly’s wedding day by his denunciations of her leaving the faith of their ancestors to embrace Pinkerton’s. Kim’s boorish behavior and beguiling basso made quite an impression.

Baritone Matthew Ciuffitelli (apprentice artist) was the Official Registrar, bass Hans Tashjian was the Imperial Commissioner and baritone Jumbo Zhou was Yakusidé. Kate Pinkerton (Pinkerton’s American wife) was played with appropriate dignity by apprentice artist contralto Rachelle Moss, mezzo Molly Burke as Cio-Cio-San’s mother, Nicole Woodworth mezzo as Cio-Cio-San’s Aunt and Jennifer Dryer soprano as Cio-Cio-San’s cousin – all colorful and efficient! Sorrow, Butterfly and Pinkerton’s child was adorably played by Quinn Krug with acceptance and grace. The image of a blindfolded Sorrow clutching the American flag, with his mother’s body nearby, haunts the mind. Cio-Cio-San realizes that Kate Pinkerton and Pinkerton have come to take Sorrow. There was no other course than suicide, like her father, rather than live with dishonor.

Sharpless (César Méndez Silvagnoli) & Suzuki (Laurel Semerdjian). Photo by Rod Millington

Maestro Victor DeRenzi, whose nearly three decade record breaking triumphant Verdi festival ended recently, proved himself a master of Puccini as well. The Sarasota Opera Orchestra and the Maestro played as one. The violins in the love duet were heavenly and the pounding of the tympani in the death scene was indelible. The inter-act prelude was Wagnerian in scope and a tornado of this tragic tale swirling in brilliant harmony. The concluding discordant note further compounds the tragedy that has just been told.

Maestro Victor DeRenzi fully deserves the accolades and his title of Cavaliere dell’ordine della Stella d’Italia (Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy) recently bestowed on him by the Italian Government.

Stage Director John Basil gave us rhapsodic love scenes with solid movement and flowing action.The death scene was vivid and Butterfly’s crawling towards Sorrow had great impact!

Scenic Designer David P. Gordon gave us color with brilliance and copious Japanoiserie. The sets with screen door house, mountains, trees and changing blossoms was like being in Nagasaki, no “updates” here! Puccini rustically and royally served. No wonder the SRO audience applauded the sets so enthusiastically!

Butterfly (Joanna Parisi) & son Sorrow (Quinn Krug). Photo by Rod Millington

Costume Director Evan Ayotte gave us costume glory to cherish with many colorful kimono’s, parasols and fans.

Costume Coordinator Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s hand surely has the magic touch with special attention to detail. The costumes, flowers in the hair and bowing in unison were evidence that “little things mean a lot”- especially as part of operatic spectacle.

Ken Yunker’s lighting concepts were especially cherished in the love duet when the pinkish hues became purplish as dusk approached and then out came the galaxy of stars.

Hair and make up by Joanne Middleton Weaver were never garish or stereotypical but were colorful and dazzling.

Butterfly preparing for death scene. Photo by Rod Millington

The Choral Master Roger L. Bingaman deserves kudos for the delicacy and nuance of the chorus especially in the “Humming” chorus that concludes Act Two.

The subtitles by Victor DeRenzi were helpful and concise. Such lines as Butterfly’s “At 15, I am already old”, struck a chord!

Judy and I wish to thank the staff of the Sarasota Opera for their many courtesies and kindnesses. Especially fellow Brooklynites, who were born or resided in Brooklyn, Richard Russell, Executive Director, Samuel Lowry, Director of Audience Development and a Happy Birthday to Sam’s Mom Becky Lowry, who is really 39 but turns 70 soon. Also our neighbor, Greg Trupiano, longtime Director of Artistic Administration; see you on the 61 bus, Greg!

Sharpless hugging Sorrow & Pinkerton embracing a lifeless Butterfly. Photo by Rod Millington

Nice to see the name of Francesca MacBeth in Stage Management. She is the vivacious daughter of New York born  Maestro Victor DeRenzi and New York City Opera singer and acclaimed Stage Director Stephanie Sundine.

The sparkling and wonderful city of Sarasota, Florida has great climate, great culture and a treasure chest of wonderful memories from the Sarasota Opera on Pineapple Avenue and Verdi Square!



Regina Opera Presents Puccini’s Tosca

Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca premiered on January 14, 1900 at the Costanzi Theatre in Rome. The critics were puzzled and one of them called it a “shabby little shocker”.  As Bogart said to Bergman in the W.W. II film Casablanca  “In this troubled world the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans”. That cannot be said of Tosca. The story of actress Floria Tosca, her revolutionary lover Mario Cavaradossi and the evil, hypocritical, lustful Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia will endure as long as opera exists!

Scarpia looking at Cavaradossi’s painting of Mary Magdalene. Photo by Sabrina Palladino

The Regina Opera presented this masterpiece on Saturday March 4th for a run of four performances over two weekends with two alternating casts. It should be noted that on March 4, 1913, Tosca was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (The Metropolitan Opera on tour) with the peerless tenor Enrico Caruso as Cavaradossi, soprano Olive Fremstad as Tosca and baritone Antonio Scotti as Scarpia, with the great Arturo Toscanini conducting.

Needless to say, those opera legends surely would have been pleased to witness Tosca as presented by The Regina Opera in their 47th season, now at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Academy of Brooklyn theater (OLPH) in Sunset Park.

The lights dimmed and principal conductor, the gifted Maestro Gregory Ortega started the striking opening chords which instantly set the mood for the performance to come. Tosca, is based on a play by Michel Sardou, which was a vehicle for actress Sarah Bernhardt. The aging immortal Giuseppe Verdi wished he could have set it to music but Giacomo Puccini did! And this, his fifth opera, was one for the history books!

The Sacristan & Te Deum Chorus with Scarpia. Photo by George Showerer

In the opera world, some performances are preceded by opera” buzz.” For the performance attended by this writer, it was about the tenor, José Heredia, who played the role of Mario Carvaradossi, a painter. Mr. Heredia’s singing of “Recondita armonia” was sung with sweetness and ringing power. This was a “full lyric” voice with a Pavarottian shimmer, sparkle and a very secure foundation. His jealousy duet with Tosca was done with humor and elan and a beautiful arched and cavernous upper register.

In Act Two, Cavaradossi (Heredia’s) defiance of Scarpia and his lackeys was strong and his cries of “Vittoria, vittoria!,” at the news that the Napoleonic forces had won a victory, rang through the theatre. In the final act his exquisite singing of “E lucevan le stelle” was opera magic. His spinning the notes, polishing the silverware so to speak, was of the highest order. The tragic lamentation of his final phrase won the hearts of the audience. No “grandstanding” – just singing “on the word” and articulating it with sweetness and fervor.

The final duet “O dolci mani” was a true heavenly blend, their voices bouncing off the walls with ardor and hope. Cavaradossi died well. My question is, did Mario Cavaradossi know that this “mock” execution was really going to be his death? He did not trust Scarpia.

Tosca – Megan Nielson & Scarpia – Peter Hakjoon Kim. Photo by Sabrina Palladino

The Tosca of the evening was soprano Megan Nielson. I was impressed with her YouTube offerings, but seeing and hearing her in person was vital and indelible. Her singing in the jealousy duet with her lover Cavaradossi was exceptional. Her combination of coyness and flare ups were adroitly handled and there were sudden vocal bursts of pure, almost Wagnerian gold. Tosca’s emergence from intimidated to defiant was gradual:  she simply “could not and would not take it anymore!”  When all seemed lost, her prayerful singing often on her knees of the famed aria “Vissi d’arte” was beautifully done. The top note “Signore” preceding the “Così” was ravishing. Tosca’s seeing and seizing the knife and her stabbing of Scarpia who was imploding with lust, giving him a bloody sampling of “Tosca’s kiss.” Her telling him to choke on his own blood as he begged for help was riveting. Tosca’s removal of the “safe conduct” papers for Cavaradossi was eerily heart pounding. Placing the candles on each side of Scarpia’s dead body and dropping the crucifix on his chest with the snare drum roll in the background, was gripping. Ms. Nielson’s dramatic utterance of “E avanti a lui, tremava tutta Roma” was snarled with sarcasm and dark sounding chest voice. Her red cape slithering as she left to find her Mario was another fine example of operatic gesture.

In the final act, Tosca’s relating the entire affair with some powerful notes led to their duet “O dolci mani”. Ms. Nielson’s blending and soaring tones were matched by her tenor José Heredia as they “shook the rafters” of the theatre. His death, her shock followed by her leap and singing of meeting Scarpia before God was unforgettable. (“O Scarpia, avanti a Dio”)

Cavaradossi – José Heredia & Tosca – Megan Nielson. Photo by Sabrina Palladino

The role of Scarpia was in the hands and voice of Peter Hakjoon Kim. The role of the evil, lustful chief of Police Baron Scarpia suited him like a glove. His strong flexible baritone allowed him to put fear in the hearts of the beholders. His entrance in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle while the children and Sacristan were frolicking was worthy of the great actor Charles Laughton.  His “Un tal baccano in chiesa” knocked you right out of your seat. His seeing Tosca, still smarting of jealousy, set his innards on fire. The religious procession that follows has Scarpia singing of his passion and lust for Tosca, vowing as he crosses himself that he would renounce God to posses Tosca. Kim’s singing reached dazzling heights as he stretches the vocal envelope to soar to the heavens from his hellish feelings. In the second act at the Palazzo Farnese, Scarpia is in full command. He demands the whereabouts of political prisoner Angelotti and has Cavaradossi tortured. Cavaradossi’s screams are unbearable to Tosca who relents.

Scarpia’s singing of “Ha più forte sapore” and “Gia…Mi dicon venal” explains his desires to cruelly conquer, lust without love, possession and dominance, filling oneself with wine and women. His battles with Tosca and the images of his sadism and cruelty and his ultimate demise at her hand made for great theater! Mr. Kim’s voice had a wonderful thrust to it and he can raise the decimal levels very well or sing lugubriously softly when needed. Bravo for Kim!  A Scarpia we loved to hate. His “comeuppance” at her hand was most satisfactory.

Angelotti, a political prisoner, was ably played by Luis Alvarado. His basso was smooth and pleasing but a bit more desperation would have rounded out his character.

John Schenkel portrayed the Sacristan with great Italianate flair, his buffo baritone tones vividly portrayed comedy and drama, joy and fear, religiosity and mischief.

Scarpia & Tosca. Photo by Sabrina Palladino

Spoletta, Scarpia’s agent, lackey and factotum was played with spidery assurance by Reuven Aristigueta Senger. Senger’s insinuating tenor and total compliance made him a Goebbel’s to Scarpia’s Hitler. Even Scarpia’s slapping him was accepted with a sense of joy that he would soon redeem himself. He was Igor to Dr. Frankenstein. When it is discovered that Scarpia has been killed and Tosca in flight jumps to her death, Spoletta does the sign of the cross. For whom? Himself? Tosca? Scarpia? The world as he knew it? The versatile Senger also played the part of the Judge.

Rick Agster was an efficient, cool Sciarrone. His plangent bass served as comfort food for the corrupt Baron Scarpia who needed efficient cruelty from his lackeys like roses need rain.

Jonathan R. Green was both the jailer and Roberti. His sonorous baritone calling of Mario Cavaradossi’s name before the execution helped create the somber mood.

Nomi Barkan was the off stage Shepard boy who sings a mournful song to the tone poem interlude at the start of the final act. Her alto voice was like a gentle breeze midst the bells and dawn.

Principal conductor Gregory Ortega kept the 33 splendid musicians of the Regina Orchestra at white hot inspiration. Scarpia’s entrance music in the first act was heart pounding and the fortissimo finale thrilled.

Tami Laurance with José Heredia & Samantha DiCapio. Photo by Judy Pantano

Special praise to the Barkan family. Diana Barkan on the violin, Dimitri Barkan on the oboe and their children Nomi Barkan age 9 and Shelley Barkan age 16 sharing the role of the Shepherd boy, and Vladimir Kozlov, violist, the children’s grandfather. Congratulations to the new concertmaster Christopher Joyal, Richard Paratley on the flute and Alex Negruta on clarinet. The period costumes (Circa 1800) by Marcia Kresge were marvelous.  Scarpia’s powdered wig and elegant attire, Tosca’s red brocade gown, Cavaradossi’s bloodstained apparel, and the soldiers’ uniforms were all evocative and striking.

Andrea Calabrese’s make up was subtle and never garish. The supertitles by Linda Cantoni were very helpful.

Tyler Learned was the Technical Director and again demonstrated mastery of his craft. The talented Wayne Olsen did the striking graphics.

The sets were traditional with the blue and white Madonna statue, the stark crucifix, Cavaradossi’s lovely portrait (by Richard Paratley) of the Marchesa Attavanti as Mary Magdalene and the Palazzo Farnese with its unseen torture chambers, luxury and splendor.

The “Te Deum” had the priests, altar boys, and nuns flooding the stage with fervor and color. During the intermission we also saw veteran chorus singer, the delightful Cathy Greco serving cookies and coffee in her nun’s garb! Kudos to the Chorus especially in the almost surreal “Te Deum” in Act One.

The final act with its grim prison walls and jail cell evoked the tragic conclusion like  poison hor doeuvres before the last meal. These were all by the hand and mind of Linda Lehr who was the brilliant stage director as well. The stage was never cluttered and the action flowed beautifully. The “Te Deum” scene and Tosca’s  leap from a side panel are enshrined in memory! The realistic canon shot and gunshot sounds were remarkably clear and life like! This was a Tosca to cherish in every way!

We chatted with the Cavaradossi, José Heredia and his proud mother and his sponsor and vocal coach Tamie Laurance, also with soprano Samantha DiCapio, innovative composer Julian de la Chica and soprano Rachel Hippert known for their Brooklyn loft Bed-Stuy soirees.

Then it was off to nearby Casa Vieja restaurant where we dined with our friends and fellow opera lovers. Lourdes and staff made us feel at home with their delicious Mexican food.

The Regina Opera will present Donizetti’s delightful comedy L’Elisir d’amore in May. Thanks to Francine Garber-Cohen producer, President of Regina Opera and Maestro Alex Guzman, Vice President and all who preserve the great art of opera at its best for both old and young at Brooklyn’s unique Regina Opera!




Elysium-between Two Continents Presents Stefan Zweig & Frédéric Chopin “Suffering and Longing in Exile” A Musical-Literary Collage

In its brochure, The Austrian Cultural Forum New York is described as “the main cultural embassy of the Republic of Austria in New York and the United States. Christine Moser, director of the ACFNY, is dedicated to showcase Austrian art, music, film, theater and literature, presenting “as much from our cultural past as necessary and as much contemporary art as possible.”

Stefan Zweig

Their architectural landmark building in Midtown Manhattan is located around the corner from MoMA. The ACFNY’s facilities house a multi-level gallery space, a theater and its own library. They host more than 100 free events annually and the ACFNY is one of the most important places to experience Austrian art, culture and tradition for an American audience.

On the evening of Thursday, February 16th, Elysium-between Two Continents presented Stefan Zweig and Frédéric Chopin in A Musical-Literary Collage entitled “Suffering and Longing in Exile.” It was under the patronage of Dr. h. c. Charlotte Knobloch, President of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria. The musical selections were provided by the brilliant Chopin expert Marjan Kiepura and the literary passages were presented in German by the eloquent Gregorij H. von Leïtis with visual translations projected on screen.

Frédéric Chopin

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) were two sublimely gifted human beings who were exiled from their birthplaces and as “wandering troubadours,” desperately sought to preserve the best of what they lost through writing and composing. Chopin left Poland at age 20 with the failure of the” November uprising” and died in Paris age 39 of tuberculosis. Stefan Zweig was relatively successful and content until the age of 52 when Austrian Jews led a secure rewarding life with theatre, culture, strong family ties and bourgeoisie respectability. With the rise of Hitler and Nazian/Fascism, the veneer of contentment was shattered with hatred and anti-semitism exploding. Zweig who sought a world based on pacifism fled to London, then the United States and finally Brazil. Zweig took his own life 75 years ago in Brazil on February 22, 1942. The relative peace in Brazil could not stifle his sense of loss for the “Old Vienna” of his youth, just as Chopin never forgot his beloved Poland with an outpouring of mazurkas and polonaise peasant themed pieces, recalling golden and vibrant memories of the peaceful Poland of his youth.

Gregorij H. von Leïtis & Michael Lahr. Photo by Judy Pantano

Deputy Director Christian Ebner made introductory remarks and presentation explanations were made by Michael Lahr. Mr. Lahr is the Executive Director of the Lahr von Leïtis Academy and Archive, Chairman of the Erwin Piscator Award Society and member of the Advisory Board Nietzsche Forum in Munich. Also as the Program Director of Elysium-between Two Continents, he has discovered numerous works by artists who had to flee their country under the Nazi regime. For the first time, many of these compositions were performed in concerts in the United States and Europe.

Christian Ebner, Gregorij H. von Leïtis, Michael Lahr & Marjan Kiepura. Photo by Judy Pantano

The program began with Chopin specialist and pianist Marjan Kiepura who proudly told the audience of his Polish roots from his father Jan Kiepura, the internationally acclaimed tenor from the Metropolitan Opera. Marjan Kiepura, born in Paris, lives with his wife, the vibrant Jane Knox Kiepura, who greatly assists him in his endeavors as lecturer and researcher, in New York City and Littleton, New Hampshire. Kiepura’s new Chopin CD Images of a Homeland has become an Internet YouTube favorite.

The first selection was Prelude Op. 28 No. 15 in D-Flat Major, “Raindrop” which was played tenderly and nimbly, flooding the room with melody, taking us all through Chopin’s music towards the light of freedom. George Sand, Chopin’s lover at the time, called it “Raindrop” because it reminded her of the storms in Valdemossa in Mallorca, Spain.

Nino Pantano, Tomoko Mazur, Marjan Kiepura
& Anna Schumann. Photo by Judy Pantano

This was followed by the Mazurka in A-minor, Op. 68 No. 2. The Polish peasant dances in the 60 plus Mazurkas Chopin composed in exile, represented the idealized and free Poland he was forced to leave. Mr. Kiepura’s fingers adroitly floated over the keys a combination of insouciance and Polish brio!

The Artistic Director and narrator, Gregorij H. von Leïtis recently received the Medal for Science and Art from the President of the Republic of Austria and has been acclaimed for his interpretation of Erwin Piscator’s concept of socially relevant theatre that he founded in 1983. In 1995, Gregorij H. von Leïtis and Michael Lahr founded The Lahr von Leïtis Academy and Archive. In that association with Elysium-between Two Continents, their goal is “Art and Education without Borders” which “fosters artistic and academic dialogue, creative and educational exchange and mutual friendship between the United States and Europe”.

Mr. von Leïtis, in a clear, resonant and impassioned voice read in German from Stefan Zweig’s works which were translated on a screen on stage. Zweig’s words are very relevant today and his flatly refusing to acquiesce towards the Fascist state were stated with a will of steel. I thought of the Italian film “The Garden of the Finzi-Contini’s” where the Italian Jews tried to maintain their charmed and enlightened life as the dark shadows of Fascism made their world more obsolete until the death trains arrived. I also heard echoes of young Anne Frank’s writing “despite everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”

Marjan Kiepura, Nino Pantano & Steve Ross. Photo by Judy Pantano

Stefan Zweig bemoans the treatment of the natives that Columbus discovered in his journeys. He felt that the “lust for gold” replaced the humanitarian treatment that should have been shown. Zweig laments “Only the misfortune of exile can provide the in depth understanding and the overview into the realities of the world.”

Marjan Kiepura returned with the Waltz in A flat Major Op. 69, No. 1 “L’Adieu”, played with the perfect balance of soul and sweetness. Chopin was enamored of Maria Wodzinska in Poland and later after their meeting in Dresden, his feelings were much deeper and Chopin asked for her hand in marriage. Maria’s parents felt a composer’s income was too uncertain. On their parting, Chopin handed her this music which Maria Wodzinska later named “L’Adieu.”

As a tribute to his Hungarian born mother, the great operetta soubrette soprano Marta Eggerth (1912-2013), Kiepura played a composition by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. Romanian Folk Dance No. 3 “Der Stampfer” with its modernistic chords, it still retained the folklore vitality of its subject and was played with charisma and aplomb by Marjan Kiepura.

The final selection was Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor Op. 17 No. 4 which was like the Studebaker of its day. (A car made circa 1947 that was at least 50 years ahead of its time). According to Mr. Kiepura, this mazurka is actually written like music composed a hundred years later, dissonant and chromatic, it proved to be a revelation. Perhaps it is safe to speculate that this piece, with its clashing of chords and dissonance, was both rage against the destruction of freedom in his homeland or the birth pangs of a future “new order”. Marjan described this unique piece with vivid authority mixed with wonder. Kiepura’s masterful playing evoked Scriabin in its inner combustion. This piece truly represents its message of the tormented refugee!

Both Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura were famous film and opera/operetta stars in Europe and found a haven in the United States. Both had some Jewish ancestry. Jan Kiepura was a lead tenor at the Metropolitan Opera and Marta Eggerth was in Hollywood films and Broadway. They later toured the world in Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow.

Marjan Kiepura & Jane Knox Kiepura & Nino Pantano. Photo by Judy Pantano

Mr. von Leïtis returned to the stage for the final reading. He captured the very essence of Stefan Zweig. The fall of Austria dismayed Zweig and even though he found relative freedom and comfort in Brazil, it was too late in his own life to change. He and his wife ended their journey that fateful day seventy-five years ago. Had they remained in exile three more years, they would have witnessed a new dawn. Mr. von Leïtis brought to life the soul of Stefan Zweig by his expressive cadences and mellifluous tones. He was the messenger of the truth and the dying of the light during those unspeakable times. Stefan Zweig describes the tensions he experienced in a letter to journalist Joseph Roth: “We must make ‘in spite of’ the leitmotif of our life, we must know human beings and must love them nonetheless”.

With these brilliant essays on the life and death of Stefan Zweig intertwined with Chopin’s music, the evening came to a close. There was long lasting applause and cheers for Marjan Kiepura and Gregorij H. von Leïtis.

In the audience and at the wine reception afterwards, we met acclaimed (Cole Porter) cabaret pianist, the effervescent and ever chic Steve Ross, cruise ship pianist Stacy Ward MacAdams looking resplendent is his Florentine cape and the vibrant Tomoko Mazur, wife of the late great New York Philharmonic conductor Kurt Mazur. It was also nice to greet rising chanteuse Anna Schumann who is preparing a show on screen legend Marlene Dietrich.

Special thanks to Christine Moser, Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, Deputy Director Christian Ebner and their entire team. We will long remember the eloquent readings by Gregorij H. von Leïtis and the pianistic brilliance of Marjan Kiepura. It was a truly splendid evening, both gratifying and moving. In a strong sense in our complex world of today, Stefan Zweig and Frédéric Chopin still live on and inspire. They make us all, with the invaluable assistance of their disciples Gregorij H. von Leïtis and Marjan Kiepura, seek out our better angels.



The Gerda Lissner Foundation Presents A Concert & Interview with Mezzo-Soprano Jamie Barton & Pianist Brian Zeger

On Wednesday, February 8th at The Kosciuszko Foundation on East 65th Street in New York, acclaimed mezzo soprano, Jamie Barton and renowned pianist Brian Zeger were interviewed by opera manager Ken Benson celebrating their new CD “All Who Wander.” The Van Alen Mansion is the home of The Kosciuszko Foundation which seats about 100 people. The reception area with its Steinway piano, makes for an elegant and intimate setting. We were welcomed by the personable new event manager, Iwona Juszczyk.

Stephen De Maio, President of The Gerda Lissner Foundation sponsored the event. In his absence, the enchanting, Cornelia “Conny” Beigel, Secretary, Michael Fornabaio, Treasurer and Trustee Karl Michaelis were tending to his duties.

Piano Accompanist, Brian Zeger, Mezzo Soprano, Jamie Barton with Opera Manager, Ken Benson. Photo by Judy Pantano

Ken Benson, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, is a prominent opera manager and host in the opera world. Mr. Benson is often moderator on the Met Opera Quiz radio broadcasts on WQXR Saturday afternoons. In the audience were Barry Tucker, son of the legendary Metropolitan Opera tenor Richard Tucker and head of The Richard Tucker Music Foundation and Sherrill Milnes, the great American (Downers Grove, Illinois) Verdi baritone also from the Met Opera whose 30 plus year career thrilled the multitudes. Mr. Milnes was accompanied by his wife, the noted soprano Maria Zouves and both head the VOICExperience Foundation based in Tampa, Florida. Maestro Eve Queler from the New York Opera Orchestra also lent her vibrant presence.

Ms. Barton was the winner of The Gerda Lissner award in 2010 and the prestigious Richard Tucker award in 2015. The great Brooklyn born tenor (1913-1975) shook the rafters at the Metropolitan Opera for 30 years and was known as “The Brooklyn Caruso.” Ms. Barton also recently was given the 2017 Beverly Sills Award by the Metropolitan Opera. Ms. Sills (1929-2007) was the much loved soprano of The New York City Opera and the Met and was called “Bubbles.” She was another proud Brooklynite!

Brian Zeger, Jamie Barton & Barry Tucker (seated). Photo by Judy Pantano

Jamie Barton was interviewed by the erudite Ken Benson and talked about her life and beginnings of her career. There was no opera in her house, mostly bluegrass music, but her family supported her efforts. Her advice to the young singers as she was advised was to “take your time.”

With the eloquent and virtuoso piano accompaniment of Brian Zeger, who also serves as Artistic Director of the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts at The Julliard School, the program began. There were two songs by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) from the texts by Friedrich Ruckert, “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” (I breathed a gentle fragrance). The second selection “Liebst du um Schonheit,”(If you love for beauty) were sung with richness, some melting pianissimi, elegance and a touch of melancholy. Some wonderful tones were floated in this dreamy medley, so pure light and soft! Mahler’s wife Alma, to whom he was devoted, was notorious for her romantic escapades. Perhaps his love songs are idealized and his real emotions are on the back burner! The immortal tenor Enrico Caruso made a caricature of Mahler circa 1908 when Mahler conducted at both The New York Philharmonic and The Metropolitan Opera.

The next group were from the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) and texts by Adolf Heyduk. “Ma pisen zas mi laskou zni (My song of love rings out again) was sung with flair and elan. The second selection “Kdyz mne stara matka zpivat ucivala” (Songs my mother taught me) was sung with poignancy, the melodic intensity gnawing at the heartstrings. I cherish a recording by Victoria de Los Angeles of this haunting melody. Ms. Barton brought it to new heights with her heartfelt renderings. The third offering was “Dejte klec jestrabu ze ziata ryzeho” (Give a hawk a golden cage) and was sung with whimsy and depth. Her Czech was masterful. Ms. Barton is singing the witch Jezibaba in the Met Opera’s splendid new production of Dvorak’s Rusalka.

The third song group was by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) and text by Gustaf Froding “Sav, sav, susa, op.36, No.4” (Rushes, rushes, murmur). Ms. Barton and accompanist Brian Zeger caught the despair of a young woman in love who drowned, envied by others, covered by ceaseless waves. In Ms. Barton’s rich expansive mezzo, one heard the intensity and irony of this sad tale.

Met Opera Baritone, Sherrill Milnes & Reviewer, Nino Pantano. Photo by Judy Pantano

The final Sibelius selection was “Var det en drom?” (Did I just dream?)Text by J.J. Wecksell reflecting on a lost love. It sounded like a tremendous storm, a crack of thunder and the last words ended on a soul stirring low note like golden amber lava pouring out of a volcano. This was sung with generous power, expansiveness and chilling defiance.

Sibelius’s music such as Finlandia and Valse Triste was always profoundly moving to me. His violin concerto is among my favorites. Strange that this solitary closeted man who stopped composing at age 59 had so much to tell us before he ended his career. The combination of Jamie Barton and Brian Zeger was truly the source and soul of these wonderful songs by these sublime composers!

A question and answer period with audience and media followed moderated with wit and skill by Ken Benson. The insights of accompanist Brian Zeger were fascinating and his mention of his visit to Andorra which we visited in the 1960’s was of special interest. His comments about the composers were refreshing and informative. Ms. Barton advises young awardees to “dive into art songs.” She herself, born in Rome, Georgia, loves bluegrass music. Her sage advice “marry the lyrics to the song!” I thought of cook maven Rachel Ray who always advises to “marry the pasta to the sauce!”

Arthur & Susan Stout (French diction teacher). Photo by Judy Pantano

Some questions were “If you woke up one day and found that you had no voice, what else would you do?” The answer, Ms. Barton gave was “find a raison d’etre, a cause, a reason for being.” Ms. Barton wears a gold necklace as a symbol of Nelson Mandela’s liberation from prison. Ms. Barton is an ebullient cheerful person. She currently living in Atlanta, stays so by always finding time to savor both friends and solitude, enjoy her cat “River” and avoid the hectic voice straining sturm and drang of the computer age. Jamie Barton, like Niagara Falls is a natural wonder. Her voice pours forth with the effervescence of champagne and ambrosia from the Gods. We are transfixed by its beauty. She has found her balance and we are all richer for it!

After the Q and A, we went downstairs where Jamie Barton and Brian Zeger chatted amiably with their admirers who lined up to purchase their CD entitled “All Who Wander.” This splendid sample of their great adventure in song, by two gifted and sublime artists, happily autographed the result of their collaboration.

The reception afterwards was fun with delectable finger food, wines and desserts. We chanced to chat with Murray Rosenthal, Treasurer of Opera Index, Vice President/composer Philip Hagemann (“Fruitcake”) a popular whimsical choral work, Arthur and Susan Stout, she is a French diction teacher and also works with the Martina Arroyo Foundation and the industrious caterer-manager Philipp Haberbauer who is also affiliated with The Liederkranz Foundation.

It was a lovely spring like evening. In the snowstorm the very next day, it was nice to remember the songs and frolic of that magical soiree and intimate celebration of “All Who Wander” with Jamie Barton and Brian Zeger. Many thanks to The Gerda Lissner Foundation and The Kosciuszko Foundation for making it all possible!