Martina Arroyo’s Prelude to Performance Presents a Sparkling Die Fledermaus

Martina Arroyo, Kennedy Award ceremony honoree, soprano supreme, who has been a beacon of light and pioneer since the 1960’s and 1970’s, a crossover classical singer with a delightful sense of humor still is in the game. She is a brilliant teacher “go getter”and nurturer through her Martina Arroyo Foundation. This gala event occurred at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York City on Saturday, July 13th. Danny Kaye, (1913-1987) great entertainer and  film comedian and his wife (songwriter-actress) Sylvia Fine (1913-1991) were both multi- talented Brooklynites whose names live on in glorious memory.

Danny Kaye & Sylvia Fine

Esteemed Metropolitan and New York City Opera tenor Richard Leech spoke of his commitment to the Martina Arroyo Foundation and his strong belief in its being the joyful breeding ground for our fresh new generation of singers eager and ready to “strut their stuff ” when they have trained diligently and are ready. A vigorous 6 weeks plus stipend is a Godsend for the young, eager and talented recipients.

Legendary Soprano Martina Arroyo. Photo by Jen Joyce Davis

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) was known as the “Waltz King” and he put all that he had in his opera Die Fledermaus (The Revenge of the Bat). With its waltzes, folk tunes, choruses comedy and subplots, it has been a staple since its premiere on April 5, 1874. Die Fledermaus is set in Vienna in the late 19th century. The witty libretto is by Karl Haffner and Richard Genée.

The excellent conductor, Maestro Valéry Ryvkin, began the lively overture, an iconic favorite and all was well with the world as the eager audience were carried away to the funny, frivolous world of the golden gem of Vienna in its prime. The joyous abundance of rhythm and melody so superbly presented, gave all a sense of expectation which later became fulfillment. All of the musicians were splendid and gave us a pulse that we would retain for days. We are looking forward to the return of Music Director Willie Anthony Waters who is on the mend and expected back next summer.

Rosalinda (Lisa Faieta) & Alfred (Congju Song).  Photo by Jen Joyce Davis

The Rosalinda of clarion soprano Lisa Faieta was top notch. Her soprano has power, reserve, flexibility and a resonant top. Her duets with her husband Eisenstein were amusing and her ensemble singing impeccable. Her “Hungarian” song the “Czardas” was sung brilliantly, with a multitude of roulades and flourishes climaxed with a beautifully placed final high note!

Gabriel von Eisenstein was portrayed by Jimin Park and his firmly placed baritone allowed him to stretch the envelope with a wide vocal umbrella. He sang and acted with manly grace and was amusing and pleasing. His opening for “Goodness me, oh gracious me, what calamity” led to much merriment and revealed the sweetness and power of his voice.

Eisenstein (Jimin Park), Dr. Blind (Esteban Zuniga) & Rosalinda (Lisa Faieta).  Photo by Jen Joyce Davis

Adele, the chambermaid, was in the enchanting curvaceous vase of Yejin Lee who used her lithe and lean anatomy in a role that called for “excess.” Thank goodness she banished from memory Mme. Florence Foster-Jenkins (Meryl Streep in the film) who LOVED singing her “Laughing Song,” (Mein Herr, Marquis) as well as her actress song, “Audition song,” Act Three. Ms. Lee scored a big hit and was an audience favorite. Her coloratura soprano has a quicksilver quality and her theatrical bravura was truly outstanding. She dominated ensemble singing and made a very strong impact. 

The Ida of Michaela Larsen was visually and vocally another bright ray in this production. Her plangent soprano envelopes the observer and coupled with excellent stagecraft, made for a lovely interlude.

Adele (Yejin Lee), Rosalinda (Lisa Faieta) & Eisenstein (Jimin Park ). Photo by Jen Joyce Davis

The Alfred of tenor Congju Song was most amusing,”Drink my darling” and in the red dressing gown and hat of Eisenstein, he looked more like an Emperor than an Italian tenor (Ex beau of Rosalinda). His Pavarottian countenance made for humor and his attractive tenor was another big plus. I wished he had been given more stage time to portray Rosalinda’s Italian wannabee tenor and I missed the many snippets of opera his character usually embraced, everything from “Di quella pira” to “O sole mio.” As a Sicilian American, I certainly think he could have been a wonderful comic foil and a droll Italian!

I remember a heroic tenor from the Amato Opera, Boris Cristaldi who was a wonderful big voiced hammy and funny Alfred some four decades ago. At one performance his mustache got stuck on Rosalinda’s cheek! I wished for some broader comedy this time around but Mr. Song certainly did well. I guess not everyone goes as far back as I. It was nice to be sitting next to Amato baritone, Nathan Hull who directs the Amore Opera, now the chosen replacement for the Amato Opera. Nathan Hull took a full page ad in the Die Fledermaus program for Amore Opera’s December’s The Merry Widow. As we were chatting, the effervescent Barbara Meister-Bender walked by. She of New York City Opera, sang with Groucho Marx and Helen Traubel in a television presentation of The Mikado. Barbara Meister-Bender, ever glamorous could still sing Adele to perfection!

Dr. Falke (Michael Parham) at Prince Orlofsky’s Ball. Photo by Jen Joyce Davis

Dr. Falke was in the spirited countenance of Michael Parham. Mr. Parham’s bass is resonant and ear caressing. His singing of Bruderlein song in the second act was noble and with the ensemble it becomes sentimental and tinged with loving sadness. Nice job, Falke! I recall the excellent Falke of the Amato Opera some 40 or so years ago by baritone Walter Kavney. His partner, tenor Vincent Titone, was a staple at the Amato also for many  years.

Dr. Blind was admirably portrayed by Esteban Zuniga. This role was toned down a bit and became more of a comedic part rather than a disabled travesty. Mr. Zuniga, while not a Lou Costello, managed to be pleasantly  humorous in a buffo role! Mr. Zuniga has good comedic flair and needed more space to show it!  

Frank portrayed by Yichen Xue, had a pleasing baritone and strong acting ability and was an interesting amalgam of many skilled parts. He had charm, voice and elan and captivated us. To be frank (pun), he was very good!

Sisters Ida (Michaela Larsen) & Olga (Yejin Lee) presented at Prince Orlofsky’s (Elizabeth Harris) Ball.  Photo by Jen Joyce Davis

Prince Orlofsky, the androgynous host of the party, was superbly brought to vivid life by Elizabeth Harris. With her red topped military outfit and clump of hair, she looked like a combination of Harpo Marx and the chief soccer player currently in Sports Illustrated, Megin Rapinoe. Ms. Harris’s “Chacun à son goût” aria was marvelous and her “King Champagne” aria was exciting with her strong mezzo and the percussion collaborating and her eyes fixed on Adele. Her silent servant, Ivan was well done and always had a drink at the ready! 

Eisenstein wooing his wife Rosalinda (Hungarian Countess) with Watch song.  Photo by Jen Joyce Davis

Frosch, portrayed by Evan Julius Nelson was present but there was no comic interlude. Several years back, at the Metropolitan Opera, I recall the great Sid Caesar as a hilarious multi-lingual incomprehensible Frosch and Dom De Louise also funny, in a later production hiding, then stepping onstage and exclaiming “I’m finally out of the closet.”

Melanie was Amy Guarino, whose sweetness and stellar soprano show promise and Lindsay Cherin, New Jersey soprano sparkled as Faustine.

 Kudos to Alan Fisher Stage Director and Vera Junkers, German coach. I had a bit of a problem reading the prompter but most people I am certain, found the dialogue translations useful. Lisa Jablow is to be thanked for her pulling it off so well for so many.  

The party scene had WQXR radio host Robert Sherman speak and introduce several singers to entertain. At the old Met, on February 16, 1905, Enrico Caruso sang an aria as a guest at Prince Orlofsky’s party and Polish soprano legend Mme. Marcella Sembrich (Rosalinda) sang and played violin! Those were the days! The Marcella Sembrich Museum at Bolton Landing on the banks of Lake George, is open summers and well worth a visit! You will find Artistic Director and composer Richard Wargo eager to provide information about their upcoming events.

Rosalinda singing the Hungarian Cszardis.  Photo by Jen Joyce Davis

Nicole Haslett who amazed us with Nannetta’s “Forest aria – Sul fil d’un soffio etesio”  from Verdi’s Falstaff made us realize how perfect this magical aria is. It was written in Verdi’s 80th year and brought to mind Prelude to Performances – splendid Falstaff last year, still flashing in memory.

Noah Stewart, spinto tenor with a “beacon of light” talent that will open more doors and more roles to future male singers of color, sang “Donna non vidi mai” from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut with verve, passion and longing, which coupled with a vibrant and rhapsodic tenor, made for a fine and robust interlude.

Bulgarian soprano Mariana Zvetkova gave a strong and powerful sampling of “Io son L’umile ancella” from Adriana Lecouvreur. Since 2012, Marianna Zvetkova has been Vice President of the Martina Arroyo Foundation.

A “surprise” appearance by coloratura legend Harolyn Blackwell, sang Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” in a lovely soprano with diminishing pianissimos and all those special skills one associates with her name and claim to fame. Ms. Blackwell is a member of the Martina Arroyo Advisory Board. 

The sets were regal and sparkling with projections of old Vienna. Its  wonderful costumes were so fine to see and the ladies evoked memories of Zsa Zsa Gabor and family. The gentlemen were in spirit, all like actor Kurt Kasznar or baritone Herman Prey and were perfectly attired. Thanks to Ianna Higgins, Assistant Stage Manager for the elegant smoothness of it all. Many people worked hard to make it look easy!

The chorus, managed by Dror Baitel, sang wonderfully and “Brüderlein, schwesterlein” as always gave me goose bumps. Beautiful music gives one goosebumps not goosesteps!

It was so nice to see great Metropolitan Opera Verdi baritone Mark Rucker and charming and gifted Sadie Rucker (publicity) and Administrative Director Deborah Surdi, whose dedication to the Martina Arroyo Foundation results in such perfect evenings. We greeted our friends from Opera Index Jane Shaulis, Joe Gasperec, Murray Rosenthal, composer Philip Hagemann, Linda Howes, with composer pianist, Steve Phebus and Bill Goodhue, opera manager Ken Benson, Career Bridges Barbara and David Bender, writer Meche Kroop, French diction teacher Susan and lawyer Arthur Stout, opera lecturer Lou and Kathleen Barrella, Deborah Surdi, designer Rafael Sanchez and vocal coach Patricia Sheridan, stellar radio host Nimet Habachy and friend and opera lover Joan Gravallese, all “surprises” on this beautiful summer night. The famed filmmaker team of Powell and Pressburger, The Red Shoes (1948) and Tales of Hoffmann (1951) made Rosalinda (1955) with Anthony Quale, Ludmilla Tchérina and Anton Walbrook which updated Die Fledermaus to post World War II Vienna – well worth searching for! 

Prince Orlofsky & Chorus singing the Champagne Song . Photo by Jen Joyce Davis

We found out later that a large part of New York City had a blackout with people stuck on trains and  elevators for hours-but all was well at the Kaye Playhouse for a splendid production of Die Fledermaus! Here’s to next year with a toast to the great Martina Arroyo whose father Demetrio worked as a supervisor at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to help with the cost of young Martina’s voice lessons. He often took Martina for baseball games (Brooklyn Dodgers) and delicious hot dogs at Ebbets Field. Thank you Martina’s Mom and Dad and thank you Martina for Prelude to Performance which gives so many young and talented singers such a great lift, enough to see the future, doing what they love. Bravo to all! 

A Toast to Prelude to Performance from Prince Orlofsky and guests for giving us 15 years of such delightful evenings! Chacun à son goût! Judy and I add the” special flavor with toppings” to our Fledermaus memory bank that this treasured and fun night offered us from the great Martina Arroyo’s new arrivals at the opera scene in a very captivating and enchanting performance of Die Fledermaus and of course thank you to Johann Strauss II for this glittering masterpiece!

Amore Opera Presents A Thrilling Un Ballo in Maschera

On the evening of Saturday, June 1st, the Amore Opera presented a thrilling Un Ballo in Maschera at the famed Riverside Church in New York City. Un Ballo in Maschera premiered at the Teatro Apollo in Rome, Italy on February 17, 1859. The music was composed by Giuseppe Verdi and libretto by Antonio Somma, based on Eugène Scribe’s libretto for Auber’s Gustave III. The censors in Italy objected to having a royal assassination and Verdi had the setting changed from Sweden to Boston, Massachusetts and King Gustave of Sweden became the Governor of Massachusetts. Both versions are given.

The Riverside theater is intimate and everything is up close and comfortable and the spirit of Anthony and Sally Amato is ever present. Anthony contributed costumes and sets from their home at the Amato Opera in the Bowery many years ago.

The lights dimmed and conductor Douglas Martin lifted his baton. The overture was beautifully played and the peak moments were thrilling. Musically, the overture ended and the action begins at the King’s Palace in Stockholm, Sweden in 1792. The assassination was historic  and the masked ball where it took place made for great theatre!

Center in black José Heredia as Riccardo, King; just left is Robert Garner as Renato, his secretary & best friend, & right in green trousers is Merrin Lazyan, Riccardo’s Page Oscar.  Photo by Jay Gould

Riccardo, the King of Sweden, is in love with Amelia, wife of his best friend Renato and his secretary. They all go to Ulrica the fortune teller, who tells Riccardo that he will be killed by the next man to shake his hand. Ironically it is Renato. They all laugh off the witch’s assumptions. To rid Amelia of her feelings of love for Riccardo, Ulrica recommends a special herb gathered at midnight by the gallows outside of town. Amelia is first interrupted by Riccardo, who declares his love for her and then by Renato. Renato tells Riccardo that there is a conspiracy to kill him. Renato discovers the veiled woman he has agreed to escort to safety is his own wife. He then decides to join the conspirators. At a masked ball, Oscar the page reveals his master’s identity to Renato who stabs Riccardo. Riccardo dies declaring Amelia’s innocence and forgiving his enemies as the crowd hails his noble spirit.

Ulrica (Sarah Knott) the witch at her cauldron muttering prophecies.  Photo by Jay Gould

Verdi’s music for Ballo is sophisticated and French Opera Comique with Falstaffian precursors and some real heel kicking can-can type music. Beautiful arias, duets and ensembles bursting with emotion and melody make for a splendid musical  feast.

Tenor José Heredia sang Riccardo (Based on Gustave III) This enchanting tenor from Santo Domingo was in excellent voice and bearing for this performance. Heredia has grown as an artist and his rhapsodic tenor has beauty, ease and upward promise. Bursts of glory prevailed with intelligent pacing and refined legato. His elegant singing of “Amici miei, soldati” and “La rivedrò nell’estaci” were well noted with effortless and powerful ascents.

Ulrica (Sarah Knott) the witch at her cauldron muttering incantations in front of a group of women.  Photo by Jay Gould

At Ulrica’s witches den, Riccardo sings “Di’ tu se fedele,” then laughs and starts the Quintet “È scherzo od è follia.” His combining rapid singing mixed with laughter was admirable.  Enrico Caruso, the magnificent tenor, made a recording of this on April 3, 1914 with other arias from Il Ballo – give it a google. Riccardo and Amelia were truly united in their captivating love duet “Non sai tu che se l’anima mia” with swirling heavenly music ending in a rhapsodic high C.

José Heredia as Riccardo & Elizabeth Perryman as Amelia, wife of Renato.  Photo by Jay Gould

In Act 3 Scene 2, Riccardo resolves to renounce his love and sings, “Ma se m’è forza perderti.” Heredia’s voice was beautifully secure and his middle register was a launching pad for some truly pristine notes. I have heard the great Carlo Bergonzi in this role as well as Luciano Pavarotti but José Heredia makes for a trio of great Riccardo’s. The squillo in his tone, the way he rides his voice to the upper chambers and the pleasing, plangent quality of his vocal palette, puts him is a position of rapid forward momentum toward international acclaim.

L-R Robert Garner as Renato, José Heredia as Riccardo & veiled Amelia, Elizabeth Perryman as wife of Renato.  Photo by Jay Gould

Amelia, wife of Renato, is in love with Riccardo and was sung by Elizabeth Perryman who possessed a bright powerful soprano. Her singing of “Ecco l’orrido campo” was of good strong caliber as was “Ma dall’ arido stele divulsa.” Her impassioned outbursts in her love duet with Riccardo, “Non sai tu che se lanima mia” were quite striking. Ms. Perryman sang “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” with abundant tone  and emotional fervor This aria really brings out the soul and torment of Amelia as she begs to see her son one more time. It is one of Verdi’s most compelling arias and she used her vocal gifts with clarity and precision. Ms. Perryman made this reviewer a merryman with her truly outstanding performance.

Amelia begging husband Renato to let her see their son.  Photo by Jay Gould

Renato, Riccardo’s secretary and best friend, was in the vocal treasure box of Robert Garner. Mr. Garner possessed a lyric baritone that can take one out of the commonplace and into the rare with its warmth and seductive beauty. In Act One he sings “Alla vita che l’arride” in a strong encompassing tone, warning Riccardo of a conspiracy. Mr. Garner does not possess a voice of leonine strength but it has ample sound, excellent breath control, strong legato and warmth to kill. His heartfelt singing of “Eri tu” wiped away the rage for the moment and exposed the vulnerable bleeding heart. When I was 13 and surprisingly a baritone, my voice teacher neighbor and mentor Bertha Lang, made me listen to a beautiful recording of the great American Opera and film baritone Lawrence Tibbett. (1896-1960) “Eri tu” was often sung in concert by Tibbett but he never sang it in the complete opera. Mr. Garner captured the rage, hurt and love of Renato and got an ovation.  

At the Masked Ball with Oscar the Page (Merrin Lazyan) in green trousers.  Photo by Jay Gould

Riccardo’s Page Oscar, a trouser role, was sung by clarion voiced coloratura soprano Merrin Lazyan. Her singing of “Volta la terrea” in the first act warmed the heart and thrilled the pulse with its versatility and quality. Her superb and lively singing of “Saper Vorreste” in the last act was super. I googled the legendary soprano Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940) whose marvelous gravity defying coloratura excesses were unrivaled. Google her 1909 and 1911 versions. Ms. Lazyan really sparkled in this role. The late great Francis Robinson, Metropolitan Opera press manager and Caruso biographer, once said he  would have loved to see the very rotund Tetrazzini as Oscar with her enormous girth and her legs wrapped in delicate ribbons. Ah, opera legends! Ms. Lazyan was also a fine actress and she gave bite, might and was so right as Oscar.

Riccardo after being stabbed at the Masked Ball.  Photo by Jay Gould

Ulrica the fortune teller, was played by Sarah Knott who was very striking in appearance and was truly witch like. She was more witch than bitch and her warnings fell on deaf ears. Her large bubbling cauldron led her to singing “Re dell’ abisso affrettati ” which was ominous and all hallows eve like and genuinely scary. Ms. Knott’s deep lows were subterranean as if conjuring the ghost of all things evil. Her final “Silencio!” came from the bowels of the earth as well as the vowels necessary to project. The effect is sheer magic. The legendary Marion Anderson (1897-1993) broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera near the end of her illustrious career by singing Ulrica in Un Il Ballo un Maschera. (With Richard Tucker and Leonard Warren) in 1955. She opened the door for such greats as Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo and others.

Riccardo dying at the hands of Renato, his best friend with Oscar the page behind him.  Photo by Jay Gould

The smaller roles were well portrayed and sung by bassos Nicholas Hay as Samuel and Gennady Vysotsky as Tom, conspirators and enemies of Riccardo. Their “Ha, ha, ha” arias were sung with relish. Jonathan Fox Powers, was Silvano a sailor and former New York City Opera tenor Roger Ohlsen was the Head Judge and skilled  baritone Thomas Geib was Amelia’s butler.

Robert Garner, Elizabeth Perryman & José Heredia
Photo by Judy Pantano

Douglas Martin, conductor and music director, brought the music to volcanic climaxes and heel kicking sensuality. The musicians worked hard and very skillfully to bring out the richness and drama of this score. The melodic output was opera comique and opera drama. Kudos to Jeffrey Kautz on tympani, so vital to the climaxes and our friend Scott Jackson Wiley on the horn. Scott is also a well known conductor, master of Spanish guitar and a Renaissance man.

Susan Morton, chorus master, brought the superb chorus to glory absolute with its full throated singing of “Cor si grande e generoso” before “Addio per sempre” in the last act. I recall the Roger Shaw Chorale in the recorded 1954 Un Ballo by the iconic and magnificent conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) with the NBC Symphony with famed tenor Jan Peerce, soprano Herva Nelli and great Brooklyn baritone Robert Merrill. The Roger Shaw Chorale brought tears to the eyes with the full voiced angelic sound as did Susan Morton and choristers at the Amore opera.

Stage Director Nathan Hull & Guest Connie Chen
Photo by Judy Pantano

Nathan Hull’s stage direction was like a great work of architecture; everyone in place with ease, visible and vivid. The wigs by Mary Rice were wondrous.The ingenious  Richard Cerullo from the original Amato Opera was in charge of the scenic design which was regal and ornate but absolutely accurate. The costumes were majestic, courtesy of Anthony Amato’s largesse and Robin Porter Van Sise. Plaudits to Duane Pagano, Lighting Director and Scenic Painter and Elias Cruz whose murals are captivating. The masks at the masquerade were colorful and eye catching, thanks to Allegra Durante’s mask design. The bravos and cheers were part of the era of good feeling inspired by such a grand opera evening.  

All of the artists received ovations from the wildly  appreciative audience. Our friend, financial adviser and opera lover Connie Chen who joined us, will be spending some time in Europe visiting opera in legendary places. To quote her, “But what could I see that is better than the Amore Opera right here and now?”

Tamie Laurance, José Heredia, Nino Pantano, Connie Chen & Judy Pantano

We congratulated vocal coach Tamie Laurance on the splendid performance of her student/protégé tenor José Heredia. We felt that we were present at the creation.

Here’s to the  next season and bravo to Nathan Hull and all at the amazing Amore opera and of course, Viva Verdi!

New York OperaFest Honors Ira Siff

New York OperaFest 2019 Festival Preview Concert honoring Ira Siff was presented on the evening of Monday, April 29th at the National Opera Center located at 330 Seventh Avenue in New York City. Vincent Covatto, Senior Manager, Organizational Membership, introduced the program for the evening.

I was exhausted from our being honored the day before by Opera Index and all the activities therein with fans, friends and family. It was also my first day of therapy for a back ailment. I was kvetching and schlepping, whining and complaining ( 4 percent Jewish DNA ) when we sat in our seats. A few hours later I was yacking and munching on goodies like an adrenalin filled teenager. Such is the power of opera, such is the brilliance of Ira Siff.   

Vincent Covatto, Senior Manager, Organizational Membership
Photo by Heather Bobeck

The first selection was “Udiste? Come albeggi” from Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi. Alexis Cregger’s impressive soprano with Nathan Matticks’s vibrant baritone, made for a dynamic duo. Count Di Luna and his wannabe-lust for Leonora was dramatically demonstrated in this exciting duet. Ms. Cregger has a voluptuous sound with some gorgeous highs and exciting depth to her voice. Mr. Matticks captured Di Luna’s great love with its insistent manly sound and compelling high notes. We recently saw a brilliant Il Trovatore with the Regina Opera featuring these two special singers in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. The vocal hors d’oeuvres was so tantalizing we had to go for the whole meal. Dmitry Glivinsky was the exciting pianist from the Regina Opera.

Soprano Alexis Cregger & Baritone Nathan Matticks
Photo by Heather Bobeck

Next was an Excerpt from Patience and Sarah (Wende Persons/Paula Kimper featuring Katherine Robinson soprano; Markos Simopoulos baritone; Katarina Wilson, mezzo soprano; and Giordana Fiori, pianist. This mood inducing work was a good source for drama and vocal seduction. Katherine Robinson had a lustrous soprano with flexibility and strength, Mr. Simoupolos a manly thrust with sparkle and Katarina Wilson, a sensual mezzo soprano that blended with her vocal physicality. Giordana Fiori who is from Rome, Italy, was ablaze in her red outfit and played piano with intensity and grace. The Hunter Opera Theater had some stellar performers to show us.

Interlude” from The Impossible She by Daniel Thomas Davis featured baritone Robert Maril and Christopher Wilson on the piano. This fine excerpt was adroitly sung by Robert Maril whose haunting voice surely must be blessed by the late great Brooklyn baritone of Metropolitan Opera fame, Robert Merrill. Christopher Wilson’s pianistic versatility matched this introspective piece which, while not exactly Iago’s credo from Verdi’s Otello, nonetheless had a power all its own. This was from RHYMES WITH OPERA.

Bass Nathan Baer. Photo by Heather Bobeck

Excerpt from The Constitution, A Secular Oratorio by Benjamin Yarmolinsky, was with Nathan Baer, bass and Dmitry Glivinsky on piano. Mr. Baer has a mood provoking, expressive bass with impressive undertones like a rumble of thunder. His Grant Wood countenance sets the mood for this piece, which is retained because of its loneliness and conversational oomph ah like a Lincoln photo. This by Brooklyn’s brilliant Vertical Player Repertory who dazzled the world with its production of Puccini’s IL Tabarro on a barge on the Red Hook pier several years ago.

Pianist Dmitry Glivinsky.  Photo by Heather Bobeck

Parle-moi de ma mère” from La Tragedie de Carmen was by Meilhac/Bizet. Matthew Pearce, tenor; Lara Secord Haid, soprano; with Jiannan Cheng, on piano of City Lyric Opera. Mr. Pearce has a caressing tenor that is balanced and nuanced. Ms. Haid, a lyrical pure sound of great beauty with angelic high notes that linger in one’s psyche. Her kissing Don José touched one deeply. Their vocal blend was evocative of the greats in the past. His lovely softening of the voice at the end was of golden age quality. Ms. Haid’s love for Don José was present in her outstanding purity of tone. Enrico Caruso and Frances Alda made a recording of this that one can google on the Internet and The Carmen film by Cecil B. DeMille 1915 featured the great Met soprano Geraldine Farrar that deserves viewing. When Farrar came back to the Met after her film, she roughed Enrico Caruso up and punched a chorus girl. Caruso threatened to never sing with her again but they made up. Huge tenor James McCracken was a surprisingly physical Don Jose and used much pianissimo in his “Flower song.” City Lyric Opera deserves high praise for this tantalizing excerpt and wonderful singers.

Honoree Ira Siff & Peter Szep, Conductor Executive Producer of Indie Opera Podcast
Photo by Heather Bobeck

A brief film of Ira Siff as Mme. Vera Galupe-Borszkh singing Vissi D’arte from Tosca and Ho jo to ho! from Die Walküre was hilarious and breathtaking. I told friends later that the three hands I kissed of great divas was Mary Garden, lecturing on her autobiography at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1951, Maria Jeritza at 90 plus at a Carnegie Hall Richard Tucker gala and Ira Siff as Mme. Vera Galupe-Borszkh at the National Arts Club after a hilarious Azucena excerpt from Il Trovatore.

Ira Siff gave a witty speech about his wanting to be in opera and the reactions of his mother and father. He did very well and his mother bragged to her friends in Florida poolside when he got good reviews on Mme. Vera Galupe-Borszkh. The New York Opera Awards service award was based on his indelible impact as a performer, commentator, director, teacher and Artistic Director of La Gran Scena.

L-R-Giordana Fiori, pianist; Noby Ishida, conductor; Katherine Robinson, Markos Simopoulos, Katarina Wilson. Photo by Heather Bobeck

The concert then resumed with “In peace I have found my image” from Owen Wingrave (Piper/Britten) Robert Balonek, baritone James Landau, piano, of the little Opera theatre of ny gave a powerful piece, almost a soliloquy. Mr. Balonek was Falstaffian in his delivery and versatility and gave us a non brittle Britten that was introspective with a touch of irony. We saw Owen Wingrave and our grandson Luciano was one of four choristers from The Little Church Around the Corner who appeared in this production featuring the gifted Mr. Balonek.

The program ended with an excerpt from After Stonewall with Devony Smith, soprano and Michael Barret on piano from the New York Festival of Song. Ms. Smith sang with conviction, defiance and compassion. Her soprano more steely than Puccinian, her goal not tears, but strength and going forward. Michael Barret was her accommodating and gracious accompanist. From the New York Festival of Song.

Joseph Burke was the effervescent stage manager and we met Vincent Covatto from the Executive Committee in the elevator.

At the sumptuous reception afterwards it was nice to chat with Ira’s partner Hans-Pieter Heijnis whose cabaret act has been so beautifully received. The Flying Dutchman (No Wagner) was brilliantly funny and a new version is set to overtake us soon. Hans-Peter made a wonderful video for Ira’s mother Jean on the occasion of her 100th birthday in 2011. He sang a superb version of “For You Alone,” which was out in 1911 and also was iconic tenor Enrico Caruso’s first recording in English.

A wonderful surprise was to see Francine Garber with her Regina Opera shirt, from the Regina Opera in Brooklyn, soon to be celebrating its 50th year of opera. Nice to see multi-talented and vibrant Judith Barnes from The Vertical Player Repertory in Brooklyn there also. Anna Tonna, a now internationally acclaimed mezzo soprano suddenly popped up into view. Anna has been doing successful Malibran and Rossini concerts in Spain and will sing at the idyllic Marcella Sembrich Museum in Bolton Landing in Lake George this summer. In attendance also was Scott Barnes, the renowned stage director and acting coach and tenor Neil Eddinger from the much missed New York City Opera. We enjoyed speaking to the singers and pianists and to the great man himself, Ira Siff.

Honoree Ira Siff. Photo by Heather Bobeck

Regina Opera Presents a Stirring Il Trovatore

Saturday afternoon on May 11th became one to remember always with the first of four Il Trovatore’s held at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Auditorium in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Il Trovatore premiered in Rome, Italy in 1853. The libretto is by Salvatore Cammarano and is one of three masterpieces composed by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) in that time period – the other two were La Traviata and Rigoletto. Il Trovatore is set in 15th century Spain during a civil war between the provinces after a play by Antonio García Gutiérrez.

Ferrando (Adam Cioffari, center) tells the soldiers about Azucena’s mother’s horrific death. Photo by Marianna Coleman

Conductor Gregory Ortega stepped to the podium and the opera began. A few vibrant, heavy chords and the curtain rose with Ferrando (Captain of the Guard) telling the story of the Gypsy (“Udite, udite”) to his rapt and horrified men.  Adam Cioffari had a powerful and vibrant basso voice that, coupled with precision and dramatic flair, made for a very strong opening to the opera. Immortal basso Ezio Pinza (1892-1957) made a recording of this and it was like a storytellers passage to those who heard it. Cioffari continues a great tradition.

The young lovers Leonora (Alexis Cregger, left) and Troubador, Manrico (Christopher Trapani, right). Photo by Hannah Stampleman

Count di Luna and Manrico are sworn enemies and both are in love with Leonora, the Queen’s lady in waiting. Manrico’s “Mother” is Azucena. In a rage over her own Mother’s death at the stake for witchcraft, ordered by the prior Count di Luna, Azucena kidnapped the Count di Luna’s baby.  However, crazed, Azucena threw her own baby into the fire instead of the royal baby, and raised Manrico as her own. Manrico is the troubador who serenades Leonora and arouses the jealous fury of the current Count di Luna. Di Luna’s singing of “Il trovator – io fremo” (The Troubador – I am trembling!)  

Azucena (Lara Tillotson, far left) describes the horrific scene in which she avenges her mother’s death by throwing the previous Count’s baby into a fire. Photo by Steven Pisano

Manrico, the Troubador, was rising tenor Christopher Trapani.  Mr. Trapani has a voice that is even in quality, gathers more freedom in the upper registers and is compelling in the middle and lower registers. His rhapsodic singing of “Ah! si ben mio”  in Act Three Scene Two revealed a first class tenor at his best with finely sung melody: thrilling, passionate, lyrical passages, superb legato, and an impassioned finale. Some trills added to the refined outpouring, one of the best in memory. This was followed by  “Di quella pira” which was sung with fury, fire and brimstone culminating with two superbly hit and held high C’s. “Non son tuo figlio” with Azucena in Verdian harmony. I was fortunate to see and hear magnificent tenor Franco Corelli as a superb and dashing Manrico, soprano Zinka Milanov as a marvelous Leonora, and the brilliant Leonard Warren as Count di Luna. I recall Fedora Barbieri as Azucena and Fiorenza Cossotto in some other performance. The Regina Opera performance was very satisfying on every level. Great singers of the past echoed in their superb voices.  

Leonora (left) & her attendant Ines (Aida Carducci). Photo by Steven Pisano

Leonora, the Queen’s lady-in-waiting was sung by  soprano Alexis Cregger. Her performance as Leonora was like a time capsule transferring me to the old Met in its golden age. Ms. Cregger sings with beauty of tone sudden optional high notes that thrill and a flowing legato that makes one float in ecstasy. Her superb singing of  “Tacea la notte placida” and its cabaletta evoked Met divas Zinka Milanov and Montserrat Caballé in its soaring and lyrical outbursts (Act One Scene Two) and her stunningly beautiful Act Four aria “D’amor sull’ali rosee” ravished the ear of the listener. Her ascending notes and floating “highs” plus her interpolated highs were like extra scoops of ice cream for a sweet deprived opera kid.  Ms. Cregger’s duet with di Luna, “Mira, di acerbe lagrime” and “Vivrà! contende il giubilo”, was thrilling. Her “Miserere” duet with Manrico as a group of monks marched by was heavenly. As a youth, I listened to immortal tenor Enrico Caruso and Mme. Frances Alda sing “Miserere” on an old 78 recording. Caruso sang Il Trovatore at the MetOpera in 1906 and his recording of “Di quella pira” is a sensation as is his “Ah! si ben mio”.  Ms. Creggar’s death scene was beautifully done, evoking great sympathy. Alexis Cregger has shown the world her beautiful Leonora – she is a blessing.

Leonora escaping advances by Count Di Luna. Photo by Steven Pisano

Count di Luna was robustly and brilliantly sung by baritone Nathan Matticks. His sublime singing of “Il balen del suo sorriso” was perhaps the opposite of the great Leonard Warren’s heavenly lyrical outpourings; but Matticks’ di Luna was more inherently evil, and the great love that is the melody of this aria was more obsessive. Mr. Matticks dark Iago-like passion, was bordering on dangerous. A truly exciting di Luna. When Manrico is beheaded and Azucena tells him he just killed his own  brother, Count di Luna says in horror “E vivo encore”- (and still I live) the last line of this opera.

Azucena Avenged.  Photo by Steven Pisano

Azucena, a gypsy was sung by Lara Michole Tillotson.  Her mezzo-soprano had tremendous beauty and some stunning upper register notes that made us all heaven bound with burnished lows that made us see the dark past she endured. “Stride la vampa!” was magnificently sung, and her cries of “Figlio Mio” were emotionally shattering. Her final duet with Manrico, “Ai nostri monti” was pure and full of longing. Her laughter after singing that her Mother is now avenged was like a female Mephisto.

Manrico, the troubador,  Christopher Trapani finds Leonora (Alexis Cregger,) who has taken poison rather than marry Count Di Luna.   Photo by Steven Pisano 

Leonora’s attendant Ines, was sung by Aida Carducci, who evoked the proper concern and sympathy for her lady. Her warm soprano was indicative of good potential, and she was really a solid and vital  singer.
Chance Polic was an able and dependable Lieutenant to Manrico. His strong tenor was impressive.      

Count di Luna (Nathan Matticks,) finds Leonora (Alexis Cregger,) dead from poison. Photo by Cameron Smith

Baritone Rick Agster as an old Gypsy sang with finesse and flair and tenor Andrew Watt made his mark as a messenger.

The Chorus sang with warm friendly and spirited tone and it was so nice to see outstanding chorister Cathy Greco among the gypsies.

Conductor Maestro Gregory Ortega got excellent results from the 33 splendid musicians in the Regina Orchestra. The gypsy song of the Anvil Chorus  aroused the audience with its iconic familiarity. Azucena’s themes were heightened by the horror ever lurking in the music. Kudos to chimes player, percussionist Miguel Tepale, and to Concertmaster Christopher Joyal.  Bravi to all the musicians and Maestro Ortega for this glorious music of Giuseppe Verdi.

Linda Lehr, the Stage director and Set designer, gave Il Trovatore’s great characters room to maneuver, threaten, fight, love and die with clear focus. The “Miserere” was so impressive visually and vocally, that the image is retained in my mind. The fight scenes were right out of some MGM spectacular.

Rob Aronowitz was the superb fight choreographer and the outstanding duel and armor scenes stood out with their muscle flexing swordplay. Ms. Lehr almost brought the late British actor Basil Rathbone back for some Robin Hood villainous swordplay. I once saw Basil Rathbone hailing a cab as part of the crowd of opera goers, in front of the Metropolitan Opera with his deep unforgettable voice calling “Taxi, Taxi.”

The costumes by Marcia C. Kresge were perfection. Leonora’s gowns were magical and Count Di Luna’s outfits regal. The gypsies were colorful and Manrico heroic. Kudos to Make-up and Wig Artist Saori Morris.

So nice to see Regina Opera’s President Francine Garber-Cohen; Executive Vice President Linda Cantoni; Treasurer Joseph Delfausse; Elena Jannicelli-Sandella, Vice President;  and Box Office volunteer Marlene Ventimiglia, who keep us all comfortable and seated. Our group went to Casa Vieja Restaurant nearby for a lovely and lively Mexican dinner. Sunset Park is ablaze with hope and promise!

This is the last opera of the Regina Opera’s 49th season. We look forward to the glorious 50th upcoming season.

Gracie Square Hospital’s 60th Anniversary Celebration

On the evening of Thursday, May 2nd, Gracie Square Hospital’s held its 60th Anniversary Celebration at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. The hospital is located on the Upper East Side and was founded by Cynthia, Richard and Lawrence of the Zirinsky family in 1959. 

Left to right: Philip J. Wilner, MD, Bill Zirinsky, Susan Zirinsky,  John Zirinsky, David A. Wyman, MPA Gracie Square Hospital’s 60th Anniversary Celebration. Photo by Eve Vagg

David A. Wyman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Gracie Square Hospital, spoke at the reception and he mentioned that since 1959 the Hospital’s main focus is to be patient centered to alleviate behavioral health issues and give peace of mind towards recovery. That is the enduring legacy of the Zirinsky family, who made a donation of one million dollars to the institution.

Dr. Steven J. Corwin, President and Chief Executive Officer of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, lauded the great contributions of the Zirinsky family for four generations, and discussed the importance of treating mental health. One out of five Americans are touched by mental health disorders.

A video presentation showing the holistic approach of compassionate health care the patients receive and the tremendous humanitarian assistance of the Zirinsky family was well received.

Susan Zirinsky, President and Senior Executive Producer of CBS News spoke of her mother, Cynthia Zirinsky, who because of illness could not attend. She said, “she is my hero, Mother we salute you. We are in awe of you and your belief that where medical skills and warm hearted care bring peace of mind.”

The closing remarks were spoken by Dr. Philip J. Wilner, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of New York-Presbyterian Hospital Westchester Division and Chairman of the Board and Gracie Square Hospital.

How mental illness and its painful interruptions to a productive life were made vivid by the reading of a letter to David Wyman. The letter described the daughter of co-founder Lawrence Zirinsky – a fun-loving girl who was lively but dealt with sporadic issues of bipolar depression.  Founder Lawrence Zirinsky’s sons, John Zirinsky and Bill Zirinsky were also honored for the philanthropic support and were the proud recipients of “Champions” awards.  

Richard Fung, Marcelo & Alexei Remizov, Cesare Santeramo & honoree Dr. Robert J. Campbell.   Photo by Judy Pantano

Two other awardees were present. Lorinda P. de Roulet who has been on the Board of Trustees of Gracie Square Hospital since 1992, and a former President of the New York Mets from 1975 through 1980. She was the first woman to direct the day-to-day operations of a Major League Baseball franchise. Lorinda is the catalyst for creating a culture of philanthropy. She donated towards the Gracie Hospital’s Patient Rooftop Garden October 4, 2018 which opened with much fanfare and pride. Lorinda founded the Patrina Foundation, which supports education and social services for women.

Sachi Liebergesell, Dr. Robert Campbell, Cesare Santeramo & Jolana Blau. Photo by Judy Pantano

Robert Campbell M.D. KCSJ was Chief Medical Director of Gracie Square Hospital from 1977 through 2006. He is an advocate, educator, writer, spokesperson and scholar. Both he and his life partner since 1968, noted tenor and entrepreneur Sir Cesare Santeramo, were involved at Gracie Square as trusted advisers and faithful contributors, from 1953 through 2004. Dr. Campbell edited Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary known as the “Bible” of the mental health field. Dr. Campbell is a pioneer in Psychiatry and created newfound opportunities to improve the lives of those treated. We were happy to be in his presence for this award.

Dr. Jose Vito, Alexei Remizov, Maestro Eve Queler, Laura Scheuer, Joan Rosasco & Luna Kaufman (seated). Photo by Judy Pantano

We thank Cesare Santeramo, formerly a tenor of renown, our gracious host for allowing us this inside view that’s “On the side of the Angels,” a number sung in the musical Fiorello. A bit of Jeopardy type trivia, Fiorello La Guardia was the first New York City Mayor to occupy Gracie Mansion. (1942)  

The reception was as one would want in so splendid a setting. We were with our esteemed and dapper host tenor Cesare Santeramo and his other guests: pioneer conductor Eve Queler (Opera Orchestra of New York), Holocaust survivors Luna Kaufman, author and Jolana Blau, from Elysium-between two continents, Sachi Liebergesell, formerly President of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, noted baritone Mark Watson, fellow opera lovers Marcelo and Alexei Remizov, Dr. Jose Vito and Richard Fung. We also spotted Edna Greenwich and Dwight Owsley from OperaExposures among the revelers.

Edna Greenwich, Dwight Owsley & Judy Pantano

The delicious risotto with mushrooms and washed down with Italian sparkling water or Procesco added to the festive and joyful mood. It was nice to speak with so many proud Zirinsky’s. My wife Judy, had a nice chat with Susan Zirinsky, daughter of founder Cynthia Zirinsky. Susan is also President and Senior Executive Producer of CBS News where Judy’s father, Joseph Zigman, was Associate Producer on the CBS News with Walter Cronkrite. Susan checked it all out online and was fascinated with the history and we all took a selfie.

Judy Pantano, Susan Zirinsky & Nino Pantano
(A selfie taken by Susan Zirinsky)

The evening ended with some rain outside. What I expected to be a golden coach was an Access-A-Ride taxi-but deep inside we felt it was a ball, with lovely people and a great four generation family of Gracie Square Hospital that gives love and care to those in need.

Elysium – between two Continents Celebrates 32nd Annual Erwin Piscator Award Ceremony

Tuesday, April 2nd was a sterling event at New York City’s famed Lotos Club. The 32nd annual Erwin Piscator Award from Elysium – between two Continents made this recent Tuesday, a truly “Good News Day.” What greater joy on an April morning is to get ready for a day that like the new month, radiates hope and the warmth of spring with Easter and Passover keeping home, hearth and hearts warm and loving.

As I type this, Classic Arts Showcase is playing a video of the great and beautiful soprano Anna Moffo singing Lucia. Ms. Moffo was an honoree in 2003 and a great friend to Elysium. I recall a lovely evening honoring Ms. Moffo with Gregory H. von Leïtis and Michael Lahr. So many beautiful flowers blooming through the efforts of Elysium and the inspiration of Erwin Piscator that “Art only achieves its purpose when it contributes to the improvement of man.”

Michael Lahr, Chairman of the Erwin Piscator Award.
Photo by John Harris

Michael Lahr, Chairman of the Erwin Piscator Awards Committee welcomed all. When we were comfortably seated for the ceremony, soprano Alexis Rodda sang the “An die Freude.” (“Ode to Joy.”) Her full rich and resonant soprano sang with abandon. The composer was Franz Schubert with a text by Friedrich Schiller. Her able and dedicated piano accompanist was Dan Franklin Smith. Ms. Rodda also sang “Porgi, amor,” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro with libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) who was a Venetian born Italian Jew, later priest, pianist in a bordello, then chief poet in Vienna, and in old age, impresario and professor of Italian culture at Columbia University and friend of Clement Clark Moore. Read his brilliant autobiography. Can you imagine Mozart’s librettist organizing Mozart’s Don Giovanni on Leonard Street in Manhattan? (Recently named Lorenzo Da Ponte Way)  

From left: Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, Andre Bishop, Helga Rabl-Stadler. Photo by John Harris.

The mission of Elysium – between two continents is “to foster artistic and academic dialogue, creative and educational exchange and mutual friendship between the United States of America and Europe. By means of art, we fight against discrimination, racism, hate, anti-Semitism and forgetting or trivializing the Holocaust.”

Gregorij H. von Leïtis, Founder and Artistic Director, then also welcomed all to the event assisted by the radiant Heather Randall. Her much loved husband was esteemed actor Tony Randall, who was also a great opera lover. According to author Mary Jane Phillips Matz, Randall was a great admirer of the late American Verdi baritone Leonard Warren. Warren’s special sound still haunts the memory. Tony Randall’s comments about Warren are on the back cover of Ms. Matz’s biography of the Bronx born baritone Leonard Warren (Amadeus Press) who died tragically onstage at the Metropolitan Opera in La Forza del Destino in 1960.Tony Randall wrote the forward as well.

Merle Kailas (left) and Heather Randall. Photo by John Harris

Daniel Kehlmann, known for his play The Mentor and his novel You Should Have Left, currently being adapted to a movie with Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried. Mr. Kehlmann spoke of art and writing in a search for truth and how Elysium plays such an important role in its quest for a world of creativity and tranquility. Mr. Kehlmann then introduced Ayad Akhtar and Gregory H. von Leïtis presented the Erwin Piscator award to Ayad Akhtar for his highly topical and political literary oeuvre. As a playwright, novelist and screenwriter, Ayad Akhtar explores the major themes of our time: economics, immigration, identity, and in particular the American and Muslim experience. He encourages his audience and readers to tackle these big problems and the looming questions that arise from them. Mr. Akhtar accepted his award with a request for more understanding in a world that remembers past grievances but opens doors of enlightenment leading to understanding.

From left: Gregorij von Leitis, Ayad Akhtar, Daniel Kehlmann. Photo by John Harris

Ismar Schorsch in his remarks, made a plea for reconciliation. He is the Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History. Rabbi Dr. Ismar Schorsch became recognized as one of the foremost spokespersons on a range of critical issues. The presentation was then made by Gregorij H. von Leïtis to Katherine Goldsmith. Ms. Goldsmith was raised in Greenwich Village and attended New York City public schools before moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There she continued to paint and played the flute for a small orchestra. Her husband Clifford Goldsmith was a businessman and a devoted parent and philanthropist. He co-founded the Corinne Goldsmith Dickinson Center for Multiple Sclerosis at Mount Sinai in New York named for his daughter who died of the disease. He worked tirelessly for multiple sclerosis related diseases and served as Chairman of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Throughout his lifetime, he and his wife Katherine, devoted their energies to causes in the field of healthcare, education, the arts and Jewish organizations. Elysium proudly presented the Erwin Piscator Award 2019 – in memory of Maria Ley Piscator (wife of Erwin Piscator) to Katherine and the late Clifford Goldsmith.

From left: Gregorij von Leitis, Katherine Goldsmith, Ismar Schorsch. Photo by John Harris.

Michael Haider has a PhD in History (University of Vienna) and is now Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York City and is closely associated with the Austrian theatre scene. He spoke of the strong tradition of Austrian culture and of course the festivals in Salzburg. When the great conductor Bruno Walter’s doorbell rang, his maid trembled at the handsome man behind the ring, and Maestro Walter, looking at her reaction exclaimed, “I think we have found our Don Giovanni.” Recordings of “live” performances with Bruno Walter and Ezio Pinza in Le Nozze di Figaro (April 19,1937) still are available and are a symbol of the glory that was. The great Danish heldentenor Lauritz Melchior refused to let the Nazi’s use his estate in Germany. Hitler, furious, had Goebbels look up the Melchior family tree, which had both Jewish and Lutheran Melchiors, so he seized the property and Melchior left. Arturo Toscanini no longer went to Salzburg festivals and settled in the United States as war clouds thickened casting a dark shadow on the music world as well. Dr. Helga Rabl-Stadler received the Erwin Piscator Life Achievement Award 2019 from Elysium-between two continents for her enormous longtime commitment to foster the arts as President of the Salzburg Festival. It is known worldwide as one of the most prominent festivals for performing arts and music.

From left: Gregorij von Leitis, Helga Rabl-Stadler, Michael Haider. Photo by John Harris

The final selection by soprano Alexis Rodda was “What Good Would the Moon Be?” from “Street Scene” by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Langston Hughes. “What good would the moon be unless the right one shared its beams. What good would dreams come true be if love wasn’t in those dreams.” Thank you Alexis, beautifully done and kudos to pianist Dan Franklin Smith.   

From left: Joel Bell, Marifé Hernandez, Joseph Bartning, Executive Director of
the Salzburg Festival Society, Alexandra Kauka, Sterling Morton Hamill. Photo by John Harris

A superb luncheon followed compliments to Executive Chef Raymond Hollanda. And you guessed it – Nino loved his Branzino and vino! It was so nice to see so many Consul Generals from Austria, Czech and Vienna. (Manhattan School of Music) Special thanks to Sir Cesare Santeramo a former awardee (Honorary Award 2015) with his companion the much loved, Dr. Robert Campbell, (who regrettably, was unable to attend) for being our charming and affable host. We enjoyed meeting Betsy and David Silverman and had an interesting talk about our favorite opera, Tosca. The Luncheon Committee of Jolana Blau Chairperson, Heather Randall, Dr. Robert J. Campbell, Sir Cesare Santeramo, Lya Friedrich Pfeifer, Vice Chairpersons, Paul and Kristina Falke, Dr. Hans-Michael and Almut Giesen and Stefan and Sylveli Hemmerle deserved plaudits for their fine work.

From Left: Ulrike Sych, president of the University for Music and Performing
Arts Vienna, Joseph Pfeifer, President of the Liederkranz Foundation, Miro Magloire, Lya Friedrich Pfeifer, President of the Max Kade Foundation, and Katja Wiesbrock Donovan, Chief Officer for Management and Programming of the German Academy New York. Photo by John Harris

As Chairman, Michael Lahr said at the end of the booklet, “Gregorij H. von Leïtis thank each of our honorees, our guests at today’s 32nd Erwin Piscator award luncheon, our many supporters, friends and colleagues who help us and are united with us in our endeavor to build bridges rather than walls, to facilitate dialogue and exchange, and create a better world, a world of friendship and respect, rather than hate and discrimination.”

Olaf Unsoeld & Jolana Blau.  Photo by Judy Pantano

One of my favorite American poets, Robert Frost (1874-1963) wrote “Mending Wall” which is quite à propos for the current times. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” says that all men stand united – no walls!  

Nino Pantano, Luna Kaufman & Cesare Santeramo.  Photo by Judy Pantano

Lastly, I quote Bertolt Brecht on Erwin Piscator. “Piscator is the greatest theatre man of all time. He will leave a legacy which we should use.”  Bravo all at Elysium – between two continents. Compliments to Gregorij H. von Leïtis and Michael Lahr who represent humanity at its finest.

Gerda Lissner Foundation Hosts Young Artist Vocal Concert

The Young Artist Vocal Institute Concert Series was established in 2019 to continue assisting and mentoring young artists with the financial support they need to pursue their craft and excel in the world of opera. The concert was being presented in lieu of the International Vocal Competition 2019. The series continues on April 26th and September 27th 2019. The event took place on Friday evening, March 29th at the elegant Liederkranz Foundation in New York City where Philipp Haberbauer is the General Manager.

Philipp Haberbauer – Liederkranz General Manager.
Photo by Judy Pantano

The Gerda Lissner Board of Directors and Board of Trustees consists of Stephen De Maio President, Michael A. Fornabaio Vice President and Treasurer, Cornelia A. Beigel, Secretary and Trustee, Karl Michaelis and Barbara Ann Testa,Trustees. (Ms. Testa  could not attend) Karl Michaelis announced that Stephen De Maio sends greetings to all and regrets not being able to attend.

Midge Woolsey of WQXR Radio and Channel 13 fame was the host of the evening. Ms. Woolsey works in the development of the concert series at Saint Thomas Church on 5th Avenue in New York City and on the advisory boards of the Martina Arroyo Foundation and Opera Index among others. Midge Woolsey mentioned how George Jellinek and his program “The Vocal Scene” motivated her to do what she does best. George Jellinek was truly a pioneer in the radio business and brought many listeners to WQXR for his wonderful work. His fabulous collection of recordings was motivational.

Host Midge Woolsey, Michael Pitocchi, Vartan Gabrielian, Timothy Renner, pianist Mikhail Hallak, Xiaotong Cao & Meghan Kasanders.  Photo by Judy Pantano

The concert began with baritone Timothy Renner, from the Academy of Vocal Arts and a pupil of Bill Schuman. Mr. Renner’s offering was of “Pierrot’s Tanzlied” from Die tote Stadt by Korngold whose Hollywood musical scores revealed a composer deserving of acclaim by an audience not just viewing a film. Mr. Renner is the possessor of a large baritone voice not quite suited for the refined elegance needed for this particular aria. His second selection was the “Petersburgian Song” by Sviridov brought back memories of opera and film baritone Nelson Eddy in Balalaika and what sounded like two glorious B flats. For beautiful Ilona Massey, Mr. Eddy’s glamorous co-star, the passion of his selection was vital. Mr. Renner really shined in this performance. His supreme singing was brought out by this rousing number.  

Maestro Eve Queler, Alfred & Christine Palladino, Michael Fornabaio, Eliane & Samuel Cavin. Photo by Judy Pantano

Vartan Gabrielian, bass-baritone (Curtis Institute of Music) sang Aleko’s Aria from Aleko by Rachmaninoff. His big cavernous sound overwhelmed and impressed but the more subtle aspects of this very young Rachmaninoff were lost in the thunder. His second number by Rachmaninoff, “Now is the Time” perhaps breaking free from Russian life for a nomadic Gypsy life is a wish of most who seek their Bali Hai but it was very well done and suited the beautiful depth of his voice to subterranean spheres.  

Arthur & Susan Stout, Faith Pleasanton & Robert Steiner. Photo by Judy Pantano

Soprano Meghan Kasanders, (The Julliard School) sang the aria of Donna Anna “Or sai chi l’onore” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni with a compelling timbre. There is an abundance of strong passionate singing. Ms. Kasander’s fulsome sumptuous soprano, has a treasure chest of rich tone and dramatic flair that keeps pulling me into a current that says I also want to hear her in Italian repertoire – Aida, Santuzza, Amelia, both Leonora’s. I want someone to open the floodgates for this voice of untapped pathos and passion. Her song, “Von ewiger Liebe” by Brahms showed the great composers creating a song for the heart from the heart. Ms. Kasanders caressed each note with a clarion call for love. As a lad, I recall “You’re the song angels sing” which was taken from Brahms and made into a popular song, sung by American film tenor Mario Lanza for the film Because You’re Mine. (1953) It is one of his best recordings and featured young and talented soprano Doretta Morrow. Both Lanza and Morrow, united at the end of the film, died young.

Margaret Grover, Marlene Astorga, Gloria Gari, Lou Barrella, Karl Michaelis & Nino Pantano. Photo by Judy Pantano

From the College of Performing Arts, Mannes School of Music and The New School, comes American bass-baritone Michael Pitocchi. Mr. Pitocchi sang “Vous qui faites” from Faust by Gounod. I love the rousing laughter in this aria and am always aware of the devil afoot. Mr. Pitocchi captured the devil’s rich tapestry of singing sarcasm and cruel infectious laughter. His rich basso and downward vocal excursions, took one right to hell and back. The 1953 film Tonight We Sing, featured the great Italian basso Ezio Pinza (1892-1957) as Russian basso legend Fyodor Chaliapin. (1873-1938) Pinza sings several scenes from Faust including the trio, with the voice of tenor Jan Peerce and soprano Roberta Peters. The great star of the MetOpera and South Pacific was in fresh voice at age 60 and sang “Vous qui faites” marvelously. Hopefully, Mr. Pitocchi will follow in his footsteps. Pitocchi’s song selection was “The Leaves Rustled Sadly” by a 19 year old Mussorgsky. A haunting plea from a lonely heart-Russian style. Mr. Pitocchi will, I am certain, fill the void today of a lack of great dark voices.

Michèle Classe, Joyce Greenberg & Jane Shaulis. Photo by Judy Pantano

From the Manhattan School of Music, Xiaotong Cao, soprano was the last in this exciting concert. Her aria was “Stridono Lassu” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. Her beautiful voice is full and rich yet flexible and light when needed. Her vocal palette is broad and colorful. Nedda wants to be free as a bird. Canio, an older clown rescued her and gave her a life. Nedda is bored and has a young lover and wants to be as free as a bird. The part calls for dexterity vocally and passion physically. One felt these two at work in Cao’s sizzling interpretation. Incidentally, the composer, Leoncavallo’s father, was the actual judge in the trial of Canio who murdered Nedda.   

Ms. Cao’s second selection was a song “Chere nuit” by Bachelet written for the great soprano Nellie Melba and a favorite of today’s great mezzo Susan Graham. It was sung with charm and sentiment.  

Diana Corto & Lawrence Jones . Photo by Judy Pantano

The pianist Mikhail Hallak was excellent. He played with a special passion which coupled with elegance was as good as a full orchestra!  Mr. Hallak is from the Young Artist Development Program of the Metropolitan Opera.

Midge Woolsey was a superb host and her introductions explained the selections with her lifelong experience and love for the subject. We had a brief chat and discussed theatre. When basso Pitocchi stood next to her I exclaimed,”Ah! Emile De Becque and Nellie Forbush.” I told Mr. Pitocchi how thrilled I was to see the great Ezio Pinza sing “Opera, Broadway and Hollywood” at Lewisohn Stadium in New York in 1951 before a crowd of 25,000 people and how he (Pitocchi) will restore the great basso tradition. Midge Woolsey told me that in college she wanted to be Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, but only the part of Bloody Mary was open. Surprisingly, Ezio Pinza recorded Bali Hai in 1949 and is now on the Internet. Technicians have played his recording with Juanita Hall, the original beloved Bloody Mary, making them sing a flawless and thrilling duet. People loved Nellie Forbush (Mary Martin) and adored Ezio Pinza (Emile) but they also were inspired by Juanita Hall as “Bloody Mary.”  

Reiko Osumi, Emily Hsiung, Michael Pitocchi & Jeanne Bosse. Photo by Judy Pantano

It was nice to chat with so many friends and opera lovers at the delicious reception: Jane Shaulis and Joe Gasperec from Opera Index, Glenn Morton from Classic Lyric Arts, Gloria Gari from The Giulio Gari Foundation, Maestro Eve Queler, whose new book entitled A View from the Podium has many brilliant anecdotes and photographs of her fabulous career, legendary dramatic soprano Elinor Ross and her artist son, Ross, mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias looking as radiant as in her current profile in Opera News by Editor F. Paul Driscoll, opera lecturer Lou Barrella, Alfred and Christine Palladino, from the Columbus Citizens Foundation, Arthur and Susan Stout, French diction teacher, International Concerts Diana Corto and Lawrence Jones, export consultant Michèle and Anthony Classe, Joyce Greenberg and Ralph Petrarca, Samuel & Eliane Cavin, Reiko Osumi and countless others who support and love musical nights like these.

Maestro Eve Queler’s new book. Photo by Judy Pantano

All the best to these young singers, all of whom were given scholarship and stipends to provide for their careers. They will, all like Spring, make opera “reborn” for the next generation.

A Splendid Nabucco at Sarasota Opera

The great composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) had his first big success with his Biblical opera Nabucco. It had the rhythmical quality that we call early Verdi but it also had big arias sung by two sopranos and dominant bass and baritones that were memorable. The magic was in its choral singing of “Va Pensiero.” (The chorus of the Hebrew slaves) which became the rallying cry of the Italian revolution and Verdi’s name became the match that made the light and gave strength to the movement – Victorio Emannuel Re Di Italia (Verdi) the calling cry of freedom. In my oral dissertation to receive my Bachelors Degree in History from St. Francis College in Brooklyn I was asked about a subject I knew nothing about, but instead I gave the professors the story of Verdi and how Nabucco and “Va Pensiero” liberated the people of Italy and remains to this day the rallying cry for freedom everywhere. I was one of only two people who passed this oral exam and did not have to take the more elaborate written one. Coincidentally, my fellow graduate and co- winner of the St. Francis College oral exam, Michael Zufolo, was also in attendance with his sister, Sarasota transplant Rosemary. His subject was Peter Caesar Alberti, North American’s first Italian American immigrant.

Nabucco was the composers third opera. His first, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, was successful, his second, Un Giorno di Regno, a comedy was a failure. Verdi’s wife Margherita Barezzi died age 26 in 1840 and their two children also died. The Impresario Bartolomeo Merelli pressed Verdi to compose a third opera to fulfill his contract. Verdi composed Nabucco Donosor and it was also called Nino because Biblical names were not allowed to be used. This seminal work led to the other masterpieces we associate with this immortal composer. His second wife, the beloved Giuseppina Strepponi sang in the La Scala premiere March 4, 1842. The libretto is by Temistocle Solera, the play Nabucco Donosor by Auguste Anicet Bourgeois. It came to the Metropolitan Opera in October 1960 with brilliant soprano Leonie Rysanek,esteemed baritone Cornell MacNeil and romantic basso Cesare Siepi with Thomas Schippers conducting. I was there and until the Sarasota performance, that was my standard.

On the afternoon of Sunday, March 10th, Maestro Victor DeRenzi came to the podium and the opera began.This is the 60th Anniversary season of the Sarasota Opera and is cause for a great celebration.The recently renovated William E. Schmidt Theatre is one of America’s great opera spaces and seats about 1100 people.The souvenir booklet is a celebration of this special Diamond Anniversary season.

Chorus of the Hebrew slaves. Photo by Rod Millington.

The overture is among Verdi’s greatest beginning with a vigorous melodic section and transferring to the “Va Pensiero” mournful strains and ending with tympani rolling vigor. The music, under the magical baton of Maestro Victor DeRenzi and superb orchestra, received great applause and the opera began.

Stephen Gaertner as Nabucco with golden idol Baal in background. Photo by Rod Millington.

It was Jerusalem and Babylon circa 587 B.C. Jerusalem has been defeated by Nabucco, King of Babylon but his daughter Fenena, is held hostage by the Hebrews and their priest Zaccaria. Ismaele, a Hebrew with whom she is in love, allows Fenena to escape to her father and repulses the advances of her warrior sister Abigaille. The Hebrews are held captive in Babylon. Abigaille discovers that she is really the child of slaves and not Nabucco’s daughter. Her rage and anger are at the breaking point.  

Ben Gulley as Ismaele, Lisa Chavez as Fenena, Stephen Gaertner as Nabucco. Photo by Rod Millington.

Nabucco returns and declaring himself both King and God, is struck by lightning. When his reason returns, he prays for forgiveness to Jehovah and saves the Hebrews. Abigaille poisons herself and dies repentant.

Rochelle Bard as Abigaille; members of the chorus. Photo by Rod Millington.

Baritone Stephen Gaertner was Nabucco. His stage demeanor was royal and rageful and his vocal status excellent. His mellow baritone has power on reserve and great flexibility. His glazed demeanor after being struck by lightning was impressive and his declamatory utterance definitive. His voice had the color and power to take the audience on his emotional irrational ride. He handled the controls very well and deserved his ovation. Nabucco’s aria in Act Four with the chorus “Son pur queste mia membra! Dio di Giuda” had the richness of tone that indicated that resolution was near.

Ben Gulley as Ismaele, Rochelle Bard as Abigaille. Photo by Rod Millington

Ismaele, the King of Jerusalem, Ben Gulley, had a strong tenor which was used romantically and heroically and his refined tones made the audience warm to his character. His strong stage presence and vocal projection showed a tenor of power and promise.  

Kevin Short as Zaccaria. Photo by Rod Millington.

Zaccaria, the High Priest of the Hebrews, was sung by bass Kevin Short. Mr. Short sang with ardent fervor, striking lows, burnished passion and nobleness. His was a very impressive character study with every gesture capturing the eye and ear. Zaccaria’s aria in Act Two “Vieni, o’ Levita! Tu voi labbro” was a strong indication of his basic character and his strength as a potentially eminent singer. We need dark voices today-where are the Pinza’s and Siepi’s of old? At the Sarasota Opera!  

Kevin Short as Zaccaria, Lisa Chavez as Fenena. Photo by Rod Millington.

Abigaille, Nabucco’s first born daughter, thought to be a slave, was Rochelle Bard. Ms. Bard’s soprano was both dazzling and stunning, not like a volcanic eruption à la Mme. Rysanek, but rather a brilliant meteor that beguiles, taunts and settles things, fiercely. In Abigaille’s recitative, aria and cabaletta in Act Two”Ben ioLinvenni -anchio dischiuso un giorno” one could feel her rage, her sibling rivalry imploding and exploding with the cry of vengeance. Ms. Bard has a very rare talent combined with instinct that will place her in the pantheon of the very greatest of the great. Her musical intelligence will see to that and what a dazzling display of vocal fireworks! At the finale, she forgives Fenena, professes her belief in the God of the Jews as Zaccaria gives thanks to Jehovah.

Rochelle Bard as Abigaille. Photo by Rod Millington.

Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter, was sung by Lisa Chavez. Ms. Chavez has a strong, true soprano, flexible, subtle and titillating that sticks like crazy glue. A perfect rival for her Cruella Deville bitch witch sister. Ms. Chavez sang with much lyrical passion which caught the operatic madness and kept ones ongoing interest. A very impressive vocal minestrone with many rich and enduring edibles.

Stephen Gaertner as Nabucco, Rochelle Bard as Abigaille. Photo by Rod Millington.

Abdallo, an old official of the King of Babylon, was sung by tenor Samuel Schlievert, studio artist who is rising like the sun to a bright future.

Ben Gulley as Ismaele, Lisa Chavez as Fenena, Rochelle Bard as Abigaille, Stephen Gaertner as Nabucco. Photo by Rod Millington.

The High Priest of Baal was robust basso James Eder, studio artist and Anna, Zaccaria’s sister was Yvonne Trobe, stirring soprano also studio artist. To hear fresh voices low and high fills the gap and gives hope for the glowing future.

Stephen Gaertner as Nabucco. Photo by Rod Millington.

The Sarasota Opera Orchestra was brilliantly conducted by Music Director Victor DeRenzi whose past projects included all of Verdi’s works, a feat never done before. The Nabucco Overture is truly a gem with both foot stomping rhythm and soaring melody. All of the opera with its awe inspiring Biblical happenings were conducted with the special genius that Maestro DeRenzi gives us. The finale was stirring and the good feelings spread through the house with loud applause and bravos of time well spent with sublime music and singing.

The chorus under Roger L. Bingaman sang with passion, elegance and heaven bound tones. The “Va Pensiero,sul al dorate”still is filling my head with great music instead of the nonsense we see on television most of the time.

Martha Collins’ stage direction ensured us of a stage of great coherency no matter how crowded. Jeffrey Dean’s colorful scenic design was eye catching and always held the interest.

Nicola Benois’s costumes were beautiful. The various peoples were represented  in a very noble and coherent manner.

Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costume design was striking. Ken Yunker lighting designer was imaginative and transfixed the various moods.

Hair and makeup design by Brittany Rappise were never garish and always accurate.

The explosion that destroyed the gold statue of Baal was wonderful. For a moment I thought I saw actor Edward G. Robinson praising Baal to Moses followers in that fabulous film, The 10 Commandments.

Kudos to the subtitles supplier “Words for Music” and the truly helpful translations by Maestro Victor DeRenzi.

It was nice to meet Communications Coordinator the ebullient and effervescent Lana Mullen and Director of Artistic Administration, Greg Trupiano our neighbor in Brooklyn who gives lectures on poet Walt Whitman (Brooklyn Eagle) and happy to hear that Richard Russell (Executive Director) is playing the Emperor in Puccini’s Turandot! Bravo Richard and to all, who, under Maestro Victor DeRenzi’s leadership, are making the opera world look toward beautiful Sarasota, Florida in a new light”-Sunshine and Opera” or” moonlight and excellent dining”in this truly wonderful venue.

A Beautiful La Bohème at the Regina Opera

Saturday afternoon on March 2nd, a beautiful La Bohème was presented at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School by the Regina Opera. Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) composed this heartbreaking tribute to young, doomed love in 1896. The conductor was Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) who recorded it with the NBC Symphony with famed tenor Jan Peerce and beloved soprano Licia Albanese in 1946. La Bohème was also the title of an opera composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of I Pagliacci which premiered in 1897. Although Leoncavallo’s La Bohème has some passionate music and beautiful arias, Puccini’s masterpiece was the one that gripped the public and Leoncavallo’s work was doomed to obscurity.

The great tenor Enrico Caruso recorded two thrilling arias from Leoncavallo’s work “Lo non ho che una povero stanzetta” and “Testa adorata”,  but the opera lacked the delicacy of Puccini’s magical score. The great Verdi Maestro Vincent La Selva with the New York Grand Opera did a performance in Central Park of Leoncavallo’s La Bohème with its many enchanting scenes, but it could not touch the heart the way Puccini did.  Puccini’s La Bohème, based on Henry Murger’s novel “Scenes de La Vie de Bohème,”  had its premiere in Turin, Italy on February 1, 1896. The libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica helped ensure its success all around the world.

The new year 1912 was ushered in at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) with Puccini’s La Bohème featuring tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) and famed soprano Alma Gluck as Mimi on January 2, 1912. On December 23, 1913 with the MetOpera on tour in Philadelphia, the famous Spanish bass Andreas De Segurola lost his voice as Colline, just before his big aria “Vecchia Zimarra” and turned towards Caruso, who told him “don’t worry, turn your back towards the audience and I’ll sing it for you.” Nobody knew. Frances Alda, the Mimi said she felt like applauding Caruso from her bed. Caruso made a private recording of it on February 23, 1916 and it is now available. Enrico Caruso – tenor – bass. The cast at the Regina Opera would have made these opera immortals proud.  

The 4 Bohemians (clockwise from top left – José Cuartas, Luis Alvarado, Scott Lefurgy, & Hyunho Cho) distract their landlord Beniot (David Tillistrand, center) with wine to avoid their paying the rent. Photo by Steven Pisano

The first two acts take place on Christmas Eve. Mimi, a seamstress, was in the caressing hands of Christina Rohm. Ms. Rohm’s singing of “Mi chiamino Mimi” was right up there with the greats. Her rapturous outpourings in her duet (“O soave fanciulla”) with Rodolfo were thrilling. Ms. Rohm’s pouring out her heart to Marcello in Act Three gave one chills, and her death scene so poignantly done, was as sad as could be. Ms. Rohm’s glorious soprano soared to the heavens with the joys of her love and left us utterly alone, along with Rodolfo and her friends at her passing. Ms. Rohm’s diminishing her tones, shading her volume, and opening her soul for her beloved Rodolfo, made hers a Mimi to put in your memory bank and withdraw the interest to give you emotional solvency for a lifetime. Her exquisite singing of “Addio senza rancor” echoes in memory. The pathos and poignancy of her words and voice made all feel the strength of her love and the defiance of her terrible illness and the goodness of her soul.  In the last act, her sublime singing “Sono andati fingevo di dormire” was indelible and unforgettable. Poor Mimi. Brava – sublime artist Christina Rohm.  

It’s love at first sight for Rodolfo (Hyunho Cho (left) and Mimi (Christina Rohm). Photo by Steven Pisano

Rodolfo, a writer, was in the handsome and strong countenance of tenor Hyunho Cho who looked the part, tall, lithe, and full of dreams. The iconic aria “Che gelida manina” was sung with additional beauty on its ascendancy. The climactic high C was securely hit and gently held back so that one felt ease and not strain. This is a voice where the top is partially in hibernation on its way to glorious full bloom. His singing of “O soave fanciulla” made for a wonderful outpouring and the offstage climax was exhilarating as two young fresh voices were united by love. His Act Three singing was heartfelt and we were all so happy that they decided to remain together until Spring. On so many occasions in this performance, Rodolfo, Mimi and the orchestra playing so rhapsodically were one as Puccini would have wanted. Rodolfo’s reaction and final cries clutching the moribund  body of his beloved Mimi, were heartbreaking. There is nothing that can compare with his great loss. Hyunho Cho was a superb Rodolfo – bravo to him. His cries of “che vuol dire Quel guardarmi cosi” followed by sobbing “Mimi, Mimi” were devastating. Please pass the Kleenex.

The 4 Bohemians & Mimi enjoy Christmas Eve at Café Momus. From left (Scott Lefurgy, Hyunho Cho, Christina Rohm, Luis Alvarado, José Cuertas). Photo by Steven Pisano

Musetta, a grisette, (French – a working class woman) was in the persona of Carami Hilaire, whom I remembered as a very fine Aida with the Regina Opera. Musetta is a carefree, amusing character who is Marcello’s girlfriend. Their romance is sizzling hot, and on and off between jealous arguing. However her basic goodness shines through when Mimi is dying and she acknowledges being a flawed gem while Mimi is an angel. The Christmas eve Café Momus scene is where Musetta makes a grand entrance and sings the iconic “Quando m’en vo,” which decades ago was a hit record by Della Reese. Musetta has left Marcello and enters the cafe with a rich sugar daddy, Alcindoro. After Mimi feigning a foot ache from her new shoes, Alcindoro leaves to get them repaired while Marcello and Musetta are passionately reunited. Ms. Hilaire sang “Quando m’en vo” beautifully, and her exceptional top voice dominated the ensemble and was as captivating as Musetta’s big heart and generous nature. A very strong splash of brilliance on this portrait of bohemian life and love.  

Musetta (Carami Hilaire) brags about her own charms, to the horror of her wealthy, elderly escort Alcindoro. (David Tillistrand) (seated left). Photo by Steven Pisano

Marcello, a painter was a good friend to Rodolfo and Mimi. Scott Lefurgy was an excellent Marcello with a strong manly baritone. Rodolfo’s singing of “O Mimi tu piu non torni” with the remorseful Marcello, when Mimi has moved out and Musetta’s flirtations have upset him beyond mere patience, was touching. Their voices blended beautifully in this much loved duet and the ending so softly because they really can’t live without the love their girlfriends/ soulmates offered.  

Marcello (Scott Lefurgy, left) & Colline (Luis Alvarado, right) carry Musetta out of the cafe, after sending Alcindoro, her wealth escort, allegedly to have her shoe fixed. Photo by Steven Pisano

The Bohemians were all wonderful. Schaunard, a musician, was sung by José Cuartas, a Colombian American baritone from Queens. His rich sounding voice and comedic acting made for a memorable and impressive portrait of his character. His sister Marissa and her  friend were in the audience giving loving support.

Mimi (Christina Rohm) asks Marcello (Scott Lefurgy) for his help: Rodolfo has left her because he is jealous. Photo by Steven Pisano

Colline, a philosopher was sung by Luis Alvarado and yes it was Mr. Alvarado who sang the coat song – not Caruso. Mr. Alvarado sang this brief but touching aria beautifully, his rich full voice slowly milking the mournful “Death theme” of Mimi at its core.

Benoit the landlord, was David Tillistrand, whose mournful countenance was truly amusing and whose basso buffo was titillating. His was an adroit caricature of a buffoon outsmarted by the scrappy Bohemian tenants.

Rodolfo (Hyunho Cho, center) tries to help the ailing Mimi (Christina Rohm, right). Marcello (Scott Lefurgy, left) & Schaunard (José Cuartas, rear) try to assist him. Photo by Steven Pisano

Alcindoro, a sugar daddy, could have been one in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” David Tillistrand once again struck gold as Alcindoro, and how nice to see his face when given the bill for all at the Café Momus.

Mimi (Christina Rohm, right) is deathly ill. Rodolfo (Hyunho Cho, center) & Musetta (Carami Hilarie) try to help her. Photo by Steven Pisano

As Parpignol, Lindell Carter used his clear, fine tenor voice to add color to the toy vendor. His music is just a tad sad, and the parade that follows is so glad.

Reliable Thomas Geib was solid and majestic as the Sergeant.

Realizing that Mimi (Christina Rohm) is dead, Rodolfo (Hyunho Cho) is overcome with despair. Photo by Steven Pisano

It was nice to see and hear Francine Garber’s super soprano briefly in Act Three.

The superb Regina chorus sang sweetly at the Café Momus, and the ensemble was also used both  well and colorful. The familiar angelic faces of Arina Ayzen, Nomi Barkan (Boy) Shelly Barkan, Raphaëlle Blin (Delivery boy, waiter,) Alexandra Cummings, Catherine Greco, Kerianna Krebushevski, Elena Jannicelli-Sandella, Martin Peacock (Delivery man, headwaiter, soldier) Ksenia Stepanova, Jonathan Turner, Aliyah Meredith Weinstein and Lindsey Wells.

The set design by Linda Lehr and Wayne Olsen was eye catching and mood setting, yet simple and accomplished. The Bohemian signs and portraits were symbolic and lovely.

The costumes by Marcia C. Kresge were perfection. Each “Bohemian” stood out colorfully not garishly. Mimi’s simple wardrobe and Rodolfo’s colorful attire and those of his fellow Bohemians were symbolic and welcome. Musetta stood out in blazing color and flamboyance. Saori Morris’s make up was subtle and shaded properly.

Linda Lehr’s stage direction was perfection. Everyone was in their proper place for audience viewing. There was direction and flow – sheer genius.The Café Momus was so joyful. Alcindoro getting the bill after all his frustrations was genuinely funny. Some directors choose to omit that piece of operatic action but to many, it’s the whipped cream on an ice cream sundae. It was nice to chat with Ms. Lehr and sing her praises with her friends Frank and Patrizia at La Casa Vieja restaurant afterwards.

Maestro Gregory Ortega Music director conducted an illuminating performance with the 35 splendid musicians, and Puccini’s brilliant touching music was revealed to its very core. Maestro’s finales were all exhilarating and the finale showed us love lost forever and the tears flowed for Mimi and all.

So nice to see members of the Barkan family on violin and oboe and onstage. Marlene Ventimiglia was the  ever gracious volunteer and Joe Delfausse is always reliable and helpful. Linda Cantoni’s translations of the titles made the opera more enjoyable.

Bravo Regina Opera. Thank you to Francine Garber – Cohen, Producer; and to Linda Lehr for the spectacular staging.

My group of friends and family, some with grandchildren went to Casa Vieja, a Mexican restaurant, where we lifted a glass to two of Regina Opera friends who have passed away. Gabe Carbone age 91 and Bill Safka age 79, who were two beloved Bohemians and opera lovers. They were with us in spirit. They, like Judy and myself and countless opera lovers, love the Regina Opera. Their bravos echo in happy memory. Lourdes Peña and staff are like the Café Momus to us. Like the sun every morning, Sunset Park rises with Casa Vieja and the Regina Opera – both are part of its ascendancy. The Regina Opera will end its 49th season with Verdi’s masterpiece Il Trovatorein May. We look forward to being at the Regina Opera – Brooklyn’s premiere opera house for that opera.

Opera Index Honors Legendary Soprano Diana Soviero & Presents 2018 Award Winners

Opera Index, Inc. held its Annual Distinguished Achievement Award Dinner honoring legendary soprano Diana Soviero on Sunday, January 20th. Despite the cold and threatening weather, this event, held at the JW Marriott Essex House in New York City had a huge turnout. It also presented the 2018 Opera Index Award Winners. The effervescent Jane Shaulis, beloved Metropolitan Opera mezzo and President of Opera Index spoke of the special award singers. Their hard work and dedication to their craft and the patrons of Opera Index whose heartfelt support gives the young artists room to breathe and grow.

Pianist Michael Fennelly with singers Jessica Faselt, Megan Esther Grey, James Ley, 
Rebecca Pedersen, Jane Shaulis, Dashual Chen, Michael Brent Smith & Jeff Byrnes   
Photo by Judy Pantano

The rain was ending, the sun came out, the clouds parted, the temperatures dropped as the wind picked up but we were all safe and warm in the JW Marriott Essex House Hotel and a torrent of award winning voices were about to envelope us in a storm of emotions as the Opera Index concert began.

“Dich, teure Halle” from Wagner’s Tannhauser began the concert with dazzling perfection by soprano Jessica Faselt. Ms. Faselt had a strong yet tempered soprano that beguiled rather than bull horned the audience with shimmering and vibrant tone. Ms. Faselt’s voice was even in quality from top to bottom with bursts of beauty in the upper reaches. Ms. Faselt was the proud recipient of the Tito Capobianco award sponsored by Joseph Gasperec and Jane Shaulis.  

Opera Lecturer Lou Barrella & Honoree Soprano Diana Soviero   
Photo by Judy Pantano

Baritone Jeff Byrnes sang “Hai gia vinta la causa” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Mr. Byrnes is the possessor of a large, round resonant, warm, expressive baritone, many subtle Mozartian gestures, grand of manner and Astaire like on his feet. (no mean feat) He truly was a messenger of Mozartian joy. Jeff Byrnes received an Encouragement Award.

“Sein wir wieder gut” from Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos was illuminated by mezzo-soprano Megan Esther Grey. Her pleasing, plangent phrasing, was Bellinian in its upper and lower register displays from hopeful to mournful were like a veritable Casbah of color and daring duress and casual excess. It was a beautifully framed picture of vocal abundance and elegance. Ms. Grey appeared by permission of the Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. Megan Esther Grey received The Marjory and Arthur E. Walters Memorial Award.  

Maestro Stephen Phebus, Linda Howes & Philip Hagemann 
 Photo by Judy Pantano

Tenor James Ley added tuneful romance to the program with “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Das Land des Lächelns by Franz Lehar. Mr. Ley prefered to keep it as a seductive whisper rather than an “all out” display. The late immortal tenor Richard Tauber had color and superb pianissimi that were the essence of his career. Mr. Ley did not attempt a more drastic approach. He did walk through the crowd to attempt a sense of intimacy which is always nice but I thought his approach was a bit too subtle and needed more thrust. This iconic piece is often overdone and Mr. Ley was a bit underdone. He is going in the right direction but a bit more color and flamboyance would surely have won the ladies heart.The appreciative audience bathed him in warm applause and to many, Franz Lehar can do no wrong. James Ley received The Dr. Robert Campbell/Cesare Santeramo Award.

“Stridono lassù” from I Pagliacci by Leoncavallo was sung by soprano Rebecca Pedersen. Ms. Pedersen has a lovely open soprano, a strong flexible coloratura, a charming upper register leading to a climactic high. One must feel the desperation underneath the bird filled horizon, the heaving breasts, the longing to be free as a  bird. The story is of this peasant girl rescued from poverty by an older man who is a clown. Rebecca Pedersen received an Emerging Artist Award.

Planning Consultant Connie Chen with Basso James Morris 
Photo by Judy Pantano

The 1948 Italian film Pagliacci (Bel Canto Society) starred baritone Tito Gobbi as Tonio and Silvio and the thrilling voice of Galliano Masini as Canio. Gina Lollobrigida was Nedda. (Voice of soprano Onelia Fineschi) Fineschi put her heart into Nedda, adept at lip syncing. “La Lollobrigida” also made it clear why every man was dripping with lust for “Nedda” (Stefan Zucker) I recall my Sicilian Uncle Ignazio, then in his early twenties and not an opera lover coming home from the Benson Theatre in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in a daze because of Nedda’s (Gina Lollobrigida’s) beauty and her wanderlust! He is 92 now, was a champion ballroom dancer and still remembers! My grandparents, Antonio and Rosalia, took me to the same theatre to see the film Pagliacci with tenor Beniamino Gigli. Gigli played Canio released from prison years after, seeing a stranger in his hometown who was in reality his daughter, who he never knew and he says the word “Nedda,” because of her resemblance. In real life, the composer Leoncavallo’s father was the magistrate who ruled over the actual  trial and sentenced Canio to prison. Grandma Rosalia and her friends would loudly curse the villain or the whore from the audience. In the popular series Seinfeld, “Crazy Joe” Devola calls Elaine Benes “Nedda” after seeing a performance of Pagliacci. She looked unnerved and apprehensive about that to put it simply. Look for your inner Nedda. Hit the high notes but remember Nedda’s burning with passion for her young lover Silvio! High and low is where to go! Enrico Caruso’s Vesti la Giubba 1907 recording was the first million selling record of the immortal and incomparable Caruso. (1873-1921) Caruso sang Canio to soprano Bella Alten – Nedda on January 24, 1914 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.(BAM)The Met opera had the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of its tour until 1937. On January 3,1911, Enrico  Caruso appeared in Pagliacci at BAM with luminaries such as Alma Gluck and baritone Pasquale Amato. Caruso’s many appearances at BAM included several Pagliacci’s. How lucky Brooklyn was.

“Arise Ye Subterranean Winds” in The Tempest from Purcell was basso Brent Michael Smith. Lovers of dark voices rejoice! Brent Michael Smith with his robust and versatile instrument truly dominate this rare realm today. Like an exotic blue diamond, we all feel like recipients of his vocal love with its sexy depth and sudden cliff like leaps into basso darkness. The Tempest by Purcell was what we had witnessed earlier this very day.The furies that swept the snowstorm and rain afterward away, resounded in Mr. Smith’s cavernous voice. It was fun to revel in its mighty tone, roller coaster versatility and dominant radiance. I recalled George London’s dark vocal treasure in The Flying Dutchman, Ezio Pinza’s “Le Cor” and Chaliapin’s “Ochi chornya.” I was in dark voice glory. Brent Michael Smith was the recipient of the Sachi Liebergesell Award.  

Barbara Meister Bender & David Schuyler Bender From Career Bridges   
Photo by Judy Pantano

The last singer was Chinese tenor Dashuai Chen who sang “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s masterpiece Rigoletto.  Mr. Chen revealed himself to possess a lyrico spinto tenor voice that had some exciting dimineundos, fortissimos, pianissimos all of which he used to be a boastful, flamboyant Duke. He is a great admirer of the late Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus. He strolled up and down the aisle, held diminishing notes with vocal trickery, flexibility while maintaining Verdi’s rhythm and indicating the Duke’s powers of seduction. On April 17, 1955, the great tenor Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957) sang “La donna è mobile” at his return to America’s three farewell concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Gigli sang about a dozen arias and more than a dozen songs. His “La donna è mobile” was a showpiece. He sang it (age 65) in much the same manner as Mr. Chen and tore the house down. Mr. Chen sang Mattinata (Leoncavallo) at a Gerda Lissner Lieder Concert at Liederkranz Hall in such an Italianate manner and scored a sensational hit. Host Midge Woolsey said most tenors have sung this song and even Joan Sutherland sang it magnificently. A note of coincidence, the great tenors Lauritz Melchior and Beniamino Gigli were both born the same day and the same year March 20, 1890. WQXR radio’s George Jellinek (The Vocal Scene) always assured us birthday tributes to these great tenors of opera and film fame. Dashuai Chen won The Lissner Charitable Fund Award.

The deliciously durable accompanist was Michael Fennelly whose incredible talent makes the performers shine and triumph as if with a full orchestra.

Jane Shaulis spoke of her deep respect and devotion to Diana Soviero during the years they both sang with the New York City Opera. Jane also spoke of Diana’s beautiful voice and great big kind and generous heart.

Maestro Bernard Uzan &  WQXR’s Nimet Habachy
Photo by Judy Pantano

The awards ceremony was presided over by Nimet Habachy, the overnight host of WQXR singing the praises of Diana Soviero. For many years, Ms. Habachy was the erudite and charming host of the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. Jennifer Rowley, Opera Index winner and now rising Metropolitan Opera star, spoke deeply of Opera Index and her unforgettable teacher Diana Soviero.

I will never forget seeing Diana replace Teresa Stratas in Suor Angelica at the Met. A dear friend, Cuban cabaret baritone Alfredo Villoldo attended the performance. When the opera was over we both said we don’t know how Stratas would have sounded but Diana’s performance was sheer, tragic perfection framed with love and is now forever in memory. Thank you dear Diana.

Anne Kozlowsky, Cesare Santeramo, Sachi Liebergesell & Janet Stovin (seated)   
Photo by Judy Pantano

Alina Zamir wrote a new book on Diana Soviero without ever having interviewed her but researching and gathering second hand information. The book is entitled “Diana Soviero – The Artistry and Beyond” (Euro-Stampa” which is an eloquent testament to this sublime and incomparable artist, humanitarian and teacher.”

Ms. Soviero, a passionate American Sicilian and husband famed impresario Bernard Uzan (Montreal Opera) spoke of her love for singing, her wonderful comrades at the Met, New York City Opera and worldwide and her friends in New Jersey. She loves teaching and the future looms large and happy with her stepdaughter Vanessa Uzan’s baby to come making her a Nonna (grandmother). She graciously accepted the beautiful Tiffany glass apple to bravas and applause.

At the sumptuous filet mignon dinner, we chatted with Opera Index couple President Jane Shaulis and Executive Director Joseph Gasperec, Vice President Janet Stovin, (celebrating a birthday) patrons Cesare Santeramo, Jesse Walters and Meche Kroop, board members Ellen Godfrey, John David Metcalfe, Robert Steiner and Faith Pleasanton, the great Met Opera basso James Morris, Met legendary soprano Elinor Ross, opera managers Ken Benson and Robert Lombardo, Maestro Stephen Phebus and Linda Howes, Maestro Eve Queler, Sicilian American tenor Anthony Laciura from Encompass Arts and his wife Joel, gregarious Michael Fornabaio from the Gerda Lissner Foundation, soprano opera lecturer Jane Marsh, opera lecturer Lou Barrella, vocal school’s Joy Ferro, author Luna Kaufman, Jolana Blau from “Elysium between two continents,” Sachi Liebergesell from the Liebergesell Foundation, Career Bridges sparkling Barbara and David Bender, baritone Mark Watson, planning consultant Connie Chen, Cavaliere poet Dr. Edwardo Jackson and from Opera Exposure, Edna Greenwich and Dwight Otley.

Edna Greenwich & Dwight Otley from Opera Exposure
Photo by Judy Pantano

Judy and I are thrilled to be the honorees at the Spring luncheon this coming April. The late much missed author and television host Lina Del Tinto and Harry Demarsky introduced us to Murray Rosenthal and Philip Hagemann. Opera Index gave us a great gift of much music, friends and joy. A kiss to the heavens and a hug to all of our opera friends.

Philip Hagemann, Joy Ferro & Murray Rosenthal
Photo by Judy Pantano

Special thanks to Jane Shaulis, ever glowing and leading Opera Index to greater glory and continued success to all the singers. Diana Soviero, is a beacon and inspiration, who has the discipline, talent and love that have been given to the precious few.

Opera Index President Met Mezzo Soprano Jane Shaulis & Executive Director Joseph Gasperec   
Photo by Judy Pantano