Sarasota Opera Presents A Magnificent Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly & wedding guests. Photo by Rod Millington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butterfly preparing for death scene. Photo by Rod Millington

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

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

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

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

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

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



Regina Opera Presents Puccini’s Tosca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scarpia & Tosca. Photo by Sabrina Palladino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

Stefan Zweig

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

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

Frédéric Chopin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Opera Index Honors Stage Director Tito Capobianco & Presents Opera Recital of 2016 Award Winners

Joseph Gasperec, Jane Shaulis & Tito Capobianco. Photo by Judy Pantano

On the evening of Sunday, January 15th, at the JW Marriott Essex House on Central Park South in New York City, Opera Index hosted a tribute to internationally acclaimed stage designer Tito Capobianco and also presented an operatic recital of the 2016 Opera Index Award winners.

Jane Shaulis, a much-loved mezzo from the Metropolitan Opera is the President of Opera Index and made the introductory remarks. She was happy to report that over $50,000 was given in varying scholarships in 2016 and proudly introduced the awardees.

Sandra Hamaoui sang “Ah! Je veux vivre” from Romeo and Juliette. She and Gounod are perfect together. Her generous soprano flows freely and evenly from upper to lower register and was full of adolescent enthusiasm. Ms. Hamaoui’s beguiling coloratura was symbolic of Juliette’s awakening. The exuberance of her presentation and some powerful outbursts at the finale, made for a joyful Juliette with a newly minted inner core of love and strength.

Michael Fennelly, Sava Vemic, Sandra Hamaoui, Angela Vallone, Jane Shaulis, Jakub Orlinski, Cody Quattlebaum & Andre Courville. Photo by Judy Pantano.

Cody Quattlebaum used his seamless resonant bass-baritone in “Se vuol ballare” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. He brought with him a vibrant quality, penetrating sound and impish interpretation that evoked memories of the great basso s of the past. We need good bass-baritones today and Mr. Quattlebaum brings us hope aplenty!

Jakub Orlinski, countertenor will help fill the void left by Russell Oberlin, the pioneer countertenor who just passed away. Mr. Orlinski sang “Furibondo spira il vento” from Partenope by Handel. His adroit “handeling” (no pun) of the scales, roulades, ascents and descents of this roller coaster selection showed mastery. His clear diction and surprisingly effortless low notes were a marvel. Can Orlinski “Handel” it? The answer is- very well indeed!

Benefactors Cesare Santeramo, Janet Stovin, Doris Keeley, Joseph Gasperec & Karl Michaelis. Photo by Judy Pantano.

Andre Courville, bass-baritone entertained us with a rarity,”Air du tambour major” from Le Caid by Ambroise Thomas. This aria, full of pomp, strutting and soldierly pride, has audiences foot stomping to its rhythm. It’s the “Over there” of its day and Mr. Courville sang it with resonance, power, relish, good humor and into the dining area where he serenaded a few ladies at table, including my wife Judy. Courville’s fioritura and cadenzas rivaled the 1812 Overture in their contagious joy.

Angela Vallone sang “Azael, Azael” from L’enfant Prodigue by Claude Debussy. Ms. Vallone, winner of the Arthur E. Walters Memorial Award evokes memories of the great Mary Garden (1874-1967), a Scottish-American soprano who sang a very exotic repertory as well as the usual fare. Ms. Vallone possesses a truly beautiful soprano and can float a high note like an angel on a cloud. As the legendary soprano Licia Albanese always advised, to let each word sing. Ms. Vallone paints word pictures and with a slight inflection, can break your heart. This is a talent that will require careful nurturing so that the world can see and hear what we witnessed. She will shine and bring us the light we seek in both opera and song.

Barbara Meister-Bender & Rafael Sanchez. Photo by Judy Pantano

Sava Vemic, basso, has won the top awards from the Premier Lissner Charitable Fund Award and Opera Index. He sang “Il lacerato Spirito” from Verdi’s Simone Boccanegra. Vemic recently made his Metropolitan Opera debut as the High Priest in Verdi’s Nabucco. His singing of this magnificent aria plumbed the hallowed depths with noble phrasing, great emotion, caressing tone and a burnished heavenly “Prego Maria, per me.” His declamatory singing at the beginning was riveting and his inspired singing throughout was exemplary. Tall, handsome and debonair in manner, truly Cesare Siepi reborn!

The splendid accompanist to the singers was the terrific and talented piano virtuoso Michael Fennelly.

Jane Shaulis returned to give the Distinguished Achievement Award to Tito Capobianco, who is acclaimed for his ingenious and versatile treatment of repertory classics, “from Baroque to Romantic, verismo and contemporary opera.” Mr. Capbianco was born in Argentina and his years with New York City Opera (NYCO) included Donizetti’s Three Queens with Beverly Sills, Lucia di LammermoorGiulio Cesare and Boito’s Mefistofele. We shared a mutual friend in the late great NYCO basso Don Yule, my Brooklyn (Prospect Heights) neighbor as well.

Stephen De Maio & Murray Rosenthal. Photo by Judy Pantano

Jane Shaulis spoke glowingly of Tito Capobianco’s assistance to her as a novice at NYCO and warmly of their friendly and fruitful collaborations. Mr. Capobianco, gave a witty and gracious acceptance speech and said “listen, watch and learn,” his advice to beginners and received a standing ovation.

We spoke with Tito Capobianco and his charming guest Barbara Sandonato who was a prima ballerina at New York City Ballet (NYCB) in the halcyon days of George Balanchine and who now heads the Barbara Sandonato School of Ballet in Philadelphia. I mentioned the legendary Italian lyric tenor Tito Schipa (Vivere) (1888-1965) who sang many Spanish songs and often visited Argentina. Mr. Capobianco said that his parents so admired the art of Tito Schipa that after seeing Schipa sing at a concert in Buenos Aires shortly before Capobianco’s birth, they broke tradition and named him Tito instead of after his familial grandfather. Like Pope Francis, the Capobianco family originated in Italy then migrated to Argentina. I too, have family members in Buenos Aires.

Barbara Sandonato & Tito Capobianco. Photo by Judy Pantano

It was wonderful to see Armenian-American Met soprano Lucine Amara, Lebanese legendary Met mezzo Rosalind Elias, the indomitable dramatic Met soprano Elinor Ross, Met legend and Kennedy Center awardee Martina Arroyo, Elaine Malbin, soprano at NYCO and NBC TV opera pioneer, the great Met Opera basso Eric Owens, a former Opera Index awardee, fresh from his triumph in L’Amour de loin at the family table of Janet Stovin (Vice President of Opera Index), soprano Barbara Meister-Bender lent her glamorous presence (Career Bridges), along with Rafael Sanchez, handbag designer, patron presenter Dr. Robert Campbell and tenor troubadour Cesare Santeramo, author Luna Kaufman, Bill Ronayne, President of the Mario Lanza Foundation (located in Brooklyn) were in attendance as was Met tenor and television actor Anthony Laciura, a fellow Sicilian.

At our table was our gracious host Stephen De Maio, President of the Gerda Lissner Foundation, patron presenter Karl Michaelis, Michael Fornabaio Vice President and Treasurer, Gloria Gari from the Giulio Gari Foundation, Maestro Eve Queler from Opera Orchestra of New York, Joyce Greenberg, competition assistant to several foundations and Met opera basso Sava Vemic, a Gerda Lissner awardee.

Sopranos Lucine Amara & Elaine Malbin. Photo by Judy Pantano

It was such fun to spend some time with Opera Index Treasurer Murray Rosenthal and composer and Vice President Philip Hagemann. We greeted Joy B. Ferro, who is now the Artistic Director of the vocal program of her late husband Daniel on Madison Avenue. We introduced two gentlemen whose hobbies were clocks, (horologists) John Metcalfe from the Opera Index Board of Directors and Gary Dietrich who is the Metropolitan Opera Stage Manager and both were friends of NYCO bass Don Yule who was also a clock maven. Mrs. Dietrich is Opera Index Board member Laura Alley and is on the staff of Mannes College. We also chatted with Mara Waldman, pianist musicologist, Doris Keeley, patron and presenter, Meche Kroop, patron and reviewer, opera manager Ken Benson, Edna Greenwich, Founder and Director of Opera Exposures with Dwight Owsley, Board member and the ebullient Cavaliere Edward Jackson, poet, who is the unofficial Mayor of Italian Bensonhurst!

Meche Kroop, Nino Pantano, Maestro Eve Queler & Philip Hagemann. Photo by Judy Pantano

As we were leaving, as when we entered, it was great to to see Opera Index President Jane Shaulis and her husband Joseph Gasperec, who was a Stage Director and now serves as Executive Director of Opera Index.

We all went into the chill of the night with echoes of young and talented voices that warmed our hearts and will live on in memory!



Amahl and the Night Visitors at the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home

Marcello, Nino & Judy Pantano with Composer Gian-Carlo Menotti at BAM-1984

On the afternoon of Sunday, January 8th, Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Christmas opera of Amahl and the Night Visitors was performed at the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home on York Avenue near East 72nd Street in New York City. The many Christmas decorations from trees to creches that were at the home made one feel the joys and comforts of the season.

The famed Italian composer Gian-Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) was commissioned by NBC TV to write a Christmas opera. Menotti initially could not find a theme for his opera and labored for many months. Finally, one day while visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Menotti chanced to see the Hieronymus Bosch painting of “The Adoration of the Magi.” It recalled his boyhood in Italy when he and his brother would eagerly await the gifts left for them by the Three Kings. Suddenly he knew what his opera would be about. The first showing of Amahl on Christmas Eve 1951 drew over 5 million viewers and the opera became an annual television event on NBC.  Maestro Gian-Carlo Menotti, who also wrote the lyrics, said that even though he was commissioned to write this opera for television, he really meant it to be a stage work. The great conductor and head of the NBC Symphony Arturo Toscanini, tearfully told Menotti after seeing a dress rehearsal, “this is your finest work.” Judy, Marcello and I were privileged to meet Gian-Carlo Menotti at a special performance of Amahl at the Brooklyn Academy of Music circa 1984.

The Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch

Amahl is a poor crippled boy who lives in a village with his widowed mother. He is always telling her fibs. One night he tells her of a star with a tail in the sky. Suddenly there is a knock on the door and when Amahl opens it, he tells his disbelieving mother that there is a king. She chastises him for telling lies and future knocks show two kings and when his mother opens the door, it is Three Kings and Amahl exclaimed, “and one of them is black.” The Three Kings are looking for a place to rest for the night for they are seeking a child who will be a Savior to the world. The mother sends Amahl to bring the villagers with food and even dance for their royal visitors. The mother, thinking only of her own child and their poverty, attempts to steal some of the Kings’ gold. She is caught by the Paige and Amahl fiercely defends her. The Kings tell her to keep the gold but the mother returns it. Amahl offers his crutch as a gift to the child and at that moment, a miracle occurs and Amahl walks. He asks if he could accompany the Kings on their journey and his mother gives permission. The final scene is of young Amahl, playing his reed (shepherd’s pipe) and joining the Kings as his mother waves goodbye.

The Amahl for this performance was our grandson Luciano Pantano, age 10. His beautiful treble voice was clear and his diction impeccable. His “double takes” on seeing the Three Kings was ingratiating. His acting was very strong, especially in the scene when he walks again. His running down the aisle in glee after the miracle was contagious. His duets with his mother were flawless and his “Don’t Cry, Mother Dear” aria was touching. Amahl (Luciano’s) queries to the deaf King Kaspar about his pet parrot were charming and his curiosity about the Kings having “royal blood” were amusing. When Amahl asked King Kaspar” is there amongst your magic stones, is there one, is there one that can cure a crippled boy?” It fell on deaf ears. This was done quietly and poignantly.

Kathryn Mensendiek portrayed Amahl’s mother. Her singing of “All that Gold” made for rare drama and was sung with Puccinian relish. Ms. Mensendiek’s scenes with her adored son Amahl, both exasperating and poignant were sung in a rich and expressive soprano. Ms. Mensendiek’s operatic voice was tapered beautifully so that it blended perfectly with the youthful sounds of her Amahl.

Conductor/Piano Accompanist Claudia Dumschat, (Mother) Kathryn Mensendiek, (Paige) Asher Yin (Melchior) Alexis Cordero, (Kaspar) Peter Schmitz
(Balthazar) Charles S. Brown, ( Amahl) Luciano Pantano. Photo by Marcello Pantano

The Three Kings were magically sung by bass Charles S. Brown as Balthazar, baritone Alexis Cordero as Melchior and tenor Peter Schmitz as Kaspar. Their blending voices in “Have you seen a Child” was noble and majestic. Kaspar’s “This is my Box” was sung with humor and aplomb and his jubilant singing of “Lovely, lovely, lovely” was very amusing.

The Paige was Asher Yin who played his slightly villainous part with the proper anger, (Thief, thief) then awe, asking the miracle boy Amahl, “Oh Blessed Child may I touch you?”

The Shepherds song was sung by the full choir of the Church of the Transfiguration dressed in peasant garb. Their singing of “Emily, Emily, Michael, Bartholomew” was contagious and joyful. Our granddaughter Leeza was among this talented and tuneful ensemble.

The shy and then exuberant dancers were Goldie Gareza, Mateo Gareza and Gabriela Perez. The dance was choreographed by Jesse Obremski. The audience clapped in cadence to the rhythm of the music and the dancers.

The costumes by Terri Bush were colorful, regal for the Kings and the peasant outfits were earth toned and rustic. Betty Howe was the Stage Manager and Richard Olson was the Stage Director.

Dancers (Below) Goldie Gareza, Gabriela Perez &
Mateo Gareza. Photo by Judy Pantano

As Music Director and piano accompanist, Dr. Claudia Dumschat, encouraged the chorus and principals to do their very best and truly “inspired by example.” Her manifold contributions were invaluable. Dr. Dumschat is also the organist and Music Director at the Church of the Transfiguration also known as “The Little Church Around the Corner” on East 29th Street off Fifth Avenue, a position she has held since 1999. Next year’s Amahl will be in The Church of the Transfiguration with Orchestra. Claudia Dumschat’s Operation Outreach is just a small part of her obligation to the Church and community. To see her conduct, direct, perform and inspire is a joy and wonder. The many musical programs at the Church fully attest to her genius and the impact she has made. To hear and see the chorus, children and adults is to see a rainbow of nationalities united by music – perhaps the greatest unifying force in the world today! The Church of the Transfiguration with the Empire State building in view from the courtyard is a sacred place. Maestro Claudia Dumschat and company truly fulfill the mission of making “a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

The crowded room of seniors applauded and enjoyed this performance. Among the senior residents of Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home was Claudia’s mother Lizbeth Dumschat.

This opera which runs about 45 minutes should be seen again on television and in churches, auditoriums and opera houses large and small to remind us of what we seem to be lacking today – sentiment, melody and humanity.

Proud parents Marcello and Tatyana Pantano and Luciano’s 5th grade teacher Mariya Ilizirova from the Bambi School in Brooklyn as well as we grandparents, Judy and myself were among the audience of this wonderful performance. Our granddaughter Leeza, who was one of the peasants brought her friend Svetlana Doronkin‎ to see the performance and she was thrilled. Luciano’s Russian grandparents Nikolay and Lubov Klitsenko who visit frequently, teach bayan and chorus in Omsk, Siberia and Luciano’s dad, our son Marcello, is a drummer in a band. Luciano’s Italian (Sicilian) side had mandolinists, guitarists, pianists and vocals. How can he do otherwise?

I, who was known as “The Boy Caruso from Brooklyn,” at age 13 in 1949, yield the crown to my grandson Luciano, named after the famed tenor, the late Luciano Pavarotti. Luciano Pantano, who also plays the bayan, (Russian accordion) and is studying piano with Claudia Dumschat, appears to be another talented Brooklynite on the cusp of a very promising singing and musical career.



The Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation Holiday Concert & Dinner

The Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation had its annual holiday concert and dinner on Tuesday, December 6th at the New York Athletic Club’s beautifully decorated President’s room, overlooking Central Park, in New York City. Stephen De Maio one of the original founders introduced Sachi Liebergesell who serves as President of the foundation.

Ms. Liebergesell has been President for eight years and with her late husband, the much-loved Rolf Liebergesell, has been a vital force in the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation. Special persons in the audience were singled out and presented with crystal apples: Stephen De Maio, Administrative/Artistic Director, Brian O’Connor Esq. who serves as Vice President and General Counsel and Michael Fornabaio, Treasurer. Mary Lichtman, Secretary was honorably mentioned and Midge Woolsey who could not attend was thanked for her support.

Pianist Arlene Shrut, Soprano Antonina Chehovska, Artistic Director Stephen De Maio, Mezzo Samantha Hankey Tenor Fanyong Du Photo by Judy Pantano
Pianist Arlene Shrut, Soprano Antonina Chehovska, Artistic Director Stephen De Maio, Mezzo Samantha Hankey, Tenor Fanyong Du. Photo by Judy Pantano

Arlene Shrut, who has served as accompanist to the singers for many years as well as this evening was singled out for her brilliant pianistic wizardry. It was nice to chat with her much loved spouse basso Gary Kendall.

The singers then were called and the concert began. Antonina Chehovska, sang “Si,mi chiamano Mimi” from Puccini’s La Boheme. Her soprano, strong in sound, sweet in quality with impeccable diction brought us into that garret in Paris. It revealed the essence and soul of that seamstress as she described her life in this touching aria. Ms. Chehovska beautifully tapered and shaded her soaring and poignant voice and warmed our hearts, that chilly rainy evening. It should be noted that in the place where the tenor sings the word “si” many in the audience sang Rodolfo’s word! We look forward to hearing Ms. Chehovska sing this entire coveted role.

 President Sachi Liebergesell, Reviewer Nino Pantano, Pianist Arlene Shrut. Photo by Judy Pantano

President Sachi Liebergesell, Reviewer Nino Pantano, Pianist Arlene Shrut. Photo by Judy Pantano

Samantha Hankey, mezzo, regaled us with “Non piu mesta” from Rossini’s Cenerentola with flawless coloratura, fioritura and creamy sound. Her ascents and descents were as smooth as a Christmas peppermint stick and her whimsical instincts were secure. Ms. Hankey’s lower register showed her mezzo menthol as easy as Santa sliding down a chimney! With much to do musically, Ms. Hankey was like a dog walker with a dozen dogs and she held the leash knowing how much leeway to give each one. A thrilling virtuoso performance and I am certain Rossini smiled proudly!

Tenor and former ice skater Fanyong Du sang “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s” L’elisir d’amore.” Mr. Du is the possessor of a pure, penetrating Italianate tenor voice that evoked memories of such legends as Tito Schipa and Cesare Valletti. He was truly a “love struck” Nemorino with some elegant diminuendos, an excellent cadenza and strong finale to this well loved aria. Steve De Maio mentioned that Fanyong Du studied with Arthur Levy at the Mannes School of Music.

 President Sachi Liebergesell & Treasurer Michael Fornabaio. Photo by Judy Pantano
President Sachi Liebergesell & Vice President & General Counsel Brian O’Connor. Photo by Judy Pantano

It was now time for encores. Antonina Chehovska sang a Negro spiritual “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” by MacGimsey, a capella. (No musical accompaniment) Its climbing passages were heavenly and her pure sound entered the heart as the Christ child did the spirit. Ms. Chehovska’s higher vocal outpourings were like plucking beautiful blossoms from a high-branched tree. She maintained perfect pitch throughout and it was a most touching encore.

Samantha Hankey sang Irving Berlin’s masterpiece “White Christmas” and asked the audience to join in. The introduction to this classic song was also done with the proper sense of longing and remembrance. Her vocal delivery was as warm as a perfect cup of cocoa on a cold night. A beautiful job!

 President Sachi Liebergesell & Treasurer Michael Fornabaio. Photo by Judy Pantano

President Sachi Liebergesell & Treasurer
Michael Fornabaio. Photo by Judy Pantano

The final musical outpouring was “O Holy Night” by Adolphe Adam and was sung by Fanyong Du. Du’s radiant tenor was gentle, caressing and lyrically perfect. The first verse was sung in English and the second in Italian. The final verse was again in English with an impassioned Bjoerling like “O Night Divine” near the end that was thrilling. This was the perfect end to the concert and truly made us reflect on the beauty of the season and the beauty of Du’s voice. Recommended listening is Enrico Caruso’s stentorian recording of “O Holy Night” made in 1916 available on YouTube and sung in French.

Steve De Maio, who also is President of the Gerda Lissner Foundation, was singled out for his creating the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation with the immortal soprano Licia Albanese (1909-1914) and served as the first President. He said that helping young and talented singers “succeed and move on is the most important thing.”

The pumpkin filled ravioli was superb, the rack of lamb succulent, the chocolate mousse cake was truly a diet breaker. At our table were Denise and Angelo Vivolo, whose popular restaurant “Vivolo’s” is in Manhattan but was a Bensonhurst fixture in Brooklyn for many years. Angelo is the President of the Columbus Citizens Foundation and wife Denise was a professional dancer. Alfred and Christine Palladino are also from the Columbus Citizens Foundation which is the location of the Albanese-Puccini Foundation. Alfred, a former football hero, is a board member. Christine attended Lincoln High School in Brooklyn with my wife Judy. Kudos to Michael Fornabaio treasurer and Father John Kamas, from St. Jean Baptiste Church, longtime supporter who gave the heartfelt benediction before dinner.

Reviewer Nino Pantano & Opera Coach Scott Barnes. Photo by Judy Pantano
Reviewer Nino Pantano & Opera Coach Scott Barnes. Photo by Judy Pantano

It was so nice to see the vibrant Cornelia Beigel, Secretary of the Gerda Lissner Foundation, Karl Michaelis patron, Marjan and Jane Kiepura as always a sparkling duo. Marjan is a Chopin specialist and the son of Polish tenor Jan Kiepura and soubrette soprano The Merry Widow Marta Eggerth. The ebullient Brian O’Connor, Vice President and General Counsel, patron presenter the vivacious Betty Cooper Wallerstein, the ever young Maestro Eve Queler from Opera Orchestra of New York, opera agent Robert Lombardo, the ever chic Joyce Greenberg, competition assistant for several foundations, opera coach and writer Scott Barnes wearing a blinking Christmas tree button in his lapel almost rivaling the one at Rockefeller Center, all involved in the quest of assisting young talent find its place in the operatic firmament.

Judy and I were pleasantly surprised to have been mentioned by Sachi Liebergesell for our contributions and coverage of the singers and events in The Brooklyn Eagle. It is a labor of love to praise the efforts of so many talented young people and to help spread the word.

It was nice to see Vincent Fiorentino from the Board of Directors and all who aided the noble efforts of the Albanese-Puccini Foundation throughout the years. We stand with Sachi Liebergesell, Stephen De Maio and all who are present in spirit or smiling down from the heavens. Ms. Liebergesell stated that the present Board of Directors is the best ever!

That was the mission of the wonderful Licia Albanese (1909-2014) and her husband, the late Joseph Gimma Sr. whose spirits were so deeply felt this evening. Sachi Liebergesell who currently sits in the “chair of the mighty” has reigned so wisely. As we approach 2017, we pray that the generosity and loving care of the members, patrons, and supporters will allow us to go forward with the confidence that these young awardees will keep opera thriving and fulfill that beautiful, still thriving distant dream of 42 years ago!

Buon Natale, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!



Regina Opera’s 47th Season Presents an Exciting Don Giovanni

On the afternoon of Saturday, November 19th, Regina Opera began its 47th season with an exciting presentation of Mozart’s masterpiece “Don Giovanni”. Regina Opera is located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) on Sixth Avenue between 59th and 60th Streets.

Donna Anna (Christina Rohm) and Don Ottavio (Christopher Nelson) Photo by Sabrina Palladino
Donna Anna (Christina Rohm) and Don Ottavio (Christopher Nelson). Photo by Sabrina Palladino.

“Don Giovanni” had its premiere in Prague in 1787. It was labeled “Un drama giocosa” as a comedy with drama. The libretto was by the brilliant librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) who was also a friend of Giacomo Casanova. Da Ponte migrated to America and opened the first opera house on Leonard Street in lower Manhattan. Ironically both Da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) were buried in unmarked graves.

The coveted role of Don Giovanni is every bass baritone’s dream. The Metropolitan Opera’s legendary bassos Ezio Pinza and Cesare Siepi were the definitive interpreters of this great role. I was blessed to have heard them both.

At Regina Opera’s performance and as the lights dimmed, Maestro Gregory Ortega began with the ominous overture which sets the mood. Don Giovanni, a nobleman was portrayed by Nathan Matticks. Matticks has excellent stage presence and a rich versatile baritone with a cutting edge that soars. He sang “La ci darem la mano” with the young bride, Zerlina, with beguiling lyricism. His vocal outpourings in the champagne aria “Fin ch’han dal vino” were brilliantly sung as he was getting dressed. His haunting laugh at the end of the aria as he was running offstage for a new conquest was right on the mark! Matticks’ caressing singing of “Deh vieni a la finestra” melted the heartstrings. His oft times cruel interplay with his loyal servant Leporello was indicative of his basic nature. Mae West’s “Beulah, peel me a grape” has been replaced with “Leporello, peel me a banana” as the Don devours a banana with dinner. Don Giovanni’s scene with the Commendatore was bone chilling. The Don’s cynicism, cunning, and amorality were shocking as was his cavalier defiance of the stone guest. His descent into hell with ear piercing screams is forever deposited in the memory banks of all who witnessed it. A brilliant performance!

Don Giovanni (Nathan Matticks) tries to seduce Zerlina (Hannah Stone) Photo by George Showerer
Don Giovanni (Nathan Matticks) tries to seduce Zerlina (Hannah Stone). Photo by George Schowerer.

Luis Alvarado played the role of Leporello. His singing of the catalogue aria “Madamina, il catalogo e questo” was amusing, especially his master’s 1003 conquests in Spain! He is the possessor of a rich sounding, somewhat understated basso-buffo. Alvarado sang casually and did not exaggerate, but I thought he could have balanced his pleasing voice with a bit more comedic acting. Alvarado’s voice though plangent, does not have the carrying power that the role calls for and more forceful frustrations and fears would have enriched his interpretation. To his credit, he did get many cheers at the opera’s end.

Christina Rohm was Donna Anna, a noblewoman whose father was murdered in a duel by Don Giovanni as the latter was attempting to seduce her. Her singing with Leporello “Notte e giorno faticar – Non sperar, se non m’uccidi” showed her lustrous soprano. Ms. Rohm’s special magic shined in “Crudele, non mi dir,” her passionate versatile showpiece in the second act which was sung with remarkable coloratura precision, power and panache!

Don Giovanni (center, in white) surrounded by villagers. Photo by George Showerer.
Don Giovanni (center, in white) surrounded by villagers. Photo by George Schowerer.

Don Ottavio is somewhat of a wimpish role and he is so bland and ordinary next to the colorful rapacious Don. But he is sturdy, dependable and sincere as opposed to the Don Giovanni’s rascality. Christopher Nelson was an excellent Don Ottavio. He is constantly outraged by Don Giovanni’s insolence!  Mr. Nelson sang brilliantly. His singing of “Il mio tesoro” with its vocal coloratura twists and turns was sung with ease and bravado. His tenor has a beautiful sound and was a joy to hear.

Donna Elvira, a lady of Burgos, is like a gnat in Don Giovanni’s eye. She simply refuses to accept the fact that she was seduced and abandoned by him.  Yet her indignation melts whenever she sees him by stealth and catches him seducing someone. Zhanna Alkhazova was a perfect Donna Elvira: defiant, pouting, yielding, forgiving, accepting like a jealous weak-kneed shrew. She is the possessor of a sultry, rich soprano with power to spare.“Ah! fuggi il traditor!” and her singing of “Mi tradi” was golden age in its perfection.

Zerlina, a peasant girl, was saucily sung and acted by Hannah Stone whose lyric soprano sparkled in duet with Don Giovanni and her naive but sweet spouse Masetto. Her lovely singing of “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” and “Vedrai carino” were piquant and charming. Her duet “La ci darem la mano” with Don Giovanni was a highlight.

Don Giovanni (Nathan Matticks, seated) is interrupted during dinner by Donna Elvira (Zhanna Alkhazova, right) Photo by George Schowerer
Don Giovanni (Nathan Matticks, seated) is interrupted during dinner by Donna Elvira (Zhanna Alkhazova, right). Photo by George Schowerer.

Masetto, Zerlina’s betrothed, was poignantly portrayed by Jonathan Hare, whose warm charming baritone made him the subject of affection and sympathy rather than ridicule. He was ever the befuddled, simple peasant.

Il Commendatore, Anna’s father was eerily and brilliantly portrayed by basso Antoine Hodge. His singing of “Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m’invitasti” as a statue from his grave, was seeking vengeance. The scene of Don Giovanni’s steadfast defiance, leads to demons that drag him screaming, unrepentant, towards the flames of hell. Hodge’s magnificent cavernous, basso echoing his revenge, will haunt the memory for a long time.

The opera ends happily with the quintet of Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Leporello, Zerlina and Masetto singing triumphantly. Don Ottavio agrees to marry Dona Anna; Donna Elvira will retire toa convent, Zerlina and Masetto will go home to eat and Leporello will head to the tavern to find a new Master. The morale?” He who lives wickedly – will die wickedly!”

The ensemble were all excellent, both the demons in black and red and all the cast characters. Melissa Guardiola Bijur played Donna Anna’s Duenna. All provided great support. It was so nice to see veteran chorister, the perky sweet voiced Cathy Greco on “double duty” selling refreshments during the intermission.

The 3 Maskers - Donna Anna ( Christina Rohm, left) Don Ottavio (Christopher Nelson, center) Donna Elvia (Zhanna Alkhazova, right) Photo by Sabrina Palladino Photo by Sabrina Palladino
The 3 Maskers – Donna Anna ( Christina Rohm, left), Don Ottavio (Christopher Nelson, center), Donna Elvia (Zhanna Alkhazova, right). Photo by Sabrina Palladino. Photo by Sabrina Palladino

Maestro and principal conductor Gregory Ortega led Regina’s 34 splendid musicians in a performance that was captivating and truly evoked the era of the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. From the start, the orchestra played as one. From the minuet to the full powered scenes with the Commendatore, the mood was set!

Kudos to Timothy Moody on the keyboard for the serenade and parlando passages.

The magnificent costumes were by Marcia Kresge.the excellent make up both subtle and scary was by Milan Rakic. The stage director, set design and dueling sword fight choreography were by Linda Lehr. The stage was filled with many picture portraits of women dominated by the human body design of Leonardo Da Vinci in the center. Various tree branches and floral benches were used to create a stage always vibrant and colorful.

Don Giovanni (Nathan Matticks, right) is held by the Commendatore's statue (Antoine Hodge) refusing to repent for his sins. Photo by George Showerer.
Don Giovanni (Nathan Matticks, right) is held by the Commendatore’s statue (Antoine Hodge) refusing to repent for his sins. Photo by George Schowerer.

The Commendatore scene was unforgettable in its frightening power. The demons, the flames, the minuets, food and crowd scenes were a marvel of the brilliance of stage director Linda Lehr’s magic touch! Tyler Learned’s lighting brought to the fore the demise of Don Giovanni. The super titles were by Linda Cantoni and were a revelation to newcomers. Wayne Olsen’s set graphics were eye catching. This was a brilliant afternoon and evening of opera at its best. A truly vocally gripping and visually stunning “Don Giovanni!

The Regina Opera owes much to producer Francine Garber. We look forward to this 47th season of serving Brooklyn and opera lovers everywhere.



Opera Index Presents Annual Membership Buffet & Recital

The Community Church of New York, located at 40 East 35th Street in Murray Hill, New York was the venue for the Opera Index annual membership celebration on Wednesday, November 9th. It was a dreary drizzly night but as in the past, the room was crowded.

Jane Shaulis, who is a mezzo soprano at the Metropolitan Opera, is the new President of Opera Index. She spoke of scholarships that were divided among 16 singers. The original 300 who applied were all given encouragement to return if not chosen this time.

This evening five of those singers were heard accompanied by gifted accompanist Michael Fennelly.

Pianist Michael Fennelly, Cesar Delgado, Brian Vu, SeokJung Baek, Andres Moreno Garcia, Alexander McKissick & Met Opera Soprano & Opera Index President Jane Shaulis Photo by Meche KroopPianist Michael Fennelly, Cesar Delgado, Brian Vu, SeokJung Baek, Andres Moreno Garcia, Alexander McKissick & Met Opera Soprano & Opera Index President Jane Shaulis Photo by Meche Kroop
Pianist Michael Fennelly, Cesar Delgado, Brian Vu, SeokJung Baek, Andres Moreno Garcia, Alexander McKissick & Met Opera Soprano & Opera Index President Jane Shaulis. Photo by Meche Kroop

Andres Moreno Garcia, Mexican tenor sang “De miei bollenti spiriti” from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. Mr. Garcia’s voice has a mellifluous and pleasing quality. His encore was the passionate Spanish Zarzuela song “No puede ser” which he sang with abandon. It is one of Placido Domingo’s most impassioned recordings.

American tenor Alexander McKissick followed with “Torna ai felici di” from Puccini’s seminal work Le Villi. His vibrant voice has much sheen. His encore was” You and the night and the music”(Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz) nicely done with good soft contrast to his strong top. Mario Lanza’s impassioned but somewhat bombastic “pop” version of this song is recommended listening.

SeokJung Baek, from South Korea sang “Avant de quitter ces lieux” from Gounod’s Faust. His robust lyric baritone traveled the various vocal highways smoothly and his final note was held and swelled with satisfying results.This aria is always a big moment in the opera. Baek’s encore number was “L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra” by Francesco Paolo Tosti (Dawn banishes the night). This song was recorded in 1917 by the immortal tenor Enrico Caruso and is one of his greatest recordings. Mr. Baek hit the high note with great abandon and gave us all a visceral thrill. One could see, hear and feel dawn triumphant, banishing the darkness!

Cesar Delgado, Mexican tenor sang “La donna e mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, with elan and with a resounding high C preceded by a fine cadenza. His vocal projection is in the style of legendary Spanish tenor Miguel Fleta with some lovely diminuendos and strong fortissimo’s. His encore was “Yours is my Heart Alone,” from The Land of Smiles by Franz Lehar sung in flawless German.

Meche Kroop & Nino Pantano. Photo by Judy Pantano
Meche Kroop & Nino Pantano. Photo by Judy Pantano

Brian Vu used his essentially lyric baritone well in “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Vu did the patter and declamatory portion with dexterity and made it great fun! Vu’s encore was “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd and was well sung and acted!

Jane Shaulis then announced the finale which was called “Three Tenors and Two Baritones” all singing a “fun”competitive “O Sole Mio” and ending fortissimo to much delight and applause.

Stephen De Maio, Gerda Lissner President, Soprano Elaine Malbin & Ken Benson Opera Manager Photo by Judy Pantano
Stephen De Maio, Gerda Lissner President, Soprano Elaine Malbin & Ken Benson Opera Manager. Photo by Judy Pantano

In the audience were legendary singers, Met opera mezzo Rosalind Elias, dramatic soprano Elinor Ross, soubrette soprano and TV opera pioneer Elaine Malbin, Janet Stovin and composer Philip Hagemann, Vice Presidents, Murray Rosenthal treasurer, Executive Director Joseph Gasperec, Board members John Metcalfe, Jessie Walker, Mark Steiner and Steve De Maio, President of the Gerda Lissner Foundation. Brooklyn’s Ken Benson, opera manager and radio personality, the famed Brooklyn born “world’s greatest opera fan” and subject of a recent documentary, Lois Kirshenbaum, who although legally blind, never stopped her from attending every Met opera performance for decades. Maestro Stephen Phebus and wife Linda Howes, David and Barbara Meister-Bender from Career Bridges, Brooklyn’s Bill Ronayne from The Mario Lanza Society, opera lecturer and educator, Lou Barrella, Cavaliere-poet Edwardo Jackson, the vibrant chef-reviewer Meche Kroop and new members Bob Ohlerking and friend Christopher LiGreci from Park Slope, Brooklyn were in attendance.

Bob Ohlerking, Christopher LiGreci & Richard Salerni Photo by Judy Pantano
Bob Ohlerking, Christopher LiGreci & Richard Salerni. Photo by Judy Pantano
Murray Rosenthal, Opera Index Treasurer & Barbara Meister-Bender, from Career Bridges Photo by Judy Pantano
Murray Rosenthal, Opera Index Treasurer & Barbara Meister-Bender, from Career Bridges. Photo by Judy Pantano

A sumptuous dinner plus coffee and desserts was enjoyed by all. The offerings by these young and promising opera singers was feast enough. It was no longer raining when we left, but we were literally “Singing in the Rain” in the puddles. All the sunshine we needed was at the church from food, friends and frolic to fresh young voices of the future!

Martina Arroyo Foundation Celebrates 12th Annual Gala

The Martina Arroyo Gala is a much anticipated event on the social calendar and the cause could not be better! The mentoring of young opera singers of diverse backgrounds and preparing them (six weeks of intensive study plus a stipend) to participate in Prelude to Performance where they get to perform in a fully costumed and staged production with full orchestra at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. The “literati” and “glitterati’ from the world of opera, theatre and fashion merge to form a tribute to beauty and the arts. The famed JW Marriott Essex House in opposite Central Park was the sparkling venue for this coveted night of “stars.”

Met Opera Soprano Martina Arroyo & Broadway Star Ben Vereen Photo by Simon Luethi 8 Salamander Productions NYC
Met Opera Soprano Martina Arroyo & Broadway Star Ben Vereen. Photo by Simon Luethi

The cocktail hour included many items to be sold at a silent auction. We spotted Broadway actors dancer & singer Ben Vereen, actress singer Christine Ebersole and Broadway and TV’s Mario Cantone, cabaret singer Marilyn Maye, PBS’s Midge Woolsey, Advisory Board member and her husband economist Dr. Jerry Stolt. There was also a bevy of famed and familiar faces from the triple blend from the movers and shakers of opera, entertainment and fashion. Met tenor and fellow Sicilian Anthony Laciura with his wife Joelle and New York City Opera and Met tenor Richard Leech, both active with the Martina Arroyo Foundation. Once in the dining area, the great lady herself, Martina Arroyo, looking radiant in gold and silver, welcomed the guests and spoke eloquently about the great pride she has in furthering the careers of these incredibly talented young people.

Radio host WQXR, Terrance McKnight introduced three special guests, beginning with Adrienne Landau, famed American couture designer who described how opera and film director Franco Zeffirelli, early in her career liked her products and her sense of fantasy and bought many of her scarves for his friends for the holidays. Her message is to “believe your dreams.”

Ben Vereen, Marilyn Maye & Mario Cantone Photo by Simon Luethi
Ben Vereen, Marilyn Maye & Mario Cantone
Photo by Simon Luethi

Jeanine Tesori, composer and musical arranger won a Tony award for Fun Home. She spoke passionately about composing in a man’s field without it becoming a mine field and the importance of being dedicated and never giving up.

Midge Woolsey, Andrew Martin-Weber & Kirsten Adele Photo by Simon Luethi
Midge Woolsey, Andrew Martin-Weber & Kirsten Adele. Photo by Simon Luethi

The third honoree was Broadway actress and singer Christine Ebersole, who told the audience that nobody works harder than these young opera singers.

With conductor Steven Crawford at the piano, the music began with the third act of Puccini’s La Boheme.

Yunnie Park was Mimi, her radiant soprano caressing the ear and her poignant voice the soul, as she sang “Addio, Senza rancor.” Her distraught Rodolfo, Dangelo Diaz whose ardent tenor flooded the house “Addio sogni d’amor” in their duet was a perfect blend of singing and acting.

Seok Jong Baek was the exasperated Marcello, his lyric baritone engaging in banter and insult with Musetta and always pleasing to hear.

Singers Seok Jong Baek, Hongni Wu, Holly Cameron, Yunnie Park & Dangelo Diaz Photo by Simon Luethi
Singers Seok Jong Baek, Hongni Wu, Holly Cameron, Yunnie Park & Dangelo Diaz. Photo by Simon Luethi

Musetta, Holly Cameron, moderated her shimmering soprano voice, never strident, but strong in her arguments with Marcello. Both couples agree to stay together, until spring. Beautiful break up and make up ensemble singing!

Dinner was served followed by a “live” auction with rapid banter auctioneer Warren Adler selling off some wonderful items including a week in Paris and a week in London!

Excerpts from Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus followed. Hongni Wu sang a witty “Chacun a son gout” from Act Two. Her rich, dark mezzo plumbed the plummy depths of this aria and it was a tour de force triumph just as it was in last July’s Die Fledermaus at Prelude to Performance.

The Act One scene trio followed with rising soprano star Maria Natale as a sparkling, radiant voiced Rosalinde, coloratura soprano Shana Grossman repeating her savory saucy Adele and matinee idol tenor Jonathan Tetelman as Eisenstein. He was also in last July’s excellent production of Die Fledermaus and his change from baritone to tenor repertory is coming along very well indeed!

 Singers Maria Natale, Jonathan Tetelman & Shana Grossman Photo by Simon Luethi

Singers Maria Natale, Jonathan Tetelman &
Shana Grossman Photo by Simon Luethi

Maestro Stephen Crawford who conducted the Prelude to Performanceorchestra last July was the superb accompanist.

Broadway singer/actress Christine Ebersole. Photo by Simon Luethi
Broadway singer/actress Christine Ebersole. Photo by Simon Luethi

Opera Index treasurer Murray Rosenthal presented the award to Broadway great Christine Ebersole. Christine Ebersole sang a Harold Arlen ballad from Bloomer Girl “Right as the Rain” without a mike in a lovely, clear expansive soprano that wrapped itself around the ear and heart of us all, brava!

After dessert and closing remarks by Terrance McKnight, Grammy award winning musician and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, accompanied by Daniel Freiberg played a sensual “Libertango” by Astor Piazzolla followed by a jazzed up “Quando me’n Vo” by Puccini and some jazz improv in which could be heard The Donkey in the Grand Canyon Suite.

Grammy Award winner Paquito D'Rivera
Grammy Award winner Paquito D’Rivera

Special thanks to honorary Gala chairs, Donna and Richard Esteves and Andrew Martin-Weber, all who were so diligent on behalf of this exciting evening.

We thank Martina Arroyo, Kennedy Center Awardee, legendary Metropolitan Opera soprano and musical pioneer and beacon for future stars. Martina’s beloved Dad Demetrio worked as an engineer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to pay for her musical education. Martina fondly recalls the baseball games and the hot dogs from Ebbets Field that he brought her as a reward for her efforts.

The Board of Directors gave special thanks on the beautifully printed program to Martina Arroyo, Norena Barbella, Marcia Green and Helen Chang.

Our host at our table was Advisory Board Member Stephen De Maio President of the Gerda Lissner Foundation, with board members Karl Michaelis, Vice President Michael Fornabaio, patrons Barbara Ann Testa and Gloria Gari from the Giulio Gari Foundation and pioneer Maestro Eve Queler from Opera Orchestra of New York who also graced our table.

Host Terrance McKnight Photo by Simon Luethi
Host Terrance McKnight. Photo by Simon Luethi

It was fun to meet with honorary gala co-chair and Vice President Andrew Martin-Weber whose big league bravos were a joy to hear. I dubbed him the “Caruso of bravoers”!

As we left homeward bound we chatted with famed radio personality WQXR Nimet Habachy with Mr. Maisel, past awardee Michele Angelini internationally acclaimed Met Opera tenor and Martina Arroyo awardee told us of his family roots in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

All of this glitter and glory is for giving the fresh young talented singers a “push” toward attaining their goals and thus ensuring this beauty parched planet, a future with opera and music and the joys therein. Brava Martina Arroyo and thank you and the Martina Arroyo Foundation for letting in the sunlight of enlightenment and hope!