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.