A Splendid Nabucco at Sarasota Opera

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

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

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

Chorus of the Hebrew slaves. Photo by Rod Millington.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Short as Zaccaria. Photo by Rod Millington.

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

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

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

Rochelle Bard as Abigaille. Photo by Rod Millington.

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Gaertner as Nabucco. Photo by Rod Millington.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Beautiful La Bohème at the Regina Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reliable Thomas Geib was solid and majestic as the Sergeant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amahl & the Night Visitors at The Church of the Transfiguration

On the afternoon of Saturday, January 5th on eve of the Feast of the Three Kings, Amahl & the Night Visitors by Gian-Carlo Menotti was presented at The Church of the Transfiguration aka The Little Church Around the Corner in New York City. It was an Arnold Schwartz Memorial Concert series which was created by Marie Schwartz to honor her Brooklyn-born philanthropist husband.

Composer Gian-Carlo Menotti

The Reverend John David van Dooren introduced the concert with charm and bonhomie and Dr. Claudia Dumschat, Music Director and Church organist sat at the piano in her dual role of conducting and accompanying. Amahl’s theme was played by oboist Jeffrey Hale whose adroit skills added to the audience expectations and fulfillment.  

Reverend John David van Dooren, Dr. Claudia Dumschat & Director Richard Olson.  Photo by Judy Pantano

The Transfiguration Choir of Men & Boys, Girls Choir and Camerata took their turns in adding to the music composed by Italian-American composer Gian-Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) for NBC television in 1951. Menotti, who was commissioned by David Sarnoff, the head of NBC television, to write an opera for Christmas Eve viewing in 1951. Menotti could not find a theme for his opera until he chanced to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and saw Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of “The Adoration of the Magi.” He thought of his boyhood in Italy when he and his brother would await the arrival of the Three  Kings to their home bearing gifts. He composed his opera, wrote the libretto and had it ready just in time. The great conductor Arturo Toscanini, head of the NBC Symphony, attended the dress rehearsal and with tears in his eyes told Menotti that this was his finest opera. For more than ten years, this was Christmas Eve viewing. General David Sarnoff created the NBC Symphony which lured Arturo Toscanini out of retirement at age 70 in 1937 and which he conducted from 1937 till 1954. The NBC Opera also a Sarnoff idea, toured the United States “live” for a number of years as well as doing full memorable operas on television. Can you imagine TV executives attempting anything like that today?  

The Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch

Occasionally Amahl would show up at a local church or theatre and then it became a rarity until The Church of the Transfiguration under the inspiring leadership of Maestro Claudia Dumschat, Music Director, began having it performed in this intimate iconic Church  – a perfect setting for this mini masterpiece.

The Mother was sung by Kathryn Mensendick whose versatile soprano was both ethereal and powerful. Her duets with her son Amahl were always with a strong sense of love for her crippled son and anger for their poverty. Her singing of “Do They Know, do rich people know?” was tender and “All that gold” was powerfully poignant, very Puccinish but innovative, not imitated.

Amahl was portrayed by Luciano Pantano whose expressive boy treble has made him an Amahl in demand and whose emotional acting has earned him much praise. His singing of “Don’t cry, Mother dear” when his mother thinks they might have to beg for food was brimming with hope and love. His “Mother come with me,” had such anticipation and wonderment that it carried one away with the action. When the Kings asked Amahl what he did, Amahl sang, “I was a shepherd, I had a flock of sheep.” It was sung with a devastating simplicity that melted the heart. His questioning the deaf King Kaspar, “Is there amongst your magic stones, one that could cure a crippled boy?” When the deaf Kaspar says”Eh?”and Amahl says “Never mind,” it is heartbreaking.

King Melchior, Alan Henriquez, had a kindly strong baritone which always pleased the ear in their haunting, “Have you seen a child?” The blending of their three royal voices soothed the soul of the listener.

Oboist Jeffrey Hale & Dr. Claudia Dumschat. Photo by Judy Pantano

King Kaspar, Erik Rasmussen was youthful, amusing and crowd pleasing. His singing of “This is my box” with its precious stones and candies was deliciously done as he offers Amahl some licorice. Rasmussen’s tenorial and frenzied cries of “Lovely, lovely, lovely” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you” were amusingly lovable as was his parrot who bites, as seen in his bandaged finger.

King Balthazar was ennobled by the rich voiced Charles Samuel Brown whose brilliant bass baritone stood out in “Have you seen a child?” Balthazar is a reassuring presence and young Amahl knows as well as his Mother that no harm will ever befall young Amahl in such noble and fine company.

The Page was Alexis Cordero whose shouts of “Thief, thief!” gave one goosebumps. When the worrisome Amahl sees his mother struggling with the Page during her attempted robbery,”For my child,” he fights him tooth and nail. Luciano’s fierce fighting with the Kings’ Page who caught Amahl’s Mother stealing the gold evoked sadness.

After Amahl offers his crutch as a gift to the child, he suddenly walks normally, “Look Mother, I can walk” and there is great rejoicing. The Kings all ask Amahl if they may touch him and when the Page also asks, Amahl at first refuses but then adds, “Well, just once.” Then the Three Kings invite Amahl to join them on their journey to find the child. While playing his shepherd’s pipe, Amahl leaves with his crutch and the Three Kings as they wave goodbye to his Mother.

The excellent chorus with my granddaughter Leeza sang “Emily, Michael, Bartholomew” in a spirited and joyous abandon. My wife Judy sang this with the Santa Monica Choir in her college days in Los Angeles, never dreaming that our grandson would be Amahl and glorify our senior years.

Shepherds & Dancers. Photo by Judy Pantano

The dancers, sprightly and ethereal were the gifted Lauren Twomley and Mark Willis. I thought back to Aida at the “old Met” with the unforgettable dancing of  Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade. Choreographer Jesse Obremski was extravagant in his movements for the dancers in a grand eye catching, foot stomping and real “hand clapping” (with the audience joining in) manner with impressive leaps and twirls.

Charles Samuel Brown ( Balthazar), Erik Rasmussen (Kasper), Kathryn Mensendiek (Mother),  Luciano Pantano (Amahl), Alan Henriquez ( Melchior ), & Alexis Cordero ( Page).Photo by Judy Pantano

The talented costume designer Terri Bush whose peasant attire struck the right chord to the viewer and in contrast to the brilliant and dazzling costumes of the Three Kings.

Stage manager Betty Howe who used the side as well as the front of the Church gave a fantasia of sound and venue. The Director, Richard Olson whose concepts took us out of the common place and into the rare for a wondrous journey.

We were happy to see Metropolitan Opera’s beloved mezzo-soprano Jane Shaulis and her husband Joseph Gasperec, formerly with NY City Opera stage design. Jane is now also President of Opera Index which helps support aspiring opera singers through awards and scholarships. They enjoyed the performance and loved the Christmas decor of The Church of the Transfiguration. Luciano’s parents, Tatyana and our son Marcello were there to lend support to Luciano and Leeza-our mutual pride and joy! Luciano is now 12 and his voice will soon change. At age 13, I was “the boy Caruso of Brooklyn” but my voice changed to baritone! I never sang Amahl or had the excellent guidance of my grandson Luciano.

Judy & Marcello Pantano, Composer Gian-Carlo Menotti,  friend Lydia Caressa & Nino Pantano – 1985

We thank the gifted and wondrous founder of the feast organist (piano) and conductor Dr. Claudia Dumschat for a Christmas treasure that would have brought a tear and a smile to Gian-Carlo Menotti.  Judy, Marcello and I met Menotti at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and at Maestro Dino Anagnost’s The Little Orchestra Society at Lincoln Center. Menotti was 75 but I still saw Amahl in his soul as he and his brother waited for the Three Kings in Italy way back when!

Amahl & The Night Visitors at The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen

On Site Opera ‘s (OSO) mission is to explore new technology in opera. To that end, they held a preview performance of Amahl & the Night Visitors on Tuesday, December 4th at The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Chelsea, the largest soup kitchen in the city since 1982. They are working with Breaking Ground who is New York’s largest supportive housing provider to help people overcome and avoid homelessness. Some in the cast were homeless or had been homeless and given new life by The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen and we are thankful for that assistance in their lives.  

Composer Gian-Carlo Menotti

Amahl and the Night Visitors was composed in 1951 by the Italian (later American composer) Gian-Carlo Menotti (July 11, 1911- February 1, 2007) for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television. Menotti could not think of what he wanted to write until he saw the Hieronymus Bosch painting of The Adoration of the Magi at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He recalled his boyhood in Italy when he and his brother would await the gifts left by the three Kings. Arturo Toscanini, the great conductor and head of the NBC Symphony, after attending the dress rehearsal, told Menotti tearfully, “this is your finest work.” The initial telecast on Christmas Eve in 1951, drew an audience of millions and became an annual presentation for years. NBC head General David Sarnoff wanted to bring culture to the television viewing public and also formed the NBC Opera Company which showed opera on television and toured the country as well. Today, this masterpiece is rarely presented despite the strong audience reception in the past. Amahl & The Night Visitors was a wonderful presentation at of The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen’s splendid “opera free for all” initiative program. 

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 playing his shepherd’s pipe as the opening theme while his Mother is calling him to come home. Taking his time to respond to her, he tells his Mother of a star with a tail in the sky. She doesn’t believe him because he is always telling fibs. As they get ready for bed, there suddenly 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. 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. Amahl’s Mother, thinking only of her own child and their poverty, attempts to steal some of the Kings’ money. She is caught by the Page and Amahl fiercely defends her. The Kings tell her that the Child they seek will not need their gold. His life will be based on love. The Kings tell her to keep the money but the mother returns it. Amahl offers his cane as a gift to the Child and at that moment, a miracle occurs and Amahl walks unaided. He asks if he could accompany the Kings on their journey to the Child and his Mother gives permission. The final scene is of young Amahl joining the Kings as his Mother waves goodbye to the strains of the shepherd’s pipe opening theme.

I am an opera purist and do not like “updating” or modernizing opera or changing the format. This production was an exception. There were two Amahl’s who both sang successfully on different days. One was Devin Zamir Coleman and the other that we viewed was Luciano Pantano.

In the spirit of giving, in the spirit of compassion, Menotti’s magnificent mini masterpiece bloomed anew and showed a layer of the Christmas spirit previously felt but rarely seen. Eric Einhorn, the stage director, gave us a performance that moved us with the great melodic output of the composer, retained the storyline but gave it a reality and embellished the spirit of charity so dear to the season. Conductor Geoffrey McDonald, led the 20 or so superb musicians in a performance of stirring reality and mirthful abandon. 

Aundi Marie Moore, (Mother),  Luciano Pantano (Amahl)
Photo by Marcello Pantano

Amahl was brilliantly portrayed by Luciano Pantano whose powerful and expressive treble voice echoed throughout the auditorium. Young Luciano sang the song of the sheep, “I was a Shepherd” with poignant tenderness. His blending with his Mother, soprano Aundi Marie Moore showed the love they shared despite his constant “fibs” that soon became true.

Ms. Moore’s frustration at being poor with a crippled child was keenly felt. Amahl sings “Don’t Cry Mother Dear,” when she suggests they go begging so they can get some food to eat. Her Puccini-like singing of “Do they know …All that gold” was one of the amazing highlights of this magical evening. Ms. Moore’s radiant and powerful soprano was always tapered to accommodate her partner (son) Amahl so that both voices blended and resonated evenly. “I will miss you very much” was so beautifully presented at the end.

Joseph Gaines was a colorful, and lovable King Kaspar and his singing of the iconic “This is my box” was amusing. His tenor was expressive and often rhapsodic. His happy cries of “lovely, lovely, lovely,” still echo in memory.

Daniel Belcher’s robust baritone made him a miraculous irascible King Melchior and his shredded strands of colored costume a bit of a roustabout. He occasionally sat in the audience and always created a bit of a stir with his quizzical antics.

Musa Ngqungwana was a strong King Balthazar and one always felt that his deep rich basso was assurance that all would be well. His magnificent vocal blend with his two royal friends on their mission to find the child who will redeem the world in, “Have you seen a child?” was glorious. He wore dungarees as part of his costume. The three “Kings” had an aura of being homeless as well. Some of their “gifts” were cans of beans and peas, old newspaper shreds and even Kaspar’s parrot was a newspaper picture of one. Each homeless looking King carried themselves with a sense of strength and persistent dignity.

Jessica Jahn’s costumes were colorful and truthful, each one summarizing the character of good people gone astray by circumstance but showing joy and big bigheartedness.

The peasants and villagers excellent dancing was arranged by choreographer Winston A. Benons, Jr. He put exceptional zest and flair in the dancing. It was nice to chat with Winston and Omari Contasté one of his stellar dancers.

One of the most touching moments was when Amahl (Luciano Pantano) asked King Kaspar, “amongst your magic stones in your box, is there one that could cure a crippled boy?” Kaspar who was very deaf replies,”eh?” and dejected Amahl said, “Never mind.” This was very poignantly done. When Amahl’s Mother sings, “All that gold,” and “For my child,  and is caught stealing some of the gold and cash by the King’s Page, security guard Jonathan R. Green, his soaring cries of “thief, thief” had us jumping in our seats. Amahl fiercely defends his Mother, threatening to beat him. The page was dressed in a modern Security guard outfit and of course, being a large adult, overwhelmed young Amahl but kept him at bay.  

Eric Einhorn Stage Director with cast of Amahl
Photo by Marcello Pantano

When the “Kings” forgive Amahl’s Mother and sing of the Child again, she gives the money back and Amahl offers his “walking cane” in case the child might need one. Amahl discovers at that moment, that he is walking like a normal child. All the Kings marvel and ask if they could touch him which he allows. Reluctantly Amahl lets the Security guard touch him, “but only once!”

All ends happily with a loving duet between mother and child and with the familiar shepherds pipe echoing Amahl’s opening theme. The three Kings leave for their journey to the Child as Amahl’s Mother waves goodbye to the familiar and friendly shepherds pipe theme.

The chorus sang wondrously, the dancers were seemingly energizer batteries in their enthusiasm. Shawn K. Kaufman’s lighting design was vital, Gabrielle Vincent’s hair and makeup design was clever and kudos to choral director Michael A. Ciavaglia. The chorus singing of the Shepherds’ song (Emily, Emily, Michael, Bartholomew) was delightful. My wife Judy sang this at Santa Monica City College in their choir when Amahl and the Night Visitors was fairly new.

The applause and cheers was a strong testament to Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Christmas masterpiece changed, yet powerfully unchanged, in its message of peace and kindness and generosity especially at Christmastime.

Luciano had his talented musical family there. Mother Tanya, Dad Marcello, sister Leeza, grandparents Nikolay, Lubov, Nino, and Judy. Our guest was opera lecturer Lou Barrella who was profoundly moved as we all were. This was an Amahl to savor and keep in one’s heart. 

Joseph Gaines (Kaspar), Claudia Dumschat, Tatyana Pantano, Nikolay Klitsenko, Luciano Pantano (Amahl) Leeza Pantano, Winston A. Benons, Jr. (Choreographer) 
Photo by Marcello Pantano

It was nice to see Dr. Claudia Dumschat, Music Director from The Church of the Transfiguration aka “The Little Church around the Corner” where Luciano Pantano sang his first Amahl.

Tonight’s performance tells me that there is a future for Luciano Pantano in opera or theatre. His Italian, Russian and Jewish background are all combined from Tchaikovsky and Pushkin, Verdi and Puccini, Bernstein and Berlin to demonstrate the joys of art and music.

Menotti smiled in his heavenly realm. Judy and I met him at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and again at Avery Fischer Hall at performances of Amahl back in the 1980s. 

Marcello, Nino & Judy Pantano with Composer Gian-Carlo Menotti at Brooklyn Academy of Music – 1984

We thank On Site Opera, Breaking Ground and the people in need that it helped and The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen for keeping this great opera shining in our hearts this Christmas of 2018.

Regina Opera’s Hansel & Gretel Make for Holiday Fun

Hansel and Gretel has been a part of the Grimm’s Brothers “Fairy Tales” and became an opera by the composer Engelbert Humperdinck. (1854-1921) near Bonn, Germany. His first stage work in 1893 was Hansel and Gretel and it was an immediate triumph. Its strong Wagnerian themes were wondrous and the folk music and melodies resounding. Hansel and Gretel was the first Metropolitan Opera broadcast on December 25, 1931. His other popular opera was Königskinder (Kings Children/with Goose Girl) which when sung by glamorous Metropolitan soprano and silent film star Geraldine Farrar at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) had mayhem when her geese ran out onto St. Felix Street and had to be retrieved, January 24th, 1911. Hansel and Gretel was given at BAM at a matinee on December 25, 1909, by the Metropolitan Opera on tour. Perfect Christmas entertainment!

Image credit – Wayne Olsen, Graphic Designer

The Regina Opera had a nice size crowd at Our Lady of Perpetual Help high school auditorium to see this rarity on the afternoon of Sunday, November 18th.  When Maestro José Alejandro Guzmán came to the podium, the din of excitement lowered and the opera began. The Wagnerian and melodic overture set the mood and the evening of holiday fun began.

Mother & Father of Hansel & Gretel at home
Photo by Steven Pisano

The story begins at their home on the edge of the forest. Carolyn Tye was Hansel, an amiable boob and a bit greedy. Gretel was Christa Hylton. Together they were like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, silly but lovable and getting into big trouble. CarolineTye had a strong mezzo that evoked brotherly affection and Christa Hylton’s flexible and sweet soprano made for a Gretel of affability and sisterly concern.

Hansel & Gretel in forest picking flowers & berries. Photo by Steven Pisano

Mother was soprano Dawn Kunkel, who indicated her concern for the children living in poverty with no food. She broke the milk jug trying to hit them with her stick, for dancing and not working, and sends them to the woods to go berry picking.

Sandman visiting Hansel & Gretel
Photo by Steven Pisano

Bass-baritone GeeSeop Kim was the Father, powerful of voice and kind of laid back. His theme song “Tra-la-la” was quite irresistible. He came home drunk and happy but was very upset that his wife sent the children to the woods because a child-eating Witch lived there. He pulled out a sack full of food that he earned selling items at a festival. Then they both rush out to look for the children.

The Dew Fairy
Photo by Steven Pisano

The second act is in the Forest where Hansel and Gretel are lost. The Sandman, sung by Elena Jannicelli-Sandella, appears in a magical outfit and white beard and lovely soprano.  Hansel and Gretel then are heard singing their hushed and haunting duet, “The Evening Prayer” so familiar and comforting. A beautiful vocal blend lovingly rendered. The children fall asleep as angels watch over them.

Hansel & Gretel Eating Witch’s House
Photo by Steven Pisano

The third act is the Witch’s house. The Dew Fairy (Taerra Pence) with a lovely bird like soprano, sprinkles dew on Hansel and Gretel to awaken them. Gretel greets The forest birds with a song, then she awakens Hansel who starts eating the house made of sweets, pancakes, and all kinds of goodies. The horrible Witch appears and its “Another fine mess you got me into” à la Laurel and Hardy. The Witch freezes them as they try to escape. She feeds Hansel, declaring him “too thin.” The Witch was brilliantly played by Ukrainian mezzo Galina Ivannikova, who sang with dark bewitching tones and beguiled the children to listen to her commands. Her using her magic wand to “freeze” the children in place and her other magical chicanery made her a Witch to bitch about. When the Witch goes to the oven to see how the gingerbread is doing, Hansel and Gretel push her in.

Hansel & Gretel Caught by Witch
Photo by Steven Pisano

The oven explodes and the gingerbread figures become real children. Hansel grabs the magic wand to “unfreeze” all the children.   They are then freed by Hansel and Gretel who touch each and every one of them. Father and Mother arrive and Hansel and Gretel rush into their arms. The children take the witch, now a huge Gingerbread cookie, out of the oven. Everyone thanks God and dances triumphantly.

Witch testing Hansel’s tongue to see if he’s fat enough to eat. Photo by Steven Pisano

The sets of this opera were so alive, verdant and inviting. The trees and greenery were splendid and the Witch’s house a cornucopia of evil transferred into pure joy. The dancers were Wendy Chu (Angel 1) Kelly Vaghenas (Angel 2) and dancing cats were Kirsten Reynolds and Claudia Maciejuk.

Hansel & Gretel Pushing Witch into Oven
Photo by Steven Pisano

Our friend, the ever-present and joyous Cathy Greco lent her sweet smile and voice as part of the chorus and ensemble. The choreography was lithe and angelic;  the costumes by Marcia Kresge were beautiful and magical. The clever lighting designer was Stephanie Lim. The set design by Linda Lehr and Wayne Olsen was like a Wizard of Oz Hollywood set. The make-up by Saori Morris was perfect. The stage director Linda Lehr can wear another medal for the holiday joy of the colorful sets; Ms. Lehr is a well-kept secret of the Regina. The Metropolitan Opera with its grotesque and illogical sets sure could use her! Also nice to chat with Chief flutist and Set artist Richard Paratley.

Finale – Hansel & Gretel with children. Photo by Phyllis Olsen

The cheers for the company included Diana Barkan violinist, husband Daniel on the English horn and enchanting daughter Nomi as a cookie-child. The conducting of this glorious score was José Alejandro Guzmán. The orchestral interludes were sophisticated, illuminating, and had real sparkle and zest. Maestro Guzmán really showed us how to enjoy the beautiful music of this talented composer and make it part of the Sunset Park scene.

Francine Garber-Cohen, President and Producer; Joe Delfausse, Treasurer;  and Linda Cantoni Vice President, Gregory Ortega Principal conductor, Linda Lehr Principal Stage Director deserve a resounding bravo for this perfect day. Marlene Ventimiglia is a volunteer usher and always offers her goodwill and assistance. It was nice to meet and greet opera critic Tom Lenihan, a true Renaissance man!

After the opera, we dined at nearby Casa Vieja (Lourdes Peña and excellent staff) for a Mexican feast (No Gingerbread). The new renaissance of Sunset Park is assured by the good restaurants and the presence of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, whose red seated plush high school theatre is our operatic home in Brooklyn.

Gateway Classical Music Society Presents a Thrilling Aida

The great composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) had a long prolific life. From “The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from his first success Nabucco in 1842 to Falstaff in 1893, his work consisted of 28 or so operas that captivated the opera world and still do. Verdi’s Aida is a miracle work and a true sample of “Grand Opera.” It remains like the classic film Casablanca basically the story of three people subject to circumstances that they are powerless to resist.

Radames, Aida, and Amneris are the protagonists. The premiere of Aida was on December 24, 1871, in Cairo, Egypt. The Italian premiere at La Scala in Milan was a few weeks later. On November 26, 1873, Aida was performed at the  Academy of Music in New York. The libretto was written by Antonio Ghislanzoni although Verdi said the libretto was the product of “my work.” Verdi was 57 when he composed Aida which was his 26th opera. It hints of Meyerbeer in its grandeur but its human story is what keeps it fresh and popular and who could resist its world-famous Grand March?

Ramfis (Kofi Hayford) Amneris (Galina Ivannikova Maestro Ida Angland & Aida (Kimberly Lloyd).
Photo by Judy Pantano

The Gateway Classical Music Society was founded by Maestro Ida Angland in 2003 and it has grown to great acclaim. The Gateway Orchestra is comprised of outstanding musicians from the tri-state area. The orchestra’s performances have been extolled by numerous publications in New York and Connecticut.

This production of Aida was at the Good Shepherd Faith- Presbyterian Church, in the Lincoln Center area on Sunday, November 11th thanks to sponsor, John Gingrich. Gateway’s 2018 performance of Verdi’s Aida was dedicated to the late Franklin Brownell Manley (1929-2017) beloved founding patron and advisor. Maestro Ida Angland was the Music Director and Conductor and Roberto Stivanello of the renowned Stivanello Costume Company was the Stage and Lighting Director. The magnificent gowns worn by Aida and Amneris were regal and impressive as were the tuxedo-clad gentlemen singers.

The huge orchestra of over 70 musicians was ready as Maestro Angland stepped to the podium. After a moment or two of silence, Maestro Angland lifted her baton and the beautiful music began, quietly, reached a few peaks and ended with peace.

Gregory Geis was Radames and his lyrico spinto tenor ravishingly negotiated the paths of the iconic “Celeste Aida.” His vocal delivery was to tighten the voice, then release it, swelling powerfully. In the MGM film, 1948 Luxury Liner the great Danish heldentenor Lauritz Melchior sang the Act 3 finale duet with soprano Marina Koshetz using the same technique. Melchior made four mega-hit films for MGM and later one for Paramount. His magnificent voice, six foot four height and white hair made him a true star of the silver screen. Mr. Geis sang a beautiful “Celeste Aida” ending it with a full voice, “Vicino al sol.”  Mr. Geis evoked the golden age of tenors on the old phonograph with his full middle voice and strong upper reaches of his instrument. I saw Melchior in Guy Lombardo’s Arabian Nights at the Marine Theatre in Jones Beach in 1955. He sang “A long Ago Love” in beautiful fresh voice at age 65.

Ramfis (Kofi Hayford), Aida (Kimberly Lloyd)
Radames (Gregory Geis). Photo by Judy Pantano

The immortal tenor Enrico Caruso was Radames in Aida with the Metropolitan Opera on tour at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on January 17, 1909. The conductor was the iconic Arturo Toscanini. Caruso’s 1911 recording shows him belting out the final “Vicino al sol” in full golden voice. Verdi might have preferred it be hit softly but I am a Caruso devotee and I much prefer it as Geis and Caruso chose to sing it! I enjoyed Mr. Geis’s “Mortal diletto ai Numi-“Nume custode e vindice” followed by a powerful drum rolling “Immenso Ptah” sung with Ramfis. His scene with Amneris, “Gia i sacerdoti adunansi” was passionately done. At the finale of Act Three his “Sacerdote, io resto a te” was exhilarating. “La fatale pietra” was sung with fateful utterance and ample lyrics and his final “O terra addio” in the tomb had heavenly highs and one felt that his voice and ascending spirit were one. A truly stellar performance.

Kimberly Lloyd was an Aida to remember. Her “Ritorna vincitor” revealed a beautiful soprano with reserve and staying power. Her confrontational scenes with Amneris always evoked sympathy and her singing of “O patria mia!” was exemplary. Her acting and powerhouse singing with her father Amonasro was indelible. Her upper reaches were seemingly unstoppable, her closing dramatic utterances remarkable and her floating notes ethereal. Ms. Lloyd’s singing in the final act was heartfelt and her blending with Radames in “O terra, addio” was purity itself. An outstanding performance.

Because of Amneris’s great dramatic music and fierce persona, some thought that the opera should have been called Amneris. This is partially true and a great Amneris coupled with a weak Aida can steal the show. However, with “equal billing” you get “The show of Shows” as Amneris, Galina Ivannikova was superb. Like Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana she literally kills her ex-lover by “snitching.” Hers is a different scenario. Amneris’s lover Radames is on the cusp of reigning with Amneris his bride to be, but Amneris senses his love for the slave girl Aida. Amneris has a change of heart when Radames is condemned to death. Her passions, fears and the collapse of her dreams make Amneris a snake with venom who was forced to do so. She lives on but loses everything she really wanted to Aida. Galina Ivannikova’s scene with Radames, “Gia i Sacerdoti Adunansi-Misero appien mi festi,” in Act 4 was sung with the most emotional passion. Caruso’s 1910 recording of this with American mezzo Louise Homer bears listening – such intensity. Ms. Ivannikova’s scenes with Aida were properly spiteful and with Radames seething and despondent but in the Act Four Judgement scene “A lui vivo, la tomba!” was sung powerfully, ending with “Empia Razza! Anatemo su voi! La vendetta del ciel” which left us virtually gasping for air! Such magnificent singing, such emoting,  such despair! Ms. Ivannikova’s sumptuous mezzo soprano with its passionate top burnished lows trembling mood left the audience like sinners at a Billy Graham rally – transfixed, stunned and rhapsodic!

Alexander Boyd was Amonasro, the King, father to Aida. My very first opera at the Met was as a standee on March 8, 1952. The cast was the great tenor Mario Del Monaco as Radames, legendary soprano Zinka Milanov as Aida and blessed and sacred Bronx born Leonard Warren as Amonasro. All three were unforgettable. The strong Amneris I believe was Nell Rankin. Warren’s singing of “Ma tu, Re, tu signore possente” in Act Two was stupendous. I never heard such a magnificent baritone. Del Monaco and Milanov had voices you remember and vividly relive.

Alexander Boyd as Amonasro possessed a strong baritone with some wonderful high notes with a round secure middle and very congenial lows. In Act Two, he did a beautiful job and his voice was dynamic and lyrical especially in “Ma tu re, tu sognore possente”. In the third act, his “Tu sei la Schiava” rocked the house with its power and volatility in one of opera’s most dramatic scenes. This scene with his daughter Aida made her choice inevitable.

The King was Christopher Nazarian. His rich voiced basso was superb in “Or di vulcano al tempio” “Alta cagion di v’aduna” leading to “Su! del Nilo al sacro lido” with the chorus joining and his greeting to the triumphant Radames, “Salvator della patria, io ti saluto.”

Ramfis, the High Priest was sung by Kofi Hayford. The “Immenso Ptah duet” was quite exciting with Radames’ golden tenor and Hayford’s deep dark bass joining forces of light and dark to offer sacred power. A magnificent recording of this duet “Numi custode e vindici” exists in the RCA Victor catalog or on the internet with the unforgettable basso born in Rome, Italy, Ezio Pinza and the famed Metropolitan Opera tenor Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1969). Ezio Pinza, (1892-1957) great star of the Metropolitan Opera and Broadway’s South Pacific is buried near Greenwich, Ct. where he lived. I am certain Pinza would be gratified to hear such a splendid Ramfis and Martinelli, such a splendid Radames as we did this magical performance.

Amonasro (Alexander Boyd) (Radames) Gregory Geis Ramfis (Kofi Hayford). Photo by Judy Pantano

Heather Bobeck was the High Priestess. Her soprano was angelic in its purity and made a strong impression on the audience.

Dorian Balis was the clarion-voiced Messenger and made one sit up and take notice of the heroic aspects of his strong tenor.

The finale of Aida with the lovers onstage in front and Amneris evoking “Pace, Pace” wishing for peace, ends this monumental work on a quiet, peaceful and beautiful note. All the triumphs, passions and tragedies end with death with the one you love for eternity.

Maestro Ida Angland’s conducting from memory without a score like the iconic Toscanini, of this incredible masterpiece by Italy’s greatest composer was sublime. Watching her use the baton made me realize how Aida and Verdi transformed her into a great interpreter. I saw and heard the great predecessors that made Ida Angland what she is today but she broke out of the skins of the past and gave us an Aida to remember forever. The Grand March and Meyerbeerian influences were thrilling but all the ingenious things that make Aida so unique were brought out by Maestro Ida Angland, the very gifted singers, the heavenly chorus, the exciting dances, and the superb Gateway Orchestra. The great singing and acting taking place center aisle gave us all proximity to the performance.

The chorus was excellent, especially in the “Immenso Ptah” and “O terra addio” scenes. Maestro Angland’s chorus experience as a choral director with the New York Grand Opera under her mentor the late Maestro Vincent La Selva and as a soprano soloist elsewhere (WQXR radio) always assure superb performances.

It was nice to greet the former concertmaster the elegant and affable superb violinist Gino Sambuco and “good will” chorus members who are longtime dear friends, Josef Fedor, and Robert Malfi. Roberto Stivanello who did the lighting and wondrous costumes for this concert version was happy to see everything go so gloriously. Roberto, our best to your wonderful Mom Yolanda. Hannah Murphy’s accompaniment on the harp was beneficial.

It was a great joy to chat with Maestro Angland and the cast. Caracalla in Rome, The Metropolitan Opera in New York and the arena in Verona, Italy had their inner ear on New York City. This was an Aida that in its perfection makes us all better and closer to the ideal. Being “up close and personal” to Giuseppe Verdi is reaching the ideal. The glories and memories will live in our hearts forever. Brava Maestro Ida Angland! Bravo Gateway! Bravo Verdi!

Classic Lyric Arts Celebrates Fall Benefit Gala

The Kosciuszko Foundation in New York on Thursday, November 8th was the scene of Classic Lyric Arts Fall Benefit Gala. Glenn Morton, President, and Artistic Director, graciously welcomed the audience to a wonderful evening of young opera artists. “Classic Lyric Arts (CLA) is a nonprofit organization that supports the training of young artists in the field of opera, offering immersive programs each summer in France and Italy.” Glenn Morton spoke of the tremendous importance of these programs and how they influence the young singers as a catalyst for creation.

Singers from Classic Lyric Arts with Artistic Director Glenn Morton. Photo by Yifu Chien

There are in the program quotes that best describe going to France and Italy to prepare for a career in singing. Each year, Classic Lyric Arts offers about a dozen students a 3-week intensive training program focused exclusively on French opera and song. “The French sing more through their words than through their music. The singer becomes a painter, describing a landscape, suggesting an emotion, one must use the entire palette of colors of the voice.” Michel Sénéchal Co-Founder of Classic Lyric Arts France (1927-2018)

CLA Italy trains 25 singers in the “bel canto” traditions and techniques of singing in Italian. Ubaldo Fabbri, principal coach of CLA Italy, noted that “The great singers who become true legends are, not by coincidence, those who have impeccable diction, one that is intrinsically connected to their vocal technique.”

Gaspare Pacchierotti, castrato, (1740-1821) said: “Our language is so melodic that when it is pronounced precisely, its practically sung.”

The program began with “Pace, pace, mio dolce tesoro” from Mozart’s (1756-1791) Le Nozze di Figaro. The singers holding each other, some in whisper, some in trepidation, some in confusion, stolen kisses, misplaced vows, unfounded jealousies and ultimately expressions of true love and forgiveness.

The young singers were an ensemble in upheaval, disorientation and happy tears of harmony. Chantal Brundage, Sarah Bacani, Aleea Powell, Melanie Dubil, Leah Israel, Travis Benoit, Fernando Cisneros, Ari Bell, Yongjae Lee, with Mina Kim as the excellent accompanist. They were never Stepford wives in their perfection of voice and movement, but happy, gleeful youth, performing Mozart with truth and ardor.

Taicheng Li, tenor and Stephanie Guasch, soprano (L’amico Fritz). Photo by Yifu Chien

Next was the Cherry duet from Pietro Mascagni’s (1863-1945) L’amico Fritz. According to the program notes, “Fritz, is a wealthy landlord, determined to being a bachelor who meets Suzel the daughter of one of his tenants. As they are harvesting, she and Fritz begin to fall in love, while enjoying the abundance of Springtime.” Stephanie Guasch as Suzel and Taicheng Li as Fritz with Lochlan Brown as the pianist. Pietro Mascagni’s gentle, lyrical opera is quite a contrast to the mega-hit Cavalleria Rusticana, but it is equally resourceful in its sweetness and beauty. Guasch and Li are following a special line of lyrical singers. Recommended listening tenors, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, Luciano Pavarotti and their female partners left us with enchanted recordings that will live forever. Ms. Guasch has a lovely soprano, never forced and able to negotiate the upper reaches with elegant yearning and awakening. Taicheng Li sports a fine tenor that showed the hearts awakening and yearning. Later on, the duet ends with almost stratospheric pianissimi at loves blooming. It ended before that happened. Nonetheless, it was a joy to hear it once more. I remember seeing “Fritz” at the wonderful Amato Opera on the Bowery and recall two chirping man-made birds singing along. It is such a gorgeous duet.

Classic Lyric Arts Singers. Photo by Yifu Chie

“Soave sia il vento” from Cosi fan tutte by W.A. Mozart was sweetly sung by Sarah Bacani, Rosario Hernandez and Ari Bell with Marianna Vartikyan as the pianist. Mozart’s group of duets, trios, and ensembles always enter the heart and mind with eagerness and they were a joyful blend. Don Alfonso Rosario Hernandez, laughs at the two-faced escapades of women, deliciously and devilishly sung by Sarah Bacani and Ari Bell.

“Venti scudi” by Gaetano Donizetti’s (1797-1848) in Elisir d’amore has Nemorino (Ganson Salmon) desperate for money to buy the famous elixir of love that will assure the affection of Adina, the girl he longs for, agrees to join the army for Venti Scudi (Twenty pennies). His braggart bellicose rival Sergeant Belcore makes him an offer “he dare not refuse.” Ganson Salmon has a lyric tenor voice that carries well and has additional resonance in the upper reaches. This duet offers tenorial opportunities to really shine and Mr. Salmon by virtue of a good technique did just that. Xiaomeng Zhang took advantage of his foolish rival in some strong baritonal outbursts which added to the fun. Nemorino is always endearing and seemingly naive and Belcore is always self-assured and cynical. The blending and clashing of these two rivals for Adina is in its own way heartwarming. Required listening-Venti Scudi by Enrico Caruso and Giuseppe De Luca in 1919. Caruso’s voice darkened in his later years and he “lightened” it for Nemorino. Sadly, on December 11th, 1920 Enrico Caruso suffered a throat hemorrhage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Elisir d’amore and the curtain came down after Act One. The greatest of tenors sang three times more at the Metropolitan Opera, his final performance being in La Juive December 24, 1920. He died in Naples, age 48, on August 2, 1921. The whole world mourned.

Xiaomeng Zhang, baritone, and Ganson Salmon, tenor (L’elisir d’amore). Photo by Yifu Chien

The program ended part one with two alumni reminiscing, tenor Ganson Salmon-Italy 2017 and Xiaomeng Zhang who gave it two thumbs up. The proof lay in the Italianate interplay in Venti scudi. In order to be more Italian in his interpretations, the great and sacred Bronx born American baritone Leonard Warren studied with Italian Baritone  Giuseppe De Luca.(in NYC) Warren died on stage at the Met in La Forza del Destino in 1960. He is a legend and an immortal. The critics noticed the tremendous difference in his singing from the Italianate studies with De Luca.

Part two of the program opened with the iconic “Au fond du temple saint” from The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet (1838-1875). Recently it was sung by Andrea Bocelli and baritone Bryn Terfel on PBS. Zurga and Nadir two pearl fishers in love with the same woman. Both are torn by their desire for Leila the Princess of Brahma. Even with Enrico Caruso, Giuseppe De Luca, and Frieda Hempel, the original 1916 production won critical praise and the”opening night” gala was a major social event-it was gone by the next season and did not return till a few years ago. Tenor Beniamino Gigli’s recording with Giuseppe De Luca of this duet is a classic. Enrico Caruso’s 1904 recording of Nadir’s aria “Mi par d’udir ancora”(Caruso made another “Darker” recording of this aria in 1916) was played in Woody Allen’s film Match Point other great interpreters were Beniamino Gigli, and Corsican tenor Tino Rossi. Each one gives the listener a learning experience. Zachary Goldman has a sweet lyric tenor that eases its way into darker territory with some strong outbursts. Sunyeop Hwang has a pleasing baritone that rang out in the dramatic portions and caressed in the strength of their friendship.

Next the religious lust combo of the “Te deum” from Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece (1858-1924)Tosca. (1900) Still current with the “casting couch” but one must remember the ruthless, evil Scarpia is a man of sophistication and charm. I saw baritone Tito Gobbi in 1965 as Scarpia with the legendary Renata Tebaldi, his voice and performance haunt me still. Running a feather on Tebaldi’s back at the Palazzo Farnese and his entrance in the Church was frightening. His moderate sounding voice became huge when he made his entrance, he made you jump out of your seat in the theatre. Charles Laughton’s unexpected entrance in the Barretts of Whimple Street had everyone jump with fear. Those are things that must be learned like in cooking, a dollop of ricotta is not a large tablespoon, so too with singing.

Fernando Cisneros, baritone and Chantal Brundage, soprano (Le Nozze finale). Photo by Yifu Chien

Baritone Fernando Cisneros is the handsome seducer and when I saw him climb the stairs to get onstage, he was already Scarpia. Scarpia could not focus on the “Te deum” since he had a dual purpose to his overt religious spirit. It was heat for Tosca, the sign of the cross was a blessing to his steed loins to find a new rider, Tosca, and to rid her of her lover, his soon to be prisoner Mario Cavaradossi. Tosca was the lamb to be on the plate for Baron Scarpia, Chief of Police at the Palazzo Farnese. Travis Benoit and the chorus sang fervently and Mina Kim was the spirited conductor and pianist. The choristers who passed by earlier sang in earnest. The proximity of singers and audience made us all part of the experience.

The Septet from the Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) is described thusly, “Hoffmann has agreed to forfeit his shadow, his reflection, his essence, for his lover, the courtesan of Venice, Giuletta. She, in turn, abandons him for another.” The Septet, Blair Cagney, Daniela Magura, Zachary Goldman, Ganson Salmon, Sunyeop Hwang and Ari Bell with Cherie Roe as the dynamic accompanist. I suggest the Tales of Hoffmann’s 1951 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger whose hit about ballet in” The Red Shoes”  is now an iconic classic. This film version of Hoffmann is magical, grotesque and passionate and deserves its cult immortality. Filmmakers George Romero and Martin Scorsese were profoundly affected by this film. Each would rent it at the same record store and knew the other had it. City Opera tenor Robert Rounseville stars as Hoffmann and many notables of ballet and opera provide other voices – highly recommended. Sir Thomas Beecham is the conductor. Ballet star Robert Helpmann is Hoffmann’s “sworn enemy.” Ballet dancer Moira Shearer is Olympia, Ann Ayars is Giuletta and Leonide Massine gives a haunting balletic sequence as well. A must see!

Gran pezzo concertato from Il Viaggo a Reims by  Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) “On their way to Reims for the coronation of Charles X of France, a group of European aristocrats, officers and a poetess (Lochlan Brown – conductor, Mina Kim Pianist) prepare to attend the royal festivities.” The entire company was outstanding. Victoria Policht and her lovely soprano were especially noteworthy. The cast shined and brought the light of art and music to all of us. They were Rachel Querreveld, Stephanie Guasch, Melanie Dubil, Emily Hanseul Park, Shan Hai, Yue Huang, Travis Benoit, Taicheng Li, Nathan Seldin, Fernando Cisneros, and Ari Bell. Each one a brilliant jewel on this musical necklace.

The finale, honoring the centenary of the late Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990 ) conductor and composer. “Make our Garden Grow” from Candide. Pangloss the world’s greatest philosopher declares that “We live in the best of all possible worlds.” The singers here were Rachel Querreveld, Bela Albett, Rosario Hernandez, Travis Benoit, Nathan Seldin, Ari Bell, chorus and Jonathan Heaney, conductor and pianist.   

The great Leonard Bernstein is buried in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery not far from our home in Carroll Garden’s South Brooklyn. The people on the street applauded his funeral hearse in Brooklyn since he composed West Side Story, Candide and On the town. Louis Moreau Gottchalk, a favorite of Bernstein, is also at Greenwood and the Pantano family! l will be in great company!

We were happy to attend the reception and to see so many singers and friends from the world of opera. The Gerda Lissner Foundation with Stephen De Maio as President received special thanks for supporting tonight’s gala. Cornelia Beigel, Gerda Lissner Secretary, was in attendance as well as contributors Alfred and Christine Palladino, Maestro Eve Queler, composer Philip Hagemann, Vocal Programs Joy Ferro, International Concerts Diana Corto and writer Meche Kroop were some of the friends and opera lovers present.

Artistic Director Glenn Morton. Photo by Yifu Chien

Glenn Morton, Artistic Director spoke to the singers at the concerts’ end and one felt the devotion that he inspired in the young singers. Through him, they enter the journey of the beauty of opera and the tranquil and exciting world it promotes in hearts and souls of their audiences.

We thank Glenn Morton President and Artistic Director, John Hunter, Vice President and Board Chairman, Alan Frankel, Secretary, Charles Perrier Treasurer, and Kathryn Stone. This evening will long live in cherished memory. Some “before the holidays” fun and a very gratifying look towards the future with such an abundance of young fresh talent!

Opera Index Presents Annual Membership Buffet & Recital

On Wednesday, November 7th, Opera Index presented their Annual Membership Buffet & Recital at The Community Church of New York in Murray Hill. It was a mild breezy evening and everyone came in with a smile because these events provided great food and peerless singing. The auditorium was soon filled up and aided by Joseph Gasperec, Executive Director and Jane Shaulis Metropolitan Opera mezzo and President of Opera Index. She began the program with pride in the accomplishments of Opera Index and its mentoring so many successful young singers over the years.

Jane Shaulis & Joseph Gasperec (Opera Index)
Photo by Judy Pantano


The recital opened with “Dich teure halle” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser by soprano Helena Brown. The darkness in the sound of her voice goes right up to brilliant highs and is quite thrilling. The triumphant quality of her voice greatly enhanced the thrill of the endless pouring of Wagnerian gold offered in this amazing piece. Ms. Brown is in good hands and is ready for the big time.

Michael Fennelly, Hubert Zapiór, Xiaomeng Zhang, Jane Shaulis, William Guanbo Su, Felicia Moore & Helena Brown. Photo by Judy Pantano

The second awardee was baritone Xiaomeng Zhang who sang “Vy mne pisali” from Tchaikovsky’sEugene Onegin. Zhang sang with elegant lyricism and with Russian melancholy. He sang it in Russian with outbursts from Onegin’s somewhat ambiguous nature. Zhang caught the mood and spirit of the piece and sang it with exuberant spirit. Dmitri Hvorotovsky, of blessed name, who was a great Onegin, would smile in opera heaven, knowing that such dedication and love is making an Onegin for future generations.

“Vous qui faites l’endormie” from Faust by Gounod was sung by bass William Guanbo Su. His laugh was quite the thing and Satan relished the mischief’s he was doing. The thing one must remember is that despite the devil’s spirited laughter, he is pure evil. Mr. Su was able to enchant and captivate his audience with his rich voice and made us willing participates in his devilish schemes. Well done, bravo! See Tonight we sing a 1953 film (About the life of Impressario Sol Hurok) starring the great Ezio Pinza as Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin for whole episodes of Faust with Roberta Peters, tenor Jan Peerce and Pinza as Mephistopheles.

Stephen Heiden, Linda Howes & Stephen Phebus Photo by Judy Pantano

“Est gibt ein Reich” from Ariadne auf Naxos” by Richard Strauss was exuberantly sung by soprano Felicia Moore, who has a lovely, shimmering frolicsome top voice, caressing legato, climbing scales, expanding trills and a radiant upper extension so vital to the music of Strauss.This Strauss was a tantalizing bit of future glory! I thought of the great soprano Eileen Farrell, who married a cop, sang jazz and settled in Staten Island. What a glorious voice. Thanks for evoking the thought, Felicia Moore.

Cesare Santeramo & Dr. Robert Campbell
Photo by Judy Pantano

Last but not least, was the rising Polish baritone Hubert Zapiór, who sang the spirited “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. I have heard this aria many times and I vividly recall my mentor and beloved voice teacher Bertha Lang playing the recording sung by the immortal American baritone Lawrence Tibbett and teaching it to me phonetically. I sang it at age 13 on The Ted Mack Amateur Hour and for the great bandleader (Rhapsody in Blue) Paul Whiteman on his coast to coast television show in 1949. I loved singing it and ironically Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960) who also was a film star, sang the role only once in his lifetime. I got to see Tibbett when he replaced Ezio Pinza in Fanny on Broadway in 1956. I have seen Mr. Zapiór before and was impressed with the nobility of his voice but never saw him in such an exuberant piece. I loved his contrasting “Col Cavaliere” with “Colla Donnetta” and his mock soprano fun singing. His precision was seemingly at ease and the precision was perfect. By the time this tour de force was over, the audience was wild with enthusiasm. I had tears in my eyes to hear it so beautifully rendered. I became the 13 year old boy baritone hearing Tibbett’s recording for the first time. Bravo Figaro-bravo Zapiór.

Marion Schumann, Philip Hagemann, Penny Lepka Knapp. Photo by Judy Pantano

Michael Fennelly was the brilliant and enthusiastic accompanist for this group of singers. He is as good as it gets, and being a Californian, he brings pianistic sunshine to all.

Jane Shaulis announced some surprise encores. Helena Brown sang a riveting “Since My Man’s Gone” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and used both upper and lower reaches of her voice to get us all emotionally entwined in her profound grief. Once again, like in Elisir d’amore I shed “Tre Furtivi lagrimi” at least three tears. Powerful stuff!  

I heard the great bass Ezio Pinza sing “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific at Lewisohn Stadium and again at Madison Square Garden in 1951. William Guanbo Su sang it beautifully, without the pianissimo ending. It is such a wonderful song and the richness of Su’s basso at such a young age was very satisfying and romantic.

Cavaliere Edward Jackson, Doris Keeley & Ursula Brown. Photo by Judy Pantano

Now that our ears were filled with the sound of beautiful music, it was time for a delicious dinner provided by the members.

John David Metcalfe & Ken Benson
Photo by Judy Pantano

Judy and I lived in Murray Hill in 1965-6. It was with renewed joy that we returned for such a splendid evening thanks to the folks at Opera Index.

It was nice to share some time with legendary Met mezzo Rosalind Elias, soprano Jane Marsh, artists managers Ken Benson, Robert Lombardo, and Michael Rosen; George Voorhis, Mark Moorman, Jesse Walker, Robert Steiner, Faith Pleasanton, Janet Stovin, Ellen Godfrey, Cavaliere Eddie Jackson, resplendent in a black velvet cape, the elegant Cesare Santeramo and Dr. Robert Campbell, looking well in his wonderful red leather coat, Linda Howes and Maestros Stephen Phebus and Eve Queler, Ursula Brown, Doris Keeley, William Goodhue, Jane Le Master, the brilliant opera lecturer Lou Barrella, composers Philip Hagemann and Penny Leka Knapp (Fruitcake) antiquarian horologist John David Metcalfe and famed MetOpera standee Brooklynite Lois Kirschenbaum, now immortalized in a recent film documentary.

Former Met Mezzo Rosalind Elias, Lou Barrella,
Guest, & Nino Pantano. Photo by Judy Pantano

Three special guests of Phil Hagemann and Murray Rosenthal were Marion Schumann, Mary Pierce and Marion’s sister Margaret, all from the Pegasus Opera Company in Brixton, London, England. They presented two of Phil’s performances that were well received and the women enjoyed the festivities at our Membership recital and dinner. Each and every one a star and all friendly – not distant stars.

Mary Pierce, Marion Schumann &
Philip Hagemann. Photo by Judy Pantano

Thank you Jane Shaulis for being our congenial host, you truly are “the hostest with the mostest!”


Martina Arroyo Foundation Celebrates its 14th Annual Gala Anniversary

On the evening of Monday, October 29th, the Martina Arroyo Foundation celebrated its 14th Anniversary at the JW Marriott Essex House in New York City. The program honored Simon Estes, Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone and Rufus Wainwright, singer songwriter and composer, and Maestro Anton Coppola, conductor and composer who received the Michel Maurel Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Rufus Wainwright, Martina Arroyo, Anton Coppola & Simon Estes. Photo by Sean Smith

Martina Arroyo welcomed one and all and truly is a beacon of light for the promotion of young opera singers. “The mission of the Martina Arroyo Foundation is to prepare and counsel young singers in the interpretation of complete operatic roles for public performance.” This is accomplished through  Prelude to Performance which showcases the singers progress.

The Gala chair was Gary Spector, who spoke briefly and introduced the host for the evening, the iconic Nimet Habachy from WQXR radio whose honeyed speaking voice has charmed millions for decades.

Dr. Joan Taub, Nimet Habachy & Suzan Habachy
Photo by Judy Pantano

The first awardee was the great bass-baritone Simon Estes who hails from Centerville, Iowa and began his career in the 1960’s. He recalled his memories of iconic soprano Shirley Verrett and the charming, witty great Italian basso Cesare Siepi. Mr. Estes regretted not singing with Martina Arroyo. In earlier days on the rise, he recalls singing for 84 companies. His grandfather was a slave and Simon always used his grandfather’s love of the Church to enhance his belief that “justice is stronger than injustice.” Helping children and giving them spiritual nourishment makes him a messenger of good today. He teaches master classes throughout the country and currently is a professor at Iowa State University. I remember Simon Estes when I was a young man in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and I loved the special richness and power of his voice. To me, he was always a pioneer and a hero. It was humbling to meet and greet the great Simon Estes.

The second awardee was Rufus Wainwright singer, songwriter and opera composer. He was introduced by musicologist Cori Ellison who admired  Mr. Wainwright’s love of opera and his work. I was surprised and inspired by his opera Prima Donna which evoked some of the best in Louise by Charpentier and Tosca by Puccini – but had its own distinct sound and momentum. His newest opera, Hadrian was favorably reviewed by The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini. Mr. Wainwright, looking Mephistophelian in red including his shoes, told the audience of his talented singing parents and his boyhood in Toronto, Canada. “There were tenors aplenty” on the phonograph and he especially recalled the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. Music was all around the house and opera gave them all harmonic happiness. He loved Giuseppe Verdi’s music. Wainwright’s enthusiasm and his friends were all there to lend support.

Soprano Maria Brea sang the wondrous aria “Depuis le jour” from Gustave Charpentier’s (1860-1956) Louise. Ms. Brea sang with a lovely mezza voce and rhapsodic full voice. She floated tones heaven bound and reached ecstatic vocal climaxes that dazzled and thrilled. Maestro Stephen Crawford caught all of the color and sparkling radiance of the music in his superb accompaniment.

The great Scottish-American soprano Mary Garden (1874-1967) who dazzled the French with herLouise in 1900 was the rage of Paris. Louise was a unique opera and composer Gustave Charpentier wrote a sequel called Julien but it never surpassed Louise. Enrico Caruso courted his American bride Dorothy in his Julien costume. Mary Garden made a haunting recording of “Depuis le jour” in 1926. As a young woman she lived on President Street in Brooklyn near Park Slope. I met her at The Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1951. She was in her late seventies and lecturing on her autobiography that was just published. In 1920, she became the head of the Chicago Opera. Her film of Thais made her even more notorious. She never sang as a member of the Metropolitan Opera but had a long career in Chicago and she did appear with Enrico Caruso in concert. I kissed her hand and years later Maria Jeritza’s hand. Two legendary divas and Martina is next, that’s for sure.

Soprano Maria Brea & Tenor WooYoung Yoon
Photo by Sean Smith

“O soave fanciulla” followed sung by soprano Maria Brea and tenor WooYoung Yoon. Puccini’s La Bohème never fails to captivate the listener but this particular moment was special. Judy and I honeymooned at Essex House in 1966 and to see and hear two such singers so rhapsodically entwined recalled the memory. Their voiced blended beautifully and Mr. Yoon was an ardent suitor and she equally so. They ended the duet arm in arm leaving the room with two rhapsodic high C’s with power and loving brio! Stephen Crawford’s accompaniment was like a full symphony of life and love!

The next performance was by tenor WooYoung Yoon. The familiar “Ah mes amis” from La Fille du Regiment which catapulted Luciano Pavarotti to fame with 9 high C’s in the early 1970’s at the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Yoon has a sweet and vibrant tenor with good projection and even flow. He added embellishments to embellishments giving us a double thrill. His upper voice is manly and stratospheric and he seems very comfortable in those high altitudes. But that did not remove the “frisson” that makes this aria so exciting. One must “conquer” the 9 high C’s and that he did. Stephen Crawford ably accompanied Mr. Yoon and the thrill was brought forward with this partnership.

Maestro Anton Coppola now 101 years of age attended with his beloved wife Almerinda. We met them at the Columbus Club a few years before when he wrote a song for her, a former ballerina he married long ago. We also met Maestro Coppola at a Verdi Festival at the Casa Duse, where Joan Sutherland lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He was always a phenomenon and when asked how he has lived so long he replied, “Pasta Faggioli” (Spaghetti with beans). Bravo Maestro! Maestro Coppola was given the Michel Maurel award for Lifetime Achievement named after Martina’s beloved late husband.

Ellen Godfrey, Nino Pantano, Murray Rosenthal, Elaine Malbin
Janet Stovin & Philip Hagemann Photo by Judy Pantano

Maestro Coppola was given a mike and he addressed Martina Arroyo with some hilarious repartee in a loud clear voice. She responded with wit and wisdom and the audience in on the joke laughed heartily. In Coppola’s new finale for Puccini’s Turandot, Empress Turandot guesses Calaf’s name and he gets his head chopped off with the others. I personally don’t care for a “headless” Calaf but it suits the flavor of our times.

Robert Lombardo, Maestro Anton & Almerinda Coppola & Maestro Eve Queler. Photo by Judy Pantano

A superb dinner followed and much good talk. We chatted with Met mezzo Jane Shaulis, President of Opera Index, Murray Rosenthal treasurer and composer Philip Hagemann (Popular choral composition Fruitcake) and Janet Stovin who fondly recalled living close to Ebbets Field and the great Brooklyn Dodgers. Janet recalled Jackie Robinson’s ascendancy with the team of blessed memory. Former Met mezzo, the effervescent Nedda Casei, was with us as was her most charming friend Diane Gallagher.The debonair Robert Steiner and Faith Pleasanton were also at our table. It was so nice to see the talented soprano Victoria Miningham from the New York Grand Opera. We spoke of the great Maestro Vincent La Selva and his incomparable operas free every summer in Central Park. We discussed recipes with Paolo Petrini and Rigoletto with opera coach Robert Lombardo. Soprano Elaine Malbin still looking every inch the youthful soubrette, Maestro Eve Queler and Cavaliere Eddward Jackson, Met tenor Anthony Laciura and his wife Joel and writer chef Meche Kroop. I discussed Beniamino Gigli with Rufus Wainwright and friends and told him that I saw Gigli at his return and farewell at Carnegie Hall in 1955 when the 65 year old tenor sang his heart out with a dozen arias and another dozen songs from opera and his films, including Mamma and Quanno ‘a femmena vo’ where he did a “bump.” (No grind)

Nino Pantano Faith Pleasanton, Robert Steiner
Edward Jackson & Judy Pantano. Photo by Sean Smith

We thank Martina Arroyo, Deborah Surdi (From Sicilian Bensonhurst like me) and everyone who planned this glorious and wonderful event. Her father, the late Demetrio Arroyo, worked as a supervisor at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to help pay for his talented daughter and who today is the great Metropolitan Opera legend, pioneer and source of delight as a teacher and head of the Martina Arroyo Foundation. Her special award at the Kennedy Center Awards made us all proud. Brava!

Legendary Met Opera Soprano Martina Arroyo at the Kennedy Awards Center in 2013