Opera Index Spring Lunch

On Sunday, April 28, the weather was gloomy with intermittent periods of rain, but there was only bright sunshine in the Grand Salon of the JW Marriott Essex House that afternoon. The reason, Opera Index is honoring a very special couple, who never seem to not smile, – Brooklyn’s Judy and Nino Pantano. Nino has been covering Opera Index events for several years in articles printed in newspapers such as “The Italian Voice,” “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle/Brooklyn Discovery” and on “Opera L”, an online place for opera reviews and comments.  We then print the reviews in our “Opera Scene” newsletter with our photographer Judy’s pictures.

Caricature of Judy & Nino Pantano

The afternoon started with a spirited reception at noon with many familiar faces from the opera world. Photos and chats among family and friends was the highlight. We then moved into the Grand Salon for a delicious lunch. The program began with President Jane Shaulis greeting the guests and thanking all for their ongoing support.  In 2018, Opera Index gave a total of $55,000 to sixteen young singers. She introduced us to past Opera Index winner, mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn. Ms. Vaughn won her award in 1989 followed by her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1990 in Porgy and Bess. Her career has taken her to the major opera houses of the world and she was seen this season at the Metropolitan Opera in Dialogues of the Carmélites. She spoke how important the award was to her and how good that Opera Index has continued to help young singers.  

Joseph Gasperec & Jane Shaulis  
Photo by Judy Pantano

Then came the recital from three 2018 winners. Soprano Liv Redpath opened the recital with a shimmering “Salut de France” from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment. This was followed by bass Alex Rosen giving us a rich “La vendetta” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. The formal recital ended with soprano Claire de Monteil singing a silken “Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s Rusalka.  But there was more.  Claire then sang Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” in her native French.  The phrasing was gorgeous bringing out the meaning of the song – life as seen through rose-colored glasses. Having just seen Lady Gaga sing it in the movie A Star is Born, this surpassed that in beauty and artistry, a real musical treat. Then Alex sang Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” with a gentle rendering bringing out the words.  A rich and beautifully sung recital. We wish you all successful careers.

Pianist Keith Chambers, Claire de Monteil, Liv Redpath, Alex Rosen, & Jane Shaulis 

Photo by Judy Pantano

The honorees were introduced by their longtime friend, music educator and conductor Lou Barrella. He reminisced about his over thirty years relationship with them. Judy mentioned that she and Nino were shocked and honored to be considered by Opera Index for this special recognition and wondered who would write the review if Nino was on stage, but all was settled. Judy introduced their family: son Marcello, his wife Tatyana, grandson Luciano and granddaughter Leeza; and son James and grandson James junior (Jimmy) and Tatyana’s musical parents from Omsk, Siberia, Liubov and Nikolay Klitsenko. In her notes, Judy was to mention that Nino always has a wonderful way with words and she is proud that he has achieved acknowledgement in the opera world that he loves. It is exciting that all of the opera organizations work so had to promote the upcoming singers of the future. From the Three Kings in Amahl and the Night Visitors who expressed their gratitude to Amahl and his Mother for staying the night, Nino and I say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you kindly.”

Standing-Vito & Rosa Pietanza, Seated-Kathleen & Lou Barrella, Bill Goodhue, and Aldo Mancusi. Photo by Judy Pantano

After thanking the Opera Index family, Judy turned the podium over to Nino. Nino said he was thrilled to be the honoree with my wife Judy and felt like Harry Truman when he suddenly became President of the United States in 1945. Truman said he felt that “the moon, stars, and all the planets fell on him.”  When Truman’s daughter Margaret aspired to an operatic career, a critic gave her a bad very bad review. Truman said that he (the critic) had better wear iron underwear because if they ever met in an elevator, the critic would not forget Truman’s kick below the belt. Nino noted his prodigious beginning as a singer by winning on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and then being wooed by Paul Whiteman, who was known as the “King of Jazz”. For Nino, was it to be opera or popular music? But at age 13 and no real guidance like the support of foundations today, Nino gave it up for a “normal life” and eventually became a public school teacher. At age 39, he began his second career as a writer and lecturer and now Nino says he is content to let his fingers do the singing in support of young up and coming singers.

Judy & MaryAnn Pantano, Nikolay & Liubov Klitsenko, 
James, Nino, Leeza, Luciano, Marcello, Tatyana & Jimmy Pantano

A mention from Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka”, indicating that getting to “Ithaka” was not the main purpose in life but to enjoy the journey along the way.  Incidentally, Nino accidentally said “Attica,” which is an upstate prison, so we all had a good laugh. After expressing his appreciation to many in the opera world, Nino ended his speech with a quote from American poet Robert Frost – “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Martina Arroyo & Nino Pantano. Photo by Judy Pantano
Rosalind Elias, Anthony Laciura, Midge Woolsey, Judy Pantano & Joel Laciura
Mark Watson, Elaine Malbin, & Philip Hagemann. Photo by Judy Pantano

Thank you Judy and Nino for all you have done for Opera Index and opera. No article can be complete without a listing of the many special attendees from the opera world. From the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera were sopranos Martina Arroyo, Rosalind Elias, who was just honored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, Elaine Malbin, and Elinor Ross and tenor Anthony Laciura. From the world of opera were Maestro Eve Queler, foundation president Gloria Gari, the Martina Arroyo Foundation, Career Bridges founders David and Barbara Bender, Karl Michaelis and Michael Fornabaio from the Gerda Lissner Foundation, opera managers Ken Benson and Robert Lombardo, founder of the Enrico Caruso Museum Commendatore Aldo Mancusi, and composer Philip Hagemann. Long time Metropolitan Opera standee Lois Kirschenbaum also came to celebrate.

Christine Palladino, Karl Michaelis, Maestro Eve Queler, Michael Fornabaio & Alfred Palladino. Photo by Judy Pantano
Jane Shaulis, Murray Rosenthal, Philip Hagemann, James & Nino Pantano   
Photo by Judy Pantano
Nino Pantano, Marjan Kiepura, Anthony Laciura, & Dr. Anthony Abbate   
Photo by Midge Woolsey

After dessert, we had a surprise entertainment from Tatyana Pantano and her parents Liubov and Nikolay Klitsenko. They all sang two Russian folk songs with Nikolay on the bayan (accordion), a wonderful cap for this afternoon. All had such an enjoyable time that conversations went on for another hour. It was a very special event with great singing and very special honorees.

Liubov, Tatyana & Nikolay. Photo by Judy Pantano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olaf Unsoeld & Jolana Blau.  Photo by Judy Pantano

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

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

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

Gerda Lissner Foundation Hosts Young Artist Vocal Concert

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

Philipp Haberbauer – Liederkranz General Manager.
Photo by Judy Pantano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana Corto & Lawrence Jones . Photo by Judy Pantano

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Splendid Nabucco at Sarasota Opera

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

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

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

Chorus of the Hebrew slaves. Photo by Rod Millington.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Short as Zaccaria. Photo by Rod Millington.

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

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

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

Rochelle Bard as Abigaille. Photo by Rod Millington.

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Gaertner as Nabucco. Photo by Rod Millington.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Beautiful La Bohème at the Regina Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reliable Thomas Geib was solid and majestic as the Sergeant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Gerda Lissner Foundation Holds Holiday Celebration

Midge Woolsey & Stephen De Maio Photo by Judy Pantano

The Gerda Lissner Foundation held its Holiday Celebration at the Liederkranz Foundation in New York City on the afternoon of Sunday, December 2nd. The decorations, Christmas trees, and general decor made all feel the irresistible holiday spirit.The damp, mild rainy weather was banished by the good cheer that permeated the concert room. Gerda Lissner President, the much loved Stephen De Maio returned to the helm and spoke of guests from Sweden and China. He thanked his Board members and trustees; Michael Fornabaio, Karl Michaelis, Barbara Ann Testa, and Cornelia “Conny” Beigel.

Mr. De Maio noted the lucky presence of the accompanist from the Metropolitan Opera, Jonathan Kelly, recognized Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Pfeifer, great supporters of the Gerda Lissner Foundation and introduced our host for the concert, the affable and radiant Midge Woolsey, famous fundraiser and host of PBS. 

Ms. Woolsey spoke of the powerful words of author Rene Brown about the importance of vulnerability being the trigger of creativity. When singers put themselves “out there,” they are vulnerable to the caprices of vocal sniffles and audience caprice.

Pianist Johnathan Kelly with singers Piotr Buszewski, Xiaomeng Zhang, Pascale Spinney, Sonja Krenek & Meryl Dominguez.  Photo by Judy Pantano

During a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall many years ago, I took some friends backstage and the great Pavarotti came out. He immediately saw my daughter-in-law Bernadette was not smiling. He went up to her and said, “Maybe you no like a my performance?” No? Maybe you no like-a MEEEE!?” She again shyly nodded her denial! When it was picture time he shouted, “find that girl, find that girl!” and proceeded to take a picture with her and himself together. She was then smiling broadly.  My sons James and Marcello were amazed and amused! Then we all posed for a photo with the now happy Luciano Pavarotti!

That is the vulnerability of all artists. They should care about each and every member of the audience. Poor Bernadette, she was just shy! She never knew about how much they care. She does now and always smiles at the memory. 

Ms. Woolsey gave a brief analysis of the scene from La bohème and soprano Sonja Krenek sang “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” from Puccini’s La bohème which premiered in 1896 with the then 28-year-old conductor, Arturo Toscanini. Ms. Krenek is the possessor of a dark impassioned soprano that was both touching and humble. She diminished some tones effectively and moved us all as Puccini would have wished. Her encore was “O Holy Night” by Adolphe Adam which is one of my favorites.  

Robert Steiner, Jane Shaulis, Faith Pleasanton,Murray Rosenthal, Nino Pantano & Philip Hagemann. Photo by Judy Pantano

I remember tenor Frank Parker singing it on an Arthur Godfrey’s Christmas Album in the 1950’s. Parker, a TV favorite”Irish tenor” on the Arthur Godfrey show was Italian. It is the only Christmas song recorded by Enrico Caruso. His 1916 recording in French will give you chills. Ms. Krenek sang it with passion and soul and I have to say, like Bob Hope, “Thanks for the Memories.” Her beautiful red dress made me think of my beloved Sicilian Grandmother Rosalia who always wore red for Christmas Eve.  

Next Piotr Buszewski who sang “La donna e mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Mr. Buszewski sang in a radiant, clear and flexible tenor with an exciting cadenza, pleasing diminuendos, and a resounding “pen sier” finale. He is a slender, youthful Duke and an irresistible tenor. His white and black jacket made him an updated 20th century Cavalier. His encore “Bóg sic Rodzi” (God is born) by Franciszek Karpinski, was a Polish Christmas offering. Pope John Paul II, I am certain, is watching from above and smiling proudly.
Soprano Meryl Dominguez sang the rhapsodic “Ch’il bel sogno di Doretta” from Puccini’s La Rondine. Ms. Dominguez has a very imposing beautifully colored voice with precision and seemingly endless high notes that soared and took us to the endless corridors of romantic love that existed in Doretta’s vulnerable heart. Her encore was Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” with the opening verse sung in a rich and evocative loving tone with a golden thread of longing. 

Glenn Morton Maestro Eve Queler, Deborah Surdi &
Michael Fornabaio  Photo by Judy Pantano

Pascal Spinney, mezzo soprano sang “La Séguedille” from Bizet’s Carmen. Not since American soprano and silent film star Geraldine Farrar whose 1915 film (Cecil B. DeMille) Carmen was sensuality itself, have I seen so strong a presence of Tyrannosaurus Carmencita-a real man-eater who makes mush of poor Don Jose. Ms. Spinney who is also a dance award recipient was able to illustrate enough sex appeal and sing it with lusty luscious abandon. It’s like Carmen could not help how she felt. All she needed was a pet praying mantis. Her final note strongly hit and flamboyantly tossed away was evocative of Don Jose’s fate. Ms. Spinney’s delightful encore was “Santa Baby” written by by Joan Javits and Philip Springer (Joan is a relative of former Senator Jacob Javits) My wife Judy and I saw Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby” in Tivoli Gardens in Denmark circa 1966 and this performance really brought it back in full vibrant force. Santa come down the chimney tonight! Brava! 

Jane Shaulis, Arthur “Trace” Stout, Susan Stout &
Joseph Gasperec.  Photo by Judy Pantano

When I saw the dazzling pianist Jonathan Kelly playing this number, I felt like I was watching Cole Porter and soprano Rosa Ponselle at some fabulous 1930’s Christmas gathering.

Baritone Xiaomeng Zhang, sang “Onegin’s aria” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. His large vibrant baritone and excellent Russian diction showed the palette of vocal wonders that lay ahead for this outstanding singer. The combative nature of Onegin was expressed in a reflective way that did not demonize him. Bursts of power flooded the room in this display of what should be a very strong interpreter of this role. Mr. Zhang then sang “Over the Snow for Wintersweet Flowers,” a Chinese winter song by Xuean Liu that was sung with tender abandon. With the recent passing of the great Dmitri Hvorostovsky, we feel the blessings from Opera Heaven with Dmitri nudging and encouraging future singers of Eugene Onegin. I am certain he smiled and gave Xiaomeng Zhang a nod and a blessing. 

Nino Pantano, Takaoki Onishi & Barbara Ann Testa
Photo by Judy Pantano

The singers received much applause and bravos and piano virtuoso accompanist Jonathan Kelly also received much applause for his pianistic accompaniment which was perfection itself! Midge Woolsey’s enthusiasm and love of her subject made us all privy to something precious. 

When the concert was over, we went to the dining room for a superb Filet Mignon dinner. It was nice to see so many friends and Ken Benson opera manager with baritone Takaoki Onishi who just won the Dmitri Hvorostovsky prize. “Lissnerites” enjoying this special tribute to a wonderful Yuletide, Hannukah and New Year!  

Philipp Haberbauer, Louise Simmons & Robert Funck
Photo by Judy Pantano

We thank Midge Woolsey, Stephen De Maio and his sister esteemed New Jersey educator Marie, Michael Fornabaio, Barbara Ann Testa, Karl Michaelis, Cornelia “Conny” Beigel. Philipp Haberbauer, the General Manager at The Liederkranz Foundation did a marvelous job of making us all feel welcome. 

Stephen De Maio & sister Marie De Maio &

Karl Michaelis Photo by Judy Pantano

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.