Editor's Desk

Firestorm

(News, Brian Kellow, Criticism) Permanent link

 

Blog Iverdi hdl 714
Soprano Tamar Iveri

It was discovered last spring that Georgian soprano TAMAR IVERI's Facebook page included hostile comments about a 2013 gay-rights protest in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Among other things, the page stated, "Georgian man has always been the symbol of bravery....  Should we, in the future, hand Tbilisi over to the guys with Louis Vuitton bags?"  (There appears to be a large faction in Georgia — including many in the ruling party, the Georgian Dream Coalition — that feels public squares should not be given over to gay demonstrations.) It was subsequently announced that both Brussels's Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie and Opera Australia had been moved to cancel upcoming contracts they had with the singer. On June 23, Opera Australia denounced Iveri's comments as "unconscionable" and stated that she would not be singing Desdemona, as planned, in OA's production of Otello. It appears, however, that there was more to the story — on both sides.

According to Justin Koonin, the convener (or chair) of the New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, the initial response from Opera Australia was silence. "After forty-eight hours," says Koonin, "the company issued a statement on its Facebook page saying that they had made Tamar Iveri aware of the situation, and she had issued an apology, and rehearsals were going ahead with her." Iveri did issue a statement, placing the blame for the posting on her "very religious" husband and his "tough attitude towards gay people." This appears disingenuous, as it seems that the anti-gay comments first appeared on Iveri's Facebook page in mid-2013, nearly a year before the scandal became international news. The Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, having discovered a July 2013 interview with Iveri that seemed to support her husband's position, turned up the heat under Opera Australia. Only then did the company post a statement finding Iveri's remarks "unconscionable." (Opera Australia's chief executive CRAIG HASSALL and artistic director LYNDON TERRACINI declined to discuss the matter with OPERA NEWS, and the company has since removed any comment on the matter from its Facebook page.)

When OPERA NEWS requested a comment from Iveri, the soprano claimed that she withdrew from performances herself, because she did "not want such an important artistic event to be marred by any problem which, however unintentionally, has developed because of my presence in the cast. This is the sole reason why I have left the production. I want to add that I am immensely saddened and hurt by the campaign which is now being mounted against me.

"I have never been prejudiced against anyone, whether for religious or racial reasons, or for any other kind of prejudice, including those regarding sexual preference. I abhor prejudice in any form altogether. I have been performing in an art form that includes thousands of gay people on both sides of the stage, and there is no one who can come forward and claim that I have ever exhibited any such prejudice against them, as indeed I do not. I have said before and say here again that the words attributed to me were not my own, and that I therefore cannot take personal responsibility for them. I can only repeat again and again that this is my position.   

"I also want to make clear once more that my concerns last year about the Parade in Tbilisi for Gay Rights were not based on any opposition to the rights of gay people everywhere. Rather they were founded on my fears that the parade would arouse a violent reaction from parts of the arch-conservative Georgian religious community. Unfortunately, this is exactly what did happen, as those participating in the parade were criminally attacked by such elements." 

At the moment, Iveri is scheduled to make her role debut as Tosca in Melbourne in November 2014, under the auspices of Opera Australia. Given her sluggish performance of "Vissi d'arte" in concert on YouTube, this casting seems questionable on artistic grounds; it remains to be seen whether the engagement is in jeopardy for other reasons. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

The Puccini Prize

 Permanent link

For four decades, the Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation has been awarding money to deserving young singers via its annual voice competition; past top prizewinners include many artists who have gone on to considerable renown in the opera world. On October 26 at the Rose Theater, the Foundation will hold its Fortieth Anniversary Gala concert, presenting its top winners for 2014. 

On April 28, I attended the competition finals. "You had to kiss a lot of frogs to get a few princes," murmured one of the judges to the Foundation's administrative/artistic director, Stephen DeMaio, on the way out. It was true: the competition began shakily, with several singers turning up whom I felt should have been granted no money at all. But as the day wore on, things picked up considerably, and there were some dazzling talents on display.

The top prize of $12,500 was justly awarded to tenor Benjamin Bliss, twenty-eight, who sang "Una furtive lagrima" in a lovely, caressing tone. It was a magical performance that was absorbing without becoming lachrymose. The two first prize winners were also completely deserving of the $10,000 award granted to each of them: Rebecca Pedersen, only twenty-two, and a winner in the 2013 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, sang Le Cid's "Pleurez mes yeux" with a big, beautiful sound — she needs only to dig in a bit more emotionally, because she has everything else — and Ryan Speedo Green, twenty-eight, offered a completely satisfying, magnificently finished performance of "Solche hergelaufne Laffen" from Die Entfuhrüng aus dem Serail. He seems ready to perform this role on any stage, anywhere. 

Baritone Alexey Lavrov, twenty-eight, took second prize ($7,000) with Edgar's "Questop amor vergogna mia." His voice has a solid core and he's a highly expressive artist. This was one of the most complete performances of the entire day, and I wouldn't have complained even slightly had he won the top prize. 

The third prize winners ($5,000 each) also showed up strongly: mezzo Virginie Verrez, twenty-five, with "Deh, per questo," performed with both elegant Mozartean style and dramatic bite; twenty-eight-year-old tenor Mario Chang, another ready-to-go artist, sang "Che gelida manina" with a warm, glowing sound and exciting dramatic involvement; and twenty-three-year-old soprano Courtney Johnson offered La Wally's "Ebben? ne andrò lontana" in the best performance I've yet heard from her. I did not think, however, that Johnson should have placed above the stunning mezzo Shirin Eskandani, thirty, whose "Non più mesta" was extraordinary; her singing is joyous and she seems incapable of making an unmusical phrase. Eskandani took the $3,000 fourth prize, but again, I would have had no quibbles if she had earned the top award. Twenty-seven-year-old tenor Paul Han took fifth prize ($2,500) with an exquisitely phrased and impassioned "Fantaisie aux divins mensonges" from Lakmé that was full of dramatic surprises along the way.

There were ten additional $1,000 grants and nine $500 Encouragement Awards handed out as well. Among these, baritone Norman Garrett, singing "Vision fugitive," was having an off day and didn't show nearly as well as he usually does; soprano Courtney Mills, thirty-two, sang "Pace, pace," once again demonstrating that she has one of the best instruments of any young singer today, though she often seems to falter a bit in competition, as she did here; and mezzo Ewa Plonka, thirty-one, with a highly musical, dramatically pointed rendition of Konchakovna's Aria from Prince Igor. I would like to hear more of soprano Shelley Jackson, whose "Tu, che di gel" showed off a good grasp of Puccini style and a vocal with a distinctive profile. Soprano Jennifer Cherest, twenty-nine, seriously overcalculated her charm with a too-cute-for-words performance of Norina's aria, "Quel guardo il cavaliere," from Don Pasquale. And twenty-six-year-old baritone Jarrett Ott, who offered Die Tote Stadt's Tanzlied, is very talented, but he tends to stand outside the things he sings; he needs to engage emotionally to a greater degree. (In fairness, he was handicapped by being interrupted by one of the judges.) spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Show-Stoppers at Broadway Backwards

(Brian Kellow, Performances, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Musical Theater, Humor) Permanent link

On March 24, near the end of the first half of Broadway Backwards, the annual gender-bending concert benefitting both Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Manhattan's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, something stunning and unexpected happened. The curtain rose to reveal Patricia Morison, decked out in diamonds and looking far younger than her ninety-nine years, sitting onstage with a music stand in front of her. The applause was overwhelming, and Morison was quite visibly moved, putting her hands up to her face more than once. Dimly remembered as a leading lady of minor '40s films, but a Broadway immortal, thanks to her performance as Lilli Vanessi/Katherine in the original 1948 production of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, Morison explained to the audience that she had chosen something appropriate for the evening's sex-reversal theme: "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," which she used to sit backstage and listen to "two very funny men" (Harry Clark and Jack Diamond) sing. She then sang the complete number with great panache and style, nailing every laugh. The ovation dwarfed the one that had greeted her entrance; the shouting, stomping and clapping went on for what seemed like minutes. 

Miraculously, this was followed by the biggest laugh of the evening. Julie White, who hosted the evening with The New Normal's Bebe Wood, strolled onstage to announce the closer for the first half: Norm Lewis, singing "Home" from The Wiz. "This next performer . . ." White said, " . . . is just fucked." (Lewis came through with a lovely performance.)

The show, directed and written by Robert Bartley, offered plenty of other show-stoppers, among them: Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Andy Kelso in a hilarious performance of "The History of Wrong Guys" from Kinky Boots; Robin de Jesús and six terrific dancers (including standout Marty Lawson), with "Prehistoric Man" from the 1949 movie version of On the Town; Beth Leavel with a brilliantly inventive "She Likes Basketball" from Promises, Promises; and Michael Berresse and Tony Yazbeck with a deeply touching and resonant "Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag" from Chicago, featuring the original Ann Reinking Fosse-based choreography. In the end, the evening raised an impressive (and record-breaking) $423,000. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Brooklyn Tapestry

(Brian Kellow, Performances, Broadway, Musical Theater, New York City) Permanent link

Beautiful, the new musical about the early years of Carole King, isn't much of a show, but it passes by pleasantly, and by the end of the evening, you don't feel that your time has been wasted. In a funny way, it's like some of King's most famous songs — it deals with some messy emotions, but it does so in a way that's rather becalmed.

The show takes the young Carole (née Klein) from her days as a precocious student at Queens College, when she has her first taste of success writing songs for doo-wop groups in the 1950s and '60s, through her loving but volatile marriage to her collaborator Gerry Goffin, to her emergence as a star singer–songwriter with the multiple Grammy-winning album Tapestry. (Is there anyone who didn't own this LP back in 1972?) There's a generous helping of King's hits along the way, and several by Goffin and King's close friends, the songwriting team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The numbers are neatly staged by director Marc Bruni and particularly by choreographer Josh Prince (who help turns "On Broadway" into a show-stopper), but what keeps the show earthbound is the book by Douglas McGrath. From the early scenes, which are reminiscent of the hackneyed old movie composer biopics from the '40s and '50s, McGrath's script listlessly rolls by, feeling like an outline that he couldn't summon the energy to develop. There are some nice individual lines, and they are given a good spin by Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin, Anika Larsen as Cynthia Weil, Jarrod Spector as Barry Mann and, most of all, by Jessie Mueller as Carole King. ("I have the right amount of body, it's just not organized properly," complains the young Carole.) Publisher Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown) is a device, not a character, and Liz Larsen works much too hard as King's self-involved mother. Most of the big scenes are under-written, including the one in which the two couples' problems come to the surface over a strip poker game, and many of the moments dealing with marital discord seem strained and a little trivial, like an old '70s sitcom that decides to go all dramatic with an episode on infidelity.

But Jessie Mueller, like Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz a few years ago, works magic with her material. It might seem risky to build a big musical around a menschy woman who never loses her equilibrium, but Mueller so fully inhabits King's Brooklyn-girl-niceness that she ennobles her shaky vehicle. Her charm is never forced; she gives the show a quiet but absorbing center. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

The Diva Who Laughs

(Brian Kellow, Performances, Crossover, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Musical Theater, Cabaret, Humor) Permanent link

Recently, on a Sunday afternoon, my partner and I walked into Mel's Burgers in our Columbia University neighborhood. In addition to having the greatest burgers on the West Side, Mel's is something of a sports bar. "Which game would you like to be seated next to?" asked the hostess when we walked in. "Um," said my partner, "I dunno. Do you have figure skating?"

I'm afraid this about sums up our degree of attachment to the world of sports, but we were of course keen to tune in on Super Bowl Sunday this year, because for the first time, the event would feature an opera singer — none other than soprano RENÉE FLEMING — singing the National Anthem. In the days that followed, we were frequently asked what we thought about her performance. My take was: slow beginning, odd, goopy arrangement. In the beginning, I experienced my familiar irritation with Fleming's refusal to sing English words simply and cleanly, without affectation, but I thought she dug in as it went on and finished up triumphantly. 

Then I was sent a YouTube clip of soprano/comedienne DOROTHY BISHOP, performing her spoof of Fleming's performance of the anthem. It's not the anthem at all, but a re-lyriced version of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," which Fleming has performed in concert. "It must be a drag / If you don't love the flag," sang Bishop, launching into a wild scat section and then coming back with "It makes no difference if I'm black or white / I'm singing 'Oh say can you see' tonight!" Along the way, there are riffs on "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," too. It's a very funny — and not at all mean-spirited — takeoff on Fleming's ideas about singing jazz and pop music. I have never liked most of what Fleming has done in this area — I usually feel she is avoiding any real connection with the music in pursuit of what she considers "style" — but the odd thing about Bishop's performance is that it made me relax a bit about Fleming's pop side. It's obvious that Fleming loves this music, and Bishop somehow tapped into the star's immense likability factor. (There's also a strong resemblance between the two women — so much so that once, when Bishop got tired of being stuck in Met standing room, she jumped a parterre box seat and fended off an usher by telling him she was Renée Fleming.) New York audiences will have a chance to experience Bishop's take on Fleming when she brings her show The Dozen Divas to the Metropolitan Room, one of New York's top cabaret venues, on April 30 and May 5.

Bishop is a Yale-educated soprano who came to New York and enjoyed what she describes as "a successful, ten-year B-level career that wasn't going where I wanted it to go." She noticed that she was getting cast in comedies — she did dozens of Rosalindes and Fiordiligis, and she gradually began moving into musical-comedy cabaret, which is not the most remunerative of genres. "I saw that there was money headlining in the cruise ships," she recalls, "and so for a number of years, I made up my own Sarah Brightman show and did a pop-opera tribute — not necessarily to Sarah, but kind of copying her own style. I started throwing in a lot of comedy. I left the ships in 2011, burned out and frustrated artistically, and started to develop The Dozen Divas." The show featured Bishop's impersonations of Cher, Adele, Stevie Nicks and others, and for its run at the Manhattan night spot the Iguana, Bishop was nominated for a Broadway World Award for Best Musical Comedy Cabaret Performance. 

"Renée has that gorgeous spin that separates an A-level singer from a B-level singer. My voice probably has more metal, but hers is so pure and spinny. I wouldn't even try to imitate her opera singing. But people are sensitive about her — and about 'The Star Spangled Banner,' too. I think at the moment on YouTube I have fifty-five likes and forty hates. I left some of the bad comments up, but there were so many, with people writing stupid stuff. A lot of Vietnam vets said they were offended that I made fun of the National Anthem.

"Renée is, for some people, the highlight of my whole act," says Bishop. "I don't know her personally, and I'm not making fun of her fabulous, glorious opera singing. I have people who claim to be friends of hers and who have come to my show and say, 'She doesn't care.' Now when I was doing Sarah Palin, she sent some people, and they sat in the front row with arms crossed, not laughing at all. They did not laugh. I closed with a very funny parody of "Rose's Turn" — "Sarah's Turn" — you can imagine. Then I did sing-along Christmas carols with a Rudolph parody that ended with her shooting John McCain. Afterward, they were very sarcastic. They said, 'We're so happy we can go back and tell Sarah she has nothing to worry about.' I just smiled and said, 'Thank you for coming.'"

This July, Fleming herself will be reaching out to a new audience when she stars in Joe DiPietro and Garson Kanin's comedy Living on Love at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. spacer

BRIAN KELLOW

Staged Reading

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Arts Journalism, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

There's something about a long career on Broadway that makes lots of people think that their experiences are worth putting down in book form; over the years, I've known rehearsal pianists, dressers, chorus boys and stage hands who were busily scribbling their memoirs, most of which never saw the light of day. Now, one of Broadway's respected press agents, SUSAN L. SCHULMAN, has succumbed to the temptation. The result, Backstage Pass to Broadway: True Tales from a Theatre Press Agent, has just been published by Heliotrope Books. In Schulman's case, her efforts have been worth it; she's written a funny, sometimes shocking book about the things she's seen on Broadway for the past forty-plus years. (She got her feet wet in 1970 with Applause, starring the famously dyspeptic LAUREN BACALL, something that probably would have had most fledgling press agents applying for the night shift at Howard Johnson's.) Schulman is admittedly star-struck; there's a gosh-gee-whiz quality to many of her anecdotes, but her book is best when she's chronicling bad behavior: DAVID MERRICK's young wife NATALIE, LESLEY ANNE WARREN and JOHN DEXTER come off worst. If only most people who work in the opera industry were half this candid about their experiences, my job would be a lot more fun. 

BRIAN KELLOW

The Pop Side

(Brian Kellow, Crossover, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Musical Theater, Theater, Cabaret) Permanent link

Anyone who wants a juicy demonstration of savvy, old-time show-biz razzle dazzle shouldn't think of missing Sin Twisters, the new club act starring ANITA GILLETTE and PENNY FULLER at Manhattan's popular theater-district nightspot 54 Below. I attended the opening on October 2. Sharply and confidently directed by BARRY KLEINBORT, Sin Twisters is frequently hilarious, frequently touching, and even more frequently awe-inspiring. Gillette and Fuller never attained top Broadway stardom, but they are two of the most respected and versatile actresses of their generation — what used to be called darlings of the theater. The show's title is a spoonerism — a treasured gag that runs through the show, adding to its infectious spirit. ("Pit it, Haul!" Gillette called out at one point to musical director PAUL GREENWOOD, whose stylish pianism and gorgeous vocals added immeasurably to the evening. I should probably admit here that I've always been a sucker for spoonerisms, "Ballulah Tankhead" being my own personal favorite.)

In this generously programmed act, both Gillette and Fuller showed crack comic timing and solid vocals, as they wove their way through a loose narrative that ticked off high points of their careers but never became stale or predictable. A raucous high point was Gillette's ultra-swacked rendition of "If I Were a Bell," from Guys and Dolls; she reached a stunning emotional peak with "Isn't He Something?" from Stephen Sondheim's Bounce, and the gorgeous "Once Upon a Time," from All American, which she sang with Fuller. (I've never known anyone of a certain age who didn't succumb to this lovely song). I had always considered "One Halloween" one of the junkier numbers from the 1970 musical Applause, a show that an Encores! concert presentation of a few years ago proved is beyond reviving. But in Fuller's expert hands (she received a Tony nomination for the role of Eve Harrington), it was magical — an example of a real artist transforming her mediocre material. In duet, Gillette and Fuller shone in "Little Me" and a medley of tunes from Cabaret; both actresses had their turn playing Sally Bowles on Broadway. The audience, which included SHELDON and MARGERY HARNICK, JOHN GLOVER, HARVEY EVANS, SONDRA LEE, MALCOLM GETS and LEROY REAMS, came away with a bracing sense of two women who have gotten the most out of their careers and still have many premium performing miles to go. They'll reprise Sin Twisters at Club 54 on October 9. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW


Follow OPERA NEWS on FacebookTwitter Button 

Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3