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RIsing Stars – An Interview with Conductor Carolyn Kuan

September 11th, 2014

This interview was conducted on the Ranch of the Santa Fe Opera. The facilitation of this interview by the Santa Fe Opera and the Washington National Opera is deeply appreciated.

 

[Below: Conductor Carolyn Kuan; edited image, based on a professional photograph, courtesy of Carolyn Kuan.]

 

KUAN HEADSHOT

Wm: Where were you raised as a child?

CK: My family is from Guangzhou in China. I, myself, was born in Taipei.

I came to the United States at age 14. Like many Asian girls I started playing the piano at a very young age. At one point early on I wanted to become a singer, and at another, a ballerina.

Wm: What are your earliest memories of music and of opera?

CK:  My earliest memories of music are from when I was five.  My brother got a piano for his 10th birthday.  Being the young sister, I quickly convinced my parents that I am the one that will become a concert pianist and should be allowed to play on my brother’s new piano!

My earliest opera memory is listening to the Peking Opera at my grandparents’ house.  I sang in choirs throughout my childhood and started studying voice seriously in high school.  I wanted to be an opera singer!

My mom once took me to an opera, but the art form is not big in Taiwan, which does not have an opera company. I would say that the very first time that I actually paid attention to opera was when I first started voice lessons at the Peabody Conservatory, after I had been in the United States for several years.

Wm: It’s interesting that opera is flourishing in South Korea, and many singers come out of that country and out of China, but not Taiwan.

CK: South Korea has developed its opera resources to the point that there are international opera stars who are from there and who perform there. I am aware of the efforts in developing opera in Hong Kong.

However, I’m not fully on top of what is happening in Taiwan, because by now I’m probably a bit more American than Chinese.

Wm: What were the circumstance that led you to come to America at age 14?

CK: My middle school had an American “sister school”, which had a program that would permit Chinese students to take summer school in the U. S. studying English. (The school also took us to Disneyland.)

Wm: This obviously was supposed to be a short-term educational experience. What happened that caused you to stay?

CK: I was very impressed by how students learn in the United States. In Taipei, so much of education is memorization. Sixty people attend a lecture, whose content you are expected to memorize. There was very little opportunity to ask questions and to explore ideas. As a 13-year old in Taipei, I was very rebellious and did not like not being able to question anything.

I was struck by the fact that the American teacher said that we should feel free to ask questions and even to disagree with anything that was said. Secretly, I applied to the American high school, because I had decided that that is how kids should learn.

Wm: You graduated from an American high school and then completed your higher education in the United States. But you did not pursue the educational pathway that your parents were planning for you.

CK: My parents wanted me to be an investment banker. I told them that I needed to learn more about music before I returned to Asia.

My father long ago felt he had lost control of the situation, and has given up on my becoming an investment banker in Asia. By now, my father accepts that I am a musician.

Wm: But how did you become drawn to music as an academic pursuit?

CK: My entire musical journey has been based on curiosity as why music is different from math and science. The human voice is a divine mystery. You can hear it, but not be able to explain why it is beautiful. Music is transcendent. There is nothing like it.

[Conductor Carolyn Kuan; edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of Carolyn Kuan.]

KUAN STANDING

Wm: Describe your higher education.

CK: I went to Smith College. I obtained a scholarship to study conducting at the University of Illinois. After that I went to the Peabody Conservatory and then got a job with the New York City Ballet.

Wm: Did you find conducting to be academically challenging? 

 CK: Yes, in the sense that it was hard to deal with it as an academic “subject”. As a student, I always understood mathematics, chemistry and physics. There were answers to my questions that everyone can agree upon. The more questions I asked, the more the answers explained whatever I wondered about.

Conducting is a mystery. How can anyone know exactly what conducting is? What does a conductor do? You can’t really know anything about conducting until you do it. There is no guarantee when you repeat something you’ve done, that it won’t have a different result.

Wm: You were awarded a Herbert von Karajan conducting fellowship. How did that come about and what did you learn during the fellowship?

 CK: There was a rigorous application process. You send them a resume and a video-tape, and then they invite you to auditions if they like what you’ve submitted. In my case, there were actually members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on the jury watching the auditions.

There was no conducting involved in the fellowship, but it was a summer of immersion in a musically rich environment.

Wm: But you did have conducting lessons at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California.

CK: The Cabrillo Festival is where I grew up as a conductor. They have an annual conducting workshop for seven conductors and three young composers. You get to work with the composers to bring music to life. Some of the new pieces of music were absolutely brilliant. I love new music – imagine being able to talk to Mozart or Beethoven!

[Below: Conductor Carolyn Kuan; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of Carolyn Kuan.]

 

KUAN CONDUCTING

Wm: Give me a sense of how the conducting students work with the young composers.

CK: To answer this question: it has been a long time since I was a conducting student working with a young composer. I remember there being a lot of questions and we were able to try different things. New music under Marin Alsop is incredible and inspiring. The musicians at Cabrillo are not only amazing, they are always open and helpful with suggestions.

There are various considerations. Obviously, the flow of the drama is an essential concern. I simply love making music WITH the orchestra. And, of course, it is important that the singers need to have time to breathe.

I found the experience of working with singers and composers to be invaluable. For ten years I participated every summer at the Cabrillo Festival. Composers at Cabrillo included John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon, Kevin Puts, and John Adams.

Wm: What attracts you to opera?

CK: The reason why opera is special is because a great story is paired with great music. That’s why I love opera. I would not be interested in seeing “Tosca” as a play. The drama in “Tosca” is enhanced by Puccini’s music.

Wm: What are your thoughts about your first season at the Santa Fe Opera.

CK:  Since this is my first new production of an opera, I don’t have the experience of having worked with other productions. But everyone here has been so positive, that I feel we are creating great art. The staff is absolutely first class. It has really been a privilege being here.

[Below: Doctor Sun Yat-Sen (Joseph Dennis, front, below statue) stands in front of a statue commemorating his role in creating a modern China; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

KUAN SUN YAT-SEN STATUE

Wm: What role did you have in bringing Huang Ruo’s “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” to the Santa Fe Opera stage?

CK: I actually joined the “Dr SYS” team after the Santa Fe Opera made the bold choice to present it. My role this summer has been to work closely with Huang Ruo and the entire artistic and production team in bringing it to life. In addition to making adjustments to support the drama, which has a very different flow than the premiere with various scene changes, Huang Ruo and I had lengthy conversations about the Western instrumentation, as well as the addition of three Chinese musicians, each playing various different instruments.

As you know, the Hong Kong premiere used a tradtional orchestra. Adding the completely new set and the scene changes, in many ways the Santa Fe Opera performances were like the world premiere.

Wm: Do you regard the work as a Chinese opera, or as a “Western music” (as the censors in Beijing implied) with a “Chinese sound”?

CK: I can’t speak for its composer, Huang Ruo, but I don’t consider it a Chinese opera. I think the opera has Eastern influences, not just the language, but through the addition of various Chinese instruments to the complement of Western instruments adds subtlety to the sound. There is also the influence of Eastern philosophy in the story as well as a particular way of singing the Mandarin and Cantonese phrases.

Wm: Let’s take these “Eastern influences” separately. You have three Chinese instrumentalists integrated with the Santa Fe Opera orchestra.

CK: Yes, there are three Chinese musicians, who play several Chinese instruments. One is the pipa, a four-stringed instrument that is rather like a Western lute, or perhaps a guitar. The sheng seems to be the “great-grandfather” of the Western organ, with lots of little pipes. Other instruments correspond to our flutes, reed instruments and strings, but all of the Chinese instruments add a very different color than the sounds of the Western instruments.

Wm: A characteristic of the sung Chinese dialects is a different way of completing a sung phrase than one hears in Western opera.

CK: That is an influence of Chinese opera.

Wm: In your reply on what attracts you to opera, you mentioned the opera “Tosca”, an opera whose pace is one of melodramatic urgency.  Yet much of “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” has a static feel.

CK: To me, one of the essences of the opera is that Sun Yat-Sen never gives up on his goals.  This theme is exemplified in the determination of Sun Yat-Sen to persevere in his goal of leading a revolution against the Qing dynasty.

I believe there exists a difference between Eastern and Western philosophies that are evident in this work. In Eastern philosophy there is no feeling of a need to go somewhere, to move on to the next thing. A Westerner may see this as being static. For me, it is beautiful to just BE.

I think the opera combines East and West in an imaginative way that is neither Chinese nor Western. Much of Huang Ruo’s music has an emotional flavor, particularly when accompanied by the Chinese instruments.

[Below: Doctor Sun Yat-Sen (Joseph Dennis, left) and his wife Ching-Ling (Corinne Winters, right) work together to overthrow China's Qing Dynasty; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

KUAN SUN YAT-SEN

Wm: Yet, I found some of the most effective parts of the opera were those of the revolutionary mobs, exemplified by the action pieces for the chorus. The dance sequences inspired by martial arts were particularly interesting.

CK: I think James Robinson’s staging deliberately sought to display Sun Yat-Sen’s personality and the strength of character of his impressive wife, Ching-Ling. The two are not only engaged in a forbidden love affair, but they share an ideology that is intent on bringing about revolutionary change in China.

There are tender moments between Sun Yat-Sen and Ching Ling and, of course, the sympathetic portrayal of Sun Yat-Sen’s first wife, who is truly a victim, crippled by the old social order.

Wm: You have assumed the music directorship of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Also, you have two important opera assignments coming up, opening both the Washington National Opera’s 2014-15 season at the Kennedy Center with Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas”, and opening the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival with Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. Would you comment on these assignments?

CK: My alma mater, Smith College, is less than 50 miles from Hartford, Connecticut, which is now my home.

It is absolutely thrilling to work with companies like the Santa Fe Opera, Washington National Opera, and the Glimmerglass Festival. Each is unique and wonderful in its own way.

[Below: Carolyn Kuan conducting; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Carolyn Kuan.]

KUAN BATON

“Florencia” is an amazingly beautiful score with rich lushness and vivid colors. All of us can relate to the emotions of the characters, and the music heightens everything.

I, of course, have long admired Francesca Zambello. It will be amazing to finally work with her at Washington National Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival. “The Magic Flute” that opens the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival will be a new production, inspired by Native American folklore. What a fabulous idea!  I very much look forward to working with the production’s creator, Madeline Savet!

I’m very pleased to be conducting the opening nights of the Washington National Opera and Glimmerglass seasons.

Wm: Thank you, Carolyn. I expect to see you again next summer in Glimmerglass.

CK: Thanks.

 

Tags: 2008-2014 William's Interviews

Essay: New Hope Valley as a Character in Carlisle Floyd’s Opera “Susannah”

September 8th, 2014

In celebration of the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”, I am reposting an essay on the opera that was originally written as part of a review for an Opera Pacific performance.

(For my review of the San Francisco Opera performance, see:  Review: Racette, Aceto, Jovanovich in Brilliant New Production of “Susannah” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2014.)

In the essay below, I have removed all references to the Opera Pacific production and have added photographs from the San Francisco Opera production. The remaining essay is unchanged from its May 16, 2008 posting.

 

“Susannah” is often called a folk opera, particularly since its first two scenes respectively contain a lively square dance and Sam’s ditty from when he and his sister were children. Additionally, much of Susannah’s reflective music is written in modal scales, that we often associate with Appalachian ballads.

But I think this designation of the opera is not a useful one, since most of the opera is not folk music at all. Floyd’s musical influences are supposedly eclectic.

Floyd’s frequent use of low dissonant chords might cause one to think of a Benjamin Britten sonic sea image.  Here and there a phrase might remind one of Aaron Copland.  Another phrase might sound like George Gershwin (to me, the music accompanying Sam going after Blitch with his shotgun could have been an outtake from the “American in Paris” film score.)

One of the highlights of the score, whose roots are in Protestant hymnals rather than folk music, is the second act Revival Meeting, that the Reverend Blitch has organized, with the strong support of the church elders . . .

But to me most of the music of “Susannah” fits well in the mainstream of core post-Romantic operatic repertory. In fact, the opera composer represented in the standard repertory of whom Floyd’s opera most reminds me is Janacek – not that there is any direct musicological link between the two – because both use similar palettes of sonorities.

Any person unfamiliar with “Susannah” who enjoys the music of Janacek’s operas (the number of Janacek fans appears to increase every year), should become acquainted with the Floyd work.

There is another link I see between Floyd’s “Susannah” and Janacek’s “Jenufa” and “Katya Kabanova”.  All three take place in small, insular villages, which form communities that have an impact on the lives of its individual residents that persons in large urban communities usually do not expect from their neighbors. New Hope Valley, Tennessee is as oppressive a place for a free spirit like Susannah as Jenufa’s Moravian village or Katya’s rural Russia.

[Below: Susannah (Patricia Racette, front center) is surprised to discover that she has been ostracized by her community; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

SUSANNAH RACETTE FIELD PEAS

Even so, there is one other community, probably much larger than these other three, from which an analogy can be drawn.  That is Wartburg, the town that Tannhauser, the hero of Wagner’s opera, left.

The comparison with Wartburg, I believe, provides a clearer example of what the opera is about than such traditional explanations as Floyd’s libretto.

Still in currency is the idea that the libretto was meant to be a condemnation of the tactics of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin in the early 50s that has come to be known as the McCarthy Era. (Floyd has himself denied that the effects of “McCarthyism” on individuals was his inspiration for the opera.)

This website has spent quite a bit of time discussing the Wartburg over the past 16 months, as part of an analysis of three different interpretations of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” produced by, sequentially, the Los Angeles Opera, San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera.

The Wartburg was an intensely religious community of the medieval period.  Religious and social conformity were expected of all residents in their community and all others surrounding them.

[Below: a community dance is held in New Hope Valley; edited image, based ona Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

SUSANNAH SQUARE DANCE ALTERNATE

In the years of the splintering of the “universal church” after Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin launched their reform movements (independent of one another),  it was typical for German and Swiss towns to establish a religious orthodoxy for the persons residing in their community.

The town might be Lutheran, Anabaptist, Calvinist or Roman Catholic, but more often than not it was intolerant of any of the other religions.  Persons who failed to follow the letter of whichever church doctrine their community espoused were shunned (and sometimes harmed or killed) in the here and now and, it was believed, damned in eternity.

These austere sentiments carried over into the new world to which religious refugees were fleeing from areas where they were no longer welcome, joining other religious refugees from England, Scotland and elsewhere.

Many of the mountains, hills and valleys in the original American colonies became places where religious communities could be built, safe from the world of disasters from which their original inhabitants fled.

Floyd’s father was a Methodist minister, and Floyd was strongly influenced by the small evangelistic communities that lay on the circuit that such a minister traveled.

I have come to believe that New Hope Valley should be regarded as a principal character in the opera (with the elders and the church women as the community’s manifestation), which has to deal with the challenges to its rules – its very essence – in the ways that have protected the community from the chaos of the outside for centuries.

(Note that when reconstructing the focus of the opera to the community’s rules, it changes what many thought the opera was about – McCarthyism, Blitch’s hypocrisy, even the loose ties to the Biblical (or Apocryphal) story of Susannah and the Elders.)

Those elders and churchwomen who needed to guard the New Hope Valley community were clearly uneasy about Sam Polk’s bouts of drunkenness and Susannah’s flirtatiousness.  Two incidents caused them to move from being on guard to taking action.

[Below: Little Bat McLean (James Kryshak, left) confesses to Susannah (Patricia Racetter, right) that he lied and bragged to his church-going parents that he had carnal knowledge of her; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

SUSANNAH KRYSHAK RACETTE ON FLOOR

First (in a plot device that permitted at least tangential reference to the scriptural story that gave the opera its name and was supposedly its raison d’etre), 1) Susannah was seen bathing naked in the baptism stream and 2) Little Bat, upon some hard questioning on the part of his parents, concocted a story that Susannah had seduced him.

I think that Floyd’s revision of the scriptual story is masterful.  Originally, the Biblical (or Apocryphal) Susanna bathed in a fountain.  The elders came upon her naked and attempted to seduce her, but when she refused, accused her of public wantoness.

In Floyd’s libretto, she is bathing in a creek on the Polks’ property (as she has done for some time), and the elders see her because they are trying to locate the part of the creek that they have used in the past for baptisms, so it can be available to the new preacher.

The second charge against Susannah is an extremely serious one in a village where the sexual conduct of its members is regarded to be a community affair.

Although there is a zero tolerance for such transgressions, there is a remedy – a public confession and submission of one’s self and future conduct to the community.  (Susannah’s public confession would be the New Hope Valley equivalent of Tannhauser’s pilgrimage to Rome to seek the Pope’s forgiveness.)

There is an important difference between Susannah and Tannhauser.  Whereas the minnesinger acknowledged his transgression of the Wartburg rules and agreed to the pathway to his absolution, Susannah had not done anything wrong and refused to accept the community’s accusation that she had.

[Below: the Reverend Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto, in white sleeves, center right) leads a religious revival at the New Hope Valley church; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]

SUSANNAH REVIVAL

In the 21st century, much of the world has a different view of what kinds of sexual conduct are a community affair and what is not than predominated in New Hope Valley at the square dance that Monday night in mid-July.

But we have become much more absolutist when it comes to sexual misconduct in a religious context.  When we discover that “God-fearing” politicians and evangelists have succumbed to the ways of the flesh, we fully grasp the hypocrisy of the situations.

We are especially intolerant, if we believe that a hypocrite is using the argument that he (or she) can effect one’s salvation in the afterlife in exchange for present day sexual favors.

So Blitch’s actions make him seem especially villainous. Sex with a woman whom he believed was “loose” (or what an operative of a former American president referred to as “trailer trash”) should be his reward for his fight against sinners.  (“My reward it be’s in heaven/An there’s little reward here below/But ever now and then I near go mad/I need a woman so . . . Cause it’s a lonesome work I do.”)

Even so, in this age of absolutist condemnation of sexual hypocrisy, there can be greater and lesser villains.  Conductor [John] DeMain, I think correctly, points out, that regardless of Blitch’s sexual misconduct, he was genuinely shocked to discover that Susannah had been a virgin before he forced himself upon her, and attempted unsuccessfully to persuade the community elders that she had been unjustly accused.

Unlike such true operatic villains as Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” or Iago in Verdi’s “Otello”, Blitch fully comprehended the depth of his sin, and died in agony at what he had done.  And the person who actually was responsible for the series of calamities that befell the town – Little Bat – like a child playing with matches that led to a conflagration – was too much of an innocent to even be considered a bad person.

When “Susannah” played at the Met, there were New York critics that just could not get the opera.  One suggested that it was too simplistic – there just was not enough there to present it at an opera house like the Met.  My own view is that the opera and its libretto are substantive.

Floyd links us to a time and place that was in his imagination, but was based on his experiences as a youth in communities that would have understood the ways of New Hope Valley. Floyd’s decision not to tamper with the work, when he received an opportunity to revise it for a major recording, was the correct one.

[See also: San Francisco Opera Embraces “Susannah”: An American Operatic Masterpiece Returns to the War Memorial – September, 2014.]

For more information on “Susannah” and other operas, please visit my new Facebook “Opera Warhorses” site.

Tags: William's Program Notes

Review: Racette, Aceto, Jovanovich in Brilliant New Production of “Susannah” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2014

September 7th, 2014

In a few weeks, Carlisle Floyd’s great opera “Susannah” will be 60 years old.

To place that fact in the context of other operas in the standard repertory, consider that when “Susannah” had its premiere, Puccini’s “Turandot” was 29 years old and George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “Porgy and Bess” was only 20 years old.

“Susannah’s” composer and librettist, Carlisle Floyd, was born six weeks after “Turandot’s” April 1926 premiere.

On September 6th, an 88 year old Carlisle Floyd was present at the premiere of an elegant new San Francisco Opera production of “Susannah”, receiving a standing ovation from the War Memorial Opera House audience.

An all-star cast was assembled for the occasion, with Patricia Racette in the lead role, Raymond Aceto as the Reverend Olin Blitch, Brandon Jovanovich as Susannah Polk’s brother Sam, and James Kryshak as the easily confused adolescent, Little Bat.

[Below: Susannah (Patricia Racette, center in blue dress) enjoys a community square dance; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera..]

SUSANNAH RACETTE SQUARE DANCING

One can argue that Floyd’s operas, several of which have American story lines, share some attributes with Puccini and his Italian verismo colleagues – the creation of sounds that evoke a specific place, a melodic palate that is both accessible and endearing to audiences, a willingness to accentuate the melodramatic potential of a story, and the adoption of Wagnerian theories of how to enlist an orchestra as an integral part of an opera’s story-telling.

“Susannah”, whose only near rival among American operas in total number of performances is “Porgy and Bess”, is an intense work, with a large orchestra, requiring voices of weight, power and beauty possessed by artists who are also consummate actors.

It was no accident that all three of the principal singers – Racette, Aceto and Jovanovich – all are masters of roles in Puccini operas,

[Below: Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk, a hunter and trapper and brother of Susannah; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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There were times and there are places where the works of both Puccini and Floyd are disparaged, just as there have always been musicians and dramatists who simply cannot relate to the amalgamation of drama and music into the operatic art form.

But time has a way of reversing fortunes. Some mid-20th century operas that contemporaries imagined were the voice of the future have for all practical purposes disappeared. Now a formidable and respectful Puccini scholarship exists, and American opera of the kind written and championed by Floyd, is receiving new respect from operatic managements and audiences.

One of the chief advocates for American opera in general and of Carlisle Floyd’s works in particular is San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley.

Having achieved the goal, enunciated at the beginning of his general directorship in 2006, of bringing all ten of Puccini’s mature works (1893’s “Manon Lescaut” and every later Puccini opera) to the San Francisco Opera stage, Gockley has been sponsoring productions of those 20th and 21st century works for whose success he deserves so much of the credit.

[Below: Little Bat (James Kryshak, left) shocks Susannah (Patricia Racette, by telling her that he lied to his parents that Susannah, a virgin, had seduced him; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

SUSANNAH RACETTE KRYSHAK LITTLE BAT

Since “Susannah” is the greatest success of all the Gockley-sponsored American works, a prediction that “Susannah” would be mounted in one of his remaining seasons as San Francisco Opera’s General Director was a safe bet.

However,  the creation of a new co-production, in concert with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Liceu of Barcelona, has proven to be triumph exceeding all expectations.

[Below: the Reverend Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto, center, at pulpit below cross) calls upon Susannah (Patricia Racette, seated alone, far right) to make a public confession of her sins; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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For the new production, Gockley enlisted the team that had created the Vancouver Opera production of Adams’ “Nixon in China”, another successful, albeit quite different, American opera promoted by Gockley,

With staging by Michael Cavanagh and sets and projections by Erhard Rom, “Susannah’s” physical production was always intelligent and intelligible, shifting seamlessly between the church whose affairs dominate the small community’s life, and the residence of the orphaned brother and sister, Sam and Susannah Polk.

The background projections of Appalachian vistas that surround the Polks’ property are often stunning.

The new production was the occasion for the important San Francisco Opera debut of Conductor Karen Kamensek, whose command of the orchestral score – which is sometimes brutal in its intensity, but  often dreamily melodic – was fully in evidence.

[Below: Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto, right) comes to talk with Susannah (Patricia Racette, left) about her soul's salvation, but ends up taking her virginity; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

SUSANNAH with BLITCH HOME

 The casting honored Floyd and his masterwork, enlisting three of the finest singing actors of our time. Racette’s dramatic soprano soared high in her range to express Susannah’s rage at being falsely accused of immoral behavior, and then softened to  resignation as she fully comprehended the narrow-mindedness of the small community.

Raymond Aceto is one of the world’s great basso cantantes, a master of the long legato lines of Verdi’s great roles for the bass voice.  [See A Discussion of Susannah’s Olin Blitch and Tosca’s Scarpia (and other subjects) with basso Raymond Aceto.]

Aceto is also a skilled actor in the dramatic bass-baritone roles made famous by his predecessors Norman Treigle and Samuel Ramey. (Treigle and Aceto are the only two artists to have sung the role of Olin Blitch on the War Memorial Opera House stage.)

Aceto’s dramatic powers were fully in evidence in his scene of contrition, having discovered that not only had he violated his own oath to God, but had forced himself on Susannah to commit the very act for which he and the community had previously  accused her.

[Below: the Reverend Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto, kneeling) tries to atone for his act; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

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The role of Sam Polk is one that Brandon Jovanovich had enjoyed performing early in his career and he expressed the wish (see Rising Stars: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich) that he would like to be considered for the role again in the future. (Soon after the interview’s posting, whether coincidental or not, he got his wish).

Some will consider it luxury casting for the heldentenor Jovanovich, who has sung both Siegmund and Lohengrin on the War Memorial stage, to appear in such a secondo uomo role as Sam Polk.

Yet Jovanovich is a mesmerizing presence in all three scenes in which Sam appears. He not only sings the folksy Jaybird ditty in his first scene with Racette’s Susannah, but the quite profound arioso “It’s about the way people are made” later in the act.

Jovanovich’s acting instincts are superb. He is able to make Sam’s flawed character into an audience favorite, even as he becomes, in what I call the Appalachian version of cavalleria rusticana – rustic chivalry, the agent of revenge for the Reverend Blitch’s trangressions.

Finally, one gives special recognition to James Kryshak’s excellent portrayal of Little Bat, the adolescent boy whose reckless act of false witness leads to the deaths of two of the three principal characters and a lifetime of isolation from her community for Susannah.

(The production’s first image is that of an elderly woman holding a shotgun, who is immediately revealed as the aged Susannah.)

The comprimario roles were nicely performed by company regulars, including Dale Travis and Catherine Cook as the Elder McLean and the quite sinister Mrs McLean, the trouble-making parents of Little Bat.

Joel Sorensen was the Elder Hayes and Jacqueline Piccolino was Mrs Hayes. A. J. Glueckert was the Elder Gleaton and Erin Johnson was Mrs Gleaton. Timothy Mix was the Elder Ott and Suzanne Hendrix was Mrs Ott. Two unnamed men were played by Jere Torkelsen and William O’Neill.

Recommendation

I enthusiastically recommend the opera, the production and this cast, to both the experienced opera-goer and for persons new to opera.

 

See also:  Essay: New Hope Valley as a Character in Carlisle Floyd’s Opera “Susannah”and,

San Francisco Opera Embraces “Susannah”: An American Operatic Masterpiece Returns to the War Memorial – September, 2014.

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Tags: 2005-2014: William's Reviews

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