Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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In Quest of Less-Often Performed Core Repertory Operas – November 2016 -May 2017

September 23rd, 2016

In recent years, live performances of some important operas of the “standard repertory” have become rarer. I am scheduled to review four such operas, each with major international casts, in Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and Houston.


Berlioz, The Trojans (Les Troyens), Lyric Opera of Chicago, November 13(m), 17(m), 21(m), 26(m) and December 3(m), 2016

British director has long been associated with productions of Berlioz’ “The Trojans [Les Troyens]” for the United Kingdom’s Opera North and Welsh National Opera. He and his collaborator set designer Tobias Hoheisel will mount the epic opera for Lyric Opera with a stellar cast led by New York soprano Christine Goerke as Cassandra and Montana tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas.

[Below: British director Tim Albery; edited image of a YouTube video for Opera North.]


Other cast members include North Carolina baritone Lucas Meachem as Chorebus, French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch as Dido, Christian Van Horn as Narmal.


Janacek, Katya Kabanova, Seattle Opera, February 25, 26, March 1, 4, 8, 10, 11, 2017

Two casts split seven performances of Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova”, with Melody Moore and Joseph Dennis performing the roles of Katya and Boris in four the performances (Feruary 25, March 4, 8 and 11) and Corinne Winters and Scott Quinn scheduled for the other three (February 26, March 1 and 10). Victoria Livengood will be Kabanicha in all seven performances, as will Stefan Szkafarowskky as Dikoy and Maya Lahyani as Varvara. Olivier von Dohnanyi will conduct.

[Below: Australian director Patrick Nolan; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]


This will be my first opportunity to observe operatic staging  of Australian director Patrick Nolan, whose reputation with Australian legitimate theater precedes him. Genevieve Blanchett creates the sets for Seattle Opera’s new production.


Offenbach, Tales of Hoffmann, Los Angeles Opera, March 25, 30, April 2(m), 6, 9(m) and 15, 2017.

Marta Domingo’s vibrant 2002 production for Los Angeles Opera of Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” is revived for a stellar cast, boasting Vittorio Grigolo as Hoffmann, Diana Damrau as the four heroines and Nicolas Teste as the four villains. Rodell Rosel is Spalanzani and Christophe Mortagne plays the four servants.

[Below: A scene from Marta Domingo’s 2002 Los Angeles Opera production of Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann”; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


A co-production of the Mariisnky Theater of Saint Petersburg, Russia and the Washington National Opera, the sets and costumes are by Giovanni Agostnnucci. Placido Domingo conducts.


Wagner’s Gotterdammerüng, Houston Grand Opera, April 22, 25, 29, May 4 and 7(m), 2017.

The final and most ambitious entry of Spain’s La Fura dels Baus production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” Gotterdammerüng is staged by Carlus Padrissa, with sets by Roland Olbeter and costumes by Chu Oroz.

Heldentenor Simon O’Neill and dramatic soprano Christine Goerke are respectively Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Andrea Silvestrelli is Hagen, Ryan McKinny is Gunther and Christopher Purves Alberich.

[Below: Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde in the 2016 Canadian Opera Company production of Wagner’s “Siegfried”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company.]


The Norns are Meredith Arwady, Jamie Barton and Heidi Melton. Barton also plays Waltraute. Patrick Summers conducts.


This list is supplementary to previous lists in this “Quests and Anticipations” series of selected operas being performed through August 2017:

Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the San Francisco Opera. [See In Quest of Puccini’s “Tosca” and “Butterfly” in the American Southwest – October 2015 to December 2016.]

Janacek’s “The Makropoulos Case” at the San Francisco Opera. [See In Quest of Operatic Masterpieces from the German and Czech Repertories – April- November, 2016.]

Heggie’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Houston Grand Opera [See In Quest of Repertory-Expanding Operas – April-December, 2016.]

Verdi’s “Aida” at the San Francisco Opera. [See In Quest of Live Performances of Popular Operas – May-November, 2016.]

Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” at the San Francisco Opera and “L’Elisir d’Amore” at the Houston Grand Opera and Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” at the Santa Fe Opera [See In Quest of Operatic Comedy – July 2016 – August 2017.]

Gounod’s “Faust” at the Houston Grand Opera, Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at The Dallas Opera, Weber’s “Der Freischutz” at the Virginia Opera and Montemezzi’s “L’Amore dei Tre Re” at the Sarasota Opera [See In Quest of Intriguing Operas, Casts and Productions – October 2016-March 2017.]


Tags: Quests and Anticipations

Rising Stars: An Interview with Kyle Ketelsen

September 16th, 2016

The following interview was conducted in the Santa Fe Opera Cantina, with the much-appreciated facilitation of the Santa Fe Opera:


[Below: Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen; edited image of a publicity photograph from kylek.net.]


Wm: I have a question that I ask all my first time interviewees: What are your earliest memories of music?

KK: I come from a musical family. My parents sang and my mother played violin. My father was a piano prodigy but never continued past childhood. I played viola and trumpet and also sang. I was exposed mostly to pop, rock and folk music, but classical was in the mix.

We all knew Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, the Beatles, John Denver, and Loggins and Messina. I had learned to harmonize at young age with the Beach Boys. I would be singing one part, and my mother would say something like “switch to tenor”.

I’m passing this musical heritage through to my own family.

Wm: What are your earliest memories of opera?

KK: One day I heard a cassette tape called Opera Goes to the Movies which was comprised of some pretty well know excerpts, such as Nessun dorma from Puccini’s “Turandot”, the duet between Zurga and Nadir from Bizet’s “The Pearlfishers”, and the Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner’s “Die Walküre”.

I was maybe 13 or 14 when I was starting high school. We had a prominent choir director and a rich musical tradition for the band and choir. The choir director also led a community choir in which I sang.

Some of my greatest choral experiences were in that high school choir. For state solo competition I sang a Sarastro aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. I didn’t know it was opera. I got a top rating for it, but at 16, I didn’t know that it was opera or anything about the story.

At that point, nothing more more came from it.  It was several years before I decided to concentrate on singing.

Wm: What caused you to change from indifference to singing to concentration on it?

KK: When I was in high school, I wanted to go into the army and fly helicopters. However, I went to the University of Iowa. I was more interested in basketball or video games than I was in singing. I was still just an immature kid.

I was in my third year there and didn’t have a declared major. It was then that I sang for the university’s voice faculty and was told that the faculty felt that I should become a voice major. There are singers who talk about their parents having discouraged them from pursuing voice careers. Mine were delighted when I decided to become a singer.

[Below: Mephistopheles (Kyle Ketelsen, in top hat) is surrounded by dancers in the 2014 Jon Philipp Gloger production of Gounod’s “Faust” at the Zurich Oper; edited image, based on a Tanja Dorendorf photograph for the Zurich Oper.]


Wm: Then it was out of your vocal studies at the University of Iowa that caused you to choose opera. What happened there?

KK: I studied with Albert Gammon, the legendary University of Iowa teacher who was a prominent member of their voice faculty for 35 years. He left a huge footprint on the singer world.

He had a fascinating background. As a member of U. S. Army intelligence, he had gathered evidence for the Nuremberg Trials.

Wm: What was Albert Gammon’s contribution to your vocal education?

KK: He gave me good technique and diction. Towards the end, he told me: “There is a man I want you to sing for at Indiana University, Giorgio Tozzi.”

Wm: And you connected with Tozzi!

KK: I looked into it and discovered that Indiana University was quite a prominent music school, with 400+ voice students. On Gammon’s advice, I decided to go there to audition. It was the only school for which I auditioned, but I got in.

I had always heard that a student and teacher have to speak the same language. A student needs to find a match with his teacher’s style of teaching. I was the kind of guy that Tozzi could influence. He collected art, was interested in politics and finance. He was very big into positive thought. He was famous for hypnotizing colleagues to help with many things like stage fright.

Wm : What did you learn from Giorgio Tozzi?

KK: During my first year at Indiana University, Tozzi opened up the top of my voice. He taught me vocal placement, working on both my mask resonance and nasal resonance. I studied a lot of works and pieces. I grew into my voice and he helped me discover what I could do, guiding the strength in my voice.

Wm: You are well-known for the roles of Escamillo in Bizet’s “Carmen” and Leporello in “Don Giovanni”, both of which I’ve seen you perform in different venues. However, a few weeks ago, I was reviewing your role debut as Golaud in Debussy’s “Pélleas et Mélisande” at the Zurich Opera [Review: Imbrailo, Winters and Ketelsen Effective in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Psychoanalytic Take on “Pelléas et Mélisande” – Zurich Opera, May 8, 2016.] Golaud is quite a departure from these other roles.

[Below: Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen, left) is employing techniques of psychotherapy on Melisande (Corinne Winters, right) in the 2016 Dmitri Tcherniakov production of Debussy’s “Pélleas et Mélisande” at the Zurich Oper; edited image, based on a Toni Suter photograph, courtesy of the Zurich Oper.]


KK: Golaud is a such a dramatic role. He is bipolar, violent and full or neuroses and psychoses. It is a lifetime favorite of my friends Rod Gilfry and Russell Braun. When I spoke to them about their attraction to the role, they would say, “wait until you do it once”.

Coaches and singers who knew I was planning to take on the role, would ask me if I had started preparing for it. They said to give myself more time than I normally would a new role.

I began to work on it in Orange, France, a year ago, studying with a French coach. I found that it took hours to get through 30 pages. I would remark that the range is o.k. and that French in my favorite language, but I would ask, why is this so difficult?

The real difficulty is that it is not strophic. There is no rhyming. The text seems like a stream of consciousness, but this adds such depth to the piece.

It reminded me of the experience that I had preparing the role of Nick Shadow in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”. I had given myself only two months to learn it, since it was in English. But it was in W. H. Auden’s English. It is so confusing. That was the one time that I showed up for rehearsals without having the role totally memorized. It was the most frustrating rehearsal period.

Wm: At Zurich, you were reunited with Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov. What is it like working with him?

KK: He never arrives at an opera without an entire backstory on every character. He is very big on television acting, and he wants opera acting to be as carefully developed as if you were preparing to film a scene. When I was Leporello in Tcherniakov’s production of “Don Giovanni”, my Madamina scene with Donna Elvira took four hours to rehearse the first time. He wants very specific ideas to come through.

Once I did “Don Giovanni” with him, I felt that I was growing in that role that I’d done so often.

Wm: His conception for staging “Pelléas” was extraordinary, with Golaud a contemporary psychotherapist who has taken Mélisande on as a patient. However, his Golaud totally disregards patient confidentiality, taping their sessions then putting them on the home HDTV for Pelléas, Arkel and Yniod to view whenever they wished.

[Below: Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen, standing right), has videotaped his session with Melisande (Corinne Winters, television image, right) and displays it on his home HDTV; edited image, based on a Toni Suter photograph, courtesy of the Zurich Oper.]


KK:  I have a son who is the age of Damien Göritz, who played Yniold in the performance you reviewed.  It was quite disturbing to me, in the opera as written, how abusive Golaud is toward his son. In that production, Golaud was a terrible psychiatrist. He would have lost his license.

Wm: Your Escamillos include the Barcelona performances of Calixto Bielto’s version of “Carmen”. I reviewed Bielto’s production in London and San Francisco with three different Escamillos, but I wish I could have seen you do it.

KK: I wasn’t in the best shape for the Barcelona performances. I had had knee surgery recently which, of course, was not helped by having to hop from car to car in the third act fight with Don Jose.

Wm: Those Escamillo-Don Jose fights can be pretty high octane.

KK: A lot of conductors want to do the long version of that scene. I always ask if they mind doing the shorter version, since Escamillo’s money notes are after the fight.

[Below: Kyle Ketelsen is Escamillo in the production of Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


I have to give myself a strict reminder when we rehearse that fight. “Breathe each time you strike.”

Wm: I think a lot of operagoers fail to recognize how demanding a role Escamillo is, nor how difficult his big Toreador aria is.

KK: The vocal range of the Escamillo role goes too high for many basses and too low for many baritones. It suits me though and I’ve performed it over 130 times.

Wm: Leporello seems to be your signature role.

[Below: Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen, right) shares a moment with Donna Elvira (Ana Maria Martinez, left) in the 2014 Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


KK: There are some who joke the opera should be called “Leporello”. I’ve performed Leporello with a good bunch of Giovannis, including Simon Keenlyside, Russell Braun, Rod Gilfry and Gerry Finley.

I had great fun with Mariusz Kwiecien in the Robert Falls production, which we will be repeating at The Dallas Opera in a couple of seasons.

[Below: Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen, left), reluctantly disguised as his boss, pretends to woo Donna Elvira (Keri Alkema, right); edited image in the 2016 Ron Daniels production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Santa Fe Opera, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Wm: Which of your roles do you look forward to performing again, and what roles would you like to add?

KK: There are lots of roles that I enjoy repeating, such as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s “Faust”. Of those that I haven’t done very often that I’d like to do again would certainly include Golaud, Nick Shadow, and Mephistopheles in Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust” which I’ve done previously only once, in Saint Louis with Matthew Polenzani.

I’ll be doing the King of Scotland in Handel’s “Ariodante”. I’d like to do Bluebeard in Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”, the title role of Verdi’s “Attila” and another Enrico in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”. I would like to study some of the lighter Wagner roles.

Giorgio Tozzi performed the role of DeBecque in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” on Broadway. I got a call from my agent asking if I’d audition for DeBeque, for which I think I’m seen by some as physically too young. But I am interested in the musical theater from the Golden Age of Broadway, such as the Fred Graham/Petruchio role in Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” and Judd in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma”. What concerns me is the dialogue, as well as the multitude of performances that Broadway musicals have each week.

Wm: Many of the vintage musicals are moving into the opera house without the “eight days a week” expectation that the Broadway theaters expect. Perhaps this is where opportunity lies for you.

I appreciate spending this time with you.

KK: Thank you!

Tags: 2008-2016 William's Interviews

World Premiere Review: “The Dream of the Red Chamber” Transforms into a Fascinating Opera – San Francisco Opera, September 10, 2016

September 11th, 2016

The 18th century Chinese classic The Dream of the Red Chamber qualifies as one of the significant contributions to the literature of the human experience. That does not necessarily mean that one can extract a successful opera out of the sprawling epic.

Chinese composer and co-librettist Bright Sheng and his California co-librettist David Henry Hwang have done just that, neatly intertwining the supernatural story of about a stone and a flower, who have co-existed in a loving relationship for 3000 years, with their “human” story after the flower, born as Dai Yu, and the stone, born as Bao Yu, become enmeshed in Chinese imperial and clan politics.

[Below: Pureum Jo as Dai Yu; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The first 80 chapters of the Red Chamber are attributed to a single author, who wrote the work in the mid-18th century. From these 80 chapters Sheng and Hwang have fashioned a viable operatic work, that brilliantly melds the supernatural love story and the gritty, savage imperial politics of a Chinese ruling class – that most observers suggest is meant to be the Qing (Manchu) dynasty.

[Below: Yijie Shi as Bao Yu; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The would-be lovers, Bao Yu (sung by tenor Yijie Shi) and Dai Yu (sung by soprano Pureum Jo) have connected through poetry and comprehend their attraction to each other. Their love affair is thwarted by the machinations of the emperor (who never appears in the opera, but is the puppet-master of much that happens).   Bao Yu has been born as the only son of the Jia clan that owes the emperor a huge debt but does not have the resources to pay it.

We observe the effects of the emperor’s malevolent strategy near the opera’s end. He has demanded that that Bao Yu marry Bao Chai, the daughter of the wealthy Xue clan. Bao Yu is tricked into marrying a veiled woman he believes is Dai Yu. The veiled woman is Bao Chai.

The ceremony uniting the Jia and Xue clans is all that the Emperor needs to justify confiscating all the properties and wealth of both the Jia and Xue clans to pay off the Jia clan’s debt (simultaneously impoverishing two of the Emperor’s rival clans).

Yijie Shi’s Bao Yu 

The reputation of Chinese leggiero tenor Yijie Shi is as a specialist in bel canto operas (performing regularly in Europe, notably at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Italy).

In this, his San Francisco Opera debut, he made a strong impression as Bao Yu, displaying a bright, elegant lyric tenor.

[Below: Bao Yu (Yijie Shi, right) expresses his love for Dai Yu (Pureum Jo, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Pureum Jo’s Dai Yu

I have been present at each of Korean soprano Pureum Jo’s last three operatic assignments, including her Houston Grand Opera appearances as Barbarina [Review: Boogie Nights at Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” – Houston Grand Opera, January 30, 2016] and as part of the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s new opera, “Prince of Players”.

Her vocal performances in Houston had impressed me. Her assumption of the lead female role in “Red Chamber” confirmed that she is in the early years of a major career as a lyric soprano.

[Below: Dai Yu (Pureum Jo, front, right) plays music on her qin; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Hyona Kim as Lady Wang

South Korean mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim has been the winner in important vocal competitions, but her San Francisco Opera debut as Lady Wang is her most important operatic assignment thus far in her career.  With a power mezzo and superb acting ability, that career should be an important one.

The second matriarch (after the death of Granny Zia) of the Jia clan, Lady Wang is the unwitting agent of the emperor’s deceitful strategies that result in the destruction of the family into which she married, as well as her sister’s family.

[Below: Hyona Kim as Lady Wang; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Irene Roberts as Bao Chai

California mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts is known to San Francisco Opera audiences through her Giulietta [Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013] and Carmen [Review: Roberts, Jagde and Dehn in “Carmen” – May 29, 2016].

Roberts was an engaging, vocally secure Bao Chai, a likable character even though representing “the other woman”.

As the daughter of the wealthy Xue clan, into which Lady Wang’s sister has married, she becomes another unwitting pawn of the emperor’s strategems.

[Below: Irene Roberts as Bao Chai; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Karen Chia-Ling Ho’s Princess Jia and Quilin Zhang’s Granny Jia

Recently a young artist in San Francisco Opera’s Merola program, Taiwanese soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho, in her San Francisco Opera debut, performed the role of the emperor’s concubine, Princess Zia.

Wearing successfully one of the most ambitious costumes in the opera company’s history (requiring a reported 70 yards of fabric), Chia-Ling Ho made a stunning impression, moving gracefully and singing beautifully.

[Below: Princess Jia (Karen Chia-Ling Ho, left) informs Granny Jia, the matriarch of the Jia clan (Quilin Zhang, center) and Lady Wang (Hyona Kim, right) that she may be losing a power struggle at the imperial court, which may have disastrous consequences for the family; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Chinese contralto Quilin Zhang was a deep-voiced Granny Jia, the elderly matriarch of the Jia clan, whose deathbed wish – that Bao Yu and Dia Yu be married – was thwarted by Lady Wang’s ultimately unsuccessful alternate plan.

[Below: Bao Yu (Yijie Shi, center, in red) is arrested by the army of the emperor, whose real purpose becomes clear; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Other Cast Members and the Musical Performance

Chinese mezzo-soprano Yanyu Guo, a veteran of several San Francisco Opera roles during the early 1990s, was Aunt Xue. California actor Randall Nakano played the parts of the Monk and Dreamer, who were narrators explaining some of the action to come. Latvian mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede, Pennsylvania soprano Toni Marie Palmertree and Egyptian-born New Zealand soprano Amina Edris each performed double roles, as did Samoan-born New Zealand tenor Pene Pati, New York tenor Alex Boyer and baritone Edward Nelson.

Georgia conductor George Manahan conducted the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

Stan Lai’s Staging, Tim Yip’s Production and Other Credits

Taiwanese director Stan Lai’s staging was fast-moving and clear. The production was by Chinese designer Tim Yip, who won an Academy award for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yip, who has also designed a television series based on The Dream of the Red Chamber, created beautfully conceived and visually effective sets and costumes.

Californians Gary Marder was the lighting director and Lawrence Pech the dance master. Taiwanese choreographer Fang-Yi Sheu, Scottish Chorus Director Ian Robertson and New York Fight Choreographer Dave Maier also contributed to the successful production.

Thoughts on the Opera

An ambitious work based on a literary masterpiece that seemed to defy distillation into an operatic form, the result by Sheng and Hwang was a success. The juxtaposition of its supernatural and human worlds was understandable, its story-line far easier to explain than, say, the contemporary opera, Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles”.

Sheng more or less described himself, in a press briefing I attended, as a person considered to be Chinese in the West and a Westerner in China. Although his opera honors a great Chinese work of art, it seems to me to be quite Western in its musical idiom, its orchestration and its pleasantly melodic writing for the operatic voice.

When one assesses a new work at its world premiere, it’s always possible to think of alternative ways that this or that detail could have been done, and some of the greatest operatic masterpieces have had portions reworked. On balance, however, is a significant achievement.


I recommend this opera for those who appreciate contemporary opera, and for all those who would enjoy seeing a Chinese epic presented in English on the operatic stage.

Since this is an expensive production with a large cast, it is beyond the resources of most opera companies. It is an opera that one cannot be assured will be repeated often. The tickets have sold briskly, and those intrigued by the story should avail themselves of this opportunity to see this opera.

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews