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BackStage

Opera

Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007)

Feb 5, 2007

On Thursday, one of the great figures in the world of classical music passed away. Gian Carlo Menotti was 95.

Cedille Records is privileged to have in its catalog great performances of two of his finest works: The Medium and Missa "O Pulchritudo". Both pieces amply demonstrate the dramatic and melodic gifts that made Menotti one of the most beloved composers of our time.

I thought I should devote today’s post to describing how these recordings came about.

We had already begun planning a new project with the William Ferris Chorale featuring William Ferris’s Snowcarols for chorus and orchestra along with other Christmas-themed choral works by the Chorale’s founder when WFC Artistic and Executive Director John Vorrasi asked me to consider releasing on CD some of the vocal ensemble’s past performances. Vorrasi gave me a stack of concert recordings to listen to. The piece that immediately jumped out at me – both in terms of the strength and novelty of the composition and for the quality of the performance itself – was Gian Carlo Menotti’s Missa “O Pulchritudo”  as recorded in a 1982 concert. While technically not a stage work, the Missa’s intensely dramatic vocal lines and melodic sweep recall the composer’s best operatic writing (not unlike Verdi’s Requiem). We were able to make some enhancements in the original sound of the concert recording and include on the same disc the Chorale’s equally fine performance of Louis Vierne’s under-recorded masterpiece, Messe Solinelle. For more about both pieces, you can read John Vorrasi’s post about the recording (which Cedille Records released last fall).

Although not of a live performance, our recording of Menotti’s great “ghost story” opera, The Medium, had its genesis with a staged production of the work. In 1992, Chicago Opera Theater launched a production of The Medium that included soprano Patrice Michaels (then known as Patrice Michaels Bedi) in the role of Monica, the title character’s daughter. It was a terrific production, and Ms. Michaels went on to become one of the most prolific and critically acclaimed recording artists for Cedille. So when a benefactor/investor approached me a few years later with interest in funding a Chicago Opera Theater recording of the opera, including Ms. Michaels reprising her role, I jumped at the chance. Another singer from the 1992 production who appears on the recording is Diane Ragains, in the role of Mrs. Gobineau. For various reasons, we were not able to reassemble the rest of the original cast, but we scored a major coup by getting Metropolitan and New York City Opera star Joyce Castle to sing the title role of Madame Flora. (Ms. Castle was in town to sing with Lyric Opera of Chicago when we recorded the Menotti in November 1996 for release in October 1997.) Also in the recording cast are Peter Van De Graaff, Barbara Landis, and Joanna Lind. The COT orchestra is conducted by Lawrence Rapchak.

One of the most gripping works ever written for the musical stage, The Medium is the story of a fake psychic whose surprise encounter with the unknown leads to dire consequences. The opera includes a séance with ghostly sounds and appearances staged by the Medium and her daughter. Later, when the Medium begins hearing some of the same sounds herself, all hell breaks loose. The opera is full of strange sounds and effects: a baby laughing, knocking and scratching on doors, things falling over unexpectedly, gunshots, whip cracks, the tearing down of a curtain, etc. To bring the drama to life, we mixed these sounds into the recording much the way sound effects would be included in an old-time radio drama (the opera actually originates from the “golden age” of radio). Also adding to the realism of the recording, we arrayed microphones across the stage on which we recorded (Ravinia’s Bennett-Gordon Hall) and blocked out movement with the help of COT’s then artistic director, Carl Ratner. I believe we succeeded in capturing as much as a recording can, all the eerie drama of Menotti’s masterpiece, which opened on Broadway sixty years ago and ran for 211 performances.

In commemoration of his passing, we are reducing the price on our web site for both of our Menotti CDs by 25% to $12 (The Medium) and $7.50 (Missa “O Pulchritudo”), respectively, for the next week. I hope this will give listeners a chance to discover Menotti's special talents, or at least these specific examples of his art.

Greek Heartthrob

Oct 4, 2006

No, I’m most definitely not referring to myself. A true Greek heartthrob, Mario Frangoulis, will be making his Chicago debut at Orchestra Hall on Monday, October 9th in a benefit concert for the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center.

So, why blog about this?

Mario Frangoulis is termed by the record industry as a “Classical Crossover” artist. This category includes artists like Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church, Il Divo, and others. These artists routinely perform to sold-out sold houses, sell millions of cds, and introduce many, many people to classical-style singing. My assumption is that these artists often serve as entry points into “serious” classical music and opera appreciation for people who enjoy them.

Okay, now a small bit of editorializing. I think these artists are good for the field. While many Il Divo fans may never discover Thomas Hampson, a few may, and those people could become tomorrow’s Lyric Opera and Chicago Opera Theater subscribers. Here’s hoping that Mario Frangoulis, and other Classical Crossover artists pave the way into classical music for thousands of new fans.

Songs Take Wing

Aug 30, 2006

[Note to reader: I'm pleased to join WFMT family of bloggers, as we share some of what goes on at Chicago's classical radio station.]

As a producer at WFMT I am privileged to create single programs and 13-part series for local broadcast and for airing over the WFMT Radio Network.  My current project is the Network series On Wings of Song, recitals by young vocal artists from the Marilyn Horne Foundation in New York.  When Marilyn Horne - one of the world's greatest singers - turned 60, she decided, with a few friends, to start a foundation, and she kept coming back to what needed help the most: the Vocal Recital.  While opera seems to flourish these days, and symphony concerts usually have good audiences, the vocal recital has languished a bit.  But not any more!

Thanks to Marilyn Horne's generosity and very hard work, a whole generation of young singers has received training, encouragement, support, and performance opportunities in New York, California, and throughout the country.  For eleven years the Marilyn Horne Foundation has worked with the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, where Ms. Horne teaches each summer, to train young singers and young pianists in the art of the song recital.  And the Foundation supports a series of recitals in New York City, presenting singers from the Foundation's roster in public solo recitals during the concert season (roughly September through May).  These are terrific singers - and many of them have found their way to the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists in Chicago.  Current or former Lyric Center singers that work with the Horne Foundation include soprano Erin Wall, mezzo soprano Guang Yang; baritone Quinn Kelsey, soprano Nicolle Cabel (the 2005 winner of the BBC's Singer of the World competition in Cardiff Wales), and soprano Susanna Phillips. 

The 13-part series On Wings of Song, which you can hear on Thursday nights at 10 on 98.7 WFMT, is chock full of great singing, wonderful pianists, and terrific repertoire.  These are vocal recitals by the best young voices in America, all of whom are great performers as well.  I hope you'll be listening.  And you can find out more about the Marilyn Horne Foundation by going to their website:Marilynhornefdn.org.

Carolyn Paulin

Back from an inordinately long break!

Tue, 8/22/2006 - 3:17pm — Brian Dickie
Aug 22, 2006

I have been out of town and to a great extent out of touch for the last five weeks though observent blog fanatics may have noticed that I have not been completely out of cyberspace.

I have been neglectful of my duties however - but when on vacation there is little to say and less time to say it. But I have to report that one of the pleasures of my week in France was the opportunity to see Bernard Haitink at leisure in his totally delightful French hideaway between Bordeaux and Toulouse. By chance we were staying with friends just fifteen minutes away so it was a short trip for a delicious lunch and a relaxed few hours with this great man who will be joining the CSO team in just a few weeks. And there was the added bonus of my old colleague, deputy and eventual successor as General Director of Glyndebourne, Anthony Whitworth Jones and his wife Camilla being there. Over the years we have spent much time together, not just in Glyndebourne but on the many occasions that we met up in various cities for planning and plotting. But this time it was pure enjoyment in a particulary beautiful and unknown part of France.

I am now back in town and will do all I can to blog regularly for CCM over the coming months.

A trip to Santa Fe

Aug 8, 2006

NOTE: Some of us at COT will be filling in for General Director Brian Dickie while he enjoys a well-deserved holiday. Today's blog is from Artistic Administrator Roger Weitz.Sometimes, when Brian is traveling or otherwise unable to leave Chicago Opera Theater, I’m able to accept invitations to visit other opera companies in his place. I’ve just returned from one such trip: I spent four days in beautiful New Mexico with the amazing Santa Fe Opera company, currently celebrating their 50th Anniversary Season.This past week was both their National Donor Week as well as their Apprentice Audition showcase. This meant that their company was flooded by both high level donors coming to see the productions, as well as top General Directors, Artistic Directors, Conductors, and Managers of all kinds from all over the country coming to audition the 43 young artists of the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program. I can only imagine the staff’s stress and anxiety level in preparing for so many important visitors, but the Santa Fe Opera seemed to manage everything with ease. It is an impressive organization in so many ways.The auditions were wonderful and the level of talent among the Apprentice Artists is extremely high. In the auditions I had the pleasure of hearing several artists from the COT family: Jesse Blumberg, Paul Corona, Sarah Gartshore, David Giuliano, and Edwin Vega. Brian already knows many of the Apprentices from past auditions or through adjudicating vocal competitions. But there were a few not known to COT, and I look forward to telling Brian about them. The Apprentice Program is well run by another member of the COT family: David Holloway. At the start of his career, David was a Santa Fe Apprentice himself, so I should probably admit he was a member of their family first! In addition to the auditions, I was able to attend three of the company’s five mainstage productions: THE TEMPEST, a quite new opera by Thomas Adès, CENDRILLON by Massenet, and SALOME by Strauss. I was particularly struck by THE TEMPEST and CENDRILLON; strong productions in all respects. In the overture of THE TEMPEST I was amazed as the shipwrecked characters appeared to magically emerge from the downstage “ocean,” and, dripping wet, stagger upstage. I learned afterwards that this required those singers and supernumeraries to get into a tank offstage and swim underwater to make their entrance! All in all I had an excellent visit. I wish I could have stayed another week, not only to see the other two productions, CARMEN and DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE, but also for the fully-staged Apprentice Artists Scenes programs which open next week. Several of the scenes are directed by Kevin Newbury (from our NIXON IN CHINA last season), and COT’s own Andrew Eggert and Stephen Hargreaves.The Santa Fe Opera seasons runs through the end of August, so you still have time to join in their 50th Anniversary Season celebrations!