Wednesday, December 31, 2014

DR. VON LYRIC: The Incomparable Borge

Never has there been a more engaged and attentive accompanist!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Seeing the Everyday in a New Light: Temple Ohabei Shalom’s Preschoolers Experience The Love Potion

by Heather Gallagher, BLO Emerging Artist and Resident Teaching Artist

I can remember from a very early age being intrigued with the idea of classical music. I guess I must have been around 11 or 12 years old when I picked up a recording of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. I remember really enjoying the first song, “O Fortuna” (I had heard it in movies and numerous commercials), but after a while I became frustrated with the following songs. It was a little overwhelming, all that clashing percussion, brass, and people singing in a weird language I didn’t understand. It was a lot to take in, and truth be told, I felt kind of stupid for not “getting it.” So I turned off that record and took a breather…for about ten years. The next time I delved into the world of classical music, I was about 22 years old. Years pass, I am now a professional opera singer. Go figure!

In addition to my work in opera, music education is one of my passions. When BLO’s education team, Beth Mullins and Lacey Upton, asked me to come to Temple Ohabei Shalom to talk to some of the Temple’s students in November, during the opera's run there, I was thrilled. The task seemed simple: talk about my experience working with Boston Lyric Opera’s production of The Love Potion. Then I remembered that my “audience” was around four years old. What could an audience of preschoolers possibly get from a work such as Frank Martin’s little-known and seldom-performed The Love Potion, a work that borrows significantly from 12-tone techniques and features a very mature plotline of adultery and forbidden love? I walked through the Temple doors that morning with some sense of uncertainty as I wondered how exactly this was going to work.

Heather Gallagher, Resident Teaching Artist,
meets with preschool students at
Temple Ohabei Shalom.
As I set foot inside the Temple, my apprehension abated as I watched my colleague, Brad Vernatter, BLO’s Director of Production, offer one of our props, a glowing orb, to a group of youngsters. A chorus of “Ahhhs!” came from the larger group as Lacey, Beth, and the educational team brought these magical props around to other groups to see and touch. I saw their eyes light up again as I approached the stage with one of our costumes, a heavy linen robe. Introducing myself, I explained who I was and a little about the show and the purpose of the robe. We sang “Happy Birthday” to one of the students, and I did some vocal warm-ups for them. Things were going great. Then,  I had the bright idea to open things up to some questions. Here’s a sampling of what I experienced…

Me: “ Does anyone have any questions about singing or opera?”
Preschooler #1: “My dad has a car!”
Me: “That’s wonderful! Do you have any questions about music or opera or what it’s like to be a singer?”
Preschooler #1: “No!”

Me: “How about anyone else? Any questions. Don’t be shy!”
Preschooler #2: “My dad has a, has a guitar!”
Me: “That’s really neat! Do you play the guitar at all?”
Preschooler #2: “No, my dad has a nice guitar!”

Me: “What about you, you’re VERY enthusiastic! What’s your question?”
Preschooler #3: (Silence...)

Children at this age are so refreshingly honest, it isn’t difficult for them to catch you totally off-guard – repeatedly. As an artist, I feel a lot of pressure wherever I go to help people understand opera, and it seemed in the moment that this little exercise in audience development had backfired. But then, an interesting thought cut through the clutter of my neurotic brain: “Understanding is important, but there is no understanding without experiencing first.”

That was when I realized what the point of today’s visit was: The Experience. Not comprehension, but the tangible experience of being in the presence of working artists, music, and opera. Being able to hold a real, working prop in your little hand, hearing a live opera singer sing some scales, seeing a conductor work, and being surrounded by numerous instruments and knowing what that sounds like…even seeing your place of worship totally transformed into a strange and marvelous new theatre with a stage and audience seating on all sides. Being able to see the everyday in a new light: that’s what today was about.

Four-year-olds have it easy. They’re allowed to be silly, make mistakes, and explore. They’re encouraged to do so. As adults, we feel so much pressure to be smart, measure up, know what’s going on, that we forget about the experience. But it’s open to us at all times. One doesn’t need the mindset or knowledge of a professional to unlock the joys of classical music. You don’t need to understand a single thing, actually. Like a four-year-old, you just need to open your eyes and ears to the experience. 

Preschool students listen attentively as Ms. Gallagher tells them about her job
as an opera singer and demonstrates vocal warm-ups.
Conductor David Angus leads a sectional rehearsal while
preschool students listen and watch.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

From a BLO Intern: “When I opened a magic box called opera”

Queenie Fang joined the BLO team as an Education and Community Programs Intern in July 2014. Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Queenie came to Boston in 2013 as a student and recently earned her master’s degree from Boston University in Arts Administration. Queenie will continue on with BLO as an intern through June; we asked her to reflect on the first half of her time here and what she has learned so far.

When I opened a magic box called opera...
by Queenie Fang

This summer, I received a magic box called opera from BLO. Excited and curious, I started a journey to explore where this box would take me. With no exposure to opera before, this journey has brought me so many surprises and my preconceived notions about opera have been easily broken.

When I opened the box and started experiencing opera, I realized that opera does not have to be the stereotypical, high-brow event that people usually think of. It can be easily accessible to the general public. BLO not only offers discount tickets and fun contests to give away tickets for mainstage opera productions, it also provides interesting educational events throughout the city. For example, the first major project that I worked on as an intern was the BLO’s annual summer concert with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, an event that is free and open to the public. The program provides a sneak peek at the upcoming season, and this year every audience member could take home a BLO customized fan!

When I opened the box, I got the chance to experience “all-in-one performance art.” One of the perks of interning at BLO is that I am able to attend all of the mainstage productions. La Traviata at BLO this fall was the first opera I’ve ever seen. The story is so famous and well-known that, at first, my expectations were not high. However, I was completely blown away, and so were my friends, who are also opera newbies. At the end of the show, they told me that before the show, they thought they might fall asleep, but when the show started, they found themselves captivated by the story and enchanted by the chorus.

When I opened the box, I saw the importance of good teamwork and driven, passionate colleagues. I feel very comfortable working with my colleagues, and they always make themselves available to others to provide assistance. I learned that to ensure a superb performance, not only do the singers, conductors, and orchestra members have to do their jobs well, but the stage management and production staff members complement their work by keeping everything running smoothly and free from distractions. I also learned that different departments work together closely to fulfill the organization’s mission: to build curiosity, enthusiasm, and support for opera by creating musically and theatrically compelling productions, events, and educational resources for our community and beyond. Therefore, various educational programs have been developed for opera fans of all ages and experience levels to enhance the enjoyment of an opera performance. Their good teamwork reminds me of an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

When I opened the box, I also got a sense of belonging. I’m sure for every novice job candidate, it feels awesome to attend professional events with a job title. I will never forget how excited I was when I got into the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through its staff entrance, because on that day, BLO was holding an opera lecture. Besides, as an international student who just came to the States one year ago, being able to work with those super nice people, and learn from them, has given me a sense of belonging.

When I opened the box, I received a more enriched life. I’ve had so many “firsts” during my internship! First time attending a live opera; first time witnessing a temple transformed into an opera stage; first time helping with a special event; first time assisting with organizing auditions; first time going on a backstage tour, and much more! All these experiences are so precious. I learned what happens behind the curtain; I got to know the elements of a great show, with wonderful singing and acting and a very strong visual presentation; I was inspired to build support for art in my own country… When you open one door, it may lead you to a whole new world. Just keep an open mind, and keep trying – the world is full of interesting things for us to explore.

It’s holiday season again, and I’m glad that I’ve already witnessed the power of my magic box. What do you expect to get when you open your holiday gifts? Maybe on Christmas Eve, you will receive a magic box too. Don’t be afraid to open it, let’s see where it can take you. Happy holidays!

Friday, December 19, 2014

From the Archives: BLO's ZAIDE (1977)

Treasures from the BLO archives!

Today, we perused the program for BLO's Zaide, from the Company's 1976/77 Season. Zaide, which was unfinished upon Mozart's death, is a Singspiel, meaning that it alternates between spoken dialogue and sung arias (much like The Magic Flute). Its story is set in Turkey, an exotic and fascinating locale to 18th-century, European audiences, and tells the story of two slaves, Zaide and Gomatz, who fall in love and try to escape their master, the Sultan Soliman, to freedom. Mozart's manuscript breaks off before the end, but our program note from 1977 has some great insights on the piece!

Program for the 1977 BLO production of Zaide

From the "Historical Note by Michael Goodson"
It was not until this century that Alfred Einstein discovered a Singspiel text of 1763, Das Serail, which was clearly the model for the libretto Mozart set. A tale of "fashionable turquerie" written by Frantz Joseph Sebastiani and composed by Joseph von Friebert, Das Serail not only clarifies major points of plot and characterization, but by its lack of dramaturgical skill throws into sharp relief the seriousness with which Mozart approached the adaptation prepared by his librettist.

That librettist — Andreas Schachtner, dramatist, Salzburg court trumpeter, and childhood friend of Mozart — retained the basic outline of the first of Sebastiani's two acts, while departing considerably from his source in the second. To what extent he intended to follow Sebastiani's denouement is uncertain. In Das Serail, coincidence alone prompts the Sultan Soliman's magnanimity: Zaide and Gomatz discover they are sister and brother and the Allazim character [the overseer to the slaves] is no less than their father! Yet in reconstructing a libretto around Mozart's score, Das Serail is an indispensible resource...

The score is an eloquent testament of Mozart's growing appreciation for the operas of Gluck, much of whose work he studied and saw performed while on tour in Paris...Mozart's statement that he "should help to raise the National German opera high in the musical world" has been interpreted many ways; jingoistic readings aside, the Singspiel was attractive not because it was German but because it was young and relatively free from the formal preconceptions that surrounded the opera seria and were beginning to surround opera buffa. It was a format with which Mozart could experiment, and which would reflect him fundamentally. Judging his contributions from Zaide to Die Zauberflote [sic], keeping in mind the claims staked in opera buffa and opera seria, one is tempted to ascribe the whole province of Singspiel as well to Mozart's personal property.

Curious about Zaide? Check out Lucia Popp singing "Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben" from Act I ("Rest peacefully, my sweet love"). Though Zaide is rarely performed, it is considered one of Mozart's finest for the soprano voice!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Thursday, December 11, 2014

DR. VON LYRIC gets a bit silly (for a while)

Let's just take a slight holiday break between the tragic fate of Violetta, the agonies of the adulterous Isolde, and the upcoming tortured passions of Kátya. For the next few weeks, it's just a few laughs, a few jokes, a parody or two. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

DR. VON LYRIC – Looking....

Instead of our more usual videos, I thought this week we might just quietly glance at a few of the myriad visual images generated by the passionate saga of Tristan and Isolde. These range from medieval paintings to more modern takes by Beardsley and Dali, among others. I haven't arranged them chronologically or  identified them individually just let their colorful or erotic, bold, or quaint evocations flow over you. Hope you got a chance to see BLO's take on the Tristan was bold....erotic...and powerful in its own right, and the setting in the Temple was magnificent.





Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Prof. Byron Adams
Magda Romanska, BLO Dramaturg and Associate Professor of Dramaturgy at Emerson College, talks to Prof. Byron Adams about Frank Martin’s The Love Potion. Prof. Adams is a world-renowned musicologist, composer, and a leading expert on Frank Martin. Prof. Adams specializes in British music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His essays have appeared in journals such as The Musical Quarterly and Music and Letters. In 2007, he was appointed scholar-in-residence for the Bard Music Festival, and edited Edward Elgar and His World (Princeton, 2007). As a composer, Prof. Adams won the Grand Prize of the Delius Festival Composition Competition, and in 1984, he was awarded the Raymond Hubbell-ASCAP Award for his compositions. He was composer-in-residence for the Colonial Symphony Orchestra from 1990-92, and in 1985, he was granted the first Ralph Vaughan Williams Research Fellowship by the Carthusian Trust of England. In 2000, the American Musicological Society recognized his scholarship with the Philip Brett Award. In 2007, Prof. Adams was a Visiting Fellow for the Institute of Musical Research, School of Advanced Studies of the University of London. Prof. Adams received his Ph.D. in musicology from Cornell University where he wrote his dissertation on Frank Martin’s music.

MR: Can you tell us a little bit about the history behind the making of The Love Potion?  Not many people know that this is not an actual opera but oratorio. Can you explain the difference and how it could potentially influence the performance and the staging of the piece?

BA: The history of Le vin herbé really goes back to Martin’s experience of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion when he was just twelve years old, the eighth son of a stern but loving Huguenot pastor in Geneva. The reason that I trace the origin of Le vin herbé—“The Love Potion”—to this shattering experience was that it gave Martin a predilection for what might well be called “interior drama.” In other words, the drama that takes place in the minds and souls of the protagonists. Martin composed Le vin herbé in 1938: “I had no major compositions planned, but the legend of Tristan and Isolde consumed my thoughts. At that moment, Robert Blum asked me to write a half-hour piece for his Madrigal Choir, scored for twelve solo voices and a few instruments.” Martin uses the retelling of this Celtic legend by Joseph Bédier, specifically the chapter on the love potion that sets the tragedy in motion. After the premiere of this first version of Le vin herbé, Martin decided to expand his work by setting two other excerpts of Bédier’s “romance.”

MR: The subject matter of The Love Potion is the myth of Tristan and Iseult, the same story as Wagner’s most famous opera. What are the major structural and dramatic differences and similarities between the two works? 

BA: First, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is scored for a large Romantic orchestra and lasts several hours. Le vin herbé, by contrast, is concise and modestly scored—but conjures up the entire story with a mixture of economy and passion. Martin uses the chamber chorus in the manner of a madrigal fable or as the chorus of a Greek drama—or the St. Matthew Passion. As in Bach’s masterpiece, the chorus delivers narration and comments on the action, which is utterly unlike Wagner’s music drama. Interestingly enough, Claude Debussy toyed with the idea of turning Bédier’s romance into his own version of the Tristan and Isolde story. Debussy sought a more Gallic restraint and delicacy than the oceanic, Teutonic eroticism of Wagner’s masterpiece. Debussy’s aim is exactly what Martin miraculously achieves in Le vin herbé. Simply put, Martin’s Le vin herbé is passionate, yes, but, unlike Wagner’s music drama, is wonderfully discreet, objective, and inward. Deep emotion is, paradoxically, generated through an essential restraint.

MR: Although the production history of The Love Potion isn’t extensive, the piece has acquired almost a cult status among its many devoted fans.  Can you tell us more about the reception and the production history of the work?

BA: Le vin herbé is a work that has had relatively few performances, as the score is not exactly easy to perform! One problem is that it is often regarded as an “oratorio,” which it is most emphatically not—it is in an unclassifiable genre. Perhaps the best description of Le vin herbé is that it is a “Passion” about passion, as it were. Most performances have been in concert, but the work is best known through recordings. Le vin herbé will always appeal first and foremost to listeners who can comprehend fully the sophisticated aesthetic of this work, in which nothing is shouted and yet human love and despair are plumbed to their harrowing depths. Those who listen, respond, and are attentive fall in love with Le vin herbé itself: its fans tend to be vehement in the expression of their love and loyalty to this great score. Recently, however, it has been performed with success as a chamber opera, just as there have been staged, or semi-staged, productions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

MR: What are some of the most difficult and challenging aspects of The Love Potion in terms of its staging?  How did the directors tackled them in the past? 

BA: The most challenging aspect of staging Le vin herbé is its interiority—its refusal to raise its voice or go after obvious effects. The title characters do not writhe about in the throes of ignoble passion. There is also the challenge that the protagonists are also part of the vocal ensemble; Tristan and Isolde as well as other characters, such as Brangane, say, emerge and recede from the collective voice of the chorus. Another difficulty is posed by the eerie distance created by the conception; it is as distant as the chronicles of the Middle Ages and as contemporary—or, perhaps, timeless—as yesterday. The opening and closing choruses, which address the “Lords” listening to the tale, place the action of Le vin herbé within a mysterious framework, as we, the listeners and viewers, are those very viewers, both the lords and ladies of olden times and yet possessing our own contemporaneous existence. Le vin herbé exists both in and out of time. However, the score is so rich, so subtle, so moving that it is well-suited indeed for staging. I am very glad that this masterpiece is now making its way onto the stage!

Thursday, November 20, 2014


By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg

"Tristan und Isolde" by Rogelio de Egusquiza (1915)
“Liebestod” is the title of the final dramatic musical piece from Richard Wagner’s 1859 opera, Tristan und Isolde, but the word itself also means the theme of “love death” prevalent in art, drama, and literature. Liebestod (from the German Liebe, meaning "love," and Tod, meaning "death") defines the lovers’ consummation of their love in death or after death. Connecting la petite and la grande mort, the Liebestod represents love as an eternal force that conquers death and survives lovers’ corporeal bodies. The theme of Liebestod often involves the double suicide of lovers who cannot live without each other and who die of despair over the death of the other.

In his book Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont notes that “a myth [of love death] is needed to express the dark and unmentionable fact that passion is linked with death, and involves the destruction of any one yielding himself up to it with all its strength” (21). Although Liebestod is one of the most enduring motives in the Western world, it is also a universal myth, found, for example, in the Japanese concept of Shinjū, the lovers’ “double suicide,” and the Hindu custom of “Sati,” a woman’s obligatory immolation at her husband’s funeral pyre.

In Western culture, the theme of love death is present in ancient mythology, starting with the Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Heartbroken by the death of his beloved wife, Eurydice, Orpheus descends into the underworld to retrieve her. On their way back to the world of the living, Orpheus turns back to look at Eurydice, which he was forbidden from doing, and Eurydice disappears. In despair, Orpheus returns to the world of the living alone. Only after his own death is Orpheus’ soul returned to the underworld and thus reunited with his beloved. In Greek drama, the theme of double suicide can be found in Sophocles’ Antigone. Antigone’s fiancé, Hæmon, commits suicide upon finding her hanged body.

A full audio recording of Le Vin Herbé from the Wellesz Theatre.

In Roman mythology, the theme of love death appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, who are unable to wed due to their families’ feud. Separated by the wall between their connected houses, the lovers must whisper to each other. They manage to arrange a clandestine meeting, but upon arriving at the site of their rendezvous, Pyramus finds Thisbe’s bloody veil; heartbroken thinking she’s been killed by a lion, he kills himself by falling on his sword. Finding his dead body, Thisbe kills herself with the same sword.

Shakespeare alludes to the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe in two of his plays, the comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. In Midsummer, the story is awkwardly enacted by a group of actors, called “mechanicals,” in a scene that lightheartedly mocks the exalted nature of forbidden love. In Romeo and Juliet, perhaps the best-known story with the love death motive, the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe provides a blueprint for the ill-fated lovers who both also kill themselves, each thinking the other dead.

“How Sir Tristram Drank of the Love Drink”
by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)
The popular medieval legend of Tristan and Iseult, about two lovers separated by fate and united only after their deaths, is one of the better known examples of Liebestod. The story reappears in many works, including Thomas Hardy’s The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall at Tintagel in Lyonnesse, a one-act play published in 1923, and Rutland Boughton’s opera, The Queen of Cornwall (1924), based on Thomas Hardy’s play. Other famous retellings of the legend include Thomas Berger’s novel, Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel; Rosalind Miles’ trilogy, The Queen of the Western Isle, The Maid of the White Hands, and The Lady of the Sea; and Nancy McKenzie’s book, Prince of Dreams: A Tale of Tristan and Essylte. The myth is also referenced in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and in John Updike’s novel, Brazil, about the lovers Tristão and Isabel.

Richard Wagner’s 1865 opera, Tristan und Isolde is perhaps the most famous retelling of the legend. Considered one of the most influential pieces of music, the opera is based on the courtly romance by the 12th-century writer Gottfried von Straßburg. In both Straßburg's and Wagner’s versions, Tristan is a doomed romantic lover, idealistic and sensitive, and Isolde is a quintessential female of the 19th century, who redeems him. Wagner’s opera inspired a number of other musical works, including Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony (1949) and Hans Werner Henze’s Tristan (1975). Frank Martin’s chamber opera, Le Vin Herbé (The Love Potion), written between 1938 and 1940, is also influenced by Wagner’s version of the legend, although Martin’s version is based on Joseph Bédier’s 1900 text of the Tristan and Iseult story.

Wagner’s opera in many ways captured the 19th-century obsession with the theme of Liebestod, which saturated both low and high culture. As the scholar Rudolph Binion put it:

Physical love beyond death: this theme of 19th-century culture took many of its cues from folklore, where naïve belief about animate corpses survived and developed throughout the Christian era. [. . .] Premodern folk tales of sex beyond death were never voluptuous, only chilling. Modern elite culture turned that chilling into thrilling for an eager public, then backed away. Popular culture followed closely along until it took off on its own in our century. But wherever the shaky line between high and low culture is drawn, the love-death hybrid was bred above it. (97, 116)

"Tristram and Isolde" by John Waterhouse (1916)
The 19th-century theme of love death found its expression in vampire tales which survived into the 20th century, particularly in the early Hollywood cinema. In the 20th century, a number of writers and dramatists, including Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh, Tennessee Williams and Georges Bataille, explored the theme of love death in their plays and novels. The lovers’ double death appears in movies like The Eternal Return (1943), Elvira Madigan (1967), and Pedro Almodóvar’s spoof of organismic love death, Matador (1986). Today, the theme of Liebestod can be found in vampire love stories and in some of the biggest blockbuster romance movies such as Bonnie and Clyde, Like Water for Chocolate, Forrest Gump, Titanic, and Brokeback Mountain.

Read more:
  • Binion, R. Love Beyond Death: The Anatomy of Myth in the Arts. New York: New York University Press, 1993.
  • Kramer, L. After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press,1997.
  • Legman, G. Love and Death. New York: Breaking Point, 1949.
  • Rougemont, D. Love in the Western World, Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  • Stilling, R. Love and Death in Renaissance Tragedy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Love Potion – A SNEAK PEEK!

Excitement is mounting for BLO's production of The Love Potion, opening tomorrow, Wednesday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m.! Here's a special SNEAK PEEK at our final dress rehearsal, featuring sets designed by Jim Noone, costumes by Nancy Leary, and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

The Love Potion
Performed at Temple Ohabei Shalom, 1187 Beacon Street, Brookline
Music by Frank Martin
November 19-23, 2014
Learn more

Magic takes hold of Tristan (Jon Jurgens) and Isolt (Chelsea Basler).
Duke Hoël (David Cushing) and Brangain (Michelle Trainor) in background.

One of many “Greek chorus” moments in the production 
(Jon Jurgens, David Cushing and David McFerrin in foreground).

Isolt (Chelsea Basler) rages against her sense of honor that stands in opposition to her heart.

A spiritual “Greek chorus” moment in the production that builds upon the sacred space 
of Temple Ohabei Shalom.

Photos by Eric Antoniou, Boston Lyric Opera 2014.