Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Magic Flute Exhibit at New York Public Library—Featuring BLO!

Today, Thursday, March 31, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is opening an exhibit titled Magical Designs for Mozart’s Magic Flute, an exploration of outstanding artistic scenic and costume designs from 19th, 20th, and 21st century productions. Curated by the acclaimed theatrical designer Judy Levin and organized by the Kent State University Museum in partnership with the Library, it includes designs, set models, properties, and costumes—and best of all, the exhibit features designers John Conklin and Nancy Leary's work for Boston Lyric Opera!

About the exhibit, John Conklin says:

It is a pleasure and a privilege that the BLO production (represented by the set model, Nancy Leary's costumes sketches and many photos) is included in this exhibit at the Lincoln Center Library in NYC. The exhibit is quite a vivid and ambitious display of many different versions of Flute, including designs by David Hockney, Maurice Sendak, Achim Freyer, and Julie Taymor. Most immediately striking are a number of actual costumes...the gallery seems alive with fantastic creatures in excited conversation.

Learn more here, or if you are in New York City, visit the exhibit in person through August 27! 

Boston Lyric Opera's The Magic Flute (2013)
Photography: Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Operetta's Leading Lady: The Role of the Merry Widow

By Richard Dyer

Franz Lehár

Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow has waltzed around the world for 110 years now. There may not be as many Merry Widow byproducts as there used to be—cigarettes, hats, cocktails, entrees and desserts, although a provocative undergarment is still around. But the operetta itself remains perennial and permanently popular in one form or another. It has been repeatedly re-orchestrated, the vocal lines transposed up or down (the male lead has been sung both by tenors and baritones, although the composer strongly preferred tenors), the characters renamed, the score either cut to shreds or augmented by other music by Lehár, or not by Lehár at all; the dialogue and the lyrics have been translated, re-translated, the book revised and completely rewritten, in more than a dozen languages.

(BLO’s new production boasts a new book by director Lillian Groag, who has set the work almost decade after it was written, when Europe was on the brink of World War I.)

Lehár made some revisions and additions himself for later productions, and, three decades after the premiere, finally produced an overture—although the piece has also often been performed with overtures by other hands. There were three Hollywood films, the best of them featuring Jeannette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, the worst with Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas. The most complete discography lists 87 audio recordings in nine languages, including Romanian, Russian and Japanese, and there are more than a dozen videos of live productions.

No one, not even Lehár himself, expected this wildfire, and enduring, success. Lehár came from a musical family and was well-trained. From an early age, he was an accomplished violinist, and he grew up to become a successful and busy bandmaster. But his goal was to become a composer; he had good teachers and advisers, including Antonín Dvořák. He did compose a popular concert waltz, “Gold and Silver,” but he wanted to write for the theater. By the time he was 35, in 1905, the year of The Merry Widow, he had attempted three operas and six operettas, but only five of them had reached the stage, and all of the ones that had been performed had failed. Hopes did not run high for the tenth of them, The Merry Widow, which he had hastily composed for the Theater an der Wien in Vienna—there he was the second choice, because another composer had been hired to produce a score for the same libretto, but the theater found the music so weak it refused to produce the show. The management didn’t have much more confidence in Lehár—the production was assembled from sets and costumes created for other operettas. Such was the overwhelming success of The Merry Widow—the biggest in Viennese operetta since Strauss’ Die Fledermaus three decades before—that it didn’t take long before the theater commissioned extravagant new sets and costumes.

So what were the reasons for the overwhelming success of The Merry Widow? There is a serviceable and moderately amusing plot, based on a French play by Henri Meilhac written 44 years previously. (Meilhac has his own place in the history of opera, as the librettist for Bizet’s Carmen, Massenet’s Manon and many works by Offenbach; curiously and coincidentally, Die Fledermaus was based on another play by Meilhac.) Lehár’s Viennese librettists, Viktor Léon and Leo Stein, knew their business. The two leading characters, Danilo and Hanna, have met again after he rejected her because she was not his social equal—he is a count and she was originally a farm girl. She then married someone else, who has left her an extremely rich and merry widow; Danilo’s patriotic duty is to marry her to keep her fortune in the operetta's mythical country of Pontevedro. The two are intelligent and verbal, but locked in antagonistic positions—descendants of Shakespeare’s bickering lovers Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Neither is either willing or able to state what he or she really feels, except by indirection—by telling, and singing, stories.

What tells us how they really feel is the music. The score is a delightful suite of songs and dances, and not just waltzes—Hanna makes her entrance singing a mazurka; there are galops, marches, a polonaise, a cakewalk (!), a can-can; anything to keep the feet moving. The music ranges across national styles—Viennese, where the operetta had its premiere; Parisian, where the opera is set; Hungarian (Lehár’s own native country); Balkan, where Pontevedro may not exist on the map, but the music puts it there. The melodies immediately lodge in the mind and take up permanent residence there, while the rhythms excite the spirit and captivate the body. The music is lavishly, luxuriously, imaginatively, exotically and even erotically orchestrated—The Merry Widow opened three weeks after the premiere of Richard Strauss’ Salome. The sound of the tamburica, a mandolin-type instrument from Central Europe, colors some of Hanna’s exotic music. Most tellingly, a solo violin and solo cello tell the audience exactly what Danilo and Hanna are thinking and feeling when they are not capable of doing so themselves. The famous “Merry Widow Waltz” is first heard in the orchestra; Danilo and Hanna then hum it because they haven’t found the words in themselves yet; and finally, they sing it.

It has often been pointed out that The Merry Widow is more overtly sexual than any previous operettas—Freud was active in Vienna in this period. At the time, the book was considered daring and even risqué; to this day the music remains swooning and seductive; it flirts, teases, shivers, tingles and erupts in high spirits.

Danilo was the title character in Meilhac’s play, The Attaché At The Embassy, but Lehár and his librettists put the emphasis, the Merry Widow herself—Hanna Glarawi in the original, Missia in France, Olga in English-language versions. Danilo may be a dashing playboy, but he is also a conventional leading man. The 16-year-old Adolf Hitler was living in Vienna in 1905 and developed a passion for The Merry Widow that lasted for the rest of his life, and even outlasted his passion for Richard Wagner. His last secretary was once surprised to enter a room and find the Führer preening in front of a mirror in a top hat and white scarf, exclaiming, “Am I not Danilo?”

Mizzi Günther
But the most captivating character is Hanna, and it is no surprise that generations of singers from opera and operetta have been eager to take on the role. And why not—she gets to wear a glamorous wardrobe, including a exotic native Pontevedrian outfit, and make a grand entrance halfway through the first act; all anyone talks about in the story is how beautiful and how rich she is. In recordings of the French version the men of the chorus exclaim “Ooh la la” as she comes on—in the German version, the men exclaim “Twenty million!” Her melodies are both lively and alluring, and there is an irresistible, sad wistfulness to her most famous moment, the “Vilja” song. The script gives the singer a lively character to portray, but the music also gives the prima donna a chance to parade her own personality.

The first Merry Widow was the Hungarian soprano Mizzi Günther, who was only 26, but who had already been a star in Vienna for five years. One can hear just how delightful she was in the very first recording of “Vilja,” made in 1905 and currently playing on YouTube. Since then Hanna has been a role for every conceivable kind and weight of voice from high coloratura soprano to low mezzo, from light voices all the way up to experienced Brünnhildes and Isoldes. It has been a role for young singers—Kirsten Flagstad sang the part years before her voice blossomed into the Wagnerian miracle of the 20th century. And in recent seasons, especially since The Merry Widow has entered the standard opera-house repertory, the role has become a late-career specialty of such diverse artists as Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Frederica von Stade, Karita Mattila, Elena Obraztsova in Russia, Raina Kabaivanska in Italy, Dame Gwyneth Jones in Germany, Deborah Voigt and Renee Fleming, all singers who could bring a wealth of stage and life experience to the role. Hanna was von Stade’s choice for her farewell at the Metropolitan Opera, and afterwards she said, “What could be better than to waltz off the Met stage in the arms of Plácido Domingo?”

The honor role of performers of The Merry Widow is long. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf probably never performed Hanna onstage, even in her early operetta days, but she left two best-selling recordings. Other sopranos beloved in Vienna who sang it included Hilde Gueden, who flung around high Ds with abandon, and the velvet-voiced Lisa Della Casa; an unexpected Hanna was the charismatic German soprano Anja Silja, who sang the role with her then-husband Christoph von Dohnányi at the podium. In France, Francis Poulenc’s favorite soprano, Denise Duval, recorded La Veuve Joyeuse, a role a long way from Blanche de la Force in Dialogues des Carmélites which was composed for her; her Danilo was Jacques Jansen, the most famous interpreter of Debussy’s Pelléas. In addition to those listed above, America’s prominent Merry Widows have included Kitty Carlisle, Dorothy Kirsten, Rise Stevens, Patrice Munsel (who starred in a sold-out run in the opening season of Lincoln Center and recorded the role), television star Edie Adams (my own first Merry Widow), Anna Moffo, Maria Ewing, Cheryl Studer, Susan Graham and Ruth Ann Swenson. Hartford’s Teresa Stich-Randall recorded it—in French! And the elegant Barbara Bonney triumphed in the opera’s birthplace, Vienna.

From 1958 on into the '70s, the reigning Merry Widow in England, Australia and New Zealand was bubbly June Bronhill; the public demanded she sing “Vilja” in most of her recitals and concerts during the remaining three decades of her career. She recorded the role twice—no soprano sang ever sang the English language more clearly than she did—and she entitled her autobiography The Merry Bronhill.

Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura

Probably the most beloved Merry Widow of all, and certainly the most-traveled, was the Hungarian soprano and movie star Marta Eggerth. For more than two decades after 1943, the vivacious and beautiful Eggerth gave more than two thousand performances of The Merry Widow in America (including Boston) and Europe opposite her husband, the handsome and popular Polish tenor, Jan Kiepura; they performed their roles in five different languages, and after Kiepura died, Eggerth liked to sing a multi-lingual medley of Merry Widow melodies in her concerts and recitals. In 2000, in the Theater an der Wien, home of the world premiere, Eggerth sang that medley when she was 88. And she continued to perform until not long before she died in 2013, at the age of 101.

Decades ago, here in Boston, there was a remarkable institution created run by an equally remarkable woman, Mary Wolfman Epstein, the New England Jewish Music Forum, and that organization presented a recital by Eggerth and her pianist son, Marjan Kiepura, in a Brookline synagogue—this would have been in the late 1970s or early '80s. Eggerth must have been nearly 80 at that time, but her voice was still clear, silvery and shimmering, her charm undimmed, and her elegant musical style was that of a vanished world. But it was a style with which her audience was familiar. Many were elderly—some of them, or their parents, had come to America to escape Hitler, just as Eggerth and Kiepura had. As she sang from The Merry Widow her voice sounded caressed by an aural halo; it was the audience humming along, celebrating not just a memory, but the life-force itself.

Richard Dyer is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for more than 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.

This article has been expanded from the spring 2016 issue of BLO's Coda magazine. Please see the issue online at

Friday, March 25, 2016

Looking Back on Werther: Feedback and Reviews

“A smart and dramatic new production” – Boston Classical Review

“I enjoyed it tremendously and would like to say that the vocals that were displayed were fabulous and were perfectly blended. I took away from the performance a bucket load more respect for opera vocalist[s] and vocalist[s] in general.” – High School Student

“I went to the opera thinking that I would not like it very much. I have seen an opera before at Tanglewood and I did not enjoy it very much. However, I was pleasantly surprised! The opera was visually stunning! I loved the modern art in conjunction with the old fashioned costumes and setting was ingenious. I loved it! My favorite scenes include the scene where the red blood dripped down the wall and where Charlotte was projected onto the wall. … My opinion of opera has drastically changed. I thought the opera was visually stunning! The story was heartfelt and enthralling!”
– High School Student

“Alex Richardson [held] the stage with a warm and flexible tenor … Sandra Piques Eddy delivers a sympathetic and well-sung Charlotte” – The Boston Globe

“I thought the plot was very interesting and the set was complex and thought-provoking and really emphasized the conflict between characters and how they affect one another. The singers were strong and clearly expressed the emotions that come with love. I enjoyed the performance and I thank you for putting in so much effort to put on the awesome show!” – High School Student

“I truly enjoyed my opera experience, and I recommend that everybody go to a professionally done opera at least once in their life. It is truly breathtaking to hear the performers and also the orchestra. You can tell that it takes a great skill to do either one of those. Even though I was blown away by the performance, it is important to note that it was not overwhelming to experience. The set was simple, yet brilliant.” – High School Student

“A thrilling experience… It helps to have such great acting singers such as Alex Richardson in the title role, and the beautifully-voiced Sandra Piques Eddy.” – South Shore Critic

Photos by T. Charles Erickson for Boston Lyric Opera.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

BLO Announces Its 40th Anniversary Season!

Today, Boston Lyric Opera announced its 40th Anniversary Season, opening in September 2016! Visit our 2016/17 Season Page for more information on the operas, dates, and venues.

September 23 - October 2, 2016
A co-production between Boston Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera
Opera’s ultimate femme fatale in a provocative, groundbreaking production of the Bizet classic by acclaimed Spanish director Calixto Bieito

November 16 - 20, 2016
Opera Annex and New England Premiere
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s blazing retelling of the Oedipus story

March 12 - 19, 2017
New Production
Stravinsky’s seductive tale of devilish temptation

April 28 - May 7, 2017
New Production
Love, lust and laughter tie the knot in Mozart’s greatest opera

Monday, March 21, 2016

Encountering Massenet at the BPL

When BLO hosted its "Opera Night at the Boston Public Library" for Massenet's Werther on February 25, the last thing we expected to encounter was a living piece of history! One of our dedicated BLO supporters attended with a family treasure: a copy of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, in French, inscribed by Massenet himself.

The great Sibyl Sanderson was Massenet's favorite soprano; she premiered several of his leading roles, including Esclarmonde, and was a renowned singer of Massenet's Manon. The Sibyl Sanderson Story: Requiem for a Diva, by Jack Winsor Hansen, recounts her success and tragically short life. Her great-niece, Margaret A., now lives in Boston and brought the heirloom to share with the BLO conductor and cast members at the BPL. The book was given to Sibyl Sanderson's mother, (Madame Sanderson) by Massenet himself after the premiere of Werther in Paris.

Margaret was delighted to share this family history with BLO, and we were thrilled to see the work come to life, on and off the stage!

Margaret A. showing conductor, David Angus, her family copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Sandra Piques Eddy, singing the role of Charlotte, explores the book, inscribed by Massenet himself.

Massenet's inscription to Madame Sanderson.

All photos by Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Werther Lives On: Sequels through the Ages

By Richard Dyer

Readers of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther hungered for more; after all it was a sensational success in 1774—and for two and a half centuries afterwards. But it was not a book that demanded a sequel. After all, the “narrator” of the novel is young Werther himself, writing letters to a friend, and after the last letter, he commits suicide.

But after the firestorm of acclaim that arose after the first publication, sequels appeared almost immediately. One of them told the story from the point of view of Charlotte, Werther’s great love; another, called The Joys of Young Werther, contrived a happy ending that Goethe loathed—and he despised the author of the happy ending for the rest of his life. Goethe himself revisited and revised his first great success 13 years later, and that revision is the one most people read today. He again returned to the book in his autobiography, Poetry and Truth, written over a period of years at the other end of his life.

Meanwhile, Werther was translated all over the world; even Frankenstein’s monster read it. The book has never been out of print, never stopped being read; to this day young writers return to the archetypal story of unrequited love, which also survives in stage adaptations, in Massenet’s opera, in the movies and on television.

Thomas Mann
By far the most significant literary response to Werther is Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar: The Beloved Returns, a novel by the most important German literary figure of the 20th century that reflects his lifetime study of the most German literary figure of all. Mann wrote the novel late in the 1930s after he decided not to return to his home in Hitler’s Germany and to remain and live in Switzerland instead; when that too became dangerous, Mann moved to America and even became an American citizen. Mann spent 13 years in California before returning to Switzerland for the last two years of his life, passing away in 1953.

Like Werther, Charlotte in Weimar is based on a fact: Charlotte Buff Kestner, the woman who inspired the creation of Goethe’s Charlotte in Werther, did in fact meet Goethe again 45 years after the events in his novel. Almost nothing is known about this occasion beyond a couple of letters that mention it. She wrote to one of her sons, “I made a new acquaintance with an old man who, if I had not known he was Goethe, and even knowing it, made on me no pleasant impression.” Out of these bare facts Mann produced a novel of 453 dense pages, some of it invention, but all of it based on Mann’s thorough knowledge of Goethe’s life, works, and character.

It is not an easy book to read—the author of the introduction to the current English-language paperback edition points out that the novel requires multiple readings, and that it cannot be read at all only once. Mann's prose is musical and rhythmic, and images and themes recur as Mann develops them; the book is full of allusions to Goethe's writings and intricate interconnections of detail.

The difficulties of the book are compounded by the stodgy text by his official and exclusive translator, Mrs. H. T. Lowe-Porter. Mann scholars have pointed out many mistakes and misunderstandings in Lowe-Porter’s work, but more disturbing is her attempt to reproduce as much of Mann’s German syntax as she can and far more than is useful; the result is neither German nor English, instead, some impenetrable language like Deutschlish or Engdeutsch. Most of Mann’s books have been retranslated since her day, some of them more than once, but this one has not, perhaps for copyright reasons.

In no way is Lotte in Weimar a conventional novel, although some novelistic conventions are present—Mann is alert to period detail, with clothes, furniture, decoration and the minutiae of daily life. But Goethe does not meet Charlotte until page 394, when she appears in his home as an invited dinner guest; their exchanges are mostly small-talk and Charlotte is dismayed at the sycophants who surround Goethe and shocked by the coarseness of some of his conversation. They meet once again, perhaps, in the last chapter, when he sends his coach to pick her up after an evening in the theater. He is seated in the shadows within the coach, or Charlotte imagines this, and they do finally have the conversation she wishes she had had earlier—or they don’t, and she imagines what they might have said if such a conversation were to have taken place.

Charlotte Buff Kestner
In the second paragraph of the novel, Charlotte, her daughter (also named Charlotte), and a maid descend from a coach and check in at the Elephant Inn in Weimar, in late September, 1816 (the Elephant Inn still survives). She has travelled to Weimar to visit another of her children who now lives there, but hopes to encounter Goethe; she has brought along a copy of the dress she wore the first time they met. Charlotte, who was 18 at the time of Werther, is now 63; her beloved husband Johann Kestner (“Albert”) has died, as have some of the dozen children she bore him. Goethe has just turned 67 and is now a widower, but still prey to serial obsessions with lively and beautiful young women—Charlotte was not the first and certainly not the last of many—he proposed to his final love in 1823. For decades he has been an international celebrity and his home the object of pilgrimage.

A waiter or maître d’ from the hotel greets Charlotte and recognizes her, and soon she has a series of callers, one per chapter—all but one of them know Goethe well and speak of him at length from their different but complementary perspectives, prodded along by Charlotte who is sensitive, inquisitive, and alternately delighted and dismayed by what she hears. There is even a long story about Goethe’s son, who finds himself in a situation similar to the one his father was in 45 years before. Charlotte has been a good wife and a good woman, but she is by no means as conventional as she believes she is; her intelligence, graciousness and fineness of feeling are altogether out of the ordinary. Meanwhile the townspeople crowd the square, eager for a glimpse of her. The identity of the “real” Charlotte has long been public knowledge everywhere in Germany, and she has spent her life resenting her unsought and unwilling celebrity.

The famous seventh chapter departs from the rest—it is Goethe’s 75-page internal monologue, Mann’s version of stream of consciousness, a survey of Goethe’s interests and obsessions, and Mann’s insight into the working of his mind. The eighth chapter depicts the dinner at Goethe’s house and the ninth the final conversation between Charlotte and Goethe.

In a sense, then, nothing “happens” in Lotte in Weimar. In another sense, everything does because this is a novel is about psychology, nuances of communication, perception and feeling; it is about celebrities and "ordinary" people who, in their individual ways, are extraordinary; it is about the fretful relationship between “real” life and art. And there are real moments of humor in it too—the characterization of the maître d’, as well as Rose Cuzzle, a star-struck English groupie who seeks out celebrities, clings to them, draws their portraits and demands their autographs. Then, too, Charlotte’s discoveries about Goethe the man, as opposed to Goethe the artist, parallel Mann’s feelings about Goethe, who loomed over the young Mann the way Shakespeare has loomed over generations of young and ambitious English and American writers.

Lotte in Weimar seems an unlikely subject for a movie—but in 1975 a film was made. Werther, of course, has long interested movie makers. Film and television versions exist in French, Spanish, English and German (several in German), some of them updated to the present—the story remains resonant. And there are probably even more DVDs of Massenet’s opera; all in all there have been nearly 90 different recordings or DVDs of the opera, which not something anyone could have foreseen 50 years ago, when Werther was rarely performed outside of France and Italy. The Metropolitan Opera did 10 performances of it between 1894 and 1910 and did not present it again until 1971 when there was a new production for Franco Corelli—there have been 71 performances in Lincoln Center since then. The principal reasons for the growing and belated popularity of Werther are the poignancy and relevance of the situation and Massenet's impassioned musical response. There are magnificent and gratifying roles for tenor and mezzo, and over the last four decades most of the important tenors, from Corelli to Jonas Kaufmann, have appeared in the opera.

One of the recent films about Werther was a pop hit in Germany in 2010. There it was called Goethe!, with an exclamation point; for release in America it was retitled Young Goethe in Love (no longer with the exclamation point). It is essentially a picturesque, romping rom-com that stars the delightful Miriam Stein as a free-spirited Charlotte and two popular German actors as Albert and Goethe, Moritz Bleibtreu and Alexander Fehling. The atmosphere, if not the setting, is that of a Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston film, and of course it doesn't have to end with suicide because Goethe (unlike Werther) didn't kill himself. Fehling is altogether unbelievable as Goethe: a young and randy scamp who never stops pouting and smirking. Goethe's novel is about obsession descending into madness; Young Goethe in Love! is mostly about sex. Goethe and Charlotte meet accidentally on horseback; we don't learn what they do with the horses, but soon they are naked and going at it along the wall of a ruined castle.

There is no reason for such a film to be accurate. Albert is not a close friend of Goethe's, as he was in fact—at least before the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther. That is what makes the love triangle in the novel so painful—Charlotte loves both men, they both love her, and each other. The film also depicts Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, the historical figure who committed suicide because the married woman he loved would not leave her husband, as Goethe's roommate; in fact, they scarcely knew each other, but Albert did know him and researched his suicide for Goethe's use. In the film Charlotte is the one who sends Goethe's manuscript to the publisher, although in life she detested Goethe's depiction of herself and her beloved husband. Meanwhile one of the principal themes in the musical score is Schubert's setting of a poem that Goethe hadn't written yet (and Goethe himself did not understand or like Schubert's songs).

If the film's goal is to entertain rather than inform, it meets its goal—the scenery is beautiful and attractive people take their clothes off.

Lotte in Weimar, the 1975 film, is completely different. Obviously it is without the nuance, detail and insight that Mann brought to his book, but it doesn't have to describe anything; it just shows us Weimar—although the flashbacks were not shot in Wetzlar, which was inaccessible in West Germany. It even brings new visual symbols, most obviously in the hotel room where Charlotte meets the people who come to see her and interview her—although she ends up interviewing them. On a mantel, a large goldfish tries to swim in a narrow, high tubular vase—a metaphor for Goethe, trapped in his celebrity, or Charlotte trapped in hers.

The film is slow and stately, but honest and sincere, and it helps to have read the novel—actually both of them, Goethe's and Mann's. The only serious distraction is the way the soundtrack keeps returning to impassioned passages from Mahler's Sixth Symphony, which of course is way out of period and completely alien to the classical style of the city and Mann's treatment of the emotional situations.
There are however some quite remarkable performances, including the poised and perceptive acting of Lilli Palmer as Charlotte. In 1975, Palmer was about the same age as the historical Charlotte when she met Goethe again; she remains agelessly beautiful, her face an unselfconscious mirror of every flicker of emotion.

Palmer was a German actress from a Jewish family who escaped Hitler's Germany and wound up in England in movies and also, later, onstage; she was married to Rex Harrison for 13 years, during which they became the most prominent English acting team on Broadway and in Hollywood (and on television). After their divorce, she remained active both in theater and movies until her death in 1984. She had a long and happy second marriage. Harrison was married four more times, but when he died in 1990, his will asked that some of his ashes be strewn over Palmer's gave in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles. And so they were—a romantic gesture worthy of Werther himself.

Richard Dyer is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for more than 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Opera March Madness

NCAA March Madness starts today, and it got us thinking ... What if we could hold the ultimate opera tournament of all the greats, side by side?! Check out our Opera March Madness bracket, based on the fascinating statistics compiled by Operabase. What would YOUR bracket look like?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Alex Richardson Dives into Werther: An Interview with Richard Dyer

Alex Richardson sings the title role in Boston Lyric Opera's Werther.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
The former New Mexico high school state champion in springboard diving is currently singing the title role in Massenet’s Werther with Boston Lyric Opera. That would be the rising American tenor Alex Richardson. (His final three performances are tonight, Friday night at 7:30pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm in the Shubert Theater.)

It is a long way from high school diving to portraying the neurotic, self-absorbed and suicidal hero Werther, who was created by the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe out of his own recent painful memories—an anti-hero/poet who has haunted the imagination of the world for more than two and a half centuries now. Massenet’s operatic adaptation is one of the longest and most strenuous roles in the repertory for lyric tenor, but Richardson’s performance has earned him another sheaf of admiring reviews to add to his growing pile.

He has encountered Werther before, but this is his first major production of the opera. A few years ago he learned and memorized the part in two weeks in order to replace both singers who were supposed to alternate in the role in a production at the University of North Texas; the conductor, who was a friend, asked him to step into this emergency. Later he covered the role for the National Opera in Washington, D. C., although he was never called on to go on; Crystal Manich, BLO’s stage director, also worked on that production. After that he sang the opera again recently in a concert performance in New York’s Merkin Hall. So Richardson felt ready to take on the role on short notice when the artist the BLO had engaged was forced to cancel when he unexpectedly required surgery for a back problem.

But he accepted the offer with one caveat—he would need to miss part of the rehearsal period. He has been married for three years, but the planned honeymoon in Costa Rica had already been too often postponed because of changes in Richardson’s schedule, even though the couple had had reservations. So in mid-rehearsals, Werther basked in the sun for a week.

The rest may have done him good. “This is a really long role and learning to pace yourself in it is a continuous journey and you have to have some reserves left for the end of the show. It is also very emotional music and the orchestra has a very important role in it—Massenet learned that from Wagner. The orchestra isn’t just underscoring the singer. The second aria, ‘Un autre est son époux,’ is high and loud and so fast you don’t have a lot of time to breathe. The secret is to bring it down while at the same time pushing it forward. You have to really sing the role and not overblow it. I believe the reason the opera has become so popular is that the love-triangle situation is so plausible that everyone can relate to it. Werther’s response is extreme, but this is absolutely a present-day situation.”

In person, Richardson projects a sunny confidence; his curly hair is short-cropped, unlike the long, unkempt wig he wears onstage, and his manner is informal. And he points out that years of springboard diving proved a useful preparation for opera singing, a fact he was not entirely aware of at the time.

“I believed that athletics would be my ticket to college, although it turned out that music would be. I took diving very seriously—I competed in the Junior Olympics and made it to the nationals. This is an individual sport and, in competition, the judging is subjective. It takes a lot of heavy concentration on technique and on body awareness—you need to know what your body is doing in space and time. This came in handy when studying voice. If I need to drop my back, I know how to do it. And the scoring is just like what it is in singing; your score depends on someone’s personal opinion of how you did. This is not like a race where the person who comes in first wins. It was good for me to experience that kind of subjective competition when I was a teenager.”

Richardson grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico; although the population was under 100,000 when Richardson lived there, it was the second-largest city in the state, after Albuquerque. It has a very lively musical community and a real commitment to arts education in the public schools—the prominent pianist Jeremy Denk attended the same high school as Richardson, but a few years earlier. Richardson’s whole family was musical, although he is the only one who is pursuing music professionally. “My mother sang and my father played classical guitar, and I was already singing when I was a boy soprano—‘Silver Bells’ and things like that. After my voice changed I sang baritone for a short time before I found my natural range. I was very lucky because a college music teacher named Donald Morrison came to Las Cruces to retire. He directed a community chorus and asked me if I would sing in it. He couldn’t pay me anything but offered to give me free voice lessons instead, and I said yes. He introduced me to art songs and Lieder, and gave me my first aria, ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. After a while he began to encourage me to go to music school, and he even suggested that I give a senior recital. I didn’t quite know what that meant, but I said OK. I sang my aria, a song by Donaudy, and songs by Brahms, Fauré and Samuel Barber. I didn’t know that not every teenager did things like this!”

Richardson sang auditions for colleges and chose the University of Colorado in Boulder. “In my junior year I sang Albert Herring in Britten’s opera, my beginning with a composer who has been very important to me. I also did Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a wonderful part, and Ramiro in Rossini’s Cenerentola.” To this day he remains in close contact with friends and faculty in Boulder. “It is a very strong pedagogy school; my mentors let me grow and helped me develop a healthy technique in my formative years. And I became a sponge absorbing interesting musical challenges.”

He then moved on to the Manhattan School of Music and summer programs at the Central City Opera in Colorado and the Santa Fe Opera; in Santa Fe he made his professional debut in Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar—and his first appearance as a flamenco singer. He arrived as a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center in 2008 and 2009—an experience that drew him into the orbit of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At Tanglewood he appeared in Weill’s Mahagonny and in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, which he sung under the direction of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Since then he has appeared in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Strauss’s Salome, and in Szymanowski’s King Roger, in which he sang a small role and understudied the crucial part of Edrisi.

He has had additional Boston connections, appearing twice with Boston Midsummer Opera, singing lead parts in Donzetti’s Don Pasquale and Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and both in Boston and at Tanglewood leaving a vivid impression as Tom in John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby.

Meanwhile he has been building up a wide range of tenor roles, large and small, in almost two dozen operas of many periods and styles, from Mozart (Tamino in The Magic Flute comes next) through Louis Andriessen. In Toledo he sang Scaramuccio in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos with Boston-area soprano Barbara Quintiliani in the title role. Cavaradossi in Tosca is about the heaviest role Richardson has tackled so far, although he will sing the title role in Britten’s Peter Grimes this summer. He was on the Metropolitan Opera roster this season to cover the demanding role of Alwa in Berg’s Lulu—a testimony to the security of his musicianship; next season he is scheduled to sing the young shepherd in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. His most publicized appearance to date was in the first production of Franco Faccio’s neglected opera, Amleto [Hamlet], since 1871—Richardson took the title role.

“I have no plans to sing Otello or Lohengrin or Siegfried,” Richardson says with a chuckle. He’s about to head off to watch a rehearsal of Werther with the understudies; he’s a good colleague. As he heads for the door, he unwraps a piece of butterscotch candy and pops it into his mouth. Werther’s, of course.

Richard Dyer is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for more than 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Dr. von Lyric: Two Overlapping Geniuses

BLO is in the midst of performances of Massenet’s eloquent and moving opera Werther  (based, of course, on Goethe's novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther), and so it would seem appropriate to listen to some of the songs that Schubert set to Goethe texts (and it doesn't take much encouragement). Schubert lied is one my favorite musical genres (and clearly, one of his…he wrote over 600 songs, 80 of which are based on Goethe poems). The lives of these two brilliant flowerings of German culture coincided; Goethe was 48 when Schubert was born and lived for four years after Schubert’s tragically premature death in 1828, at the age of 28.

But in April 1816, Goethe famously failed to acknowledge Schubert’s gift of 16 settings of his own poems. In a lecture by Richard Stokes, he muses:

“Many reasons have been adduced for [Goethe’s] failure to respond. Were they actually played for him? And, if so, was the performance adequate? Joseph von Spaun at the end of the somewhat cloying letter that accompanied the gift stressed that the pianist ‘must not lack facility or expression’. Was Goethe just too busy—he enjoyed a huge international [following] and received a daily deluge of letters and visits. Did the sycophantic tone of Spann’s letter displease him? Or was he simply in a bad mood? The most likely explanation for Goethe’s silence must be sought elsewhere. He was not unmusical, but his concept of what constituted a song was profoundly different from Schubert’s. In a letter, dated 1820, Goethe expounds his belief that the accompaniment should not illustrate the imagery of a poem.”

Not at all what Schubert was up to. And ironically, outside of the German speaking world, it is those very Schubert songs which keep the name of Goethe most alive. To say nothing of the French connection—Werther, Faust and Mignon—operas that Goethe would probably have also dismissed. (See BLO’s blog post for more on this.)

A few Schubert settings of Goethe texts…

A full operatic experience in under four minutes. Superbly orchestrated by Hector Berlioz, it is here performed at a startling level of intensity by Anne Sophie von Otter and Claudio Abbado

Two other songs from the vast and rich repertory of Goethe lied:

One of Schubert’s (and Goethe’s ) most charming exercises—innocence coupled with the utmost sophistication:

And…a completely unexpected encore:

Monday, March 14, 2016

Werther Post-Show Discussion Questions

Sandra Piques Eddy and Alex Richardson in Werther.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Did you see BLO's production of Werther? Don't let the music just fade away! Consider these thought-provoking discussion questions with the friends or loved ones who attended the opera with you. After all, art is meant to be shared.

1.    Consider the production concept, directorial approach, and design elements of the opera. In what ways did these enhance, or detract from, your overall experience?

2.    How does Werther’s obsession and emotional state color his memories of the characters and events leading up to his suicide? How does the production reflect this?

3.    Charlotte is often described by other characters as good, angelic, pure. Do her actions throughout the opera justify this assessment? Why or why not?

4.    Why does Werther feel that suicide is his only option?

5.    How does Massenet’s music throughout the opera enhance the emotional content of the drama? Which moments stood out in particular, and why?

6.    Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther based on his own romantic experiences and those of people that he knew—including a young man who had killed himself after being rejected by a married woman. What are the ethics of this type of appropriation? Does the story glamorize suicide? Does the opera itself?

7.    Why would Massenet choose to juxtapose the children singing “Noel” as Werther dies in the final scene? Was it effective for you, and why or why not?

8.    Read the blog post regarding the added vocal lines in this production, written by David Angus, BLO Music Director and Conductor of Werther. Did you notice this moment in the opera? How did it enhance the final scene between Werther and Charlotte—or is the drama better served by leaving it out? Why?

Friday, March 11, 2016

Werther: A Sneak Peek!

Check out this special SNEAK PEEK from Wednesday evening's Final Dress Rehearsal for Werther! Unrequited love never sounded so good.

March 11–20 | 2016
The Citi Performing Arts CenterSM Shubert Theatre

From left to right, Jon Jurgens, David McFerrin, Rachele Gilmore, James Demler in Werther – Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Sandra Piques Eddy as Charlotte – Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Alex Richardson as the title character – Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Sandra Piques Eddy and Alex Richardson – Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Goethe and Opera

By John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

Goethe later claimed that the overwhelming musical experience of his youth (he was 14) was hearing the six-year-old Mozart play in Frankfurt in 1763 on one of his many tours (this is one of those encounters one would really liked to have somehow witnessed…like Schoenberg and Gershwin playing tennis together—with Harpo Marx kibitzing on the sidelines—in Hollywood in the 1940s). His admiration, even adoration, of Mozart lasted to his death some 60 years later. Goethe, Germany’s most famous poet and playwright, was a formidable polymath (he wrote epic and lyric poetry, prose and verse drama; memoirs, criticism, treatises on botany, anatomy and color; and four novels). His direct connection to music and opera is no less impressive. He asked Gluck to set some of his poetry, who declined. He wrote libretti; excerpts from one—a dramaturgically dense, even turgid, sequel to The Magic Flute—was performed at a BLO Signature Series event a few years ago. He was director of the Hoftheater in Weimar from 1791 to 1817 and mounted productions by an astounding variety of composers, including Gluck, Beethoven, Paisello, Cimarosa, Cherubibi, Boildieu, Spontini, and others. He particularly championed Mozart when it was not entirely fashionable. During his directorship, Mozart was performed on no fewer than 310 evenings—Figaro 20 times, Abduction 49, Don Giovanni 68, and Flute 82.

His play Faust (in two parts and gargantuan in ambition and scale) has been the inspiration for numerous musical works (including those by Wagner, Lizst, and Schumann) and several operas. Perhaps the most truly Goethean in feeling is Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. Technically not an opera (Berlioz called it a “légende dramatique”), it premiered in 1846. The Metropolitan Opera premiered it in concert in 1896, and a fully staged version was given there in 2008, directed by Robert Lepage (of the notorious Met Ring Cycle). Terry Gilliam made his English National Opera directorial debut with a production of it in 2011, and this trailer shows some of the intriguing ideas that his production contained.

Gounod’s opera Faust is certainly the most well-known variant of the Goethe play. (I’m sure he would have loathed it for its sentimentality and trivialization of his cosmic mythology…and Germans are still dismissive of it even today, and bill it as it Marguerite when it plays there.) It was a huge international success, after a less-than-successful premiere in 1859. It opened the Metropolitan Opera House in 1883 and is the eighth most frequently performed opera there, with 747 performances. Since it is a truth frequently noted that “the Devil always gets the best lines,” here is Mephistopheles in full cry.

From Arrigo Boito’s only completed opera (Mefistofele, 1868), here is a boldly extravagant take on Goethe.

The most direct setting of a Goethe text (although not an opera, of course) is the Eighth Symphony (the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand”) of Gustav Mahler (1910). It uses the closing section of Goethe’s Faust, Part II.

There are several French operatic settings of Goethe. Of course, Werther, but also Ambroise Thomas’ 1866 work, Mignon (of modest but undeniable charm), based loosely on the Goethe novel Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years. This opera too ran into Franco-German sensibility issues—Thomas had to write a version which ended tragically…this attempt still failed to appease the German public and was withdrawn. Its most famous aria is “Connais-tu le pays,” here sung in concert by Marilyn Horne at her most playful.

More intellectually acceptable (perhaps) were the many various lieder/song versions of Goethe, perhaps most notably the Hugo Wolf setting of “Kennst du das Land.”

And to end on a lighter note (and a nod to Werther’s successor in the BLO Season, The Merry Widow) here is Johann Strauss’ 1874 waltz “Wo die Zitronen blühen,” from the same passage in Goethe’s novel.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

BLO's Werther Breaks New Musical Ground!

Photo by Eric Antoniou
David Angus, conductor of Werther and Music Director of BLO, steps in this week to announce exciting news about the upcoming BLO production!

Dear readers,

You may not know that the job of the conductor begins months before rehearsals do—the conductor must sort through any inconsistencies in printed scores, or revisions that the composer made, and decide exactly which version will be performed so that scores can be compiled and all of the singers and orchestra musicians know precisely what to prepare.

Whilst preparing the Werther score several months ago, I discovered that the original handwritten manuscript orchestral score, from Massenet's own pen, was recently made available (within the last few years) online. I referred to it many times, and we have continued to do so throughout the rehearsals. I suddenly realised that, at the emotional and musical climax of the whole work, when the lovers finally kiss (shortly before Werther dies), there were mysterious extra vocal lines for the two lovers written in the manuscript. Instead of a kiss that lasted for over a minute, they were actually joining in with the ecstatic orchestra, firstly in a glorious, full unison at the tops of their voices, and then breaking apart and weaving around each other’s music in sensuous counterpoint. These vocal lines have never been included in printed, published versions of the score and I had not encountered them before—what would they sound like in performance?

The first of several pages in the manuscript score with the added vocal lines for Charlotte and Werther (emphasis added).
When we reached that music in the rehearsal process, I mentioned the extra vocal lines and suggested that we try them out.  Everyone got very excited by the power and beauty of the new music. The added section is not long, but it is exceptional, both because it comes at the absolute climax of the opera and because it is almost the only time that people actually sing together in this opera, rather than alternating in dialogue. This music symbolises the coming together of the lovers, and the weaving together of the two lines mirrors their physical interaction! The orchestral music at this point was already wonderful, but adding the two voices on top takes it to another whole level.

Adding to the excitement is the fact that we think that these added vocal lines might never have been performed, either at the time of the first performances, or since. To try to confirm this, we consulted with Professor Hugh MacDonald (a world authority on, and biographer of, Massenet) and Dr. Lesley Wright, the editor of the soon-to-be-published Bärenreiter critical edition of Werther. These two authorities know nothing of any performances that include the added vocal lines. In fact, in Massenet's time, the vocal score was completed before the full orchestral manuscript had even been started, meaning that the singers probably learned the music without these lines. All the published versions of the libretto and any translations that we can find fail to include the extra text for this new music. There is simply no trace of it, apart from the one original manuscript, written in Massenet’s own hand, and apparently added at the exact same time that he was working out all the orchestration. Who knows what inspiration took him and made him add these words and this music for the singers, or why it never made it into any of the later printed scores—vocal or orchestral. Our accomplished rehearsal coach/accompanist, Brett Hodgdon, has continued this research while rehearsing full-time, and has worked out the chronology of the scores and the compositional process, but he too can find no trace of these bars. Even if Massenet himself eventually decided not to include these lines, they still represent his first inspiration when preparing this part of the score, and I believe it was an error of judgement to remove them!

We are very excited to be able to include this music in the upcoming BLO production because it is truly wonderful and very powerful, and because, if our research thus far proves correct and these vocal lines have never before been performed, this is a significant world first. BLO is proud to continue pushing the boundaries of opera and blazing new ground, and we can't wait to share this stunning music—and all of Werther—with you.

Wait till you hear it, and you will understand!

David Angus
BLO Music Director
Conductor, Werther

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Massenet—Beyond Werther

by John Conklin, BLO Artistic Advisor

BLO is deeply immersed in getting our production of Massenet's luscious and moving opera onto the stage (it opens March 11). Werther is certainly his most well-known piece (or would that be Manon?) but even it, acclaimed as his masterpiece, is not as commonly performed as would seem its due based on its charm, melodic richness, and depth of drama. And then there is the "rest" of Massenet...

Massenet wrote more than 30 operas (or 44...or 36...). Authorities differ on the exact number because some of his early works have been lost, still others were left incomplete, and some were substantially recomposed after their premieres.

He worked with a large number of different librettists and drew inspiration from such disparate authors as Goethe, Rabelais, Anatole France, Cervantes, Abbé Prevost, Flaubert, and Corneille.

The 1954 edition of The Grove Dictionary of Opera said, "to have heard Manon is to have heard all of [Massenet]." In 1994, the music critic Andrew Porter called this view preposterous. He countered, "Who knows Manon, Werther, and Don Quichotte knows the best of Massenet, but not his range from heroic romance to steamy verismo."

Three quotes from the 1993 Viking Opera Guide:
  • "It would be absurd to claim that he was anything more than a second-rate composer; he nevertheless deserves to be seen, like Richard Strauss, at least as a first-class second-rate one."
  • "Yet whatever the stature of his works, he was the most successful composer of opera in France, if not in Europe, in the quarter century between the death of Bizet and the premiere of Pelléas [et Mélisande]. His technical mastery and his craftsmanship are undeniable. He was also a complete man of the theater, assiduously attending to every detail of the staging of his works: scenery, costumes and lighting as well as orchestra—and their revivals throughout Europe. In this respect, he was as much of a 'producer' as Wagner."
  • "Now that even serious musicians recognize that some quite important things have been said in the Broadway commercial theater, they might be prodded into recognizing the same about the similarly commercial French operatic institutions of the 19th century. Gershwin, Weill and Rodgers at their best do more than just 'reflect' the anxieties and preoccupations of their audience: they tease and provoke them from a consciously humanistic and moralistic standpoint. So did Massenet."
According to an Operabase analysis, productions around the world in 2012-13 show Massenet as the 20th most popular of all opera composers. His most often performed work: Werther (63 productions in all countries), followed by Manon (47), Don Quichotte (22), Thais (21), then Cendrillon (17).

Here are some succulent items from that vast sea of  Massenet works (he called them a wide variety of terms, including: opéra comique, comédie chantée, comédie-lyrique, comédie-héroïque, conte de fées, drame passionnel, haulte farce musicale, opéra légendaire, opera romanesque and opéra tragique):

Massenet is rightly famous for this powerful evocation of a sensuous and erotic atmosphere, coupled with an ultra-French coolness and elegance. Here, in another view, Alagna and Netrebko go at it with perhaps a little more eroticism and a little less coolness.

Massenet's version of the Cinderella story, a charming opera and, in this performance by Joyce DiDonato, deeply felt.

Le Cid
Massenet in an heroic, epic, and tragic mode; here, with Maria Callas conveying those emotions in their purest and most intense expressio.

This opera includes perhaps his most famous melody—the "Meditation"—which expresses the courtesan Thaïs' awakening beautifully etched by Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Salome's declaration of love to John the Baptist—sung here by Sonya Yoncheva (recently a sensation at the Metropolitan Opera in her debut there).

Don Quichotte 
One of Massenet's last operas and one of his most famous characterizations. Here is the incomparable José van Dam in Quichotte's death scene.