26 May 2016

Returning to ‘Little Women,’ or How Mark Adamo Concord Me

Where it began: the HGO cast in 2000.
Margaret Lloyd, Stacey Tappan, Stephanie Novacek, Joyce DiDonato (my first glimpse of her).

I first saw Mark Adamo’s opera, Little Women, in 2001, a video of the production from Houston Grand Opera (a revival of the world premiere, from 1998) projected on the wall of a New York City hotel room for the benefit of music writers who wouldn’t be able to watch the broadcast on PBS a few days later. The next year, I attended a performance at the Glimmerglass Festival — and I got a sense of the work’s power to move listeners. During Beth’s death scene, a man began to sob and ran out of the theater. The Glimmerglass production took the stage at New York City Opera in 2003, where I saw it again. A performance at the Seagle Music Colony in 2004 was the last that I would see — until now.

I’d kept up with Mark and his work in the meantime. My interview with him, for a profile in Opera News in 2001, represented the first of many long conversations that have led to a rewarding friendship. I’ve heard much but not all of the stage work he’s written since Little Women: I’ve attended two performances of his Lysistrata and watched his Becoming Santa Claus — a live simulcast from Dallas, projected on another wall in New York.

But what would I think of Little Women upon hearing it again after all this time? “Things change, Jo,” as Meg observes in the opera, and so of course do I. Little Women was Mark’s first opera, crafted on a much smaller scale than Becoming Santa Claus and the grand Lysistrata. Twelve years ago, I wasn’t hearing nearly as many new operas as I do today, and even a work I admired — Berg’s Lulu — contained passages I didn’t learn to love until last fall, when the Met unveiled its new production. My tastes are changing.

Composer-librettist-conversationalist: Mark Adamo.

Even my admiration for Little Women developed gradually. The libretto won me over from the get-go, and thanks to Mark’s understanding that “almost alone among adolescent protagonists in classic American fiction (Tom Sawyer, Holden Caulfield, Roth’s Portnoy), [Jo is] happy where she is,” I’ll never think about Alcott’s novel the same way. As Mark dramatizes the story, Jo learns to accept change — and she’s powerless to resist it. (Her only option, represented by her fearsome Aunt March, is to seal herself off from the world — to bury herself alive in “a house of stone.”) That’s a good deal more compelling than the plot of a novel I found sticky-sweet and infuriatingly girly. And as a stage work, the opera provided performers with plenty of chances to shine — something that’s important to me as an unabashed diva-worshipper.

But the music took a little longer. Not terribly long, but in retrospect I think that I, like so many others, expected an operatic adaptation of Little Women to sound like either Aaron Copland or Stephen Foster. It sounds like neither, and its only concession to the music of anyone other than Mark Adamo is Professor Bhaer’s Schubertian Lied “Kennst du das Land?” — so achingly beautiful that you’re grateful when he sings it a second time, in English. It’s a clever composer who writes the singer’s encore into the opera. And the song makes it easier than ever before to understand why Jo settles for the Professor.

The trick of false expectations is that they can sometimes blind (or in this case, deafen) us to reality. Only at Glimmerglass was I able to begin to set aside my ideas about what I wasn’t hearing, and to pay attention to the music Mark actually wrote. The orchestral ensemble is small, so that a certain “American” openness is built in, and 16 years after I first heard it, the music is still fresh, even bracing. The vocal writing is gratifying to young singers especially, and where the music is spiky, “modern,” rebellious, uncompromising — well, aren’t those the qualities we cherish in Jo? You may think you want Stephen Foster, but what you require is Mark Adamo. He knows how to tell this story in sound.

At the Gerald W. Lynch Theater on May 7, Joseph Colaneri led the Mannes Opera and the Mannes Orchestra in a production staged by Laura Alley. Insofar as the staging of a new opera can be traditional, this one was, and it looked a lot like the original production in Houston. My only quibbles were with the men’s hats (no, they wouldn’t wear them indoors) and the brief moment when Jo sets time in reverse (insufficiently clear). I’m always reluctant to write about student casts by name — the whole point is for them to learn, not for them to be perfect, or even to seek our approval. (Mine least of all.) But I’m happy to report that everyone performed with spirit, and mezzo Melanie Ashkar reminded me that Jo is a tour-de-force role, seldom offstage and usually singing. Colaneri elicited polished playing from his ensemble, and thus he gave me a real chance to concentrate on the music.

Again and again, I found myself recognizing a theme that, I knew, would return later in the opera. I heard details in the orchestration that I hadn’t noticed before. I smiled at the familiar. I chuckled at the jokes. I looked forward to pleasures. And as I listened, I realized that this is what I do with any opera for which admiration has turned to affection, whether it’s La Traviata or Lulu — or, by now, even Dog Days. Over the years, Little Women has become a contemporary classic and a pillar of the standard repertory.

Its status as such is confirmed by the myriad productions it receives — I’m told that this year alone there will be something like a dozen, maybe more — and by the ways in which audiences and young musicians take it to heart. You needn’t take my word for it. Just listen.

Ava Pine in Mark’s Lysistrata at Fort Worth Opera.

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11 April 2016

In Search of Ana María Martínez

Ana María Martínez as Rusalka in Chicago.
(Where I didn’t get to hear her.)

If I had a nickel for every time a New Yorker has asked, “Why doesn’t the Met hire Ana María Martinez?” I could probably have paid for my airfare to Houston last January to hear her in precisely the sort of role the Met should be begging her to sing: the water nymph Rusalka in Dvořák’s Romantic fairy tale, in which she’d triumphed already at Glyndebourne and in Chicago.

Ana made her Met debut as Micaëla in Carmen in 2005. I was in France and had to miss it. She went on to triumph in Paris, London, Santa Fe, Vienna, Munich, Dresden, Berlin, and Madrid (among others!). Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington became like second homes for her, and Houston really is her home. Meanwhile, New York had to wait. Opera lovers subsisted on recordings, video clips, her rave reviews, and the ecstatic word of mouth from friends who’d been able to hear her almost everywhere except New York.

At last, ten years after her debut, the Met asked her back, this time as Musetta, the seconda donna in La Bohème. The choice of role was curious, since she’s sung Mimì to acclaim all over the world. On the plus side, all her experience means that she’s worked with many Musettas, so she must have some idea of what does and doesn’t work — a head start, even before she rehearsed. To her performances last December, she brought wit, sex appeal, and plush tone.

Welcome back! Ana as Musetta at the Met.

I’ve come to expect the unexpected from her — the penetrating insight that changes my own perceptions — and yet I was almost startled by a seemingly insignificant moment in Act IV, when she brings a muff to warm Mimì’s hands. Mimì asks who’s speaking, and she answers, “Io, Musetta.” Listening to the tender warmth that Ana lavished on those words, I realized that I was hearing Musetta’s true character. This is who Musetta really is. She’s letting down her guard for once. She’s not putting on a show (as she surely is in her aria “Quando m’en vo”). She’s not playing with anybody’s feelings. She just wants to help her friend.

Please note that Ana accomplished this on the words “I, Musetta” — just as Shakespeare would have wanted her to do, in any of his “I am” speeches.

Running backstage after the performance, I greeted Ana with a happy “You’re alive!” — after all, she’s died in every other Bohème she’s ever sung. I had missed Ana: her performances, her winning smile, her kindness and wit. And when we spoke of the upcoming Rusalka in Houston, she added, “I hope you can see it. It’s something really special.” Now, Ana isn’t the sort of soprano to command her admirers to attend her performances, and she wouldn’t say something was special if it weren’t.

So off to Houston I went.

It was at Houston Grand Opera that I first heard Ana — as Mimì (here with Garrett Sorenson and Joshua Hopkins).

Unlike Musetta in Bohème, the title role of Dvořák’s Rusalka vividly displayed a full range of what New York has been missing out on — not least because for most of Act II, she’s mute and must pantomime first her yearning for her Prince (tenor Brian Jagde), then her desperation when he turns to the Foreign Princess (soprano Maida Hundeling). Ana is so complete a performer (a Gesamtkünstlerin, if you will) that, without singing a note, she held the audience’s attention and sympathy at every moment. (I attended the January 31 matinée.)

The extraordinary grace Ana showed in Act I, “swimming” onstage, hoisted aloft, flipping an enormous mermaid tail (even during her Song to the Moon), now turned into the tentative footsteps of a woman who has never walked before and is honestly afraid that she’ll hurt herself if she tries. (We recall that Andersen’s Mermaid feels pain as if she’s walking on broken glass.) Through her physicality, Ana created a poignant awkwardness that reminded me of the effects Gilda Radner so often achieved (to very different ends). You wanted to hug her, to tell her everything would be all right.

But of course it wouldn’t. Not for Rusalka. As Bugs Bunny says, “What did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”

Director Melly Still and designer Rae Smith rightly emphasize the darkness of this opera, and Ana revealed all the darker colors of her voice, so that her high notes came to seem like the moon itself shimmering on the surface of deep water. She drew on enormous reserves of power for the marathon Act III, and yet she still had energy for a talkback session with the audience after the show.

Jill Grove as the witch Jezˇibaba (at once comic and terrifying) and Richard Paul Fink as Rusalka’s father, Vodnik (stentorian and tender in an awful costume), were spectacularly good, and conductor Harry Bicket, whose work I had known exclusively from 18th-century music, made a strong case for his abilities in 19th-century repertoire, even while maintaining an almost Mozartean clarity in the lush Romantic orchestration. Donna Stirrup directed this revival of Still’s production.

Like a sophomore attending the senior prom: she’s so sweet and pretty, but you know this isn’t going to turn out well.
Ana as Rusalka, Act II.
(Photo from the Glyndebourne performances.)

Leaving Houston, I congratulated myself. I’d given myself a booster shot of Ana’s magic, enough to hold me until another season rolled around. Little did I know — little did anyone know — that she’d be back in New York within weeks. Called on to replace Hei-kyung Hong in the title role of Madame Butterfly at the Met, Ana flew to New York from Los Angeles, where she was rehearsing the same opera in a different production. I’m not certain of the exact logistics, but there were a couple of back-and-forth trips before she completed the last of four performances — of which I attended two.

This is Ana María Martínez’s repertory, folks. Yes, I’m sure she was a lovely Micaëla, and her Musetta was inarguably wonderful, but dramatic leads are her natural habitat, where she can explore a character’s psychology and exploit the expressive range of her voice.

Butterfly is often portrayed as naïve in the extreme, but Ana understands that the heroine of Puccini’s opera has led a life of hardship before she makes her entrance in Act I. She’s seen plenty, and as she suggests when describing her career as a dancer, a lot of it was ugly and unfair. Thus Ana’s Butterfly isn’t naïve — and in fact she’s extraordinarily intelligent. She realizes that Pinkerton may not be completely honest with her, but she chooses to believe him. She knows how to be tough when she needs to be, as she demonstrates in Act II, dispatching Goro and Yamadori. When she kills herself, it’s not because she’s heartbroken or trying to hurt Pinkerton or upholding a code of honor — but because she believes it’s her son’s only chance for happiness. If Butterfly doesn’t kill herself, she’s in for a terrible time. Rejected by her family and most of Japanese society, she’d easily wind up not a geisha but a prostitute or a beggar. And her son would know that, and be tormented. So through her death, she frees him.

This is what Ana brings to the stage, even in a role you think you know backward and forward. Astonishing. Every word of text conveyed meaning, and Ana’s voice exulted throughout the vast Met, soaring over the orchestra, spinning out high pianissimi, making you listen, no matter how familiar the music may be. This was my first viewing of Anthony Minghella’s celebrated production, and on the whole I admired it — not least because it gave Ana room to do what she does so well. Critics and audiences agreed with me: she received rave reviews and thundering ovations.

Butterfly at the Met: Ana with the indispensable Maria Zifchak as Suzuki.

Having knocked out New York, Ana went back to Los Angeles for the run of the Butterfly production there — almost as if nothing unusual had happened. The Met went on about its business, too, and Ana isn’t on the roster for next season, not even in the new production of Rusalka. Who knows how long New York will have to wait to hear her again?

As for me, I’ve certainly made up for many of the performances I’d missed. And yet … she’s singing Elisabetta in one of my favorite operas, Verdi’s Don Carlo, in San Francisco in June. Ordinarily, I consider Eboli the more interesting woman onstage in that opera. But then again, I’ve never heard Ana’s Elisabetta. In fact, nobody has — this will be a role debut.

Can I justify the expense of flying out there? Can I justify missing out?

Backstage after Bohème.

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05 February 2016

A Little Mini-Festival in New York

Man in Motion: David T. Little.
Photo by Merri Cyr.

The past few weeks have brought me fresh opportunities to hear the work of composer David T. Little. First up was the New York premiere and my third hearing of his opera Dog Days, to a libretto by Royce Vavrek (from a short story by Judy Budnitz). My initial response to this piece was complex: the piece is so powerful, so compelling, and yet I needed a long time — years, actually — to sort out my thoughts.

Dog Days is a tough, uncompromising work that becomes even more so in its final sequence. Just when you think you can’t take any more, David and Royce throw more at you — and then more, and more. The staging (by Robert Woodruff), the plot, and the music almost insist that you turn away, cover your ears, flee. And yet there’s a fundamental message of hope. No matter where Lisa is going, no matter what happens to her, she will be what she has been: a bastion of humanity in a savage world. The one who keeps trying, no matter the odds, to connect with others.

Seeing the piece first in its premiere production in Montclair, NJ; again in Fort Worth in 2015; and again last month in New York (always with the same, brilliant cast), that message resonated more and more powerfully, and I am ever more convinced that David’s music conveys that message just about flawlessly. Because I am who I am, I gravitate to some of the more lyrical passages, notably the haunting lullaby that accompanies Lisa’s letter to her pen-pal at the end of Act I; and the variations on the hymn-like grace pronounced by the family over its dwindling dinners. But because David is who he is, he weaves in a variety of compositional styles, dissonant or lyrical by turns, including a Broadway-ready duet for Lisa’s horny teenage brothers; and elements of hard and electronic rock pretty far from what I ordinarily listen to.

The brothers (played by Michael Marcotte and Peter Tansits) reveal a great deal about the way characters are portrayed. Surely the boys are, by necessity, a good deal younger than the grown men who portray them: the younger boy hasn’t really hit puberty yet. This lends a twist, no matter what your eyes are telling you, to the scene in which the Captain (Cherry Duke) tries to persuade the Father (James Bobick) to let her enlist the boys in the army. It’s not only that the Father tries, throughout the opera, to assert himself as provider and protector of the family — it’s that the boys are too young to be soldiers.

At each performance, I admired the restrained, weary-seeming, thoroughly lovely performance of soprano Marnie Breckinridge as the Mother; and the ingenious portrayal of Prince, the dog–man, by actor John Kelly. Each character is trapped, in a way, acting out a role because neither knows what else to do.

Worsham, in the world premiere.

Above all, Dog Days has benefitted from the fearlessly acted, limpidly sung performances of soprano Lauren Worsham. What Callas was to Tosca, Worsham is to Lisa, and as a diva-lover, I can predict that one factor in this opera’s future life will be the desire of other sopranos to sink their teeth into this role. Never in any performance medium have I seen anything to rival the extended scena in which Worsham, as Lisa, contemplates her body, wasted by starvation, in a mirror. (Woodruff and his tech crew have installed a camera in the mirror’s frame, so that Worsham’s “reflection” is projected on a giant screen over the stage.) Dressed only in underwear, her nose running (at least in Montclair), her eyes watering, Worsham’s Lisa grows ecstatic, believing that at last she’s attained the kind of body she’s admired in advertising and fashion magazines. It’s total theater: a marriage of music, words, staging, and performance.

It’s no wonder that Dog Days put David, Royce, and their producer, the indispensable Beth Morrison, on the cultural map. Thanks to David Adam Moore’s advocacy of David’s Soldier Songs, I was already keeping an eye on the composer’s work — but Dog Days has turned my interest and appreciation into something like an obsession.

That’s one reason I was so pleased to attend last night’s concert, at Opera America’s National Opera Center. Under the aegis of New York Festival of Song, David hosted an evening of works by composers he knows and admires. This was an extraordinary opportunity to know a composer’s mind — what excites him? Where does he see himself in the contemporary landscape? Through hearing other music, I feel I understand David better. When he observed from the stage that, earlier in his career, he avoided the beautiful in music, I thought I knew what he meant: though I found passages of beauty in Soldier Songs, and vast quantities of the stuff (albeit unexpectedly) in Dog Days, I’ve heard a new maturity in his forthcoming opera, JFK, an outright embrace of beauty — of majesty — of mythology and mystery and timelessness.

The other selections on the program helped to put this development into context, with the result that I’m not only more eager for JFK’s premiere (at Fort Worth Opera, April 23), I’m also more eager to hear the work of David’s colleagues.

First on the program was Colin Read’s Fairy Tales and Letters, an aptly magical song cycle, to texts by Lisa Rosinsky, performed by the pure-voiced soprano Justine Aronson (who might make a terrific Lisa), and, on piano, NYFOS associate artistic director Michael Barrett. From the stage, David observed that, the first time he saw Read’s score, he was struck by its “patience,” and indeed the music takes its (very) sweet time to make its points, spinning out the moments. The cycle is recital-ready, and I look forward to hearing it again.

In the most intriguing segment of the program, Kate Soper presented two excerpts from Here Be Sirens, singing alongside sopranos Gelsey Bell and Brett Umlauf. The sense of play — singing into and strumming the soundboard (my brother and I used to do this, far less artfully), using rocks for percussion, blending harmonies, extending notes and lines as if in a relay race (two singers kept singing while the third breathed) — combined with a sense of danger, until I felt as if I’d watched the women play with very deadly knives. Not only in the sheer curiosity is there an element of drama: the three sirens were distinctly characterized and fully compelling. Soper is clearly a talent to watch — I feel about this work much the way I felt about Soldier Songs. (Yes, some music is like a gateway drug.)

Singer, composer, siren: Kate Soper.

Also singing his work, Ted Hearne experimented with the conventions of pop music in “Intimacy and Resistance” (text by Allison Carter) and “Protection” (text by Meaghan Deans). David also takes inspiration from a variety of popular-music styles, and Hearne’s singing was marvelous. As grownup pop, aesthetically challenging, frequently surprising, Hearne’s songs score their points, but it’s not my field, and I’ll have to hear more before I grasp what he’s really after. (I emphasize: the fault is mine, not his.)

The always-impressive mezzo Eve Gigliotti performed Jeff Myers’ “Requiem Aeternam” — a poignant lullaby in which sleep brings intimations of death — from his Pagtulog na Nene, accompanied by string quartet (Ayano Ninomiya and Danbi Um, violin; Leslie Tomkins, viola; Alice Yoo, cello). After opening with tiny, thin lines from the violins, the entrance of the cello proved extraordinarily eloquent. Gigliotti delivered the text (in a Philippine language) with rich vocal colors and a smile that suggested that sleep or death might be a welcome comfort and release.

Gigliotti returned for David’s contributions to the program, two numbers from JFK: Jackie’s aria, “Caught in Shutterspeed” and her Moon Duet with Jack, sung by baritone Matthew Worth (who will sing this role, opposite Daniela Mack’s Jackie, at the world premiere). Full disclosure: I worked on JFK in its early stages, collecting research and interviews (which David and Royce didn’t need), and I’ve attended readings of the libretto and the score (minus a scene or two). This background doesn’t make me any more or less biased in the opera’s favor, though it does let me know in advance that the characterization of Jackie is going to be remembered as one of the signal achievements of opera in the 21st century, and a key to JFK’s future.

Always a treat to hear her: Gigliotti.

Indeed, it’s going to be a great pity if Gigliotti doesn’t wind up playing Jackie at some point. A born actress, she dug deeply into the character, and in her aria, eyes (including her own and mine) welled with tears. The Act I closer, “Shutterspeed” finds Jackie watching the sleeping Jack and rededicating herself to their marriage — on the night before his death.

The Moon Duet depicts Jack and Jackie’s courtship, compressing several encounters into one, from “Don’t I know you?” to “You love me,” and it offers us glimpses of two young people before history caught hold of them. Jack’s charm, Jackie’s shyness (and sly intelligence), the irresistible force of their union: it’s all here, and it, too, is poignant, because we know what comes after.

To judge by the reaction in New York last night, audiences in Fort Worth will need Sham-wows, not handkerchiefs, to wipe their tears. Maybe mops. This opera is going to be tremendous, and Worth is ready: uncannily, he looked more like Kennedy the more he sang. And this Little mini-festival has further whetted my interest, not only in JFK, but also in everything yet to come.

Little and Vavrek, Together Again.
For this fan, it’s like getting to follow Mozart and da Ponte wherever they go.

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29 January 2016

David Gilmour, 69, Reported in ‘Extremely Cautious’ Condition

“He won’t even go near the guitar anymore,” say family members. “‘Do you realize how easily I could electrocute myself?,’ he says.”

LONDON -- David Gilmour, 69-year-old guitarist and co-lead vocalist of the band Pink Floyd, is reported in “extremely cautious” condition at his home outside London, following a series of accidents that befell other people.

“Look, David remains an influential musician, a rock icon, and he’s 69 years old,” a friend told the Associated Press. “He sees the headlines. He knows what’s happening. Bowie, Alan Rickman, both 69. Glen Frey, almost 69. Paul Kantner and Natalie Cole — even Robert Stigwood and Pierre Boulez. Not 69, but also extremely influential. Céline Dion’s brother. It’s crazy. I mean, the odds are good that David is next.”

Gilmour has taken up a regimen that includes wearing a heavily padded jumpsuit and a bubble-wrap helmet, crawling very slowly on all fours on the rare occasions he leaves his bed, staying away from windows, and mashing up all his food for two daily feedings. “He’s ordered one of those plastic bubbles, like John Travolta had,” Gilmour’s wife, Polly Samson, told reporters. “Honestly, it can’t get here soon enough for me.

“Oh, dear God,” Samson added, “it’s almost Travolta’s turn, isn’t it?”

In happier, much less risky times.

Gilmour joined Pink Floyd in 1967; exponents of progressive and psychedelic rock, the band is perhaps best known for Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and The Wall, two of the best-selling albums of all time. Gilmour has also pursued solo projects, and in 2008, he received the Ivor Novello Contribution Award for music writing, which he now refuses to touch, for fear of cutting himself.

In other news, family members report that veteran actress Betty White, 93, has locked herself in her room. “She won’t come out,” says one friend. “She won’t eat anything — says we’re all trying to poison her. If we even try to open the door, she starts firing a pistol. And she keeps shouting, ‘They got Abe Vigoda, but they’ll never get me!’ We’re at our wits’ end.”

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27 January 2016

‘From Broadway to Hollywood’ at the Grove B&N

I’m pleased to announce the first event in Los Angeles (or anywhere else on the West Coast) in connection with Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life: “From Broadway to Hollywood,” a panel discussion on Madeline’s life and work featuring friends and colleagues, moderated by author Eddie Shapiro (Nothing Like a Dame: Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater). We’ll be at the Barnes & Noble at the Grove on Wednesday, February 10, at 7pm.

Confirmed participants include:

Robert Allan Ackerman, who directed Madeline in a musical adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika and in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit at Santa Fe Festival Theater in 1982–83.

Maris Clement, a member of the ensemble of On the Twentieth Century, the 1978 Broadway musical that nearly wrecked Madeline’s career (yet earned her a Tony nomination).

Julie Dretzin, a co-star of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, for which Madeline received the Tony for Best Actress in a Play in 1993;

Michael Karm, a co-star of the Broadway musical Two by Two, and also Madeline’s acting coach for her first film roles, including her Oscar-nominated turn in Paper Moon;

J.D. Lobue, director of every episode of the sitcom Oh Madeline, her first foray into series television.

Each of our participants (and, for that matter, Eddie’s interview with Judy Kaye in Nothing Like a Dame) helped me tremendously while I researched the book. They shared memories, filled in blanks, and generally helped me to understand not only what Madeline did, but also why she did it. I began to see Madeline more clearly as a working actor, and also as a person.

Beyond that — they’re all really nice people. So if you’re in the L.A. area — come on by. Admission is free, and there will be a book signing afterward.

To be determined: whether I,
like Madeline in California,
will be obliged to drive a car.

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19 January 2016

Talking about Madeline at the 92nd Street Y

Our host, Valerie Smaldone.


On Tuesday, April 5, at 7pm, I’ll be at New York City’s 92nd Street Y to join interviewer extraordinaire Valerie Smaldone and three sensational actresses to discuss the life and work of Madeline Kahn. Valerie also acts, and I can hardly think of four women I’d rather talk with about the career of an actress — I expect I’ll learn a lot.

Like Madeline, Barbara Barrie was an Oscar and Tony nominee with a lifetime’s worth of credits when she signed on to co-star in Eric Mendelsohn’s Judy Berlin. Working with a young director on his first feature film, in no-frills conditions proved challenging to both actresses. Shooting at night in the cold November weather, Barbara nearly froze: she remembers still shivering even when she got home in the mornings. Her performance went on to earn her an Independent Spirit Award nomination.

Barbara Barrie.

Barbara’s son Aaron plays Madeline’s son in the film — and there’s another family tie, of which I was unaware when I interviewed her for my book: Barbara’s husband, the late Jay Harnick, produced three stage musicals in which Paula Kahn appeared (or claimed to).

Maddie Corman played Madeline’s niece — and George C. Scott’s daughter — in the Fox sitcom Mr. President in 1987–88. As a teenager working with seasoned veterans, she was all eyes and ears on the set, observing and absorbing everything around her. One happy result of her experience: she does a flawless impression of Madeline.

Maddie Corman.

Madeline hadn’t worked with a child actress since Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, and the working relationship she and Maddie set the tone for later relationships with younger colleagues. Madeline never condescended but approached Maddie as a peer, praising her when she did well, even asking, “How did you do that?” when she admired a particular scene.

Like Maddie, Ally Sheedy was a Madeline Kahn fan even before they worked together, and both began acting when they very young. Ally met Madeline when they co-starred in Alan Alda’s Betsy’s Wedding, and they bonded when bad weather prolonged location shooting in North Carolina. They spent hours talking and taking long walks. The all-star cast of Betsy’s Wedding had opinions on how to do everything, which complicated Alda’s attempts to realize his artistic vision — and probably tried his patience, too.

Ally Sheedy.

The movie marked a reunion for Madeline with Julie Bovasso, who (until she was fired, days before opening) directed her in David Rabe’s Boom Boom Room, for which she received her first Tony nomination. Bovasso was an acclaimed acting teacher, and when Madeline decided to take classes with her, Ally went along — affording her an opportunity to contrast Bovasso’s “huge, volcanic” acting style with Madeline’s more intimate approach.

After the panel discussion, I’ll be signing copies of Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life, and proceeds from book sales will benefit Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. For more information and to order tickets, click here.

Madeline as Trixie Delight, the film role of which she was proudest —
until she played Alice Gold in Judy Berlin.

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10 December 2015

A Brand-New Rossini Opera at the Met

Rossini’s La Donna del Lago returns to the Metropolitan Opera Friday night. Joyce DiDonato once again stars in Paul Curran’s production, which had its premiere at Santa Fe in 2013 before moving to the Met (with a different backdrop) last February. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, Joyce’s “Giacomo, disguised as Uberto” from Santa Fe, rejoins her in the same role. We are guaranteed an evening of spectacular singing and glorious music that, as Joyce has observed in an interview, respects the story’s “emotional truth.”

However, after multiple viewings of this opera, it’s not the emotions but the underlying story that I find less compelling than I did, say, the first time around. At last, I have decided to heed the advice of Rossini’s biggest fan, Stendhal: I shall pretend that I speak no Italian, and I shall invent my own plot for this opera.

Stendhal: Don’t say he didn’t warn us.

La DiDonato del Lago, ossia
Great Scozia


Act I, Scene 1: The scene opens on Loch Kansas, where a chorus of townsfolk greets a new day that will bring the most exciting football game of the year. Ardena Scozia, a glamorous opera star, returns to her hometown by means of a boat that is conveniently left offstage. She sings of her love for Malcolm, her long-ago boyfriend, who is currently the general director of the Loch Kansas Opera Company. Unbeknownst to Ardena, this evening’s football game will pit the local team, the Pittsburgh Picts, against their deadly rivals, the Glasgow Grizzlies. The quarterback of the Grizzlies, Giacomo, has disguised himself as “Uberto,” an itinerant salsa dancer, in hopes of meeting the beautiful singer. She invites him back to her home for a cup of heather.

Act I, Scene 2: Giacomo is shocked to learn that Ardena’s father is Duglas, the former coach of the Glasgow Grizzlies, who is now coaching the Picts. He also learns of Ardena’s betrothal to Rodrigo, the Picts quarterback. Unbeknownst to any of them, Ardena is still in love with Malcolm, despite the fact that he is transitioning to contralto repertory. After Duglas has left, Malcolm invites Ardena to the football game.

Act I, Scene 3: Picts fans prepare for the football game by applying body paint in the team colors, blue and more blue. Ardena supervises. Malcolm declares his support for the team, but unfortunately it’s the wrong one (Aria: “Go, Go, Grizzlies!”), and Ardena’s friends mistrust him. The stadium lights are turned on, signaling that the game is about to begin.

Pep rally.

Act II, Scene 1: Still disguised as “Uberto,” Giacomo searches desperately for Ardena, because only she has the coin needed for the toss that will begin the football game. Once again he declares his love for her, but she tells him she could never love any man who doesn’t wear a skirt. He then gives her a ring, which he claims he won for playing at a Super Bowl, many years ago. Rodrigo has overheard their conversation and recognizes Giacomo’s true identity. Rodrigo commands his teammates to sack Giacomo, but Ardena, who is also the referee, calls a time out.

Act II, Scene 2: The game is incredibly violent, and in its aftermath Ardena is dismayed to see that the heads of losing players have been placed on pikes all over the field. She vows to find the NFL Commissioner, to complain.

Act II, Scene 3: Ardena is surprised to find all of the NFL Commissioners surrounding “Uberto,” who soon reveals his true identity. He tells Duglas and Malcolm that Bertram, the top draft pick, will be the Picts’ new quarterback, replacing Rodrigo, who has been sidelined for the rest of the season due to a severe head injury (on a pike). Malcolm admits that she’s a woman, and on hearing this news, Ardena joyously flings herself (Highland style, of course) into a live volcano. All rejoice, as a new peace reigns in Kansas.


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