27 April 2010

When Texans Make Opera

Handel’s Xerxes and Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls don’t have much in common: one had its premiere 272 years ago, the other hasn’t had its premiere yet. The composers — German-English and Cuban-American, respectively — approach questions of love and tyranny from completely different angles, and you can bet their scores don’t sound much alike, either. But both operas will be performed in coming weeks in the state of Texas, thanks to the hard work of Texans.

That’s personally significant to me, as I approach the 35th anniversary of my birth as an opera fan. Growing up in suburban Dallas, I often felt that opera isolated me from other Texans. Sometimes, that was a good thing — I was a snob. But other times, loving opera seemed a lonely occupation. How wonderful to realize, all these years later, that friends of mine who are Texans, too, share my love of that music, and have made it even more a part of their lives than I have made it part of mine.

Nice pants: Susan Graham as Handel’s Ariodante
A scene from San Francisco Opera
Photograph by Terrence McCarthy

Susan Graham and Darren Keith Woods are close to me in age and background: Susan grew up in Midland, Darren in Luling; their dads worked in the oil business, and my dad, an engineer, sometimes worked on the fringes of that business, too. Like me, young Susan used to listen to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoon, and dream of faraway music, but Darren, to a sometimes comical degree, didn't know much about opera until after he'd begun singing professionally.

Both Susan and Darren started singing in choir when they were young, and years later, they became friends at Santa Fe Opera — long before I knew them, they were collaborating onstage, and performing water ballets in their spare time. (This is legendary, but it's true; I've seen the video.) Though Darren has quit singing, at least for now, in order to be the general and artistic director of Fort Worth Opera, he is what Susan is: a passionate professional, the best in the business. That's why I know that Susan's portrayal of King Xerxes (at Houston Grand Opera, beginning April 30) and Darren's production of Before Night Falls (at Fort Worth's Bass Hall, May 29 and June 6 matinee) will be extraordinary events.

On occasion, HGO permits Susan to wear a dress.
Here she is in The Merry Widow.
Photograph shamelessly ripped off of Susan’s website.

In Xerxes, Susan makes her entrance with one of the most famous arias Handel ever wrote. In its instrumental incarnation as the “Largo,” it is, the Stage Manager informs us in Our Town, one of the few pieces that everybody in Grover's Corners knows; with lyrics, “Ombra mai fu” is a love song to a tree. This isn't silly at all, and in the present case, it's incredibly exciting. As I've noted before, when Susan sings, you sense not merely the atmosphere but the fragrance of the music. Simply stated, there is nobody better suited than Susan Graham to sing love songs to any form of plant life. She makes me wish I were a tree.

She's such a brilliantly communicative artist that (as I've also noted here) I keep looking for extra-musical connections between us, and explanations for the directness with which her voice grabs me. The truth is, she has this effect on everybody. Including you.

It’s also important to note once again that she looks good in pants.

Houstonian Handelians: Susan as Ariodante,
with soprano Alexandra Coku as Ginevra.
Photograph shamelessly ripped off of Susan’s website.

She's performed Handel (in pants) in Houston before, the title role in Ariodante, in which she sang the long, difficult aria “Scherza infida” on her back while sliding down a domed structure. I made the trip to Houston expressly to hear this, in 2002, though I little expected that bit of staging; not for the first time, she made time stand still for me. For Xerxes, her co-stars are countertenor David Daniels and soprano Laura Claycomb, from Dallas, who's rightly a darling of HGO audiences. I heard these two in Handel's Giulio Cesare in Houston in 2003; you can expect superlative performances from them, too. (The role of Arsamenes in Xerxes is in fact the first thing I heard David Daniels sing, at New York City Opera years ago; I became a fan on the spot.)

Darren Keith Woods
Photograph by Ellen Appel

Darren's delight in making opera happen is contagious, and from what I've seen, he's never more delighted (or delightful) than when he's making a new opera happen. I've actually witnessed the process, when we attended the final dress rehearsal of the world premiere of Eötvös' Angels in America, here in Paris: Darren was practically vibrating, levitating, radiating. He was also muttering, “I can do this. And I can do it better.”

I thought he was out of his mind: a contemporary opera about AIDS in conservative Fort Worth? My response to him was one that I can't repeat in an essay that my mother will read. But darned if he didn't make good. The regional premiere of Angels in America found an enthusiastic audience and provided thrilling music-theater — infinitely better than the Paris original. That production has become the gold standard for this piece: just a few weeks ago, most of Darren's cast performed the British premiere, under the guidance of David Gately, who directed Darren’s production.

Native Texans Ava Pine (the Angel) and David Adam Moore (Pryor)
repeated their Fort Worth successes in London.
Ava returns to Fort Worth this season
to sing Adina in Elixir of Love.
Photograph by Ellen Appel

Darren has been involved with Before Night Falls since its inception; he brought together the creative team for a workshop production at the Seagle Music Colony in upstate New York. This is crucial, because there's so little room for trial-and-error with a new work; most new scores would profit from a test flight before an audience, prior to the pressures of a world premiere. With David Gately directing and Joe Illick conducting, composer Jorge Martín could learn what worked and what didn't, and make adjustments accordingly, long before the critics came.

Tenor Jonathan Blalock (Lázaro) and baritone Wes Mason (Reinaldo) in the Seagle workshop production of Before Night Falls.
Photograph by Ellen Appel

Before Night Falls has been Darren's principal topic of conversation for two years now, at least. Twenty-three-year-old baritone Wes Mason will portray the opera's protagonist, the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, and the buzz about this kid is almost deafening already. Much of that buzz comes from Darren himself. He's passionate about developing young artists, and he literally can't contain himself when he's heard a fresh talent.

And that's as it should be. I don't want to attend an opera that's presided over by anybody who's indifferent. If I were a musician, I wouldn't want to perform for anybody who didn't believe in me. (Though I might do it, for the paycheck. But you know what? The audience would hear the difference.)

Composer Jorge Martín at Seagle Music Colony
Photograph by Ellen Appel

It's doubtful that I'll be able to attend either Susan’s Xerxes or Darren’s Fort Worth Opera Festival (which includes not only Before Night Falls but also The Elixir of Love and Don Giovanni). If you go, I hope you'll let me know.

And during the intermission, I hope you'll take a moment to reflect on the lesson that Susan and Darren have taught me: opera connects us to other people. And yes, to other Texans, too.

Making beautiful music together: Darren with soprano Janice Hall.
Janice portrays the Mother and the Sea in Before Night Falls.
Only two roles? A walk in the park for Janice,
who took on four in Angels, in Fort Worth and London.
Next, I expect her to portray the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

Before Night Falls (Martín)
May 29, June 6 (matinee)
Don Giovanni (Mozart)
May 22, 30 (matinee), June 4
The Elixir of Love (Donizetti)
May 23 (matinee), 28, June 5

Xerxes (Handel)
April 30, May 2 (matinee), 8, 12, 14
The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)
April 16, 18 (matinee), 24, 28, May 1
(I don’t know anybody in this one, but I’m sure it will be very nice, just the same.)

...And lest I forget
Moby-Dick (World premiere by the very cool Jake Heggie)
April 30, May 2 (matinee), 5, 8, 13, 16 (matinee)
(Thanks, Laura!)


Janice Hall said...

Hi Bill, I loved this article! So sorry you won't be able to attend "Before Night Falls", but we'll do our best to make you proud. (The Vienna Boy's Choir??? Now, THAT'S a challenge!)
Best wishes, Janice

William V. Madison said...

You've made me proud already! And honestly, there's nobody I'd rather hear in the role of the Vienna Boys' Choir.

Susan said...

Thanks for this lovely essay my dear. It's always an honor to sing for you, and to you. Directly to you, even if there are 2000 others around you. :-)
So wish you could come to Texas in May!!
love, susan

Laura said...

A friend on facebook passed on this article. What a beautiful tribute to two wonderful artists, and the state of opera-making in Texas. You forgot to mention Dallas Opera's Moby Dick, though! We hope to do justice to Xerxes - - off to dress rehearsal!
Laura Claycomb

William V. Madison said...

Dear Laura Claycomb -- You’re right, I should have mentioned Moby-Dick. My only excuse (besides my incompetence) is that Jake Heggie, for all his excellent qualities, is not a native Texan. But the piece is a tremendous achievement for him and for Dallas.

Please know that I’m cheering for you — and Susan, and all the company — as you make Handel’s music soar.

Anonymous said...

I feel very proud to have Darren as our FW Opera leader. What more can I say...I keep hearing great things about him every where. We love the guy.Thanks for the wonderful essay!

I am an Opera Lover for 20 years and still going at it, and still learning.

Marcela Berg

mikael melbye said...

I can only verify what has been said above. I love all three of these wonderful performers as friends and colleagues. I would love to see the video of that water ballet though!!! :o)
Have a great summer y'all!!
Mikael Melbye

Allan Pearson said...

Susan Graham was born in Roswell, NM and is therefore NOT A TEXAN. Please check it out and correct.

William V. Madison said...

Dear Mr. Pearson -- Yes, Susan was born Roswell, but she grew up in Midland, Texas, and attended Texas Tech in Lubbock. I daresay we'd have adopted her, even if she were born in Boston, but in any case she wears her dual nationality with grace and pride. No correction is needed, but I thank you for your watchfulness!

allan.pearson said...

Susan Graham's official website "www.susangraham.com" clearly states that she was born in New Mexico, and she was an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera, which gave her her start. She also currently owns a home here as well. Thank you for posting the facts.
Jake Heggie, as you state, is not a "native Texan," and neither is Susan Graham.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks again, Mr. Pearson. I have never in my life described Susan as a native Texan; even my mother has never done such a thing, though I'm sure she's felt the temptation most keenly.

Beyond this is a matter of public record: I've frequently written, here and elsewhere, about Susan's origins in and subsequent connections to New Mexico. Less well-known is the Toy Story alien necktie I wore (in tribute to Roswell) at several of our earliest meetings.

That Susan herself has no significant objection to the ways I do describe her can be deduced from the comment she left on this very page.

Perhaps you and I both should be defending Susan from those sneaky French, who have named her a full Commander of Arts and Letters in a blatant attempt to claim her as their own.