REVIEW: Here Be Sirens

Before tonight, I had never been to an opera. The idea of attending one has always felt like a faraway dream; so alien to me is the concept of high society, or even adulthood, that I could never really picture myself amongst Opera-Goers. Not sure how to dress, I assumed a hyper-formal ensemble: a blazer and starched white blouse, dress slacks and sensible kitten heels I’d bought for a funeral last year.

I was shocked to find that the Kerrytown Concert House is an actual house. The place wasn’t the cathedral-like, built-in-the-1800s monster of a building with an elaborately painted ceiling that I was for some reason expecting. I’ve probably seen Phantom of the Opera too many times to realize opera can be performed on a stage of any size. The room was shining though, with a beautiful Steinway front and center and a smooth hardwood floors. Though I was definitely the youngest attendee, I felt at home in the audience, if a bit overdressed for the occasion. Again, I have not so much as dipped a toe into the opera world, so I had no idea what to expect.

This opera was not at all what I expected.

Much of the tone was humorous, even whimsically off-beat. While singing, melodic and haunting in its trio harmony, comprised much of the performance, there was far more dialouge than I had thought there would be. This is refreshing; many musicals I’ve been in and attended have been overpowered by song, which despite its vocal quality is typically incomprehensible. The speaking sections add the dimension sirens are denied in literature.

Kate Soper (writer of the opera as well as the actress playing Polyxo) relates her characters to links in an evoluntionary lineage. Polyxo needs escape, from the literal island but also the prison of the stereotypes of her kind; Peitho is younger and more naive, full of love for sailors that pass her way, but beginning to question how she’s viewed; Phiano is the cavewoman of the group, incapable of thinking beyond the island and what she’s been made out to be. Led by Polyxo, the opera investigates what it means to be so severely misunderstood that those around you begin to internalize the message they hear repeated over and over.

This idea does not end with Greek mythology. Its meaning extends out through the larger world: just as the sirens have been framed in a negative light, so do we draw caricatures based on gender, race, religion, sexual orientation. And those whose faces are drawn with exaggerated features might begin to think like Polyxo, or maybe Peitho, and some, sadly, like Phiano.

If you are interested in upcoming performances at the Kerrytown Concert House, check out their website

PREVIEW: Here Be Sirens

Were you the weird kid in middle school who was obsessed with Greek mythology? Can’t believe that anyone hasn’t seen the Percy Jackson movies? Love listening to people scream-singing while wearing large wigs and formal clothing?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you’ll just love Here Be Sirens, an opera telling the tale of the lives of a trio of sirens. Oftentimes, these creatures are made out to be one-dimensional monsters, evilness being their only characteristic. Composer, performer, and playwright Kate Soper approaches her main characters with a more open mind, giving them internal desires and dreams that conflict with the caricature that outsiders typically see.

Come on down to the Kerrytown Concert House this Thursday, November 29 at 8 PM to experience Soper’s masterpiece. Tickets are absolutely FREE with your passport to the arts ticket, or $10-35 if you are PTTA-less.

REVIEW: Rossini’s William Tell

Photo credits: Teatre Reggio Turin Orchestra
Photo credits: Teatre Reggio Turin Orchestra

For four hours on Tuesday night, I was not an undergraduate student driven by pre-exam stress in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Teatro Regio Torino Orchestra and Chorus, coupled with phenomenal acoustics at Hill Auditorium, made me feel like I was in an opera house in Italy. It was one of the most memorable concert experience I have ever had.

Teatro Regio Torino Orchestra and Chorus hail from Turin, Italy, under the baton of Maestro Gianandrea Noseda. First led by Maestro Arturo Toscanini at the end of 19th century, they are one of the most historical and prestigious opera companies in the world. I was very excited when I found out that the entire opera company was travelling overseas to give a performance in Ann Arbor. (Fun fact: Teatro Regio Torino’s first-ever North America Tour included only 4 cities: Chicago, Toronto, Carnegie Hall in New York, and Ann Arbor.)

This was my first time seeing an opera performed unstaged, in concert setting. While it was sometimes difficult to follow the plot because they did not act or wear any costumes, I liked watching an opera this way because I got to observe everyone involved in the performance — orchestra, chorus, and soloists — react to each other’s music-making. The soloists were truly amazing, too. Special shoutout goes to Ms. Angela Meade, who played the role of Matilde. She has a resonant voice that fills up the large auditorium, expressivity that truly shows, and ability to do some crazy virtuosic passages with no difficulty at all. To all performers, “wow” is all I can say.

It was really unfortunate that the performance was on a Tuesday night during the last days of classes. I couldn’t help but notice many seats in the auditorium empty, while they totally deserved a full house. I hope they come back to Ann Arbor again with some other amazing operatic repertoires!

REVIEW: Dead Man Walking

If you ask me, “Did you enjoy the performance of Dead Man Walking?” I’m not sure if I can say yes. “Enjoy” would probably not be the right word. However, it was a performance that I truly appreciated and would never forget.

The storyline of Dead Man Walking, an opera by Jake Heggie, is based on a book and a true story from Sister Helen Prejean. Sister Helen served as a spiritual counselor to a death row inmate, Joseph De Rocher, who is convicted for raping and killing a high school girl.

To me, the staging of this performance made the story feel very real. Granted, I have never been involved in any situations where death penalty was involved. However, the cast and the musicians in pit orchestra portrayed the intricate feelings surrounding deaths, which made me — and many, many others in the audience — cry, if not sob. It made me examine the effects that murders and death sentence have on the families, supporters, and the convicts themselves, and it served as a conversation-starter for such topics with my friends in the following few days.

All of the singers expressed their characters very well, but one cast that has done an exceptional job was Ms. Lani Stait, who played the role of Mrs. De Rocher, or Joseph’s mother. This role was a difficult one to play – from receiving demeaning comments from the victims’ families to dealing with the dilemma of knowing how kind her son actually is compared to the terrible crime he has committed, this character is loaded with emotions that are difficult to act out, especially for a college-aged singer. She truly became the character, and sang her heart out. Her strength and struggles truly hit my heart.

I did not “enjoy” the performance in terms of having fun — that wasn’t the point of this opera. Instead, I left the theater thinking more about criminal justice, religion, and family — all of which I need to think about, although I don’t get to on a daily basis. It was not an easy opera to watch. This performance combined well-written music and libretto, extraordinary talent of all singers and instrumentalists, and effective lighting, to make the audience seriously reflect on themselves.

PREVIEW: Dead Man Walking

design courtesy Boston Opera Collabroative

If you want to go to the scariest, most powerful, and most thought-provoking event during this weekend, this is the one. Based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean, “Dead Man Walking” by Jake Heggie is one of the most performed contemporary operas today.

The story, as taken from the School of Music website, goes like this:

Dead Man Walking tells the true story of [Sister Helen Prejean’s] experience as a spiritual advisor to a convict on Louisiana’s death row. Through his appeals for pardon to the inevitable final execution, Sister Helen stands by Joe de Rocher despite her internal struggle to reconcile her faith in his humanity with the heinousness of his crimes. Her unpopular and controversial choice to attempt to save his soul leads to confrontations with those closely affected by his actions. A powerful tale of compassion and the effect of crime on the families of both the victim and perpetrator, Dead Man Walking is both inspirational and devastating.”

As the students in the School of Music, Theater, and Dance pour their heart into the production for countless hours, their performances will surely leave you with some intense feelings and food for thought. And what’s even better? This performance is on the Passport to the Arts, so you can actually get a free ticket!

Be advised that this opera contains violence and vulgarity.

When: Thursday, November 13, at 7:30pm*; Friday-Saturday, November 14-15, at 8pm; Sunday, November 16, at 2pm

Where: Power Center for the Performing Arts

Tickets: Students $10 with ID (or free using the Passport to the Arts); buy online or at Michigan League Ticket Office

* Sister Helen Prejean, the author of the original book, will be present to lead a discussion session after Thursday’s performance.

REVIEW: The Magic Flute

I’d like to take a moment to freak out about the brilliant lighting scheme of “The Magic Flute”. This opera is, I think, about finding a compromise between dark and light, between pure disorder and pure order, but doing so through the eyes of a child. This might not make any sense to you, but I thought that the lighting portrayed that beautifully. There was a particular circle that was useful in telling me the time of day and how I should feel about it by the color that was lighting it up.

Anyway, now for a quick summary:

“The Magic Flute” begins in the bedroom of a young girl. Her parents are fighting, it’s thunderstorming in the night, and her wardrobe doors are forced open by a young prince running away from a dragon. The Queen of the Night sends this Prince Tamino on a quest to save her daughter from her kidnapper, Sarastro (who didn’t actually kidnap her because Pamina is the daughter of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro). Pamina and Tamino fall in love while Tamino’s friend, Papageno, can’t learn to keep quiet, but in the end they manage to stop to the war between Sarastro (who appears to be a kind of lord of light) and the Queen of the Night.

That was very quick and will probably have Emanuel Schikaneder rolling in his grave, but I wanted to get that out of the way to talk about the cast. Jacob Wright and Jonathan Harris, who played Tamino and Sarastro, respectively, have outstanding voices that I remembered from “The Barber of Seville” last semester. Katy Clark’s soprano was thrilling as Queen of the Night, and Natasha Drake performed a beautiful Pamina. All of the leads were phenomenal, and I am amazed to think that there is another set of entirely different Michigan students who are equally as talented.

Although at times this show was a little slow and heavy, it was also fanciful and sentimental, and I especially enjoyed the ending. After all of their hardships, so many circumstances vying to tear them apart, Pamina and Tamino find a way to be together in the light of day, away from the chaotic Queen of the Night. As an audience we find ourselves again in the long-forgotten little girl’s bedroom where her parents are bringing her a tray for breakfast. Day has dawned over night just as it always will, but I do wish we could have seen the dragon again.