REVIEW: Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)

On Friday and Saturday night, Ann Arbor had the privilege of experiencing a radical new work, the culmination of a massive collaboration drawing on the talents of composer Bryce Dessner and vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, to theatrically mount the photography of the late and highly influential 20th century photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. “Mapplethorpe produced images that simultaneously challenged and adhered to classical aesthetic standards: stylized compositions of male and female nudes, delicate flower still lives, and studio portraits of artists and celebrities.” Using original music coming from 10 voices and a chamber orchestra, projected poetry from a wide array of sources, including librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle and Mapplethorpe’s contemporaries, fluid staging, and excellent lighting design, the performance was unapologetically arresting and provocative.

“Triptych (Eye of One on Another)” explores the incredibly complicated web of emotions, relationships, and politics surrounding Mapplethorpe’s time, as his career had begun to take off in conjunction with his AIDS diagnosis in 1986 at the young age of 23. In navigating such a complicated and weighty chapter of American history, there was no singular emotional direction a work of this scope could portray, and composer Bryce Dessner fluidly swept us from the awe-inspiring cathedral, to the cold and calculating courtroom, to the intimate bedroom with a score that surged with electricity, sparkling clarity, and biting poignancy. Juxtaposed against huge projections of Mapplethorpe’s arrestingly beautiful and often disturbing photography, Dessner created a space for us to take in this controversial work, almost as if installing a very slow moving sidewalk for us to stand on while pensively moving through an art museum.

A vocal ensemble that is “dedicated to reimagining the expressive potential of the human voice, Roomful of Teeth showcased their signature, vast timbral palette alongside singers Alicia Hall Moran and Isaiah Robinson. Over the course of the 70-minute performance, they transported us through time and space singing with the lightness of the baroque era, Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, folk singing, and other extended techniques including overtone singing. The chamber orchestra was made up largely of U-M SMTD students and alumni, who were able to pack a punch just as powerfully as they laid down immersive droning textures for the singers explore.

The experience was similar to a vivid slideshow, a shimmering tapestry of sounds, striking images, and jarring poetry. The text (and its translations, when applicable) was projected onto the stage and served as a sort of “set” for the singers to inhabit. Scrims and curtains flew in and above the stage, sometimes shrouding the instrumentalists and singers in obscurity, and other times exposing them with a rudeness or glorification befitting of the particular musical moment, even leaving the entire backstage area exposed at times. The lighting design could be equally abrasive and in-your-face, but the more abstract light cues (an extremely bright, descending horizontal line) moved with a solemnity and assuredness that reminded me of Philip Glass’ opera “Einstein on the Beach.”

I found that “Triptych” was a work that demanded the full attention of the audience. It put hard-edged words, music, and images front and center for all to see, without apology. Personally, I experienced an amount of discomfort in not knowing what striking or difficult image would emerge next. I longed for justice and love for people of color and people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, and I appreciated the opportunity to be immersed in this difficult but important narrative. Roomful of Teeth will continue to take “Triptych” all around the world in their upcoming season, encouraging us all to take a moment to stop and fix our eyes on one another.

Final bow.

PREVIEW: Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)

Roomful of Teeth

On March 15th and 16th, UMS presents a new work by highly sought-after composer Bryce Dessner composed for Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. “Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)” is a co-commission by major orchestras, opera houses, and presenters from around the world, and features the deeply affective photography of the late Robert Mapplethorpe alongside libretto by Kodak Arlington Tuttle with words by Essex Hemphill and Patti Smith.

The work will be 70 minutes in length without intermission and is playing for two nights only at the Power Center. This event promises to be a deeply moving exploration of identity through music spanning a wide variety of styles and genres, poetry, and photography. Roomful of Teeth and Bryce Dessner are among the most brilliant musicians active in the contemporary classical music world today, and this special performance is not to be missed!

The performance will take place on Friday and Saturday, March 15th and 16th, at the Power Center at 8pm. Tickets can be purchased here or at the UMS ticket office.


A note about “Triptych” from the University Musical Society: Triptych will contain a frank discussion of sexuality, queer identity, and race, and may include photographs taken by Robert Mapplethorpe depicting sexuality, sexual acts, nudity, flowers, and classical portraiture.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait.

REVIEW: The Marriage of Figaro

Saturday night’s “Figaro” cast

I had the privilege of seeing Saturday night’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, put on by the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance (the show was double cast for the 4 performances that took place from Thursday-Sunday).

The plot of this very famous opera revolves around the highly-anticipated marriage of Susanna and Figaro, a maid and valet of the Count and Countess, whom they and the other servants regard and trust highly. Because the characters feel maybe a little too comfortable around each other, they take it upon themselves to make sure that everyone is remaining faithful to his/her beloved. Lovers navigate and push social constructs mostly using the powers of humor and wit.

Saturday night’s cast brought the appropriate amount of energy and fun into Mozart and da Ponte’s incredibly humorous work. David Weigel’s Figaro was clearly heard and clearly seen as a joy-bringer among the company. While it  was difficult to hear Susanna’s voice at first, Mahari Conston soon brought a sparkling color and playful spirit into the role. Sedona Libero stood out as a charming, giddy Cherubino. Kristine Overman’s voice floated and shimmered just like her elegant Countess gown over Mozart’s rich orchestral textures. Zachary Crowle played a commanding yet clumsy Count. Kayleigh Jardine and Matthew Fleisher brought the perfect amount of dramatic flare to their at-first vengeful and then absurdly kind characters, Marcellina and Bartolo. The chorus members also brought a bubbling, contagious enthusiasm to the larger numbers.

The chemistry between all of the couples, especially Figaro and Susanna (and even Cherubino and Barbarina), was irresistible and adorable. As an audience member, I didn’t mind watching the various mishaps and pranks carried out because it didn’t feel like the relationships were at stake. It was clearly a comedy from beginning to end, yet I found myself yearning along with the characters who wanted something more in their relationships.

From the very first downbeat of the widely-familiar overture to the joyous close of the opera three hours later, the orchestra consistently supported the cast by bringing a buzzing energy to the light-hearted pieces and a moaning intensity to the more dramatic moments. Chelsea Gallo, a student in the University’s Conducting program, led the orchestra with grace and with fiery command into a sparkling interpretation of the score. Shane McFadden provided superb continuo accompaniment from the harpsichord as the singers artfully and playfully wound their way through the recitative sections.

The sets were exquisite and grand. The costumes were sparkling and picturesque. Personally, I found the constantly-changing backdrop colors rather distracting, but the lighting was very effective at the end, when the characters enjoyed a fireworks show together.

The second half of the three-hour opera was the same length as the first half, and I attribute my gradual sense of disengagement more to a fault of pacing on the part of the composer than I do to the creators of this production. There are plenty of complicated webs to be untangled, and Mozart took care to give every main character an aria before everything got sorted out. Luckily, every one of these arias was executed brilliantly, and it eventually paid off to see the tricks carefully planned out in act one finally play out in the second half.

The opera was hilarious. It was fantastical. It dreamed of a world where justice could be done, and even enjoyed, even as complicated life circumstances tried to prevent it at every turn. The best part of the production, for me, was watching 40+ extremely talented people give themselves over to fun, witty, and truly great music that’s stuck around for over 200 years for a reason. I look forward to the School of Music’s next big opera production next semester!

PREVIEW: The Marriage of Figaro

Last night, the University of Michigan School of Music’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) opened in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. Michigan’s music students always bring their best to the opera stage and pit, and I am looking forward to seeing the fruits of this semester’s collaborations. Luckily there are still three more chances for you to see this beloved, classic opera this weekend!

Friday, March 23rd at 8pm

Saturday, March 24th at 8pm

Sunday, March 25th at 2pm

Student tickets are just $12 and can be purchased here or at the Michigan League.

REVIEW: Porgy and Bess

A well-deserved standing ovation for the cast, orchestra, and chorus of ‘Porgy and Bess’

The evening of February 17th, 2018 marked a momentous occasion in music history in preserving the legacy of George and Ira Gershwin.

Years of scholarly research and months of rehearsal culminated in a sold-out Hill Auditorium performance of the complete “Porgy and Bess,” a 4-hour-long evening that featured the University Symphony Orchestra, University Chamber Choir, the Willis Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale, and a cast of award-winning soloists from around the world. Together, these large forces created a deeply moving production that honored the composer’s original intentions.

The opera wrestles with topics that are (in many cases, unfortunately still) relevant to today: racism, abusive relationships, hope, addiction, shame, community, joy, loss, and rejection. Consisting of 3 acts and two intermissions, packed with catchy tunes, gorgeous arias, and a heart-wrenching plot, it is a beast to perform for everyone involved (the second act alone is a whopping 1.5 hours long). Beyond his demands for endurance, Gershwin’s intricate and flashy score calls for professional-level performance for both the orchestra and chorus. The chorus, playing the part of an engaged band of citizens, commented on the action in bouts of virtuosity after not singing for long periods of time, which was quite impressive. Gershwin’s orchestration for the opera is often lush and rousing, but just as easily jumps to exposed, virtuosic solos that the members of the University Symphony Orchestra absolutely nailed.

The production’s leads did not disappoint. Morris Robinson’s Porgy was powerful in voice yet genteel in manner. Talise Tevigne’s honey-sweet soprano voice brought innocence and simplicity into the role of Bess. Norman Garrett played the villainous character of Crown with an irresistible smoothness. Chauncey Packer brought polish and electricity to the role of Sporting Life. Janai Brugger’s Clara was matronly and charismatic. Rehanna Thelwell, now pursuing a Specialist’s Degree from the University of Michigan, absolutely shined as a spunky and spirit-filled Maria. Other UM grad students held their own alongside professionals in the industry, bringing vitality, power, and deep feeling into every aspect of their performance.

This semi-staged production truly showcased the best of the best at the University of Michigan’s School of Music. The fact that I felt engaged for the entire opera, even without costumes, sets, and blocking, is a testament to the talent of the performers and the dramatic integrity of the score on its own. There were moments where the supertitles blandly relayed important plot events, and the audience members were left to use their own imaginations, but it was easy to do so given the highly evocative music. While there were definitely a few scenes that I could imagine a director choosing to cut, I was still appreciative of the opportunity to hear the opera in its entirety, and I was glad to see that much of the audience stayed for the entire performance.

This experience brought me a heightened sense of what I typically feel after watching a live opera: I am always deeply moved by witnessing the summation of collaboration at the highest and most intricate level, and the amount of work, focus, talent, and heart it takes to pull something so monumental off. But after this production, I felt this way to an even greater degree. I feel proud to go to a school where world-class scholars and performers collaborate to create beautiful things together.

PREVIEW: Porgy and Bess

“Porgy and Bess” in rehearsal.

Tonight in Hill Auditorium, the incredible culmination of years of research, hours of rehearsal, and the collaborative efforts of dozens of performers and world-class directors will be enjoyed by a completely SOLD OUT crowd. This is the premiere performance of the first-ever Critical Edition of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, brought into the world by the University of Michigan’s own Gershwin Initiative. The Gershwin Initiative has poured over older editions of the opera to bring us what they believe to be a version that most closely resembles the composer’s original intent. This non-staged performance will feature students from the School of Music performing in the orchestra, choir, and as soloists.

If you’re lucky enough to have tickets, be sure to prepare yourself for a long evening: since this is a presentation of the original opera, it will be performed in its entirely. Come well-rested and well-fed so that you can fully enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!


Check out these articles for more information about the performance’s momentous implications for history and musicology.