Today on…Q&A: A chat with Michael O’Neal as his vaunted choral group launches its 30th year

October 9, 2018
The Michael O’Neal Singers kicks off its 30th year with a concert Sunday.

It’s 8:30 on a Monday night, and conductor Michael O’Neal is standing in front of a symphonic chorus of 145 singers at Roswell United Methodist Church. Looking up from his score, he says, “Basses, because I’ve been hard on you this evening, let me say that pages 8 and 9 were particularly lovely just now.” The basses smile. O’Neal is a friendly guy, but he won’t give a compliment unless he means it.

O’Neal founded the Michael O’Neal Singers in 1989, not only contributing to the renowned choral scene in Atlanta, but leading the group to Carnegie Hall, the National Concert Hall in Dublin, Ireland and elsewhere over the years. The group has members of all ages and backgrounds: professional musicians and paralegals, music teachers and mothers, recent college graduates and seasoned choral singers.

It’s an auditioned group that meets weekly and will give seven ticketed performances this year, beginning with a concert to launch its 30th season on October 14 at 3 p.m., I Hear America Singing. The group will sing works by American composers of the likes of Norman Dello Joio, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.

O’Neal began his own career as a professional tenor and worked closely with Maestro Robert Shaw in the 1980s as a soloist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and as a member of the Robert Shaw Festival Singers traveling and recording. ArtsATL sat down with O’Neal to talk about his approach to conducting the Michael O’Neal Singers and its trajectory since 1989.

ArtsATL: The Michael O’Neal Singers has just begun its 30th season. How did the group come to be, and what were the early days like?

Michael O’Neal: The Michael O’Neal Singers began in 1989 when a small group of dedicated volunteers joined together to form an auditioned community chorus dedicated to the highest standards of choral excellence. It was our goal to enrich the quality of life in our community through performance of choral repertoire that would be interesting and enjoyable for the audience and challenging and rewarding for the singers. Even from the beginning, there were high hopes for our organization, as Derrick Henry, music critic at that time for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, stated that the arrival of The Michael O’Neal Singers was “one of the most interesting developments in Atlanta’s current cultural scene.”

Michael O’Neal

ArtsATL: You worked closely with Maestro Robert Shaw and have said that he may have been the greatest choral conductor of the 20th century. How did Shaw influence you as a conductor?

O’Neal: From 1972 to 1989, I was fortunate to serve as both a chorus member and soloist with Robert Shaw. He is widely recognized as the most influential American choral director of the 20th century, and in my years with him, he taught me many things, not the least of which was the importance of commitment to the art of music. My favorite Robert Shaw quote regarded his career in Atlanta as he explained how he had tried “to make a difference in his yard of space and inch of time.” He was suggesting that we need to be fully involved and dedicated to our work wherever we are while understanding that anything we accomplish is but a part of a much larger whole.

ArtsATL: The Michael O’Neal Singers is comprised of 145 unpaid singers. How do you inspire a group of volunteer singers to return year after year?

O’Neal: At every rehearsal we attempt to achieve something I call the “Five Ls,” which stand for Listen, Labor, Learn, Laugh and Love. At the conclusion of the rehearsal, it is my goal that all participants (including myself) will have experienced each of these five actions to some degree. We listen — to the music and to each other. We labor — working together for a shared purpose brings enormous satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. We learn — listening and working together will almost always lead to learning something new. We laugh — I believe a rehearsal without laughter is a lost opportunity. And finally, we love — of course, we should certainly make every effort to love the music we are rehearsing, but I think it is also important to love and care for each other.

ArtsATL: As the cultural landscape in Atlanta has evolved over the years, how has the Michael O’Neal Singers changed?

O’Neal: The group has sought from the beginning of its existence to perform a wide variety of choral literature, including choral/orchestral masterworks, folk songs, spirituals, popular standards and commissioned works. In recent years, we have expanded our outreach with such things as our MOS Remembers CD, provided free to anyone in our community suffering from memory loss or other age-related issues; the live-streaming of our concerts, making our performances available for choral music lovers unable to attend in person; and our very popular Summer Singers program and Messiah Sing-Along, both non-auditioned choral experiences open to anyone in the community.

ArtsATL: What repertoire has inspired your programming for this 30th season?

O’Neal: Much of the music we will be performing this season has been performed by us at some point in the past 30 years, but there is also a great deal of music included that has never before been performed by us. It was important to us, as well, to offer a diverse and interesting array of concerts, and we’ve invited some of our favorite guest artists from past seasons to join us, including the Atlanta Symphony Brass Quintet, Georgia Philharmonic and the Tyrone Jackson Jazz Trio. In planning the repertoire for our 30th season, we wanted to celebrate our past but more importantly look toward the future and anticipate how we can continue to enrich lives through choral song for many years to come.

From the September 2018 Issue of Opera News…

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd

Atlanta Opera

THE ATLANTA OPERA’S 2017-18 season lineup has showcased unconventional heroes: Weill’s Anna, Wagner’s Dutchman, Donizetti’s Marie, and Bizet’s Carmen. Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was a fitting close to this season of antiheroes (seen June 16) and attracted a broad audience to the Cobb Energy Performing to attend the tale, performed by opera singers of distinction. Sweeney Todd was long the stuff of urban legend and nineteenth-century “penny dreadfuls,” but Sondheim’s 1979 adaption of the Christopher Bond play magnified the Demon Barber of Fleet Street to operatic proportions.

Atlanta Opera resurrected Harold Prince’s Broadway version of Sweeney Todd, staged here by Albert Sherman. The mobile sets on castors held industrial metal staircases and a pie shop that rotated, all masterfully designed by theater legend Eugene Lee, who won the scenic design Tony for Sweeney Todd back in 1979. Dingy lighting supplied by designer Amith Chandrashakar brought this gothic horror show to life.

The show was strong from start to finish. The performers were amplified, but not so much so that the sound was distorted. Most of the singers were more than capable of projecting sound on their own. Bass-baritone Michael Mayes inhabited the role of Benjamin Barker a.k.a. Sweeney Todd, the young barber who was wrongly exiled to a penal colony in Australia at the whim of Judge Turpin (Tom Fox) and returns fifteen years later on a trajectory of terror. Imposing in stature, Mayes’s Todd carried the devotion of Rigoletto, the temper of Peter Grimes, and the sociopathic tendencies of Scarpia; his bellowing voice and maniacal countenance were striking. Of considerable note was Mayes’s powerful delivery of “Epiphany” downstage, a portent of things to come.

Mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak played the kooky, yet equally psychotic Mrs. Lovett. Zifchak demonstrated her operatic chops but graced us with some good old fashioned belting as well; her enunciation of Sondheim’s lyrics and Hugh Wheeler’s cockney-flavored dialogue was brilliant.

Anthony was played by Joseph Lattanzi with boy-next-door dash. A vibrant baritone, Lattanzi sang a satisfying “Johanna.” The object of his affection, Todd’s daughter and Turpin’s ward, was sung by coloratura Vanessa Becerra, whose high-lying, fluttering “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” was charming.

Veteran Tom Fox made his debut here in the 2016 production of Kevin Puts’s Silent Night and returned to sing an oily Judge Turpin. Fox’s “Pretty Women” duet with Mayes was mesmerizing. Christopher Bozeka played the charlatan Adolfo Pirelli with elixirs concocted of piss and ink, his tenor bright and pleasant.

Leah Partridge was the mysterious Beggar Woman, undecided as to whether she was soliciting for alms or a tumble in the sack. Partridge played this holy fool with absolute precision and layers of detail. Like Zifchak, Partridge was able to expertly navigate the waters between bel canto and Broadway.  —Stephanie Adrian

Review of Out of Darkness: Two Remain – July 2018, Opera News Online

Out of DarknessOPERAS COMPOSED BY JAKE HEGGIE are becoming standard fare in Atlanta. This spring, Atlanta Opera collaborated with Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit to present Jake Heggie’s two-act Out of Darkness: Two Remain as part of its Discoveries Series at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s (seen Apr. 13). Out of Darkness is a provocative work. Sparked by a commission from Seattle’s Music of Remembrance a decade ago, the opera began as a single song “A Hundred Thousand Stars,” and gradually morphed into three song cycles—“For a Look and a Touch,” “Another Sunrise” and “Farewell Auschwitz.” In 2016, Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer transformed the dramatic and musical content into two unrelated narratives in which Krystyna Zywulska and Gad Beck, Holocaust survivors now in the winter of life, literally confront ghosts from their past. The work had its premiere in its current form at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2016; Atlantans were offered the first production of Out of Darkness mounted by a professional opera company.

AO general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun, a champion of Heggie’s work, was stage director for Out of Darkness. Zvulun and scenic designer Christopher Dills created an intimate, tri-level tableau for Act I. The ash-laden stage, surrounded by drab concrete walls, served as a room in Auschwitz where we witnessed the interaction of the young Krystyna (Bryn Holdworth) alongside her fellow prisoners—a trio of women bound in friendship by their common circumstance; a small, raised circular platform, dressed with a desk and recording equipment revealed the aged Krystyna (Maria Kanyova) as she watched her younger self. Lyric soprano Kanyova adeptly negotiating the demanding, yet thankless vocal writing that she was assigned. Heggie’s Act I music is through-composed and generally sparse, with the exception of a few set numbers; the singers accompanied by a skeleton crew of strings and woodwinds are sometimes just in duet with a single instrument.

Holdsworth, a second year studio artist with a warm voice, sings the most lyrical tunes in the first act, but mezzos Elise Quagliata and Gina Perregrino shone as Krystyna’s compatriots, Zosia and Edka. Quagliata’s sometimes harsh delivery pushed vocal boundaries, but proved to be the most intense moments within the story; Perregrino sang Edka’s snatches of music with rich clarity. The trio explored moments of musical levity with enviable balance, as in the jazzy trio, “Miss Ziutka”; the orchestra, led by conductor Joseph Mechavich and concealed upstage behind a scrim, supplied lively pizzicato.

Act II of Heggie’s chamber opera features the story of Gad Beck and Manfred Lewin, lovers who were persecuted by the Nazis as a result of their sexual orientation. Gad Beck, played by actor Tom Key, survived the Holocaust and reached old age, but Lewin, who died at Auschwitz, remained eternally young. Baritone Ben Edquist, a graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, sang the role of the poet Lewin with stunning beauty, especially within the poignant and tango-esque “A Hundred Thousand Stars.” As the characters reminisced about their love affair, Key and Edquist managed to conjure longing without seeming saccharine. As a glittering disco ball descended, Zvulun incorporated the entire cast in Act II with the help of choreographer John McFall for a provocative number about pre-war sexual escapades on Berlin nights. Dancers Miriam Golomb, Nicole Johnson, Brandon Nguyen, and Joshua Rackliffe became essential silent characters throughout the show, bringing to light narrative elements within the opera—both blissful and tragic—that could not be expressed with words.  —Stephanie Adrian

In the July 2018 Issue of Opera News Online

Carmen Atlanta

ATLANTA OPERA HAS NOT presented Carmen—one of the most frequently performed operas in the world repertory—since 2012, when the company was desperately in search of new leadership. This spring, the company, now under the care of general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun, revived Georges Bizet’s classic at the Cobb Energy Centre with a cast that included Franco-Armenian mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan in her American debut as Carmen (seen May 4).

Evidently constrained by budget limitations, Zvulun utilized the exact same Allen Charles Klein Carmen sets that we saw six years ago.  Although initially disappointing, this reiteration was forgiven as the caliber of singing in this revival of Carmen became clear. Abrahamyan, an artist who has appeared at Opéra de Paris, Théâtre de Champs-Elysées, Zurich Opera and the Bolshoi, among other theaters, is a jewel, with a seamless lyric mezzo voice of luxuriant texture. Italian tenor Gianluca Terranova, her Don José, has appeared in Atlanta before, but never in French repertoire.  His instrument, capable of expressing heroics and sentiment at once, was well suited to his role but his French was muddy and unintelligible, especially in “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée.”

Music director Arthur Fagen led the Atlanta Opera Orchestra, opting to use spoken dialogue rather than sung recitative this time around. Sadly, Klein’s immense set and the uninspiring stage direction of Brenna Corner no favors for the Atlanta Opera chorus, which had been expertly coached by Des Moines Metro Opera’s Lisa Hasson .  Perhaps Atlanta has been spoiled by Zvulun’s more cinematic tableaus, but the crowd scenes throughout the evening were somewhat static, saved only by Abrahamyan’s instincts and a quartet of dancers from the Atlanta Ballet, choreographed by Amir Levy.

Soprano Nicole Cabell, who sang Gounod’s Juliette in Atlanta last season, returned to sing Micaëla, infusing a demure operatic heroine with welcome vigor, singing “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” with an enviable palette of vocal color and singular phrasing.  Edward Parks’s high baritone and commanding presence made it easy to see why Carmen would abandon Don José for his Escamillo.  David Crawford played a dashing Lieutenant Zuniga, and Kaitlyn Johnson (Frasquita) and Sofia Selowsky (Mércédes) ably served as Carmen’s trusted companions.  —Stephanie Adrian

In the May 2018 Issue of Opera News…

La Fille du Régiment

Atlanta Opera
In Review Atlanta Opera Fille lg 518

Chuchman and Ballerini, Marie and Tonio in Atlanta 
© Jeff Roffman

ATLANTA OPERA offered a lighthearted version of Gaetano Donizetti’s Fille du Régiment as its second main-stage production of the 2017–18 season at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (seen Feb. 24). Artistic and general director Tomer Zvulun infused this charming opéra comique with a bit of celebrity by enlisting a band of impressive artists for Atlanta Opera debuts, including Andriana Chuchman as Marie, Stephanie Blythe as the Marquise of Berkenfield and conductor Christopher Allen. Stage director E. Loren Meeker delivered a vibrant show with an endearing Gilbert and Sullivan feel, sung in French with English-language dialogue, and billed as The Daughter of theRegiment.

An acceptable production of Donizetti’s Daughter requires singers who can be adorably comical and still have sufficient vocal prowess to satisfy the opera’s bel canto requirements. Chuchman’s pitch-perfect fioratura fit the bill for the orphan-turned-soldier who seals every promise with spit and a handshake, but it was at the other pole of the bel canto style that she excelled, in particular her honeyed sostenuto line within “Il faut partir.” Her Tonio, played by Santiago Ballerini, a former Atlanta Opera studio artist, could likewise elegantly switch vocal gears in the most delicate ascending phrases, as within his plea to the Marquise, “Pour me rapprocher de Marie.” Ballerini’s slender voice tackled Tonio’s Act I showpiece, “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!,” with utter security, the nine notorious high Cs unwavering.

Stephanie Blythe and bass Stefano De Peppo (Sulpice) supplied plenty of hilarity during the evening, especially during Marie’s Act II singing lesson. With the slightest wave of her handkerchief or inflected dialogue en anglais, Blythe proved her singular comic mastery without overshadowing the rest of the cast. Even in moments of vocal comedy, Blythe’s mezzo-soprano is sumptuous. De Peppo, zany and paternal at once, was well cast as Sulpice. Bass Tyler Simpson rounded out Donizetti’s French fairy tale as the footman Hortensius.

The storybook setting was created by James Noone and borrowed from Washington National Opera. The Alpine wonderland in Act I was reminiscent of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for The Night Before Christmas,with the draping boughs of grand evergreens dotting the skyline behind the regiment’s modest camp. Lighting designer Rob Denton kept things warm and bright, enhancing the platoon of French soldiers (colorfully costumed by designer James Schuette) donning their bleu, blanc et rouge. Marie’s band of “fathers” managed hearty singing and some surprisingly synchronized dance steps under the tutelage of choreographer Meg Gillentine. —Stephanie Adrian


ArtsATL Review: Soprano Julia Bullock pushes through opera stereotypes in Spivey Hall recital

Julia Bullock mixed the blues of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone into her program at Spivey Hall. (Photo by Dario Acosta)

Soprano Julia Bullock has a dilemma. Opera is all about stereotypes a.k.a. fach — role classification based upon a classical singer’s vocal and sometimes physical attributes. (i.e. Does she look more like a strapping Brünnhilde or a dainty nymph?)

Bullock’s light, yet earthy sound, prettiness and petite stature place her squarely in the middle of a group of singers the likes of Dawn Upshaw, Barbara Bonney, and Kathleen Battle. She’s a shoe-in for operatic roles like Pamina (Mozart) and Mélisande (Debussy). And yet, Saturday night at Spivey Hall, Bullock and pianist John Arida presented a recital that revealed a singer who is musicologically-driven and a little rebellious.

Bullock began with a set of four Schubert lieder that included “Suleika I” and “Seligkeit” with a stage persona that was not the slightest bit superficial. Her pensive, non-presentational style was underscored by the fact that the duo situated the piano just left of center, angling the piano keys toward the audience while Bullock stood further back.

As the evening wore on Bullock explored a theme of female icons, beginning with Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs which were first interpreted by Leontyne Price, a woman who paved the way for subsequent African-American opera singers. Bullock transitioned seamlessly from the words of Goethe to those of bawdy medieval monks. Tempi were surprisingly languid, especially within “Sea-Snatch” and “The Heavenly Banquet,” but Bullock’s commitment to the text and clarity of diction justified the choice.

Gabriel Fauré’s song cycle La Chanson d’Eve opened the second half. It was poet Charles Van Lerberghe’s response to Milton’s Paradise Lost and a tribute to Eve (not Adam) as she discovers and names several elements within God’s creation, eventually comprehending a pantheistic view of God within the song, “Comme Dieu Rayonne.”

Arida played the first two Bach-like strophes simply, eventually bringing forth the opulence of the last section as Bullock proclaimed, “Comme il se baigne dans la lumière avec amour, mon jeune dieu!” (“How he bathes himself in the light with love, my young god!”) and the two seemingly independent voices shifted from a minor tonality to gleaming C major.

However, Bullock’s final song group made her quandary exceedingly evident. Bullock is too intellectually curious and passionate to play the ingénue.  So she didn’t. She constructed a recital program that looked conventional at the outset, but didn’t feel conventional in the least.

And she capped it off with the blues — songs of hard living and social uprising — although her voice and refined phrasing were too exquisite to adequately convey their coarseness. Bullock sang Bessie Smith’s 1922 hit “Downhearted Blues” while pianist Arida provided an improvisational postlude laced with ragtime that served as a segue to Billie Holiday’s “Our Love is Different.”

And one of the final songs, an unaccompanied version of Nina Simone’s 1969 anthem “Revolution” made one wonder whether Bullock might begin an artistic revolution of her own, defying classification and reminding us of the women who came before.

from…Review: Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham affirms the art of classical song at Schwartz recital


Some may say that classical art song is outdated, irrelevant to our modern times and lives. After all, it’s a musical form firmly rooted in the nineteenth century, poetry set to music, performed by an opera singer and a pianist. (Perhaps not as captivating as the latest royal romance or the outcome of the Super Bowl?) But on Saturday evening at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and pianist Bradley Moore turned such provincial thinking on its ear, presenting a thematic recital that was immensely relevant.

The duo took perhaps one of the most iconic (and most performed) song cycles — Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und leben — and dispersed its eight songs throughout the program, using the primary sentiment of each as a jumping off point for eight song groups.

Schumann’s song cycle conveys the archetypal experiences within a woman’s life: infatuation, marriage, pregnancy, motherhood and mourning. And Graham embodied the “ideal” woman envisaged by Schumann’s poet Adelbert von Chamisso. The first song group began with “Seit ich ihn gesehen” (“Since I saw him”), and subsequent songs reiterated the exceedingly universal emotion of infatuation.

Love at first sight: it’s a human experience that sells both magazines and movies — and one not exclusive to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The soundtrack this night was Edvard Grieg’s “Møte” (“The Encounter”) as well as Richard Strauss’ “Seitdem dein Aug’ in meines schaute” (“Since your eyes first looked into mine”).

It was a program that encompassed the work of 17 composers and at least eight languages. Graham’s sunny demeanor and virtuosic phrasing dominated the first half of the evening, and after intermission she and Moore navigated more explicit territory within a woman’s journey, namely the eroticism of Henri Duparc’s “Phidylé” and Claude Debussy’s “La Chevelure.” Graham made us blush as she conveyed Sappho’s lovemaking in musico-poetic terms, coloring and shading each vowel with seemingly effortless precision.

Graham visited Atlanta’s Spivey Hall in 2012, singing Henry Purcell’s scena The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation and other serious works which were featured on her album for Onyx, Virgins, Vixens & Viragos. Now six years later, it seems impossible, but her voice sounded even more luxurious.

Moore’s elegant piano playing gave one pause throughout, but particularly within the final set which describes the death of the heroine’s beloved. We heard Hector Berlioz’s “L’Absence” (“Absence”), Roger Quilter’s “How Should I Your True Love Know?” and a stunning interpretation of Enrique Granados’ “La maja dolorosa” (“The Sorrowful Maiden”).

In the last one, Moore accompanied Graham’s mournful vocalism with harsh pianistic statements which gradually gave way to resignation. But it was the fragile postlude of Frauenliebe’s closing song, “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” (“Now you have caused me my first pain”), that brought us full circle from giddy devotion to intense despair.

And while art song may not be a trending topic of conversation for the masses right now like Kylie Jenner or Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, Susan Graham and Bradley Moore managed to convey the essence of our humanity in an evening of song, sharing an artistry which will never go out of style.

From the January Issue of Opera News Online: Der Fliegende Holländer

Wayne TiggesIN 1839, when the emergent city of Atlanta was not yet Atlanta, but a destination at the end of a railroad line, Richard Wagner and his wife Minna were an ocean away, in the midst of a harrowing sea voyage that landed them in the Norwegian port of Sandviken. It was an experience that prompted Wagner to compose Der Fliegende Holländer in his Paris apartment over the next several years. Holländer is the opera that initially drew stage director Tomer Zvulun to Atlanta in 2009. Now in his current role as artistic and general director of the Atlanta Opera, Zvulun has collaborated with Houston Grand Opera and Cincinnati Opera to create a new production of Der Fliegende Holländer, which had its premiere on November 4 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

In this production there is no boat, rather only shadows and a blood-red sail when the Dutchman’s ship arrives. The action is brought to the 1950s. Senta works in a factory, distracted by her obsession with the legend of the cursed Dutchman. The Dutchman’s crew is a cohort of Bane look-alikes and eerie holograms. Scenic and costume designer Jacob A. Climer who scored a hit with his rainbow-like designs for AO’s 2016 production of Abduction from the Seraglio, demonstrated his versatility dream with his darker, industrial-looking landscape for Holländer.

Zvulun brought in a brand new cast of heavy hitters with the exception of one veteran, tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who sang the role of Erik in 2009. Wayne Tigges made his Atlanta Opera Debut as a grand, terrifying Dutchman. Mesmerizing visually and vocally, with the stature of a linebacker, Tigges’s crisp monologue, “Die Frist ist um,” conveyed a lifetime of Weltschmertz. The brilliant Melody Moore was Senta, her voluptuous voice resplendent in a powerful rendition of Senta’s ballad, and later in Act II, sounding eerily beautiful with uncompromising legato. Moore’s Senta was highly satisfying: not deranged, but possessed of an absolute devotion to the Dutchman, empathetic to his suffering and hope of redemption. Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Daland was a greedy, but loveable father; his deep voice sounding rich and mellifluous.

Atlanta Opera studio artist Justin Stolz sang a rousing Steuermann while mezzo-soprano Olivia Vote, a recent member of the Internationales Opernstudio at Opernhaus Zürich sang the role of Mary with a voice that is much too interesting to be relegated to a career of comprimario roles.

Conductor Arthur Fagen and his orchestra were superb After a decade of uneven performances at the Atlanta Opera, the orchestra began the Holländer overture with unerring precision: the main theme of open fifths demonic sounding, woodwind entrances clean and limpid, and the dynamic variations unified throughout the pit. No opera company can excel without a proficient orchestra and if last night’s performance is an indication of things to come, Atlanta may have an opera company that is in the midst of its own redemption. —Stephanie Adrian


From the December 2017 Issue of Opera News Online

The Seven Deadly Sins

THE ATLANTA OPERA launched its 2017-18 season on October 1 at the Maison Rouge, with Atlanta native Jennifer Larmore starring in a stark rendition of Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins. The production is part of this season’s AO Discoveries Series, which will complement this season’s mainstage fare—The Flying Dutchman, Daughter of the RegimentSweeney Todd, and Carmen—as general and artistic director Tomer Tvulun takes the company in new directions, exploring risky repertoire in both traditional and non-traditional opera venues throughout metro Atlanta.


The Seven Deadly Sins is a mere thirty-five minutes in length and Atlanta Opera augmented the evening with an opening act that featured its young studio artists singing a bevy of Weill’s best-known songs. Director Brian Clowdus created a backstage plot of unrequited love and sassy interchanges that revolved around standout soprano Bryn Holdsworth. Holds worth sang “Youkali” and several other numbers with elegant phrasing and executed provocative choreography. Canadian tenor Justin Stoltz gave a honeyed, unfussy interpretation of “Lonely House” from Street Scene that was simply beautiful.

Seven Deadly Sins, Weill’s ballet chanté collaboration with Bertolt Brecht and George Balanchine, was a perilous proposition when it had its premiere at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1933. Weill sought to reform musical productions with the integration of dance and texts written by cutting-edge librettists during uncertain political times; Seven Deadly Sins was so atypical that it didn’t see another performance until 1958. Atlanta’s version of Weill’s didactic Sins stretched its audience to reconsider preconceived notions about what should constitute an opera season. Pared down out of necessity to suit the venue, the action was set on a runway that extended the length of Maison Rouge; the orchestra was reduced to two pianos and percussion, conducted by Rolando Salazar.

Not so much a ballet as a semi-staged concert version of Weill’s modernist work, Clowdus presented Anna I and II as sisters dressed identically, rather than as a split personality. As the girls travel across America, Larmore assumed the role of a matronly older sister who endorses any sin that’s profitable, while Anna II, (performed by dancer and choreographer Meg Gillentine), seemed more naïve, reluctantly taking on the seedy work required to turn a buck. Bathed in harsh lighting, the set consisted of two full-length mirrors on castors that were moved from place to place by ensemble members and a rickety doorway that served as a portal between cities.

Last heard at Atlanta Opera in 2008, as Angelina in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Larmore’s voice sounded as fresh as ever singing W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s English translation of the Brecht text. The score doesn’t provide Larmore with any opportunity for virtuosic roulades or trills: Weill composed the title role of Anna for Lotte Lenya, a diseuse whose distinctive singing style couldn’t possibly compete with Larmore’s vocal prowess. Seven Deadly Sins requires an artist who can pull off the text-driven drama and strange scenario; Larmore accomplished both.

Anna’s family back in Louisiana appears often and is a Greek chorus of sorts, commenting on sloth and gluttony. Portrayed as a demented barbershop quartet in 1930s garb, AO ensemble members Nathan Munson, Justin Stoltz, Christopher Dunham and Calvin Griffin sang with voices that blended nicely.   —Stephanie Adrian



A Case for the Music Critics

newspapersGraduate school field trips are rare.  Gone are the yellow school buses of our youth that once promised a venture to the zoo or the pumpkin patch, releasing us from the confinement of a classroom.  And yet, back in graduate school I had one professor who knew better, taking her opera history class of twenty-somethings on the field trip of all field trips.  We spent an evening in the back room of John Ardoin’s house in Dallas, sitting cross-legged on the floor like a group of captivated kindergarteners.  The walls were lined with hundreds, perhaps thousands of LPs.  John thoughtfully selected one after another, playing us classic opera recordings on a well-loved turntable, explaining what made each of them special.

John Ardoin was the music critic of the Dallas Morning News for 32 years.  He was best-known for his writing about Maria Callas in which he assumed the role of biographer and chronicler of her performances, recordings, and master classes.  Ardoin knew Callas’ singing so intimately that he devoted an entire volume to its analysis in his book, The Callas Legacy.  He also studied and provided extensive commentary on the career and recordings of Wilhelm Furtwängler, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1922 to 1945, authoring The Furtwängler Record.  Ardoin devoted his life to music criticism because he loved music and didn’t know what else to do.

In an interview with James Jorden of Parterre Box Ardoin stated, “I think when you hear a performance of anything, you have an obligation to say why it worked or didn’t work; how it was different from other performances of the same work or other artists who play the same repertory…above all a critic writes for himself.  You write so you can live with yourself; so that you can, to the best of your ability, convey what you thought and felt, and why.”

Ardoin’s philosophy echoes that of notorious music and theatre critic George Bernard Shaw in “How to be a music critic,” published within The Scottish Musical Monthly in December of 1894. The only man to have won both the Nobel Prize in Literature and an Oscar, Shaw claimed that the three main qualifications of a music critic were 1.) to have a cultivated taste in music, 2.) to be a skilled writer, and 3.) to be a practiced music critic.  He railed against the critic who could not criticize, ignoring the finer points which determined the difference between mediocrity and genius.  Shaw was just an amateur musician himself and largely self-taught, but felt that it was his economic studies and political practices as a leading member of the Fabian Society that made him all the more effective as a music critic.  He discussed the economics of art:  who or what was to blame for the deficiencies of a performance and what would the reforms cost?  Over a third of Shaw’s reviews were devoted to vocal criticism and opera, and of those, 200 reviews were assigned to the music of Richard Wagner.

This was the era of the great Wagner-Brahms debate and Shaw was the perfect Wagnerite. On the other hand, his disapproval of Johannes Brahms’ music was firm and one can find delightful proof in Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective.  Shaw wrote these words about Brahms’ Ein deutches Requiem which appeared in The World on November 9, 1892:

“Brahms Requiem has not the true funeral relish:  it is so execrably and ponderously dull that the very flattest of funerals would seem like a ballet, or at least a danse macabre, after it.”

Of course Brahms’ iconic work was completed more than two decades earlier when its final form was premiered at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on February 18, 1869 with Carl Reinecke conducting.  As it turns out Shaw got it wrong.  His opinion didn’t impact the the Requiem’s longevity either.  Today, roughly 150 years later, Ein deutsches Requiem is one of the most widely performed oratorios, second only to George Frederic Handel’s Messiah.

Meanwhile in September of 1882 George Bernard Shaw’s 19th century literary foil Eduard Hanslick, wrote with fierce conviction about the Wagner Cult within the Neue freie Presse, commenting on Richard Wagner’s celebrity status as “a Schopenhauerian, a pessimist, a foe of vivisection, an anti-Semite, a vegetarian, and a believing Christian.”

Shaw and Hanslick were prominent voices within a conversation about music and musicians that formally emerged in the 18th century.  Journalistic criticism arose during the Age of Reason when man was less interested in the creations of God than in those of his own making.  Musical magazines such as Johann Mattheson’s Critica Musica in 1722 were published in Germany and France.  It was the beginning of an engaging dialogue about musical happenings, but these writings are also significant as they became a useful tool for historians studying ubiquitous tastes and styles of the time. Just as John Ardoin catalogued many of Callas’ recordings and reviewed the progress of the Dallas Opera throughout his tenure for all posterity, many extant performance reviews prove themselves historically important to musicologists and music lovers alike.

Some music critics are wordsmiths through and through and have advanced the music review as a literary form.  Read E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” and you will be swept away by his eccentric writing, receiving a thorough understanding of Beethoven’s Besonnenheit from Hoffmann’s perspective.  Hoffmann – revered for his fairytale “Nussknacker und Mausekönig” as well as for other romantic writings –  discusses aspects of deliberateness and prudence of composition within the c minor symphony, outlining its structural elements and contrasting Beethoven’s music with that of Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven’s legendary symphony debuted in Vienna in 1808, but Hoffmann’s review didn’t appear until 1810 when it was published in Leipzig’s Allgemeine Musikalishe Zeitung.

“Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable.  Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy – which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord – we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world.”

 The same year that Hoffmann’s imaginative review was published another important German composer and music critic was born – Robert Schumann.  Schumann’s bourgeois literary audience devoured musical culture.  And he wasn’t the only composer that lent his pen to music journalism during the 19th century.  Schumann’s erudite society included Hector Berlioz in Paris, Hugo Wolf in Vienna and Bedrich Smetana in Prague, each composer-critic striving in some way to cultivate and promote the native music of his countrymen.

Schumann’s own Neue Zeitschrift for Musik was founded in 1834 and from Schumann we have a wealth of delightful narrative writings, wholly contrasting the analytic and anti-romantic writing style that Hanslick embodied fifty years later when he was championing the work of Brahms.  Schumann’s germinal piece of music criticism, “An Opus 2” (also referred to as “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!”) was published by Allgemeine musicalische Zeitung on December 7, 1831.  Within it the reader is introduced to Florestan, Eusebius, and Master Raro, the imaginary characters who would dominate Schumann’s descriptive writing, and later possibly represent the bipolar disorder that he endured in life.  Within the essay Eusebius bursts in on his friends with an exciting score written by a budding, piano virtuoso.   The rowdy bunch sits down at the piano to play Là ci darem la mano, varié pour le Pianoforte par Frédéric Chopin.  We learn that Schumann wonders why Chopin chose B flat for the theme, but ultimately that in Schumann’s opinion “genius peeks out at you from every bar.”

“The Editor’s Ball” is another piece by Schumann in which he creatively exhibits how one can review a performance.  Again Florestan is present as the narrator of the story, but we are introduced to two sisters, Ambrosia and Beda, the daughters of a prominent editor and host of this elaborate musical ball. Schumann is interested in the younger, more fetching daughter (whom most likely represents Clara Wieck, Shumann’s future wife) and pursues her all evening while filling us in on the repertoire being played – Grand Dramatic Polonaise Opus 11 by I. Nowakowski, A Chopin Waltz Opus 18, I. Brzowski’s Four Mazurkas Opus 8, and several other pieces.

Indeed current music criticism – what we read in music publications, daily newspapers, and on blogs – should follow Schumann’s lead, enriching the reader’s experience and engaging an audience that might not be aware of a particular cultural happening or genre.   A music critic is a broadcaster of musical events and offers both expertise and enthusiasm (or lack thereof).

After a century of German romanticism and a treasure trove of Italian opera was composed, the twentieth century ushered in serialism, avant-gardism and neo-classicism.  Virgil Thomson, American composer and chief music critic of the New York Herald Tribune for over ten years, believed that audiences should be wary of accepting just any musical trend that seemed progressive and instead seek “innovation through expressivity.”  He wrote an article titled, “Music of Constant Change” for the Atlantic Monthly in February 1959 in which he described Beethoven’s music as the basis for all musical pedagogy, even comparing him to the Sun King, Louis XIV.  Thomson’s writing traced the constant transformation of musical technique from that point, emphasizing the music of Wagner and Brahms.  He believed that while Wagner’s “Music of the Future” peaked at the premiere of Tristan und Isolde in 1865, its popularity declined significantly after the turn of the century whereas Brahms’ music only saw a rising incidence of performance after the composer’s death.  Thomson contemplated these “noble mountains of the past” and predicted that the distribution of phonograph and radio would eradicate the art of music, saturating music consumers with nothing but the classics.

During a pre-concert lecture at the 2014 Rubin’s Institute of Music Criticism Alex Ross, music critic of New Yorker magazine outlined what he believes is the music critic’s function:  writing about what just happened, conveying intimations, and foretelling what future concert audiences might find relevant.  But music critics can also provide perspective and context.  One can look to Ross’ October 2016 essay for the New Yorker called, “Bob Dylan as Richard Wagner” as an example of this. Here Ross addressed the controversy surrounding Bob Dylan’s selection as a Nobel Prize winner in Literature; his approach was to parallel Dylan to Wagner, taking into account Wagner’s 19th century celebrity status, literary and musical significance.  Or read Ross’ May 2017 review of Chaya Czernow’s opera “Infinite Now” which recently saw its premiere at the Flemish Opera in Ghent.  Ross’ effort to provide background – historical, literary and musical – while describing the landscape of sound that Czernow utilized as a specialist in post-World War II musical expressions helps us to understand the framework of her opera and simultaneously piques our curiosity.

Both Virgil Thomson and Alex Ross have elevated the art of music criticism, simultaneously employing intellect with intuitive musical understanding.  Polite, yet opinionated, these journalists have continued the legacy of Hoffmann, Hanslick, Schumann, and even the painfully honest George Bernard Shaw.

When reading contemporary music criticism, some may find it easy to dismiss it as a narcissistic enterprise or question music criticism’s value beyond the writer’s biases.  And yet, there is a 300-year-old body of literature that argues the opposite.   Consider Robert Aloys Mooser’s article, “Works by German Nazi Composers” that appeared in the December 1937 issue of Regards sur la musique contemporaine.  Four years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States intervention in Hitler’s gruesome campaign, a Swiss music critic published a brave statement against the suppression of Jewish music during the Holocaust.  Mooser used the occasion of a concert review at the Musik-Collegium of Winterthur to criticize the aims of the Third Reich. In an official capacity Mooser reviewed the works of Paul Hoffer, Peter Schacht, Helmut Degen, and Hans Chemin-Petit, but his greater purpose in writing this review was to criticize the Nazi’s attempt to “purify” musical life in Germany and beyond, no doubt referring to Joseph Goebbels’ role as propaganda minister in banning the music of Paul Hindemith and Felix Mendelssohn.  Mooser took this opportunity to announce Hindemith’s dismissal from the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and boldly stated that the Nazis preferred music that appealed to those with a “primitive mentality”. The final paragraph of Mooser’s review reads,

“German music suffers from a deplorable sterility, which can be cured only by an infusion of new blood capable of reviving it and restoring its erstwhile splendour by bringing it back to its authentic traditions.  It is very sick…”

Back in 1997 at John Ardoin’s home, I didn’t realize just how influential he had been as a music critic.  In fact, his collegial relationship with Larry Kelly and Nicola Rescigno, founders of the Dallas Opera in 1957, arguably influenced casting and repertoire choices.  Ardoin’s writing about this fledgling opera company in northern Texas garnered national attention and helped draw singers like Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Teresa Berganza and Monserrat Caballé. And when “La Scala West” saw a change in leadership after 1991, Ardoin didn’t hesitate to voice his criticism of Plato Karayanis and Jonathan Pell, decrying performances that he deemed were “anti-musical” or “moth-eaten.”  Dallas music lovers didn’t know whether to love him or loathe him – even if they did agree with his conclusions.

But, in the long run, what does Ardoin’s writing matter? Is it significant that he commented on the musical output in Dallas or that he studied Maria Callas’ artistry with such devotion?

“Callas’ performance of the “Liebestod” is more a resignation to death than a transfiguration through it.  This memento of her Isolde (sung in Italian) is a very human statement with a great weight of sadness brought to bear on music.  Callas’ deep use of legato throughout is the predominate vocal feature, with Wagner’s long, stretching lines coated in dark tone.  She carefully observes the many rests sprinkled throughout, which are like sighs and are so important in establishing the atmosphere of the scene.  The final impression is of one gigantic phrase embracing the music in a feeling of earthiness.  Basile’s contributions are fairly routine…” (The Callas Legacy, page 6)

In this age of mass shootings, Minecraft, and seven-minute sound bites, music journalists are necessary more than ever.  Ardoin was a disciple of music and knew the difference between genius and mediocrity.  He possessed a cultivated taste in music and had a truth to tell.

John Ardoin is gone now, but a new generation of writers has arisen. As I enjoy, deconstruct, and evaluate the reviews of music critics today – Anne Midgette, Anthony Tommasini, Mark Swed, and so many other elegant writers – I am grateful for the ongoing dialogue about music, sound, and artistry.  It is that tête-à-tête between a writer who prizes music and his readers.  It is the continuation of a conversation about something that is central to our human experience.

-Stephanie Adrian (November 2017)