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Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Nebraska as an Omaha Omaha Fellow

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Jose Maldonado pictured with another Opera Omaha Fellow Kate Pomrenke

 

 

Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Nebraska as an Opera Omaha Fellow

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico,com)

Jose Luis Maldonado concedes the improbability of how he became an opera singer. But that just makes him more eager to share his tale because if it could happen to him, than who knows how many other potential vocalists are out there without even realizing it?

Part of his role as a first-year Opera Omaha Fellow in the Holland Community Opera Fellowship is exposing young people to an art form that may be foreign to them.

The California native grew up around the East L.A. area, where the strains of opera are rarely heard. He comes from a musical family. His father played piano in L.A. salsa bands. His grandfather, Jesus Francisco Maldonado, played saxophone in Mexico, where he’s known in Cuahutemoc Chihuahua as El Botas.

Jazz and Sinatra were some of Maldonado’s other musical influences. From an early age he set his sights on following his grandfather as a saxophonist. He studied hard and became proficient.

In high school his varied activities in band, sports, student government, public speaking and tutoring led his football coach to call him “a renaissance man.”

By his junior year he’d formulated a plan for college. He would study music and business (his father’s in real estate) with an ultimate goal of attending USC and playing in the Trojan marching band.

But then fate threw him a curve. With no suitable artist to sing the national anthem for an all-school assembly, he volunteered, even though it meant singing in public for the first time before thousands. Until then, all he’d done was imitate Rat Pack crooners for friends. He nailed the anthem by mimicking Robert Merrill but it was Jose’s rich baritone that won over the crowd

Then, at his senior graduation, a teacher made him promise to take a voice class in college before she handed over his diploma. He vowed he would. He kept his vow at Rio Hondo Community College but only as a courtesy. Then an unexpected thing happened.

“I ended up really enjoying it. The vibrant teacher. Ann Gresham, made it more than singing. She lured me back to the class every semester by saying, ‘If you want to know your real voice, you should come back next semester,’ because I was still mimicking.”

He credits touring music shows she created that he performed in at schools with honing his stage presence and sparking his interest in community outreach, which is the focus of his Opera Omaha Fellow work.

As much as he liked singing, he considered it a hobby, not a career path. He was still stuck on his USC dream . But his best-laid plans got disrupted after he sang a German song for his final.

“That song really changed my perception of what a singer is,” he said. “The way she had me learn this song was so deep and specific. It was not just learning and translating the words but relating it to the culture and why it was written and honoring the composer and the librettist for that poetry.

“At the end of the song I closed my eyes and repeated this phrase (lyric). I felt this energy. I opened my eyes and everybody was in tears. There was silence, then applause. It was just this beautiful experience.”

When the teacher asked to see him privately after class, he thought he’d somehow messed up.

“She asked, ‘You felt that in there, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’  She said, ‘I know you’ve achieved what you wanted to at the school and you’re going to be moving on. I’m very proud of you. But I would not be doing my job if I didn’t ask you this,’ and she looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Do you want to be an opera singer? Because I can get you there. But it’s going to take a lot of work.’

“I was speechless because I never thought to be a singer. i remember, frozen, looking at her and saying. yes, but I didn’t consciously make a decision. She said great and told me about another college where the state would pay for my lessons. I just kind of nodded and walked away in shock.”

What he’d done didn’t sink in until he got home.

“Back in my room I yelled out, ‘What did I just do?’ Because the opportunity to realize my dream was right there in front of me. I worked really hard to get straight As. Counselors from USC and Rio Hondo made sure I met all the requisites. There it was and I just threw it away to become a singer.”

“But as soon as I yelled out, I felt this epiphany. In my mind I saw this blender with everything I was mixed in it and what poured out was opera singer. I just remember saying, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.’ Like magic, the calling was there for me. I haven’t looked back since.”

He continued music studies at Cal-State Fullerton. The woman responsible for putting him on the path to opera, Ann Gresham, became his private instructor.

An unforgettable experience occurred at Cal-State in a production of The Merry Widow. For the first time. his whole family saw him perform, even grandpa Jesus, who disapproved of his choice to make a life in music.

“My grandfather was not on board with me being a singer because of his experience with the musician’s life. He worried I wouldn’t be able to support myself. I’ll never forget his face when I walked out after the performance. He was just crying. It completely changed his perception. That was impactful for me. Now my Papi Chuy is my biggest fan.

“To be able to convince him that way spoke volumes for how much conviction I have for what I do. He saw I was going to be successful.”

Jose, 29, paid homage to him when, in a gibberish rant his character The Baron makes, he inserted Spanish words in the middle of the German operetta.

From Cal-State, Maldonado went to Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he graduated with his master’s in May. He gave the school’s commencement address. At the ceremony he got to meet two music icons who received honorary degrees: Opera tenor Placido Domingo and Latin jazzman Paquito D’Rivera.

In July he played the lead in a production of Falstaff for the Martina Arroyo Foundation’s Prelude to Performance Opera Festival. Arroyo, a famous soprano, created the foundation to help emerging artists like Jose get professional opera experience.

Since starting his Omaha fellowship in August, he and his peer fellow  have engaged the community. They performed an outdoor concert at Turner Park. They’ve worked with the Learning Community Center of South Omaha and Nelson Mandela School. They performed at Buffett Cancer Center and Gallery 1516. They facilitated classes at the Omaha Conservatory of Music.

Jose is scheduled to perform with the Omaha Youth Symphony at an Omaha Area Youth Orchestras concert  on November 11 at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum.

Wherever he goes, he wants his story of defying expectations to inspire others.

“I didn’t come from a traditional classical background. I’m very proud to say I was made in America with Mexican parts. I’m very proud of my culture. But I’m also an individual, I’m an artist, and I don’t have to be bound by walls or comfort zones or perceptions or interpretations. If i can help shine that upon people and let them choose for themselves what’s possible for them, then I’m doing my job.

“I encourage anybody that feels restricted or limited to break those barriers. Part of it is taking responsibility to take the actions that you can create to step forward and to find those opportunities and angels in your life.”

He wants to continue giving back by creating a cruise line that operates as a business nine months out of the year and that holds an intense summer training program for performing and visual arts students.

“To be able to offer this summer training program completely free is a dream of mine,” he said.

He also aspires to sing with his hometown Los Angeles Opera and at Palacio de Bellas Artes, Teatro Degollado and Teatro Aguas Calientesin Mexico.

Meanwhile, he loves being an Opera Omaha Fellow because it allows him to give back.

“It’s exactly how I began in music. We don’t just come and sing. We build relationships with community partners, We meet their needs. We plant the seeds of opera and we also get to nurture those seeds.”

He appreciates, too, that the two-year fellowship provides professional development opportunities.

“We have coaching every week with Opera Omaha Head of Music Sean Kelly. On top of our salary we get a professional development stipend to use to have voice lessons. It’s inclusive of flights and accommodations. We budget that as we need to continue our growth as vocalists – honing technique and advancing skills

 

That’s something I really cherish. I feel valued not only as an ambassador but as an opera singer.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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Blizzard Voices: Stories from the Great White Shroud

July 27, 2018 1 comment

One of the more interesting opera programs I’ve seen is the oratorio, Blizzard Voices, with words by poet Ted Kooser and music by composer Paul Moravec.  The dramatic template for the program was The Blizzard of 1888, often referred to as The Children’s Blizzard because of the large number of youths who lost their lives in the great white blow out that smothered the Great Plains.  Years before the opera program Kooser used survivors’ accounts of the natural disaster to create a book of poems called The Blizzard Voices, which was eventually given a dramatic reading at the Lincoln Community Playhouse.  Kooser adapted his work for the oratorio.  The concert used orchestral music, solo and chorus singing, spoken words, lighting, and projected images created by artist Watie White to transport the audience into what I called the great white shroud.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) was written before I saw the oratorio, based on interviews I did with Kooser and Moravec.

If you’re a Ted Kooser fan or want to know more about the poet, this blog contains stories I’ve written about him.  Just click on his name in the category roll on the right hand side o

 

Blizzard Voices: Stories from the Great White Shroud

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

January 12, 1888 began much like any other winter day. A tad warm for the season perhaps. A brisk breeze swirled about and a bank of low lying clouds to the north suggested a change brewing. Yet except for a strange electric current in the air and the odd behavior of pets, no real portent warned of the fury to be unleashed on the Great Plains. Nebraska would not be spared.

When the blizzard hit terrible wind and snow spewed forth from the sky and didn’t let up. The temperature plummeted, dropping far below zero. The big blow cut through the land like a giant scythe swung in unrelenting anger. The enveloping storm smothered everything in its path — humans, animals, houses, barns, fences, fields, roads, bluffs, gullies, creeks, rivers. Anything caught unprotected was soon frozen or buried in the great white shroud. Drifts reached 20 feet high.

So concentrated was the storm that day turned to night. Visibility reduced to nothing in the blinding, numbing white-out conditions. Many souls died from exposure across a several state region, among their number — children. It was a school day and some students perished trying to reach their farm homes. Thus, it came to be known as The Children’s Blizzard.

 

©Illustration by Dick Taylor

 

Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Garland, Neb. grew up hearing stories of this storm of the century. In the 1980s he wrote a slim book of poems under the title The Blizzard Voices inspired by recorded reminiscences of survivors. His blizzard poems were given dramatic readings by the Lincoln Community Playhouse.

Now, Opera Omaha’s mounting an original oratorio, The Blizzard Voices, based on his poems. The concert hall production integrates orchestra, chorus and soloists on stage. The music is by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul MoravecStewart Robertson, making his swan song as Opera Omaha artistic director, conducts. The premiere performances, Sept. 12 at the Holland Performing Arts Center and Sept. 13 at Iowa Western Community College’s Arts Center, are both at 7:30 p.m.

Kooser’s spare poems, each from the perspective of an actual survivor, describe awesome, gruesome, tragic, heroic events of that surreal experience, one whose extremes still resonate today. “Stories of suffering and survival go back to our deepest origins, I think, and we never tire of them,” Kooser said.

Moravec said by phone from Manhattan he admires how Kooser’s lean poems communicate the intimate human dimensions of this natural disaster in the language of every day rural people, many of them immigrants.

In an artist’s statement, Moravec wrote, “Part of the power of Mr. Kooser’s adaptation derives from his wise decision to allow the ordinary, plain-speaking historical accounts come through their simple, rough-hewn eloquence. The music is similarly clear and direct in its emotional impact.”

The composer’s chosen a selection of Kooser’s blizzard poems that best dramatize the sequence of events. His own research included poring through Nebraska state historical archives and reading David Laskin’s book The Children’s Blizzard. Given that the storm victims were mainly Lutheran he felt it appropriate to write an original chorale that suggests the lamentations of familiar Protestant hymns.

Religious themes are used by Moravec throughout. There’s an excerpt from the Book of Job in the prologue. A psalm. Plaintive prayer-like pleas for mercy. Who could blame people for ascribing the storm to God’s wrath? Moravec incorporates Mary Elizabeth Frye’s poem “In Remembrance” to speak to the everlasting spirit of those that died and those that commemorate their loss. He said his composition draws on historical sources, but is thoroughly contemporary.

For the Lincoln dramatization Kooser found skip rope rhymes he used as bridges between the spoken poems and as counterpoints to the raging blizzard.

“I modified some of the traditional ones to resonate with the blizzard experience,” he said. “Others are intact as originally used. These are a part of American folklore, and not attributable to actual writers. American folk rhymes are quite wonderful.”

One of Watie White’s images for Blizzard Voices 

 

 

Moravec’s retained these skip rhymes in his oratorio. The rhymes, in conjunction with the poems, the psalms and the prayers, express a sense of innocence lost.

The composer and poet met once during the piece’s evolution. Just as history informed Kooser’s poems, his blizzard works informed Moravec’s compositions.

“Since then we’ve exchanged a few e-mails, but early on I gave Paul complete freedom to do whatever he wanted with the poems, and the only input he’s asked me for involved minor historical information,” said Kooser.

To convey the blizzard’s power musically the costumed orchestra, chorus and soloists project full-out. To interpret its force and impact in more than purely musical terms Robertson commissioned Omaha artist Watie White to create images for projection on large screens. “I did see the drawings just the other day — and I thought they were just right.” Kooser said. Lighting will also play a role in setting moods. At the heart of it all though are the blizzard voices’ spoken and sung words. Kooser’s eager to see how the complete oratorio gives voice to his work.

“I have not seen any of it during development,” he said. “When I go to the premier it will be as fresh to me as to the rest of the audience.”

He hopes the production’s successful enough that it tours.

 

Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala with “A Flowering Tree”

March 24, 2015 2 comments

In January Opera Omaha went rogue again with its annual gala, this time infiltratiing a section of the Crossroads Mall for a swank sit-down dinner given a theatrical going over with surrealist set dressings inspired by the contemporary opera, A Flowering Tree.  Live excerpts from the mythic opera were performed tableside for a rapt audience that sometimes felt as if they were a part of the dramatic and transformative experience.  A Flowering Tree’s staged production in February at the Orpheum Theater gave audiences the full measure of this beautiful and imaginative work whose ending is one of the most sublime artistic expressions I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing.  If you didn’t know it already, Opera Omaha is one of America’s leading opera companies and its reputation only grows with time.

Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala with “A Flowering Tree”

Hidebound event transformed to mirror opera’s dramatic, theatrical world

Breaking the mold to build new audiences

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

A contemporary opera all about transformation got its legs at an unconventional site slated for rebirth, the Crossroads Mall, during the January 16 Opera Omaha Gala.

The gala featured glimpses of A Flowering Tree, a 2006 opera by American composer John Adams, who adapted its romantic, mystical story from an ancient folktale from India. This saga of love, betrayal, sacrifice and redemption set in an enchanted land unfolded in a 20th century space normally associated with shopping.

A 10 p.m. after party for the millennial crowd followed the gala.

Unlike the best known works in the Adams canon that draw on historical, politically-charged events, such as Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic, A Flowering Tree is purely metaphorical. Adams co-wrote the libretto with Peter Sellars.

Kumudha is endowed with the magical gift of morphing into a flowering tree and returning back to human form. When a prince secretly observes her transformation he’s smitten and marries the enchantress. His obsession with her gift and his sister’s exploitation of it drives the couple apart. Bereft without her, the prince loses everything, even himself. Kumudha gets stuck in a hideous in-between state that makes her a curiosity. The couple can only be reunited, so the folktale goes, if true love leads them to find each other again.

The Adams Touch
Wunderkind director James Darrah, who at 30 is a rising star, says, “It is a fabulous story and a fabulous piece of theater. It’s entirely based in storytelling, with large overarching themes of humanity.”

Musically-speaking, Darrah says, “The orchestral writing of Adams is just unbelievable – he is giving an audience an entire soundscape in the way he employs instruments and chorus and voice. The way he writes for the human voice is operatic and virtuosic and familiar in that way but also really surprising and beautiful. At times it can fluctuate from feeling incredibly intimate and simple to virtuosic and cinematic.

“He has the ability to both understand and interpret the immense musical history that comes before him and to be on the exciting electric edge of innovation. He creates these worlds of sound that are sometimes totally unexpected but rapturously beautiful.”

Opera Omaha General Director Roger Weitz calls Adams “one of if not the most important American opera composers living today,” adding, “I saw a performance of Flowering Tree at Chicago Opera Theater and I was blown away by the music, by the drama, by the potential for magic and transformation on stage. I really fell in love with it.”

Outside-the-box
Snatches of the opera on gala night happened amid the empty storefronts of a closed section of the ill-fated Crossroads Mall – specifically the two-story glass atrium at the north end. The mall is slated to be razed to make room for a new mixed-use village.

A Flowering Tree will have its main stage full production February 13 and 15 at the Orpheum Theater. The same team mounting that production produced the gala – Los Angeles-based director Darrah and a cadre of collaborators. They also designed last year’s gala featuring bits from the early Handel opera Agrippina as well as that work’s main stage production. After making the nontraditional space of the Omar Baking Building into a retro Roman banquet experience inspired by Agrippina, the team’s repurposing a symbol of American consumerism into a mythological garden inspired by A Flowering Tree.

Weitz has charged the company with making its galas singular events that go beyond the standard sites and programs for such events. The Omar experiment was such a success, he commissioned Darrah and Co. to surpass it at another unexpected site – the soon defunct mall.

Darrah says. “If you’re doing something different you want a space that architecturally and energetically has flavor to it as a set. If you go to a big empty room you have to put everything in there to give people some sort of feeling. You have to create atmosphere from whatever you put into it. The thing I loved about the mall when scouting it is that even without us doing anything to it, it had this eerie energy of all these people that had been
in there.

“It’s this place that had a different purpose and now it’s this empty thing. It had so much to do for me with the socio-political stuff John Adams writes about America, and the mall is such an American icon that is changing and morphing. I like the idea of using it in a different way. This piece is all about transformation and new beginnings and new growth. The mall is going to be torn down and I love the idea we can see the echoes of what it once was.”

Then there’s the bold move of bringing opera to where people shop.

“I also think it gives us the right narrative of audacity. After last year’s success everyone was wondering what it was going to be. Well, I don’t think they knew what we’re going to do. They probably never expected what we did last time and, and they wouldn’t recognize this either. Parts of what we design felt like a sheik chic, elegant gallery. [People would] walk in and be totally in a dream.”

 

©CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

Immersive
The idea is to so fully immerse audience members in this re-imagined environment that they find themselves inside the live performance. Because opera scenes will seem to spontaneously happen around them, guests will be intimate, active participants, not merely passive witnesses to the spectacle. Darrah says the same folks you have cocktails with before dinner may suddenly break into song or dance. It’s all about shattering the walls between performer and viewer so that everyone, actors and guests alike, becomes joined in the experience.

“I like the breaking of barriers in that way,” Darrah says. “It’s the whole point of the John Adams piece, and that’s what it all comes back to. It’s not about showing people the design of A Flowering Tree, it’s about saying this team has been hired to do this massive new production and if you listen to John’s music you will be exposed to the qualities of innovation.”

Darrah says the excerpts on display at the gala were intended to give guests a sense for his organic treatment of the opera.

“I didn’t want this to be a project where three singers and dancers move around them as they sing. I want people not to know who the singer is and who the dancer is.”

Collaboration
He feels privileged to have worked with a stellar roster of creatives interpreting it, including Andriana Chuchman as Kumudha, Andrew Staples as the Prince and Franco Pomponi as the Storyteller.

“It’s an unbelievably fantastic cast – a world-class, formidable group of people,” Darrah says. “I think of them as actors first who happen to have powerhouse, awesome voices. They’re all theater people who are also aware of art and culture. I love artists that have that kind of awareness and bring a lot to the table, that listen to Billie Holiday as much as they listen to opera.

When you get these well-rounded individuals willing to throw themselves into new ideas, they bring a really good energy. They fit very well with my team. Like minds do very good work.”

His team includes associate director Zack Winokur, set and lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock, set and properties designer Emily Anne MacDonald, projection designer Adam Larsen and costumer designer Sarah Schuessler. All but Winokur worked with Darrah on last year’s Agrippina gala and production. Together, they used lights, sets,  music and dance to turn a banally familiar existing space into an enticing dreamscape for the gala.

“[We were] not going to treat the stores – [we left] all the stores as dark, empty things, though we used certain storefronts for things like cocktail hour and catering,” Darrah says. “Beyond the tangible, this (was?) is a surreal dream you walked into.”

Atmospheric videos added to the trippy vibe.

 

Opera Omaha gala-Crossroads

©CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

Mutual Admiration
Darrah says Adams took a keen interest in how the opera would be teased at the gala and produced at the Orpheum.

“He knows about this and he’s been very helpful and involved and supportive with the team and the choices. He’s very humble, so he’s not overly controlling. He answers questions. I sat down with him and he told me a bunch of things about why he wrote it, what he thought about. He’s been really great. He told me, ‘Do your thing.’”

Darrah and his team create harmony from collaborative give-and-take.

“So much of everything designers choose to do affects what a director is able to do on stage,” he says. “At the same time a director can choose moments that actually give designers lots of opportunities to create. I think the interconnected qualities of that are something that aren’t often talked about but are absolutely true.

“Here in Omaha, for many reasons, including the time and resources we’re allotted, we actually get to explore that a lot more than normal.”

According to Darrah, Weitz’s vision and enthusiasm are attractive to talents like himself and his colleagues.

“For artists like us, Roger is an incredibly adventurous, interesting, proactive part of assembling the team, crafting, casting, all these things.”

Weitz, in turn, says Darrah has taken Omaha by storm.

“The community has really embraced him and is really interested in his work. I think he feels a lot of support here and feels like this is a place where he can do what he wants to do. We’re talking about next season right now and we’ll keep dreaming. I mean, there will come a day when he’s too big for us but I hope by establishing this relationship early on Omaha will always be a special place to him.”

This year’s gala was chaired by Cindy and Mogens Bay. To learn more about Opera Omaha’s innovative approaches to performance based events, or to reserve tickets for performances of A Flowering Tree, visit operaomaha.org.

BLACK HISTORY MONTH CONCERT DIVA 3 A TRIBUTE TO HISTORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN IN CLASSICAL MUSIC

January 28, 2015 2 comments

I have the distinct pleasure of being friends with a remarkable group of women musical artists in Omaha who are all related to each other. Once in a while they gift the community with their individual and collective talents in concert. Their DIVA 3 concert on Sunday, February 8 at New Life Presbyterian Church will commemorate Black History Month with performances of arias and spirituals from the classical canon that celebrate the legacy of African-American women in classical music. Nola Jeanpierre, her daughter Carole Jeanpierre and Carole’s daughter Elyssia Reschelle Finch possess powerful, dramatic soprano voices that will raise the rafters and give you goosebumps. They are all classically-trained. Nola’s sister Johnice Orduna will add her fine vocals as well. As if that’s not enough this musical line, those three generations of performers will be joined by a fourth generation, in the person of Nola’s aunt, Claudette Valentine, who will accompany this family of vocalists on piano. It will be a program you won’t soon forget. Your heart and soul will never be the same. I’ve always thought that if someone with a video camera would record oen of this family’s concerts and post it to YouTube that the video would stand a good chance of going viral because people all over world will be struck by the magic of their music. Nola, Carole and Elyssia deserve the recognition.

 

 

Diva3 (NS)

 

BLACK HISTORY MONTH CONCERT DIVA 3 A TRIBUTE TO HISTORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN IN CLASSICAL MUSIC

Three generations of classically-trained Omaha singers bound by blood, faith and black musical heritage will perform a DIVA 3 concert on Sunday, February 8 at New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt Street.

The 6 p.m. Black History Month show will feature Nola Jeanpierre, her daughter Carole N. Jeanpierre and Carole’s daughter Elyssia Reschelle Finch performing songs celebrating African-American women in classical music. In the tradition of Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, the three local women will use their dramatic soprano voices to interpret arias and spirituals from the classical canon.

Nola is a veteran musical theater performer on Omaha stages. She portrayed Bloody Mary in South Pacific at the Omaha Community Playhouse. She sang the role of the High Priestess in the memorable Opera Omaha mounting of Aida at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. She’s the featured soloist at the St. Cecilia Cathedral Flower Show each year. She’s done summer stock back East. She traces her vocal abilities to her mother, Bernice Bragg.

 

Carole Jeanpierre

Carole has performed with national artists on stage and in the recording studio. She is often a guest soloist with the University of California Davis Gospel Choir. She also composes music, including an original, faith-based opera she wrote, Noalia: An Opera of Love that she is workshopping She recently adapted the opera into a children’s book.

Ejyssia, a student at Concordia University in Seward, Neb., has a goal of auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, which her grandmother Nola did as a young woman.

Nola’s sister, Johnice Orduna, will lend her own fine voice to the concert. Nola and Johnice’s aunt Claudette Valentine, a piano instructor and choir director, will accompany the vocalists, which means a fourth generation of musicianship will be represented.

This long line of musical talent is viewed by family members as a gift from On High they feel called to share.

“As a family music represents the fruits of the spirit,” says Carole. “It is our hope to enlighten hearts, to share the gift with love and with unity so that audiences are uplifted. That’s the bottom-line.”

“I’ve always been so appreciative that we were blessed with a gift that we could give back,” says Nola.

“Music is love,” Valentine says simply.

Carole created DIVA 3 as a vehicle for the family to sing together, just like they did at family reunions back in the day.

“We’d have family gatherings and someone would bring the macaroni and cheese and someone would bring the guitar, and we would all sit up under each other and sing. That was our best times,” recalls Carole.

“The piano was the center of everything we did,” Valentine says of growing up.

As each next generation came into the family’s musical fold, a new talent was nurtured and another voice added to the mix. When Nola and her two sisters showed a musical knack as toddlers, their mother had them start piano lessons. Voice lessons followed. Claudette formed the girls into a sweet harmonizing trio that performed widely. As Nola’s music career blossomed her first-born, Carole, soaked it all in.

Nola recalls their earliest musical bonding, “She would be under the piano and sometimes I would sit her on the stool next to me and we would sing. She’d touch the keys and play the piano. When I heard the talent then it was time to use it because she has the most phenomenal gift of pitch and mimicking a sound of a one I’ve ever known. She can sound like anybody.”

“I picked up everybody’s gift,” says Carole, who made her public performing debut at age 3 in church.

“I just gave her what was given to me and passed it on down,” says Nola.

Truthfully, it probably started in the womb,” Carole says of this music osmosis. She went on to train with some 17 vocal coaches but says her mom’s “the best.” Nola and Carole both teach vocal students.

The family’s closeness carries over to performing, where their intuitive understanding allows them to cover for one another.

“We feel each other,” says Nola. “We just know when one is going to drop out and the other needs to pick it up.”

Elyssia, who has a mixture of her grandmother’s and mother’s voices. appreciates the musical legacy she is part of and the warm comfort of performing with loved ones.

“I definitely recognize how special that is. Not everybody has that and it does bring your family into a closer connection because we all do share something and we all display our gifts in the same kind of way.”

For the February 8 concert the doors open at 5:30 p.m. for a private auction from the Creations 2 Bragg About Collection.

DIVA tickets are $15. Purchase advance tickets by calling 402-.281-5396. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Raw DAWGS after-school program.

For more information, call 402-281-5396.

 

Breaking the mold: Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala

December 11, 2014 2 comments

Depending on the crowd or circle you travel in, bring up opera in conversation and expect a glassy-eyed look on some people’s faces because they can’t or won’t get past some cliched notions they have about this form being tired, overstuffed, and irrelevant. Opera is in fact a living, breathing performing art every bit as vital and universal as any other, drawing as it does on the most urgent human emotions, inspirations, and themes for its bigger-than-life brand of music theater. Opera is not just one thing or the other either, it is alternately grand and spare, traditional and experimental, contemporary and classic. In the spirit of celebrating opera’s qualities, Opera Omaha, a company with a national reputation for its bold approach, has re-imagined its annual fundraising gala to give audiences an immersive experience inside the power and drama of ioera’s music, acting, and design. My story below for Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) describes the new take Opera Omaha took with its Agrippina gala a year ago. An upcoming story in the next issue of the mag will discuss Opera Omaha’s plans to further these push the boundaries at the 2015 A Flowering Tree gala event.

 

Breaking the mold: Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

Hidebound event transformed to mirror opera’s dramatic, theatrical world

If being adventurous counts for anything, then Opera Omaha’s doing what it can to be the pertinent music theater company that general director Roger Weitz envisions. From commissioning designs by world-renowned artist Jun Kaneko to teaming with elite opera companies to presenting a full range of works, it’s making waves here and beyond.

“At the National Opera Conference in San Francisco this summer there was a bit of a buzz about what’s happening here,” Weitz says. “I think the word on the street in Omaha is also positive.”Part of the excitement was generated by last year’s gala that teased a production of Handel’s Agrippina. Everything from the nontraditional Omar Baking Building site to the outside-the-box immersive-interactive approach marked a stark departure from the norm.”The standard format of a gala is you go to a hotel ballroom, you have cocktails and dinner, there’s some speeches and maybe a performance,” Weitz says. “That’s a gala that could fit for anybody. But we’re an opera company that produces music theater, so I thought why not have our gala be like an opera? That’s how we can have it reflect the work we do. We shouldn’t have a gala that could be replicated by a hospital. It needs to be theatrical, it needs to be special.”

An opera sampler
With Los Angeles director James Darrah and his production team already in tow to mount the little-known baroque opera Agrippina, Weitz decided to have them produce the gala as well. Thus, lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock, set designer Emily Anne McDonald, costume designer Sarah Schuessler and projections designer Adam Larsen brought Agrippina to life both for the site specific gala performance and for the main-stage Orpheum production.”I wanted to give guests a preview of what Agrippina was going to feel and look like from the team designing the production. What James and his team bring is innovation. He has both total fidelity to the music, to the composer’s intentions, and to the librettist’s intentions. What he brings to that is storytelling that can make even an opera hundreds of years old feel modern and relevant. At the end of the day that’s what I want this company to be – relevant.

“To me, opera is not a dusty museum piece, it’s a living, breathing, growing dynamic art form that a lot of young composers and artists are excited about and interested in creating. My vision for Opera Omaha’s mission is to make sure this community receives a balanced program that represents the repertoire. That means we’re going to do the classic greatest hits of opera – we’ll always have one of those every year – but we’re also going to do early, contemporary and new opera.”

With programming open to that full spectrum, he says, “it enables the company to take artistic risks and also to do things that are exciting possibilities with the potential to grow and build audiences.” For Weitz, there’s no gain without taking risk and to his delight he’s finding audiences are right there with him.”We’re taking a bold step that is not cautious. Every year I think we go a little bit further and every year the response has been all the more positive and enthusiastic.”

Opera Omaha supporters Paul and Annette Smith, who chaired the gala, appreciate Weitz’s daring.

“He’s taking a very fresh and exciting perspective to opera. He knew we needed to break some boundaries and to try some things that hadn’t already been done,” Paul Smith says.

Up close and personal
Though an 18th century work, Agrippina has enough sex, violence and politics to resemble a modern soap or news scandal. It’s why Weitz opted to hold the gala previewing it at a restored former bakery in the inner city. Darrah’s team crafted a surreal and intimate environment inspired by the retro industrial digs and the historical opera. A banquet table served as the “set” centerpiece. Screens acted as visual markers and breaks.

“We created a combination of live performance with installation art visuals amid dinner, drinks and conversation to immerse people,” Darrah says. “We had shot video portraits of the entire cast in slow motion closeup against a black background, which Adam Larsen then edited into video projected on transparent screens throughout the space. So you had characters from the opera walking on screens that would disappear and reappear on the other side of the room.

“It was all about illusion.”

Playing off the opera’s story of the emperor Nero and his mother Agrippina fiddling away in circles of deceit while Rome burns, Darrah and Co. created a neoclassical setting in which non-costumed actor-singers suddenly broke into dramatic song during dinner. These live pop-up scenes plunged audience members into the thick of performers enacting lusty, blood-thirsty, full-throated action.

“The vision for the evening was always very exciting and unconventional,” Smith says. “But at its core, James wanted every person at the event to taste a bit of the Agrippina experience and to want to be at the opera when it opened. He worked to create an engaging, exciting space where we all felt like we were intimately close to the opera. Ultimately we were so close that the characters seemed very real to each of us.

“It was very exhilarating to have the performers from Agrippina perform a piece from the opera on the middle of our table with such amazing vigor, as if they were literally on stage, ripping flowers from the vases and angrily throwing them with no regard to the ‘audience’ seated only a foot or two away. It truly felt as if you were experiencing the anger and malice of Agrippina directly.”

Smith says the experience had the desired effect Darrah sought.

“It helped us understand how incredibly exciting opera can be and it made us want more. Others we talked with told us that after the gala they wanted to experience more opera.”

It’s all part of Opera Omaha’s aim to shake up people’s ideas about what the art form is or can be. Darrah says that effort begins with Weitz giving artists like himself the freedom to interpret a shared vision.

“He lets the creative people he hires do their job, He puts a lot of trust in the team, which is an incredibly great thing to feel as artists.”

He also likes that Weitz brings the company and the community together through accessible events.

“He brings you to the community to do work and introduces you to people in the community and supports you as part of the community.”

Once more with feeling
Fresh off the success Darrah and his team enjoyed last year Weitz has brought them back to design the January 16, 2015 gala to be held at another unexpected site, the Crossroads Mall. It will be a tantalizing sampler of an original production of the John Adams opera A Flowering Tree at the Orpheum in February. For the gala the team is transforming the mall’s atrium into the opera’s mythological, nature-filled landscape. A world-class soprano, two leading pianists and top dancers will join featured cast members in fleshing out this romantic fairy-tale.

That gala and production are sure to attract attention the same way the Agrippina gala and production did. The opera world’s taken notice for some time. San Francisco Opera admired Jun Kaneko’s Madame Butterfly so much they put together a team of five companies, including Opera Omaha, to build his The Magic Flute. That led to this season’s new co-production of Rigoletto, a collaboration between Boston Lyric Opera, the Atlanta Opera and Opera Omaha,

“Weitz says, “When you have opera companies of that magnitude wanting to collaborate creatively with Opera Omaha that’s a really good indicator we’re a presence making our mark on the opera field.”

Opera Omaha plans to keep folks wanting more.

“We have to keep surprising and delighting people and keep raising the bar,” Weitz says. “I think James and his team set a pretty high bar last year and I told them this year we must raise the bar again.'”

Supporters Cindy and Mogens Bay, who chair the 2015 gala, are taking the cue, “Opera Omaha’s gala last January was unique and truly special. It exceeded our expectations,” Cindy Bay says. “We’re delighted the same innovative artists are coming back this year to take on a new event with even more ambitious plans.”

A music and dance filled after-party for a younger crowd will follow the gala.

For tickets, visit http://www.operaomaha.org.

Omaha songstress Mary Carrick takes flight in new CD

July 14, 2014 2 comments

I don’t know what it is, but I keep winding up doing stories about cabaret singers.  One of the latest I’ve profiled is Mary Carrick, whose new CD Let’s Fly is an interesting collaboration with J. Gawf, a pianist who serves as Opera Omaha resident music director and chorus master.  Carrick got to know Gawf while performing in the Opera Omaha Chorus. Impressed with her versatile voice, he began coaching her on the side.  Impressed with his musical acumen, she asked for advice about who could help her with a new CD she had in mind to do fresh takes on American Songbook standards and other tunes across the music spectrum.  He suggested himself and that’s how he became artistic producer and arranger for her Let’s Fly.  Here is my Omaha Encounter Magazine story on Carrick and her collaboration with Gawf on that CD project.  By the way, on this blog you can find my profiles of other Omaha cabret artists, including Camille Metoyer Moten and Anne Marie Kenny.

 

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Mary Carrick

Omaha songstress takes flight in new CD

©Story by 
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 

If the late soul master James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then singer Mary Carrick is Omaha’s hardest working woman in entertainment.

When the Nebraska Arts Council touring artist isn’t performing her own cabaret act, she’s singing in the Opera Omaha chorus or acting in a musical theater production. She also does special events like the Omaha Press Club Show and Omaha Creative Institute Spring Fling.

In addition to her rehearsals and vocal exercises she attends cabaret workshops. All this comes on top of working a full-time marketing job, being married and raising two small children. Yet she’s made time to create her debut CD, Let’s Fly, with artistic producer and arranger J. Gawf, a pianist whose day job finds him serving as Opera Omaha resident music director and chorus master.

The album, available on iTunes. Amazon.com and CD Baby, showcases Carrick’s big voice, wide range, and eclectic tastes. The 10 tracks about love and desire include the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Barry Manilow’s bath-houser “Man Wanted,” and the Jon Mitchell hit “Both Sides Now.” There’s even Leonard Cohen’s edgy “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

The project’s an intriguing collaboration between a versatile singer deeply rooted in the Great American Songbook and a multifaceted musician immersed in opera. Carrick, who can sing anything, has a voice with operatic qualities, and Gawf, who can play anything, is well-versed in popular music. He’s also Carrick’s primary vocal coach and the two have developed an aesthetic kinship and personal friendship.

Gawf has worked with world-class singers and is a great admirer of Carrick’s vocal instrument.

“It’s crystalline clear, it’s shiny, it’s got shimmer,” he says. “She has such a range to go from the high register, which I think is a beautiful part of her voice, to the low register.”

Then there’s what Carrick can do with a song.

“Well, she’s a storyteller, number one,” he says. “She comes from a theater background and she can tell a story like nobody’s business.”

Carrick’s found a niche in cabaret performances that often find her teaming with pianist-vocalist Todd Brooks.

“There’s so much artistic freedom in cabaret,” she says. “There’s really no rules. I can program whatever I want. I can do songs that are traditionally sung by men and make them my own. I can infuse myself and my own experiences into the songs. There’s a very intimate connection with the audience that I love very much. I can talk and tell stories throughout my show. I love that audience-to-singer energy that happens in the room. It’s exhilarating.”

She’s been recognized by the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards and the Theatre Arts Guild for her cabaret shows as well as productions of her own Broadstreet Theatre Company.

When Carrick broached the concept of her album, Gawf wanted in and says the chance of “doing something I’d never done” appealed to him. “Mary gave me free license.”

The songs on “Let’s Fly” have been covered many times by other artists, but Gawf was intentional in taking a new slant.

“I pride myself on not listening to other artists before I tackle something because I don’t want to get preconceived ideas of how something should be. I like to take the song off the page and then re-imagine it. After we got our arrangements together I listened to what other people did to see where ours fit in, and we’ve got some unique things. Half the fun was coming up with what works for us.”

Carrick feels she’s in good hands with Gawf.

“I put my trust completely in him. It’s just been an awesome match. I think we work in tandem really well. He totally gets me. He can tell when I’m not giving as much as I need to. There was one session where he said, ‘I don’t feel like you’re giving you’re all to me,’ and he was right. I know where he’s at, he knows where I’m at. We can sort of feel where we’re going, where things aren’t working.”

Carrick says she most enjoys “the creative process,” and with the CD she’s pleased to have gone to “a real vulnerable place in being completely true to the material. It’s a scary place to go if you really want to be an honest singer, but I think we achieved that .”

For the album Gawf assembled musicians he’s worked with before, including three Omaha mainstays in percussionist J.B. Ferguson, bass player Mark Haar, and accordion player Kate Williams. Jazz pianist Eric Andries joined the ensemble from his home in Baton Rouge, La.

The CD marked the inaugural project for Dreamtree Recording, a new studio operated by Omaha musician and sound engineer extraordinaire Marty Bierman.

The recording sessions became Gawf’s playground to have the musicians try different rhythms and tempos – adding, subtracting, mixing, matching various sounds.

“It was true experimentation all the way around,” he says. “It was fun to be able to do that, to not take it straight from the page and to work with such great instrumentalists.”

Carrick says the CD was both “a fascinating” and “massive undertaking” that “organically developed.” Don’t be surprised if she and Gawf re-team for a new project.

Follow the singer at marycarrick.com.

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Opera Omaha co-production of “The Magic Flute” casts enchanting spell

February 25, 2013 1 comment

 

Let me start by saying that I don’t know enough about the art form of opera to intelligently review an opera, any opera, but I do know a thing or two about theater, and opera is music theater.  For what it’s worth then I can add my enthusiastic thumbs up to the new Opera Omaha co-production of The Magic Flute.  I saw the Sunday, Feb. 24 matinee performance at the Orpheum Theater and I can report that the aspects of the show that I knew the most about going in, which were also those that I most anticipated, namely artist Jun Kaneko‘s designs, beautifully complemented and propelled the music and story.   His animated set designs and costume designs were highly expressive yet never detracted from the music or the action.  His work truly helped to set the mood and to draw us in into the emotional life of characters and incidents.  The other aspects of the produciton looked and sounded just as pleasing to me as the designs did and they all worked in unison together to cast an enchanting spell.  It was a thoroughly delightful experience that I had the pleasure of sharing with my girlfriend, Carole Jeanpierre, who has a lovely operatic voice and is composing an original opera of her own.  More to come on all that in future posts.

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