“Ring” of Fire…

The late, great Johnny Cash utilized a unique trumpet fanfare as the musical introduction to his 1963 single, “Ring of Fire”.  The use of mariachi brass throughout, set this song apart–at least as far as country music was concerned–and resulted in a blaze of glory (pardon the pun) as the song became an instant hit, and a classic one at that!!  I always loved this song, but would hardly have believed that a “Ring of Fire” would have so many meanings for me later in life… .

It seems that the whole operatic world has “Ring Fever” these days as we approach the bicentennial of Richard Wagner’s birth (1813). With the Met’s new media-saturated Ring Cycle currently unfolding in New York, last year’s financially disastrous ‘Los Angeles’ Ring Cycle, and the new ‘American’ Ring Cycle that was canceled in Washington D.C. a few years ago (but which did have several components rolled out over the previous years), I am happy to report that the latter–which was always to have been in co-production with the San Francisco Opera–is alive and well, and in full production/rehearsal mode here in the ‘City by the Bay’.  As Wotan (Bryn Terfel) encircled a body-double-Brunnhilde in a “Ring of Fire” in New York, we here in San Fran were busy in early musical rehearsals for the same.  In fact, we are rehearsing all four installments of the Wagnerian epic concurrently.  It is hectic, tiring, frustrating, and exciting all at the same time!

Under the highly capable direction of Francesca Zambello, and a full team of outstanding associate directors, this so-dubbed ‘American Ring’–because of its adaptable cultural motifs, and unique American settings (ie. big cities, gritty rural trailer parks, etc.)–will finally see the full light of day in June.  Before that, however, stand alone performances of both Siegfried and Gotterdammerung will be presented for the general public and subscription audiences in late May and early June, respectively.

Make no mistake however, there is not one Ring Cycle–NOT ONE–that doesn’t have some big time, real-life drama attached to it; some severe production hurdles to be cleared; or obstacle courses and labyrinthine mazes to navigate.  Well, this ‘Ring’ is no different!!

With a few solid weeks of rehearsal now behind us, basically a full cast now in residence, all prompters in place, a very experienced musical team at the ready, and a settling of the production schedule; I can now report with an equitable perspective on the proceedings thus far:

My first day of production rehearsal for Siegfried (in which I will sing the role of ‘Mime’) was met with our first bit of intrigue.  Our originally scheduled ‘Siegfried’ (Ian Story), who was to perform the role for the first time in both Siegfried and Gotterdammerung had to graciously, but regrettably, step aside from the former role due to a confluence of health and scheduling issues that unfortunately conspired against him.  He will, however, continue to sing the role of ‘Siegfried’ in Gotterdammerung. This is disappointing on a certain level, of course, as Ms. Zambello was striving to achieve uniformity in casting for the full Cycle.  This has now been altered, as Jay Hunter Morris will now sing the role in Siegfried.  For the full record: I found both men to be pleasant and talented, and am currently enjoying the development of my many complicated scenes with Mr. Morris as ‘Siegfried’.

This type of situation is hardly unusual in the operatic universe, with companies and cast members alike simply learning to roll with the punches and move forward when a cast change occurs.  The saying, “Time waits for no man.” (origin uncertain), holds especially true here, but should be amended slightly to read: “Time waits for no rehearsal administrator, because any production delay costs us money!!!!”.  And so, we move on… .

As I run between rehearsals for Das Rheingold and Siegfried, I continue to be impressed with the patience and professionalism of our various stage management teams.  I find them to be excessively polite, even tempered and calm, and of good humor at all times.  This makes the long and arduous rehearsal days all the more tolerable.  But at quitting time each day, I do wonder which bar they head off to in an attempt to reclaim their sanity (?!) …probably the closest one!!!!

More to come, as we work toward presenting what will surely be an historic and entertaining Ring of the Nibelungen, courtesy of Richard Wagner and the San Francisco Opera; with artistic vision from Francesca Zambello, and inspiration from country superstar Johnny Cash!!

“Love is a burning thing…”


The Chorus (a.k.a. Operatic Footsoldiers)

One of the more delightful aspects of coming to Dallas the past few years has been carving out the time to visit some old friends from college (undergraduate school) who have settled in the area for their livelihood.  My best friend in college, and among the first persons I had met when I moved onto campus at Baldwin-Wallace, was one John Petty.  I was always fascinated by his insights, and although we rarely agreed on many topics (then and now), our conversations were always thoughtful, intelligent, and civilized.  I continue to admire his drive, as he has now gone back to school to obtain a Doctorate, remains vibrant as a film historian, is a published author, and continues to write thought provoking editorials on his, admittedly very liberal, blog (when he has free time…which is rare these days).

John attended the final dress rehearsal of Boris Godunov with his lovely wife Judy a few weeks ago, and emailed to me what would have been an enviable review for even the most media credentialed critic to have written.  In it, however, he respectfully expressed some reservations about the Dallas Opera Chorus.  He basically said that they seemed tired, out of steam, and just going through the motions by the start of the final scene of the opera.  Well, never being one to miss an opportunity to NOT argue with John about something, I wrote a reply that I hoped would have helped “explain” his perceptions.  While I did not offer excuses, I did offer reasons.

By the time we even got to the final dress rehearsal, the chorus (which includes a fine children’s chorus), which has many fast and complicated costume changes, extremely strenuous staging, and the most full-throated formidable singing of the evening, had been executing this opera for five straight (late) nights, in slow and arduous rehearsals.  It is not as though they were not prepared either, as Chorus Master Alexander Rom was absolutely diligent and thorough in his duties.  No; they were just really exhausted!!

Unlike some major Opera Companies, this chorus, while being a fully professional enterprise, does not represent full-time employment.  Indeed, virtually every member has a full time job outside of the Opera House, or are full-time students, OR part-time students with yet other part-time jobs in addition to their responsibilities with the Dallas Opera.  Imagine working ALL day, and then coming to the opera house for another 4-6 hours thereafter, usually until midnight; only to do it several days in a row as we approach opening night.

I have, however, expressed in the past that the true measure of an international level Opera Company can be quantified based solely upon the strength of their orchestra and their chorus, first and foremost.  My mind then races back to the 70’s when the Metropolitan Opera Chorus demanded parity with the orchestra in areas of pay and benefits.  I further recall the many opera choruses that I have sung with over the years (including the Metropolitan), before becoming a full fledged principal singer, and painfully recollect the many years of prejudice–yes, PREJUDICE–that singers had experienced because of stereotypes that classed them as non-musicians, or musically inept.  Well, decades of hard work by all singers (soloists, and choristers alike), as well as some hard, bare knuckle negotiating, has erased some of those stereotypes, and settled compensation issues.  But it is never too late to list the many credentials that the professional chorister must holster.  They include: absolute proficiency in music and sight singing, command of several languages including Italian, German, French, Russian, Czech, Spanish,–and increasingly, Chinese, and some Japanese; and of course English (which, by the way, is NOT easy to sing!).  They also need to act, be nimble on-stage, portray perhaps a number of different characters in one night, be adept at stage combat, and without a doubt, DANCE {reference La Traviata, Die Fledermaus, Countess Maritza, The Merry Widow, and many others}.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I believe that individually they would like the opportunity to take a few more solo bows, would probably love the challenge of a full-time chorus position (for those who are not), and would love to not have to wait for union contract negotiations (once every 3 years or so) to demonstrate their relevancy.  I, for one, have nothing but complete respect, appreciation, and empathy for their many functions on the stage.  In Boris Godunov, Turandot, Carmen, Otello, Tosca, Peter Grimes, War and Peace, Billy Budd, and countless others; the chorus actually accounts for creating an entire additional character to the story line, collectively.  At the Met, Paris Opera, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and La Scala, the chorus must have as many as 30-50 operas solidly in their heads, and at their command, as production schedules have been so terribly condensed that there is little time for rehearsing, let alone learning!  I will never forget entering the chorus lounge at the Met in the very early 90’s and seeing a newly hired full-time chorus member with some 22 scores stacked at his side, one open on his lap, with his head-phones firmly in place, as he studied on every break and over every lunch hour–and I’m sure at his home (whenever he got there!), all in an effort to achieve what seemed to be the most daunting musical mission I could have conjured.  Then I thought:  “That is a REAL opera professional!!!”

To the Dallas Opera Chorus specifically:  I will miss the pleasant smiles from all the ladies, and the fist bumps from the men as they bustle to the stage.  Until next year, keep up the good work of being “REAL opera professionals”!!!

And just for the record, after almost three full days off before we opened Boris Godunov in Dallas, the chorus took to the stage, rested and ready, for what turned out to be an historic night of singing and presentation by all on-stage; including themselves!


Humbled to say: “I told you so!!” (Boris Godunov, Dallas Opera)

As I attended a performance of Rigoletto on April 2, 2011 (one day after opening night of Boris Godunov) with my girlfriend Tracy, I must admit that I was thrilled to have been approached by several audience members who had already seen Boris at either our final dress rehearsal, or our actual opening night performance of this Mussorgksy masterwork.  Additionally, I was even more gratified to meet the same, and others, who were regular readers of my commentaries on davidcangelosi.com, who actually asked me to do this follow-up!!

I will be the first to admit that, yes, I do indeed still appreciate the many compliments that I so graciously receive from the public; but also must reveal that over the past few decades, the coins of braggadocio that I once carried so abundantly in my pockets have now given way to mostly self-deprecating editorializing about myself.  I am not sure what the reason for this is(?!).  Perhaps I have just grown up, or just grown old!  Maybe I have gotten jaded, or become “tired“, or even considerably weary during these very difficult times for the arts.  I don’t really know; but in reality, it’s probably a bit of all the aforementioned.  This will not, however, stop me from (humbly) congratulating myself for nailing the prediction I made in my March 14th blog posting.(http://www.davidcangelosi.com/boris-godunov-at-the-dallas-opera/).

You see, we not only opened Boris Godunov this past weekend at the Dallas Opera; we triumphed with it!  It is no secret that I am singing the role of Shuisky for the first time (serving gratefully as a late replacement to the original cast), and am intimately and intricately involved in the production….so suffice it to say that I have clearly made the disclosure, and may well be biased toward this production and my colleagues….fine, let’s just say that, in fact!  But there is no need for you to just believe me….

I heartily invite you internet, search-engine-savvy, practitioners to peruse the world-wide-web for various reviews of the Dallas Opera’s final production of the season.  Whether reading from media-credentialed critics, laptop lovin’ internet opera aficionados, or avid operaphiles of the common-man variety , the findings are overwhelmingly praiseworthy:  This production and its entire cast, headed by Mikhail Kazakov has, in a way, made history.  With a solid mix of Russian and American singers, legends and legends-to-be, as well as solid, respected, and seasoned veterans (I like to consider myself as part of the latter most category), this cast was virtually unbeatable.

Why historic, you may ask?  The answer lies in two parts, (IMHO).

First the Macro-reasoning:
I have been inundated with commentary from individuals who either attended ‘live’, or saw the new Metropolitan Opera HD Theatercast production very recently.  Now, in no way that will attempt to denigrate the Met’s presentation, I must say that every one of the folks who referenced it, told me that they preferred the Dallas Opera production and cast, overall.  That really does say/mean something when a firm, substantial, and internationally recognized regional opera company (and its base audience) can compete toe-to-toe with the most acclaimed and celebrated opera company in the world! (BTW, this is a GOOD thing for all opera; not necessarily a pro-Dallas or anti-Met stance, as I truly believe in the saying “A rising tide raises all ships.”!)

Now the Micro-reasoning:
As I had intimated in my March 14th blog-posting:

“From the moment Mr. Kazakov opened his mouth, I knew I was in the presence of greatness–with respect to his vocal gifts, of course.  I have (almost) never been so totally overwhelmed by a voice of such rich quality, sensitivity of expression, seemingly limitless volume, and equally impressive ‘pianissimi‘ in this particular vocal ‘fach’.  This a major, MAJOR instrument…  It is also a rarefied experience to become totally transfixed by fine singing AND fine acting…  With respect to this latter attribute, Mr. Kazakov also does not disappoint.  His character is clearly (and believably) conflicted and anguished, tormented and tortured, and as haunted as Hamlet in the ‘ghost story’ elements of that Shakespearean masterpiece.

….ultimately it will be Mr. Kazakov’s performance that will carry the evening.”

Well, almost ALL of the critics agree with everything I had said weeks before this opera even premiered here in Dallas!  To fully impart, Mr. Kazakov has performed this role to great acclaim with the Bolshoi, so it’s not as though he is absolutely new on the scene.  But even my most opera-informed professionals, with whom I regularly consult, had not yet heard of him.  But DALLAS OPERA got him here first, and THAT is what is historic–as this man could surely become legend, even for this role alone.

Therefore, even though I am a part of this production, and even though I made my “unapologetic predictions” back on March 14th, and even though I do not brag on myself to any great degree anymore, I must admit (albeit with a wry smile) that:

“I am humbled to say: “I told you so!”