Classics and the Contemporary Mingle at Virginia Opera

Classics and the Contemporary Mingle at Virginia Opera
(North Carolina native soprano Jill Gardner)

By Montague Gammon III

Opening with a multi-genre Tony Award winner by a great 20th Century American composer, and closing with a great operatic tearjerker, Virginia Opera’s 44th Season includes a “rom-com” by Gaetano Donizetti, Mozart’s look at the romantic conquests and hellish come-uppance of an infamous anti-hero, and a new three-show series of shorter, recent creations.

That new Thursday evening Variations Series is the brainchild of Virginia Opera’s Artistic Director, Adam Turner. Audience surveys have revealed an abiding affection for operatic classics overlapping a widespread eagerness for new, unfamiliar works, he explained.

Kurt Weill’s 1947 Tony Award winner, Street Scene is new to Hampton Roads, as were the opening shows of the company’s last 7 Seasons. Street Scene follows two days of domestic mundanities, misdeeds and romances in a Manhattan tenement.

Under the direction of 15-time Virginia Opera stage director Dorothy Danner, the “cast is going to blow this out of the park,” promises Turner. He calls soprano Jill Gardner, the romantic lead of last year’s Girl of the Golden West, “perfect for her role.” He adds that Broadway and international opera star Zachary James, Virginia Opera favorite David Blalock, Gardner and their fellow singing actors offer “vocal power that you have not heard here” recently, in a “melting pot” of musical styles, “from fox trot to Broadway show stoppers to Italianate lyricism.”

One performance of a new compilation of Weill songs called “An Affair to Remember: The Love Story of Kurt Weill & Lotte Lenya,” put together and sung by soprano Ute Gfrerer with Turner on piano, kicks off the Variations Series. 

Weill and Lenya fled Nazi Germany for Paris, arriving in America on a boat in 1935 (while divorced). Weill became an American citizen in 1943, his remarried wife Lenya the next year. 

Turner calls Weill “the quintessential immigrant.” The composer put his art to the service of the American war effort, served as an air raid warden, and “Respectfully asked commentators not to refer to him as a German composer but as an American,” notes Turner.

“Mack the Knife” is Weill’s most familiar song, followed by the oft-covered “September Song.” He also wrote “Alabama Song,” best known now in The Doors’ slightly altered version.

Surviving Weill by 31 years, Lenya became a Broadway star, keeper of the Kurt Weill flame, and played the literally “fatalefemme Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love.

Mozart’s Don Giovanni, helmed by Lillian Groag in her 24th turn as a Virginia Opera stage director, features baritone Tobias Greenhalgh as the serial seducer Don Juan. Greenhalgh, says Turner, “was just named by Opera News as one of the 10 singers in the entire world to watch! We are just thrilled to get that caliber singer.”

The Variations Series presents an art song cycle by Gabriel Kahane titled “Craigslistlieder,” its lyrics lifted from Craiglist accounts of missed interactions, adding “Breaking” by 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist Michael Gilbertson, libretto by Trudy Chan, and “Service Provider” by Christopher Weiss with libretto by John de los Santos, for a “very intimate experience” of a “Short Works Sampler.”

“Breaking,” recounts a tale of a young reporter’s moment of fame, of television and hostages and unintended consequences. 

The opera ezine Partere Box called “Service Provider,” about a young couple’s wedding anniversary dinner going awry, “a crowd-pleasing farce…replete with infidelity, bad cellphone etiquette, and a haughty waiter.”

The “rom-com” of the season is Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, directed by Kyle Lang, who staged La Boheme three seasons ago and Lucia di Lammermoor  last spring. Turner hails tenor Carlos Enrique Santelli, a recent Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions winner, as “positioned to have a major career.”

Then comes Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, rivaled only by Boheme as the premiere heartbreaker in opera. Danielle Pastin, the murderously icy empress Liù in VaOpera’s 2016-17 production of Turandot, takes on the role of the Japanese girl Cio-Cio-San, loved and left by American Naval Lieutenant Pinkerton.

Turner has an anecdote about Pastin.

Listening to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of the Met’s Pagliacci, Turner was impressed by the singer playing Nedda. Over the swelling ovation during the curtain call, the Net’s radio announcer said that was Pastin, making a “triumphant” broadcast debut as a last minute substitute for an ailing soprano.

“An American Dream,” by Jack Perla, with libretto by Jessica Murphy-Moo, offers another take on the matter of immigration raised in the Weill-Lenya show as linked to Butterfly’s prescient look at Europeans depersonalization of Asians. 

In the early months of American involvement in World War 2, as European Jews fled Nazi anti-Semitism, the United States snatched from their homes and incarcerated in what can be called refugee camps (or worse), almost all of the 127,000 mainland residents of Japanese ancestry, including American citizens who were no more than 1/16 Japanese. It’s rightly considered a stain on American history surpassed only by the enslavement of Africans and slavery’s consequent racism, and the devastation of Native American cultures.

This final show in the Variations Series imagines coincidentally crossed paths of refugee Jews who seek the American Dream of home ownership and of interned Japanese Americans, deprived of their home by what they had considered their homeland.

“It’s something we need to talk about,” says Turner.

Virginia Opera 

Harrison Opera House

160 W. Virginia Beach Blvd.

www.vaopera.org 

1-866-673-7282

(Additional main-stage performances in Richmond and Fairfax)

 “An Affair to Remember: The Love Story of Kurt Weill & Lotte Lenya,”

7:00 p.m. Sept. 20

Limited Seating in the Grand Lobby

Street Scene

Kurt Weill, Langston Hughes, Elmer Rice

Sept. 28, 30, Oct. 2

Don Giovanni

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Nov. 2, 4 & 6

 “Short Works Sampler”

7:00 p.m, Jan. 10, 2019.

The Elixir of Love

Gaetano Donizetti

Feb. 8, 10 & 12, 2019

Madama Butterfly

Giacomo Puccini

Mar. 15, 17 & 19, 2019

“An American Dream”

7:00 p.m., April 4, 2019