How do you write a love letter to an opera about people who write love letters? Friday night at the Orpheum, Opera Omaha premiered the final installment of its 2021-22 season, Eugene Onegin, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The production was absolutely stunning.
Director Rosetta Cucchi, created a triumphant and sensitive presentation of the story. Set in the 1950s instead of in its 19th century roots, epistolary action still propelled much of the thrilling internal journey of the characters. A fascinating foil was added to Tatyana’s character: Brenda Crawley portrayed the silent, older Tatyana, who recalled the tragic events from her youth which unfolded before us as the Onegin tale. Crawley was chilling, somber, deliberate, and highly effective. Alongside Cucchi’s slightly modernized aesthetic, the older Tatyana made the impact of loss, nostalgia, and longing all the more palpable throughout the production.
Lauren Michelle sang the role of Tatyana with victorious ease, and strength. Michelle’s power, and dexterity dance out of her voice. Her humanity is tangible, visible, and haunting. Her cast mates were just as gripping.
Alexander Elliot was seductive, and poignant in the title role. His tasty baritone timbre cut through the orchestra with delightful, and surgical precision. Hilary Ginther’s portrayal of Olga skillfully balanced the charm, and tragedy of the character. Her luxurious Mezzo-soprano savor ornamented the texture of the ensemble cast just like a favorite Christmas ornament.
Scott Quinn’s Lensky broke my heart, in the best possible way. His heralding tenor, carried passion, happiness, abandon, and destruction across the landscape of the tragedy remarkably. His performance demonstrated a beautiful instrument, and a natural dramatic insightfulness.
Pablo Santiago and Julia Noulin-Mérat conquered once again as the lighting and set designers respectively. A gently pastoral scene accented the characters’ humanity in the first act. In the second act an urbane contrast punctuated the bourgeoisie existential crisis which swept our characters into their fates. The entire time, shadows and sword-like, white rays of light moved the singers faces in and around their destiny. It was captivating.
Every detail was set as a perfect table. Victoria Livengood and Mariya Kaganskaya were memorable in their supporting roles not only for their sublime voices, but for their superb Russian.
In language relatively few Nebraskans speak, Opera Omaha was able to deliver a message that everyone on earth can understand. Delivered by sumptuous voices, and in pristine scenic nuance, Opera Omaha‘s Eugene Onegin is a magnificent achievement.
I stood up with the rest of the audience at the end to applaud the splendid spectacle. I hope many of you are as blessed as I am, not only to have seen the show or to see it on Sunday, but to live in an as enviable a position. Unlike the tragic Onegin himself, I hope you all have the privilege to understand the beauty of an existence you cannot completely fix, rather than to live a life you don’t have the imagination to endure. Tchaikovsky painted, and Opera Omaha further illustrated in vivid color, that in the end, luxury and poverty don’t differentiate amidst their tenants any appropriation of joy. Rather the trick and the conquest which Tatyana and Onegin ultimately fail to solve or to win, is one of understanding. What one wants and what one deserves are only ever justified by the courageous timing of what one is willing to sacrifice: pride, charity, pretense… their own expectations or the hopes of the people they say they love.
Congratulations, Opera Omaha, not only on a treasurable production, but a treasure trove of a season.
“Every character is relatable in some way…” she said off the cuff, but that simple sentiment churned into the central thesis of my charming interview with Mezzo-soprano, Hilary Ginther, on Friday April 15. Ginther was more-than-kind to take a break from the daunting tech week leading up to Friday April 22nd and the Opera Omaha premiere of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s, Eugene Onegin. Three minutes into our conversation I was already a little bit intimidated as an artist.
Ginther is a class act. Her articulation for discourse over expressive media, abstract theatrical concepts, and emotional tropes are all unparalleled. Many of even the most exquisite creative minds, struggle to represent the intangibles of good art or music in writing, or in conversation. Ginther, was a veritable talking guide book about…. You name it. What makes Tchaikovsky great? She has a poetic answer. What are the challenges in preparing opera in Russian? She was practically ready to tutor me herself. How do you prepare for a role? Well, just listen to what she said: “I like to do my homework and start with the source material. I got several different versions of the novel, listened to audio books…just dug myself into whatever out there had been produced or told about the story. Then I knew the next thing I had to do was go straight to the Russian text. …get on zoom with my Russian coaches in different parts of the world. …Let’s make this to where I sound authentic. That’s what’s important to me. I definitely make myself a schedule of where I need to be in my process -in how many weeks or months before I arrive at a gig. I want to arrive at that gig and hardly have to crack the score. Now I can enjoy getting to know why I ended up caring about Olga so much and see so much of myself in her sometimes.” That exegesis was electric. As a teacher, if I could fit it all on a poster, I’d put it up behind my studio piano.
Not to boast with too much bias for Ginther, but it seems like a guarantee that her performance of Olga in this weekend’s Onegin will be sublime. She knows this character better than some of us know ourselves. If you take her clarity and illustrative expression as an indicator of her taste, she also raved about her cast mates. This cast and material are making a lot of promises to Omaha that a fabulous show is in the works. After an already triumphant season, I think we can count on Onegin, being the icing on the company’s 2022 cake.
Audiences will find Onegin instantly relatable. This is not an austere love story. Ginther aptly summarized the deeply human tale: “It’s such a romantic story. It’s so much about the pain of not getting what you want in the end.” She also elaborated that director Rosetta Cucchi has striven to give these characters, beyond-the-typical, depth and perspective, “We all see that [these characters] -in ourselves. We all want to be happy all the time, but sometimes you feel the pang of jealousy. That’s very human, and it’s made me able to step into the character and not really have to stretch too far to understand the things she does and why she says the things she says.”
This fabulous source material, the Alexander Pushkin novel of the same name, created any easy landscape for the composer, Tchaikovsky, to organize his own libretto, which was not exactly the norm for 19th century composers.
By the end of our half hour on the phone I was buzzing with anticipation for the show.
Ginther was also very affectionate about her time in Omaha. She’s spent some lovely moments at La Buvette downtown. She even remarked that the Orpheum is an “embarrassment of riches” noting that both architecturally and acoustically it’s a joy to sing in the space.
We are so blessed to have such a production, performed by such high caliber humans as Hilary Ginther. I can’t wait to see you all there!
It’s a refreshing joy to see a standing ovation for a percussionist. But that’s what happened Sunday at the Joslyn. We take “the beat” for granted. Music, plainly, can’t happen without it. Even the apparent absence of a pulse is contrastingly a discussion about pulse, and insofar as we observe the “pulselessness,” we are in fact comparing a piece of music with no pulse to its relative pulsed counterparts…so I guess Gloria Estefan was correct: “The Rhythm,” will eventually, “Get You.”
On Sunday at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall, after a rousing presentation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony 39 in Eb Major, the crowd stood up, but not just for anyone, for principal Timpanist, Jack Rago. The Mozart piece was sensational, hum-able, tap-able… truly just packed with ear worms. Rago was heavily featured in the texture and deserved more than a few claps for his triumph.
Another standout in the beautiful afternoon was guest conductor, François López-Ferrer, making his Omaha debut. López-Ferrer danced with the Symphony all afternoon; not the way a ballerina takes the stage. Rather, López-Ferrer, dances with the ensemble the way everybody wants to be danced with by their partner: just enough hands, tons of rhythm from head to toe, and perfectly flirty enough to make you feel classy and mischievous at the same time. It’s no surprise his relatively young career is taking off like a trans Pacific flight. López-Ferrer is charming, expressive, and displays a love of music that goes down like dessert.
Claude Debussy’s Prélude à "L'après-midi d'un faune, delighted. A perfectly iconic example of Debussy’s penchant for playing away the thrall of typical tonality.
Also presented, a mainstay in the symphony scene, though not in the opera scene, was the overture from Hector Berlioz’ opera Béatrice et Bénédict. True to form, the ensemble was sumptuous.,
The last two composers on the program are definitely trickier trivia fodder for the non-symphony-addict-style patron. They performed Manuel De Falla’s Suite No.1 from The Three-Cornered Hat and, Emmanuel Chabrier’s Fête polonaise, from Le roi malgré lui. Chabrier was heavily influenced by the enchanting Spanish folk and dance rhythms and modes which had captivated Parisian artistic circles throughout the 19th century. De Falla was a Spanish composer who moved to Paris on his journey to becoming a world class composer.
The two pieces presented an ecstatic collage of contrasting and similar splattering of Iberian musical sustenance. I was trying to not dance in my seat the entire time. Thankfully the audience all stood up at the end so I could join them in making some noise, and movement, to appreciate the wonderful set.
“He said, ‘Hi. I’m Bill. Relax…’ and we walked into the hall and were already joking with each other. It was great. He had tons of questions because he’d never been to a dueling piano bar. He’s that famous.” -Michael Cavanaugh describing his whimsical discovery story; the night he met Billy Joel and his famed association with the American pop rock icon’s lexicon of songs began. On March 25 at the Holland Center, Cavanaugh’s set was glittering with gems like this one. In anecdote, interpretation, and song he channeled Billy Joel with a dazzling effortlessness. The Omaha Symphony was a natural collaboration for the grandiose scope of Joel’s songwriting.
The orchestra arrangements were thrilling. When Cavanaugh and the Symphony performed “The Longest Time,” the addition of pizzicato throughout turned the already charming love song, into a Tiffany-window-worthy jewel. During “She’s Got a Way,” if I had closed my eyes, I would have thought Billy Joel was in the room. “Goodnight Saigon” was positively wild; So timely for a season when the realities of war are being germinated once again into our zeitgeist. Cavanaugh’s poetic and sincere interpretation alongside the positively cinematic orchestra was spectacular.
Ernest Richardson, Resident and Principal Pops Conductor, introduced 2 orchestral arrangements from Joel’s 2001 “Fantasies and Delusions.” He explained that the piece was originally written by, the classically trained, Joel as a piano solo, but had been arranged for orchestra. The presentation was exquisite. The ensemble simultaneously made me hear the action of the piano and forget the piece was meant for piano at all.
Alan Snow served as concertmaster for the evening. The strings were, as usual, remarkable, but their seamless cooperation with an outstanding combo was extraordinary: Billy Venditti – Bass, Johnny Fedevich – Percussion, Jamie Hosmer – Keyboards, John Scarpulla – Saxophone/hand percussion, Jim Guthrie – Guitar, and Kenneth Cino – Guitar. The entire ensemble, despite having only played together for a matter of, less than days, transported me inside every Billy Joel music video ever made… plus a few that haven’t even been produced.
Cavanaugh’s relationship with these songs permeates his influence. The stories he relayed about the repertoire were as tangible as an adolescent scrapbook. He wistfully reminded the audience with Joel’s performance on the post 9/11 telethon before he delivered a stirring rendition of “New York State of Mind.” During “Tell Her About It,” a dozen couples in the inner balcony, took to dancing in the aisles. The combo spotlessly became a men’s chorus with Cavanaugh for “Uptown Girl.”
Cavanaugh took care to pay tribute to Joel’s influences as well, peppering in “Great Balls of Fire” by Little Richard and “Johnny Be Good” by Chuck Berry. It was also delightful to hear Cavanaugh’s own song, “Dig In,” which he delivered with a deeply refreshing joy, alongside his playful jokes about the band’s merchandise and marketing.
I can’t wait for Cavanaugh to return to Omaha. The rest of the audience agreed, standing for most of the last 10 minutes of the concert to dance, cheer, sing, and applaud.
COCKTAILS, MAESTRO, MUSEUMS, AND VISION: KEEPING ORCHESTRAL PRESENTATION EVER FRESH WITH THE OMAHA SYMPHONYRead Now
It was a privilege earlier this month to speak with Maestro Bahl about his, and his staff’s efforts to remove barriers between the patronage of Omaha, and our fabulous symphony. The Omaha Symphony and her concert venue at the Holland Center are world class. Attendance at most of her events is enthusiastic. However, classical music is a funny nut to crack in a digital age. It is my belief, and my goal (and I am unashamed of these biases) that our city’s population should begin a renewal of devotion to the orchestral medium and clamor over each other to experience what if offers.
“What’s been wrong in the past is the packaging,” Maestro said, “My goal as a music director of a great orchestra in a great town like Omaha, is to make sure that people don’t feel like there’s a barrier of entry. In fact, I want to meet them where they are. I want to be involved in their lives, their voices, and their artistry.” I too have long been flummoxed that people feel so distanced from a medium, which in my experience offers such a profoundly intimate encounter with the world’s greatest imaginations.
The Symphony itself is more than doing its part. This month alone, the spectacle, the repertoire, the venues, and the discourse made available to our city, were inspiring. There were dancers projected on screens above Michael Daugherty’s Red Cape Tango. Stravinsky, Bach, Copland, Debussy, and other greats sounded as duets with the great works of art, and acoustically thrilling spaces of the Joslyn Art Museum at Maestro’s Mixtape.
This weekend the incredible Michael Cavanaugh will adorn the Symphony’s well rounded repertory crown with a concert tribute to Billy Joel.
What is this barrier between “Joe and Jane Omaha” and the Symphony? Well, there isn’t one to be honest. Tickets are affordable, tuxes are not required, you can drink your wine through the whole show, and they are presenting everything from Beethoven to the ABBA each season.
The barrier is in the mind of our culture. Prime time sitcom ridden supper conversation and a 24-hour news cycle, present classical music as “in the background.” It’s brought up, or interspersed like a memory from a bygone era. Much more disappointing, sometimes its presented in such a bad context or in ill-equipped performances, that people mistakenly believe they actually “dislike” classical music altogether.
Classical music is more than a genre. It’s an entire language. But more than simply a language of sound, it’s a language of emotion, imagination, structure, and context. Just as it would be ignorant to say “I don’t like French,” it’s preposterous to blankly assert “I don’t like Classical music.”
“There’s something beautiful about that culture we have to still experience.” Maestro Bahl said to me, about Russian music specifically, in preparation for the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody 2 weeks ago. But like so much of Maestro’s wisdom, that sentiment can be applied to our reception of almost every example of Classical music at its finest. These orchestral accomplishments represent a comprehensive glimpse of different human realities across space and time.
Classical music’s ubiquitous nature allows the properties within, which are most enriching, to hide in plain sight. We don’t even know that we “already speak” this language. But we deserve for the benefit of our soul, mind, and heart, to give it a chance. Not once, not twice, but endlessly, because once all of YOU finally have your revelatory moment, you’ll meet the piece of musical history you didn’t even know was written just for you. You won’t turn back. It may sound like I am giving you a prescription, because I am. Go to the Holland, maybe even for the Billy Joel tribute, if not, for anything else they are presenting soon. If you need the lubrication, the wine is actually pretty nice. Sit there, and take it in. You merit the gift of letting this timeless idiomatic part of our culture change you.
On March 11th and 12th, Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, was presented alongside Daugherty’s Red Cape Tango, and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. During the Daugherty piece in particular, a massive screen hovered above the orchestra. Midway through this captivating tango Fredrick Davis and Alexandra Hoffman, of the Midwest American Ballet, appeared on the canvas in a smart black suit and a stunning red dress. They brought the tango to life. The music was familiar and new, braiding an ever-present dance rhythm from both cinematic and cultural history, with the swirling landscape of Daugherty’s epic style.
Hoffman was a flawless but sultry ingenue. Her technique in the video, weaving in and out of the sunlight splashed across the Holland’s grand stair cast a spell alongside the music. Davis was strong, and seductive as well leaping, and spinning with and around his partner in a tremendously satisfying way.
At Maestro’s Mixtape on March 16th, the Symphony co-starred with the unbelievably live spaces of the Joslyn Art Museum itself. Much like at her home, the Holland, the Symphony let some wine and spirits make a welcome cameo in the Storz Fountain Court.
Patrons circled through the venues created on the Strauss Bridge, the Scott Gallery, the U.S. Bank and Rismiller Galleries, and the Witherspoon Concert Hall. Surrounded by the art deco masterpiece that is our gem of a museum, patrons strolled through performances of Bach beneath Guido Reni’s David and Goliath, then absorbed William Grant Still standing next to Kehinde Wiley’s Three Girls in a Wood. The spaces were entrancing. The wild and full acoustic capabilities of these halls, made me wonder why we haven’t been going to string quartet concerts in this museum, every weekend.
The Maestros Ernest Richardson, Ankush Kumar Bahl, Deanna Tham and Austin Chanu also joined the audience for a quick break and some Q and A around the fountains between sets. Chris Allen, the general manager of Omaha’s Classical Radio, KVNO, facilitated the conversation.
Tham was rapturous about the possibilities of the space in the Joslyn: “This is music exploding out of the ensemble, visually!” She continued, “The space takes over the music…. [it’s] immersive in a completely different way than our other hall.”
Richardson was his best effusive self, continuing to illustrate the possibilities of music in this grandiose yet intimate setting: “Music is always written for a specific place and time. In this space we had to be very cognizant that any gesture will keep sounding. I loved the proximity of the players to the audience.”
Coming soon in the Omaha Symphony conversation “We have 3 world premieres next year,” Maestro Bahl boasted. He proudly asserts that we are offering an orchestral presentation that’s connected to the music happening today. While the repertoire of the past is tremendous, interacting with the work of composers still living can ignite a community’s inspiration and imagination for the medium. Maestro quipped that “We can’t have Beethoven on the phone. But we can talk to these people.” Audiences can trust that these world premieres have been personally touched in the rehearsal process by the composers who crafted them. We are blessed to live in a time when technology makes the world small enough to bring these minds and persons together with more ease than has ever been possible before.
There’s so much visual, architectural, stylistic, and conversational integration happening with this ensemble. Moreover, it all happens in a deeply streamlined and intentional way. You simply must give it a chance. Maybe, I’ll see you at the Billy Joel tribute. But I promise, these Maestros and their musicians have done more than you can imagine to make sure you can see that this music, is for you.
What do Superman, the Catholic Requiem Mass, and Russia’s most famous pianist have in common? You might not draw many instant connections, but music can unify almost anything and anyone across space and time. That sentiment was the most delightful takeaway from my conversation with Maestro Ankush Kumar Bahl on Tuesday afternoon. He was kind enough to chat with me in anticipation of this weekend’s sure-to-be stunning concert. During our discourse he expressed a very apropos philosophical nugget regarding how our city’s exquisite symphony envisions unique and thrilling programs; like this one, surrounding Hector Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique: “All music speaks to all people from a very young age.”
I agree with Maestro, that this weekend will engage everyone. At the rehearsal Wednesday, in addition to the swirlingly exciting sound itself, the subject matter inspiring each piece created a tapestry glittered with the trappings of Hollywood, history, and our world community’s mutually fabulous imaginative pursuits. A tango seduced Superman, Berlioz’ “artist” hallucinates his way through love and death, and one of the Church’s most famous and haunting chants danced throughout it all.
Maestro Bahl was excited to boast that the programs he and the creative staff at the Omaha Symphony develop, seek to demonstrate to everyone that these pieces of music, brand new and standard repertoire alike, create bridges from everyone’s imagination to the medium of our fabulous orchestra. Speaking broadly about symphonic music in general he elaborated “In the past […] there’s been an artificial façade or wall to the concert hall. My goal as music director in a great town like Omaha is to make sure that people don’t feel like there’s a barrier of entry to the concert hall.”
After my preview of this weeks’ rehearsals, I would relish that even one new ear, gets that message. Someday, I hope droves new people clamor to engage with exciting programs like this. There is so much in this concert for you. I don’t care who you are.
The concert will open with a movement from Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony:
Red Cape Tango. Daugherty aspires to explore iconic American moments and persons in much of his work. In Red Cape Tango, the music illustrates that Superman is drawn into an enthralling dance with death. The namesake dance style woven throughout, bespeaks both a familiarity and an exoticism. That comfort and foreboding combine into a singularly seductive display.
Patrons will see a newer kind of media built into the performance of Tango. Dancers will illustrate the action as they are projected on a screen above the ensemble. The screen will also render thematic assistance later in the evening during Symphonie Fantastique.
This piece is exceptionally fascinating. The juxtaposition of Latin rhythmic textures with almost every sonority the string section is capable of producing is vivid. The accent of the brass is stunning. Susanna Perry Gilmore, concertmaster, is also going to be featured in some wild and beautiful solos.
Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, is an almost infamous standard of the repertoire. It’s gorgeous, it’s challenging, it’s rousing, and when it was composed it was dramatically ahead of its time. When Berlioz wrote it, the changes Beethoven had made on the ground floor of Romantic Music, we still taking root. Programmatic Music, or music that expresses a narrative, was, compared to what we know today, in its infancy. Berlioz crafted a piece which showed the world of 1830, something that would seem familiar in a movie score in 1960.
Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, will be thrilling for entirely different reasons. An emblematic standard of the repertoire, and a virtuosic exhibition, Rhapsody features this concert’s guest artist, Gabriela Martinez on the piano. Born in Venezuela, Martinez has become an international sensation. She made her orchestral debut at age 7 and has since crafted a sterling reputation for her elegant approach to the stage and her incredible artistry.
Maestro Bahl, notes that he is lucky to call Martinez a friend, “I don’t think I’ve ever conducted her, but […] we were friends in New York City during and after my education and also hers.” It’s wonderful for me as a fellow musician to see such high-quality artists’ lives wind in and out of each other’s path as they grow and succeed. It’s a testament to the ability of music to unify not only our imaginations, but our conversations, our experiences, and our journeys. I was touched on Tuesday when Maestro added, “I think the common thing with all my friends who have come through here is that they are super talented but they are also super human beings.”
The most stridently unifying aspect of the concert is the Dies Irae motive from the Catholic Church’s Requiem Mass. This haunting and beautiful melody, offering sonic support to the text meaning “day of wrath” has for centuries been a pivotal element of the traditional funeral rites. These three composers were all inspired to fantasize in different ways how the implications of that chant melody could tell stories about dark, inspiring, or evocative corners of the human condition. The motive is heavily incorporated into all three works.
That also illuminates a beautiful aspect of our cultural reality on this planet. Maestro Bahl said it much better than I could, “We have to remember that it’s one person, one political system deciding to go to war. It’s not that culture. There’s something beautiful in [another] culture that we have to still experience.”
These imaginative and expressive ties bind us all across every kind of corporal or political border. I hope that Omaha audiences will continue, and in greater and greater numbers to give these exciting performances a try. Maestro wants them all to know, “Whatever we do, and whatever we come up with, we are presenting it in a way that feels like it’s for you.”
“You can’t imagine the rapture in store…” Tobias exclaimed, which character was magnificently sung by Michael Kuhn, at the beginning of Act II during Opera Omaha’s production of Sweeney Todd last night at the Orpheum Theatre. Firstly, I agree with Toby. The show was rapturous. Secondly, and frankly, Kuhn was part of a 4-way-tie with lighting designer, Pablo Santiago, the Omaha Symphony itself, and the Opera Omaha Chorus, in their apparent race to steal the show.
Kuhn’s voice, authenticity, tangible emotion, and did I mention his voice!!!... as he portrayed Tobias Ragg, were a hearty jewel in the production’s crown. Every show should be so lucky as to have Kuhn’s clear and evocative instrument and personae woven into its tapestry.
The Omaha Symphony, under the direction of Conductor, Hal France, was at its best. Sweeney is an orchestral feast both melodically and texturally. Under France’s baton the audience left quizzically-full for having just watched a 3-hour epic metaphor on comically-accidental-cannibalism.
The Chorus, was larger-than-life. The ambitious choral score of Sondheim’s masterwork, was presented with dexterity, clarity, and an appropriately-scary flare.
Santiago, is to be congratulated. He brought this human tragedy’s waltz between the morbid and the comical to life with a haunting display of contrast, color, and shadow. Santiago’s accomplishments in this season are profound. I can’t wait to see what he does to Eugene Onegin, later this spring.
I am a huge, huge Sweeney fan. The truths of the libretto’s commentary on the condition of mankind, and its intricate architecture within Sondheim’s marvel of a score, are unforgettable, delightful, and terrifying. As a 22-year-old nerd, dared by a friend to come up with an afternoon activity uniquely, “New York,” I once took out a NYC library student membership to view the original cast recording in the Lincoln Center’s archives.
So, I was admittedly thirsting for Opera Omaha’s success with this show. Now that I’ve seen it, all I can do is think about how much I wish I could watch it again. Leaving a show frightened to my core by an existential crisis, while simultaneously humming any one of about 6 tremendous tunes, was funny-kind-of-hell-of-a-way to spend a Saturday evening. I was charmed by all of it.
Susan Clement’s stage direction, for her first Sweeney, much less her company debut, were courageously tuned into what makes Sondheim dazzling. It comprehended the horror, humor, and humanity of Sweeney vividly. Exquisite.
Back to the race for “stealing the show” I mentioned to start: Despite their valiant and, invigorating attempts to snag the trophy, Zachary James, securely held onto the spot light, and I had nightmares about it in the most enjoyable way. James made Sweeney as much a human as he did a demon. He was thrillingly-chilling, in this his Opera Omaha debut.
It would be a shame not to mention the exceptional vocal performances of Ashley Emerson and Jonathon Johnson as the (slightly though altogether not “traditionally”) more romantic pair of the story, Johanna and Anthony. Katy Lindhart, as the Beggar Woman, was hauntingly beautiful, befitting the macabre kaleidoscope of the night. All three performers were part of the onslaught of Opera Omaha debuts.
It was refreshing to see a piece of work, so often tackled in the realm of the visceral, be presented so beautifully in the theatre of the mind. The flexible set, with its pervasive homage to blades, the collision of very human reds, with a very deathly gray scale, as well as the consistent betrayal of the 4th wall by cast and lighting alike… all coalesced into a vibrantly memorable presentation.
There was a casual and believable kinship amidst the cast. To sing such expansive music, while still appearing to have a very relevant intimacy and a common past within the story, was bizarrely captivating.
I hope Omaha celebrates this achievement in its discussion of our city’s music scene for years to come. Audiences should buy whatever seats are left to give it the recognition it deserves.
Razors are swinging and sales are soaring at the Orpheum Theatre tonight for Opera Omaha’s new production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Stephen Sondheim.
This production is designed and performed by a triumphant regiment of Opera Omaha debut artists and returning favorites. In particular Susan Clement, the Bluebarn Theatre’s Artistic Director since 2002, stage and concept directed this exciting new inception. It’s also her first time directing the work.
Zachary James, the original “Lurch” in the Broadway production of The Addams Family, not to mention a Grammy nominee, is also making an exciting Opera Omaha debut as the title character.
Sondheim, who passed away just last November, is an American music icon. The repertoire he contributed to the various cannon of standards, theatrical productions, and classically esteemed works includes such famously familiar staples as the lyrics of West Side Story, the song Send In the Clowns, the musicals A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, Company, and upwards of dozens more songs and shows even theatrical novices would defy statistics not to recall from the zeitgeist of the last 60 years.
All that is to say, the profound ticket sales response from Omaha patrons should come as no shock. If you haven’t caught the same “blood lust” for this macabre and yet amusing work of genius, I think you should jump on the bandwagon.
This masterwork of Sondheim’s features a brilliant and dazzling juxtaposition of dark comedy, true horror, and fascinating music. No matter your walk of life or your taste, there is something in this work that will snare your imagination. That’s perhaps why, amongst American Musical Theatre works, this is so frequently featured in the seasons of the best Opera Companies.
Opera Omaha’s Head of Music and Chorus Director, Sean Kelly, elaborated that Sweeney is a selection worthy of a company’s attention for its expansive and grandiose vision: “Opera in its definition is a celebration of every art form at the same time.” He continued, “I personally think that Sondheim is so musically sophisticated, that what he requires from the artists is the same amount of intellect, and savvy, and vocal technique that Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini require. For me there’s no difference.”
Kelly, who is a conquering and celebratory advocate for the first-rate company Opera Omaha has matured into over the last two decades, lauded this production of Sweeney as a particular and stirring accomplishment. He raved about “the power of the cast.” When he was kind enough to let me pick his brain about the show on Tuesday afternoon, the discourse consistently returned to his pride in the ensemble: “I think you would be silly to miss this opportunity. I really can’t imagine, whether we are talking about a Broadway show, or an Opera Company, a stronger cast. [It’s] just magnetic from top to bottom.
Obviously, it’s this blogger’s advice you should all, “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”
Enjoying live music, the last 2 seasons, has become an extraordinary experience as a performer and an audience member alike. The Omaha symphony has stitched together the programs from its 2020 plans as well as exciting visions of new repertoire for the last half of the 2022 season.
At the Joslyn on January 9th, during a presentation of Dvořák, Walker, and Schumann, it was “Street Song” for Symphonic Brass, by Michael Tilson Thomas, that stole the show. Gems like Thomas’ work are part of the trademark charm of the Joslyn concert series.
Patrick Pfister, the principal Trombone for the Omaha Symphony was good enough to share his thoughts on what makes these programs admirable and enjoyable for artists as well as patrons. On January 14, Pfister detailed for me, that the Thomas piece was actually featured on one of the first Empire Brass recordings he ever owned when he was as young as 13 years old. Knit into his memories of falling in love with symphonic brass as a teenage player, he was finally able perform this unique and rare piece amidst a program of already niche and delightful selections.
Pfister was a delight to hear speak on the Symphony’s programs. He had an astonishing, and quick to recall, conversational rapport with symphonic repertoire. Not only was the catalogue of pieces with which he is familiar exciting to explore over coffee, but his vernacular in describing what makes all these pieces love-able was simultaneously engaging for both a professional musician and a symphonic novice.
Pfister lauded that the Joslyn Series in particular, “[is] a good way to hear composers that aren’t really represented.” Pieces that don’t “require a 70-person orchestra to play” are an ideal feature for the Joslyn’s more intimate space. Many of the great and distinctive programs designed for the Holland, “the big hall,” the Omaha Symphony usually calls home, contain iconic and eagerly anticipated standards. For the Joslyn Series, he continued, “You can look around the world and you’d be hard pressed to find a lot [of the pieces] … that we’re playing in Joslyn…. More oddities that are great works but don’t get the same love.”
Pfister’s perspective on what is endearing to player and listener alike, was affectionate, inclusive, and diverse. He noted his excitement about past loves including Baroque music, Kurt Weil, Strauss, and the avant-garde of the last century. I asked him what he was most excited about presenting to Omaha audiences this spring. He was quick to answer -with his excitement for the 2015 Adam Schoenberg piece, Picture Studies, on the January 14th program. He was also elated to be presenting Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition on the same concert.
January 14th was a fantastic concert! The multimedia animated and still visual vignettes designed by USC Students, and their team leaders, Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger, which accompanied the Mussorgsky piece were captivating. Pfister, noted that these unusual and specifically engaging program choices are the distinguishing feature of the Omaha Symphony. Audiences can consistently expect to be impressed, and refreshed by the variety of textures and flavor on any of the concert sets, “whether its great music we haven’t played in Omaha in quite a while, or whether its brand-new music, or whether its one of the hidden gems that usually winds up on the Joslyn programs, we are always trying to mix it up. But then the Symphony as a whole… our orchestra has a good blend of pops, rocks…and sometimes chamber music and the opera.”
The Omaha Symphony accompanies Opera Omaha’s productions including this month’s upcoming, Sweeney Todd, by Stephen Sondheim. The luminary musical theatre masterpiece is crafted in such grandiose and imaginative scope that it has often been tackled as an all-consuming work by many great opera companies. This Sweeney, features Susan Clement’s debut as the concept and stage designer for Opera Omaha. Alongside choreographer, David Neuman of Hadestown fame, the stage is set for an absolutely riveting collaboration with the Symphony players.
The entire season in fact is a cornucopia of masterful orchestral music: Berlioz’s Symponie Fantatique in March, Tchaikovsky’s 4tH Symphony, in May, and Time For Three playing Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto 3 – 4, Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2.
I cannot wait to see you all there as I get to know this Orchestra, its amazing array of presentations, and its players even better in the coming weeks!
Sinking cozily into the ambience of the Witherspoon Concert Hall at the Joslyn Art Museum a cinematic experience comes to life in three dimensions. Unlike a conventional theatre, the light never dies totally. The visual feast of Omaha’s foremost-art-deco-treasure play with the eyes as the music tickles the mind, and the ears.
This is what Omaha audiences should clamor to appreciate in the Omaha Symphony Joslyn Series. These chamber orchestral experiences are a musical hamlet in an otherwise sublimely cosmopolitan setting.
On Sunday November 14th, conducted by Music Director Ankush Kumar Bahl, the Omaha Symphony presented Toccata e Due Canzoni by Bohuslav Martinů, Concerto for Two Bassoons in F Major by Hinrich Philip Johnsen, and Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major by Franz Schubert.
The Johnsen Concerto, was inspired. On an already technically impressive program, the piece and its two bassoon soloists, James Compton – Principal Basson, and Nicholas Nelson – Assistant Principal Bassoon, were transcendent. The permeating, parallel dance of their individual lines throughout the piece, and the exciting departures from that duet, lifted me out of a cloudy day, and set me down in some kind of 18th century sunlight.
The ritornello-like sections of orchestral flourish danced around the two soloists like clouds. Compton and Nicholas moved, breathed, and in a sense sang together through the joints of their instruments. The 15 minutes soared by, and like a great dessert, I wished there was more left on the plate.
I don’t mind cheering for the orchestra, that I found this piece captivating; I cannot yet find a recording online that’s quite as satisfying as Compton, Nelson, and the Omaha Symphony’s rendering of it Sunday afternoon.
Christi Zuniga, Principal Keyboard, is also to be congratulated for her stunning contributions, uniquely featured in the Martinů piece. Toccata e Due Canzoni was written as a philosophical and aesthetic reaction to World War II, very shortly after the war. The duality of angst against hope, and harmony against dissonance, played out like a game of chess. Never surrendering to abject chaos: the lines of agitated motives and fragments tricked each other in and out of dominance revealing melodic arrivals and resolutions that satisfied the audience like the end of a long-awaited check mate.
Zuniga’s piano lines in the piece punctuated, motivated, and accelerated that emotional journey with simultaneous passion and nuance.
Following the Schubert Symphony No. 5, the audience demonstratively stood to applaud the fantastic afternoon of music.
Getting to know Bahl is becoming a highlight of the season. His warmth, and delight with each presentation show off a subtle, articulate, and insightful musical-wisdom. I am swiftly looking, more and more forward, to the manifold ways he will challenge, stimulate, and beatify our cherished Symphony in Omaha.
I was particularly moved when Bahl gleefully acknowledged that Nelson found the Johnsen Concerto "on youtube," and that’s how it entered the discussion of this season’s program.
We as a city have access to not merely a Symphony Orchestra but a municipal collaboration, whose artists are themselves at work like family. It shows, and sounds at these terrific, intimate concerts. Run - don’t walk – to experience – not just hear – what these Joslyn experiences are doing to ornament Omaha’s concert culture.
I grew up in church music and musical theatre. From my collegiate career and beyond I've traveled through opera, the symphony, the theatre and worship as a student, a performer, an entrepreneur, and a journalistic correspondent. I'm thrilled to have an opportunity to share with you some of the incredible and fascinating endeavors I continue to undertake in music and the arts. I don't need you to see the world the way I do, but I'll do everything I can to help you enjoy it as much as I have.