Up Close… On Site Opera


One of the chief pleasures of watching On Site Opera’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro is the sheer proximity to the singers. This week the innovative company presents a lesser-known but nonetheless sparkling version of this famous comedy by Marco Portugal (1762-1830) in a classy, old townhouse at 632 Hudson Street. The house, which dates back to 1847, has been renovated as a magical, antique space complete with a cupola, its underside painted by a set designer to mimic a Renaissance mural adorned with flying cherubim. For the purposes of this opera, the house serves as the perfect setting for the singers, which brings me back to the question of proximity.

At a time when the Met is struggling to fill its cavernous 3,800 seat capacity, it has found success with its Live in HD broadcasts. These broadcasts have allowed audiences far and wide to get up close and personal with the singers. A similar effect is achieved in the flesh by On Site Opera with its small company of singers, in this case an exuberant cast led by Jesse Blumberg (Figaro) and Jeni Houser (Susannah). The vocal prowess of each singer is evident and never more than a few feet away. The musicians too—a small but effective chamber orchestra performing a re-orchestrated score by guitarist José Luis Iglésias and OSO’s Geoffrey McDonald—are in the room with everyone. The action of the opera unfolds inside several rooms of the house, obliging the audience, musicians and singers to move from place to place, which is both a novelty and a virtue. We interact with the space and with the characters.

Another observation: The singers cannot really afford to break character as they’re under the constant scrutiny of an attentive audience around which the action plays out. Live in HD makes similar demands. It’s an unusual experience for sure, and surely demands singers who can also act. Director and co-founder of On Site opera, Eric Einhorn has succeeded here in finding a company of great operatic thespians. In Act III, at the climax of the drama when the entire company sings from above, behind, and in front, the audience is immersed in the cross currents of the music; we can feel the physical vibrations. When it comes to the concept of surround sound, this is the real deal.

This week’s run of the show is sold out, due to the obvious limitations of space with its maximum 50-seat limit. But the notion of intimate chamber orchestra outside of the opera theatre continues to thrive. As its popularity continues to surge, the question of how such boutique productions will achieve economies of scale will have to be answered. But for now, it’s the intimacy that counts.

—Damian Fowler


Julian Barnes—The Noise of Time


I can’t wait to read the latest Julian Barnes novel, The Noise of Time, published this month in the UK. The American edition is due out on May 10, but I’m too impatient to wait and have ordered the hardback direct from Britain. The book is a fictional biography on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich and the artistic compromises he was forced to make during Stalin’s reign of terror, leaving the composer humiliated and scarred. By all accounts, the book is a meditation on how art is produced in a climate of fear. The Guardian is already calling this short novel a masterpiece.

Barnes wrote about a composer once before in a short story called “The Silence,” published in a collection called The Lemon Table in 2004. The story deals with an unnamed composer, easily identified as Sibelius, who suffers a 30-year creative drought. I heard Barnes read an excerpt from this story in March of 2014 when he  teamed up with the pianist Angela Hewitt to present an evening of words and music at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge. The format was quite effective, I thought, and opened my eyes to prose and poetry on the subject of “classical” music.  In advance of the concert, I interviewed Barnes in the Spring of 2014 for Listen: Life with Music and Culture, a magazine published by Steinway, who muses on the importance of classical music in his life and art. I’m posting this link to it again.

Here’s one of the selections he read that has stayed with me.
“The Stillness of the World Before Bach,” by Lars Gustafsson.

There must have been a world before
the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor Partita,
but what kind of a world?
A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding,
everywhere unawakened instruments
where the Musical Offering, the Well-tempered Clavier
never passed across the keys.
Isolated churches
where the soprano-line of the Passion
never in helpless love twined round
the gentler movements of the flute,
broad soft landscapes
where nothing breaks the stillness
but old woodcutters’ axes,
the healthy barking of strong dogs in winter
and, like a bell, skates biting into fresh ice;
the swallows whirring through summer air,
the shell resounding at the child’s ear
and nowhere Bach nowhere Bach
the world in a skater’s silence before Bach.



North Shore Radio Interview

I enjoyed this radio interview with North Shore Community Radio, which is based in Grand Marais. The people of this community well remember the small plane crash from 2003 in the Superior National Forest, and the remarkable story of Grace and Lily Pearson, the two little girls who survived the crash. They were found by a brave local pilot, Dan Anderson, and the then Deputy Sheriff Mark Falk and his team.


Bonjour, Cincinnati!

My Spotlight on the French conductor Louis Langrée, in the February 2015 edition of Vanity Fair. Because of the compressed nature of this profile, there’s so much more in my notebook that I couldn’t include. Maestro Langrée—who moved from Paris with his family—says he’s happy to have settled down in Cincinnati. “Most of the life of a conductor, or a musician, is to be a nomad…You’re like a little bee going from flower to flower and it’s delicious. But in the end it’s very important to have your own place with your musicians, to create a collective artistic identity.”

“There is this image I have of a little Japanese garden. From this little, miniscule place you embrace the entire universe.”

The American Romantic

In October, I was invited to attend the Twin Cities Book Festival. That weekend, I dropped by the Guthrie Theater to pose with Tennessee Williams, who is rarely seen without a cigarette or a drink. I’d been thinking about the great man because I was reading John Lahr’s magnificent new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. I was fortunate enough to talk to Lahr about his fascinating subject and wrote a preview piece in the winter edition of Listen: Life with Music & Culture. The book is an inspiring read about a man who suffered and drew on that suffering to create some of the most wonderful plays of all time.

At the Guthrie Theater

At the Guthrie Theater