dead man walking at somerville theater

A colleague and I, intrigued by the advertisement on the train of “Dead Man Walking” the “opera”, saw it today at Somerville theater. Colleague left at intermission citing splitting headache while I continued to the end. If I have to summarize it: I saw a wonderful “play” today, one with “lots of music, LOTS”, colleague added. We are unsure the difference between an opera and a musical, but in our limited experience, we concluded it was more a musical. The work was commissioned more than 10 years ago for San Francisco Opera House premiere (wow, Susan Graham was Sister Helen and Frederica von Stade the mother!!) and is based on a true story as written in the novel by Sister Helen Prejean and put to a hugely successful Hollywood movie with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn in an all-star cast. I saw it in theater back then, crying my eyes out toward the end. The idea of it being put to music intrigued both of us. As announced at the beginning, the Boston Opera Collaborative has worked tirelessly for the last 2 years to bring this work to Boston this month.

There are many layers, let’s start first with the cast. The acting is top notch, highly convincing. This starts with the portrayal of Sister Helen (Courtney Miller) and ends with the portrayal of Joseph De Rocher the convicted rapist and killer on death row (Jonathan Stinson). The mother (portrayed and sung by Felicia Gavilanes) also had very strong scenes first to the appeal board begging them to spare her son’s death and second in her last conversation with her son just before execution. In term of voice, I quite like all three main characters’ voices. But this is where the question of musical versus opera comes in.

Actually there are two parts to it as we briefly post-analyzed: the singing and the music. There are countless places when sister Helen said “I’m in despair” or “I’m sorry” for example. I ask the question: if I don’t understand English, would I know that’s what she said? The answer is No. (a) Is she not shaping the words in such a way to portray this emotion? or (b) Is she trying hard but the music itself doesn’t give her much to express? Not sure, i always thought it’s the singer’s responsibility to bring it out, but never quite think of (b) until when colleague brought it up (he has strong musical background, i don’t). I have discussed this before, and to me this lack of emotional expression in the music is my (and colleague’s) rough dividing line between musical and opera: In musical, you “see” the emotion clearly in the spoken words and in the facial expression + acting, whereas in opera you should “hear” it. That is: the music should give you hint to the various state of mind, emotions, actions. Hearing it allowing you to “imagine” it. I tried hard to focus on passages where deep emotion were being expressed in words (libretto), but to my (musically untrained, though colleague’s is highly trained but to jazz) ears I couldn’t hear/feel it. To summarize, it was an evening of exceptional theater, but I’m not sure if I’d call it an opera.

But then again, let’s roll back a little bit. Last year I heard for the first time “Nixon in China” (on TV), and like my colleague today, i got a splitting headache after an hour of what i’d loosely call “sopranos’ screaming to ear-scratching music”. Bad terminology i know, but as recent as last month, in Britten’s “The turn of the screw”, I heard similar thing at times: sopranos singing quite loud pronouncing perfectly English words. Even in many attempts to block out the “English” part, hearing the underlying music they were singing is very difficult because the singing speech is ,by my definition, disruptive music (think lost musical signal, the mouth is constantly opening and closing rapidly to produce perfectly pronouncing words full of consonants “p”, “m”, “t” etc. while trying to be on the right “notes”, as opposed to shaping the notes (?)) This type of singing can be true for all voice types, but sopranos stick out the most to my ears in these kind of “modern” music. (modern = clashing in ears most of the times). Actually the orchestral music today at times sounded like soundtrack from a movie…

There were glimpses of sister Helen attempting to shape her (musical) emotion, and at these points I am even more unsure if the music allows her to. Unlike in Britten’s earlier mentioned work, let’s take the “haunted tune” as an example, the music leaves some sort of goosebumps on you, either when sung by the little boy or by the governess. In Dead Man walking, there’s a “similar” tune perhaps, “He will gather us around”, He being the lord. The piece started with sister Helen singing it to little children at the Nun’s house and ended with her singing it over Joseph’s dead body on the execution table. Let’s just say the final moment, i was hoping the tune would leave lingering thoughts, despair, something… along that vocal line, but instead, it was sort of a moment of a singer maneuvering some “ups and downs” in the score that prevents you from having any reflection on what had just happened… Many examples here are on Sister Helen’s role because she’s the center of the opera, but this singing speech seemed to apply to the whole cast..

Moving on, we also had an ongoing discussion about the libretto. Here again we both independently thought it was more a play. The one-line jokes (e.g., Sister Rose to Sister Helen: “Earth calling sister Helen”, small talks (e.g., cop telling Sister Helen he got audited the year he pulled over a tax official, etc.), these are very specific details, how would you put such “jokes” into music? If you just do so by having the singers saying exactly that, that’s theater to me. When thinking of putting something to music, i somehow imagine you’d simplify the words, cut it short, make it rhyme (?) and shape music around it. Perhaps that’s just one of the many possible ways. Explicitly saying things (e.g., “Fuck you” or describing it down to the letter “t”) spell everything out to a native-speaking audience and deprives one the imagination of the situation…

Altogether, I don’t mean to say much negative about the afternoon. It was superb theater, great efforts all around from the singers and producers to bring us the work, and lots of things to discuss between colleague and I. In an opera production, a slightly different take from the conductor, different emphasis on various orchestral solos, slightly different take from various singers, better house with quality sound (this was at a local theater), and sometimes things emerge as so obvious. Other times, one is left with lots of questions, but I think it’s great and gives one the opportunity to explore the work at depth.
When leaving the theater, i wasn’t sure if I want to listen to this again but oh, heyyyy, listen! that’s Susan Graham’s take of the last tune. I’m gonna get that whole cd, we have it at library here! quite like it actually 🙂

So, i might come back in the week follows with more thoughts…


just putting this up for myself coz am having a very hard time keeping up with this schedule concept these days… some up-coming broadcasts/concerts i’d like to listen/attend:

Fri, 01-Mar-2013, 1700GMT (1200EST) Mozart piano concert 20, link
Tue, 05-Mar-2013, 1900GMT (1400EST) Patrizia Ciofi sings Verdi’s La Traviata, link
Wed, 06-Mar-2013, 1930GMT (1430EST) Academy of Ancient Music plays Bach, link
Thu, 07-Mar-2013, 1830GMT (1330EST) Beethoven Emperor concerto, link
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messiah @ symphony hall

Edit: the whole performance on 02-Dec-2012 can be re-listened to >here.
ok, after re-hearing the CT’s “but who may abide..” take, i obliged to embed the contralto’s version in comment section.


red circle: td; blue rectangle: violin I and II; blue square: harpsichord; red oval: bass section of chorus

it’s that time of the year again, when messiah is popping up in the area like rabbits in the spring, H&H with 3 consecutive performances yesterday, today, and tomorrow (which will be broadcast live at 3PM EST on WGBH internet radio, for all fans of the Handel and Haydn orchestra / choir, Karina Gauvin, Sumner Thompson.) On thursday we had an electricity outage here for a couple hours that sent the whole city into darkness and yours truly into a spending spree, one of which a very spontaneous purchase to hear period instruments and Ms. Gauvin up close. If you have been here before, you might remember my reservation for Symphony hall. Haven’t been to a live concert in a while, i was really craving for the sound of the baroque violins and, especially because it’s the baroque violin, one has to be picky about where to sit to really get immersed in it. After some probing, I spotted the perfect seat.  It’s a bit under the stage, so i knew ahead of time what comes would _just_ be a load of violins (and soloists), exactly what the doktor ordered.

Christina Day Martinson, concertmaster

Christina Day Martinson, concertmaster

I’ve heard raving reviews of Karina Gauvin’s and couldn’t quite pass up this chance.  In that sense, i think in the Messiah, the soprano is _highly_ underused as we only sporadically get to hear Ms. Gauvin.  She has a veeeery rich and warm voice, one which i believed works very well in Symphony Hall.  Here is purely a matter of taste, she chose to use the vibrato throughout, and somehow I much prefer when she sang without it.  The highlight of the night for me is “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd”. I a bit confused as she shared the aria with the countertenor, is it because they’re all singing 3 consecutive nights in a big hall that they’re splitting duties? He took the first run, then she followed. The contrast is quite amazing as her voice rose above, hard to describe, just a silent hall with waarm high notes soaring high to a bed of violins underneath, breathtaking.  Here’s a take of Alice Coote and Ailish Tynan splitting the aria, oh how i wished she was also there last night.

I not sure if Ms. Nosky is still the concertmaster of the H&H, she wasn’t there last night, too bad, as I got the perfect seat.  Christina Day Martinson took the lead, from her first note, i knew exactly why i bought the ticket.  (Actually i was excited all day from the moment i purchased ticket.)  Being so up close, i was even more surprised how thin the H&H is, one can spot and hear instruments between the musicians’ legs!  Sitting slightly on the right was also perfect for several reasons: the deep violas, cellos, and SUPERB harpsichord was ALL on my right ears, along with bass section of chorus.  Given that they tend to get buried when the high notes from soprano section + violins taking over, sound partitioning was just perfect as those high notes were a bit farther away (just a bit really, I was 1 meter away from Sumner Thompson’s feet, merely 3m away from Karina Gauvin…)  Speaking of Sumner Thompson, i *love* his voice.  As for the CT, well, I knew it was a CT when purchasing tix, would have preferred a mezzo… but i read he’s one of the most sought after CT… and the tenor: i was sitting a bit too close to really enjoy his voice.. so not much to report.  The chorus was REALLLY great, loooove love the balance.

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music into the night

note the absolute lack of content recently :-), i’ve been working very hard, cancelling all traveling plans for thanksgiving and xmas… not sure how yet to survive in the deserted town… but, finally there’s progress! loads of looking at Atlantic to finally realizing it was the Pacific that’s been troubles all along… so, i’ve missed a TON of local performances… but to my delight, the NEC has its own YT channel !! and they’ve uploaded some reallly nice concerts which i’ve heard live and have been re-listening many times this year…

so, here’re a couple of clips to start sunday (very late) evening:

duet mezzo to woodwinds:

duet violin + viola (looove the viola’s sound)

more links of that Orfeo ed Euridice can be seen at the NEC channel, including Amore & duet.  starting the week in style, yay.

orfeo ed euridice @ NEC

had a very very very nice time last night @ the NEC with their lovely semi-staged production of Orfeo ed Euridice. I was gonna write up my impression, but have decided to listen to it again! here it is, music for the evening.

I remember loooooving the orchestra and regretted Euridice’s part was too short… and liking quite a bit the chorus… then onto mezzo + Amore. all-in-all, very very very nice evening. will write later after re-listening (while wrestling Atlantic ocean as always…)

(Wanted to listen first to see if my visual was biasing my impression… and another opportunity to re-listen to the singers…)

starting October…

so, just slept for 10 hrs!! for the first time in a long while, i literally fell asleep at the keyboard while poor colleague on other side of continent uploading files… before taking 24hr flight to other side of Atlantic… and leaving rest of us on east coast with quite few green things in throat…

But it was done! Had first game of football yesterday too, now body aching and eyes swollen from too much sleep. only quibble about long sleep was the constant dreaming of another proposal deadline in 1 wk + back on ship packing frantically…

So, here’s to resuming “normal” life

I wanted to listen to many of her works, but accidentally come across this. By the quality of the sound, you know there’s a full recording somewhere!!! and it must have been a full performance! coz u don’t gather full orchestra + full chorus and ACA wouldn’t sing the entire tomb scene for just that, would she? hunting time begins…

Also, in case you happen to be in the Boston vicinity this coming Wednesday Oct 10, come to the NEC for a niiiice performance of GLuck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, this time with a mezzo-Orpheus, yay! and FREE too. Am quite looking forward, nothing nicer than Jordan Hall with choose-your-own-seats to start td’s music season!

News elsewhere, Vivica Genaux made her debut as Carmen in France, anyone has a chance to find out how it went (Yvette? 🙂 ). VK is singing Romeo soon… H&H society is making their season debut w/ Bach Magnificat, but I’ve been sitting on decision to go, again because it’s in gigantic symphony hall… and waaay forward to Dec, Dec 13 to be exact, Andreas Scholl is giving a free master-class at Jordan Hall at NEC! Surely he’s here for some other performance as well? Would love to find out what that is…

edit: more pieces found on YT, still hunting for whole performance, it’s :
Romeo: Anna Caterina Antonacci – Giulietta: Olga Peretyatko – Direttore: Evelino Pidò – Paris, live TCE 11.11.2011, with review. if you find, plllease send my way 🙂

photo for the day

currently outside office window

work is progressing as nicely as i can hope for. hair is cut super short, official invitation has arrived in the mail. suspense continues as visa news awaits. Here’s music currently on headset. This will be my 3rd trip to Alaska, here’re a couple photos from the last one. those creatures are very cute!.