What Have I Done for You Lately?

Photo Gratisography.com

Well, I’m back at the government work, editing construction project management plans. But I have found time amidst all that excitement to write a few things that I hope you’ll enjoy or find useful.

Here’s what I’ve written lately:

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Artistic Growth at Seattle Opera

 

Seattle Opera 2017 Katya Kabanova Philip Newton photo

Seattle Opera 2017 Katya Kabanova Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera

Interview any artist, whether it’s a rock star promoting a new album or a symphony director discussing his orchestra, and you will hear about “artistic growth.” But we don’t often talk about audiences’ artistic growth. Continue reading

The Most Beautiful Music – La Traviata at Seattle Opera

Seattle Opera 2017 La Traviata McCaw Hall

Corinne Winters (Violetta). Seattle Opera 2017 La Traviata Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera

People are getting pretty worked up about the unusual production of La Traviata currently playing at Seattle Opera. But really, the production isn’t very important. What really matters about La Traviata is the music, that exquisite, heavenly music.  Continue reading

Ticket Season – Part One, Seattle Opera

“I love tickets!” squeals Cameron Diaz’s character in the first Charlie’s Angels movie. (And why has no one ever made a gif of that?) It’s supposed to illustrate what an eccentric character she is, but I understand completely. I love tickets. And spring is ticket season. Season-ticket season, to be precise. All of the arts organizations announce their upcoming seasons, tickets go on sale, and I spend hours each spring planning what I will be doing on Saturday nights all next winter. Case in point: Seattle Opera.

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Maria Stuarda and other Powerful Women

Joyce El-Khoury (Mary Stuart), Michael Todd Simpson (Cecil) and Keri Alkema (Elizabeth I). Jacob Lucas photo c/o Seattle Opera

Joyce El-Khoury (Mary Stuart), Michael Todd Simpson (Cecil) and Keri Alkema (Elizabeth I). Jacob Lucas photo c/o Seattle Opera

I always feel a little sorry for Donizetti. He’s like a low-ranking player in the NBA – easily better at his game than anyone you’ve ever met, but forever overshadowed by his more talented peers. Donizetti worked in the first half of the 19th century and a handful of his operas are still performed today. That’s pretty good. But he’s still not as famous as the other big bel canto composers, Verdi and Puccini, and with good reason. His canto is bel, but to my ear, feels a little … predictable? Formulaic? But Donizetti has one advantage over his peers – an interest in powerful women.

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Seattle Opera Frost Fest

c/o Seattle Opera

c/o Seattle Opera

Most of my paid writing covers the intersection between the arts and family life, and I am in the middle of crafting a pitch on introducing kids to opera, so Seattle Opera’s Frost Fest on February 6 is right in the center of my wheelhouse. Unfortunately, that day I have appointments and activities scheduled from 10 am to 10 pm, and I’m double booked for a big chunk of that time. Maybe some of you can take my place and tell me how it goes?

Details after the fold. Continue reading

The Looney (Tunes) World of Marriage of Figaro

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Nuccia Focile (Susanna), Morgan Smith (Count Almaviva) and Karin Mushegain (Cherubino) in The Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Tuffer c/o Seattle Opera

Opera, like Shakespeare, often suffers from its own importance. Romeo and Juliet consists mostly of sex jokes, but you’d rarely notice from watching most live productions, which are too often the wrong kind of stiff. Classical opera contains as much comedy as Shakespeare, but the humor is often lost among the ornate costumes and stoic singers standing still at center stage.

I saw The Marriage of Figaro at Seattle Opera in 2009, and didn’t remember it as being particularly funny. I had a vague sense that Marriage of Figaro was somehow connected to Bugs Bunny washing Elmer Fudd’s head and was disappointed it wasn’t.

(In my defense, I had a four-month-old baby at home; I was really sleep deprived.) Of course that was the wrong cartoon AND the wrong opera. The Figaro Aria that children remember is in the Episode “Long Haired Hare” and comes from The Barber of Seville by Rossini.

The Marriage of Figaro is a sequel in that the events of the story take place after the events in Barber of Seville and involve the same characters. Only the opera is not by the same person. So in a sense, you could say that The Marriage of Figaro is some of the world’s first fanfiction. It’s got to be some of the world’s best fanfiction, too, because Mozart.

I don’t think I need to say anything about the music. Because Mozart.

But I do need to talk about the story and the humor. People don’t expect lough out loud Looney Tunes humor in an opera that debuted in 1786, but Marriage of Figaro provides exactly that. The plot is a convoluted mess of wife-swapping and husband-stealing schemes that cross boundaries of class, family, and all semblance of propriety regardless of century. It’s constant scheming; off-the-cuff prevarication; lots of hiding in closets and under beds; eavesdropping; and snark. Everyone manages to make an ass of themselves at least once over the course of one madcap day. Base as their motivations may be (mostly, everyone’s trying to get laid), they are also completely relatable. Few of us (I hope) will ever behave as stupidly as the characters in Figaro, but most of us will come close, and more often than we like to admit.

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Photo by Jacob Lucas c/o Seattle Opera

No matter how slapstick the action, the best humor always comes from a subtle understanding of human foibles, and The Marriage of Figaro illustrates this beautifully, hilariously. The Count, in his cartoonish villainy, is incredibly stupid. He thinks with his dick and is too egotistical to notice when it doesn’t work out, but in the final scene there is real chemistry and affection between Count Almaviva (John Moore on the day I attended) and his codependent Countess (the lovely Caitlyn Lynch). Figaro is sometimes too clever for his own good, but at least he can recognize the voice of his true love in the dark.

The joy of this production is that director Aidan Lang (also the General Director of Seattle Opera) still allows the performers to ham it up when the story calls for it. Not only did I laugh out loud with the rest of the audience, I must confess, at least once, I snorted. The meow-worthy snarkfest between Figaro’s fiancé Susanna and her older rival, Marcellina tops anything on The Real Housewives. This production has no self-important, operatic stuffiness. Count Almaviva stalks around the garden cartoonishly brandishing his cape. Cherubino lounges suggestively, embarrassingly, in his attempted seduction of the Countess.

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Photo by Tuffer c/o Seattle Opera

I just have to add here, how much I love a good pants role. I’ve already gushed about how fabulous Kate Lindsey was as a man in Tales of Hoffmann and in Ariadne auf Naxos, and now Elizabeth Pojanowski has stolen the show in the “pants role” of randy teen Cherubino. These mezzo-sopranos sing as beautifully as any others; their acting is some of the best on the opera stage. They bring to their roles so much humor and physicality that are so often missing in opera. I’m seriously turning into a mezzo-pants fangirl.

Okay, so obviously my main point here is to communicate that Marriage of Figaro is comedy on par with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (highest praise in my book) but a review must include some commentary on the performances and production.

As I mentioned, the music is Mozart, so of course it’s fabulous, but I have to admit that for the most part it takes a back seat to story, which is complicated enough to demand strict attention. Others may disagree, and I’m the first to admit that I am biased to focus on story whenever the music doesn’t bludgeon me. To my amateur ear, the Countess sang especially sweetly. And of course, I was pleased to hear an opera where the male lead was not a tenor, but barihunk Aubrey Allicock. (The other Figaro is the bass Shenyang, also in his Seattle Opera debut, and I’m bummed that I couldn’t see them both in the role.)

Laura Tatulescu (Susanna) and Aubrey Allicock (Figaro) in The Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Philip Newton c/o Seattle Opera

Laura Tatulescu (Susanna) and Aubrey Allicock (Figaro) in The Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Philip Newton c/o Seattle Opera

The production is also, as always at Seattle Opera, very interesting. With such a complex story and extensive cast, the sets are wisely composed of clean lines and simple colors – mostly white and natural wood. But they still help tell the story through the meaningful compartmentalization of space on the stage. The costumes are odd; for the most part, they resemble period costumes. But they’ve chosen to use anachronisms when those communicate more effectively with the audience. For example, the audience could never glean as much about Cherubino’s character from period footwear as they grasp in an instant from his blue Converse high tops.

So if you’re on the fence about trying opera, if you’re afraid it’s too stuffy and highbrow for you, hie thee hence – Marriage of Figaro is a perfect entry point into the bawdy world classical opera. If you can handle Bugs Bunny, you can handle this. Beautiful music, deep understanding of human nature, and laugh out loud slapstick comedy. Just like Looney Tunes.