A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jul 15, 2013
08:48 AM
Classically Speaking

A Classical Version of Rhythm—and Booms

A Classical Version of Rhythm—and Booms

If Saturday night’s Opera in the Park proves to be any kind of harbinger, then Madison is about to experience an opera season to remember.

With the usual 10,000+ fans spread on blankets in Garner Park on a picture-perfect summer evening, general director Kathryn Smith and John Beard co-hosted a night of anticipated celebrations: two bicentennials of the greatest 19th century opera composers, and John DeMain’s upcoming twin anniversaries as artistic director of Madison Opera and music director of the Madison Symphony. But what made the night memorable was that it was consistently a celebration of great singing.

From the “if isn’t broken, don’t fix it” file, Opera in the Park has refined a winning formula: generous mixtures of standard repertoire, including some numbers highlighting the upcoming season, some Broadway tunes and other lighter fare, singers who have graced Overture Hall and some who also sing in the biggest operatic venues in the world, and some material to let the chorus and orchestra shine.

I’ve by no means heard even half of these dozen summer presentations, but it is difficult to imagine that the company has ever assembled a stronger or more interesting quartet of vocalists than was heard Saturday night. Ultimately the show-stealer was baritone Nmon Ford. Having made his Madison Opera debut a several years ago in Carmen, local opera buffs should be counting the days until opening night (November 1), when he returns as the villainous Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca. He gave us a taste of that Saturday, but the real delights came in an “It Ain’t Necessarily So” where he egged on the chorus to match his melodic embellishments (with DeMain apparently having a ball in the middle of it all), and “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” form Guys and Dolls. Start with a rich voice and add Ford’s gift for inflection and characterization, and you’ve got a young artist who would seem to be on the verge of moving from solid regional companies to larger stages.

Tenor Brian Jagde is about to make that leap: this season he makes his Metropolitan Opera debut. We were fortunate that he fit in a Madison debut on his way to the Big Apple. The voice is huge, and amplification has nothing to do with that assessment. He took a turn in the spotlighting of Verdi on the occasion of 2013 marking 200 years since the composer’s birth, and gave us a Tosca aria as well as a number from Hello, Dolly!.

The ladies had both made their local debuts last fall in A Masked Ball, and Caitlin Cisler is also an Appleton native and UW–Madison alumna. She nailed one of the big arias she’ll tackle again in February in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, and tossed off a sparkling “Glitter and Be Gay” from Bernstein’s Candide. Alexandra LoBianco immediately showed she’s got the Wagnerian chops for her upcoming Brunnhilde (sorry, Wagnerites, not in Madison), with an aria from Tannhauser. Like her colleagues, she showed a polished gift for broad humor in “I’m Easily Assimilated,” another Candide tune.

DeMain showed off his orchestra in “Ride of the Valkyries” (Wagner is the other 200-year-old this year), and the Madison Opera Chorus in Verdi’s Otello, and several other numbers.

But for many of us with an eye to next season, particular attention was paid to two excerpts from Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, coming in April. Ford delivered a poignant “Zydeco aria” that was subtly tinged with hints of Gershwin, and the ladies, with members of the Madison Youth Choirs, led “He Will Gather Us Around.” Madison Opera’s ancillary events next spring (visits from Sister Helen Prejean, composer Jake Heggie, various panel, film and art events) have already assured that this will be more than “just” another slot in the season; it is good to know firsthand that the music—as advertised—will be compelling as well.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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