Meeting Flicka (The Incomparable Frederica von Stade)

8232A confession: I’ve been interviewing celebrities of varying renown or infamy for more years than I care to admit, and thought that I’d long ago ceased to be star-struck. Yet, when I first met celebrated mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade (known affectionately by family, colleagues and fans as “Flicka,”), I alternately gushed and stammered like a schoolboy. I doubtless made a fool of myself, but Flicka was much too gracious to point this out; instead, she immediately put me at ease.

Why was I uncharacteristically giddy? Consider that the phrases “living legend” and “national treasure” are nearly as abused and overused as the term “genius,” and may denote nothing more than exceptional longevity. Occasionally, though – just every so often – an artist comes along who is fully deserving of these accolades, by dint of both their creative achievements and an inspirational personality. Flicka is one such artist, and great fun to be around, besides.

As well as being an iconic performer in traditional operas (both her Cherubino and Octavian are considered definitive), Flicka is known for encouraging modern American composers, and one of her most fruitful and enduring creative partnerships has been with composer Jake Heggie. She was an early champion of Heggie’s work and he has written both song cycles and opera roles for her, most notably in “Dead Man Walking” and “Three Decembers.” Their most recent collaboration is “Great Scott,” which had its West Coast premiere at San Diego Opera in May 2016. During her sojourn in San Diego Flicka sat down with SDO General Director David Bennett under the auspices of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC San Diego, for a wide-ranging conversation about her life and career. As one audience member noted, Flicka proved to be as far from the popular image of the temperamental artist as one can be, displaying an easy charm and a modesty that belies her status as one of the music world’s most beloved stars.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with her resumé, which includes stints on “Prairie Home Companion” and appearances with Carol Burnett, as well as singing at the White House, the Winter Olympics, and with Monty Python’s Eric Idle, where she appeared as a Valkyrie in a winged helmet for a duet rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Not the sort of thing one would expect from a more, shall we say, conventional diva. In the course of her long career Flicka has proven to be an immensely effective advocate for the arts and arts education, and an enthusiastic popularizer of opera and art song. She continues to work to further the careers of talented young singers and composers.

I was star-struck so you don’t have to be. Watch Flicka’s conversation with David Bennett and I think you’ll learn, as I did, that all of the exceptional things said about her – about her talent, her integrity, her generosity, and her sweetness – are true.

Watch A Conversation with Frederica von Stade.

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Contributed by Producer, John Menier

An All-Access Pass to Opera

8232UCSD-TV – in the form of Your Humble Correspondent – continues to chronicle the adventures of San Diego Opera with two award-winning series, San Diego OperaTalk (in its 17th season) and San Diego Opera Spotlight (now in its 19th year, it’s “the opera series that’s old enough to vote”). Taken together as companion programs, these shows offer viewers an “all-access pass” that goes beyond sound bites and packaged promos with in-depth analysis, rehearsal and performance footage, and interviews with key participants. The result is an entertaining and informative portrait of the creative processes and personalities that bring opera to life in San Diego.

8232Having stabilized after winning a very public battle to stay alive, San Diego Opera is now fashioning a new direction for the Company. New General Director David Bennett has assured long-time patrons that the Company will not forsake traditional repertoire; rather, the intention going forward is to mix large-scale productions at the Civic Theatre with intimate productions of the new & the unfamiliar at a variety of venues, and to markedly increase the Opera’s outreach, visibility and engagement in the community. In that light the 2015/16 season may be seen as both a summation of where the company has been – a producer of traditional grand opera – and as a harbinger of things to come – a presenter of new works by contemporary composers.

Tradition is represented in the best way by two of Giacomo Puccini’s most beloved works, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, in productions that are new to San Diego Opera but are directed by two SDO favorites, Lesley Koenig and Garnett Bruce respectively. The third production, the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, is SDO’s second staging of an opera by Jake Heggie, following the phenomenal success of his Moby-Dick. This original serio-comedy features a stellar cast and a libretto by Terrence McNally (Master Class), and is directed by former Old Globe Artistic Director and theatrical legend Jack O’Brien. Jack is no stranger to the UCSD-TV audience, from his appearances on our Backstage at the Globe series.

As in years past, UCSD-TV is delighted to accompany you backstage and seat you, front row center, for what promises to be a vibrant season of opera.

Visit Opera on UCSD-TV to learn more.

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Contributed by Arts & Humanities Producer, John Menier

Nixon in China: The Opera

8232John Adams’ Nixon in China has attained the status of modern classic since its premiere in 1987, but the opera is not performed frequently and is still unfamiliar to many audiences. Nonetheless there is great curiosity about the piece, as I discovered when I began work on the Spotlight program; I think I’ve gotten more questions about this opera than any other I’ve documented.

In some respects it’s easiest to begin a discussion of Nixon in China by listing what it is not:

• It’s not a dry history lesson;
• It’s not a political rant;
• It’s neither a satire nor a farce;
• It’s not unmelodic or atonal;
• It’s not strictly “minimalist” (though it certainly has elements of that style).

So…what is it? I’m not an historian, political scientist, or musicologist (and I don’t play one on TV), but in the course of shooting rehearsals and talking to the cast & production staff I’ve made a few observations.

I was already somewhat familiar with the opera in its original incarnation as directed by Peter Sellars, but this production is a fresh conception (i.e., not a re-mount) directed by James Robinson. The music and dramatic intent are the same, of course, but the new staging has some interesting features of its own. The settings are less representational and more abstract, and very colorful (I joke that it “needs more red”). The media coverage surrounding the event plays a more prominent role. There’s increased emphasis on movement, both literal (the ballet, ritualized gestures) and figurative (from exuberance to reflection). Robinson and his cast have also worked to highlight the abundant humor in the libretto. And, the piece has an expansive, “mock heroic” tone that is, dare I say it, a lot of fun.

“Fun.” Now there’s a word you don’t often hear associated with opera, particularly modern opera, yet it’s a vital component of this one. Adams and librettist Alice Goodman brought a sense of playfulness to Nixon in China, and that was reflected in the rehearsals. Of course it helps to have a director, conductor, choreographer and cast who are confident and attuned to the demands & nuances of the piece, and San Diego Opera assembled such a group. The participants seemed to be genuinely enjoying their work; I think that comes across in the Spotlight footage, and hopefully it will prove contagious for the audience.

Back to my original question: What is Nixon in China? I could say that it’s a dramatic comedy (or a comic drama), or it’s a stage spectacle, or it’s a postmodern character study; or just say it’s an evening’s entertainment and leave it at that. But I’m not the authority here – watch UCSD-TV’s San Diego OperaTalk and San Diego Opera Spotlight, then attend San Diego Opera’s Nixon in China and cultivate your own impressions. It will be time well spent.

Submitted by John Menier, Arts and Music Producer

The Elixir of Love – San Diego OperaTalk!

In this episode of OperaTalk, Dr. Nicolas Reveles discusses Gaetano Donizetti’s comedic opera “The Elixir of Love” or “L’elisir d’amore,” in which a con artist convinces villagers that a bottle of wine is a love potion.

What better place to discus the powerful effects of wine than at a winery? Reveles visits the beautiful Hacienda de las Rosas Winery to illustrate just how enchanting wine can be.

Donizetti had written hit operas before, including “Anna Bolena,” an historic opera about one of King Henry the 8th’s wives. But Reveles says that none came close to the success of “The Elixir of Love.”

Donizetti was in the midst of writing four operas in one year when he was commissioned to write a new one for the Teatro Cane Bianco in Milan. He wrote “The Elixir of Love” in just six weeks and it gained such popularity, it was the most performed opera in Italy between 1838 and 1848.

Learn more about this classic opera in “The Elixir of Love-San Diego OperaTalk.”

Check out other programs in the San Diego OperaTalk series!

Lear on the 2nd Floor

Composer Anthony Davis presents a modern take on Shakespeare’s classic, King Lear.

Lear on the 2nd Floor tells the story of Nora Lear, a neuroscience researcher suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. As Nora loses her bearings and autonomy, she is increasingly at the mercy of her three quarreling daughters. In this version, Nora’s dead husband Mortimer is Shakespeare’s fool and her constant companion, as she wanders through a world where past and present blend and reality bends.

Davis’s music incorporates diverse styles and influences, ranging from classical opera to jazz to reggae. This performance by UC San Diego’s Kallisti Vocal Ensemble includes various music styles from classical opera to reggae, as well as a libretto by playwright Allan Havis.

Check out our other chamber music videos.