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Conductor Michael Lewanski on THE PROPERTY

Conductor Michael Lewanski shares his insights into The Property, the new klezmer opera with music by Wlad Marhulets and libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann. Don't miss the world premiere performances on February 25-27 in Hyde Park and March 4-5 in Skokie. 

Michael Lewanski is the conductor of The Property, a new  klezmer opera with music by Wlad Marhulets, libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, and directed by Eric Einhorn (who adapted the original graphic novel by Rutu Modan with Fleischmann).  The ensemble features members of the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band and stars Jill Grove, Anne Slovin, James Maddalena, Nathaniel Olson, Sam Handley, and Julianne Park.

Don't miss the world-premiere performances Feb. 25-27 at the Logan Center for the Arts in Hyde Park and March 4-5 at Skokie's North Shore Center for the Arts.

 

Among so many other things, art is always about itself.  Literature is always somehow about language, its uses, the act of writing ("words, words, words" replies Hamlet—in the midst of a scene full of wordplay - when asked what he's reading). Visual art always thinks about possibilities of seeing and representation—the Mona Lisa stares at you just as cryptically as you stare at her. Music is no less this way. Beethoven's Eroica symphony is equally about the eventual achievement of a stable E-flat major sonority (after its notable falterings) and as much as it is about various sorts of heroisms. Opera, though, seems to thematize music itself in particularly striking, point-forcing ways. To take two examples particularly relevant to Lyric Opera-goers at the moment: Tosca's main character is an opera singer, and this very choice itself makes us hear her music in a peculiarly self-aware way. Moment after moment of Tannhäuser is filled with diagetic music—music heard not only by the audience but by the characters in the work as well. The ubiquitous Pilgrim's Chorus is, indeed, emblematic not only the possibilities of penance, but also of the ability music to express that emotion.

The Property, a so-called "klezmer opera" commissioned by Lyric Unlimited from composer Wlad Marhulets and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann (pictured right), presents a particularly interesting case, fraught to its very edges with questions and assertions about the potential of music to be expressive. (Somehow, works involving the memory of World War II always seem to be that way. Philosopher Theodor Adorno famously said that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" precisely because the horrors of World War II were brought upon the world by the same cultural impulses that brought us the great art works of the last 200 hundred years.)

Imbedded in the very concept of a klezmer opera is already something unusual: a striking thing about klezmer as a genre is its highly suggestive mode of expression—as an instrumental form, its conventional gestures are obviously imitative of emotional charged singing, and its obligatory ornamentation similarly invites a mode of listening that is straightforwardly communicative. The term "klezmer" itself initially referred to the musical instruments, to the musicians, and not merely the genre. (The word is derived from the Yiddish for "vessel" and "song.") Thus, to make this the musical language for an opera is already a way of telling us that the opera is "about" the possibility of expression via singing.

Though of course the historical circumstances of a klezmer opera whose plot revolves around a post-World War II world do this work for us even more. Among so many horrifying things about Nazi politics—going hand-in-hand with its more commonly discussed genocidal racism—was its hegemonic cultural attitudes. One way of supposedly showing the superiority of the Aryan race was not only to valorize echt Deutsch works, but to suppress other cultural forms of expression.  Indeed, they even had a term for it—the so-called entartete [degenerate] music was pretty much whatever the Nazis found unsuitable to their ideological ends and was officially and ruthless suppressed. Thus, we find ourselves with a uniquely poignant contradiction, in which a genre of music—klezmer—that has precisely as one of its self-conscious characteristics a highly emotional, uninhibited character as, ironically, being the one of those that is most viciously muffled.

This tension finds its way into the music of the opera itself. We often find ourselves confronted with contrasting singing styles juxtaposed in striking ways. On the one hand, there is conversational music. It is parlando ("speaking") in style, reminiscent of recitative from earlier operatic forms. "Half-spoken," the score often indicates (and indeed, often follows with fully spoken dialogue). Thus, when melodic passages, using characteristic klezmer intervals (the augmented second and the tritone, notably non-Western European in their sound) ensue, the effect is striking.

Following the work's prologue, just such an occurrence happens in the first scene as the main character, Regina (a Jew who escaped Poland just before the war, played by Jill Grove) arrives in her hotel room with her granddaughter Mica (Anne Slovin). (Grove and Slovin pictured left.) It is the present time, and it is Regina's first return to Warsaw since the war ended. After bantering in the aforementioned parlando manner about the shoddiness of the hotel room, the first fully sung moments of the scene occur to the following text: "I don't know. I forget. I don't want to remember." It can be no coincidence that at precisely the moment when Regina begins to think about herself, her subjectivity, her identity, her memory (even if it is couched in terms of a denial), a clearly normative singing creeps in.  

(I have no idea whether Wlad did this intentionally or not. But of course it doesn't matter, because he did set it like this. Let us not forget that music is a fundamentally cultural phenomenon—it is ultimately eludes reducibility, even to those who write it. This perpetual sense of discovery is one of the great joys of art.)

This dialectic, this back-and-forth, between what we might call the "fully sung" and the "sung in place of speech" continues throughout the opera. It also cannot be coincidental that it is only in the final scene of the work that all six cast members sing together, almost like a chorus. I won't tell you what happens with the characters or spoil any plot details; I will simply assert that, on a theoretical level, it seems that underlying the opera is a process of becoming truly sung, all going towards the final word of the libretto: "song."

Since it is an opera that deals at least in part with the legacy of Germany, I cannot help but offer a general comment on the work's form. I was struck immediately, upon receiving the score of the work, by how skillfully Wlad had constructed the melodic fragments associated with certain people and ideas. (Anyone who has seen Star Wars, which is to say pretty much all of us Americans, can get a sense of what I mean by this.) The motifs are memorable, short, but also clear in affect, unmistakable. This made complete sense to me when I thought for a moment about it—Wlad has such depth of experience as a film composer, even for someone so young. He has absorbed the techniques so thoroughly that it only makes sense that this would be apparent even in works for the stage. Upon further reflection, I realized that there was an irony to Wlad's transference of film-scoring formal techniques to an opera, namely this: these techniques, so associated with the American film industry that we forget their origins, are of course a re-working of compositional techniques pioneered by Richard Wagner.  

Let's not be reductive though. Wagner, while notoriously anti-semitic, lived generations before the Nazis did. It is hard to blame him, as such, for the ways in which Hitler co-opted his music for politically and ideologically propagandistic purposes. At the same time, it is impossible not to acknowledge that there is something about Wagner's music that is just asking to be co-opted; it is as terrifying precisely because of its overwhelming characteristics. It is huge in scale, its orchestration out-sized, and its rhetoric grossly exaggerated. Even Wagner's technical language—the language of leitmotif—exerts complete control over his music-dramas' forms. That makes the employment of such techniques as a third-generation copies in The Property all the more meaningful. The very worst of Wagnerian excess is turned on its head, co-opted for purposes that are the opposite of what he may have meant. Whereas Wagnerian compositional techniques, at their worst, have an ethos behind them that that is simpatico to totalitarianism, in The Property they are used in service of a story about the survival of individuals in the wake the political manifestation of this totalitarianism. The thing characteristic of the totalitarian has been reversed and become the means of the resistance thereto.

In the end, the project of The Property is just that—resistance. Seemingly humble, small-scale, and unpretentious, that is precisely why it succeeds grandly. Totalitarianism cannot find those corners; it does not win as long as art somewhere continues its attempts at communication.

Michael Lewanski is a Chicago-based conductor. He seeks to reinvigorate the experiences that musicians and audiences alike have with standard repertoire and with new music.  In addition to guest conducting activities, he conducts the Chicago-based new music collective Ensemble Dal Niente and ensembles at the DePaul University School of Music. 

Photo credits:

  • Michael Lewanski portrait credit Chelsea Ross
  • Wlad Marhulets portrait credit Arthur Moeller
  • Stephanie Fleischmann portrait credit Jessica Fleischmann
  • Jill Grove portrait credit Dario Acosta
  • Anne Slovin portrait credit Jordana Wright

 

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An Insider's Guide to THE PASSENGER

The Chicago premiere of Weinberg's The Passenger is on stage at Lyric from February 24 through March 15. Discover this poignant, gripping, and intimate 20th-century masterpiece, which portrays the story of the Holocaust from the perspectives of both victim and perpetrator, through interviews with the cast and creative team, audio previews, and more. 

 

The final opera of Lyric's 60th Anniversary season is the Chicago premiere of Mieczysław Weinberg's The Passenger, on stage from February 24 through March 15. This poignant and gripping 20th-century masterpiece portrays the story of the Holocaust from the perspectives of both victim and perpetrator, and was only recently rediscovered after more than 40 years of suppression.

In the early 1960s, Liese (Daveda Karanas) travels aboard an ocean liner bound for Brazil with her diplomat husband Walter (Brandon Jovanovich) while hiding a terrible secret: she was once an SS officer at Auschwitz. When she thinks she recognizes a fellow passenger as Marta (Amanda Majeski), one of her former inmates, she is forced to confront the truth about her past. The story moves back and forth from the ship to the camp, focusing on key events including Marta's reunion with her lover, Tadeusz (Joshua Hopkins), and Marta's friendships with Katya (Kelly Kaduce) and Bronka (Liuba Sokolova).

The Passenger is conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and directed by David Pountney, with set designs by the late Johan Engels, costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and lighting by Fabrice Kebour.

To supplement the mainstage performances of The Passenger, Lyric also presents "Memory and Reckoning," a confluence of activities that will add resonance and perspective to the themes and messages in Weinberg's opera through musical performances, a film screening, exploratory discussions, and the world premiere of The Property, a newly commissioned klezmer opera. Click here to learn more about these supplemental events, which run January through March.

Click here to read the plot synopsis, director's note, and more
in the complete program book for The Passenger.
 

Learn more about the world of The Passenger with this opera companion
 

Click here to learn more about The Property in the complete program book. 

Director David Pountney invites you to The Passenger

 

Articles with insights from the cast and creative team:

Pathways to Discovery: Exploring The Passenger and The Property
Lyric's general director Anthony Freud discusses the importance of presenting The Passenger and "Memory and Reckoning" events in this article from Lyric Opera News: "As the son of a Holocaust survivor, Freud notes that he can 'be rather cynical about works of art that have been inspired by the Holocaust. However, The Passenger is different from most. It's not sentimental or simplistic or melodramatic. It's a complex, very moving, very human story.'" READ MORE  

Zofia Posmysz and The Passenger: A Survivor's Story
7566. If you listen to the roll call of prisoners in Act One of The Passenger, you'll hear a series of numbers called over a loudspeaker (in German) by the overseer. 7566 is the number Zofia Posmysz was assigned in Auschwitz. At age 91, she still bears the tattoo on her left arm. In 1942, Posymsz, an 18-year-old student in Krakow, was accused of distributing flyers for the Polish resistance and arrested. She would spend the next three years of her life in Nazi concentration camps, first Auschwitz and later Auschwitz-Birkenau (an extermination camp in the Auschwitz network), where she worked as a bookkeeper in the kitchen. READ MORE   


In the Footsteps of Evil: Daveda Karanas visits Auschwitz
When Daveda Karanas appears in the Lyric premiere of The Passenger, she'll perform with a special perspective on the opera. Her portrayal of Liese&mdsah;a former overseer of inmates at Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II—will be significantly influenced by the American mezzo-soprano's recent visit to Auschwitz itself. READ MORE

Lyric Opera Orchestra Members on Weinberg and The Passenger
This season, Lyric Unlimited has teamed up with a number of cultural institutions for an incredible series of discussions, a film screening, the world premiere of a new klezmer opera, The Property, and chamber music performances featuring members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra. The chamber music concerts feature more of Weinberg's compelling and emotional music. We reached out to the members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra who are participating in these "Memory and Reckoning" concerts to gain insight on their experience with this music. READ MORE

Backstage Look: Creating Hair and Makeup for The Passenger
Lyric's wigmaster Sarah Hatten, now entering her fourth season as the head of this crucial department, takes us inside the process for creating the hair and makeup for Weinberg’s The Passenger. With an opera based on historical events, the challenge is to make every aspect of the production look as realistic as possible. And as surprising as it might seem, recreating real life on stage is usually more difficult than creating whimsical or fantastic wigs and makeup. READ MORE

Behind the Scenes of The Property
Lyric Unlimited has commissioned a new opera, The Property, to be presented in tandem with the Chicago premiere of Mieczsław Weinberg's The Passenger on the Lyric mainstage. A true fusion of opera and klezmer music, The Property brings Israeli author Rutu Modan's graphic novel to life in a captivating story about reclaiming the past, and finding your future. READ MORE

The Passenger Audio Preview

Music director Sir Andrew Davis shares the synopsis and excerpts from Weinberg's The Passenger. Recordings used by permission of EMI Classics and Peermusic Classical.

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A special invitation from THE MAGIC VICTROLA cast

The Magic Victrola is on stage at Lyric this Saturday, January 17 at 3pm for one performance only! Check out this special invitation to attend from its three stars: Caroline Heffernan, Logan Neuschaefer, and veteran Chicago actor Richard Henzel.

The cast of The Magic VictrolaCaroline Heffernan, Logan Neuschaefer, and Richard Henzel—invites you to attend this family-friendly performance on Saturday, January 17 at 3pm. Opera comes alive for one performance only! 

Why should you see this great production? Here's a few reasons why from Grandfather himself:

Hi, I'm Richard Henzel and I'm excited to be playing the role of the grandfather in a spectacular new production from Lyric Unlimited that has been created just for your kids—The Magic Victrola!

Like you, I love opera—the beautiful scenery and costumes, the passionate stories and exciting characters, and of course the magnificent singing. There's no greater thrill than being able to share my passion for this wonderful art form with the ones I love. That's why I'm so excited to be part of The Magic Victrola and the opportunity to experience it with you and your family.

This special new production brings together scenes from beloved operas in a way that will fill the children in your life with wonder and delight. It stars children who, perhaps like our young audience, don't know what to expect from opera - and just wait until the surprises start to unfold!

You'll hear favorite music from operas like The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, Carmen, and more—melodies we have all heard in cartoons and on television commercials—come to vivid life as performed by real-life opera stars and a live orchestra. The 60-minute show features sets, costumes, and fun pop-culture twists that will keep everyone engaged!

Plus, you'll be able to see every exciting detail up close through the help of six jumbo video screens throughout the opera house.

Spend a warm afternoon with us at the glorious Civic Opera House, and experience the magical thrill of opera classics this Saturday, January 17 at 3pm.

We look forward to seeing you there!

 

Photo credits:

  • Richard Henznel portrait credit Suzanne Plunkett
  • Caroline Heffernan portrait credit Brian McConkey
  • Logan Neuschaefer portrait credit Carin Silkaitis
  • The Magic Victrola set picture credit Andrew Cioffi / Lyric Opera of Chicago

 

THE MAGIC VICTROLA: Opera Comes Alive

Prepare for Lyric Unlimited's upcoming family presentation The Magic Victrola  on January 17 with this comprehensive guide, which gives an overview of the story and some of the musical excerpts that will be featured.

Children and adults alike will be enchanted by Lyric Unlimited's upcoming family presentation, The Magic Victrola on Saturday, January 17 at 3pm.

This one-afternoon-only event is a delightful way for children to learn about the joys of opera. The production is specifically designed for children ages 5 to 10, but people of all ages will enjoy this brand-new story brought to life by the Lyric Opera Orchestra and singers from Lyric's own Ryan Opera Center

The Story…

Caroline Heffernan and Logan Neuschaefer play Gracie and Sam, two children who are staying with their grandfather (Richard Henzel) for the summer. Though they initially worry they might be bored, they discover their grandfather's collection of opera records in the attic, along with an old-fashioned Victrola player that has magical qualities. When they put on the first record, the bird catcher Papageno (Ryan Opera Center baritone Will Liverman) from Mozart's The Magic Flute appears and encourages Gracie and Sam to play more records, which causes each famous opera scene to magically come to life in colorful vignettes.

The Process 

Curious about how the story and the music make it to the stage? Read this interview with Lyric's production design director Scott Marr and props coordinator Maria da Fabo, who designed the sets and costumes for this presentation.

The Snacks… 

The rumors are true! Kid-friendly snacks will be sold in the foyer and you can even take them with you to enjoy in the theater.

The Music… 

The Magic Victrola is filled with operatic favorites. If you want to introduce your children to the music before they come, here are some video excerpts!

Overture from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro

The Magic Victrola opens with one of the most famous overtures in opera: Mozart's delightful opening to The Marriage of Figaro.

 

"Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja" from Mozart's The Magic Flute

Papageno sings about his happy life as a birdcatcher.

 

The Doll Song from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann 

Olympia the doll sings a song, but she occasionally needs to be wound up so she can keep going!

 

"Quanto è bella" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore

This aria has a man singing about the beautiful woman he loves.  

 

The Flower Duet from Delibes's Lakmé

This duet is about all of the wonderful things found in nature.

 

"O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi

In this aria, a young woman asks for help from her father in a way that melts his heart. The title can be translated to "O my dear papa."

 

Habanera from Bizet's Carmen

This opera is set in Spain and this aria has a very catchy rhythm called the Habanera, which is a type of dance music.

 

Papageno Papagena Duet from Mozart's The Magic Flute

Papageno finally finds his perfect match: Papagena!

 

Photo credits:

  • Photos from The Family Barber, Lyric Unlimited's family presentation in the 2013-14 season (Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago)
(Lyric Opera of Chicago does not own copyrights to any of the above videos.)

 

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