Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Behind the music with CAROUSEL conductor David Chase

Acclaimed Broadway conductor David Chase makes his Lyric debut leading the amazing cast, orchestra, and chorus in the brand-new production of Carousel. Read on to learn more about his long history with director/choreographer Rob Ashford, his circuitous path to conducting, and how his baton once flew out of his hand mid-performance!

Acclaimed Broadway conductor David Chase makes his Lyric debut leading the amazing cast, orchestra, and chorus in the brand-new production of Carousel. Chase was nominated for an Emmy for his music direction of NBC's The Sound of Music Live and has been music director or supervisor for countless musicals that have been hits with audiences and critics alike, including  Nice Work if You Can Get It, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Billy Elliot, The Pajama Game, Flower Drum Song, The Music Man, Side Show, Little Me, and Damn Yankees.  

He took some time out of the busy rehearsal process to answer questions a few days before the April 10 opening. Read on to learn more about his long history with director/choreographer Rob Ashford, his circuitous path to conducting, and how his baton once flew out of his hand mid-performance, only to be returned to him by the audience!

You actually have a degree in biology from Harvardhow did you get interested in music and conducting more specifically? 

I took piano lessons as a kid.  Hated every minute of it—the practicing, anyway.  But I always loved playing, and that led to an interest in the power of music as an emotional conduit for story-telling. In high school I became very involved—onstage and off— in the Drama Department where I had an amazingly inspiring teacher, Joan Bedinger.  In college, I became involved in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, both as a performer and writer, and that led to an interest in arranging and the way that musical shows are structured. I knew fairly quickly that I didn't want to spend my life doing medicine, but I loved the cathartic power of music, and so continued to pursue it in various forms—first as an accompanist, then eventually as an arranger and music director.  

I had never had a particular interest in conducting, but in 1993 I was working with the brilliantly talented James Raitt (nephew of original Carousel star John Raitt) when he was offered the position of music director for the Broadway revival of Damn Yankees (eventually to star Jarrod Emick and Charlotte d'Amboise). James was a huge supporter of young musicians, and he offered me the position of associate conductor on the show with the very frank statement that he thought I should be a conductor and that he himself didn't have long to live. The show opened in March of 1994 and James died of AIDS in April. I have been music director and/or arranger on 30 Broadway productions since then, and for every single performance I've ever conducted, I have used his baton.  

 
Jarrod Emick and Bebe Neuwirth in Damn Yankees on Broadway

You have been a frequent collaborator with Rob Ashford on How to Succeed… and the NBC live musicals, among others - can you talk about your partnership and why it's so gratifying to work with him? 

I've known Rob since 1990. I had just moved to New York and was tapped to play rehearsals for the new Radio City Spring Spectacular. Rob was one of the dancers in the ensemble. We honestly can't remember if we ever talked then! But our paths kept crossing—a few years later, Rob was the first replacement in the Crazy For You, where my wife was an original cast member. Then in 1999 we worked with Kathleen Marshall on Kiss Me, Kate—me as dance arranger and Rob as associate choreographer—and had a grand time. That led to Rob asking me to work with him on his first choreography assignment, Thoroughly Modern Millie. We've done numerous shows since then and we've developed an amazing shorthand. We both value truthful story-telling above all else, and have a very complementary understanding of the ability of music and movement to further that story-telling. There's an implicit trust to the way we work together, and an immediate ease. I also know that he will always have a strong point of view when approaching a piece of theater, and to me that's the most important factor in shaping something dramatically. It's deeply gratifying to know that you're working towards the same goal and Rob keeps everyone moving forward with clarity.  

 
Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway starring Sutton Foster

Can you talk a little bit about the cast assembled for the show, and what strengths they bring to the production vocally?

I'm very proud of this cast, and how beautifully they bridge the world between the musical theater and the opera world. They're all first rate actors as well as singers, and that is vitally important to the world of Carousel, which is quite the intimate dramatic play set against the backdrop of huge meditations on the nature of community, salvation, and self-respect. I've known Laura since she auditioned for (and eventually won) the reality TV show, You're the One That I Want, and I'm constantly astonished by the depths of her talent. I've always known her to be a first-rate musician with a crystal-clear sound (she's often been called the modern-day Julie Andrews, and for good reason), and I'm thrilled to see how beautifully she's handling the darker complexities of Julie Jordan. I've known Jarrod and Charlotte for over 20 years and they're both brilliant and always fascinating to watch. I haven't worked with Steven, Matt or Jenn before (Matt did the recent revival of Side Show on Broadway whereas I did the original in 1997), but I'm thrilled to get to do so here. Steven is an incredible musician—like me, untrained—and brings a rawness to his performance that's very exciting. I've mostly known of Matt's pop side, and was very happy to discover that he has a true legit voice. And it's great that Jenn has played the role before in a much smaller setting (Goodspeed Opera House) and now gets to bring it to a much larger stage.

 
Carousel cast in rehearsal; clockwise from top left: Charlotte d'Amboise and Jarrod Emick; Jenn Gambatese and Laura Osnes; Jenn Gambatese and Matthew Hydzik; Tony Roberts and Steve Pasquale

How is the rehearsal process going so far? For those who might not be familiar, can you take us through the steps of how you musically prepare such a huge ensemble?

Rehearsals have gone well; although we all wish we had more time to develop the details! Maestro Black [Lyric's chorus master Michael Black]  has done an amazing job of preparing the ensemble, and my focus has been to help them have a point of view.  Written music, like any written language, is a highly inexact record of an aural experience. There's no way to sing notes and lyrics without knowing why they're being sung:  by whom and to whom, and to what end. Yes, we want lovely sounds and well-shaped vowels and clean cut-offs, but more than anything else, we want the music to do what only music can do: connect us to an ineffable emotional response. And yes, that comes from rehearsing, and it comes from a common understanding of the reasons for why we sing when we do. Ultimately, that's as important if not more important than the simple learning of the notes and words.  

 
The ensemble for Carousel in staging (top) and dress rehearsal (bottom)

What makes the music of Carousel  so special? Where do you think it fits in the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon?

TIME magazine named Carousel the greatest musical of the 20th century, and for good reason. It was, especially in its time, an incredibly audacious undertaking, arguably more thematically aligned to grand opera in its musical ambitions, but wholly and fully grounded in the American musical theater traditions in its focus on the drama that plays out in the lives of these two seemingly insignificant people. Oklahoma! was a huge achievement for Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was hailed as the first musical drama where every element of the show—book, music, lyrics, dance, design—served the greater goal of telling the story. And so their next project, Carousel, had to push the boundaries even further. The musical sequence that leads to "If I Loved You" is rightly regarded as one of the greatest achievements in writing for the musical theater, and "Soliloquy," Billy's meditation on impending fatherhood, is undeniably the closest thing to a true aria in the musical theater canon. And R&H put these huge musical gestures into the mouths of a simple factory girl and a rough and uneducated carnival barker as if to let us know that their hearts are equally huge, equally full of music, equally deserving of attention as the princes and aristocrats of grand opera. And we haven't even touched on the simple power of "You'll Never Walk Alone" or the immediate visceral joys of "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and "Real Nice Clambake."

If you had to pick just one, what is your absolute favorite moment in Carousel?

I don't know yet. Ask me again in a few weeks! There is one staging moment that is new to this production that leaves me in awe of the power of live theater.  But I won't tell you what it is.

What has been the most interesting, hilarious, or memorable moment from your career so far? 

Wow. Don't know that I can answer that. Here's a minor one: conducting a Broadway performance in the mid-nineties when my baton flew out of my hand and into the audience. About three songs later, it reappeared, having been passed back from seat to seat. Then, reading about it 10 years later in an online blog where someone was recounting the weirdest moment they'd ever experienced in the theater when the conductor's baton flew out of his hand and landed in their lap.  

One unforgettable moment was the extended audience applause before the downbeat of the final performance of the original Side Show. It seemed to last forever, and was a deeply moving recognition of the ephemeral nature of this business.

While you're in rehearsals for Carousel, you're also the music supervisor  for Finding Neverland, which after several pre-Broadway productions is transferring this month. How do you balance multiple major projects like this at once?

I have no idea. If I thought about it too much, I'd probably crumple up into a little ball.  You never plan for schedules to collide, but sometimes they do. Honestly, though, the key is being passionate and fully committed to every project, and the work gets done.  And it's important to have excellent people working with me—I couldn't have done both projects without the incredible talents of Valerie Maze, associate conductor of Carousel, and Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the music director of Finding Neverland.

What have you enjoyed most about being in Chicago for Carousel? Any restaurants, museums, or other attractions that you have experienced that you'd want to recommend?

Well, I have to admit that I haven't had time yet to experience Chicago, but one thing that has struck me about this city is the way that it struts. The architecture is monumental in scope, and is  bursting with civic pride. That's exciting.  

Photo credits:

  • David Chase photo credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • Damn Yankees on Broadway
  • Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway
  • Carousel rehearsal and production photos credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago

 

 

“A game-changer for opera” – Audiences react to THE PASSENGER

See what audiences are saying about Weinberg's gripping opera, The Passenger. Suppressed for over 40 years, this opera is only now receiving the recognition it deserves through this magnificent and moving production on stage at Lyric through March 15. 

See what audiences are saying about Weinberg's gripping opera, The Passenger. Suppressed for over 40 years, this opera is only now receiving the recognition it deserves through this magnificent and moving production from director David Pountney with incredible set designs from the late Johan Engels. It is on stage only through March 15, so do not miss this opportunity to see this rarely performed modern masterpiece. 

Photo credits:

 

  • The Passenger at Lyric Opera of Chicago production photos credit Michael Brosilow and Robert Kusel

 

THE PASSENGER is “virtually flawless” and “profoundly moving”

The Midwest premiere of Weinberg's The Passenger is onstage at Lyric through March 15. The Chicago Tribune gives this production a perfect four stars and deems it "an experience in the theater that is not to be missed." Read more critical praise for this haunting and powerful opera.

 

The Midwest premiere of Weinberg's The Passenger  is onstage at Lyric through March 15. The Chicago Tribune  gives this production a perfect four stars and deems it "an experience in the theater that is not to be missed." Here is more critical praise for this haunting and powerful opera.

"A virtually flawless performance and [David] Pountney's definitive production justify the decision of Lyric general director Anthony Freud to bring 'The Passenger' to Chicago….If this is a harbinger of fresh directions at Freud's Lyric Opera, then bring them on, I say." - Chicago Tribune

"With a faultless large cast and striking and imaginative production, one can't imagine Weinberg's dark yet hopeful opera receiving stronger advocacy." - Chicago Classical Review

The Passenger is "a compelling opera that manages the nearly impossible task of shedding meaningful light on the horror of Auschwitz." - Chicago Sun-Times

"Pountney's staging sweeps us from present to past with the fluidity of film, using an ingenious unit set the late designer Johan Engels based on Medvedev's original concept." - Chicago Tribune

The Passenger "stunningly powerful" and a "tasteful testimony to the courage and heroism of the human spirit." - Chicago Critic

"stunning" -  Chicago on the Aisle

Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus 

Sir Andrew Davis "conducted with searing authority" - Chicago on the Aisle

"Davis harnesses the power and sensitivity of his instrumental forces to undergird the emotional trajectory of the work." - Chicago Tribune

"The crisp rhythmic definition and propulsive energy Davis brings to Weinberg's sometimes spiky, sometimes nostalgically jazzy orchestra reminds us he is as much a master of 20th century music as he is of Mozart and Strauss. He secures admirable work from the orchestra and the Michael Black-trained chorus, at the top of their game at the end of a demanding 60th anniversary season." - Chicago Tribune

"The level of scrupulous preparation was manifest in every bar, with Davis's acute balancing bringing out every quirky detail of the score from the haunting celesta tones to the sardonic xylophone writing." - Chicago Classical Review

The impressive cast 

"Lyric has assembled an impressive array of singers who managed to make every Auschwitz inmate and prison guard a vivid, individual character."  - Chicago Sun-Times

 "Amanda Majeski is already on a fast track to a major career, but as Marta, the former Ryan Opera Center member delivered a shattering, star-making performance. " - Chicago Classical Review

 "Her ringing soprano glistened like Waterford crystal, combining transparent fragility with soulful strength." - Chicago Sun-Times

Amanda Majeski's "singing is pure, shining and true.  She has done nothing finer at the company that launched her international career." - Chicago Tribune

"Mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas, who last season sang Kundry in Wagner's Parsifal, is riveting as the panicked woman Liese" - Chicago on the Aisle

Karanas  "delivered a superbly rounded performance, singing with a big tone and proved credible as both the frightened wife and scarily sadistic Auschwitz guard." - Chicago Classical Review

"The soft edges of Karanas's rich mezzo-soprano conveyed Liese's terror, but her tone became appropriately commanding in her scenes as a manipulative SS guard. " - Chicago Sun-Times

"With his powerful heldentenor Brandon Jovanovich brought daunting vocal strength to the somewhat thankless role of Walter, Liese's diplomat husband." - Chicago Classical Review

"A fine singer with real acting chops, Jovanovich is convincing as a mostly good guy, with a propped-up image of himself that he is keen to defend." - Chicago on the Aisle

 "As Tadeusz, Marta's fiancé, Joshua Hopkins used his rich baritone to create a calm, moral center amid the madness of Auschwitz." -Chicago Sun-Times

"Notable among Marta's richly individualized community of barrack companions are soprano Kelly Kaduce as the tough-minded Russian freedom fighter Katya, who can't quite remember all the words to the old folk song her grandmother used to sing; dramatic soprano Nina Warren as a crazed older woman who's the only survivor from her group of arrivals, and mezzo-soprano Liuba Sokolova as determinedly faithful Bronka, who lights candles to God and insists He will not forget even the ones who have given themselves up utterly to the idea that they are forsaken." - Chicago on the Aisle

Photo credits:

  • The Passenger at Lyric Opera of Chicago production photos credit Michael Brosilow and Robert Kusel

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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