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Ryan Opera Center Spotlight: J’nai Bridges

Learn all about third-year Ryan Opera Center member J'nai Bridges in this artist spotlight. This talented young mezzo-soprano speaks Japanese and will be representing the United States in the upcoming BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. She is currently on stage in The Passenger through March 15.

Ryan Opera Center member J'nai Bridges is an exciting young singer who can currently be seen on stage in Weinberg's The Passenger  as Vlasta. You might also recognize her from previous appearances at Lyric in productions ranging from Il Trovatore, The Magic Victrola, The Family Barber, La Traviata, Parsifal, The Second City Guide to the Opera, and more!


J'nai Bridges in The Family Barber and The Second City Guide to the Opera
(top L-R); La Traviata and The Magic Victrola (bottom L-R)

In addition to her hard work on stage at Lyric, she was just named as one of 20 international finalists for the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in June.

Catch J'nai in The Passenger  through March 15 and at Rising Stars in Concert on March 21, which marks her official "graduation" from the Ryan Opera Center. (Donate $75 or more today to secure your place at this exciting performance.) She'll also make a welcome return to Chicago in the 2015-16 season when she portrays Carmen in the world-premiere performances of Jimmy López's Bel Canto, which opens on December 7. 

Name J'nai Bridges
Age  28
Voice Mezzo-soprano
Year in ROC 3rd Year
Hometown Lakewood, Washington
Dream Role Charlotte in Werther

When did you start singing? When did you know you wanted to be a singer?

I started singing classically when I was 17, my senior year in high school. I knew I wanted to be an opera singer after my freshman year at Manhattan School of Music. 

Did you ever consider a career other than singing? And if you had to imagine an alternative career now, what would it be?

Yes, I considered studying psychology. I find the mind really fascinating. 

What was the most memorable performance you've been in at this point in your career?

I have a couple of most memorable moments. The first is performing Act IV from Carmen at Stars of Lyric Opera in Millennium Park in 2012 and the second is making my Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut under the baton of Matthew Aucoin.

 
J'nai Bridges and Brandon Jovanovich perform in Carmen at Stars of Lyric Opera in Millennium Park

What is something most people don't know about you?

I speak Japanese.

When you're not performing or rehearsing, where are we likely to find you?

At home or in some sort of spa relaxing

Learn more about J'nai and Cardiff Singer of the World in this Lyric Spotlight video:

J'nai Bridges interviewed by WFMT before a performance of The Passenger:

 

Photo credits:

  • J'nai Bridges portrait credit Devon Cass
  • Lyric Opera of Chicago production photos credit Todd Rosenberg (Family Barber, La Traviata, and The Magic Victrola); Dan Rest (The Second City Guide to the Opera); and Robert Kusel (Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, 2012)

 

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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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See why TOSCA is “as pitch perfect as opera gets”

Lyric's Diamond Anniversary season continues with another acclaimed production; this time, critics are loving the new-to-Chicago production of Puccini's Tosca. It's on stage at Lyric until March 14. If you're not convinced yet, here are just a few reasons to see this dramatic, passionate blockbuster.

Lyric's Diamond Anniversary season continues with another acclaimed production; this time, critics are loving the new-to-Chicago production of Puccini's Tosca. It's on stage at Lyric until March 14. If you're not convinced yet, here are just a few reasons to see this dramatic, passionate blockbuster.

"Highly Recommended" - Chicago Sun-Times 

"…a mesmerizing night of music theater imaginatively staged, perceptively conducted and gloriously sung." - Chicago on the Aisle

"this Tosca is as pitch perfect as opera gets" - Le Bon Travel and Culture 

"…this production, staged by John Caird with sets and costumes by Bunny Christie, offers something more: a fresh approach to staging as evocative as the singing." - Chicago Sun-Times 

The Glorious Music

"Let me end by praising one of the great performances of the night: the orchestra's. Under Dmitri Jurowski's baton, this night saw the Lyric's house band find again and again an exquisite late 19th century sound, the winds and brass speaking gorgeously from within beds of strings." - Bachtrack 

" the Lyric's production features Puccini's glorious musical score that soars under the Lyric's exceptional orchestra led by Dmitri Jurowski in his Lyric debut. " - Le Bon Travel and Culture 

"Jurowski consistently and fetchingly underscores the opera's emotional surge, with deft shifts into sweet comedy and arching lyricism. Both the Lyric Opera Chorus, in the grand Te Deum that crowns Act I, and the Orchestra distinguish themselves with performances that bloom and soar." - Chicago on the Aisle  

The Electrifying Cast

Tatiana Serjan and Brian Jagde are "an inspired pairing: two wonderful acting singers with the extraordinary voices that make for opera legend." - Chicago Reader 

"Tatiana Serjan commanded the stage, tracing the arc of Tosca's journey from capricious, jealous diva to a woman driven to desperate action in a frantic effort to save the life of her lover." - Chicago on the Aisle 

"the Russian soprano showed she truly is the complete package as a singer and actress, with her Tosca as affecting and vulnerable as her Lady Macbeth was chilling and evil." - Chicago Classical Review 

"One could go a lifetime and not hear a finer “Vissi d’arte” in the theater than the one Serjan delivered Saturday night." - Chicago Classical Review 

"Making his Lyric debut, the American tenor [Brian Jagde] declares his love for Tosca in his opening aria, unleashing his supple, warm-toned tenor in a passionate outpouring that set the audience cheering." - Chicago Sun-Times 

 

Photo credits:

  • Tosca production photos credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago

 

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