Online since August 2002
Turbulence - Charlene Baldridge's theater diary

Playing catch-up in and out of town

Published October 28, 2005


I'm playing a serious game of catch-up these days: Too many out-of-town cultural forays.

In September, I was among a group of international arts and music writers who attended the gala opening of the new Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. Stars were tenor Ben Heppner, who sang the "Prize Song" from Wagner's "Die Meistersinger"; soprano Renee Fleming, who wowed the capacity audience with "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Puccini's "Gianni Schicci" as well as an unforgettable performance with Heppner of the love duet from Verdi's "Otello"; and bass James Morris, who had just completed singing the role of Wotan in Wagner's "Ring Cycle" at Seattle Opera. Stephen Wadsworth, a frequent guest director at the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse, staged the acclaimed Seattle "Ring."

Also on the program was San Francisco composer Jake Heggie's new solo song cycle, "At the Statue of Venus," in which a woman awaits a blind date in the art museum. Text is by Terrence McNally, Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" collaborator, and soprano Kristin Clayton, who hails from San Francisco, was a great hit with the audience.

A tribute to the city and its culturally minded citizens, the $92 million opera house, built inside a historic municipal auditorium, is an acoustical dream, to be used by Opera Colorado and the Denver Ballet.

Incident at Red Rocks

September 9, the city of Denver invited the cultural writers to cocktails and a gourmet buffet at Red Rocks &I#150; a natural bowl in the foothills outside Denver. Set amid behemoth boulders as big as battleships, the site is otherworldly, as rock aficionados already know (pun intended).

While we awaited the buffet, a young man dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans stumbled into the roomful of people in cocktail attire and asked, "Whoa! What are you here for?" I explained. "Wow!" he exclaimed. "Opera, huh? That's cool. I went to an opera once. If you have a chance, though, you should check out Dave Matthews. He's playing out there tonight."

Later I learned it was the first of four sold-out Matthews concerts, the last of which, September 12, was to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. After we dined, our hosts invited us to stop and hear Matthews as we walked back to our bus.

"Kinda makes you dizzy, doesn't it?" I asked as I wedged myself between two cowboys at the venue's top rail.

"Depends whatcha been drinkin'," drawled the dude on my left.

"I don't drink."

"Well, then, it depends what drugs you been doin'."

"I don't do drugs, but I just took my arthritis pill. Does that count?"

He grinned and leaned closer. "Got any left?"

The other fella invited me to sit down in a nearby chair. I explained I was just passing through with the opera group and soon had to mosey.

"My best friend just got engaged to an opera singer, and I'm kinda worried about it," he said.

I looked down at Matthews on the postage stamp stage far below, listened to the vocal response of his fans, as lovely as the pilgrim's chorus from "Tannhauser," and said, "Why worry? It's all music."

Jake in Seattle

Jake HeggieJake Heggie
I admit it. I'm a Jake Heggie* groupie. October 15, I flew to Seattle to attend the revised version of his latest opera, "The End of the Affair," based on Graham Greene's novel. Yeah, the very one made into a film two times, most recently in 1999 with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore, and in 1955 with Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr. Heggie and director Leonard Foglia felt that the opera was deeply flawed upon its premiere in Houston in the spring of 2004, so they set about to revise it for performances in Madison, Wisconsin and further, for the Seattle Opera production. It's rare that a contemporary composer gets a second and third production. The reviews in Seattle were most positive, praising Heggie's gifts for melody and orchestration.

I stayed at the Comfort Inn near Seattle Opera's home, McCaw Hall at Seattle Center – an area filled with restaurants, theatres and concert halls. Again, the complex at Seattle Center is a tribute to Seattle's dedication to the arts.

At home in North Park

Last night, I actually sat in a seat at the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre to hear the inaugural production, resident Lyric Opera San Diego's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado," which director/conductor Leon Natker, in good G&S tradition, filled with timely political references to our situation. Again, this refurbished theater is an acoustical gem. The mostly union orchestra sounded magnificent and so did the singers. Vocal stars in my personal firmament were Lisa Archibeque as Nanki-Poo's (Jonathan Michael Knapp in his Lyric Opera debut) beloved Yum-Yum, and Martha Jane Howe as Katisha, the spurned "daughter-in-law elect" of the Mikado (imposing Christopher Stephens). Also outstanding were veteran performer Joseph Grienenberger as the comic Ko-Ko, Joe Pechota as Pooh-Bah, and Ed Hollingsworth as Pish-Tush.

The choruses were splendid and so was the Japanese kitsch attire, original designs by Howard Tsvi Kaplan for Malabar Ltd. and coordinated by Pam Stompoly. The run ended Sunday, October 30, but upcoming November 11-20 for six performances only Lyric Opera produces Emmerich Kalman's Viennese operetta, "Countess Maritza," featuring the U.S. professional opera debut of soprano Andrea Huber, an American whose career has blossomed in Germany.

An asset to the city of San Diego and the neighborhood of North Park, The Birch North Park Theatre, University and 29th, is an example of what can be done with the cooperation of the right developer (Bud Fischer), major donors (Fischer, the Birch Foundation and Teresa and Dr. Merle Fischlowitz), the drive and energy of Natker and Jack Montgomery of Lyric Opera, and support of governmental agencies.

* Truth in journalism: I first interviewed Jake Heggie for Performing Arts magazine in 2000 as he was orchestrating "Dead Man Walking" for its San Francisco debut. Over the course of subsequent meetings and interviews, we have become friends. He incorporated some of my poetry into a 20-minute orchestrated song cycle, "Winter Roses," premiered last year by Camerata Pacifica and mezzo-soprano Frederica Von Stade. Currently, Jake is working on a new musical with McNally. "Dead Man Walking" is set for productions all over the world next year.

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