Columns of breath
Director Ying Yeh stages a mostly enjoyable Opera Highlights concert
Director Ying Yeh started off this year’s Opera Highlights concert intelligently with a series of clearly enunciated, brightly upbeat works by Offenbach, Gounod, Strauss and Lehar. This made for a bubbly first half.
Indeed, many Opera Workshop singers are young, and their voices are small and thus particularly apt for lighthearted, tuneful stuff.
The show opened with a chorus of merrymakers from Offenbach’s La Périchole and moved on to a pretty trio (Jessica Garcia, Sarah Van Hoy and Melanie Farmer) from the same opera. The singers’ voices were thin, but the work’s essential tunefulness carried them, as did the tune of Offenbach’s lovely Barcarolle (Van Hoy and Elizabeth Carroll) later in the first half.
The next three pieces from the same opera (Lee Holcomb singing “The Song of the Incognito,” Kelsey Gunn and Tom Iverson singing “The Soldier and the Indian Maid,” and Marji Lagomarsino singing “The Letter Song") were similar. All these opening numbers were also audience pleasing because of the drawing-room setting and more playful acting than has often been the case.
In terms of broad comic acting, Anastasia Legatos, who joined Lee Holcomb for the same opera’s “Tipsy Waltz,” and Chris Wenger, who made it a trio, outshone the others. Legatos has a nicely developing voice, one surprisingly good in the mezzo range. Wenger has improved dramatically over the couple of years I have known and watched him. He projects well, says his words clearly, and has built more body into his originally smallish voice. He has also developed an appealingly confident stage presence, which serves him well.
My aunt, Anna Schoen-René, was one of the country’s greatest opera teachers during the 1920s, ‘30s and early ‘40s. I have been reading her ideas on voice training recently. She speaks of the singer’s tone as “sitting upon” a long column of breath and needing to be developed through extensive exercises in vocalization. My father used to tell me of hearing Risë Stevens being made to sing held notes for months before she was allowed to even touch a tune. I suspect my aunt was working on Stevens’ ability to deepen and use richly and effectively that column of air.
Such training takes more time than a university program can afford, but I sometimes wish these young singers were able to afford something similar.
Liang Zhang, on the other hand, has that deep-reaching column—as he demonstrated singing Valentine’s “Avant de quitter ces lieux,” the first of several selections from Gounod’s Faust. Liang always sings with impressive power, although a number of his mid-mouth and rear-of-mouth vowels seem to come from the same place, and this muddies his articulation.
The concert’s second half was longer than it should have been. Without casting any aspersion on the singers involved, I would have eliminated the two Gian Carlo Menotti works as tedious and not really fitting into the concert as a whole. I would also have eliminated The Merry Widow‘s “The Girls at Maxim’s,” mostly because it is uncomfortable to watch women trying to be sexy and failing.
The acting in some of the serious numbers was also much more wooden, with stiff gestures failing to convey the emotion that should have been in the voices (if Rigoletto is asking his daughter to cry, she should cry; if he wants to show his love, he should hug her hard).
At the same time, there were some very nice bits, including several Merry Widow songs involving the rich-voiced Pam Thornton and an absolutely gorgeous folk-song-like aria from Carlisle Floyd’s Susanna, sung prettily by Joanna Baylor. Pam Thornton also did nicely with “Ritorna vincitor” from Aida, as did Zhang, backed by Wenger and Iverson (Nicholas King on Sunday), with the lovely “Cruda, funestra smania” from Lucia di Lammermoor.
The concert ended in a lively, upbeat manner reminiscent of its beginning, with a trio of songs from Scott Joplin’s bubbly Treemonisha, a bouncy way to close a pretty good show.