Before seeing Susan Graham perform in the Schubert Club International Series

On Tuesday January 10th, Susan Graham will be performing at the Ordway as part of the  Schubert Club International Arist Series.  Among those in attendance will be our cadre of theoroi.  The International Artist Series was started in 1893 with the intention of bringing the world’s best musicians to perform in St Paul.  In its modern form the series includes five performance per year, each a recital by one of the world’s finest musical performers.  According to the Schubert Club website

Nearly 130 years later, The Schubert Club has secured a prominent place in the history of musical organizations. It is one of the oldest arts organizations in the country, predated by among a very few, the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Schubert Club has brought virtually all of the world’s great recitalists to the Saint Paul stage

If you want to get a sense of what the evening will be like, here is a small sampling of Susan Graham’s work as well as recordings of other musicians performing music that’s on the program for January 10th.

Encores from an informal recital with Susan Graham and Renee Fleming

Exactly what I expect in a recital by a great operatic performer

Harpsichord-driven Baroque chamber music

A youtube video consisting entirely of Susan Graham bowing dramatically to a wash of applause.  Doesn’t it make you curious what just happened?

Selections from the Program

The evening’s program is posted on the Schubert Club website along with information about Susan Graham.  Here are recordings of some of the music from the program.

La mort d’Ophélie by Berloiz – Cecilia Bartoli singing  

Heiss mich nicht rede by Schubert – Hayley Grace Hunt singing

Schumann: So laßt mich scheinen, bis ich werde –

Franz Liszt – Mignons Lied (Kennst du das Land)

Francis Poulenc – Fiançailles pour rire

She will also be performing a bit of “popular” music by composers like Noel Coward and Cole Porter.  Here’s a sampling of that.

Susan Graham in jeans singing Summertime from Porgie & Bess

Singing Noel Coward


A night with the Theoroi at MN Opera’s Cosi fan Tutte

On Thursday morning I woke up in New York’s East Village with my head buzzing softly.  I had been out the night before drinking Rye whiskey in Hell’s Kitchen and dancing to 1970s Soul Train footage at a notorious East Village bar near 2nd & 2nd.  After water, caffiene, and a layover in Chicago, I was throwing on a black linen pinstripe zoot suit, spritzing myself with John Varvatos vintage and running out the door, shoes & tie in hand, to climb into a classic black mercedes that was waiting outside.  I was on my way to the first performance in the Theoroi Project‘s inaugural season: MN Opera’s production of Cosi fan Tutte.  A friend who knows opera far more intimately than me had provided memorable instructions for the night.  “I heard the cast is smokin’ hot.  Bring binoculars.”

The mezzanine of the Ordway lobby was packed for the pre-show “opera insights”, in which the Musical Director of the MN Opera gave some background about the performance we were about to see.  The crowd laughed along to bon mots like “What a surprise! The soprano falls in love with the tenor!”  Whatever that means.  I was busy trying to spot the 24 theoroi speckled throughout the crowd.  We specifically invited participants who predominantly aren’t arts insiders, so it was no surprise that they all gravitated to sitting in the back row, standing along the balcony, and availing themselves of the bar.

When the crowd started moving to their seats in the theater, our theoroi class gathered, many of them meeting for the first time.  You will all have to see for yourselves, but let me tell you – this is a very engaging and very good looking crew.

We found our seats, the curtains opened, and out came the binoculars.  Have you ever tried sharing a single pair of binoculars between 24 near-strangers sitting silently in the dark?  In the second scene, when the two beautiful female leads first arrived on stage, all the men wanted the binoculars back.  I wanted to admire the costumes.  The guys on either side of me seemed to have other motives.

There’s a moment in the first act where Fiordiligi sits in the garden, torn between her feelings and her responsibilities.  As Jacquelyn Wagner sang the aria, alone on stage, it was like the laws of gravity had been redefined.  Everything seemed to pull in towards the spot on the stage where she reclined.  As I looked around the packed theater I felt a distinct sense of place, time and beauty.  People often talk about the ineffability of real beauty.  That certainly applies here.  I can’t explain the sensation, but I expect that my left and right brain were both lit up like christmas trees at that moment.  I began to reflect on the fact that thousands of people have been experiencing moments like this for hundreds of years in opera houses like the Ordway.  That continuity is certainly a part of why I support the arts.

At that moment, someone started futzing with a very loud candy wrapper about 2 rows up and 8 seats over.  When the noise persisted, heads started to turn, someone “ssshed”, and the noise continued.  As it turns out, that beautiful aria is quite long.  Our candy wrapper enemy persisted through the entire thing.  She was too far away for us to do anything.  I fantasized about designing iPhone apps that let you report noisemakers to the ushers.  At intermission, our entire section was fuming.

After the show, the theoroi had drinks and snacks at Amsterdam, which was recently launched in downtown St Paul by the owners of the 331 club.  To our delight, Jacquelin Wagner (Fiordiligi), Jennifer Holloway (Dorabella) and Matthew Worth (Gugliermo) joined us briefly.  They were all friendly, charming, and beautiful.  I hope that they had fun meeting our inaugural class of theoroi.


Rookie Mistake: Thinking critically about Cosi fan Tutte

On a grey Sunday afternoon in Seattle, sometime in autumn 2001, I passed a nuclear family walking down University avenue.  The father figure bore a painted-on smile.  He seemed uncannily familiar. It took me  a moment to realize that he was then-governor Gary Locke.  In true Seattle fashion, he was being unanimously ignored.  I wondered why the governor & family were strolling through the U-District and remembered that the University was staging the opera Cosi fan Tutte that day.  I had never seen an opera and my student ID was good for free admission, so I decided to check it out.

I completely hated watching that opera.  I hated the characters and the plot left me fuming with the sort of righteous indignance that it seems only college students are capable of.

The title, Cosi fan Tutte, translates roughly as “They are always like that.”, but is often translated “Women are like that.”  Mozart wrote the music and a man named Lorenzo da Ponte wrote the libretto.  The story is a simple “fiancee swapping” theme.  Don Alfonso, a jaded old knave, convinces two young aristocrat-soldiers to test their lovers’ fidelity.  The two young men, Gugliermo and Ferrando, tell their lovers Dorabella and Fiordiligi that they are leaving for war.  While the women cast about in privileged agony at their loss, the two men disguise themselves as Albanians and return to seduce each other’s fiancee.  Don Alfonso orchestrates the seduction, even paying a very clever maid named Despina to help him corrupt Dorabella and Fiordiligi.  Within 48 hours, the women have given up on their fiancees and married the Albanians.

The moral underpinnings of this story are enough to incense anyone with even a hint of feminist sentiment.  When I saw the opera, I was reading Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae and Toby Marotta’s The Politics of Homosexuality for fun.  I walked out of the theater that day with the following synopsis stuck in my head:  In short, this story assumes that women are morally flawed, making them incapable of fidelity.  In contrast, men aren’t even expected to attempt fidelity.  Rather, men are encouraged to practice infidelity as a test of their lovers’ mettle.  In other words, Heads, men win.  Tails, women lose.  I wish I could say it’s an uncommon theme.  The “happy” ending of this farce leaves manipulative, faithless men unscathed while the women are painted as feckless children who are “always like that”.   Meanwhile, Despina the maid — the only speaking part who is not a member of the aristocracy — falls to the bottom of the moral pile as a quasi-biblical archetype of the clever woman who revels in eroding virtuous behavior for fun and profit.  In contrast, Don Alfonso, the instigator of the entire escapade stands as king of the mountain, gazing down at all of these fools.  The final score: Men +3, Women -3. cosi fan tutte.

Needless to say, my first encounter with the opera was not splendid.

Rookie Mistake

When my friend Meredith informed me last year that the Dead Composers Society would be staging Cosi fan Tutte, I impulsively responded “I hate that opera.”  “Why’s that?” she asked.  “I hate the point of the story and I hate all of the characters, especially Despina.  I find her disturbing.”  Meredith’s response: “Ha ha ha.  Oh Matthew, nobody watches opera for the story.  It’s about the music and the experience.”

I had made the rookie mistake of taking an opera (a comedy!) seriously.