Shakespeare Salon

By Steven Libowitz   |   June 27, 2019
James Darrah (photo by James Simona Kessler)

In just his third season at the Music Academy of the West, Los Angeles-based director and designer James Darrah has already had a dramatic effect on the seven-decades-old summer festival – employing his unique collaborative focus and vision at a convergence of opera, classical music, and theater to the already well-respected program at the stunning former Montecito estate known as Miraflores. He transformed the staid OperaScenes program into a cutting-edge campus-wide soiree last summer, and added an increased attention on acting to MAW’s already formidable singing accomplishment as clearly demonstrated across two full opera productions.

Darrah was named Creative Director of the newly-rebranded Vocal Institute for this season, when he will also helm the West Coast premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain, which made its debut just four years ago. This Saturday and Monday, Darrah co-directs OperaScenes’ latest incarnation as Shakespeare Salon, combining opera, song and theater in a cutting-edge presentation based on the Bard’s texts, with excerpts from Falstaff, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story and other works.

He discussed the program, and his approach and MAW, via an email interview.

Q. What does your new position entail?

A. The title was simply a way to reflect that MAW and the Vocal Institute are thinking of new ways to build and expand the program into the 21st century of opera – both for today’s audiences but more importantly for what is asked of singers and pianists today. I’m interested in crafting new opportunities, training concepts and a curriculum that, while honoring MAW’s great traditions, also finds additional artistic ways to really challenge the fellows, give them a wider range of performance experiences and perhaps charge them to keep imagining what they want to say as artists making work today.

I understand there’s a new emphasis on individual instruction. Could you please explain further? And how does this benefit the fellows?

That isn’t anything new actually – John Churchwell and the rest of the amazing faculty have always prioritized individual instruction. But in my first year here I noticed a real opportunity to truly integrate the dramatic training with the high-level musical training. I sometimes feel opera-at-large views acting as an after-school elective; I’m always making the opposite case: if you’ve decided to pursue opera as a singer, you’ve already signed up to be an actor — so why not craft a program that builds both rigorously? 

How will these changes affect what audiences see and hear during the summer?

Much of the format is similar, but the intensity level has changed. We are all also thinking of ways that each performance opportunity benefits and informs the next. Skills acquired and developed are brought into each subsequent rehearsal, etc. 

Last year, you transformed OperaScenes into OperaFest with the outdoor/indoor venues – which I thought was a highlight of the season. How was it for you and might we see something like that again in the future?

I’m glad we were able to have that program last year. In addition to presenting the work of four living opera composers (!) on a single program, we also integrated our Institute composer in residence Ellen Reid into the training in unprecedented ways last year – and that type of work will continue. Reid attended my acting class and coached opera arias, participated in the workshops and had a real presence for OperaFest.  Moving people through campus has its logistical challenges but I’m definitely interested in those types of surprises. I never want to return to a simple by-the-book scenes program. This year we are back in Hahn Hall for the duration, but the fellows have to think of the “scenes” all connecting – and play the full arc of a story. 

Now this year the focus is on Shakespeare. Can you go through how you arrived at the program, the repertoire choices, costuming, narratives, etc… And why it’s being called “an entirely new format”?

The new format probably is in reference to the fact that we are incorporating some spoken Shakespeare text, connecting the scenes and characters and moments together and really inventing a world in which a whole host of scenes can play off of each other. Each act plays through, giving the fellows a sense of how to contribute to an overall objective and whole. I actually have little interest in the fellows trying to jumpstart a “scene” from a full opera, playing it out of context, and bowing at the end. It’s such an unnatural idea that we all somehow accept as acceptable training: opera scenes just by-the-book. Opera is totally about context, collective, and additive emotional journeys. So rather than a bunch of fragments, we decided to coalesce the evening around how a body of texts and plays and stories have been operatically set and can feed off of each other. The scenes all flow and connect, and while we play them truthfully for text and situation and certainly honor the music, we find ways – including the monologues – to propel each act forward and illuminate unexpected discoveries for the fellows as musicians and actors. 

What makes this event special for both the singers/pianists and audience?

I think it’s a chance to really see how singers and pianists can communicate staging ideas and dramatic music using very little in the way of an excess of props and costumes. We’ve intentionally stripped a lot of the work down to a bare stagecraft. It’s designed and has a postmodern throughline, but in general it’s a total showpiece for the singers to learn how to listen, tell stories, and build a rapport before heading into the full opera. There’s already some truly incredible scene work happening from them – and all of the pianists are acting and singing as well! There are many little secrets in the staging too: when characters from the second half connect in the first, a Romeo duel, etc. that will be enjoyable to people who might know either the full operas or the plays.

Also for the first time I brought an associate director into the mix from a totally different medium for the whole summer. Kate Bergstrom, who I know from over 10 years ago when we were both at UCLA, has been running “On the Verge” in town the last few years. Now, she is working with me all summer and pulling some talented actors into the acting roles of Cold Mountain, but also co-directing the Salon with me and co-teaching our acting studio. She’s bringing a unique depth of theater work and knowledge and, I should say, a healthy irreverence toward opera that I’ve already seen yield amazing results. She helped select the Shakespeare monologues and has been coaching the fellows on their text to great result. That work will spill over into Cold Mountain’s process.

What are your plans for your July 3 vocal MasterClass?

Break all of the masterclass “rules”! In truth, I really want to get the fellows to always think in character, physically push them to take risks into some staging ideas. I want to challenge them on creation of character, musicality and spark a personal but visceral theater making process.

Piano “Genius,” c. 2019

A couple of months ago, MAW pianist Jeremy Denk, who joined the faculty a year after he served as Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival, had lots of kind and thoughtful words about Jerome Lowenthal, the MAW legend whose half-century anniversary on campus was feted on opening weekend in mid-June.

“He’s such a fascinating mixture of pianism and erudition, nurturing and encouraging as a teacher, and a provocateur and a thinker in such unusual ways,” Denk told me in a late April interview to preview the Bell-Isserlis-Denk Trio’s concert at the Granada in early May. “It’s a wonderful combination of elements that shows up in his playing, too.”

While he’s got another four and a half decades to approach Lowenthal’s MAW tenure, Denk can certainly compare in terms of accomplishments (he’s been awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant as well as the Avery Fisher Prize, and there’s the Ojai stint five years ago) and the breadth of his endeavors (his writing on music rivals the insight and brilliance of his playing, and his latest album, c.1300 – c.2000, released in February, features piano versions of pieces by composers spanning those seven centuries). And, like Lowenthal, he said the opportunity for both performance and coaching advanced solo piano students in a gorgeous setting also appealed to him when he decided to sign on for summers after serving as a Mosher Guest Artist.

“Aside from the natural beauty of this paradise, what is unique to MAW are the masterclasses where people (the audience) come to them with great interest and enthusiasm,” he said. “That is very different from many other places I could be in during the summer. I can’t tell you how many times I give a masterclass in a city and only three or four people show up. [At MAW] I was impressed by the community involvement, the tremendous interest in the machinery, the refinements, of how you make performances interesting and great. That made me want to be there.”

Your chance to share in those insights and intricacies at Denk’s only masterclass this summer takes place on July 12 at Hahn Hall. But he’ll have the theater’s stage all to himself for a recital nine days earlier, this Wednesday, July 3, on the eve of Independence Day (details below). Expect fireworks.

Off-Campus Collaborations

MAW is collaborating with Chaucer’s Books, the Santa Barbara Public Library, and the Museum of Natural History to produce a series of community events – including book club discussions, film screenings, star parties and more – in advance of both the London Symphony Orchestra’s space-themed Voyager family concert on July 12, and the Cold Mountain opera at the Granada on August 2 and 4. This week’s activities include a discussion of astronaut Scott Kelly’s much-praised book, Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery, at 10:30 am on Thursday, June 27, and Alyssa Cole’s captivating Civil War-set romance novel, An Extraordinary Union, at 5:30 pm on Tuesday, July 2, both at the Central Library. (The Library is also screening Apollo 11, a 2019 documentary film edited, produced, and directed by Todd Douglas Miller that focuses on the 1969 mission, the first spaceflight to land humans on the moon. The film, which screens at 1 pm Friday, June 28, consists solely of archival footage, including previously unreleased 70mm film of the launch and recovery.)

This week @ Music Academy of the West

Thursday, June 27: MAW’s new Faculty Artists Recitals series – which brings the concerts back to Hahn Hall from the Lobero – has its second of four presentations this evening with a special near all-sonata offering that also breaks the rules by having a fellow perform. Alan Stepansky and Jonathan Feldman team for Barber’s Sonata for Cello and Piano followed by pairings of Jorja Fleezanis and Conor Hanick for Bartok’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, and Martin Beaver andNatasha Kislenko for Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. Double bassist Nico Abondolo then draws one of the solo piano fellows as a partner for Pergolesi’s Sinfonia in F Major before the concert closes with Dennis Michel andMargaret McDonald playing Saint-Saens’ Bassoon Sonata (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $35).

Friday, June 28: The first piano masterclass following half-century celebrator Jerome Lowenthal’s brief visit this summer goes to Conor Hanick, who The New York Times once dubbed “a young Peter Serkin.” As the only teacher with more than one class, he will also offer expertise to the gifted soloists four weeks later on July 26 (1 pm; Hahn; $10)… Also, the summer’s second Picnic Concert, an evening of chamber music featuring Academy fellows in programs of their choice. Attendees are invited to bring fixin’s for a picnic in the gardens before the concert (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $40).

Saturday, June 29: The Academy Festival Orchestra’s second concert of the summer festival – the first in its normal home of the Granada Theatre downtown following last Saturday’s special performance at Hahn Hall – focuses on the year 1905. That’s the subtitle of the major piece on the program, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Opus 103, which was written in 1957. The subtitle The Year 1905 refers to the events of the Russian Revolution, but the music actually reflects the Soviet invasion of Hungary, as the symphony was composed in its aftermath. The work will be a fine challenge for the fellows as it has four movements played without break, running approximately one hour and includes alternating climaxes and moments of calm,  trombone and tuba glissandos, and heavily repetitive percussion work played by snare drum, bass drum, timpani, and tam-tam (and that’s just in the first two movements). Meanwhile, the opening work, “Decoration Day” from Charles Ives’ A Symphony: New England Holidays, also ties in with 1905, as that summer was when the composer got the idea to write it as a symphony, although the actual creation spanned 1887-1913. The intention was for each movement to reflect personal memories from his childhood holidays, employing “melodies like icons, resonating with memory and history, with war, childhood, community, and nation,” according to one admirer. “Decoration Day”, the original name for the holiday now known as Memorial Day, switches keys, uses dissonance for emotional and employs lots of solo against orchestra sections and quotes familiar tunes, from “Tenting on the Old Campground” to “Taps” and “Nearer, My God, to Thee” (7:30 pm; Granada; $10-$100)… See above for more about Shakespeare Salon, this year’s take of the long-running OperaScenes, devised and directed by James Darrah. (2 pm today, 7:30 pm Monday; Hahn Hall; $50.)

Tuesday, July 2: Week 2 of the Festival Artists Series (aka MAFAS, née Tuesdays@8) features the return of Patrick Posey, who served as VP for Artistic Planning for several years through last summer before choosing to focus on a performing career as a saxophonist. Posey will share the spotlight with Fleezanis, Stepansky, Hanick and violistKaren Dreyfus in the World Premiere of Sean Shepherd’s Saxophone Quintet, commissioned by MAW for Posey. Thirteen other musicians share the stage over the evening’s final two works, Gounod’s Petite Symphonie – which features faculty-fellow pairings on oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn plus faculty flutist Timothy Day – and Chausson’s Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, which features faculty violinist Glenn Dicterow and pianist Jonathan Feldman joined by four academy fellows as the quartet. As always, a complimentary reception with the artists follows the performance outdoors in the Lobero Theatre Courtyard (7:30 pm; $46). 

Wednesday, July 3: A potent week (aren’t they all, nowadays?) also offers a secondFaculty Artists Recitals in six days, with pianist Jeremy Denk [see interview above] playing a wildly divergent program featuring Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 807; Ligeti’s Études, Book 1; Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, No. 1, Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke; Berg’s Piano Sonata; and Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17 (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $55).


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