This season, Operatronica will blend exactly what its ungainly portmanteau says it does: operatic arias and electronic dance music in a nightclub, Mezzanine, this Thursday at 9 p.m. (doors open at 8 p.m.). Taking classical music out of the concert hall and into unlikely venues has proven quite successful. That's the blueprint of Mercury Soul, an event that was held at Mezzanine in its first iteration; or of Soundbox, in a rehearsal space turned into a lounge with a liquor license. In the case of Operatronica, the singers and their Steinway will croon operatic arias in between dance sets, or is it the other way around?
This event is set up by the SF Opera Lab and the performers will all be Adler Fellows. These are the recipients of a year long contract from SF Opera for young artists, singers, stage directors and accompanists. They get to cover the roles of the main characters here, while on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House they fill in the smaller roles of these productions as they polish their craft. It's a launchpad/incubator for an operatic career. Bass Anthony Reed and stage director Aria Umezawa will co-host the event. Reed's electronic cred is unimpeachable: he create some of his own music as part of the duo Roehn. He has a genial personality as an MC, which you can enjoy on his weekly vlog. That's in addition to his role of Dr Grenvil in the current Traviata. I talked to him on the phone last week.
SFist: How would you describe Operatronica?
Anthony Reed: The whole pop-up series for Opera Lab is done through a grant from Opera America for innovative ways to get reach new audiences in different ways. And this pop-up series is one of these ways. We have done a couple of events before at bars and clubs but this is the first one where the purpose is to marry opera music with electronic music or at least find similarities between the two.
I was asked to do this by Sean Waugh in the artistic department who is the curator of this series and he asked Aria Umezawa, who is the director Adler fellow, to host. And they both asked me to do it because of my background in electronic music. I've created a vlog series recently, and they wanted me to document the process of an event like this.
I've been an Adler for three years. These pop-up events started during my first year, and I've done five so far. I've been a part of these as a performer before, but never as a host/MC. Aria and I are programming the entire event, and we are coordinating between the two DJs. It's the first time I've been involved at this level.
The doors open at 8 p.m.and the DJs play until 9 p.m., at which point I will kick the evening off with an aria. Then we will have about a thirty minute set of opera arias and then a twenty minute DJ set and another 30-minute set of opera music, and the rest of the night will be DJs. The DJ will be sampling some aria excerpts into their sets, and we are experimenting a little bit with vocal modifications with microphones to blend the two.
Singers will be accompanied by a live, acoustic piano. It will be the standard piano/singer format except because it's a big venue, and people will be ordering drinks, we will use microphones for the event. There are other occasions where we are going to try to collaborate between singers and DJ a little bit. But I don't want to give away too much.
We are using all the Adler fellows for the event, which is the first time the Opera Lab has used all of them. Two pianists, a director, and nine singers. It will be a lot freer than recital format, and instead of having supertitles, we have created what we are calling super-memes on a projection throughout the venue, that have a lose translation of what people are singing about.
I will be singing La Calunnia from Barber of Seville. For the arias, we wanted something that would be either uptempo, or something rhythmical, with a beat, something that was maybe minimalist in the sense that pop music repeats itself. We wanted to find similarity in the form between the two genres. That was the context. We chose "La Calunnia," "Je veux vivre" from Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, the three tenors on the program will sing "Nessun Dorma," and "Le veau d'or." There will also be a four-hands piano version of "Danse Bohème," and Pene Pati will be singing a cover of "Valerie" with the ukulele. Is it originally an Amy Winehouse song, or was it made famous by Amy Winehouse? We are working out if I can possibly sing one of my original compositions, which is an electronic piece of music, more like pop than opera.
The DJs are part of a collective called Loves Company. It's two DJs from there, Leo Lipsztein and Dan Gahr. One of them has DJ'd a couple of the other events, and I know personally the other DJ through friends. They don't do typical EDM, like what you think of Coachella or Electric Daisy Carnival, they don't do that. They do a more forward-thinking boundary-pushing electronic music, harmonically. They will not play popular music. They won't play the Top 40 hits. They really create the tracks that will work best with one another through more underground electronic music.
EDM does not strike me has harmonically complex.
When you say EDM what comes to mind is not what they do. The same way if I said pop music and you immediately think of Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, when pop music can also mean Frank Sinatra or Bon Iver. EDM is a larger genre than Zedd or Calvin Harris. That's what you are thinking of as harmonically simple. Of the EDM DJs, Leo and Dan have the ability to find the similarities between electronic music and classical music. They have such a broad palette of electronic music to choose from. We are really trying to show people that opera is not a museum piece, that there are similarities with the music that people might listen to in a car or in a club. Both have a place in modern life.
When you mention Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, what do you think of their vocal ability? Don't you think: hey, I can do better!
I have a couple different minds about this. One is that the expectation for singers now needs to better. When autotune came out, it was used as a crutch, and it created images where pop star didn't have to sing but just be an all-around entertainer. The expectation now is that the singers have to sing like Beyonce and Adele. Arianna Grande is a phenomenal singer. I don't necessarily get bogged down on their technique. What is important is they are able to communicate something, and they can do that with pop music on a mass scale, they are doing a great job. Music is an important part of life.
Operatic singers always have to emphasize the consonants, pop stars never do that!
I think that comes to a difference in style between opera and whatever genre of pop. In opera, we are an acoustic instrument that has to project over an orchestra without amplification. In order to be understood, you have to use consonants loudly. The initial and final have to be clear in order to impart the information with the audience. In pop music, people might hear it on replay ten times in a row, by the end they know the lyric, it's not as important. It's something that I thought about in my own pop writing. If you listen to "Work," by Rihanna, you can't hear the lyrics, I had to look them up.
Did you go to Mercury Soul? The first one was at Mezzanine. Did you talk to Mason Bates, who co-organized it?
I think it's going to be similar to that in a way. It has the two different sets, the DJ and the classical music portion. I think this is going to be more interactive with the audience. I'm hosting the event, there's going to be a conversation with the audience. We pull in the audience in a different way that Mercury Soul does.
Mason just a wrote an opera, and I saw that in Santa Fe and it was very good and San Francisco Opera will be putting it on too. The music is not that far from each other. That's what Mason Bates and Mercury Soul do so well.
What type of music do you write?
The music that I write is more along the line of popular music you hear on the radio, Top 40, with an EDM and also folk flair. I work with a partner in Philadelphia, which is where I went to grad school. It's in a duo that I call Roehn with Adam Pangburn. It's just mostly fun stuff for us to do. We get to write music and create. He has a Master's degree in clarinet performance and I have a Master's degree in opera. We take our classical training and put a twist on the popular music we like to listen to.
You are in your third year and final year of Adler fellow, so what's next?
Basses play fathers, grandfathers, demons, kings, gods, the wise characters or the profound characters. I'm covering Timur in Turandot. I'm also working on the bass solos for Haydn's Creation which I'll be singing with the Nashville Symphony in November.
The Adler year starts at the beginning of January, and ends with the Adler Gala concert or, for me, the final performance of Turandot. After that, I'm on my own so to speak. I've been singing for some managers and will be doing auditions and competitions. Basses play old guys and I'm a youthful looking 28. It's about waiting for my skin to age and hopefully my voice will get richer and I'll become more believable in those old guys part.
We had to reschedule this chat away from the afternoon prior to your performance of Traviata. Doesn't Dr. Grenvil come in only in Act III after it's too late? What's your routine before a performance?
Dr. Grenvil comes in the opening scene, he has a lot of chorus music to sing. I sing in Act I, and Act II scene 2, and then I got my four solo lines in Act III. I wanted to make sure I have time to go to the gym and warm up. And I have to edit some video footage for my vlog. I try to get my body warmed up before my voice, because it's much easier to sing after my body has blood flowing, it's hydrated, stretched out. So I go to the gym and then I warm up throughout the day, make sure I have coffee.
I try to avoid having too many singerisms, the cliche things that singers do to get ready for a show. Some things that people do to get ready are so crazy, and if it works once then you can get stuck with it for the rest of your life. You develop an almost compulsion, and I try to avoid those as much as possible. I try to live my life and trust my voice. Some people will avoid milk, some people won't exercise the day of a performance, some people steam their voice with a steamer in the shower, some eat very specific foods. The more crutches you rely on to help you sing, the crazier you will be when you're unable to do these things. They're almost like rituals that people do beforehand to be completely ready. It's a placebo effect in my opinion. I try to require as little as possible.
'La Traviata' at SF Opera: Maestro Nicola Luisotti has announced this would be his last as a music director for the SF Opera, and the run of Verdi's La Traviata, currently ongoing at the War Memorial Opera House, concludes his tenure. The season is far from over, but he is not conducting the upcoming Manon nor Girls of the Golden West, and former music director Donald Runnicles is returning for this Summer's Ring Cycle. Like Runnicles, Luisotti will be back. And he must, if he can lead again the orchestra as he did in a spellbinding Traviata. Of all his performances that I attended during his eight year run, this ranked as the best. It helped that he had the most perfect Violetta (the "fallen woman" of the title) he could hope for. With a cast of relatively unknowns around here, the three main characters making their San Francisco opera debut, Luisotti led an incandescent performance.
Quick recap: Violetta is a former escort who fell in love and moved in with Alfredo Germont. His dad asks her to quit his son to preserve the family's honor. From the overture, to which Luisotti gave a waltzy lilt despite being in common time, he was in full control of the nuances of the score. He underlined the beginning of E strano with an ominous bass line as Violetta realizes she's in love. "Uh oh, not so fast," the orchestra said. And the orchestra returned to that ominous tone in the couple bars that introduces daddy Germont's arrival in Act II. When he implores her to lie to her dear Alfredo that she's not in love with him, the next phrase is an accented orchestral response that all but blurted "what?" When she does remind Alfredo, prior to leaving him, to love her as she loved him, the soprano melody features long, almost calm notes, but the orchestra echoes underneath with a galloping heartbeat full of dismay. Every time, Luisotti shaped the orchestral language into a clear meaning; and he gave his singers free rein to excel, never overwhelming them despite having his own instrumental story to tell and threading the needle between leading and following them.
Violetta's crib in Act I of Traviata. Not too shabby.
In the role of Violetta, Aurelia Florian makes a revelatory US debut. My money is on her returning soon and often. She has sung Violetta all over Europe, she is supposed to be good at it. But no one is supposed to be that excellent. She started the evening with a voice as crystalline and sparkling as the cup of champagne she was holding. She gracefully somersaulted through the high hurdles of Sempre Libera, her big showpiece that ends Act I. In Act II, her voice became more weighty, more dramatic. Accepting Germont's request to leave Alfredo, she could literally sing in such a perfectly measured whisper that the audience straightened forward in their seat to not miss a note, even though each one was a droplet of Violetta's pain. Her dramatic final agony brought tears running down, and she never oversold it, her acting always spot on. It was a tremendous performance.
She was surrounded by excellent counterparts. Atalla Ayan (Alfredo) has a warm, tender tenor. His a capella duet with Violetta in the first Act was imbued of such overflowing sensuality by both of them, it was somewhere in the range between sexy and explicit. Baritone Artur Rucinski (Giorgio Germont) has his own aria about love, but of the paternal kind. He consoles Alfredo in Act II after Violetta left, and his voice is a soothing balm, deep, rich and comforting. Parents who tended crying babies could immediately identify the tone with which he colored that aria. When later, his son insults Violetta, he found a righteous and raw emotion in scolding his son for dishonoring a woman. The only faux pas of his performance was one of stage directions: he looks at his pocket watch when Violetta warns him she will die of sorrow without Alfredo. I get it, he is not believing her, or he would have second thoughts. But the gesture seemed out of character.
The staging doesn't make itself noticed otherwise, aside from trying a bit too hard to elicit a laugh in the party at Flora's. The chorus (excellent, as always) flows in and out seamlessly. The same goes with the sets: they are elaborate, fancy Parisian and country homes, and they are mostly functional. The singers draw all the attention, and deservedly so. The Adler fellows (and some former ones) compose most of the supporting roles, and Amina Edris and Anthony Reed as Annina and Grenvil respectively get their couple lines to shine.
Kronos Quartet (from left to right, David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, Sunny Yang) in action before Echoes, a spoken word performance in partnership with Youth Speaks and The Living Earth Show
'Echoes,' with Kronos Quartet: Kronos Quartet has been pushing the boundaries of what a string quartet should be for over 40 years. On Saturday night, they were hosted by SF Performances for the world premiere Echoes, a collaboration with Youth Speaks and The Living Earth Show. Youth Speaks is a non-profit dedicated to help young people express themselves through poetry, and most importantly in public. They organize some Teen Poetry Slams, and this show was the distillated essence of such an event: young poets declaiming their words on the stage of Herbst Theater for about an hour with a soundtrack written by Danny Clay and performed by Kronos and The Living Earth Show (Andy Meyerson on percussion and Travis Andrews on electric guitar).
The texts focused on this City of ours, and alternated between declaration of love and vignette of life happening on the streets and in the projects and on MUNI. Unfortunately, they were not included in the program, so the words were fleeting and ephemeral, and I probably can't do justice to them. Many lamented violence and the disappeared, and the echoes of the title were in part brought up by the memory of the ghosts of young victims. I paraphrase, but they gave their lives so we could make this place better. The young speakers, Gabriel Cortez, Aimee Suzara, A.M. Smiley, Michael Wayne Turner III, and Tassiana Willis in the double role of poet and singer, each took turn bringing their words to life, all with a poise and assurance that was far beyond their years. These guys were old hands at jumping up and down the stage in and out of the spotlight. It was impressive to witness.
Youth Speaks' Michael Wayne Turner III. Photo: Christian Jessen for SF Performances.
The music was a soundtrack to their words, and it's luxury casting to have Kronos provide such accompaniment. Before the show even started, the quartet was playing a repeated loop with an eerie intensity. No one was taking a bar off, even though the music was simple and cyclical at this point. Composed by Danny Clay and including some bits of MUNI noise, it provided background moods to the text, mostly alternating between a languished melancholy with the string quartet and vibraphone, and a righteous anger, where the electric guitar and the drum set of The Living Earth Show would provide a hard-driving rock beat. The string parts were always in sync, except in a lovely moment where three of the members would lift their bows, living only one echo trailing behind, first the viola, then the 2nd violin, etc. I wish there were a few more such lovely surprises, but the point was to not distract from the impressive youth speaking, and that goal was more than met.