Poulenc’s 20th Century Opera Masterwork



It’s opera week at the University of Utah and the entire school is mobilizing for this production of Poulenc’s powerful opera, Dialogues des Carmelites. I’ll be conducting from the pit with the Utah Philharmonia for this production by the University of Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble. Although this is my second go-round with the opera, I find it just as engaging as my first foray. Certainly, it promises to be a memorable evening.

The graduate opera literature class taught by my colleague Elizabeth T. Craft has put a fabulous website together covering the background, historical context and performance history of this important opera. Click here to check out their excellent work and familiarize yourself with the opera: https://music.utah.edu/mckay-music-library/dialogues/index.php?fbclid=IwAR0z3-qHOfaq_CMENfyyOSXIxt4bTOw80_T4nkYOsE9NXTfNFeGxv4ccFCc

The production is coming up Friday and Saturday, April 19 and 20 at Kingsbury Hall. Get your tickets here: https://tickets.utah.edu/events/dialogues-des-carmelites-performed-by-university-lyric-opera-ensemble/




Collaboration and the Glass Slipper


A dream is a wish your heart makes When you’re fast asleep In dreams you lose your heartaches Whatever you wish for you keep

I am pleased to be conducting two big collaborations with the Utah Philharmonia in the coming month.  Both are productions of the Cinderella story; one with the Utah Ballet, the other with the Utah Lyric Opera Ensemble. Although we never planned it to coincide with the Disney remake, both are “dreams come true,” in a way.  The first is a production of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, done in steampunk. Steampunk is a style originating in a literary subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in a quasi-Victorian setting. External elements include steam-powered machines, airships, and lots of gears and mech-designs.  A good description might be: “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” Prokofiev’s music is visionary and incredibly good as a traditional ballet, but the steampunk design seems to both fit the story and give it a “modern” twist that is wholly appropriate. Choreographer Jay Kim came up with this idea that continues to excite us as we race towards production week. Cinderella_BjpgThree weeks later, the Phil is back in the pit for a production of Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon (French for Cinderella). The score is quite interesting and contains elements of French opera, as one would expect, but also the seemingly out-of-place elements of German fairy-tale operas and even a hint of Wagner.  The steampunk set and design will be in place once again for this production, the seemingly non-sequitor elements playing off on one another to great effect. The show will be directed by Michael Scarola, a veteran of productions at the Met and New York City Opera and who is currently with the L.A. Opera. . By nature, both opera and ballet are collaborative efforts, but these productions are even more collaborative than most, with the entire College of Fine Arts getting involved.   It’s an artistic effort reminiscent of Babbage’s Difference Engine (yes, a steampunk reference that is a thing in “real history,” too!)  Here’s a preview blog article about the productions and all of the elements involved. The Finer Points Blog Link Cinderella mural From painting the giant mural backdrops to concentrating on tiny articulations in the score, these are two collaborative efforts not to be missed if you are within driving distance of Salt Lake City! I’ll see you from the edge of the pit!

No matter how your heart is grieving If you keep on believing The dream that you wish will come true

Cinderella2_banner_Spr2015Quoted song lyrics from “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” composed by Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston for the 1950 Disney film, Cinderella. Photos courtesy of the University of Utah College of Fine Arts

Bicentennial Verdi, An Enigmatic Hero


In music, we strive to find the personality of a composer through his or her music.  In classical music, we have the advantage of performing great works for years, even centuries, trying to decipher layers of meaning.  When we allow ourselves to search, we eventually realize that composers are no different from the rest of us.  Even coming from a different culture, century and country, we all come from the same basic place when it comes to life, struggles, and attempts to identify meaning within our world.  When it comes right down to it, the composer either is trying to tell us something or inviting us into his inner world.

This coming Saturday, I have the honor of conducting a collaborative concert with the Salt Lake Symphony and the Utah Voices that will explore the two sides of Italy’s most famous composer, Giuseppe Verdi.

The concert is a tale of two halves.  Utah Voices maestro, Michael Huff, will conduct the first half of the program, consisting of Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces (Quattro Pezzi Sacri).   These pieces were written separately, but are frequently performed as a set.  This is Verdi the Agnostic, utilizing religious texts and themes to explore and express inner meaning.  He makes no attempts to hide that there are secrets, even unanswered questions.  Small wonder he chose the so-called “enigmatic scale” for his setting of the Ave Maria.   



That he was trying to say something with these pieces is evident.  But was he trying to express something to the audience, or work out some inner conundrum? Like a philosophical Tootsie Pop, “The World May Never Know.”  But he invites us to go deeper with this powerful yet reflective music.  His desire to be buried with the score of the Te Deum certainly piques my interest even more!

The second half of the program is devoted to a wide selection operatic music, Verdi’s most public legacy.  We will open with the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore. This energetic piece contains gypsy music and yes, anvils!  (Well, what we are actually using is a stage secret until the performance!).   In La Forza del Destino, the overture and the famous aria, Pace, pace (sung by Melissa Heath), Verdi looks inward and then expresses strongly the search for the meaning of life (literally “the force of destiny”).  If that reminds us of Beethoven, there is good reason.  Beethoven is his role model in many ways, musically and inspirationally.  The gorgeous and moving Va, Pensiero from Nabucco is a piece that still is considered a national song of Italian pride and patriotism in Italy.  It is actually a paraphrase from Psalm 137, referring to the Jews in Babylonian exile.  The Italians deeply identified with this separation and longing when the piece was composed, which coincided with the Italian unification and establishment of Italy as one nation.  The music is so moving that even today, Italians rally to the cause with this music.  Here’s a great example from 2009, an amazing encore in Rome when the government had announced deep cuts to arts funding.


We close with the most extroverted chorus of all, the final scene from Act II of Aida.  It’s got it all: a song of praise, a march, a dance scene and a joyous chorus.  We will be praising the gods, kings, soldiers, etc.  Sorry, elephants don’t fit through the stage door.

As an popular opera composer, Verdi had the means of reaching a wide swath of the 19th-century public.  He used his talents to further the noble ideals of the time.  His music led to change, and today invites us to personally explore deeper meaning in his music.   If you are in the Salt Lake area this Saturday, consider this your invitation to be moved and go deeper.  It’s also great music to simply sit back and enjoy.  Here are the details:

Verdi: A Bicentennial Celebration
Salt Lake Symphony and Utah Voices

Saturday May 18, 2013 7:30 pm
Libby Gardner Hall

Tickets $10 adults, $5 students and seniors.
Available by calling 801-792-1313 or at the door with cash, check or credit card.

Copyright, 2013. Robert Baldwin