What an invigorating way to kick off a work week! I had the pleasure of speaking this morning to the Fresno District of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs at the organization’s annual Federation Fair. The topic was art. (The morning included judging the work of members and high schoolers.) I talked about ArtHop, the Fresno Art Museum and my advice if you want to buy art. (Pick something that’s meaningful and personal to you, and don’t fret about the investment angle.) We also branched into my thoughts on the recent Fresno Grand Opera production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the challenges of rejuvenating downtown Fresno and even what I thought of the Oscars last night. (I don’t have cable anymore, so I didn’t watch it. I just followed Rick Bentley’s Twitter feed.) Thanks to these hard-working ladies for all they do in terms of community service — and for inviting me to speak.
Because under the right circumstances, when the theatrical stars align and the ingredients come together to spark the right kind of live-performance magic, opera can soar higher and louder.
The “new” Fresno Grand Opera — a partnership with Modesto’s Townsend Opera — had an auspicious debut Sunday afternoon at the Saroyan Theatre with a searing production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The direction by Brad Dalton, considered the world’s foremost stage director of Andre Previn’s 1995 adaptation of the classic Tennessee Williams play, upped the emotional ante. And a powerhouse performance in the leading role of Blanche DuBois by Carrie Hennessey — whose acting prowess brought to life a character of riveting complexity — made me pause and consider anew this well-known tale and what it has to say about women, loss and the way that life can simply unravel.
It’s a huge weekend for classical music fans in Fresno. Both the Fresno Grand Opera and Fresno Philharmonic are performing: the Phil for three performances (Friday, Saturday and Sunday matinee); the opera for one performance (Sunday matinee).
The amazing thing is that these two institutions — which haven’t exactly been BFFs over the years — are actually cooperating. From Friday’s 7 section:
In a spirit of cooperation, Fresno Philharmonic Sunday ticket holders can exchange their tickets at no charge for Friday or Saturday’s performance. Also, people who have purchased tickets to either Fresno Grand Opera’s “Streetcar Named Desire” or the Fresno Philharmonic’s “New World” can purchase tickets to the other organization’s performance this weekend at a discount (20% off single ticket prices).
“Both the Fresno Philharmonic and Fresno Grand Opera want to make sure that music lovers have every opportunity to attend both of these events this weekend,” says Stephen Wilson, executive director of the orchestra.
I have two fun previews in Friday’s 7 section: I talk with Carrie Hennessey, who plays Blanche in Fresno Grand Opera’s “Streetcar”; and the Fresno Philharmonic’s Theodore Kuchar, who chats about his “From the New World” concert.
I’ve arranged this weekend to see both productions: the orchestra tonight, and the opera on Sunday. Still to come that day: my column on Fresno Grand Opera’s new direction.
———————————————- Pictured: Dan Klempson as Stanley in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
For the first time in its 17-year history, the Sacramento Philharmonic will not present any concerts during the fall season, and it remains unclear whether its musicians will return to the stage in the spring of 2015. The Sacramento Opera has also decided not to stage performances in the fall. The decision follows months of financial uncertainty for the Sacramento Region Performing Arts Alliance, the organization formed last year when the philharmonic merged with the Sacramento Opera.
Larry Gardner, president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 12 and principal bassonist in the Fresno Philharmonic, is quoted in the story:
He noted that smaller orchestras in smaller cities such as the Fresno Philharmonic and Modesto Philharmonic are presenting full seasons in 2014-15 after cutting back on offerings directly after the recession. “Those orchestras have turned a corner,” said Gardner. “When you look at the skyline in Sacramento and then look at Modesto or Fresno’s, you begin to wonder, ‘What’s going on in Sacramento?’ ” Gardner said. “It sure looks like there is money in Sacramento, but it doesn’t seem to be going to the orchestra or opera company.”
Fresno Grand Opera, which last season didn’t stage any traditional operas, has announced its 2014-15 season — and purists should be happy. The company will present Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a contemporary title, on Feb. 15, and Puccini’s classic “Tosca” on May 7, both at the Saroyan Theatre.
The company also will piggyback with two other organizations. It’s snagged one of the upcoming “Jersey Boys” performances, on Nov. 2, in conjunction with Broadway in Fresno. And it’s teamed up once again with the Valley Performing Arts Council for “The Nutcracker” (Nov. 29 and 30) and “Alice in Wonderland,” featuring the State Street Ballet of Santa Barbara and Fresno Ballet Theatre (Feb. 28).
Rounding out its season, the company will perform two performances in its popular choral-concerts series at the First Congregational Church: “Christmas on Van Ness” on Dec. 7; and “Broadway on Van Ness” on March 15.
Last season, the company produced a giant homegrown production (with Broadway-worthy principals) of “Les Miserables” and brought in the pop opera trio Il Volo, but I heard from some patrons who were disappointed at the lack of “real” opera in the lineup.
That’s why it’s encouraging to see the return of the full-speed-ahead opera approach. It’s still a smaller season than in years past — there is only one performance of each title, compared to two performances of most titles in previous seasons, but at least Fresno Grand Opera is back at the Saroyan. I just didn’t think the company’s experiment with the smaller Shaghoian Hall for staged productions was a good fit.
Fresno Grand Opera reaches for the stars with its ambitious new production of “Les Miserables.” And those stars can be magnificent, from the dramatic night sky accompanying Javert’s famed existential crisis to the impressive cast of Broadway and national tour veterans brought together for the leading roles.
Strong visuals, achieved by scenery originally built for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and a series of projections designed by Zachary Borovay that recreate the streets and moods of early 19th Century France with an inky, muted, watercolor-style impressionism, are wonderful. And strong vocals — from both the principals and the big stage ensemble, many of whom are locals — add to the material’s operatic scope. (The show runs through Sunday.)
Still, opening night at the Saroyan Theatre was a little wobbly. Most of the glitches were tiny, including missed lighting cues (particularly from the follow spot) and occasional microphone problems. (At one point, in the song “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” I thought I heard backstage chatter coming through the sound system for a brief moment.) Those wobbles made a difference, however, chipping away at the confidence of the production.
There were other issues: At times the orchestra overpowered the ensemble singers. (At intermission, the usual Saroyan sound complaints were floating through the crowd, including that people couldn’t understand the lyrics. I think it’s at least partly a “Les Miz” thing — it’s one of those shows you have to know pretty well beforehand if you want a reasonable level of comprehension.) And even with the fancy projections, which included occasional animation, some of the big production numbers just didn’t measure up to versions I’ve seen before, most notably “One Day More,” which seemed less rabble-rousing and more sloppy.
Here’s this week’s 7 picks for 7 days, a list of things to do Today (Jan. 17) through Thursday (Jan. 23). This week’s choices includes celebrated musical theater, high-flying actions sports, beer tasting and live music.
In today’s 7 section, I recap Fresno Grand Opera’s big “Les Miserables” production, which opens tonight at the Saroyan Theatre. Can the company come through with a production of this scale? I’ll be there to find out, and I plan to post my review on the Beehive by noon Saturday.
Bee photographer Eric Paul Zamora attended Tuesday’s dress rehearsal, and he got some beautiful shots, including the one above. Here’s his photo gallery of 16 “Les Miz” images.
UPDATE: Congratulations to winner Terri Kotchevar. She’s planning to take her son to the performance.
ORIGINAL POST: It’s been touted as the Fresno area’s biggest ever local production. With a budget of $800,000 for four performances, Fresno Grand Opera has assembled a top-notch cast of national-tour and Broadway veterans for its “Les Miserables,” which opens Friday at the Saroyan Theatre.
I have two tickets to give away to the 8 p.m. Saturday performance. They’re very good lower-balcony tickets, priced at $95 each. To enter, leave a comment on this post telling us how many times you’ve seen the show — and your favorite production. (You can count the movie if you want, and if you’ve never seen the stage version, that’s OK — tell us why you want to see this one.)
Deadline is 4 p.m. Wednesday. Please don’t enter more than once. I’ll be informing our winner by email shortly thereafter, so keep a watch on your inbox. If I haven’t heard from a winner by Thursday morning, I reserve the right to pick another. (I want to make sure these tickets go to good use.) These are paper tickets, so you’ll need to be able to come down to The Bee’s front counter by 5 p.m. Friday to pick them up. Rules are on the jump.
Can you imagine trying to defend a barricade without a rifle? We think not. Props are essential to a show such as “Les Miserables.” As the special Beehive series chronicling the Fresno Grand Opera production continues, guest blogger PatrickBrancato gives us a glimpse:
Props are essential to any show. If someone were to create a list of the top 5 most important things of any show, props would place 3rd below cast and costumes. In this show there are over 75 props that are used throughout the show. When it comes to using props I know every performer loves having them. Props can really help move a scene forward while helping actors create moments. When an actor has a prop they can add so much meaning to it. For example, an actor could be in a scene where he has to use an old book. The actor can remember a time a relative gave them a book that they loved, which then changes the whole meaning of the book. Instead of it being just a book it becomes a gift given by a family member, making it more personal.
In “Les Mis” our props range from a small piece of paper to as large as a full size barrel. There are times when we will practice with props that most people aren’t familiar with. For example, most people didn’t know the proper way to reload the rifles so Andrew Varela (Javert) gave us a quick lesson.
Onstage they might be the famously overstuffed comic relief of “Les Miserables,” part sweet buffoons and part semi-sadistic opportunists. Offstage, however, who knew they’d be just one more group of tourists at Yosemite?
Our guest Beehive blogger Valerie Salcedo, who’s helping track the big Fresno Grand Opera production of the show through opening night, yesterday caught up with principal performers Shawna Hamic (Madame Thenardier) and Tim Gulan (Thenardier) for a chat.
Valerie: I asked them how they are enjoying their stay in Fresno so far. Since we didn’t have rehearsal today, I asked them what they had planned for their day off. Here’s what they had to stay.
TIM GULAN (Thenardier):
Well . . .
This was my second town on tour with the “Original “ version of Les Mis in 1993. I still remember going to the Farmers Market on Wednesday and having the BEST FUJI APPLE EVER!!
Chances are that you’ve never heard of a keyboard programmer. But it’s a key position when putting on a big Broadway musical like “Les Miserables.” The keyboard parts play an important role in creating the grand scale of the orchestration. Keyboards are used to augment live music as well as a multitude of sound effects needed in the production. In this, the latest installment in our Beehive series on Fresno Grand Opera’s “Les Miz” production, I caught up with the company’s associate director, Thi Nguyen, to ask about the production’s music.
Question: Introduce us to sound programmer James Harp.
Answer: James Harp is one of Broadway’s leading keyboard programmers and an excellent keyboardist in his own right. Mr. Harp has programmed many Broadway productions as well as the most recent national tour of “Les Miz.” We are very lucky to have him work on our show as well as supplying us with crucial technical equipment to make it all work.
There are lots of jobs behind the scenes of Fresno Grand Opera’s “Les Miserables,” which is barreling toward its Jan. 17 opening at the Saroyan Theatre. As costumer, Maribel Sorensen has one of the most complicated. Let’s check in with guest Beehive blogger Valerie Salcedo to get the inside story.
Valerie: With a show as big as “Les Miserables,” there are a ton of costumes involved.
When I entered rehearsal the other day, I could not believe how many costumes I saw. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this many costumes for a single show. Not only do we all have so many costumes but each costume has so many layers and pieces to it. I sat down with Maribel Sorensen who is our head costumer to get the scoop on exactly how much work a production like this can take.
Question: When did you start working in the costume department for Fresno Grand Opera?
I’ve been costuming for thirteen years. I began working with Fresno Grand Opera eight years ago.
How many costumes are there total for this production?
There are 230 complete costumes in this show.
—————————————- Pictured: Andrew Varela as Javert in a Fresno Bee photo shoot by John Walker.
A local version of “Les Miserables”? Nothing new there. We’ve already seen a whole army of productions on the local level. After rights to “Les Miz” were opened up to community and regional theaters in 2013, every time you turned around another local theater company was storming a barricade.
But few “Les Miz” regional productions across the country — if any — have been on the scale of Fresno Grand Opera’s massive new production, which opens at the Saroyan Theatre on Jan. 17. With a budget of $750,000 for just four performances, the company hopes its efforts rival that of the recent national tour of the musical. The cast includes numerous performers from the national tour and Broadway, plus two who are going on to play in the ensemble of the Broadway revival opening in March. The sets were designed for a national tour, and the original projections are being designed by a national tour veteran. The same goes for other members of the creative team.
If all goes well, Fresno Grand Opera hopes to package this production of “Les Miz” as a sort of super-regional version that can be used by other companies that don’t want to do all the leg work.
And what does that work involve? Lots of fascinating goings-on behind the scenes.
To give you an insider glimpse, we’re kicking off today a 14-part series on the Beehive that will update you every day along the production’s journey to opening night.
Your guides will be two members of the ensemble: Valerie Salcedo and Patrick Brancato. In addition to their duties as cast members, they’ve also been working with Fresno Grand Opera the past couple of months promoting the show. They’ll be behind the scenes doing interviews, shooting photos and videos and passing on interesting tidbits.
To start the series on this first day, we’ll get to know Valerie and Patrick a little better. I sat down to ask them some questions about themselves and about the production.
Il Volo has a devoted group of fans, I can tell you that much for sure. Our Beehive ticket giveaway prompted entries from passionate devotees of the Italian pop-opera group, which plays tonight at the Saroyan Theatre. Judging from the giveaway comments, fans come in two major groups: those who the group perform on PBS and love their voices and youthful good looks; and crazy-proud people of Italian ancestry.
There are just a few scattered single tickets still left for the 7:30 p.m. concert. Best advice if you’re still looking for tickets: Check back regularly for any last minute releases at the opera office at (559) 442-5699 or at the Convention Center Box Office.
If you’re a fan and haven’t had a chance to read my interview with Gianluca Ginoble in Sunday’s Spotlight section, it’ll make nice reading before the concert.
I got to give away two pairs of tickets to tonight’s concert. Here’s winner K. Clifford Flores picking up his tickets in the lobby:
My 82 year old mother has been smitten by these guys. She loves to watch them when they perform on tv. She can’t believe how talented and goodlooking all three are. She has recently under gone her bout with colon cancer earlier in the year and now undergoing kemo. She hardly gets out of the house and if by some chance I do win tickets, I would definitely love to take her since I know this would really boost her spirits and take her mind off that’s all happened to her this past year. That would mean so much to her seeing them live in Fresno.
Our other winner is Sylvia Fisher. Congratulations to both.
Fresno Grand Opera announced its 2013-14 lineup to season ticket holders this week. It doesn’t feature any traditional opera. But it does promise a big local production of “Les Miserables.”
“Les Miserables” opens Jan. 17 and will play four performances at the Saroyan Theatre. This will be a local production, not the revamped national tour that has been traveling the country for a few years and is currently in Sacramento. The revamped version, which tightens the storyline and eliminates the trademark turntable, is slated to open on Broadway in March, marking a return to New York after an absence of many years.
National tours of “Les Miserables” played at the Saroyan Theatre in 1993, 1996 and 2000, but this is the first time an original production of the musical will take the stage there.
The opera’s general director, Ronald D. Eichman, said the principal members in the Fresno production have all either performed in the national tour or on Broadway, adding:
Additionally, some ensemble roles are cast with artists who have national experience, and we fully anticipate that the balance of the locally and regionally cast ensemble will deliver on a national caliber level.
Eichman calls the upcoming “Les Miserables” the largest scale production in the company’s history, financially and otherwise. “We have been anticipating this production for three years, when we were notified of the release date for the licensing to produce it,” he said.
Single-ticket prices for “Les Miserables” range from $55-$130.
From the opening notes of the famed overture, you realize why the music in “Candide” has remained so beloved over the years. There’s a shoulders-back, ready-to-strut, nearly giddy feel of adventure ahead. But there’s also something about Leonard Bernstein’s music that hints at danger and complexity: a sense that the way forward won’t be nearly as bright and carefree as you’d like to think.
Frankly, after watching the Fresno Grand Opera production of “Candide” that opened Friday at the Shaghoian Hall, I’d rather listen to a concert of music from the show than watch the staged version. This production features accomplished singing from a cheery cast of principals. Director Joseph Bascetta finds some creative ways to stage the action in a small space, and he keeps the bewildering plot barreling along at a brisk pace. But the line between satire and slapstick in “Candide” is difficult to navigate. What comes across as brilliantly acerbic and biting on the page, as penned by Voltaire in his classic work on which this operetta is based, becomes on the stage overly broad and bloated. I felt as if I were watching more an academic exercise, a historical salute, and less an emotionally fulfilling operatic experience.
Fresno Grand Opera will present its final production of the 2012-13 season this weekend with Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” This comic show-stopper blends operetta, musical and grand opera traditions. Two of the best-known songs are “Glitter and Be Gay” and “Make Our Garden Grow.”
I’m giving away two tickets to Friday’s 8 p.m. opening night performance at the Shaghoian Concert Hall. To enter, leave a comment on this post. If you’d like, tell us what you think of the Shaghoian and its acoustics — or why you’d like to see a production there for the first time.
The deadline for entry is 10 a.m. Wednesday. I’ll be informing winners by email Wednesday morning, so please check at that time. If you win, you’ll be able to pick your tickets at Will Call. Rules are on the jump.
“A Life in 4 Seasons,” a multimedia event paired with Vivaldi’s famed set of four violin concertos, was meant by Fresno Grand Opera’s Thi Nguyen and filmmaker Cooper Sy Blumenthal to go beyond the traditional associations that most listeners have with the music. In other words: no gorgeous images of nature depicting the changing of the seasons.
Instead, the audience for the premiere Saturday night at the Shaghoian Hall was confronted with a specific visual narrative following a couple from youthful marriage to old age. In this way, Nguyen and Blumenthal hoped to embrace both the lighter and heavier textures of Vivaldi’s score, which is infused with a great deal of urgency and plaintiveness. A life cannot always consist of those heady, first-bud days of early spring, alas.
Reinterpreting “The Four Seasons” in such a striking new way is an intriguing idea, especially considering that the composer based his music on a series of anonymous sonnets that themselves offer a strong narrative flair. I admire Nguyen’s desire to craft an innovative interpretation rather than simply offer yet one more concert featuring the famous score.
But the overall project is a complete disappointment. Not only does the film fail to build upon and expand the emotional range of the music, it actually fights against Vivaldi’s work itself. By the end, I was tempted to ditch the film — which was projected behind the musicians as Nguyen, the violin soloist, and the small Fresno Chamber Orchestra played — and just listen to the stirring performance.
The Bee didn’t plan it this way, but it certainly made for interesting timing. The Fresno Philharmonic’s first subscription concerts in the new Shaghoian Hall took place the same weekend that The Bee’s George Hostetter filled us in on the shaky finances of the city’s Convention Center.
That’s because the center includes the Saroyan Theatre, in which the Fresno Philharmonic used to perform exclusively. For its three performances of the Mozart Requiem this past weekend, the orchestra turned to the smaller Shaghoian on the campus of Clovis North High School. (The orchestra did perform previously in the hall in 2010 in a non-subscription concert.)
If I were reduced to just one word to describe Katherine Jenkins in concert, I’d pick “charming.” With her radiant good looks, beautiful voice, courtly manners and shyly fetching stage charisma, it’s almost like having a princess come sing for you. In her first Fresno appearance Sunday at the Warnors Theatre, she offered an elegant evening to an audience ecstatic to see her.
Jenkins noted that the concert was a year to the day she started her TV program “Dancing with the Stars.” She’s been a well-established name in the U.K. for years now, but success on the program catapulted her to far greater fame in the U.S. than before. Those in the audience hoping for dancing had to settle for just a few moves and a sweetly sung “I Could Have Danced All Night,” but she did tell those gathered that “it seems strange to be standing in one spot and not shimmy.”
Chances are you know Katherine Jenkins from her stellar performance on last year’s “Dancing with the Stars.” But in the U.K., she’s better known as sort of a much younger and prettier version of Andrea Bocelli. Her performance style of choice is a glamorous concert hall with full orchestra, where she sings a mix of classical and pop crossover hits.
This is a quickie contest. Here’s how it will work: Leave a comment on this post. (Feel free to tell us what you think of Jenkins’ turn on “Dancing with the Stars” if you’d like.) I’ll pick the SECOND and FIFTH comments on this post as the winners. (Think of this like a call into a radio station contest.) I won’t publish any comments until we have our winner.
One cautionary note: These are paper tickets, so you’ll need to come down to The Bee’s front lobby by 5 p.m. to pick them up if you’re a winner.
No repeat entries, please. Check your email tonight to see if you’re the winner. Complete rules are on the jump.
GARBAGE INTO GOLD AT ARTE AMERICAS
My favorite of the three new shows at Arte Americas — all under the umbrella theme of environmental sustainability — is the wonderful “Nothing Wasted,” a group show from local artists who recycled used materials into artistic gems. Francisco Vargas’ “Red Baby Grand,” which he repurposed from a piano burned in a house fire, is worth the trip alone. A statewide touring show titled “Ignite” offers a serious look at the environmental problems facing California. Read my cover story in Friday’s 7 about the Arte exhibitions. Plus: Here’s a video I made featuring artist Ann Savageau, a UC Davis professor who made a piece for “Ignite” about the Central Valley. A reception for “Nothing Wasted” will be held Sunday. [Details]
Fresno Grand Opera is trying something completely different for its next production. “A Life in 4 Seasons” is a multimedia musical experience featuring Vivaldi’s famed music paired with an original film. Thi Nguyen, the opera’s associate artistic director, wrote the screenplay for the film, which was directed by Long Beach filmmaker Cooper Sy Blumenthal and features a narrative about a couple’s relationship. The images are heavily geared toward the artistic, with the intention of augmenting the musical experience. Nguyen will play solo violin in “The Four Seasons” backed by a chamber orchestra.
Here’s the best part for Beehive readers: I have THREE pairs of tickets to give away to Saturday’s 8 p.m. performance at the Shaghoian Hall.
To enter the giveaway, leave a comment on this post. (If you’d like, tell us your feelings about “The Four Seasons.”) I’ll pick three comments at random. Each winner will receive two tickets. No repeat entries, please. These are paper tickets, so you’ll need to come down to The Bee’s front lobby by 5 p.m. Friday to pick them up. Deadline to enter is 10 a.m. Thursday. Be sure to check your email after the deadline, because that’s how I’ll inform winners. Complete rules are after the jump.
The opening performance Friday of Fresno Grand Opera’s “La Rondine” was a significant milestone for the company. Why? Not for the title or the singing (which was first-rate by the amiable and impassioned Rebecca Davis and Chad A. Johnson in the leading roles) — but for the venue. “La Rondine” marks the first time Fresno Grand Opera has presented a fully staged production in the 750-seat Shaghoian Hall. That’s a much smaller space than the much larger Saroyan Theatre, where the company has performed for more than a decade.
So it was with anticipation — and some trepidation — that I attended the performance. The beautiful new hall, acclaimed for its acoustics, promises a chance for a warm and intimate experience well suited to this tender, smaller-scale gem by Giocomo Puccini. But it also poses a challenge in terms of producing a fully staged work. With a much smaller stage than the Saroyan, no orchestra pit and no way of flying in scenery, my gut feeling was it would be harder to put a sense of “Grand” in a Fresno Grand Opera production there.
My verdict? Mostly positive. This “La Rondine,” which closes Sunday with a matinee performance, has some wonderful musical and dramatic moments. Veteran artistic director Joseph Bascetta is a consummate pro, and his concept for the production and his meticulous yet fluid staging are inspired (marred only by some lackluster dancing by the chorus). And the Italian-born conductor Valerio Galli, in his American debut, offered a clean, precise and even jaunty interpretation of the score that still offered a swell of romanticism. But the scenic and lighting design — and the balance between orchestra and singers on opening night — left a little to be desired. I think the company has some room for improvement when it comes to using this space to present the top-notch regional opera productions its loyal audiences have come to expect.