Trading Voices – The 2017 WNO Opera Gala—Jordan Donica (Broadway star), Cynthia Erivo (Broadway star), Renée Fleming (soprano), Denyce Graves (mezzo-soprano), Soloman Howard (bass), Brian Stokes Mitchell (Broadway star), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Broadway star); Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Philippe Auguin and Steven Mercurio, conductors [Washington National Opera, Opera House, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.; Saturday, 3 June 2017]
Whether the genre is opera, symphony, chamber music, musical theatre, jazz, pop, or any other, an impresario’s most fervent prayers are surely for the vision to devise audience-pleasing programming and financial resources extensive enough to make that vision reality. In America’s Twenty-First-Century Performing Arts environment, that sort of vision is rare, but funding pledged to the Arts without agendas is what Rodolfo in La bohème might include among the ‘castelli in aria’ of which he sings, a fiscal stability that exists in the poet’s verse but not in his pocket. Which task could be more daunting for the enterprising impresario than planning a company’s season within the boundaries of a finite budget, within the confines of which a near-infinite number of audience expectations must also be met? This is the challenge faced by every opera company in America, now more than ever. Criticizing companies’ failures to meet these quixotic goals has become almost a contact sport among opera lovers, but there are notable successes amongst the widely-discussed missteps, one of the most extraordinary of which resides along a beautiful stretch of the Potomac River in the nation’s capital. As exhibited by the company’s fantastic recent production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly [reviewed here], Washington National Opera has thrived in recent seasons under the leadership of Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and Music Director Philippe Auguin. The efforts of a team of talented and dedicated artists have made WNO an oasis of culture and humanity amidst the tumultuous conflicts of today’s Washington, and the 2017 WNO Opera Gala was a thrilling, touching, and thought-provoking homage to the past, present, and future of opera at Kennedy Center—and a spectacular answer to any impresario’s prayers.
Celebrating the conclusion of the company’s 2016 – 2017 Season, the centennial of Kennedy Center’s namesake, President John F. Kennedy, and the tenure of the retiring Chairman of the company’s Board of Trustees (and now, fittingly, the Chairman Emeritus), philanthropist and indefatigable friend of the Arts Jacqueline Badger Mars, WNO’s 2017 Opera Gala, Trading Voices, the first such event in the company’s history, brought together seven artists of different backgrounds and experiences under the direction of conductors Auguin and Steven Mercurio, the former presiding over the evening’s operatic excerpts, including a sparkling performance of the Overture from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and the latter pacing the Broadway standards. The WNO Chorus and Orchestra were on fantastic form, the instrumentalists proving to be the hippest ensemble in the District with their playing of the musical theatre pieces. Auguin conducted with his usual flair, sensitively accompanying the vocalists whilst always preserving the integrity of the music at hand. Mercurio emphasized the nuances of each number entrusted to his baton without sacrificing rhythmic precision or stylistic identity. Unlike some similar events, this gala possessed unflagging continuity and energy, captivatingly paying tribute to both the company’s artistic achievements and the remarkably generous lady who has contributed so much to their realization.
WNO assembled a quartet of phenomenal performers to represent the world of musical theatre in Trading Voices. A relative newcomer to the Great White Way, Jordan Donica has already established himself as one of his generation’s brightest stars with his performances of Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera and the dual rôle of the Marquis de LaFayette and Thomas Jefferson in the national tour of the most successful show in recent Broadway history, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. For his first number in WNO’s gala, Donica sang ‘Feeling Good’ from Anthony Newley’s and Leslie Bricusse’s 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Equal parts Sam Cooke, Sidney Poitier, and James Bond, he delivered the song with the solid foundation of an operatic baritone and the suave swagger of a jazz singer. Revisiting The Phantom of the Opera, Donica later sang the title character’s signature song, ‘The Music of the Night.’ The young singer’s phrasing honored the melodic line’s indebtedness to the principal theme of the Act One love duet in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, but neither the falsetto top A♭ nor the repetition of the tone in full voice was produced with ideal freedom. These were the only minute flaws in an otherwise galvanizing performance. This music may be forever associated with Michael Crawford, but Donica owned it, along with the audience’s appreciation.
Recipient of the 2016 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical Tony® for her portrayal of Celie in The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo had the unenviable assignment of substituting for a beloved singer who withdrew from the show. With a smile as electrifying as her voice, she wholly conquered the audience within seconds of her first entrance, however. Her soaring performance of Fantine’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from Les Misérables roused the audience to a frenzy of excitement, her changing of the pronouns from singular to plural—the dreams we dream—in the song’s final bars unmistakably conveying her belief in the universality of the rights to dream big and achieve even bigger. Erivo returned to end the gala with a performance of ‘Nessun dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot. She rushed ahead of Mercurio and the orchestra in a few phrases, but her traversal of the aria was anything but a crossover stunt. She approached the piece with the respect that it deserves, and her musicality was irreproachable. Unlike Calàf, she did not have to wait until dawn to enjoy her triumph. It was a sad irony that, as Erivo sang, news of terrorist attacks in her native London was breaking, but her performance embodied the spirit of community, compassion, and mutual understanding possible through music that is the foremost countermeasure against violence and intolerance.
A true Broadway leading man in the tradition of John Raitt and Jerry Orbach, Brian Stokes Mitchell brought to his singing in Washington the same unforced charisma and heroic vocalism that defined his portrayals of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in Ragtime, the title rôle in Man of La Mancha, and Frederick C. Graham in Kiss Me, Kate, for which he garnered the 2000 Tony® award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical. His account of Sportin’ Life’s ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was a true performance, Mitchell’s polished-silver vocalism complemented by expert comedic timing and light-footed dance steps worthy of Rudolf Nureyev. In addition to his performance, Mitchell emceed the event with humor and class. The sole regret of the evening was that he was not allowed another song. It was apparent that, to paraphrase Eliza Doolittle, he and his audience could have sung all night.
Another bona fide star of the Broadway stage and 2016 recipient of the Tony® award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for his no-holds-barred depiction of Aaron Burr in Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. is one of musical theatre’s most distinctive performers. Like Mandy Patinkin’s, his voice is an unique, immediately-identifiable instrument, and he uses it with complete control. The principal marvel of his singing of Sportin’ Life’s ‘There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York’ from Porgy and Bess was the control with which he evinced improvisatory abandon. Were all drug dealers’ sales pitches so sensually persuasive, the battle against addiction should be virtually unwinnable! For his second number, Odom Jr. performed the song that has become emblematic of his career to date, Burr’s ‘Wait For It’ from Hamilton. One of the choicest fruits of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius, the number unfailingly stops the show in performances of Hamilton, and, owing to the ardor of Odom Jr.’s delivery, it ignited the atmosphere inside Kennedy Center’s Opera House. The intensity of his vocal acting was thoroughly at home in the room, and his singing hit the target as surely as Aaron Burr’s bullet in his fateful 1804 duel with Alexander Hamilton.
Easily avoiding being outshone by such high-wattage colleagues from the world of musical theatre, bass Soloman Howard offered a thunderous but stylish voicing of Banco’s romanza ‘Come dal ciel precipita’ from Act Two of Verdi’s Macbeth. An alumnus of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, Howard is one of the company’s most popular artists and will likely further hone his musical magnetism when he portrays Il re d’Egitto in WNO’s production of Aida at the start of the 2017 – 2018 Season. His already-refined Verdian credentials were sonorously verified by his handling of Banco’s music. There was no cheating at either extremity of the range, and Howard shared the Broadway performers’ ability to bring the character to life even in the context of a concert.
It was divulged during the course of the gala that Lauretta’s ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is Jacqueline Badger Mars’s favorite aria, and it was a testament to the Arts community’s esteem for her that internationally-admired soprano and Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor At Large Renée Fleming was on hand to serenade her with the aria. Fleming’s recent Boston Symphony, Covent Garden, and Metropolitan Opera farewells to the rôle of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, a part that she sang to great praise in concert with the National Symphony Orchestra at Kennedy Center in 2014, have been the topic of much actual and virtual conversation during the first half of 2017. The discussion prompted by her singing of ‘O mio babbino caro’ in WNO’s gala could focus only on the superlative condition of Fleming’s voice. The lyricism of Puccini’s vocal line was lovingly maintained, but the soprano’s expansive phrasing evocatively hinted at an elusive kinship between this music and the Czech song repertory of which she is an important exponent. Legions of sopranos include ‘O mio babbino caro’ in their repertories, but very few of them could ever hope to sing it as simply and alluringly as Fleming sang it for the WNO gala’s honoree and audience.
A native Washingtonian, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves is one of America’s most influential ambassadors for opera. Now sharing her expertise with students at Peabody Conservatory in addition to performing, she shared with her hometown audience a display of the artistry that has endeared her to opera lovers throughout the world. For her ‘typical repertoire’ selection, Graves offered a languid reading of Dalila’s ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila that seemed capable of seducing the varnish off of the auditorium’s woodwork. Both her legato and her intonation were exemplary in the sinuous lines of ‘Ah! réponds à ma tendresse.’ The most surprising repertory choice of the evening was Graves’s singing of ‘Ol’ Man River’ from Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Showboat. Hearing a female voice in music typically sung by basses and baritones like Paul Robeson and Bruce Hubbard was a novelty; and an effective one. Anyone who has heard Graves sing African-American Spirituals or Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne me quitte pas’ is acquainted with the otherworldly depth and richness of her lower register: it is as though the voice of Helen Traubel were inverted, with the might from the top of the stave to top B♭ extended below the stave. The burnished quality of her lowest tones lent her performance of ‘Ol’ Man River’ an emotional gravitas that few male singers could match. In a matter of moments, Kennedy Center was relocated from the banks of the Potomac to the humid Mississippi delta, and one of the nation’s preeminent musical storytellers unaffectedly defined the evening’s theme of ‘trading voices.’
At least since the invention of recording technology, the concept of artists ‘crossing over’ to perform music from different genres has wielded an undeniable though frequently-condemned commercial enticement. Purists work diligently at preserving their frowns, but is it really possible to hear Dame Joan Sutherland, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Shore giggle and chirp through a classic Gilbert and Sullivan number without smiling? Can one hear Thomas Hampson sing Stephen Foster ballads and not think that, though hardly Schumann or Brahms, this is significant music? Can one hear Brian Stokes Mitchell sing Man of La Mancha’s ‘Impossible Dream’ and not feel that opera is close at hand? This is the essence of trading voices: singing someone else’s songs enlarges an artist’s understanding of his own music. Washington National Opera’s Trading Voices gala was an evening for expressing gratitude, but the artists’ committed performances also revealed the undiminished potential of one of life’s fundamental sources of hope. When we trade voices and open our ears to new, diverse, and unfamiliar music, it is difficult to avoid opening our hearts, as well.