ARS Vocalis Festival in Mexico – Carlos Zapién, Artistic Director

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Ars Vocalis Mexico is a festival devoted to the vocal arts with an important teaching component. Founded in 2011 in Zamora by Carlos Zapién, the festival presents operas and recitals given by international artist and students. The faculty includes such personalities as world-class tenor, Francisco Araiza (MET), countertenor Michael Chance OBE (Glyndebourne) and sensational tenor, Javier Camarena (MET).

Besides opera, Ars Vocalis provides opportunities to students in the diverse forms of vocal art such as: Liedklasse, Zarzuela, Baroque and Arias. Thanks to the academic program, AVM has placed Mexican students into institutes of higher education in the US and Europe and also has opened doors for the singers to perform at opera houses in Europe.

Tenor, Carlos Zapién, obtained his Masters in Music from the University of Oregon and holds the title of Soloist from the Musikhochschule Stuttgart. While in Germany, Zapién was a member of the Opera Studio of the Staatsoper Stuttgart. In 2013, he was appointed Director of Music of St.Augustine Cathedral in Tucson, Arizona. Currently, he is pursing a Doctor of Music Arts at the University of Arizona where he studies with Prof. Grayson Hirst.

Tenor Ks. Francisco Araiza giving a Liederabend, with works from Schumann, Beethoven, Strauss and mexican songs.

Noted countertenor Michael Chance, O.B.E. performing arias at a recital given in 2012 at the festival

Photo of the performance of Bastien und Bastienne, staged in 2012 and 2013, with language coach Robert Hiller (Germany) and with the support of the Michoacan University Chamber Orchestra

Scene from L’elisir d’amore, produced in 2012 with the direction of Rosalba Trevisan (La Fenice) and conductor Silvano Zabeo (assistant of Claudio Abbado)

Early music specialists, tenor Eric Mentzel (Sequentia) and lutenist August Denhard performing at the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in Zamora.

Mezzosoprano Cassandra Zoe Velasco (Mexico), a member of the Young Artist Program of the Los Angeles Opera, performing a recital with works of Rossini, Mozart, Verdi.

Scene from La Cenerentola, in collaboration with the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in 2012

Mexican-american baritone Gerardo Garcíacano singing a Liederabend in 2011, a Beethoven and Mahler program

Opera Gala with singers selected to participate in the pedagogical component of the program. Tenor Humberto Borboa (Mexico) participated in the program and thanks to the contacts made with noted tenor/professor Grayson Hirst (USA) he was offered a scholarship to study at the University of Arizona. Photo with conductor

Tenor Javier Camarena (MEX) performing arias from Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini and mexican songs. 2012

Mezzosoprano Ks. Dunja Vejzovic (Croacia) working with a mexican student. 2011

Soprano Shirley Close (Florida State University) and pianist Valerie Trujillo giving a recitals with arias and songs. 2011

Soprano Shirley Close (Florida State University) and pianist Valerie Trujillo giving a recitals with arias and songs. 2011

Concert version of Rinaldo, with director Claudio Rizzi (Italia)

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U of AZ’s Opera Theater Puts Some Magic in Mozart’s ‘Flute’

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The University of Arizona’s Opera Theater took a giant step with its production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.*  Everything about the production was on a grander scale than in previous years. However, the artistic foundation on which David Ward, the school’s new opera director, was able to mount such a clever and funny rendition of Mozart’s fairy-tale, had been built on the hard work and talent of its longtime director Charles Roe. In this way, Ward and his merry band of players were able to take full advantage of the school’s resources and mount a production that showed off Ward’s own theatrical talent with savvy and panache. And the double cast of singers were just about on an even keel vocally, which demonstrated the university’s ability to attract more students than ever before to its vocal curriculum.

To start with, set designer Sally Day’s floor-to-ceiling gray slabs, jaggedly textured, were easily turned around to show the entrance to Sarastro’s temple, giving the look of a primitive eastern culture. How Ms. Day got those large pieces to move without a sound may be for us to ponder, but the result was an artistic wonder.

Christopher Allen’s costumes were a crazy mixture of styles and colors that added so much to the overall delight of the production. It is worth mentioning the following: Papagano’s feathered headpiece; the long, dark-red dresses for the Three Ladies; and, best of all, the black full-length skirt for Queen of the Night, with her bright red hair topped with an outrageous three-tiered tiara. There were teased blond wigs, all puffy, with twinkling lights on the Ladies trio and the three spirits that made you chuckle. Still, the blond wigs selected for Pamina, the Queen’s daughter, were not visually appealing and, for one Pamina, ill-suited.

Music Director Thomas Cockrell and Ward made the decision that all the musical parts would be sung in German, with the intermittent dialogues in English, making the opera a Singspiel as designated by Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. There were times when the students’ spoken dialogue did not match their vocal abilities, forging an uneven delivery of the English text. But Cockrell and Ward are to be congratulated for not forcing the students to pretend they had acting chops that they did not possess. And there were times when this approach allowed the singers to relax and present themselves in a natural manner.

There were a number of good vocal performances from the two casts as well as those who presented interesting characterizations. Both Paminas were prepared vocally and acting-wise in showing what a trial is was to be Queen of the Night’s daughter. Yunnie Park sang with a smoother lyrical line than Kelsey Rogers, but Rogers’s line delivery was first-rate.  Brian McNiff’s Prince Tamino was more attentive to his fellow performers than James Austin, but Austin’s vocal line was closer to what Mozart wanted from his “hero.” Dori Marie Smith’s Queen had a solid vocal line up-and-down the scale along with a good dramatic feel for the role. Michelle Perrier hit all the notes as well, but her limited stage experience shown through now and then.

Both trios comprising the Ladies who attended to the Queen’s demands sang with vocal security and fulfilled their courtly duties with great humor. And as Monostatos, the nasty, but lame lecher of Pamina, Brandon Dale used his big physique and his strong tenor to show the character’s silly side as well. If Olman Alfaro’s Monostatos was smaller in physical size, he was able to vocally fill the role with humor and show the daffy body movements that Ward had designed for this slightly deranged character.

For the comic sets of lovers, Alejandro Bañuelos and Jonathan Kim brought out the lovable and frivolous side of Papagano and Leah Williams and Mary Keck as Papagana, did as well. If Bañuelos was more outgoing and demonstrative in his frustration with having to go through the trials with Tamino, Kim was a bit more understated, but still projected Papagano’s comical exasperation at Tamino’s royal demands.

The School of Music had to go outside of the student roster of singers to find a bass to sing the mature vocal lines needed for Sarastro, the High Priest of Isis. Arizeder Urreiztieta expressed the regal and pontifical side of the priest’s demeanor, but was short vocally on the full resonance that Mozart’s stately music required.

Instead of using boy sopranos and altos for the Three Spirits who guide Pamina and Tamino through the ordeals Sarastro has set out for them, Ward gave the parts to the school’s sopranos and altos in order to increase student participation in the production. Doubly cast, the women were fitted into one dress, Ward’s takeoff on the silly side of the Disco craze.  A definite plus to the production was Jonathan Kim’s chorus that intoned the beautiful harmonies that run through Mozart’s choral scenes.

Cockrell conducted the Arizona Symphony Orchestra with all the care and attention to detail that the composer’s intricate musical charts demand. And the way Cockrell led his forces to come in at the exact moment the English dialogue segued into the sung German text was just one example of how much care he and Ward gave in staging what many critics and fans consider Mozart’s operatic masterpiece.


* See The Magic Flute-Wikipedia





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The Met Telecast of La Boheme Bats a Thousand!

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The Met’s playbook for Puccini’s La Bohème was really thrown out of whack on April 5th when General Manager Peter Gelb woke up that morning and learned he didn’t have a Mimì for the 1:00 p.m. telecast. Anita Hartig, in an early-morning phone call to Mr. Gelb, informed him she had not sufficiently recovered from her bout with the flu and wouldn’t be able to sing. From what we have been told from news sources and during the telecast itself, Gelb then decided to call Kristine Opolais and asked her to fill in for Ms. Hartig. The problem facing Opolais was that the night before she had sung the long and demanding role of Cio-cio-san in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and when the call came at 7:30 in the morning, the soprano was in a sound sleep. At first, it was reported, she refused, but within a half hour she called back, and luckily for Gelb, agreed to sing. To add to the uncertainty, no one knows for sure whether a cover for Mimi was assigned or not.

But the end result in all this turmoil was a telecast that turned out to be one of the most touching and engaging performances of La Bohème the Met has given us in some time.

The event also marked the much-anticipated telecast debut of the exuberant Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo, who has changed the accent in his last name to highlight his climb to stardom. On a serious note, however, what Opolais and Grigòlo presented was an emotional and vocally-intense interpretation of Mimì and Rodolfo that left us with a lingering heartfelt memory of the tragic lovers.

At her first entrance, all eyes were on Opolais, wondering whether she could fit in vocally and dramatically with Grigòlo’s impassioned Rodolfo. But the bigger question was how was she to navigate her way through director Franco Zefferelli’s huge stage setting of 19th-Century Bohemian life in Paris which, since its 1981 premiere, has unashamedly dazzled Met audiences. Over the years, critics have  bashed Zefferelli for what they have considered his over-the-top, action-packed production, dripping in excessive opulence. But they have lost the battle. Audiences have always loved the production and the Met has reaped a gargantuan financial profit with its popular success.

From the beginning, Ms. Opolais expressed Mimi’s penchant for melancholy with a vocal tenderness she sustained right through to her demise in Act Four. And Grigòlo attentively partnered her, never failing to cover his impetuous, romantic outbursts with his own brand of sadness. The singers’ apprehension on just how their performances would unfold only heightened their emotional commitment to each other and, luckily, to their audience, as well.

But La Bohème needs a committed ensemble of singing actors to encompass all of Puccini’s musical narrative, and the afternoon’s cast was just what the composer ordered. Rodolfo, who is a poet, shares a garret in the Parisian Latin Quarter with three struggling artists: the painter Marcello, Colline the philosopher, and the musician Schaunard. Baritone Massimo Cavalletti and basses Oren Gradus and Patrick Carfizzi, respectively, imbued their roles with a warm vocal charm that expressed their characters’ carefree, but, when necessary, levelheaded approach to their rambunctious life style. Also, as performers, their confident, relaxed stage presence gave Ms.Opolais the artistic support she deserved as she journeyed through Mimì ‘s tragically short time on earth.

Puccini, in an overt display of his deft theatrical know-how, gives us a second romance in which to revel. In Act Two, at the outdoor Cafe Momus, we meet Musetta, a fun-loving woman who is still harboring a deep passion for her former lover Marcello. With soprano Susanna Philips, we got the full vocal and dramatic thrust of her Musetta as she seductively worked her way back to her beloved. Phillips, who debuted the role this year at the Met, delighted the audience with her alluring aplomb. In Act Four, when she brings Mimì to the garret where Mimì and Rodolfo first fell in love, Phillips easily handled her theatrical cues giving Opolais full opportunity to share Mimì ‘s intimate last moments, not only with the heartbroken Rodolfo, but also with the audience. Opolais’s last hushed words created a trembling quiet throughout the house.

And the spirited, attentive hand of conductor Stefano Ranzani made sure the pit went along with this unexpected, but no doubt, tender rendering of Puccini’s youthful, stirring masterpiece.

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