Don't Miss Fort Worth Opera's 2014 Festival, Opening This Weekend

Ellen Appel
The cast of Fort Worth Opera's upcoming production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte (Kathryn Leemhuis, Scott Quinn, Paul Scholten and Jan Cornelius)

The 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival starts this weekend and you know what that means: time to head to Cowtown and binge-watch opera.

Instead of spreading productions out across several months, the Fort Worth Opera presents their entire season in just three, short, drama-packed weeks (April 19 through May 11). This year the schedule even makes it possible to catch performances of all four productions over the course of just one weekend (May 2-4), giving audiences the option to gorge themselves on operas Netflix-style.

This year's festival offerings include comedy and tragedy, large-scale, grandiose productions and an intimate chamber opera as well as the fascinating juxtaposition of old and new music. In addition to familiar works by Mozart (Cosi fan tutte) and Bizet (The Pearl Fishers), the FWO has taken on the exciting challenge of presenting audiences with two modern operas by contemporary American composers (Kevin Puts' Silent Night and Daniel Crozier's With Blood, With Ink). Whether you plan to attend them all or pick and choose your own operatic adventure, the preview below will give you a good idea of what to expect. Here's the rundown:

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The Dallas Opera's "Barber of Seville" is Campy, Fun and Expertly Sung

Karen Almond, Dallas Opera
Dr. Bartolo, played by Donato DiSteafano, (left) is fooled by Count Almaviva, played by Alek Shrader, who shows up in disguise as a music teacher with a tiny violin.
"Just so you know, the first act is an hour and a half long," the attendant warned as she handed me a program for The Dallas Opera's Sunday matinee performance of The Barber of Seville and directed me to my seat.

While I'm sure her comment was meant as a friendly (if not also a bit motherly) suggestion to hit up the lady's room before I settled into my seat, it sounded ominous, as if she was preparing all who entered for some kind of lengthy operatic purgatory.

Opera can be challenging theater. It's a complex medium -- combining theatrical, musical and visual arts -- that is notoriously hard to pull off well and has a penchant for long-windedness. When it is great, it is transcendent, but when all of those elements don't meld together successfully, it can be a bit of a drag.

On Sunday I was already feeling a little bummed to be indoors instead of out on such a gorgeous spring day. As I settled into my seat, I tried to push visions of sunny patios and mimosas out of my mind and reminded myself of what so many faithful opera-goers often do: "I sat through Wagner's entire Ring cycle! Ninety minutes of Rossini is a breeze."

As soon as the curtain rose on the whimsical set and the familiar, lively strains of Rossini's music rose from the pit, I forgot about everything outside the Winspear Opera House. This production flies by -- in part because both musical and comedic timing are incredibly fast-paced -- but mostly because across the board the acting and singing is exceptional.

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Jay Hunter Morris on Die tote Stadt, Siegfried and Winning a Grammy

Jay Hunter Morris won a Grammy for Best Opera Recording in 2013.
What is it like to win a Grammy? According to tenor Jay Hunter Morris, the star of The Dallas Opera's current production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die tote Stadt, "It's the most crazy, good thing ever!"

"I feel like five years ago not a soul on this earth, myself included, would've believed that I would win a Grammy," he confesses. "It really is just the most unexpected, coolest thing ever." And where does he keep it? In his living room in Roswell, Georgia, of course.

In 2011, Morris was tapped as an understudy to sing the title role in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Wagner's Siegfried when the scheduled performer fell ill. This was a big moment in his career, and Morris nailed the massively difficult role. He has since sung Siegfried in two consecutive Ring Cycles at the Met, the recording of one of which won him a 2013 Grammy.

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Review: The Dallas Opera Works Hard to Pull Off Die tote Stadt

The Dallas Opera
Jay Hunter Morris and Mardi Byers Star in The Dallas Opera's Production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt.

In addition to presenting high quality renditions of old favorites like Carmen, La bohème or Don Giovanni, great opera companies also take artistic risks by presenting audiences with new or unfamiliar works. The Dallas Opera deserves props for bringing not one, but two rarely performed operas to the stage in its 2013/2014 season. A recent production of Tod Machover's 2010 opera Death and the Powers brought contemporary music with a technological twist to the stage. The company's current production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die tote Stadt highlights music that, while composed nearly a century ago, has rarely been performed in the United States, and therefore is still "new" to most in the audience.

The Dallas Opera made a good choice when it chose to stage Die tote Stadt, a dark psychological thriller that follows the mental and emotional meltdown of the lead character (Paul) in the wake of his beloved wife's death. Dramatically, the lines between reality and mental hallucination become increasingly blurred as the opera progresses, pulling you into Paul's dark, obsessive world with disturbing effect. Korngold's music swells with complex, intoxicating harmonies and sumptuous orchestration. It's a great opera with fantastic music and a compelling storyline that is worth getting to know.

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Philip Glass' Best Recordings

Categories: Music Notes, Opera

Courtesy of AT&T Performing Arts Center

It's hard to overestimate the impact Philip Glass has had on classical music. Apart from being (arguably) the world's greatest living composer, Glass almost single handedly brought minimalism into contemporary popular culture -- influencing legions of rock and electronic artists while simultaneously introducing classical music to a generation of otherwise uninterested listeners. The composer/performer's recorded output displays a staggering variety, sprawling over a massive collection of works, including everything from dance pieces and film scores to large-scale operas and symphonies.

It was during a working relationship with famed Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar that Glass developed his melodically cyclical trademark, an Eastern-steeped approach that has not only defined the composer's career, but in a very real sense changed the course of music. Philip Glass, the legend himself, has a date at the Winspear Opera House today. Thus, in celebration of the artist's highly influential career, as well as his upcoming local performance, we present the five best Philip Glass recordings (in reverse order).

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The Dallas Opera's Death and the Powers Is Weird and Divisive and Just What Dallas Needs

Categories: Opera

Karen Almond
On Wednesday night my phone blinked on the nightstand. It was a text from a friend who had just seen The Dallas Opera's opening night production of Tod Machover's much buzzed about sci-fi opera, Death and the Powers. "Robot opera. I dunno," she typed. "The technology is a little . . . I mean, have they ever seen a Lady Gaga concert? That's immersive. The System should've been immersive!"

On Friday night, as the robots' lights dimmed and the stage went dark inside the Winspear, a timid applause erupted. Wait, was it over? A lone robot blinked. A stagehand in black swiftly appeared to switch off the stubborn droid. The applause became more confident, but most of the audience remained seated. Eventually, a small group stood to applaud the cast. This is the first time I've seen such a conflicted response from an audience after an opera in the Winspear. More often then not, they jump to their feet.

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Death and the Powers: Robots Are Coming. And They Can Sing.

Categories: Opera

Jill Steinberg
Hal Cazalet as "Nicholas" in the Dallas Opera's Death and the Powers.
Robert Orth is splayed on his back, flailing his arms and legs from side to side with big, heavy flops. "Rememmmmberrr!" he wails in a rich, lyrical voice. "The memory chamber! Touch, too much. Too much unremembered!" He uses his legs to drag his body across the floor of the rehearsal space as he half-moans, half-sings, "As I draw nearrrreeeer."

Suddenly the actor breaks character and sits up; the music from a nearby synthesizer comes to an abrupt stop at his lead. "What exactly am I being drawn nearer to?" Orth asks his director, as he gestures toward a makeshift prop, "Towards that wall? Or maybe this way?"

Orth is rehearsing a scene from The Dallas Opera's production of Death and the Powers, a futuristic opera by composer Tod Machover that will run at the Winspear Opera House February 12-16. Orth plays the opera's protagonist, Simon Powers, a dying billionaire who longs to live forever. In this scene, facing imminent physical death, Powers is uploading his consciousness into a computer system.

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