Three Pianos: Regular Guys and Schubert

By Brian McCreath   |   Tuesday, December 27, 2011
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Three Pianos, a theater work inspired by Franz Schubert's song cycle Winterreise, brings together three friends for song, contemplation, and wine.  Lots of wine.

Rick Burkhardt in Three Pianos

There are times when the solemnity and profundity of classical music can become overwhelming.  There are also times when just the right vehicle comes along to prick that balloon and remind us that, for the most part, classical music is really an art form that deals in the messy reality of human existence.  The play and movie Amadeus pulled this off for millions, and say what you will about historical accuracy, I think our relationship to Mozart's music has been the better for it ever since.

Now along comes Three Pianos, which, like Amadeus, brings a composer of incredibly human dimension back from the brink of plaster bust-dom.  Alec Duffy, Dave Malloy, and Rick Burkhardt tap into the spirit of Schubert through a piece of music that may have been the most difficult choice for the project, but also the one that may bring us closest to Schubert's soul. 

Winterreise takes us into the mind of a character who's engulfed in the depths of despair.  As a work of art, it's considered one of the pinnacles of the song cycle form.  As an emotional experience, it's one of those rare pieces that listeners hold incredibly closely, almost protectively.

Three Pianos tests that protective feeling for those who hold Winterreise most closely.  There's no doubt that Duffy, Malloy, and Burkhardt feel complete liberty to do what they want with Schubert's music.  There's a channeling of the spirit of Schubert's work through the voices of today's experiences and realities.  At times it's hilarious, and at times it's heartbreaking. 

But my overall experience was that, even in light of the copious wine that was served throughout the performance, the reverence for the songs among the performers is palpaple.  In fact, there are moments when it's clear that the trio felt that the most powerful experience was to simply get out of the way and let Schubert's work shine through.

That respect for Winterreise came through when I met with Alec Duffy after seeing a performance.  You can hear part of that conversation and see photos from the play below.

Three Pianos runs through January 8 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. 


The Brother/Sister Trilogy: Peering Into The Soul of Humanity And History

By Alicia Anstead   |   Monday, November 28, 2011
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The physical world of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Brother/Sister trilogy, playing through Dec. 3 at Company One in Boston, is the fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana. But the action takes place in a magical space both more abstract and more corporeal. We know this because each of the three plays – “In the Red and Brown Water,” “The Brothers Size” and “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet” – is accompanied by rhythmic humming and grunting – a kind of negotiation between the songs of angels and the deep throbbing of the earth. Like the gospel and soul music they invoke, McCraney’s bayou characters express themselves in the vernacular of their community – “Gon head to run your race,” Mama Moja tells her sprinting daughter Oya who is a star runner at school – but they take on the mythic proportions of the Yoruba cosmology that the plays also draw upon.

Oya, a central character in the first play, is the mighty goddess of wind in the Yoruba tradition. Her lover is the great warrior Shango (embodied in the drama by a soldier off to fight in one of our current conflicts). Their neighbors are other goddesses and warriors – in the shape of mothers, aunts, candy shop owners, deejays, provocateurs and mechanics – whose everyday lives are marked by symbolic connections to West Africa and a powerful past. They read dreams, they see the future, they dispense sage advice, they battle for territory. What they lack in dollars – San Pere is poor – they make up for in roots.

Although each of these plays exists as a solo work, seeing all three in the five-hour marathon is an intense way to witness McCraney’s over-arching theme of community life. Community, in the end, outranks society. The distinction is subtle but important. San Pere is a closed community – repressed by traditions and weighted down by history. And yet it is not tied to the mores of society or religion. The fluidity of sexual practice, for instance, how a character can exclaim, “I’m his woman now!” is determined by the rules these community members have agreed upon rather than the larger culture. In this way, Oya, Shango and the Elegba among others are constantly re-aligning partnerships. It’s not that all action is acceptable. Clearly, Elegba’s homosexuality – or his “secret of sweet” from the title of the third play – is not an easy fit for everyone in the town. But in the end, we see McCraney’s characters as they make their way in a world that time seems to have forgotten but is also on some level timeless.

And yet it is very much our time: Hovering over these stories is the impending shadow of Hurricane Katrina; those hums and grunts also anticipate tragedy. McCraney tells us the trilogy takes place in the “distant present,” but by the end, it’s not wrong to wonder if this community might have been wiped out by the ruthless disaster of 2005.

Of the three plays, the most thoroughly imagined, directed and executed is “In the Red and Brown Water,” which is the story of Oya the runner, how she got her groove and how she lost it. Oya’s story – in a theme touched on in all three plays – embraces the running man motif of early African American literature. Oya runs for her school, but she also is running from her pain and from her enigmatic place in her community. Her mother dies early, when Oya is still a teen, and she must come to terms with her place in San Pere, and her need to find connection. McCraney is in Toni Morrison territory here but falls short of capturing the commanding sexual politics or ethos of Morrison’s female characters. Although McCraney’s male characters are more securely drawn, his female characters still seem on the brink of actualization as characters in the drama. Oya is ostracized by other women when her menstrual period comes in an unexpectedly public way, and later she is labeled, and labels herself, “less” because she cannot have a baby, plot lines that do not ring true.

Notwithstanding the sexual politics, McCraney’s poetics are at their best in “In the Red and Brown Water” where the language imitates the grace and beauty of Oya’s running. “Oya in the air” is chanted time and time again. So is the word “race” – because Oya’s life is a race – albeit tragic when she crosses her own finish line. In a world where race of another sort is central to the story, McCraney doesn’t want anyone to miss the point. It’s not so much a repetition as a litany. But everyone in all three plays is running from something, and, indeed, the actors get a solid workout, too. This is muscular stuff. And it demands fitness and flexibility from the cast – who switch in and out of ages, sexuality and stature.

“In the Red and Brown Water” reads like an extended poem, inflected by those hums, grunts, gospel and soul music, and is almost as satisfying as a work of written literature as it is a stage play – although Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s direction is meticulous, rhythmic and masterful. (Summer L. Williams ably directs the other two segments.) Sandberg-Zakian stages death as a true passing into a choir of angels – and the moment is so imaginatively rich and fearless that the world seems to both stop and expand.

In each of the three plays, stage directions are integrated into the spoken lines in the manner of German playwright Bertolt Brecht. The blurring of external and internal dialogue calls attention to the performative nature of the stage but also of real life. McCraney makes us aware of the management of inner and outer, spoken and unspoken, and you may leave the theater hearing your own internal voice more clearly. That’s not a bad outcome.

McCraney is a young playwright, and the Brother/Sister trilogy is a sign of his immense passion as a writer. His fictional world is one of raw and reeling emotion, and his work turns a prism on an often overlooked segment of our national identity – but also peers into the soul of humanity and history.

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New Opera At Boston Conservatory

By Arthur Smith   |   Monday, November 14, 2011
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The enterprising Guerilla Opera, a chamber company associated with Boston Conservatory and dedicated to new works in an intimate setting, just finished the world premiere run of Wet, Loose, Perforated, an oddly titled, but engrossing 80 minute morality parable by Nicholas Vines, a Harvard-trained composer, now based in Sydney.

Given in Boston Conservatory’s Zack Box Theater, in the basement of a building on the Fenway (a trip down the stairs, plus a black turtleneck or two, is the one requirement all authentic new music performances seem to ask of their audiences), the work is written for four characters: a narrator, Loose, Wet, and Perforated For Vines, these aren’t just names, but also adjectives describing each character, as well as larger ways of thinking about the world. The opera is structured as a series of ordeals and interludes: characters, whose identities shift as the work goes on, go through these ordeals and, akin to figures from medieval morality plays Vines used as inspiration, learn things about themselves and the nature of the world. This may seem like heavy freight, but in fact, Vines brings a light touch: certainly the opera is thought-provoking and philosophical, but it’s also funny and even sexy. It reveals a young composer with a sure hand for handling text The only possible exception is in the first few moments of the work, where key opening lines for the narrator were set so high that, despite being beautifully sung by Jan Zimmerman, they were just too high to be intelligible.

New music needs believers on stage to make believers of the audience, and Vines couldn’t have asked for better advocates. All four singers (Jonathan Nussman, Rebekah Alexander, and Aliana de la Guardia, also the company director) sang with fervor, putting across the alternately broad and subtle shifts in register, including the ingenious repetition and variation in both musical and dramatic terms). De La Guardia’s romp as a Delilah-like seductress in “I’ll Love You Like…” was a standout, as was Alexander’s singing and acting on “Must I climb the Greasy Pole?” perhaps not something to elaborate on much further in a general audience Web site. I’ll leave it at noting that the intended effects—both humorous and unsettling—come off perfectly.

Four instrumentalists complete the musical team: all very fine with a standout in percussionist Mike Williams. His playing was evocative and full of character, an effect aided by designer Julia Noulin-Mérat’s set, which opened up in the back to reveal the instrumentalists. Director Jeremy Bloom caught the mood and brought the right sense of both dire medieval times and twenty-first century wit.

So a nod is order for the whole team. I left with whetted appetite for what the group is up to next: Bovinus Rex, by Rodolf Rojahn, coming in spring. Who says there’s nothing new under the sun in Boston opera!

Photo courtesy of Guerilla Opera

Five Questions For Sean Panikkar

By Brian McCreath   |   Thursday, October 20, 2011
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Q:  What was your first encounter with opera?

A:  My first encounter with opera was actually when I went to the University of Michigan; I entered as a double-major in Civil Engineering and Voice, but I’d never actually heard an opera. I had heard the Three Tenors concerts and things like that, but I’d never sat down and listened to an opera. My first teacher, Daniel Washington at the University of Michigan, gave me a recording of Wagner’s Die Walküre, with Jon Vickers singing and that’s really what got me hooked on opera, just listening to the sheer power and magnetism of Jon Vickers’ singing.

Q:  You have a wife and two young kids. How is it that you manage to construct this life and keep yourself sane, as a musician who is traveling all the time and singing with companies all over the country, maybe all over the world?

A:  That is the single hardest thing about this job. I think a lot of people assume that being an opera singer, getting paid to sing and dress up,  play the roles of other people and travel around the world is glamorous, but often times it’s very lonely. It’s very hard for family situations; and for my single friends that are singers it’s hard to meet people. One of the things that’s really important is communication. I’ve known my wife since I was seventeen.  I met her the first week of school at the University of Michigan.  We started dating at the end of our sophmore year of college.  So we had that time to develop a relationship and grow up together, which is a luxury that not everybody has. Immediately after we got engaged I went to the San Francisco Opera Training Program. And the first thing you learn is that, in order to make a relationship work through the distance,  you have to be able to communicate.  And so thank goodness for technology: cell phones. I can’t imagine doing this twenty years ago when there were long-distance charges. Skype now has been great.  And now I have a three-year-old daughter, Maria, and I have a newborn son, Mark, who is just a little bit over a month old. The hardest thing is leaving them, especially Maria now that she knows that her daddy is leaving.  But trying to Skype daily, be a part of their lives, and know exactly what’s going on. I send them letters through the mail every single day and that’s kind of like therapy for me. Every night I sit down and put pen to paper. I really adore my family and that’s the hardest thing about being in this business.

Q:  Your Metropolitan Opera debut is available on DVD and that’s kind of cool, but tell me about the growth of video, of theater broadcast, and DVD, and what that does to your approach, to your craft as an opera singer.

A:  That’s an interesting question. There’s a lot more pressure involved in performing when you’re in front of a camera.  I made my MET debut in 2008 as Edmondo in Manon Lescaut and as debuts go it was already high pressure enough. I had James Levine conducting my Metropolitan Opera debut, and on top of that it was going to be recorded for HD simulcasts all around the world, and later released on DVD.  They make a scratch tape at the MET just to make sure that the cameras are all set up. I sat down and watched the scratch tape before we did the actual simulcast. I just remember thinking, “Oh, I can’t believe I look like this here! I can’t believe I look like this there!” That’s one of the things that you have to really be aware of. Singers often record themselves singing; we’re kind of shocked that that’s what we sound like. It was the same way when I watched myself for the first time on video. There are a lot of things that I knew needed to be addressed when I’m acting in front of a camera as opposed to acting in front of 4,000 people in a live theater.  Right after that I did my European debut in, Mozart’s Zaide in a Peter Sellers production at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. That was also recorded on DVD. That had a lot more close-up shots, and so there are little things like the way your eyes move or when you’re looking at somebody and making eye contact with them: making sure you focus on one eye instead of shifting back and forth like you would in real life. If you shift then it looks you’re all of a sudden suspicious of something. There are a lot of little things you have to address and also with the emphasis on doing things more for, television there’s also the the factor of your appearance.  A lot of casting people are more focused on that and  right after this I’m going to sing The Pearl Fishers in Pittsburgh which requires me to be shirtless, so then I, of course, am focusing on my diet and exercise and there are just a lot of things that people forty or fifty years ago in opera didn’t have to worry about.

Q:  Along these same lines, not so much about the physical part, but along the media lines, how do you see opera continuing to appeal to people that are more and more drawn into new media, meaning Internet access or iPhones?  What are the ways that opera is responding to the changing technology in the way that people deal with entertainment?

A:  Well I think there are a lot of benefits to technology. I think the MET is doing a great job of reaching people that otherwise wouldn’t be reached through the HD simulcasts. The production that I did in France was also simulcast on the Internet, so people could watch it live at home instead of having to go to a theater or get it on DVD later.  I think that the opera company able to reach more people that way and increase income. The tricky thing for the arts in the United States, which are largely donor funded, is figuring out new ways to generate revenue, while expanding your audience without not giving the product away for free.

Q:  And finally, there’s a stereotype of opera: upper-middle class white people enjoying their night out at the opera. How far away is the reality of the opera world from this stereotype?

A:  You know, there are different audiences on different nights. For opening night of the Metropolitan Opera, for instance, there’s one crowd but then every other night it’s really regular people. I think a lot of people assume opera is elitist and don't give it a chance. When I was in the Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera, we did a lot of educational programs where would go out into schools and we would actually do improvised operas. The kids would come up with the storylines and then we would act them out and change the texts of our arias to fit the story. The kids loved it. 

We would do performances of The Magic Flute in English and we would bring the kids into the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. They would eat it up. Many kids don't get the chance to even appreciate opera. I think a lot of parents are not giving their kids exposure to it. So no matter what kids grow up to be, I think they’ll appreciate opera more if they’re exposed early.

Click here for WGBH Classical New England's story on the Opera Boston production of Beatrice and Benedict.

Beatrice and Benedict by Hector Berlioz
Opera Boston
October 21, 23, and 25
For more:

Photo credit:  Lisa Kohler

Denise DiIanni biographical sketch

By Denise DiIanni   |   Wednesday, September 14, 2011
0 Comments   0 comments.

Denise DiIanni, Senior Executive in Charge, Research and Development, National Productions
Denise DiIanni is a long time WGBH Executive Producer responsible for more than 150 hours of local, regional and nationally syndicated programming each year. In 2011, DiIanni took on a new position as Senior Executive in Charge, Research and Development, National Productions, spearheading new production models for broadcast and broadband. Earlier in her career, DiIanni was an award-winning producer, writer and director for the NOVA Science Unit with more than two- dozen credits to her name. In addition to her expertise in documentary, studio and public affairs programming, DiIanni also spearheaded public media’s first user-generated content feature—the WGBH Lab and was the founding director of WGBH’s Filmmakers in Residence program, which ran from 2003-2010.

"Porgy and Bess" at A.R.T.: Transformed and Illuminating

By Kim McLarin   |   Tuesday, September 13, 2011
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It is a truth not universally acknowledged that writers are always writing for somebody. Any writer with ego enough to desire publication has an audience in the conscious or subconscious mind during the act of creation. It is also true that this hovering audience shapes the creation as surely as the potter’s intended use for a pot shapes the clay.  As Toni Morrison asked of the great novel “Invisible Man,”   “Invisible to who?”

I had this thought while watching the excellent and moving adaptation of “Porgy and Bess” at the ART in Cambridge recently. According to the Playbill this production is “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” reportedly the title required by the Gershwin estate, but I am not so sure. The opera has been famously, and controversially, adapted by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and composer Diedre L. Murray and directed by Diane Paulus, and I, for one, am grateful. Were it strictly the Gershwins’ opera, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much.

I can’t say for sure, though, because I’ve never seen "Porgy and Bess" before. Never wanted to.

I always assumed George Gershwin and his team created this grand American folk opera primarily for a white, early-twentieth century audience and that it therefore was unlikely to speak to me. What little I knew about the piece--the cringe-inducing lyrics by George Gershwin’s brother Ira and librettist DuBose Heyward (“I Got Plenty Of Nuthin’ ” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”) layered atop the sublime music, the fact that Sidney Poitier had at first refused to star in the movie version, the character description of Bess as a loose drug addict and the depiction of Porgy as deformed--did little to change my mind. Even considering that it might have been bold for the original creative team to imagine the inner lives of black people in 1935 didn’t mean I wanted to see it. Just because a portrayal is sympathetic doesn’t mean it is not also a stereotype.

All of which is to say I arrived at the ART slightly skeptical.  The first few songs—the sweet and famous lullaby “Summertime” and “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing”--did little to ease my worry. The crap game scene early in the first act--bare-armed black men gambling and courting violence--had me shifting in my seat.

But then the funeral scene hooked me. Here is the moment the production comes into full possession of itself. Here were people I recognized. Here was grieving and movement, gesture and sorrow, and song that I knew. Here was a witness to African-American life that felt deeply-rooted and authentic and true.

How important is such authenticity? To theatergoers who prize Gershwin’s transcendent score over all else, the African dance gestures and dead-on black church movements in the funeral scene may not mean much. Likewise, the set-up which gives context (and standard English) to Porgy’s “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” rescuing it from being a happy, darkey song may not greatly improve the work and the “excavation” of Bess’ character which Lori-Parks has spoken of doing may seem unnecessary or even presumptuous to some.

 To me, though, these transformations allowed me to fully embrace a work I fear I may not have before. They also go a long way toward answering a question I had upon first reading about this production: Does the world really need an updated version of Porgy and Bess? Do black people?

The answer to both questions is yes. The world needs this production because Audra McDonald is a revelation. Even with Parks’ tweaking, the character of Bess still hovers at the edge of blurred, two-dimensionality but McDonald wrenches her into focus as a vulnerable and deeply flawed woman fighting hard to save herself in the only way she knows. As others have said, this is not only great singing but great acting too.

Black people need this production now because “Porgy and Bess” is a story of not only of black romantic love (which would be reason enough), but also of black community, and of the redemptive and transformative power of love. 

Watching Norm Lewis’ crippled Porgy extend his hand to the beautiful Bess (and, yes, I’m glad they took him off of that damn goat cart) I tried to remember the last time we saw a story of a black man’s love for a black woman raising him to manhood and changing his life. When was that on the ART’s or any other local stage? (Heck, try to find, on broadcast or cable television right now, a black man with a black female love interest at all.) When was the last pop culture depiction that not only offered a black woman so valued and desirable that three men were willing to fight over her but, almost casually, also tossed the stories of two other solid and loving black couples into the mix?

And, yes, among a people still scarred, not only by the legacy of legalized racial oppression, but also by the present reality of racial caste and social control, manifest, among other ways, in mass incarceration of black men, any time is the right time for a story of a strong and vibrant black community.

It is not just Porgy who loves Bess. But the other characters who love as well: Clara who loves Jake, Serena who loves her husband, and Mariah and the fisherman and the preacher and the undertaker who love everyone. It is not just Porgy who will save Bess, if Bess is to be saved; it is the flawed but ultimately embracing and forgiving citizens of Catfish Row, who know that in loving and uplifting the least of them they are also saving themselves.

(Photos by Michael J. Lutch)

The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess,” American Repertory Theater through October 2, 2011, with the potential of a Broadway run early next year. Full information available at the ART’s Web site (including video interviews with the cast),

About the Authors
Brian McCreath Brian McCreath

Alicia Anstead Alicia Anstead

Arthur Smith Arthur Smith
Arthur Smith is the former editor of WGBHArts. Executive producer for digital education at WGBH, Arthur, an amateur pianist and singer, was previously a freelance classical music reviewer for the Washington Post for 9 years. He has also worked at an opera company, and ran the information service and publications programs for OPERA America, the national service organization for the art form.  Since 1991, he has been the program annotator for Vocal Arts DC, a classical song recital series based at Washington's Kennedy Center. 
Denise DiIanni Denise DiIanni
Denise DiIanni, Senior Executive in Charge, Research and Development, National Productions

Denise DiIanni is a long time WGBH Executive Producer responsible for more than 150 hours of local, regional and nationally syndicated programming each year. In 2011, DiIanni took on a new position as Senior Executive in Charge, Research and Development, National Productions, spearheading new production models for broadcast and broadband. Earlier in her career, DiIanni was an award-winning producer, writer and director for the NOVA Science Unit with more than two- dozen credits to her name. In addition to her expertise in documentary, studio and public affairs programming, DiIanni also spearheaded public media’s first user-generated content feature—the WGBH Lab and was the founding director of WGBH’s Filmmakers in Residence program, which ran from 2003-2010.
Kim McLarin Kim McLarin
Kim McLarin is the author of the critically-acclaimed novels Taming it Down, Meeting of the Waters and Jump at the Sun, all published by William Morrow. She is a former staff writer for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Greensboro News & Record and the Associated Press. McLarin has also written for and

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