Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Forbbiden Love

April 26, 2010

Alexandra Loutsion (center) and the cast of Das Liebesverbot
Photo: mine 2010

Is there anything more heartening than a “student” opera production that turns out to be better than a lot of “professional” productions? That’s how it was here in L.A. last weekend where the combined forces of the USC Thornton School of Music presented Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot, of all things. In conjunction with the all-things-Wagner festivities around town, USC decided to get into the act by offering something that even Wagner-loving audiences aren’t too likely to get anywhere else. (And if that isn't enough, Lyric Opera Los Angeles will offer Wagner's first opera Die Feen at the Pasadena Playhouse in June) Granted, this early Wagner opera is not part of the standard repertoire for a reason. It owes much more to Weber and the bel canto contemporaries of Wagner’s early career than the music easily identified by most listeners of his mature works. Das Liebesverbot is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and milks for laughs the rather odd situation of an interim ruler of Palermo banning all enjoyment and love from the city. The details are irrelevant but involve a number of early 19th-century stock characters, including a wily young common woman and an inept toady who fails to muster the resolve of his villainous boss. But Das Liebesverbot is no less ridiculous or musically interesting than a dozen bel canto operas I can think of that show up on stages around the world all the time.

Perhaps the biggest and best surprise of the evening was the quality of the musical performances. The USC Thornton orchestra under Brent McMunn was scrappy but spirited, never flagging throughout the three and a half hours that presage Wagner's longer-is-better philosophy of opera. The vocalists were exceptional and reminded me of the joy in hearing young performers take on these kinds of roles. Even the chorus seemed to sing with boundless enthusiasm as if this was the opera of a lifetime. No one was note perfect, but nobody tired out over the course of some pretty demanding parts. It’s tempting to think that these are names that will show up again on opera stages of the future, and I hope they do, considering some of the far more painful to listen to performers that seem to have no problem maintaining gainful employment in opera. Let’s start with a baritone: Kyung Teak Lim sang the role of Friedrich, the villainous German overseer who bans Carnival and all the commensurate festivities. Lim was commanding, colorful, and well controlled throughout his range. Soprano Alexandra Loutsion sang the heroine Isabella, and while she had to spend the whole show in a rather over-the-top nun’s habit, her voice was large enough to be heard easily over the orchestra and provided more than a few moments of great singing. I was also thrilled with Eric Hanson’s Luzio and Sophie Wingland’s Dorella. One might expect some rough patches in a school-based performance such as this, but it was frankly shocking how good this sounded from beginning to finish.

The unit set production, which was directed by Ken Cazan, was not unpleasant if a bit predictable. The black-on-red two tone set design has been done to death, but the lighting was effective. A little more acting guidance for the ebullient chorus might have been wise, but considering the limited resources available for the show, to complain feels like nit-picking. Plus the show was a steal at eighteen dollars a ticket. It’s a shame that it couldn’t have been done on a bigger scale to give more people an opportunity to see a work that, though loathed by the composer later in his career as a youthful experiment, clearly shows signs of brimming genius.



I pretty much despise blog critics. Obviously, "Brian" has years of experience in the operatic field producing, conducting, directing, designing, and inspiring performances from young artists, some of whom have never been onstage before. He also must not have noticed when the audience leapt to their feet at the end of the performance, shouting and cheering for ALL involved. Also, I would be fascinated to know the names of the many productions "Brian" has seen that were all black and red (which, by the way, this one was not). Finally, "Brian," I would love to see you teach an acting class, get these potentially gifted young performers to move, and better understand what your concept of "acting" is. I think you have seen too many stand and sing opera choruses. Happily, the business is changing and more and more opera companies are pursuing a more honest, natural approach to acting. That approach extends to the chorus as well. You are, very literally, the only person out of several hundred I spoke to after the various performances who felt that the chorus acted poorly.

Sadly, in this era of everyobdy being an expert, the blogger doesn't have to answer to anyone for the ignorance of their comments. As someone cosidered an expert in their field, I for one am over it and am going to respond to the uneducated self-made critic who unjustly and wrongly pronounces artistic sooth on productions that have artistic integrity, honestly, and excellence. This is the first time I have responded to a critic. It will not be the last.

Ken Cazan
Resident Stage Director
USC Thornton School of Music
Stage Director: La Fenice, Venice, Italy; Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome, Italy; Canadian Opera Co.; Santa Fe Opera; National Opera of Norway; Central City Opera; Seattle Opera; Opera Theatre of St. Louis; Chicago Opera Theatre; The Juilliard School; etc.
Acting Teacher: Metropolitan Opera, University of Toronto, University of Southern California, Ohio State University, Academy of Vocal Arts, Curtis Institute of Music, University of Nebraska, Omaha, etc.
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