OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege of talking spooky tunes and ghost tales with Bronx Opera’s Ben Spierman (BS). This time, in addition to the new season, its 51st actually, Ben is also the newly promoted General Director of the Company.
OM: Ben, so nice to be talking to you again!
BS: A pleasure as well.
OM: First of all, how is your father Michael?
BS: He’s well, thank you.
OM: And before we start on 2018, I want to repeat that BxO’s Sir John in Love in January last season remains a magical experience for me, my wife, and my friends who were there, really a cherished memory.
BS: As you know, Sir John in Love has a very special spot in our company’s history. It was an incredible experience for us as well.
OM: So this season you’re doing Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz.
BS: We’ve done both before, each a few times. We felt it was time to do them again, but this time together in the same season. Last season we did two Falstaff operas, the Vaughan Williams and the Verdi, more or less variations on a character, but this season we thought we’d do contrasts within a genre, namely early German opera. Abduction from the Seraglio is arguably the oldest German opera in the standard repertory. It’s a delightful piece in the classical mode, Mozart, of course. Freischütz is, one could say, the archetypal German Romantic Opera. Its impact on the 19th Century was considerable. Both operas are groundbreaking but they couldn’t be more different.
OM: Entführung came later in my experience, though I’d known the overture from the radio and my sister loved it, but for me Freischütz especially has a special place in my life: when I was beginning to explore opera, my grandmother told me that when she was a young woman in Germany she sang in the bridesmaids chorus in the third act for a local production of Freischütz. My mother, her daughter, loved the opera as well.
OM: They’re great operas, both of ‘em, but apart from the connection, both “firsts” in the evolution of German opera and both actually wonderful on stage, any other motives?
BS: We’re always with an eye on the budget, so this has to be a more frugal year. We were looking for something a little smaller in terms of principals, supporting cast, production values, rehearsal time and so on. Last year was a big budget year, this year we are going to tighten our belts a bit.
OM: One would agree that the Mozart is pretty compact, but certainly Freischütz is a big piece scenically, even if the number of principals is small.
BS: Yes, but we have the sets from last spring’s production of Falstaff in storage, more or less intact.
OM: Ah, so Windsor Park relocates to Central Germany!
BS: And I’m also playing with a bunch of different ideas about how to make the Wolf Glen scene work for modern audiences.
OM: No black boar breaking through the bushes on casting the second bullet, eh?
BS: Black boars are not a big source of fear in the Bronx these days.
OM: But y’all did have some coyotes, yes?
BS: Must have missed them.
OM: So a wait-and-see on the scary parts.
BS: Abduction is pretty much cast and we’re rehearsing the principals as I speak. David Morrow is one of our Osmins…
OM: Ah! I spoke with him last January and shook his hand in the lobby at the performance of Sir John in Love.
BS: Our other Osmin is Michael Hearn. Our sopranos are new, and so on. As I say, it’s cast, in rehearsal, with a combination of familiar artists young and older, some familiar, some new ones to the company.
OM: Tell about your relationship with Der Freischütz and Carl Maria von Weber.
BS: Okay, for starters, I directed our last production back in 2000. I think it’s a great opera, too often ignored. Weber was a master musician of the early 19th century. He was so well known in Eastern Europe: Vienna, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin…famous as a conductor as well as a composer. Weber’s use of the orchestra was quite unique for the time. He gave more voice to woodwinds, bringing the clarinet, among others, to the fore and working with the tonal color of the instruments. His contemporaries, certainly Hector Berlioz and a young Richard Wagner learned much from him.
OM: I remember being struck by how prominent the woodwinds are in Wagner’s Romantic Operas, meaning here Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin, especially for the heroines, Elisabeth and Elsa in particular, when they become more inward and solitary. But even in the Ring the woodwinds are often conspicuous, especially in the quiet interludes. Unfortunately they're often buried by the big horns in recordings. One of the joys of hearing an opera in a live performance to discover one's own proper new balance.
BS: It’s fascinating how Weber uses his orchestra. It comes out in the characterizations: Freischütz is about the collision of two worlds both in orchestral sound and in vocal writing. The young women, Agathe and Ännchen, are from a more innocent world, like Da Ponte and Mozart’s women without the art and sexual undercurrents. Their relationship is positive, supportive, connected…the duet opening Act II and their ensuing arias are a completely different tonal place from that of the spooky Wolf Glen Scene later in the Act.
OM: Agathe and Ännchen in the first scene of Act II. It’s one of my absolute favorite scenes. I play their opening duet in my classes every chance I get. I’m a fan of the voice types and the vocal writing is so lovely.
BS: Ännchen is aware that this is a difficult time for Agathe, whose happiness and future depend on Max winning the shooting contest, and while Ännchen is not fully aware of the depth of Agathe’s angst and certainly can’t change the outcome of the contest, she can at least be a little goofy and cheer Agathe up. Put the orchestral sound for them in contrast to that of the woodsmen and hunters.
OM: And then there’s Kaspar…
BS: Right, who’s conspiring with Samiel, the devil. Kaspar needs a deal fast, get someone else damned in his place. He knows Max is desperate and weak: Max has lost the trial match at the opening of Act I and, if he blows the next contest, will most likely lose Agathe’s hand. Kaspar makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Very Faustian and very dramatic: sell your soul to the devil so that you’ll get what you want: Power, Wealth, Immortality, Sex…want to sleep with Helen of Troy? Want to win a World Series? So what does one do?
OM: The townsfolk aren’t helping him either.
BS: No, they are not. But the hunters and the townsfolk make for some grand choruses!
OM: Back to the nuts and bolts of production values: how does one realize the Wolf Glen Scene on a small stage? The Met couldn’t pull it off on the big stage in 1971, which was the only time I saw it there. You can’t exactly relocate and update it to Central Park, coyotes notwithstanding.
BS: No, you’re right, it’s a deep forest piece, very much out in the woods. I’m still working on this one.
OM: You’ve not done Euryanthe or Oberon, but you have done another Weber opera, right? We touched on this briefly last year.
BS: Yes, The Three Pintos is by Weber. At the time of his death he’d completed the first Act, but a total of fifteen out of the twenty four numbers were left at most in sketch form. Gustav Mahler restored it, composing from Weber’s themes and orchestrating everything he needed to. it. You can tell immediately what Mahler touched. Interesting that since the musical themes are mostly by Weber himself, it’s not obvious at a piano rehearsal how much Mahler’s genius is in the orchestral score. But as soon as you hear the orchestra you’re suddenly in a different world. I’d love to direct it again.
OM: Shifting gears here, congratulations on your new title: General Director.
BS: Thank you! It really doesn’t change the work I do, it just better reflects what I do and cements it with a new title.
OM: How is BxO doing?
BS: We’re doing well. But, as I said, we’re tightening our belts a bit. Sir John in Love and Falstaff were big shows in many ways, costly and the price of our venue in Manhattan, the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, has gotten suddenly too expensive. We’re doing all of our performances at the Lovinger Theater at Lehman College in the Bronx this season. Check out our website for dates and ticket information. But our community outreach is still very strong. We do choruses for senior citizens who find joy in singing together and we still go into the local schools for presentations and workshops. It’s really exciting to see them, all ages, light up with music. I feel too that we have a strong audience base here in the Bronx and in Manhattan. We’re always looking for more funding and support, but all in all we’re pretty healthy.
OM: I think one thing that becomes pretty obvious is that you and BxO are at the center of several communities, obviously one arc on the side of the communities of audiences and supporters, but another also on the side of a community of artists who get an opportunity to perform, get stage experience, maybe learn a thing or two and launch themselves into a serious career.
BS: It takes a village…or an opera company.
OM: Thank you, Ben, and my best, again, to your father.
BS: Thank you!
Photos supplied by Bronx Opera.
The Bronx Opera performs Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio on the weekend of Martin Luther King day in January, 2018; Weber’s Der Freischütz will be performed on two weekends in May. Both are sung in English with supertitles. The Abduction from the Seraglio translates just as that, but Der Freischütz translates roughly as “the marksman who doesn’t have to aim because the magic bullets hit their target anyway.” Stick with Der Freischütz.
Casting, tickets, etc. will be accessible soon at the Bronx Opera’s website, which is: www.bronxopera.org. Wait!!! Don't leave this site! Ben tells me that tickets are now on sale for Abduction: go to https://bxoabduction.brownpapertickets.com and click "Click here to buy ABDUCTION tickets". We'll see you at Lehman! See you there, Ben!
In 2014 OperaMetro posted, then reposted in 2016 a review of great recordings of Der Freischütz on CD and DVD. This can be found on the page Historical Recordings.
Support your local opera!! Abduction from the Seraglio, hey, of course, Mozart, say no more, but Der Freischütz is a great opera. As my dear friend Dick frequently says, “you never know when you’ll see it again!” Right? Dick is often right on these things, except for Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito...he's seen it several times by this point in time.
Endure the cold. If your face freezes while smiling you’ll more likely make friends quickly.
Just a thought.