How do you put on a gala?
That is a question that most houses sometimes ask. Some think it is about uniting the most stars and having them walk on stage and just sing arias one after the other. Other houses put on different scenes from operas. Most recently we witnessed singers in costumes, standing and singing for over four hours at the Metropolitan Opera this past May.
However, the Washington National Opera found a way in its first-ever gala to spice things up and celebrate the art form in a quickly paced 90-minute concert that energized audiences but really mixed with expectations.
The concept was to celebrate the influence of opera on numerous art forms including film and musicals. The list of stars was small but it was enough to really create an intimate atmosphere that showcased the talents of both opera singers and Broadway stars.
The gala was called “Trading Voices,” so it was fitting that it opened with a montage of opera in films. The moving montage used clips from “Philadelphia,” “Pretty Women,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Shawshank Redemption” and “Up” among others. It reflected on how opera influenced not only the scene of the film but also the mood and its themes.
Following the presentation, music director Philippe Auguin took the podium for an energetic account of Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture. And it was fitting introduction to a program that mixed operatic classics with Broadway’s most successful shows.
But what came next was something unexpected. Brian Stokes Mitchell would be the host of the gala as he animated audiences and introduced the concept for the gala. It was not only informative but it was hilarious and really engaged with the viewer, creating intimacy some of these galas sometimes lack.
And it would only get better.
The opera stars
It was an opera gala so many people were expecting star wattage and that is what they got from three luminaries. Denyce Graves was the first opera star to perform in her signature aria “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ “Samson et Dalila.” While it started a bit rocky with the orchestra a bit behind, Graves used her luscious mezzo to really create the alluring colors in the score. And in the second repetition of the aria, her voice grew in intensity. What she sang piano the first time around was now opulent in vocal power the second time around. The orchestra followed suit as the dynamics grew to a forte and really captured the seductive force of the aria.
She followed up this aria later in the program with “Ol’ Man River” from “Showboat.” This was a much more restrained account that allowed Graves to show her lower notes. These really drew gasps from the audiences as she went to the lowest part of her voice almost singing as a contralto. It was virtuosity in a different way and it was also showing a different facet of this marvelous artist. Interestingly enough she sang with a mic but that didn’t really matter as her voice soared through the theater.
Bass Soloman Howard performed “Come dal ciel Precipita” from Verdi’s “Macbeth.” The bass’ sonorous timbre easily soared over the orchestra as he sang each phrase, evoking a fearful desperation. As the aria grew to its climax so did his volume and the finale was an incredible fortissimo.
The final operatic singer was Reneé Fleming, who was easily a stunner with her Vivienne Westwood gown. She sang Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” from “Gianni Schicchi” with her customary creamy tone. It was performance very much focused on the text, really creating Lauretta’s plea to her father. While it may not have been the most exciting selection of the night, it easily showed Fleming’s healthy voice and what she still has to give.
The Broadway stars
The other stars came from different musical backgrounds. Jordan Donica opened the gala with “Feeling Good.” The rousing song easily lifted the mood from the audience with Donica giving it a jazzy feel. For his second selection, Donica picked “The Music of The Night” from “Phantom of the Opera.” Unlike his upbeat first choice, this was a more meditative piece which showcased the singer’s lower register and his baritonal notes. The orchestra accompanied him with the passionate melodies swelling to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beautiful melody. And Donica kept a subtle tone that eventually climaxed. It was nuanced and touching.
Leslie Odom Jr. performed “There’s a Boats that Leavin” from Gerswhin’s “Porgy and Bess” as well as “Wait for it” from “Hamilton.” The latter piece really showed the versatility in Odom’s voice as he moved from the R&B rhythm to a more melodic tune. Odom showed expertise in the piece easily moving through the stage.
Brian Stokes Mitchell was easily one of the standout performances of the evening as he performed “It ain’t necessarily so” from “Porgy and Bess.” When he went on to perform, the lights of the auditorium turned on and Stokes began singing to the audience. He then queued different sections to sing along. He even made fun of one audience section when they failed to follow. And at one point Stokes fell to the ground teasing audiences and elicited a well-deserved applause. But he was not finished yet. He got up and continued to perform this devilish song. Aside from his antics on stage, he gave Gershwin’s music a swing beat that really gave the piece a fresh tone.
But the real stunner was Cynthia Erivo. The singer, who replaced Aretha Franklin, went on stage to perform “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables.” She started the aria in a piano tone and quickly started building to an impassioned forte. Erivo didn’t stick to basics as she gave the aria gospel feel and at the end as she hit the final notes, the chorus joined in. The delicate music from the beginning turned to a hopeful and inspiring moment. Erivo immediately obtained a well-deserved standing ovation.
She concluded the night with a more subtle “Nessun Dorma” from “Turandot,” which also proved the most intriguing moment of the night. Originally for tenor and hardly ever sung with a mic, Erivo still gave this aria a triumphant ring even if one missed the tenor’s tone. However, it was a great way to end the night as she held the final B natural with so much passion and was accompanied by the wonderful chorus once again.
Maestro Auguin and Steven Mercutio led the orchestra with precision and clarity. The gala also had a moment to honor Jacqueline Badger Mars for her efforts in getting 20 new operas commissioned for the Washington Opera and also had tributes from Francesca Zambello and David Rubenstein.
All in all, this was a memorable night that inspired and showed the power of opera and music in general.