The next time you hear someone crowing a death knell for opera, remember “the Buffs”. This unique organization, now thirty-one years old, is based in Los Angeles of all places, and offers direct grants to emerging artists during that very expensive period “between college and getting the contracts” with established houses. As Opera Buffs president David Alan Gibb points out, “not every city has an organization like this”, and on December 7, the group’s Fall 2014 Performers Showcase reminded us why it matters.
One of the great advantages of the showcase layout is that by focusing on just a few performers, we get to know them and their skills over the course of a couple of hours, watching them jump from one role to another and tackle various vocal ensembles, styles and situations. The level of polish and dramatic preparation is far greater than most opera workshops, and we can see more of the performers’ versatility and emotional range, making it easy to understand the tendency of active Buffs talk about “their” performers as if they’ve known them for years.
With Brent McMunn, their new music director, at the piano in The Colburn School’s Thayer Hall, the afternoon program spotlighted the work of a quartet of talented young hopefuls in a semi-staged series of scenes both familiar and new-to-some. Starting with the “Bella figlia” quartet from Rigoletto, soprano Jungwon Choi, mezzo Victoria Fox, tenor Arnold Geis and baritone Kihun Yoon took the stage with vigor and enthusiasm, and they sounded well together, boding well for the remaining program, where they were mixed and mingled into various solos, duets, trios and quartets. Illustrated by longtime Buffs stage director Michael Van Duzer, the cast wore formalwear and worked with a largely bare stage, using only the occasional chair or prop. The rest of it was all in our minds, for a heady mix of deeply emotional stagecraft.
Geis, who was announced to be recovering from a serious bout with the flu, showed no signs of illness, except perhaps a slightly less robust sound than we’ve heard from him elsewhere. Nevertheless, his was the performance that was causing buzz through the audience, due not only to his rich, ringing voice, but also to his astonishing acting talent. Some actors slip into the moment so completely that we forget where we are. Geis is that extremely rare creature who does this consistently, and his singing is exceptional, too, showing unusual swings of facility when moving from bel canto to musical theater, which he showed off with “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company and the final quartet from Kismet.
Choi’s voice sparkles, even when she leans into it in a character’s frustration or anger. Even her desperation is dazzling. She was somewhat hampered in the first half by a gorgeous beyond-the-floor trumpet-skirted gown which is built more for park-and-bark, but the voice distracted quickly from any such technical difficulties. This is not an enormous instrument, but finely hewn and a pleasure to hear. She got to show some comic chops in duet from Rossini’s lesser-known “Il viaggio a Reims”, revealing a strong grip on the Italian which allows for some excellent line delivery, and proving the perfect straight man for Geis’ libidinous nudges.
Yoon’s initial gravitas proves itself just one color in his stage palette, and his grand, huge voice seems somehow effortless. It just pours of of him, usually at high volume, but beneath the strength lies subtlety that may be best appreciated in a large house, where the sheer size of this impressive voice can roam free. When he reins it in, such as with the traditional Korean duet with Ms. Choi, “Longing for Mount Keumkang”, they are emotional and uplifting together, and her smaller voice is not overshadowed. When matched by an instrument of equal bravura, such as when Mr. Geis ramps it up for the intensity of “The Pearl Fishers’ Duet”, (Au fond du temple saint, from Act I), the combined result is thrilling.
What McMunn calls Fox’s “Old World sound” is a dark, slightly woofy contralto timbre that is still in development, which is to be expected at her young age. But the tone is promising, as is the mezzo’s razor-sharp comic timing and magnetic stage presence. She was particularly funny in “Votre toast” from Carmen and adorable as a doe-eyed Angelina, singing a flirty duet from Cenerentola with Geis. With beauty and personality to spare, she is utterly charming and a joy to watch — well worth keeping an eye out.
McMunn, of course, played the difficult piano-vocal scores with aplomb, as if orchestra reductions were no big thang. With the recent departure of longtime accompanist and music director Mona Lands, the Buffs are lucky to have him, and they seem to know it well.
The concert was also the occasion to announce the departure and passing of several other Opera Buffs fixtures, including Lands’ retirement, the September death of beloved opera director Frans Boerlage, and the resignation of Peter Ulrich as treasurer (although he’ll remain on the board). That’s a lot of change for an organization that has fixed itself in the local opera landscape and helped to launch the likes of Angela Meade, Charles Castronovo, Greg Fedderly, Sondra Radvanovsky and many more. (Here a list of the org’s young artists. which includes a whole lotta Listers.)
Let’s hear it for the Opera Buffs, and for doing what it takes to perpetuate the art you love!
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