Wednesday | Apr 03, 2013

Bluebeard Rehearsals Begin–by Hal France, Conductor and Guest Blogger

In just a few days, our team for Bluebeard’s Castle will arrive and start work. We will begin our process for this intriguing work with Stage Director Andrew Eggert, Designer Julia Noulin-Merat, and our superb cast led by the renowned American bass Samuel Ramey and rising dramatic soprano Kara Shay Thomson. We also have a special guest joining us, Accompanist and Hungarian Language Coach, Krisztina Kover. I’m pumped!!

You will not find a major American opera singer of the past three decades that epitomizes “best in the world” more than Sam Ramey. He is a superb performer who drew audiences to opera with his visceral stage presence, signature sound and rock solid technique. He has been sought after for leading roles in the finest productions and best recording projects year after year.

Whether singing Boris, Mephistopheles, or Figaro, Bel Canto or American Musicals, he has delivered on the world’s biggest stages. The contributions he’s made to opera and music have been very significant.

Sam has sung with Opera Omaha on two previous occasions. Early in his career, he joined Beverly Sills for the historic production of Lucia di Lammermoor that re- opened the Orpheum in 1975. His world tour program of Opera’s devil roles, Date with The Devil, came to Omaha in 1999. Samuel Ramey starred with Jessye Norman in a new production of Bluebeard’s Castle at the Metropolitan Opera that was broadcast on PBS. To say Opera Omaha is fortunate to have Samuel Ramey as our Bluebeard would be the greatest of understatements.

Of our leading lady and her performance of Tosca, it was said, “by her passionate restraint she was able to build a character, which was in every sense, a great woman.” I’m looking forward to working with Kara Shay Thomson.

I’m so impressed with the range of her repertoire and roles. Concert works like The Bells by Rachmaninoff, Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony require personal depth and musicianship. Leading operatic heroines like Tosca and Sieglinde take great presence and understanding. Adventures operas like Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle take a special kind of intelligence and courage! These are only a few of her accomplishments to date.

The character she portrays in Bluebeard’s Castle, Judith, is cut from the same cloth as many of the great operatic heroines. Brave, complex, creative, and ultimately human, Judith is a superb character and a great challenge for a talented singing actress.

I’m thrilled to be working with Samuel Ramey and Kara Shay Thomson.

In my previous blog entry, I mentioned upcoming events surrounding Bluebeard’s Castle. Here are a few that you won’t want to miss.

Kansas native Sam Ramey will lead a Vocal Master Class for aspiring UNL singers at First Plymouth Church in Lincoln on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. It’s free and open to the public. This is a great opportunity for the singers and audience.

Tuesday, April 9 at 7 p.m. at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Andrew Eggert and Julia Noulin-Merat will present their concept for the production of Bluebeard’s Castle. I’ve watched this young team at work over the past year and expect that this conversation between director and designer will be an fascinating one for Omaha’s visual arts, theater, and opera communities. The Bemis is the perfect site for this discussion about design, symbols, secrets and history!

Speaking of history, 1911 was a very important year for the world of art. It included the completion of Bluebeard’s Castle, the publishing of Arnold Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony and Kandinsky’s On The Spiritual in Art.

Schoenberg’s twelve-tone harmony revolutionized music. Kandinsky, a painter widely credited with making the world’s first abstract paintings, was closely associated with Schoenberg and music. Kandinsky wrote extensively about music’s inherent abstract language and how it might be carried over into visual art. An epiphany came to Kandinsky during a performance of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. He dedicated himself to creating pathways where visual arts, poetry, music and theater could intersect and be infused with new energies. Kandinsky became one of the most important visual artists of the 20th century and his creativity exploded while listening to of all things, an opera performance!

April 9th at the Bemis will be your chance to hear how art forms will merge in Opera Omaha’s upcoming production with Stage Director Andrew Eggert and Production Designer Julia Noulin-Merat. Don’t miss them!

More information about these events is available on Opera Omaha’s Facebook page. To buy tickets to Bluebeard’s Castle, call 402-345-0606 or visit Ticket Omaha online.

Friday | Mar 29, 2013

The Symphony and a Psycho-Thriller–by guest blogger Hal France

Today I had the pleasure of being onstage with the Omaha Symphony at the Holland Center and I am looking forward to the contribution those musicians will make to our production of Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

There will be several really good opportunities before the performances on April 19 and 21 for everyone to get into my current favorite opera. On Tuesday, April 9, Stage Director Andrew Eggert and Production Designer Julia Noulin-Merat will be at the Bemis at 7 p.m. talking about their concept. I will be at Joslyn Castle with Nils Haaland on Friday, April 12 at 7 p.m. to talk about the score. We will also all be together in Opera Omaha’s space on Tuesday, April 16 at noon for lunch and ideas. Finally, I will be doing lobby previews 45 minutes before curtain for both shows.

Because of the production concept of Eggert, Noulin-Merat, and Opera Omaha there will be an orchestra of 70 playing Bartok’s score in the performance. This is the largest orchestra to play a full production at the Orpheum in Opera Omaha’s history. They won’t be in their usual spot, the orchestra pit; capacity 52, but will be in Duke Bluebeard’s castle onstage!

This will allow the audience a chance to experience Bartok’s remarkable score in its full sonic splendor. This new approach taken by General Director Roger Weitz opens the possibility for more new adventures and a variety of great operas in future seasons. Very cool!!

Last night, my class at UNO looked at a really interesting connection between this opera and one of my favorite things, movies! Bluebeard is really an operatic psycho- thriller! It precedes the film genre that Hitchcock, Welles, Scorsese and countless filmmakers made popular.

The class listened to Bernard Hermann’s scores for Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1959), and Citizen Kane (1941). We heard many things that reminded of Bluebeard. It’s interesting that Bartok and Bela Balazs, his librettist, finished Bluebeard in 1911 the same year Hermann was born. At the time, Bartok was 30, the same age Hermann would be when he completed his masterful score for Citizen Kane.

Listening to Hermann’s music and then to Bluebeard, one could hear what a resource classical composers were to the Filmic Arts. Long before filmmakers could show the limitless human imagination, larger than life visions were the ‘Bread and Butter’ of great musical storytellers and sound painters like Bartok, Stravinsky, Debussy and so many others.

Bluebeard’s Castle is a compelling psychological thriller and the 70 Omaha Symphony musicians onstage will be crucial to its success!

Tickets for Bluebeard’s Castle are available online through Ticket Omaha or by calling 402-345-0606.

Wednesday | Mar 20, 2013

Meet the Artist and Guest Blogger: Conductor, Hal France

Hal France, Conductor

We recently announced, on Facebook, that Hal France will be guest blogging about the Bluebeard’s Castle rehearsal process. The post received many “likes” from the Omaha community. However, some of you may be wondering, “Who is Hal France?” This information is for you and for anyone who would simply like to know more about this enthusiastic, energetic arts and arts education advocate.

Hal served as Opera Omaha’s Artistic Director for nearly 10 years, from 1995-2005. We are thrilled to have him return to conduct Bluebeard’s Castle. In addition to preparing for our production, Hal is currently teaching an opera appreciation course at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In February, Hal returned to his alma mater, Northwestern University, to conduct The Grapes of Wrath. He is a hard-working and positive part of our vital Omaha arts community.

Watch for Hal’s blog posts to begin within the next two weeks. He will share insights and observations from the Bluebeard’s Castle rehearsal process. It’s sure to be an exciting and educational series!

First, we’ll share Hal’s official (and impressive) conducting biography from his management company, Pinnacle Arts Management. More information about the conductor’s operatic repertoire is available on the company’s website.

Hal France is a sought after guest conductor of opera throughout the U.S.A. He has conducted nine productions for the Houston Grand Opera, seven productions for Central City Opera (La Fanciulla del West, L’Italiana in Algeri, Gloriana, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Saint of Bleecker Street, Candide, and Susannah), four productions for Opera Theater of St. Louis (including the world premiere of Beauty and the Beast), five productions for Kentucky Opera, three productions each for the New York City Opera (Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are, The Ballad of Baby Doe, and the world premiere of Ezra Laderman’s Marilyn) and Orlando Opera (Macbeth, The Merry Widow and Il Barbiere di Siviglia), and two productions each for Cleveland Opera (Tosca and Rigoletto), Madison Opera (La Boheme and The Magic Flute), Calgary Opera (Tosca and The Ballad of Baby Doe), and Utah Opera (Lucia di Lammermoor and Romeo et Juliette).

Elsewhere, he has conducted productions for Seattle Opera and Florida Grand Opera (The Passion of Jonathan Wade), Minnesota Opera (Madama Butterfly), Opera Company of Philadelphia (The Rake’s Progress), Santa Fe Opera (A Dream Play – world premiere), Portland Opera (Tosca), Chautauqua Opera, Glimmerglass Opera (Iolanthe), Tulsa Opera (Don Pasquale), Opera Carolina, Chicago Opera Theater, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Festival of New Jersey, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Hawaii Opera Theater, Arkansas Opera Theater, Mobile Opera and the Manhattan School of Music (Street Scene). In Europe, he has conducted Maria Stuarda with the Royal Opera in Stockholm.

Notable future engagements include productions of The Grapes of Wrath at Northwestern University, Bluebeard’s Castle at Opera Omaha, and Show Boat at Central City Opera.

Mr. France has served as Artistic Director of Opera Omaha, as Music Director of the Orlando Philharmonic, as Resident and Associate Conductor for the Houston Grand Opera, Music Director of the Mobile Opera, Lake George Opera Festival, and as Music Director of Opera Omaha before assuming the position of Artistic Director. He was also Music Director of the Orlando Philharmonic. Early in his career, he served on the music staffs of the Glyndebourne Festival, Aspen Festival, and the Netherlands Opera. He began his professional career as assistant to John DeMain at the Houston Grand Opera.

On the concert stage, he has conducted the Richmond Symphony, Orlando Philharmonic, Nebraska Festival Orchestra and Jacksonville Symphony in subscription concerts, and the Chautauqua Festival Orchestra, Juilliard Symphony, and St. Louis Symphony in special galas.

Next, we present the transcript of an interview with Hal for the Nebraskans for the Arts website. In this interview, Hal answers questions posed by Marjorie Maas about his arts education experience and influential people along the way.

Interview with Hal France, relayed by Nebraskans for the Arts Director, Marjorie Maas

MM: What set you on a path pursuing the arts? Did you have a particularly impactful arts educator?

HF: I had some very strong experiences in elementary school and a very large hiatus until college. My parents were both strong in education and the arts. No one pushed me, but it was there. I had a wonderful music teacher in sixth grade, Mrs. Fish, in band and the production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore.” She really supported me and made it a lot of fun. I hadn’t been on stage that much, I’m sure I was pretty obnoxious. But I was so excited by it, that I thrust myself forward. I didn’t see any other way to do it. That was one of the best years of my life; it had so many dimensions to it.

I had a fine piano teacher third grade to eighth grade, Mr. Cafarelli. I also played piano for kids at school, and noticed when I did that girls were more interested in me. I didn’t really have arts in high school and was very involved in sports, football and basketball. As I got into junior high, sports won over.

MM: What transitioned you back to the arts, opera in particular?

HF: I got to end of high school 1970, and there was a lot of music going around that was related to what we were doing with the Vietnam War. I started writing songs and performing in coffee houses, and this led me back to take music lessons, piano lessons in particular. Mrs. Wolffe was my teacher, and I studied with her for a summer. She gave me recognition of my ability and told me I was very musical. People don’t necessarily know that themselves.

I went from not playing the piano to playing eight hours a day. This changed my life; all my friends were athletes. I became a different kind of person. I would consider Mrs. Wolffe my most important art teacher; she gave me a view of myself that I wouldn’t have had by myself. It impacted me so much so – that I would later become a music major.

Starting my sophomore year, I took a lot more music classes. Then I transferred to another school for a better program. This led to me following a teacher out to Los Angeles. I got hooked up with opera at 24 and then went on to Julliard. When I got to opera, it made sense, it was definitely what I wanted to do. That early experience of being in a production early on made all the difference.

MM: Anything else you would like to say?

HF: My parents never pushed me – they waited a long time to see if this was really what interested me, and then gave me 100% support. I was also so shaped by being involved in opera, which is the collaboration of the arts. It gave me an opportunity to work with people in different areas of arts.

(Arts) teachers open doors for people, I had some that opened doors for me.  Then, they leave it up to you. You never know what the door might lead to – it might not be a career in the arts, but it will be something. It’s a window into yourself.

Thank you for taking time to learn more about Conductor, Hal France.

Tickets for Bluebeard’s Castle on April 19, 2013 and April 21, 2013 are available online through Ticket Omaha or by calling 402-345-0606. Don’t miss this opportunity to see Hal conduct Bartok’s only opera! Call or go online to get your tickets today!

Friday | Mar 08, 2013

The intersection of visual and operatic art

Photo by Jim Scholz. Opera Omaha’s 2013 production of The Magic Flute. Designs by Jun Kaneko.

The Jun Kaneko-designed production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute played to sold out houses in San Francisco and Omaha. Patrons marveled at the artistic presentation. At intermission and after the performance, audience members praised the costumes and the visual masterpiece created by not only the scenic art work, but the combination of staging, costumes, wigs, and makeup in concert with the background imagery. This co-production involving an internationally known visual artist and multiple opera companies is heralded as a magnificent achievement. The Kaneko-designed production of The Magic Flute is all of those things, but the spirit of cooperation and partnership between artistic communities is not new.

Collaboration between the visual arts community and producers of opera is a standard feature of opera performance. Opera is comprised of multiple art forms. A fully staged opera production includes visual art in the form of set pieces and paintings, costumes, props, lighting, and staging. The performers are required to be fantastic singers and proficient actors. The element of drama or comedy within the libretto must be portrayed along with the, sometimes astonishing, vocal feats required by the musical score.

Historically, to meet the scenic demands of the stage, professional artists (usually painters) were employed by opera and theater companies. As available technology evolves, so do the artistic possibilities. The changing world of visual art, and that of opera, presents new opportunities for cooperation between the art forms.

In 2006, Opera Omaha partnered with Kaneko to design the set, props, and costumes for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. In 2008, visual artist Catherine Ferguson worked with Opera Omaha to create a dramatic and brilliantly colorful production of Verdi’s Aida. The photo below beautifully illustrates Ferguson’s vision for what the audience would see on the stage. The picture is created through the use of set pieces, costumes, and props that complete the stunning visual image.

Photo by Jim Scholz. Opera Omaha’s 2008 production of Aida. All designs by Catherine Ferguson.

For Opera Omaha’s final performances of the 2012-2013 season, we partner with scenic designer Julia Noulin-Merat to create a new production of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. When you attend the opera, you will see the artist’s vision as it complements the incomparable singing of Samuel Ramey and Kara Shay Thomson. The artistic elements will, as always, be used to illustrate the story and to create a visual and auditory masterpiece to enhance the audience experience.

Tickets for our April 19 and 21, 2013 performances of Bluebeard’s Castle are available online or by calling 402-345-0606. Don’t miss your chance to see the intersection of visual and operatic art at its finest. We look forward to seeing you there!

If you’re interested in learning more about Bluebeard’s Castle and the use of visual art in opera production, Friends of Art at the University of Nebraska at Omaha is hosting an event on Sunday, March 10 to explore these topics. Hal France, our conductor for Bluebeard’s Castle, is the featured speaker. The event begins at 6:00pm with a wine and appetizer reception following the talk. Admission is $20, free to UNO students with MAV cards, or $3 to students with student I.D.s. Contact information and more is available on the organization’s Facebook page.


Wednesday | Feb 13, 2013

Meet the Artist: Papageno, Corey McKern

Papageno, as described by the host in a recent Omaha radio station interview, serves as the “comic relief” in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The role was originally sung by the opera’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, and may be one of the most widely-recognized roles in opera. Papageno is described by harmonia mundi  in the following manner:

Papageno : the birdcatcher, a clumsy, comical character…The attribute of this ‘know-all’ who really knows nothing is a set of panpipes that can charm birds (he will also make incidental use of a set of magic bells). In a sense he lies at the centre of the opera: his failed, even parodic initiation sets in perspective the gravity of the itinerary followed by the Tamino/Pamina couple and the solemnity of a discourse which thus always remains human and accessible. He emerges as an amiable coward with a tendency to put his foot in it, deeply in love with life and with his Papagena, and his feathered person and catchy tunes add a touch of bright colour to the austere interplay of shadows and light which structures the drama (

We are pleased and honored to welcome baritone, Corey McKern back to Opera Omaha for this role. You may have seen him previously as Slook in our February 2012 production of The Marriage Contract. Mr. McKern sings the role of Papageno in Opera Omaha’s production of The Magic Flute with great skill and just the right amount of sulky humor. He possesses both the operatic and theatrical chops to accurately portray both the longing and the mirth in the role.

Thanks to Corey McKern and our music staff, you will see and hear a wonderful portrayal of Papageno when you join us on Friday, February 22 or Sunday, February 24 to see The Magic Flute. Tickets can be purchased online through Ticket Omaha or by phone at 402-345-0606. Don’t miss this your chance to see this enchanting production of a classic opera including marvelous singing.

To learn more about Mr. McKern, please visit his official website. His program biography and photo are below.

Baritone, Corey McKern

Corey McKern–Biography provided by the artist.


Award-winning baritone Corey McKern continuously earns critical acclaim and accolades in every appearance he makes. In his 10 performance run as Marcello in La bohème at the Santa Fe Opera last summer, the Santa Fe New Mexican said, “Corey McKern’s resolute, robust-voiced and rambunctious Marcello, a perfect picture of a wannabe Parisian painter, was one of the best I’ve ever heard.” This season, engagements include his debut with Austin Lyric Opera as Silvio in I Pagliacci, his role debut as Dandini in La Cenerentola with Nashville Opera, the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro with Syracuse Opera, Anthony in Sweeney Todd with Pensacola Opera, King Henry II in Becket with Long Island Masterworks, Papageno in Die Zauberflöte with Opera Birmingham, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor with Opera Saratoga, and his debut with the St. Louis Symphony performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Wozzeck.



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