Beyond Art Song 2.0: El carro de amor

Convening an audience for an art song recital, or any classical music event, has become a challenge. With the elimination of arts education in many public schools, the audience that once learned to play piano, sing in choruses, and recognize the major artists/composers of Western art music, has shrunk considerably. Technology has also played a role in the shift in musical tastes and sizes of live audiences. No longer is one dependent on the radio or purchasing recordings to have access to new music. Nowadays one can surf numerous websites and online radio stations which offer free listening and in some cases free or cheap downloads. Orchestras and opera companies brainstorm constantly to develop and implement marketing campaigns to get “butts in the seats.” For recitalists, the audience is even smaller, and often they lack the funding, as well as the costumes, orchestra, household names and advertising to appeal to untapped audiences.

On Saturday, September 12, 2015, Ana María Ruimonte and Owlsong Productions were scheduled to present “El carro de amor,” a musical/theatrical show of baroque love songs, at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, as part of the Philly Fringe Festival. I was pleased to see this musical theatre piece among the various and diverse works in the Fringe Festival. There is no other Spanish language offering and very few classical music works in the festival. Unfortunately, the show started late because of technology problems and these issues persisted throughout the show.

El carro de amor employs hand puppets, computer projection and sound, as well as a live singer and instrumental ensemble. Regrettably, the show was plagued with technical difficulties throughout its duration. I definitely applaud Ms. Ruimonte for her perseverance—she attempted to deliver the performance as advertised. Had it been me, I would have completely given up the technology, and would have had to overcome nearly insurmountable jitters and nerves due to the technology issues and late start. This is more than enough to wrack (if not destroy) the most competent and confident singer’s concentration. Ms. Ruimonte performed under such duress and thoroughly embraced the saying “the show must go on!”

Aside from the technology issues, El carro de amor (includes songs from Ms. Ruimonte’s CD Arded, corazón, arded) is a very innovative effort in bringing obscure music, in this case baroque art song in Spanish, to a contemporary audience. The fact that this was mostly an American non-Spanish speaking crowd, further distances the listeners from the piece, making the performers’ job of communicating this music and its meanings twice as demanding. Ms. Ruimonte and Owlsong Productions did their homework as far as marketing, since the 80-90 seats were filled in the small venue. Ms. Ruimonte uses a laptop and projector to project images of Spanish paintings and photos onto a screen above the makeshift “love cart” that serves as the puppet stage. There is also recorded spoken dialogue piped through the computer to further create a context for these songs. Her creativity and design have launched a fresh approach to the song recital. It is as if her singer’s “backstory” or interpretation of each song is released from her mind and put on stage for us to witness in the puppet show.

Ms. Ruimonte and her husband, Alan Lewine (who also worked the puppets), were to perform another concert at 9:00 pm, “Mezzo Meets Bass.” Hopefully these courageous and imaginative artists had better luck with the technology in that production!

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El gato con botas: An Adorable Production by Gotham Chamber Opera

Music, puppets, rabbits, fish, a lion, a monster and a super clever cat–all the ingredients for a charming and adorable show. El gato con botas by Catalán composer, Xavier Montsalvatge, was presented in Spanish on December 11 at 7:00 pm by Gotham Chamber Opera in New York City at the Museo del Barrio. This was a revival of their premiere in 2010. I don’t know how I missed that premiere, but I’m glad that I was able to catch the revival. It was a very delightful evening.

By far, the puppets upstaged all the human characters and the music, and the inanimate brought to life,  stole the show. Overall the singing of the 60 minute opera was well done. Andrea Carroll, the princess, displayed beautiful lush toned singing, perfectly appropriate for her role. Kevin Burdette, thoroughly embodied the ogre character, through his precise singing and parallel movements and expressions with the giant puppet.  As the cat, Karin Mushegain, delivered with gusto. In general I did not find the Spanish lyrics very idiomatic–I had to refer to the subtitles (and I am a fluent speaker of Spanish).  I could not tell if that was due to the way the lyrics were set or the singers familiarity with the language as everything was pronounced correctly.

Since the musical score includes some instrumental interludes, there were opportunities for stage business and dances among the puppets. The puppetry was nothing short of spectacular. The skill and preparation of those artistis working the strings was evident. The only weakness, from my vantage point (right orchestra seat) was that the cat singer, was too visible and upstage the cat puppet. It was difficult to concentrate on the cat when she was singing. I wonder if having the singers in the pit might have been less distracting.

Gotham Chamber Opera and the entire cast and production crew deserve kudos for this production. There were many partners involved in making it happen, from the Guggenheim Works in Progress, Museo del Barrio, Tectonic Theater Project and all of the generous patrons. El gato con botas is an obscure opera by an relatively unknown composer (really only familiar to those that study Spanish music). The opera is short and sweet and the Gotham Chamber Opera production is light and fun!