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Rimrock Opera plans ‘Tosca,’ ‘Carmen’
Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2002 11:00 pm
The first regular season for Rimrock Opera in Billings opens Saturday, Aug. 2, with first of two performances of “Tosca,” one of opera’s masterpieces of love, seduction and betrayal.
The season picks up again on Oct. 25, with the first of two performances of “Carmen,” Bizet’s timeless classic of romance and murder. Both are at the Alberta Bair Theater, where same-seat season tickets are available at (406) 256-6052. The price on the season ticket with reserved seat is $50, $35, $20 and $10 per show.
Individual ticket sales begin April 1 as season ticket sales continue. After April 1, season ticket buyers may not find the same seat for both performances. Individual tickets are priced at $55, $40, $25 and $15 per show.
“Tosca,” the lively Italian classic, features Rimrock Opera Artistic Director Douglas Nagel as Scarpia. Nagel also directs. It will be sung in Italian with English text projected above the stage. The performance also features Deborah Longino as Floria Tosca and Randolph Locke as Cavaradossi. The conductor is Robert Ashens. Performances are set for 8 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 2 and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 4 .
“Carmen” opens Friday, Oct. 25. The performance features Billings native and acclaimed tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Don Jose, with mezzo soprano Michelle Berger Johner as Carmen. Jan Michael Kliewer sings Escamillo.
Opera buffs anticipate October ‘Carmen’ dates
Posted: Thursday, August 8, 2002 11:00 pm
The first regular season for Rimrock Opera in Billings is moving into its second part.
Following last weekend’s standing ovations for “Tosca,” the season will pick up again Oct. 25, with the first of two performances of “Carmen,” Bizet’s timeless classic of romance and murder. The performances will be at the Alberta Bair Theater.
“Carmen” will be directed by Douglas Nagel, ROC artistic director who sang the part of the villain Scarpia in “Tosca.” The performance features Billings native and acclaimed tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Don Jose, with mezzo soprano Michelle Berger Johner as Carmen. Nagel, Jovanovich and Johner are natives of Billings. Jan Michael Kliewer sings Escamillo. The second performance of “Carmen” is set for Sunday, Oct. 27 at 2 p.m.
Local talent rounds out the “Carmen” cast as it did in “Tosca.” William Mouat plays Zuniga in Carmen and his wife, Stephanie Dudash Mouat, plays Frasquita.
Diva plays ‘Carmen’ for hometown fans
CHRISTENE MEYERS Gazette Arts & Entertainment Editor | Posted: Thursday, October 17, 2002 11:00 pm
Two years ago, Michelle Berger Johner signed on to play the seductive gypsy girl in “Carmen.” A lot has happened since then, but in show biz tradition, the singer has weathered some storms, sharpened her insight and grown from her troubles.
“I don’t especially care for ‘the D-word,’ but that’s what happened and I have a lot of friends here, so why not be honest?” she asked.
A divorce after many years of marriage encouraged “Mimi,” as the Billings native is known, to return to her birth name, Michelle Berger, which in Europe she pronounces in the French way, “Mimi Ber-jay.”
And, she said, “As one always does, one grows through change and difficulty. I think I am a better Carmen now, for what the past two years have brought my way.”
Larry Mayer/Gazette Staff Berger as Carmen and Gayle as Don Jose, in a moment of passion. Love triangle: From left, baritone Jan Michael Kleiwer sings Escamillio the toreador; Michelle Berger, the flirtatious gypsy Carmen and tenor Kenneth Gayle the soldier Don Jose.
As often happens, along with the travails has come something wonderful, the metaphoric cloud with a silver lining. “I’m having a new, fabulous relationship,” she said of her friendship with singer Gregg Baker, a Broadway sinter best known for his Porgy in the signature Gershwin opera.
“It’s so wonderful to have someone new and exciting in my life after a disastrous divorce,” she said. The change in her life is also giving the internationally known singer pause to consider her future and that of her two children.
Although raised in a European environment, they have traveled to the U.S. frequently (Berger’s mother still lives in Billings) and could easily adjust to life stateside, Berger said.
Meanwhile, she’s enjoying her life. As she found music healed after the death of her father, well-known Billings attorney Arnie Berger, she discovered music a tonic after the divorce. “It is so critical to have somewhere to channel your energies,” she said. “You use everything that has happened to you. You pull all the emotion into the next part, refine it and use it to enhance what you do on stage.”
Touring the great opera houses, Berger has played to a widely ranging audience. “The Italians, of course, show their enthusiasm. Opera is part of the culture, in their blood. The Swiss are so inward, they have no reaction at first. The air feels stale at first. You don’t get back anything for a while. When you finally feel their appreciation, it’s a relief.”
Performing the title role in “Carmen” in the town where she grew up, she said, “may be my most difficult challenge. You know, they say the hometown audience is the toughest and most scary.”
And, she says, next weekend will be bittersweet because her dad, who died several years ago, loved the Bizet work.
“He always wanted to see me in that role. He would have been just thrilled,” she said.
And, she laughs when describing how she’s prepared her mother for the sexy innuendo and physical play in the production.
“My character is a very sexual creature, completely aware of her physicality. She loves power and knows how to get what she wants,” said Berger. ” She’s sensual and body-oriented. I just wanted to prepare my mom for that. When I talked to her about it, she just chuckled.”
Christene Meyers Gazette Arts & Entertainment Editor | Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2002 11:00 pm
It’s got sex appeal, glamour, love, anger and passion.
It’s Rimrock Opera Company’s “Carmen” and opera buffs won’t want to miss it.
“I had to teach the cigarette girls to flirt,” says Douglas Nagel, artistic director of ROC. “They hadn’t really cruised before. Now they know how.”
Nagel is thrilled to be bringing the famed Georges Bizet piece to the Alberta Bair Theater, with a men’s chorus from Montana and Wyoming, and some stellar voices in the principal roles.
His choice for the coveted role of Carmen is Michelle Berger, a Billings Senior High School graduate based in Switzerland. Berger has sung many of the great roles in operas as varied as “Rigoletto” and “Rapunzel,” and she brings an extensive concert repertoire to her hometown stage, from Schubert and Mozart masses to Vivaldi and Beethoven. She is also a fan of musical theater and light opera, and sang Buttercup in “HMS Pinafore” and Catrasha in “Mikado.”
Berger says her Carmen will be lusty, sexy and “fully in control of everything she does. She’s out there, completely in her body and in life.” Says Berger, “It’s a kick, but a terrifying one, to be singing for the hometown crowd. But I am thrilled to be doing this, in my dad’s memory.” Berger, known as Mimi to her friends, is daughter of the distinguished late Billings attorney Arnie Berger, a lifelong opera lover and member of the Al Bedoo Shrine Band with many other musical interests.
Nagel describes his cast as “gangbusters.” His Don Jose is “a rising star, a tremendous force on stage.” He is speaking of Kenneth Gayle, an alumnus of Lyric Opera Center and well known in the Chicago area for his powerful yet lyrical tenor.
Gayle plays the dashing Corporal of Dragoons with Spanish flare, Nagel says. The action passes in Seville in the year 1820, and the tempestuous relationship between Don Jose and the feisty Carmen sets up the story in the opera’s early scenes.
“We’re working with the notion that opera communicates human truths,” says Gayle. “These are human beings caught up in life’s situations. We don’t judge our characters. We let them speak and try to make them come alive – whether they make good or bad decisions.”
Gayle won raves at Lyric Opera of Chicago in “Romeo and Juliette” and “La Traviata.”
Nagel says he is having a ball setting the scene for the tragic love triangle between Carmen, Don Jose and Escamillo, the toreador, played by Powell, Wyo., music coach Jan Michael Kliewer.
“Mimi and I clicked immediately,” says Kliewer, complimenting the leading lady for her passionate approach to one of opera’s most haughty, passionate but faithless characters. “She’s got the stuff. I think the audience will feel the emotions as we bring our characters to life.”
The comfort zone was well established when the company came together earlier this month. Conductor Dean Williamson has worked with Gayle at Seattle Opera, where Williamson is conductor. Berger and Nagel are old friends; both are Billings natives.
Nagel’s “right-hand girl” brings another consistent element. Faithful Dorinda Doolittle, of Medford, Ore., worked with Nagel for years at Rogue Valley projects and has been ROC’s assistant director since its inception. Nagel is also thrilled with his supporting cast, including Billings Studio Theatre’s Gregory Paul Johnson.
MSU-B choral director David Barnett, another veteran, is chorus master. Concert master is longtime Billings Symphony violinist Mary LaMonaca, heading a professional pit. Lavish sets and costumes come from Stivanello of New York and Pro Eto of Austin, Texas, who provided sets and costumes for “Tosca.”
The show’s wig coordinator is Danyale Cook of Boise, Idaho. Wigs are from San Francisco’s Theatrical Hairgoods.
“Everything has to look right,” says Nagel, who expects the two-performances to sell out. “Tosca,” presented early in the summer, met with a rousing reception but not full houses.
The opera previewed Tuesday night to a small house and Thursday in a shortened version to an enthusiastic student audience as part of ABT’s education outreach productions.
Other old hands round out the production, including Jeff Boschee on lighting design, Deann Leckie as props master, Sandi Rabas as rehearsal accompanist and Bernie Rose serving as production manager.
The opera will be sung in French, with English supertitles projected above the stage and the dialogue delivered in English.
“There are some intricate passages with the French, and the chorus is rising to the occasion,” Nagel says.
Review: ‘Carmen’ will please opera-lovers
CHRISTENE MEYERS Gazette Arts & Entertainment Editor | Posted: Friday, October 25, 2002 11:00 pm
“Carmen” is so user-friendly that even that old curmudgeon and beer drinker Archie Bunker would like it.
The Rimrock Opera Company production is accessible in all the important ways – lovely to look at, delightful to hear and brimming with the stuff that makes opera both immortal and appealing.
Strong and pleasingly blended voices, inventive direction, engaging characters and sensitive conducting of the area’s best players deliver the musical goods.
ROC artistic director Douglas Nagel is passionate about the Georges Bizet opera, the story of the charming but ill-fated coquette, whose beauty everyone knows – including Carmen.
Setting his work in 1820 in Spain’s Gypsy country of Seville, Bizet painted a lush picture of factory life and flowers, laughing girls, virtuous soldiers, ego, mischief and passion gone wrong.
Nagel’s affection for the work shines like sherry in a crystal snifter in this spirited production at the Alberta Bair Theater. It has had three performances already this week, including a preview and a student show before Friday’s opening. Sunday’s matinee caps the run.
Nagel picked a perfect-pitch plum when he chose Michelle Berger to play the flirtatious and danger-loving title character.
Based in Switzerland with an international career, Berger, a Billings native, knows exactly what to do with her rich, deep voice. She lets it rise and plunge with masterful control and an understanding of both her character’s joie de vivre and her fatal instinct. What fun to watch her operate on Kenneth Gayle’s lovestruck-then-spurned Don Jose, whose Spanish blood is roused by Carmen despite the affections of the gentle village girl Michaela.
Gayle, of Chicago Lyric Opera and Seattle Opera renown, has a luminous tenor voice, with evocative phrasing and a resonance to match Berger’s tawny talent. The body language of the two complements their first-rate voices to full romantic effect. It’s hot, hot, hot.
Powell, Wyo., music teacher Jan Michael Kliewer tackles the part of the cocky Escamillo, the bullfighter who catches the fickle Carmen’s eye. His baritone has a power and bravado that make him a perfect choice for the role.
He, too, has an appealing blend with Carmen, as she at first plays the field, neither repulsing nor accepting her admirers, just stringing them along.
With all the principals firmly in place, the plot thickens. Conductor Dean Williamson of Seattle Opera keeps the well-known and much-loved music tuneful and sprightly. This favorite opera should convert even the diehard “I hate opera” contingent. I’d bet my waning money market on it.
The stage business is a big part of the production’s success.
Nagel has the men’s and women’s chorus in the moment start to finish, and many of the voices are fairly new to theater and, heretofore, unaware of the cardinal sins: upstaging and breaking character.
Chorus master David Barnett of Billings earns kudos here, too, for pulling off some intricate French phrasing in the ensemble numbers. (There are English supertitles, borrowed from Arizona Opera. But most folks know the story, and the titles are high above the stage and unobtrusive, so one can ignore them.)
Excellent vocal support comes from Heather Gottschalk and Gregory Paul Johnson, who imbue their characters with vulnerability and dignity. Others in the cast pull yeoman’s duty, and the effect is mighty and enthusiastic, even though some voices are stronger than others.
The costumes from Pro Eto of Texas are detailed and effective, lovely pastels and earth tones, to match the patina and dusty charm of the New York sets from Stivanello. Spanish street scenes, inns, and picturesque landscape evoke the era and handsomely frame the intrigue.
Jeff Boschee’s lighting design is muted, warm and likable, like the familiar music itself. And what perfect timing for some of opera’s prettiest duets, in the sudden onslaught of winter.
The season’s earlier “Tosca” was a delight for those who saw it, but ROC did not make money on it during the dog days of August.
This worthy production deserves a full house Sunday, to give the young company the leg up it so richly deserves.
CHRISTENE MEYERS Gazette Arts & Entertainment Editor | Posted: Monday, October 21, 2002 11:00 pm
One calls himself “a CIA brat.” The other is known in Powell, Wyo., as “Mr. Music.”
Both are conductors. One also sings. The other plays the piano.
This weekend, Rimrock Opera Co.’s production of “Carmen” will feature the two talents on opposite sides of the footlights – one as maestro of the pit orchestra and the other as the showy toreador.
Conductor Dean Williamson is from Seattle, and baritone Jan Michael Kliewer is from Powell.
The two have come together to perform integral roles in the famed Georges Bizet opera. ROC artistic director Douglas Nagel says it will play every bit as showily on stage of the Alberta Bair Theater in autumn 2002 as it did at the Opera Comique in Paris in the spring of 1875.
“I’ve got tremendous talent from across the country, and some right here in our back yard,” Nagel says. “We’re pulling out all the stops and going for the sensuality, the romance, the flirting, the sheer drama of the characters. This production will get people’s attention and hold it.”
Opera didn’t always fascinate maestro Williams. He grew up in the Far East, the son of a CIA officer and chuckles as he recalls falling asleep watching “Madama Butterfly.”
Williamson remembers being lulled by the lyricism of the music in “Butterfly,” feeling peaceful and content at his first exposure to the doomed love affair between an American officer and a Japanese woman. But he doesn’t remember specifics about the performance.
“It was in Tokyo, and I was about 9 or 10 and I dozed off. I didn’t last through the third act,” he says.
It would be 10 years before he saw an opera from start to finish. By then, he was smitten.
“Growing up in Japan, I developed a love of music, but music of a different kind,” he says. “The opera bug didn’t bite until we moved back when I was in high school.”
Born of a Chinese and English mother and a German and Scots father, Williamson’s Eurasian grounding may have eased the transition to life on the multiethnic West Coast. And, in Seattle, he says, he became enthused about piano study with a Japanese teacher.
“Landing there was good fortune,” he says, “because it’s a very international city and the arts are flourishing, with contributions from many cultures.”
Williamson’s career has included a stint with London’s Opera as a virtuoso at the keyboard, then as principal coach and pianist for Seattle Opera. He is conductor for that organization.
Meanwhile, Kliewer was earning a double pedigree, too, in conducting and singing.
A native of Southern California, he grew up in a musical household and for a time admits “trying to run the other way” from a musical career.
“There was always music in the house, with a wide range of styles,” he says. “And my dad was a musician so he dragged me along.
“I tried to convince myself to do something else, but it rubbed off and music was the only thing that made me truly happy.”
Kliewer learned violin and dabbled in composing and conducting before he started formal singing training. Then he became a well-known baritone soloist in both concert and opera, performing with the Robert Page Singers, Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and Kansas City Choral Art Ensemble.
For “Carmen,” he takes on the showy role of Escamillo. Next spring, he’ll tackle the role of Papageno in ROC’s production of “The Magic Flute.”
Teaching for the past 13 years at Northwest College, Kliewer focuses on vocal and choral music, but he also spends time on the podium, as conductor of the Northwest Civic Orchestra and teacher of music theory.
“How well I know the road between Powell and Billings,” he says because he began commuting last month for “Carmen” rehearsals.
He’s been enjoying the scenery of autumn and observes that his involvement in the opera “deepens my teaching ability and my professional development.”
“It goes right back to the college and the students,” he says.
The two men – maestro and performer – also share Nagel’s respect for education outreach and are delighted that the Alberta Bair Theater has booked a day-time production of “Carmen” as one of its school programs.
“It’s so critical for kids to have that early exposure,” Williamson says.
He also applauds ROC’s Nagel for taking opera into the schools. Williamson shares that passion as a founder of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program, which sponsors school performances.
“We all share a belief in the importance of connecting with kids,” Kliewer agrees.
Both men developed the connection with ROC through Nagel, who, Williamson says, “is very well-connected and knows who’s up to what in opera all over the country.”
Kliewer says, “Doug is really tuned into the wedding of the drama and the music. I can feel the momentum building. I’ve been talking it up to the students, and we’ve got whole families coming up from Powell.”
For those who want to do a little home schooling before curtain, the maestro and the toreador rank the Bizet work among their “top four Opera 101 favorites.” The others are Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and Puccini’s “La Boheme.”