Thursday, June 26, 2008

Opera (and Broadway) Under (and with) the Stars


With the Music Academy of the West offering public events nearly every day save for Sundays for eight solid weeks through August 16, other large classical music outfits in town are dormant for the season.
But summer also means the revival of another, albeit much smaller, classical music tradition: Arts & Letters Café’s “Opera Under the Stars.” Tonight, the weekly series begins its 12th year of presenting accomplished vocalists singing opera arias and theatrical music in the restaurant’s charming courtyard setting behind the Sullivan & Goss Gallery on West Anapamu Street.

Sure, the seating capacity is only about 65 per show, but one still has to wonder how the series manages to survive and thrive in the shadow of the classical behemoth the Music Academy has become.
“I don’t think of it as competition,” explains Renee Hamaty, the pianist who accompanies the singers and has been the series producer almost since its inception. “It’s very different. The Music Academy is the West Coast equivalent of Tanglewood. It’s very education intensive and the studying and performances are very intense.”
Indeed, there’s no wiggle room at all during the eight-week MAW season, which Hamaty discovered a few years ago when she needed an emergency replacement for an ailing tenor.
“I called over to my contacts over there and they said, ‘Sorry, we don’t permit that,’” she recalled.
Taking place in an outdoor restaurant, Opera Under the Stars is a much more relaxed event than a typical formal classical concert. The musical selections are interspersed between servings of a four-course meal that includes hors d’oeuvres, salad, choice of entrées, and desert [from Arts & Letters’ new chef, Nathan Simandle], plus coffee and tea. The singers pause between each selection to allow plates to be distributed and collected, wine and water glasses to be filled, and diners to socialize with their guests.
“The choreography between everybody from the singers to the chef to the waiters is just beautiful,” Hamaty said. “There’s always been a wonderful synchronicity and it just gets better every year. Everybody has learned to be quiet when we’re making music.”
The repertoire alternates weekly between opera and Broadway tunes. Tonight’s opening tribute to composer Andrew Lloyd Webber with soprano Megan O’Toole and tenor Josh Shaw will be followed next Thursday with arias from favorite Puccini operas.
“We probably should call it ‘Opera and Broadway Under the Stars,’” Hamaty agreed when queried. “That makes a lot of sense.”
But casual doesn’t mean any kind of trade-off in talent.
“The people who sing with me are of the same caliber of talent and professionalism as the Music Academy,” Hamaty said. “The difference is ours are already working professionals.”
As an example, Hamaty pointed to soprano Jaimie Chamberlain, who with tenor Gabriel Silva shares the stage for the Puccini program and returns on July 24 with baritone Eric Carampatian for a tribute to Cole Porter.
“She regularly sings with the Los Angeles Opera, and last year she was a to winner in the Jose Iturbi Int’l Vocal Competition,” Hamaty said.
Even more impressive is Thiana Herceg, the mezzo-soprano who joins Carampatian for a night devoted to “Carmen!” on July 31.
“She’s currently singing ‘Carmen’ in Europe and has performed as a soloist three times at Carnegie Hall,” Hamaty enthused. “I’m so grateful to have these kinds of people be able to work with me.”
Tonight’s concerts are sold out, and reservations are strongly recommended for the remainder of the season, which runs through September 4. There are two seatings each Thursday, at 6 and 8:15 p.m.; price fix is $65, plus wine. Call 730-1463 or visit

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You can also still catch the tail end of the academic year at UCSB, where flute professor Jill Felber is directing “Flutes Focus.” The four-day seminar with morning and afternoon master classes featuring 25 young students and professionals from all over the country began yesterday — Felber herself performed last night — and Marianne Gedigian, professor of flute at the University of Texas and former principal flute of the Boston Symphony, accompanied by Columbus Symphony pianist Dianne Frazer, performs tonight.
The master classes are held in Karl Geiringer Hall, from 9am-12:30pm and 3:30-6pm through tomorrow and 9am-12:30 pm and 2:30-5pm Saturday) In a reverse of typical policies, the concert is free but tickets to observe the master classes are $50 per session or $75 per day, available only at the door. Call 893-8608.

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