HOW DO YOU GET TO THE MET? If you are in NYC, you can take a taxi or the IRT 7th Avenue to the Lincoln Center stop at 66th and walk across the Plaza. If you mean “HOW do you GET to the MET?”, as in “What does it take for a singer to get to The Big House?” then the answer is for starters the old cliché: “Practice, practice, practice!”

But no matter how long and faithfully a young singer practices, if he or she does not have the vocal equipment to stand on the MET stage and fill that hall with sound, then that singer better set his or her sights on something more attainable.

There are plenty of fine Papageno-ready lyric baritones hanging out at conservatories these days. Stand outside any voice studio and you will likely hear a lovely light lyric soprano essaying Susanna’s aria, or a budding coloratura scaling the heights of Caro nome.

Mezzo-sopranos tackling Rosina or Cenerentola abound, but let me know when was the last time you heard a potential Amneris or Eboli in a music school setting. What about the full-bodied spinto voices for Verdi and Puccini? I don’t know. Wagner? That’s a long shot. And the fact is that the MET is not looking for promising light voices.

Look at the names of the very many big-voiced MET audition winners over the past several years: Deborah Voigt, Eric Owens, Renée Fleming, Sondra Radvanovsky, Jamie Barton, Michael Fabiano, Amber Wagner… It could be argued that some audition winners do not have big dramatic pipes, but they came to the operatic table with uncanny vocal gifts. Think of tenor, Lawrence Brownlee with his astounding flexibility and stratospheric high notes, or Anthony Roth Costanzo, with the kind of countertenor voice that makes one imagine what some of the great castrati must have sounded like.

Today I barely made it to the Metropolitan Opera District Auditions here in Cincinnati: I was late getting out of a meeting, and by the time I walked into Werner Recital Hall on the campus of the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, singer no. 6 was just finishing her second aria. Being that I was one hour late it would not be fair for me to comment other than in a general way about the whole event and the results.

For starters: the turnout. In past years during which I attended the MET auditions I seem to recall upwards of thirty singers often turning up. There were fifteen singers this year: six sopranos, three mezzo-sopranos, one tenor, two baritones, one bass-baritone, three basses. By and large these were all youthful, not fully-mature singers ranging in age from 21 to 30. There were perhaps one or two male voices and one or two female voices large enough to have the heft and lung capacity to fill the vast reaches of the MET with something approximating an operatic sound. And that’s saying something, when one considers that a twenty-three year-old budding dramatic baritone  or a young bass will probably not fully mature to sing the big stuff until their thirties.

That’s fine: the young baritone or the baby bass will take another year to finish their Master’s degrees and probably another two if they opt to stay on to do the Artist’s Diploma. Meanwhile their voices will mature so as to equip them someday to maybe sing the Count in Le Nozze di Figaro or Wolfram in Tannhäuser or Leporello. Meanwhile they will be out in the real world of Opera in their mid-20’s trying to decide whether to head for Germany, where they are more likely to get hired in any one of that country’s eighty-plus opera houses or otherwise opt for the safety of a nice teaching job, a family, a dog, and a barbecue in the backyard.

But the MET is a different story. When the three singers chosen today go to Chicago for the next stage of the process they will be competing with a dozen or more winners of district auditions from around the Midwest at a regional level. After that the winner will go to NYC for the finals, at which time five or six will make the final cut. That’s five or six out of hundreds of hopefuls from all over the country.

There were three judges today; of the three, only one stayed to give the singers a nice pep talk before the winners were announced. Three ‘Encouragement Awards’ of $500 each and three winning awards of $1,000 each were given out. There was applause and a sense that the small audience of opera devotees agreed with the decision of the judges. Bass, Thomas Petrushka will be among those moving on to the Regional auditions. So will mezzo-soprano, Karis Tuckers and soprano, Joanna Latini.

The cost of flying down the judges and lodging them, in addition to the $4,500 in cash awards and the lack of direct support from the MET has become such a burden for the members of the committee in charge of the Cincinnati District MET Auditions that, rumor has it the auditions will be moved out of Cincinnati next year lock stock and barrel to the campus of Baldwin-Wallace College, in Berea, Ohio. Cincinnati’s loss will be Berea’s gain.

Rafael de Acha           All About the Arts  



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In HAVANA LIVING TODAY its author, architect and architectural historian Hermes Mallea sets the record straight as regards who is living where and how well in today’s Cuban capital.

As in Mallea’s previous book, Great Houses of Havana, the new book’s abundant illustrations tell stories that words could not begin to match in color or expressivity. There are real life visual and narrative accounts  about a creative class primarily made up of visual artists, American and European expatriates and young entrepreneurs that has managed to create exciting environments in which to live and work and thrive in a society where needs are great and resources few.

The book, just published by Rizzoli, is so beautiful that one is tempted to merely display it on top of a coffee table and let friends on a visit casually leaf through its two hundred-plus pages. But for those who are seriously interested on how life is lived on the island 90 miles from our coast and, in many cases, 90 light years behind the times, this is  the definitive source on the subject: a gem of a book to look at, read and savor.

In its first chapter, The Revolution and the Family Home, the author describes with respect and objectivity the lives of the heirs of a dowager who have managed to continue living in the old home of their grandparents – a feat of ingenuity in a system that did away with that sort of high end living almost sixty years ago.

In revealing photographs in various other chapters one sees the remnants of a lovely past: cane back furniture, Cuban hand-made tile floors, Caoba and marble tabletops with an assortment of bibelots, objets d’art  and knick-knacks keeping company with art and found objects and souvenirs obviously collected by the new generations that grew up in Cuba over the past half-century.

19th century antiques and kitschy 1950’s conversation pieces either uncertainly or happily coexist side by side in the apartments and single family homes of the few who chose to stay after the arrival of the Revolution in 1959,  some of whom have repurposed their former dwellings and have become restaurateurs, hoteliers, art and antique dealers, and even in one case an event planner who will rent anything from a groom’s tuxedo to a debutante’s gown to Cubans with little cash starved for a once in a lifetime splurge-fantasy.

On a totally different level, the homes and interiors of the residences of the ambassadors of Norway, France, Switzerland, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Holland, Germany, Italy and Spain range from the stunning – the mansion that accommodates the English Ambassador and his family, complete with its 1928 indoor pool – to the sensibly modern home of the Dutch ambassador. In each and every instance these are residences capable of hosting parties for the entire diplomatic corps, furnished tastefully with mostly imported furniture and décor, but still functioning as family homes

Cuban law does not permit foreign nationals to owe property in Cuba, only to rent. For that purpose, the government agency PALCO will help the foreigner looking for a pied-à-terre in one of Havana’s toniest neighborhoods to find the home of their dreams. PALCO’s catalogues a list of exquisite properties formerly owned by Cubans who went into exile from 1959 through the end of 1960. Now appropriated by the Cuban government as eminent domain, these homes and apartments serve as residences for a small colony of Europeans who enjoy spending one third of the year in the balmy Cuban winter during which the temperature rarely rises above the low 70’s.

Turning to other chapters we discover the homes of visual artists who by dint of wit and grit have stayed afloat in the stormy seas of the Cuban art scene, in which a now I give, now I take away department of culture looms on one side like a tropical Cuban Scylla opposite the censorship whirlpools of Charybdis on the other shore. No small miracle then that a young generation of painters manages to live and work in Cuba in spite of such difficult circumstances.

Mallea’s book is replete with color photographs that tell in one strong image what a thousand words cannot. All along the author’s prose is lively, elegant and cautiously apolitical.

Leafing through and reading this gorgeous book is most pleasurable and informative, especially for the lover of beauty, regardless of what political backdrop may be behind it.

Rafael de Acha         October 25, 2017





The name of Polish guitarist Łukasz Kuropaczewski ( might only be familiar to guitar aficionados. Yet, the young Polish guitarist has appeared to great acclaim in concert and in recitals worldwide. This reviewer confesses he had neither heard his name nor that of Polish composer Alexandre Tansman, nor that of Antonio José, the Spaniard whom Maurice Ravel called “the greatest Spanish composer of our century.” So it is with grateful thanks to the good people at Tonar Records that we celebrate the arrival of this marvelous collection of pieces for the guitar by José, Tansman and the formidable Witold Lutoslawki played by Łukasz Kuropaczewski, a musician of the first order.

Playing with precision, delicacy and musicality, the young Polish guitar virtuoso in this, his seventh CD: Łukasz, dazzles with his interpretation of Antonio José’s five-movement Sonata para Guitarra, revealing for the first time to some of us the richness of this undiscovered gem.

Kuropaczewski continues his exploration of the repertory for his instrument with a charming five-movement suite titled Cavatina by his fellow countryman Alexandre Tansman, later bringing the CD to a memorable close with Tansman’s Suite in Modo Polonico, an engaging assemblage of seven short pieces in, as their collective title states, “the Polish manner.”

Ranging from the plaintive Kujawiak to an elegant Polonaise to a fast Mazurka, Tansman’s celebration of Polish music is a treasure trove of melodies and dance rhythms that evoke images of this composer’s homeland.

Poland is a fertile source of folk music, and in Witold Lutoslawki’s seven folk songs we are introduced to a delightful sampling that ranges from the hauntingly melancholic Ach, Moy Jasienko and W Polu Lipenka to the lively Hej, Old Krakowa Jade and the rousing Gaik. These miniatures are spiced throughout by Lutoslawski’s easy way with multi-tonality and his crisp dissonances, and along with those, the ever-present technical prowess and pure flair of Lukazs’s playing.

As is always the case with anything issued by TONAR ( ) the visionary production by Asgerdur Sigurdardottir, the flawless re-mastering by Ed Tetreault, and the fascinating liner notes by Risa Carlson make this CD an invaluable addition to the musical library of any lover of music composed for the gentlest instrument of them all.

Rafael de Acha        October 24, 2017



Is Claude Debussy’s one and only opera a neglected masterpiece? It is certainly neglected, I fear, because it is difficult to readily find a cast of singing actors who can act with conviction and sing in flawless French in a middle of the road range that’s not all that enticing to singers who like to display their vocal prowess at any cost.

The central role of Pelléas, for instance is written for what the French call a Baryton Martin, a rare species of singer that requires comfort in both the E-F-G area at the top of the staff, where baritones love to shine, and in the tricky lower middle voice in which most baritones fail to score points, and in which they are often swallowed by even the slightest of orchestrations. Neither a soprano nor a mezzo-soprano part, Mélisande is written for what should be a lyric voice, but one with some heft in the middle range in which most of the role lies. To make matters more difficult, singers for both of these roles should look young and attractive so as to convincingly play a young prince and princess secretly in love with each other. Oh yes, and they should be good actors.

Pelléas and Mélisande rarely turns up these days in America, as much too intimate an opera for the average American plus-size opera house, and one much too dependent on its poetic prose text to make any kind of impact on audiences weaned on a steady diet of Puccini and Verdi. Too bad that this operatic rarity does not get more play on this side of the ocean, for it has much to offer to those willing to open their minds and ears to Debussy’s musical language.

Therefore, grateful thanks are due to Maestro Louis Langrée, who devised a few years ago a three-year programming plan that has included Gabriel Fauré’s Pelléas and Mélisande and Arnold Schoenberg’s tone poem of the same title, and now Debussy’s opera. Langrée’s passion for and full command of Debussy’s score were in evidence as he led the extraordinary ensemble of players that is the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Stage director James Darrah came on board in the company of projection designer Adam Larsen, scenic designer Adam Rigg, costume designer Mattie Ullrich, and lighting designer Pablo Santiago, all four of whom set out to turn the stage of the newly-renovated Music Hall into an operatic one. Unfortunately the results were less than perfect, with the playing area literally surrounding the musicians and all but making the orchestra a distraction rather than a partner in the story of several human beings in search of a raison d’être.

Opera is first and foremost storytelling through music. Or, rather, opera should not tell us but show us the story. The staging should flesh out the tale in strong images that clarify the time and the place and the emotional state of the characters. It should dress the actors in costumes that let us in on who they are and what they feel and in what country and to which period of history they belong.

If rear projections must be used when stage machinery is deemed clunky and obstructive, let those images behind the actors define where we are. Is this the grotto by the side of the pool where Mélisande loses her wedding ring, or is this the tower from where her hair cascades down to reach and envelop her lover?

And the lighting, at its most basic level, should light the singing actors, especially their faces. At its most heightened stage the stage lights should help define location and time of day, echoing in sunlight and moonlight and shadow what the music is expressing. In this staging of Pelléas and Mélisande all of those production elements left something missing, as a numbing, generic sameness set in after a first half that clocked in at one hour and forty-five minutes.

The cast was led by Irish Mezzo-soprano, Naomi O’Connell and the Canadian baritone Phillip Addis as the ill-fated lovers. Ms. O’Connell, visually lovely and full-voiced delivered a haunting a capella song in the tower scene of Act III. Adddis, on the other hand appeared to be struggling with the high-lying passages in the role, and acted listlessly rather than youthfully as the innocent Pelléas.

Baritone, Brian Mulligan was a vocally and dramatically impressive Golaud, quietly dangerous even in moments of self-control, conflicted and compassionate when calm.

The cast of principals was rounded out by Richard Wiegold as King Arkel, and Mezzo-Soprano Nancy Maultsby as Geneviève.

In his diaries Debussy wrote about how he sought to find a musical language …dont la sensibilité pourrait être étendue dans la musique et dans la toile de l’orchestre… (“a language whose sensibility could encompass both the music itself and the weave of the orchestration…”) In the CSO’s production of Debussy’s score only the musical part of that language was palpable. If only we could have had the entire tapestry…

A few more things and a disclaimer

The acoustics of Music Hall have never sounded better. Both singers and orchestra were heard clearly. Debussy’s gossamer moments in the orchestration as well as several climactic outbursts were distinctive, present, with the lower strings notably more nourished than they sounded two weeks ago.

The seating on the first balcony where we ended up after years of sitting in the rear of the orchestra for many CSO concerts, is as shy on leg room as I have ever encountered in many years of concert-going. After a first half that ran close to one hour and forty-five minutes, we left, unable to sit there any longer.

Will Call is no longer in the lobby of Music Hall but in an adjacent area that requires negotiating steps challenging for those of us with motion disabilities. The Music Hall management may want to check up some of the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Cup holders have been affixed to the backs of orchestra seats, though not to those in the upper balconies, but a sign in the counter of lobby bar warns the concertgoers that “Iced Drinks May Not Be Taken Inside the Auditorium” So, what are the cup holders for? Lukewarm cocktails and soft drinks..?

Parking underground across from Music Hall will set you back $15. Someone is gauging the public that the CSO is trying to bring to its concerts.

Rafael de Acha                   October 21, 2017



On first hearing in its new home, the CSO sounded quite splendid, giving off a bright and immediate sound enhanced by a new seating arrangement and new seats, acoustic clouds overhead, the elimination of a center aisle, and a reduced capacity that will vary but never go above 2,500 attendees.

The hall itself looks brighter than ever before, the lobby feels less crowded and more welcoming, even with a capacity audience. There are now elevators in addition to the escalators that lead to the second and third levels, and we encountered fewer steps inside the building.

The audience is now much closer than ever to the stage. There are fewer partial view seats, and from the newly created terrace – an elevated section at the rear of the main floor, the sightlines are just perfect.

And mercifully there are more restrooms with more stalls and better plumbing. There is a nice bar   in the lobby and cup holders attached to the seats in the auditorium so that drinks can be brought inside. The new Music Hall is an audience friendly old lady who has just had a rejuvenating make over. It is still an imposing presence but not an intimidating one.

We loved it and can’t wait to go back.

My review  of the concert will post on in the next few days.

Photography: AJ Waltz/Courtesy of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Rafael de Acha



Tonight we attended the opening performance of SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, an 8-person revue of songs with lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim.

The eight triple-threats in the cast are formidable talents, and all I need to do is list their names alphabetically: Bryce Baxter, Aria Braxwell, Emily Fink, Clara Harris, Phillip Johnson-Richardson, Alex Stone, Karen Whittaker and Gabe Wrobel.

To single out any one of these eight young artists would be unfair, for, I assure you, they sing, dance and act with elegant flair and pizzazz through a swiftly moving two-hour long show that includes dozens of songs from just about every Sondheim show one ever heard of plus a few others previously unknown to this listener.

Stephen Goers is the gifted pianist and music director, and he keeps the music underpinning the eight on stage. Katie Johannigman provides the imaginative choreography. Aubrey Berg helms the production with his usual firm hand and fertile inventiveness. No set to speak of, but fine mood-setting lighting by Nicholas Smith.

But then there is The Video. At first it malfunctioned on opening night and then it became an obstructive element that competed visually and aurally with what was happening on stage. Unrelentingly up front and center, Stephen Sondheim mixing trivial comments with pretentious posturing, threatened to ruin the show for many  of us.

My suggestion would be to can the video and let the marvelous music and lyrics of the unpleasant Sondheim be sung by the very attractive and personable young cast.

More performances follow this weekend in the Cohen Family Studio Theater at CCM.

Rafael de Acha       10/6/17