Lyric Opera of Chicago has released a free video celebrating the Ryan Center, the program at Lyric that offers intense training for singers at the beginning of their operatic careers and now also includes training for collaborative pianists as well.
“Magical Music Around the World” is hosted by Craig Terry, music director of the Ryan Center, and features the current members of the Ryan Center singing solo arias and songs, as well as duets and a few larger ensembles. Each of the selections is linked to magic and the greatest impact came with excerpts from the rarely performed opera “La bella dormente nel bosco” (“The Beauty Sleeping in the Forest”) by Ottorino Respighi.
Judged by these excerpts, the music that Respighi — that great musical portrait composer — creates is truly magical. He spins alluring music for Nightingale and Cuckoo, to set the scene, melding a pastoral approach with the exotic and mysterious. Then two fairies joyfully agree to become godmothers to a young princess, with light airy music that seems magically happy. The final excerpt was a lush love duet, after the prince has awakened the sleeping beauty. It is music of great power and passion. Sopranos Maria Novella Malfatti and Denis Vélez, mezzo-soprano Katherine DeYoung, and tenor Martin Luther Clark were all splendid, creating enchanting scenes that made you wonder if there really was pixie dust in the air, with everything capped off with delightful coloratura fireworks by the Blue Fairy at the very end.
The concert opened with an arrangement of music with magical elements: excerpts from “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, “Falstaff” by Verdi, and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas. It was a piano four-hands affair, with Terry joined by Ryan Center pianist Chris Reynolds.
The lid was taken off the piano, offering them full scope to create big sound, which they certainly did. It was nice to see Terry, the seasoned pro, assign the “primo” part to his young colleague, giving Reynolds the right-hand side of the piano to work on, and therefore the “upper hands”. The pair made magic together, concluding with the rumbling, tumbling finale from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.
Mezzo-soprano Katherine Beck, and tenor Lunga Eric Hallam then took on “Tutto è deserto... Un soave non so che” (“All is deserted... A sweet something”) from the Rossini opera “La Cenerentola”. Hallam was smooth and exuded princely confidence while Beck sang with beautiful simplicity.
Baritone Ricardo José Rivera offered a dreamy interpretation of “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” from Rodgers Hammerstein’s “Cinderella”. Rivera was the picture of a star-struck prince, with elegant singing.
Then another fairy tale was introduced with “Once Upon a Dream” by Bruns, Lawrence, and Fain from the Disney film “Sleeping Beauty.” Mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty, and baritone Leroy Davis gave attractive performances, but the tempo seemed awkwardly slow, particularly at the beginning.
Styne and Cahn’s “It’s Magic” was sung by mezzo Katherine DeYoung and bass-baritone David Weigel. He gave a resonant, amiable performance while she had pretty singing and nice rubato, although the song itself would hardly seem magical at all if the word “magic” wasn’t in the lyrics. This was the case with other selections as well, making them seem more forced than organically included in the collection of musical selections.
There was indeed magic in “El Faisán” (“The Pheasant”) by Miguel Lerdo de Tejada and José de Jesús Núñez y Domínguez. Soprano Denis Vélez deliciously set forth a fascinating story, narratively similar to the one Handel employed in “Apollo e Dafne”, of thwarted love and transformation.
Two South African songs by Nomfundo Xaluva — “Themba Lam” and “Kutheni Sithandwa?” — were sung with great energy and persuasion by Hallam, who seemed comfortable and capable with music written in a popular style.
Similarly, soprano Maria Novella Malfatti proved to be an adept storyteller with “Magia” (“Magic”) by Gino Mescoli and Andrea Lo Vecchio. Here was a case where pop star charisma meets classical training, and the results were compelling.
Mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty and bass Anthony Reed joined forces for “Tango Magique” by Philippe-Gérard and Max François. The rhythm of the music grabbed you immediately and the duo offered a bewitching and pleasing tango with particularly remarkable resonance by Reed.
Beck returned for a solid rendition of “That Old Black Magic” by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, with Terry providing particularly attractive work at the piano.
The 80-minute concert (with only brief and helpful comments interspersed throughout by Terry) closed with a big number that featured all the Ryan Center singers. Clark was the soloist in “Das Zauberlied” (“The Magic Song”) by Erik Meyer-Helmund and Georg von Dyherrn. With the other singers serving as a kind of chorus, this was a way to end on a big note, with everyone pitching in. It was good fun.
The video has great production values: many cameras were clearly used and we see the singers from many interesting angles. I was particularly charmed by the great camerawork used at the piano, giving the viewer a good look at the remarkable finger work of Terry and Reynolds. The fact that the black piano was perfectly polished meant that the wood next to the keys served as a shiny mirror, offering yet another view of the hands fluttering up and down the keys.
The lighting was splendid, giving you a good, clear view of the singers so that you could catch every facial expression, every gesture, every little lean — all the little things that the singers put into their interpretation.
There was one amusing visual element of the concert: a large screen behind the singers that appeared to be lit from behind. It showed constantly moving images, mostly circular. Perhaps these were meant to suggest balloons or the bubbles from celebratory champagne. I suspect that these singers, should they view this video 20 years from now, will giggle at the backdrop, seeing it as an amusing reinterpretation of the lava lamp or perhaps even an electronic version of the bubble machine used by Lawrence Welk. It certainly wasn’t magical, but it was entertaining in its way.
This video remains available for free viewing. Visit lyricopera.org or Lyric’s channel on YouTube.