Talise Trevigne (Iris)
Fast-rising American soprano Talise Trevigne’s recent appearances include The Magic Flute (Hawaii Opera Theatre) and Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice (Birmingham Opera). A contemporary specialist, she created the role of Clara in David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s world premiere of JFK (Fort Worth Opera) and Pip the cabin-boy in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick which she sang in Dallas, Washington DC, San Diego and San Francisco.
A 2016 Grammy Award nominee in the category Classical Solo Vocal Album for her recording of Christopher Rouse’s Kabir Padavali. Miss Trevigne also recorded and performed the rarely-heard L’Epreuve Villageoise at Opera Lafayette and appeared in concert programs of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with the Florida Orchestra and CBSO in the UK.Other recent highlights include her appearance as the Heroines in Les Contes d’Hoffmann at Knoxville Opera, Opera de Lyon and at Israeli Opera. She recently made her debut in the title role Madama Butterfly to great acclaim.
Gerard Schneider (Osaka)
Notable recent appearances by Austrian-Australian tenor Gerard Schneider include the title role in La Clemenza di Tito (Salzburg Mozarteum) as well as Der Rosenkavalier (London Symphony Orchestra).
As a member of the young artist program, he appeared as Ruiz alongside Placido Domingo, Anna Netrebko and Francesco Meli in Il Trovatore. Gerard also debuted at Welsh National Opera and appeared in Gustav Holst’s Savitri at Glazunov Hall and Sheremetev Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In addition to appearing as the tenor soloist in Verdi’s Requiem at Canterbury Cathedral, this year has seen Gerard appear at Scottish Opera and he participated in a series of master classes at Carnegie Hall with Joyce DiDonato that was streamed live by Medici TV.
Schneider is currently completing his vocal studies at The Juilliard School; he also studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and completed the prestigious Young Artist program at the National Opera Studio in London.
Douglas Williams (Kyoto)
Acclaimed for his expressivity, stage presence, and generous vocal tone, bass-baritone Douglas Williams is equally celebrated for his versatility in a wide range of repertoire. He has worked with such celebrated directors as Mark Morris (Acis and Galatea for Lincoln Center), William Kentridge (Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria for Pacific Musicworks), and Sasha Waltz (Orfeo for the Dutch National Opera), among others.Williams has previously collaborated with Iris director James Darrah on Agrippina for Opera Omaha, and Jonathan Dove’s monodrama, The Other Euridice, for Bay Chamber Concerts. In the upcoming season Williams makes his Mozart debut as Figaro with Edo de Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony in a new production by Robin Guarino, as well as the roles of Sciarrone in Tosca with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmoniker at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, and the Monk in Toshio Hosokawa’s Matzukaze in Hong Kong. Williams has premiered new works by Charles Wuorinen, Christopher Cerrone and Ted Hearne. He has appeared with Detroit and Houston Symphonies, the MET Chamber Ensemble, and numerous baroque orchestras.
Cecelia Hall (The Geisha)
Matt Boehler (Il Cieco)
Critically acclaimed both for his dramatic and vocal prowess, bass Matt Boehler enjoys busy schedules on the operatic stage and the concert platform working with such prestigious companies as The Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Minnesota Opera, Theater St. Gallen, Opera Theater of Saint Louis, Wolf Trap Opera, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, American Symphony Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic, among others.
Recently he returned to the Metropolitan Opera as Bertrand in Iolantha and Madison Opera as Rocco in Fidelio and debuted with Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie as the Erster Schäfer in Daphne, Michigan Opera Theater as Méphistophélès in Faust, and Des Moines Metro Opera as Osmin in Die Enführung aus dem Serail. The 2015-2016 season and beyond brings his debut with Dallas Opera as the Donkey in Becoming Santa, the Sacramento Chorale for Haydn’s Harmoniemesse, and his much anticipated return to Canadian Opera Company in The Magic Flute.
Samuel Levine (Ragpicker/Shopkeeper)
Samuel Levine has emerged as an elegant, robust tenor on the cusp of a major career. A first-year candidate for the Artist Diploma in Opera Studies at the Juilliard School, he is featured this season as Le Mari in Les Mamelles de Tiresias (called “wonderfully appealing” by the New York Times), in recital with Steven Blier under the auspices of NYFOS@Juilliard and the 5 Boroughs Music Festival, and First Armed Guard in Die Zauberflöte. This season, he also appears as Testo in Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda with Cantata Profana and as Lenski in Eugene Onegin with Eugene Opera. Recent highlights include Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni with Boston Lyric Opera, Don Jose in Carmen with Savannah Voice Festival, Narraboth in Salome with Virginia Opera, and the dual roles of Testo in Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and Noah in the world premiere of Lembit Beecher’s I Have No Stories to Tell You with Gotham Chamber Opera (called “eloquent, full-bodied,” “bright-voiced and skillfully-played” by the Wall Street Journal and “well-sung” by the New York Times). Upcoming engagements include a return to Boston Lyric Opera and debuts with Opera Philadelphia, Nashville Opera, Bard SummerScape, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He is a graduate of Yale University, The Oberlin College Conservatory, and the young artist training programs of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and The Santa Fe Opera.
Leon Botstein (Conductor, Music Director)
Leon Botstein, who has led the American Symphony Orchestra as music director and principal conductor for 24 years, has been hailed for his visionary approach to creating unique concert programs and reviving rarely performed works. His programming gives audiences opportunities to hear live performances of works that are often neglected in the standard repertory, often broadening the experience with preconcert talks, while bringing his distinctive style to core repertory works. He is artistic codirector of Bard SummerScape and the Bard Music Festival, which take place at The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, where he has been president since 1975, and is conductor laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, where he served as music director from 2003–2011.
Botstein leads an active schedule as a guest conductor all over the world, and can be heard on numerous recordings with the London Symphony (including its Grammy nominated recording of Popov’s First Symphony), the London Philharmonic, NDRHamburg, and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. Many of his live performances with the American Symphony Orchestra are available online, where they have cumulatively sold more than a quarter of a million downloads.
In recent seasons he has conducted the Royal Philharmonic, Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Aspen Music Festival, the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Russian National Orchestra in Moscow, Taipei Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, and Sinfónica Juvenil de Caracas in Venezuela. Highly regarded as a music historian, Botstein’s most recent book is Von Beethoven zu Berg: Das Gedächtnis der Moderne (2013).
He is the editor of The Musical Quarterly and the author of numerous articles and books. For his contributions to music he has most recently received than honorary Doctor of Music from Sewanee: The University of the South and before that he received the award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Harvard University’s prestigious Centennial Award, as well as the Cross of Honor, First Class, from the government of Austria.
Other recent awards include the Caroline P. and Charles W. Ireland Prize, the highest award given by the University of Alabama; the Bruckner Society’s Julio Kilenyi Medal of Honor for his interpretations of that composer’s music; the Leonard Bernstein Award for the Elevation of Music in Society; and Carnegie Foundation’s Academic Leadership Award. In 2011 he was inducted into the American Philosophical Society.
James Darrah (Director)
This season, director and designer James Darrah's projects include a return to Opera Omaha for a new production of Semele, his European debut with Teatro Nacional de São Carlos in Lisbon directing Iphigénie en Tauride, and direction/curation for one of San Francisco Symphony’s SOUNDBOX series. He also continues his collaboration with Michael Tilson Thomas as director of Bernstein’s On the Town for the San Francisco Symphony. Other upcoming projects include his debut at Bard Summerscape with a new production of Iris and the world premiere of Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek's operatic adaptation of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves for Opera Philadelphia.
Recent engagements have included the first installment of his three year Pelleas Project based on Schoenberg’s tone poem Pelleas und Melisande with Louis Langrée and the Cincinnati Symphony, Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte as part of a Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy with Edo de Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony, Poulenc’s La voix humaine for the San Antonio Opera, Peter Grimes with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, the world premiere production of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and his Lincoln Center directing debut with Radamisto for The Juilliard School.
Mr. Darrah trained in directing and design with the Croatian National Theater and Split Summer Festival and continued directing studies and work with director Stephen Wadsworth at The Juilliard School. He holds a MFA from the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. He was awarded the national Princess Grace Award in Theater and was a nominee for newcomer in the 2015 International Opera Awards.
One wishes that an introduction to a contemporary production of Pietro Mascagni's haunting and underappreciated Iris could be written without ever mentioning two operas that have damaged Iris's reputation and retarded its successful revival. (This SummerScape production is the first major professional North American staging in nearly a century.) Given the exceptional refinement and allure of the score and the libretto, this neglect is as astonishing as it is unjustified.
The first barrier to a successful revival of Iris is Mascagni’s first and only lasting success, Cavalleria rusticana, which premiered in 1890. This gripping one-act work set the tone of opera for decades by becoming synonymous with verismo, that not-altogether-useful, but ubiquitous term applied to operas whose argument is not about myth or history but about so-called real people and how they grapple with love, jealousy, cruelty, and death. Cavalleria’s popularity was immediate and its worldwide success has never faltered. Everything Mascagni wrote afterward—operas such as L’amico Fritz (1891), Guglielmo Ratcliff (1895), and Isabeau (1911)—suffered by comparison.
If that were not bad enough, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which premiered six years later, in 1904, gradually eclipsed Iris. Puccini, Mascagni’s onetime roommate, emerged in the 1890s as Mascagni’s only serious rival in the world of Italian opera after Verdi. Iris was written after Puccini experienced his own sensational success with Manon Lescaut and represented Mascagni’s attempt to reassert his own prominence. But once Butterfly appeared on stage, the comparison was inevitable. The operas share a librettist, Luigi Illica; both are set in Japan; both stories are about an innocent young woman and her fate as a result of deception by men driven by desire and lust; both heroines, Iris and Cio-Cio San, end up taking their own lives. Puccini was keenly aware of Iris. He even took the idea of a humming chorus from Mascagni’s opera, where the humming effect appears first in the beginning of Act 2 and more fully in Act 3.
No doubt, Puccini exploited the turn-of- the-century rage for a Japanese sensibility more effectively. He was drawn to David Belasco’s version of the imperialist confrontation between East and West, as represented by the United States, and integrated traditional Japanese material and the American national anthem into his score. Mascagni made only a passing effort to refer to the opera’s Japanese setting by the use of several traditional instruments and a few moments of evocative exoticism. Although Iris is set in a non-European world, it is unabashedly and transparently about European art and mores. Nevertheless, the link with Butterfly has been nearly impossible to shake. A heavily cut and totally reorchestrated revival of Iris that opened this past spring in Cologne was even marketed as “Iris Butterfly.”
Ironically, Butterfly had a disastrous premiere, which led to its revision and eventual astonishing success, whereas Iris was a hit during its first run in Rome in 1898, and then in Milan, under Arturo Toscanini, who brought it to the Metropolitan Opera. Afterwards, however, it gradually drifted into obscurity. Iris’s symbolist imagery was no match for the melodramatic pathos of Butterfly’s predicament, and little in Iris approximates Puccini’s brilliance in providing the lead tenor and soprano with opportunities to bring the house down, so to speak. Iris does not even have a love duet. But Mascagni deliberately sought to do something new in Italian opera, something quite different from the conventions of verismo.
Nonetheless, an argument can be made that Iris, if not equal to Cavalleria and Butterfly, is perhaps even superior: more beautiful, profound, and inventive. The problem lies in part with opera companies and star singers and commentators, even those who claim to be advocates of Mascagni. They lead the public in using the spectacular popularity of a few operas as the proper basis to seek fault with those works that have not made it into some equivalent of the “top ten.” Greatness and top-ten popularity are not synonymous in any art form, and shifts in popularity are known to happen. There are no shortcomings in Iris; the work requires no special pleading. Quite to the contrary: taken on its own terms, Iris is far more penetrating, innovative, and affecting than either Cavalleria or Butterfly. Toscanini believed that it belonged in the regular repertory and was, apart from Cavalleria, the best work in Mascagni’s vast output. And it may be that Iris’s time has come, in part owing to its critical and timely portrayal of masculinity and male egotism and its character as a musical morality play.
Political history has also played a role in determining the fate of Iris, and indeed all of Mascagni’s work apart from Cavalleria. Mascagni became an early supporter of Mussolini. All of the many Italian composers who collaborated with Il Duce suffered in reputation after World War II, but none as severely and deservedly as Mascagni. Mascagni, after all, was not merely an opportunist like Richard Strauss, who tried to use the Nazis for his own benefit (unsuccessfully). Neither was Mascagni a cowardly and meek collaborator. He was a rabid enthusiast and propagandist for fascism, a true believer—Italy’s equivalent of Hans Pfitzner.
That disturbing fact explains the failure to revisit Mascagni’s music in the decades after 1945. His politics do not invite us to forgive him, but they should not allow us to forget how gifted a composer Mascagni was, particularly before the mid-1920s. Iris reveals the inspiration and craftsmanship of a major artist at the height of his powers. Mascagni, as Puccini knew, was a worthy rival and one more prone to experiment, to shift styles, and to try something novel. Iris, as Mascagni proudly boasted, was conceived as an integrated work of art. He envisaged a symphonic poem as vocal drama that made no conventional operatic concessions to any singer to "show off virtuosity." The composer wanted to go beyond the tricks and thrills of show-stopping arias and melodramatic scenes.
Indeed, Iris reveals the impact of Wagnerism on Italian composers. One hears echoes of Lohengrin and Parsifal. Iris is among the most progressive Italian operas in terms of its musical structure. It moves forward through a continuous musical narrative, replete with ravishing melodies over which the composer never lingers. Its harmonies are astonishing and its orchestration mesmerizingly colorful. And the dramatic structure is carefully paced. There is a prologue and an epilogue, and the work begins and ends with a hymn to the sun that justly became famous in its own right.
What makes Iris Wagnerian is that the story is intentionally mythic in character. Although set in Japan, the story is neither exotic nor historical. It is not drawn from Japanese sources. The characters all have generic names: the female lead is named for a flower, and she is a symbol of nature, color, and beauty. The men bear the names of key Japanese cities. Each character represents one dimension in a morality play. There is no attempt to render the protagonists “realistic” bearers of distinct personalities found in naturalist novels or theatrical melodrama. As in Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Parsifal, one encounters in Iris a universal argument of redemption and transcendence and the triumph of nature over modern civilization.
As many commentators have observed, Illica may have been inspired by J. K. Huysman’s À rebours (1884), the once wildly popular, pessimistic novel about a rake of a seducer obsessed with gratification and conquest and fascinated by innocence. Indeed, both Mascagni and Illica were accused of being in the thrall of fashion and uncritically imitative of foreign “degenerate” influences. (Puccini would also be accused of this.) But at the center of Iris is not Osaka, the heroic tenor and would-be seducer. (The music Mascagni devised for Osaka and Kyoto makes their characters more subtle and complex. Evil as they may be, they are not one-dimensional.) Rather, the cruel and controlling blind father frames the story— though his need for his daughter remains consistently apparent. Nonetheless, the opera throughout pits the feminine against the masculine traits of greed (Kyoto), lust (Osaka), and domination (the father) and elevates the feminine, Iris, as symbolic of beauty and purity.
In Iris a vision of traditional and natural rural innocence is revealed against a backdrop of modern urban corruption—much as in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. As Mascagni put it, Iris is a daydreamer who "understands the warm language of the sun and translates it into goodness, caresses and promises." When abducted into the "pleasure-loving city" in which "diverse fevers agitate the people," her eyes are opened. By choosing death, she emancipates herself from "dark visions of human egoism" and returns to "the harmony and splendor of light—the language of the eternals." Mascagni believed that Iris was "the symbol of immortal art, triumphing over all the filth of the base world, but what graceful contours, what delicacy, what sweetness surround this symbol."
We may be in just the right historical moment for a revival of Iris, since the opera is about male egotism and domination and the victorious resistance of the feminine. Iris’s father is not only blind physically; he is also blinded, metaphorically, by his own self-interest. He has imprisoned and exploited his daughter for his own purposes. He has denied her freedom and maturity and will not see in her a young woman seeking to become free. As Mascagni’s music suggests, Iris is filled with longing and desire. Osaka is aroused by and seeks to manipulate this vulnerability. Iris’s excessively protected innocence is revealed in the astonishing empathy she exhibits in the play within the play in the first act. Her capacity to trust is her undoing. Kyoto, for his part, represents the cynicism and pessimism of the civilized urban man. All three male characters, each reappearing as disembodied "egotisms" in the third act, destroy Iris, a flower of innocence who has never been permitted to become fully human.
But symbolism in opera has never been a match for storytelling that trades on the illusions of realism and permits audiences to identify with characters on stage, especially when they are allowed to sing brilliantly and never permit audiences to forget that they are listening to a star. Mascagni was determined to lift the aesthetic expectations of the Italian audience in terms of the relationship between music and language. "Music must not be an arid comment on the drama; it must narrate the drama and develop it with its own inexhaustible powers," he wrote. "In Iris I wanted to reinvigorate the melodramatic opera, still maintaining the equilibrium between the voices and the orchestra. I always had fixed in my mind the object of being judged not by the drama but by the music."
Mascagni returns to various themes throughout Iris, but does not rely on mere repetition. He weaves a fabric of constant invention as well as variation and development. The third act of the opera was from the start the most controversial, owing to its mysterious sonorities and harmonies and its evident departure from realism. Indeed, the third act is crucial and, in retrospect, perhaps the most remarkable. It also completes the organic dramatic arc by returning to the music with which the opera opens. Mascagni’s intent and conceit were explicit:
I have sufficient knowledge of the public and believe I possess enough of that thing the critics call “theatricality” to be able, by exerting myself, to earn for myself with a scale, a cadence or a big orchestral effect thunderous applause, two or three curtain calls and an insistent demand for encores. I wished to abstain from vulgar evils in Iris. Rather than exaggerate a mood, where it would be easy for the tenor, soprano and baritone to flaunt their virtuosity, I toned down, lessened. There are some moments in which the interruption produced by applause could offend the aesthetic continuity of the opera, and so I really exerted myself to render such applause impossible. But how much stronger, more beautiful, more noble is the artistic emotion which one gathers and concentrates in silence! For one who stands listening in the wings, the variety of the silences in a crowded theater is enormous, and we understand the significance of these silences very precisely, just as if we could see those intent faces, those movements of the heads, the increasing attention from moment to moment.
It is indeed the shape of the drama and the character of the musical realization—the hymn to the sun, the presentation of Iris and her father, the conspiracy framed by a play within a play, the abduction, Iris’s bewilderment and resistance to Osaka and the world of the brothel, the condemnation by the father and Iris’s plunge to her death, followed by her discovery by the ragpickers, her awakening, the voices of her tormentors, and her redemption by nature—that make Iris distinctive. Iris was in its time an experiment that sought to integrate naturalism and symbolism into opera, using the rich palette of turn of-the-century chromatic harmony and orchestral sonority in combination with alluring and consistently stunning melodic vocal writing.
The time has come to embrace the mysterious beauty and theatricality of Iris, and extract the opera from the shadow cast by Cavalleria and Butterfly. Iris is among the finest and most compact Italian musical dramas ever written.
A garden and stream
Iris lives simply with her blind father far from the city. The sun, stream, and flowers are her closest companions. A brothel owner, Kyoto, is scouting for talent with Osaka, a wealthy young client. The men set their sights upon Iris, innocently washing in the stream. They lure the girl with a play within a play in which a young woman is mistreated by her father; she meets the God of the Sun, who offers her the gift of death so she can be reborn into paradise. Transfixed by the performance, Iris approaches them, only to be knocked unconscious by Kyoto’s accomplices, who then spirit her away to Yoshiwara, the red light district of Tokyo. Her father is shocked to realize she has gone but, finding money left as payment, mistakenly believes she abandoned him voluntarily. Enraged and heartbroken, he wanders toward the city to find her.
Iris regains consciousness in the brothel, where the enslaved prostitutes prepare for the night’s work. The environment is so foreign, Iris believes she has died and must be in paradise. Osaka arrives to redeem his purchase, but Iris is detached, telling him sorrowfully of the life she left behind. Iris describes a recurring nightmare in which she is smothered by a tentacled sea monster. Frustrated, Osaka abandons the failed seduction and demands his money back. Determined to make a profit, Kyoto and his servants prepare Iris to be auctioned off in the sex market. At the height of the bidding, her father wanders through the crowd. Hearing his daughter’s name bellowed from the auction deck, he calls to her. She screams for her father, but he responds by shunning her in disgrace. Traumatized, she jumps into a gaping hole, falling to unknown depths.
Beneath the city
Deep within the subterranean gutter of the city, Iris awakens. Again, she believes she has died, but that this must be hell. Surrounded by scavengers, Iris has visions of her past, but the apparitions disappear. Defeated, she curls up to die, but is enlivened by a few rays of sunlight, penetrating the darkness. She believes the sun from her childhood has found her, and that she is in paradise at last. She dies in ecstasy.
Composed by Pietro Mascagni
Libretto by Luigi Illica
American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Directed by James Darrah
Conducted by the “peerlessly adventurous” (New York Times) Leon Botstein, this production by talented young stage director James Darrah features set designs by Emily MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock, with projections by Adam Larsen and costumes by Peabody Southwell—all of which combine to highlight the darker themes of this rarely performed opera.
Performed in Italian with English supertitles.
Click here to read a new translation of the Iris libretto by Tim Shaindlin.
Special support for this program is provided by Emily H. Fisher and John Alexander.
Join us for the following special events:
Ride the SummerScape Coach from New York City to the Fisher Center on July 22, 24, and 31.
Make a night of it! Enjoy Out-of-Town and Night-Out packages, available for select performances of Iris.
Read Alex Ross's preview of Iris in the New Yorker, "Italianate Ardor, Beyond Puccini."
Watch Talise Trevigne answer five questions from Opera News, including "What was it that drew you to Mascagni's opera and the role of Iris?"
"Some of the most important summer opera experiences in the U.S. are not at the better-known festivals but at Bard SummerScape." –Financial Times
July 24 at 2 pm
July 27 at 2 pm
July 29 at 7:30 pm
July 31 at 2 pm
Fisher Center, Sosnoff Theater
Tickets: $25–95 Limited availability 7/22, 7/24, and 7/31.