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Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a feature contributor to Classical Singer magazine and San Francisco Classical Voice, and the founder of SingerSpirit.com, a website for singers.

Articles by this Author

Upcoming Concert
December 1, 2009
With an abundance of choices for choral music this season, you might want to mark your calendar for “Canción de Navidad,” the Dec. 12 and 13 concerts of Clerestory, a relative newcomer to the Bay Area’s choral scene. Founded in 2006, the nine-member male ensemble features seasoned soloists and veterans from the area’s best choruses.

The size of the group, according to countertenor Justin Montigne, is ideal for a more democratic and collaborative approach than larger groups are able to provide. He adds, “There’s a certain critical mass you reach where you need to have a director, and we’re small enough and have, each of us, a depth of experience, so that we don’t need that. We can decide to do things by consensus and that’s very important to us. Also, just the intimacy of being able to hear a voice across the arc and pick out individuals and be singing with individuals as a group, I think at around 10 or 11 that goes away and you become a chorus; and we’re still a small ensemble. I think the intimacy of it is really special.”

The group has received many positive reviews in its short history and has released one live recording (a compilation of its first and second seasons). The group is scheduled to record its first studio album next summer. According to Montigne, this has been a year of clarifying the group’s vision. This includes keeping things very local (between their time singing with Chanticleer and other ensembles, these men have logged many hours on the road), keeping the music affordable (the price for the upcoming concerts is just $17), and making their music accessible (all concerts are available as free downloads on the group’s Web site).

Last year’s holiday concert featured music of France and Germany, and what Montigne calls “more quite-tranquil Christmas beauty,” so this year, the ensemble consciously chose to make the holiday concert a livelier, more toe-tapping experience. (Several of the numbers will call on the singers to become percussionists.) “I think the familiarity is there for people to need to have a few carols to hang their hats on, but there is also a lot of beautiful and unknown stuff that we can introduce people to,” Montigne says. Featuring traditional Western holiday music excludes a body of repertoire that Montigne thinks may have particular meaning to the Bay Area and its relatively large Latino population. The group is looking forward to the Sunday concert, which will take place in San Francisco’s Mission District.

The group’s founder, countertenor Jesse Antin, explains the format for the concert. “Rather than proceeding strictly chronologically, the concert treats the Christmas and Advent seasons liturgically, with sets of pieces (in different styles and from different periods) about the Annunciation (i.e., the appearance of the Angel Gabriel), the worship of the Virgin Mary, the birth of Jesus, the visit of the Shepherds and Magi, etc.”

The repertoire is probably as diverse a selection as you’ll find this season, as it includes pieces from Spain, Portugal, the Basque country, and Central and South America, as well as some Aztec and Mayan pieces. Christmas carols written in the U.S. (rather than simply American versions of English carols) will also be performed.

Whether it be Lauridsen’s arrangement of O Magnum Mysterium, Guerrero’s Virgen Sancta, or It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, it’s likely to be worth your time and effort to hear Clerestory either in Berkeley or in San Francisco, to see realized this small ensemble’s vision of a lively, intimate holiday concert.

More about Clerestory »
Feature Article
October 27, 2009

A perfect evening at the Symphony or a dazzling night at the Opera might begin with a new outfit, a trip to the barber, and, once you’re properly outfitted, dinner out. Whether having hors d’oeuvres and cocktails with friends, or a fine meal at a restaurant near the concert hall, you can be sure that many of your fellow diners are headed for the same enjoyable evening that you are. But once you’ve soared on the golden wings of Puccini or Mahler, you might find yourself unceremoniously dropped into the less than majestic scene of San Francisco’s Civic Center after 11 p.m.

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Artist Spotlight
September 29, 2009

This week Bay Area music lovers can look forward to two events featuring the music and scholarship of baritone Thomas Hampson. Tuesday evening, he will be joined at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music by curators from the Library of Congress to discuss their collaboration celebrating the history of American song. Wednesday he will perform a concert at Herbst Theatre with pianist Wolfram Rieger, titled “Song of America.” Hampson took time out from his preparations to discuss the project, the relationship between poetry and music, and his latest e-book download.

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Feature Article
September 22, 2009

A night like this could get to be a habit. Saturday’s simulcast of San Francisco Opera’s Il trovatore was the seventh free, live simulcast in a tradition instituted by General Director David Gockley in 2006 and the fourth to be held at AT&T Park. The staid glamour of the opera house was happily exchanged by many for a jovial, picnic setting and a ticket price that can’t be beat. (It’s free.)

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Artist Spotlight
September 21, 2009

Christine Brewer is coming to town. Her upcoming recital for Cal Performances on Sept. 27 will feature the music of Berg, Strauss, and Britten, along with some old chestnuts favored by big-voiced sopranos of the last century. She was happy to be back home in St. Louis for a couple of weeks, as I caught up with her to chat about her life as world-class dramatic soprano, mother and ... Hootenanny hostess.

You started out singing in the chorus with Opera Theatre St. Louis. At what point did you feel that you had what it takes to be a soloist?

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Artist Spotlight
July 31, 2009

Raised in Sacramento, and an alumnus of both the Merola program at San Francisco Opera and the Resident Artist training program at Opera San José, bass Kirk Eichelberger now sings lead roles with opera companies throughout the U.S. He is currently in rehearsal to play Mephistopheles in Festival Opera’s production of Faust. I sat down with him to ask him about his career, his training, and how he likes playing the devil.


What did you learn as a resident artist at Opera San José and a graduate of Merola?

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Upcoming Concert
July 27, 2009
This weekend, you can take a picnic, and bring as many friends as you like to enjoy a free performance in Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park. This might evoke memories for some of a small artistic collective that began in 1974 and has now grown to become Cal Shakes. But the latest free show to encourage lovers of the performing arts is called Open Opera. Founded in 2008 by Olivia Stapp. Ellen St. Thomas and Elizabeth Baker, Open Opera’s goal is off and running with its mission of bringing free opera out of doors to Bay Area audiences. In its first season, Open Opera has produced two free concerts in Live Oak Park in Berkeley and received a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. They also sponsored a master class with famed soprano Evelyn Lear. More concerts are planned for the fall in Berkeley and Orinda.

Stapp, renowned dramatic soprano and former artistic director of Festival Opera will direct the company’s first complete production this coming weekend. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro will be conducted by Jonathan Khuner, assistant conductor at the San Francisco Opera and well known to Berkeley audiences as the artistic director of Berkeley Opera. The production, with a chorus of eleven and a professional chamber orchestra of the same number will feature locally based soloists. The show will be costumed with a “makeshift set” according to Khuner, and will be a polished production, giving the essence of the opera but without the fancy trimmings.” Coming in at just under three hours, the show will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.

The cast features Julian Arsenault as Figaro and Aimee Puentes as Susanna. Nicolai Janitsky, who debuted this season with San Francisco Opera as Shchelkalov in Boris Godunov will sing the Count and Open Opera’s cofounder, Elizabeth Baker, also a student of Olivia Stapp, will sing Cherubino.

As St. Thomas tells it, the real impetus for the founding of this company was twofold. First to showcase the great talent of singers here in the bay area and second to provide opera free to the public in a time when attending opera is, for many, prohibitively expensive. Making use of talent from all over the bay area, the cast includes both students and professionals. Elliot Nguyen, who will sing Antonio and Taylor Thompson, who will sing Don Curzio, are past participants of the Young Musicians Program at UC Berkeley, which provides training opportunities for young people from throughout the bay area. Also from that program is Kendra Dodd in the chorus. Another local connection some of the singers have is to the former program in Contra Costa County “Summersong.” For example, Adrien Roberts who will sing the Countess, came through Summersong, a former program for young singers run by Olivia Stapp and Lucy Beck. Julian Arsenault is also a former Summersong participant. Arsenault, who at the age of 20 will be reprising the role of Figaro which he performed recently at UCLA, is from Lafayette and well represents Open Opera’s dedication to featuring local talent.

St. Thomas says that it is Stapp’s dedication to excellence that inspired her to help found this company. She goes on to say that Baker works to craft the image of the company for the public, through the website, artwork, posters etc. and that Stapp works to set the company’s high artistic standards. St. Thomas, a former producer of television pieces for the Virginia Public schools as well as an accomplished singer, works to make it all happen.

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Feature Article
July 14, 2009

It might be possible to look at the newest arrivals at a company like San Francisco Opera as beginners of a sort, perched on the bottom rung on a most accomplished ladder. Yet the 29 young artists (24 singers and five coaches) who arrived on June 1 for 11 weeks of training have already studied and trained for years to earn the right to participate in the Merola Opera Program, one of the nation’s most prestigious programs for young artists.

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Feature Article
June 8, 2009

Thousands gathered at AT&T Park last night to enjoy Puccini’s Tosca, overpriced beer, and a gorgeous twilight as San Francisco Opera continued its tradition of Opera In the Park. Birds flew past the screen as an almost full moon emerged, disappeared, and reemerged from behind billowing clouds.

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Artist Spotlight
April 3, 2009

Mills College caps off its Music Festival this Sunday with a concert celebrating the reopening of its beautifully restored concert hall and the 60th birthday of Music Department Chair, Fred Frith. The composer, improviser, and guitar pioneer discusses teaching, improvisation, and what fuels his creative fire.

I’ve heard that you say that some of your students are more qualified to teach composition than you are.

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Feature Article
March 3, 2009

It is a season for anniversaries at Berkeley Opera. This year is the company’s 30th season, which will be celebrated at a star-studded gala on March 29, featuring soprano Ruth Ann Swenson. Their current production of Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts in Berkeley through March 8, marks the 10th anniversary of the company’s premiere of librettist David Scott Marley’s adaptation of that work.

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Artist Spotlight
March 2, 2009

Fast becoming one of the world's leading lyric sopranos, Nicole Cabell talks about her upcoming concert at Hertz hall, her favorite music, and how she wears the mantle of "Singer of the World."

You came to the Bay Area to give a recital for Cal Performances at Hertz Hall in Berkeley on March 1. What did you sing?

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Artist Spotlight
February 25, 2009

The soprano and teacher discusses her upcoming concert of André Previn songs, her professorship at Salzburg’s Mozarteum, and life on the links.

You performed songs by André Previn in a San Francisco Performances recital at Herbst Theatre on Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. This was the U.S. premiere. Have the songs been premiered in Europe? 

André came and played a concert for my voice class at the Mozarteum. So, the girls in my class sang these songs as a world premiere.

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Feature Article
September 30, 2008

On Saturday, October 4, at Herbst Theatre, Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian will mark the beginning of a "Remembrance Concert Tour". She will be joined by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Anne Manson. The tour, sponsored by the International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, will visit six cities in the U.S. and Canada, concluding with a concert at Carnegie Hall on October 20.

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Feature Article
June 24, 2008

Philadelphia-born bass-baritone Eric Owens returns to San Francisco Opera this month to sing the role of the King of Scotland in Ariodante. Owens originated the role of General Leslie Groves in Doctor Atomic, received rave reviews in the title role of Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel directed by Julie Taymor for the Los Angeles Opera, and has been consistently praised for his performances with major symphonies and opera companies throughout the U.S. The Met will hear him next season as General Groves, and as Sarastro in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

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Feature Article
June 17, 2008

Philadelphia-born bass-baritone Eric Owens returns to San Francisco Opera this month to sing the role of the King of Scotland in Ariodante. Owens originated the role of General Leslie Groves in Doctor Atomic, received rave reviews in the title role of Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel directed by Julie Taymor for the Los Angeles Opera, and has been consistently praised for his performances with major symphonies and opera companies throughout the U.S. The Met will hear him next season as General Groves, and as Sarastro in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

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