Photography by Deji Osinulu

Photography by Deji Osinulu

The set-up:
What exactly are they thinking at Opera in the Heights? In this two-opera set, Gian Carlo Menotti's little bauble of an operetta, The Telephone (1947), has been given an insane Halloween gloss so that characters Lucy and Ben appear as Bride of Frankenstein and Frankenstein monster. What the hell?! It's mind-numbingly stupid – and insulting to the composer. But The Medium (1946) is deliciously taut and fragrant, a wonderful homage to the composer. What's going on?

The execution:
That we ultimately forgive director Lynda McKnight's myopic opening production is testament to the skill of Menotti (music and libretto), the fine playing of the chamber orchestra under maestro Eiki Isomura, and the exemplary sweet cast (soprano Julia Engels and tenor Thomas Richards). Fortunately, the comic opera lasts less than 20 minutes, so the shock of having to endure Lucy's Elsa Lanchester lightning-streaked wig or Ben's green skin and those bolts protruding from his neck is fleeting. But what is this? I know it opened on Halloween weekend, but, really, who thought this Munsters-esque look was a good idea?

Written as a curtain-raiser for Menotti's dank dramatic The MediumThe Telephone is a bright little work that's all glimmer and sass. About to leave on a business trip, boyfriend Ben is unable to propose to Lucy because she's constantly on the phone. She's tethered to her “umbilical cord,” as Ben calls it, when he's tangled up in its Laocoön cord. In mini arias, she gossips, gets a wrong number, calls the operator for the precise time, and apologizes to another best friend for gossiping with the first friend, while Ben frets in silence, as time ticks away. Realizing he can't win in person, he phones her from the train station and finally gets her attention. Yes, she will marry him. But will you remember, she teases. Sure, he says, Your face, eyes, lips? No, silly, my phone number.

Menotti had no idea how prescient he was.

Engels sparkles as preoccupied Lucy; Richards fumes as second-in-line Ben; Menotti dazzles. A tasty musical hors d'oeurve, the opera goes by in a flash. Nobody sets conversational speech so nimbly as Menotti. Fresh and piquant, the work's over before you know it.

These were his glory years, the '40s and '50s, when Menotti was considered the young savior of opera. His melodies flowed, his dramatic instincts secure, and almost everyone who had a new television set watched his magnificent NBC Christmas special Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951). This production turned on an entire generation to the glories of opera. (Are you listening, HGO?)

Menotti was the voice of the new verismo, or, perhaps, the old verismo in new guise – passionately singable, lyric, gritty, melodramatic, Italianate. A worthy successor to Puccini and Mascagni, Menotti was supposed to revive moribund, old-fogy opera. But for all his prodigious gifts, he was in the wrong century, and his throwback rococo style didn't suit the fashion of the time. After his early hits, he was branded hopelessly old-fashioned. Although he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Music – The Consul(1950) and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954) – none of his future work would be so wildly applauded. His last opera was The Singing Child (1993). He was also indirectly responsible for a third Pulitzer: he wrote the libretto for his partner Samuel Barber's opera Vanessa (1958), which won Barber the prestigious award.

The Medium is sleek psychological thriller. Madame Flora (mezzo Claudia Chapa, in full diva mode), a sham seer, hoodwinks her emotionally fragile patrons with fake séances and stage tricks. Daughter Monica (soprano Julie Thornton) supplies the phantom voices while mute Toby (Alex Scheuremann), in love with Monica, supplies the special effects. Flora is haunted by memories not fully enumerated by Menotti, but her unspecified terrors have something to do with surviving the horrors of WW II. Motivation might be nebulous, but Menotti overlays the scant background info with eerie skittering woodwinds, prickly percussion, and Monica's minor key folk tune “The Black Swan,” to instill an atmosphere of creepy European angst. The drama is high-pitched and over-the-top. Pure verismo, the work is out there, as we say.

Who has touched her with an icy hand, Madame Flora demands to know, cutting short the séance. She blames Toby and forces him out of the house. When he sneaks back to get Monica, a drunken Flora, obsessed and hallucinating, shoots him. “I have killed the ghost,” she shouts in triumph.

Jodi Bobrovsky's set design is appropriately moldy and seedy, a New Orleans house decayed and redolent of mildew. When Flora's demons descend, the lights go red and spooky.

Chapa, memorable from OH's past seasons as a bouncy Mistress Quickly in Falstaff and a gleeful witch in Hansel and Gretel, possesses a purring inky mezzo that envelops Menotti's dramatic lines with probing depth and nuance. When she goes bonkers, stand back. As repressed Monica, Thornton turns a bit shrill in the upper register when singing full out, and her voice can get lost even through Menotti's chamber orchestration, but her rendition of “Black Swan” glows with tenderness, like innocence remembered. Although a non-singing role, Scheuremann's Toby is constantly wary and feral, on guard against Flora's unwarranted outbursts and quickly hiding behind the furniture for protection. He's lost his innocence years ago. The clients, who vehemently protest Madame Flora's confession that she's a fraud because they want so desperately to believe their children are in contact with them, are suitably limed by soprano Gwen Alfred, tenor Richards, and mezzo Monica Isomura.

The verdict:
Any Menotti is rare in today's opera rep. A return to his particular brand of full-out theatricality is long overdue, certainly welcome, and a surprising re-discovery.

The Telephone and The Medium continues on November 7 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit $35-$67.

Classical Classroom, Ep 107: Sometimes Menotti, Sometimes Me Nice - With Lynda McKnight

It's a Menotti two-fer! Lynda McKnight from Houston's Opera in the Heights teaches all about the composer Gian Carlo Menotti and two of his short operas, The Medium(not the Patricia Arquette kind), and The Telephone (not the Lady Gaga kind). Learn about this versatile 20th century composer and these two drastically different operas. Also, zombies.

By the way, Opera in the Heights is staging a Medium and Telephone double-header through November 7th! 

Music in this episode:
- Gian Carlo Menotti, The Medium. Chicago Opera Theater recording.
- Gian Carlo Menotti, The Telephone. BBC Radio Broadcast on YouTube.

Audio by Todd "My, My Telephone" Hulslander with psychic readings by Dacia Clay and editing by Mark DiClaudio.

For audio of this "lesson," please click HERE

BWW Blog: Mezzo-Soprano Claudia Chapa Talks OHs THE MEDIUM

Mezzo-soprano Claudia Chapa is Madam Flora
in Opera in the Heights' THE MEDIUM.
Chapa previously appeared at OH! in FALSTAFF

THE MEDIUM and THE TELEPHONE, two mid-twentieth century compositions by Gian Carlo Menotti, make the perfect double act at Opera in the Heights. THE MEDIUM concerns a spooky, alcohol drenched, sham of a séance and THE TELEPHONE-a love affair hampered by technology.

Claudia Chapa, the mezzo-soprano who puts The Medium in THE MEDIUM talks about weathering the storm, literally, and embracing the much deserved rainbow that follows.

Becoming Madam Flora

When Opera in the Heights offered me the title role in THE MEDIUM, I jumped at the opportunity. I've worked with OH! in the past (Dame Quickly in FALSTAFF, The Witch in HANSEL UND GRETEL), so I was excited to perform this complex character in such an intimate setting.

A one sentence synopsis of THE MEDIUM: Madam Flora (or "Baba") is a charlatan who poses as a medium to make THAT MONEY and in one of her "séances" things get real and she loses it. Of course, the characters and storyline are more complex than that, but that's basically the story.

The rehearsal process has been intense for me, Madam Flora/Baba has so much hurt, anger, and pain. Lynda Keith McKnight, our stage director, encouraged us to be genuine on stage. And I'm not going to lie, while Menotti wrote a wicked opera, it was musically hard to learn. But Maestro Eiki Isomura is fantastic to work with. He is very attentive and shepherded us when needed. This role has challenged me musically and emotionally. I love it.

Stormy Weather

I want to start this section with this: Our final dress rehearsal went amazingly! But our previous dress rehearsal was a real mess. Everything that could go wrong did! Side note: Our creative/production team is AWESOME! They are scrappy, they make it happen (even when it seems impossible). Go team!

A big storm swung through by Houston and affecting the lighting system, so our lighting designer dealt with that. THANKS, PATRICIA! Props were breaking, costumes were not fully finished, there was a scheduling conflict causing one of our cast members to leave early. Yet all of these issues highlight how much opera is a team effort. The singers are just the tip of the iceberg. We learned from that dress rehearsal and looked forward to our final orchestra dress.

Sun in the Sky

The energy for our final dress was steady. Everyone had their game faces on and we were ready to create some compelling stage magic. The show goes smoothly!

Once our final dress was done, I felt the energy to be both relaxed and excited! Relaxed because all of the major malfunctions in previous rehearsals had been worked out, and excited because we did it! We have put together a show that makes us proud and we can't wait to perform for y'all! WOOT!

Remaining performances of THE MEDIUM AND THE TELEPHONE are Nov. 5 and 7 at 7:30 pm. For more information, visit

For more information on Claudia Chapa, visit


For full post, click HERE.

Opera in the Heights Juggles Two Shows In One

A behind-the-scenes look at the creative set design of OH’s double-header The Medium and The Telephone.

By Megha Tegpal

DIE-HARD OPERA FANS can get a double dose of Gian Carlo Menotti as Opera in the Heights combines his two midcentury operas into one tragicomedy. In Medium, a fake psychic actually makes contact with the spirit world, much to her surprise, and in Telephone, a young suitor tries to pop the question to his girlfriend who won’t get off the phone. The two magical creations of Menotti grace the stage at OH this fall season in a most unique way. Both wildly different—one a dark, slightly curious drama and the other a lighthearted comedy—the design team behind the two shows beat the odds with challenges in developing a set which encompasses the varying thematic elements of each production.

“The two pieces are very different in mood and style, so a single set wouldn’t really work,” explains scenic designer Jodi Bobrovski. Performed first, The Telephone plays on the set of The Medium, but with the use of a wide dressing screen the crew is able to hide the latter’s set from the audience’s view. A brief intermission during the show allots the crew ample time to move the screen and furniture used from one performance to the next and the skillful use of lighting helps in masking one set so that the focus is on the show at hand. Bobrovski goes on to describe, “It’s a small stage, so trying to fit both sets on it was difficult. The Telephone set is very minimalistic to accomplish this.”

“Set in the home of a young couple, The Telephone is a bright and lively concept, relatively simple yet pleasing to the eye,” recounts lighting designer J. Mitchell Cronin. Surely relatable to most, Ben and Lucy are at odds over matters of the heart in the way of too much usage of a smart phone.

Perhaps a look in the mirror for couples in Houston, The Telephone is indeed a simple story with a set to match. Cronin details tricks used behind the scenes. “While the set of The Medium is clearly visible during The Telephone, the addition of a series of folding screens helps close off the space and allow for the suspension of disbelief of two distinctly different locations.”

The Medium, with its darker, much more mysterious storyline where Madame Flora holds a séance to reach the departed children of her guests, uses the addition of haze in the air to give the performance a haunting feel. Set in an old, rundown house with a more somber presence, The Medium differs greatly from the bubbly outline of The Telephone. “When we move to The Medium, there is a dramatic shift to dim lighting, along with sharp angles and colors from the sides and rear to give a harsh look,” Cronin compares. Changes in lighting and atmospheric differences are intensely present, as the audience is fully aware of the change in moods between the two complimenting pieces.

The Medium and The Telephone. Oct 30–Nov 7. $15-67. Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd. 713-861-5303.

For Full Article, click HERE.