Denyce Graves found herself in the midst of an age-old controversy this month when she ventured to Cincinnati to perform in a new opera. The mezzo-soprano, who is African-American, was disturbed by the attitudes she encountered when she and other members of the cast of Margaret Garner visited a former plantation in Northern Kentucky. After a descendant of a nearby plantation-owner described some slaveholders as "benevolent," Graves could barely contain her outrage. "It made my blood boil," she told reporters. "It's not OK to own another human being to oppress them."
The plantation visit was one of many historical and literary events in Ohio and Kentucky that were being held in conjunction with the Cincinnati Opera's much-anticipated mid-July performances of Margaret Garner. The opera, with music by Richard Danielpour and a libretto by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, tells the story of a Kentucky slave who attempted to flee to Ohio with her children. Facing capture, she tried to kill her family and herself, but was apprehended after she had slit the throat of her two-and-half-year-old daughter. The opera, a joint production of the Michigan Opera Theatre, the Cincinnati Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, premiered to enthusiastic notices in Detroit in May, but it is having special resonance in the Cincinnati area, where the story takes place. (The production moves to Philadelphia in February).
For Graves, the Cincinnati performances are a high point in a busy 2004-05 season that saw her sing in Carmen in Germany and Samson and Delilah in New York as well as her usual mix of classical, jazz, and gospel in concerts and recitals in the United States and Europe. Graves, who drew worldwide attention for her performances in response to the September 2001 terror attacks, also sang twice this year for President Bush. She performed at the presidential inauguration in January and returned to Washington in the spring to sing at a gala concert at Ford's Theater that was broadcast nationally on July 4.
A London audience in late June got a rare treat—a free post-concert party, complete with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Helene Grimaud playing duets on the piano in the bar at the Royal Festival Hall. The occasion was the Philharmonia Orchestra's final concert in the hall before its closure for 18 months of renovations. Earlier in the evening, the crowd of 3,000 heard Ashkenazy, the Philharmonia's conductor leaureate, lead a program that included Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with the voluptuous Grimaud as soloist, and his own orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Fittingly, the program closed with the last movement of Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony.
While the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy await their return to a refurbished and acoustically upgraded RFH, the pianist-conductor is taking on several other projects. Next season, he will lead the Cleveland Orchestra during an extended visit to Miami. Ashkenazy also signed on recently to serve as the artist laureate of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 2008, when Liverpool takes a turn as the European Capital of Culture. Despite his close ties to English orchestras, the Russian-born Ashkenazy lent his support this spring to Moscow's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, not London's. In a joint statement with conductor Yuri Temirkano, Ashkenazy—who fled to the West and became a citizen of Iceland in the 1970s—said that Moscow has "shed all the negative characteristics of the Soviet era."
The combination of opera and soccer first gripped the world in 1990, when Luciano Pavarotti, Plšcido Domingo, and Jos_ Carreras joined forces as The Three Tenors at the World Cup in Italy. Thanks to them, Puccini's "Nessun dorma" became the sport's unofficial athem. It's no surprise, then, that one of the many people infatuated with both music and soccer is Carreras himself. Carreras, a native of Barcelona, is a fanatical devotee of his hometown's soccer club and a fixture in the VIP box at Mou Camp Stadium. In a recent interview with a Greek newspaper, Carreras reveled in his team's return to the top of the standings and compared Barcelona's star player, the Brazilian Ronaldinho, to a musician or ballet star. "He dances on the pitch [field]," Carreras said. "His moves are orchestrated by a music he hears inside him." Carreras comments on football followed several wildly successful concert performances in Athens. Audiences demanded no fewer than eight encores after he sang with the Greek-born mezzo-soprano Agnes Baltsa. He also performed with the popular Korean soprano Sumi Jo for the first time. Look for Carreras to continue pursuing his two passions: According to press reports, the Three Tenors may perform at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.