Barbara Tober brings Dazzle to the Opera and it’s Music to our ears

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Opera Lafayette perfomers taking their bows in dazzling costumes by Matthew Flower, aka Machine Dazzle, for their production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s unfinished opera, Io.

The indomitable Barbara Tober! In two days, she presided over three events. We showed up at Opera Lafayette’s Baroque Music Festival honoring Lincoln Center CEO & President Henry Timms and the Young Concert Artists 62nd Annual Gala, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, honoring CEO Deborah Borda. In between, Tober hosted a lunch and private tour of the Museum of Arts and Design’s Funk You Too ceramics exhibit. Who can keep up!

Neither surgery not tragedy fells her. Losing husband Donald broke her heart. But, she carries on, honoring him with plaques and scholarships. She supports others: lunching with new widows and old friends; championing talent. Her past propels her future.

The past also propels Opera Lafayette. The company faithfully recreates Baroque and Rococo operas that speak to the present, with original or replica instruments. “I like to say we’re the Avant Old Guard,” says Artistic Founder and Director Ryan Brown.

Pierre de La Garde’s Léandre et Héro was the first performance of Opera Lafayette’s gala evening at El Museo del Barrio. It originally featured Madame de Pompadour, herself, the King’s favorite mistress.

Their gala began with a two hour double bill, The Era of Madam de Pompadour, at El Museo del Barrio. It moved across the street to the Museum of the City of New York for dinner. All was propelled by the avant garde costumes and decoration of Matthew Flower, aka Machine Dazzle. Barbara, the evening Chair, put them together.

Dazzle’s costumes brought French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Io into a technicolor phantasmagoria. The mid 18th-century unfinished opera tells the story of Jupiter’s wooing of his earthly lover, the nymph Io. To escape jealous Juno’s detection, he and his romantic rival, Apollo (right), disguise themselves as shepherds. Why the fish? Madame de Pompadour, chief mistress of Louis XV, was born Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, i.e. fish!

“When Jupiter finally has to reveal himself he calls up the heavens to create a storm,” Ryan Brown explained. “Those wild tall things are tornadoes going round and round.”

As the waters of the storm, portrayed by Seán Curran Company dancers, subside, Jupiter calls for a party. La Folie (madness) appears …
Belgian soprano Gwendoline Blondeel as la Folie.

Jupiter revealed, lovers united. Leading man Douglas Williams went to Yale Music School, where he learned to sing in period French. He lived in France for several years, then in Germany for ten. “We have to find a singers who are specialists in this repertoire,” Brown said. French soprano Emmanuelle de Negri (right) is Io.

For his party, Jupiter calls in Graces, Games, and Pleasures.

L. to r.: Graces, Pleasures, and Games.

The three Graces.

Barbara met Dazzle this fall when MAD Director Tim Rogers gave him a retrospective. Barbara wore butterflies both nights. Appropriate. She has truly taken Dazzle under her wing, unleashing him from a niche cocoon to a wider audience. He, in turn, inspires her flights of whimsical fashion.

Machine Dazzle takes his bow in Sept 2022, at the MAD gala that introduced him to Barbara Tober.
And his bow nine months later. After being championed by Tober, he is getting well deserved, rave reviews in The Washington Post for these costumes and lecturing to Stanford students about his process.

Barbara Tober with Machine Dazzle and Henry Timms. “I collected and studied butterflies when I was growing up,” Barbara says of her fascination with this symbol of rebirth. “That was before DDT, so there were millions of those glorious flying creatures all over the place. Now, we’re trying to save the Monarch Butterfly. When I see something with butterflies, I buy it. That jacket was an Oscar de la Renta I bought at Saks.”

“The MAD show changed my life,” Machine told me. “It changed the way others see me. It changed the way I see myself.” Eight months mainstreamed later, he had transformed his own presentation from outré to dapper artiste, taking his bow in a floral jacket and slacks he bought, not made.

But, he made practically everything else: covers for Spanish bagpipes, floral-faced rosed-colored mannequin centerpieces. “They are all named Susan,” he said. “Because they were originally conceived as Lazy Susans.”

Machine Dazzle’s centerpieces were all named Susan, as they were originally conceived as Lazy Susan’s. We suspect the final product was a creative, not lazy, decision.
Media maven Jon Marder was clearly carried away by the leggy Susan — and vice versa.

“The Madame Pompadour rococo decorative and colorful style, the satire, humor and gender fluidity inherent in this piece cried out for someone like Machine Dazzle,” Ryan Brown told me.

Lee Fryd, leading man Douglas Williams, and Afsaneh Akhtari.

“When we put on the costumes,” leading man Douglas Williams added, “the opera came to life.”

Opera Lafayette co-chairs Nizam Kettaneh and Dorsey Dunn, and Artistic Director Ryan Brown welcomed guests including H.R.H. Princess Chantal de France and The Baron François-Xavier de Sambucy de Sorgue, as well as Afsaneh Akhtari, Suzi Cordish, Layla Diba, Cornelius Escaravage, Christopher “Kip” Forbes, Michele Gerber Klein, Dr. Penny Grant, Susan Gutfreund, Maria Eugenia Maury and Bill Haseltine, Joan Hardy Clark, Margaret and Gregory Hedberg, Sylvia Hemingway, Helen Little, Andrew Martin-Weber, Ann Van Ness, Barbara de Portago, Daisy Soros and Prince Dmitri of Yugoslavia.

I sat between leading man Williams and Lafayette Board Vice Chair, Adrienne Jamieson, Director for Humanities and Sciences for Stanford University in their Washington School.

I asked her about all that “gender fluidity” talk. “If Louis the XIV were alive today, he would be engaging Machine Dazzle to do his costumes,” Jamieson replied.

“The courts of Louis XIV, XV, etc. were very much about gender fluidity. There were members of the royal family who, you would say in contemporary terms, were non-binary. They did not identify with one gender or the other. Louis XIV’s brother is described historically as gay. He moved in those circles, but, also married and had children. The kind of dance and aspects of the costuming you saw tonight are very reflective of the gender fluidity in the court from the late 1600s until the French Revolution.

“People say Baroque Opera is not their world. But, Opera Lafayette shows them something historic actually can reflect something very contemporary. I see what my students are engaged in. This can teach young people something very key and accurate about the experience.”

L. to r.: Margaret Hedberg, Kip Forbes, and Princess Chantal d’Orléans; Susan Gutfreund.
Layla Diba, Gigi Fisdell, Meriel Lari, and Ann Van Ness.
L. to r.: Maria Eugenia Maury and William Haseltine; Jake Zeigler and Cheryl Gorelick.
Sana Sabbagh, Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, Barbara de Portago, and Layla Diba.
L. to r.: Daisy Soros and Richard Gaddes; Beejan Land and Andrew Martin-Weber.
Bradley Strauchen-Scherer, Catherine Turocy, Machine Dazzle, Cassandra Balosso, Afsaneh Akhtari, Ryan Brown, and Barbara Tober.

Here’s another taste …

The night before, I sat next to Tober, one of the evening’s Chairs — with board chairman Paul Sekhri, Peter W. May, Sarah Billinghurst Soloman, Oscar L. Tang, and Ann Ziff — at the Young Concert Artists 62nd Annual Gala, at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It began with a perfectly curated performance of chamber music pieces.

The grand finale: superstar Emanuel Ax, alumnus of the program. Other YCA alumni Carter Brey, Jeremy Denk, George Li, Anne-Marie McDermott, as well as current YCA artists Steven Banks, Joseph Parrish, Nina Shekhar and Zhu Wang also performed.

YCA Gala Honoring Deborah Borda in the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Guests included Colin Bailey, John Banta, Angela Chen, Joan Hardy Clark, Suzi Cordish, John Corigliano, Layla Diba, Judy and Tony Evnin, Dan Kellogg, Gary Ginstling, Mark Gude, Maria Eugenia Maury and Bill Haseltine, Margaret and Gregory Hedberg, Sharon and Lawrence Hite, Agnes Hsu-Tang, Paul Huang, Maureen and Sherman Katz, Elbrun and Peter Kimmelman, Noel V. Lateef, Leni and Peter May, Juliet and Ilse Melamid, Judith Pisar, Carol and Lawrence Schaefer, Annaliese Soros, Daisy Soros, Mary Tanner, Sandy and Stan Warshawsky, and Eugenia Zukerman.

YCA board chairman Paul Sekhri, honoree Deborah Borda, YCA President Daniel Kellogg.

For more than 60 years, YCA has been scouting, nurturing and feeding talent into the classical world. And so they honored, New York Philharmonic CEO Deborah Borda. She’s the force of nature who helped guide the company through the pandemic blackout while getting David Geffen Hall redone, on budget and ahead of schedule.

“It’s a momentous occasion,” the media maven behind the event, Jon Marder, told me. “Teutonic plates are shifting. Deborah Borda built Disney Hall. Deborah Borda almost single handedly rebuilt David Geffen Hall. She assembled the team to do it and made it great. She’s announced her retirement and will continue to consult. But, you wonder what she’s going to do next. I can’t imagine there’s not one more big project for her. It’s fantastic that she did this tonight.”

Deborah Borda and Judith Pisar.

For two years, Borda organized zoom benefits and streaming performances. And the Bandwagon: pop up concerts from the back of a pickup truck. “Anthony Ross Constanzo, the tenor, and Deborah put their heads together and came up with the idea,” Tober told me. “We can’t get the people in the boroughs to come to the Philharmonic, they said, so let’s take the Philharmonic to them. A couple of times a week, they got into an open truck and stopped at residential corners, in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island and start playing. Then, they’d move to another corner and do it again. So they kept the Philharmonic going.”

“At first people would laugh,” Borda told the room. “Then they would be quiet. Sometimes people would dance and sometimes people would cry. We gave 81 concerts. We stood by the musicians of the orchestra financially during the crisis, and our musicians stood by us during the nomad season, the year we were out of David Geffen Hall, moving all over the city like a year long tour. It was tough, but they never relented.”

Anne-Marie McDermott and Carter Brey.

Some of those musicians got their start at YCA. “Our work is investing in the next generation of exceptional, classical musicians who are just at the cusp of a great career,” YCA President Daniel Kellogg told me. “We give them artist management, mentorship and performances all over the country and the world. Basically, we help launch their careers.”

At his side was artist manager Nick Herring. Audition winners get three-year management contracts, he explained, “which comes with an insane slew of opportunities. Manny Ax, Opera Singer Julia Bullock, Violinist Ray Chen, Kevin Puts (composer of “The Hours” at the Met), all started here.”

Steven Banks, YCA Artist and Deborah Borda.
Joseph Parrish, YCA Artist, John Corigliano, Mark Adamo, and Paul Sekhri.

One of those opportunities: getting to play on a Stradivarius violin — insured for $10 million, on loan from the Nippon foundation. “So, a poor artist working in New York,” Kellogg recounted, “was performing some of the greatest repertoire on one of the greatest instruments in the world.

“Another one of our artists, saxophonist Steven Banks, never dreamed of an actual concert career. He just started a project that will take him to solo with ten orchestras across the country, expanding the scope of anything a saxophonist has ever done before.”

Ann Ziff, Paul Sekhri, Mary Tanner, Fabio Witkowski, and Cathy Sohn.
Noel V. Lateef, Daisy Soros, Agnes Hsu-Tang, Judith-Ann Corrente, Ann Ziff, and Oscar Tang.
Joshua and Larissa Bell.
Daniel Kellogg, Paul Huang, and Patrick Castillo.
Diana Wang, Ling Tian, Oscar Tang, Angela Chen, Daniel Kellogg, and Gary Ginstling.
Gary Ginstling, Simon Woods, Karin Brooks, and Isaac Thompson.
Charles Schaefer, Lawerence Hite, Carol Schaefer, and Sharon Hite.
Colin Bailey and Alan Wintermute.
Inon Barnatan and Judy Evnin.
Juliet Melamid and Ilse Melamid.
Vanessa Reed and John Corigliano.
Vicken Poochikian and Dr. Irene Roth.
Eugenia Zukerman and Richard Novik.

A few nights later, we called Tober. She was on her way to the Met. She’s a force in our artistic community and a jewel in our crown. Donald, still with her from above, was literally so that night. She has dedicated the seven lobby chandeliers at the Met in his honor, with this plaque:




Shine on, Barbara Tober. We revel in your shadow.

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