Monday, May 25, 2015

West Side Story

To commemorate the announcement that Cecilia Bartoli will sing Maria in West Side Story at next year's Pfingstfest in Salzburg I present the film where Cher sings all the parts.

Perhaps Cecilia can get Cher to do Anita, the only part she seems actually suited for. In my imagination I see this part done by Liliana Nikiteanu.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sibelius - Kullervo

Kullervo by Sibelius is a group of five tone poems, only a couple of which have singing.  The first one, streamed on The Opera Project, was entirely ballet.  This is a youthful work published only toward the composer's death, and is in a form that was his personal favorite.  The story is pretty ghastly.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Brecht and Weill

Brecht, Lenya, Weill

Prior to our entry into WWI America may have held little interest for Europeans. I was in London for the American bicentennial in 1976 and was fascinated to see them focusing on the British politicians whom they held responsible for the loss of the colonies. Our American heroes meant nothing.

So we came into WWI for about a year and ended it. The Tsar was gone. The Austro-Hungarian Kaiser was gone, the German Kaiser was gone, The King of Italy was gone. Life in those parts of Europe was completely changed into a raging political turmoil. Suddenly the Europeans were obsessing over things American, including American music. Jazz was heard in Paris. Jazz was also heard in Berlin where 18 year old Kurt Weill went to study music with Ferruccio Busoni among others.

I knew about Weimar era Berlin from Cabaret and Christopher Isherwood, but I didn't know Berlin was a major central part of Europe, in some ways for the first time. Kurt Weill is the European composer closest to American idiom, bringing us a European vision showing elements of jazz style. He is known in musical theater circles as one of the few composers who did his own orchestration.  His orchestra emphasizes winds much like the orchestra for an American musical.  In Berlin he was exposed to American jazz and clearly adapted his ideas to suit it, but it would be a mistake to say he is imitating.  He used zithers, for instance, and what American orchestrator would score for a badly out of tune piano?

The list below is of Weill's works which were written in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, an association which lasted from 1927 to 1933 when Jewish Weill fled Germany.  I find that I don't want to write about his American period and will focus on these.

Title Genre Sub­divisions Libretto Première date Place
Mahagonny-Songspiel [Little Mahagonny] Songspiel 3 acts Bertolt Brecht 17-Jul-27 Baden-Baden
Die Dreigroschenoper  [Three Penny Opera] play with music prologue and 8 Scenes Bertolt Brecht, after The Beggar's Opera by John Gay 31-Aug-28 Berlin
Happy End comedy with music 3 acts Elisabeth Hauptmann and Bertolt Brecht 2-Sep-29 Berlin
Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny      [Big Mahagonny] opera 3 acts Bertolt Brecht 9-Mar-30 Leipzig
Der Jasager                   [The Yes Sayer] Schuloper 2 acts Bertolt Brecht, after Elisabeth Hauptmann's translation from Arthur Waley's English version of the Japanese No dramaTaniko 23-Jun-30 Berlin
Die Dreigroschenoper  [Three Penny Opera] movie   Very similar to the stage play.  Also a French version. 1931  
Die sieben Todsünden  [Seven Deadly Sins] ballet chanté 8 parts Bertolt Brecht 7-Jun-33 Paris

The year of the premier tells Weill's age, while Brecht was 2 years older and had far more completed works for the theater than Weill had when they met. Weill initiated the contact. He had read Brecht's Mahagonny poems and wanted to set them to music.

What is interesting in the above list is the appearance of the name Elisabeth Hauptmann. I believe that her share in the creation of Brecht's ouvre has only recently become known. It should be added to the above chart that it is she who would have translated The Beggar's Opera into German for Brecht. We will probably never know how much of Brecht is really Hauptmann.

The success of these works varied absolutely. Mahagonny Songspiel was a one time performance to fulfill a commission. Die Dreigroschenoper was a raging success, settling Weill's finances. 

Happy End crashed and burned after only 3 performances. This was in no way the fault of Weill. Brecht was discovering Marxism at the time and the characters spent the third act reading the communist manifesto and ranting about Marx. The middle-class audience didn't care for this at all. 

For Weill the full length Mahagonny was always the goal of their partnership. It is also the goal of my current delving into Weill, since The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny from the Royal Opera will play in a local theater here in a couple of weeks. I have previously seen this work in the Teresa Stratas version and the version from the LA Opera with Audra McDonald, both in English. The German version on line is audio only. The Mahagonny opera was also a hit. The Alabama song is always in English, even in Mahagonny Songspiel..  Like many musical works in the 20th century, it was conceived as anti-Wagnerian.  You should be intellectually stimulated or best of all alienated, and not hypnotically swept away.

Die sieben Todsünden [The seven deadly sins] and the rise of Hitler arrived at the same time. After it played in Berlin, Weill fled, first to Paris and later to America. This work is one of his more performed pieces. This is the one where sister Anna I sings and Anna II dances, like the evil step sisters in Rossini's La Cenerentola, probably a coincidence.  The result is a ballet with singing.

Brecht eventually realized that Weill had succeeded in completely dominating their partnership in the only place where it mattered--in the works they had created together.  I should perhaps stop trying so hard to understand it and just enjoy.  I'll see what I think after the showing.


I think I've got it.  After much thinking and reading, I think I understand my difficulty with Brecht.  He wants alienation and a complete lack of identification with his characters.  The problem I'm having with this is that when 3 crooks stop their truck in a deserted place and create a gangster city, I see America.  As an American, this is normal life.  How can I be alienated?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Cecilia Bartoli in rehearsal for Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride which opens Friday in Salzburg.  Over a four day period she will sing 2 performances of Iphigénie en Tauride (French), one of Semele (English) and then participate in the final gala concert.  This mad life seems to agree with her.

There is a question circulating:  could it be that she has actually cut her hair?  This is a silly thing to worry about.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

For My Brahms Soul


This is a wonderful performance.  Bernstein's accompaniment is especially surprising. If you look closely, you will see Andre Previn pop in to turn the page.  "Vergiss nicht mein."  I kneel.

Monday, May 18, 2015


There was a hoax that Nicolai Gedda had died.  Apparently he's still alive.

The Life Ball, a benefit for AIDS, took place in Vienna with the theme Gold, so we have Woman in Gold played by Conchita Wurst.  Adele Bloch-Bauer may be gone from Vienna in fact but she remains in spirit.

Anna Netrebko goes every year and performs.

Over the weekend I attended a performance of The Requiem by John Rutter.  This was my first experience of one of his choral works.  He is British but is most popular in America.  For my ears it sounds like Fred Waring with more dissonance and a bigger dynamic range.

This came to me from the Zurich Opera:

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Philippe Sly at Mondavi

Philippe Sly, bass-baritone, and John Charles Britton, guitar, treated us to an all-Schubert program on the side stage at Mondavi Center.  I have been in this space before when I saw Monteverdi in 2013, but since that time it has been arranged as a cabaret with small tables.  We were allowed to bring in food and drink (I highly recommend the macaroons).  I have already seen Philippe in The Secret Garden, Cosi fan Tutte, and Partenope at the San Francisco Opera, where I will soon see him as Figaro in Figaro.  He is currently an Adler Fellow and is being given some big assignments.  I selected him for sexiest in Partenope.

There were a few odd things about this performance:  there were no programs, so I will have to rely on memory, and they were miked.  They commented after the performance that the mikes were a surprise.  The miking was discrete, although it changes the timbre of the guitar more than the singer.  There were 2 screens:  English words were projected on one side and paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, a contemporary of Schubert, on the other.

The guitar arrangements were by the guitarist.  In one spot Philippe reached over and keyed one of the guitar strings because John couldn't reach it.  Cute.  The use of guitar accompaniment was a big influence on the selection of repertoire.  We agreed that melodramatic Schubert wouldn't really work with guitar.

Du bist die Ruh
Du liebst mich nicht
An die Musik
Auf dem Wasser zu singen
Der Lindenbaum
Der Leiermann

That's it.  I can't remember anything else.  There were 2 songs from Scheone Muellerin and 2 more from Winterreise.

The intimacy of the space and the gentleness of the guitar/bass-baritone combination created a sweetness that was very pleasing.

There was an encore by Ravel.  M. Sly is French Canadian.  I predict big things for Philippe.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Zurich Fidelio on YouTube

Leonora,Fidelio - Camilla Nylund
Florestan - Jonas Kaufmann
Don Pizarro - Alfred Muff
Rocco - László Polgár
Marzelline - Elizabeth Rae Magnuson
Jaquino - Christoph Strehl

Conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Directed by Jurgen Flimm

I saw Jonas Kaufmann's Florestan in Zurich quite by accident in 2007. I went to see Semele and stayed for other things. This film is the same production and some of the same cast, but the conductor is Harnoncourt instead of Minkowski, and Rocco is László Polgár instead of Matti Salminen. I like Matti, but there is something special about László.

A video is better for the canon. Harnoncourt accompanies discretely, and microphones handle everything else. Rocco sings about money and pulls out a box of it. Is it better if Marzelline, Rocco and Jaquino are funny or serious? Is it better if Fidelio is dignified or flirtatious? Perhaps it is best to see all sides. Florestan is perfect, of course.

Rocco worries about daring even small things, and Fidelio dares everything. What a hero. I am a complete sucker for this opera. It has the best of all happy endings. Only László Polgár gets flowers, but Harnoncourt gets by far the most applause and is far better than Minkowski.

If you haven't watched this, now may be the time.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Things to learn to train for opera

1 How to support the tone. This is taught a lot of different ways but basically consists of controlling the breath as it goes out and keeping the pressure down off of your vocal chords. You're going for a low even pressure that gets stronger as you go up the scale.

2 How to enunciate clearly. Remember there is no amplification at the opera.

3 How to pronounce foreign languages. Unless you are Cecilia Bartoli or work exclusively at the ENO, you will be expected to know how to pronounce Italian, German, French and maybe English. Your teacher will tell you how to pronounce the neutral vowel in French and then someone else will tell you it's not like that at all. You can also learn to speak these languages if you like, but that is easier if you have someone to talk to.  [See Diction Police.  See things voice teachers worry about.]

4 How to integrate your registers. You will need to be able to convince the audience that you have only one voice and not two or three as you go up and down the scale.  [See Chest Voice ]

5 How to sing legato.  How to sing legato while enunciating clearly. This is actually possible.  [See Legato]

6 How to place your vowels. That means your pharynx is open AND your upper formant is focused all at the same time. This is a big part of the process of getting all of your voice to sound more or less the same.  [See Yawn]

7 How to sing loud. They will choose the loud one. Practice the messa di voce. Then you will be able to sing both loud and soft. And in between.  [See Messa di Voce.  See where Christa Ludwig recommends it.  See where Vesselina Kasarova recommends it.]

8 How to sing high. No high notes, no opera. Even Placido Domingo had high notes when he started out.

9 If you are a tenor, you will need to learn how to sound like one. Being a tenor is harder. This is a specialized trick that will require you to find a teacher that knows how to do it.  [See Tenor Blog.  See Leggiero Tenor]

10 How to sing in tune. You are allowed to sing out of tune sometimes but only on purpose. Some teachers will put this at the top of the list, but this is a mistake. If this is really hard for you, maybe you shouldn't be a classical musician. The better your breath support the easier it is to sing in tune.

11 If you want to be a coloratura, you will need to know how to sing fast and with less legato.  You will need to learn how to trill.  [See Vibrato/Trill and Trill]

12 How to do all of these things at the same time.

Put off classification as long as possible.  And practice.  It's no use knowing how to do things if you don't practice.  This list is the result of listening to a lot of students. They're not really learning anything.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Summer Opera in San Francisco

This summer the San Francisco Opera will present:

 Berlioz' The Trojans

Anna Caterina Antonacci Cassandra [I've seen her only in Carmen before.]
Susan Graham [her wonderful Dido, SFO regular], 
Bryan Hymel [his fabulous Aeneas, seen also as Faust.] 
Sasha Cooke. [Also SFO regular]
New Production by David McVicar, 
 Conducted by Donald Runnicles.  

Fabio Ceresa’s La Ciociara (Two Women)

This is a world premiere starring Anna Caterina Antonacci, Dimitri Pittas and Mark Delavan, Directed by Francesca Zambello, Conducted by Nicola Luisotti.  I'm planning to watch the movie with Sophia Loren before.

Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro 

 San Francisco Opera production. Photo by Cory Weaver.
San Francisco Opera production. Photo by Cory Weaver. 

Susanna is Lisette Oropesa, our marathon running opera singer; 
Figaro is Philippe Sly; 
Countess Almaviva will be Nadine Sierra, another former Adler Fellow; 
Cherubino is Kate Lindsey and Angela Brower; 
Count Almaviva is my favorite Luca Pisaroni; and 
Bartolo is John Del Carlo. 
Conducted by Patrick Summers. 

Opera in San Francisco is always a joy.