Saturday, December 31, 2005


OK. I'll do one too. Stolen from Sarah who stole it from Maury D'Annato.

Name or Nom de Blogge: I've always wanted a made up name. Barbara Baker is just not very interesting. I thought Barbara Belleza, la Contessa di Follia, but that would be hard to live up to.

Age: Too old. This is a young person's activity. 65 last week.

Locale: Frederick MD followed by London England.

Raison de blogre: It was a present, but I'm easily dragged into obsessions.

Intended tone of blog: Intellectual insanity mixed with free association.

Voice type (real): contralto when I was young, baritone now.

Voice type (in yer dreams): Agnes Baltsa/Susan Graham. Somewhere in there. Any voice that could sing Octavian. As long as I'm wishing, a Strauss soprano like Kiri, perhaps.

Arias sung in the shower: The last one I heard. "Es gibt ein Reich" "Let the bright seraphim". At my age I'm reduced to whistling.

Arias of other gender sung in shower: "Questa o Quella," this week anyway.

First opera seen: Madame Butterfly, Sacramento, CA

First opera to elicit madly queeny reaction of obsession and dedication to a lifetime at the opera: I'm afraid I fell in love with doing it: Vaughan-Williams' Riders to the Sea. Answer to the actual question is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier.

Uberdiva living: Cecilia. You knew that.

Uberdiva of the past: Callas now. Marilyn Horne.

Newest enthusiasm: Anna Netrebko.

Fave singer you never hear anyone else enthuse about: Me. Why would they? But I do seem to insist on blowing my own horn.

Favorite line from a libretto: "Halten und nehmen, halten und lassen." It is a goal not yet achieved.

Opera you'd rather eat thumbtacks than sit through ever again: I used to say that about Simon Boccanegra until I saw a good one. I made up the rule of three baritones for it (Never go to an opera with three baritones.) Any opera without girl singers. Streetcar. Lustige Witwe. I'd put in Tristan and Isolde but I've actually never made it all the way to the end. This list is a little long.

"Why won't the Met/my local company put on...": For me there cannot be too much Strauss.

"A perfect role assumption I have seen was...": Leontyne Price substituting for Margaret Price in Aida. Unbelievable.

"If I had a time machine...": Geraldine Farrar in her youth. Malibran. She only had a youth, I guess. And her sister. Didn't she sing the Alto Rhapsody? And one more time with Elisabeth.

Theory of Opera

Ok, here's my theory. The explosive success of Italian opera in the Baroque occurred because of the serendipitous confluence of two factors.

1. Throughout its history until near the time of Rossini's retirement (coincidence?) the church forbade women to sing in the church. In Rome this prohibition extended to all other public venues as well. From the mid 16th century this gap was filled by castrati who were limited to singing the multi-voiced counterpoint of Lasso and Palestrina. It is my understanding that they ornamented in this style, too, though it is a bit hard to imagine. Despite that, the style didn't allow sufficient scope for their virtuosity. For a castrato singing is his life.

2. The Florentine camerata invented a medium of theatrical solo singing based on the classics.

The two streams met in Rome in the 1620's, and a colossal explosion occurred. Castrato virtuosity met the perfect context for its display, and the rest is history. For the first 200 years that was the fundamental purpose of opera everywhere except France where castrati were never fully accepted. Did I say that strongly enough? I am proposing that castrati are the reason for opera, and not opera the reason for them, as I had always thought.

That's my theory.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Favorites by Year 2005 👍🏻

I was still working when I began blogging.  It was a present from my son. I traveled from the DC area where I lived to Zurich and San Francisco.  I watched and blogged a lot about DVDs since the nearest opera company was in Washington.  I reviewed 35 performances which included 27 DVDs and only 9 live performances in 4 different houses.

Favorite Performances

  • (CB) Zurich Giulio Cesare    I traveled to Zurich on one of my many trips to see Cecilia Bartoli.  This time she was doing Handel's Giulio Cesare in a relatively sedate production.  The Egyptians wore blue and white striped outfits.  Cecilia was incredible.  By this time I had been a fanatical fan of Cecilia for over 10 years.  I still love her best.  Travel **
  • Licitra's Tosca in Washington   Salvatore Licitra performed Tosca at the Washington National Opera.  I have a soft place in my heart for tenors.  Local **

  • The Pearl Fishers in San Francisco  Bizet's Pearl Fishers appeared at the San Francisco Opera (SFO) long before it came to the Met.  What I appear to have enjoyed most were the very sexy Charles Castronovo and Norah Amsellem.  Travel **
  • (CB) Opera Proibita, both live and on CD.  Berkeley  This is the long ago time when Cecilia Bartoli still came to Berkeley virtually every year.  I was the only one who noticed that she wasn't just waving her arms randomly but was instead conducting the orchestra.  Travel **

Singer of the Year

Cecilia Bartoli was singer of the year for her wonderful Cleopatra and her Opera Proibita album.

Didn't like

People say I like everything, but actually that's not true.  This year I didn't much like:  The Rape of Lucretia because of the disturbing mixture of pagan history and Christian commentary; The Dangerous Liaisons by Susa is just musically boring; Doctor Atomic where the characters never seem to be talking to one another.

New to Me Opera

New operas this year came almost exclusively from DVD or video.  There are a lot of wonderful performances in this list, but only Doctor Atomic is actually new.

  1. Adams' Doctor Atomic was live at SFO.  This is new to everyone. **
  2. Barber's Vanessa was on DVD and starred Kiri te Kanawa.
  3. Bernstein's Candide was on DVD.
  4. Britten's The Rape of Lucretia (live in San Francisco) **
  5. Donizetti's Roberto Devereux was a DVD with Montserrat Caballe. 
  6. Giordano's Fedora was on DVD.
  7. HalĂ©vy’s La Juive was on DVD.
  8. Larson's Rent was on DVD.
  9. Mozart's Mitridate Re di Ponto was on DVD.
  10. Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea with Maria Ewing was on DVD..
  11. Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims was on DVD.
  12. Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin was on DVD.
  13. Susa's The Dangerous Liaisons was on Video.
  14. Verdi’s Stiffelio was on Video.

##20 top 20 all time
** live, live stream or live in HD

Things recommended to buy



Books about opera lying around my house:

These books fall basically into three categories: books to help opera goers enhance their opera experience (Rough Guide, Getting Opera, World’s great Operas, etc.), books for professionals (Stanislavski, Smith), and books speculating on what opera is about. Because…. We aren’t really sure why we like opera. When we are watching car chases or love scenes in the movies, we are pretty sure why we like it. Opera inspires people to explain themselves. Missing from the list are biographies of singers and composers.

I. Books for everyone

The Rough Guide to Opera by Matthew Boyden.

This book divides opera into chronological periods and discusses selected works from each period. There is a plot summary and a discussion. Then recordings of each work are recommended and described. Missing is the standard list of characters with the vocal classification for each. This would make it easier to tell who was singing what in the recording listings. For the record collector this is the book. New editions appear periodically. If you own only one book about opera, it should probably be this one.

Getting Opera, a Guide for the Cultured but Confused by Matt Dobkin, 2000.

The first half is intended to draw people into opera who are not now interested in it. I am interested in two lists: opera on film and opera in film. There are a couple here that I haven’t seen. He has a sexy singers list and there is no overlap with mine. Isn’t that interesting! His includes Susan Graham, an idea that simply never occurred to me. In the second half of the book he describes 50 operas selected from all of opera, beginning with Monteverdi’s Orfeo and ending with Adams’ Nixon in China.

The New Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book by The Earl of Harewood, 1969, 1972, 1976 (originally by C.W. Kobbe, 1919.)

This is an extremely thorough plot book with voice classifications and musical examples. Material from the twentieth century has been added, including Britten, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, etc. My favorite is the inclusion of two operas by Ethel Smyth.

The World’s Great Operas by John Tasker Howard, 1948, 1959.

This is a plot book of over 200 operas, arranged more or less alphabetically. He includes the vocal classifications of the characters. There are appendices for composers, librettists, literary sources and characters.

II. Books that go deeper into the subject

Opera, a History by Christopher Headington, Roy Westbrook and Terry Barfoot, 1987.

This makes for interesting reading.

A Historical Study of the Opera Libretto by Patrick J. Smith, 1970.

Some librettists receive whole chapters of their own: Busenello (Venetian opera), Quinault (Lully), Metastasio (opera seria), Wagner (Wagner), Boito (Verdi, himself) and finally Hofmannsthal (Strauss). How interesting! He discusses Da Ponte from the perspective of his other librettos. Who knew he had other librettos? This is an excellent book written from a more academic perspective than opera books usually are. He fills in the holes between the works that remain in the repertoire and discusses the entire body of opera.

The Castrati in Opera by Angus Heriot, 1956.

This contains both general and very specific information about castrati, where they came from, who they were, where they went.

Stanislavski on Opera by Constantin Stanislavski and Paval Rumyantsev, 1975.

Constantin Stanislavski studied to be an opera singer before becoming the leader of the Moscow Art Theater after the Russian revolution. This is a fascinating book describing in detail Stanislavski’s approach to directing seven operas: Eugene Onegin, The Tsar’s Bride, La Boheme, A May Night, Boris Godunov, The Queen of Spades and The Golden Cockerel. There is also a long introduction called “In the Opera Studio” which describes the activities of Stanislavski’s opera studio. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in directing operas or acting in one of the operas listed.

III. Books on the meaning of opera

Opera’s Second Death by Slavoj Zizek and Mladen Dolar, 2002.

What was the first death? This discusses why opera isn’t keeping up with modern life. I have my own opinions.

A Song of Love and Death, the meaning of opera by Peter Conrad, 1987.

He begins with a section titled Rite and subdivides it into Orpheus, Dionysus, Eros, Mephistopheles and Dagon. Then he describes the opera of each historical period. I haven’t read this, but it looks interesting.

Opera as Theater by George R. Marek, 1962.

He works his way through ten operas from the standard repertoire and discusses how they are staged.

Opera as Drama by Joseph Kerman, 1956.

He gets pretty theoretical.

The Queen’s Throat; Opera, homosexuality and the mystery of desire by Wayne Koestenbaum, 1993.

This is not a sensible book, but why should it be? Opera is not at all sensible. There is an entire chapter on the Callas cult and another on how to behave like a proper diva.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Kennedy Center Honors 2005

This is such a great idea. We get to see film of the honoree in action followed by tributes. This year that meant shots of the always fabulously gorgeous Robert Redford in some of his most memorable films.

Helen Mirren came to honor Julie Harris, an honor indeed. I completely adore Helen Mirren. And Tyne Daly was also there to honor Harris. These people are the best. It’s too bad we didn’t get more of them.

Suzanne Farrell’s dance company did her proud. They jumped and bounced and threw themselves into dance with wonderful freshness and enthusiasm, making themselves seem lighter than air, the ultimate goal of ballet. It was a lesson.

This is definitely the most I have liked K D Lang, or is it k d lang? She sang “What a wonderful World” to honor Tony Bennett.

What a triumph over life is Tina Turner, who looks more gorgeous than ever. She has achieved the impossible—she is envied by Oprah Winfrey. And emulated by Beyonce who did her best imitation of Tina dancing to “Proud Mary.” She was rewarded with two thumbs up from Tina herself. My thumbs are also up.

Sunday, December 25, 2005


While driving to Ohio on Saturday, I heard a very nice interview with James Levine in his role as the successor of Seiji Ozawa at the Boston Symphony. I've always thought that James Levine was astounding, a musician for all styles.

He talked about his problems with his legs and how he now sits while conducting. He talked about his baton technique and emphasized his very strong contrast with Ozawa who was known for leaping around on the podium and waving his arms. He was performing a kind of ballet to the music.

In contrast Levine sits quietly and moves his baton a tiny amount. There was even a quote from one of the horn players saying that Levine looked his way with a sense of deep satisfaction instead of giving a cue. The horn player thought he played better than he ever had. Levine emphasized that the music is in the sounds we are hearing and not in the conductor's ballet. At the opera, of course, the conductor is virtually invisible.

Music is such a great thing. We love it so much because its depths contain no bottom.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

This countertenor thing

Sarah says:
"Do you know about Michael Maniaci? Countertenor who has sung Cherubino and I think has said he would like to sing Octavian. Now this I don't like at all. Others disagree."

Hmmm. Countertenors come into the picture because the roles they sing were actually sung by men as characters who are men. Cherubino and Octavian are boys who were both intended to be sung by women. Both composers are playing with gender identity. In both roles the characters disguise themselves as women--a woman disguised as a boy disguised as a woman. It's a great joke, part of the sexual tension of these two operas which are both entirely about sexual tension. What is the joke if they are actually sung by men?

On the other hand, I heartily approve of this. Maniaci claims to be a natural soprano and not a falsettist.  Dare I say it? A castrato would sound like this.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Messiahs I have known

I brought my battered score that has lost its cover page and still shows charring along the top from when I rescued it from a burned house. I was taking it to the Fredereck Messiah sing-along.

The alto solos in my score still show the red underlines, ornaments and markings from when I was a Messiah soloist too many years ago. The same score also shows when to stand and when to sit from the years I was in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The symphony performed Messiah with a chorus of only about 25 people, which meant no malingering. Doing Messiah like this four nights in a row is one of the reasons I quit the symphony. It was just too much for a working person.

The first complete recording I owned of anything was the Huddersfield Choral Society recording of Handel's Messiah, so the piece is in my head with a chorus of 250, not 25. So what's not to like? "Worthy is the lamb" is fabulous with that big blast of sound coming at you. This is yet more evidence that I am a philistine.

The Frederick Messiah sing-along had a 15 piece orchestra, including clarinets and an excellent trumpeter, the star of the evening. She used an instrument that looked just a little bigger than a bugle. We didn't form into sections, so I was on my own.

Handel would not have used clarinets since they hadn't been invented yet, but they remind me of the fact that the SF Symphony occasionally performed Messiah in an arrangement by Mozart who wanted it orchestrated for his standard orchestra instead of Handel's very different one. The trumpet parts were changed to French horns. The text was in German, as I recall.

In my day we hardly ornamented at all, performing Messiah virtually as notated, but today's soloists ornament freely, especially the soprano, Leah Inger. She was very into this.

The conductor of the Frederick sing-along, Judith L. DuBose, took everything at quite a breath-taking clip, showing us sing-alongers no mercy. The great curiosity of Messiah is how the choral parts are more ornamented than the solos. Other Handel oratorios are just not like that.

My voice doesn't work at all any more, but I croaked my way through anyway. Were we supposed to rehearse?

Sunday, December 18, 2005


This film, La Callas Toujour from EMI of Maria Callas in recital at the Paris opera in 1958 is a joy. One suffers terribly from not having seen anything of her except the Tosca Act II from Ed Sullivan. Here she is in concert doing the first act of Norma, an aria from Il Trovatore and "Una voce poco fa" by Rossini. Then in the second half of the concert she performs Tosca Act II in costume with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia. What a magnificent artist.

She came equipped with this huge buzz saw voice that simply cut through everything she saw, and then she handled it with such grace and control. The brightness of her tone and the completeness of her technique, and the greatness of her musical intelligence allowed her complete control of her phrasing. "Una voce poco fa" is particularly a joy to see.

It's not a beautiful voice. Why hear this? Because you cannot keep it out. Because it takes hold of you whether you wish it to or not.

In Norma the sound of her voice makes possible this marvelous controlled performance. She never shifts into heavy chest, never descends into melodrama, always keeps her control of the phrase. In every note is perfect truth.

It is wonderful to see her acting. She shows Tosca's sweetness and vulnerability as well as her anger and strength. Watch it without the titles. She seems fragile and vulnerable herself, something I did not expect. 1958 was in the middle of her troubles with the press. One wishes there were more films.

Gobbi is also magnificent as Scarpia.

Opera as Drama

I have bought a book, Opera as Drama by Joseph Kerman, and in the Epilogue he says, "Opera entails the revelation of the quality of human response to actions and events."

There is a conventional wisdom about opera. All the serious writers on opera as theater point to the same sources and reach the same conclusions. All look back to Sir Donald Tovey for their inspiration. All discuss the same small list of operas: Figaro, Don Giovanni, Otello, Die Meistersinger. George R. Marek in his book Opera as Theater adds Fidelio, Carmen, La Traviata, Tosca, Turandot and Der Rosenkavalier to this list. Joseph Kerman in Opera as Drama adds Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Gluck’s Orfeo and Pelleas and Melisande.

According to the conventional wisdom, the Italians rise to the level of mention only when they acquire the virtues of the Germans, as in Verdi’s Otello. Mozart and Wagner tower above all the others, casting them into deep shadow. The conventional wisdom requires us to endlessly praise the finales in Figaro and the effect of the leitmotiv in Wagner’s Ring. I have known people who only go to performances of Wagner’s final operas, considering them the only operas worthy of their notice. I am a bit on the other side and have never sat all the way through a performance of Tristan or Parsifal. In contrast my interest flagged in the equally lengthy Saint Francis only during the bird calls scene.

My experience of Wagner is that you are caught up in the spirit of what he is doing or you are not. Terry McEwan’s Ring cycle hooked me. James Morris and Eva Marton riveted my attention. Die Götterdämmerung was not a minute too long. For me Die WalkĂĽre is Wagner’s best opera, and I like Meistersinger more and more as the years pass. This kind of getting caught up hasn’t happened for me in Tristan, and I actively loathe Parsifal. I was caught up in the religious ecstasy of Saint Francis. I’ve warned before that I was a philistine.

Kerman describes Wagner’s main dramas as, “Opera as Symphonic Poem.” This is excellent. I was describing these works as the development sections of symphonies with all the exposition and recapitulation left out, but symphonic poem is better, more historically accurate. They descend from the ideas of Berlioz and Liszt, the inventor of the symphonic poem.

Kerman describes the Baroque, apart from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, as the Dark Ages. Associating opera with form is an interesting exercise. Opera in the early Baroque had not yet acquired its obsession with form and produced more dramatically effective opera-drama, especially in the operas of Monteverdi, not just Orfeo. Cavalli has also been revived recently. The interest in these operas stems from the fact that they are effective as theater.

As the Baroque progressed, the formal structure of the da capo aria dominated the requirements of theater. Opera became a series of set pieces with a cursory narrative between the long, showy arias. All of music, not merely opera arias, took on this formal, single affect per movement form. You will find it also in the Brandenberg Concertos or the Quattro Staggione. Why can we accept this in a concerto grosso but not in an opera?

Is Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice significantly more interesting than the more traditional La Clemenza di Tito? Or even the completely stereotypical opera seria Giulio Cesare in Egitto? If it is, why is it done so seldom? It doesn’t make my A or my B list.

My take on these writers is that they come to opera from somewhere else, from symphony, from instrumental music generally, and having thoroughly hashed over the symphony and decided what makes a great symphony, they are looking for those same virtues in operas. Great symphonic development doesn’t guarantee a great opera. They keep Wozzeck alive because they adore the fact that all the scenes are based on forms derived from instrumental music, as though this made it a better opera.

The test for a great opera is simple: does it engage the emotions? Do we connect emotionally to the people on the stage? Do their woes reflect our own? Do their joys touch us?

The drama is in the humans. I propose that this explains my conclusions that L'Amour de loin is a great opera while Doctor Atomic is a bad one, though both are directed and produced by Peter Sellars, and both are relatively static in terms of action.

In L'Amour the play is about human response. The entire drama is about human emotion and hardly a line of the dialog is not about emotion, longing, desire, love. Once it is decided how to display this visually, it's all downhill after that. It flows from passion to passion.

Atomic is just ordinary people talking about their ordinary lives. The security guard is a major character because Adams insists on using the actual words spoken by the actual people, except for the poem by John Donne we are told Oppenheimer read. The emotions of the characters are completely missing and replaced by a huge replica of the atomic bomb. The drama has to come from the people. Without Mr. Sellars' bomb there would be nothing.

Opera is about human emotion.

Saturday, December 17, 2005


Rolando and Anna, pronounced Anya I guess, were on the radio today in Verdi's Rigoletto. I thought the role a bit heavy for Villazon, but exactly right for Netrebko. I really love her singing.

David Daniels

I am listening to Rinaldo. I think it is the force of his voice and of his personality that is the attraction of David Daniels, countertenor. The sound isn't exactly beautiful but it fits the heroic characters he is portraying.

This is heavy going for me. It's no wonder I don't listen to this much. I just don't care to hear falsettists.


I bought also the 1978 film of Montserrat Caballe’s Norma from the Bel Canto Society.

The character of Norma is one of the things that keeps this opera at the top of the bel canto repertoire. She is a powerful woman, the head of her Druid religion, but bound in this role to complete chastity. Instead, she has two sons by Pollione, the Roman consul. When she finds he is having an affair with Adalgisa, another priestess, she contemplates murdering his sons, like Medea, but decides instead to send them to her father. The opera ends with Norma and Pollione being burned alive, a particularly gruesome way to die.

The other thing that keeps us listening is the incredible vocal line that Bellini has composed. Phrasing “Casta diva” is one of the great tests for a soprano.

The role is defined for us today by the 1954 and 1962 recordings of Maria Callas. Caballe and Callas performed the same repertoire but were very different singers. The first difference is in the sound of their voices: Callas had a hardness in her tone which made it easy for her to bring intensity and drama into her characterizations, while Caballe with her large, beautiful instrument must work harder to get the right theatrical effect with her voice.

In this video Caballe shifts frequently into a heavy chest voice for effect. Callas in the same music can concentrate on the line and get all the drama she needs from her emotions without deliberately manipulating her tone. Of course, there are the Callas high notes in the later recording. Caballe’s voice is always beautiful throughout its range. I never feel that I mind the sound of Callas’ voice. It expresses what she wants to say.

Is it unfair to compare the two? The “Casta diva” on the Caballe biography video with the white robes blowing in the wind is better than this one, where she works very hard to bring drama into her characterization to the detriment of the overall sound. The sweetness of her character is also at odds with Norma's. The singing in Semiramide and Roberto Devereaux is more spectacular.

That said, Caballe comes as close as anyone has to Callas’ standard. I think if I was to pick just one video of the three for Caballe, it would be Roberto Devereaux, perhaps in the version from the bel canto society.

Friday, December 16, 2005


A couple of things came together for me--my interest in the minimalists and Alex Ross' article on Philip Glass' score--that made me think it was finally time for me to see Koyaanisqatsi, or Life out of Balance.

There's a little joke at the beginning: the DVD has a screen offering subtitles in Francais and Espagnol. The joke is that there is no dialog, just film and music. I am imagining words running across the bottom of the screen.

We begin with empty deserts and oceans and move gradually into human life. There is beautiful footage of a cave with bats flying in and out. The music and the film become gradually more and more frenzied, with film of explosions, buildings falling down and time lapse photography of cars going by. The musical score and the pictures complement each other. Glass' style consists of simple 2-4 note figures that are repeated in simple harmonic contexts. With these tools he is able to create large musical landscapes, larger than should actually be possible.

I wonder if this would make a good exercise video. I used to like to exercise to the video of the Joffrey doing Rite of Spring. I generally think exercise videos are too unimaginative. Why not exercise to Philip Glass and rockets taking off?

There is film of my beloved Bay Area with people riding BART and driving on the freeway that collapsed in the earthquake.

How can we judge that it is life out of balance? It is the only life we know.


I've been reading a book called "Opera, A History" by Headington, Westbrook and Barfoot.

They tell us that Mozart wrote Mitridate for Milan and that this explains its completely conventional makeup. I think that's why it's a disappointment: he never steps out of the frame. We have come to expect more from Mozart. Idomeneo was Mozart's 13th work for the stage.

They also discuss castrati, saying that they sang most of the parts for both genders. That they were larger than women is easy to imagine, but the exaggeration of their capabilities is a bit hard to buy. They were specifically trained for their professions to a degree that it is hard to imagine would be true for women at the time.

You don't think I should read about things before I write about them, surely! I would like to read more about the true influence of Gluck's reforms on French opera and the transition to the romantic operas of Weber. I think like most transition periods, the leaders of change are not well known to us. I always remember how much Berlioz loved Spohr.


My latest DVD from Netflix is Candide by Leonard Bernstein.

This is my first experience of Candide, except for the book by Voltaire, of course. It hasn't quite made the transition from novel to opera/operetta and requires a narrator to keep it going. It calls itself an operetta and the songs are operetta-like. I'm used to edgier Bernstein, prefer edgier Bernstein.

It almost works. It's more of a morality tale or mystery play than a musical. We live in the best of all possible worlds. I have always noticed that according the logic at work here, we also live in the worst of all possible worlds. It's what we've got, so just go with it. Build your house, chop your wood, grow your garden. Why can't I picture either Voltaire or Bernstein doing any of these things? I am left wishing for more.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


Opera from Monteverdi to Rossini contains a dirty little secret: the castrato. Dramatic presentations in Rome in this period, whether operas or oratorios, used all male casts, because of the church’s complete oppression of women. For some reason not clear to modern minds it was felt better to castrate men than to allow women to appear in public performances. The Roman opera from its origin in the 1620’s performed with all male casts, with castrated men playing the female roles.

In my discussion of the unknown opera composers I left out Landi, Mazzocchi, Marazzoli and the two Rossis, the composers of the Roman school, from my list. My apologies.

Cecilia Bartoli’s Sacrificium goes into detail about when, how and how frequently the castration took place. The sources for this data seem a bit sketchy.

Monday, December 12, 2005


It’s hard not to see Rent, a reworking of La Boheme, as politics. What a sad picture of modern life it presents as La vie Boheme. In a century we are generally rid of tuberculosis, but now we have aids and drugs to replace it. Several of the characters are on AZT, and one, a drag queen named Angel, dies of aids. Mimi dances in a club and earns extra money with prostitution. She mainlines.

But when she says, “I’m called Mimi,” you have to respond, “I knew that,” or perhaps, "but my real name is Lucia." She blows out her own candle so they can search for matches.

To be our Boheme they must include lesbians and gays, obsess over commitment, and live in a loft in New York City. This is 1990, the end of the millennium, before 9/11, and the world trade center still stands.

What is the same as that other La Boheme? Friendship, youth, joy, love, most of all love. They haven’t paid the rent, so there is no heat. They worry over selling out for money.

I’m going to be 65 in a couple of days and can’t remember ever being this young. I love Angel and the mixed race dyke that is Musetta’s lover. Forgive me if I call them their other names. And there is tango, which I adore. People dance on table tops and shout out their love of La vie Boheme. There is no yesterday; there is no tomorrow. There is only this moment.

Someone named Jonathan Larson made this. It’s us, our young ones, loving and dying and being young. The music is us, too. I dreamt about it.

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Where besides opera would you be so unable to predict what you will see? So why exactly are these people wearing what look like French Farthingales in a production of Mozart's Mitridate, Re di Ponto? Men playing men, women playing women and women playing men--all are wearing them in an opera first performed in 1770. The style, worn by women, died out c. 1600. And the drama takes place in 63 bc.

Dramatis Personæ:

Mitridate, King of Pontus and other kingdoms, in love with Aspasia (tenor-played by a man--Bruce Ford)

Aspasia, betrothed to Mitridate and already declared Queen (soprano-Luba Organasova)

Sifare, son of Mitridate and Stratonica, in love with Aspasia (male soprano-played by a woman-Ann Murray)

Farnace, eldest son of Mitridate, also in love with Aspasia (male alto-played by a man-Jochen Kowalski)

Ismene, daughter of the King of the Parthians, in love with Farnace (soprano-Lillian Watson)

Marzio, Roman Tribune, friend of Farnace (tenor-Justin Lavender)

Arbate, Governor of Nymphæa (male soprano-played by a woman-Jacquelyn Fugelle)

The most interesting thing about this opera is that it was written by Mozart when he was 14. It is a fully realized opera seria in a style that I would call rococo. Every bit of it is recognizably Mozart. He shows no interest in the Gluck reform movement going on then and composes roles for castrati in formal set-piece arias. Mozart grows up into a more sophisticated composer, but so does the world generally. He is completely in tune with his era.

The singing is lovely, and the vocal writing is amazing. Try to ignore the incongruous costumes.

This opera makes clear all the problems of opera seria. From a theatrical perspective it is too static and meditative for modern life. Nothing lifts this from the surrounding repertoire except that it is by Mozart at 14. If you're curious, definitely look it over. If you want to be entertained, it will not do at all.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


I am researching the music of the last 30 years in order to write a chapter about it. I have already compiled and am working on a list of operas. See here.

Minimalism descends from the avant garde of the 1950's and is led by Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. The first and last of these three I am familiar with through listening to the recordings of the Kronos Quartet. Kronos used to rehearse in the school near my house in Berkeley. I am a big fan of Kronos.

An early landmark is Steve Reich's "Drumming," 1970-71. Which I have heard. It's, what can I say, it's ... a lot of drumming. Not percussion, just drumming. How more minimal can you get? There used to be people who jammed on drums for hours on end on the cement stairs on the Bay at the head of Hyde Street. You could join in if you brought your own drum. They sort of swung, if I recall correctly. Reich is just drumming.

Some of his early stuff is actually tape manipulations of people talking, which I consider more avant garde than minimalist. Glass is the most minimal of the minimalists. He just does simple triads and arpeggios over and over until your mind goes completely numb.

I have been investigating the work of Arvo Pärt recently and find him repetitive. [Insert laughter here.] That is a gag line. If I have to explain it, it isn't funny. He is doing antique textures--Schütz or Perotin--with modern harmony. It generally has a religious context, and is in fact, intensely religious.

The rest of the group of minimalists are John Adams (not so minimal), Le Monte Young, Meredith Monk, Sol Lewitt, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman. Except for Adams, I can't tell you anything about these guys.

It is possible to get your brain around the music of the minimalist school which makes them a huge improvement over most of serialism. Less is more.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Here is an interesting discussion of technique from the Bel Canto Society:

What gives [Mario] Del Monaco’s sound its elemental excitement? Ring, ping, what the Italians call “squillo.” Most singers merely have resonance, which in and of itself is never exciting.

Tones without squillo cannot pierce or punch. They may exude sorrow but not heartwrenching suffering or violent rate. For me, singers lacking squillo can never be entirely satisfying as, say, Otello. The full-bodied tones of Carreras and Domingo may please, but they cannot thrill. To thrill, such singers have to rely on the use to which they put their tones, on musical interpretation and vocal acting.

The following have or had voices with resonance but no—or little—squillo: Battistini, Blake, Bonci, Borgioli, Bruson, Caballe, Clement, Corena, Finelli, Freni, McCormack, Olivero, Schipa, Simionato, Tagliavini, Valletti and Vrenios. Though he did not have a great deal of squillo, Gigli, for one, generated excitement through exuberance of manner.

The following have or had squillo: Bergamaschi, Cerquetti, Christoff, De Muro, Escalais, Fleta, Groh, Korjus, Kurz, Lauri Volpi, Martinelli, Nilsson, Pavarotti, Ponselle, Rosvaenge, Ruffo, Tamagno, Tebaldi, Tetrazzini and Zenatello. Sometimes a singer will have squillo on high notes only—Bonisolli, for instance. Sometimes a singer will have it on good days only—myself [Stefan Zucker], for instance. Sometimes a singer will have squillo on the Italian vowels “e” and “I” only—De Lucia, for instance. Sometimes a singer will have it but lose it—Callas and Slezak, for instance. Bjoerling and Caruso each relied on resonance and squillo in about equal proportion.

You can increase squillo by lowering your larynx—but you don’t have to lower your larynx to have it. (Getting your larynx to stay really low while singing or talking takes some doing.)

According to Del Monaco’s autobiography, La mia vita e I miei successi, at the beginning of his career he appeared as Ernesto and Alfredo—and couldn’t be heard. Then he pioneered a lowered-larynx technique taught by Arturo Melocchi, who had learned it in China from a Russian [so this is the Russian secret!]—the technique previously was unknown in Italy. It gave Del Monaco a powerful, brassy sound, but there were tradeoffs: the sound was thick, sometimes muscular, and he had limited ability to color, to modulate between loud and soft and to sing with agility or legato. Often the sound was constricted in the passaggio (the area of the voice where head resonance begins to predominate over chest resonance).

Corelli, to overcome these drawbacks, modified the technique: whereas Del Monaco held his larynx very low at all times, Corelli caused his, in his word, to “float.” Overall the result was more satisfying even if Del Monaco’s B-flats were more trumpet-like than anyone else’s. In any case, the standard repertory sung with a lowered larynx is as anachronistic as Bach played on a concert grand—although the result can be thrilling. (Corelli’s rejoinder is that in today’s theaters, with today’s louder and more brilliant orchestras, singers need the power and steel that come from the lowered larynx.)

… On early records many singers have squillo. Since then, it has become hard to find apart from those who lower their larynxes.

Dr B: Interesting, don't you think? I think there are degrees of lowered larynx, some more extreme than others, but that everyone lowers it at least a little. At least some of the names are familiar.

He says Caballe has no squillo. Well, see her Norma from bel canto society. We need a list that's more up to date.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

An American Tragedy

There is an excellent article in Wikipedia about the novel An American Tragedy. According to my rule that opera is about love this should work as an opera. But the reviews I am seeing are all pans.

Here's a nice quote from the Chicago Tribune: "[Dolora] Zajick sucked up every ounce of oxygen on stage in her showy scena, complete with fearless leaps into the vocal stratosphere." She plays the hero's mother. Why can't I write like that?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Roberto Devereux

Since this is a blog and not a real job, I get to follow my inclinations wherever they go. After watching her biography, my inclinations are taking me to Montserrat Caballe. I was never a fan of Caballe, and now I have to wonder why. Ignorance, probably. After seeing the bio, I bought two videos from the Bel Canto Society--Semiramide and Norma--and one from House of Opera--a 1977 performance of Roberto Devereux by Donizetti from Aix-en-Provence with a very young and very robust sounding Jose Carreras. Like any of HofO's material, it is not up to commercial standards. This DVD is worth the price just for Carreras alone. I notice that the bel canto society also offers this. They apparently have access to the original tapings and don't have to rely on broadcasts.

The picture on the cover of Caballe's bio Beyond Music is from this production, where she is simply amazing. Why Caballe? The size, color, beauty and flexibility of her voice would be hard to top in bel canto repertoire. She can do it all. Nothing ever happens that is even remotely too much for her. Everything in this really very heavy opera is completely within her power and control--every note, every phrase, every emotion. How often can you say that?

I think I personally prefer a balance between heaviness and fioratura that is more toward the Rossini balance. Rossini never forgets it's about singing, but Donizetti is trying for heavier drama. My heart didn't stop for this as it did for Semiramide.

Christmas gifts

Of the things I have reviewed this year, these are the best of what's still available:

For the devoted opera lover:

This is the hot new singer Anna Netrebko's best CD.

Equally hot is Rolando Villazon's French aria CD.

For the devoted old-fashioned opera lover, Caballe's DVD bio is fabulous.

No one's record collection should be without this La Boheme with Beecham and company.

For the newcomer to opera Domingo is always recommended, as in this well-produced Tales of Hoffmann DVD.

For those ready to branch out:

Of course. Don't miss this. Give Bartoli's Opera Proibita CD to everyone if you want.

I loved this DVD film of Ruslan and Lyudmila. Anna Netrebko is in this, too.

This is for those who are ready for true adventure: L'amour de loin.


Saturday, December 03, 2005


Friends are trying to keep me up on things.

Here's an item of interest. Opernwelt, a German language magazine on opera, has awarded the Stuttgart Opera the production of the year award for Doktor Faust. My friend has written, "Can you believe this?" on the edge of the clipping. This production made its debut in San Francisco, and I have expressed elsewhere in this blog that I loathed it. Doktor Faust works in a factory as a computer worker, apparently. What they're doing with the computers isn't clear, but a lot of time is spent staring at the screens. That is an accurate representation of computer work. Doktor Faust also sleeps in the factory and has visitors who seem to be up to no good. That's all I can tell you. It made no sense at all. Maybe German opera critics know more about Busoni's Doktor Faust than I do and could figure out what was supposed to be going on. The set design by Anna Viebrock also won an award. It's hard to take in.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Because I rented several operas, Netflix thought I would enjoy Fitzcarraldo, a movie by Werner Herzog.

From an opera devotee point of view the movie begins oddly. Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt, we are asked to believe, have traveled to an obscure area of Brazil in order to perform together in Ernani. Bernhardt mimes her part, extending her arms wildly and going constantly up and down stairs. Someone sitting in the pit actually sings her part. Poor Bernhardt. What a horrible way to remember her. She is portrayed as enormously tall and gaunt--it's obviously played by a man in drag. They speak of her wooden leg. It's true, she continued to perform Camille after her leg was amputated, but in a wheel chair. And it was her voice one would have traveled to hear, not this peculiar mime. If it really happened, I don't want to know.

In the context of the movie she is just a celebrity, someone people would travel to see and pay money for. That's what celebrity is good for, I guess. Our hero, Fitz (Klaus Kinski), has dragged his wife (Claudia Cardinale--her voice provided by the excellent German dubbing industry) down the Amazon to see this performance by Caruso, his idol, and they arrive just in time to see Ernani kill himself.

Fitz is then even more determined to bring opera to his remote part of the jungle. He knows that he would have to be fabulously rich to accomplish this and has already failed to build a railroad and establish a profitable ice business. Now he's ready to try rubber.

The movie is mainly an adventure in the jungle with friendly Indians and plenty of hardship, but the scenes are peppered with Caruso recordings played on the Victrola Fitz takes everywhere with him. The quartet from Rigoletto is a popular favorite. It isn't Fitz, it's Caruso who wins over the natives who then solve all Fitz's problems for him.

It's a great movie about ecstatic love of opera. It ends in triumph with a scene from I Puritani played from the deck of his boat. Fitz is indeed fabulously rich.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005


While I was in San Francisco to see Doctor Atomic, we rented a silent movie of Carmen starring Geraldine Farrar. What an idea. An opera singer stars in a movie playing a character she would also sing at the opera. Kind of reminds you of Callas' Medea movie.

The plot explained a lot about Carmen that has never made sense. In the movie Carmen is part of the smuggler group from the beginning. They need someone on the inside to get their loot past the police, so Carmen is designated to find a nice policeman to seduce. Doesn't that make it all come clear? It's all quite logical.

Geraldine Farrar is not particularly beautiful in this movie. I'm not sure if it doesn't spoil my illusions about her, but she does project enormous vitality and charisma. Her Carmen is not carelessly arrested--everything she does is completely on purpose. I think I like this Carmen more than I did.

In our trend toward journalism we want to point out that around the time of Caruso's death in 1920 Geraldine Farrar was the prima donna assoluta at the Metropolitan, the only person of either gender ever to have her own private dressing room at the Met.


Robert Oppenheimer

Was I too rough with Doctor Atomic? I don't think so.

I quoted Gertrude Stein on the atomic bomb because I agree with her perspective. Politically the bomb is a huge issue, but personally it is not interesting.

For Robert Oppenheimer to work as Faust the opera has to be about him. The Faust moment for him came when he agreed to head the Manhattan Project, an event not covered in the opera at all. Over the course of his employment on the project, did he doubt its wisdom or his own role in it? He had US security clearance and would have found himself in trouble if he expressed a lot of reservations. A librettist would need to invent this.

If Robert Oppenheimer experienced no inner conflict around the work he was doing, then he is a poor choice for an opera. A big bomb hanging in the air is not a substitute. This Faust loses his soul and is damned forever.

Monday, November 21, 2005


I ordered this video from House of Opera because it promised “lots of nude men all the time.” Well, maybe not all the time. It also promised RenĂ©e Fleming singing in Handel’s Alcina at the Paris opera, with Susan Graham as Ruggiero and Natalie Dessay as Morgana. 

After all the fuss over Pamela Rosenberg’s production of Alcina in San Francisco, I wanted to see what honest to god Eurotrash looked like, and I must say they do produce a much purer product. This is much trashier. Pamela had Alcina changing her outfit for every scene, and that was about it. The premise is that Alcina has seduced a long list of men and then enchanted each one, turning them into rocks and trees. In this production they stand, or lie or wander zombie-like around the stage in various stages of undress, from fully clothed to fully unclothed. This is a concept production. They are frozen and unselfconscious in their enchanted state. There is no magic to counter the enchangment--Ruggiero takes a dagger from Alcina and she plunges herself onto it in suicide over her failure to seduce him. When she dies, the magic is gone, so the first thing they do is put all their clothes back on. 

According to Rough Guide, Alcina was intended to provide competition for Farinelli who was performing for a rival company in London that season. I must say Susan Graham makes a very fetching boy toy, and manages some quite good singing as well. RenĂ©e sings well, too. She really sinks her teeth into Alcina. 

Oh well. Maybe I’m not really the Eurotrash type. The film appears to be pirated, or “non-television” as HofO describes it. P.S. When I give such a high rating to a HofO DVD, it is for the content, not the quality of the product. The singing is superb and the nude men are also nice.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


At last on the twentieth the November issue of The Gramophone reached Maryland. I am now notorious with the staff of Borders. It is full of fabulous pictures of La Bartoli, and Opera proibita is recording of the month. Of course.

DVD of the month is L'amour de loin, the opera video that I went on so long about. For me it worked a wonderful inner tension that was very beautiful. This makes me feel in tune with the universe.

Gerald Finley (Wasn't he Doctor Atomic? Yes. I sort of blew him off--unjustifiably, I would like to add. He sang well and looked good in a fedora, the hat he wore in Doctor Atomic that was popular in the forties. My father wore one.) has released an Ives album. You knew I would get back to this sentence eventually. Ives is one of my personal passions. He even does "General William Booth enters into heaven." I should track this down.

How interesting! Gerald Finley is everywhere. He was also the troubadour in L'Amour de loin. I didn't blow him off there, too, surely? He was lovely.

There is another Ives entry about something called the Universe Symphony, a colossal work that Ives worked on for many years and never completed. It has been completed posthumously and recorded. So Ives didn't actually stop composing--he just got sucked in to this insane project and couldn't get back out. I can relate.

It is simply not possible that there are this many new classical recordings in a single month. Where are they hiding?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Effects of recording

The biggest effect of technology on music, both recorded and live, is the microphone. Classical singers still perform live without them, with maybe possibly sometimes not. I thought I heard the effects of miking recently at the Washington National Opera.

But all recordings are miked. I think in spite of their low sales there must be some significant money in recording. The largest recent classical record seller has been Luciano Pavarotti, closely followed by Cecilia Bartoli. Maybe I’ll have to subscribe to Billboard to find out the true story.

In the nineteenth century orchestras and singers played off each other by continually beefing up. Orchestras got bigger and bigger and singing technique got heavier and heavier. I recall singing in the chorus of a performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, composed around 1900 and notorious for its huge orchestra. I recall looking down into the pit from the side and seeing how close the musicians were to each other. The violins had to play the same bow strokes, which they are supposed to do anyway, of course, or they would poke one another in the eye. It was very cozy. From our seats above the orchestra we could see the soloists’ mouths moving as the only evidence that anyone was singing. The recent performance of Strauss’ Daphne at Kennedy Center was not quite this bad.

There is a movement for Sprechstimme in Gurrelieder, the earliest example, I think, and it was performed to great effect by the great Wagnerian bass-baritone Hans Hotter.

I digress. The point of this story was that Gurrelieder represents the extreme of big orchestras and singers trying to sing big enough to blast over them. This resulted in a vogue for heavy singing which may today be dying out. Witness, for example, the relative weight of our two best sellers: Luciano still retains a heavy technique, but Cecilia does not.

Heavy singing is very risky. A friend sent me a dvd of Pavarotti, Marton and Milnes singing Verdi’s Il Trovatore. All three are Verdi singers. I think his superb technique and the bright color of his voice always allowed Luciano to sing heavy Verdi roles with sufficient legato to avoid any damage to himself. Eva Marton oversang almost everything she did, and completely unnecessarily. She was always the loudest voice on the stage, and still she pushed her voice louder. James Morris, who always sings everything with a superlative legato, is an example to follow.

Sherrill Milnes had already lost it by the time this performance was recorded. You can hear that he cannot control the color on his high notes. For a better example of his Verdi singing see the dvd for Ernani. Shortly after Il Trovatore his voice became raspy and ugly whenever he tried for a heavy tone.

Heavy singing is the hardest kind, the hardest to do, the hardest to find, the hardest to sustain over a long career. Lately we begin to hear lighter and lighter voices taking on these works. We also hear a growing taste for Baroque and modern opera which simply don’t have these heavy vocal requirements. The great stars are recording with a lighter tone—the record producers encourage this—and it inevitably holds over into live performances. The kind of singing we all grew up with may soon be gone forever.

Another blogging on the effects of recording is here.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Tosca's Kiss

"Il bacio di Tosca" is a film about people who have retired from the opera. The building of the building was supervised by Verdi and survived from his royalties for years. Now his works are no longer in copywrite and there are no more royalties to support the inhabitants of Casa Verdi in Milan.

Sara Scuderi is the star of this movie. She sang at La Scala for six years and once did Tosca with Gigli who autographed a photo for her.

There is a scene showing a turntable beginning to play "Vissi d'arte" and it says "Sara Scuderi, soprano." She walks into the room while the record is playing, wearing a black coat with a gray fur collar and jewelry, and holding her cane. She smiles beautifully, looking up and humming along with the music. "Che bella!" she says at the end, and then tells us she feels almost like crying. She has great presence on the screen.

They all sing. Their voices are old and their support muscles are gone, but all the love is still there in their hearts. At the end they sing "O sole mio." I sing too, but I can't remember the words.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hoffmann in love

And the opera most about love of all is The Tales of Hoffmann where the subject is love itself, its absurd base in illusion and fantasy, its excess and inevitability, its humiliations and exaltations. Love.

If I could pick any singer to be like, to have her voice and theatrical personality, I think it would be Agnes Baltsa. It would be wonderful to project this much animal magnetism. In this Hoffmann she sings the Venetian courtesan Giuletta who steals Hoffmann's reflection.

Musically it's Antonia's aria, sung by Iliana Cotrubas, I fall for. Hoffmann is the perfect opera and this production from Covent Garden perfectly expresses the feeling of each scene: the devotion to science, the brother, the humble house, the bar. It's only just a bit drab. The brothel scene includes a very nice orgy.

Placido Domingo's Hoffmann is perfectly clueless. To see someone love so foolishly and with such incautious abandon is very comforting.

Monday, November 14, 2005


I enjoy enormously this recording of the violin music of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. It sounds like a whole ensemble, doesn’t it? The group is called Romanesca.

Biber is middle Baroque, when they were still having fun with their style. Most fun is a piece called Sonata Representativa where he tries to imitate sounds, somewhat reminiscent of Messiaen. Wait, that can’t be right. It must be the other way around. He’s doing a nightingale, a cuckoo and a quail, for instance. The nightingale somewhat resembles a cadenza that starts slowly. With the cuckoo he puts the call on an inner voice that you have to listen for, like a cantus firmus. The croak of a frog is done with sliding minor seconds. As is the crowing of the cock. Cats slide discordantly and musketeer’s march to bagpipes, of course. Lots of fun.

There is an extended piece for solo violin that builds on a four note minor repeating bass, one of the major building blocks of the middle Baroque, called a Passacaglia. They are edging toward tonality, Biber is much more tonal than Monteverdi, but the quicksand has not yet quite caught them, and they can experiment. Once tonality completely takes hold, you are tonal whether you want to be or not. Schoenberg invented a whole system to avoid the sense of the tonal magnet, and still it sounds tonal a lot of the time.

Middle Baroque is where it’s at.

Sunday, November 13, 2005


I decided years ago that the book I wrote about singing would never see the light of day, but here and there are small things I would like to remember, like this paragraph:

Singing is a wonderful thing. There is nothing at all between you and the music. You can get as close to the music and as passionate about it as you want. You can feel it flowing inside you and caressing your heart as it goes by. You can feel music pulsing through your whole body. You can shape the music and make it fit perfectly into your soul. You can make music a part of yourself.

And this:

To singing, the voice of God.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Mathilde Wesendonck

In the NY Times last Sunday was the headline "Why Shouldn't Men Sing Romantic Drivel, Too?"

This refers to the fact that Matthias Goerne has chosen to perform the "Wesendonck Lieder." How is one to explain this? I always used to say these were the best Wagner, concise pieces that get to the point quickly, and then move on. They also have the advantage of not having words by Wagner. One is inclined to see what isn't there more vividly than what is. There isn't the endless modulation, and most of all, there isn't any Stabreim.

It's difficult to hear ones own language. We don't hear it as sounds; we hear it as meaning. But a foreign language, that's another thing. In German Goethe is awesomely beautiful. If you immerse yourself in his poetry you realize that you didn't know German could possibly sound this beautiful. Wagner's poetry is hideous. Such ugly noises! For the lover of Goethe it is an offense. So Mathilde may be drivel, but she is very much less than hideous drivel, is in fact quite singable.

Matthias Goerne is worth noting. I saw one of his recitals in San Francisco, and he's quite authentic. It is admirable that someone would make a career of Lieder singing. It's admirable that one could.

The article says that he's at least thinking about performing "Frauenliebe." [Schumann's cycle "Frauenliebe und Leben"] Now if you want to call that drivel, I would not have a problem. These are very nice songs, I'm sure. I used to sing the ring song at weddings, but the overall perspective is quite masculine. It's what men think of women. Ick! Schumann's own wife certainly had a life nothing like this. So why not a man singing it?

Wagner seems to be a favorite target, as in this where I rag on Parsifal. I got quite nasty in this one, but took it all back here. I even praised his compositional methods here. I don't know what got into me. For me Wagner is someone who either works or he doesn't. When it doesn't work, nothing could be more boring, but when it does, it's the most moving experience possible.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


You younger ones are going to have to forgive us older people, because, you see, we were alive when gods still walked the earth.

Filmed in 1980 in Aix en Provence this film of Rossini’s Semiramide from the Bel Canto Society is blurry. The film is in color, but the production is in black and white. The costumes are ridiculous, with absurd white fright wigs on everyone. The sound has been recorded by one of those automatic gain devices that tries to keep the volume at a constant level, so when the sound gets soft there is a loud hum.

So why would you want this? The annoying gimmicks of Rossini’s operae buffae are not here. There is nothing but glorious bel canto music. The operas of Bellini descend from opera seria, and Semiramide is one of its finest examples. It is a typical opera plot with love, power, revenge, and death all mixed in.

But that’s still not why you would want it. Marilyn, wherever you are, I simply forgot. It is a privilege to hear this.

Semiramide is Montserrat Caballe.
Arsace is Marilyn Horne.
Assur is Samuel Ramey.
Idreno is Francisco Araiza.

Is it necessary to say more? Marilyn Horne is at her peak, and what an astounding peak it is. She is vigorous and self-confident. Montserrat is marvelously intense here, with everything gorgeously sung. Their duets are heavenly.

And the men are up to them. This is some of the best Samuel Ramey you will ever hear. Araiza's part is less significant, but he is also fabulous. A more balanced cast is simply not possible.

It's nice to see such a great audience, who can hardly be made to stop cheering and stomping. And why not? Cheer and stomp in your living room.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1803-1830]


I am still pondering Alex Ross' article on the effects of recordings on classical music. The main effect seems to have been a fanatical desire to "improve" performance standards. I have been known to complain about this, too. The whole assumption that more accurate equals better is to think about.

I had the privilege at various times to work under Robert Shaw, the great choral conductor. Shaw always spent quite a lot of time in rehearsal working on the intonation of the chorus, trying to get everyone to sing precisely accurate pitches. For instance, certain intervals if sung precisely in tune will generate a sympathetic tone, and Shaw would try to get the chorus to hear this note. It didn't seem to matter how big the chorus was, since we were doing Beethoven and Brahms at the time, and the chorus could get quite large.

The sound of a well-tuned chorus is quite different, and some of the most wonderful choral music I've ever heard was with Shaw. But compare his Rachmaninov "Vespers" with this one called "Evening Star" with the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir on Philips. Do we really love the tuned version more than the rawer Russian one?

The process of finding true expression is a great challenge.


Monday, November 07, 2005

Question from reader

One hears from time to time that the tritone used to be called "The Devil's Interval" and that "the Church banned it." Can you tell me, which church, when, and in what sense? Kind of hard to think of V-I progressions without the minor 7th in there, and the dissonance between the 3d and the 7th in that chord.

Dr. B: Corelli invented tonality, which means until some time around 1680 there was no such thing as a chord progression. A chord progression means you're progressing toward something. When you listen to Monteverdi c. 1640, he isn't progressing anywhere, but is doing modal based harmony. Tonality caught on very fast, and by Bach music is fully tonal.

This is the third time I have written that Corelli invented tonality, so perhaps I should explain this. It was accomplished through the use of chain suspensions. In Cecilia's concert La Scintilla played a Corelli piece, and it was full of these chain suspensions or suspensions in a series. A suspension requires a particular sequence of chords and creates a strong sense of resolution. With the use of chain suspensions the sense of resolution and movement toward the tonic becomes very powerful, even irresistable, and is present throughout the phrase.

Subsequent composers noticed that the drive toward the tonic was accomplished more through the selection of chords than the use of suspensions: thus the chord progression. Already by Bach each chord has another chord that it expects to resolve to.

It's modal harmony that forbid the tritone, and modal harmony is more characteristic of the Renaissance and earlier eras. In modal harmony there is a cadence formula to identify the mode and a certain amount of gravity around one other note, but that's all you get for harmonic organization. Movement follows the rules of counterpoint which doesn't really concern itself with what order the chords go in. The composer would stick in a Bb to fix the forbidden interval. By Monteverdi the number of modes in use corresponded roughly to the major and minor scales.

It was a silly rule, like the world is flat, intelligent design, that kind of thing.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Sarah and I were getting competitive about our idols, and I claimed to have everything on cd or video of Cecilia Bartoli. Well, I lied again. There are a number of early things I don't have, like this lovely Idomeneo from 1996 with Placido Domingo that came in the mail yesterday. I think it's Deutsche Grammophon, and that's why I didn't know about it. Or maybe I'm not as competitive as I thought.

There are a number of fine things about this opera recording. You get to hear Placido Domingo do a bit of coloratura Mozart, in case you have never heard this before. I certainly had not.

There is some Carol Vaness at her very best. She has a beautiful voice and technique. We were once in a concert together in Grace Cathedral. I sang an obscure Bach aria, and she sang Mozart's Exultate Jubilate. It wasn't a fair comparison. (canned laughter) So you may assume I'm prejudiced when I say that she fails only in the heart area. We don't warm up to her because she basically has a cold center. This is her core repertoire and is quite fine.

Cecilia is still in her low period. It's gorgeous but for the microphone only.

There is some of the best of Thomas Hampson here as well. Everyone rises to meet Mozart.

This is the sacrifice your son to the gods plot. Everything turns out right in the end. Idomeneo is Mozart's finest example of Neapolitan opera seria which always has a happy ending.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Career moves

In the October issue of Opera News is an article on Christine Brewer, a dramatic soprano who was featured in the recent revival of Britten’s Gloriana. I was interested in the part of the article where she discusses being in a master class with Birgit Nilsson when she was young.

The issue is whether it is wise to contract with one of the German houses when one is young. In my list of how to become a great singer, I put that in. I know that Marilyn Horne did her time in Klagenfurt in Austria where she was contracted as a soprano. I also know that Montserrat Caballe worked as a contract singer in Germany for a while. In this kind of job you get to/have to sing a lot. A contracted soprano is assigned a role in virtually every opera but is also often double cast with other members of the company. My friend Ursula, who was around 30 at the time, sang the lead in every operetta, a significant part of German opera repertoire, as well as Martha, Hansel, etc. But then she was a coloratura soprano with a very secure technique. She was spared performing in La Forza and Salome because her voice was not suitable for heavy soprano parts. Giancarlo Del Monaco who was the intendant, didn’t care to hear her in Italian repertoire which may have been lucky for her. She was assigned Lisa’s maid in Pique Dame.

Birgit Nilsson advised Christine Brewer to avoid this like the plague. Perhaps it would be best to tell what she actually said, according to Brewer. “You’re a big girl, and you have a sound that sounds like it’s going to be a dramatic voice. People are going to start offering you big roles right away. Don’t take them.” Brewer goes on to say she was offered a house contract in Hamburg and Nilsson said, “Absolutely do not take that offer. Your voice will be ruined in a couple of years, because they’ll have you singing everything under the sun.” I know that too much too soon is very bad for a big voice. It’s best to grow into a big voice. It’s also best not to sing Wagner until you’re 40ish. I don’t know if Nilsson would agree, but I suspect she would.

Some people thrive in that environment, and others drop like stones. You are singing constantly and your voice teacher isn’t there to help. My tenor friend Jay went home to Texas every summer to brush up with his teacher, but I don’t think many do this.

Some of the assigned parts will be wrong for you, so what should you do? How you answer this question is key. If you should try to force you voice into heavy singing, try to cope by faking what you can’t actually do, you are doomed. If you’re 25 and could sing the lead in La Forza, perhaps it would be better to wait.