Saturday, April 30, 2005

Having your cake

Everyone doesn't sing well into their 60s the way Placido Domingo is now doing. I stayed once in the house of a woman who was an opera singer in her youth. At that time she watched it on television. This is an ordinary thing and not something I should complain about.

I wrote about Jess Thomas that he was a man of reckless intensity, and when it works there is nothing better. We the consumers of opera live for this. Jussi Bjoerling was a singer who did a wonderful job of feigning intensity in his voice while remaining serene in his person. We will also accept this. There are many paths to the essence. We ask only that you find one.

p.s. to explain the title. I am trying to have my cake of vocal longevity while consuming it in "reckless intensity" at the same time. If you figured that out, I apologize.

Thursday, April 28, 2005


There is a kind of fearful anticipation. One wishes, after all, not to disturb the performance as it exists in memory, of something truly fabulous. So it is with something like stage fright that I have purchased Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in the Salzburg performance of 1965 with Reri Grist as Zerbinetta, Karl Boehm conducting.

And it turns out we are also blessed with the composer of Sena Jurinac. She is marvelously passionate, a glorious performance.

And memory has not failed. Reri Grist is as beautiful and wonderfully charming as I remembered, her voice as fresh and steely. She is absolutely fabulous. She is Zerbinetta. They shout as we did.

Buy this, even though it's in black and white and the Ariadne, sung by Hildegard Hillebrecht, is less than thrilling. For the definitive "Es gibt ein Reich" you will need Jessye Norman. Buy it for Jess Thomas as Bacchus. If a god is to rescue us from our rock, we would wish him to look and sing like Jess Thomas, a man of reckless intensity who is at his best in this performance.

Karl Boehm is a great master in all German repertoire. Ariadne should be done like this.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

La Juive

I bought a copy of Halévy’s La Juive presented at the Wiener Staatsoper and have started to watch it. I know that it was part of Caruso’s basic repertoire at the Met. Indeed, it was during a run of La Juive that he died in 1920. The other thing it’s known for is the first use of valve horns and trumpets in 1835 – a fact to memorize.

The European solution to heresy has always been just to kill all the heretics. Protestantism survived because the political forces were simply too strong for the defenders of the catholic church to defeat. Europeans wonder over America even now. How can there be hundreds of religions, they ask? America is founded (even if Americans sometimes forget this) on the idea that your religion is your business. We believe deeply in letting everyone exist side by side with us. Our diversity is our one great strength. It’s why we are constantly trying to overthrow other assumptions that people take for granted. It’s what makes us us.

The Holy Roman Emperor has just finished massacring the members of a heresy, and everyone is looking around for others to persecute to make themselves feel better. Jews always make likely targets for people with this perspective. The general viewpoint is very shocking to us. Maybe WWII made this simply too hard to watch. Whatever the reason, the opera isn’t part of the standard repertoire any more. It is shocking to hear hatred so openly expressed.

The plot is similar to Il Trovatore – the persecutor turns out to be destroying his own daughter/brother. The false parent feels simultaneously sorrow and vengeance at the death of the child, a combination that feels like a perversion. The difference is that La Juive is about the hatred between Christians and Jews. The designer has chosen to emphasize this almost exclusively by dressing the Christians primarily in white and the Jews primarily in black. When transacting business, the Christians don’t cross over into the Jewish space. The production also emphasizes the religious elements by dressing the priest in his vestments and Eleazer in his prayer shawl. It’s stark and cruel and utterly unambiguous.

Also like Trovatore, a man from one side and a woman from the other fall in love, and this forbidden act is enough to create tragedy. The Christian man pretends to be a Jew, in this production merely by dressing in black. All that is necessary to show his bad intentions is to show him also dressed in white.

I am interested in this. The production should explain the opera, and this one is outstanding. It hardly matters that the crowds are in black and white dirndls and lederhosen. Ach! Isn’t that reason enough for moving a work to another era? Aren’t there already enough productions with dirndls and lederhosen? The Jews are dressed in ordinary suits and dresses.

It is good to see this opera, to remind ourselves of a world not quite gone. There is also a lot of nice melody you can really sink your teeth into, mainly for soprano and tenor. It is called a Grand Opera, but I see no ballet.


Saturday, April 23, 2005

Why we put up with him

Because he teaches us the outer extent of our emotions. In Die Walkuere alone he has provided the music most likely to drive people to war, plus the pain of a parent punishing a beloved child. Is there a greater moment in opera than Wotan's "Leb' wohl?" Because he teaches us the depth of our own passion. No one expresses the large emotions so clearly as Richard Wagner.

For the full effect it takes a Wotan who is still going strong all the way to the end. This is where the big voices are truly necessary. This was provided for us in today's Met broadcast.

Killing voices

I said in my article on Ben Heppner that it was the big roles that killed voices. I am going to take that back. The main thing that kills voices is over-singing.

The support for the voice must all be applied in a downward direction. That’s why voice teachers talk about supporting from various parts of the lower abdomen, some even into the legs. The important part of the concept is the downward, not upward, thrust.

I’m going to tell some more truth now. We have before us any day we care to listen a perfect example of how to kill a voice, and she never came anywhere close to singing Isolda. Beverly Sills was a great artist, a person who wanted, and succeeded in being more than her gifts actually allowed.

When you listen to the great recordings album, it’s all there. The pieces on the album that are closest to her true talents are Pamina and “Miene Lippen, die kuessen so heiss.” (Don’t you just love this title: My lips, they kiss so hot?), but she over-sings even these. She wants it so much that she’s pushing it out there all the time.

In Ben’s case he would get into the habit of pushing his voice simply because the condition of his body is not strong enough to maintain the proper constant downward pressure for the length of the role he is performing.

It’s hard to know what to say about Beverly Sills. We none of us live forever. Sills went the extra mile and then some. Would we have wanted to miss this for the sake of caution?

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Reading the New York Times

I like to comment on items in the New York Times, and there is an excellent article today about the use of stars at the Met. The empty seat phenomenon seems to have spread to them as well and is not unique to the San Francisco Opera. There are a lot of facts and figures included in the article, something I don’t do. I just write from my own experience.

The way opera is organized in Europe is somewhat different from how it is here in the USA. What I’m going to describe are just generalities which vary from place to place.

The main difference lies in how the employees are organized. In Zurich, and Ulm where I worked, the house employs a staff of first line performers and expects the bulk of the roles in any season to be played by these people. It’s like a regular job. So when they need someone special for a particular part, they can still save on the rest of the players by using their own employees. (However, Ursula told me that for Giulio Cesare none of the performers were part of their regular staff.)

At the Met and San Francisco there are regular employees, but these people generally appear only in the smaller parts and never play major roles. In San Francisco these are the Adler Fellows. I know Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters were associated to the Metropolitan in a way that more resembles the European pattern, but generally that isn’t the case. The opera hires practically all the performers in major roles for specific performances only.

The difference here lies in the training effect. Let me try to explain.

If I have a regular job where I play very minor roles, I can progress from amateur to some level of competence. I will get professional quality coaching, a crucial part of any opera performer’s training no matter what their level of experience, but I won’t be ready for a major career just from this. Now try to imagine the difference if I have a regular job where I play major roles, a wide variety of major roles over a short period of months and receive professional coaching for all of them. This is an enormous difference. This system, not seen anywhere in the US as far as I’m aware, is where the top quality performers come from. Then you’re ready to move on to single gigs in lots of different houses.

Opera in Europe is heavily subsidized and according to the Times article, pays better, at least for the first rank of stars. This puts us at a disadvantage. It’s their opera, as I have pointed out in other contexts. They have put in place a system that develops the great singers, and we haven’t.

There is no substitute for professionalism. You have just three choices: you can develop your own talent, you can buy talent developed elsewhere, or you can do without. In San Francisco they are trying to see how far they can go on doing without. Apparently the Met is trying it, too. Eventually, though, the difference between the San Francisco Opera and the Berkeley Opera starts to fade.

Traditionally the great stars were lured west not merely by money, but by offering them something they couldn’t resist. Adler would find out what a singer was dying to sing, couldn’t get anyone to let them sing, and would offer it to them on a silver platter, new production and all. Now the productions all come from somewhere else. Or they are done for their own sake, something I just don’t get. No one repeat no one goes to the opera to see the productions. A food fight in Hansel and Gretel, maybe. Nudity, perhaps. But even these extreme events are no substitute for great singing. Singing is opera. Opera is singing.

American opera has been living off of the European talent factory for its entire history. Maybe it’s time we started doing a little development of our own.


When I travel to Zurich to see Cecilia Bartoli, there is for me an added bonus. My friend Ursula also lives in Zurich, where she was born. When I was busy being a Kinderkuchen in Hansel and Gretel, Ursula was Hansel. Ursula was the star.

We had lunch the day after Giulio Cesare in a vegetarian restaurant off the Bahnhof Strasse. She looked like an opera star in her large black hat and cape. Ursula is singing again. She is 5 years younger than I am and has resumed her career after retiring to have three sons. She is pleased to have her children see her perform. The youngest asked her why she was staying at home having children. She is very proud of this.

Ursula was a very good coloratura soprano and a great comic actress along the lines of Myrna Loy or Claudet Colbert. Her Hansel was very child-like and charming. She would sing into the wings, “Wer da?” (who’s there) and we would answer, “Erda.”

She sang the lead role in Martha, a very silly opera which I adored. One person can raise a performance above the ordinary, and she was that person.

She also sang Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, a role in which she hit exactly the right note of elegant schemer that brings the opera to life. She appeared for one night only as Henry Higgins’ mother in My Fair Lady, a tour de force in my humble opinion. She still has fans from the Ulm days who came over to see her latest effort.

Theater is like a flower: it blooms, is admired and passes on. Now we talk about our children and how they are doing. My memory of those years is mainly of Ursula.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Last of the Titans

This is part of the title of a new biography of Richard Wagner. I tend to think of Richard Wagner as the first of the Nazis, so it is a surprise to read in the New York Times that someone has recently written a book about his political writings.

In the Wagner section of a university library are one row of scores and another row of books of essays and other things he wrote. They are all in the music part of the library, not the political section. Wagner was a professional musician who took his profession for granted, just as I am now doing in writing a blog about music.

Wagner's place in music is huge. Basically he took the development section of the sonata allegro form out of its traditional context and blew it up to gargantuan proportions. He is in step with others of his generation--Liszt was busy inventing the tone poem, the mainstay of the remainder of the century. Berlioz had invented the leitmotiv--he called it something else, but he invented it--extending a theme across the movements of a more or less traditional symphony.

Wagner was interested in the concept of thematic transformation that is the center of the art of Beethoven, but divorced from its anchoring tonal base--the rest of the sonata form--he needed something else to give the resulting morass of modulation some kind of formal structure. In short, he needed to be an opera composer, a term he scorned.

He was a fabulous politician. He invented new words for the same old things: Gesamtkunstwerk. Isn't that a mouthful. Leitmotiv. And did a great job of pitching it to the king of Bavaria who built him a theater. He needed librettos, so he wrote his own, then pitched himself as a great poet. He was a terrible poet, but maybe a not too bad librettist.

He was also active in the cause for the unification of Germany, active enough to get himself exiled to Switzerland. He was for all Germans united into a single country. This was called Anschluss when Hitler finally accomplished it. He hated Jews, and a lot of that shelf of books is aimed at them. He was writing, both words and operas, to promote Aryan supremacy.

Hitler loved him. His political opinions might be better left ignored on the shelf.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


Friend wants to know why they don't all use hand held microphones. Isn't that better? My answer:

I think different mike techniques are for different situations. Situations:

Performer plays the piano and mike is right there in front of them. Elton John, Norah Jones. Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack. These people can manipulate their performance to every bit the extent that someone holding it in their hands can. These two categories of people can usually actually sing.

When I used to teach pop singers, I would try to explain the idea of projection--a classical singer must project their voice to the back of a room. You, pathetic miked singer, still have to project your voice all the way over to the microphone. Josh Groban, perish the thought that I should actually mention him at all, moves the mike away from his mouth when he's getting loud. In short they are singing.

Another category of performer want their hands free. These people fall into two categories: The Beatles, people playing instruments, shit like that who sing into mikes on stands. They are the same as the above category.

And performers, dancers, actors. These people want their hands free so they can do things with them. There may also be a vanity factor here--maybe they don't want to look like they're using a mike. Aha!! I think we are getting at it. They think they look cuter. In Broadway shows like Les Miz, Beach Blanket Babylon, they don't want you to see the mike. It's attached to their clothes with a broadcast mechanism on their costume somewhere. These people can't manipulate the mike effect but still have to project their voices to wherever the thing is on their clothes. They still have to sing. Because of the fixed positioning of the mike, they have to control their voices more than any of the above people.

Laurie Anderson was mentioned. How cool!! I have always wanted a tie like Laurie Anderson had where it looked like a keyboard and you could play music on it. I wondered she didn't market that. I have a video of her. I should get it out and watch it again. She does any number of very cool things and is very technologically sophisticated. She reamplifies the voice after putting it through a distortion device, much like they do on SG1.

Which brings us back to the Madonna, Britney Spears category who use a microphone attached to their head, like people who do user support. These people don't want to actually sing. They are there to make money. Look cute. Stuff like that. It's just not about singing.

I guess Madonna is a special case. She manages to actually be musically interesting once in a while. When the movie "Truth or Dare" came out, I immersed myself in Madonna for an entire weekend. Not enough of what she's doing is about music for me. However, I love the movie "Desperately seeking Susan." Is that too big of a leap?

Monday, April 11, 2005

Opera Production

One of my friends, I won't embarrass him by naming him, said as part of his anti-eurotrash argument that he didn't want anything going on on the stage to distract him from the music. I beg your pardon!!

I'm still digesting this. I thought opera was supposed to be theater. It's not a point of view you can exactly argue with. I agree with him in one sense: I don't want to be sitting in my chair, my very expensive chair, wondering what the heck that gigantic horse's head is doing on the stage while the opera is going on unnoticed.

Putting the Egyptians in blue and white stripes didn't seem to cause this reaction. It functioned for me as a signal that these characters, these armies are Roman, these Egyptian. There were two factions within the Egyptians, but the designer didn't try to distinguish them.

I think the visual clarity of the design is what made this production so effective. It could have been a problem that Cleopatra changed so much, but one of the crucial transformations--from queen to captive--took place on stage. Cleopatra herself threw off her ornaments on being told Caesar was dead.

I want the production to draw me in, not away. I want everything going in the same direction.

Der Konsul

On Friday night I went to see Der Konsul in the Zurich Opera studio. The Consul, by Giancarlo Menotti, started life as a Broadway show and went on to be a mainstay of opera studios everywhere. The Consul is verismo in every sense: the sordid reality of the story line, the not quite modern music and the soaring, dramatic vocal lines.

It is great for opera studios because it has a number of not very difficult parts for all kinds of voices. It sinks or swims on the quality of the singer performing Magda Sorel, a dramatic soprano part.

Magda's husband John has become involved in clandestine political activities and is being hunted by the police. She has turned to the consul of a friendly nation to help her and her family, including John's mother and her sick child, to flee to freedom.

This opera plays in my head in English. The German translation seemed to lack Menotti's love for words, to play with them and feel them in his mouth. The lullaby seemed to be translated literally instead of searching for something similarly poetic. "I shall find for you shells and stars," could be translated as anything.

The staging was excellent. Bareness exactly expresses the feeling here. I fault them only for not bothering to find any real magician's props for the magic scene.

All of the characters were double, sometimes triple cast, so I can't actually tell you who they were. Best were the Magda, Mother, secretary, John, magician. I wish them all well.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Julius Caesar

It was a long evening at the Zurich Opera. The opera started at 7:00 and I got back to the hotel around midnight. But despite this, it didn't seem long at all. It helped the flow of the drama to leave everything in. In this arrangement Sesto and his mother Cornelia become major characters in the drama and motivate the scene where Sesto kills Tolomeo to avenge his father Pompey.

Caesar arrives in Egypt quite by accident. He has tracked Pompey down to this spot and defeated him. The Roman army arrive on troop carriers looking like Carabinieri in their white Africa Corps uniforms, equipped with rockets and machine guns. They are easily distinguishable from the Egyptians in their blue and white striped outfits. There is a cute bit in the third act where Tolomeo in his harem takes off his blue and white striped trousers to reveal blue and white striped shorts underneath. Ha ha.

There was another green look in the Egyptian costumes, too, which was the color Cleopatra generally appeared in.

Cleopatra and Tolomeo are vying for Caesar's attention. Tolomeo tries sending Caesar Pompey's head in a box. Cleopatra tries sex. We know which one wins. In one of the arias Cleopatra proclaims "Tutto" (I can generally read the German supertitles--nowhere is free of them these days--but usually can't quite make it to the end) "A beautiful woman can accomplish anything." and proceeds to prove it.

In short, they accomplished the impossible: they made Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto dramatically interesting. Bravo. It all worked extremely well for me. Central to the drama is Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra. My only criticism here is that her costumes and manner varied so much that it resulted in no overall characterization. One minute she's a servant girl, the next she's the queen on a throne with a wonderful Madusa-like hat, then she's in rags. We know that Cleopatra was a woman of infinite variety, but maybe this is overdoing it a bit.

It flowed musically as well. Marc Minkowski, the conductor, paced everything wonderfully well. There was one oddity: the da capo sections of the arias were often sung very softly, so softly that you could hardly hear them. I don't think this is a traditional performance practice, I am only aware of the practice of increased ornamentation in the da capo sections, so it must have been the conductor's idea.

Cecilia was fabulous, especially in the third act. "Piangero" was wonderful. She is in her prime and this is a perfect role for her.

While I was listening to Caesar's rage aria toward the end, the thought passed my mind -- what if this actually sounded the way it was intended to sound, not like Marilyn Horne however fabulously she may have sung, not like a falsetto man, but like something unimaginable, a male soprano? The only explanation for the existence of castrati that I can think of is that it must have sounded truly spectacular.

Our countertenors did the best they could. They managed not to be too annoying. Franco Fagioli as Giulio Cesare slips out of his falsetto on the low notes, but is otherwise excellent in this Fach. He is tall and heroic looking, and amazingly, does not wear a beard. He could work on his heroic bearing.

Other people worth mentioning are Anna Bonitatibus, a small woman with a penetrating voice in the role of Sesto, and Charlotte Hellekant as Cornelia.

I am writing in internet points around Europe, and it's taking a while to finish this. Today I am in Florence. This is starting to sound too much like regular reviewing.

Friday, April 08, 2005

La Scintilla

I like the idea of original instruments. It is a different sound and texture. It's the reality that I don't like.

Yesterday at the Zurich opera I saw Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto played on original instruments by a group calling itself La Scintilla. They relate in some way to the opera orchestra. They played natural horns in a couple of pieces, once with a stereophonic effect that worked pretty well, and once with a soloist who stood on the stage with the singer. He stunk. He blooped about every third note.

If you want to play on original instruments, fine. But could you please learn to play them first. Could you, for instance, learn to play them in tune. The performance standards just drop off too far for me.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Planet of the Apes

No. The Planet of the Apes opera is definitely The Ring of the Nibelungen. Lets say:

The gods, Wotan, Fricka, Brühnhilde are gorillas.
Hunding and his crowd are orangutans.
The Rhine Maidens and Erda are chimpanzees.
The Nibelungen are small tree monkeys.

So the three chimpanzees are swimming in the Rhine and a small tree monkey climbs down and steals their gold.

And the Volsung are human. Siegmund and Sieglinde are the first humans. When Wotan takes away Brühnhilde's godhood she turns into a human.

This is a great concept because suddenly the whole opera cycle makes sense. Of course it's now too revolting to watch. If we truly understood it, we couldn't watch it. Because the Ring is about race and the superiority of one race over another.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


That's the word I was searching for. It is a word from a German review describing Cecilia Bartoli in Giulio Cesare in Zürich. It is very nice indeed to watch someone who really enjoys their work. In Germany acting isn't considered work, though. Spielfreude is literally translated "play joy." I'm looking forward to seeing the opera. Of course, I must also put up with the three countertenors. I'll let you know how it goes.