Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Singing in French

From a review:

“Villazon’s French is not exactly that of a native, but it’s more open and natural than that of most Spanish speaking tenors.”

There are two things. There is pronouncing it and there is singing it. Dawn Upshaw pronounces it fine, but pinches off her tone every now and then in an effort to get the sounds exactly right. Edith Piaf never pinches off her tone. Ever.

Sometimes when you see photographs of recording sessions, there is a language coach sitting there with the singers. In the conflict between tone and correct pronunciation, tone should win. There is a school of vocal technique that bases its methods on vowel modification. So having someone there correcting your vowels could actually throw the whole thing off. So where is the vocal coach who is correcting the correcting of the language coach?

Singing in French for non-natives is a tight rope. Mumbling is a popular tactic. I won’t name names. If they can’t tell what you’re saying, you can get away with a lot more.

Saturday, May 28, 2005


I went through an extended Gertrude Stein period in my thirties when I read all the extant biographies and a substantial percent of her literary works. Lucy Church is especially notable. Exactly how does one write such a large book without even one sensible sentence?

I even went so far as to sneak into the back yard of 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris. The gate to the street was unlocked, so I just opened it and walked through to the back. There were no women in long dresses, but otherwise it was the same.

I have written magnet poems by pulling random words from a box, but this turns out to be nothing like the writing of Gertrude Stein who is doing it all on purpose, making words do something else.

So it was actually a thrill for me when I was cast to play her in Vivian Fine's The Women in the Garden. All of Stein's lines in that opera were from her book Everybody's Autobiography. I was the only one with a true aria, "Does he or she, does she or he know what the human mind is?"

The opera has no plot, only four female writers singing exerpts from their writings, and is very hard to stage. Why not write an opera using one of Stein's plays, of which she wrote several, including a version of Faust called Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


If people are actually reading this, should I try to sound more sensible? I don't honestly know if that's possible.

Most people my age just talk about the singers they heard in their youth, and any comparison with singers of today is generally derogatory to the young. I think it's harder for people to come to the attention of the public than it used to be. We should give them all the help we can. One of the things I'm trying to do is stay in touch with the present.

Cecilia Bartoli is reinventing what it means to have a classical singing career, redesigning the genre as she goes along, topping her own already incredibly high standards.

Anna Netrebko is determined to make you forget every diva before her. Let's see if she succeeds.

I haven't heard Rolando Villazon yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

Salvatore Licitra has the voice for greatness. Let's see if he has the soul.

Olga Boradina also has the capacity for greatness and for me achieved it as Dalila.

I'm having fun and learning, too.

For K

Cecilia has reached a remarkable place in her career. I went back stage to see her after the performance, and she seemed buoyant and very cheerful. She inhabits her roles as no singer since Judy. In fact I recall reading an early article about her where the writer compared her to Judy Garland—when she is in a room or on a stage all eyes turn to her. She isn’t upstaging people, she is just present in the moment. She is present in each note as well. It isn’t just her body, her eyes that are present for us, but it is also a level of musical presence that is unique in my experience.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


One of the things that has changed about opera since I began noticing it is that Leoš Janáček has moved into the standard repertoire. When I was cramming my head full of facts for my doctorate, none of them seem to have been about him.

He is considered modern even though his dates fit somewhere around Puccini, who is definitely not considered modern. So what makes him modern? His Czech compatriots, Smetana and Dvorak, went to a lot of trouble to fit into the Romantic idiom of their German colleagues in order to gain acceptance in the mainstream. Janáček clearly didn't do this. He appears to have decided on a specific style based on Moravian melodies and Czech national idioms without particularly caring to seem like everyone else. This bothered his contemporaries, but apparently it doesn't bother us. It's rather like the difference between Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. Janáček's operas are singable, always a prime consideration, and his plots are about people we recognize.

Charles Mackerras carefully reconstructed the original cut and orchestration for Jenufa after it had been performed for decades in a romantic orchestration, and it is more popular now in this original version. I don't think we hear Janáček as modern. Does he remind you of Bartók, a fellow ethnomusiciologist? Or Berg? He doesn't have the iconoclastic purpose that is the fundamental definition of modernism. He's just doing his own thing. After listening to modernists for decades, we're unthreatened by Janáček. He's comfortable and just different enough to be interesting.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Singing (what else?)

[M] asks: "What do you think of Dawn Upshaw and Renée Fleming getting involved with high pop or contemporary opera?"

Of course, Dawn Upshaw is a contemporary music specialist. Her biggest early splash was in the recording of Henryk Górecki's Symphony 3 "Sorrowful Songs". This is a marvelous recording of a great work, both modern and accessible. It's a symphony in much the same way that "Das Lied von der Erde" is a symphony. Her appearance in the title role of The Cunning Little Vixen in San Francisco was quite nice. She rose to the challenge of playing a fox. Of course, Janáček is considered fairly mainstream these days. I have noticed that in the last decade or so his operas have become standard repertoire.

She is one of the "American singers" whose French I was complaining about. Dawn Upshaw reaches back only about as far as Debussy.

Renée Fleming used to be a pop singer. I would have to hear the pop efforts in question to have much of an opinion about them. I thought her "Over the Rainbow" was fun. It would depend on how she did it.

That said, it is generally the heavy singers who can't make the transition to pop. If they use an opera technique, it doesn't sound like pop singing at all. If they switch to a lighter technique, you wonder who they are. Renée and Dawn don't use such heavy technique in the operatic singing. I was somewhat put off by Renée Fleming's comments about using a microphone to allow herself to back off on her tone. That means she's intending technical differences.

The mistress of combining classical and pop was Eileen Farrell who was known to combine them on the same concert. Classical first, of course. The style changed significantly but the technique didn't.

Salvatore Licitra

My stars must have been arranged perfectly today. I decided that today was the day I would finally go to the Washington National Opera. I knew they were doing Tosca, but I didn't know who would be singing. "Tosca is hard to completely mess up," I thought. "I should like it."

Quite by accident I was treated to Salvatore Licitra singing Cavaradossi. All I can say is this is what opera is supposed to be. It's a mature voice (he's about 37), a big voice, a voice that never needs to be pushed to make its full effect. The Sony standard biography points out that he has been working with Carlo Bergonzi. This is completely believable because he has the authentic Italian style, and where is there a better master of this style than Bergonzi? Opera is for giving you goose bumps, for making the hair stand up on the back of your neck, for making you cry. Today I had the true opera experience. He's a bit rough around the edges, but I'm not at all sure this isn't part of his charm.

There is something to be said for the idea of a singer managing an opera company. The Washington National Opera might also be called the Placido Domingo personal opera. People who donate belong to the Domingo Circle, for instance. Who better than Domingo to find the best singers from around the world? I noticed the performance was sold out.

Licitra was not perfectly matched with his Tosca, Ines Salazar, who possesses a voice that can only show power above the staff. The middle of her voice is somewhat soft, and when she and Licitra were singing together he overpowered her. The conductor, Leonard Slatkin, accompanied her voice with masterful discretion, keeping the orchestra consistently under control.

It seemed to me that the performance was well in tune with Salazar's limitations, emphasizing Tosca's sweetness and religious devotion over her dramatic actress qualities. In the second act she stabs Scarpia four times, washes her hands, and spends the long instrumental interval in prayer instead of the traditional silliness with the candles.

Juan Pons as Scarpia was his usual excellent self. He died a hard, very athletic death. Licitra also managed an expert somersault in the second act. There seems to have been a lot of physical business in this opera.

By the end of the opera you should have shouted at least once, preferably several times. When toward the end they proclaim how their souls will soar in light, you should weep for the cruelty of their fate. Ultimately you should have forgotten every other Tosca you have ever seen.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1890-1910]

Saturday, May 21, 2005

For BC

See Esperanto.

Obviously music isn’t the same as language. They do brain scans to find out where language is located—all over, as I recall. I don’t recall a similar study for music. People tend to think that music is unimportant.

Words are utilitarian in a way that music is not. “Please pass the salt,” isn’t something I can communicate with notes. But your mind has still built up a vocabulary for music that allows you to understand and enjoy it. The more complex the music, the more extensive the required vocabulary.

I was once interested in the idea of Artificial Intelligence, and have generally thought that by focusing completely on the utilitarian aspects of thought they missed completely what is actually going on.

I loved the program “Alice.” She was only about 2 pages long and substituted wonderfully well for a psychiatrist. You would key in something, and Alice would pick out a key word in your sentence and ask you how long you had been feeling that way. Very amusing. I knew people who would talk to Alice for hours. Alice was closer to actual intelligence than AI generally is. AI is just a logic tree.

Have you ever asked yourself when listening to Mariah Carey why you can’t do that? You lack the required musical vocabulary.

Your intelligence interacts with its world and creates an internal explanation for reality. It explains the sounds it hears, some into words, some into music. By the time you are five you have forgotten how you did this. Learning these things later in life is a lot more work.

I remember being asked how to do a portamento. It’s part of your musical vocabulary, or it isn’t. It’s a fallacy, an often taught fallacy, that music is nothing more than acoustics. I took those classes, too.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Productions at the Metropolitan Opera

This is a random selection from Opera News:

February 2004

Rigoletto with Juan Pons. The lighting is dark. The sets and costumes appear to be late Renaissance.

The Queen of Spades with Placido Domingo and Galina Gorchakova. The lighting is dark. The costumes look a little like George Washington.

Three works by Stravinsky, including Oedipus Rex. Modern productions of modern operas don’t count.

L’Italiana in Algieri with Jennifer Larmore. Light, bright sets and lighting, around the Civil War era.

March 2005

Il Barbieri di Siviglia with Katarina Karneus. This could pass for contemporary—1820ish.

Don Carlo with Galina Gorchakova again. More dark lighting with late Renaissance costumes.

Cavalleria Rusticana. Peasants with more dark lighting.

Der Rosenkavalier with Susan Graham as Octavian, in Maria Teresa’s Austria.

You’re getting the idea. It’s all very somber and conservative. The pagans in 2005’s Samson et Dalila look a little odd, but the jews are traditionally dressed. This is a long way from Eurotrash.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

La Bohème

Oh yes. It is exquisite. I want to disagree with Opera News. Beecham is providing the perfect slow tempi for these magnificent artists to paint upon. Generally it is only Italian conductors who achieve this. Every note is a miracle.

This is not journalism, but maybe a little information would be nice. This is the EMI classics version of Puccini's La Bohème with Victoria de los Angeles and Jussi Bjoerling. You knew that.


Music is a social construct like language. So suppose I invented a language. Esperanto. Then let's suppose I wrote a lot of poems in Esperanto. They might be very nice poems, but they're still in Esperanto. Schoenberg is like this, as are many composers of the twentieth century. My darling Messiaen falls into this same category. They may have composed very wonderful pieces, but they're still in Esperanto.

We don't count. Those of us who have studied and performed a lot of modern music forget that we speak Esperanto.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

CD from the Met

I gave money to the Metropolitan Opera, and they have sent me this very nice cd containing a track of a piece from each opera in the 2004-2005 season. There are quite a lot of old friends:

Monserat Caballe's "O Patria Mia" could not be more different from Leontyne Price's, but it is nonetheless a great pleasure to listen to, with lots of portamento and warmth.

Anna Moffo, Placido Domingo, Deborah Voigt, Maria Callas, Franco Corelli and Thomas Hampson all put in appearances. From the actual casts of the Met season is David Daniels in an aria from Rodelinda.

My ears perked right up for Rolando Villazon, a Mexican now in his middle thirties, singing "Io l'ho perduta" from Don Carlo. This is nice. He has the style and the sound. I consulted my memory (DE) and he reports that he is the tenor who burned up the stage in Los Angeles with Anna Netrebko in Roméo et Juliette. It's a thrill to hear new singers with so much to offer. It's not a really heavy voice, so let's hope he isn't encouraged to overdo it. When I read that Victoria de los Angeles had sung Wagner, I knew that any amount of abuse was possible.

It has an exerpt from La Boheme with Jussi Bjoerling and Victoria de los Angeles. I will have to buy this. For my friend Jean this is the iconic performance, not merely of La Boheme but maybe of any opera.


It is fun to read in Opera News about the triumphs of Anna Netrebko as she travels from place to place.

In Los Angeles she made a big splash in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, giving it an aura of intense sexuality. Sex is good. Sex in opera is very good.

In Vienna she lit up the stage in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore.

She radiates sparks on the stage. Maybe she will become one of those performers people follow from town to town. Maybe she already is.

Monday, May 16, 2005


Fantasia sings “Summertime” by George Gershwin. In my head it exists in a performance by Leontyne Price, full and operatic. Fantasia is reported to have never heard the song before.

Fantasia’s use of the tools is awesome. She starts off with a little flourish to establish her individuality, singing very stylishly behind the beat at crucial spots. She starts ornamenting discreetly with some upper neighbors at first. (Forgive me. If you know the terms, they just slip out.) The density of ornamentation increases gradually as the piece progresses. There’s an interpolated high note in just the right spot. She ends with the now required major riff, in about the same spot and for the same purpose as a cadenza. She does all this as though she personally invented it.

This is a great performance in the style of today.


I note that in a previous entry I promised more production ideas. Here are two more:

Flying Dutchman as a close encounter. He arrives in a space ship.

Hansel and Gretel as a Home Alone horror movie.

This is surprisingly easy to do.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Learning a style

As a performer you can't arrange where you were born or what music was played around your crib. All you can do is study the performers you want to emulate, try to absorb the lessons they have to teach you, and develop a sense of style yourself. Those who are born into a style have a huge head start, but you can catch up.

Death of Classical Music

Music is all in our minds. It is a mental construct similar to language, something that our minds create from the sounds we hear. It has no actual existence.

When I was in graduate school I studied music history with the eminent musicologist Hans Tischler. Dr. Tischler divided history into 20-30 year periods, showing a unified style across Europe that varied from country to country, but was consistent and coherent across the continent from the earliest times to the present. Like a person living today, each composer formed his musical personality in his youth and carried it forward for the rest of his life. Monteverdi was an exception to this, changing his style with each decade.

Beethoven’s mature period (Eroica to death) divides into two sub-periods at the time he went completely deaf. He shared his late period with Schubert and Rossini. All three composed pieces with the endless cadence that was a fad during that era, for example. This is just to give you an idea of how it works.

Then we reached the twentieth century when European culture exploded and disintegrated, causing music to fragment into many small style groups and abandon its continental coherence. Radio and the phonograph contributed to the disintegration of coherent musical style. In spite of this Dr. Tischler continued his periods into the twentieth century with a period for intense dissonance followed by a more classical time. Toward the end of the century minimalism arose. But then what? I’m not at all sure that Europe has an independent musical personality any more.

One of the things that went on in the twentieth century was a self-conscious attempt to kill tonality. That was the purpose of the twelve-tone row. If I compose all twelve notes an equal amount, there will be no desire to prefer one note over the others, as is always the case in tonal music. So what became of this effort? Our ears are much more tolerant of dissonance than people in 1900 were, but there is no evidence that we have lost our interest in tonality. Tonality is alive and well. Schoenberg never became popular.

The globalization of music means that everyone grows up with the same music in their ears, with the same style. America has moved in and taken over with jazz, pop, rock and roll, and the other styles of commercial pop music. Here as there each generation absorbs the music of its predecessors and reshapes it to its own purposes. But there are pockets. Cuba is a pocket. Wales may be a pocket. Churches in the southern US are a pocket. This particular pocket is the engine that produces new American pop singers. When America became the dominant country politically, its music also began to dominate. Today Europe is rising again. How will this translate into music?

American styles fit nicely into Dr. Tischler’s periods, too. Rag is in the slot with Debussy and Impressionism. Swing accompanies classical modernism. The ascendancy of rock and roll goes with minimalism. You knew that.

At a certain point I became a computer professional and lost contact with Dr. Tischler. I am on my own if I want to discover what is happening today.

Classical music has died as a generator of new styles, but lives on in the recreation of its monuments of the past. There is an enormous infrastructure devoted to recreating operas and symphonies of past eras, and it must all be put to use. Rock and roll and rap can never replace the passion of opera. Opera speaks to the whole range of human emotion as no art form ever has. Without it we would have only CNN to tell us the meaning of tragedy.


I was horrified to read in the Opera News obituary of Victoria de los Angeles that she had sung Wagner. Marguerite, yes. Mimi, yes. Violetta, yes. But please, not Wagner. She sang recitals into her seventies, but the prime of her career was relatively brief. Her French singing was exquisite, her phrasing impeccable. Listen to her Faust and her La Boheme, but Wagner--I don't even want to think about it.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Life in Exile

On ARTS they're throwing shiny confetti as they cross into Valhalla.

And now there is a pianist who plays everything with his forefinger. The camera is pointed at his hand so we won't miss this.

Opera News had a completely different take on the Kennedy Center honors and panned Renée Fleming's rendition of "Over the Rainbow," calling it "souped up and tasteless." So what's so bad about souped up and tasteless? Obviously the network wanted to be sure that all of Elton John's stuff was left in, since that was the best part.

Wait a minute! I'm starting to think like Lotfi Monsouri. Maybe the goal is to make what you're doing interesting and not just tasteful.

And now we are seeing Mama Brady (Florence Henderson) when she was a singer. Not to worry. She wasn't that interesting.

Carlo Bergonzi in "O Paradiso" scoops and slides almost as much as Alison Krauss, but in the Italian style instead of the Kentucky one. I like this very much.

This is the view of art from rural Maryland.

And now Cecilia Bartoli is singing "La Pastorella". My friend Jean says she likes performers who stay contained inside themselves. None of this frivolous reaching out to the audience for her. She does not share my taste for Cecilia.

Thursday, May 12, 2005


To hear a classical singer every bit as immersed in his style of singing, listen to Luciano Pavarotti. Early on he became known as the "King of the high C's" because he had such gorgeous ones. His voice is extremely beautiful, no doubt, but it is his style that interests us. He uses the tools with complete mastery and self-confidence.

He stays with his strengths. Throughout his career he has emphasized Italian repertoire, mainly Verdi, Puccini and the other verismo composers, exactly the repertoire that would show off his particular style of singing.

My favorite recording of him is Puccini's Manon Lescaut with Mirella Freni, also from Modena.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Punk Beethoven

Terry Gross once interviewed a woman who was doing Beethoven on an electric guitar. This was the "Beethoven invented punk rock" performance, very edgy and out there. I loved it and tried to find a copy. If you know about this recording, let me know.

It harms the vitality of classical music that they are all so unimaginative, and eventually it all starts to sound like an endless stream of Vivaldi concertos. Classical musicians actually seem to be trying to make one performance indistinguishable from another. There is no evidence to support the idea that this is correct performance practice, that performers of the past all did this.

In the Neapolitan Opera school (A. Scarlatti to G. Rossini) they were all Mariah Careys, each one trying to out riff the other. There were even schools of harpsicordists that did this until there was no way to tell what the actual melody was or even if there was one. But when anyone modern tries to perform these same pieces all they can manage is precision. We expect the talents of a human being to exceed those of a machine. We want more than precision--we want expression.

I decided that a post titled Punk Beethoven need some kind of example, and I find this one excellent.

Tools of expression

Things you can do:

  • Sing louder / sing softer.
  • Sing ahead of the beat / sing behind the beat. (rubato)
  • Change the tempo.
  •  Increase the sense that the notes are connected by decreasing the natural dimenuendo between the notes. Sing through the consonants. (legato)
  • Exaggerate the separation between the notes. (leggiero)
  • Change the color of your voice.

That list is the approved list. Unapproved items you can also do:

  • Begin the note under the pitch and go up to it. (scoop) This is much maligned but the work horse of expression in romantic opera.
  • Connect two notes with all the pitches in between. (portamento, glissando or slide) If you can do this, stick it in anywhere you can.
  • Interpolate high notes. This is a favorite on Idol.
  • Sing a completely different note.
  • Ornament where it isn't written.
  • Manipulate your vibrato, take it out, put it back, make it bigger, make it smaller, etc.

Push the envelope. Discover the limits in singing. Maria Callas did every one of these things at one time or another, and we still can't get enough of her.
Bonus item:

  •             Sing deliberately off the pitch, an essential feature of blues. I'm sure Maria Callas did this, too.

ps. Accidental going off the pitch is not allowed in any style. You have to do it on purpose.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Mariah Carey

It would never have occurred to me that Mariah Carey was a significant force in music today. To the younger generation she is clearly the guiding light. I can't help wondering if the old fogeys on Idol--Randy, Paula, Simon--have any idea that this is the case. It's possible that they're deliberately weeding out anyone who is doing this. My advice to people trying to get on idol: stifle your Mariah Carey tendencies, at least until you are on your own.

And now I'm going to try to stifle this topic.

Divas -- Guest Author

This is part of a long discussion starting at Ornamentation. The previous entry is Ornamentation Research.

My friend Bruce Colman sends this:
Subject: Ancestrally it stems from gospel and skat singing. How did it get so prevalent?

[M] brought my attention to your interest in Mariah Carey and latterly in the "diva" style of pop singing--I think that's what passes for the term for that, as you put it, densely ornamented style. (Doubt any of the people who sing that way have ever heard of Couperin, but I sure enjoyed you making that comparison.)

I took the subject line for this e-mail from one of your blogs, and thought I'd speculate on an answer.

Yes, that heavily melismatic style comes from gospel singing. I THINK it came into pop via the singular person of Aretha Franklin. Can't prove it, but that's my guess--Aretha and her generation of R&B singers (other names escape me in the moment).

Their roots are all in church singing--in gospel (I believe that Aretha's father was a huge gospel star). If you look at the biographies of Black woman singer after Black woman singer, from Aretha through the Pointer Sisters to, oh, I don't know, Brandy and further on, a constant is that they sang in church.

So Aretha broke through to the White audiences in the late 1960s, I believe, as the most virtuosic voice, and that set a style people aspired to. Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and others in the Motown/soul/R&B world had similar chops; later you have Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, whom I wouldn't recognize if she bit me, but I think followed that style; and in the mid-90s, you had a whole generation of Mariah Careys and so on, using way more ornamentation than Aretha ever did, to less effect, but being considered huge, huge heroines.

BTW, you mention "skat" in this same blog I referenced, at least in the jazz world the word is spelled with a "c" and it means something considerably different from that Mariah does, though again of course I wouldn't know an MC recording to hear it.

In jazz, "scat" refers to a singer essentially pretending to be a horn--singing an improvised melody, usually with nonsense syllables, over chord changes. Ella Fitzgerald was the great popularizer of scat singing (if Billy Holiday scatted, she certainly wasn't known for it). Carmen McRae was a great scat singer, though she didn't do a whole lot of it. Betty Carter was a great scat singer, and did quite a bit of it. On the male side, Mel Torme is the recognized alpha scatter; but actually Louis Armstrong did a good bit of that (on the Armstrong-Ellington CD, Louis sings a tremendous scat solo on "Cottontail")--in fact, is recognized as the inventor. A number of "younger" male singers also base their art on scatting: Mark Murphy, Kurt Elling; and especially Al Jareau and most especially Bobby McFerrin.

Scat, by the way, if different from vocalese--what, say, Manhattan Transfer did--which is taking someone's recorded improvisation based on a melody, and applying lyrics--usually not nonsense syllables--to it. Jon Hendricks is the big exponent of this. There are excellent examples on "Carmen Sings Monk" and Madeline Eastman's album "Mad About Madeline," where she sings Hendrick's lyrics to Miles Davis's solo on the Miles Davis tune, "Four" (terrific lyrics). And then you have an older example, which is someone having written lyrics to James Moody's tenor-sax solo on "I'm In the Mood for Love," creating "Moody's Mood for Love"--which James Moody then made part of his musical repetoire, singing it, kind of a moibius strip of musical logic.

And one more comment from Bruce:
"That style really came forward with Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey in the 1980's" -- thus from Wayne Wallace, trombonist, composer, arranger, producer, elder on the Bay Area jazz/Latin/funk/pop/studio-recording scene, educator, historian, nice person....

How Beethoven invented rap

Here is an article on Melodrama.

This article doesn't mention Beethoven who we are currently crediting with having invented everything. In the dungeon scene of Fidelio is dialog with instrumental accompaniment, generally called melodrama.

Then came Pierrot Lunaire. Then rap.

Ornamentation research

I have been out of the loop in popular music for years. I was watching American Idol, in particular the early auditions, and wondered where this style of singing came from. Who were they all imitating?

Fantasia's roots are true gospel. When she did a turn on the NAACP Image awards, it was pure gospel, the full over the top performance. But these young people who come on the auditions one after the other are clearly not imitating traditional gospel. And forgive me, BC, but they are certianly not imitating Aretha Franklin who is closer to Mahalia than what is going on now.

It seemed really clear to me after I listened to Mariah Carey that she was who they were imitating. I asked the woman at work whose cousin I had listened to, and she reports that her cousin listened "constantly" to Mariah Carey when she was very young. I rest my case.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Juan Diego Florez

The man is adorable, n'est pas?


I am writing about two themes so far:

Opera production. Since the operas themselves are not new, the productions must change.
Singing in performance. Mariah Carey falls in this category. So do Tracie Luck and Magda Olivero.

Like everyone, my biases start with what I listened to as a young person. I was in at the beginning of rock and roll, but don't recall caring. My friends hurried home to watch American Bandstand, but I didn't watch it. I was more into Broadway shows, Judy Garland and choral music.

When I first started listening to opera, it was mainly three singers: Jussi Bjoerling, Leonard Warren and Leontyne Price. These performers colored my notion of singing and still do today. The most beautiful voice ever to sing opera, from the available evidence, was Leonard Warren. He died on the stage of the Metropolitan when he was only 48 with his voice still in its prime. The beauty of his tone has never been approached, and he used it to shape incredible performances.

All three of them were singers of a certain mold: they sang directly from their musical souls. They inform my opinion of what it means to commit deeply to the music you are performing.

The education of Dr. B

Or famous sopranos I've never heard. We did Waltraud Meier yesterday. Today is....
Magda Olivero was shown on ARTS singing the big aria from La Traviata. I am most surprised by how cleanly she sings it. There's one big glissando where you absolutely must have one--it may even be composed for all I know--but that's about it. Who would think an Italian soprano would give such a singing school performance? It's beautiful, yes, and "Sempre libera" could hardly fail to make an effect, but where is the schmaltz we expect from the "last verismo" singer, as she is billed here? La Traviata is not verismo. It does make one curious. 
Edita Gruberova appeared performing Adele's laughing song from Die Fledermaus. The point here is that class is in the eye of the beholder. Edita's Adele has the right outfit, but hasn't quite left the farm.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Research: Mariah Carey Fantasy

I am researching the ornamentation phenomenon (see pop style), and I have chosen Mariah Carey's video Fantasy to start with. I like a video because it reduces the role of the engineer. I'm not trying to find out about the engineering of pop music. I know from going to hear gospel in the San Francisco Bay Area that this kind of passionate, ornamented performance comes from there. But how did it get to be so main stream?

Yes, Mariah Carey is definitely doing it. Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things? It says here that the 90’s is her. Where was I in the 90’s? I certainly have never heard this before.

This is a simple concert focusing on music and not an extravaganza. The background is a crude, monotonous disco beat. There are backup singers that sometimes expand into a swaying, clapping choir, just like a gospel choir. Over this she riffs constantly. On almost every note there is an almost Couperin-like density to the ornamentation, thickest at the ends of the phrases. The penultimate note of the set arpeggiates up and down as long as she feels like doing it.

She uses her voice with outrageous freedom. She whispers. She belts. She deliberately exaggerates the switches between chest voice and falsetto. Her mike technique is excellent.

She does “Without you.” Kelly Clarkson’s performance on Idol of this song must surely derive from this. Kelly riffs occasionally, but Mariah riffs constantly. Sometimes the songs build like a gospel song, but they never quite reach the frenzied peak of gospel. It is simply a passionate outpouring, an extreme of emotion in performance. You allow yourself to get swept up in it and carried along, or you are left behind.

Waltraud Meier

My friend DE chooses his opera singers very carefully. On his wall are pictures of Cecilia Bartoli and Anna Netrebko, so you can imagine what some of his criteria might be. In his pantheon is Waltraud Meier who has just appeared on my TV screen in the role of Isolda, singing the final aria. Since we are accustomed to Jane Eaglen, this is quite a shock. Waltraud Meier is a classic beauty.

She appears to be actually singing in this film, which focuses directly on her face the entire time. Of course, Rise Stevens was actually singing in her films, too, but pitched everything an octave down to eliminate any trace of tension in the face and neck. Perhaps Waltraud Meier sings to her mirror and makes sure her face never takes on any unpleasant expression. She appears to be a very fine singer as well. Every note both sounds and looks gorgeous.

We put up with a lot for good Wagner, but the effect is more complete when our eyes believe it too. I will have to look into this.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

First principles

Are there rules for opera productions? I can think of some.

1. The opera is not about you.
2. Disbelief is acceptable only in the first 5 or 10 minutes of the opera.

This second item is huge. If the curtain comes up and I see something I have completely not expected to see, I must get over it by no more than 10 minutes into the opera. That means that during a crucial scene in Act III nothing gets to happen that causes the audience to suspend belief. Whatever environment you have established must be fully accepted by then. All must flow from the setup.

I think there are more rules than this, but this is the biggest. For the production designer this is an entertaining twist. For the audience it destroys the performance. Think about it.

Apropos of nothing

On the ARTS network Sumi Jo in the role of Oscar in Ballo in Maschera is going around drinking the leftover wine on the master’s table.

This reminds me of Germany. When we were doing Die Fledermaus, we drank real champagne on the stage. This may be because it’s hard to fake, or it may be because certain members of the company could be seen pouring their “wine” out onto the stage when it wasn’t the real thing. My son Chris, then 9, would come on the stage after the performance and drink everything left in the glasses.

Es lebe champagne der Erste!!