Wednesday, June 29, 2005


These videos are all from Europe. It is annoying to realize how much more fun they are having at the opera than we are. See Reading the New York Times.

In Europe each country has its own tradition with works done primarily in the native language and plenty of government subsidies. Anyone who is interested and talented can immerse himself in the art of his own country, learn its history and its style and come out miles ahead of any American.

They grab them right off the street, teach them the roles that suit their voices and throw them out onto the stage. They get to hear them all full of youthful energy and vitality and, yes, ignorance. They can do Verdi with the raging passion he deserves.

Americans are generally much better educated than European singers. In Ulm I was double cast as Pauline in Pique Dame with a German mezzo named Brune Femar. Pauline accompanies herself on the piano and begins her aria with a few arpeggios. In her first stage rehearsal Brune sat down at the fake piano and began her arpeggio on the wrong end of the keyboard.

It cannot be imagined that an American would do this. They drag us through every kind of class you could imagine, and what comes out the other end is a generic musician—someone who can hit all the notes dead on—someone who imagines you’re supposed to hit all the notes dead on—but someone with all the juice squeezed out of them—someone with no idea at all about the stylistic differences between Bach and Mozart—someone who sings every kind of music in the same bland style and thinks this represents the composer’s wishes.

Don’t get me wrong—America has its own tradition, too, it just doesn’t have to do with opera. Our traditions are blues, jazz, rock, country. The Americans who have been the most successful in opera have usually been black: Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle. That’s because they start from a musical style and acquire their vision from there, adapting technically to the classical environment without losing their own heritage. Of this trio Leontyne Price is both the greatest singer and the most black.

What’s required to be a truly great opera singer is a lot. This person must possess the physical talents, already a rare event, and then acquire the technical wisdom necessary to perform these enormously difficult works. Then on top of all that they must project an artistic vision, a unique perspective on the music they are performing.

I have long thought about why our excellent music schools don’t produce more great singers. A violinist seeking a career in an orchestra needs above everything else stamina and precision. They will find these things in American music schools. But our voice teachers seem to work very hard trying to beat the music out of us.

Seek out where this piece intersects your own personal music. Technique and style belong together. To think that someone must reach technical perfection before attempting interpretation implies that they can be separated. A true understanding of style can be an aid in technical growth. Find something to sing you can get excited about and let yourself get carried away.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Modern Life

Modern Life allows you to have anything you want. Well, maybe not love, but anything else. For instance, if you can't afford to fly to every interesting opera performance in the world, you can buy a copy from House of Opera. They recently had a sale. $10 is a much more reasonable price for a product of this quality. I bought 7 dvds.

I have bought things from them before. I bought a copy of Cecilia's Il Turco in Italia from them before it came out commercially. These videos are filmed at home off of someones tv set, and they look it. In Il Turco the picture suddenly becomes a test pattern every now and then. It was worth it to see the madness of this production.

I chose to listen first to a performance from La Scala of Verdi's Il Trovatore. In commenting on Corelli I said that no one takes these kinds of risks any more. I'm eating my words again, for I had not seen 35 year old Salvatore Licitra singing Manrico. He is burning down the scenery in "Di quella pira." Was even Corelli this out there? We could tame him, smooth out his rough edges, but would we love him more? The picture is terrible, they film through the pauses, the tabs in the dvd go to just anywhere.

But Muti is conducting. It is a marriage made in heaven.

Sunday, June 26, 2005


On the longest day we drove around all the windy (both pronunciations) hills of Marin County. We sat on a hill looking at the ocean and the city from an angle I’d never seen before. We drove through Bolinas because we know where it is and it can’t hide from us. We saw egrets and the place where they nest. We returned across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge at the exact moment that a huge orange full moon rose, the biggest I have ever seen. It was closer than Oakland and only got larger as it rose. For a short perfect time I was home.

Voices up the stairs

I am upstairs back in Maryland and too lazy to go down and look. Who is that on my cd turntable? It is too dark for Kiri, whose "Best of Kiri Te Kanawa" just finished. If this is Kiri's best, she will soon be forgotten. The only thing of interest is her "Mein Herr Marquis" from Die Fledermaus. She is a great Rosalinda--see the wonderful video from Covent Garden--but she must also have been a fine Adele. Kiri is best singing Strauss, as anyone knows. The recordings for Room with a View are far better than anything here.

It is too dark for Victoria and too sane for Maria Callas, but it is worthy of either of them. Who can this beautiful bel canto singing be?

This is one of those "of course" answers. It could have been no one else. I just forgot that I bought her second aria album and put it on the turntable. I've been away. Buy anything she does. Go to anything she sings. Anna Netrebko has hit her prime very quickly. Throw all your old recordings away.

Pearl Fishers


Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Director Andrew Sinclair 

Zurga  William Dazeley*
Nadir  Charles Castronovo*
LeĂŻla   Norah Amsellem*
Nourabad  Mark Coles*
Horse     Bryan Ketron
Tiger    Michael Mizerany
Gazelle  Cynthia Drayer Reyes

Bizet's The Pearl Fishers is a flawed opera. In this era of super-titles we don't expect to study the opera before we go, so we are unprepared for the fact that large parts of the plot have already taken place before the opera starts and are never adequately explained by the action.

The two main male characters, Zurga and Nadir, have both fallen for the same woman, Leila, and in the famous duet in Act I they promise that no woman will be allowed to come between them. Sure. In a conflict between sex and friendship, at least in opera, sex always wins.

The relationship between Nadir and Leila is well handled. When Leila comes out veiled as a priestess, Nadir immediately recognizes her while Zurga remains clueless. In Act II Nadir finds Leila in her guarded part of the beach and some wonderful love music ensues.

The ending doesn't really work. Zurga is wildly jealous for no reason revealed by the action. Then he completely reverses course because of a necklace which is too small to see. If it's a big necklace, why didn't he see it sooner? Leila and Nadir get away, and Zurga dies.

This is all supposed to take place on the beach in Sri Lanka. The religion seems to be Hindu while Sri Lanka is Buddhist. Oh well. This is just opera.

What does work is the music. Bizet successfully creates the lush atmosphere of a tropic beach with music that resembles warm breezes and soft waves lapping, just the place for moonlit romance. He has done the best he could with what amounts to about 2/3 of a libretto. In this performance the integration between orchestra and singers was complete, resulting in a satisfying sensual bath. The conductor, Sebastian Lang-Lessing in his San Francisco Opera debut, gets major credit for this.

The production by Zandra Rhodes was the star of the evening. She uses a lot of vivid color and design to represent a tropical paradise. There were some gorgeous actor/singers to wear her skimpy costumes. Charles Castronovo was gorgeously hunky as Nadir, as well as a fine, though very light tenor. Norah Amsellem as Leila was extremely attractive physically and vocally. DE pointed out that her figure with thin waist and wide hips matches the Indian ideal of female beauty.

The French singing was very fine. It was very much a French experience.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1850-70]

Monday, June 20, 2005


One of the things I miss most about California is my opera friends and the opera parties we had together. Every now and then we would get together and watch opera videos. We did a little competitive video finding. My biggest find was The Big Broadcast of 1935 with Kirsten Flagstad in her horned helmet singing BrĂĽnnhilde.

So Saturday night we had another party. We watched parts of Queen of Spades, a short film of Beverly Sills at the peak of her skills, and a long video of a recital by Franco Corelli.

Franco Corelli was a very special singer. His obituary in Opera News says that he was self-taught. This is completely believable. What teacher would have the nerve to teach such an incredibly open tone? Birget Nilssen also expressed a similar mistrust of voice teachers.

He was a beautiful man with a wonderful voice (I would call him a spinto tenor), but that isn't what makes him the icon he has become. It is his utter fearlessness that sets him apart. He is known to have had terrible stage fright, so how can I say he was fearless? His heart was as open as his tone, and it may have been this artistic fearlessness that frightened him.

His tone knows no compromise. His passion is complete. His use of portamento is completely unbelievable. You simply have to hear his amazing slow downward arc to believe it. No one takes these kinds of risks today. He is the gold standard.

Here Lies Jenny

I am home in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I stepped out the door of the airport, the familiar air surrounded me. The Bay Area is scenery, of course, but primarily it is air and light which seep into your soul until they permeate your whole outlook on life. It is a joy to be home.

On Sunday afternoon we went to see Bebe Neuwirth's show Here Lies Jenny. It is 70 minutes of Kurt Weill, someone we could use more of, played by a marvelous pianist and done in a style that completely suits him. He is best at his most depressing. The gloomy setting in a dingy cellar gave just the right edge to his gritty music.

Remember when I said the great stars bring you a complete performance? Well, Bebe Neuwirth in her Jenny project brings you everything except voice. She could have used more miking. I can't help wondering if it is the performance itself that has made shreds of her voice. You hear little more than a rasp. The songs are pitched too low for her, and her voice is completely unsupported.

It is a show with virtually no plot, just a series of acted songs, well acted songs. It was fun, but I'm not really sure why. She gets points for taking this shot, but would we have gone at all without the presence of a celebrity?

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Stephanie Friedman

After reading K's review of Giulio Cesare on the Cecilia Bartoli Forum, I realized I would never appreciate Fagioli, the countertenor who sang Caesar as much as he, because the role exists always in my mind in the voice of Stephanie Friedman, a mezzo who specialized in Handel's castrato roles. San Francisco's Pocket Opera was her primary venue. She had a beautiful voice and her coloratura mezzo work was truly spectacular. I love Donald Pippin, the founder and director of Pocket Opera, but it was Stephanie that really put him on the map. For many, many reasons every great singer does not have a great career.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Ned Rorem?

Comment from a survey of music critics:

The critics’ top five favorite historical composers are Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms; their top five contemporary composers are John Adams, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, Ned Rorem, and John Corigliano.

Ned Rorem?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


In my twenties I listened obsessively to Jussi Bjoerling. Listening to him now I see why. The elegance of his glissandi is wonderful. And he puts that catch in his voice in just the right places. His touch is completely flawless. And certainly pairing him with Victoria de los Angeles is pure genius.

Each singer has his or her own career, but only certain pairings are greater than the sum of their parts. These decisions usually depend on recording contracts and not on art.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Vesselina Kasarova Mozart Arias

There is something unattractive about Vesselina Kasarova's take-no-prisoners style. I’m ok with it in opera seria, such as Idomemeo or Mitridate, re di Ponto, a castrato part which actually suits her quite well, though even in this she has no ideas to sustain her through a whole aria.

But Dorabella? I’m trying to think of a characterization of Dorabella that fits this forceful interpretation of her aria. She regards her infidelity as some sort of triumph, apparently.

Her “Mi tradi” is not bad. But even here there is no relationship between what the aria is supposed to express and what she is doing, which seems to derive completely from the technical considerations.

When punching is the right thing, as in Vitellia’s aria, then it works, but the emotion has to fit her and not the other way around.

She is a true mezzo with plenty of force in the center and a beautiful tone. I’m recommending that she meditate on the concept of phrasing instead of just punching her way through Mozart. Listen to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Mozart, especially “Porgi amor.”

There is simply no substitute for understanding the music you are singing.

Friday, June 10, 2005

More on recitals

There was an unintended disrespect toward Lotte Lehmann in some of the things I wrote about her. She was very significant in her era, and no doubt, when she wrote about how to present a song she was writing about her own approach to the piece. When I said she was someone from the past, I was referring to her style of singing and the fact that she scoops and slides everything about the same amount. In her time this would not have seemed excessive at all. I have never seen a film of her.

The public presentation of classical music used to be more interesting than it is now. In Beethoven's time arias were presented between the movements of a symphony. It was just assumed that the selection of pieces and the way they were given would be intended to keep the audience amused.

A recital in Lotte Lehmann's era was also different from now. We slavishly follow a chronological sequence, for instance. If I am singing five songs by Berg, they will be 5 songs that were composed together. Lehmann would have selected them for themselves alone, because she loved them and wanted to sing them. She might have grouped songs by different composers and even in different languages together, for instance. They would have reflected different levels of seriousness, something that is allowed only in encores now. We are determined to take all the fun out of it.

Grace Bumbry is not arranging the German composers in the right order or performing songs all from the same Opus. She is probably doing them for love alone. I wish this were always the case, but the demands of career generally prevent it.

I would still like to see the video. I can't help thinking that Lotte's influence would be felt there, too. Lehmann was not suggesting anything so elaborate as operatic acting. Everything would have fit into the natural limitations of a recital, but she wouldn't have just stood there and left everything to happen on its own. She would have thought about the presentation of each song. Remember when I said, "the great stars give you a complete performance?" This would refer to recitals, too.

I'm trying to say something serious in a not too serious way. Opera, concerts and recitals are first and foremost show business. Billy Jean King knew that tennis was show business and created in her person the public interest in women's tennis. Music is show business. Perhaps the academic influence is too strong here as well. I want to be entertained, and I want the performers to think about what they are doing from my point of view.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

I must have been thinking of...

How to Act in Opera

By Alfred V. Frankenstein

For many years, man and boy, professional and amateur, it has been my pleasure to observe many of the world’s greatest operatic stars on the stages of Berlin, Rome, Florence, Paris, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. As a result of this polyglot experience I have perfected what is now in process of being patented under the name of the All-American Five-Point System of Operatic Acting. Just as there are five positions basic to the art of the classic ballet, so operatic acting is reduced in this system to five basic attitudes, which by variation, permutation, combination, synthesis, conjunction and conglomeration create an entire language of gesture suitable for use in any and all situations in any and all operas.

Basic Attitude No. 1 is the Bucket Balance. This is a position derived from the peculiar thing that happens automatically to one’s left arm when carrying a heavy pail of water in the right hand. Its plain or stiff-armed form has an important variant, the Cursive Bucket Balance, done with a more supple motion from the elbow. Both these gestures are universally useful. They can be employed to indicate jealousy, ecstasy, choler, or (as is usually the case) nothing at all.

A second highly important variant of the Bucket Balance is the Invisible Churn. When indulged in at arm’s length this movement is much favored by chorus people to signify animated conversation. When done with a short jab and crooked elbow, the clenched fist close to the chest it indicates villainy. This latter form, however, might be called one of several variations of:

Basic Attitude No. 2, the Heart Attack. This action, one hand placed firmly over the upper ribs, is to well known to require description, as is its first transformation, the Double-Breasted Heart Attack. In this same category comes the Asthma Clutch, similar to the Heart Attack, but with the fingers at the base of the throat. Also under this general heading one must place the Lemon Squeeze, wherein the hands are joined in a tight clasp about four inches in front of the breast bone.

Basic Attitude No. 3 is Worse Than Death. The head is lowered, the hand grasps the back hair, and the bent arm forms a kind of frame for the head. This can be done either seated or standing. It often alternates with:

Basic Attitude No. 4, the Guy Rope Stance. The hands are extended stiffly downward, at an angle of about forty-five degrees from the body, the chest is thrown out, and the feet are often parted in a kind of frozen stride. The whole picture is designed, as far as possible, after the appearance of a governor on a motor. Required of wronged husbands when the bad news breaks, but useful in other situations as well.

Fifth and last of the Basic Attitudes is the Fevered Brow. The back (never the palm) of one hand is placed on the forehead, the head itself is frequently tilted either backward or forward, and the other arm is always extended in a Bucket Balance. The Fevered Brow is usually completed with a determined, side-swiping motion of the hand away from the head indicating that the incredible revelation that produced the gesture in the first place is too dreadful to be believed. It then frequently goes into the Guy Rope Stance.

These are the movements and positions basic to every operatic work of every school and nationality, and therefore are universally applicable. There is also a rich field of gesture and action peculiar to specific works and specific roles which I also propose to teach. I shall, for instance, give careful instruction to Carmen chorus ladies on the approved method of singeing their eyebrows while smoking cigarettes that stick straight up in the air. Embryo Valkyries graduating from our academy will be thoroughly proficient in the Bloodhound Snoop, Seven O’Clock in the Morning (an exercise for the development of the right biceps done with a spear instead of a dumbbell) and other calisthenics of Wagnerian interpretation. No one training for any part in Aida can afford to dispense with Heil Hitler and the Egyptian Double-Breasted Heart Attack. The approved methods of hunting for hidden objects in places here they very obviously have not been hidden will occupy an important place in the curriculum. All manner of shudders, staggers, flops and falls will be appropriately codified. And the subject of placing daggers under the armpit will call for a course all its own.

come uno zabaglione al doppio uovo

"...energetico come uno zabaglione al doppio uovo." Now why can't I write like that? "Energetic like a zabaglione with double egg." This is a description of Marc Minkowski conducting Giulio Cesare. It is unfortunate that opera doesn't make me think of food.


Sarah's comment that Grace Bumbry did an homage a Lotte is interesting. I assume this means she acted it all out ala Lotte. It would be fun to see this.
Homage a Lotte Lehmann
How interesting. I keyed in "Homage a Lotte Lehmann" and up it came. It's a DVD, naturally.

Long before Lotte Lehmann there was a school of acting that associated each emotion with a specific movement. This would have been very popular with opera singers who generally like to concentrate on their high notes.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


In opera you're allowed to do anything. In general directors should try to remember that the person is going to be singing, but they put them into just about any position. I've never seen anyone singing standing on their head, but that's about the only pose I can think of that I haven't seen. Lying down is popular. Front and back. Singing in the bathtub. Anything.

Recitals are something else entirely. Liszt started the tradition where the pianist plays in profile. He had a really great profile when he was young and wanted to show it off. So maybe the pianist has to be playing in profile before the singer starts standing in the crook of the piano. This is tradition. You can put your hand on the piano, but not all the time. You can fold your hands together, but not all the time. You can take a little step forward. You can gesture as long as you don't get too carried away. But that's pretty much it.

Cecilia Bartoli has been known to choreograph in her piano recitals. When she is doing the French song where she pretends to be a ladybug, she holds her hand out like the ladybug is her hand talking.

But the kind of elaborate movement suggested by Lotte Lehman is really more than we're used to seeing. Anything that gets you thinking about the song is bound to be an improvement. What is this song about? How does it make me feel? If the answer to this last question is nothing, find another song to do. If you always get this answer, take up another profession.

The key is the right action that creates the right feeling.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Lotte Lehmann

Lotte Lehmann was a legend in her own time. She was a famous Marschallin and was considered the greatest interpreter of Fidelio. She was also a prominent recitalist.

She wrote a series of books intending to teach singers how to properly present Lieder. Each song was laid out in a specific choreography. Put your hand up here. Look down here. I think this is a good idea in general because it would prod singers to actually think about how they want to present a piece. They could go on to make up their own choreography, one closer to the feeling of their own hearts. She retired to one of the great teaching gigs at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The problem with her advice is clear when listening to "The RCA Victor vocal series: Lotte Lehmann." Her French is fine. She sings some of the same Reynaldo Hahn songs that are on Susan Graham's recording and presents them in a much more passionate style. This woman, once famous as an interpreter, seems too old-fashioned to us. Her use of the tools of interpretation is too broad. We want a lighter touch.

Singing, like all of art, is of a time and a place. She is now a person from the past.


Hmmm. Could they be using microphones, body mikes in this case, at the Washington National Opera? They can't all sing that loud, can they? This has me very worried.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


Life is good. I went to the Saturday matinee of Samson and Delilah that closed the season of the Washington National Opera to see Olga Borodina’s Delilah once again. I have seen Olga’s performance in this role three times, three different productions, and it’s interesting that it changes. In New York it was subdued. In San Francisco it was intensely sexual and seductive. In Washington it was angry and evil. So how does that work? I can speculate that the passage of time gives her increased self-confidence and that if she continues in this direction she will dominate the action in a truly frightening way. Her voice and her physical presence are huge.

The tenor, Carl Tanner, was also quite nice. Someone came out between the second and third acts to tell us he had had an asthma attack. This lent an atmosphere of reality to his exhaustion in Act III.

And no, I haven’t been flying around after Olga, too. That is reserved for only one person. I lived in SF when I saw it there, and now I live near DC. New York was on video. After reading about Romeo et Juliette in LA with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, I could add people to the list.

I am accustomed to hearing opera in the San Francisco Opera house, a place with notoriously mediocre acoustics. Now when I am in other places, I start to wonder if I am hearing the effects of microphones. The singers have so much more presence than I am used to that everything begins to seem bogus. Perhaps it’s just me.

The production was by Giancarlo del Monaco, the son of Mario del Monaco. The first year I worked in the Ulmer Theater he was the Intendant. General manager. He was in his black period when all his productions were black on black. We did a black on black La Forza del Destino set in the Spanish civil war. Leonora wore a black nurse’s uniform with a huge white cross. The governing board warned him that if he did one more black on black production, he was out. So naturally, he did and he was. He went on to bigger and better things. He also went on to other colors. This Samson was full of beautiful blues, reds and browns.

He lived in a different dimension from the rest of us. He came and went with his red-haired wife and two miniature dogs. His flamboyant personality spilled out in every context. He was accustomed to opera in the first tier and was less than thrilled with the quality of the performers he was forced to direct in this third tier house. And he told us. He was multi-lingual and insulted each in his native tongue. I was told that I walked like someone crossing a barnyard. I don’t deny it.

One tenor stood calmly on the stage while Giancarlo ranted and wrote down everything he said. One phrase that has stuck in my memory is “ausgeleiende Stimmbaende.” (stretched out vocal cords). He wrote everything down and sued. When the case came to trial the following year, every insult was read out in court and reported in the newspapers. And read aloud in the cantina. Such fun! Giancarlo was forced to apologize, but paid no money. The judge felt that artists sometimes get carried away.

He works now in the environment that he sought. I have seen several of his productions since then, and they are workable and sensible. Faint praise.

So why not forget that Samson and Dalilah is Biblical and do it as a series of Klimt paintings? The sexiest painter and the sexiest opera.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


I guess I'm a bit of a philistine myself. I'm interested in singing of all kinds. I have a recording called "De mi alma latina" (from my latin soul) by Placido Domingo that I enjoy very much.

I find this recording fascinating because it's true -- his musical soul is in these songs as it often isn't in his serious work. There is rubato all over the place. There is sliding.

He has a vast repertoire which he sings in the same mildly expressive, somewhat bland style. He is a fine musician and a great singing actor, to be sure, but he works no expressive miracles for me. Without the video I don't listen to him.

This is somewhat akin to blasphemy. In the opera world the man is virtually sanctified.

Practically everyone crossed over from somewhere. Placido came from the tradition of zarzuela in Mexico. Only a few, like Luciano and Cecilia, are singing in their native musical language.