Wednesday, August 31, 2005


I went last summer to see the Merola presentation of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, an opera I have long been aware of because it has a contralto heroine, but had never seen before. It is an opera about love, in this case married chastity. Lucretia is the most chaste wife in Rome.

The production was noteworthy because there is an extended instrumental section with no implied action, and they filled it with the character Tarquinius, the Etruscan prince who ruled Rome at the time, taking an extended nude shower. Outside the theater were signs warning of immoral activity inside.

We know of this story because it came down to us as the explanation for the founding of the Roman Republic. If even the chaste Lucretia was vulnerable, there was no choice but to overthrow the dictator and found a government where all are free.

Britten has tried to turn this story into an anecdote in praise of Christianity, but does not succeed. Lucretia feels the violation of rape, demands that she be avenged and then kills herself. By this action she turns the world upside down. What has Jesus Christ to do with this? Is he trying to hide the unacceptable parallel that the English should try to overthrow their own monarchy?

Britten’s operas continue to hold their popularity as few others, but no one seems to want The Rape of Lucretia in spite of the seriousness of its theme and the beauty of its music.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Old email about "Sacred Monster"

[Dr B--Friend who played her in "Masterclass" has mentioned that she feels personally compromised by the content of the Maria Callas biography "Sacred Monster."]

You feel personally compromised. How interesting. I think you should get over this. This is not the Maria Callas we thought we knew. She was completely transformed in my mind. I immediately went out and bought a bunch of recordings. I especially wanted to hear La Traviata because I was familiar with her mainly through Norma and Medea, quite different operas. I wanted to hear her more lyric side. I still feel exhausted after listening for a while. She was the most intense singer I've ever heard.

I went into Virgin to buy the CDs and was prattling on about the book, and the clerk said "She was never hotter." This is what opera should be. We should feel our souls laid bare.

I found the parts about the scandals, the sudden explosion of negative publicity surrounding completely trivial performance cancellations extremely shocking. No one seemed to come to her rescue. I am convinced that these things altered the course of her life much more than Mr. Onassis. The author has done her a great service.

Maybe it's her name. Maybe Giovanna Piccolini would work better than Ruth Ann Swenson. An american girl of swedish extraction doesn't seem like an opera singer.

Sunday, August 28, 2005


In the continuing saga of unwatched opera videos today we have Fedora by Giordano. It comes after his Andrea Chenier and is roughly contemporary with Tosca.

This presentation at the Met was done especially for Mirela Freni—it is her favorite, and it’s not hard to see why. The character Fedora is in every scene. The hit tune from Fedora, “Amor ti vieta,” is for tenor, but not to worry. Fedora gets to be anxiously awaiting the fate of her mortally wounded lover, to swear vengeance upon his killer, to pursue the killer and try to entrap him, to instead fall madly in love with him, to express bliss, regret and any other emotion, and finally to commit suicide. How could you possibly top this?

Placido Domingo has a nice part as her lover and enemy, Loris. Please forgive my former cracks about him. What was I thinking?

I enjoyed it, but then I cannot get enough of scenery chewing. By the end the entire set is in tatters. It is popular in Italy, I understand. Mirela Freni is no longer at her peak, and Placido is struggling a bit to come up to the required level of melodrama. What would this have been like 10 years before?

Not about love

This is third in the love series.

Opera took a big turn around 1828, very close to the death of Beethoven, with an opera called La Muette de Portici which ends with the leading character, a mute woman, throwing herself into an erupting Vesuvius. Opera became violent and politics became significant. Rossini tried to keep in the spirit of things by writing William Tell, but decided he didn't really like this style of opera and retired.

For the first time operas that are not about love became common. Verdi is very political and seems as much interested in political violence, especially at first, as anything. The Verdi screamer soprano parts are from this period in the 1840's. Rigoletto and La Traviata show a softer side.

Russian operas are almost all about politics. Great music is married to subjects of only historical interest.

The successful national movements in Italy and Germany softened the interest in politics, and opera turned back to love as its primary topic with verismo.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

CD from the Met

I received two CD's from the Metropolitan Opera.

The first one contains a recording of Bryn Terfel singing one of Don Magnifico's arias from La Cenerentola. He takes it all on and comes out on the right side an amazing percent of the time.

Both CD's include excerpts from a joint concert by Leontyne Price and Marilyn Horne. The first CD includes an outstanding Rossini aria by Marilyn Horne. The second CD includes the two of them performing 'Mira o Norma'. I would not have believed it if I hadn't heard it.

First of all I don't recall Price doing bel canto. Maybe I'm just ignorant, but this was excellent. The tempos were generally slower than Sutherland does them.

Horne knows her place. It is the mezzo's responsibility to accompany the soprano in whatever style she takes, and Marilyn expands to meet Leontyne in a way that is downright thrilling.

Leontyne Price is unique. In my generic complaining about American singers not knowing how to do Italian opera I certainly would never include her. She is the person who best exemplifies my idea to find where this piece intersects your own music. She is always completely herself and completely expressive in Italian repertoire--Bellini, too, apparently.

The other most notable exception is, of course, Maria Callas. We completely forget that she was American.


I change my mind a lot depending on my mood. Some things are wonderful to hear the first time and become tiring with repetition.

Wonderful for always are...

Pavarotti, Freni and James Levine doing Manon Lescaut. I bought it because Cecilia did a brief solo on it, but it represents Pavarotti at his very best. His singing is very free in this role and very thrilling. Each hearing is more wonderful than the one before.

Bjoerling and de los Angeles in La Boheme. I admired Jussi from the beginning and came to love Victoria as I got older. It is one of the peak opera experiences.

Love and admiration are different emotions, and opera is well designed to arouse both. Love of a particular singer is personal. Admiration is much easier to describe.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

I Lombardi

I'm recovering from surgery and using the time continuing to work my way through all the unwatched opera videos in my collection.

In 1993 Verdi’s I Lombardi was staged at the Met with Luciano Pavarotti, Samuel Ramey and Lauren Flanigan, a woman who specializes in screamer rolls like Lady Macbeth and the heroine of I Lombardi. Or does the role just seem like a screamer part because of how she sings it?

The insensitivity of staging this opera, which is about crusades and infidels, is simply staggering. Maybe I’m seeing it from the current post-9-11 perspective, but didn’t we see this coming at all?

The music is good early Verdi. The plot is just people hating and killing—relatives, Saracens, anyone—and then whining about it afterward. Pavarotti, singing at his peak, plays the only character who starts out Moslem, and he seems pretty nice, comparatively speaking. People pray a lot, when they’re not killing someone. I nominate this opera for putting back on the shelf.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Opera is about love

This is a continuation of a previous blog.

Operas in the A list, the core repertoire of all opera houses, are all about love.

It began with love. The first operas were written on the story of Orpheus who descends into hell to try to bring back his beloved Euridice. Operas on this plot include both endings: he always looks back, but sometimes love goes wrong and she does not return to earth, and other times the gods are so charmed by him that they reward him anyway.

Mozart always writes about love. Figaro is full of love: the countess mourns its end, and Figaro and Susanna celebrate its beginning. Cherubino loves the countess; the countess still loves her husband, who is wild for Susanna; Susanna and Figaro love each other. Barbarina loves Cherubino. It’s almost too complicated to describe, but amazingly it all ends well.

Don Giovanni is about love in another sense. That the Don is drawn to the women he pursues cannot be doubted. He is seen as a kind of personification of evil because he cannot live within the confines of traditional love. This is a difficult perspective to maintain in modern times—thus my suggestion to portray him as the always randy Austin Powers. Donna Elvira truly loves him, and provides the human perspective. The Don is punished in the end to validate the importance of love.

In Magic Flute true love is the reward for virtuous accomplishment. In the case of Papageno it may be the reward for annoying persistence. Love is the goal for which we strive.

Rossini’s Barber of Seville is all about the successful pursuit of a young woman who is locked away by her guardian. Love triumphs.

In Lucia di Lammermour a young woman loves one man and is forced to marry another. This is a new era of opera where true love wins by bringing all the characters to a tragic end.

Lohengrin breaks his vow to the Knights of the Grail by marrying Elsa. Love is his guiding light but ends tragically when Elsa forces him to reveal his identity.

The Lord of the Rings is just about a stupid ring that men covet and fight over. The Ring of the Nibelungen is about love: the love of the Rhine maidens for their gold, the love of Siegmund and Sieglinde, the love of Wotan for his daughter Brünnhilde, and finally it is about the love of Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Only the Rhine maidens are successful in love. All the others go down in flames.

Rigoletto is about his love for his daughter, Gilda, and the love of Gilda for her student, Gualtier Maldee. This turns out to be a cruel joke perpetrated by the duke of Mantua. When Rigoletto tries to exact revenge, his life turns to dust.

In Il Trovatore the troubadour, a gypsy, falls in love with Leonora, a woman far above his class. Through a lot of complications about class and prejudice against gypsies, all ends in tragedy.

La Traviata is about true love, can there be true love with a prostitute? Should we give up love when it interferes with social status?

Faust has spent his entire life in study and wants to experience love with Marguerite. He ruins her life in the process, but she just manages to save her soul. Faust worries a lot about souls.

Masked Ball is about illicit love and the political danger this can cause.

Tristan and Isolde is nothing but a very long, tragic love song.

In Die Meistersinger marriage with Eva is the reward for Walther’s successful entry into the prize competition.

Aida is a love triangle between Rhadames, the slave girl Aida and her mistress Amneris. Rhadames never had a hope of union with Aida and sacrifices all for her.

Carmen warns Don Jose, “If you love me, beware of me.” He ignores this advice and loves her anyway. He is not sufficiently interesting to hold the tempestuous Carmen.

The Tales of Hoffmann is about loving foolishly. Each of Hoffmann’s loves has a tragic flaw which he does not see.

Manon is yet another opera about loving prostitutes. These are always doomed.

Otello is the man who has everything, love and success in war, but is brought down by jealousy.

Both Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci are about married women fooling around with other men and bringing grief to all.

In La Boheme true love is foiled through illness and poverty.

Tosca. Love comes to a sudden, tragic end.

Madama Butterfly loves her Pinkerton to the end, through his complete betrayal.

In Der Rosenkavalier the story begins with love between Octavian and the Marschallin and moves to love between Octavian and Sophie.

This is the A list of opera, the works which form the center of all opera repertoire, and they are all about love. If you want your opera to live on, at least give it a fighting chance in the opera world of tomorrow, make it be about love. Give the characters something to sing about. Because opera is about love.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Maria Callas, Life and Art

I own and have read a lot of books about Maria Callas, and I am now at the point where I know too much. She was a very great singer of uneven discipline even while she was married to Giovanni Battide Meneghini. Once Meneghini was no longer part of her life all hints of self-discipline went with him.

The life of a professional opera singer requires that she keep her support muscles constantly in training. Requires. There has been a lot of speculation over the years about the effect of Callas’ weight loss on these support muscles, and a lot of blame has been put here. When I listen to her singing before and after the weight loss, I don’t hear a lot of changes.

With her affair with Onasis attention to training appears to have ended.

The film closes with the concert series done with Di Stephano. I think at that time she was not yet 50. I don’t hear significant changes in her voice, though the hardness is a bit more pronounced. She could well have continued her career at this point. What I hear is huge changes in the amount of control she is able to exert over her voice due to the collapse in her conditioning. Control of the line is the key to good bel canto, and this is achieved through consistent support. By that time it simply wasn’t happening any more. Her brain remembered, but her body did not.

She was too into her own success and basically messed everything up. The film discusses this more openly than I have heard in the past. It is painful to read and to see in this video: Maria Callas, Life and Art.

Monday, August 22, 2005


DR gave me the skinny on the Munich Rigoletto as planet of the apes. She says they paid 80000 Euros for it and pulled it after only two performances. The singers complained that they couldn't hear the orchestra with their heads inside ape masks. They would need to be wired like a quarterback's helmet. More money. Altogether a pretty serious fiasco.

Seven plots

I read somewhere that there are seven plots. I researched this on the internet and found a page with lots of different lists of numbers of plots.

1 plot. Lots of people like this, but obviously this is just a structure that they’re describing, not a plot.

3 plots. Foster-Harris proposes this. It sounds kind of interesting and warrants further study.

7 plots. Jessamyn West proposes man against various entities—nature, machine, god, self, etc. This doesn’t cast much light on opera plots.

20 plots. Ronald Tobias. This is actually a useful list.

However, opera is a special case. For opera I would like to propose 3 plots:
1. love problems that resolve badly.
2. love problems that come out well (practically every comic opera).
3. everything else. The list of twenty can be used to break this out.

My number one includes Carmen, Butterfly, Orfeo, Otello, Masked Ball, La Traviata, La Boheme, lots of stuff.

Turandot is a riddle opera.
Fidelio is rescue.
Rigoletto is about revenge.

Everything else is love. Tip for composers—find a story about love and make a libretto out of it. John Adams' topics aren’t operas. Vanessa is about love and is gaining in popularity with the passage of time.

I am going out on a limb here—maybe this is the reason for the failure of modern opera. Opera is about love.

Sunday, August 21, 2005


CDs and videos of famous singers giving lessons are often not very interesting.

The CDs of Maria Callas' master classes just consist of her singing and expecting the student to imitate her. We don't need a master class for that--you can do that by playing recordings of her singing.

I'm not sure imitation is a bad thing. There may be no other way to achieve the right style for Italian opera, for instance. It's good enough for Luciano, it may be good enough for you, too.

I bought Grace Bumbry's dvd "Homage a Lotte Lehmann." Lotte would have done a better job with most of these pieces. Grace is taking herself much too seriously.

The dvd alternates songs with talking, and in one section toward the end she complains that most of the students she meets are not ready for interpretation. This makes my teeth grind. No interpretation is also an interpretation. I suppose they're supposed to sing every note in a kind of flat dynamic until they get everything perfect. Every vowel, every rhythm, every note. When they've achieved a kind of school book perfection we'll let them think about interpretation. Ugh! Why would they bother? Why wouldn't they just faint from overwhelming boredom? I would far rather they looked for meaning every second and had to be calmed down. Have something to say or give it up.

Friday, August 19, 2005

In French

In an interview in Opera News Rolando Villazon says, “I would define the CD [Gounod and Massenet] as an effort to get as close as I could to the French language and style of singing, but letting my Mexican heart come through also.” Think how well this goes with my idea to find where this piece intersects with your own personal music!

I was going to argue with the spareness of his portamento, but he goes on to say, “I would not want to be a French singer—I am not a French singer. What I really want is to combine two things, to bring the fire, the temperament and freedom of Italian singing to the French, which emphasizes the pure line, clarity, cutting out some of the portamento. That is something you should not do in French music.”

Well. He’s arguing with me. He smacked me right down. I love that. I personally think it handicaps the French that the performance style is not particularly distinctive. But it’s much more important for the singers to think about what they are singing. And he does. A thinking singer—a very fine thing indeed! Not a self-cancelling phrase.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Dolora Zajick

I once had a ticket to see the Verdi Requiem with the San Francisco Symphony. For some reason it was in the Civic Center, I can't remember why, and the mezzo was replaced at the last minute. My friends said "you will like this mezzo." They couldn't remember her name. I remember saying afterward in a horrified voice: "That was no extra mezzo. That was Dolora Zajick!" She was marvelous. I, of course, knew exactly who she was. She sang Azucena with Luciano on TV. She is appearing all over these days, singing new pieces, making the news. She is also a Richard Tucker winner.

She is one of the fat voiced mezzos, a group which includes Olga Borodina and perhaps Loraine Hunt Lieberson, someone I am looking into.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

After working--Opera Houses

The thing highest in my brain right now is retirement. The other day I read about a man who intended to visit every Starbucks and have a cup of coffee. His personal best was 29 in one day, but he said it made him feel a little nauseous.

So I was thinking I could visit all the opera houses/opera companies on earth one at a time. I wonder how long it would take? How many years would it take me to buy tickets to Bayreuth, for instance? I have already been to:

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


We completely accept the modern paradigm of progress. Each generation is superior to the one before. Each world view is better than the one before. This is the perspective of science--each generation builds on the body of achievements of the one before, but in the immortal words of Sister Wendy "Art starts at the top."

Beethoven isn't better than Mozart. Mozart isn't better than Bach. They have just organized their materials differently. An unbroken line of increasing complexity isn't possible. Our brains, our listening brains can't take it all in.

Sunday, August 07, 2005


I have been reading Michael John Lachiusa's article in Opera News abut the death of the musical, and I find it virtually incoherent. If you're over 40, you may assume that things have changed. The constant bombardment of the electronic stimulation that is now our normal lives creates in us an entirely new idea of what it means to be entertained. To keep the attention of the modern jaded viewer perhaps the songs need to be carefully planned and timed for effect like a car chase.

But what the hell is this? We used to have choreography and now we just have dancing? We used to have lyric and now we just have libretto? This is all gibberish. "Audiences can keep a mediocre show running for years." This is nonsense.

However, I do agree with him about the prohibitive economics of Broadway. Other parts of the country are trying to pick up the slack. How about a whole article just about that?


Even in the most loved operas one does not love everything. In Rosenkavalier why is it that Sophie knows all about Octavian but nothing about the man she is to marry? Why is she shocked to see that the baron is a mature man from the country? With Sophie one sympathizes, but one does not love her.

But one loves the Marschallin more with each passing year. "How can it truly be that I was tiny Reselie, and someday I will be an old woman? While I inside am always the same?" Indeed. One loves her for asking while she is still young and beautiful.

It will remain a mystery how she knows about Octavian's plan. When he provokes a fight with the baron, she is probably told all about it. Perhaps she slips some coins to the Italians when no one is looking. Octavian creates the scandal that makes Faninal reject the baron as a son in law, but it is the Marschallin who smooths the ruffled feathers and restores serenity to all. "Half the time happy, half the time sad." She is a woman to adore, one of the great creations of art.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

What if?

What if an opera company produced Lion King? Or Les Miserables, which is definitely an opera? Would this mean that opera wasn't a museum any more? Would there be rioting in the streets?

Now I read that Cavalli's La Calisto has been presented in Munich. Perhaps opera will be a museum, but the art on display will be different.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Die Zeit

Die ist ein sonderbar Ding.

There has never been a video of the incredible Rosenkavalier of Kiri te Kanawa, Tatiana Troyanos, Kurt Moll, Judith Blegen, and of course Luciano Pavarotti, but I have copies of both broadcasts.

My first Rosenkavalier starred Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. I was a student at San Francisco State and got in as an usher in the balcony. All the seats were full of people and I sat in the aisle on the right side of the balcony circle. The other students said, "Be sure to see this!" I had never heard of her. I told you I was a philistine. At that time I had been in more operas than I had seen.

This was before supertitles. She was electric, exciting and absolutely real. I have been ever since fanatically mad for Rosenkavalier and never get enough of it. I sing along with the Marschallin and used to have the motto "halten und nehmen, halten und lassen" written on my board at work. She is right--it is something to strive for, to grasp love when it comes and let it go when it leaves.

Renée Fleming and Susan Graham did an excellent Marschallin and Octavian together with quite a lot of personal rapport.

Wie eine Sanduhr.

I suppose in this era of supertitles I should translate. " Time, it is an extraordinary thing. Like an hourglass." In your mind you should sing along.



October, 2004, of Opera News has and excellent quote (excellent because it agrees with my own humble opinion, of course):

If any singer defined how to cross over -- and back again -- with class, it was the great American soprano Eileen Farrell, who sang everything from Wagner to Alex Wilder with unaffected style and radiant self-assurance. About ten years ago, I was at a reception at which Farrell was asked about crossover. Just what, Farrell's questioner wondered, was the secret to being able to sing it all? Farrell, then as always famously short on matters of technical analysis, didn't miss a beat. "You've got to sound like yourself," she answered. And there the conversation ended.

Monday, August 01, 2005


I have finally forgotten enough of the movie Diva to watch it again. I remember the aria from La Wally—it was the first time I had heard it. I remember the black apartment with the white bathtub in the center of the room and the Vietnamese girl circling the room on roller-skates. I remember the white car driving through the countryside. I remember the motor scooter chase.

I had completely forgotten the drugs and prostitution plot, but I remembered the ecstasy precisely, the sense of completely giving oneself to the pleasure of great singing. They couldn’t get a real diva to play in their movie, but the singer in the film (Wilhelmenia Wiggins) is very good. She has the usual American singer flaw—she does not understand how to phrase an Italian aria, would be famous for something besides this movie if she did. It’s a great film, full of ambiguity.