Sunday, October 30, 2005

Alex Ross

It was Alex Ross (09/26/05) who called Rolando Villazon "Domingo's heir apparent in the Italian tenor repertory...." That's where I read it. Why would he want to curse him in this way? I went to the New Yorker website and printed out a few of Ross' columns so I could get a feeling for his writing, and right away I'm annoyed. Villazon is a real lyric tenor with a dark color. Domingo is a pushed up baritone. You leave my boy alone!!

I liked very much the column (06/06/05) about the effect of recordings on classical music. This is a topic to be considered. Right away I start to think about musack. I'm sure there is a recording of every Baroque concerto ever written, all done in that lifeless, cookie-cutter style that is the essence of anti-music. His comments are good. He puts in a lot of facts.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Friday, October 28, 2005

L'amour



When I wrote that opera was about love, it was just an observation. I made a list from a few opera plot books and picked out the ones that form the basis for opera theater repertoire throughout the world. And there it was. They are all about love with not one single exception.


With L'Amour de Loin ("Love from afar," Music by Kaija Saariaho and Libretto (in French) by Amin Maalouf) we have a new opera about love, and in its five years of existence it has already been presented in Salzburg, Santa Fe and Finland. The subject is longing, longing for someone else, for somewhere else, for an existence outside oneself. This is the opera for me.

It is a dvd so I am not required to see it all at once as I would in the opera house.

The opera has three characters:

Jaufré Rudel, a troubadour living in a tower in Aquitaine has had many lovers and longs for love at a distance, for the far away, unattainable lover of ideals and dreams. He is sung by Gerald Finley, baritone.

Clémence, countess of Tripoli, living in a tower in Lebanon, left Toulouse when she was five and has longed to return ever since. She is sung by Dawn Upshaw, soprano.

The pilgrim longs to see the east, especially the holy land; sung by Monica Groop, mezzo-soprano.

There is also a chorus who take on the character of Rudel’s friends, his dubious friends, and other characters in the drama. The chorus is also part of the orchestration, much as it would have been in the writing of Debussy. There are two harps, also like Debussy.

All long for what they do not have. The pilgrim travels back and forth between them and is the cause of all that happens. Without the pilgrim they would sit in their towers alone and discontented.

This production is simple. The towers are represented by metal winding staircases. The pilgrim’s boat is small and white in the center. The stage is covered with a thin layer of water in which the boat sails and the pilgrim walks.

Rudel expresses his desire for a distant love, and he is overheard by the pilgrim, who relates a brief story about a woman in Tripoli that he saw one day. She was, “beautiful without the arrogance of beauty, noble without the arrogance of nobility, pious without the arrogance of piety." The hero is fatally fascinated and describes a complete imaginary woman.

Oh my.

Part II

The camera shows briefly the orchestra pit, and it contains what appears to be a standard opera orchestra. Modern pits allow for the possibility of players sitting under the stage.

This cryptic sentence:
4(2pic,afl).3(ca).3(bcl).3(cbn)/4231/timp.4perc/pf(kbd)/str
describes the instrumentation.
woodwinds/brass/percussion/piano/strings

kbd next to pf means it is an electronic keyboard, perhaps a synthesizer. All we see is strings, two harps and maybe some woodwinds on the other side. It could be a piece by Berlioz or Debussy they are about to play. The list above from G. Schirmer seems to have missed the harps.

I am worrying about this because this ordinary, only somewhat large orchestra, these ordinary opera singers and the hidden chorus are making music with no obvious link to the music of Papa Haydn who first formalized the makeup of an orchestra. Once the ordinary looking conductor with his ordinary baton gives the downbeat, we don't see the orchestra any more. The singing is relatively ordinary, too, without too much irrational leaping about, a common feature of modern opera. There are even occasional trills and small ornaments such as an opera singer might do.

There is throughout the work no apparent meter. Instruments, themes, melodies sneak mysteriously into the stream of sound, play for a while and just as mysteriously depart. It is a sea of sound rather more like the ocean than Haydn. Or perhaps more like the Mediterranean Sea where the action takes place.

Part III

We come to opera for the ecstasy. Now I begin to fear that our hero who has stepped into the boat and is making his crossing to Tripoli will find at the other side that the love from afar is the only one that will sustain the ecstasy forever, that the reality of a real lover will pale beside it.

What is opera without passion? Has the fear of annihilation any chance beside it?

L'amour de loin is uncompromisingly modern and in spite of that may well be a masterpiece. Only its extreme difficulty would prevent it from becoming standard repertoire.

The visual images in this dvd are haunting. Perhaps I will buy it after all.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

L'amour I

I found out that you can rent operas on Netflix. Who would have thought? I also found that they come in insignificant paper wrappers. I wouldn't have thought that either.

I wanted to hear L'Amour de Loin without buying it. This title means love from afar, or the desire for a distant lover. Sort of like Beethoven's "ferne Geliebte." I have always specialized in this and wonder that anyone would think they wanted it instead of the close up kind.

But then it is the distant loves that lead one to write poetry and music, so perhaps there is some kind of practical value. But what if you're not a poet or composer? In my case I have taken up blogging. Is there a blogger muse, do you suppose?

In my case I think I should just get a cat.

Villazon

Somewhere in my reading I came across a sentence that said Rolando Villazon would be expected to step into Placido Domingo's shoes. He may feel free to step into the favorite son Mexican tenor shoes, but vocally they are quite different. Placido is a dramatic tenor as evidenced by his successful portrayal of Otello throughout his operatic career. Rolando is a lyric tenor, closer to Jose Carreras whose shoes he may feel free to step into. Don't be fooled by its dark color into thinking that his voice is heavier than it really is. Or even more important, let's hope he isn't fooled by this.

It's a sad fact that I don't like his original Italian Opera arias cd as much as the French one. His "Una furtiva lagrima" is quite nice, but in general it seems he has the right amount of expressive freedom for French but not enough for Italian opera. This is a problem he can overcome.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

[S], this is all your fault

There are always articles on the internet about Cecilia Bartoli’s vocal technique. I even wrote a book about it. I have never believed she is a mezzo and said so. I wrote the things I wrote because I was worried and it provided an outlet.

Cecilia’s technique is quite different from what other people are doing. I was concerned that she was pushing her voice down in order to perform contralto repertoire instead of letting her voice find its natural tessitura. When she said she would never sing the main Mozart heroines, that she was only recording them for fun, I said this was nonsense, that these were exactly the roles she should be singing.

When she moved up into these areas, I was pleased. When I heard her Cleopatra in the spring, there was no hint that it was too high for her. She has the notes for Queen of the Night, but that certainly doesn’t provide a reason why she should sing her. I agree with the assessment that she is a lyric soprano with coloratura facility. That doesn’t make her Queen of the night. I have no sense that she needs to continue moving up.

There are two things: technique and style. Most of the people saying this are wishing that she would perform the bel canto repertoire. I have to admit that her “bel raggio” recording is something I still find stunning. But people always say that Rossini composed his heroines for a mezzo. What they really mean is that Bellini and Donizetti extended the range and tessitura of the coloratura soprano upward from the range expected by Rossini.

Instead Cecilia is moving in the opposite direction and singing music from the Baroque. Do I ever get the feeling that Cecilia would rather be singing bel canto? My writing came from concern, not from wishes and dreams. I don’t tell her what to do any more. It didn’t turn out to be any fun.

The distinctiveness of her technique is part of the distinctiveness of her overall performance. And it is her distinctiveness that makes her stand out from the field and makes her the phenomenon she is. The other significant element of what makes Cecilia Cecilia is the fact that she can perform all kinds of music from her chosen period with so much vigor and excitement without any trace of corniness. She understands this music and brings her unique insight to it. Can we in our viewing from on high claim that she would understand bel canto this well? She is more and more immersed in the early early music movement with Harnancourt and Minkowski.

Her technique determines her path. She would have to want a different path to want to change this, and I don’t see the signs. Her path also determines her technique. In Washington I had my first experience of the “Cecilia’s voice is tiny” phenomenon. I didn’t try to write about it. I was too shocked.

Another relevant question: does the appearance of Anna Netrebko on the scene make this question moot? Anna does not hesitate or hang back.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The New York Times

The New York Times panned Cecilia.

Some people do not get Cecilia Bartoli. I have a dear friend who falls into this category. She simply does not want to be confronted by all those facial expressions. Another of my friends is patient not to offend my sensitivities, but prefers inward performers.

Cecilia is outward, involving, expressive, intellectual and intuitive at the same time.

Cecilia's career does not reflect the path of other performers. She is in our era the master of the recital / solo concert venue. She likes to have control, to make sure that the performance completely reflects her very highly developed conception.

Still, I wouldn't fly to Europe to see her in a concert. I have only done that for my first love, opera. I have gone three times to Zurich (Cenerentola, Orfeo, Julius Caesar) to see her in opera, and found it always well worth the trip. But then I don't have to--she brings all her concert / recital programs here. I admit that for me she doesn't do enough opera. While they are digging up old music, could they please dig up a whole opera.

I appear to be the only one who interpreted her movements as conducting. I thought she was moving her arms and shoulders to communicate with the musicians behind her.

She sees herself in a certain way and guides her career to reflect this inner vision. She even manages her own career. Whatever she is doing, it is completely on purpose. The critic basically doesn't like the fact that he isn't watching Pelleas and Melisande. How can one respond logically to this? She isn't giving you what you want. She's giving you what she wants and relying on her persuasive gifts to bring you to her opinion. You open your heart and accept it, or you don't. This is not any singer's relationship to the public that I can recall.

She creates an excitement around performing classical music that it desperately needs right now. She is altering our perceptions.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Sophie's Choice

My son went to Peabody, the music school in Baltimore, so I get the Peabody News, and there it is right on the cover: Sophie's Choice. Today is October 23. Nevertheless, the article begins, "On October 23, I had the privilege of attending the Berlin premiere of Nicholas Maw's opera Sophie's Choice...." Apparently Maw is British and only working at Peabody. The article goes on to discuss the score in some detail.

It is indeed remarkable that this work is being presented in Berlin. "The backdrop for the set was composed of hundreds of small photographs suspended from the ceiling. It was only when the lights brightened that one could realize that these were the faces of the victims of the Holocaust. At the very end, when Sophie and Nathan are lying dead, the photos came fluttering down."

Here is an interview with the composer.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Caballe



This is it. This is the reason one might throw off all hope of a sensible profession and give ones life to music, because in these sounds there is all that life is, love and life and death. Why do we love the opera? Because it enters into our souls and opens up a space we did not know existed.

This is an honest outburst over Montserrat Caballe's video biography. For some of us the peak experience has not been Verdi or Puccini or even Cecilia Bartoli--it has been bel canto. Great bel canto, which we are not getting much of these days, is the best.

And in all of the opera performances and films I have seen was there ever anything like the film here of "Casta diva" gloriously and calmly sung outdoors, in the dark with mysterious dim lighting and the white robes of the worshipers swirling in the wind?

There is a section showing Caballe singing a duet from Rossini's Semiramide with Marilyn Horne. I wonder if there is a film of this somewhere. (The answer is yes--from the bel canto society.) I saw them perform this opera together in San Francisco. I sat next to a woman who was madly in love with Caballe as I was with Horne at that time, and we “Oohed” and “Aahed” our way through the opera together, gasping in counterpoint. It was magnificent.

Then Herb Caen called her “monster fat” in the Chronicle, and she never returned. Now I really must get out of the house more.

How to...

How to become a great opera singer:

1. Arrange to be supremely gifted.

2. Arrange for your parents to love opera and expose you to lots of music while you are still a child so that when you grow up you will know instinctively how to phrase.

3. Find a teacher who understands technique, and understands that the same technique must serve all manner of music, and understands that it stands always in the service of expression.

4. Arrange to train quietly in the shadows until you reach maturity.

5. Arrange to get a nice job when you're ready in one of the German towns for two or three years (“Germany is the musical center of Europe,” Caballe) where you will receive professional coaching and experience.

6. Arrange to have friends and family to surround you and love you.

7. Arrange to burst suddenly on the scene from out of nowhere.

Written after watching the film about Montserrat Caballe. Yes, Sarah, you are right. It’s perfect.

Ruslan and Lyudmila



This video of Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila is a joy. In an interview with Valery Gergiev at the end I learned that Anna Netrebko was a mere 23 at the time, infancy in singer’s years. She was chosen for her voice, for her youth and for her beauty.

I learned also that the production was a reproduction of a production from 1892. I particularly like the way this looks—very much like a fairy tale.

I saw this live in San Francisco in 1995, also with Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko, and with the same production.  We were thrilled and loved Anna instantly.



Friday, October 21, 2005

Opera in English

At this address is a nice article about opera in English. My recent visit to the Washington National Opera featured an act translated into English which worked well. Placido Domingo performed his aria untranslated, and this serves to point out the main reason for not doing it: the people you are hiring to do the opera, assuming you are talking about the top rung of singers, know the opera in its original language and aren't about to learn it in yours. So do you do without them?

The second problem is that singers are often not understandable in any language so the advantages of translating the text are often lost. It is still recommended to show the supertitles.

I would think the advantages of translation would apply most to comedy so your eyes would stay on the performers and comic business would not be lost. Just a thought.

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi

[bc] Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, they were popular entertainers, yes?

You can't actually lump them together. If this were a quiz show, which one would not belong? The answer is Bach.

Handel was quite popular in his London corner of the world, though the vogue for Italian opera eventually faded. Or perhaps it was his style of opera the English had lost interest in. Pergolesi had come on the scene, after all, and life had gone on.

Bach was a small man in a small corner of the world, insignificant, overshadowed by his children, first made truly famous by Felix Mendelssohn in the 1820's.

Haydn was a medium level celebrity, I suppose, in his obscure Esterhazy country home. He entertained his master's guests and published in Vienna, but was not allowed to leave town until the next generation came to power. When his new master/owner was no longer interested in his music, he was allowed to travel and become popular, again in London, of all places.

Mozart made his living off of music without selling his soul to a master as Haydn and his own father did. His father thought this was all a catastrophe and that Wolfgang was making a terrible mistake. To earn your living from the public means you must adopt a popular perspective. Mozart was multi-talented and could sell his skills in a variety of ways--as a composer, as a pianist, as a violinist, as a teacher of piano, as a teacher of composition....

By Beethoven this style of living off the public was no longer thought shocking. He was a notorious madman found sleeping in the snow and ridiculed by Goethe. In short Beethoven was a true celebrity.

Verdi was popular on a different scale entirely. He is virtually, though not literally, considered the father of his country.

The phenomenon of celebrity grew with the passage of time. But I think, bc, this wasn't what you wanted me to write about. Hummel, Paganini and Liszt were much bigger celebrities than your list, but the music they were writing and performing was in the same basic popular style as that of their now more highly regarded colleagues. The split between pop and classical did not exist.

Wagner singled out other composers for systematic ridicule, it's true, and placed himself on an incredibly high pedestal, but in general the writing and performing of kitsch for public consumption was just considered a necessity, not an indication of inferiority.

It is a great tragedy that Leonard Bernstein was made to feel that the music he wrote for Broadway was not good enough, that he had to abandon it for "serious" works. The only thing that will revive the popularity of contemporary opera is for composers to get together and decide that it's ok if the general public actually likes your music. If, perish the thought, someone should actually exit the theater humming one of your tunes....

Pardon me. I have started to rant.

Daphne

I went to Kennedy Center last night, my first time on a week night. I stayed awake on the drive home by eating chocolate covered espresso beans, which probably explains why I am writing at four in the morning.

I ate in the very nice café. It was a beautiful evening, so I went strolling on the outside decks that surround the building, patios with very nice willow trees and fountains and a view of the Patomac. There seemed to be something resembling a dance company at work among the concert goers. They all seemed to be wearing red and black to make them look like they went together. There was a saxophone player dressed in jeans, a black jacket and red all stars who improvised. There was a woman in a black tutu who did ballet moves, more or less. The others were all in ordinary black and red clothes with soft shoes. One of them would be standing around and then suddenly form into an odd shape on the ground. I wanted to do it too, but my outfit was green and brown. I thought I could suddenly fall onto the pavement and writhe around, but maybe they would just call an ambulance.

I went to see Renée Fleming do Richard Strauss' Daphne with the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne. WDR stands for Westdeutschen Rundfunks, west German broadcasting. The piece was performed as though it were one of Strauss' tone poems with incidental singing, which means that the singers were either bellowing away (Apollo) or drowned out (Daphne). A little toning down would have gone a long way. Opera orchestras are used to this, but a regular symphony has to be told to cool it. Strauss was doing his part, thinning the orchestration when necessary, but they weren't helping enough.

This is the Ovid Metamorphosis with a character added to make it a love triangle. Daphne (sung by Renée) has a mortal suitor, Leukippos (sung by Roberto Sacca, a singer who has not managed to open up his voice) whom Apollo (sung by Jon Frederic West, a true Heldentenor) kills in a rage. It is difficult to imagine this staged, but perhaps it isn't intended to be.

I have heard Renée Fleming in a variety of venues--Carnegie Hall, the San Francisco Opera, Zellerbach--and have not experienced her in this situation before. The part is clearly ideal for her voice, and the music from 1937 is very beautiful, though not progressed beyond Rosenkavalier, certainly. The hall has a cavernous look and the seating is cramped. There was a burst of applause for Anna Larsson, a contralto who sang Daphne's mother.

The work was conducted by Semyon Bychkov who conducted in his shirt sleeves. There was not sufficient love for me. It deserved greater passion.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Annotated bc

From my email:

B, was just reading some random review in the New Yorker by young Alex Ross and wonder if he's a critic you follow?

You had a good point about Dr. Atomic, when you wrote something along the lines--BC's interpretation--that opera isn't really good as documentary; why in my view "Dead Man" [Dead Man Walking by composer Jake Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally] was "better" than "Harvey Milk." [Harvey Milk, Libretto by Michael Korie, music by Stewart Wallace.]

[Dr. B--I think there is a failure to write for the ages. Perhaps it is what Gertrude says, that we simply know too much about the day to day world we live in and imagine our immediate political events to have some kind of universal appeal. I'm dubious at best. From a theatrical point of view "Dead Man" was excellent. The presence of the name Terrence McNally, a real playwright, is undoubtedly not a coincidence here. Operas are first plays.]

And another thing: your friend's question why "they" don't write music like they used to--hummable, I guess is meant....I'd argue that "they" in fact do that, and constantly. But the music is commercial and pop: movie music, TV music, music behind advertising, advertising jingles, &c. Maybe it's a subject for you to explore & blog on: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, they were popular entertainers, yes?...somewhere in the late 19th century/early 20th, that European, through-composed music tradition, let's say, and dance-popular-theater musics [and I mean the plural] diverged, and one became "high art," and having become "high art"...well, y'know...you get Second Vienna School [Schoenberg, Berg, Webern]and that really academic tradition...and Philip Glass....some composers, especially in America, tried to do both or bridge the gap--Gershwin with "Rhapsody in Blue" and his piano concerto and of course P&B [Porgy and Bess] which yielded at least one "pop" tune vehicle; Bernstein--after all, West Side is a singspiel, yes?, and it also is tuneful to the teeth and Maria is a perfectly decent pop ballad...

[Dr B--where to begin? Classical music was its most advanced and truly modern in the 1920's and has steadily reversed field ever since. What's going on nowadays is a kind of stylistic potpourri where they imagine it's all about technique. I remember being taught counterpoint as though its rules applied in any context instead of the middle Renaissance one it actually applied to. West Side Story is a Singspiel. Haha! We keep saying it's an opera so, yes, it's a Singspiel in English, with spoken dialog and lower class characters, like Fidelio.]

Suddenly he diverges: last Tuesday I was at a jam session where the leader called "Some Other Time," and played it gorgeously ["Some Other Time" Composer: Leonard Bernstein]

....and both of them had reputation problems, partly as a result.
(Anyway, it's an idea for you to explore....)
Tell me though your thoughts on Ross.

Oh, and I'd add that "L'Amour de Loin" [L’amour de loin Music by Kaija Saariaho and Libretto (in French) by Amin Maalouf] is maybe better'n all of 'em. Not that I'd want to defend that statement at any length. But it's more in the tradition of, oh, Masked Ball or Don Carlo than Dr. A is...

bc

[Dr B--challenging, n'est pas?]

Shopping

I went on a shopping spree. Apparently this is an expensive hobby.

Ruslan and Lyudmila is heavenly. This music is fresh and unusual and the film features a very young Anna Netrebko. She is all I remember from this opera when it played in SF, besides the costumes and the conductor, Valery Gergiev. The Russian stuff was Lotfi Mansouri's best repertoire.

Essential Angela Gheorghiu. Very nice, although I do have trouble keeping these Russians straight.

Vance George conducting the San Francisco Symphony Chorus "Voices 1900/2000". I expected better.

I'm interested in seeing Caballe Beyond Music.

I don't know that I'm cut out for a lot of record reviewing. I like about 5% or less of classical music recordings and really love only a tiny number. Most of which I have already mentioned. I am searching for the tiny number I would love, which might put me into poverty.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Opera Now

I found a copy of Opera Now at my neighborhood Borders, a British magazine I had not seen before. The September/October issue contains a number of interesting things:

It has an excellent appreciation of the life and career of Victoria de los Angeles, one of the truly great singers. I'm apparently not the only one who thought her French singing was marvelous, though the article does not mention her Faust. She was a kind of genius, I guess, a person in tune with music to its very depths. I especially liked the description of her one and only master class where she played the accompaniments for all the students. Her taste and musicality is unsurpassed.

They review Cecilia's Cleopatra, panning the production, calling it kitsch. My requirement is that the production explain what's going on, and I felt this one did that. In situ these operas didn't have productions and weren't really intended for what we are trying to do with them. One singer stood on one side and the other on the other. If there were three, one stood in the center. They dressed like fancy versions of people in the audience, and the set was the same for every opera. It was about singing. Only the rescue machinery like the flying Amor in Poppea distinguished it from a concert.

Pamela Rosenberg came to San Francisco from Stuttgart, and the two companies exchange productions. Evidently Busoni's Doktor Faust has been presented there in the production from San Francisco. The magazine also found it incoherent.

There's a nice article about John Adams in anticipation of Doctor Atomic. There is a sentence with the words "there was no need for theatrical dialog." If you want to call it an oratorio, I'm ok with that, just don't try to trick me into thinking it's an opera.

This is a European perspective with a very lively tone. I like it. Predicting the death of opera may be premature. Opera seems alive and well to me.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Renée Fleming's Handel

When I went to see Renée Fleming at Carnegie Hall last spring I remember being most heavily impressed by her Handel group, and then Paul left his comment that her Handel recording was definitely in the NOT BORING category, I decided I had to check it out.

In this album she is clearly very into this music and never lets the expression flag. For curiosity you can compare her "Lascia ch'io pianga" with Cecilia's version of the same thing. Renée is much more straight forward but less emotional. I had no idea this was such a pop tune. If you want to be completely fanatical, compare this performance to Sarah Brightman or Charlotte Church.

This is vocally stunning and very beautiful. Renée has her own muse who is guiding her voice throughout this album.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Stein on the Atom Bomb

Gertrude Stein, "Reflections on the Atomic Bomb" (1946)

They asked me what I thought of the atomic bomb. I said I had not been able to take any interest in it.
I like to read detective and mystery stories. I never get enough of them but whenever one of them is or was about death rays and atomic bombs I never could read them. What is the use, if they are really as destructive as all that there is nothing left and if there is nothing there nobody to be interedted and nothing to be interested about. If they are not as destructive as all that then they are just a little more or less destructive than other things and that means that in spite of all destruction there are always lots left on this earth to be interested or to be willing and the thing that destroys is just one of the things that concerns the people inventing it or the people starting it off, but really nobody else can do anything about it so you have to just live along like always, so you see the atomic [bomb] is not at all interesting, not any more interesting than any other machine, and machines are only interesting in being invented or in what they do, so why be interested. I never could take any interest in the atomic bomb, I just couldn't any more than in everybody's secret weapon. That it has to be secret makes it dull and meaningless. Sure it will destroy a lot and kill a lot, but it's the living that are interesting not the way of killing them, because if there were not a lot left living how could there be any interest in destruction. Alright, that is the way I feel about it. They think they are interested about the atomic bomb but they really are not not any more than I am. Really not. They may be a little scared, I am not so scared, there is so much to be scared of so what is the use of bothering to be scared, and if you are not scared the atomic bomb is not interesting. Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural. This is a nice story.


Gertrude Stein, 1946

Silliness

By writing a silly blog about opera I am trying to address what I see as its most serious problem--opera is regarded as much too serious. That's how we come to get all these heavy serious subjects like bombs and things. Opera is show business. Of all the modern operas I have seen lately I have most liked The Ghosts of Versailles, an opera that does not take itself quite so seriously.

Why doesn’t music stay the same?

Why doesn’t music stay the same?

A friend asked me this question recently. She wished that it did. The answer is simply that we don’t, so it doesn’t.

Should it stay the same as Mozart? Vienna today is just a rather old modern city with cars instead of carriages, with modern politicians instead of monarchs, with no wigs or fancy clothing such as Mozart wore. Mozart’s music accompanied Mozart’s life. It was formal and structured, and so was his music. It’s funny—his life was so different but his comedy is completely real to us now.

There are other reasons besides culture. There is also ego. Mozart was Mozart completely to perfection. What need would there be for me to compose like Mozart? I would certainly suffer by comparison. I would have a much better chance writing as myself, in my own style. If I composed like Mozart, I would be regarded by my composer colleagues as a freak.

Mozart composed for his customers, his paying customers, and I suppose the customers are really not so different. John Adams composed for his customer Pamela Rosenberg. She even imposed the subject. It was she who supposed that the invention of the atom bomb was a proper subject for an opera. I would have suggested he write an opera about love.

Our lives are chaotic and roiling, like our music. Our egos are huge, generally unjustifiably huge, and the music we create is loud and often incoherent, like us.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

I lied


Ok. I said I was going to stop, but I lied. We'll call this a working photo.

Atomic Bomb

I want to apologize to John Adams and Peter Sellars for saying that their bomb looked nothing like the real bomb. Their bomb looked nothing like the ones dropped on Japanese cities--these were wrapped in smooth metal with no wires hanging out. I was watching a show on Einstein, and apparently the test bomb, the one detonated in New Mexico, looked exactly like theirs.

So now you can ask: does a precise reproduction of the bomb make a better opera?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Cecilia in Berkeley

A Cecilia Bartoli concert is like nothing else on earth.

On Thursday night on the Cal Performances series in Berkeley she was breathtakingly gorgeous in an emerald gown with a long train, accessorized with her jeweled concert Rolex. Cecilia does not know how many Rolexes she owns. She is wearing her long hair up in a pony tail these days.

And a Cecilia Bartoli concert in Berkeley, California, is like nowhere else. The audience roars like at a football game, and does not ever want to go home. After three encores--1 Bononcini, 1 Handel and 1 Scarlatti--she made a small speech about next time, and still they yelled. She had a cold and wanted to stop. Then she came out and waved, and we all waved back. Then she was gone.

This is the "Opera proibita" tour, and most of the arias were from that album. Handel's "Chiudi chiudi" is not on the recording. I have already reviewed the album.

I had read that she conducts the orchestra (La Scintilla from Zurich) while she sings. I had read that she did this even when there was a conductor present. They/she has done the sensible thing and disposed of the conductor altogether. I thought this worked most but not all of the time. In at least one aria the orchestra did not begin together.

She likes this. She likes moving her body with the music, and it becomes an element of her total immersion in the performance. This particular music, this glorious, exciting music, all of it from 1700-1710, requires a lot of rhythmic cohesion and coordination. Besides the beginnings of the sections, they most need conducting when Cecilia is singing to make sure the tempo is correct and synchronized with her very precise singing.

So there she stands in her vivid green dress with the musicians all around her, moving her arms and shoulders to show what she wants, sometimes sending her hand out to the side. It's like nothing else.

Some of us have been complaining that she doesn't do song recitals, or at least new programs for song recitals, any more. Last time in Berkeley she did a song recital, but it was all old material. This is because we love her song recitals. But what is important is how much she loves it. A Cecilia Bartoli concert is like no other because of the engulfing, sometimes overwhelming love that flows out in her singing. Those of us who love her would never wish to inhibit this flow--we want that she loves it this much.

Everything is subsumed in the musical-emotional interpretation. She does whatever she needs to do to make this music. She enters into the music so deeply that sometimes, "Lascia la spina" e.g., it takes her a few minutes to come back out of it.

And she sings like no one else on earth. People around me were crying at times. Handel's "Come nembo" which ended the first half was wildly ornamented in the da capo. I have been told that her ornaments can vary from one performance to another. They varied radically from the recording.

My son puts LOL into his emails, and we were speculating what this might mean. When Herb Caen wrote it, it stood for Little Old Lady, but I'm not prepared for that to be the meaning. Laughing Out Loud was suggested.

This is also a Cecilia Bartoli only phenomenon. The angel's aria "Open, o gates of hell" from Handel's La Resurrezione is so wildly ornamented, with the instruments ornamenting in parallel with Cecilia, with all the rhythmic drive of a freight train going through your living room, it is LOL, Laughing Out Loud joyful.

Doctor Atomic

Doctor Atomic at the San Francisco Opera is part of Pamela Rosenberg's Faust project. The Faust project included a fully staged Damnation of Faust, Berlioz' insufficiently theatrical opera. For me it was very successful, bringing coherence where it had not been before.

The Faust project also included Busoni's Doktor Faust which I loathed. It was set in what appeared to be a factory. Or was it a power plant? Faust's significance seemed to be indistinguishable from Homer Simpson's job at the power plant. People came and went for no apparent reason. There was an ending, but who knows what it meant? I expect the production to explain the opera to me, but this one explained nothing.

Faust is always a well-educated man who wants to experience more than ordinary human experience allows. J. Robert Oppenheimer wants to experience the creation of a nuclear explosion, an activity previously outside human experience. Has he sold his soul to accomplish this? Has this process shown him that he has a soul?

I said that I would review this work as opera and not as politics. In order to do this I would first need to convince myself that it existed apart from politics. Adams' libretti are not really operas and I think this one is the worst offender. Is there drama here at all? The bomb is ready to go off, and everyone is fretting over it. We are transitioning from a world without nuclear explosions to one with them. The wife, Kitty, sung by Kristine Jepson, who is entirely outside the project, thinks we should aggressively pursue peace. One of the scientists, Robert Wilson, ably played by the Adler Fellow Thomas Glenn, is worried about the morality of the proposed bombing of Japan, which they all seem to know about.

The supposed bomb, looking nothing like the actual atomic bomb which was not particularly interesting looking, hangs from the ceiling throughout the opera, reminding us constantly of what the subject is.

For me this simply did not work. There were sufficient events to fill the first act, but the second act is empty. There is ticking to indicate a count down, but there is no number to tell us where we are, no sense of progress toward the end. The lighting changes. The people stand or lie on the stage. The colors change--I'm told each of these colors is assigned a particular significance, but do I care? What little tension there may have been entirely dissipates by the end. Nothing happens except the lights go out, the chorus stands and the lights come back up. This entire act created no tension for me at all, and I'm told that the ending was changed from the opening on October 1 to be even less eventful.

John Adams' music is the best part of this. There is homage to Verese, someone I enjoy, in the mechanical sounds that make up the overture and parts of Act II. It's minimalism in every sense. Adams is less minimal than Glass by quite a lot, but there is lots of harmonic, thematic and rhythmic repetition. Minimalism is based firmly in the concept that less is more. Less complexity brings greater comprehension and appreciation, and after Schoenberg, this is welcomed. But less theatrical arc does not yield more theatrical satisfaction. I need something going on. I'm sorry to say it, but this opera is just plain boring.

The texts all appear to be borrowed. There are frequent elements that could have been formed into a plot. The scientists could have actively fought over the ethics of bombing a Japanese city with no warning instead of just doing monologues. There was singing, movement, people, lighting, music. For me all that was missing was the opera.

Quicksand

In Sir Walter Scott's novel "The Bride of Lammermoor" after the death of Lucy, the hero and his horse suddenly disappear into a bog of quicksand. One minute he's here, and the next he isn't. I am fatally attracted to quicksand and become all happy when it creeps into a story. For instance, Peter Wimsey almost sinks forever into quicksand in "Clouds of Witness".

They didn't try to put quicksand into Lucia di Lammermoor, but if the heroine in Kat'a Kabanova can jump into a river, why not into quicksand?

Today, 10/04/05, the New York Times includes an item on what quicksand really is. I love this. Except, according to the article a horse and rider couldn't suddenly disappear into it. I liked thinking they could.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Gimmick


I used to collect pictures of people who had found their gimmick. My collection started with a guy called Grimes Poznikov, the automatic human jukebox. He sat inside a phone-booth shaped cloth cage with his repertoire of songs painted on the sides and a slot to insert money. You would put in the money, say what song you wanted and he would play it on the trumpet. Badly. He set up shop near Ghirardeli Square and was frequently arrested at the behest of shop owners in the area. A week later he would be back. He was a man who had found his gimmick.

Usually the finders of gimmicks are trapped in them and never move on to something else. My collection included a picture of Tiny Tim, the man who sang with a high pitched flutter, played the ukulele and got married on the Tonight Show.

One picture had Lily Tomlin and Julia Child together. They had met at Macy's, I think. Perhaps they both loved their gimmicks and did not want to move on.

One was a photo of a guy named Demming who did corporate motivation. He had this box of red and white beads and this incomprehensible illustration of why everything is management's fault. I could not help associating his with Hesse's The Glass Bead Game and wondered if he had read it.

This is a fascinating game and applies in any context. Try it.

I want to give Bob Dylan credit--no matter how tempting it might have been to stay in his rut of success, he always transcended his gimmick and looked for new music to make.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Trilogy

In his prime I would buy tickets to see Placido Domingo and something would always go wrong. There would be an earthquake. His mother would die. Now these weren't reasons you could exactly complain about, but nonetheless, I was not getting to see him sing. Finally I got to hear him in Massenet's Herodiade with Renée Fleming, a not very interesting opera with a ridiculous plot and a not very significant tenor role. I had wished for Les Contes d'Hoffmann.

Until Sunday's Trilogy: Domingo and Friends in 3 Acts at the Washington National Opera. He looked and sang very well. Domingo has always been kind of a baritone with high notes, and as his voice ages this becomes more and more apparent. Amazingly, in his middle sixties he has no trace of a wobble, but there is a certain added gravitas.

Act I was Fedora Act II, with Sylvie Valayre as Fedora. This is the best act for the tenor with the hit aria, "Amor ti vieta," and the narrative of why he killed Fedora's fiance. There is a party. Amanda Squitieri, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, as Olga was especially nice. Watch for her. I went with my neighbor and she liked this part the best.

Act II was Act IV of Otello. I never got to see Domingo sing the whole opera, but this is the best part anyway. What a treat! Barbara Frittoli is a fabulous Desdemona. She has voice, she has style, she has beauty, she has acting and she lies very quietly hanging off the bed for quite a long time without falling off.

Act III was Act III of The Merry Widow. This scene also has a party, and like the party in Fledermaus, it was used to insert added entertainments. Sylvie Valayre and Barbara Frittoli sang a duet from Cosi fan tutte, for instance. I've never cared for the lustige Witwe and was happy to be spared the whole operetta. Ending with a party was nice. There's a great bit where the soprano compares Parisian men to a fizzy alcoholic drink which I cannot remember the name of. Domingo sang his aria in German while everything else was in English.

It was a pleasing froth with a glorious, dramatic center.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Doctor Atomic

I am travelling this week to see Doctor Atomic in San Francisco. It hasn't appeared yet and already it is controversial. Read here about how the plot is anti-semitic. I will review it as opera and not as politics. I loved Nixon in China but was not impressed with The Death of Klinghoffer. None of them are about love. View my complete review here.

Of course, I am also going to hear Cecilia who did not appear in Toronto. Let's hope she is feeling better.