Sunday, December 31, 2006

Blogging

My life has fallen into chaos. I moved all my possessions to Ohio, and then the sale of my house fell through. I am going on as if nothing is wrong, but I have a house I can't use.

I was going to Portland, Oregon, and then found the movie broadcasts from the Met were not showing anywhere in Portland. So I went to Sacramento instead.

So then I found the Magic Flute was completely sold out. Who would have thought? It is hard to think of this as a bad thing. I heard some of it on the radio and really liked the Queen of the Night, sung by Erika Miklósa. Her legato and sense of ease was very fine in this difficult music.

I had no trouble getting tickets to the other two and look forward to seeing them. A friend reminds me that while I am watching I Puritani in a movie theater, she will be in the orchestra at the Met. (Insert raspberry here.)

I was showing the Figaro from Salzburg 2006 to a friend and was struck again by how really unpleasant it is. The tempos are all very somber and draggy in addition to the dismally serious production. The kissing scene with Cherubino is amusing. Roeschmann and Schaefer in particular really get into it. Everything is Cupid's fault. He is spreading chaos.

In several places the players do synchronized movements. Why? Who knows? Except when Anna Netrebko does them they look like dance movements while everyone elses look crude. I'm sure part of Anna's attraction is how she moves. Like a dancer or a gymnast.

So now I find that I have lost my ticket to Semele in Zurich. I remembered my passport, but can't remember where I put the ticket. I am hoping to talk the opera there into issuing me another ticket. Otherwise I will stay home.

Chaos. Perhaps I am not cut out to be a gypsy.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Dreamgirls

The movie Dreamgirls opened today. It is an amalgam of so many things it's hard to get them all in. The basic story is modelled on The Supremes, a Motown group from the sixties, and in the movie Beyonce plays the Diana Ross character, and Jennifer Hudson, a newcomer to the films, is the ousted Effie. The casting is particularly fabulous. Eddie Murphy plays the male singer the girls first work as backup singers for, and Jamie Foxx is the manager, Curtis.

Three different periods are represented: the early sixties when The Supremes were in their heyday, 1981 when the musical opened on Broadway and the present. My ears heard 1981 Broadway and not 1961 Motown in the music. The plot is still a viable plot today. There still is a soul style and a white style of American pop music, though soul singing has crossed over into mainstream as it certainly had not done in the sixties. American Idol still does its best to surpress the soul stylists. The role of the present when viewing this movie is that more than just black people can appreciate the soul singing.

Curtis insists that the singers cultivate a more white sound without ornamentation. Some do this more willingly than others, and Curtis gradually weeds the reluctant ones out. Effie is the first to go. He was right, of course. The Supremes made a lot more money with a whiter style than they ever would have made as soul singers.

Beyonce is perfect for singing in the mainstream, and Jennifer Hudson is fabulous as the soulful Effie. Hudson is the star. The plot continues to include her character, to give her songs and screen time, after she is expelled from the group because otherwise all the energy would go out of the show. She deserves the oscar buzz she is getting. It is a breakout part. She pops like Judy Garland.

Recommended. It's great fun!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Speculation

Very rough translation of notice about Cecilia Bartoli's next CD:

"The next CD of Cecilia or her return to Rossini... or rather to his contemporaries since the next recording of Bartoli will be dedicated to the musical universe of the contemporaries of Rossini. Ask me the names neither of the type-setters nor of works, nobody knows them apart from the Lady (the orchestra even had parts where their names did not appear to avoid any escape or any plagiarism...). Publication in the autumn 2007 at Decca, obviously."

Who? Spontini, Mehul, Cimarosa, Cherubini, Piccinni, more Salieri, who? Those are my guesses.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Neruda Songs



I enjoy Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs on texts by Pablo Neruda without feeling that they tread any new paths. It seems like a soundtrack, if you know what I mean. If this is a soundtrack, what is the movie?

It is a great love story. Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the beach, perhaps, with the waves rushing over them as they kiss. There is great poignancy here.

My love, if I die and you don't,
My love, if you die and I don't,
Let's not give grief an even greater field.
No expanse is greater than where we live.

...We might not have found each other in time.

just as it never had a birth, it has
no death: it is a long river,
only changing lands, and changing lips.

These are the songs of a great love story, for the composer has written then both to and for his beloved wife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, for her voice and for her soul, and the result is very beautiful indeed. He knows his wife's voice very well and shows it to wonderful advantage. He knows her sweet notes, knows how to show off the lushness of her middle register, the beauty of her glissando, the darkness of her low notes. Are you other guys paying attention? This is how it's done.

It is even more poignant that these songs appear posthumously. "If I die and you don't...."

Anna and Cecilia

The Marriage of Figaro with Cecilia Bartoli and Bryn Terfel has long been my favorite. I loved the emotional rapport between them as a couple, and I felt very much a compatibility between the open earthiness of Bartoli, indeed of both of them and the roles they were portraying. I felt the vividness of the duke's assault as I had not done before. I felt love, jealousy, enjoyment as I had not done before.

So this Figaro with Anna Netrebko is rather a shock. I think Anna projects an entirely different kind of sexual energy than Cecilia. Behind Anna's dark smile anything could be lurking. She seems capable of any treachery or passion. Where Cecilia is loving and sensual, Anna is truly ambiguous. Is she betraying Figaro or not? Does she kiss the duke with love or loathing? Is she teasing Figaro in "Deh vieni" or not?

Anna may well be the better actress. Cecilia projects her own warmth to a truly remarkable degree. Anna reflects her vision. She is projecting the darkness and ambiguity of the production.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Minimalism

I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. I have no excuse. We are deep into minimalism, right? I have identified a minimalist period beginning in 1975 with Glass’ Einstein on the Beach.

So German opera is deep into minimalist productions. The setting is always an unspecified present--vaguely contemporary costumes of no particular fashion. This style of production is everywhere--I almost wrote ueberall--though other types of productions are still around. Semele in New York City and Manon in Los Angeles are too specific to qualify.

In the Salzburg La Traviata it is done with a huge white band and sofas from Ikea.

In Freischuetz a large black object with steps and a doorway is the only set.

La Juive is done in two levels to symbolize the two worlds of jews and catholics.

I suppose Pamela Rosenberg’s productions were mostly in this style as well. Certainly the infamous Alcina where the heroine constantly changes her always black outfits was.

And of course the costumes are mostly black and white. The red dress in Traviata seems the only exception.

And in this Figaros Hochzeit from Salzburg there are stairs, doors, windows, but no furniture and no color.

Early in Act I Figaro finds a dead crow and throws it out the window. Oh, and there’s a cupid, a character dressed exactly like Cherubino (Cherubin d’amore) except with a pair of dainty wings. Cupid, called Cherubim in the credits, is an actual boy who bounds up the stairs two and three at a time, showing us why Cherubino never quite seems like a real boy. I’ve never seen a girl singer who could get that much into her body. It is cupid who keeps the emotions always in turmoil. He flings the characters around like rag dolls and seems to be controlling the action.

Cupid’s work is more blatant here by far than what I am used to. (In fact I went to an amateur production of Figaro in the Austrian embassy last night, and they presented it in a much more traditional style. Maybe more later.) There is quite a lot of kissing. The count kisses Susanna, and his wife sees him, perhaps explaining her feelings in “Porgi amor”.

Most transformed is the scene in the Countess‘ bedroom with the Countess, Susanna and Cherubino rolling around on the floor together. They don’t make it to the dressing up part and only manage the undressing, though not going all the way to nudity. Cherubino enthusiastically kisses both Susanna and the Countess, and is given mini love-making lessons. This changes completely the following scene and explains much more vividly the Countess’ guilt. Making the sexuality more overt certainly helps to explain the plot.

Cupid rises to the level of a concept, but the rest is just generic minimalism. Minimalist productions serve to make vivid the true meaning of the emotions deep in the opera. They are clarified in broad simple gestures.

However, it must be said that this Figaro is not at all funny.

Anna Netrebko is a very inward Susanna, and Dorotea Röschmann is a more interesting Countess than the last time I saw her in London. Christine Schäfer played Cherubino. I didn’t recognize any of the other names but thought that the mix of voices in the ensembles was especially good. In particular, Netrebko and Röschmann go well together. Harnoncourt, the conductor, is heavily booed at the end.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Present

A friend has sent me a Christmas present: Eileen Farrell does Puccini and more. This is something I have never heard before. I have a very nice recital recording I've always loved where she sings Schubert, Debussey and Poulenc, setting the standard for my ears ever since.

When I was very pregnant, I sat in the pit to hear her sing with the Sacramento Symphony. She sang Abscheulischer, Leise leise, and the Liebestod. She just stood there like a stick, but it was glorious.

Puccini from her I had not heard before. It must be a young recording. I mean she must have been relatively young. She had one of the great voices of all time, with a kind of mystical lightness. It did exactly whatever she wanted it to. How can a dramatic soprano sound light? You tell me. Her Puccini is eye opening.

Thank you.

Ben Heppner

From Playbill:

If you think it takes hard work to be an opera singer, Ben Heppner says think again. The star tenor insists that the key to his success is his "laziness." Tongue planted firmly in cheek, the man considered one of today's greatest Wagnerians tells the Paris newspaper Le Figaro that "it requires too much work to sing with power." He continues: "I am convinced that it is easier to sing well than to sing badly."

Heppner — who was in the French capital early this month to perform chunks from Lohengrin, Tristan and Parsifal at the Salle Pleyel — goes on to explain that he tries to sing in his voice's most natural lyrical range rather than attempt to force out a big, stereotypical Heldentenor sound. It seems to be working: Heppner has shown no signs lately of the vocal difficulties that forced him to stop singing completely for six months back in 2002. Incidentally, Heppner is one of the few opera singers who talks openly about his vocal difficulties (Karita Mattila is another). The subject is still taboo among many opera singers.

Right after the New Year, Heppner returns to Canada to perform a series of recitals around British Columbia. Then he's off to Philadelphia at the end of January to sing with Deborah Voigt at the 150th anniversary gala for Philadelphia's Academy of Music, the oldest opera house in the United States.

[What did I say? Sing like James Morris. I assure you, he never breaks into a sweat.]

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Merry Christmas

I am proud to present another link to the Christmas Song Book from my son the hymnologist.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Editing


I just bought a copy of Eyewitness Companions--Opera. This is quite a nice book with a strong emphasis on contemporary singers, repertoire and productions, with a very glamorous picture of the girl of the moment on page 46.


However, turn to page 106 where we see a shot illustrating Mitridate, Re di Ponto. It says the people in the photograph are Sally Matthews as Sifare and Aleksandra Kurzak as Aspasia, when we know perfectly well that they are Ann Murray and Yvonne Kenny.



And on page 193 the woman with Luciano is certainly not Mirela Freni.

Christmas gifts


Amazon has this now.


I seem to have enjoyed Renée Fleming’s Homage quite a lot.


For the serious minded I can definitely recommend Harnoncourt’s Bach Matthew Passion.


I was very excited by the film of Porgy and Bess with Willard White.


Oh. And of course, the DVD of the Salzburg La Traviata. Give this to everyone.


For the Wagner fan I recommend the Tristan und Isolde with Waltraud Meier. If they are truly a fan, they will already own the DVD of Tristan with Birgit Nilsson.


This older Idomeneo with Placido Domingo is quite beautiful.

Happy turkey day!

Monday, December 11, 2006

news

Martha Lipton has died at 93. She was on the faculty at Indiana when I was there and lived on a houseboat in Lake Monroe. I've always thought it would be cool to live on a houseboat. When you get tired of the scenery, you just go out for a cruise.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Interview

At the risk of beginning to look like a fan-zine, I would like to pass on a summary of an interview with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon broadcast on the Oesterreichische Rundfunk in November. The interview took place before the Friends of the Wiener Staatsoper. Anna spoke in English, Rolando in German.

The interview begins and ends with excerpts from the Salzburg La Traviata. There are other excerpts throughout the interview, including an excellent aria by Rolando from Don Carlo. He is showing me that I have underestimated him. Many of the excerpts are from not yet released recordings.

The announcer explains that before this she was just Anna Netrebko--now after La Traviata she has become The Netrebko. He tells her of how proud they are to have her as a citizen. She explains that she is learning German and loves Austria.

Rolando explains that his real name is Rot--Rolando Rot--and that he speaks such good German because his ancestors were German, and he attended a German school for over 10 years in Mexico. His German Ur-gross mutter is still alive.

[They are both so totally charming that my summary is rather a waste. I can translate printed text, but to translate from spoken words an interview that lasts over an hour is too hard for me.]

Anna explained that in Russia operetta is the favorite form of musical. She was always compelled to the stage from a very young age and preferred to play a princess. Rolando denied that he also wished to be a princess. His half of the interview is very silly. He also loved the theater from a young age, and his favorite was Don Quixote, that he learned all the songs from Man of La Mancha. He once played as part of a clown duo that included an intelligent clown and a stupid clown. Naturally, he played the stupid clown. He explains that Placido Domingo was his hero, that he listened to all of Placido’s crossover albums. He then proceeded to do an imitation of a duet between John Denver and Placido Domingo, switching voices back and forth. So now we know why he seems to sound like Placido.

At 15-17 she started to see operas at the Marinsky Theater, including Otello. She thought, “That is something for me. I want to be able to perform like that.” She is bored with her cleaning lady story, but points out this was in 1991, a terrible time for people in Russia. The singers she listened to were Callas, Sutherland and Freni.

Rolando tells that Anna helped him with his Russian in Eugene Onegin. He admits he doesn’t know what he’s singing, but she says he’s very talented. He in turn has “helped” her with Spanish. She calls him a bastard and explains that she would say things he told her to say, and people’s eyes would grow large.

Anna tells of studying 15 lessons with Renata Scotto who taught her bel canto technique. She says that learning is an endless process. She was taught always to sing with a full voice.

Rolando feels that after achieving maturity, it has been important to make his way alone. “I must take responsibility in my own hands. Then comes the individuality.” From 12-18 Placido was his idol, but “I don’t try to be a second Domingo.”

They ask her about Lulu [this refers to the role of Lulu from Berg's opera Lulu]. She says she hopes one day she will do it. She also aspires to sing Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

For Rolando the dream role is the one he sings now. At 14 he dreamed of Tales of Hoffmann. Then his dream came true and he sang Hoffmann at Covent Garden.

Anna speaks about her Russian soul. "We like to swim in the sad mood. Anyone likes this." Rolando makes her as crazy as him. She thanks her musical godfather, Valery Gergiev. To show her Russian soul they play a track from the Russian Album.

They are unbelievably charming. I am imagining my eyes growing large. And laughing.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Blogging

I will never get the hang of opera blogging. I can't rant on endlessly comparing Kiri to Renée or Anna and Maria.

I spent a lot of time in the 80's making music on computers in conjunction with synthesizers and know exactly how easy it is to achieve the perfect trill. I would make the trill in Cakewalk and then copy it around wherever I wanted that effect, transposing it up and down. All my trills were perfect. So what? Perfection is boring.

Any singer you can name is sometimes bad, sometimes boring. Well, maybe Maria was never boring. You might wince at her wobble, but you would not be bored. Kiri was capable of the sublime and the pedestrian. Cecilia does not discipline her legato. Anna is capable of just blasting meaninglessly away and doesn't try for subtlety in her more intense singing. Renée is a crossover and can't help it. All have feet of clay or are not worth listening to. You pick.

Princess Tam Tam

My friendly neighborhood library has a copy of the great Josephine Baker movie Princess Tam Tam. The plot is Pygmalion. A young shepherdess from Tunisia becomes the object of fascination by a famous French novelist who has travelled there to write in seclusion. To make his wife jealous the Frenchman plucks her eyebrows, manicures her hands, dresses her in elegant clothing, teaches her piano and ballroom dancing, and brings her to Paris where she triumphs. It is a musical comedy in the Busby Berkeley style.

What is the fascination of Josephine Baker? To feel it as the French did you must first feel the magnet of society, the pull of elegance and propriety; you must feel it dominate your whole life and know you will never escape. Josephine was this. When she dressed in couture, she was the most elegant and gorgeous woman in the room. Then she could turn this elegance on its head. In her dancing shoes, or more often bare feet, she was exciting and primitive, simultaneously elegant and crude, an object of deep fascination, especially for those who knew they could never do this themselves.

For Americans elegance is an aspiration, not a requirement; the contrast of the elegant and natural plays differently for us. We come close only in Calamity Jane, I suppose, but the crudeness there is merely laughed at, not envied and fantasized about as it is with Josephine. When she speaks French, they would hear an exotic foreigner of unknown origin. We hear a black woman from St. Louis.

She was perhaps the most fascinating woman of her era and one of the main inspirations for art deco. She was painted by many famous painters. In fact, I recently saw a painting of her hanging in the Phillips Collection in Washington, though it was not identified that way. Women tried to increase their tans, to look black. It is a world we cannot imagine.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Blogging

I am so pleased with myself. I recognized the beginning of "Caro nome" from just two arpeggios by Victor Borge. He was a favorite of my mama, probably the only classical musician she paid any attention to. He still lives on at pledge time on pbs, as near as we get to classical music these days. A more ghastly rendition of "Caro nome" by his comic soprano could not be imagined.

I was driving along the highway to Ohio when the words "Luther Vandross" came into my head. It turned out to be who was singing on the radio, a name I have only recently learned. Something odd is going on with my brain. I seem to know things I didn't know I knew. While not remembering my phone number. It's all very odd.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Vampire


Attempts to answer the question "what if Anna Netrebko were a vampire?" Forgive me, Gert, it's cropped from one of your pictures.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Leaping Horse

These are the two versions of John Constable's Leaping Horse.

This is the sketch:



This is the finished painting:



If you click on each image, it will blow up for you. In real life the colors are more similar, but these are photos from different places on the internet. The first photo shows a rough look with rough looking clouds and tree branches, big swaths of color with little small detail, like an impressionist painting. In fact the idea is very similar to an impressionist painting. The second photo is much more specific and detailed, including tree branches, clouds, field in the distance, etc.

Both versions hang in major museums around the world, just never together. Usually it's the finished paintings you see in catalogues and books. The exhibition will be in LA next summer at the Huntington which owns one of the pictures.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Robert McFerrin

I read that Robert McFerrin, Bobby McFerrin's father, has died. In my mind he is remembered for a glorious performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah in Sacramento. The great arias for baritone, "Lord God Of Abraham, Isaac, And Israel" and "It Is Enough! O Lord, Now Take Away My Life", are in my mind in his voice. He had a beautiful baritone voice and a great soul.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Constable


There is a tour of paintings by Constable that is currently in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. All of his giant paintings are there. Most of them come in two versions: one painted quickly at the location and one painted slowly in the studio. The quick paintings look like impressionism. They practically all have the same layout: big trees on the left, fields on the right, details in the middle.

He painted tiny pictures, too, and some are on display. He is considered the best English landscape painter.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

News

Gelb and Levine announce for an end to "stand and sing" opera staging here. It's about time.

The buzz on the Cecilia Bartoli forum concerns a tenor named Celso Albelo. He has recordings on YouTube if you want to hear him here. He sounds interesting in the Italian style, I would say. His color is very bright and rich at the same time. Sort of in the Rubini tradition.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

And now for something completely different


I think of opera as show business, and no one is bringing more show business to opera. Anna makes me smile. One loves it that she holds nothing back. In this she is completely gone mad.

It doesn't make you think of Carol Vaness, does it?

Travel

While driving to Ohio, I went into a cafe to drink some coffee, and there on the screen was OJ Simpson. There were films of him sitting in restaurants and on the street. I don't know about you, but I don't want to look at OJ Simpson. Apparently the show has been pulled.

It did make me think, if OJ, why not me? I should hire someone to film me waiting for the bus, walking around DC, looking at art--there is a wonderful show on Constable at the National Gallery of Art--riding the train to NYC, etc. Then I could podcast it over the internet. No?

I was also imagining creating an internet radio station. Classical music on the radio is always attempting to imitate musak. I think it would be possible to make it more interesting. My radio station would be all singing all the time. I fantasized a Strauss Four Last Songs marathon with performances by one singer after another, good and bad. I could solicit performances from readers and sprinkle them in between the standard recordings. I would talk in my Oklahoma accent between the recordings, perhaps in a podcast version.

There could be an unidentified "Casta diva" series, you guess who is singing and win a prize.

We could have a crossover [or cr***o**r, as Gert says) day where we pick the most excruciating recording of opera singers singing pop. Nowadays this would need to include pop singers trying to do classical. Sting as Dowland comes to mind.

Then I told my ideas to Chris and he reminded me of problems with owned material. He is my conscience, my Cassandra. He did think the idea would work better with video.

Now that I think about it, it sounds a little too interesting.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Blogging

I did not expect that blogging would lead to corresponding with Philip Gossett. I had no preconceived ideas at all. Although I must say he has inspired me to be even nerdier than I would normally be. I am overdue for some silly writing.

I did not expect the reception I have received about my other blog, the crime novel, perhaps enough silly writing to last a lifetime. I posted it to achieve distance from it, something that has been achieved. Other people reading it recognize in me a notorious stalker, someone seen in abnormal places for abnormal but very common reasons. They send me things, amusing things I am forbidden to blog. I'm getting used to it.

I did not expect to still be living in Maryland.

Vance George upon his retirement.

I have worked with some pretty terrific people, and I definitely count Vance George among them. I was in the chorus of the San Francisco Symphony for a couple of years at about the time Vance began leading it.

His approach to choral tone was perhaps his biggest talent and a crucial one for someone who coaches a chorus for someone else to conduct. Robert Shaw approached this problem from the point of view of intonation. He didn’t much care how you formed the tone as long as you were strictly in tune. One would not wish to argue with Robert Shaw on this subject, but Vance went one step further and coached for vowel sounds that created the specific color he wanted to hear. Language coaches would criticize. “It’s not [her], it’s more [h3r].” He wanted the color of [her] whether it was the correct pronunciation or not, and he was right. [Forgive my lack of phonetic alphabet. There’s probably a font for that.]

He created some of the most spectacular choral performances I’ve ever witnessed. My personal favorite was the performance where he prepared the chorus for Robert Shaw to conduct the Brahms German Requiem. This is the best of all possible worlds.

The chorus consistently received louder and longer ovations than the soloists, conductor or indeed the symphony itself. They were worth shouting about. His shoes will be hard to fill.

Correspondence

I noticed that the liner notes for the Rossini Heroines album were written by Philip Gossett, so I wrote:

"Did you have anything to do with Cecilia's Rossini Heroines album besides writing the line notes? It's one of the great things."

And he wrote:

"It happened so long ago (1990-92) that I had to go back and check my notes. But, yes indeed, I suggested the repertory for her (many of the pieces she had never sung before). That was the second disc I did repertory suggestions for her: the first was her disc of Rossini songs (the one that also has "Giovanna d'Arco" on it). Most of those songs were simply unavailable in modern editions. (By the way, we are now--finally--editing the volume of songs for the new Baerenreiter continuation of the Rossini edition, so we hope that the volume will be out in 2009. And it will have some unknown material!!!) For the "Rossini heroines" disc, then, I did indeed suggest the Colbran arias that she did (I suggested more than she ultimately chose, of course) and even prepared some of the ornamentation for her to use (which, of course, she adapted for herself--was is right and proper).

"It's fun to realize that I've saved all the documentation about these projects! Memory fades...

"Would she had continued to do Rossini, but her interests have largely pushed her back to the eighteenth century. She remains superb!"

Then I said:

"She is following her bliss."

Friday, November 17, 2006

Ermione

This Ermione from HofO appears to be a different one from what's advertised. Instead of Blake, we have Gonzalez, and Marilyn Horne is not in it. This opera is a tenor feast with duets between Merritt and Gonzalez. Would it be interesting to know a lot about Rossini?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Rossini Heroines

What was it I loved about Cecilia Bartoli? I always think that her brain runs so much faster than mine, like a slow motion camera that catches every detail about each note, how it begins and ends, precisely where it lies in the phrase. I have never heard such precise phrasing from anyone, not even the magnificent Marilyn. There's just so much there to hear. I love a person who can stimulate my brain.




After listening to all this Rossini, does Cecilia's Rossini Heroines still stand up? Every note is like three of someone else. There is joy in these completely precise, completely expressive outpourings. Her rubato is the best ever. Yes, rubato in Rossini. No one else comes close.

Still, after all these years, I have never loved a singer this much.

Bianca e Falliero

After reading Divas and Scholars, I became interested in the career of Marilyn Horne, cited often in the book with great admiration, particularly in any discussion of Rossini. Curiosity led me to order three operas from House of Opera: Tancredi, Ermione and Bianca e Falliero. It took until this week for the disks to arrive from HofO, though I ordered them in mid September.

Tancredi, 1813, already discussed above, is very different from Bianca e Falliero, 1819, though only 6 years stand between them. Or is it only Marilyn Horne who is different? As the voice ages, its cartilage hardens, and the flexibility changes. In Tancredi she reveals more lyrical flexibility, but in Bianca e Falliero she is excitingly dramatic while still awesome in the performance of coloratura. This is a good choice for seeing Horne in all her glory. HofO apologize for the quality of the reproduction, but the volume doesn’t constantly phase up and down the way the other one did, so I actually prefer it. Bianca comes from Italian television, and includes no subtitles.

Or perhaps it is also the roles that are different. Tancredi is very somber and tragic while Falliero is powerful and dynamic.

Chris Merritt is here, singing Bianca’s father who wants to marry her off for money. Apparently in this period tenors played fathers. He has a big, meaty voice, almost the weight of a dramatic tenor, and not at all the Juan Diego Florez type of Rossini tenor. It is a joy to hear his easy, beautiful high notes and graceful, almost matter of fact coloratura. Like Horne, he is also in his prime.

Katia Riccarelli is very glamorous. I’m not sure why, but I seem to like this better than Tancredi. This is what opera used to look like and in some places still does. They form themselves into tableaux and move only occasionally during an aria.

YouTube

I have been sent this very nice link about the arts on YouTube. I am hoping that the owners of these clips don't start an absurd attack on YouTube. This is a wonderful way to find out about opera. Someday I will have high speed internet and will get back to using it myself.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Speechless

I haven't said a lot about the Russian Album, because I feel inadequate. This is the first time I have wanted to play an album over and over since my infatuation with La Bartoli.

I heard Anna Netrebko in recital in San Francisco with Donald Runnicles accompanying a few years ago (I read on the internet that this took place in May of 2004). I remember complaining that she should have been prevented from singing Strauss, since she obviously did not get it. I also remember that the second half was Russian songs--amazing Russian songs by Rachmaninov, one of which is on the album. I used to sing Russian songs occasionally, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, though never actually in Russian I confess, but realize now that I was also in the category of not getting it. Who knew this was what it was supposed to be?

I have agreed with her decision to emphasize Italian opera while wishing for Russian. Now that it is here, I can't get enough.

Tancredi

Divas and Scholars aroused my interest in Rossini whom I always thought of as the end of Neapolitan opera style. I now realize it’s more complicated than that.

A Neapolitan--the style and the city-- would have written the main male roles for castrato. Wikipedia says: “In Naples several barbershops had a sign that castration was performed there.” The French occupation of Italy seems to have put a stop to the practice of castrating boys for the benefit of singing, though a few could be heard up through the 1830‘s. Rossini still wrote Tancredi, his earliest big success in serious opera, for a mezzo, but this time it’s a female mezzo who creates the role. So all of Rossini’s treble voices were women, something I didn‘t know. Like a true Neapolitan, he still craved the sound of two high voices singing together and composed some of the most beautiful music ever written for two sopranos.

He still composes secco recitative--or as Professor Gossett points out, his assistant composed them. But when he starts to compose in French for Paris, the secco recitative disappears.

Neapolitan opera seria traditionally had only happy endings which were felt to be more edifying for the soul. Tancredi is conflicted. Shall we be traditional with a happy ending, as the opera was created for Venice? Or shall we take a modern approach and allow the hero to die, as was the case when the opera was rewritten for Ferrara? Rossini is transitional in this as well.

Neapolitan opera seria was just a row of da capo arias with recitatives between, and Rossini begins to vary the structure.

The focus on coloratura ornaments points to the past. It was the whole point of Italian opera, after all. The fact that so much of the ornamentation was written by Rossini himself, I think must be a look to the future. In the long Neapolitan tradition the singers provided their own ornamentation, a fact that inhibits the revival of many earlier Italian composers’ operas.

Critical editions of Rossini operas began to appear coincident with the career of Marilyn Horne. I have purchased Tancredi with Horne from HofO It’s taped in France with French subtitles from someone’s home TV, with the constantly adjusting gain that home TV sets have. I suspect Tancredi is the most antique and formal, the most Neapolitan of all Rossini’s operas.

Or perhaps it’s not a coincidence. The career of Marilyn Horne is responsible for our awareness of Rossini’s serious operas. It is to see and hear her wonderful performances that one would want to purchase them in this inadequate format. As Tancredi Marilyn has a curious lopsided hairdo that makes her look rather attractively like a Shoney Big Boy. The singing is out of this world, and Marilyn is in her prime.

Picture of Big Boy is for readers outside the US.

The rest of the cast is excellent: Dalmacio Gonzales is the King of Syracuse, and Katia Riccarelli is the heroine. The production is very formal.

I suppose I will have to buy the recordings with Ewa Podleś and Vesselina Kasarova now.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Composing Opera

My interest in teaching composers to write for opera singers was aroused by listening to the singers in Sophie’s Choice struggle with their parts. It was not too hard for them to sing, it was too easy. In fact, the composer probably composed it for himself to sing.

I’m going to write only about composing an opera to be performed by an opera company made up of trained opera singers. I am making a possibly absurd assumption--that you are composing for the ages, that you want your opera to be performed in 10, 20 or maybe even 100 years.

Dear composer,
If you don’t really like to listen to opera singers, if that sound makes you cringe, then please don’t compose an opera. Please. Do a musical instead.

If you are still reading, perhaps you still want to compose an opera. Print a large sign and hang it near your keyboard: “I am not an opera singer.” It doesn’t matter how it sounds when I sing it.

Then move on to the list of Fachs. I’m printing an abbreviated list here, together with ranges and tessituras. The ranges are from Wikipedia, but I made up the tessitura for each Fach, so feel free to criticize. Within each big category based on range, lyric and dramatic specialties will be based on sound.

Coloratura soprano.
Range: From middle C to the F two-and-a-half octaves above middle C.
This Fach divides into lyric and dramatic coloratura, but the ranges are the same. The tessitura is E above middle C to high C. The other notes are extensions.

Soprano
Range: From middle C to the C two octaves above middle C.
This Fach divides into lyric and dramatic sopranos, The tessitura is E above middle C to G above the treble clef. The range of a dramatic soprano can go below middle C and the tessitura goes down to middle C. The other notes are extensions.

Mezzo soprano
Range: From the G below middle C to the B two octaves above middle C
This Fach divides into mezzo and contralto. The tessitura is middle C to F at the top of the treble clef. The other notes are extensions. Contralto roles will extend down to F.

Countertenor
Theoretically the same as a contralto. Britten wrote for a countertenor in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and you can too if you want. Traditionally these are roles that were written for castrated men who had voices that were similar to the female voices described above, except I am not aware of a castrato who achieved the true coloratura range. Today they are normal men singing falsetto. I suggest selecting a specific singer to compose for this.


Tenor
Range: From the B below low C to the C an octave above middle C (C to c'). This Fach also divides into lyric and dramatic, and the tessitura is E to G. A high C is a much bigger deal for a modern tenor who is forbidden to go into falsetto than it is for a soprano. Don’t think of them as exactly an octave apart. If you want a lot of very high notes, compose for a Rossini tenor, if you can find one.

Baritone
Range: From the A below low C to the Ab above middle C (A to ab' )
There are buffo, lyric and dramatic baritones, and the tessitura low C to E.

Bass
Range: From the E one-and-a-half octaves below middle C to the F above middle C (E to f'). The tessitura is A to E.

Go to your list of characters, and put each one into one of these classifications. Decide if the sentiments of the character are mainly lyric or dramatic.

Compose most of the notes within the tessitura, but place the notes all over. Write up and down in the voice. When you want a heavy dramatic effect, write a note in the upper extension, but clearly distinguish how high to make it based on Fach. A mezzo will begin to sound dramatic at a lower pitch than a soprano. Emphasize the upper part of the tessitura for sopranos and tenors. Put in low notes for mezzos, baritones and basses. Be sure the singer gets to use all of their voice, possibly omitting only some of the highest extensions, since this will make the role easier for them to sing. This will make the role easier to sing. They are trained to use all of their voices, so you should, too.

I won’t say what the specific style should be. Pointillism, singing with a lot of giant leaps, popular with the Second Viennese school, is not hard to sing if you know what you’re doing and the notes obey the outlines shown above. Compose whatever you want, but don’t just stick to the five little notes you can sing.

If you have particular singers you want to compose for, by all means do. Begin by asking them which Fach they belong to, and then look it up. If they don’t know, reconsider using them. Don’t compose an opera for Sting.

Traditionally certain Fachs play certain types. The heroine is a soprano, the hero a tenor and the villain a baritone. If you are composing for specific singers, you may want to rearrange the traditional setup and make the heroine a mezzo, for instance. By all means do.

The Ghosts of Versailles is a modern opera that is very well written for singers. Britten had a lyric tenor who lived in, so his operas all feature a lyric tenor. This lyric tenor knew what made his voice sound good and made sure the roles suited it. Your job is to make the singers sound good. Modern composers are able to imagine a high lyric soprano like Dawn Upshaw and seem to compose everything for them. Try to branch out. Learn to like fatter voices, too. Please.

I have kept this very basic because that’s how bad it is.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Russian

Of course, I cannot tell where my copy of the Russian Album came from. The music is entirely unfamiliar to me except for Tatiana's scena from Eugene Onegin. It does make one curious. Where has all this gorgeous music been hiding?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Advice

Advice to Deutsche Grammophon: release track 2 in the US as a pop single ahead of the album and see what happens.

I think Anna would be well advised to start a vogue for the vocal music of Rachmaninov, known for the All Night Vigil and piano concertos. He was a wonderful composer for singers, too. But then, maybe Russian will become the new Italian. Anything is possible.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Composing for voice

My copy of Paul Barker's Composing for Voice has arrived. He is obviously knowledgable, but his ideas are not well developed. In fact, he has a hard time carrying an idea past one or two sentences before going on to the next one.

There is an idea that interests me--should a composer write for a specific singer? The answer, it would appear, is yes and no.

Philip Gossett's four composers (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi) didn't hesitate to compose for a specific singer and modify their music to suit the person currently filling the role. In situations where the singer is close to the standard range and tessitura for his Fach (classification--look it up in Wikipedia), this is not a problem. They were thinking about success this week, certainly not further out than this year, and not about posterity. They weren't thinking about twenty-first century productions and problems of casting.

So when Bellini composed for Rubini he wasn't thinking about the fact that Rubini was a one off. No one else can actually be Rubini. Nor do they want to. Falsetto high notes have long been completely out of style. Bellini's presence in the repertoire is negatively impacted by the fact that the tenor started out with this freakish high range which cannot be cast today. Professor Gossett went into detail about the problems of transposing this music so that it still works in duets with the soprano. Very difficult.

Barker recommends working with specific singers and includes interview material with singers who have collaborated with composers. This is great stuff and the comments are excellent. But I was hoping for more material about expectations. He shows ranges for the Fachs and mentions the concept of tessitura, but that's it. I was hoping for more specific information about what the standard tessitura generally is. That means the range where 90% of the notes should lie, the comfortable part of the voice for that Fach. This singer you are working with--is she (all his examples are women) fully representative of her category or is she a bit freakish? It seems to me you should be able to say for each Fach these are the notes they will usually sing and these are the extensions, the outer extremes that can be used occasionally.

Yes, write for a specific singer, but try to be aware of how close this one is to the ideal for her type. Then the music will work for other people, too.

I have been imagining myself in Paul Barker’s class. I was always a very annoying student. He would say, “the trend may be seen as a logical continuation of a process engendered by Verdi’s Macbeth (1847), when he attempted to notate a fuller dramatic conception of the vocal performance.” Then he would immediately go on to another subject with no explanation, as he always seems to do, and I would say, “Excuse me, professor. I’ve never looked at the score to Macbeth. What the hell are you talking about?” This is perhaps my crotchety old lady persona, and I wouldn’t actually have sworn at him. However, I don’t have a library handy that has a score to Macbeth so I guess I’ll never know what is meant here. I wouldn’t mind this so much if he didn’t do it so often. If you’re writing a book like this, I recommend hiring an ignorant editor that makes you explain everything.

Just how bad the situation is with regard to composing for singers can be seen when he says, “…I have never encountered a summary of the traditions and details about the underlay of text in scores….” He goes on to lay them out, and his explanation seems acceptable. He mentions how hard it can be to read vocal music because of the way the text is added to the music.

He writes from the perspective of the twentieth century where everything is precisely composed, and the performer is expected to precisely reproduce the written page. This is actually not the tradition of solo vocal music where the performer is expected to produce an interpretation, not just a performance. Perhaps awareness of this fact is disappearing everywhere except pop.

He discusses extended vocal techniques, things outside of normal vocalization, and cites a number of people who do them but without any description. He does explain the concept of vocal harmonics first propounded by Stockhausen. He says it can take up to 6 months to teach a singer how to do this. Clearly he’s going off in directions I don’t necessarily want to follow. I don’t see a reason to mention these things without either discussing them more thoroughly or citing relevant footnotes. There is a two page bibliography which might provide a wider explanation of some of these facts, but you’d have to read them all to find out.

There is quite a lot of writing about the relationship between text and music. He criticizes singers for making their vowels unintelligible on high notes with no apparent awareness that once the voice is above the formants, distinguishing vowels is simply not possible.

There are a couple of excellent charts, including this continuum: noise - shouting - speaking - sprechgesang - crooning - recitative - singing - prolonged melisma - vocalize. This is virtually a circle.

Another excellent chart is the one in the chapter on “Considerations of Style” called “Variants of vocal style and the effects on singers.” On the vertical axis are 1. Registers, 2. Tone, 3. Words, 4. Rhythm, 5. Proximity (this means the distance from the audience to the performer and extends from immediate closeness to amphitheater distance.) The horizontal axis is “Underdeveloped technique,” “Bel canto principles,” “Over-refined technique.” He then places a number of specific composers in the continuum. Britten is C, bel canto, in all categories. Does this explain the popularity of Britten as an opera composer? This chart could be discussed at great length.

Composing for the voice is a much broader topic than the narrower composing opera. An opera presumes opera singers, presumably the same people who will be singing Puccini on other days.

My own approach would probably be to proceed from the perspective of style. I admit the possibility of all manner of style elements and approaches, but I insist the composer must first choose. Jumping from style to style would be discouraged.

He discusses the growth of the orchestra over the course of the nineteenth century and its effect on singers. It’s not exactly a bad book. It’s as though the light has been turned on, but the exposed space has not been sufficiently explored. A set of appropriate footnotes would probably be as big as the book itself which is about the same size as the dual language edition of Odes to Common Things by Neruda. It’s definitely not worth $95.

Friday, November 03, 2006

News

Here is an interview with Vivica Genaux. I especially liked the end where she is talking about what she didn't learn in school:

'I’m enjoying the music a lot more because, rather than just singing notes off the score, I get to be somebody inside the music. I make it my own. It’s not just somebody singing Cenerentola, but it’s me singing Cenerentola. Before, I was looking at myself always from the outside, because I was working with directors and conductors who wanted to put their stamp on what I was doing. I worried whether I was meeting other people’s expectations of me, and I can’t do that anymore. I mustn’t do that anymore. I have to be the one that says: “It’s my music, it’s my soul, and my interpretation.” '

La Cieca is about the only one still blogging. Everyone else seems to have a life. I have decided to move from Maryland whether my house sells or not. Perhaps then I can begin to have a life, too.

Britten arias

Here is an interesting thing--a list of arias from operas by Benjamin Britten, who is by far the most popular English opera composer, maybe even the most popular opera composer after World War II. I have always liked A Midsummer Night's Dream and Death in Venice, but the concept of aria isn't exactly the same as in bel canto. Paul will not be converted.

While on the subject of Brahms

While we are on the subject of Brahms, Opera News ran an editorial praising Pizzazz in recitals. Yes. By all means. Cecilia Bartoli has had a marvelously lucrative career based on her unrivaled pizzazz in the recital and concert format. My problem was that they cited as the most boring recital they could think of an all Brahms program. So Brahms can't have pizzazz? I used to do a lot of Brahms which may explain the complete dud of my performing career.

The lack of pizzazz in recitals can be credited to the academic influence. Degree programs frequently have recital requirements, and academic vocal recitals follow a certain format and have certain expectations. This philosophy of programming has found its way into Carnegie Hall where we are supposed to be impressed by obscurity while pining away for hit tunes. Classical music works too hard to distinguish itself from pop. Make pop out of classical. Don't wait till the encores to do what you do best.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Background Music

I was riding to the gym in my car, listening to NPR, when a voice came on to announce the death of William Styron and to discuss his life and career. Playing in the background was Marian Anderson's performace of the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, one of the great performances ever of a piece I love very much. The piece is a perfect pairing of two things I love: Brahms and Goethe.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Authentic cappuccino


I have had a cup of authentic cappuccino in downtown Frederick at the DownTime Cafe. It even came in a real cup, though there seems to have been no saucer. I asked what made the difference and was told, "Love." The espresso goes in first. The milk is not so hot that it burns you. Then I think there is a trick when you pour the milk into the espresso. One needs to get the espresso to float on the milk, at least a little. His looked and tasted like the real thing. It will not help me not miss Italy. [Photo was taken in Termini.]

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Blogging

Maybe no one will get what I was writing about the English. The basic things that make up western music are triads and chord progressions. These are the building blocks of everything from Henry Purcell to Duke Ellington to Sting. Both appear to have been invented by the English. That doesn't mean they thought of anything very profound to do with them.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

English music

Listening to Sting's Songs From the Labyrinth I am reminded that I have not yet written about the English.

We think of the English as not particularly musical, and yet what all the world thinks of as music is from them. In ancient times they extemporized at the parallel third instead of the fourth. It was they who invented accords based on the triad, always in first inversion, instead of the continental fourth. This style of singing in parallel first inversion triads jumped the channel in the long ago quattrocento.

And now listening to “Come again” by John Dowland I hear the same chord progressions which Corelli used when he was credited with inventing tonality a generation later. All of Dowland is very tonal. Dowland mentions visiting Italy where his influence must have been huge. So in the overall, in the big picture all music is English.

The English are probably too polite to mention this. I was very much attracted to their politeness and thought it successfully counteracted my basic dragon nature. I did not erupt in tongues of fire, consuming all before me, the entire time I was there.

Politeness seems to stand in the way of greatness. Even though I am crediting them with inventing everything, only occasionally has something first rate come from an English composer. Purcell is a personal favorite.

The English character permeates all of their present day theatrical and musical life. They produce a very high quality product, all of it permeated with politeness. There will be no blood on the floor at the end of an English opera production.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Anna Russell


We wish to mark the passing of Anna Russell, whose jokes betrayed a deep understanding of the art she was parodying. When studying for my orals, I did not fail to consult her summary of the Ring along with other sources.

In addition she wrote and performed all the roles in her own Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

She skewered the art song by composing some of her own in several genres, always perfectly appropriate for the style. A lack of Russian vocabulary did not prevent her from composing "Da, Nyet, Da Nyet."

Anna is funny because she knows all. She is still available on DVD.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Homage

In the notes to Homage Renée Fleming calls herself a creature of the fin de siecle, and we heartily concur. We have known this since she perched in the top of a tree for us in Rusalka and sang her wonderful “Song to the Moon.” Renée is one of those artists with a completely personal style which she uses to transform all she sees into her own personal music. She cannot help this--it is simply her musical soul speaking. The situation is like the verse my mother used to recite to me:

There was a little girl had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad, she was horrid.

Every piece that she might want to sing does not successfully make the transformation, but when it works, it works very well indeed. There is a lot of inner awareness in evidence in this album.

We do not quite buy her imitation of a coloratura soprano in Gounod’s “O légère hirondelle.” However, the great variety of composers she has transformed includes Richard Strauss, Puccini, Cilea, Tchaikovsky, Korngold, Smetana, Verdi, Massenet and Rimsky-Korsakov, an impressive selection indeed. The very familiar “Vissi d’arte” and “Tacea la notte placida” are successfully given the intimate treatment that is Fleming’s specialty.

Lifting this album over the top is the presence of Valery Gergiev and the orchestra of the Marinsky Theater, already personal favorites. Gergiev grasps this repertoire as few others.

The image on the cover seems to be aiming for Klimt, an effect that is difficult in black and white. The album booklet also includes photos of divas from the past. We are pleased to be puzzled and alarmed by a photo of Emmy Destinn standing next to a grand piano as though in recital with her right hand on an adult male lion lying calmly on the piano. What can this possibly mean?

For my ears the personalizing influence of Renée Fleming in this repertoire is very successful, very beautiful, even fascinating.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Hat Cabaletta

The most wondrous thing in Il Viaggio a Reims is undoubtedly the aria where the Countess Folleville first mourns the loss of all her luggage (what modern person cannot sympathize?) and then celebrates in fabulous coloratura the recovery of her hat. It is worth reviving the opera for this bit alone.

I was completely unfair. Professor Gossett celebrates the success of some recent modernized revivals with genuine enthusiasm. And now I have truly reached the end. I was told in Italy not to say "Addio." Ciao!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Systems Analysis

Dear Dr. Gossett,

Please do not be offended by anything I am about to say. I am a natural systems analyst and try to tell people what is happening. Sometimes they don't want to know.

Your perspective is exactly what it should be. Scholarship must equal truth.

However, anyone knows that displacing Ballo to Boston is absurd and mentally puts it back. Oscar alone means this is not democratic America. Getting rid of the American setting is great. Arguing over the precise text is something you have to do, but for we ordinary people, redoing the supertitles is probably sufficient.

The dominance of the Wagner/Verdi context for opera is passing away, and being replaced by interest in earlier works such as Handel. People haven't stopped loving Verdi and Wagner, but there is an enthusiasm for earlier music that was not there before. Teachers who know how to teach the heavy technique are harder and harder to find, while coloratura in all voice types continues to strengthen. The pervasive presence of old recordings from the period of heavy repertoire makes the work of every young singer impossible. What hope is there that they could rival these old singers?

It is vital to emphasize (and I was most interested to read) the stylistic differences between Verdi and Rossini, and even between early and late Verdi. My feeling is that these differences will become more and more important with the passage of time. I am hoping for a continued revival of Rossini which would require greater knowledge and availability of the ornaments and the proper manner of executing them. Thus my interest in a critical edition aria collection.

The serious operas of Rossini are still virtually unknown. Renata Tebaldi didn't record them. There is wonderful opportunity for a singer to blaze a new trail, one that will sound fresh and exciting. My infatuation with Bartoli was due to the hope that she would do this, but she has chosen a completely different path, performing Handel instead of Rossini. At a magical moment in her career she topped anything I have ever heard in this repertoire.

The music of the past now seems different to us. Rossini isn't just weak Verdi any more, but begins to seem his own person, a person larger than a collection of comic gimmicks. My impression is that a lot of this change is due to you.

The landscape of opera will continue to evolve. My own obsession will continue to be the quality of new operas, a gigantic subject that I'm not sure I'm big enough to handle. But then who is? I'm not particularly thrilled by what other people are writing on this subject, so why not me?

Best wishes.

Monday, October 23, 2006

End of Divas and Scholars

I am finally getting to the end of Divas and Scholars. Unlike the hundreds of books that recount the plots of operas, this book is about the actual work of musicians and others who create the operas we see.

I began by looking up every entry about Cecilia Bartoli and commenting on that.

Then I did one of my rants about natural horns.

Then I noticed he'd discussed a performance of Il Trovatore that I had a DVD of, so I did a review of it, trying to detect some of the things he talked about.

Then I tried to get more serious about the whole thing and wrote about the conflict between scholarship and tradition, the conflict between the opera as it originally existed and the opera as we have had it handed down to us and know from recodings and traditional performances.

Then I learned that there is a term for a theater that presents the operas one at a time: stagione. The term repertory I was already familiar with. I wrote that researsal space and time were probably the crucial issue in deciding between repertory and stagione, but I have since thought of another issue: space for the sets. In San Francisco they occasionally put sets out in the street covered with a tarp, but now the opera house has been expanded to increase the space behind the scenes. If there is nowhere to put the sets you are not using, you are stagione.

I commented on Marilyn Horne's place in the whole process of returning original performing editions into use, especially editions of Rossini.

I commented on the status of German vs Italian musicology.

I wrote about the effect on my life of reading this. I speculated that Rubini might have been a falsettist.

I began corresponding with Professor Gossett. I blogged this email exchange because he commented on my gossip about Domingo. I loved this piece of gossip. He admitted he is a friend of Vivica Genaux and that he had read my blog, facts that may be connected.

I was reminded of the song "Yesterday". Then I tried to explain the issues about French operas translated into Italian operas in a serious way.

I wrote about the changing weight of the orchestra in the nineteenth century, a subject of very great importance.

Then I called them all fuddy-duddies for rejecting the modern staging ideas and took it back here. Then I talked briefly about the three types of productions.

I started to write about censorship, but decided you would need to read about it for yourself.

I liked it that Philip Gossett wrote himself into the story. In fact I liked it all and will miss it. It is an autobiography in music.

It has made me realize how much I miss the life of music, my life's one true passion. Blogging helps, but it's not enough.

Censorship

When writing my chapter about words, I left out entirely any discussion of censorship, something ever-present in Italian opera throughout its history at least until the unification of Italy in 1870.

I think this must have been part of the attraction of the librettos of Metastasio, a native Roman and therefore someone familiar with the religious and political issues that aroused the attention of the censors. A composer could avoid the problem of censorship merely by choosing one of Metastasio's librettos to set.

Rossini began the movement away from Metastasio's librettos toward a more free-form libretto such as the French might use. The new style of opera was not what the church or the occupying armies had in mind, and they let their opinions be known. Verdi completely abandoned Stiffelio because he felt the censorship left nothing worth presenting.

This is a key issue in Divas and Scholars, which I won't repeat here. You'll have to read it for yourself.

The Siege of Corinth

I am irresistibly attracted to the serious operas of Gioachino Rossini. For my heart Rossini is perfect exactly the way he is and does not require the "improvements" of Verdi. There is a perfection of lightness in the coloratura that is not improved by the weight of future generations. I am happy to see this style returning to our ears, to hear the wonderfully ornamented da capos done as they were meant to be. Viva Rossini!

I went on Sunday to see the Baltimore Opera Company present Rossini's L'Assedio di Corinto or The Siege of Corinth, an actual historical event which took place in the 1450's. A Christian country is being invaded by Moslems who are heard praying to the prophet, something I am not sure actually happens. Never mind.

The production was traditional with Turks looking pretty much the way they do in Italian Renaissance paintings and the Greeks looking almost antique. I'm not sure my comments about the historical accuracy of costumes can be relied upon so we will assume they are not displaced from their intended setting. The two groups, Greeks and Turks, were easy to distinguish from one another, making the drama easy to follow.

The historical event requires a love theme to make it work as an opera. In preparation for invasion Maometto II has been personally casing the Greek cities, and while looking over Athens, he meets and falls in love with Pamira, daughter of the Governor of Corinth. Her father Cleomene, here sung by Bruce Ford, asks her to marry Neocle, but she refuses, saying her heart already belongs to another. Only during the opera does she discover that it is Maometto II himself that she loves. She vacillates, but ultimately decides on martyrdom with her countrymen over marriage to a foreigner.

The unusual feature of this opera is the presence of chorus in every scene, representing primarily the Greek people. It is a surprise in an Italian opera to hear so much chorus. It is they who carry the spirit of patriotism and martyrdom that is the main theme of the opera. They sing in simple block chords without counterpoint. This was very well done and effective.

Elizabeth Futral as Pamira was in a little over her head. She was better and more secure in the more solid Handel of Semele than here. The more ethereal Rossini caused her voice to become fluttery.

Vivica Genaux in the role of Neocle was a revelation. She did not quite achieve the godlike standards of Marilyn Horne, but definitely merited comparison, as great a compliment as I can imagine for a coloratura mezzo. Brava! And, yes, she looked fabulous.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Staging

Professor Gossett establishes three categories of production: traditional, displaced and radical or what the Germans call Konzept. Displaced just means you have moved it from its expected setting and time, much the way Verdi moved Un Ballo in Maschera to Boston. A concept opera is our full-fledged Eurotrash. It is curious that the operas I have seen recently fall into all three categories.

LA presented Don Carlo in a visually vivid but basically traditional setting. The characters dressed in period costumes which might be considered Spanish, and the Gothic arches of the movable modules that made up the set at least suggested an earlier period. There was a concept at work in the Caravaggio reproductions, but this was not powerful enough to drag the production from the traditional category.

Manon from LA displaced her from Paris in the nineteenth century to Paris in the twentieth century, but she was still basically the same girl. Costume changes aren't enough to make it a concept.

I think the New York City Opera presentation of Semele qualifies as a radical or concept interpretation. We are displaced from the far away mythical past to the 1960's, to be sure, but the characters are transfomed into a virtual newsreel by involving historical figures. This is definitely a concept, and it was shocking how well it worked, how easy it was to believe in the JFK/MM/Jackie triangle and its fatal result.

We Americans still prefer traditional settings, but can be persuaded to accept a displacement as long as we still feel at home. I have been promoting the idea that the production explains the opera regardless of which of the three categories it falls in. I accept the concept when it explains the action.

In San Francisco I saw a Konzept production of Busoni's Doktor Faust where Faust was some kind of computer operator in a factory. People came and went for no apparent reason. I had a violent negative reaction to it because it failed utterly in my idea that the production explains the opera. Nothing in it made any sense at all, and none of the actions were explained. The production won an award in Germany where, perhaps, the plot of this opera may be known, as it certainly was not by me.

It was fascinating to learn that concept opera in Germany extended all the way back to the 1920's. An arguement could be made that modernism was German, a statement that completely flies in the face of my previous statements that it came from the Ballet Russe. I have digressed, as usual. In the twentieth century leadership came from the French and Germans, with a brief interruption ....

Ahem. The chapter on staging is not fuddy-duddy at all. Forgive me.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Gymnastics

In the second scene of La Traviata Anna Netrebko walks along the top of the sofa. Now that we know she studied gymnastics, we recognize that these are balance beam maneuvers. She stands securely on one foot while Rolando grasps the other foot. She does an acceptable dismount, considering it's an opera and not a competition.

Gymnastics training for opera singers? It does sound a little severe. It is not good for a singer to grunt like Maria Sharapova, but physical training can only do good. Pavarotti played tennis. Cecilia Bartoli was a Flamenco dancer. Rolando Villazon works out. Anna Netrebko jogs. Get physical. It can't hurt.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Question

I am getting to the end of Divas and Scholars and wish to comment on the instrumntal chapter. I should soon be able to return to something more trivial to write about.

My question has to do with the weight of the orchestra. The gorilla in the corner wanted a thicker, darker, heavier sound coming from the orchestra which changed its weight radically from what it had been in the bel canto.

Professor Gossett does not discuss the gradual change in orchestral weight that occurred throughout the nineteenth century from the point of view of its effect on singing. Verdi (along with Wagner, of course) is known as the killer of voices. All those loud brasses and drums force the singers to sing louder and louder, resulting in a very heavy style of singing that is only now beginning to go out of style.

I am interested in this issue. The Cecilia Bartoli effect continues. Opera continues to shift its focus toward the Baroque and lighter, more florid singing. Would a lighter, early instruments concept help to reduce the excess noise coming from orchestras in Verdi operas and allow a more legato approach to singing them?

It is interesting to me that Verdi thought Macbeth was his best opera. It isn't our favorite because it contains one of his worst screamer parts, Lady Macbeth, and results in the worst examples I have heard of soprano bellowing and vocal strain. One wishes never to hear again Gwyneth Jones wobbling her way through the role and tends as a result to avoid the opera altogether.

Is somewhat lighter Verdi possible? Would people tolerate it?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Words

I feel inclined to explain the Words and Music chapter from Divas and Scholars, assuming I understand it myself.

Opera has two great traditions: the Italian and the French. The first French Opera was six decades behind the first Italian Opera, but unlike operas in other countries, such as Germany and England, Pomone by Robert Cambert in 1671 firmly established a vogue for opera in French, a vogue that was quickly exploited by Lully. He was followed by Rameau, Gluck (his biggest success and most important influence was in France), Cherubini, Salieri (a lot of Italians wrote operas in the French style), etc. In Rossini’s time Spontini and Mehul were the main French opera composers. The French developed their own comic opera tradition, too, starting in the late Baroque/early Rococo and continuing through Carmen and so on.

Each country established its own independent tradition. By the time of Rossini the Italian tradition was over 200 years old and the French tradition a more youthful 140 years. I don’t recall any French composers who moved to Italy, but the list of names above gives a clear indication that a lot of Italian composers, including all of Gossett’s quadrumvirate: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, wrote French operas for Paris. Paris was simply too lucrative a market to ignore. No one but the Germans Handel and Johann Christian Bach seem to have regarded London as a place to move to.

When the Italians wrote for the French market, it might be an Italian opera they were writing, such as Il Viaggio a Reims by Rossini, but more likely, they composed French operas for the French, using their style and their librettos. An opera generally starts with a libretto. Both countries developed a style of poetry that they deemed suitable for an opera libretto and composed music in their own style. In the case of the French this generally included ballet. Louis XIV was a ballet enthusiast--in his youth he was a ballet dancer as well--and the tradition stuck. Sticking in ballets and taking them back out again is not really a problem.

None of this would have been a problem had it been considered suitable to simply translate an opera from French to Italian or from Italian to French. If the composer was Italian, the only side of the equation Gossett is concerned with, the Italians wanted the result to be an Italian opera and not merely a translated French one. So the Italians rewrote the French operas to be Italian operas with more or less the same music but completely different poetic forms, with the result that the Italian versions are not really what you would call versions. They’re different operas.

This seems a problem with a simple solution: write new translations. We in the English speaking countries do it all the time and don’t really understand why this is a problem. Every 25 years or so we tire of old translations and want new ones. Germans are excellent translators and are adept at finding exactly the right German words to capture the original. The German translation of My Fair Lady is awesome.

This appears not to work for the Italians. Sensitivities are upset. Toes are stepped on. Traditions are violated. Perhaps they have learned to love their version and don’t want to give it up. What is one to do?

I have oversimplified, as usual. The biggest problem, it seems to me, is that in countries not either Italy or France it is the Italian version that is performed. We should not presume to speak for the Italians, but we can certainly speak for ourselves. When the San Francisco Opera presented Donizetti's La Favorite in 1973, it was in the Italian version. In the 1999-2000 season SF presented the French version. We shall regard this as progress. At the Met this opera has not been presented since 1978, but all the performances have been in Italian. I know that when I learned the aria, it was called in Italian "O mio Fernando."

Verdi's Sicilian Vespers was sung in Italian at the Met as recently as 2004. Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment seems always to have been sung in French.

Frankly, there is a prejudice against French caused by the ghastly manner in which it is often sung. I am pleased to say that I did not experience any of my usual nausea about the pronunciation of French in Los Angeles Opera's Manon. Anna continued to sound like herself. Her voice didn't disappear into her head when she tried to do nasals, as is so often the case.

I feel inclined to promote the fortunes of La Favorite because it is one of those rare operas with a mezzo heroine, and Professor Gossett makes his best arguements relative to this opera. A dramatic mezzo should champion it. In French.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Words and Music

My favorite words and music story has always been the interview with Paul McCartney where he discussed composing the great romantic song "Yesterday." Apparently the words which brought forth this wonderful song were "scrambled eggs."

Scrambled eggs.
Yadda, yadda, yadda, scrambled eggs.
Yadda, yadda, yadda, scrambled eggs.
O, yadda, yadda, scrambled eggs.

According to Wikipedia, this is the most covered song of the twentieth century.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Correspondence

[I wrote to the University of Chicago:]

This is an idle curiosity question for Philip Gossett, whose book Divas and Scholars I am very much enjoying. I have just finished the chapter on transposition.

Do you have, or would you wish to express an opinion of modifications made to Cyrano de Bergerac to accomodate the aging voice of Placido Domino. I have this on good authority. I was told this after complaining that the role sounded like it was written for a baritone.

I think your book is fascinating and very fun to read. I am interested in
how much these principles extend back into earlier Italians like Salieri and Paisiello.

[And got back this:]

Dear Barbara,

Thanks for your very kind note.

What you tell me about Cyrano de Bergerac doesn't surprise me a bit. Placido has done this before, as he jumps from one vocal type to another. He is such a fabulous musician that usually it works for him, but occasionally he misjudges. (His "Figaro" with Abbado in Rossini's Barbiere was not a success!)
[Figaro is a baritone. Ach! Or madre de dio!]

I'm sure the procedure went back to the eighteenth century. And I find it all over the place in Verdi, not only with singers but with the composer himself, as he thinks through vocal ranges.

I've been working on La forza del destino for the critical edition recently.Verdi--as he composed the opera in 1861/1862 and as he revised it in 1869--made major transpositions in the Aria Don Carlo ("Urna fatale"), in the Coro ed Aria Melitone, in the Duetto for Leonora and Alvaro in Act I, in the Preziosilla solo in the Scena Osteria at the start of Act II. And it goes on and on.

I'm glad you're enjoying the book: I really wrote it to be enjoyed!

All best wishes,

Philip Gossett

[Isn't this cool!! If I wasn't supposed to post this, I'm sorry. It was irresistable.]