Wednesday, May 31, 2006


I have watched As Time Goes By for years. Now when I watch it, I think "those people live in London." When they get out of taxis, I see myself getting out of taxis, too. I made a point of buying custard tarts while I was there, because in the show, Lionel has always the exit line, " I think I'll have a custard tart." They're delicious.

Inner Bach

I read in the newspaper about a film of deaf people singing Bach. They rehearsed like a real choir and were accompanied by real musicians.

I don't know if I would want to see this film. The sound was described as ultra modern, as clear a condemnation of modernism as I've ever heard.

The idea raises questions for contemplation. Is this the inner Bach? The zen of Bach? For the deaf singers it was a wonderful event. Is it still Bach if you can't actually hear it? I say yes.

Monday, May 22, 2006


According to Playbill, this is the correct pronunciation for Golijov, emphasis on the first syllable. So you can quit worrying.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Baltimore comes to Frederick

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra came to Frederick last night. Marin Alsop did not come. Conducting honors fell to Roberto Minczuk who currently conducts the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and Orquestra Sinfonica Brasiliera in Rio de Janeiro, an interesting pair of assignments.

He conducted Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings without a score and without a baton. He conducted Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D Major with a score, but still without a baton. He conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 without a score but WITH a baton. Hmm. Is he showing off? Is he easily bored? We’re curious. The entire concert went well, so I can’t actually complain.

The most interesting piece was the cello concerto, primarily due to the playing of Ilya Finkelshteyn, the principal cello of the BSO. The solo part is full of double stops and high pitches, all passionately played. The audience stood up for this, and Mr. Finkelshteyn gave the orchestra an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Name calling, part II

So what are they talking about?

Maria Callas had a big voice with lots of squillo and a burning ambition. From deep in her soul she wanted to be a star. She worked very hard to develop a proper bel canto technique and keep the flexibility in her voice. She was both naturally expressive and completely obsessive. She cared about expression and developed her interpretations with great care. Her voice, her character, her technique, her expression, her ambition all combined to make a very great artist. That's why it was so shocking when she suddenly abandoned opera for mere celebrity.

So every dark voice with a bit of coloratura is "the next Maria Callas."

The route to greatness, the route followed by Maria herself, lies in beating ones own path, in making music that is completely ones own, in defying comparison. No artist succeeds by imitation.

When I look around at the singers today, only Angela and Cecilia seem to burn for it. Cecilia's gifts don't lie in Callas's spinto repertoire. I haven't always liked what she was doing, but she more than anyone working today is blazing her own trail, creating performances of true originality. Her creativity is astounding.

Anna does not burn for it. She would never have backed down on her bid for Austrian citizenship if she did.

When they say someone is the "next Maria Callas," they're just wishing. They want to sit in a hall and feel their spine tingling, their soul shaking as it once did with Callas. We want to be thrilled and not merely entertained.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Name calling

I promise never to say that someone is the "next Maria Callas." Thank you.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Hail and Farewell

I will always look back on this trip to London as a blessed time. The business parts went well. Everyone wished they had my job which consists primarily of knowing all about Bechtel. When you've been building data exchanges for 25 years, it is pretty easy to do and basically low stress.

That left me free to enjoy myself. I was going to retire in January, so I pretended I already was retired. Amazingly, no one complained. I laughed and told jokes the way I always do, but this time they laughed, too. I think I love the English. And the Scots. And perhaps also the South Africans. In fact, I loved them all, and they loved me.

I saw everything and did everything, even after I found that I have arthritis. I stopped going to musicals because I simply don't want to be blasted by distortion for two or three hours. As a lover of singing, I want to hear the voices, not the blaring backup bands.

I found that when I went places alone, I could seek out someone to talk to. They have all disappeared into the void. Christine who attended Solomon on a free ticket because she had trashed the soprano and they wanted her to give her a second chance. The man who lived in Kensington near my hotel. The ancient lady eating bouillabaisse at the fish bar in Harrod's who thought it hadn't enough garlic. Sondra's husband.

Wo war ich schon einmal, und s'war so selig?  [When was I ever this happy?]


There are traditions about memorization, and they are completely illogical.

It is logical that members of an orchestra do not memorize. They simply could not get through the amount of music they are required to play with the tiny amount of rehearsal time they have if they were required to memorize. We also don't assume the audience is looking at them.

It is completely logical that performers in any staged play, such as opera and musicals, memorize. It would look very odd if Aida carried a score around the stage with her.

Everything else is tradition.

In recital singers and pianists (solo pianists, not accompanists) memorize. Violinists and clarinetists don't memorize.

Vocal soloists appearing in oratorios generally don't memorize.

The piano recital tradition started with Liszt who extemporized extensively, but was slavishly followed by people who never extemporize.

Toscanini, near-sighted and Italian, worried about la bella figura and memorized everything.

Would we expect Madonna to appear with sheet music? A classical musician venturing into pop must follow its traditions.

Why memorize?

If you are the focus of attention, the audience wants to see your eyes.

The reason that counts most: before a singer performs any piece, he must live with it, study it and absorb it into his soul. It's extremely unlikely that this has happened and he still can't remember how it goes.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac is such a great play that it cannot help but make a pretty good opera. The libretto, in French, follows the play closely. Between 1921 when he composed La Leggenda di Sakùntala and 1936 for Cyrano Franco Alfano seems to have pulled himself together a bit. He used humming chorus only in the battle scene, for instance, where it serves a relevant dramatic function, instead of every time a little extra emotion is wanted. The scene where Cyrano serenades Roxane, sung by Sondra Radvanovsky, who thinks it is Christian and allows him into her bedroom while Cyrano stays below is actually very moving.

But he still has no idea of how to write an aria, and there are lots of opportunities. The sword fight poem in act I is an outstanding example of an opportunity missed. There is even a refrain where a catchy tune would go well. The words indicate a planned and eventually achieved execution of his opponent precisely at the end of the poem. This was completely flubbed both musically and dramatically. The whole idea is that Cyrano must stab his opponent precisely as he pronounces the last word of the poem--not pat him on the butt with his sword as happened here. I don't think you can stage Cyrano while pretending that people don't actually die in the sword fights.

This is exactly the same production and stars as the presentation at the Metropolitan Opera. I assume it was revived for Domingo.

And now I am going to do the unthinkable. Placido Domingo is one of those stars people travel the world to see. I sat next to one of his fans at the Royal Opera House on Thursday. She could not remember how many times she had seen him. He, the greatest singing actor possibly ever, is still beautiful in his soul, and occasional flashes of his genius still come to us. He executed his choreographed sword fights with acceptable grace.

Placido Domingo would never have become famous as a baritone--that part of his voice is just not that interesting--and yet he forces us to listen to page after page of music more suitable for a baritone because he cannot keep up the energy necessary to be a tenor in such a large role. Mr. Domingo, you have set the standard for all to follow, but perhaps it's time.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Conversation at the opera

At Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac at the Royal Opera, the woman on my left was talking to her friend, so I turned to the man on my right and said, "How do you like it?"

He responded, "I've already seen it 10 times. My wife is Roxane [Sondra Radvanovsky]." We talked about his wife. She has an unusual voice. "Some like it, some don't," he said. I commented on how easily she penetrated Alfano's large orchestra, that she didn't seem to be working hard at it. "She isn't," he said. "She has that edge to her voice that cuts through. Birgit Nilsson had it. It's more sought after in men, but valuable in women, too," I said.

I listened some more and decided she has a very distinctive tone which is actually an enormous advantage. "Who had the most distinctive voice, recognizable in only one or two notes? Maria Callas." He said his wife was sometimes compared to her. I said, "She doesn't sound like Maria Callas. She sounds like herself."

We talked about the opera. "It's growing on me," He said. "It sounds like movie music." Then I told him that Alfano had composed music for the movies where he was called Frank. I told my story about seeing La Leggenda di Sakuntala (1921) in Rome. "Alfano definitely improved since then (Cyrano is 1936)," I said.

We decided that in this audience I had seen the most operas by Alfano and he had seen the most performances of Cyrano.

We changed the subject to Domingo. I said the part seemed too low for him. "Every singer has their sweet notes, and this role only gets up into that part of his voice once in a while."

"He wanted it that way," he said. You mean the part has been lowered??!! He said, "My lips are sealed."

Only then did I warn that I have an opera blog. I wished his wife a lot of luck.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Hay Fever

I had the opportunity to see Judi Dench on stage in Noel Coward's Hay Fever at the Haymarket at the height of the hay fever season, and I took it. Dame Judi has a fertile theatrical imagination. I have only seen her on TV and in the movies and was unprepared for the sheer physicality of her performance. She also sat down at the piano and sang a decent rendition of "Plaisir d'amour," one of the great songs on the pleasures of love. (How did Yvonne Kenny miss that one?) While in her seventies Judi successfully played someone of about 45. She skipped, she danced, she swayed, she sang. She was a delight.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A Touch of Venus

The concept of Yvonne Kenny’s “A touch of Venus” is to give a context to a wide variety of different songs. The context is Dorothy Parker’s very modern, always witty and sometimes jaundiced view of love, and the songs are selected with this theme in mind and are interspersed with readings from Ms Parker. The questions raised by this idea are:

Does it work?
Are the songs enhanced through this treatment?
Has Yvonne Kenny gone mad?

It is very daring to program classical songs and arias side by side with popular songs. Even Eileen Farrell would not have tried it. It is also daring to offer it at Wigmore Hall, a traditional venue. There is apparently nothing Ms Kenny will not take on, and her musical and theatrical personality definitely includes all this disparate material. The closest thing to it that I've experienced is Bebe Neuwirth's "Here lies Jenny."

Surprisingly, the composer most enhanced by this context is George Frederick Handel. “O sleep” becomes ourselves lying awake at night worrying about a lover. It was like a light bulb going on.

I’m going to give her advice now, so switch off if you don’t want to hear this. I only give advice to people I think capable of receiving and benefiting from it. Classical and pop singing use different techniques, and I think she would be happier with the condition of her voice at the end of this program if she raised the pitch of some of the pop songs a bit and didn’t push the chest so much, something Eileen Farrell, the queen of crossover, never did. Yvonne Kenny is a soprano, and it doesn’t detract from the music if she remains one here.

My second piece of advice will probably happen of its own accord with repetition. Memorization must be more complete. She didn’t come out like Véronique Gens with a pile of scores she could have been sight reading out of, but she did have a crib sheet which she referred to occasionally. She needs to get past this. Complete contact with the audience cannot be achieved without looking at them, and if she wants her idea to work, this is essential. I was fine with reading Dorothy Parker from a book. In those cases it is Ms Parker who is speaking.

Iain Burnside was the marvelous accompanist, and he talks!! A talking accompanist is simply not heard of. He handled both playing and talking wonderfully well.

I’m open to madness, to the idea of opera singer as cabaret singer, but if she is to succeed to the extent that she wishes, that she obviously can, she needs to step it up a notch. Perhaps Wigmore Hall isn't the perfect venue either. Dim lighting and drinks, I'm thinking.

Cecilia in Vienna

Please tell me I didn't read that Cecilia Bartoli appeared with the Vienna Philharmonic in Mozart's Exultate Jubilate without a conductor. Ach du Lieber.

Among the reasons for my infatuation with La Bartoli was a deep desire for vicarious thrills. For this my heart has chosen well.

I have not forgotten the day in Zurich when she conducted the conductor from the stage of the opera house in the Generalprobe for La Cenerentola. She is self-confident to the point of fearlessness, completely original, creative and often utterly thrilling.

So now she works the tight rope alone without a net, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic with her back. I laugh out loud just thinking about it. I only wish I had been there.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

What's going on here?

Every shot I see these days of Anna Netrebko she is standing on the furniture. This is Don Pasquale.

This is War and Peace.

This is La Traviata.

Friday, May 05, 2006


I am suddenly aware of the existence of French music, and even more astonishing, I am suddenly aware that I am interested in it. It is the repertoire with which I am least familiar, unless you count grunge bands.

Things contributing to this interest:

Susan Graham's La Belle Epoque, an album that I seem never to tire of.

Rolando Villazon's French arias.

A recently purchased dvd of Roméo et Juliette, the opera by Gounod, starring the tenor Roberto Alagna and his soprano wife Angela Gheorghiu. In this film all the other characters are sung by one person and acted by another, but the beautiful Alagnas play themselves. They were newly married at the time of this filming, and the sexual tension just leaps off the screen. The singing is also nice, though Roberto's style is not particularly French.

Régine Crespin's Les Nuits d'Été.

Véronique Gens.

I have been criticizing people, especially Americans, for their French pronunciation, but the further I get into French music the more I am aware of the enormous variation in how it is sung. How is one to decide? Whatever Régine Crespin is doing must be right. We will take her as the standard.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Véronique Gens

I feel two ways about Véronique Gens recital at Wigmore Hall on Monday. On the one hand her Gabriel Fauré was exquisite, her Henri Duparc glorious and her Reynaldo Hahn very fine indeed. On the other hand she didn't bother to memorize anything. For me this is insulting. For a performer to use sheetmusic in standard repertoire in her native language is simply incomprehensible.

One wishes to achieve the truly French and Véronique Gens is a good place to start. I like her very much. I only think she should raise her opinion of recitals.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Mitridate Re di Ponto

There is much that is fascinating in this film of Mozart’s Mitridate Re di Ponto conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

There is the inescapable feeling that Mozart at 14 is already fully himself. We don’t particularly treasure this work because of what came later, because the genre of opera seria has been so long out of favor, but it is a perfect example of a rococo opera seria, composed for Milan, then as now a center of the opera world.

With each experience of his work I become more and more a fan of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Every note lives. Ann Murray, Yvonne Kenny and all the others perform their roles fabulously.

And as if that were not enough, it is filmed in Palladio’s Teatro Olympico in Vicenza. The Baroque stage set shown in the film is actually part of the building itself. It works beautifully well, the most authentic period set I’ve seen.

I bought this because Sarah said it was perfect. I agree.