Sunday, July 30, 2006

Opera on DVD

Read here about opera on DVD. I'm all for this trend. DVD's are often cheaper than CD's, and they are much cheaper than actual tickets to the opera.

I thought the Salzburg La Traviata made quite a few points. I had heard the CD, or at least excerpts from it, but it completely failed to prepare me for my emotional reaction to the DVD. The complete performance overwhelmed me as few things ever have. For one thing, it completely brought the music alive for me.

We get to see how different houses and companies conceive opera. In Paris the productions always seem to have sexual interpretations: nude men in Alcina, a bed in every scene of Rusalka.

Zurich seems to be a leader in the filming of opera. Meanwhile, in the USA we are filming very little. Even my neighborhood library has opera on DVD.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


I am pleased to read that Anna Netrebko has gone ahead with her Austrian citizenship. It is also pleasing to realize that Austria still values music so much that it grants citizenship so easily.

Though I said opera is not a newsreel, I am aware that this is something of a goal for the minimalists. I think stories can come from reality, even present day reality, but I think the story has to stand alone.

My own ideas are evolving. I'm trying to decide what the path forward for opera is, and I feel very concerned that the powerful people in this field are generally misguided when it comes to new operas. Read the Cambridge companion to twentieth-century opera and notice how few of these operas you have actually seen or are ever likely to see.

I'm convinced that the singer plays a much larger role in determining what operas become standard than is ever realized. Golijov writes for Dawn Upshaw. This is a very smooth move. Find a singer you love and write an opera that will make her a star. It will work.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

All Time Winner

No one will ever exceed Placido Domingo as the sexiest man on an opera stage. I wouldn't want anyone to think I had forgotten.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bel Canto

I have thought of a book that would make a great, though controversial, opera: Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. It has singing. It has characters. It has relevance.

Rent revisited

A friend is visiting and she hadn’t seen it, so we rented Rent. I consider this the best new opera of the last 15 years. Let’s discuss its relevance.

Rent is based loosely on La Boheme, an opera about the plague of tuberculosis in the artists’ Mecca of fin de ciecle Paris. Rent is about the plague of AIDS in New York City in the 1990's. Rent is about love.

The film comes with an excellent documentary on how Rent became first a musical and then a movie, and includes a wonderful biography of its creator, Jonathan Larson who died of a burst aorta between the dress rehearsal and the opening of the musical. The documentary discusses the arguments between Jonathan and his producers who forced him to rewrite the material until the characters all achieved personalities, identities that we the audience could feel sympathy for, to make this good idea into great theater. Rent is now in its 10th year on Broadway.

I can’t help thinking how much more we would appreciate the career of John Adams if someone would take him similarly in hand. John, it needs to work as theater. It doesn’t. We need people we can care about. There aren’t any.

Nixon in China is his best work. I have always enjoyed its theatrical qualities—the halo of translators that surround Mao’s speech, the coloratura aria “I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung," the toasting ceremony, the play within a play—but it is the personal scenes between Richard and Pat that give it meaning.

Next came Death of Klinghoffer which I saw in San Francisco. Is there even a prayer of making this live? The Klinghoffers would have to come alive for us, and they don’t. How can they? He was killed because he was Jewish and existed only as a symbol to the people who killed him. The symbol must become a person. Theater cannot be a newsreel—it cannot acquire its significance from outside sources. Because it meant something to us when we watched it on television doesn’t mean it will mean something as an opera. All the meaning must come from inside the work. Did I say that clearly enough? All the meaning must come from inside the work.

For the opera to work as theater the terrorists must also live. Terrorists who come alive for the audience would not be acceptable politically. Why pick this as the subject for an opera when to succeed can only result in disgust?

El Niño is a nativity, a familiar story with its own emotional associations. It may work as an opera, I don’t know. I tried to watch it on video. I simply couldn’t stand the fragmentation of narrative.

John Adams sets himself impossible tasks. He wants to dramatize stories that don’t revolve around character and personality. For me he has no theatrical sense at all.

Where is the human interest in the creation of the atom bomb? In Doctor Atomic where are the human stories that make me care about this? What does Oppenheimer’s interest in John Donne tell me about his reasons for heading the bomb project, or was this just an ego trip for him, an opportunity to have his name go down in history? Do I cry because a bomb hangs in the air and people dance around under it?

Rent is a far better opera than anything conceived by John Adams. After a lot of prodding Jonathan Larson created characters that live for us. Creating a marvelously comic Henry Kissinger has its appeal, but this is as far as John Adams has come.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

More Pictures

There is some question about the reliability of Google Image searches.

This is Rodney Gilfrey:
This is Nathan Gunn:
Don't you like this picture a lot better?

Research reveals that the standing man is definitely Nathan Gunn, though he only comes up when you ask for Rodney Gilfrey. But then a search for Nathan Gunn brought up this picture:

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


In Opera News for August is an article titled “Is Opera still Relevant?” My immediate reaction is the question, “When was opera ever relevant?” Who said opera was supposed to be relevant?

There’s nothing at all relevant about people standing around singing. Opera is about love, and we who love the opera are there to experience passion, not relevance. In fact, I would even go so far as to say it is the incessant desire for relevance that kills a good many new operas today.

His examples are perfect. In Death of Klinghoffer, Adams is working overtime to be relevant. Ditto the more recent Doctor Atomic. He just leaves out even the tiniest representation of human emotions. With him it’s all relevance. So there should be no surprise that no one wants to revive Klinghoffer.

Verdi was probably the most political of opera composers, but it is the Verdi who writes about human relationships that is “relevant” to our ears and hearts: Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida, La Forza del Destino, Otello, Falstaff.

I agree that Dead Man Walking was one of the best of the recent efforts, but its place in the world wouldn’t have been improved by trying to preach its relevance. It needs to appeal to everyone, not just to those who are against capital punishment. The opera is great because it is about people, because it is about love. Dead Man brought us passion and tears as few modern operas do.

Opera is to make us laugh and cry, to feel as much passion as each of us is capable. We are trying to make it, or we should be trying to make it more relevant to our hearts, not our politics.


I neglected to explain that these pictures are part of the annual sexiest opera singers list. More will follow. Inclusion in the list can often depend on what pictures I am able to locate.

This is supposed to be Rodney Gilfrey, baritone. He is on Cecilia's Don Giovanni video.

These are Anna Netrebko, soprano.

Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria

I also rented Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria from my public library. This staging is from the Zurich Opera with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting La Scintilla. There are no horns in this, so we're safe.

This is my best Monteverdi experience to date. (See here and here.) Harnoncourt really keeps it lively and dynamic.

Ulysses has been away at war for ten years, plus more years getting lost around the Mediterranean in a book called the Odyssey, and he is concerned when he at last arrives home again that his wife Penelope has been faithful.

He finds the house full of suitors. The suitors are puppets. Everything else about this production makes sense, but why are the suitors puppets? Maybe this is to soften the fact that Ulysses kills them all. Puppets don't bleed.

I was particularly fond of Ulysses, sung beautifully by Dietrich Henschel, in his disguise as a bum. He had wild white hair like Fidel Castro. Penelope is sung by Vesselina Kasarova. The part is very low and difficult to make effective, but she is very somber and moving. She is especially convincing in the finale where Penelope has difficulty making the transition to happiness.

There are lots of characters, both gods and mortals, and it gets a bit confusing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


It's time for more pictures.

This picture of Jose Cura is by far the silliest.

And these are the beautiful Alagnas.

And this is Cecilia. She is telling me how far she is above me.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

El Niño

My local public library has a few opera dvds, and among them I found a film of John Adams El Niño. I was interested in this because it is the Adams opera that immediately preceded Doctor Atomic. The presentation was in 2000 in Paris with Kent Nagano as the conductor. El Niño means the boy in Spanish.

The cast consists of the ubiquitous Dawn Upshaw (does anyone try to do a modern opera these days without Dawn Upshaw?), Willard White (Saint Francis in my memory) and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (my other reason for checking it out.)

It is called an opera in this video. Elsewhere it has been called a nativity oratorio. Everyone is dressed casually. Ms Upshaw is wearing a plaid shirt, for instance. It is simply a retelling of the nativity from Mary's viewpoint with texts from the Bible, carols, something called the Gospel of James, Luther's Christmas sermon, Hildegard von Bingen, etc.

Don't buy this video. It's completely unwatchable. I am not a member of the MTV generation, and I don't care to have tiny fragments of video which are flashed on the screen and replaced by other tiny fragments of video. This is crap. I think in the theater the performers were in the foreground while a film played simultaneously in the background, but here they just cut back and forth. It's horrible. In fact the whole gimmick is wearing thin for me. I liked the human parts of the annunciation and would have liked them even more if they would just stay on the screen.

The music is supposed to be good for Adams. I don't know. Maybe if I play it without looking, it would be ok. Am I the only one who is getting tired of Peter Sellars, the aging wunderkind of opera? The very stark and abstract La Traviata I liked so much was blessed with a complete lack of distractions. We have a clock face that generally does nothing, a man that just stands around doing nothing and a white stage. No films. No gimmicks. Just people singing and acting. It doesn't get better than this. I want the opera to be about the opera.

Every opera stage isn't populated with the marvelous actors in the Traviata video. Too bad. Nevertheless, I'm never sitting there thinking we should switch away to a film. We're working up the theory that people staging operas today don't really like opera. Have you ever seen any work by Peter Sellars where he wasn't the main thing going on? No, thank you.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The all night vigil

While driving to the airport to pick up my friend Jean, I heard parts of a new recording of Rachmaninov's "The All Night Vigil", otherwise known as the vespers, by the Hilliard Ensemble on NPR. Liturgically the music is intended to extend over a much longer period than just a vespers service, thus the new, more authentically Russian title.

Rachmaninov wrote this music in 1916, a time of catastrophe and the imminent collapse of his country. If you do not know this piece, make a point of changing that. This recording sounded good. There's also a Russian one with Olga Borodina, and a recording by Robert Shaw.

For many this is Rachmaninov's greatest achievement and certainly his most deeply spiritual.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Whither contemporary music?

The dichotomy of classical and pop music began with the twentieth century. Prior to that time the split would have been between professional music and folk music. In any era there was a basic continuity of style across the board. The scale, the harmonies, the importance of tonality, the rhythmic organization, all these elements applied to any music of an era. Classical composers in these times made use of and developed within the idea of music in their context.

With the rise of rag time African-American influence gave rise to styles of music of a strongly ethnic character which nevertheless transcended cultural limitations and spread around the world. Occasionally a composer came along who tried to incorporate black style elements into classical structures. This was a vogue in the twenties in Paris, for instance, but in general there has been little enthusiasm for this.

As the context of music in a culture changed to one based on African-American elements, simple harmonies and powerful, driving rhythmic materials, the relationship of classical composition to its context completely changed. This situation has progressed to the point where in the twenty-first century there is no cultural context for classical music. The music of the public mind and spirit is never the material used to compose larger compositions.

What is classical music in contemporary society? It is a body of museum-like institutions which revive the glorious achievements of past generations – we treasure Mozart more than his contemporaries did – and it is an intellectual activity that often seems closer to the world of experimental visual arts than to the institutions devoted to music, either popular or classical.

Wagner seemed to want to explain almost more than he wanted to compose, and since his time what we know as classical music seems to require a theoretical construct prior to the setting down of any actual notes. The music is never justification enough. Schoenberg did this. Messiaen did this. And apparently the minimalists also do this.

I have long suspected that minimalism was a direct response to serialism, and sure enough, that is the case. A principle of serialism is the rejection of repetition, and the minimalists responded by embracing and emphasizing repetition. The reason you don't really like either one of them is because both ignore the way the mind works, the way any human's brain organizes musical materials and sustains his interest in them, an organizing principle that works on the combination of repetition AND variation. Repetition creates anticipation, and variation creates interest and emotion.

The separation between public mind and classical composition creates a dissociation and detachment from the classical community that continues to increase with the passage of time. This leaves a chasm in our musical lives. No one is creating music for both our minds and our emotions, leaving us to search repertoire of the past for this.

Oswaldo Golijov's work really does seem different. He is making music based not in some arcane theory, but based in the music – we are strongly inclined to say popular music – of his own life. His materials are musical in origin. Perhaps he will start a trend.

La Traviata

I have purchased the DVD of La Traviata from last summer’s Salzburg festival with Rolando Villazon, Anna Netrebko and Thomas Hampson in the starring roles. I had already bought the highlights CD called Violetta and played it several times. It did not prepare me for the film.

This is a modern concept production with the stark abstract quality that is so often the case in contemporary European, especially German, productions. On the right is a large clock face with no numbers that tells us that time is passing, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. There is also a death / father time figure who stands about the stage and seems to be telling Violetta that her time is running out. She pleads with him for more time, but he refuses.

I watched all the extras that come with this DVD, and they are especially good. Villazon explains his concept of Alfredo, that he is very young, that he is experiencing a great love for the first time, that a lover is leaving him for the first time, to explain his crudeness and lack of sophistication.

Everyone enters and leaves the stage by a door on the left, except when the chorus peers in over the top of the set.

Anna explains that in this concept production Violetta is a prostitute, since in our day there is no such thing as a courtesan. She is not sick with a disease, but it is her soul that is sick and dies.

This explanation explains nothing. The abstract production reduces the action to its essential parts, attraction, passion, love, breakup, death. It answers my requirement that the production explain the action. Nothing is left but love and death.

Into this abstraction is placed the person of Anna Netrebko. The extras explain that she requires very little explanation, and simply expresses intuitively whatever is asked of her. She explains that she works hard when she is rehearsing but does not think about the work when she is at home. She is young and rich and thinks about her shoes. In fact, she tries to avoid thinking and attempts to deal with emotions directly.

The music is wonderful. For some reason Verdi sounds crisp and modern, as though he meant this abstraction all along. The singing is fabulous. All three artists are at the top of their game and combine to make a truly memorable La Traviata. I have never loved this music so much. Suddenly I understand why people love this opera.

The context is modern, so the action is made plain. During Alfredo’s aria in the second act we are treated to a love romp where they kiss (at one point she kisses him on the navel) and play hide and seek. Little is left to the imagination. The father actually hits his son for being such a fool. In his anger Alfredo brutalizes Violetta.

Still I have explained nothing. The emotion of the action is reflected in her face. If she is happy, we are happy. If she is angry, we are angry. If she is in love, we are in love, too. If she is afraid of death, so are we. If she is feeling the moment of ecstasy just before death, we are ecstatic. We have felt every emotion as deeply as we can feel it.

She asks father time for more, and he refuses her. Instead he gives her a camellia. Rolando is very good, but Anna is wonderful, the diva of our time. Who would have thought this possible? My god. It’s too much.

Thank you, universe, for bringing this to me. Opera. Nothing beats it. Nothing even comes close. Film everything she does. Work out the details later.

I even like Hampson, and I never like Hampson. I can’t keep back the tears. She is a miracle.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Forgive me. I got carried away.

This purports to be a review of the dvd of La Traviata from Salzburg.

She asks father time for more, and he refuses her. Instead he gives her a camellia. Rolando is very good, but Anna is wonderful, the diva of our time. Who would have thought this possible? My god. It’s too much.

Thank you, universe, for bringing this to me. Opera. Nothing beats it. Nothing even comes close. Film everything she does. Work out the details later.

I even like Hampson, and I never like Hampson. I can’t keep back the tears. She is a fucking miracle.

So how does Elisabeth stack up?

So how does Elisabeth stack up? I have put on my player:

Leontyne Price sings Mozart (recorded 1965-77) various.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Leontyne Price, but the sheer size of her voice leaves one with the feeling of struggle. Elisabeth is right: she stays in the style of Mozart and does not wander off into Verdi or Puccini, but she is struggling to get the large ship of her voice into the tiny bottle of Mozart style. Her “Ch’io mi scordi di te,” K. 505, is the most operatic of the group and the best performance for Leontyne. It gives scope to the enormous size of all her interpretations.

Kiri Te Kanawa Mozart Arias (recorded 1981-93) Gyorgy Fischer.

The sense of struggle stops when we come to Kiri, a singer who is just right for Mozart, both vocally and musically. Kiri is food and drink. She doesn’t sing “Ch’io mi scordi di te,” K. 505.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Mozart Opera Arias (recorded 1946-52) von Karajan, Krips, Pritchard, Braithwaite.

I have always enjoyed Elisabeth’s Mozart. This recording is very early in her post war career. Her “Martern aller Arten” is especially impressive, and her performances of the Countess Almaviva’s arias are considered definitive.

Mozart Lieder, Koncertarien Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Walter Gieseking etc. (recorded 1955-1968).

Her “Ch’io mi scordi di te,” K. 505, is from 1968. At 52 she had already learned to cover her tone, but it’s still recognizably her. She answers the question, “If Elisabeth Schwarzkopf were a mezzo, what would she sound like?” She can still skip through the fast notes, and she still has the best glissando going, graceful and beautiful. She knows how, and she knows when.

Kathleen Battle Mozart Arias (recorded 1986) Andre Previn.

Kathleen Battle is the most personal interpreter of Mozart of this bunch. She is the most herself, the most poetic and ethereal. I miss her. Her “Ch’io mi scordi di te” is a different aria, one with a violin obbligato instead of the piano in K.505.

Cecilia Bartoli Mozart Arias (recorded 1991) Gyorgy Fischer.

Cecilia was 25 when she recorded this album. At that age she was mature and less idiosyncratic than she became later. I think this is the Cecilia Bartoli I prefer. Her “Ch’io mi scordi di te,” K. 505, is gorgeous, just the right amount of light and heavy.

The star of all these albums is Mozart. “Ch’io mi scordi di te,” K. 505, is called the greatest of all concert arias. They kicked out Renée Fleming in Vienna because she said she couldn’t sing it, and they wouldn’t do without. Listening to these singers perform it, it shines brighter with repetition. Why is it that one never tires of Mozart? We need all of these singers and more to fill our Mozart requirement.

I would have to investigate further to see if Elisabeth sets the style for those who came later. Perhaps she shines more backward than forward.

Footnote. Many of these recordings are now hard to find. I'm showing the ones I could find.
Footnote 2. 2012 I found a lot more than before.

Betrothal in a Monastery

I find this completely charming.

Young people are in love, as they inevitably are, and papa is standing in the way. He wants his beautiful daughter to marry his old rich fish merchant friend. He seems to think of her as a financial investment.

Daughter Louisa and her duenna find a solution in deception. The proposed bridegroom has never met Louisa, and the duenna proposes that if Louisa does not want him, she will marry him and his ducats herself. She likes beards, and she likes money.

They all find a monastery full of drunken monks who will happily marry all three couples--Louisa and her beau, Louisa's brother and his love, and the fish merchant and duenna. Everyone lives happily ever after.

We have purchased this dvd of Prokofiev's Betrothal in a Monastery from the Kirov Opera with Valery Gergiev because Louisa is sung by Anna Netrebko, our current fascination. All of the comic singing actors are delightful, especially the duenna and her fish monger, but it is Anna we love. The role does not really show off her voice--composers in the twentieth-century don't seem to understand how to do this--but her singing and acting are utterly charming. There is simply not enough Anna to go around.

Monday, July 10, 2006


The July issue of Opera News is devoted to Mozart, and Charles Scribner III has made the pilgrimage to Switzerland to interview the 90 year old Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, one of the twentieth century's greatest interpreters of the divine Mozart.

She is especially lavish in her praise of Leontyne Price's work, especially her Donna Anna. I vaguely recall seeing this on television in the days long ago when opera was broadcast live.

She says some interesting things. "Why do you want to write about music when you can make it?" Indeed. I often wonder about this myself, but since my voice is kaput and I can't really play the piano, all that's left is conducting and voice teaching, two of the many subjects I studied at Indiana.

She also says, "Everything you need to know about living life is in Der Rosenkavalier." Halten und nehmen, halten und lassen.

Twentieth century opera

The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-century Opera begins with a chronological list of operas from 1900 to 2000. It's much longer than my list which really only covers about 30 years. In fact for every opera we know there are ten we've never heard of.

New works are commissioned, mounted, advertised, reviewed and forgotten year after year. It reminds me of my forgotten Italian composers list, but the Baroque Italians expected to provide new music each season and never to look back. Our expectations are a bit different. Each new opera is expected to be a masterpiece.

The companion book treats all these forgotten operas as though they had indeed been masterpieces, giving as much space to Malipiero as it gives to Poulenc. The last few chapters try to assess the future of opera and provide some interesting insights. If you're very, very studious, you might enjoy it.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (March 1, 1954 – July 3, 2006)

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson who recently cancelled all her engagements has died. She was at the peak of her career.