Thursday, September 28, 2006

Beverly Hills

I am definitely not posh enough for the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. I think the people helping with my bags are trying to steal them, and I keep trying to find the neighborhood McDonalds so I can have a breakfast I can afford.

It is fun having your room cleaned twice a day. It's fun being chauffeur driven to the LA County Museum of Art, too. They have a fabulous exhibition of fashion garments called "Breaking the Mode." There is a reversible jacket by Jean Paul Gaultier where instead both sides looking like the outside, both sides look like the inside. Another outfit is called "Body becomes dress, dress becomes body" with padding resembling body parts inserted in the wrong places by Rei Kawakubo. It's enormous fun. Who knew fashion was this entertaining? I was ready to start sewing again so I could make the dress with zippers going everywhere.

At the cocktail party for the Great Performances Tour we met a very nice lady named Dolores who used to teach singing. We discussed the absurdity of laryngoscopes and sonograms, what passes for voice teaching these days. We talked about methods good and bad, and gossiped about Eileen Farrell, a woman of astounding technique who was not able to explain it to others.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Gorilla in the Corner

The 900 pound gorilla in the corner of classical music is, of course, Wagner. It isn't his musical influence, which was enormous, that we're worrying about, but his recasting of opera into something that must be "significant." For him it was a tool for German nationalism, a concept that Wagner virtually invented. Prior to Wagner composers were content to be popular, but afterward they were required to be important as well.

Romantic style passed away, but the belief in significance is still very much with us. The problem is that composers are unable to distinguish between significant and pompous, or even more likely, between significant and boring, or even between significant and incomprehensible.

Alfano, perhaps the logical heir of Puccini, growing up in the midst of verismo, felt compelled to study in Germany instead of being content to be Italian. Dallapiccola imitated the distinctly German Second Viennese School and wrote twelve-tone music. No one came to carry on the purely Italian tradition.

Opera died because Italian music died, subsumed in the rage for things German, and no one has come to replace it.

Re: Marilyn Horne

I cannot think that I have ever read a more interesting book on classical music than Divas and Scholars. Based on my training, I have always assumed that Rossini was simply the end of the Neapolitan school of opera which began with Alesandro Scarlatti, and while it is true that he is deeply steeped in the Neapolitan tradition, dramatically and structurally he leads the transition to Romantic Italian opera. The material on Rossini alone is deeply fascinating.

Accompanying the scholars on their quest, matching them at every turn with performances of astounding quality, in fact leading the charge to Rossini revival is the one and only Marilyn Horne. I kneel.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


We have a new candidate for sexiest in drag: Vivica Genaux.


Les Huguenots

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Repertory / Stagione

Philip Gossett in Divas and Scholars discusses so many subjects that one can free associate to ones heart's content, always a desirable thing to me. He discusses the two different ways of presenting operas: the stagione (I think this translates to seasons) system where rehearsal and performance blocks alternate throughout an opera season and the repertory system where many works can be in performing status at the same time.

The Ulmer Theater was a repertory house which rotated performances of operas, operettas, ballets and plays. It was not necessary to have a separate ballet company for the opera ballets. To present My Fair Lady staff from the opera chorus, ballet and theater company were used. It is a very efficient system from an economical perspective because something can play on the main stage every night of the year except Christmas and the long vacation.

It requires that the theater have plenty of extra rehearsal space away from the main stage. The new theater in Ulm had many spaces for administrative staff, ballet, chorus, properties, costumes and a full sized rehearsal stage tucked away in obscure corners of the not particularly large building.

In Houston, Baltimore, Chicago and other US cities the stagione system is used. Rome is stagione. A cast is hired and rehearsed, and then a series of performances is presented. When they have finished, another opera goes into rehearsal, and so forth. If the company has no rehearsal space, this is almost required.

The Metropolitan has the ultimate repertory system with up to 10 or more operas in performance in a single month. The San Francisco Opera has always been repertory, though not more than about 3 operas are in rotation at once. In the old days rehearsals took place in drafty warehouses around town. Complaints were met with the response, "If it's good enough for Montserrat Caballe, it's good enough for you." Since the construction of Davies Hall, a beautiful rehearsal stage exactly duplicating the dimensions of the main stage of the opera house exists right across the street.

If your company is presenting Tristan und Isolde, the performers are like baseball pitchers who can only be used once every three or four days. If you are in stagione, the performance block will have to have a lot of empty days. In repertory these days are simply filled with other operas. There are degrees of repertory. The New York City Opera will keep two operas in rotation.

Gossett is worrying about the subject of performing editions. There are often many potential versions--all authentic, legitimate versions--one might choose when performing an opera, especially an Italian opera from the nineteenth century. His attitude is to encourage this, and he believes that the stagione system works best for a situation where a non-standard version is to be presented.

I am finding this all fascinating. It makes me think I should inquire about the version that will be used to present The Siege of Corinth in English next month in Baltimore.

My own feeling is that the amount of available rehearsal time is the crucial issue. If a work is presented over the course of a long season, with the changing casts this often involves, then the use of non-standard versions becomes less and less likely. Large blocks of rehearsal time for secondary casts is unlikely.

In the German theater system most singers are contracted to a single house, but there exists also a short list of singers who are available at a moment's notice to come in and perform an opera to fill in for a sick singer. These people are not understudies, but are independent contractors. This is a fascinating experience. Usually the cast assembles an hour earlier than the normal time, meets the new substitute and walks quickly through the blocking. Tempos are briefly discussed. This is the ideal situation; there may be even less time than this. Then the singers don their costumes and the performance begins. However, I do recall once looking down into the pit after my entrance and seeing a complete stranger conducting. "Und wer bist denn du?"

Obviously, this system does not allow for the concept of alternate versions. To slip someone onto the stage on less than a day's notice, they need to already be familiar with the score.

When Rossini and Verdi were composing, it was assumed that there were many possibilities. Many operas were rewritten to take advantage of the talents of mezzo-sopranos Maria Malibran and her sister Pauline Viardot, for instance. The composer saw his own success and the success of the singers as identical. As a result, many alternate versions of verious levels of quality exist for these operas.

The main barrier to Gossett's vision seems to be money. Operas are performed in the original language to allow performers rehearsed elsewhere to assume the roles, because rehearsals are expensive. To perform alternate versions singers will need to unlearn and relearn roles already in their repertoire. Using alternate performing editions is an expensive but interesting idea.

Friday, September 22, 2006


On the way to Arizona I picked up a copy of Smithsonian. There is an article on the woman pharoah Hatshepsut. There is also a review of a new biography of Lorenzo da Ponte called The Libretist of Venice. I'll have to look it over.

My travelling list this time includes only Helen Mirren's Elizabeth I and Anna's La Traviata.

I just blog for fun. I wanted to see if it was possible to write about classical music without being so pompous assed about it. I think opera is the supreme entertainment medium, that if you aren't into opera, you are simply missing out on the peak experience. Now that there are surtitles, it's all a piece of cake. I sometimes wonder, though, if the surtitles don't take away some of the mystique of opera.

I am only about half way through Divas and Scholars. I love reading this, but then I like to read books about string theory and black holes. It can't get too nerdy for me.

Everything I write isn't brilliant. I sometimes wish people would argue with me, but I haven't acquired enough significance for that. I write about my gut feelings. In my own behalf I would like to say that my gut feelings are generally right on. In my own humble opinion. I write first and check the facts later. My spelling is not good, but I don't completely miss very often. Biggest miss? Cappuccino. I don't actually know anything about this.

This is a blog and not journalism.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Professional critics are given materials to help them write their reviews. I know this because for a very brief time I was one. You also get a free seat in a nice part of the house, with excellent sight lines.

The professional critics writing about Semele all knew that it was done as Marilyn-Jack-Jackie and had time to notice that the people littering the stage were secret service agents. Now what could those people tell? Opera as celebrity gossip! We ordinary people had to figure it out ourselves. I'm old enough to recognize the scene from Seven Year Itch, though it took me a while to remember which movie it was. Sieglinde thought she might be Christina Aguilera.

The point is what the critics are writing may be one part opinion and one large part propaganda. I think the music has to make its point in the opera house or concert hall and not in the propaganda materials. I don't care how complicated your compositional methods are; I only care if it works when I hear it.

I attended Peter Sellars' lecture before Doctor Atomic where he enthusiastically raved over what a great opera it is and what a great production he had invented. I don't care if the opera sells when you're talking about it. I don't care if part of it came from John Donne. I only care if it plays while I'm watching it. Do the characters matter? Does the drama draw me in? Or is it all BS?

Monday, September 18, 2006


The tag team of Elizabeth Futral and Vivica Genaux from Semele are appearing at the Baltimore Opera in Rossini's The Siege of Corinth in October. Bruce Ford is also in the cast. Cool! This sounds really exciting!

See review of Semele here. Note comment about resisting pop influence in ornamentation. I wrote extensively about this last year and still find it interesting that pop is now more ornamented than classical, though in a completely different style.

Scholarship vs Tradition

Philip Gossett in his book Divas and Scholars talks quite a bit about the war between tradition and scholarship or the conflict between what we are used to hearing vs what the original sources say. He cites a lot of examples.

The Il Trovatore example is interesting. We will posit that Jean de Reszke or one of his imitators needed a high note to show off his pushed up chest high c, and the rest was history. So should every tenor be required to do a high c there in order to remain competitive, even though Verdi didn't write it? Important critics at important newspapers like La Stampa or the New York Times want to hear the opera exactly as they have already heard it.

If Richard Bonynge decides to spare his wife Joan Sutherland a death scene, perish the thought she should have to get down on the floor, and changes the ending to Semiramide to one where Arsace kills the bass Assur instead, should future producers be required to defend changing it back to the original plot? The film with Montserrat Caballe uses the original ending.

If Cecilia Bartoli decides to do different arias in Le Nozze di Figaro, even though she can fully justify the changes all the way back to Mozart himself, should we continue to make an endless fit over it, effectively driving a major artist out of New York?

When crunch time comes, decisions are made. There are two pieces to the argument: 1. What should the score contain? 2. What should the performance do? Controversy is the mothers milk of opera, as I have written elsewhere, and we should not be put off by it.

First question, what should the score contain? It is not possible to justify issuing printed scores and published materials that do not reflect the highest scholarship. If the composer wrote alternate versions, all should be included. Any other answer is nonsense.

Second question, what should the performance do? Opera is still show business. If you can make it work in the theater, you can do it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


9/11 in New York was pretty quiet. There were bouquets of flowers at all the fire stations and a parade of police cars.

Maria Sharapova's top three favorite cities are 3. Rome, 2. London, 1. New York. She's probably never been to San Francisco, but otherwise I completely agree. I am trying to figure out how I can afford to rotate living in these four places.

For D

It's actually the last act I can't get enough of.

Scene between Violetta, Annina and physician. Violetta reads the letter of Germont. Addio del passato -- "Farewell! past days of joy"
Such poinancy. Such simplicity of emotion. I want to hear it over and over.

Scene and duet, Violetta, Alfredo: Oh mia Violetta, oh joy -- "Oh, my Violetta, oh joy" and Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo -- "Paris, oh dear one, we will leave"
They both tear my heart. He talks of the future when there is no future. They are both so magically transparent and beautiful.

Aria, Violetta: Gran Dio! non posso -- "Great God, I cannot"
The staging is incongruous, the energy this dying woman exhibits, all are absurd, but I adore it nonetheless.

Finale, Germont, Violetta, Alfredo, with Violetta's death. "O gioia." I should be so lucky that these should be my dying words.


I have gone suddenly from never having attended an opera season opener--in San Francisco this is a very posh affair--to having been to two in one week: New York City Opera and Washington National Opera.

WNO opened with a double bill of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. It is interesting to note that these two operas both premiered in 1918. There was a concern for continuity--both operas used the same huge spiral metal staircase (where are you going to put it?), the same chandalier, the same fluttering birds and the same images of ghosts. When Buoso dies at the start of Schicchi, his soul is seen ascending in an image that very much resembled the representation of Bluebeard's wives. The last piece of continuity is Sam Ramey who sang the title characters in both operas. He still sounds good, though I am hearing a wobble which he skillfully hides.

The presentation of Bluebeard was excellent, dark and mysterious. Bartók's music no longer sounds shocking. Judith, sung and acted marvelously by Denyce Graves, is a young woman consumed by curiosity. She cannot resist the impulse to find out if the rumors about Bluebeard are true. Once she discovers that they are, he strangles her.

A single large door represented the seven doors. My favorite was when the garden was revealed and it was part of a Rousseau painting. There is a Rousseau painting that could have worked for the moonlit landscape as well. Too bad they didn't think of it.

It was the best Bluebeard I've seen but not the best Gianni Schicchi. It has one good aria and a happy ending.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1890-1910]

Friday, September 15, 2006

Il Trovatore

I was happily reading Divas and Scholars where he tells about the huge scandal at La Scala when Riccardo Muti insisted that the tenor, Salvatore Licitra, not take the interpolated and inauthentic high C at the end of "Di quella pira" in Verdi's Il Trovatore. Wait. Don't I have a Trovatore from House of Opera with Muti conducting and Licitra as Manrico? How interesting!

This is a pretty terrific Trovatore. Besides Muti and Licitra, the cast includes Leo Nucci as di Luna, Barbara Frittoli as Leonora and Violeta Urmana as Azucena. I bought this DVD to hear Licitra, and it's entirely possible that leaving out the high C is what allowed him to sing this role. For me this is a small sacrifice. This opera is treacherously difficult to cast. The whole opera is relentlessly intense, very heavy, and full of dramatic accentuations, but with virtually all of Bellini's coloratura left in. Caruso is supposed to have said, "All it takes to perform Il Trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world."

According to Divas and Scholars, Muti was attempting to recreate Trovatore as Verdi would have done it. If I had a score, I could follow along and see what has changed, but I did manage to notice the absence of anvils in the Anvil Chorus. Not much of anything happens on the off beats.

This is very fine Verdi indeed, something we never seemed to get in San Francisco. Scandal or no, Muti gets the most applause.

P.S. If I give such a high rating to a House of Opera DVD, it's for the musical content, not the quality of the copy. Please beware.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1850-70]

Conspiracy Theory

What of opera as conspiracy theory? How about a JFK assassination opera? Was Lee Harvey Oswald really a double agent for the CIA? Maybe John Adams should do an opera with this as the subject. It would have actual characters, unlike most of his stuff, though the story isn't about love.

Of course, the problem with a JFK assassination plot is that there are too many options. I might go for a murder by the CIA plot. My favorite has always been the murder by Castro theory. That would be very amusing.


I am still reeling from the realization that Semele was done up as Jackie vs Marilyn. Are we really ready for this? I apologize for the amount of factual corrections required for this review. Information trickles to the surface of my brain only gradually.

I am very much enjoying the book Divas and Scholars. The author specializes in the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, and this has made me wonder if possibly a little specialization might be nice. Since this is a blog and not a career, I could specialize for a while and then switch. Two specialties would be good: bel canto and modern, I think.

I will try to summarize in a future blog what he says about the significance of Marilyn Horne in the revival of the works of Rossini. Many of her most significant performances are available on House of Opera DVD.

I was pretty hard on the two divas in Semele, who were really quite marvelous in a very American way. Merola in San Francisco has been successful with turning out good American opera singers, but generally it is difficult to get the right sort of training for opera in America. Conductors and coaches take the written page much too seriously, preferring a literal interpretation that comes out sounding very square. The proper style for an opera singer is not the same as the proper style for the third stand violin player.

Each composer, even four as close in genre as Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, has his own style, his own appropriate way of phrasing that the singer must discover.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Semele by G.F. Handel is supposed to be an oratorio. In Italian it's opera--in English it's oratorio. So in the New York City Opera you see the stage set up like an oratorio. There is a big pipe organ in the center of the stage with pipes all around. "Oh no!" I thought, "they're not actually doing it like an oratorio. How boring!"

There were four music stands spread out across the stage with four chairs (but not four glasses of water. In England there seem always to be glasses of water set up under the chairs.) A man came out, sat down at the organ and pretended to play. I say pretend because the sound is the orchestra. The choir filed in, the soloists took their seats. It's an oratorio.

Then Jove started disapproving and the organ blew up and the choir headed for the wings. When Jove came for Semele, she made a brief appearance in Marilyn Monroe's outfit for Seven Year Itch and did the bit where her skirt blows up. Thank Jove! It isn't going to be an oratorio!

I am amazed to say that I liked Robert Breault, the tenor who sang Jove, best. There is something wonderful about the smooth lyricism of his expression, as if he were saying "Oh, by the way, where e'er you walk cool gales...." It was gorgeous.

Semele was Elizabeth Futral. I have seen her before, apparently, in Streetcar. She and Vivica Genaux are quite good singers and actresses and made for a very lively opera. Both can do the fiorature with ease. But.... I hate saying it, but they have sacrificed legato to diction. I am searching for a certain style of legato that I really only heard in Futral's "Oh sleep." Which was quite beautiful. Her "Myself I shall adore should I persist in gazing," sung while looking at her face on magazine covers, was hilarious and very well sung. Piu legato, per favore. Sempre legato. Those singers across the plaza are there because they understand the legato. That's the main difference between a great and a merely good singer.

Well, I certainly am a bitch. I loved this opera. I loved the Marilyn Monroe imitation, I loved the Juno as Jackie Kennedy in her pill box hat. I loved the Englishness of the music, the love of a good tune, and these were a few of Handel's best. I loved Semele's temper tantrum that expresses itself as intense coloratura.

Well, well. Juno is dressed to look like Jackie, and JFK was a notorious philanderer, so what if Jackie knew about all this messing around and tried to get revenge? And wasn't Marilyn, whom Semele is dressed to resemble, one of JFK's affairs? Curiouser and curiouser. In the last scene Jove and Juno appear together before the press with flash bulbs popping, and just as the curtain goes down, Jove is hitting on another blond.

They didn't have the Kathleen Battle/Marilyn Horne recording for sale in the lobby, a serious mistake, I think. It's definitely the version to own.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Preparing for Handel

In my youth Handel was the annual presentation of The Messiah, an aria called "Ombra mai fu" and very little else. Bach was the late Baroque composer of note.

Then when I returned from Europe and moved to San Francisco, I began to hear Handel operas at Donald Pippin's Pocket Opera, starring the incredible Stephanie Friedman. I am going to tell Stephanie's secret. She pretended not to study, was quite coy about the whole thing, saying her spectacular mezzo-soprano technique was simply a gift from God. In the meanwhile she flew to London and studied there each year. Looking back at it, this seems very silly. Technical training is not something to be ashamed of.

Handel was not my cup of tea. I always felt it lay badly in the voice, hung around the passaggio more than I cared for, and was not pleasant to sing. The tessitura for alto was simply not comfortable.

Now Handel is practically the main man. Even Cecilia is rapidly becoming a Handel specialist, though in soprano, not mezzo-soprano roles. I have bought a ticket to see her in Semele in January, so I am boning up to find out what this opera is about. I have bought the recording with Kathleen Battle and Marilyn Horne as Semele and Juno/Ino respectively. It is curious to me how often Cecilia and Kathleen sing the same repertoire.

And tonight I will see Semele presented by the New York City Opera. This is a coincidence. I came to New York to see Klimt and that is what is playing. There is a fun article in the Times this morning about Vivica Genaux who sings the Juno/Ino role, saying that she didn't like Handel until very recently either. Maybe he'll grow on me, too.


I went to Hairspray last night because tickets were available in Times Square. I didn't know it was about Baltimore in the sixties. Of course, it would be about the big hair days. I think enough hairspray was released during the performance to deplete the ozone layer.

The show is famous for having a role for a large drag queen. Things went hilariously awry in the second act when he appeared to be enjoying his part more than is strictly suitable for a man in a dress. They went out of character and people went crazy. His name is Blake Hammond.

This is where Diana DeGarmo is hiding, the runner up to Fantasia on American Idol. I would say from the evidence that she has found her niche. She played the heroine's best friend, a mousy girl with large glasses who stands funny, sings funny, can't dance and chews two packs a day of chewing gum. It is a character role, and she was marvelous. In the finale she transforms into a gorgeous but tiny woman with big hair of her own. She's very thin these days but can still belt it out.

Yes, it is too loud, but this was the era when music suddenly got very loud. I put my fingers in my ears when I am in too much pain.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Stemple method

I arrived early, I usually do, and sat in the lobby of the theater listening to the ticket seller and house manager talking about voice problems. They trashed surgery, citing Julie Andrews and Elton John as victims.

I explained that in the middle of my voice is a dead note. I can sing above it and below it, but not across it.

The house manager explained the Stemple method to me. With your lips almost closed, almost a hum, you sing one note very softly with a bit of buzz on your lips, and hold it as long as you can. Then you do it again. In a few weeks you will be good as new. I'll have to try it.

Jacques Brel

You will be pleased to hear that Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in New York. I heard there were Klimts to see for a brief time only, and off I went to the Big Apple. I had already booked before I realized I was going to NY on 9/11.

I arrived on a Monday so the pickings of shows were slim. I chose Jacques Brel..., only he's supposed to be living in Paris. Only he's dead. Since 1979. I was familiar only with the "Sons of" song, a song about children growing up and going off to war. "Sons of tycoons, sons from the farms, All of the children run from your arms." I don't know why I know this. If anyone has a clue, please tell me.

His songs are all very serious, full of ironic twists, and are about the human condition--that we are brief, fragile and unaware. He is the Sartre of song composers. I heard hints of Satie, Piaf and the soundtrack of Amelie. Very French.

The show is four singers in a set rather like a living room, with an accompanying three piece band of piano, bass and drums.

The most difficult part was sung by a standin, Jayne Paterson, who sang in French, English and Flemish. She was fabulous. Natascia Diaz was Timid Frieda who walks around between two suitcases. Most theatrical in his performance style was Robert Cuccioli--really more of an actor than a singer.

I liked it a lot--more than the over-amplified distortion of most shows.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Divas and Scholars

I bought a book called Divas and Scholars by Philip Gossett, which is about the relationship between opera performance and musicology. That is, after all, the purpose of musicology--to prepare authentic scores for performance. I am very much aware of this from following Cecilia's career all these years. She has an intimate relationship to musicology, has become a musicologist herself ultimately. Reading the book reminds me of how far I am from the life of a real musician.

He writes about her, about her performances at the Met, in particular La Cenerentola and Le Nozze di Figaro. He discusses the scandal of her changing the arias in Figaro, calling it no scandal, merely the disaffection of the stage director. The changes were changes done by Mozart in actual performances he was involved with, and not invented by Cecilia. Unlike them, she knew these performance changes existed and thought she would make a better impression in the other arias. This story still shows up in the newspaper as though it were something disgusting. What's disgusting is the fact that they keep carping about it. She was charming.

Divas and Scholars is a sprawling discussion of musicological issues in the performance of Italian opera, specifically Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. He casually tosses off information about where the autograph scores are and which ones are lost.

This is all fascinating stuff. He writes about the recovered scores for Verdi's Stiffelo and Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reimes, among others.

His treatment of the original instruments issue is excellent. Sometimes the footnotes are more interesting than the text. I know I have been carping about natural French horns, especially when played by La Scintilla. Valved horns were first used in Halevy's La Juive in 1835, which puts Weber's Der Freischuetz, 1821, clearly in the natural horn category. A natural horn player must make all the transitions from note to note with his lips, and when there is no overtone for the composed note, or even more important, when the required overtone is out of tune, as is frequently the case, the natural horn player must stop the note with his hands to get the right note to play. Stopping is done by pushing the hand that is in the bell of the horn even further in, changing the pitch and also the color of the note. The use of natural horns in the Zurich Der Freischuetz changed the hunting horn melodies to the point that they were unrecognizable. The valved horn player just pushes a key, and uses his hand only for color or muting.

My son the horn player could probably fill me in on this, but for me the reasons for using natural horns instead of valved horns is pretty iffy. The valves achieve equal temperment painlessly, which means the use of natural horns is just to avoid equal temperment. I personally like equal temperment just fine, which leaves me wondering what use a natural horn is. I dont have to explain this, do I? Equal temperment means all the semitones are exactly the same size, a situation achieved by slightly modifying the exact pitch of every note in the scale. Pianos are tuned to equal temperment, violins are not.

Modern horns, trumpets, flutes, clarinets, etc. all tuned in equal temperment are what make possible the constant modulation in the orchestra made popular by Wagner. Getting these distorted pitches of equal temperment requires a lot of extra keys on the woodwinds, but for brasses the three valves are sufficient. Older woodwinds were simpler, warmer, but good only for keys close to the key they are tuned to. The arguement for the use of older woodwinds is a better one than the arguement for horns, in my opinion.

Berlioz' book on orchestration is fun to read, and he cites it here and there. In fact, anything by Berlioz is fun to read. Berlioz was a fabulous writer. He writes fondly about the serpent, a pecular looking instrument that twisted high in the air. It looked and worked like a woodwind but had a brass mouthpiece.

As usual, I digress. Gossett points out that standardization of instrumentation in an orchestra is relatively recent, and certainly didn't extend back as far as Rossini. Every town potentially had its own set of instruments which the score had to be adapted to suit. His point is that the published score should show the original notes, however strange they might be, and let the modern interpreter make whatever changes are needed to fit modern instruments. There is some fun discussion of possible tunings for the string bass.

If this bores you to tears, you would not enjoy Gossett's book, though there are some cute anecdotes. He tells how he crashed into a complete Ring cycle in Bayreuth in 1960 and saw Nilsson for nothing.

It is interesting to read how the published score often differs from the autograph. The current trend is to go back to the original. I know this is the case with composers who were completely recomposed, specifically Mussorgsky and Janáček whose works are now presented in much more authentic versions. He is making a different point. Publishers often assumed a godlike authority, and made the music what they thought it should be. He wants to undo all that.

For me it's very interesting. Perhaps you would like it, too.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

New World

It seemed like a big change to hear that David Gockley set up a screen in the Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco and 8000 people came to see free live opera.

Now Peter Gelb, the new manager at the Metropolitan, has made this all seem small potatoes. Gockley only needed to string cables across the street some way, but Gelb is proposing an entire network of movie theaters around the country to show operas at the same time they are playing on the stage in New York. Propriatary internet networking is probably the mechanism. Companies don't own actual network hardware any more, but have developed methods to transfer private data over the standard public internet. It's faster and cheaper.

Gockley's idea didn't require permission from the unions because the 8000 people didn't pay to sit on the grass. For the first time ever the musicians union has decided to forego up front fees and collect based on ticket sales. This was the crucial bit that made this idea possible.

That means these six operas will be filmed. This is an exciting change. Let's hope the ticket prices in the movie theaters are cheaper than real opera tickets.

The vast library of audio broadcast performances from the Metropolitan is also being made available for streaming over the internet. This is all mind-boggling. The new electronic world has come to opera.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Porgy and Bess

My local library has a copy of the 1993 film of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, based on the Glyndebourne production, the same cast as the CD recommended by Anthony Tommasini. Why buy a CD when you can see this marvelous film?

The casting is outstanding. Only two of the voices are dubbed: Harolyn Blackwell as Clara and Bruce Hubbard as Jake, characters who sing the important arias "Summertime," that most beautiful of lullabies sung very sweetly here, and "A woman is a sometime thing," also sung to Clara's baby boy. The other parts are played by the singers, and all appear exactly as you would wish. Damon Evans is a wonderfully slimy Sportin Life. Cynthia Clarey as Serena sings the marvelously operatic "My man gone now." Crown played by Gregg Baker is appropriately sexually powerful and irresistable. Cyntha Haymon's Bess is beautiful enough to be fought over and sings very lyrically.

But this is Willard White's Porgy and Bess. Why call it anything else? His Porgy is monumental. He stands with the use of canes, making him powerful and anything but pathetic. Willard White is one of the great contemporary operatic baritones, with a beautiful voice and deep musical understanding. His performance changed my feeling about the opera completely. I liked a strong Porgy.

The details of this production are awesome: the woman smoking a corn cob pipe, everyone dressing up for the church picnic, e.g. The sense of faithful realism that pervades this film is rare in any medium, unheard of in opera.

Porgy and Bess is the iconic American opera, entirely unlike anything before or since, with the most American of stories and the most American music. In the triumvirate of theater--singing--music it is outstanding in all three. How did a pop composer like Gershwin write so well for operatic voices? P&B is a true opera.

Perhaps it took the English theater to make this opera really work. I've never seen it so well done as here. It is simply beautiful.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


This should come as no surprise, but productions from Paris seem to focus on sex. That's fine for Alcina with Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Natalie Dessay, since that's what Alcina is about--sex, not love. Men enchanted in various stages of undress seems quite sensible as well as entertaining. Incidentally, the cast of the House of Opera nude man Alcina is the same as the CD recommended in the New York Times Essential Library--Opera book. The singing on the video is excellent.

This DVD of Dvorak's Rusalka is also from Paris, and recasts the fairy tale into sexual terms. Instead of nude men, we have beds in every scene. As a water sprite Rusalka, it seems, doesn't long for the Prince so much as his bedroom, seen perched at the top of the set.

When the rival appears, the Prince alternates between two identical bedrooms. The story isn't very attractive when told this way. It effectively showcases Renée Fleming in her favorite role.

Movie musicals

AFI top 25 movie musicals:

1 SINGIN' IN THE RAIN 1952 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Kelly, Reynolds) *
2 WEST SIDE STORY 1961 United Artists *
3 WIZARD OF OZ, THE 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Garland) *
4 SOUND OF MUSIC, THE 1965 Twentieth Century-Fox (Andrews) *
5 CABARET 1972 Allied Artists (Minnelli, Grey) *
6 MARY POPPINS 1964 Disney (Andrews, van Dyke) *
7 STAR IS BORN, A 1954 Warner Bros. (Garland) *
8 MY FAIR LADY 1964 Warner Bros. (Hepburn, Harrison) *
9 AMERICAN IN PARIS, AN 1951 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Kelly, Caron) *
10 MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS 1944 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Garland) *
11 KING AND I, THE 1956 Twentieth Century-Fox (Brynner, Kerr) *
12 CHICAGO 2002 Miramax (Zellweger, Zeta-Jones) *
13 42ND STREET 1933 Warner Bros. (Baxter, Daniels) *
14 ALL THAT JAZZ 1979 Twentieth Century-Fox, Columbia (Schneider) *
15 TOP HAT 1935 RKO (Astaire, Rogers) *
16 FUNNY GIRL 1968 Columbia (Streisand, Sharif) *
17 BAND WAGON, THE 1953 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Astaire, Charisse)
18 YANKEE DOODLE DANDY 1942 Warner Bros. (Cagney) *
19 ON THE TOWN 1949 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Kelly, Sinatra)
20 GREASE 1978 Paramount (Travlota, Newton-John)
21 SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS 1954 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Powell, Keel) *
22 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST 1991 Disney (cartoon)
23 GUYS AND DOLLS 1955 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Brando, Simmons) *
24 SHOW BOAT 1936 Universal (Dunne) *
25 MOULIN ROUGE! 2001 Twentieth Century Fox (Kidman, McGregor) *

Marni Nixon must be proud! She is in numbers 2, 8 and 11. Judy Garland appeared in 3, 7 and 10. There's a bit too much Gene Kelly for me (1, 9, 19) and not enough Fred Astaire (15 and 17). Julie Andrews is in 4 and 6.  Howard Keel is in 24 and 21.  Ginger Rogers is in 15 and 13.

Chicago is a little high on the list for me. Rent is missing, as are Oklahoma, Carousel, Hello Dolly and South Pacific. Moulin Rouge? Give me a break.


From the Philadelphia Enquirer:

Q: If sets don't reflect settings, how do we know where we are?

A: Listen to the music. Ultra-realistic Franco Zeffirelli productions made the music dispensable. Now that the productions don't explain the opera, the composer does. Again.

DrB: That was what I liked best about the Salzburg Traviata DVD--the clarity and abstraction of the production brought the music into sharp focus for me. I loved the music of Verdi's La Traviata as I had not done before.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


She isn’t at all the sort of dark voice that would usually attract me. She is the violin and not the cello. She is the flute and not the French horn. She was nice looking without being beautiful, a good but certainly not great actress. Why her?

She is simply music. Of all the singers on record she is perhaps the most truly musical, the most deeply immersed in each composition she sings. She plays her voice like a great violinist, with nothing in the elegant way she uses her beautiful voice that would interrupt the flow of the phrase. In any language she is first herself, her glorious musical self, with the perfect emotion, the perfect musical expression for each piece. She is truly the fabulous Victoria de los Angeles.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Essential Library of Opera

I bought a new book: The New York Times Essential Library, Opera by Anthony Tommasini, 2004. This book is an excellent introduction to opera, and consists of his own selection of 100 operas with recommendations for best recordings.

It is a personal selection that omits Gounod’s Faust, Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Massanet’s Manon, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and Wagner’s Lohengrin, all operas in my A list. He is trying for something broader, a more inclusive idea of what makes opera than a list based on popularity alone.

The oddest inclusion for me is Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust. I promise you, no list of mine will include this opera. He isn’t even particularly flattering about the work, calling it “jumbled” and says, “So freely did he borrow music from earlier compositions that you could say that the score to Doktor Faust was assembled as much as it was composed.” So why put it in a selection of 100 operas and leave out Barber’s Vanessa, for instance? He recommends Kent Nagano’s recording, the one I own. For me it was money wasted.

Judith Weir’s A Night at the Chinese Opera is included, a charming work I saw in London. So is my beloved Messaien’s Saint Francis, also in a recommended recording by Kent Nagano. I've seen him conduct this with the Berkeley Symphony, and it was excellent.

A small number of singers come with photographs.

Placido Domingo is on the cover and with Andrea Chénier.

Marilyn Horne is in the front in her costume for Semiramide. He calls her "miraculous" in this opera, a view in which I heartily concur.

Joan Sutherland is costumed for I Puritani.

He shows Jon Vickers dressed for Les Troyens, a recording he recommends.

There is a beautiful picture of Peter Pears, recommended for everything by Benjamin Britten and especially for Death in Venice.

Luciano Pavarotti for his beloved L’elisir d’amore.

A young Mirella Freni is shown with Romeo and Juliet.

Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Tebaldi are both pictured. These two recorded often together and are favorites of Tommasini, recommended for La Boheme and Madama Butterfly.

Callas is dressed for Tosca.

Leontyne Price is costumed for Aida, and there are wonderful anecdotes describing her relationship with the role.

There is a wonderful photo of Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde.
Kirsten Flagstad is not shown in a photograph, but her Isolde is remembered.

He likes Cecilia’s Cenerentola. So do I. I can’t think of an opera I have listened to more than this one. The operas from the Grammaphone 100 greatest recordings list are all here. He does not trash consensus, even going so far as to recommend all three of Maria Callas’ Norma recordings.

His ideas are closer to us than the traditional volumes of opera plots. I think it’s worth buying and reading. Compared to the Rough Guide to Opera it's pretty light weight, maybe even trivial.

P.S. I continue to prefer to view and recommend DVD’s of operas rather than recordings. Selections of great recordings of standard repertoire generally feature artists now dead, while the vast majority of opera DVD’s are still relatively recent and feature artists you might hope to actually see in performance. Opera is theater and should be experienced that way. That said, many of these recommended recordings are so beautiful, so beyond the ordinary range of contemporary performance that they really should not be missed.