Friday, November 30, 2007


I was in Barnes & Noble looking at the awards issue of Gramophone magazine and decided to look for Jonas Kaufmann's award, best vocal, or something like that. I found it along with a short interview on singing Strauss Lieder. Nice. But who is that picture next to the award? I thought maybe I was suddenly becoming senile. Are they trying to hide the fact that Jonas is the cutest thing in classical music by putting in someone else's picture? This is a serious magazine, I guess, so the pictures have to be serious. The interview sounds genuine.

Our boy looks like this.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


My interest in music, my Urmotif, was in making it, in taking rows of dots and turning them into expression. My quest didn't start young enough to be as effective as necessary in the highly competitive world of classical music, but this is still my personal bias. I had no inclinations to musicology, and my brain does not easily accumulate trivia.

This interest widened into vocal technique and acting. I learned about music history because I was required to. I read Constantin Stanislavsky and William Vennard for fun.

I also studied choral conducting and tried to apply this to chorus. This is the conductor's main job, but you'd be amazed by how many don't realize this. I scored a lot of points in my final by pointing out that in the repeating two note figure in a Bach cantata the first note should always be emphasized.

My interest in the Italian singer comes from this bias. [If I put her name here, it will go out as a Google Alert.] No one makes more of a piece of music, apparently any piece of music, than she. I know from my own work that I could do this in certain repertoire but not others. She knows this about herself, too. I was especially interested in her expressive treatment of coloratura, something I would never have imagined on my own.

It is hard to write about this subject. Making music is very specific. I'm sure that Charles Rosen uses all the analytic information he writes about to create his own performances. These are the bits that make up interpretation. I remember finding the tension in the four note rising figure of the second song in the Kindertotenlieder, and how this discovery made for the most successful interpretation in the cycle.

Each performer must find each piece himself. Though Pavarotti listened to other Italian tenors. He was very particular about who he listened to. As a child, the Italian woman played among the stones at the Baths of Caracalla while the rehearsals were going on. Nothing done later in life can make up for this.

Twenty-five years away from the business have meant a certain amount of dropping away of information. The things I truly loved remain.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Baroque texture

Note from J.Vaughan.

"Yet, if I am not mistaken, he uses an organ as harmonizing instrument [in Handel] for some of that recital disc, something for which, as I mentioned last time, I do not care."

This leads me to want to talk about Baroque texture. The point of departure for the Baroque is supposed to be the trio sonata. The texture consisted of a bass line to support the harmonies and two equal treble voices. These three voices were emphasized and composed according to the rules of counterpoint. This texture left a hole in the middle and might well result in empty chords every now and then, especially at the cadences. So a harpsichord filled in the harmonies based on the composed bass line and numbers appearing below the notes called a figured bass. Nowadays these parts are often composed (the composed notes are printed smaller), but in those days the harpsichordist extemporized, and the resulting part probably varied a lot according to the skill of the player. The revival of antique practice that occurred in the second half of the twentieth century probably means a return to extemporization.

The sound coming from the harpsichord drops off sharply immediately after the string is plucked. The harpsichord part in the trio sonata texture doesn't rise to the level of an actual voice, so it is possible to see how this balance might be affected if the part were played on an organ. The notes would sustain like the real voices and might come to rival them, changing and thickening the texture.

I am assuming that the quoted sentence refers to the organ used as the instrument for realizing the continuo [as the process of filling in the notes above the bass is called], something he doesn't say. I've seen this. Usually a portatif is used--a portable organ about the size of a large upright piano. It is difficult to picture a portatif in an opera orchestra pit. It would stick up and block the view. Theodora, the work in question, is an oratorio where realization with a portatif is frequently seen. No one cares if it sticks up.

The ideal texture of the classical era fills in the middle voices with composed parts, except in secco recitative which continues on as before. Mozart's arrangement for Messiah provides a full classical texture in the orchestra with extensive parts for French horn, both replacing the clarino trumpet and in the style of classical French horn parts. A natural horn player could still play high fast notes. The sound ideal had changed. A classical trio includes a piano, cello and violin. The keyboard is an equal voice.

Professor Gossett points out that the figured bass continued on into his era (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi) where it was realized on a piano. After a period, it would have become difficult to find a harpsichord. When I was a young person, the harpsichord was just beginning its comeback.

I don't think I have such strong opinions about it one way or the other. Handel was an organist.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Turandot ending

My friend Jean keeps a tape in her VCR so she can jump up and tape something interesting on the ARTS channel. There's some pretty interesting stuff on these tapes, including two films of Rodolph Nureyev in his prime. He is simply amazing.

Irmgard Seefried and Christa Ludwig both sing "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen."

So here on Jean's tape is a film of the new ending to Turandot composed by Luciano Berio. I ranted about this here without having heard it. It still includes the chorus honoring the emperor but in a more fragmented form.

I'm trying to evaluate this without thinking about focusing on the visuals, a difficult feat in this case. The production is drab in the extreme, when this scene is usually staged elaborately. Liu's body is seen lying on a gurney. The phrase "his name is love" in the new version sounds mysteriously like it's composed by Berio rather than Puccini. That is the main problem with the entire section--it alternately sounds like Puccini and Berio. Familiar melodies from other parts of the opera appear and disappear into a more modern context.

The opera clashes and wimps to its end, in startling contrast to the pomp and glory of the Alfano version. I guess I'm biased. I love the other version and always cry when she sings "Suo nome e amore." For me that is the test for a good ending to Turandot--does it make you cry?

This is on YouTube so you can judge for yourself.


This is a quote from Lang Lang.

"It's important for me to work with singers," he says. "The problem with the piano is that it's easy to forget that you have to breathe in and out. Your hands don't need to breathe. When you play with singers, they show you how to create the phrase."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I have heard a bit of Sprechstimme by now--that's Schoenberg's invention of speaking set to music. I think if memory serves that it first appears in Gurrelieder (1901/11 [I think written around 1901 and orchestrated closer to 1911--He's supposed to have forgotten how to orchestrate in Mahler's style by then and had to revive a long abandoned technique.]), the orchestrated song cycle that Schoenberg wrote while he was still in his Mahler phase. In the performance of Gurrelieder I heard at the San Francisco Symphony Hans Hotter performed the Sprechstimme. His was very speech-like.

Sprechstimme is notated like normal vocal music, except where the note heads would normally appear are X's. This leaves the performer with a wide range of options, extending from normal speech set to music, sometimes called melodrama, to something that sounds a lot like singing. Hotter was like a magnificent old actor. His motivation in performing the part seemed rather like mine--voice is shot, but I can still do Sprechstimme. He was the best I've heard.

The main later examples are Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and Moses und Aron (1930/32). My theory is that Schoenberg was as bored by Moses as we are listening to it, and this is why it was never finished. He turned out to be not as high minded as he thought he was. According to this article in Wikipedia there is Sprechstimme in Wozzeck and Lulu. So I missed that as a texture.

I think Pierrot Lunaire is the only one that is regularly performed by sopranos who seem to want to sing. The Christine Schaefer Pierrot Lunaire quite often sounds like out of tune singing. Deliberately out of tune--it's clear this isn't an accident. I would be curious to hear a female perform this in a more talky style. Maybe they are trying too hard to come close to the notated pitches. I think only the general contour is required.


I have decided this article would be far better with a few examples.  First we have Hans Hotter's wonderful example from Gurrelieder.

Here is a very nice clip from Moses und Aron.  One sings, the other doesn't.  The two brothers alternate, thus giving a very clear idea of the difference between Sprechstimme and singing.

I openly admit to a mania for this film of Pierrot Lunaire with Christine Schaefer.

Anyway, that should give you the idea.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


I have new toys: an iPod and a digital camera. So I can wander around photographing and listening to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sing "As with rosy steps of morning" at the same time, producing a puzzling spiritual experience. This tiny camera will make up to 30 minutes of film. I should try to do a pirate film somewhere so I can upload it to YouTube.

I am getting reacquainted with my CD collection, and there is some interesting stuff in here. Lorraine is constantly connecting to the other side, telling us that she will soon leave us. "Deep River," "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen." She speaks to me.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Maybe I'll become a fanzine for Jonas Kaufmann. There isn't a lot of him on YouTube, but the wave of opinion is that he's as fabulous as I think he is. Someone else also said they think he sounds most like Vickers, but I'm already feeling he sounds like himself. I can't actually think when I have heard a more beautiful tenor voice. More, please. I agree with the comments that say weight is gradually coming into his voice, rather than that he is forcing it to be heavier. His production seems very natural to me.

He's also adorable. Sigh.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Lynn Job

I was introduced today to the work of Lynn Job, a composer who uses electronic media in an unusual way. I wondered if she is a follower of Tan Dun, but her unusual sounds are recordings rather than live performances. Here is information about her.

I was attending a morning club meeting when one of the members performed Job's Serengeti Supper for alto saxophone and sound track. Among other sounds were lions roaring, bird calls, water flowing, native singers, percussion, string orchestra, etc. and a live alto saxophonist. I can't help wondering if this is the wave of the future and asked the performer. He says yes. The composer works somewhere in Texas. It was fun and did not involve any forms from the classical period.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Berg's operas are composed on classical forms as though they were Mozart. Mozart, of course, would not have composed sections of his operas on the sonata form or any other forms besides those of Neapolitan opera, Singspiel, or those of his own invention. If you are into this sort of thing, you can buy the score and analyze away. It's like doing sudoku--completely irrelevant to any practical use. It helped him decide what to do, and in a style as conceptual as serialism any help you can find is good.

Sometimes the program for Wozzeck will list the forms being played rather than the scenes. You can analyze aurally that way.

The music that results from this abstraction seems to fit the content which is not at all abstract. Lulu is fascinating rather than precisely attractive. Compare her to Manon: Manon is enjoying herself, but can the same be said of Lulu?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Christine Schaefer

I have a relationship to Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. I decided years ago in my synthesizer phase that if my voice was gone I could still do Sprechstimme. I would record midi files of the songs and perform them to my own accompaniment. I got pretty far along with this project and thought they sounded good. I couldn't get the waltz to sound like a waltz, but I notice they don't either. This project was fun. Pierrot Lunaire sounded good on synthesizer.

This DVD is a film with Pierrot Lunaire as the sound track. The visuals are of New York City around Times Square. Christine walks down a hall in a seedy building; she shakes a doorknob and a lion roars; she goes to her apartment, and it's filled with giant cockroaches. I've been in New York apartments and this is not unrealistic. The real cockroaches are maybe not quite this big. She brushes one off her neck.

Christine is both subject and object in this film. She has a life and observes it at the same time. At one point she repeatedly pushes herself off the top of one of the tall buildings. This is completely wacko and I love it. Her rendition of the piece is fabulous. I am beginning to understand Christine. It's conducted by Pierre Boulez.

Here is the bit I saw on TV that led me to buy this.

I suppose a girl baritone would not be right in the part. Girls, if you are a lyric soprano with good German diction, it would not hurt your career prospects to try your hand at Pierrot Lunaire or Lulu.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Lulu:  Christine Schaefer (soprano)
Alwa, Dr. Schön’s Son, a composer:  David Kuebler (tenor)
Dr. Schön / Jack the Ripper:  Wolfgang Schone (baritone)

This is my third Lulu, the opera by Berg.

The first was in 1965 in two acts and starred Evelyn Lear. She was a voracious tiger who ate men for lunch, and the ovation for her performance was as nothing I have ever seen--not applause but a sustained roar. I was away in 1971 when Anja Silja played her.

The second in 1989, San Francisco's first since the completion of the three act score in 1979, starred Ann Panagulias, a dark young woman barely out of Merola. Ann was passive in the extreme, and the whole action just washed over her. Ann was cast for her looks, but projected no emotions at all. It is curious to notice that in this production Evelyn Lear played the Countess.

My third is this DVD starring Christine Schaefer from Glyndebourne. She is somewhere between these extremes.

There are women who attract others like a magnet. We have all known one of them at one time or another. Lulu is such a woman. What is the secret? Pheromones? Body language? Looks?

That is the question: is Lulu doing it on purpose, or is she merely the object of the desires of others? Is she arranging signals for others to respond to? Or is she just following the wishes of others? Is she a leader or merely a follower? Men of all social classes swarm around her. Dr. Schoen's son Alwa, well played here by David Kuebler, says she might be a cunning whore, and she says she wishes she were. Is it to her credit that she constantly reminds him that she poisoned his mother and shot his father, or is this part of her attraction?

Christine hasn't the strength of voice to project the voraciousness of Evelyn Lear. Hers is a sweet lyric soprano, and her Lulu is a sweet woman who enjoys being loved. She accepts all gifts as though they were her due, including the Countess' gift of her own health, and does not question the source. Dr. Schoen whom she kills is the only one she loves in return. This Lulu is a woman who is enjoying her outfits, which change frequently. Alwa calls her "little Lulu" and Christine is small enough to fit this. Her natural hair color darkens as the opera goes along. (Behind the scenes there will be a lot of frantic dying and drying.)

In a slut plot, one of the mainstays of opera, the slut must get what she deserves. Carmen is stabbed. Semele is burned alive. Violetta dies of consumption. Lulu is killed by Jack the Ripper.

There are basically four textures: orchestra alone (including the accompaniment for the film in act ii), unaccompanied speaking, melodrama (speech with orchestra--I don't think it can be considered Sprechstimme) and singing with orchestra. The artists move smoothly from one texture to another. Christine's singing is quite pretty, but I'm not sure I can say that for the others.

In this production the music is made to seem not difficult, a spectacular achievement. The music is merely there like background music for a movie (which some of the time it is.) The transition from talking to singing is transparent and natural. It is by far the best of my three. For this movie would we have chosen this music? Definitely.

The same man, Wolfgang Schone here, must sing both Dr. Schoen and Jack the Ripper because of the dialog at the end. He is only her third trick, but she wants him to spend the night with her because she likes him. He reminds her of the only man she ever loved. Jack kills the Countess, too, who gets to declare her love for Lulu as she dies. The Countess is beautifully played by Kathryn Harries.

This is the first time I have been swept up in the drama. It is played for reality rather than intensity. I think you could see a more melodramatic Lulu, a more evil Lulu, but hardly a more sympathetic one. It is pathetic to see that three of her lovers--Alwa, the Countess and Schigolch, the father that isn't a father--make it all the way with her to complete degradation at the end.

Lulu is the ultimate slut plot, and I am not the first to wish to see Anna Netrebko sing it. Her portrayal would be closer to Evelyn Lear's, I think. Don't get me wrong--Christine is pretty fabulous.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


I really enjoyed seeing Angela Gheorghiu in La Rondine. For me I can't imagine why a company would stage La Rondine without someone like Angela to do it. If they had fired her for missing rehearsals, I would have been forced to throw a tantrum, something I should just not do.

I heard a lot of people say that she was flat, and I listened carefully to see if this was true. Angela sings Puccini in a very broad way, and her scooping technique is quite broad. I discussed this ad nauseum with my friends. It really is amazing how they put up with me. I talked about scooping and explained how it is only necessary to come to the note eventually. Of the 100 pitches she hits on her way up to the note, exactly which one is supposed to be flat? Eventually she gets there. It is only not permitted to overshoot. It is completely not permitted to lose track of the note you were aiming for and go past it. Angela is an expert scooper. See tools.

The collapsing dollar is putting a crimp in my travel plans. There's so much going on in Europe now that I very much want to travel there. I would go and stay if that were possible.

Over the years I have written another book. It's a study guide--everything you should memorize for your doctoral orals. Unless you're a musicologist in which case you must memorize much more.

It is an idea I very much admired. Each chronological period represents a relatively coherent musical style. The idea begins to fall apart in the twentieth century when there are too many styles to keep track of. You have to understand the concept to get anything out of it.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Borrowed writing

I have posted this article because it says some things that are contrary to things I said in a previous post. Things have to be copied from the New York Times because they disappear very quickly.

Welsh Bass-Baritone Hears the Call of Home

Published: November 10, 2007

During a recent rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera for Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” the marvelous Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel exuded charisma, pretending to answer his cellphone mid-aria. Mr. Terfel’s Met performances as Figaro, a signature role and the one with which he made his Met debut in 1994, start this afternoon, and this will be his swan song in the part.

Mr. Terfel will also lend his dramatic intensity, fine diction and instantly recognizable, richly expressive voice to Mendelssohn’s majestic oratorio “Elijah,” with the Collegiate Chorale at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 19.

While reminiscing fondly about the 1998 opening of Jonathan Miller’s production of “Le Nozze di Figaro,” Mr. Terfel, who is married with three young sons, said, “There was a twinge of sadness within that period as well, as I missed the birth of my second child.”

“When you’re a young singer,” he added, “the words are always ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ as you’re afraid you’ll never get the same contract again. But I should have been home, really. I should have canceled the whole thing.”

The problems Mr. Terfel, who turned 42 yesterday, has always faced juggling family life and career came to a peak in September. He withdrew from eagerly anticipated appearances as Wotan in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at the Royal Opera House in London because his 6-year-old son had broken a finger and required three operations.

Mr. Terfel’s decision prompted a terse, angry statement from the Royal Opera House and a collective roar from irate fans, columnists and bloggers. But Mr. Terfel also received “stunning letters” of support, he said, and he remains unrepentant.

“I missed two of my children’s births,” he said. “I’ll never get over the fact that people didn’t turn round to me and say: ‘Look, you should be at home now. You shouldn’t be here rehearsing.’

“Wotan can wait. Being a father cannot wait. If something happens to my children again, I’ll do the same thing. I’ll be home, and people should recognize that fact. If there’s something on your mind, and you’re not 100 percent, it will be detrimental to you as an artist. It’s much better that I stayed at home than sang six very terrible performances of Wotan.”

Mr. Terfel said that his wife, Lesley, was initially adamant that he go ahead with the “Ring” performances, contrary to reports in the British news media, but he didn’t even unpack his suitcase during rehearsals.

“I’ve never been so uncomfortable at going into an opera house,” he said. “As you can see, I’m usually very comfortable.”

He certainly appears comfortable at the Met, striding around the maze of corridors backstage in jeans and sneakers and warmly greeting colleagues with a lilting Welsh accent as lyrical as his singing. Mr. Terfel’s first complete “Ring “ will be Robert Lepage’s new production, which begins in the 2010-11 season at the Met.

Other Wagnerian milestones ahead include his Hans Sachs in “Die Meistersinger” at the Welsh National Opera in 2009-10. “Wagner can enchant you, carry you off into a different world,” he said. “With Mozart you can have a social life, but when you’re singing Wagner, it’s a different animal. I’ll never forget reaching the end of ‘Walküre’ for the first time. I was a blubbering wreck, crying away in the corner of the opera house by myself.”

Mr. Terfel will take something of a sabbatical next year, to focus on recitals and record a disc of Celtic songs. His only operatic performance will be in Verdi’s “Falstaff” with the Welsh National Opera. He hopes the break will provide insights into his career trajectory. “Do I want to give more time to my home opera company?” he muses. “I think it’s going towards that direction.”

Mr. Terfel could then spend more time with his family in northwest Wales, near Caernarfon. He grew up on a sheep farm in Pantglas, speaking Welsh, and regularly participated in the Welsh singing competitions known as the eisteddfodau. A recording of the prepubescent Terfel singing at an eisteddfod reveals his precocious musicality.

His schoolmates ridiculed his love of singing, “but I had the height to take care of myself,” said Mr. Terfel, who at 6 foot 3 has the bearish build of a rugby player. He attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and his career took off after he won the lieder prize in the 1989 BBC Singer of the World competition in Cardiff, back in Wales.

Since then, Mr. Terfel has tackled a dizzying array of music, including Broadway and popular songs. “I did a lot of concerts with male-voice choirs in Wales, and the last thing you’d sing would be a Wagner aria,” he said. “They’d much rather hear ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’” Mr. Terfel sang the title role in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” in London and Chicago and said he would love to have Mr. Sondheim write an opera for him.

Mr. Terfel’s Deutsche Grammophon catalog, though impressive, includes a few crossover discs featuring saccharine orchestrations and collaborations of dubious artistic merit. One crossover album sold in excess of 800,000 copies, he said.

“Perhaps the businessman kicks in as well then,” he added. “So come on, there’s a bandwagon, and am I to miss out on the sales of 800,000 compared to selling 60,000 of a Schubert record? No, I’m not.”

Along with the Schubert lieder disc, there are notable recordings of English and Welsh songs, Wagner and Handel arias, Verdi’s “Falstaff” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” (He has given acclaimed performances of both the title role and Leporello in “Don Giovanni.”) A recent disc, “Tutto Mozart!,” features arias by Papageno in “Die Zauberflöte” and Count Almaviva in “Figaro,” roles Mr. Terfel has never sung onstage, but might.

What’s on his iPod? Wagner, the Beatles and Elvis Presley. Mr. Terfel describes Presley as “very classically orientated with his voice and diction and very sincere and wanting to get everything perfect.” He could be describing himself.

Bryn Terfel sings Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera until Dec 1; (212) 362-6000, He sings “Elijah” at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 19; (212) 247-7800,

Thursday, November 08, 2007

La Rondine

La Rondine means the swallow, a small bird of graceful flight that travels long distances each year between its summer quarters in the northern hemisphere and the southern regions where it winters. It swoops and dives to catch insects in flight.

The opera that carries its name, Puccini's La Rondine, performed last night at the San Francisco Opera, is similarly graceful and fragile, rather like feathers falling to earth. It seems to have been waiting for a suitably graceful and equally fragile soprano to bring it to full flower. Angela Gheorghiu is that soprano.

Her character, Magda de Civry, has chosen the life of the mistress of a rich banker while continuing to fantasize about true love. She remembers an incident in her youth when she met a young man in a dance hall, danced with him, fell in love with him and left him all in the course of an evening, and she longs to bring this moment back to life. She wants to fly free like the swallow. It is a plot much like La Traviata but infinitely lighter. To succeed the opera must make you believe that she is romantic enough to entice a young man, noble hearted enough to give him up when he asks to marry her, and beautiful enough for her banker to take her back. In 1917, the date of La Rondine, we still believe in the woman as slut or angel, and cannot allow her to be both.

Angela owns the famous aria "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta," which is sung as an entertainment at a salon. She is suitably youthful looking and waltzes like a dream. Her voice is a bit small for the San Francisco Opera house, at least from the balcony perspective. I think the acoustics are different in different parts of the house.

The opera is full of waltzes and dancing, a surprise for Puccini. The maid Lisette was amusingly played by Anna Christy, a coloratura soprano. The poet, sung by Gerard Powers, sneers at romantic love and declares his love must compare to Galatea or Berenice. In reality he is interested in Lisette. When Magda, her young man, the poet and Lisette are together at the dance club in Act II, Magda pretends to be someone else, and all appear to go along with this. Then when Lisette and Magda's young man are away from the table, Magda whispers teasingly to the poet "Galatea, Berenice," giving her disguise completely away. He tries to make excuses but has revealed his own romantic tendencies.

The tenor, Magda's young man, is sung by Misha Didyk. His voice is unusual but suitably romantic.

It is an opera about romantic love in the midst of the more sophisticated and cynical classes, a feat difficult to bring off successfully, but definitely managed here, thanks largely to Angela.

The production was art nouveau and very beautiful. Ion Marin, the conductor, sounded familiar. It turns out he conducted the Rossini Heroines album.

 [See Kinderkuchen History 1890-1910]

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


There's a review of The Washington National Opera production of Bolcom's A View from the Bridge here. I was considering going, and perhaps I still will.

Musician of the Year

Musical America has named Anna Netrebko musician of the year. She's winning everything these days.

Charles Rosen was named instrumentalist of the year. It might be interesting to hear him play some of the pieces he discusses in the book.

The Romantic Generation

I have finished The Romantic Generation by Charles Rosen. It derives from a lecture series, and probably made more sense in that context where the examples could be played and then discussed. He is a pianist, and his insights are directed toward pianists. He is familiar with large portions of this repertoire and writes in great detail about it. But if you don't have a piano, or couldn't play the examples even if you did, there is not going to be a lot for you here.

If I wrote a book about the same period, which I am not proposing to do, it would be much different. Such a book would talk about vocal repertoire, possibly the same song cycles, but very little other overlap. I would be equally biased and lopsided in my presentation. I might choose Berlioz as the leader.

Rosen places Robert Schumann at the top of his hierarchy, a choice which I wouldn't dream of arguing with. It is sad to read how Schumann went over his youthful compositions toward the end of his life and removed anything unorthodox. Times had changed away from the adventuresome romantics.

Cecilia Bartoli's Maria album is possibly a better thing to compare it to than my hypothetical book. Hers is also a lecture series with only the examples left in. Play it juxtaposed to Opera Proibita or one of her Mozart CDs, and the changes brought by romanticism will stand out in vivid detail. Principle would be the rhythmic freedom and flexibility. I find it interesting that the two things--book and album--have come into my life together.

Rosen tries to be interested in Bellini, but otherwise dismisses the entire opera genre as trash, a position we opera fans are not likely to sympathize with.

It is a forest and trees situation. There are an overwhelming number of trees (analyses of specific examples) with only an occasional hint at a forest (identification of a general stylistic trend.) If you are a pianist, this will help you understand the pieces you are playing. For others the usefulness is limited.

Monday, November 05, 2007


I wrote to Philip Gossett:
I have finally made it to the chapter on opera in The Romantic Generation and see your name. Why is it that opera both is and isn't silly, is and isn't trivial? The answer is singing. The best opera is the kind that makes a situation, makes a musical framework for singing and stands back out of the way and allows it to happen. Less is much much more.

There is no correlation between how long an analysis you can write about something and its intrinsic value. At least that's how I felt after listening to Moses und Aron.

Dr. Gossett responded:
You know, I don't really think that opera is silly or trivial. I believe in these works for their content, NOT just for their singing (that isn't to deny the importance of the singing). We tend to judge them on the basis of a theatrical tradition that isn't theirs, a theatrical tradition that stops with Restoration comedy and picks up again with Ibsen and Shaw. But what about the whole history of drama between the eighteenth century and the end of the nineteenth? We know NOTHING, truly NOTHING. Most people know the Voltaire dramas exclusively through Rossini; they know the Hugo dramas exclusively through Donizetti and Verdi; and don't even think about Spanish Romantic drama. Once you see the operatic literature of the first sixty years of the nineteenth century in the CONTEXT of the dramatic conventions of the time, there is nothing either silly or trivial in the works of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, or Verdi.

As for "analysis," well you are perfectly right that the number of words spilled over an opera because it is great to analyze has little to do with its effectiveness in the theater. There are a FEW works where the analysts can have a great time and the effectivness is magnificent. I think particularly of Tristan or Wozzeck. As for Moses und Aron, sigh! I like it better each time I see or hear it, but I don't ever expect it to be a crowd-pleaser!

Me again:
I think the history of drama and its relationship to the opera libretto is a subject I could get interested in. I'll look into it.

Advice to Composers

I am tired of my advice to opera composers series. I wasn't saying a lot.

1. Aim lower. We're just folks. We might enjoy some catchy tunes or lyrical moments not imported from popular songs.

2. Put in a love story. Those lyrical moments work best when accompanied by love.

3. Learn how to compose for singers. Consider this a goal worth aspiring to. We're here to listen to people sing, usually sopranos and tenors, but other people, too.

4. Write arias that can be taken out of context and performed in concerts and on recordings.

5. Sex sells. There may have been a time when political posturing did, but there's no evidence this is still true. The larger political issues are all settled, and I don't really see an opera about capitalism. I think to excite the imagination it has to be an active contemporary issue that stirs the passions.

6. Sell your opera to the public, not to the Met board or your academic colleagues. If the objective is your academic prestige, then please, just skip it.

We can consider this subject on hiatus.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Romantic Opera

In the section on opera in Charles Rosen's The Romantic Generation he says that "Serious opera is almost always political in nature...." This is completely contrary to everything I have been saying.

I did a series on opera is about love: here, here, here and here. Lately I have been saying opera is a chick flick.

We can't both be right, or can we? I wasn't trying to analyze all the operas that were ever written. He is right in this quote, "The change of serious opera from an aristocratic art that dealt largely with court intrigue and dynastic marriage, sometimes disguised as classical mythology, into a popular form that expressed the political ideals of republicanism and patriotism was a long development that started slowly in the last decades of the eighteenth century, before the French Revolution." In this period opera changed from one political agenda to another. He's right, but that isn't what I was talking about.

My position has to do with which operas are revived the most frequently. We want to see operas about love. Meyerbeer wrote about the political turmoil surrounding various religious sects. Verdi wrote about Italian politics. We want to see La Traviata. Marrying out of ones social caste is still an issue in the twenty-first century.

Modern composers are wanting to continue the perceived tradition of relevance. Perhaps we don't know what the real issues of our time are. Terrorism--Death of Klinghoffer. The death penalty--Dead Man Walking. Legal abortion--nothing. The bomb and its effect on our lives--Doctor Atomic. The holocaust--Sophie's Choice. Exploitation of natural resources by multi-national corporations and the resulting devastation of the planet--nothing. All are bad operas for one reason or another, though I found Dead Man to be emotionally effective.

I insist that there must be love. Issues, if you insist on having them, must be approached from the perspective of love.

If I read Rosen carefully, it would seem you should not set plays such as "Streetcar". Rosen would also seem to be saying that the typical modern opera is not trashy enough. The chick flick model would be a lot trashier than what we generally get. Would the Met pay for a new really trashy opera?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Clemenza di Tito

This DVD of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito from the Zurich Opera has a number of unusual features.

The secco recitatives are known not to have been composed by Mozart, so they have tossed them. We are left with a work of no particular genre--a serious opera with spoken dialog, even rather severely truncated spoken Italian dialog, instead of the intended opera seria. As even the most superficial student of opera knows, Italian is never spoken from the opera stage. "Piu tardi" I think Violetta says after she reads the letter. That's it. No one in the cast sounds convincing speaking Italian.

When we get to have singing, it is rather good. There is a gorgeous duet between Malin Hartelius as Servilia and Liliana Nikiteanu as Annio.

The production is twentieth century Italian fascism with Tito, sung by Jonas Kaufmann (you knew there was a reason I bought this) as Mussolini. Vitelia and Servilia dress formally in evening wear. The male characters wear either fascist uniforms or suits, usually double-breasted. Liliana wears a cute double-breasted pin stripe. The chorus are attired in street wear, the women in short dresses and hats, the men in suits and fedoras. The evocation of the era by the costumer, Isabella Bywater, is astounding.

I bought this for Kaufmann, and he does not disappoint. The ensemble players of the Zurich Opera are very fine. The audience preferred Vesselina Kasarova as Sesto, but I was disappointed with her "Parto parto." She has pockets of intensity in her voice which she does not try to even out. She is particularly manly.

Vitelia, sung by Eva Mei, and Sesto are treacherous, but Tito eventually lets everyone off, an act that seems particularly foolish. It is difficult to know what to make of the juxtaposition of the generous and forgiving Tito with Mussolini. Perhaps we are just to feel the militarism of dictatorship rather than the specifics of World War II. Or are they trying to tell us something?