Saturday, June 28, 2008

Wien concert

A very pregnant Netrebko with Villazon and Domingo did a concert today / yesterday (?) in Vienna. How can this be? It's already on YouTube. Her German is not too bad. Something fascinating is happening to her voice now that she is pregnant. What's next? Bruehnhilde? It's still the age of Netrebko.

I'm supposed to be packing. It's the sort of music where one wants to sing, too. I only wish I could.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Lucia di Lammermoor

Lucia...................Natalie Dessay (coloratura soprano)
Edgardo.................Giuseppe Filianoti (tenor)
Enrico..................Gabriele Viviani (baritone)

Believe it or not, this was my first Lucia di Lammermoor last night at the San Francisco Opera, so I have nothing to compare it to. I did read Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor, though. Does that count? At the end of the novel Edgar rides his horse into the bog and disappears into a pool of quicksand. I love that.

There was no quicksand at the opera, but there was the heather on the hill. Two operas set in Scotland in one week is pretty strange. The production for Ariodante did not hint at Scotland at all, though one of the characters was the king of Scotland.

There was a serious attempt to suggest a Scottish landscape with a lot of stubby little plants. Lucia lives her real life romance there and her insanity imagined romance there. There were tartans, the essential Scottish object, but no one wore kilts.

Giuseppe Filianoti, the tenor Edgardo, would have looked great in a kilt. He fulfilled all the hunky requirements for the romantic lead. He sang with a distinctly Italian style and technique but couldn't quite keep it up. This role seemed a struggle for him. I can't imagine why he thinks he is ready to sing Don Carlo.

Gabriele Viviani, the Italian baritone who sang the evil brother, I liked a lot better.

Once again I believed in Natalie Dessay, in her youth, in her love, in her madness. It was a pleasure.

Almost every note of the soprano part is recorded on various sopranos' aria albums, but I'd never heard the tenor's stuff before.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Last night was Handel's Ariodante at the San Francisco Opera with Ruth Ann Swenson and Susan Graham. All the really great pieces are for the lead male, sung by Susie. She was fabulous. Ruth Ann was good but not fabulous.

Also on the bill was Sonia Prina making her American debut in the role of Polinesso. Did she make us not miss the great contralto Ewa Podleś (last name pronounced PODE-lesh) who was originally cast in this role? Almost. She was quite villainous and has an interesting dark voice--not the miracle that is Ewa but quite nice.

I didn't realize this was only Susan Graham's sixth appearance with the SF Opera. In the same season she did Octavian (with Fleming) and Dead Man Walking. I thought there must be more. Maybe I've been watching too much DVD.

The production for this opera was pretty but painfully old-fashioned. I think the current popularity of Handel around the world comes in part from how suitable he can be for the Eurotrash treatment. I missed it. After all, the nude men Alcina is one of my favorite DVDs. I was also quite fond of Semele as Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy. Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno done as four people hanging out in a Zurich cafe was also pleasing.

This opera was my first encounter with Pocket Opera when I first moved to San Francisco. Ariodante was sung by the wonderful Stephanie Friedman.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Technique and Mozart

What one wants to know is when singing began to break out of the Italian Baroque vocal ideal, where new styles of singing arose and why. The French ideal is different but somehow smaller, less serious.

Mozart was carefully trained to compose in the Italian style, including composing in Milan for the Italian theater. Mitridate re di Ponto falls in this category. These operas show no particular surprises, no departures from earlier composers.

When we move into the mature part of his career he becomes more German, which means that the orchestral texture acquires density and the coloratura is consistently composed. These qualities of Germanness also distinguished Handel from his Italian contemporaries. In Mozart's time the harmonic rhythm is slower than Handel's, and the tempo is somewhat freer. For my ears I hear in mature Mozart an increased emphasis on legato which is his distinguishing technical characteristic. From the modern perspective mature Mozart represents the vocal ideal toward which all strive. Mozart is the place to start.

Mozart composed opera seria in his mature years. Both Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito contain roles for castrati, but there are none in his far more famous comedies. Opera buffa never used them. Cherubino was always intended for a woman to sing. The central hero for both of Mozart's mature opera seria is a lyric tenor. The castrato is no longer the primo uomo.

The Mozart tenor still never goes beyond the lyric category, but his sopranos are all over the place. Barbarina, Zerlina, Susanna and Despina are soubrettes. Pamina is a lyric soprano. La Contessa is a lyric soprano with maturity, practically a spinto. The roles increase in heaviness through Fiordiligi and Donna Anna.

And what could one possibly say about the Queen of the Night? Are there Italian models for a demented character who can do a series of high F’s? I tend to feel that she is an extension of technical expectations with her much higher range. I prefer a soprano who attacks her with great intensity, making her completely mad.

Mozart conceives heavier voices for his characters, but none are for a heavy technique. The ideal for production is the same throughout, and the different voices come from the music. There is a mixture of leggiero and legato for variety, with an increased emphasis on legato even in the coloratura. He is the school for singing.

Monday, June 23, 2008


If I am to continue blogging, I must follow my heart wherever it leads. To my very great surprise it appears to be leading me toward tenors, specifically the DG collection Masters of the Voice: Tenor.

My old favorites are here. Jussi Bjoerling sings the Ingemisco from the Verdi Requiem, a recording that I practically grew up with. And who can resist the young, bright voiced Luciano Pavarotti singing La Donna e mobile? Or Carlo Bergonzi singing Come un bel di di maggio? It is a joy to hear Jon Vickers sing Wintersturme from Walkuere.

But new pleasures are also here. My greatest professional success probably came in performances of Mendelssohn's Elijah. It brings always a special feeling. But Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, one of the top 20 tenors on the Gramophone list, is a great pleasure. This piece is the peak experience of that other romanticism, the one that is only medium sized instead of grandiose, the true romanticism of Schumann, Brahms and Mendelssohn, the peaceful, interior romanticism. Sorry, I got carried away. He sings "If with all your heart ye truly seek me." It's a bright, English sound, rather suitable for Mozart, but full of feeling.

It's an interesting collection. Andreas Scholl is NOT a tenor by any stretch of the imagination. What could they be thinking?

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Sarah Noble is in town. So what do two opera bloggers talk about when they meet? They talk about all the things they don't put in their blogs. ("Blogging! I love blogging!") Lots of subjects have been thoroughly hashed. The things we wouldn't want to say about our particular loves, for one. I'm afraid I was even more insane than usual.

Sarah pointed out that bits from I Capuleti ed i Montecchi performed last month by Netrebko and DiDonato in Paris are now on YouTube. Anna does a very respectable trill.


I have decided to go with my nerdiest inclinations and write about singing technique from a historical perspective. I will modify the articles when I change my mind.

Here is an interesting article on techniques that will harm you. If I were a true voice teacher type, I would obsess over each one of these things.

Please note--my effort to describe technique through the ages will not have to do with whether any given technique described is correct or incorrect.

Singing in the Italian Baroque

Castrati (castrated male singers) were not caused by opera. They were the result of the church’s prohibition of female singers in church. The English went with boy sopranos and falsettists to deal with this issue, but in Italy they settled on this artificial source for sopranos and altos. A number of castrati congregated in Rome where they performed the austere counterpoint of Palestrina with lots of added ornaments. It is my understanding that they all extemporized ornaments simultaneously in all voices, at least until it was prohibited. This is a little hard to imagine, but might be like five Mariah Careys singing in 5 part counterpoint.

This was the state of things in Rome when Virgilio Mazzocchi (1597-1646), Michel Angelo Rossi, Marco Marazzoli (d.1662), and Luigi Rossi (1598-1653) began writing operas there in the 1620’s. While Monteverdi and the camerata had composed for natural female sopranos and male tenors, in Rome in the third and fourth decades everything was sung by men, including many castrati—all ornamenting away on the monodic lines. [For a discussion of monody see here.]

This became the model for Baroque Italian opera everywhere. In Venice and Naples females appeared on stage with the castrati, but the male singers were the stars, and the women followed their lead. We may infer how they sang from what we know. It was a technique designed for extemporized ornamenting, probably never exceeding a medium amount of weight in the voice. The weight will come from the male voice itself and not from an imposed heavy sound such as we would hear in Verdi today. I will assume that the term leggiero, between legato and staccato, applies to the style of this period.

Almost a century later, Handel went to Rome to observe the phenomenon at first hand, and to try his hand at composing for the great male singers at Rome. We know from Opera Proibita that this was some of Handel's most spectacular vocal music.

We may infer from what we know that a castrato mezzo-soprano conveyed a sufficiently heroic sound to be convincing as the dramatic hero. I’m going to guess that Marilyn Horne in Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso is as close as we get to this sound. We may not believe in how she looks, but we believe in her sound.

By comparison a tenor singing with the same technique was not at all interesting to them. Tenors could not compete with the extreme virtuosity of the treble castrati.

Eventually other opera came along that was not Italian. The French thought castrati were disgusting and composed only for natural voices. French Baroque opera means Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-87) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). French Baroque opera with its strong ballet component has never been wildly popular in my lifetime. The French loved Rameau’s Platée, of all things. We know that Platée includes a coloratura aria for female soprano, but everything else could be sung by anyone. Technically everything seems pop song light.

The late Baroque also includes a professional German company in Hamburg between 1696 and 1734 which featured operas by Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739). We can’t say much about them technically. Isabel Bayrakdarian sang Cleopatra (1704) by Johann Matthewson (1681-1764) which was written for the Hamburg Opera. That may be my first experience of this music.

The late Baroque featured an intense rhythmic drive that stirred excitement. In the 21st century we are most familiar with this in the works of Handel and Bach, both Germans.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


I see that Wikipedia in the article on tenors correctly lists Villazon as a lyric tenor and Domingo as a dramatic tenor. Some of the role classifications seem a tiny bit iffy to me, but in general it's a reliable article.

I used the term leggiero in my technique book to describe a less than fully legato style rather than a voice classification. Interesting. They are leggiero tenors because they sing in a leggiero style, presumably. Leggiero, if I understand it correctly, means midway between legato and staccato.

Here is something interesting from the soubrette article:

Here are four different voice types singing the same soubrette role, Susanna, in The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart arranged in ascending amount of weight.

* To hear soubrette Dawn Upshaw as Susanna click on:

For soubrette to lyric Kathleen Battle, click on

* To hear light lyric soprano Lucia Popp as Susanna click on

* To hear full lyric soprano Anna Netrebko as Susanna click on

To hear a dramatic soprano Margaret Price as Susanna, click on

Friday, June 13, 2008

Blogging about technique

From my inbox: "Your comments on the technical flaws in certain singers are interesting. Can't we be a little indulgent about these flaws? As everybody knows, Callas was a far from perfect singer technically, but that did not stop her from being one of the most charismatic singers ever.

"And what good is technical perfection without being a communicative
artist? The famous English music critic Ernest Newman once described the
legendary Nellie Melba thusly: Uninterestingly perfect, and perfectly uninteresting."

If you know very many voice teachers, then you know that they each have a single way they teach everyone. There may be people who don't do this, but I have never met them. I am the single exception to this rule. I honestly don't think there is only one way to sing and everyone should be shoehorned into this. I like a lot of variety. Hell, I like David Cook.

My son thinks I don't blog about technique enough, that these are the things that I do best. But then, he's my son.

Usually when I comment about someones technique it is because I think they are doing something that will cause them harm. Modern professional singing careers are difficult to maintain technically, and lots of people get into trouble along the way.

The most common way to get into trouble is to sing with too much weight in the voice, to try to sing repertoire that is heavier than your particular voice can tolerate. Beverly Sills was the most common example of this, but I think perhaps she went into it with her eyes open. She knew she was going beyond her talents and accepted the results. I accept it on that bases.

I do not accept it when RV is told he sounds like PD (fill in the names yourself) and should step into his repertoire, when obviously that is not possible. I feel obligated to point this out.

In advising BH when he was having difficulties I said, "I can tell you what I heard in James Morris’ Wotan [in his debut in the role at the SF Opera]—he stuck faithfully to his gorgeous legato, did not try to push his voice beyond its capacity, and kept everything comfortably within his grasp with no over-reaching." If you remember this, if you just let your voice do what it can without forcing it, you can get away with a lot. Sills was almost always pushing it while Morris goes on and on.

JK is an example in the opposite direction. He was keeping it constricted when he could have been letting it fly. It is our luck that someone told him this.

I criticized ND because it is not good for the voice when a singer is out of breath all the time. The voice lives and dies by control of the air.

But I never criticize someone technically because I like this one better than that one. The objective is art, not perfection. Let a hundred flowers bloom.


I am told that I was perverse to recommend Einstein on the Beach. I confess I don't own it myself. How many CDs is an 8 hour opera?

I am currently reading a biography of Einstein. I always read books about physics, books about black holes and string theory, stuff like that. I didn't realize he was trying to explain why gravity and acceleration feel the same.

What I want to know is: if I have 10 suns arranged in a row and each is moving away from the ones next to it at 1/10th of the speed of light, why aren't the two end ones separating at the speed of light? And if I have 11, what then?

Never mind.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I may never have seen Simon Keenleyside before he appeared on my television this morning, riding on a train and singing "Burning inside" from Carmina Burana. The other passengers look at him with dubious expressions. One young woman thinks he's cute. I do, too. I like his voice as well. This is an English singer I can get enthusiastic about.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


This came in my inbox:

"Brokeback Mountain" To Become An Opera
via The Full Feed from by The Huffington Post News Editors on 6/9/08

NEW YORK — The New York City Opera commissioned Charles Wuorinen to compose an opera based on "Brokeback Mountain," the 1997 short story by Annie Proulx that became the basis for a 2005 movie that won three Academy Awards.

The opera is scheduled to premiere in spring 2013, City Opera said Sunday. It will be City Opera's second Wuorinen premiere, following "Haroun and the Sea of Stories," which was based on a Salman Rushdie novel and opened in October 2004.

"Ever since encountering Annie Proulx's extraordinary story I have wanted to make an opera on it, and it gives me great joy that Gerard Mortier and New York City Opera have given me the opportunity to do so," Wuorinen said in a statement.

"Brokeback Mountain" is a cowboy romance about two ranch-hand buddies who start a homosexual affair when they meet on the fictional mountain in 1963.

Dr.B. Based on my theories of what makes a good opera, this should work. It's sort of a gay chick flick.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


I have sharp limitations as a blogger. I don't want to publicly trash anyone. I have derogatory opinions about lots of people's vocal technique, but can't bring myself to say them.

It is very disturbing to read that Villazon is experiencing cracked high notes in Don Carlo. The reviewer seems to like him anyway, which is a little hard to understand. I find his voice increasingly thin.

I try to deny it, but my beloved mezzo's voice is getting thinner and thinner as the years pass. If I put in her name, it will Google. I listen to her early recordings and cry. Tomorrow I will deny I said this.

Bette Midler does 45 minutes on the treadmill every day. This would help Natalie Dessay who complains of running out of breath. Her roles can be athletic, which means she has to be even more athletic.

Other people constantly trash Jonas, but I feel he has tone to spare and generally sounds weak only when he tries to diminuendo on high notes.

I have sharp limitations as a human being as well and find that I don't want to be dragged back into reality. As a blogger I can be as arrogant as I want. That's the point, isn't it? There, that's out of my system.

I can't think of anything nasty to say about Netrebko or Fleming. Plenty of other people manage that quite well. Or Florez. Or Angela.

Friday, June 06, 2008


Gramophone recommends a list of instrumental CDs you should buy so you can get familiar with the new composers. I would like to make some different recommendations.

Rent the movie Koyaanisqatsi to hear Philip Glass's score.

Or try Dawn Upshaw's recording of Ayre by Golijov.

Jump into Arvo Pärt's Passio.

Get deeper into Golijov with his St. Mark Passion.

Mr. and Mrs. Lieberson are both excellent together in the Neruda Songs.

Do modern operas.

Start with John Adams' Nixon in China.

Then move on to L'Amour de Loin.

And for the definitive Philip Glass experience what better than Einstein on the Beach? Don't keep any sharp objects in the vicinity.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Gramophone for June features contemporary composers. Most are familiar to me, but a few are not. I am listing them in chronological order.

Arvo Pärt (1935) I discussed his The Passion of our Lord according to Saint John here. This is one of his most important works. If you haven't heard him, you should. I made some silly remarks about him in an article about minimalists here.

Steve Reich (1936) is someone I also consider a minimalist. I'm only familiar with his Drumming which consists of drumming. He was a pioneer in minimalism.

Philip Glass (1937) By now I've heard a lot of Glass, another minimalist pioneer. I wrote about the movie Koyaanisqatsi here. I wrote about his attempt to alter ones perception of time here. Lately I have seen another performance of Satyagraha at the Met, and last summer it was Orphée at Glimmerglass. Orphée was surprisingly beyond my previous experience of him and really quite a good opera.

John Corigliano (1938) I loved The Ghosts of Versailles which was lying around in my video collection. This opera should be done more often. I also enjoyed my most recent experience of him, Fern Hill for soprano, chorus and orchestra. He writes well for singers, both solo and chorus and is enjoyable to sing. His material is pretty low key. Post modernists are not difficult, on average.

John Tavener (1944) I regret that I am not familiar with him. I will put him on my list.

Peter Lieberson (1946) is most famous for being the husband of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the great mezzo who performs his most famous piece Neruda Songs which I reviewed here. Lorraine brought him out of himself.

John Adams (1947). I would consider John Adams minimalist for Nixon in China, but not lately. I have panned him pretty badly for Doctor Atomic here and El Nino here, but this was primarily for his association with the extremely annoying Peter Sellers. I loved Nixon and never dislike his music. He is keeping up with the times in his all noises overture to Doctor Atomic.

Kaija Saariaho (1952) I went mad for L'Amour de Loin, even if it did involve Peter Sellers who was extremely not annoying in this production. I tried to describe the music. She is doing a new opera for Santa Fe this summer.

Magnus Lindberg (1958) I had never heard of him before and don't see any operas listed. I'll look into him.

Osvaldo Golijov (1960) Everyone who reads this at all should know that I adore him. I was privileged to see his St. Mark Passion in London. I also reviewed Ayre the cd and in live performance and Oceana here. He is exciting for his ethnic elements from a variety of cultures. I am also familiar with his opera Ainadamar.

Jennifer Higdon (1962) I don't see operas listed for her which probably accounts for why I am not familiar with her.

Thomas Adès (1971) is famous for the opera The Tempest, but I haven't seen it. This is a hole in my education that should be filled.

Based on my experience Saariaho could be considered difficult, but in general all these composers are accessible to music lovers. I would have to say that I am doing a pretty good job of keeping up with things.

If they only write instrumental pieces, then I am not to blame for not knowing them.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Pronouncing Golijov

A gentleman from Argentina, the young conductor Daniel Canosa, informs me that Osvaldo Golijov, a fellow countryman, is properly pronounced with a [x] sound, like in noch or chanukah: goal-i-choff. I met him at a party after a concert by Camerata California, a chamber ensemble in Sacramento. I enjoyed very much the repertoire they performed, especially Fern Hill by John Corigliano on a poem by Dylan Thomas. When I was very young, I performed a recital with Betsy Collins as my accompanist. She is still playing and did an excellent set by Chopin on this concert. About 20 years ago we did the fourth of the Brahms Four Serious Songs together at a wedding. I didn't think this piece was suitable for a wedding, but my friend requested it, and I couldn't say no. Betsy didn't have a piano reduction for Lohengrin, otherwise known as the wedding march, so she played from an orchestral score.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


Because I bought a ticket there, I am getting publications from the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden trying to sell me more tickets. The most tempting entry is for July of 2009 when Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko will present four performances of Rachmaninov's Aleko and Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. You can get an idea of how wonderful this would be by listening to the Iolanta exerpt on the Russian Album.

John Relyea will perform the role of Aleko, and in three of the performances Rolando Villazon will sing in Iolanta. I have been wishing for some Russian music from Anna, especially Rachmaninov.

Valery will hang around Baden-Baden to conduct quite a bit of Shostakovitch on other concerts.