Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Brain and I

I am up to chapter 5 and I am starting to get interested in This is your Brain on Music by D. Levitin. For me he's most interesting when he's talking about something besides music. Oh well.

According to him, my theory about what a melody is is constructivist. Cool! I'm happy to be a constructivist.

I have long thought that philosophy and psychology were bullshit occupations, and am happy to see the new empirical approaches he describes. If you can't test it, you don't know it.

I recall long ago reading a book called Philosophy in a New Key by Susanne Langer that I liked a lot. It led me to think that the mind is always specifically looking for categories. This may even be its primary activity.

Art is often trying to contradict or alter this. Whistler painted a picture of his mother that isn't called "Whistler's Mother"--it's officially called "Arrangement in Gray and Black." You and I are seeing his mother sitting in a chair facing left. We mostly register the colors much later. Whistler is doing a color study. His mind is also categorizing, but the categories are completely different.

The mind basically doesn't want anything left uncategorized. If it hears a row of notes, it will try to form them into a familiar melody, no matter how unlikely the formation may seem. My theory is consistent with Levitin's narrative of the empirical results. The idea that nothing is left uncategorized is missing here, as near as I can understand it. He just talks about putting things into categories or leaving them out. Langer talked about meaning rather than categories, but the idea is the same--the primary function is to assign meaning to everything. Please note that this is the opposite of a computer which always looks for an exact match.

Test this out: look around you and try to find something that no meaning has been assigned to, that doesn't fall into any category. Then try it on sounds.

Using this theory, we can define a game as a non-serious occupation. The mind wishes to categorize everything as serious or a game. Which one are you? This blog is a game with a semi-serious surface. The game definition must include the awareness that the mind wishes for nothing to remain uncategorized.

Now we're getting somewhere.

P.S. As usual, I am free associating. If you want to know what he says, you will have to read it yourself.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Arias for Rubini





One can't help thinking that Rubini must have sounded a lot like Juan Diego Florez, for it is truly remarkable how well these arias with their many high D's and one E-flat sound in his voice. He is the Rubini for our time.

There is interesting information in Philip Gossett's note. Rubini continued the older tradition of light high notes and didn't follow the new fad for heavy, chesty high notes that became popular at that time. Instead, he sang higher than everyone else, and attained his greatest success in the repertoire of Bellini.

Question for C: Did Rubini and Malibran ever appear together? Gossett thinks not.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Netrebko in London

If I could afford it, I should have stayed over in London to see Anna Netrebko sing La Traviata. Luckily I will get to see her in San Fran next summer. This review is fun. When she has been really good, she jumps up and down in the bows. It's the complete performance, you see.

He thought Jonas was callow, not a bad description of Alfred. I think he will not become all he can be until he does more Wagner, and does him in the big style he requires.



My friends all loved the Baden Baden Gala DVD that I took to the party on Sunday. None of them had ever heard of Elīna Garanča. They wanted to see Beverly Sills and Marilyn Horne. I am trying to avoid the trap of loving only people I heard in my youth.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Brain stuff

What I am looking for in This is your brain on music is something that makes me think. In my last entry I wrote that a melody is just a series of ratios and rhythms. It is significant that the brain, as opposed to machines, focuses its attention on the differences between the notes rather than the notes themselves. It may be this feature that makes music possible. I'm going to propose the possibility that the ratio between notes passes into long term memory while the specific pitch does not.

He writes briefly about musical illusions. I think music is an evolutionary accident, and that music itself is an illusion.

The author says he is more interested in mind than in brain. He should have called his book This is your mind on music.

Samuel Ramey in San Francisco

Season Opera Role
1978 La Bohème Colline
1984 La Sonnambula Count Rodolfo Debut
1986 Le Nozze di Figaro Figaro
1989 Mefistofele Mefistofele
1990 Don Quichotte Don Quichotte
1991 Attila Attila
1991 Don Giovanni Don Giovanni
1994 Mefistofele Mefistofele
1995 Don Giovanni Don Giovanni
1995 Faust Méphistophélès
1996-1997 Les Contes d'Hoffmann Various
1999-2000 Louise Father Debut
2001 Simon Boccanegra Jacopo Fiesco Debut

I've definitely seen him in Semiramide (video), Boito's Mefistofele, Verdi's Attila, Don Giovanni, Gounod's Faust, and Bluebeard's Castle in Washington. He did Boris in Madrid in September.

His website still shows it, but a friend says he has canceled his February scheduled appearance at Colorado Opera in Don Pasquale. He thinks at 65 he's too old to learn new parts.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

This is your Brain

After owning it for months, I have finally started to read This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin. I notice that it has come out in paperback already.

There are a few annoying things about this book. For one, basic concepts of music like meter and rhythm are explained ad nauseum, explanations that I generally don't need, while the scientific ideas are thrown out often entirely without explanation. "This is in your hippocampus." [Not a quote.] That sort of thing. There are virtually no illustrations except a completely unnecessary picture of a piano keyboard. There are no scientific illustrations. What a hippocampus might be we are not to know. I have to conclude that he is writing for scientists and not musicians.

For another, virtually all the musical examples are from contemporary pop music. So he is writing for scientists with only a very primitive interest in music. Alternatively, he is a scientist with only a very primitive interest in music. Choose one.

Nevertheless, there are interesting things here. Why is it that when we hear two dissimilar instruments playing in unison that we don't have any trouble keeping them separate in our brains? Or two singers? Each tone produces a unique set of overtones which create the color that is that instrument. Theoretically, they should form a single composite sound. Why don't they?

He thinks this is primarily due to minute differences in onset. I would add differences in articulation--same thing. His examples are oboe and trombone, instruments which articulate differently.

I know that when I was in my synthesizer phase, I would frequently play the same melody on multiple tracks with different patches, but I think on a synthesizer they would blend into a single sound that could not be separated, provided the tracks were precise clones of one another, something easy to do on a synthesizer. A good way to get a track to separate is to leave it in its original human played raw condition while making all the other tracks rhythmically standardized. The track with imprecise rhythm will be heard as the melody.

See. This is interesting to think about. It completely validates what I was saying about phrasing. The imprecision is what draws us in.

Another subject he discusses is why one remembers the melody and not the specific pitches. This comes right after a discussion of ratios between pitches that make up the scale. Obviously, ones awareness is focused primarily on the ratios; one remembers the ratios of a melody and has virtually no memory of the precise pitches. A melody is a specific series of ratios and rhythms. Most people have no idea if they are singing a melody in the same key or another one except as they become aware of how a note feels in their voice when they sing it. I can't imagine what further explanation is required.

I'm going to write a lot more about this as I go along. This is due to my 10 minute attention span.

This review continues here, here, here, here and here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Regie

I have been playing the Regie game with La Cieca lately, and I must say it is a lot of fun. I guessed Die Fledermaus a week or so ago, and was disappointed that it was so easy. It looked exactly as it should to me. In this production both Alfred and Rosalinde are in their dressing gowns, implying a lot more fooling around than is generally the case. It looked like fun to me.

I have a harder time understanding Eugene Onegin in the old west.

One doesn't oneself live in Germany and doesn't see the need. Both the UK and the US have very lively theater traditions that have nothing to do with opera or government subsidies. In the old days one of the directors at the Ulmer Theater was doing Busby Berkeley and another did exclusively black on black, so this whole German thing is nothing new to me.

It has to have to do with money. In our culture someone spends the money and takes the risk to produce a new work and put it on in a Broadway theater. Twisting old pieces in government subsidized productions is simply not necessary. The Germans should give capitalist theater a try. Start a Broadway style tradition in Berlin now that you have a real capital.

I've heard of a piece about King Ludwig II that is put on in the Bavarian Alps every summer, so there is at least some original theater in Germany.

I like the game. Try it yourself. Search on Regie and it will show you all the old ones he has posted and people's guesses. Yes, I know--everyone already knows about this.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Netrebko

We wouldn't want to lose track of Netrebko. Here is the latest interview where she talks about her weight. She talks about her boyfriend. Is his name still a secret?

Recording contracts

Some things move easily to DVD.

Eugene Onegin with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky appeared very quickly on the Decca label because both artists as well as Valery Gergiev are contracted to Decca.

I Puritani is released on the Deutsche Grammophon label because Anna Netrebko is contracted there. She and Villazon and Elīna Garanča perform so often together in part because all three are contracted to DG.

Bryn Terfel and Anne Sophie von Otter seem to appear on both lists.

Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna are both Decca. But Alagna and Netrebko are on different labels, making a DVD for Romeo and Juliet doubtful.

Joyce DiDonato is EMI while Juan Diego Flórez is Decca. This may prevent a DVD of last season's Barber.

We all wonder why a DVD has never been made of the wonderful Rosenkavalier with Kiri and Luciano who both record for Decca.

And what about the Nozze di Figaro with Bartoli, Terfel, Fleming, et.al.? Why don't we get that?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Macbeth in HD


Macbeth.................Zeljko Lucic
Lady Macbeth.......Maria Guleghina
Banquo..................John Relyea
Macduff.................Dimitri Pittas
Malcolm.................Russell Thomas

Conductor...............James Levine
Production..............Adrian Noble


I skipped Macbeth at the San Francisco Opera this season. A huge fuss was made about the fact that Thomas Hampson was singing Macbeth. What do I care who is singing Macbeth. Who is singing Lady Macbeth? I will not sit through another horrible Lady Macbeth no matter what the rest of the opera is like. I thought. One simply doesn't want to cringe through those parts of the opera waiting for her parts to get over.

I was right, of course. One wants a good Lady Macbeth. One wants Maria Guleghina. In the interview at the half she discussed the role. One aria is for mezzo. Another is coloratura. A third is very heavy dramatic soprano. The interviewer asked her what attracted her to the role. I made up my own answer: because she can do it. This may well be the toughest role to cast in the repertoire. Producers would flock to this. Damn, she was good.


I liked everything about the simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera. I liked it all. I was able to see for the first time why Verdi liked Macbeth best of all his operas. He matured and realized that these requirements for a soprano were really impossible to fulfill and never got quite this screaming again.

I liked the dark production. I liked the witches that looked like ordinary people, like people in a Stanley Spencer painting. I could have passed on the little girls spitting. Maybe without closeups. I liked the scene of refugees in the woods, and felt that this treatment justified the modern costumes. We need to feel that it touches our own lives.
I liked Guleghina walking on chairs set down by the witches, though I'm not sure why. I liked the politics. It was gentle and real. I liked the substitute Macbeth, Željko Lučic, who seemed very deep, emotional and tragic. I liked John Relyea enormously, and thought he looked cute in his terrorist outfit.


I was moved and thrilled. This may be the best political Verdi I've ever seen.

Forgive the bizarre photos of Maria Guleghina. The weirder they are the more I seem to like them. When asked how she related to the role, she said she was a normal mother and waved to her kid who was watching in Europe.

Padmavati

Padmavati, 1918, by Albert Roussel is an opera ballet set in India. The plot is relatively simple: Padmavati, the wife of the magnanimous prince Ratan-Sen, is desired by the enemy mogul Alaouddin. He promises peace to the land of Ratan-Sen if Padmavati is turned over to him. Otherwise the entire population will be massacred. When Padmavati hears of this agreement, she stabs her husband and goes to her own death in the traditional act of suttee on her husband's funeral pyre. In this context suttee is an act of female assertiveness. She does not wish to become another man's wife, and controls events to this end.

It is a neglected work, so what one wishes to know is why. Some consider it Roussel's most significant work. It is said to include orientalisms, modes, scales, etc. I don't really hear them. I hear a post-romantic orchestral style most obviously associated with movie music. It isn't that far distant from Franco Alfano's similarly oriental La leggenda di Sakùntala, 1921. They represent a style that is completely unrepresented in contemporary repertoire. That happens. Not only do the works of minor composers disappear from awareness, occasionally this is true of entire style periods. The movies that use this type of music still play, so the style is mentally associated with movies.

The style includes a large orchestra with extensive choral augmentation, including lots of humming chorus. One could easily imagine a staging similar to Sakuntala with chorus arranged around the sides of the stage. The center of the stage would need to be open to allow for ballet.

I was listening to Turandot on the radio last night, specifically the recording by Pavarotti, Sutherland and Caballe. What a wonderful recording this is. (For more on the subject of Turandot and Sakuntala see here.)

I mention this because these three operas clearly form a group with Roussel in the lead. He had a personal interest in India and had visited the city where the Padmavati story originated. The others where clearly following his example.

The leading character is a mezzo, here sung by Marilyn Horne in a part well out of her coloratura specialty. The other leads are equally distinguished: Jose van Dam and Nicolai Gedda. The music is very beautiful, but it doesn't suggest anything theatrical, not even a movie.

Promotion


I've decided to become a shill for Jonas Kaufmann. This is released on March 11, his first album for Decca, I guess. I can't find a track list.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Cecilia

I read with dismay the things that are written about Cecilia.

People complain that she moves her hands in a funny way, when I see only conducting. She may want to think about this and make sure she only conducts when she really needs to. It didn't seem excessive to me. In one of my conducting classes we conducted with our eyebrows, which of course she can't do. But what about shoulder blades? I'm just kidding.

The concert avoided any loss of coordination amongst the conductorless ensemble and Cecilia, though Ada Pesch was officially listed as conductor. This was not always the case in Proibita with the same ensemble where things got chaotic at times. Cecilia's conducting appears to be necessary. She only needs to make sure it isn't becoming a habit.

People complain that the music is second rate. I think you can't do both: you can't accurately recreate the musical world of another era while insisting on performing only masterpieces. In any era there is a lot of music that critics judge not to be great. Keep in mind that this may at times include all of Italian repertoire (see Rosen). I ask myself if it accurately reflects Malibran? I think she was charismatic and outrageous, like a modern pop star, and not a sacred masterpiece. I think the selection of repertoire reflected the pop star nature of Malibran's career.

Rossini and Bellini are all there are of vocal masterpieces of the era in question. Are they all there was of music? Certainly not. The French and Germans went right on composing. Malibran sang Fidelio, but I don't think Cecilia is prepared to take that on. I eventually acquired a taste for Mendelssohn's "Infelice."

I still play the album and enjoy all the numbers, even the yodeling. I like the fullness in Cecilia's voice, something missing in the concert I saw. I like the album more than I liked the concert, for reasons related to voice. I agree that in the concert she sometimes sang too softly, something that can be compensated for on a recording. Or the editor can select a different take. I don't care for the tone to diminish beyond a certain point of clarity, but I cut her some slack because of the cold.

But when I listen, I hear the way the phrases are arranged rhythmically, the way they pulse with life. I hear enormous variety in the articulation of the coloratura. I hear how completely her performing style transforms to reflect the era and genre. I hear how the musical tension never flags. If you don't hear this, I hardly know what to say.

Gruberova

I realized suddenly that I know nothing about Edita Gruberova. I may have had her confused with Guleghina who is singing in Macbeth tomorrow.

So now I have two DVD's of Roberto Devereux, one with Gruberova and one with Caballe. I'm going to an opera party with my friends soon and I'm going to take both of them along. Gruberova sort of blasts her way through with huge patches of notes hardly noticed and certainly not articulated. Caballe is better on style, and Caballe's DVD comes with a very young Jose Carreras as Elizabeth's boy toy. Notice how many more notes there are in the Caballe rendition, and how much more graceful phrasing.

So I am ready to dismiss Gruberova when I play her Donna Anna on YouTube. It turns out to be excellent. What is it about Mozart that inspires people to do their best?

Gruberova's "Casta Diva" on YouTube shows a style of scooping that is a little out there. I don't think I'll acquire a taste for it.

So what is one to make of an artist that is so all over the map?

I used to confuse Regine Crespin, Leonie Rysanek and Regina Resnik, thinking they were only two singers. I've probably told this story before--one of the annoyances of advancing age. One acquires a taste for strangers--one can be sure they haven't already heard ones stories.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Kismet

I received this paragraph in my email today:

"I would like to inform you about a really fascinating opera by the sadly neglected French composer Albert Roussel,recently reissued on EMI. It is called Padmavati,and is a fantastically colorful and exotic tale of Medieval India during the Moghul conquest. The recording is superb and features Marilyn Horne, Nicolai Gedda and Jose vanDam.The Theatre de Chatelet will be doing one of the very rare productions of the opera this March, and with luck it will appear on DVD. Don't miss this EMI recording."

I just happened to be walking past a library branch and stepped inside to see what they had. Padmavati with Marilyn Horne et. al. Is it serendipity or kismet?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Fierrabras


The Zurich Opera, my home away from home, has produced a genuine curiosity: Franz Schubert's Fierrabras. The tiny folder that comes with the DVD tells why we have never heard it, or indeed unless you are memorizing lists of things for your doctoral orals, heard of it. The Viennese company that commissioned the work changed management just before it was to be produced, and the new managers dropped it. It had its first Viennese performance in 1988.

We seem to have wandered into a staging rehearsal where Schubert himself is the director. All are costumed in clothing from Schubert's era, and Schubert, who occasionally speaks, moves them around the stage. I imagine the Schubert character is a Regie insertion into the fairy tale plot, that his lines are borrowed from the other characters. He hands out lines and scores to the characters who appear to read from this copy.

There is a cute bit of business at the end where Schubert is handing out scores to the characters and Jonas Kaufmann who plays Fierrabras follows him around the stage insisting on his score. He is quite irate. He opens the skimpy book he is finally handed, sees that there are only a couple of pages for him, that he doesn't even get the girl, and he stalks off in a huff. Schubert shrugs.

Jonas is relatively cheerful about the insignificant nature of his music. Indeed only the two women, Juliane Banse as Emma and Twyla Robinson as Florinda, seem to have anything like an aria. László Polgár as Charlemagne has a fairly significant part. He has grown a beard which improves his looks.

Most of the music is ensembles, and all has a lovely stately quality. The two love affairs end as they should. Would you want to buy this? Only for the historical curiosity aspect of the thing. Compare with Fidelio.

Fidelio....................Fierrabras
1814..........................1823
spoken dialog..............spoken dialog
melodrama..................melodrama
fabulous arias.............ariettas at best and none to write home about
great plot.................plot too complicated
great part for Jonas.......lousy part for Jonas, though he looked cute
great soprano role.........two halfway decent soprano roles
off stage trumpets.........off stage trumpets
great music................good but rather bland music
lots of arias.............endless tedious ensembles
happy ending..............happy ending

The absence of significant arias is key. It never rises above nice. All of my advice to opera composers would seem to apply to Schubert as well.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The stressed-out opera singers

From The Times January 4, 2008

The pressure on opera singers to become brands risks creating an industry of pill-popping stressballs

Emma Pomfret

When Rolando Villazón steps on to the Vienna Staatsoper stage this week to sing Werther, the opera world will breathe a cautious sigh of relief. One of its most bankable stars is back from a six-month absence blamed variously on depression, voice problems and ill-health.

Last year was a tough year for opera: cancellations broke out like bubonic plague and singers began to stamp their feet about overwork causing stress and illness. There is certainly some truth to this claim. But can the opera community act to prevent another year of no-shows? In a world driven by extraordinary ambition, ruthless competition and ego, that sounds unrealistic.

Opera has already survived its whistle-blower moment; the German tenor Endrik Wottrich, criticised for pulling out of Die Walküre at the Bayreuth Festival last summer with a cold, claimed that stressed opera stars were resorting to drugs and alcohol to perform.

But ask around for a Verdian Amy Winehouse and you’ll probably be disappointed. Few singers acknowledge taking anything stronger than vitamins and echinacea to fight off colds, though some use beta blockers to control nerves. “In the old days it was alcohol,” says the English bass Sir John Tomlinson, now in his fourth decade on stage. “There were singers who had a bottle behind the dressing room radiator. Now you see quite a bit of pill-popping.”

Opera has always been star-driven. But today’s big names are brands; they have CDs to promote, DVDs to plug and lucrative endorsements, all besides the day job. Jürgen Flimm, the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, thinks this off-stage circus is a problem. “Plácido Domingo told me: ‘Before, we concentrate on singing and between the performances we rest.’ No TV, no interviews, no merchandising. But now you have to advertise the watch and the jewels.” Anna Netrebko promotes Chopard jewellery as well as O phones; Villazón advertises Rolex.

After a festival beset by cancellations, Villazón, Netrebko, Neil Shicoff and Magdalena Kozena all pulled out, Flimm believes that today’s singers overperform, cramming every possible opera and recital into already hectic transatlantic schedules. “They are singing too much,” he says, and gives the example of the Swedish tenor Lars-Erik Jonsson, who died in May 2006 at 46. “He flew all the time. They say he was much longer in the air than on the stage. So this is dangerous.”

One manager likens the opera treadmill to the international tennis circuit, travelling alone without family or friends to share your triumphs and disasters. Opera’s elite see their performing lives mapped out years in advance. The Royal Opera House, for instance, is already booking soloists for its 2014 season. With preparation time constantly squeezed, the American mezzo Joyce DiDonato now uses Skype (the online phone service) to hold “face to face” singing lessons with her teacher, wherever she is in the world. She recently took a seven-week sabbatical after performing six new roles in the past two years.

“ Der Rosenkavalier [for San Francisco Opera in June] was role number five in 18 months,” she says, “and I was about two months behind where I wanted to be when I arrived the first day.” One house had changed its schedule, slotting in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos when DiDonato had planned to take time off. Singing her first Strauss was good preparation for Rosenkavalier, but it derailed her groundwork for the role of Octavian. “I was looking at Mount Everest, going ‘I need oxygen’,” she says.

From the comfort of the stalls it is also easy to forget the physical toll of performing. Producing three hours plus of faultless vocal gymnastics furiously dehydrates the body and, with the demise of “stand and deliver” opera, directors demand more from their cast. Keith Warner’s recent Ringcycle at Covent Garden was a mass of steep ramps and extreme lighting, which almost got the better of Sir John Tomlinson.

“I don’t know about using the word dangerous, but it was risky,” says Tomlinson, 61, who switched from singing Hagen in half the cycle to replacing Bryn Terfel as Wotan in each performance. “One evening, because of the lighting, I literally walked off the front of the stage. I dropped a couple of feet and landed in a heap. Of course everybody thought it was part of the production.”

But are the costs of not performing so great that singers still go on, even when ill? Drafted in as Wotan with only four weeks to curtain up, and barely six weeks before he sang Gurnemanz in another Wagner epic, Parsifal, Tomlinson felt he simply could not fall ill. “I had to be superhuman; there had already been one cancellation.” Besides, if you are ill, he explains, “there’s always a doctor who will prescribe steroids. [Cortisone reduces swollen vocal muscles in the short term.] And there’s always a company who phones up the doctor and says: ‘Get this guy on the stage’.”

Wottrich’s claims about singers’ drug abuse, though, amazed the author Blair Tindall. A former professional oboist, her book Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music is an exposé of orchestral life in all its orgiastic glory. But she thinks that singers are different.

“Opera singers are characteristically obsessed with caring for their voices,” she says. “Doing drugs and drinking would be like pouring petrol on a Stradivarius.”

But surely if singers simply admitted when they were ill, they could help themselves and support each other in the process. The French soprano Natalie Dessay is rare for speaking frankly about the surgery she had six years ago to remove nodes on her vocal cords. To date, Villazón’s official website makes no mention of the Mexican tenor’s recent troubles, as if the mere hint of vocal weakness might strip the lustre from those top Cs.

Perhaps this is because, in a solitary, tough profession, singers talk of doors being closed to problems. Performers must deal with anxieties, nerves, stress, depression or family issues without a support network. “There is some mentality that we singers are machines and we should always be able to produce,” DiDonato says. “It takes a lot of courage to stand up to a major theatre and say: ‘I cannot do this.’ It should be the priority of the theatres to support singers in those situations.”

Elaine Padmore, director of opera at Covent Garden, sympathises. “We know the stress that singers are under: they’re nervous; they may be doing a role for the first time,” she says. “At the same time, their choice of profession is one that puts them under strain. The show’s the thing and you’ve got to get there.”

Yet companies have their audiences to consider, many of whom pay to see a Villazón, Juan Diego Flórez or Netrebko perform. As Padmore explains, houses employ artists in good faith and expect them to be fit for productions. “It’s the managers who have a lot to answer for if their artists arrive and they’re tired or putting off an illness.”

It is a little too convenient, however, to condemn pushy managers. Simon Goldstone at IMG Artists, whose roster includes Villazón and Danielle de Niese, says that successful performers survive by pacing themselves and being highly disciplined. “Singers should know their limits,” he says. Artists agree. Joyce DiDonato says candidly of her frantic 18 months: “I made the decision to take those roles freely; it wasn’t the manager; it wasn’t the theatre. All singers, we’re responsible for our decisions.”

With so many conflicting interests at stake, in reality it seems that singers must look after number one. As Tomlinson says, “Each performer has the duty of looking after themselves. It’s important to stick fast to your intuition.”

Unfortunately, for the fainthearted in a ruthless world and the overambitious in a competitive one, drugs may be a quicker fix.

[Dr.B. I read that Cecilia sang her La Cenerentola gala in Zurich with a fever. She sang the London concerts while recovering from a cold. I am very happy to read that Villazon is back. Still no word on what was the matter.]

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Old and New Leontyne

To blog about opera one must have opinions and state them. Reading old opinions leaves me thinking that I change my mind a lot.

Which is better:


Young Leontyne


or old Leontyne.

The years change her. Her voice is less agile, but her interpretation ripens and takes on depth as she ages. An opinion that feels right in one moment, changes in another.

I wrote in January about making music: The trick is to make the magic with every piece, to find its heart, to reach that perfect intersection of work of art and self, to find the music of your soul.

The old Leontyne Price achieves this here to a level of perfection that may never have been exceeded. It is completely her and completely Verdi all at the same time. Don't ask me how.

It must be mentioned that the second film is Leontyne's farewell to opera. It must be seen for the ovation alone.

Popp in Braut


Die Verkaufte Braut or The Bartered Bride by Bedrich Smetana, as it is known in English, is probably performed more in German than in its native Czech. The Viennese love it.

Odd as this may sound at my age, I am trying to question my own assumptions. Lucia Popp should be perfect for Maria, I thought. I will hear her in a role that should completely suit her, I thought, before I decide she is a total loss. Well, I never thought she was a total loss exactly, just not one of the 20 best sopranos of all time.

To make the top 20, in my view, you must have shaken me to the socks at least once. Do one thing perfectly and you're in. Schwarzkopf makes my list by default because of her Marschallin. Price is in for Aida. Lots of people make it in for Wagner, since he is so difficult: Nilsson and Flagstaff most notably. Callas is in for Norma. De los Angeles is in for La Boheme.

Kiri te Kanawa makes my list for doing the perfect Rosalinde, a personal favorite. I hated Popp's Rosalinde. She completely misses the sophistication the role requires.

Lucia Popp unquestionably does a perfect Marie in Verkaufte Braut. She grasps the music and presents the full range of emotions required for the role. She looks just right and feels right. Her German is beautiful.

Is this enough to thrust her into the top ranks? Not for me, but it does bring her up out of the non-entity category.

This DVD is the Deutsche Grammophon version from the Vienna State Opera with Adam Fischer conducting--a little briskly for my taste, but maybe he's right. The rest of of the cast are excellent. If you like this style of opera, it's a good choice.



Friday, January 04, 2008

Words and Music

"Words and Music by Jerry Hermann" played on my local PBS station on new years day. The name was completely unfamiliar. I can't explain this. He wrote all the songs, both words and music, for Hello Dolly and Mame, plus several other shows. There were interviews with Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury and films of the shows.

It was agreed that his shows didn't translate as well to the movies due to the loss of immediacy. The song "Hello Dolly" is considered the greatest production number in theater history. I have only seen the movies which starred Barbra Streisand, much too young for Dolly Levi, and Lucille Ball, not nearly edgy enough for Mame. I haven't seen them in the theater.

They explained that he doesn't read music. Someone had to transcribe his songs.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street


It was perfect to see this so soon after returning from London. Practically the opening line is "There's no place like London." This London is dark and menacing.

I went to see Sweeney Todd at my local cinema. I knew what I was getting into since I have seen the video of the Broadway version with Angela Lansbury. There's quite a difference between a video of a stage play and a movie. People getting their throats cut in the theater is going to exist mostly in your imagination, but a movie has to have all the gore you would have imagined right out where you can see it. I'm a little squeamish, but I just close my eyes when it gets too rough.

Could you ask for more in a movie of Sweeney Todd? More than the utter madness of Johnny Depp as the demon barber with his bride of Frankenstein hair? More than Helena Bonham Carter in her corpse-like makeup? More than Sacha Baron Cohen in his fabulous outing as the fake Italian barber with his elixirs and testimonials from the Pope? Could you ask for a more perfect villain than the always nasty Alan Rickman?

I liked the scene of the judge's office where the walls are painted with the famous paintings of Dionysian initiation from ancient Pompey. Further character development is hardly necessary. (This opinion may only reflect my art obsession.)

Mrs. Lovett, Carter's character, is only trying to be practical. We have a lot of meat going to waste, so why not make it into meat pies? Then hers will no longer be the worst meat pies in London. The movie shifts the balance of the drama back to the title character. On the stage Angela Lansbury dominated the action.

I think the singing will always stay in Angela Lansbury's voice when it plays in my head, but I didn't mind anyone here. Carter was occasionally difficult to understand. I suppose this is the place to mention it is by Stephen Sondheim whom I usually loathe. I don't here. Everything seems completely suitable. I mean, if you're going to write an opera--I think it's considered an opera--about a barber who slits people's throats and a woman who makes meat pies out of the dead bodies, well then I suppose it should sound exactly like this. It was exactly as spooky as it needed to be. I laughed fairly often. Is that bad?

Jane Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower play the young couple who we will assume live happily ever after. Almost everybody else is dead.

Here are a lot of photos.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

I'm just not trendy

This is the Lake Superior State University 2008 List of Banished Words, so I thought I would see if I'm guilty of using any of them. The number refers to the count in my blog.

PERFECT STORM 0
WEBINAR 0
WATERBOARDING 0
ORGANIC 0
WORDSMITH 0
AUTHORED 0 This refers to the use of the word author as a verb.
POST 9/11 0
SURGE 0
BLACK FRIDAY 0
BACK IN THE DAY 0 Thank god I've never said this.
DECIMATE 0
UNDER THE BUS 0

is the new 2
Now we're getting to it. I said that I would never say Netrebko is the new Maria Callas. Does that count? I said she "is the new face of opera" in another post.

RANDOM 5
I think this has become slang. Normal old people using it don't count.

SWEET 19
This can't count if it means Sharon Sweet. 2
Or Sweet Honey in the Rock 1
Or "too sweet" 1
Or when it's a word in a song 1
Or refers to sweet notes 2
This still leaves sweet 11. Not as bad as my use of Nice: 100 times.

IT IS WHAT IT IS 1
I used this to describe the Waldbuehne concert.

EMOTIONAL 29
You're supposed to pick a specific emotion.

POP 48
I'm using it to refer to pop music where it is an adjective. They're objecting to it used as a verb. That color pops. I used it to say Jennifer Hudson pops on the screen. I like this. How would you say this if you didn't say it that way?

I'm not too guilty of most of this. Nice is my failing. I should make a list of words I could use and put them in.