While flying around on airplanes, I picked up a copy of the Rolling Stone magazine's 100 Greatest Singers of All Time issue. A substantial percentage of these people are younger than I am, even the dead ones, so "all time" seems a little of an exaggeration.
The oldest in the list at number 31 is Howlin Wolf, born in 1910. All of these artists may be considered his musical children, especially since whole genres of American music are omitted from the list. Where is Frank Sinatra and his whole swing genre? Etta James at number 22 is as close as we get.
Their ears don't wander over to bluegrass and Alison Krauss.
My number 1 for the styles they cover is not only missing, but entirely unreferenced: Mahalia Jackson. Pretend all you want but Mahalia is better than their number one: Aretha Franklin. Mahalia is Mount Everest in a Rockies sized mountain range. She towers.
But then they like Bob Dylan at #7, a singer that makes me cringe. And 28 is far too low for Janis Joplin whom I would put more up around #2. Mahalia and Janis are two sides of the sanity coin. And if I need to explain which one is which, there would be no point.
Lists are always fun, and having different opinions is part of the fun.
While I was in Ohio for Thanksgiving, I watched the first half of the Met version of Puccini's Manon Lescaut on television. I had missed the HD simulcast when it played in theaters last year. Unfortunately for them, this opera is also my favorite recording of Luciano Pavarotti and Mirela Freni. Karita Matilla and Marcello Giordani simply did not hold up by comparison. The Metropolitan Opera production was boring. Matilla punched her high notes in a style that might be fine for Salome but is all wrong for Puccini.
The one redeeming feature is the interview by Renée Fleming, the one where she gets Karita to perform the splits. Amazingly silly!
We switched to watching kiddie cartoons. There were kiddies.
If you want to own a Manon Lescaut, choose this one.
Musicophelia by Oliver Sacks is a physician's perspective on music and the brain, organized by his experience of departures from the normal. We may better understand our more average selves by understanding those of us whose minds are not like us.
He makes an excellent case for the primacy of music in human evolution. Music is the glue of the human community, giving us the evolutionary advantage of groups. Other species do not experience music which fills a large part of our brains.
I like a book where one can generalize from specific cases.
There is a story of a man with no memory at all, a man who when he closes his eyes and opens them again has forgotten all of his life before. In spite of this he could still play the piano and organ and conduct. Someone would need to bring him to the rehearsal and set the correct score on the stand.
This story reminded me of a conclusion I made about driving a car early in my experience of it. My subconscious was an excellent driver. I could day dream away and it would carefully signal, stop at stop signs and lights, avoid other cars, even shift gears all on its own. There was only one thing it couldn't do--remember where we were going. I could get myself home without thinking, but any new destination required attention. I ended up in some strange places. I digress.
Sacks tells how the ears reclaim parts of the brain unused by the blind.
He describes the therapeutic effect of music on those with Parkinsons.
He has described people dreaming about music, including an anecdote about Berlioz composing a symphony in a dream, as I once recall doing. Mine was remarkable, perhaps somewhere between Tchaikovsky and Brahms, but disappeared when I awoke.
For many the favorite story is of the man who became a musician after being struck by lightning.
It gives perhaps a better idea of how musical we are than more technical brain mapping writing. In many ways we are music.
The section on music and emotion is perhaps a bit cursory. Whole books have been written on this subject alone, and it probably has not yet been adequately described. He describes an emotionless man who nevertheless sang Irish songs with emotion. I think I would have described him as performing the Irish songs in the appropriate style. The music and the phrasing are one. If you have learned a song with a certain style, then that style is one with the music, and when you performed it, it would sound emotional. Only classical musicians with their brains chained to pages of written notes, notes entirely devoid of emotion, could imagine the two things to be separate. A full description of the relationship between emotion and music has not yet been written.
He needs to incorporate the idea of phrasing into his conceptual framework to carefully distinguish it from emotion. The musician phrases. The listener feels. Of course, the musician is a listener to himself.
Wednesday was La Bohème at the San Francisco Opera. How much can one say about La Bohème? I didn't cry.
Mimi was sung by Angela Gheorghiu. It is very important for me to say that I had no trouble hearing her. Angela's Mimi is a thing of beauty. There was a very catty interview with her in Opera News this month, but I'm still on her side. If I had paid to see Angela, I would not have liked being stuck with the understudy.
I enjoyed Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo. He sounded and looked just as he should.
I thought Norah Amsellem as Musetta looked and especially sounded familiar. She is the Micaela in the Jonas Kaufmann Carmen from the ROH. She was lively and fun, but unfortunately for her my previous Musetta at San Francisco was Anna Netrebko who simply exploded in the role. BOOM!
I liked the production. The scene at the Cafe Momus was staged indoors. I had only one problem--in the last scene the guys seemed to all look alike.
The other big event of the evening was my introduction to the conducting of Nicola Luisotti, the new musical director of the San Francisco Opera. My impression was good. The style was right, the coordination with the singers was excellent and best of all he paced the opera with great skill. You have to be paying a lot of attention to notice this aspect of conducting. How the music moves from scene to scene is all in the conductor's control. Luisotti will bring a new emphasis on Italian repertoire where Runnicles excelled in German. I wish him luck.
I was at a Mu Phi meeting the other day and was explaining how singers don't usually have the high toned taste of instrumentalists. My teacher, organist John Lewis, who died this year, would cringe whenever anyone mentioned the hymn "The Palms." For him it was ghastly. We singers would try to explain how much fun it was to sing, that it made you want to sway from side to side, like waving palm branches, but he was completely not having it.
So listening constantly to opera doesn't really work for me. I have to have some Alison Krauss or Linda Ronstadt once in a while. I'm just not that serious.
I may be exactly the right person in exactly the right mood for Anna Netrebko's Souvenirs album, the only recording of those I have been seeking that I have succeeded in getting.
There can be no question that the duet with Elina Garanča in Offenbach's "Barcarole" is perfect in every way. Imagine you are in a gondola at sunset and enjoy.
Anna always seems real to me. The greatest performers have the greatest gift--the ability to show their true hearts. Only the pure in heart can redeem the deeply corny. Listen while drinking cognac.
Incidentally, Gustave Charpentier composed Louise. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, credited on my ipod, was a completely different guy.
Here I discussed my favorite production from my time at the Ulmer Theater--the one with caskets and dead people, sort of the haunted house Nozze di Figaro. Well, that was Peter Mussbach, now something of a person in German opera. Above is a picture of him with one of the ghosts from the Figaro production. My Swiss friend who sang Susanna in this production told me he had given up medicine for a career in opera.
Mostly Opera has an item about him here. He has gotten into conflict with Daniel Barenboim and gotten himself kicked out of the Berlin Opera.
These are the walking dead arisen from their caskets--one of the caskets can be seen in the background--surrounded by members of the audience. I was allowed to go watch them and take pictures as long as I was not in costume.
Flagstad. In my youth she was a huge favorite. Audio only.
I only included ones I like.
Here is Jonas Kaufmann's version.
I have been reading the comments on YouTube for a while now and I have made a small observation. When you are studying singing, lots of time is spent getting you to sing on key, to pronounce the words correctly and articulate them a bit, to approximate the composed rhythm. This is primarily for the teacher's sanity.
When you are listening to famous singers, you should be trying to observe what they are doing that you are not doing, the idea being that they are right and you are not. Few teachers will teach you how to make music, so you may have to find it for yourself.
Wenn du es wüßtest,
Was träumen heißt von brennenden Küssen,
Von Wandern und Ruhen mit der Geliebten,
Aug in Auge,
Und kosend und plaudernd,
Wenn du es wüßtest,
Du neigtest dein Herz!
Wenn du es wüßtest,
Was bangen heißt in einsamen Nächten,
Umschauert vom Sturm, da niemand tröstet
Milden Mundes die kampfmüde Seele,
Wenn du es wüßtest,
Du kämest zu mir.
Wenn du es wüßtest,
Was leben heißt, umhaucht von der Gottheit
Zu schweben empor, lichtgetragen,
Zu seligen Höhn,
Wenn du es wüßtest,
Du lebtest mit mir!
If you only knew what it's like to dream of burning kisses, of wandering and resting with one's beloved, eye turned to eye, and cuddling and chatting - if you only knew, you would incline your heart to me!
If you only knew what it's like to feel dread on lonely nights, surrounded by a raging storm, while no one comforts with a mild voice your struggle-weary soul - if you only knew, you would come to me.
If you only knew what it's like to live, surrounded by God's world-creating breath, to float up, carried by the light, to blessed heights - if you only knew, then you would live with me!
This guy has a lot to say. I admit I wasn't able to get this worked up over Dr. Atomic that I wanted to write that much about it. It is a little less boring than the SF version, but still pretty boring. I stayed to the end just to see if it was different.
I still think Peter Sellars is a smooth talking idiot.
There was lots of smoking in both Carmen and Doctor Atomic. The difference? At the ROH the girls come out of the cigarette factory surrounded by clouds of real cigarette smoke. Oppenheimer's ever present cigarette never puts out any smoke. This seems sensible.
I panned Doctor Atomic when I first saw it in San Francisco. I hated the fact that a bomb hanging in the air seemed to be all it was about. Even more I hated the emptiness of the second act. The SF production was by Peter Sellars.
Sellars is also the librettist for Doctor Atomic, and he and John Adams have worked over the second act considerably. People keep talking practically to the end now.
The Metropolitan Opera production, by Penny Woolcock, is far more interesting. There's still a bomb hanging in the air, but it is tucked back out of the way except when referred to. She kept people in proximity who might be supposed to be talking to one another--what a concept. The actors waiting for the blast, the "cloud flower," put on their dark glasses, and at the end there is a white flash of light, followed by the sound of someone speaking in Japanese asking for water. There is a definite sense of having reached the end of the opera, something completely missing in the version put on in San Francisco.
I think the closeups of the HD broadcast also helped make the opera dramatically more interesting. Video design was by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer. Alan Gilbert, an American and the new conductor of the New York Philharmonic, ably conducted.
Gerald Finley who sang Dr. Oppenheimer did not take any bows, unless I was so distracted I completely missed them. I remember Sasha Cooke who sang Kitty (very nice), followed by John Adams, followed by nothing. Finley would have come between them, I would have thought. I thought this represented an excess of self-criticism. He was not in ideal voice but sounded fine. The role is not easy to sing. I recommend that he drop it from his repertoire.
I liked very much the Pasqualita of Meredith Arwady. I always watch for Thomas Glenn who sang Robert Wilson again. No one is going to make their career from singing in Doctor Atomic, but in general the singing was enjoyable, with lots of pleasant coloratura, especially for Kitty and Pasqualita.
I took away the impression that the entire staff at Los Alamos was slightly wacky. Edward Teller has long been a personal favorite for general insanity. The opera is an improvement over the San Francisco version, but I feel like I've seen it enough. Is it a great opera? It has edged toward being an opera at all, but not far. No amount of beefing up the parts of Mrs. Oppenheimer and her maid will make this a chick flick. A real opera on this subject would be about extramarital sex at Los Alamos. It's better, but it's still pretty much a yawner.
Disturbing comment by John Adams in the intermission: Dr. Oppenheimer was more cultured than Aristotle. Huh? I don't know that cultured is precisely the word I would have used to describe Aristotle.
Cecilia's interview with Charlie Rose when she was 29 has surfaced again. I first saw this interview by accident when it was first broadcast, sitting in my New York hotel room on a trip to see her at Carnegie Hall.
Carmen, 1876, is the precursor to Italian Verismo that started in 1890 with Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. All the characters are from the lower classes, and violence is a prominent feature. Carmen is a modern woman who praises the virtues of liberté, a woman who chooses her lovers and warns them to beware of her love, to regarde a toi.
We may well wonder why she chooses the timid good boy Don Jose when she could have anyone. Jonas Kaufmann completely personifies Jose, and provides in his good looks a possible reason why the wild and crazy Carmen should want him. She picks him because he is the only man there who is not pleading for her affection, who seems not even to notice her. She intuits his inner turmoil, throws the flower at him, and he says he feels as though he were shot by a bullet. We cannot guess what Jonas may be like, he so completely disappears into the role.
During the third act he rappels down a wall with the aid of a rope. Can your tenor do that?
The contrast between this Carmen and the Zurich version with Kasarova could not be greater. Kasarova acts with her shoulders while Anna Caterina Antonacci uses her whole body. This version has a credit for the person who stages the fights. Whoa! There is a terrific knife fight between Escamillo, here played by Ildebrando d'Arcangello, and Don Jose. And in the final act Carmen and Don Jose get down on the floor and wrestle around quite a lot.
The opera begins with a staged scene during the Prelude of Don Jose being taken off to his execution. This sort of thing, staging of scenes during the overtures of operas, is verging on cliche.
The world wasn't ready for Carmen when it opened, but we are definitely ready for such a physical, intense, well sung and sexy Carmen. Highly recommended.
Since I started blogging, I have discovered Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Sadly, this amazing singer first appeared in this blog as an obituary. I was also quite a gloomy singer with a taste for the "Dead Kid Songs" of Gustav Mahler, so I was fully prepared for her profundity, far deeper than my own. Most astounding, perhaps, is her Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Médée, available from House of Opera. She puts Peter Lieberson on the map with his Neruda Songs . She reaches to depths rarely reached before.
Another discovery since I started blogging is the composer Osvaldo Golijov, composer of the St. Mark Passion, Ainadamar, Oceana,Ayre, etc. The main component of his work is fun. Often the best performances of his works are by people not classically trained, leading to the possible conclusion that it isn't really classical music at all. He loves Dawn Upshaw because she is able to let go, to release her preconceptions and find the music as he has conceived it.
And, of course, there is Jonas Kaufmann, discovered by accident in a Zurich performance of Fidelio while on a trip to to see Cecilia Bartoli. I have even gone so far as to travel to see him in Zurich. He is fascinating at every level: he's cute and sexy, has a gorgeous voice, is apparently a fabulous actor and a great musician. This last is a qualification I am personally unable to ignore. They must arouse my musical instincts, and not just my libido.
Netrebko, Bartoli, Fleming and Florez are old loves, not discoveries. Renée is continuing to develop, something I did not really expect. One looks for and wishes for this--that the artist will grow in their repertoire as they mature.
Tristan and Isolde isn't exactly a love, but it does qualify as a discovery. Who knew I could enjoy this?
I am in the process of discovering Joyce DiDonato. Her Handel mad scene on YouTube is very impressive. I wasn't wild about her Octavian, probably because she is so small and not because of anything about her performance. She has a lot to offer.