Monday, August 31, 2009

On seeing again the short film "The Gallery Opening"

If there is any particular person whose career I might wish I had had it is Christine Schaefer. She does more cool things than just about anyone.

Can't find the cited film--I've seen it only on ARTS but there's this... of the funnier scenes in a very funny Figaro.

Then there is this awesome film on Pierre Lunaire.


I regret to report that I went to the Sacramento Music Circus to see Cats and had a wonderful time. In fact if you are going to see Cats, it should definitely be at the Music Circus.

I feel that Cats is best understood as a ballet on a poem by T.S. Eliot. After all, all sorts of nonsense goes on in ballets. If swans are OK, why not cats?

There were a couple of older performers, at least I presume they are older, who sang virtually without reference to any particular pitch. I pretended they were cats.

Outside the theater were real cats from the SPCA.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Thinking about Gluck

I have been working on my essays about the history of singing (see technique) and have decided I am missing a chapter on Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck. I have always been a doubter and expressed my doubts in this essay on the occasion of seeing a performance of Iphigénie en Tauride.

Since then I have experienced quite a bit of Gluck: two versions of Orfeo ed Euridice and one of Alceste. I still think there is no evidence that he influenced the Italians, but Wikipedia claims that he was actually quite popular in both Vienna and Paris. If the reform operas were popular, there is reason to believe they may also have been influential.

Gluck's life (1714-1787) substantially overlapped with that of Metastasio (1698-1782), the Italian opera librettist. Their careers were also substantially at the same court in Vienna where Metastasio lived from 1730. Metastasio's verses were intended for the florid Italian style which Gluck eventually rejected. It would appear that the two very different reform movements went on almost simultaneously. All the tracks on Cecilia Bartoli's Gluck album are on librettos by Metastasio.

When Gluck presented his first French opera Iphigénie en Aulide in Paris in 1774, it set off a virtual war with the proponents of Neapolitan style opera. Nothing is better for opera than quarreling. Far better than one style of opera that we love or care nothing for is two styles of opera that people can fight over. Today it is Eurotrash vs traditional staging that we fight over, though I would have to say Eurotrash seems to be winning.

He hated the formal structure of the da capo aria, especially the long instrumental introduction to the aria common in operas by Handel and the Italians, which would then be repeated in the da capo section. Here we may sympathize. Nowadays we are amused by the challenge of staging these irrelevant instrumental interludes. We stage the singers to ride up and down on escalators to fill up the time, e.g. Eventually everyone tired of the da capo aria.

Gluck’s operas are never in German, but they are still very much part of a German sensibility. To sing them does not require the lightness of Italian singing, but neither does it imply the heavy intensity of Beethoven’s Leonora. He is lumped stylistically with Mozart, but Mozart was not above expressing through coloratura and did not hesitate to compose some for a particular soprano. Mozart never falls into the kind of lugubrious monotony Gluck is often guilty of.

Gluck's operas appear to sing relatively well in a monotonous pre-Wagnerian sort of way. Alceste is very suitable to the Wagnerian technique of Christine Brewer. I'm thinking the whole thing over.

Callas is the only one who approaches the take no prisoners style I prefer for this aria.

It occurs to me that Gluck will have been the first to create a style of opera that could compete with the Italians on the international stage. French opera, which we must presume was popular in France, never accomplished this. I still see it as an alternative to Italian opera rather than an improvement on it. Italian Opera shall be presumed to be opera in Italian written by people from Italy and performed in Italy, and not German guys writing opera for Vienna.

This new strain of opera cannot be said to have won over the Italians until late Verdi a century later.

The problem I seem to be having is that I made it all the way to my seventh decade before ever seeing a staged Gluck opera. It's a little hard to think he's all that great if no one ever does him.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Oh! quand je dors

[This is a different performance but equally beautiful.]

I am currently mad for this song by Franz Liszt. This is the best one I've found so far. I loved it without knowing what it meant. I hope it means this:

Oh, when I sleep, approach my bed,
as Laura appeared to Petrach;
and when in passing, your breath touches me...
suddenly my lips
will part!

On my glum face, where perhaps is ending
a dark dream which lasted too long,
as your glance like a star arises...
suddenly my dream
will become radiant!

Then on my lips, where a flame is fluttering,
a flash of love that God has kept pure,
place a kiss, and from an angel, become a woman...
suddenly my soul
will be awakened!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Don Juan Quiz

In the program for Santa Fe was a series of famous Don Juan pictures. I guessed most of them. Can you?

I couldn't find a key in the program.

Friday, August 21, 2009


From Alex Ross we know that Hildegard Behrens has died. I think my only live encounter with Frau Behrens was from a front row seat in Davies Symphony Hall when she sang Leonora in a concert version of Fidelio. Ben Heppner was the Florestan and Herbert Blomstedt conducted. Blomstedt's Beethoven was excellent. The entire performance was very moving.

Riccardo Muti will assume leadership of the Rome Opera at the end of 2010. Just what I needed--a new reason to go to Rome.

Anna Netrebko has performed an all Russian recital with Daniel Barenboim in Salzburg to a standing ovation. Europeans don't stand up for everyone the way we do. Anna's Russian work is unexcelled. However, when you call something "The Russian Album" it sort of sounds like you've covered the subject. A Russian recital recording would be wonderful. Maybe they'll do this one so the rest of us can hear it.

In other news Classic FM magazine asks us to believe that of the 100 Best Artists you might want to hear, 5 of them are countertenors. How likely is that?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

What the Fach?

I found a book called What the Fach by Philip Shepard while browsing around the internet.

What the Fach is an book with advice about auditioning in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Lots of subjects are explored in a very up to date way. It was over 30 years ago I did this, and it doesn't look like a lot has changed. This material is only 2 years old. A cursory review tells me that it is not BS.

If you think you would like and might have the goods to have a career in opera singing, this is one path to that goal. I probably violated every recommendation. I was too old, was a contralto, picked the wrong arias, spoke only the smallest amount of German, etc. "Geht dieser Zug nach Grossen Linden?" "Ein Zimmer fuer drei Naechte, bitte." That was it.

These days there are training opportunities all over America. One way to go about it if you are American might be:

1 Find a good voice teacher and take their advice.
2 While you are still young, try to get into the various apprentice programs that exist around the United States. San Francisco, Santa Fe, etc.
3 During steps 1 and 2, study German. Meet people who speak it and practice speaking with them. Get German translations for all your arias and learn these versions.
4 Take the leap and go to Europe. (Notice absence of academia in this list. Janis Martin didn't finish college.)


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Piotr Beczala

And what about this guy?

This reminds me of Bjoerling. Tone. Style isn't quite as good. He should maybe listen to some Jussi since the sound is so similar.

I did my time in German opera, and he's good. He does the seriously corny quite well. There can never be too many tenors.

Anja Silja

Anja Silja is a singer I should like to know more about.

This YouTube entry includes comments about her needing voice lessons. Ha. She sang the heaviest possible repertoire well into her sixties. You try it and see how you do. This performance is in her twenties and is quite respectable for that age, in my not very humble opinion.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I have been searching for pictures of Elina Garanča in drag. It turns out all I needed was Bing. This one is Annio:

This is Sesto:

The pictures are from different productions of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito.


This is the cover of Cecilia Bartoli's new album Sacrificium. She's supposed to be a marble statue of a castrato, I guess. I think it's a bit creepy.

The tracks are all from Italian composers and were composed mostly between 1723 and 1746, the greatest period for virtuoso castrati.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Luisotti Interview

Here is an interview with the San Francisco Opera's new Music Director Nicola Luisotti from back in January. It might still be interesting.

Binging Bartoli

I am trying out the new search engine Bing. Well well. When you tell it you want images of Cecilia Bartoli you get.... Well.... Images of Cecilia Bartoli. Imagine!

There are these nice caricatures:

This is more of a painting, I guess.

These two of her playing the trumpet:


And this nice concert photo:

I don't know if any of them will replace my favorites.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Pictures of the Santa Fe Opera

This jeep is part of the Elixir production at the Santa Fe Opera.

A sunset from my seat inside the opera house.

The sun setting through the center of the stage.

I got in trouble for this one. If you look carefully, you can see the moat that runs around the orchestra pit--left of his right elbow. They don't want you to photograph the set, but none of these pictures tell you anything about what the set looked like.

This is the bar and people sitting on the fountain by the entrance.

This is the sunset on a different day.

This is the mezzanine bar before the opera. Try the coffee and Bailey's.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Both items are from the Opera Tattler.

Anna Netrebko has canceled the repeat of Willi Decker's La Traviata at the Met. She doesn't want to compete with herself.

Angela Gheorghiu canceled most of her appearance as Carmen also at the Met. She left in two performances.

Angela canceled all the performances with Roberto. Maybe they are fighting.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Roxanne Swentzell

The sculptor Roxanne Swentzell has a website here. She is entirely out of my price range.

Pin Ups

Or is that all one word?

Well, according to the bloggers, Jonas Kaufmann does not want to be regarded as a pin up. What is one to do? Here I am trying to promote the idea that opera is sexy, and the sexiest opera singers don't want to be regarded as sexy.

I liked Opera Chic's idea that he should keep both feet on the floor. That made me laugh. I don't think I'm going to stop anyway. Sigh.

Perhaps this picture is appropriately serious, but I doubt it. The man is gorgeous no matter how you photograph him.

Monday, August 10, 2009


The number of young people in the audience at the Santa Fe Opera may be the most I've ever seen. This is in addition to the young ushers and apprentices. It isn't your usual old person's opera.

Riding the van back to Albuquerque, I mentioned that the opera The Letter is composed entirely out of its period, its period being now, and could easily be something by Barber, Copland or late Prokofiev. Someone immediately objected. "I disagree. I liked it." When in that sentence did I say I didn't like it? I liked it fine. It's still out of its period by some 60 or more years. That isn't how people are writing now. This falls into the category of data, not opinion.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Giovanni in Red

Don Giovanni was the last of my five straight nights of opera at Santa Fe. The set was done all in red, even the trees. Donna Elvira was also all in red. It wasn't too much red for me. Dramatically it worked quite well, and I don't really feel like writing about all the details.

For me this was the best night overall for singing. In order of my preference:

Susanna Phillips as Donna Elvira. I liked her sound and her feeling. She was a Santa Fe Opera apprentice in 2004.

Kate Lindsey as Zerlina. She is billed as a mezzo but didn't sound heavy at all. She was an apprentice in 2003.

Elza van den Heever as Donna Anna. Her voice is big without being heavy and dominates the ensembles.

Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni. He fought the current trend and didn't take his shirt off.

Matthew Rose as Leporello.

Other people liked Charles Workman as Don Ottavio better than I did. He seemed to be trying to darken his voice more than I like for Mozart. He seems to be the guy that sang Jupiter to Cecilia Bartoli's Semele in Zurich.

After five days of opera, it is hard to form opinions any more. Lawrence Renes conducted.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1780-1803]

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Racette's The Letter

The opera The Letter may truly be said to belong to Patricia Racette. A new opera commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, it received its first performance on July 25. She consulted with the composer on how to write for her voice. This is something that Gluck sneered at, but I'm always glad to hear when a composer works with singers. I think it was successful in this case.

The tenor/lover's role is enhanced through flashbacks, including a complete reconstruction of the scene which led up to the murder. She shoots him twice. This includes an effective love duet and is in general the heart of the opera.

Patricia Racette is a great artist and was completely in her element here. Her character runs the gamut from romantic love, passion, deception, cruelty and rage. It is virtually a dream part.

My take on this opera is that it is dramatically quite effective and that the music enhances the drama. It lasted only an hour and forty minutes. We had our doubts about the ending. There was no proper dramatic build-up for the suicide. In the movie the Chinese woman kills her. If she is going to kill herself, we need to feel it coming, and we don't.

The music by Paul Moravec did not intrude into ones consciousness. Nothing in this opera could not have been composed for the Bette Davis movie in 1940, and it functioned in the drama much like a movie soundtrack, heightening the drama while not calling attention to itself. Though the style of the music is clearly from the first half of the twentieth century, the overall effect was engrossing and quite pleasant.

Patrick Summers, the music director of the Houston Grand Opera, conducted. I was pleased to see James Maddalena as the lawyer who actually regrets his sleazy behavior. His portrayal was moving.

I probably haven't said enough. With new operas one always wonders if it will be produced again. It is a work that could be performed by second tier companies with big orchestra budgets. How about paired with Gianni Schicchi?

This is the composer talking to fans.


Everyone keeps telling me I should have come last year to see Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Billy Budd. Apologies to all.

Santa Fe Opera

Sometimes I feel that people come to the Santa Fe Opera just to be here. The air is bright and the opera is carefully scheduled to start just after sunset--9:00 in July, 8:30 in August. When you walk through the doors from the back, the sunset spreads out before you. They don't want you to photograph the set, but photographing the sunset from inside the theater is almost irresistible.

For us the weather has been beautiful. The clouds developed into rain only on Thursday night.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Plot of The Letter

The opera The Letter is by Paul Moravec on a libretto by Terry Teachout after the play by W. Somerset Maugham. It fills the requirement that opera is a chick flick. You don’t get chick-flickier than an opera based on a Bette Davis movie.

This is an opera based on a movie, based on a play, based on a short story, and finally based on a real incident in Singapore.

The lover says he wants to break up with the heroine, that he has found someone new. The heroine shoots him 6 times, stopping only because she runs out of bullets. Heroine makes up a story that the lover was trying to rape her.

A letter surfaces in her handwriting arranging for a tryst with the lover. Oops. The lover’s new Chinese girlfriend is the one who discovers the letter and offers it for sale. The price is all the money they have. The idea of the letter first appeared in the play.

There are variations in the many versions of the story. In the movie the Chinese girlfriend is his wife. In the other versions she’s his mistress.

The heroine is tried for murder and acquitted. Her husband says he still loves her, but she admits she still loves the man she killed. Each version of the story seems to have a different ending. In the movie the Chinese wife kills her. In the opera she commits suicide.

The major innovation in the opera is that the tenor lover reappears in flashback at various points.


I don't have to tell anyone the plot of Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, I'm sure. And I'm not giving anything away to tell that the elixir is a bottle of claret. At the Santa Fe Opera the hero Nemorino has a car repair business directly across from the school where Adina teaches. Nemorino spends his time repairing a red sports car. The setting is post WWII Italy.

This is lots of fun. Everyone is just as they should be. Dmitri Pittas as Nemorino is lumbering and sweet voiced and does a mean "Una furtiva lagrima." He used to be an apprentice here.

Jennifer Black as Adina is arrogant, confused and sweetly sung, just as she should be. She was also formerly an apprentice. Her appearance is underwritten.

It is arguable that the true elixir is the appearance in this small Italian town of the American occupation army. It is the bold and daring Sergeant Belcore who starts the romantic ball rolling.

One of the more delicious bits of staging occurs when the girls of the town, except for Adina, hear the rumor that Nemorino is suddenly rich. They line up across the stage and start primping themselves to become more attractive to the new most eligible bachelor. In fact there is a lot of cute business in this production. Bravo.

I understand that Thomas Hammons as Dr. Dulcamara was a last minute rescue for the cancellation of John Del Carlo. Hammons has his opera buffa down cold. Instead of the elaborate wagon of other productions, the doctor appears disguised as an old woman carrying two suitcases with two carabinieri hot on his tail.

Great fun. Everybody left smiling.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Daphne Odjig

This is called Pebbles on the Beach. I went mad for this painter in the museum of contemporary native art in Santa Fe today. She is from Canada.

One of the pictures included a portrait of Picasso. He is a major influence on her work. Another is native symbolism. She is varied and very exciting.

Cute at Santa Fe (so far)

Saimir Pirgu, Alfredo

Paul Groves, Admete

Apologies to the barihunks crowd--these guys are both tenors.


It would not be possible to imagine a greater stylistic contrast than we heard over the last two nights: the lively and athletic Natalie Dessay singing the lively and dynamic Verdi, followed by the stately and powerful Christine Brewer singing the sedate and sleep-inducing Gluck. The only thing that seemed similar was the dancing.

If you haven't been, the Santa Fe Opera venue is open to the elements. The weather is at nature's whim. We saw lightning in the distance both nights while the temperature stayed warm. As you wander around the grounds, everywhere are beautiful young people directing your way. Highly recommended.

The lecturer for La Traviata mentioned "The Lisbon Traviata"--Maria Callas's legendary 1958 performance of Violetta in Lisbon. Apparently you can buy this from House of Opera if you look for a city called lisbonne.

Brewer's Alceste

If it's Wednesday at the Santa Fe Opera, it must be Gluck's Alceste, pronounced al-SEST-uh when they are singing her name in the opera. Admete (ad-MET-uh), the king of Thessaly, is dying, and the oracle says that if someone else will volunteer to die, he will be spared. His beloved wife Alceste volunteers. When he recovers, she is still alive, and he asks her why she is not happy and celebrating with the others.

I'm giving the plot because nobody knows this opera. In this production they drag the dying king around the stage throughout the first act even though he has no lines. Then in the second act when he has recovered, he does a Greek dance with members of the ballet. The time and place for the opera would seem to be almost modern Greece. We are seeing the French version which includes a lot of ballet, performed primarily by dancers costumed as imps from hell.

The king hounds Alceste until she admits that it is she who will die in his place. Hercules appears and all descend into hell. There's a scene where Admete and Alceste compete over who will die. Death gives the choice to Alceste, but Hercules persuades them all to return. Then Apollo appears and allows both of them to live.

It isn't clear exactly what's going on, but there is intended to be a happy ending. Operas still usually had happy endings in that era. In the Santa Fe production a sign saying "La Mort" is carried out and when it is wrapped around someone, that means they died. In this manner they kill off an old couple at the end, and the opera ends with both Admete and Alceste dying. The music just kind of peters out.

The music is endlessly soothing and peaceful. Sturm und Drang has definitely died by this time. And, yes,Handel was right--there is not the tiniest hint of counterpoint. It took substantial doses of the excellent coffee provided by the opera to keep awake. The monotonous texture of solo singing with virtually no duets or ensembles is broken only by the chorus, a very welcome change. The chorus work at the Santa Fe Opera is excellent.

Why do this somber work? Berlioz is supposed to have liked this opera. Because it has a marvelous role for Christine Brewer, and she asked to be allowed to sing it here. She sings virtually throughout the opera and has a couple of marvelous arias. "Divinite du Styx" at the end of act one is especially rousing. The action is not too demanding. She was blocked in such a way to allow for occasional sitting. It is not too common to experience Brewer in an opera, especially one that is so perfect for her talents. Hear hear.

Sharing the stage with her was the excellent Paul Groves as Admete. The opera lasted about half an hour too long for me, and I could be heard muttering "Gott sei dank" when the lights finally went down at the end.

The eleven year old Mozart attended the Italian version of this opera in 1767 in Vienna with his father.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1760-1780]

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


They were selling some gorgeous pictures of Natalie in the shop, so I'll try to pick some up to post. I don't know why I didn't yesterday.

I took a couple of shots showing the view of the sunset from my seat. I'll maybe post one of those eventually. La Traviata was accompanied by distant lightning.

Santa Fe is an opera experience like no other. They remember how you get great singers to sing in your house: you ask them what they want to sing that no one else will let them sing. Kurt Herbert Adler used to do this.

The t-shirts are not cute. At least to me. I'll just have to keep wearing my Daphne shirt.

Dessay's Traviata

In the autobiographical novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexander Dumas the Younger the life of the courtesan Marguerite Gautier is presented in flashback after she has died. The production of La Traviata at the Santa Fe Opera uses this device. During the somber music that opens the opera, Violetta’s coffin is carried across the stage while Alfredo looks on. The novel formed the basis for the play of the same name, which in turn formed the basis for the opera by Verdi.

What makes this production special is that it is Natalie Dessay’s first Violetta on any stage. The performance is about her.

It is clearer than it has ever been that we are being shown in act I and the second scene of act II two parties being thrown by two prostitutes, Violetta and her friend Flora, for their rich clients. There is no sedate nineteenth century dignity here. When Natalie is carried on to the stage in her flaming red dress, she raises her arms and screams as loud as she can. There is drinking and carousing. At last we see why we should be shocked by her. Violetta is a party girl.

At Flora’s party the gypsy music is staged as the girls displaying what they have to offer to the highest bidder, and the men pretending to be matadors in pursuit of them. This was very effective.

However, we are not always sure of our footing with regard to period. The men wear nineteenth century top hats, especially the already quite tall Laurent Naouri who sang Giorgio Germont. But in the same scene Violetta wears pants, something I don’t recall hearing of anywhere outside the wild west. It gives her freedom of movement to show how healthy and happy Violetta is feeling at this time.

The floor of the stage is littered with large gray rectangular boxes, requiring Natalie to jump from one to another throughout the opera. Violetta may be dying, but Natalie Dessay is obviously quite athletic.

It is a Traviata for Natalie. Her vocal fragility becomes the heart of her characterization. We feel the emotions of each scene instead of merely seeing them written on the translation screens. We felt her reluctance to give herself to love followed by her complete commitment. We felt Violetta’s growing illness and death as real events. In this production she dies entirely alone.

Laurent Naouri is a beautiful singer one would like to hear more of. Alfredo was sung by Saimir Pirgu who is Albanian and quite adorably handsome. Is that enough to guarantee him a career? We’ll have to see.

Frédéric Chaslin conducted. He is part of a whole team that accompanied Natalie from France, including Louis Désiré, Laurent Polly, Chantel Thomas, and Jean-Jacques Delmotte who did the scene and costume designs.

I think at this point there will need to be a personal moratorium on La Traviata.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1850-70]

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

At Santa Fe

I am at Santa Fe with the Elderhostel, and in the mornings we hear lectures about the opera we will hear that evening.

Ron Grinage, the instructor, played a recording of Natalie Dessay singing the big aria from La Traviata. Toward the end a tenor came in. Who could this be that arouses such a visceral unease? We think Roberto Alagna is adorable, we like his voice and even his style. So what exactly is the source of the anxiety?

We said that pitch variation was part of the performer's interpretation. You must always feel that the performer.... How can I properly express this? I need to feel that the singer is always aware of what the pitch is supposed to be. He sometimes leaves a queasy feeling. Maybe he could use auto-tune.

Tonight we see Natalie in La Traviata. Her husband, Laurent Naouri, plays Georgio Germont in this production. They come with the whole family and spend the summer.

These are Maciej Pikulski, Natalie Dessay, Laurent Naouri.

Saturday, August 01, 2009


Have all the pop songs started to sound exactly the same? Have you started to think you're becoming senile because you can't tell one performance from another? Well, blame it all on auto-tune.

According to Wikipedia, this is a software and/or hardware device that takes any performance and corrects all the out of tune parts.

According to Wikipedia, "According to the Boston Herald, 'Country stars Reba McEntire, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw have all confessed to using Auto-Tune in performance, claiming it is a safety net that guarantees a good performance.' Sara Evans, John Michael Montgomery and Gary LeVox of the group Rascal Flatts also rely on Auto-Tune to compensate for pitch problems. However, other country music singers, such as Loretta Lynn, Allison Moorer, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, Martina McBride, and Patty Loveless have refused to use Auto-Tune."

Isn't this interesting! I have started to wonder what an auto-tuned "O mio babbino caro" would sound like. Or maybe an auto-tuned Elvis. Opera may be the last vestige of real singing.

Please see "Tools of Expression" in the previous blog entry. Pitch modifications are part of the song, part of the artist's interpretation. Except for the ones that mean you're tone deaf and should probably not be singing in the first place.

The mind boggles. It isn't your imagination--they actually want to all sound alike.

Or auto-tune anything. Don't you really like Katie Couric better this way?