Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Singing Wagner

This is the latest installment in the history of singing series.

Wagner didn’t invent the giant orchestra. I remember looking down into the pit at the Wiener Staatsoper during a performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821) [that’s the opera in 1821 and not my viewing of it] and seeing about 20 French horns. This was probably bogus and would only have been used in the overture and hunting chorus. If memory serves, Berlioz produced pieces with giant orchestras, the earliest being the Grande Messe des morts of 1837. It is amusing to read that Berlioz didn’t like Wagner’s music.

Richard Wagner composed as possibly no other person. He liked a dense, roiling soup of sound that best resembled an endless development section of a symphony. He liked it to sound thick, an effect that is most easily achieved by adding a lot of sound in the middle of the chord. He even invented an instrument, the Wagner tuba, basically a low French horn, that enhanced this low groan that he preferred.

Above and in the midst of this thick groan of sound singers are expected to sing. Where Verdi intuitively thins the sound to feature the voice his orchestra is accompanying, Wagner pays no heed to the singers’ difficulties and does nothing to help. He cannot have been unaware of the problem, because when the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth was constructed, he arranged to have the orchestra virtually covered with a kind of lid. He knew what a problem it was to sing his music, and he didn’t care.

It helps with Wagner to have a bit of edge in the voice. A big loud voice with an edge manages best. Some try to get by with just big, but they are at a disadvantage. The low groan in the orchestra makes it necessary to have a heavy voice to balance it. The tessitura of Wagner roles is not as high as it is for Verdi and the Italians. A Wagner soprano might well develop from a pushed up mezzo like Waltraud Meier, or Janis Martin. To sing over the Wagner orchestra, the voice needs to be big, loud and have a knife like edge to it. There are technical implications to this, but if you are trying to do it on technique alone, you are going to be in trouble. In fact I would have to say that you either have the voice or you don’t, and should do the best you can to float above the orchestra instead of pushing through it. Even bigger generalization: sing up to Wagner, never down.

There is a story circulating on the blogs that Solti once asked Renée Fleming to sing Isolde. She wisely refused. What could he have been thinking? But try to remember that when Kirsten Flagstad came to him to be coached as a Wagnerian, she had been a soubrette. We’re all glad that Renée turned him down.

Nothing ever happens in a Wagner opera that requires a light tone. Wagner moved vocal technique to its heaviest and was matched only by Verismo.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Adler Fellows

picked D me sang type
Susannah Biller, yes yes
Zdenka soubrette
Sara Gartland, yes yes
Gilda soprano
Maya Lahyani, yes yes
Carmen mezzo
Ryan Belongie, yes

Xerxes countertenor
Brian Jadge yes

Don Jose, Macduff tenor
Tamara Sanikidze. yes

Yohan Yi
Aleko bass-baritone
Michael Sumuel
yes yes Alidoro baritone
Nathanial Peake
Duke tenor
Margaret Gawrysiak
Joan of Arc heavy mezzo
Suzanne Hendrix
Cornelia contralto
Kate Crist
Eva heavy soprano
Aleksey Bogdanov

yes Tonio baritone

From Opera Tattler these are the Adler fellows for 2010, the ones my friend D liked, the ones I liked, what they sang in the closing Merola concert and their voice categories. I probably liked more than this, but I liked these two a lot. It is amazing they picked the countertenor. Tamara Sanikidze wasn't in the concert or the booklet. Maybe she's left over from this year. The only person on the internet with this name is a pianist.

Der Vogelhändler in English

"The Nightingale Song" from the operetta Der Vogelhändler sung and whistled by Elisabeth Schumann. I couldn't recognize it at first in English. Where she says "once again" I remember "noch einmal." It's all coming back to me.

Interview with Cecilia

This interview is translated from Opernglas.


Cecilia Bartoli is full of the passion for action. This time it is about music for castrati. About her unusual new project she spoke with our coworker Dr. Thomas Baltensweiler. Selections from the interview.

Your new CD is dedicated to music which was written for castrato. How did you come to this idea?

The title reads “Sacrificium” and goes on to say: Particularly in the 17th and 18th century Italian boys, who originated usually from poor families, were castrated by approximately eight years of age- in the hope they would have a singing career. They had to leave the family, train the voice, learn an instrument. Annually for music’s sake around 4000 boys were castrated, making 400,000 in 100 years. That is a tremendous sacrifice that was made for art, above all if one considers that perhaps only two or three of 4000 made a career.

With your CD you continue to a certain extent what you began with the album Opera proibita.”

Yes, exactly. At the beginning of the18th century the Vatican had forbidden opera performances. In addition it was not permitted for women to appear as singers. “Opera proibita” contains music which was sung by castrati. These were the only ones who were allowed to sing the appropriate parts. And now imagine: The Vatican forbade the castration, although it permitted only castrati in the high voice parts. Later It became customary to use castrati. Women were not able to master a tessitura which extends so far up and down. Besides the castrati offered the possibility to clever managers of making a lot of money. They were at the mercy their occupation, which was like a prison, had no private life, and therefore the career was the only goal in their life.

Most opera singers bring albums out with popular arias. You submit one CD after the other with rare pieces, and all become a sales success. How can you explain to this?

Success is not to be predicted. I think it is crucial to really believe in the music one sings, in its message. And one must have a theme. Simply to produce an album with the most famous Händel arias does not do it. I believe, the public wants something to learn – about a composer, about a certain time, why a piece was composed and for whom. The public is curious. My CDs are more projects than only Recitals. Each needs time for investigation, and not many singers or at all musicians have this time. Not the time, not the patience and not the passion.

When I heard your Rossini concert recently in Zurich, I was fascinated that you sing with the same flexibility as at the beginning of your career. How do you retain your vocal Fitness?

It is crucial to select the correct repertoire. I try to respect my instrument and its boundaries. Perhaps one can best make this clear with a comparison. I am a big fan of Roger Federer. [Dr.B. Me,too.] He is a tennis player who has his body under perfect control; he would never force something. And I try this, too. If one is young, perhaps one can make steps, which are longer than one’s own legs. But that does not function on a long-term basis.

Your next new opera role is Norma. Can you tell us something about your entrance?

Norma is still part of my Malibran project. There is no Malibran version, but Malibran sang Norma. Bellini wrote a special Malibran version only for “I Puritani.” The first Norma was Giuditta Pasta, who sang also Mezzo roles; after Pasta, Malibran was the greatest Norma. With the conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, with whom I have already co-operated on “Sonnambula” in Baden-Baden, I would like to present “Norma” in such a way, as Bellini composed her. Not as in the 1950s and 1960s, as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and - somewhat later - Montserrat Caballé embodied the role. The same tenor, who sang in “Norma” in Bellini’s time, appeared also in Halévys “Clari.” It must sound light and lyrical and surely not as Mario del to Monaco. He was great, but stood in the tradition of the Verismo. Bellini however is the son of Mozart, not the son of Puccini. I want to try to return Norma to the Mezzo color, to the lyric coinage and to the dark pathos. Norma, though probably a young woman, is of a dark character. Again, as with the “Sonnambula,” historical instruments are to be used. Also with the dynamic markings I want to follow Bellini. “Casta Diva” is a prayer with a triple piano [ppp]. That is what Bellini wanted, and what I would like to realize, even if it contradicts the Verismo tradition of “Norma” performances.

[Dr.B. This is a blog and not a magazine, so I am permitted to put in comments about Roger Federer. I also get to say that I love her. The interview in the printed magazine is undoubtedly longer. I wish I had the whole thing. I loved her Sonnambula but cannot imagine Norma.

The other 3997 castrati, or at least most of them, I presume would have taken up positions in church choirs where they would have sung the alto and soprano parts.]

Singer of the Year

According to this article, Jonas Kaufmann has been named the opera singer of the year by Opernwelt, an opera magazine based in his home town, Munich.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Taking Joseph II's Side

According to Wikipedia, Austrian Emperor Joseph II was very much interested in establishing the Singspiel, a German language musical theater, in the Austrian capital. This theater form descended from the English ballad opera and the opera comique of Paris and was considered a popular entertainment with simple songs.

One of the Singspiel commissioned for Vienna was Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, an opera written in German with spoken German dialog.

So here is the quote: "The Emperor Joseph II commissioned the creation of The abduction from the Seraglio, but when he heard it, he complained to Mozart, 'That is too fine for my ears — there are too many notes.' Mozart replied, 'There are just as many notes as there should be.'"

So let's suppose the Emperor was not an idiot. What he got from Mozart was an Italian opera translated into German with all the set piece coloratura arias one would have expected from an Italian opera and not at all the sort of ballad-like numbers expected of a Singspiel. He paid for a Singspiel and had every right to expect to receive one. I think it's time to stop picking on him.

Friday, September 25, 2009


I was curious to see that when the curtain rose in Abduction from the Seraglio, I recognized the set. The final Merola concert was done in this good-for-any-opera-at-all set. Each short scene was staged in the scenery that looks like a small, old fashioned theater with small boxes on each side.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Abduction of Mozart

In the period of about 1780-1820 the idea of the confrontation of an eastern Moslem man and a western Christian woman was quite appealing, and formed the basis for three well known operas:

  • July 16,1782, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) by Mozart,
  • May 22, 1813, L'italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) by Rossini,
  • August 14, 1814, Il turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy) also by Rossini.
The basic idea here is that the traditional eastern man is very much attracted to the open, bold western woman who would not even consider for a second living in the prison-like seclusion of an eastern harem.

Here we concern ourselves only with the Mozart opera which was presented last night at the San Francisco Opera. Mozart had not yet begun his collaboration with Da Ponte. Mozart is constantly being attributed ideas about opera which are similar to Gluck's. The truth can be seen in this paragraph, stolen from Wikipedia, from a letter from Mozart to his father:

"I would say that in an opera the poetry must be altogether the obedient daughter of the music. Why are Italian comic operas popular everywhere — in spite of the miserable libretti? … Because the music reigns supreme, and when one listens to it all else is forgotten. An opera is sure of success when the plot is well worked out, the words written solely for the music and not shoved in here and there to suit some miserable rhyme ... The best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix; in that case, no fears need be entertained as to the applause — even of the ignorant."

These are not the opinions of a confirmed reformer. Abduction is supposed to be a Singspiel, a semi-popular work in German with spoken dialog. What it actually is is a series of fair to good arias in the Italian style strung together with bits of separating German dialog. It's a little bit funny but not much. The arias are not that good. Fidelio and Magic Flute are closer to the Singspiel genre. "Martern aller Arten" is as close to a hit tune as this opera provides. As Mozart goes, it is hardly better than juvenilia.

His years in Houston have led David Gockley to a great depth of knowledge of international operatic talent. I was most familiar with Anna Christy as Blonde, having seen her before as Lisette in La Rondine and as Bianca in Bianca e Falliero. She is a fine soubrette coloratura.

Also excellent were Mary Dunleavy as the depressingly serious and noble Constanze, and Matthew Polenzani as her lover Belmonte.

None of these singers is German, and the opera company spared itself the thankless task of trying to teach them proper German theater pronunciation in spoken dialog. The arias were performed in incomprehensible German, and the spoken dialog was in English.

I don't honestly think this opera deserves the attention it gets in major houses. However, in its defense Wikipedia says it was Mozart's first hit in Vienna. I think Da Ponte saved Mozart from historical obscurity as an opera composer.  This contradicts the above quote.

The standard classical orchestra is augmented with the instruments needed for "Turkish" music: bass drum, cymbals, triangle and piccolo.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Christa Ludwig

My favorite Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde with Leonard Bernstein and the incomparable Christa Ludwig.
Der Einsame im Herbst

Von der Schoenheit

Abschied part I

part II

part III

For the tenor parts you can't beat the already posted versions by Jonas Kaufmann.


You've all been waiting for this, right? It's a sample of the opera that is being composed on Twitter.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mahler Festival

I went to the lecture before the concert of Rückert Lieder and Symphony No. 1 that begins the Mahler Festival at the San Francisco Symphony, and the young woman lecturer speaking to a crowd of mostly old people said she was going to play a "very old recording" by Christa Ludwig. Huh? Old is all in your point of view.

Michael Tilson Thomas understands his Mahler. I'm not sure I do. Susan Graham sang a very fine set of the Rückert Lieder. This part of the concert was being recorded. They scrambled the order so both of the sad songs came at the end. "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" is probably Mahler's finest song, and they performed it beautifully. I think I prefer the set to end with this instead of "Um Mitternacht."

The audience loved Symphony Number 1. People around me raved that it was the best performance of Number 1 ever. The crowd stood and shouted like they were at a football game. I probably had never heard it before and thought it was a piece of crap. Don't get me wrong. I like Mahler and I think Tilson Thomas is a great conductor of him. It's a bit too episodic for me. Does that explain it?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Trittico Magnifico

I got bored with electronic music and looked around for something else to do. My Opera season did not include Puccini's Il Trittico with Patricia Racette playing all the soprano parts and the great Polish contralto Ewa Podleś as the Princess. Lucky me, it was playing Friday night, and I could get a senior rush ticket.

This was Ewa's San Francisco Opera debut. She was scheduled for Ariodante but canceled. Please come back. She is a treasure.

This is the first time I have been to an opera performance that billed two contraltos: Ewa bills herself as a contralto, but so does Meredith Arwady whom I have seen in Daphne at Santa Fe and as Pasqualita in Doctor Atomic in the Met simulcast. She has a fascinating sound. Good luck.

Magnificent in the dual roles of Michele in Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi was Paolo Gavanelli. He was both very funny and terrifying (in the appropriate places--not very funny as Michele and terrifying as Schicchi).

But it is Patricia Racette who carries the load. She must be mature but still attractive for Il Tabarro, young but troubled for Suor Angelica and childlike for Gianni Schicchi. I must say she was successful in all. It was a pleasure to see and hear her.

This was a relatively spare modern production which worked for me. It was the least sentimental Suor Angelica imaginable. The nunnery was portrayed as a children's hospital, so Suor Angelica sees one of them as she is dying.

The house that Gianni Schicchi acquires is apparently in a high rise next door to the Duomo in Florence. It's the funniest version I have seen.

The audience was very enthusiastic, with lots of shouting, especially for Patricia, Paolo and Ewa. I shouted too.

Friday, September 18, 2009


It does seem to be all about timbre. If I like the sound palate, I am far more likely to like what they are doing with it. But what if the sound palate is people shouting with religious fervor?

Avedon at the MOMA

There was a photo exhibit of Richard Avedon at the San Francisco MOMA. It included a gigantic photo of Warhol and his movie studio people, most nude. I am embarrassed to say I instantly recognized Joe Dallessandro and then looked around for Warhol. The photo showed two groups of people, the nude actors and the fully clothed production staff.

This is Marian Anderson.

Electronic Music Festival II

I went the second night of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, but didn't hold out for the whole thing.

The situation was the same as the night before. There were four performers, so there were four groups of instruments and computers set up. Everybody uses Apple computers. This is a note to me. I have always used microsoft and the products are not that hot. Maybe I should switch.

Again the order of performance was changed. Donald Swearingen was first. His setup is called "an expanded, computer assisted performance environment." It was a group of odd looking coils that surrounded his computer. He waved his hands in the air above them and sounds came out. He is interested in something called "interrupted narrative," which means that sometimes when he waved his hands, words came out. They sounded like words from the radio. The piece was called salvation station and included various evangelists saying the word "Jesus" in an oratorical style. I don't think I was saved.

The second performer, Mark Trayle, had four saws in his setup which seemed to vibrate in an industrial sort of way. It was like being locked inside an electric saw. I longed for the saw lady who makes her saw sound sweet.

I should have stayed, but I was very tired after walking around most of the day.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Electronic Music Festival I

I went last night to the 10th Annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. This is sort of an antidote to Cats. People walk out on Cats, it seems. Maybe what's needed is an electronic Cats. They would sound more like cats that way.

I digress. The festival lasts for four days. I'll see how I do.

There are three or four performers per evening with each performer having his/her own set of gear. The show starts with all the gear on stage, so that makes for a pretty crowded stage. Apple is the computer of choice.

Last night it also started with Mariko Masaoka-Drew on the stage while the audience filed in. She is Miya Masaoka's daughter and performs the LED kimono piece, the first item on the program. Miya and her Koto and her computer play the music while Mariko wears the kimono and stands in various positions. The komono has a bunch of white LED lights on it which respond to electronic stimuli. The low and growly sounds did not particularly appeal to me, but it was fun to watch.

My favorite of the evening was Lukas Ligeti who plays something called a marimba lumina. This is like an electronic keyboard, except it's flatter, has things on it that light up and is designed to be struck like a marimba. It is sensitive to how hard it is struck, like a marimba.

The sound palate produced in performance comes from the computer that is attached. Different sounds map to different keys, much like a synthesizer drum track, except as each piece progresses they seem to change. I especially liked the piece where the sounds were like someone hitting tin cans.

He performs the pieces himself with a set of four padded drum sticks. I am trying to explain what I saw and heard. Perhaps you would prefer the program notes: "...a motion-based, polyrhythmic drumming technique, a choreography for drums, allowing performance of extremely long cyclic patterns." It goes on.

Anyway, as I was saying. Sometimes the sounds that are mapped to a key are a group of a few notes which then repeat until he stops them. Or perhaps they just loop a certain number of times and stop on their own. The result is extremely complex rhythmic patterns, dynamic, driving, exciting, loud, basically quite fun. I vote yes.

He was followed by "the fabulous amy x neuberg," a very amusing performer who used a device called the analog Blippoo Box, a synthesizer that features "chaotic modulations," or so the program notes proclaim. I advise ignoring the program notes. The device involves hand motions like a Theramin, or so it said. I have heard a Theramin and it sounds nothing like this. It makes high whiny sounds and this was yet another low and growly. I prefer high and whiny to low and growly.

She sings with her performance and was projected on a screen behind using a web cam. The piece is called the dude trilogy, and the word "dude" appears at intervals. Her diction isn't that great, so I'm not sure what it was about. She is funny and takes a close-up bite out of her Blippoo Box to end the piece.

She is more in the Lori Anderson school. After dude, she performed a few cabaret songs for voice, percussion pads and live looping. I'm not sure how extemporized this was. Electronic operas were mentioned. I would like to see these.

If you are looking for something completely different, you might try this. It plays for three more nights in the Brava Theater on 24th street.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Number One of Eighteen

First in Lotte's Eighteen Song Cycles is Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte. Like most things, Beethoven invented the song cycle.

I rather like this performance of it from 2008, which is by Peter W. Shea, tenor, and Monica Jakuc Leverett, fortepiano,. That instrument that looks like a harpsichord but doesn't sound like one is a fortepiano. If this is the type of piano Beethoven had, it's easier to imagine him beating it to smithereens. A comment explains that the lights are dim so the fortepiano doesn't go out of tune. A small light on Peter's face would help.

I like a number of things about this performance. The subtitles are nice, though unnecessary because Peter's diction is excellent and quite easy to understand. The sound of his voice is sweet.

One of the curiosities of learning German pronunciation at Indiana University was the really quite bad job that was done. I did a lot of Lieder, and I enjoy listening to my performances except for the painfully bad pronunciation. The Germans were having none of this. Jonas talks about having to learn to sing in German, but I doubt if he's available for lessons. Maybe Peter could help you out.

This tenor is not of the Lotte Lehmann school of interpretation. He seems to cast his eyes only on his crib notes in his left hand.

The cycle is just too long for a single YouTube film. A curious feature of this performance is the sudden burst of energy at the end of each film. But still, it's worth hearing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

There's no one but you

The question that immediately comes to mind is: is Cecilia Bartoli vying for the title of Sexiest in Drag? Far be it from me to argue.

And the musical clips here are spectacular.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lehmann's Books

Lotte Lehmann (1888 – 1976) wrote a number of books on the subject of Lieder interpretation, an art in which she was for many the undisputed master. I remember several books sitting on my school library's shelves. In my collection is only Eighteen Song Cycles, a volume the covers all the important German cycles, or at least those she might have been expected to sing. Mahler's Kindertotenlieder does not appear.

She moves on to cover a few French cycles, including Berlioz' Les nuits d'été and Ravel's Shéhérazade. She includes both piano cycles and orchestra cycles.

Her books fell out of favor, were considered far too specific in their directions. She talks about where your eyes should be directed, e.g.

I took classes in Lieder interpretation at IU and felt that the more specific the discussion the more helpful it was to the singer. Lehmann's best words may lie at the beginning:

"First and foremost I want to say that this book will fail in its purpose, if the young singers, for whom I am writing it, should consider my conceptions as something final and try to imitate them instead of developing their own interpretations which should spring with originality and vitality from within themselves.

"What I want to try to explain here is not any final interpretation, but an approach which may be an aid towards the development of your individual conceptions. I want to point a way which might lead from the lack of understanding of those singers, who seem to consider only voice quality and smooth technique, to the boundless world of expression. And it will be seen that there is not just one, but an infinitely varied pattern of ways, which lead to this goal. Only he who seeks it with his whole heart will find his own approach to interpretation."

I couldn't agree more. Perhaps her books still sit on a library shelf somewhere. See if you can find them.

This is a funny comment I know, but here goes--I think perhaps the stricture against imitation does not really apply to Italian opera. Your heart must still be fully engaged, but the proper style can only be achieved through imitation.

This is the only film of Lehmann singing during her active career. She was 60.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


I feel obligated to blog today just to get the 9/9/9 date. If I think of anything to say, I'll add it later.

I was interested to see that Gert labels her jokes as humour. British spelling, of course. Maybe I should start doing that.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


This is a quote from a German review of Sacrificium, Cecilia's new recording.

"Cecilia Bartoli proves again the fact that cultural archaeology and commercial success are compatible with one another in the best way. And that this lively, tremendously fiery Italian temper has deep inside a very sensitive melancholy nature, which understands music as bridge into the hearts of men."

I tried to translate the whole thing, but it's mostly descriptive of the contents of the album and very much in the serious style of German I'm not that good at.

I'm very interested in this album.

Sacrificium is also a death metal band from Stuttgart.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Another Christa Ludwig

I posted this before but it deserves a whole entry on its own. She will never be the same for me after this.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Poem for Cats

A morning feline concert
Disturbs my restless sleep.
Embrace the piercing celebration.
Wake up from dreams too deep.

Orchestrate the melody.
Add lyrics and a beat.
An end of summer musical
Might almost sound as sweet.

Definitely not T.S. Eliot. This is in response to a suggestion that I should blog entirely in verse.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Comment on nothing

At Santa Fe walking past a clump of the young ushers that are everywhere, I said for no particular reason, "Opera! Nothing beats it. Nothing even comes close." A young woman with dark hair snuck over beside me and whispered, "We all agree with you."

Piotr Beczala is featured in Opera News for September. I swear I didn't know.