I used to write long essays giving advice to composers wanting to compose opera. One sentence was "Your job is to make the singers sound good." I sort of gave up because it became apparent that no one was listening. None of the singers in Thomas Adès' The Tempest sound good at all.
It's a good subject for an opera but very painful to listen to. This is based on a DVD from House of Opera from the ROH production. I would describe the style as neo-second Viennese school, but entirely without Berg's lyricism.
I will repeat my most basic advice here: If you never go to the opera and don't really like singing, do not repeat DO NOT write an opera.
Meredith Arwady as the Rheingold Erda in the production at Frankfurt, to be precise. This has to be one of the funniest pictures of an opera costume I've ever seen. She sees it as a sort of female Chewbacca, or maybe Chewbacca meets Lady Godiva.
I haven't taken this quiz in a while so I thought I would do it again. This time I came out...
You're Countess Geschwitz! You're not a trouser role -- just a garden variety dyke. You do wear 'male costume', though, so it's all right that you slipped in somehow. You're decent, honest, brilliant, loyal, and apparently the only principled human being on the continent. Then why are you so miserable? Because you fell in love with a heartless skank-ho, dummy! "Mein Engel" mein ass! A word of advice: when they call it "serial music", they aren't kidding -- watch out for Jack the Ripper.
Oh to be young again and play this Countess. This time I didn't lie.
I'm going to try to explain what this is. It is an object from an art exhibit at the Asian in San Francisco. It is taller than my head and wider than my arm span, and consists of dozens of small strips of neon, each strip wired separately.
I wasn't supposed to take a picture of this, but it was irresistible. The rule for museums these days is photos without flash in the regular exhibits, nothing in the special exhibits.
I could hear it playing from the next room, like a mystical sound track, single notes of random pitches with a tone like a cello or bassoon. What could it be?
Each individual strip of neon goes on and off, and when it goes on it plays a note. At the moment of the photograph most were on. If you bought this, you could put it in your living room and stay in tune with the universe.
Though sponsored by the Sacramento Opera, the children's opera Brundibár, by the Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása, is really more of an historical and cultural document than an opera. It is famous for having been performed 55 times at the WWII Jewish concentration camp in Theresienstadt, a fortress in the Czech Republic built by the Hapsburg Emperors, and for having been featured in a Nazi propaganda film.
The first part of the program at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento was filled out with songs and choruses which would have been sung in Theresienstadt. I know I heard English, German and Hebrew, but there may have been even more languages. The able soloist was Josselyn Ivanov. This section featured the Sacramento Children's Chorus with their excellent director Lynn Stevens. Pictures made by the children of Theresienstadt were recovered after the war and shown to us on a large screen.
The opera, performed in English, is short and simple. Two children go out to find milk for their mother, or in lieu of that money for milk, and are prevented by the organ grinder Brundibár. Good triumphs over evil. Often the accompaniment sounds like organ grinder music, the most successful musical effect. This section of the program was accompanied by the Sacramento Youth Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Timm Rolek.
After the musical portion Ela Stein Weissberger, who had played the cat in the Theresienstadt production, spoke about life in the concentration camp and the fate of her fellow cast members. She travels the world speaking about Brundibár.
People writing about singers sometimes say that they act with their voices. This was often said about Leontyne Price. Maria Callas was said to "act" with both her voice and her body. What can this possibly mean? I suggest that it means the same thing as I mean when I talk about phrasing.
All singing has pitch, rhythm, tone and phrasing. Phrasing is.... Any music has an expected way in which it is phrased. I've discussed this it must be hundreds of times by now, and I begin to become discouraged. If it helps to say they "act with their voices," then so be it.
In many ways music is the creation of anticipation, the movement from one note to another, the feeling that more is to come. All the elements can contribute to this effect, but phrasing is the strongest.
Unphrased music just sits there. In the modern world we substitute deafening repeated bass notes for phrasing. You know what I'm talking about. When the car drives past your house, all you can hear is the bass. In my case this is my only contact with this type of music.
Stefan Zucker who writes for the Bel Canto Society has sent me a long article on What Sets Callas apart, and nowhere in it does he mention that her phrasing was exquisite. Why else would we sit through the ugly sounds she so often makes? Because we are masochistic? Or more likely because we recognize perfection when we hear it.