If your German is good enough, you might enjoy this interview with Jonas Kaufmann. He speaks at length about his vocal crisis. I am sticking to translating interviews that are written out.
He talks about his vocal crisis and what he did to overcome it. He talks about how babies never seem to get hoarse. This is amusing. Undoubtedly the words of a father. Singers strive to achieve the same naturalness that a baby has naturally. The point never comes when one can say that one has achieved this. It's necessary to keep striving.
In Werther there is a reference to Ossian, the Gaelic poet. Our hero, Werther, is supposed to have translated Ossian into German. The great aria "Pourquoi me Reveiller" is supposed to be Werther reading his translation aloud. Goethe, the author of the novel Die leiden des jungen Werthers on which the opera is based, was a great admirer of Ossian. Or James Macpherson depending on which side of the argument you come in on. The poems were first published in English in 1760 by Macpherson who later published Gaelic versions. So either the whole thing was a literary hoax, or there is some reason to believe that Macpherson had some Scottish sources.
The whole time I have been writing this blog I have been doing a kind of self commentary on what and how I'm doing. Should I change this now that I know people are actually reading this?
My journalistic model is Entertainment Weekly. I admit I write about actual subjects way more than anything you will see in EW. But the annual sexiest opera singers list is a definite attempt to set the emphasis on entertainment.
I am a trained musician whose education did not emphasize opera. While I have gone to the opera throughout my adult life, actually knowing anything about opera is an ongoing process for me. For instance, I am far more knowledgeable about Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms than about The Rake's Progress. So my mind wanders off topic a lot.
Topics I actively pursue:
1. Stories about my obsessions. Do I have to say what they are?
2. Stories about the operas and other music I am seeing.
3. News and gossip. Hopefully more news than gossip.
4. Annual sexiest opera singers list.
5. Phrasing. Currently percolating tirade on this topic. Look people--without phrasing it isn't music! $%&&%#
6. Translations of interviews in German. Germany is the center of the classical music world, and I actually enjoy this. I could try to expand my sources.
7. Photography. It would help if I were a better photographer. I actually like it if the pictures look a little funny. There's the "looks like" game, for instance. Seeing similarities is something that happens to your brain when you get old.
8. My technique series which is almost finished.
9. Modern operas
10. New singers. I am still very proud of spotting Jonas Kaufmann in Zurich before he became a household word.
These last two items are the actual interior purpose of this blog. It helps keep my brain young.
IL BASSO LASZLO POLGAR E' MORTO OGGI, ALL'ETA' DI 64 ANNI, ALL'OSPEDALE DI ZURIGO. This says that the bass Laszlo Polgar is dead today, at 64 years in the hospital in Zurich. I guess this happened yesterday and was unexpected. He was a man with a beautiful voice and a wonderful aura. He was a member of the ensemble of the Zurich Opera.
Apparently it is official. Cecilia Bartoli is to become the director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival beginning in 2012, replacing Riccardo Muti. Good idea, I think. Why should Placido Domingo have all the fun.
You see, there's the opera, and then there's what they make out of it. The two Werthers are the one in Paris in February and the one in San Francisco in September. It would be difficult to imagine the same opera could be so different.
Usually reviewers save the singers for last, but I want to make clear both casts were very fine. In Paris Sophie Koch sang Charlotte and Jonas Kaufmann was Werther. In San Francisco Alice Coote was Charlotte and Ramón Vargas sang Werther. All four of them are very fine performers. Koch and Coote are great lyric mezzos. I enjoyed hearing Alice Coote very much.
Jonas and Ramón are both excellent tenors, but stylistically they are at opposite ends of the Fach. Jonas is cool and German. Ramón is hot and Latin. These factors all by themselves are going to change the quality of the experience. The musical quality of each performance was fully in synch with the style of its tenor. In Paris the very cool, very inwardly passionate Jonas Kaufmann was perfectly matched by the inward, lush, cool and impressionistic performance of the Paris Opera orchestra.
In San Francisco the more overtly passionate and southern Ramón Vargas was matched by the far more traditionally Romantic playing of the San Francisco Opera orchestra. In Paris the orchestra never covered Jonas no matter how loudly or softly he sang. In San Francisco they frequently played over Ramón, something that happens unacceptably often in San Francisco.
Werther in San Francisco was musically a pleasure but not the miracle of Paris.
Before I leave the music, "Va! laisse couler mes larmes" was beautifully sung by Alice Coote with an incredible accompaniment on the saxophone. Saxophone at the opera. It completely transformed my sense of the aria.
So that leaves the production. It is a lot easier for me to understand the titles and follow the plot when the titles are in English.
The Paris production was just a collection of large rooms conventionally but sparsely furnished. In SF we have a big square stage with neon all around, and only two ways on and off: a big hole in the floor and a narrow, cluttered obstacle course in one corner. There are telephone poles that turn into trees.
Toward the end there was a WTF moment when three guys line up and shoot themselves all at the same time. Then one of them stayed on the floor and played dead while Vargas got up and finished singing the rest of his part. Charlotte sang to the super on the floor.
Werther is a serious tragedy brought on by trying to do the right thing when emotions don't support it. This Werther is just a bunch of people screwing around. Or dreaming they are screwing around. Or hallucinating they are screwing around. Or some damn thing.
I have decided to rewrite my earlier entry on singing Verdi. Enough time has passed that I can no longer remember what I wrote before, but do remember that I have reconsidered.
For purposes of this article Nabucco 1842, Ernani 1844, Attila 1846, Macbeth 1847, Louisa Miller 1849, Rigoletto 1851, La Traviata 1853 and Il Trovatore also 1853 will be considered together as a group, and the remaining later operas as another group. Nabucco was his first big success.
Verdi shows an enormous amount of continuity with Donizetti who died in 1848. There is the bass drum, for instance. I like this paragraph from Wikipedia: “Verdi's predecessors who influenced his music were Rossini, Bellini, Giacomo_Meyerbeer and, most notably, Gaetano Donizetti and Saverio Mercadante. With the exception of Otello and Aida, he was free of Wagner's influence. Although respectful of Gounod, Verdi was careful not to learn anything from the Frenchman whom many of Verdi's contemporaries regarded as the greatest living composer.” The lack of Wagnerian influence is the reason we are discussing Verdi’s early operas. And certainly one hears nothing of Gounod. If one did, Verdi would surely have dropped out of our awareness, too. With the exception of Meyerbeer, the principle proponent of Grand Opera, all of these influences are Italian.
Until he was quite old and composed Falstaff Verdi wrote no comedies. The closest to Donizetti, I suppose, are Rigoletto and La Traviata where the seriousness of the stories still leave a degree of lightness in the coloratura. One still hears bel canto, or at least the awareness of bel canto. In Verdi there is a need for rhythmic drive in the still often very flowery coloratura.
But Verdi intended a more intense drama than anything attempted by Donizetti. Certainly Verdi’s tenors are noticeably heavier than anything in Donizetti. [Sentence written with no actual knowledge of "anything in Donizetti"] Sometimes he overshot. Manrico in Il Trovatore borders on the impossible.
I decided to rewrite this because of the fact that the two Verdi screamer roles, Abigaille in Nabucco and Lady Macbeth from Macbeth, are both from this early period. I call them screamer roles because that is what one generally hears. Sopranos who make their fame on Lady Macbeth generally rapidly develop a wobble. Callas did it a few times and gave it up. Leontyne Price, probably the greatest Verdi soprano, refused to sing it at all. And most established sopranos avoid Abigaille like the plague.
Maria Guleghina sings both roles very well. She seems to have specialized of late in screamer roles and is the exception that proves the rule. She waited until maturity to try this.
The undesirability of this seems to have occurred to Verdi, since operas of his later period never cross into the realm of complete impossibility. He settles into the spinto heaviness across the board. The heavy Verdi mezzo begins with Il Trovatore, the transition to mature Verdi, and reappears in Aida, Don Carlo and the Requiem. He begins to feel secure in his handling of voices and settled in his style. I suppose you could still destroy your voice in these roles, but I think it would be your own fault.
Weight in the voice for Italian repertoire in all voice categories reaches its peak in Verdi. The verismo composers wrote in a different style, but the vocal requirements are not heavier.
For sopranos the model for Donizetti opera seria is Caballe. For Verdi it’s Price.
I have decided to change the example to Maria Guleghina singing something from Macbeth. The part is simply insane. A decade later she still does not have a wobble and still sings this role. That alone is amazing.
Various places around the Internet are talking about an interview with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa where she talks about how opera singers today are urged to starve themselves. She is against this, saying that opera singing requires fuel.
Opera singing is more like marathon running than it is like runway modeling. If the model can refrain from falling down from the perch of her high heel shoes, she is good. Singing over a large orchestra without a microphone for hours on end, such as Katherine Jenkins does not do, is lots harder. Please note: I am neither quoting nor paraphrasing Dame Kiri.
The interviewer tries to draw her into the Susan Boyle controversy, but she sidesteps it gracefully. Turns out Dame Kiri has a film on YouTube of "I dreamed a dream" just like Susan.
Notice how easy it is to understand the words. In fact, this is Kiri's view count high. Kiri wants to make the point that singing pop songs with a microphone is far easier than opera.
It is necessary to pause at this point for an apology. I intended this blog post to be about blogging about pop singing, thinking I would vow not to post any more films of classical singers, especially Americans, singing pop songs. Then everything went astray. Sorry.
An important French singer who hasn't performed at the major US opera houses is Véronique Gens. She began her professional career right out of school with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. She is a lyric soprano who specializes in the French Baroque.
We know she performs outside France at least occasionally because I saw her at Wigmore Hall during the time I was living in London. I was annoyed that she hardly looked up from her music stand throughout the recital, as though we were simply not there.
I own a few of her CDs, including the ones shown below. She's rather low key, but still very much a pleasure to listen to.
The examples are neither one French Baroque. I wanted something with visuals.
This is from one of her recordings. I always feel it is important to hear French singers singing in French.
No, not the children's story which has never been made into an opera. [Or?] This post is about Heidi Melton who is safely signed with Columbia Artists Management Inc. Young singers leave San Francisco and often disappear into the void, but Heidi is busy traveling the globe and singing with Kent Nagano and Donald Runnicles in roles such as Elsa and Ariadne.
To people in San Francisco she will be back this fall to cover for Aida. You never know.
While writing about all those mezzo-soprano heroines in French opera, I could not help wondering about the influence of Maria Malibran's younger sister Pauline Viardot on French composers. If we are to believe Wikipedia, then we must surely find that she:
was the inspiration for Charles Gounod's Sapho,
was the inspiration for the heroine of the novel Consuelo by George Sand,
was the inspiration for Camille Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila but never sang the role,
created the role of Fides in Meyerbeer's Le prophète,
was the on again, off again inspiration for Dido in Berlioz' Les Troyens,
sang Orphée in Gluck's opera Orphée et Eurydice over 150 times, apparently in a variety of languages,
and came out of retirement to do the first performance of the Brahms Alto Rhapsody.
The other famous mezzo-soprano operas came after her retirement in 1863, but she had set the trend.
This is a response to the recent list in Opera News. My list will be limited to French operas I have seen performed which is a list of only about 33 operas.
Operas that stay in the repertoire:
Camille Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila
Jacques Offenbach Les contes d'Hoffmann
Georges Bizet Carmen
All three of these operas are completely French and enormously popular. It is surprising that this particular list is so short. One of the reasons for their popularity is that two out of the three are mezzo-soprano vehicles, a rare commodity in any repertoire. For each of these three composers this is their only work in the running. I know many people love Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles, but it just misses. These three operas are wonderful operas, full of beautiful music and marvelous theatrical situations.
Other completely French operas that drift in and out of standard repertoire:
Charles Gounod Roméo et Juliette
Charles Gounod Faust
Let’s discuss these for a while. In the early years of the twentieth century Roméo et Juliette was enormously popular and then faded. Until very recently Faust was a mainstay. Now in the twenty-first century the two are changing places. Roméo et Juliette is rising in popularity, while Faust is fading. True love is always popular, and the music of Gounod starts to sound refreshing after a century of modernism.
But we now begin to understand why the Germans always call Faust Marguerite, and why this is not at all the story Goethe was trying to tell. The familiar melodies begin to feel too familiar and the characters implausible. Marguerite is not a modern girl while Juliette is immortal. Both are great operas in the French tradition, but does Gounod rate two entries?
Jules Massenet Manon
Massenet is currently in ascendance, as at least in my own life are the French generally. I have seen a number of operas by Massenet, but Manon is his masterpiece. In the twenty-first century we are happier with a heroine who is capable of true love, but is easily distracted. The situations are delicious and the music adorable. I don’t really think he deserves more than one opera.
I think in previous eras it would have been Werther that appeared here as the Massenet opera. Werther is another great opera with a mezzo-soprano heroine, and should not be forgotten. Do we prefer someone who does what she is supposed to do over the bad girl? I think the answer is no.
Hector Berlioz The Damnation of Faust
The great Frenchman deserves to be listed. He lacked a true understanding of the theater, cared nothing for continuity of plot, but still wrote some wonderful music. Les Troyens is too big and The Damnation of Faust too fragmented, but I have seen Faust staged twice now, and it almost works. At least he understands what the story is about, and there needs to be a great Faust opera in the repertoire.
Claude Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande
Now some people think this is the most boring opera ever written, and I used to be one of them. All that’s required is to see Frederica von Stade sing it, and your eyes will be opened. I’m sorry to say I do not find a film of this. There is a version with Natalie Dessay and her husband I should try. Perhaps a great French orchestra and conductor would also help. They do seem to have a better grasp of their own music.
Christoph Willibald Gluck Iphigénie en Tauride
Gluck is an Austrian who achieved his greatest success in Paris. Now we are mad for Iphigénie en Tauride, another French opera with a mezzo heroine, especially now that the fabulous Susan Graham is making the rounds with it. Unlike Damnation of Faust in which Susan also appeared, it is a genuine vehicle. I think I preferred Gluck's Alceste overall, especially in the theatrical viability category, but a great singer would need to grasp it and make a success of it.
Gioachino Rossini William Tell
The great Italian ended his operatic career in Paris by writing a grand opera with a big melodramatic orchestra. He hated it, but I don’t really think we do. I could see this opera more. In fact I think I could see more grand opera period.
Francis Poulenc Dialogues of the Carmelites
A modern opera needs to be included in this list. I love Poulenc, but I might have preferred:
György Ligeti Le Grand Macabre
Olivier Messiaen Saint-François d'Assise
There is a long list of great French operas, such as Mignon, another mezzo heroine, that I have never seen. This isn’t exactly the same list but may be closer than I would have preferred. Make your own list.