Thursday, October 28, 2010

Go Giants

The War Memorial Opera House and the city hall across the street were turned orange last night to cheer on the Giants.

Cyrano in San Francisco

I was probably one of just a few people at the performance at the San Francisco Opera of Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac who had seen the opera before.  In London Roxane was sung by Sondra Radvanovsky, and this time it was Ainhoa Arteta who was fine, but did not manage the complete vocal ease in the role that Sondra achieved.  Roxane is a tough part vocally.

It was a completely different production from the one in London.

Apparently Cyrano de Bergerac (6 March 1619 – 28 July 1655) was a real person whose life was fictionalized by Edmond Rostand.  It is the fictional Cyrano that we know, the one whose nose is considered not merely large but ugly, even grotesque.  Will it spoil the story if I say the real Cyrano was apparently a homosexual?  This cannot possibly be relevant.

What is relevant?  I liked Placido Domingo much more this time around.  The opera is very romantic and Domingo successfully portrayed Cyrano's passion for Roxane.  He sang well, moved well and found the necessary emotions when he needed them.  It was all very beautiful.  Alfano gets a bad rap.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Interview with Angela Gheorghiu

[This is translated from the online version of the November issue of Das Opernglas.]

Angela Gheorghiu

Lady G. - Not Gaga, but pure glamor. Diva Angela Gheorghiu in conversation with Richard Erkens about Berlin, verismo and cool photos. Excerpts from the interview.

Ms Gheorghiu, you have come to Berlin to sing at the German Opera in the title role in "Adriana Lecouvreur," a role debut. How did you experience the Berlin premiere audience?

Wunderbar! A great audience, I was very impressed. It was a real triumph! I have now for the third time in Berlin performed an opera in concert, something I rarely do. I have sung "Roméo et Juliette" here, and two years ago Mascagni’s “L'amico Fritz."  But this time it was very special because it was a real debut in such a large role - and with such a wonderful team of friends and colleagues. Together with Marco Armiliato on the podium and the great and so friendly orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, we had an unforgettable evening. It is important to have such colleagues, because Cilea's score is really not easy to present.

In November this opera will be seem at London's Royal Opera House in a dramatic interpretation. Here in Berlin you have therefore a kind of public dress rehearsal?

No, this is not true. For opera in concert form has a completely different and distinct atmosphere that cannot be compared. And it really does not matter if I have sung the role previously, or not. As a singer you have to exert yourself in the same manner and bring yourself into a role. I have to say even that concert performances are more difficult for me because I cannot move in any stage space. Especially for a part like Adriana, where in a stage role you play an actress, this is very difficult if you must always stand in one place.  The possibility of movement is very limited, and this creates a very different theatrical atmosphere. In this case this is also difficult for me because in the third act I have a real theatrical monologue. I must speak, which otherwise I only have to do in "La Traviata," when I receive the letter from the father Germont. But as Adriana I am a real actress with a spoken monologue - I love that!  In London there will be a new stage production.  That is important to me when I sing a role for the first time. I have had very good experience with director David McVicar, as we have worked together on "Faust". He's incredibly talented and one of my favorite directors. Therefore, I again asked him if he wants to direct the production. And my singer colleagues have agreed, of course, Jonas Kaufmann, who will come to London.

You already mentioned a special feature of this role, namely as a Parisian actress Adriana, who is a historical figure, and died under mysterious circumstances in 1730.  At that time there was a veritable social scandal. What attracts you in this role?

I was surprised when I discovered that over half of the music for Adriana is written in double [pp] or triple [ppp] piano. I thought it would be a role for a spinto soprano. But she is not! The text is very much in the foreground. This is a feature of the role that is very important. In addition, I am fascinated by the clear distinction of the female vocal subjects: the mezzo part is clearly my competitor, Principessa
di Bouillon. Cilea distinguished voice types and characters very well.

Is there a need for a special vocal technique for the verismo musical category? Do you alter your vocal technique when you sing Violetta or Adriana?

No, there is no difference. But now you remind me of my first verismo-role, that I played together with Plácido Domingo, namely in "Fedora" by Umberto Giordano. At that time I realized that with this repertoire, you simply have to deal more carefully with the voice. I watch that I do not go to my limits, even if it is required. Verismo is not the healthiest repertoire, you should not sing it too often. It helps if you are a bit egotistical and can behave with restraint. But then when I'm on stage, I forget all these concerns again.

You mentioned "L'amico Fritz" already, just as "La Rondine," which appears directly on DVD, now follows "Adriana Lecouvreur": Are you specifically looking for less-known operas from this period?

I simply like these operas, this is my motivation. I have no program to dig up unknown opera for its own sake. I love opera and listen to many things. When I find something that suits my voice and my character, I bring it to the stage. This is actually very simple. But when I have decided for something, I think about it very much and leave nothing to chance. This starts with the selection of colleagues ...

... how about now Jonas Kaufmann.

Yes, exactly. Jonas I know for a long time, from his time in Zurich. My manager gave me then a video with him and Cecilia Bartoli. They sang in 2002 Paisiello’s "Nina." I was looking for a new tenor for "La Traviata" at the Metropolitan Opera, and recently we needed someone for the "Rondine" at Covent Garden. I asked again, Peter Katona, "Let us not hesitate to take this young tenor!" And he has given his debut in London and later in New York and also at La Scala. I have driven his career really and then convinced him to leave Zurich and to make the big career. Even as we later recorded "Madama Butterfly" for EMI, it was not so easy to convince the record company for such a role as Pinkerton to commit to a tenor still not famous anywhere in the world. I am happy that they trusted me, and as you can see, I had the right ear and the right feeling!  Incidentally, it was similar to Roberto Alagna: I notice quickly if someone has a special voice.

You currently present yourself in an unusual
up-to-date styling that is inferior in nothing to certain style icons from the pop industry.  You obviously like to play with your options?
I love it! I like to surround myself with beautiful things, and why should I not show it? If I have the opportunity to introduce myself as well and I look good in different outfits, then show me this way, and don’t apologize for me.

Can this side of an opera star also help to address a larger, perhaps even foreign opera audience?

All singing stars in the history of opera have been trying to reach a large audience. But why? We all know that especially today, classical music - specifically the opera - music does not interest everyone. But not because the opera would be the entertainment for a social elite, but just because this music is not always easy to hear and it's hard sometimes to approach it. It takes often a lot of time, not everyone has. It is not always a question of lack of training: Also a good mathematics teacher at school does not manage to be all enthusiastic about mathematics. Some light classical music appeals to all certainly, but the art form of opera is not made for everyone. This is a simple truth. Even the most tasteful thing in life is not for every day and not made for everyone. If it were, it would lose its appeal immediately.

Of course, I try with my art to reach a large audience, but I do this mainly with crossover projects, so with lighter things. We cannot have the largest audience in Wagner. And man needs both:  pop for the body, classical music for the soul!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Modern History

I am trying to write another chapter for my history book:  post 1975.  The only thing I'm able to say for sure is that the period officially begins with Glass' Einstein on the Beach (1976).  The Wikipedia article Contemporary classical music describes the following active movements:

Modernism  is represented by Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Adès and Gunther Schuller, among others.

Computer music, including computer generated music.  Can computer generated music be said to be composed?  Computers have their fingers in everywhere these days, but specific names are irrelevant. The electronic music festival in SF falls here.

Spectral music is represented by a long list of people no one has ever heard of.  This is a type of computer music where structure derives from timbre.  The term was coined by Hugues Dufourt.

Post-modernism is chiefly characterized by its opposition to modernism (whatever that means) and is represented by John Adams, Luciano Berio, John Cage, John Corigliano, George Crumb (of whale music fame), Brian Eno, Henryk Górecki, Steve Reich and Alfred Schnittke.  If you recognize many of these names, you will see that this is not at all a style of music but a political movement.

Polystylism is exactly what it sounds like, and is represented by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Sofia Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke, among others.  In fact most modern composers may be considered polystylists, so ....

Historicism, referring to earlier periods of classical music.  None of these names are familiar to me except Peter Schickele who is parodying Bach.

Neo-romanticism is represented by John Williams, John Corigliano, Gian Carlo Menotti, Ellen Zwilich and the later works of Krzysztof Penderecki and György Ligeti. 

Art rock influence is represented by another long list of composers I have never heard of.

"World music" influence has actual historical precedents, and consists of bring in styles from other cultures, such as the work of Béla Bartók and later Olivier Messiaen. This isn't World Music per se, but rather the incorporation of world music into a classical music context.

New Simplicity is represented by Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt.

New Complexity involves extensions to standard notational practice and is represented by another list of people I don't know.

Minimalism and post-minimalism is represented by Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, among others. We don't have to explain this, do we?

Extended techniques are any funny thing you do with standard instruments. Col legno is an example where you play the violin with the stick part of the bow.  Lots of people do this.

Generative music involves the inclusion of non-musical sounds in musical compositions and is a term invented by Brian Eno.  This movement is mysteriously missing from the Wikipedia article.  This refers to taped sounds which can be subsequently manipulated electronically.  I have encountered this in the work of Lynn Job.  Crumb's whales were all created on more or less normal musical instruments. 

You see the problem.  Music schools are having trouble deciding what to teach students about composition.  My friends and I have decided that schools can only teach the techniques of the past, counterpoint from the Renaissance and Baroque, sonata form from the classical period, principles of orchestration from the romantic period, etc.

It should be obvious what this means.  Something that was formerly an integral part of a culture is now purely an intellectual exercise.  It means that classical music is dead.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


I went to see Boris with a friend, and in the evening after the opera she called to let me know that the plot was true.  Boris and the false Dimitri were real.  Dimitri became tsar but was assassinated by Shuisky who then became tsar.  Then she called again to report that the real Boris did not kill Dimitri.

According to Wikipedia, Dimitri was illegitimate and ineligible to become tsar.  They are vague about whether or not Boris killed him.

The opera is based on a play by Pushkin.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Boris Godunov in HD

Boris Godunov...........René Pape
Prince Shuisky..........Oleg Balashov
Pimen...................Mikhail Petrenko
Grigory.................Aleksandrs Antonenko
Marina..................Ekaterina Semenchuk

Conductor...............Valery Gergiev
Production..............Stephen Wadsworth

Perhaps 4.5 hours of Boris Godunov live from the Met in HD is easier for us on the west coast.  9 a.m. to 1:30 doesn't seem so bad.  Especially not when you are watching the absolutely spectacular René Pape.  The entire role of Boris, especially when sung by René, is a mad scene, it would seem. He's been watching too much Anna Netrebko mad scenes, or perhaps Natalie Dessay.

I understand we were seeing an uncut version so there were probably a few scenes I had never seen before.  My main previous memory of this opera, in San Francisco possibly in 1983, is of the chorus work which was spectacular.  It is one of the more powerful choral operas and was again spectacular today.

I notice that on its last appearance in SF in 2008 the role of Marina was completely cut.  The scene with Dmitri, sung brilliantly by Aleksandrs Antonenko, and Marina, sung today by Ekaterina Semenchuk, was wonderfully sexy.  Sex at the opera always keeps things moving.

I liked everything about this.  The last scene after Boris is dead does seem a bit superfluous.  I flagged this opera as eagerly anticipated and it was definitely worth it.  Magnificent.

After trashing Rheingold, am I required to comment on the production?  It did what productions are supposed to do:  provide an illuminating context while not trying to take over the story.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dover Beach

Dover Beach is a poem by Matthew Arnold set by Samuel Barber.  I heard it at a local concert Saturday in honor of the Barber centennial year and was surprised to find that I had never heard it before.  It is astoundingly somber.

I am similarly surprised to find that I like this version by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

The pictures are of Dover Beach in England.


The Crocker Art Museum is currently doing a Wayne Thiebaud exhibition.  These women twirling batons is an example.  The new wing and the art on exhibit are worth the trip.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Echo Klassik Awards for 2010

Sängerin des Jahres:  

  • Sängerin des Jahres

 Joyce DiDonato -Colbran, The Muse

Sänger des Jahres:

  • Sänger des Jahres

  Jonas Kaufmann -Sehnsucht

Operneinspielung des Jahres - (17. - 18. Jahrhundert)

Operneinspielung des Jahres - (17. - 18. Jahrhundert)

Juan-Diego Florez -Christoph Willibald Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice 

Operneinspielung des Jahres - Opernarien & Duette

  • Operneinspielung des Jahres - Opernarien & Duette

    Cecilia Bartoli -Sacrificium

  • Operneinspielung des Jahres - Opernarien & Duette

    Vivica Genaux -Antonio Vivaldi: Opera Arias – Pyrotechnics

  • Operneinspielung des Jahres - Opernarien & Duette

    Bryn Terfel -Bad Boys

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

Joan Sutherland

Dame Joan Sutherland (1926-2010) has died.

One of my earlier opera experiences was of Dame Joan singing in I Puritani in the Sacramento's barn-like Memorial Auditorium.  The San Francisco Opera used to do out of town performances in Sacramento in those days.  The archive tells me this was October 5, 1966, and her Arturo was Alfredo Kraus.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Wotan...................Bryn Terfel
Fricka..................Stephanie Blythe
Alberich................Eric Owens
Loge....................Richard Croft
Erda....................Patricia Bardon
Fasolt..................Franz-Josef Selig
Fafner..................Hans-Peter König
Freia...................Wendy Bryn Harmer
Froh....................Adam Diegel
Donner..................Dwayne Croft
Mime....................Gerhard Siegel
Woglinde................Lisette Oropesa
Wellgunde...............Jennifer Johnson Cano
Flosshilde..............Tamara Mumford

Conductor...............James Levine
Production..............Robert Lepage

The Metropolitan Opera has invested deeply in its new Ring cycle.  As Peter Gelb explained, they have even shored up the building to support the incredible piece of machinery that serves as the set for all four operas.

I really loved the beginning of Rheingold.  The rippling Rhine and the floating Rhine maidens were fabulously exciting.  And the staircase image going down to Nibelungenland was striking.  The rest was comme si comme sa.  I think we in the movie theater have the best view.

Loge and the Rhine maidens were on wires.  All of Loge's attention was focused on maintaining his balance on the wire, and nothing was left over for developing a character.  Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe had "no wire walking" clauses in their contracts, I'm sure.  Or?  Was Bryn on a wire in the staircase scene?

Rheingold is a very funny opera, and I laughed out loud several times.  Nibelungens screaming and running here and there were especially amusing.

My son thought the tempos were too slow, but I was fine with it.  James Levine looks very frail these days, but the music is still there.

I would have thought that Bayreuth in the 50's would have proved once and for all that it isn't about the set.  In fact, it's never about the set.

It's about the singers:  how they sing, how they PHRASE, how they move, how they look, how they sing, and how they understand and conceive their roles.  They make the drama, not the stupid set.  The main role of the director is to conceive the characters within the drama and communicate that concept to the singers.  Who are they to one another?  How do they feel?  If your concept is that they are sticks of wood or at best pretty pictures, your opera will fail.

I don't know what to say about the singing.  No eggs were laid.  Eric Owens was an amazing Alberich.  I wanted to see this before I actually saw it.  Bryn was a terrible disappointment.  If he wants to impress me, he's going to have to try one hell of a lot harder.

The Ring is scored for an absurdly large group of brasses.  Even such a large orchestra as the Metropolitan Opera orchestra would have to call in extra players, players who had never played The Ring before.  I'm making excuses.  The performance of Das Rheinglold included a lot of out of tune brass playing.

This has to be contrasted with the really quite wonderful San Francisco Die Walküre. Maybe I'll go after all.


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Another Figaro

The current The Marriage of Figaro at the San Francisco Opera was excellent, but I don't know if I have anything much to say.

I liked the staging. In the second scene in the Countess' bedroom, Figaro enters the room and immediately begins dressing the Countess' hair. I thought, of course. He is the barber of Seville, after all. Why have I never seen this business before?

All the roles were well cast, and the singing was lovely. Opera fanatics are required to see the same operas over and over, but this one grows in your heart.

Nicola Luisotti, the new maestro, conducted from the harpsichord. His harpsichord playing was very sweet. Lovely.

Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director: John Copley

Figaro: Luca Pisaroni (bass)
Susanna: Danielle de Niese (soprano)
Dr. Bartolo: John Del Carlo (bass)
Marcellina: Catherine Cook (soprano)
Cherubino: Michèle Losier (soprano)
Count Almaviva: Lucas Meachem (bass)
Don Basilio: Greg Fedderly (tenor)
Countess Almaviva: Ellie Dehn (soprano)

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Mail Bag

Q. …a technical question…found myself wondering the other night at SF Opera, and who better to advise me, than yourself…
…it's about vibrato in classical music--classical vocal music--more particularly, in grand opera.
Are singers, especially sopranos, taught to use vibrato on every note (well, every note that's long enough)?  Does vibrato use vary with the era, or year, or style of the music?
…thanks for any insight,

A.  I just posted a blog entry about this recently.  I think most people have a vibrato and I have absolutely no recollection of anyone teaching it.  It's a natural part of the voice. 

In the old days there were turntables that did both 45 and 33 rpm, so if you had a 45 you could slow it down and actually hear the vibrato or lack thereof.  Patty Page was the only one with no vibrato.

In general you are stuck with the vibrato you have.  If it's too fast or too slow or perish the thought too wide, you might be sunk.

There are choir schools that train singers not to have vibrato.  I am aware of training it away but not of training to have it.  Heavy singing affects the vibrato, generally in a negative way.  But this effect is not voluntary. 

In general, you have the vibrato you have, but taste in vibrato might change from one era to another.  I would guess it was lightening right now.

This is strictly an educated guess, but I think it's the muscles that hold the larynx in place that oscillate and create the vibrato.  I'd have to look it up and my books are in boxes.  For once Wikipedia is no help.  They are talking about instrumental vibrato which is entirely voluntary.

 Q Follow up.  Once again, my question was based in trying to understand performance differences between jazz (and pop) music and opera. It has seemed to me lately that opera singers--particularly sopranos--have been laying in vibrato on every single note, and it often sounds mechanical. in jazz--both for singers and for horn players, guitarists & bass players--especially on ballads, the musician will start a note steady, then add vibrato, and take it off again, to warm it up or shape the line. Kim Nalley is a master of this; you hear it a lot in Jane Monheit's singing, and Diane Reeves's, etc., etc. so if jazzers use this as a tool, for emotional impact, why wouldn't opera-ers? a mystery for our time.

A.  Historically instrumentalists didn't use vibrato.  A Vivaldi singer would have had a natural vibrato.   A Vivaldi violinist would not.

Maybe some famous violinist like Paganini started using it.  I'd have to research that, and as you know, I just wing this stuff.

The second reason a Vivaldi violinist would not have used vibrato is because his musicians, and perhaps also his singers, were children.  I think one of the reasons children singing sound so different from adults is because children have no vibrato.  You need adults for that.

Instrumentalists are imitating singers.  Singers are imitating God.

So by the time of jazz in the early 20th century I think it developed with the style for the instrumentalists and subsequently the singers to be aware of and manipulate their vibrato.  In jazz musicians and singers hang out together in a way that they just don't do in classical.

I should add this to my "Things you can do" list:  you can manipulate your vibrato, take it out, put it back, make it bigger, make it smaller, etc.

But see, then you are getting into stylistic issues.  Manipulating the vibrato, except for the trill thing, is not part of the style of classical singing.