I have been leafing through English, French, German and Italian Techniques of Singing by Richard Miller and am reminded of the days when I poured over anatomical drawings and sonograms in the name of learning how to teach singing. I have long thought that this was all bogus, and now it occurs to me why this might be. No one bothers to connect it back to anything observable. OK, this is what all these machines are telling me. Now what out in reality does it relate to?
If I am discussing styles of singing in different voice schools, the bare minimum is to cite actual singers, singers available on commercial recordings, who sing that way. No one wants to name names.
A voice teacher's life consists of sitting at the piano with the student standing where the teacher can see them, listening to the sounds the student makes, watching what their body is doing, and instructing them how to change this to achieve a better result. What can I observe from my chair that is going to help me in this task? I'm not going to crunch them through machines to see how fast their vibrato is. I have to figure out all on my own what their problems are and how to fix them. No. These kinds of books serve to allow one academic to impress another academic and have little if anything to do with actual singing. I teach through my eyes and ears and ability to explain what I want. I need it to connect back to that before I will think it's useful.
Of course, when I was actually teaching, my students were usually totally off, and it was not at all difficult to think of things to change without getting too deep into the minutia of vocal technique. One sang into his nose. He was a professional singer, so how he got that far is anyone's guess. I tried to explain that the objective was to resonate in the mouth. This was amazingly hard to communicate, but eventually he got it.
Others simply knew nothing at all and needed to know about breathing and vowels and simple stuff like that. None were in advanced stages of preparing for a classical vocal career. That's the spot where the comments need to get extremely specific. "See. There at 1:22 John Doe is raising his larynx as he was taught in the French school." Without this the information is virtually useless.
Berkeley audiences are so cool. If they like someone, they let them know. The audience at Zellerbach last night liked Bryn Terfel and his accompanist Malcolm Martineau. There was a sense of informality that fits Berkeley. Someone in the front row was coughing so Bryn Terfel went off stage and brought them out a glass of water. Why doesn't anyone sell cough drops in the lobby?
Then later he performed a Gilbert and Sullivan piece "The Ghosts' High Noon" where exclamations from somebody interrupt the person singing (Bryn). The exclamations came at first from the pianist, I think, but later people in the audience were doing it, too. If this description makes no sense, I apologize. It was all very silly and a bit chaotic. And fun.
We are still in the Schumann bicentennial year so he devoted the whole first half of the program to him, including "Belsatzar," all of Liederkreis, and "Die beiden Grenadiere." The first and last of these are pieces preferred by baritones. It was all very nice. The half closed with "Mein Wagen rollet langsam" which was included as an excuse for more silliness. The piece has singing for only a brief minute or two and then continues on with a seemingly endless postlude on the piano. Only Schumann would compose such a thing. Maybe it's supposed to be an aural description of the Wagen rolling langsam. Bryn lumbered off into the wings and peeked out every now and then to see if the piece was still going on.
After intermission was a group by someone named Gerald Finzi on texts by Shakespeare. The tunes weren't particularly catchy and will certainly not make me forget Schubert's "Who is Sylvia." Then Ibert songs about Don Quichotte in French.
Bryn interprets with his own personal style which, of course, makes him more rather than less interesting. My son decided not to go, which is probably a good thing. He would have bored me with stuff about how it's actually supposed to go. If you can pull it off, I'm good with the idea of completely tossing conventional interpretations.
Which brings us to a group of five songs from the repertoire of the Welsh-American baritone John Charles Thomas. Please remember, I am not doing journalism. Two of the five songs were pieces that I sang in my youth. I can still remember all the words to "Trees" and will complain that Bryn did not. He faked it extremely well, though. I loved this kind of kitsch. He ended the group with a very sincere and respectful rendition of Malotte's "The Lord's Prayer." I cried. Great pouring drops. Love can simply not be explained.
What is one to do? He is such an amazing amalgam of charisma, voice and style that one would wish to forgive him anything. If he doesn't really want to sing Wotan, he should simply not do it.
I'd be willing to bet money, oh maybe up to a dollar, that Orlando was one of Handel's failures. There isn't even one hit tune. At the Sacramento Opera it is subtitled "Obsessive Love" and "Love Makes You Crazy." Because the woman he loves does not return Orlando's love, in fact loves someone else, he massacres her and her lover. There is a deus ex machina to save the situation, a potion brings Orlando to his senses, he goes back to being a hero, and all is well. "How can nobility and heroism win out over beauty?" asks the heroine. Boyfriend is cuter. One of the few really sensible opera plots, as you can see.
Casting at the Sacramento Opera matches the original performance with male alto Orlando sung by a man, Randall Scotting, and male alto Medoro sung by a woman, Diana Tash. Of course, our male alto is not the castrato Senisino but a countertenor. If Randall's high notes are piercing, we have no way of knowing. The role of Orlando is for a contralto with no high notes. He looks quite pretty, every bit as cute as the adored Medoro, and leaps about the stage waving his sword in a very masculine way. His falsetto is pretty masculine sounding. Could I explain what that means? Not really. I enjoyed him, which as you may already know is rare for me when it comes to countertenors.
My friend informed me that the Sacramento Opera is a wholly owed subsidiary of Timm Rolek, the conductor. If there is anything we don't like, we may blame him. I usually like his conducting, though I think evidence of it is seen most often in the orchestra. He is asking himself at this point "but...?" He is not alone in thinking this.
They experimented with projections behind scaffolding for scenery. This created the appropriate illusion of scene changes. It was far more varied than would have been expected by audiences in Handel's time. I thought the experiment was a success. If you spend any time observing the Zurich Opera, you can't help noticing how little money goes into the sets. Semele is a curtain, a bit of red carpet, a large bed and any number of matched chairs. Don Giovanni is scaffolding very similar to that used in Sacramento. Really cheap sets can work perfectly well.
Keeping pace with the contemporary scene probably requires putting a toe into Handel repertoire. It worked well enough. I expected the costumes to look something like the advertising--sequins--but they didn't.
One of the things I write about is different vocal techniques and national styles. A friend has just loaned me a book called English, French, German and Italian Techniques of Singing by Richard Miller. Far out. There's an actual book about this. I will read and report. I think I'll have to start with the chapter on vibrato.
Verismo Arias came in the mail today. Gee, I love him. It may not be exactly Italian what Jonas Kaufmann is doing, but it is exactly him. He has the most Italian of conductors, Antonio Pappano, to guide him. I love the sound, I love the thoughts and emotions behind it.
More. The album ends with Jonas and Eva-Maria Westbrook in an intensely passionate rendition of the finale to Andrea Chénier, one of the greatest moments in all of opera.
A bit more. On my iPod are three versions of a lot of these arias: Franco Corelli, Rolando Villazon and Jonas Kaufmann. Corelli sings with that bright open tone that only Corelli would even try, scooping and sliding with a freedom that is almost shocking. Villazon is covered, muffled, never quite opening up his voice. Kaufmann hasn't the daring of Corelli--no one really does--but can get open when he needs to, can rise to the big occasion with wonderful vigor. Is it fair to compare? Everyone does it.
The Sacramento Opera has decided to take on Handel's opera seria Orlando (1733), originally composed for Senesino in the title role. San Francisco did it long ago (1985) as a vehicle for Marilyn Horne, conducted by Charles Mackerras who also edited the edition. General Horne was magnificent. In this decade its been revived by the Royal Opera.
My impression from memory and everything I can find to read about it is that this opera is a vehicle for whoever sings the protagonist. In Sacramento this will be a countertenor, Randall Scotting, an American who sings internationally. He gets a mad scene. If he's any good, it should be a treat. It plays Friday night and Sunday afternoon.
In the November issue of Opera News Oussama Zahr interviews Anna Netrebko and mentions hearing Mirella Freni in her voice:
Netrebko's eyes light up. "Mirella. Thank you. I always heard this, since I started studying. And you know what, listening to her helps me a lot, because I think her technique is amazing for what she's doing.
"She always sang," says Netrebko of the Italian soprano. And, here, Netrebko reveals her partiality for singers with flowing, generous voices, unlike a different breed of singer she sees today, marked by lots of covered tone without forward placement in order to manipulate dynamics easily. "This dynamic control, usually, it's not going from the breath. Beautiful for the audience, dangerous for the singer," she explains. "I will not tell you the name of the singer," she explains. "I will not tell you the name of the singer--very good soprano, beautiful voice, one of the most beautiful--and I attend a couple of her performances in different roles. And I was like, why the fuck are you singing half mezza voce? Who needs that? Open your mouth, give me your voice--on the breath, supported, pointed, and that's it. But lots of people think this is the musicality. I think it's bullshit. You can show a couple of the notes, okay, you have piano, thank you. After that, give me singing, give me the voice."
Part of the blame for this kind of singing, Netrebko thinks, belongs to coaches and conductors. "Lots of coaches, and God forgive me, conductors, they are the worst. The worst. And actually one of the best conductors are working very bad to the singer. 'Cause they're sitting at the piano and saying, 'Do this phrase, shhh, shhh, no, no, no! Even softer, even softer!' And after that he is going to the orchestra like bwaah,"--and she makes the sound of a deafening brass section--they show you how it has to be soft."
Styles of singing split into two branches in the twentieth century.
The heavy style of Wagner and Puccini continued throughout the century, tapering off only toward the end. Evidence of this can be found in the concerts hosted by the Richard Tucker Music Foundation which always feature heavy singers. (Curiously, this is this evening and features James Valenti as the 2010 Richard Tucker Award Winner. From San Francisco Leah Crocetto is a grant recipient. She is by far the heaviest woman’s voice among the Adler Fellows.)
Then came Expressionism and Arnold Schoenberg. Here is a bit from Erwartung (1909).
There is a lot of shouting in this short example. Schoenberg is sort of the anti-Wagner. Where Wagner is a sea of tonality with almost constant modulating, Schoenberg carefully avoids establishing a key, and therefore cannot modulate away from it. Wagner is still about singing. His roots are firmly in the operatic world. In Schoenberg we have returned to the world of the monodists. The singing is there solely to support the drama. This is the attitude of all the modernists.
This is a nice bit from Lulu (1979 version) "O Freiheit."
The goal for the singer is to get out of it alive. It may be important to know that Anna Netrebko's manager won't let her sing Lulu, though she would like to.
Modernism requires a narrow piercing sound rather than a large round one. Because established singers are reluctant to perform this repertoire, it can provide an opportunity for young singers. Marilyn Horne made her San Francisco Opera debut as Marie in Wozzeck.
With heavy Wagner/verismo singing the danger lies in over-singing, in pushing the voice to produce beyond its natural capacity. The danger in modern singing lies in never really establishing a proper legato. I must say Marilyn produced the most legato Marie I've ever heard. It is possible to sing Berg and not destroy yourself.
Here is a personal favorite from Nixon in China (1987) "I am the wife of Mao Zedong."
How can you not love this? Kathleen Kim who sang in Tales of Hoffmann is doing it on this season's simulcast.
It is important to know that there is no particular style associated with modern music. Stravinsky for one deeply resented even the suggestion that there was more in the music than was written on the page. Any singer will tell you there is always much much more.
I know I've seen Donizetti's Don Pasquale, today's simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera, before. In fact I am going to stop saying I've never seen something before. Everyone else seems to think I saw Makropulos before. So maybe I have. Let's just say I never loved Don Pasquale this much before.
To start with there is the perfect cast: Anna Netrebko as Norina, Matthew Polenzani as Ernesto, Mariusz Kwiecien as Dr. Malatesta and my personal favorite John Del Carlo as Don Pasquale. Would we change even one of them? Absolutely not. John has honed his buffo bass to a state of perfection which I'm sure is seldom approached. Matthew is a wonderfully romantic tenor. Mariusz as Don Pasquale's doctor is charming and very funny. And the conducting of James Levine was magnificent, as always.
And then there is Anna. The best thing about the Netrebko is how much she loves it. In fact the whole cast overflowed with a joy of performing that is seldom seen. I have searched in vain for a photograph of Anna in her going to the theater outfit. She said in her interview that she asked for boots with higher heels, and these were worthy of the runway. Who but Anna would be this athletic, this beautiful, sing this fabulously and acting to such perfection?
There was an encore of a patter song with the doctor and the Don. I was going to say it was my first, but you never know, I may have forgotten.
Frank Philipp Schlössmann
Vítek: Thomas Glenn
Dr. Kolenatý: Dale Travis*
Emilia Marty: Karita Mattila*
Baron Jaroslav Prus: Gerd Grochowski
A Cleaning Woman:
A Stagehand Austin Kness*
Janek: Brian Jagde*
Count Hauk-Šendor: Matthew O'Neill*
I am embarrassed to confess that this opening of The Makropulos Case at the San Francisco Opera was my first experience of the opera. Everyone asked me where was I when so and so did it? I have no excuse. The series of performances was dedicated to Sir Charles Mackerras, the father of modern Janáček performance.
This was my fifth Janáček opera after Katya Kabanova, Jenůfa and The Cunning Little Vixen in San Francisco and From the House of the Dead on DVD. The music never makes me think of Wagner. He eschews Romantic tonality without even seeming to notice it exists. I'm going to say something outrageous now so please duck: to me he almost reminds me of Mussorgsky. Almost. Am I too far out on a limb yet? Wikipedia says he was influenced by Puccini. I can see that in the vocal writing. It's sort of verismo without the Italian soul.
The act I set is shown in the picture above. The other two scenes are equally simple. There was a giant clock in two acts that showed the actual time.
We begin with a court case that has been going on for almost 100 years. Count Prus died intestate, and the members of the Prus family possess the estate. One Albert Gregor claims that Count Prus named his ancestor Ferdinand Gregor as the intended heir. The case drags on rather like Bleak House.
Then one day Emilia Marty is in town in her guise as a famous opera singer and drops by the law office to ask about the case. Though none of them have ever seen her before, except possibly across the footlights, she seems to know all about the case. She describes an existing will and tells them exactly where to find it.
Characters speculate about Emilia's age. She must be at least 30, they say. She is very beautiful and all the men fall in love with her. It would be better to see it without knowing what's going on, perhaps. She knows where the will is because she was present when it was placed there almost 100 years before. Emilia has had many names and is over 300 years old. She began her life in Crete as Elina Makropulos and has returned because she feels herself to be dying and wants another dose of the life-sustaining drug.
Isn't this fun! Five of the smaller parts were played by Adler Fellows, and another was played by Thomas Glenn, a former fellow. If there is a Janáček style, no one knows what it is, so don't worry. Susannah Biller as Kristina was especially nice.
The star of the show, singing the virtually immortal Elina, is Karita Mattila. She is towering, intense, gorgeous, outrageous, and utterly fabulous. There was lots of audience screaming. They closed the curtain before we were finished screaming, seemed not to know what to do with sustained applause.
Maybe I would like to see this with the closeup screens.
I think I was in Germany having a wonderful time when Tosca was simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera in 2009. The other night it appeared on my local PBS station, so I put it on my DVR and watched it today.
The production was booed at the premier. Tosca is set in famous places, two of which any tourist can visit. Only the Villa Farnese is closed to the public. Anyone knows what it's all supposed to look like. In this production it's all dark and somber instead of brilliant and festive like real Italian churches and villas. But so what? The opera is quite somber. There are some odd touches: Mary Magdalene whom Cavaradossi is painting has one of her breasts showing, and Scarpia has some girls over for a visit. At the end you can see that something is leaping from the window above just before the lights go out. This all seems pretty mild to me, especially after the recent odd Werther in SF. But then people love a scandal.
The stars of this production were soprano Karita Mattila as Tosca, tenor Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi, and baritone George Gagnidze as Scarpia. People love Marcelo, and it is easy to see why. He is cute, passionate, warm and very stylish for Puccini. George is quite nasty with his huge, dark voice.
Can I say it? I don't enjoy to write a pan. Mario describes Floria as gentle. I don't see the gentle Tosca in Karita Mattila's performance. And I don't feel Puccini in her phrasing. She is hysterical and unnuanced. The audience stood for Marcelo so they were still up for Karita.
The sound in my living room was not nearly as good as in the movie theater. This is all very after the fact. Listen to a little Callas.