Friday, April 29, 2011


I enjoyed very much this article about Riccardo Muti in the New York Times. He was in New York to conduct Verdi's Otello at Carnegie Hall.  I was always told not to sing when conducting, but Muti appears to have another opinion.

It was followed by this review.  I posted the picture because it shows the singers in a curious clump around the maestro.  These are two very different perspectives, but without actually hearing the concert, it's impossible to judge.  Perhaps the singers should be offered the opportunity to hear Muti sing their parts.

Just Listen

These come and go.  This one is 1999 with Chailly.

Der Abschied. The final movement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Brought to you by the earth herself.

Der Abschied

Die Sonne scheidet hinter dem Gebirge.
In alle Täler steigt der Abend nieder
Mit seinen Schatten, die voll Kühlung sind.
O sieh! Wie eine Silberbarke schwebt
Der Mond am blauen Himmelssee herauf.
Ich spüre eines feinen Windes Wehn
Hinter den dunklen Fichten!

Der Bach singt voller Wohllaut durch das Dunkel.
Die Blumen blassen im Dämmerschein.
Die Erde atmet voll von Ruh und Schlaf,
Alle Sehnsucht will nun träumen.
Die müden Menschen gehn heimwärts,
Um im Schlaf vergessnes Glück
Und Jugend neu zu lernen!
Die Vögel hocken still in ihren Zweigen.
Die Welt schläft ein!

Es wehet kühl im Schatten meiner Fichten.
Ich stehe hier und harre meines Freundes;
Ich harre sein zum letzten Lebewohl.
Ich sehne mich, o Freund, an deiner Seite
Die Schönheit dieses Abends zu genießen.
Wo bleibst du? Du lässt mich lang allein!
Ich wandle auf und nieder mit meiner Laute
Auf Wegen, die vom weichen Grase schwellen.
O Schönheit! O ewigen Liebens, Lebens trunkne Welt!

Er stieg vom Pferd und reichte ihm den Trunk
Des Abschieds dar. Er fragte ihn, wohin
Er führe und auch warum es müsste sein.
Er sprach, seine Stimme war umflort:

"Du, mein Freund,
Mir war auf dieser Welt das Glück nicht hold!
Wohin ich geh? Ich geh, ich wandre in die Berge.
Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz.
Ich wandle nach der Heimat, meiner Stätte.
Ich werde niemals in die Ferne schweifen.
Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde!

Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt
Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen!
Ewig... ewig..."

The Farewell

The sun goes down behind the mountain,
Into all the valleys the evening descends
And brings cooling shades.
O see! Like a silver bark
The moon floats up the blue lake of heaven.
I feel a gentle breeze stirring
Behind the dark spruce.

The brook sings melodiously through the darkness.
The flowers grow pale in the gloaming.
The earth is breathing, full of peace and sleep.
All longing now turns into dreams.
Tired men make for home,
In sleep to recapture forgotten happiness
And youth!
The birds hold still in the branches.
The world is falling asleep.

A cool wind blows in the shadow of the spruce.
I stand here waiting for my friend;
I wait to bid him a last farewell.
I long, my friend, at your side
To enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where do you linger? You have left me alone for so long!
I wander up and down with my lute
On paths soft with swelling grass.
O beauty! O deep love, so drunk with life!

He dismounted his horse and proffered
the parting glass. I asked him where
He was going and why it had to be.
He said, voice trembling:

"O my friend,
In this world fortune was hard on me.
Where I am going? I am going to wander into the mountains.
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I am making for home, for my resting place.
I will never roam into strange lands.
My heart is still and awaits its hour.

The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green
Anew! Everywhere, forever,
Blue lights the horizon!
Forever... forever... "

Contraltos, whoever you are, listen only to Ewa Podleś. There is a deep mystery to her voice that I have never heard in any other artist. She is a magnificent bass clarinet, a sound like no other. And here she is in the most deeply mysterious piece ever written. How could such sad words achieve such ecstasy?

Previously my favorite has been Janet Baker in this piece. Janet is wonderful, but she is a bit too much in her head, if you know what I mean.

And the audio is so good. How is this even possible in a live performance? I can die now.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Alex Ross wrote an essay for this week's New Yorker about 10 measures in Wagner's Die Walküre. I have a tape of it somewhere. You know, the one with Jessye Norman as Sieglinde. Perhaps I'll look it up.

I'll never be a regular writer about music because I always hear it as music. Maybe it would help never to have gone to school. For instance, never once does he mention that a phrase is supposed to be 8 measures, not 10, and therefore some kind of extension must be going on.

I see Wagner as the child of Berlioz, for it was he who invented the Liedmotiv, calling it an idée fixe. It was an idea used in instrumental music, particularly the Symphonie fantastique.

It is Wagner who took an independent medium--opera--and subsumed it within the forms and content of the symphony. My problem is that I like opera the way it was.

I see Wagner as the child of Liszt, his father-in-law and contemporary. It was Liszt who could not tolerate the boundaries of symphonic form and invented the unstructured symphonic poem. Berlioz tried always to fit his new ideas into the old structure, but Liszt saw no need. He wanted to be guided by a more poetic muse.

I see Wagner as the child of Meyerbeer, the ultimate practitioner of French Grand Opera. He reached for the grand and inflated emotions that are the essence of Wagner.

I see Wagner as the ultimate exploiter of tonality. It took 200+ years to create the expectations that are the tonal expression of Wagner's youth. For me he is the great manipulator of expectation. Except for the extended overture of Rheingold, he hardly waits to establish a tonal center before he goes flying off in another direction. This can be exhilarating or merely annoying, depending. When talking about this, I usually say, "If only he didn't modulate all the time." Or something like that.

I see Wagner as the destroyer of worlds. First Verdi succumbed, then all the Italians followed, leading inexorably to the death of Italian opera. When Alfano traveled to Germany to study, it was over.

It wasn't tonality itself that led to modernism, but I am convinced the all too skillful manipulation of emotion through modulation found in The Ring that inevitably led to the desire to destroy its power. I see Wagner as the destroyer of worlds, worlds right here and not in the clouds.

Which doesn't mean I can't enjoy a nice Wotan's farewell now and then.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


He's right, of course. He should not move into this repertoire at his age, and maybe even 5 years is too soon. It's too low. But hear how he feels the phrase rise. Wagnerians will lose patience.

You might enjoy reading this review. He hates the set as much as I do and for the same reasons.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Capriccio in HD

Countess................Renée Fleming
Clairon.................Sarah Connolly
Flamand.................Joseph Kaiser
Monsieur Taupe..........Bernard Fitch
Count...................Morten Frank Larsen
Olivier.................Russell Braun
La Roche................Peter Rose
Major Domo..............Michael Devlin

Conductor...............Andrew Davis
Production..............John Cox

It is interesting to me that I have seen Strauss' Capriccio three times, and all have been in this set by Mauro Pagano. It's been decorated and painted differently, but always there are large doors going out to the garden stage right, and a harp ends up in the center of the stage. The other times were in the 90's with Kiri Te Kanawa. First Hanna Schwarz played Clarion, and all wore astounding black and white Versace. Then it was Tatiana Troyanos as Clarion in her last performance on any stage, but with period costumes. How could this set be improved upon?

Hanna Schwarz was the best Clarion because of her impeccable Bühnedeutsch, which means stage German. You believed completely that she was a professional stage actress when she spoke her German lines. Few if any foreigners achieve this. This time it was Sarah Connolly, and she was good, though a bit arrogant.

In the same performance as Hanna Schwarz Reri Grist as the Italian soprano ate an entire cake.

Kiri's countess was simply too fine for any mere mortal. Renée Fleming brings her to earth. She loves being vied for by two different men. Perhaps she loves it far more than she loves the men themselves. She alternately touches her cheeks as if to ask which cheek is the more beautiful. She pretends to play the harp very convincingly. For my money Renée is a great actress and brought the ending to a magnificent climax.

What we are seeing is real life transformed into an opera. Men, as is usual for them, are worrying over how to appropriately form themselves into a hierarchy.  Strauss and his theater friends have gathered for a party, and each claims that he is the most important all the way down to the prompter. All agree to praise Gluck and trash the Italians.

I give an advantage to Music, and not just because of my personal preference. Music does not feel humbled by the process of combining his art with words, but Words wishes to have nothing at all to do with Music. Generosity must surely lead to superiority, at least as husband material. Joseph Kaiser as the composer Flamand is also better looking and a better singer than his rival Olivier. The woman has to go to the tenor, though the opera does not tell us.

So Strauss and his friends argue over the issue until, just as in the opera, one suggests what a fine opera this would make. But does it? The Grafin's soliloquy rises to the level of the greatest Strauss, but the rest is not entirely pleasing. Just as it says in the dialog, the arias all sound too much like recitative.

I'm glad I went for Renée.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Seeing Jonas in New York

I am going to be in New York in a couple of weeks and tried to get a ticket to see Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera. Nothing. I even asked Sarah, and she said even she could not get in. I put my name on the waiting list. It's ok. I can see it in HD.

I remember watching operas from the wings and from standing room. I also recall a performance of Carmen that I watched from the overhead lighting. It was an excellent seat as I recall.

I was able to purchase a very nice seat to see Joyce DiDonato in Ariadne auf Naxos.

I could get in to see The Book of Mormon, but it would cost $300+.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


While waiting for the second half at Temple Emanu-El a couple of weeks ago, we (bloggers and critics) began to discuss Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and how much we loved her. I said it was because she played the viola. She sang as though she were playing the viola. The critic mentioned the variety of her colors.

Here is a bit of her Handel.

Of course, it is not a good thing to be at one singer's recital and talking the whole time about another singer.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Currently making a big splash in Australia is Takesha Meshe Kizart. It would be nice to see her a little closer to home.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fledermaus Forever

Last night my alma mater, California State University, Sacramento, produced the greatest of all operettas--there is almost nothing in second place--Die Fledermaus. It lives forever because the story could be anywhere, any time. Last night it was New York City in 1970, and it was a perfect fit.

So perfect was the casting that you should be able to guess from the picture above who each character is.  Go ahead.  Guess.

From left to right in the first row are:

OMG. There is no credit for the Frosch in the yellow Converse Allstars and shower cap. We know this is an opera, but you must credit the actors, too. He smokes grass instead of drinking Slivovitz.

Next is Falke, sung by Matthew Surges. Falke always looks something like him.

Surely you guessed that the next person, Jonathan Hansen, sang Alfred. He was the most perfect Alfred I have ever seen.

The woman in the fur can only be Rosalinda, ably sung by Michelle Lajeunesse. Certainly you will have guessed this. I wouldn't have known she was sick if her mother hadn't told me. They cut the czardas. If you don't know when it comes, you don't miss it.

She is next to her Gabriel, sung by Andrew Nickell. He totally got this character.

The star of the evening is next. People shouted loudly when Vanessa Martucci took her bow as Adela. She sang both arias and was simply fabulous. When I think of the singers I fly around to see, few are more fabulous than she. I definitely preferred her to the nameless singer I recently flew to LA to see. She has it all.

We see only the white suit for the pleasant Orlofsky of Frances Swiecki.

This is the right end of the lineup:  Orlofsky, Frank (sung by Will Tvrdik, who did a bit of Groucho Marx), Horowitz the lawyer (sung by Anthony Tavianini), and two of the astounding nightclub workers. 

I have long been mad for Fledermaus and hum along in two languages.

There were some coordination problems due to the venue, a warehouse on R street. The small orchestra sat behind the set stage right, and the conductor stood behind the audience. It's hard to keep together in such an arrangement. There is apparently no credit for the conductor either, unless his name is Tatiana Scott. I'm confused.

All the old jokes appeared. Frosch draws a hook on the wall and hangs the hat on it. Apparently the jokes are forever as well.

One more thing. "Brüderlein und Schwesterlein" in the party was just as one would wish it. We loved every minute of it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Jonas as Siegmund

Here's an AP article about Jonas Kaufmann's appearance at the Metropolitan Opera as Siegmund:

NEW YORK (AP) — Jonas Kaufmann knew he was taking a risk when he agreed five years ago to sing the role of Siegmund, the doomed hero of Wagner's "Die Walkuere," in the Metropolitan Opera's new production that opens next week.

Five years is about how far in advance top opera singers like the German tenor get booked by leading houses. The offer for Siegmund came from Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, after he heard Kaufmann sing another Wagner role, Parsifal, in Zurich, Switzerland.

"It's an insanely long time," Kaufmann exclaimed in a recent interview before the start of the day's rehearsals. "It's a contradiction to art, because what an artist usually does, he follows his instincts, and the more he goes into what he is keen on doing at that moment, the more enthusiasm or passion is in it.

"If you would ask a painter to choose the colors now that he's going to paint in five years, I mean of course he would refuse. What is that idea? It's so weird. But we are forced to do that, to think over where we'd like to go, what we guess our voice is capable of doing in this amount of time."

Meanwhile, with the "Walkuere" contract tucked away, Kaufmann continued building a career that now, at age 41, has made him perhaps the most sought-after tenor in the world. With a sturdy sound that can handle melting pianissimos or full-voiced high Cs with equal ease, leading-man good looks and fluency in multiple languages, he has been able to triumph in a wide range of roles.

There was Cavaradossi in Puccini's "Tosca" in London; Des Grieux in Massenet's "Manon" in Chicago; Wagner's "Lohengrin" in Munich and Bayreuth; Massenet's "Werther" in Paris. He's also an accomplished performer of German songs, giving recitals and recording one of the touchstone works in that repertory, Schubert's "Die Schoene Muellerin."

Now here he is, preparing to make another high-profile role debut in the second installment of Robert Lepage's new staging of the "Ring" cycle, a production filled with operatic stars but dominated by the set, a 45-ton metal structure run by a computer.

"We just have to keep our fingers crossed that the machine is doing its job," Kaufmann said of the Lepage contraption. "Unfortunately, there's this little worry that's around because it has happened that it hasn't worked perfectly."

Siegmund, son of the god Wotan, has an unusual story line for an operatic hero: He enters into an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, Sieglinde.

"Obviously, it's forbidden, but it's not our fault," Kaufmann joked during a recent panel discussion about the production. "We've been separated, we didn't know who we are, we met that night in this hut in the middle of nowhere. And there we are!"

Siegmund dies at the end of the second of the opera's three acts. But Kaufmann said that even though the role is not particularly long, learning it was harder than he had expected.

"Especially at the beginning of Act 1, it's always bits and pieces, two or three phrases at a time. I don't want to say it was frustrating, but it was close to it. For a while I thought, 'Am I getting old or something?'"

But he trusted his usual procedure for learning new parts. "There's a natural process with me," Kaufmann said. "Once you've sung it through, with the score in your hand, three, four times maybe, the whole thing starts ringing in your head.

"And obviously you have tons of rehearsals to double check if that was correct. Because it's so much easier to fix it for eternity when you learn it combined with staging. The text, the singing and the visual — that puts it into a different place of the brain." 

The finale to Act 1, an extended love scene for the twins, is one of the most rhapsodic passages in all of Wagner. Kaufmann said he and soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, making her Met debut as Sieglinde, are aiming for what conductor Herbert von Karajan called "controlled ecstasy."

"We have to convince the audience, and even ourselves, that we are out of control, that we are driven away by all those emotions," he said. "But still deep inside there is something that controls it and can unplug it if it's too much.

"To always be at this edge, this borderline, that's really the interesting bit. And that gives you also the possibility to fill up the words and the singing with your real emotions, because you're feeling exactly what you're saying at this very moment. That makes it credible. Without going over this edge, without really falling in love with your partner, without really being in tears, and no longer under control of your breath," Kaufmann said.

The role of Siegmund sits low for a tenor, something that Kaufmann said colleagues warned him about.

"They said, 'Oh you have to wait until you lose your high C,'" he recalled with a chuckle, "'because otherwise you're going to ruin your high notes.' And I said, well, in my theory this would be never, because it's not that I'm estimating in the next three years to get rid of my high C."

To illustrate how low the vocal line descends, he sings the phrase that concludes Siegmund's soliloquy midway through Act 1: "Tief in des Busens Berge glimmt nur noch lichtlose glut." ("Deep in the recesses of my heart only a flameless fire still smolders.") The final word "glut" is sung a full octave below middle C.

"You have to trust your voice," he said. "If you try to sing like a bass, if you squeeze it and try to project it, it actually won't carry."

Early in Kaufmann's career, Siegmund wouldn't even have been a possibility. He started out in 1990's sounding "like a typical young German tenor with a very light, white voice."

As for his lower register, he said, "I had none at all. I think F or F sharp (below middle C) was the lowest note I had. Under that it was only hot air."

He also found that when he tried to sing out to express emotion, "I lost control. My voice just wasn't reliable."

That led him in 1995 to a teacher, American baritone Michael Rhodes, who had moved to Germany after World War II.

Rhodes said in an email reply to questions that he instructed Kaufmann in the use of a technique he calls "sbadigliare," from the Italian for yawning, which he himself had learned from the great baritone Giuseppe De Luca.

"Sbadigliare requires one to relax the whole body and really yawn — an involuntary reaction," Rhodes said. "In this state of relaxation, the voice is completely free, as Jonas's is."

Kaufmann said that after he had studied with Rhodes, many colleagues who knew him from before predicted he would quickly come to ruin. "They said, 'Maybe another two to three years, maybe five, but then it's over.' Because everyone expected me to overdo, to artificially darken the sound. It was impossible to believe that this would be my own voice."

Instead, his career started to take off. Kaufmann's relationship with the Met began in 2000, when he auditioned for music director James Levine in Munich. The following year he was offered contracts for his debut season in 2006 (that five-year lag time again), as Alfredo in Verdi's "La Traviata" and Tamino in Mozart's The Magic Flute."

"I was very happy," he said. "I came, I sang, and they said, 'Well, what's next? Why didn't we book you more?'"

Eager to have Kaufmann return, Gelb arranged for the next couple of seasons for him to fit in a few performances in between his other engagements.

"I didn't have enough time to learn a production," he said, "so we always scheduled "Traviata," because that was the thing I knew. They could just throw me in."

Finally, after 14 Alfredos, last spring Met audiences got to hear him as Cavaradossi and as Don Jose in Bizet's "Carmen." Now, after Siegmund, there are other roles lined up: Gounod's "Faust" next season, and after that reportedly a new "Parsifal" and a "Werther."

Elsewhere, he'll add Aeneas in Berlioz's "Les Troyens" for Covent Garden next season, and plans to expand his Verdi repertory, working toward "Otello" through Manrico in "Il Trovatore" and Don Alvaro in "La Forza del Destino."

One thing Kaufmann won't be tackling for now is more Wagner. The roles he hasn't yet sung — Tristan, Tannhaeuser and Siegfried — are widely regarded as ultimate voice killers.

"As soon as you put one step into this repertory, all the theater managers immediately try to offer you everything up to Tristan, because there's this desperate need.

"If I have the chance to be able to sing for a long time, then hopefully I'll be able to do those things later," Kaufmann said.

"But I don't want to get into the hit books of history as one of the youngest Tristans ever, and who lost his voice right after."

[Dr.B He always says exactly the right things.]

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Messa di Voce

[This is an edited chapter from my mysterious never to be seen again book, the one that explains the purposes and methods for practicing the messa di voce. The person to whom it refers shall remain mysterious. It could be anyone.]

We still haven't sung any repertoire and will not again today. My biggest concern about you is for the general care and maintenance of your voice. My goal is not to give you a standard technique, but to find ways to keep your voice balanced and healthy, the diverse parts connected, and to find unity in the variety of your work.

Today I will teach you the messa di voce, the most classical of all vocal exercises. In its almost absurd simplicity is an enormous variety of benefits, and I wish to give them to you. I'm a big believer in the messa di voce (placing of the voice). Garcia and a lot of other famous teachers recommended it, and I recommend it to you. I used to practice it when all was going to hell in the middle, and sometimes when it wasn't.

Garcia is Manuel Garcia the younger, the brother of the famous mezzo-sopranos.... "Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot," you interrupt. Yes. And the most famous voice teacher of the nineteenth century. His father, also Manuel Garcia, was the tenor for whom Rossini wrote the role of Otello, which means he must have been a pretty damned amazing tenor.

Singing is an athletic activity performed by a tiny muscle in the throat. All of the respiratory mechanism is used to control and shape the sound, but this tiny muscle is crucial. I am reminded of stories about decathletes--the people who compete in the decathlon. They always explain that in order to be good in a big variety of events, their performance in individual events usually suffers. Bulking up for the shot put interferes with developing the right fitness for sprints. Sprinting develops the legs in a slightly different way than long distance running, which in turn is different from the broad jump.

Some uses of the voice interfere with others. Too much emphasis in one area can prevent others from developing. For example, too much emphasis on chest tones can make high notes more difficult. The messa di voce tries to even out the extremes of use, to balance and unify the parts. It is useful to counteract your tendency to prefer certain "hot" zones in your voice, pitches or colors which sound particularly nice and you would like to sell to the listener. In performance you may sell your voice to your heart's content, but not in the messa di voce. Here we place the same value on every pitch and every degree of loudness. It can also tell you what is working well and what is not.

The messa di voce consists of a long crescendo (pp to ff) followed by a long diminuendo (ff to pp) on a single note. It's pretty boring, but worth it. An experienced singer like you should be able to crescendo for a moderate 8 count and diminuendo for another 8. You can do it faster if that seems too slow. If you have a very high tolerance for boredom, you can do this for a few minutes (4 or 5) at a time, covering your whole voice. Don't overdo it.

My suggested tempo is very slow. Many writers on singing recommend it, but I don't remember anyone suggesting such a slow tempo for the messa di voce. I think doing it slowly helps focus awareness on the transitions and off of the extremes.

I want to make sure you learn the messa di voce properly, and remind you that throughout the exercise, you must keep your head still. A little tilting may be allowed, but no backward or forward movement. This is very important. It would counteract the benefit of the exercise to perform it improperly. I would watch carefully to see that you did it right. I would ask you to observe yourself in the mirror, both now and when you are practicing it later.

We will begin in the middle of the voice on a G or A. Extend the pitch gradually down and up, though it is less important to practice the messa di voce at the extremes of range. On high notes you would be doing it to practice controlling the diminuendo and to bring more weight into your high notes. Any vowel is OK. It is more important where you position the vowel than which vowel you pick. Place it forward but not too far forward so you can expand and open it as you crescendo. Begin the vowel in a closed position and move to an open position on the ff, going back to closed position.

"What does it mean, 'open position' and 'closed position?'" you ask. "I don't understand this."

Closed position in a vowel means a narrow, highly focused sound, while open position is wider and less focused. Notice I do not say unfocused. Unfocused is not good. When I am talking about different sounds, I will talk about them in relationship to vowels. A very tight "ee" is closed and a looser "ih" is very open. These are two extremes of the same basic sound. If I am going through the material too quickly, please stop me.

On pitches near the break, you begin in head and crescendo smoothly into chest and back into head. Between the two is mixed registration. Some people mix naturally, but the rest of us have to practice it.

After listening to you and listening to myself when I was about your age, I notice that our two very different voices share certain qualities. We both use a lot of mixing in the middle, and our most beautiful sounds come from this mixed tone. This beautiful mixed sound is delicate and fragile and hard to make loud. When you're doing it right, you show a lot of skill in controlling the mixing. Other times you don't even try to mix and just skip directly from head to chest and back again, usually to achieve a technical effect. At your best, you are more successful at blending your registers than I was.

You must take care to keep your head and neck still during this exercise. The jaw can move. To get the desired benefit, the main activity must be in the larynx and pharynx. Your head must not go forward when you shift into chest or back when you go into head.

The diminuendo must be executed without allowing the tone to become breathy. Intensify the vowel and concentrate on moving it to the closed position. This is especially important on the "ah" vowel which you must be sure to practice. You may limit the crescendo to forte if you want, especially at first. In any event never crescendo louder than feels comfortable or can be fully supported. If you keep doing it, you should be able to extend the dynamic range gradually.

The messa di voce has a number of uses. In addition to helping to smooth the transition from chest to head, it is also an exercise to control the transition from light to heavy singing. Both transitions must be executed smoothly, with no apparent shift. Some pitches will be much more difficult than others, but those are the ones we will emphasize. We will tune the vowels to make it easier, allowing them to move slightly with the crescendo. If you become tense while practicing this, stop and try again tomorrow.

The messa di voce is very boring and requires concentration on technique alone to be effective. It has no musical content and must be practiced this way. Its purpose is to develop coordination of the vocal cords themselves, to develop and facilitate exactly those things, which are hardest for a heavy voice. The instructions should be followed exactly.

The messa di voce connects the extremes together and trains the voice to be familiar not merely with the extremes of loud and soft, chest and head, light and heavy, but with all the levels in between. You use crescendo and diminuendo in performance to bring variety and contrast, but in the messa di voce the objective is sameness and evenness, which means that it must be performed methodically in as boring a manner as possible. Think of it as a meditation, the messa di voce meditation.

The messa di voce is intended only for experienced singers, and beginners should stay away from it. It's not a drill. Repetitions aren't the point. The benefit lies in discovering how to do it correctly, and once mastery is achieved, it can be done less often for review. Practice it occasionally during your warm-up to make sure it's still working properly. If there are problems, return to systematic study.

[This has to be the longest and most boring explanation of how to do a vocal exercise ever written, the obvious result of extreme fanaticism.

For a short demonstration of how to perform the messa di voce chick here. You are not required to repeat it three times or add the huge flourish of fast notes at the end. Fiendish grin is also not necessary, but if it works for you, why not?]

Here is something in an interview with Vesselina Kasarova where she discusses the messa di voce, though she doesn't call it that.  Her description is similar to this.  I also advise her to sing Octavian as though it were Mozart.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Creation

I like more and more Nicholas McGegan and his Philharmonia Baroque orchestra. This picture is pretty old, but I wanted one of him conducting, in case I wanted to enter him in the sexiest conductors contest. He is associated with the Philharmonia Chorale, headed by Bruce Lamott, and together they have produced Haydn's The Creation.

Remember when I said I wished I was listening to McGegan? No, I suppose I'm the only one who remembers everything I say. I was right. This was terrific--lively and fun.

With three excellent soloists: Dominique Labelle as the soprano Gabriel, and later as Eve, tenor Thomas Cooley as Uriel, and baritone Philip Cutlip, previously seen at Glimmerglass, as Raphael and Adam. These are high quality professional singers, people that the SF Symphony could also afford to hire. [Sorry. I'm still in shock over the pathetic B minor mass.]

At this point in his life, in his sixties and retired from Esterhazy, Haydn spent time in London, absorbed the English taste for oratorio and apparently also the English feeling for singers. Or is that McGegan's taste I'm hearing?

And the chorus, a mere three not very long rows of singers, managed a full and beautiful sound.

Thumbs up.


Someone sent me a link to this:

It's an homage to this:

I have heard of Scholl, of course, but all the rest is new to me. It is two renditions of "The Cold Song" from Henry Purcell's King Arthur.

This is what they are saying:

What power art thou
Who from below
Hast made me rise
Unwillingly and slow
From beds of everlasting snow

See'st thou not how stiff
And wondrous old
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold

I can scarcely move
Or draw my breath
I can scarcely move
Or draw my breath

Let me, let me,
Let me freeze again
Let me, let me
Freeze again to death
Let me, let me, let me
Freeze again to death...

This is all unbelievably weird and of course cool.

I notice that Scholl has done a whole album of Purcell. There can never be too much Purcell.  I could easily go on a whole Purcell jag.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Resolutions Revisited

In January of 2006 I made a few resolutions. I want to see how I'm doing with them.

1. I will retire from my job. As soon as I stop enjoying it. Honestly. I've been resolving to do this for quite a while, and some people are tired of hearing about it. Being sent to London is making this harder.

---I retired in May of 2006 and haven't regretted it for a minute.

2. I will make an attempt to find at least one falsettist I like. I won't work too hard at this.

---I must say this took until 2010, but I find I do like Philippe Jaroussky, whom I first heard at Salle Pleyel in Giulio Cesare in Egitto. He is quite pleasant to listen to.

3. I will decide where I am going to live after I am retired. This is also difficult.

---I ended up in Sacramento. I like my apartment, but I'm not sure this was the greatest decision.

4. I will try to weigh less at the end of the year than I do now. I should try to find out how much that is.

---I do weigh about 15 pounds less than when I was working.

5. I will go to at least five opera houses I have never been to before. There are two in London, so that should make a nice start. I will also try to get to Munich this year. There are at least three there.

---I have done quite well with this one. Besides the two in London, I have been to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA, the Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, the Arena di Verona, the Baths of Caracalla, Munich Opera, Palais Garnier, and Opera Bastille. I could do better.

6. I will spend more money than I make. This is not a goal you have to set for yourself, but in my case I am a terrible cheapskate.

---I seem to have been successful in 2008 and the years since them. I'm way behind this year.

7. I will try to change my opinion about at least three things.

---Does everybody that ever appeared on American Idol count? No, I suppose not. Joyce DiDonato. She continues to move rapidly up my list. I made it all the way through Tristan and now rather like it, but not as a favorite. I liked Domingo's Cyrano a lot more in San Francisco than I had in London. It's iffy that I have done much in this category. After all, I like an awful lot of stuff.

8. I will have a new favorite opera.

---This was a silly resolution. How could you possibly prefer anything to Der Rosenkavalier?

9. I will try to fall in love. This gets harder to do as you get older. I think it's hormones. I will assume that opera infatuations also count.

---I have been successful here. It was after this that I began chasing around to see Jonas Kaufmann. It is nice to see that others are doing this, too.

It is surprising to have so much success in the resolution game. I think you have to pick the right resolutions.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Le Comte Ory in HD

Count Ory...............Juan Diego Flórez
Countess Adèle..........Diana Damrau
Isolier.................Joyce DiDonato
Raimbaud................Stéphane Degout
Tutor...................Michele Pertusi

Conductor...............Maurizio Benini
Production..............Bartlett Sher

Rossini's Le Comte Ory made its way onto HD today. It was Rossini's last comedy. He had moved to Paris and worked very hard to adapt to Parisian style. There is an almost patter song for the almost buffo bass Raimbaud, sung by Stéphane Degout. There is lots of coloratura for everyone under the sun.

Why would you want this?

For Juan Diego Florez as Count Ory. He doesn't get an aria, but he does get lots of charming, absurd acting and an insane amount of high notes. Juan Diego became a father 35 minutes before the start of the opera. With no sleep he still made a spectacular performance. He looked a little hung over, not a bad look for Ory.

You would want it for the extraordinarily charming Joyce DiDonato as the count's page who in the end gets the girl. If I understood the dialog correctly, the countess is not married, and Isolier might be considered a suitable mate.

You might want it for the menage a trois in the second act, the only operatic trio I know of that takes place in bed. There's lots of messing around in this production.

You would want it for the Countess of Diana Damrau. She does get an aria. This is just about the silliest opera I've seen.

You might like the conducting of  Maurizio Benini.

This buffo plot is given an almost seria musical treatment. I almost liked it.

Post Script:

I have followed with interest the commentary surrounding the Met's performance of the opera Le Comte Ory.

On one level it's controversial for its use of the old score. Tommasini has written about it in the Times here. Operating under Bartoli's influence, the Zurich Opera worked out a way to use the new score from the new not yet published Bärenreiter edition of Rossini's works and performed the opera using their original instruments orchestra La Scintilla. Here is a discussion by the publisher of the differences between the two versions.  The Met apparently could not be bothered and used the same old same old.

I couldn't make it to Zurich, but it would have been fun to try to hear the differences.

Should we treasure an opera simply because Juan Diego Florez looks cute dressed up as a nun and totally aces some high C's, D's and Db's? Is it really funny what his reprobate character is actually up to?

Which is the topic of the second controversy. This is basically a comedy about sexual abuse. At least that's one way of seeing it. Gert definitely had that take on it. If you go strictly by the libretto, I think the idea was to lure the Count into bed with his page when he thought he was with the Countess. The Countess would have been in on this ruse, I assume.

I think it is strictly a modern idea that women should be able to consider themselves safe from the sexual advances of men while continuing to hang out with them. Women are liberated only when men behave themselves.

The joke is supposed to be that Ory thinks he's getting away with something when actually Isolier and the Countess are tricking him. I think it's not really very funny.

Listening to Rossini made me think of...

This is "Son qual nave" from the Sacrificium album. Forgive me if listening to Rossini made me think of Cecilia.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Glorious Percussion

This is Glorious Percussion by Sofia Gubaidulina, a concerto for percussion ensemble and orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor, Berliner Philharmoniker. I posted this because it is the best visual film of an orchestra playing I've ever seen. I like the music more than the previous experience of Gubaidulina.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Great Moments in the Career of Cecilia Bartoli

Donna Fiorilla - Cecilia Bartoli
Zaida - Judith Schmid

Please note at .55 Bartoli bites Schmid on the ass.  This is Il Turco in Italia in Zurich.

For something not quite so silly here is a Selim - Fiorilla duet from the same opera with Michele Pertusi.

I think this is my favorite part.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Vittorio Grigolo

Now if you wanted to say Vittorio Grigolo was the new Pavarotti, I might consider it.

Sunday, April 03, 2011


It is the sound, I think. It plays in your soul, or it doesn't. I love the sound of his voice more than just about anything, and this is Italian enough.

He looked over at where I was sitting--close to the stage in the tiers stage left--as he left the stage in the Berkeley concert. I begin to regret that my friends will not stalk. They give me rides and put me up for the night, so I can't really just do whatever I want.

Stalking is something for young people to do, people who stay up late, and in my case the results have not been good. I am thinking this over. I should practice smiling, perhaps.


I was watching CSI NY, an episode about disc jockeys, and heard the following exchange: DJ: try this music. Mac: No thanks. I prefer Crumb.

Robert Crumb of underground comics? George Crumb of music that sounds like whales? Who writes this stuff?

A friend saves the Arts section of the New York Times for me, and I have read up to March 22. I knew the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was touring just before disbanding. And now there is an item about a set of CDs called Music for Merce consisting of stuff written for Merce Cunningham. For only $118.14 you can buy this on Amazon. It includes lots of experimental music by a number of composers, not just John Cage.

If you have ever witnessed ballet dancers rehearsing, you know that in the corner of the room is a piano and a rehearsal pianist who plays constantly while they dance. Apparently Merce Cunningham didn't do this. The dancers rehearsed with no music at all, and it got added in at the last minute. Everyone dances with a baffled expression on their faces. This explains a lot.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Sexy Poppea we have been looking for

A lot has changed at Glyndebourne since the video for Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea was filmed in 1984 with Maria Ewing in the starring role. I was disappointed with the earlier version, but this film from the same venue in 2008 with Danielle de Niese completely makes up for it. Where to begin?

This opera comes at the beginning of commercial opera in Venice. If we have no royalty footing the bill, we must turn to operas which might interest the masses: namely operas about sex and violence, the same things that interest us.

The sexual ambiguity of the casting is probably also authentic to the original.

The incredible Alice Coote is Nerone, putting the role back into the treble where it belongs. Women definitely appeared on stage in Venice, and one of them sang Poppea.

Everything is up to date with 2008, including the staging. The prologue takes place in the audience. The first scene is a bed. Then we have a few books scattered around the floor for Seneca’s house; then a bathtub, first for Nero to kill Lucano in, then for Ottavia; then a scene at the beach created with a large drape and a picnic basket; lots of black men’s suits; in short, modern minimalism.

Of course the star of the show is actually Emmanuelle Haïm and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. In the extras it is explained that the two extant scores for this work consist of the voice parts and a figured bass. For any modern performance what the orchestra plays is completely invented in the modern era. The orchestration for this performance conforms to current standards for original instrument orchestras. For my ears the recorders and tambourines sound almost medieval. Are we overdoing a bit?

The playing is passionate and expressive. We are still in the period of opera where most of the music is Florentine Camerata recitative. There are outbursts of incredible coloratura and instrumental interludes for variety, but the endless recitative can get occasionally a bit tedious. Try to imagine you’re Italian.

I am writing too much, but it can’t be helped. All of Monteverdi is pre-tonal, but he clearly has a personal style for how the chords progress from one to the other that is quite beautiful. He is a very great master.

Yes, there’s plenty of sex, actually surprisingly a lot. Also violence. If sex and/or violence can be going on while this dialog is being sung, it pretty much is. Both men and women are in drag. There is talk about virtue and a character who dies for it. That alone has to be unique. On top of all of that we have the gorgeous Danielle de Niese.  Danielle and Alice's voices are well paired.

The contrast with the previous DVD could not be greater. This one is a lot more fun.  I am clapping to the computer screen.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Sarah Palin Opera

Here is a blog claiming that John Adams, together with John Luther Adams, whoever he is, is writing an opera with the life of Sarah Palin as its theme. Well.

The main character is female. This represents progress for Adams.
I'm sure the libretto would be pretty easy to write.

I feel extremely dubious about the possibility of immortalizing the already far too well known Palin.

For me this would only work as a comedy. Then I would be good with it. Preferably slapstick.