Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Little Jonas

Ah. I feel much better now.

From a comment:   Es ist ein Traum. Diese Arie könnte noch stundenlang dauern.

And another:   Meraviglioso Jonas!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Stating the Obvious

First of all I want to say that nothing exists about singing that is separate from the people who are out there doing it.

This leads to the logical conclusion that most books about singing technique are irrelevant because nothing in their contents leads back to specific examples of specific singers.  If there is no illustration, especially now in the modern world where illustrations are everywhere, there is no content.

I know how to pronounce French because that is how actual French singers pronounce it.  This is only one of hundreds of possible examples.

If I can't see it and hear it, it doesn't exist.  I don't want to read about how some example in the laboratory or in your studio does something unless you let me hear it, too.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

New York

New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?

This is a contest entry.

The weight of culture in America has always been slanted toward New York.  I subscribe to The New Yorker and the New York Times because they are the appropriate outlets for news about arts in America.  I don't subscribe to the LA Times or the Chicago Tribune or even the San Francisco Chronicle because the amount of arts news is always going to be much smaller.

This purports to be an opera blog, though I like to let myself branch out into other arts.  By starting up the live in HD series bringing performances of the Metropolitan Opera into local movie theaters Peter Gelb has strengthened New York's leadership around the globe.

The provinces often take the lead in the area of new opera.  Leadership in the opera world in American can flow from the San Francisco Opera to New York, or in the case of the currently playing Maria Stuarda, from Houston to New York, but this has at times the feeling that these outlying cities are mere tryouts for New York.  What counts for the singer is success at the Metropolitan Opera.

On the planet it is quite another story.  In the world of opera Germany is still the leader.  However, the Europeans are rapidly demolishing their cultural institutions in the name of balanced budgets.  Eventually America may be alone, because our budgets come from private sources.

Writing about culture in America is in the process of disbursing to the four winds via the internet.  It is a new world.  If there is a new center, it would be the ether.

Friday, March 23, 2012


If I were to interview a lot of singers, I would ask them about their exercise routines.  And now you should ask yourself who is by far the most athletic singer out there?  And the answer would be Natalie Dessay.  And now I am reading in Gramophone that she sought out a circus and trains on the flying trapeze.  Whoa.  That I would like to see.

So when Natalie takes her year off from opera, perhaps she will tour with Cirque du Soliel.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pelléas et Mélisande allows me to see from the stage of the Paris Opera Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. It is one of those AHA! moments.

Philippe Jordan, Conductor
Robert Wilson, Stage director and sets

Stéphane Degout, Pelléas
Vincent Le Texier, Golaud
Franz Josef Selig, Arkel 

Jérôme Varnier, Un Médecin, Le Berger 

Elena Tsallagova, Mélisande 

Anne Sofie Von Otter, Geneviève

I read that this is a revival, one that cannot be put aside.

It is a work like other operas because it is about love.  Perhaps it could be compared to Tristan und Isolde.  An older man marries a much younger woman and wrecks havoc when she falls in love with someone more her own age.  Perhaps it could also be compared to L'Amour de Loin for its focus on the individuals in a static landscape.

The subject is the inner reality of love rather than the outer reality of action.  The entire story takes place in a single extended location.  They go into the woods to hunt; they go inside the castle; they walk out to the fountain; Mélisande looks out the window of her tower bedroom; they go down into the dungeons of the castle.  It is like a Poe story--all atmosphere and emotion.  Whatever it is, it is it to the ultimate degree.

This is the ultimate extreme of the opera as tone poem.  There is a musical landscape like a forest enveloped in fog--no melodies, no leitmotivs can be extracted from the enormous soundscape.  There are no arias or vocal climaxes.  It seems to aspire only to existence.

For some this is the most boring opera ever written.  I found in my researches that Camille Saint-Saëns loathed Debussy and traveled to Paris to see the opera so he could ridicule it.

In this production the musical landscape is represented by a vision of the open sky; the sun is about to rise but remains hovering just below the horizon.  Sometimes it fades to almost black.  The color palate ranges only from blue to purple.

The characters do not move so much as pose, create pictures, silhouettes against the sky.

My sense is that once you have seen it this way, you will never manage to unsee it.  The opera has become this vision of it and will never separate back out again.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Musical Murder

I enjoy a good murder mystery, and lately I have discovered a new writer, Paul Adam, who writes mysteries with musical content.  His lead character, Gianni Castiglione, is a violin maker in Cremona, and his main subject is violins.

He includes a lot of historical detail, including in his latest, Paganini's Ghost, information about Isabella Colbran and her unfortunate marriage to Rossini.  The picture is Colbran with a lyre.  Sorry, no Colbran with a violin.

The thing that attracted my interest was the connection between opera and gambling.  Apparently those enormous useless lobbies found in most opera houses were gambling casinos.  Opera was financed with gambling.  Now there is something to think about.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Is Porgy and Bess Racist

Porgy and Bess is on my mind right now--I'm not really sure why.  One of the questions that constantly arises is whether or not P&B is racist.  My research has led me to this interview last October with Audra McDonald in the LA Times.

Question: Obviously one of the critiques of “Porgy and Bess” is that, even at the time it was written, but certainly in 2011, the view of black American life is racist. Do you share that view?

McDonald: When I first was exposed to “Porgy and Bess” many, many years ago, I was blown away by it — loved the music, overwhelmed by the production at the Met that I saw and thought I want to play Bess someday. But I also knew they were stereotypes that were considered racist. And lots of people, lots of African Americans and African American performers who play these roles have trouble with the stereotypical way in which these characters have been drawn. They’re called archetypes, but a lot of people call them stereotypes as well.

And in a lot of the research that I’ve done on this piece, learning about the history of it, the many different versions of it that exist and will continue to exist and will continue to morph as this piece goes on into the 21st century, I know George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward were writing this piece from a place of love and from their understanding of African American culture. But they were still outsiders in that culture, and therefore they can’t possibly have perfectly drawn fine lines for their characters, because it’s an outside culture, especially at a time when there was no race mixing to speak of. And also it was a time when it was the law in many parts of the land that, yes, black people don’t come to the theater the same day as white people come to the theater in the Jim Crow South.

Question: I read that a cast in Washington, D.C., protested that.

McDonald: Yes. The original Porgy refused to play the theater in Washington, D.C., until they [admitted a mixed-race audience], and it went back and forth and back and forth, but finally they desegregated that theater for the first time.

Question: What do we see in Bess in this production that we didn’t see before?

McDonald: I have no idea because I haven’t seen every production that’s ever been. All I can see is what our goal is, to really focus on these two people and the effect they have on each other’s life, the effect they have on the choices they make, the fact that Porgy becomes more of a man, not just in a sexual way but really tries to overcome his handicap; it’s a means to become more of a man because he’s got something to live for now that makes him feel that he can walk like a natural man and be there for her — “I’m going to take care of this. I will take care of Crown. Crown is my business.”

As far as Bess is concerned, she’s really struggling with her addictions, struggling to overcome them, really has that vision of herself in Porgy’s eyes. For her it’s staying away from her addictions long enough so she can walk toward that vision of this whole worthy woman, worthy of being loved. And there’s a beautiful passage in the book by Dubose Heywood — since the book actually gave us a lot more information — there are other men out there, but Bess says, “But God only made one Porgy, and I can only be decent with you because there’s no one like you” — I’m paraphrasing. Bess realizes that it’s Porgy that keeps her strong. It’s her reflection in his eyes that gives her a vision of what her potential is. They both do that for each other. The tragedy is that Porgy is taken away from her. She can’t hold on to him.

Monday, March 12, 2012


I've done "Over the rainbow," so why not "Summertime?"  It might be possible to say this is the great American song.  I have picked these versions because each singer transforms it to herself.

Ella Fitzgerald

Norah Jones

Billie Holliday

Janis Joplin

Leontyne Price.  For me Leontyne is definitive.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


You may have noticed by now that my first love is Lieder. The others are gone so I have chosen "Mondnacht."


I have been threatening for years to review all of Cecilia Bartoli's releases. I still might do this, but today I felt a need to see something that is completely the opposite of the recent Otello.  Cecilia at her most physically dynamic has to be Nina, o sia la pazza per amore (2002) by Giovanni Paisiello.  What a mess she is in this, with scraggly hair and an over-sized coat.

Nina is hard to categorize.  For one thing there is spoken dialogue, which as you know never happens in Italian opera, either seria or buffa.  The cast is chosen for their ability to speak convincingly in Italian.  It's most like an opera comique, I suppose, with lots of simple songs and arias, and a few recitativo accompagnato.  Nina is roughly contemporary with Don Giovanni.

The pastore (Jonas Kaufmann before he became famous) sings a song for Nina and then suggests perhaps she should sing something.   She responds with "Ah, lo previdi", recitative and "Ah, t'invola agl'occhi miei", aria, K272, a concert aria by Mozart. As a rage aria, it seems to fit well into the plot.  She stands formally and lets it rip.  Maybe if she writhed around on the floor during this part, too, we would accept it more easily.

One alternately laughs and cries.  One isn't sure which is more appropriate.  She is obviously enjoying herself, and is definitely quite pazza--jumping, running, flopping down on the floor or on the strange object on one side of the stage, alternately crying, smiling, frowning, laughing or perhaps temporarily sane.  It is all a wonderful pleasure to watch.

Cecilia's sister, Federica Bartoli, is in the cast.  She is one of the women's chorus and occasionally speaks a few lines.  She is the one Cecilia knocks to the floor in Act I and who combs Cecilia's hair in act II.

My other favorite cast member is László Polgár as Nina's father.  He's so wonderfully sad and somber.

Lindoro comes back and there is a happy ending where Nina tries to undress him.  Nina will always be pazza, but the mad ones are best.  Bartoli goes on being mad to the end.  In the bows she eats the bouquet again.

Cecilia does everything to excess, an approach that I highly recommend.  Adam Fischer conducts.


Thursday, March 08, 2012

Otello ossia il Moro di Venezia

The streamed version of Rossini's Otello was both unusual and pleasing.  This opera was produced at the San Francisco Opera only once-- in 1994--with Chris Merritt, Bruce Ford and Cecilia Gasdia.  I remember only the Willow Song.

Since my research on Rossini opera seria a few years ago, I am very much aware that the Rossini gimmick accelerando music usually appears only in comedies, but in Otello it makes frequent appearances, including the beginning of the overture.  We feel on familiar ground.

The casting of the characters is quite unusual by modern standards.  Six of the characters are tenors, just as in Armida the following year, one is a bass and both women are mezzo sopranos.  This isn't Shakespeare--Desdemona's father is an important character, for instance--and Rossini doesn't hesitate to expand the female roles.  However, he does not expand them into a love duet between Desdemona and Otello, which changes the emotional dynamic of the whole opera.  The time of happiness is already past.

Our Rossini tenors, mainly Brownlee and Florez, are chosen for comedy and have relatively light voices.  The tenors appearing in Zurich are more along the lines of Chris Merritt and Rockwell Blake, robust and very dramatic.  I especially liked John Osborn as Otello in a natural wig, Javier Camarena as Rodrigo, and Edgardo Rocha as Iago.  There are some wonderful tenor duets here.  The miking is a bit heavy, so it is difficult to tell how they would sound in the house.

The production is 21st century minimalism--dark clothes, spare sets.  The only visual hint that we might be in Venice is the giant glass chandelier hanging in the first scene.  Cecilia wore black or white.  Liliana Nikiteanu as Emilia wore casual clothes and behaved in a completely casual way.  She exists only for Desdemona, who kisses her at the end.  Everything else is somber in the extreme. This opera is about racism and sexual cruelty. 

I have seen Cecilia Bartoli act in many different operas, and each time her intense physicality dominated the character.  We could hardly have known her here.  Her body is stiff and straight, and except for pouring a bottle of beer over her own head, her movements are all quite constrained.  Her face is stiff and full of sadness.  We know we are in a tragedy which darkens and deepens as the opera progresses.  This darkness carries into the "Willow Song"--the greatest version ever, topping all of her former performances.  After all, this is its true context, and the somberness adds to the intensity.  We got to see her smile only in the bows at the end.  I was very moved.

Otello kills himself and the others kick his body.  There isn't nearly enough Rossini opera seria in the opera world today.  Muhai Tang conducted.


Golijof Scandal

New Yorker here 2/21/12.  This is Alex Ross.

Washington Post here  2/21/12,  here 3/6/12.  This is Anne Midgette.

New York Times here.  3/7/12.  This is Daniel J. Wakin.

I have long been a fan of Golijov, so the fact that his name has recently been associated with plagiarism has aroused my interest.

Plagiarism is not a crime.  The crime is called copyright infringement, and involves citing or using things currently under copyright without permission of the copyright owner.  Plagiarism is another idea entirely and apparently arises with Romanticism.  Plagiarism could mean nothing more than sounding like someone else's work.  One is to be admired for ones own original creations only.  It is a crime of honor.

Golijov is accused of using other people's work with their permission.  They probably agreed because he is vastly more famous than they are, and otherwise no one would ever hear of them.  To know that this is going on you would have to have read the fine print.

I am trying to decide what I think of this.  It has always seemed to me that the real problem was that he was having writer's block.  It should be obvious to anyone that has spent time listening to him that his work arises from the music of his environment.  So the question for me is can he continue to create works based on musical environments he no longer lives in.  All we get here is the commercial product, and no one seems particularly inspired by it.  I have suggested that perhaps the solution would be to move back to Argentina.

Do I care that each and every note is completely original?  No, I do not.  What I care about is do I enjoy listening to it?  I can hardly think of anyone writing today whom I enjoy more.  I wish him luck.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012


I wish to apologize to the Zurich Opera for certain intemperate remarks made last week.  I was leaping to conclusions without evidence.  You may have noticed that I am not a particularly sensible person.  Special apologies to Edita Gruberova, which doesn't mean I will be flying anywhere to see her, but....

10 am West Coast time tomorrow morning is the schedule for the live performance of Otello on

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Medici tv

If you sit all day and fiddle with computers, your health will go bad, but you may discover useful things, like Medici tv or  Try it.  Apparently I can watch Otello from Zurich on it starting on March 8.

I seem always to arrive at certain milestones of old age just as the technological solution arrives.  My memory is going, but now we have Google.  I could not remember the name of Mariska Hargitay's mother, but in a few seconds Google provides it.  It isn't even necessary to remember how to spell Hargitay.  Or even what her name is at all.  It's all there waiting in some search engine.

I have noticed that none of the translators know how to form a German sentence into an English one, so there is still a use for human brains.

One could sit all day and watch concerts over the internet on  Ariadne from Baden Baden with Renée is what I'm watching now.  Oh dear.

In Italien faengt die Vorstellung gar nicht an bis zum 9 Uhr Abends.  [In Ariadne the performers are told that everything must be over by 9 pm in time for the fireworks, and I was merely pointing out that in Italy the performance doesn't even start until after 9.  Remember "venti tre ori" in Pagliacci?  That means it starts at 11 pm.]

In memory the diva who gave the best reading of "Was is das?" was Leontyne Price.  It was like a very melodramatic contralto.  Quite funny.

Sophie Koch is an excellent composer.  And why did I never notice before that the three ladies are singing "Schlafe, schlafe, holder süßer Knabe"?