Sunday, May 31, 2015

Andris Nelsons in Boston

I watched the inaugural concert for Andris Nelsons at the Boston Symphony on the internet because I could not find it on my local PBS station.  He explained that he programmed what he loves.

The first half was all Wagner.

The prelude to Tannhäuser?
Gralserzählung from Lohengrin sung by Jonas Kaufmann
Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde sung by Nelsons wife, Kristine Opolais

The second half was all Italian (order?).

Un bel di from Butterfly sung by Kristine
Turidu's aria to his mother from Cavalleria rusticana sung by Jonas
Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana
Love duet from Manon Lescaut by Jonas and Kristine

Encore:  duet from La Boheme

In the Manon Lescaut there is kissing and other carrying on.  Jonas explains in the pauses that the curse of being an opera conductor is that you get to see some other guy making love to your wife.  He seems he's handling it pretty well.  Roberto Alagna and Angela are supposed to have broken up over precisely this issue.

After the singers had left, they played the Pines of Rome.  These are some of the pines of the Giardino Borghese:

His heart is in the late romantic, and he brings an enormous amount of sincere emotion to this repertoire.  He showed a light touch and great attention to detail, things that are not often heard in Wagner or Puccini.  He knows how to follow a singer.  To gauge him as an orchestral conductor I would need to hear maybe Beethoven or someone like that.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Not Netrebko again

This picture of Anna Netrebko reminds me it may be time to start looking for some new sexiest pictures.  She still has the sexiest legs in the business.  Yusif Eyvazov isn't looking too bad either after losing a lot of weight.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Mahagonny from the ROH

Conductor:  Mark Wigglesworth
Translation:  Jeremy Sams
Leocadia Begbick (head gangster):  Anne Sofie von Otter
Fatty (second gangster):  Peter Hoare
Trinity Moses (third gangster):  Willard W. White
Jenny (prostitute):  Christine Rice
Jimmy McIntyre (lumberjack):  Kurt Streit
Jack O'Brien (lumberjack):  Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Bank Account Bill (lumberjack):  Darren Jeffery
Alaska Wolf Joe (lumberjack):  Neal Davies

There were some odd features to the film from the Royal Opera in London of Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.  There was a blackout in London that night, so the lighting wasn't exactly normal, but from our perspective it was hard to tell exactly how different it was.

The three gangsters arrive in a semi which breaks down.  Leocadia, who is apparently in charge, decides to set up a city here.  She names the city Mahagonny and tells us this means spider web.  A semi container makes a great set, so this is what we see throughout the opera.  When the semi first opens, it is full of prostitutes.  Jenny sings the Alabama Song.  It makes sense that we would be in Alabama.  The gangsters are fleeing from Tallahassee.  It's supposed to be a desert. Attn. Europeans:  there are no deserts in the south eastern part of the United States.

Four lumberjacks arrive and see Mahagonny as a place where they can spend their money, earned from 7 years in Alaska.  Jack O'Brien eats himself to death.  Alaska Wolf Joe gets into a fight with Trinity Moses who then kills Joe.  Jimmy has bet all his money on Joe and loses.  Bill is too smart for this and is the only one left with any money.

This brings us to the moral of the story:  the worst crime is not having any money.  Jimmy is executed for this.


They left out the third verse of the Alabama Song "Show me the way to the next pretty boy."  They only included the verses about whiskey and money.

The singers in Los Angeles were much better suited to their roles.  These were fine, I guess, and included the great Willard White.  So how can I complain?  It was fun to watch Anne Sophie von Otter.

They executed Jimmy standing with his arms outstretched so he would somewhat resemble the life-sized crucifix that later appeared.  Do we really need Jesus here?

Not quibbling:  this was presented in English with subtitles--I still haven't seen it in German--with a translation by Jeremy Sams.  This is the same guy that provided the text for The Enchanted Island and translated Merry Widow at the Metropolitan.  He has been richly criticized for the Merry Widow translation, but I liked him here.  The text was very straight forward, even blunt, which seemed suitable.  I ended the performance feeling that I finally completely understood this piece.  The only question remaining is did I really want to?

First is food, then comes sex, then fighting, then drinking.  Nobody seems to die of sex or drinking.  The moral of this seems to be that humans cannot be trusted.  I don't find humans to have a good track record but I don't think there's an answer.  Unless maybe you mean Switzerland.

Monday, May 25, 2015

West Side Story

To commemorate the announcement that Cecilia Bartoli will sing Maria in West Side Story at next year's Pfingstfest in Salzburg I present the film where Cher sings all the parts.

Perhaps Cecilia can get Cher to do Anita, the only part she seems actually suited for. In my imagination I see this part done by Liliana Nikiteanu.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sibelius - Kullervo

Kullervo by Sibelius is a group of five tone poems, only a couple of which have singing.  The first one, streamed on The Opera Project, was entirely ballet.  This is a youthful work published only toward the composer's death, and is in a form that was his personal favorite.  The story is pretty ghastly.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Brecht and Weill

Brecht, Lenya, Weill

Prior to our entry into WWI America may have held little interest for Europeans. I was in London for the American bicentennial in 1976 and was fascinated to see them focusing on the British politicians whom they held responsible for the loss of the colonies. Our American heroes meant nothing.

So we came into WWI for about a year and ended it. The Tsar was gone. The Austro-Hungarian Kaiser was gone, the German Kaiser was gone, The King of Italy was gone. Life in those parts of Europe was completely changed into a raging political turmoil. Suddenly the Europeans were obsessing over things American, including American music. Jazz was heard in Paris. Jazz was also heard in Berlin where 18 year old Kurt Weill went to study music with Ferruccio Busoni among others.

Weill was fascinated with the theater from the beginning, and in Berlin he found himself surrounded by political movements promoting the use of music in ordinary life.  He sought out Brecht because of his Mahagonny poems, thus beginning their extraordinary collaboration.  He hitched his wagon to a star, as we say.

I knew about Weimar era Berlin from Cabaret and Christopher Isherwood, but I didn't know Berlin was a major central part of Europe, in some ways for the first time. Kurt Weill is the European composer closest to American idiom, bringing us a European vision showing elements of jazz style. He is known in musical theater circles as one of the few composers who did his own orchestration.  His orchestra emphasizes winds much like the orchestra for an American musical.  In Berlin he was exposed to American jazz and clearly adapted his ideas to suit it, but it would be a mistake to say he is imitating.  He used zithers, for instance, and what American orchestrator would score for a badly out of tune piano?

The list below is of Weill's works which were written in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, an association which lasted from 1927 to 1933 when Jewish Weill fled Germany.  I find that I don't want to write about his American period and will focus on these.

Title Genre Sub­divisions Libretto Première date Place
Mahagonny-Songspiel [Little Mahagonny] Songspiel 3 acts Bertolt Brecht 17-Jul-27 Baden-Baden
Die Dreigroschenoper  [Three Penny Opera] play with music prologue and 8 Scenes Bertolt Brecht, after The Beggar's Opera by John Gay 31-Aug-28 Berlin
Happy End comedy with music 3 acts Elisabeth Hauptmann and Bertolt Brecht 2-Sep-29 Berlin
Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny      [Big Mahagonny] opera 3 acts Bertolt Brecht 9-Mar-30 Leipzig
Der Jasager                   [The Yes Sayer] Schuloper 2 acts Bertolt Brecht, after Elisabeth Hauptmann's translation from Arthur Waley's English version of the Japanese No dramaTaniko 23-Jun-30 Berlin
Die Dreigroschenoper  [Three Penny Opera] movie Very similar to the stage play.  Also a French version. 1931
Die sieben Todsünden  [Seven Deadly Sins] ballet chanté 8 parts Bertolt Brecht 7-Jun-33 Paris

The year of the premier tells Weill's age, while Brecht was 2 years older and had far more completed works for the theater than Weill had when they met. Weill initiated the contact. He had read Brecht's Mahagonny poems and wanted to set them to music.

What is interesting in the above list is the appearance of the name Elisabeth Hauptmann. I believe that her share in the creation of Brecht's ouvre has only recently become known. It should be added to the above chart that it is she who would have translated The Beggar's Opera into German for Brecht. We will probably never know how much of Brecht is really Hauptmann.

The success of these works varied absolutely. Mahagonny Songspiel was a one time performance to fulfill a commission. Die Dreigroschenoper was a raging success, settling Weill's finances. 

Happy End crashed and burned after only 3 performances. This was in no way the fault of Weill. Brecht was discovering Marxism at the time and the characters spent the third act reading the communist manifesto and ranting about Marx. The middle-class audience didn't care for this at all. 

For Weill the full length Mahagonny was always the goal of their partnership. It is also the goal of my current delving into Weill, since The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny from the Royal Opera will play in a local theater here in a couple of weeks. I have previously seen this work in the Teresa Stratas version and the version from the LA Opera with Audra McDonald, both in English. The German version on line is audio only. The Mahagonny opera was also a hit. The Alabama song is always in English, even in Mahagonny Songspiel..  Like many musical works in the 20th century, it was conceived as anti-Wagnerian.  You should be intellectually stimulated or best of all alienated, and not hypnotically swept away.

Die sieben Todsünden [The seven deadly sins] and the rise of Hitler arrived at the same time. After it played in Berlin, Weill fled, first to Paris and later to America. This work is one of his more performed pieces. This is the one where sister Anna I sings and Anna II dances, like the evil step sisters in Rossini's La Cenerentola, probably a coincidence.  The result is a ballet with singing.

Brecht eventually realized that Weill had succeeded in completely dominating their partnership in the only place where it mattered--in the works they had created together.  I should perhaps stop trying so hard to understand it and just enjoy.  I'll see what I think after the showing.


I think I've got it.  After much thinking and reading, I think I understand my difficulty with Brecht.  He wants alienation and a complete lack of identification with his characters.  The problem I'm having with this is that when 3 crooks stop their truck in a deserted place and create a gangster city, I see America.  As an American, this is normal life.  How can I be alienated?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Cecilia Bartoli in rehearsal for Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride which opens Friday in Salzburg.  Over a four day period she will sing 2 performances of Iphigénie en Tauride (French), one of Semele (English) and then participate in the final gala concert.  This mad life seems to agree with her.

There is a question circulating:  could it be that she has actually cut her hair?  This is a silly thing to worry about.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

For My Brahms Soul


This is a wonderful performance.  Bernstein's accompaniment is especially surprising. If you look closely, you will see Andre Previn pop in to turn the page.  "Vergiss nicht mein."  I kneel.

Monday, May 18, 2015


There was a hoax that Nicolai Gedda had died.  Apparently he's still alive.

The Life Ball, a benefit for AIDS, took place in Vienna with the theme Gold, so we have Woman in Gold played by Conchita Wurst.  Adele Bloch-Bauer may be gone from Vienna in fact but she remains in spirit.

Anna Netrebko goes every year and performs.

Over the weekend I attended a performance of The Requiem by John Rutter.  This was my first experience of one of his choral works.  He is British but is most popular in America.  For my ears it sounds like Fred Waring with more dissonance and a bigger dynamic range.

This came to me from the Zurich Opera:

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Philippe Sly at Mondavi

Philippe Sly, bass-baritone, and John Charles Britton, guitar, treated us to an all-Schubert program on the side stage at Mondavi Center.  I have been in this space before when I saw Monteverdi in 2013, but since that time it has been arranged as a cabaret with small tables.  We were allowed to bring in food and drink (I highly recommend the macaroons).  I have already seen Philippe in The Secret Garden, Cosi fan Tutte, and Partenope at the San Francisco Opera, where I will soon see him as Figaro in Figaro.  He is currently an Adler Fellow and is being given some big assignments.  I selected him for sexiest in Partenope.

There were a few odd things about this performance:  there were no programs, so I will have to rely on memory, and they were miked.  They commented after the performance that the mikes were a surprise.  The miking was discrete, although it changes the timbre of the guitar more than the singer.  There were 2 screens:  English words were projected on one side and paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, a contemporary of Schubert, on the other.

The guitar arrangements were by the guitarist.  In one spot Philippe reached over and keyed one of the guitar strings because John couldn't reach it.  Cute.  The use of guitar accompaniment was a big influence on the selection of repertoire.  We agreed that melodramatic Schubert wouldn't really work with guitar.

Du bist die Ruh
Du liebst mich nicht
An die Musik
Auf dem Wasser zu singen
Der Lindenbaum
Der Leiermann

That's it.  I can't remember anything else.  There were 2 songs from Scheone Muellerin and 2 more from Winterreise.

The intimacy of the space and the gentleness of the guitar/bass-baritone combination created a sweetness that was very pleasing.

There was an encore by Ravel.  M. Sly is French Canadian.  I predict big things for Philippe.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Zurich Fidelio on YouTube

Conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Directed by Jurgen Flimm

Leonora,Fidelio - Camilla Nylund
Florestan - Jonas Kaufmann
Don Pizarro - Alfred Muff
Rocco - László Polgár
Marzelline - Elizabeth Rae Magnuson
Jaquino - Christoph Strehl

I saw Jonas Kaufmann's Florestan in Zurich quite by accident in 2007. I went to see Semele and stayed for other things. This film is the same production and some of the same cast, but the conductor is Harnoncourt instead of Minkowski, and Rocco is László Polgár instead of Matti Salminen. I like Matti, but there is something special about László.

A video is better for the canon. Harnoncourt accompanies discretely, and microphones handle everything else. Rocco sings about money and pulls out a box of it. Is it better if Marzelline, Rocco and Jaquino are funny or serious? Is it better if Fidelio is dignified or flirtatious? Perhaps it is best to see all sides. Florestan is perfect, of course.

Rocco worries about daring even small things, and Fidelio dares everything. What a hero. I am a complete sucker for this opera. It has the best of all happy endings. Only László Polgár gets flowers, but Harnoncourt gets by far the most applause and is far better than Minkowski.

If you haven't watched this, now may be the time.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Things to learn to train for opera

1 How to support the tone. This is taught a lot of different ways but basically consists of controlling the breath as it goes out and keeping the pressure down off of your vocal chords. You're going for a low even pressure that gets stronger as you go up the scale.

2 How to enunciate clearly. Remember there is no amplification at the opera.

3 How to pronounce foreign languages. Unless you are Cecilia Bartoli or work exclusively at the ENO, you will be expected to know how to pronounce Italian, German, French and maybe English. Your teacher will tell you how to pronounce the neutral vowel in French and then someone else will tell you it's not like that at all. You can also learn to speak these languages if you like, but that is easier if you have someone to talk to.  [See Diction Police.  See things voice teachers worry about.]

4 How to integrate your registers. You will need to be able to convince the audience that you have only one voice and not two or three as you go up and down the scale.  [See Chest Voice ]

5 How to sing legato.  How to sing legato while enunciating clearly. This is actually possible.  [See Legato]

6 How to place your vowels. That means your pharynx is open AND your upper formant is focused all at the same time. This is a big part of the process of getting all of your voice to sound more or less the same.  [See Yawn]

7 How to sing loud. They will choose the loud one. Practice the messa di voce. Then you will be able to sing both loud and soft. And in between.  [See Messa di Voce.  See where Christa Ludwig recommends it.  See where Vesselina Kasarova recommends it.]

8 How to sing high. No high notes, no opera. Even Placido Domingo had high notes when he started out.

9 If you are a tenor, you will need to learn how to sound like one. Being a tenor is harder. This is a specialized trick that will require you to find a teacher that knows how to do it.  [See Tenor Blog.  See Leggiero Tenor]

10 How to sing in tune. You are allowed to sing out of tune sometimes but only on purpose. Some teachers will put this at the top of the list, but this is a mistake. If this is really hard for you, maybe you shouldn't be a classical musician. The better your breath support the easier it is to sing in tune.

11 If you want to be a coloratura, you will need to know how to sing fast and with less legato.  You will need to learn how to trill.  [See Vibrato/Trill and Trill]

12 How to do all of these things at the same time.

Put off classification as long as possible.  And practice.  It's no use knowing how to do things if you don't practice.  This list is the result of listening to a lot of students. They're not really learning anything.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Summer Opera in San Francisco

This summer the San Francisco Opera will present:

 Berlioz' The Trojans

New Opera Streaming

Thanks to Ivis Bohlen I have a new source for opera streaming called The Opera Platform.  I will add it to my streaming information.  The operas originate in a variety of places, and according to Ivis the streams will remain available for six months.

La Traviata will play tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015


This blog is sort of a train of thought thing and not really a set of essays.  How does my life intersect with music?

I went to the local college to see The Beggar's Opera, and this has led me to Kurt Weill, which has then in turn led me to actually read the book Kurt Weill on Stage which I have had around the house for a while.  Weill is a long time obsession that I may wish to indulge in.

Suddenly I am wanting to watch Berlin Alexanderplatz which is about this period.

I would have to research this further, but it seems my inability to see a clear Marxist vision in the texts of Bertolt Brecht comes from his own confusion about it.

I also find that I am conflicted about covering students in the form of reviews.

American Weill:

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

American Bach in Davis

Conductor:  Jeffrey Thomas
Violin and Viola d'amore:  Elizabeth Blumenstock
Violin:  Cynthia Black
Countertenor:  Ian Howell
Cello:  Gretchen Claassen

The American Bach Soloists, who generally play in a church in Davis, are my favorite group in the greater Sacramento area.  They did not fail to please.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Die Dreigroschenoper

Apologies.  The film I was reviewing has been removed from YouTube.  Perhaps you can find it elsewhere.

After seeing The Beggars' Opera at a local college, I became interested in its related work, Die Dreigroschenoper or The Three Penny Opera.  Now look what I found--The 1931 movie of Die Dreigroschenoper, which until this moment I had not known existed.

Rudolf Forster as Mackie Messer
Carola Neher as Polly
Reinhold Schünzel as Tiger-Brown
Fritz Rasp as Peachum
Valeska Gert as Frau Peachum
Lotte Lenya as Jenny

Kurt Weill's Three Penny Opera, 1928, appeared 200 years after The Beggar's Opera, 1728, and has basically the same plot.  The words are by Bertolt Brecht.

I watched this film on my big screen tv and found it to be charming. The most famous Weill singer of all time, Lotte Lenya, plays Jenny, the prostitute girl friend who sings Jenny's song.  Lenya is not quite beautiful enough to be a movie star.  If you can't make it through the whole movie, which has surprisingly few songs, here is a sample.

I find that I also love this, the song sung by Polly at her wedding, called Barbara Song.

All ends happily. While Mackie is in jail, Polly buys a bank to take on actual power and raise bail for Mackie. Mackie escapes from jail, allowing them to keep the bail money. Mackie has chosen well in his spur of the moment wedding.  Everyone makes up.

This is a treasure which I am pleased to have added to my life experience.  The English subtitles in the full movie are rather bad.  I kept wondering what a "queer coronation" might be but finally realized they meant queen.

Strange footnotes.  Neher died in a Stalin prison camp, betrayed by Brecht.  Lenya, according to IMDB, is most famous for her appearance in From Russia with Love.

Die Dreigroschenoper was written at about the same time as Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, 1930. Both works combine the gifts of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and have a leftist political purpose. These were not their only collaborations, but they are the most famous ones.

Three Penny Opera is a bit easier to understand as a political instrument.  Members of the lower classes band together to take advantage of their position in the world.  One kills and steals.  Another trains pickpockets and beggars to optimize their take.  They band together to demonstrate against the new queen, a sour looking individual who covers her face rather than look at them.  Eventually they notice that their interests coincide, and they band together.  This is a strong statement for the lower class.  You know--workers of the world unite.

Mahagonny has always confused me.  Three fugitives from the law found a city where anything goes.  It would seem that in Brecht logic criminals are the good guys.  Mahagonny is sort of like Las Vegas.  They are wildly successful but break down into factions and collapse in poverty.  I can only imagine that Mahagonny represents capitalism.

If I read my sources correctly, Weill was Jewish and Brecht was not.  Weill left Germany before Hitler came to power, but Brecht waited until after.  They parted ways around the time of the filming of the Dreigroschenoper movie.  Weill's later works are not particularly socialist at all.

I don't always understand the relationship between the works I am experiencing in the Weill/Brecht partnership and the politics they are supposed to inform, but I do very much enjoy the roughness and down to earth quality of the style they inhabit.  Perhaps I shouldn't try so hard.


Saturday, May 02, 2015

The Beggar's Opera

I'm going to write about The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, 1728, without actually saying anything.

Opera from the very beginning was an entertainment for the upper classes.  One of the first operas written provided the entertainment for a Medici wedding and was presented in the inner courtyard of the Pitti Palace.  The first commercial opera was presented in Venice where there were a lot of very rich people at that time.

Opera was the entertainment for the moneyed classes.  The opera house comes with a Royal Box.  These rich people want the opera to make them seem well educated and cultured.  It is not a coincidence that the era of new opera creation in Italy and the Italian monarchy ended at the same time.

London, by contrast, has had a popular theater tradition since before Shakespeare, so the surprising thing is that Italian opera, like those written by Handel, would ever have been popular there.  Italian opera is populated by gods, mythological figures and people from Italian history.  Why would the British care about this when they have a perfectly good theater tradition of their own?

The sudden appearance of The Beggar's Opera in 1728 is generally blamed for dealing the death blow to Handel's opera career.  This work is populated by pickpockets and highwaymen and their girlfriends and was a raging hit in its day.  It was parodied 2 centuries later by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in Die Dreigroschenoper

The Beggar's Opera is supposed to be a parody of opera with "familiar songs."  Well.  When I saw this work presented at Sac State last night--done in a realization by Benjamin Britten-- none of the simple tunes were at all familiar to me.  

The most serious flaw in this performance was its length.  Chop about an hour out of it.  Emphasize the spoken dialog for your ax.  I like opera so I'm perhaps not the best judge.