Friday, September 29, 2017

Non-Europeans in Opera

This is intended as a catalog with minimal commentary.  We are intending to survey the topic of cultural exploitation.  I have listed only those operas I have seen.

* means race is a factor in the story.

There are a small number of operas by Asian composers which include Asian characters.  They are not to be considered to be exploiting anyone.
  • Tea: A Mirror of Soul by Tan Dun
  • The First Emperor by Tan Dun 
  • Dream of the Red Chamber by Bright Sheng

Asian characters appear in the following operas by non-Asian composers.  It is to be determined if this constitutes exploitation.
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Stewart Wallace is based on a novel by Amy Tan.* Including this is probably a mistake since Amy Tan is Asian and wrote the libretto.
  • A Night at the Chinese Opera by Judith Weir is partly based on real Chinese opera.
  • Turandot by Puccini is based on a Persian story and transferred to China perhaps for the musical effects.
  • Madama Butterfly by Puccini is based on an American short story and a play by David Belasco.*
  • Nixon in China by John Adams is based on historical events that many of us watched on TV. *
  • The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet moves us to Sri Lanca.
  • Attila by Verdi is about the Mongolian ruler from the 5th century who invaded Europe.
  • Satyagraha by Philip Glass is about Gandhi in Africa.  The text is original Sanscrit.*

Native populations from around the world also appear in operas.  This should include the European racial minority called gypsies or Romani.  Even today Gypsies are easily identified by their facial features. 
  • Les Indes Galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau includes Turks, Incas, Persians, and North Americans.*
  • Carmen by Georges Bizet features Carmen, a gypsy.*
  • Il Trovatore by Verdi features Azucena who is a gypsy. *
  • Die Zauberflöte by Mozart includes a gratuitous black character for comedy. *
  • Aida by Verdi includes Egyptians and Ethiopians, but no Europeans. *
  • L'Africaine by Meyerbeer is a clash of Europeans and people from Madagascar. *
  • La forza del destino by Verdi has an Aztec as the male lead.*
  • Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie is based on the great American novel and includes a south sea islander, Queequeg. *  In our production he was played by a New Zealander.
  • Il Postino by Daniel Catán is a Mexican writing about Chilean interacting with an Italian.  I guess that qualifies.
  • La fanciulla del West by Puccini includes native Americans and a Mexican bandit.*
In American musicals and operas white Americans interact with minorities.
  • Show Boat by Jerome Kern features a female black character who is passing for white. *
  • Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin is almost all black.  The copyright owners require all black casting.
  • West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein is about rival white and Puerto Rican gangs.*
  • Champion by Terence Blanchard is about a real person, the boxer Emile Griffith.  No one is exploiting anyone.

Operas about historical figures from before Christianity.
  • Nabucco by Verdi is about Jews and pre-islamic Babylonians. *
  • Semiramide by Rossini
  • Xerxes by Handel

Which brings us to my favorite and perhaps the only blatantly exploitative portrayal of non-Europeans--the interaction between Christian Europeans, usually Italians, and Moslems.
  • Otello by either Rossini or Verdi is the moor of Venice, which makes him Moslem, not sub-Saharan African.*
  • Die Entführung aus dem Serail by Mozart features a Spaniard rescuing his fiance from a harem.*
  • Cosi fan Tutte by Mozart where the young men pretend to be middle eastern.
  • Il Turco in Italia  by Rossini features a Muslim man visiting Italy.*
  • L’Italiana in Algeri by Rossini features an Italian woman who escapes from her Muslim husband.*
  • Maometto II by Rossini is a serious opera where the female character commits suicide.*
  • I Lombardi by Verdi includes a Muslim character who converts.*
  • Death of Klinghoffer by Adams is about a clash between western and middle-eastern cultures.  It portrays an historical event.
  • Flight by Jonathan Dove includes a refugee trapped inside an airport.  For me he could have been from anywhere, but others say he was Iranian.
I am now going to express my opinion.  Either the libretto is exploitative or it isn't.  Whether or not the non-European character(s) is played by the specific ethnicity of the character would in my opinion not affect the fact that the composer and librettist chose to make possibly bogus use of a story outside their culture.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Turandot in San Francisco

Conductor Nicola Luisotti
Production and Design David Hockney

Turandot: Martina Serafin
Calaf: Brian Jagde
Liù: Toni Marie Palmertree
Timur: Raymond Aceto
Ping: Joo Won Kang
Pang: Julius Ahn
Pong: Joel Sorensen
A Mandarin: Brad Walker
Emperor: Altoum Robert Brubaker *

Puccini's Turandot played at the San Francisco Opera last night in the wonderful David Hockney production.  One of the reasons it's so wonderful is because it doesn't look at all Chinese.  Because the story isn't actually Chinese.  It should reasonably be regarded as a fairy tale.  I'm a sucker for the story, although I enjoyed it more before I could remember the answers to the riddles.

The chorus was particularly spectacular.  Brian Jagde seemed very intense.  With Turandot it is as much the spectacle one comes for rather than the fine details.  Let's just say it's one of the hardest operas to cast in the repertoire.

Talk at the Opera

Last night we were enjoying the 1993 production of Turandot by the great artist David Hockney when I remembered that once upon a time we were treated to the wonderful production of Die Zauberflöte by Marc Chagall, in 1980 actually, originally from the Metropolitan Opera.  No one else seemed to remember this.

Hockney also designed sets for Die Zauberflöte, The Rake's Progress and Tristan und Isolde apparently.  I'm not sure I've seen these.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Top Singers 2017


Anna Netrebko GHoF

Anja Harteros 

Nina Stemme

Diana Damrau


Cecilia Bartoli GHoF

Elina Garanča

Joyce DiDonato GHoF


Jonas Kaufmann

Javier Camarena

Juan Diego Florez

Vittorio Grigolo


Željko Lučić, baritone

René Pape, bass

Ildar Abdrazakov, bass

Ludovic Tézier, baritone

Stefan Kocán, bass

General Comments.

It's been a couple of years since Limelight named their top 12 singers, and I feel it's time for a new list.  There have been a few changes.  I modified the original concept to allow for a group to grow into 4 singers (2 baritones, 3 basses), but that's it.  To qualify for this list the artist must be performing now and be rated according to their current performing standard.

Some singers used to be on this list and are no longer.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky has long been a personal favorite but is ill.  Renée Fleming is moving her career away from opera.  The same thing should be said for Natalie Dessay, someone I learned to love during the life of this blog.  She is focusing on song repertoire and theater.  I love Angela Gheorghiu but seem to have lost all contact with what she is singing these days.

We can't rank Placido Domingo among the tenors any more, and he doesn't really rank that high as a baritone.  For me Bryn Terfel isn't singing up to his former standard, though I caught part of his Dutchman and found it rather good.

People who should also be considered are:
Christine Goerke
Sondra Radvanovsky
Kristine Opolais
Jamie Barton
Michael Fabiano
Lawrence Brownlee
Matthew Polenzani
Bryan Hymel
Mariusz Kwiecien
Simon Keenlyside
Quinn Kelsey
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo 
I should do one for American singers.  Argue amongst yourselves.  Edited 9/18, 9/19  Apologies for continuing to change this.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Elektra Night at the Museum

Christine Goerke
Conductor:  Henrik Nánási
Production:  Keith Warner

Elektra: Christine Goerke
Klytemnestra, Elektra's mother: Michaela Martens
Chrysothemis, Elektra's sister: Adrianne Pieczonka
Orest, Elektra's brother: Alfred Walker *
Aegisth, mother's lover: Robert Brubaker
Tutor of Orest: Anthony Reed

Last night I attended a San Francisco Opera performance of Richard Strauss's Elektra.  I have been going here for all of my adult life and can think of only one comparable performance--Die Frau ohne Schatten, also by Strauss, in 1980 with James King as The Emperor, Leonie Rysanek as The Empress and Birgit Nilsson as Barak's wife.  My soul is larger.  Everything that needs to be said has already been said about this, but I will have a go anyway.

In the recent past was another night at the museum production, of Il Trovatore with Anna Netrebko from Salzburg, but the exhibition seemed without a theme and incoherent.  Here we have what seems to be an exhibition of artifacts from Mycenae, the Greek culture which launched the Trojan War.  The house of Atreus with Agamemnon, Klytemnestra, Iphigenia, Orestes and Elektra are the central figures from this culture and appear through history in many art forms.  It is entirely plausible that an  exhibit devoted to physical objects from this time would take place.  Many of these objects appear in this production.  So we have a far more plausible intermingling of the ancient and the modern.  When they speak of Agamemnon, a man wearing the death mask said to belong to him appears.  We believe this.

Christine's character is always clearly a modern person who is projecting her life and family onto these historical figures.  We see this most clearly when this kitchen appears:

Klytemnestra and Elektra

We exclaimed to one another, "My mother had a kitchen like that."  The time travel was handled very smoothly.  This is clearly a very successful concept regie production.  All the other characters have dual identities and appear in modern and ancient clothing.  Other productions for this opera I have seen recently have all the main action take place off stage.  Here the deaths occur before our eyes.  It is intense.

Musically I found this to be a triumph.  The three women--Christine Goerke, Michaela Martens and Adrianne Pieczonka--were performed by three big voices in glorious fashion.  The biggest surprise was in the music.  It wasn't that long ago I was bemoaning the death of great Strauss conducting.  Henrik Nánási has shown us the way back.  It was the best Strauss I've heard in years, and it was by our San Francisco Opera orchestra.  Bravi.  Because the screens were turned on, I noticed that the orchestra stood immediately when the maestro came out for his final bow, turned toward him and applauded.

It was a colossal, towering performance on every level.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Patience in Sacramento

Friday night began the run of Gilbert & Sullivan's Patience from the Light Opera Theatre in Sacramento.

Conductor:  Anne-Marie Endres
Director:  Debbie Baad


Reginald Bunthorne (A Fleshly Poet) — Charlie Baad 
Archibald Grosvenor (An Idyllic Poet) — Timothy Power

Rapturous Maidens 

The Lady Angela — Paige Kelly
The Lady Saphir — Rhonda Thomas
The Lady Saphir — Jadi Galloway
The Lady Ella — Franchesca Sonoyama
The Lady Jane — Tiffany Patterson
Patience (A Dairy Maid) — Kate Murphy

Officers of Dragoon Guards 

Colonel Calverley — Michael Baad
Major Murgatroyd — Kevin Branson
Major Murgatroyd — Roy Domoe Lieut.
The Duke of Dunstable — Anthony Tavianini

This show is all about outfits.  Dress like people from ancient England, and you will be perceived as a poet and adored.  Dress like a modern person, and you will disappear into the crowd.  Suitable young women pay no attention to the suitable young men in the Dragoon Guards and instead go off pining after silly poets in old fashioned outfits.  The young women wear old fashioned outfits too and sigh and moan.  There are patter songs.  Irrelevant names are tossed about.  Francesca da Rimini.

Before this appeared in my inbox, I had no idea it existed.  It is fun.  Try to see it.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

European Summer of 2017

I have not traveled this summer for reasons relating to health and money.  I don't count driving to San Francisco as traveling.  In spite of this my opera cup runneth over.  There has been some pretty spectacular stuff here.  New for me this summer are The Chastity Tree, Artaserse, Oberon, and Theodora.  It is important to notice that all four of these are older operas.  In fact Wozzeck is as close to a modern opera I have gotten this summer.

I have decided to limit this essay to performances originating this summer in Europe.  That eliminates live performances seen in the Bay Area:
It also eliminates reruns from the Metropolitan Opera in HD: 
All the rest are from Europe. There were some older performances I watched on film to broaden my education and catch a glimpse of some favorite singers:
  • Artaserse by Vinci on a libretto by Metastasio from Nancy, France, in 2012.  I have learned in the last few years that there exists in France a school for countertenors.  I don't know if all the five countertenors in this production were from this school, including the star Philippe Jeroussky, but all were extraordinarily powerful for singers in this Fach.  This film is an historical recreation of a true Roman Baroque opera with all the characters played by men.  I watched it for its historical significance and recommend that you do, too.  It's much better than I thought.
  • Theodora by Handel from Glyndebourne in 1996 in a production by Peter Sellars, our own American contribution to Regie Theater.  This is a true example of what is by now the almost standard European production style.  In spite of that it was very beautiful.  Theodora began its life as an oratorio in English.  This viewing was to broaden my experience of Peter Sellars' work to include things I might actually like.  It is also a major film of Lorraine Hunt.
I generally watch European opera to see what is happening now, but these historical performances were worth the time.

That leaves ten performances from Europe that took place this summer, including two traditional productions viewed for the singers rather than the productions:
  • Otello by Verdi from the ROH in London.  This was Jonas Kaufmann's debut in the role of Otello, and was a traditional production for this special occasion.  My feeling was the intimacy of a movie theater presentation enhanced the beauty of the performances.  Jonas dealt with this role by playing to his dramatic side and avoiding over-singing.  His Iago, Marco Vratogna, and his Desdemona, Maria Agresta, supported Jonas's interpretation.  I'd like the opportunity to see this again.
  • Rigoletto by Verdi from Orange, France.  Performances in Orange take place in an ancient Roman theater.  The star of this show was our Nadine Sierra in a perfect role for her.  There was nothing unusual here, though they all appeared in modern clothing.  Leo Nucci arranged for a very nice bis with her.  Leo is a startling contrast to Quinn Kelsey, the Rigoletto in our San Francisco production.
In a wide range of shocking to ordinary the following list of the eight remaining operas includes some very famous directors.
  • Wozzeck by Berg from Salzburg was staged by William Kentridge who staged The Nose and Lulu for the Metropolitan Opera.  All three of these works are considered modern so a modern production is only appropriate.  I don't really like Wozzeck but thought his vision of it was excellent, the best of the trio.  His art is so active on the surface that it tends to overwhelm the characters on stage.  Is its purpose to distract from the opera?  Matthias Goerne sang Wozzeck, an excellent role for him.
  • Tannhäuser by Wagner from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich was staged by Romeo Castellucci.  He is a radical Italian director in both opera and theater.  My reactions were primarily visceral.  When I was presented with half-naked women shooting bows and arrows, I enjoyed it.  When Venus was a giant mound of hideous flesh with three or four men lost in the flab, it didn't really remind me of ecstatic love making.  And don't forget the feet.  This is representative of the extreme ends of theater in Germany today.
  • Don Giovanni by Mozart Aix-en-Provence, France, was directed by Jean-François Sivadier.  This is a French director most famous for a film of him directing Natalie Dessay in her first La Traviata called Becoming Traviata.  His production for Don Giovanni is first in period costumes, then at intermission switches suddenly to modern ones.  It is quite merry and needs Philippe Sly to do all that jumping about.
  • Aida by Verdi from Salzburg was directed by a newcomer to theatrical productions, Shirin Neshat.  I read in Wikipedia, "Her artwork centers on the contrasts between Islam and the West, femininity and masculinity, public life and private life, antiquity and modernity, and bridging the spaces between these subjects."  The production reflected this.  People were sharply divided into specific groups and dressed like others in their group.  It was rather static in its impression but clear in identifying the forces at work in the downfall of Radames and his Aida.  The audience was there primarily for Anna Netrebko in her first outing as Aida.
One pair of productions identified for us a new cultural villain:  the clinical psychiatrist.  I rather agree with this.  In modern democratic societies there remains only one absolute monarch:  the psychiatrist.  His power is greater than anyone else's.  He can have you put away or imprisoned on his word alone.  People go along with what they say primarily because they have no idea what they're talking about.  So two different directors have taken two different operas, removed the original spoken dialog they came with, invented new dialog and created entirely new stories.
  • Carmen by Bizet from Aix-en-Provence, France, was staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov, a Russian.  Tcherniakov is a Russian born in Lithuania.  His early career was in the major Russian theaters the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi and quickly spread to major opera centers around Europe: Berlin, Munich, Zurich and Milan.  So far he hasn't made it across the pond, I don't think.  Instead of a story about a boy from the country who falls for a gypsy who is probably just having him on, we have excitement for bored married couples.  So your life is boring.  We will arrange for a charming young woman to pretend to be attracted to you.  Contracts are signed and progress reviewed.  I'm not sure what is supposed to happen, but it probably isn't that the patient will fall for the therapist and then try to kill her.  He may have to go into hospital.  The therapy of another patient plays in the background to show us how it is supposed to go.  It does clarify something that the usual staging does not:  Escamillo is Carmen's true love while Don Jose is a patsy.
  • Oberon, or The Elf King's Oath by Carl Maria von Weber from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich was directed by Nikolaus Habjan, who works primarily as a puppeteer.  This is another opera that originally came with spoken dialog.  Though it first appeared in English, it is now generally thought of as a German opera.  Some of the characters are from A Midsummer Night's Dream.  The opera has a convoluted and confusing plot about romance with the fairy king acting as a kind of deus ex machina who rescues people at exactly the right moment.  The production changes all that.  Again psychiatrists are at work.  Perhaps psychiatry is seen as the last vestige of absolute power.  Ordinary mortals such as kings and emperors no longer hold this kind of power.  The psychiatrists are quarreling and resolve their argument using their patients.  The whole thing is profoundly unethical and is probably intended to be.  The actual opera is changed beyond recognition.  The dialog reflects the psychiatrists giving orders and expressing opinions, primarily about one another. 
These two changes are shockingly similar, even though they come from different countries and different directors.  I think this is the kind of modernization people object to most.  Can Oberon be saved?  Perhaps not.  But if this is the only chance you get to see it, maybe sticking closer to the plot would be better.

The final operas to consider are two magnificent productions of Mozart's great opera seria La Clemenza di Tito
  • La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart from Glyndebourne was directed by Claus Guth, the king of Regie.  I was annoyed by the stalks of grass everywhere, but actually thrilled by the acting and singing of Alice Coote and Anna Stéphany as Vitelia and Sesto.  This laid out the plot in a way that was always true to Mozart's opera, including the opera seria required happy ending, all things that I did not expect from Claus Guth.  
  • La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart from Salzburg was directed by Peter Sellars.  Music was added to this opera from Mozart's C-Minor Mass.  Riccardo Muti was in town to conduct Aida and was heard objecting to this alteration in the score.  Many don't understand the always happy endings style of opera seria and want to change it to something else.  This is not authentic.  My complaining is now out of the way. The emotional effect of the production overall was profound.  It feels to me that this opera is moving into a position of greatness that it very much deserves.  Interesting productions will help this.
It was an amazing summer.