August 25, 2014

America and Italy and their fading national pastimes

You may be under the impression that only American opera companies (such as New York City Opera, San Diego Opera and the Metropolitan Opera) suffer economic hardships in our modern world while their European counterparts, thanks to greater government subsidies, roll along like Ol' Man River.
Baseball: has its day come and gone?

You'd be wrong. Check out this article about the closing of Italy's fourth-largest opera house. Go ahead and read it; I'll wait.

(Dum-de-dum dum dum, tra la la)

You're back! Sad for that community, right?

How could this happen in ITALY, of all places?! I mean, it's the birthplace of opera! Every cab driver from Milan to Messina can sing "La donna è mobile", right? It's their national pastime, right? It's ITALY, for Pete's sake!

Well, let's talk about national pastimes. They aren't what they used to be.

Take the United States. Our national pastime has been said to be baseball ever since Honus Wagner was in diapers. But be honest when was the last time that YOU, Faithful Reader, actually watched a nine-inning game on TV from start to finish? How many managers of major-league teams can you name? Who's the best player on the Kansas City Royals or the Milwaukee Brewers?

Hmmm?

The truth is that pro football has largely supplanted baseball as the game Americans obsess over. Football and basketball are what young boys want to play. Look over baseball rosters and you'll see that many of the names are Latino and Asian. African-American players are increasingly rare; where are the Hank Aarons, Willie Mays and Bob Gibsons?

Major-league baseball continues to prosper and will never go away completely. For one thing, the experience of physically going to a ballpark to see a game in person is still a relaxing and wonderful way to spend an afternoon or evening. The food is better than ever, baseball fields are beautiful, and the people-watching is great. I, your Humble Blogger went to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field just four days ago as I write this, and while the game was so dull (Oh, Cubs....) that my mind wandered a lot, I was still glad I went.

So attendance tends, I think, to outstrip TV ratings. Yet the TV revenue is stupendous and helps keep small-market teams like Kansas City and Milwaukee in business.

But overall the luster of baseball has drained away as our collective passion has been transferred to Peyton Manning, and even the NBA stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

This strikes me as an amazingly equivalent parallel to the decline of opera in Italy.  We Americans invented baseball and exported it to the world even as we played it less and less. Italians invented opera around 1597 and developed it into a viable and internationally-loved art form as the decades passed into centuries.

But Italian composers producing great operas in modern times are as uncommon as African-American players wearing a catcher's mask behind the plate.

Quick: name the ten greatest Italian operas composed following the death of Puccini. No fair using Google.

Yeah, that's a tough one. What happened there? Why has the 21st century produced no Bellini, Verdi or Rossini? You do realize, don't you, that (and this is so ironic) it's the Americans who have made recent generations a "Golden Age of New Opera"? Carlisle Floyd, Douglas Moore, Philip Glass, Jake Heggie, Tobias Picker, John Adams, André Previn, William Bolcolm and too many others to list make this a fact and not an opinion. 

Here's what I bet: I bet that cab drivers in Rome are far more likely to sing Lady Gaga's latest than anything from an opera.

And now the government funding is drying up, which is hardly shocking given the continual crisis-point of the Italian economy. When those who control the purse-strings no longer value the art form, we're entering a ZONE OF UNCERTAINTY. 

I guess the lesson here is: "Don't cling". Don't cling to the past, because society and culture are always changing. Nothing is permanent. Language changes, industries change, technology changes, media change all the time, and on and on. Why shouldn't national pastimes follow suit? Baseball and opera: still regarded with affection in their homelands, but no longer "the big thing".


August 16, 2014

The time Robin Williams sang opera

Robin Williams, baritone
The entertainment world will be processing the tragic death of Robin Williams for some time to come. It's difficult to accept that such a vivid and vibrant life-force can be suddenly and shockingly extinguished like Shakespeare's "brief candle".

This is an opera blog, so I've been thinking about the film Mrs. Doubtfire since the opening sequence features Williams' character singing a big chunk of the aria "Largo al factotum" from The Barber of Seville. I thought that bit was not really effective, and my reasons might shed light on how seldom films allowed us to see all of the actor's genius.

If you ask me, Robin Williams was at his very best in the animated Aladdin from the Disney studios. In this case, the producers were willing to unleash his comedic talent and let him run wild as the Genie. Without the need to adhere to the realities of more scripted comedies with their realistic cinematography, Williams let loose a torrent of improvisation that was manic, helter-skelter, and truly funny. The Disney animators Job #1 was to match him visually, with rapid-fire images keeping pace with the pure volcanic invention of his mind. It worked. In case you've forgotten how well it worked, take a look at this feature from ABC News. After a minute or so of updates concerning the details of his passing, there is a revealing interview with producers and animators of Aladdin demonstrating how they managed to keep pace with his imagination.

Now consider the animated portion of Doubfire, as seen in this YouTube clip. What a clever idea this must have appeared to whoever thought of it: "Hey, how about this: Robin sings that "Figaro Figaro Figaro" number from that Rossini opera for a Warner Brothers-style cartoon. We see him singing it in a studio - in Italian! - while the animation plays in front of him. How cool, am I right? This'll be great!"

Instead, it was a mildly amusing miscalculation. Consider: singing an aria by Rossini, in Italian, with orchestra, is about as scripted as it gets. It's pretty much the opposite of volcanic, manic, helter-skelter improv. The animation may have been clever (although actually pretty standard stuff), but the point is this:

Robin Williams was following the animation, rather than the animation following him. The result, as far as I was concerned, was a middle-aged man standing in front of microphones, singing Rossini badly. You'll pardon me if I don't find bad opera singing to be hi-larious.

The rest of the film made better use of his gifts, there's no question about that. Still, the "Largo al factotum" moment left me feeling uncomfortable, as though something was off-key. When a comedian is a brilliant improviser, we want him riffing ecstatically, not reciting Shakespearean sonnets or reading Walt Whitman or singing a Schubert song cycle.

To use a painting analogy, we want him splattering paint on a canvas, not carefully doing a paint-by-numbers sunset.

I join the rest of the world in mourning his passing. Over the next few weeks I'll make a point of re-visiting my favorite Robin Williams films: The Birdcage, Good Morning, Viet Nam, and even the fascinating drama Insomnia. 

Oh, and if you want to hear what a really gifted singer he could be with the right material, forget Figaro and listen to this clip of "You ain't never had a friend like me", the Genie's song from Aladdin. And I mean LISTEN - that is, don't even watch the screen and be distracted by the images. Turn up the volume and marvel at a perfectly good Broadway-style baritone, used with an endless array of vocal colors, incredible energy, remarkable stamina and excellent intonation.

Rest in peace.

August 10, 2014

Things about my doctoral years that now make me chuckle

Ironically, for my Doctor of Music studies I returned to my hometown of Evanston Illinois and the School of Music at Northwestern University. It didn't really feel like a "homecoming" since during my boyhood years I seldom went to the part of town where the campus is. It was pure coincidence, born of my wishing to study with a particular piano instructor who had been recommended.

I was in residence at Northwestern from 1977-1979, finally earning the degree in the mid-80's. As I write this post, I've just returned from a few days in Chicago, my first visit in some two dozen years. Being in my old stomping grounds has stirred up a wealth of memries, including some that strike me so odd/amusing that I think you might enjoy them as well. Here are the moments that have stayed etched in my mind as the decades have rolled on.
Famous keyboard composer?

1. MUSIC FOR DOGS.
The chairman of my doctoral committee was a young pianist named Robert Weirich, who specialized in playing contemporary music. That is to say, extremely contemporary, preferably written in the last 20 minutes if possible. One day he and I were walking together towards the library; Bob was carrying an armful of shiny new avant-garde piano scores. I noticed that the one on top bore the title "Woof". I don't know who the composer was.

"You know, Bob," I said speculatively, "here's what you could do. I think you should master this piece and become famous for it. Make it your signature piano work. Then at your concerts, the crowds would ask for it as an encore. You know how at Horowitz concerts everyone would shout "STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER" hoping he'd play his transcription of it? At your concerts hundreds of adults would go "WOOF! WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF!!!"  I've lost touch with him, but can't help but suspect he didn't follow through on this...

2. FAST FOOD FOLLIES
As a newlywed, I not only had to practice and study, I had to bring home the rent money. So I toiled at a Burger King across the street from the music building. One day a celebrity came in to eat, none other than the comic actor Paul Lynde, famous for being the center square on the "Hollywood Squares" game show plus a recurring role on the sitcom "Bewitched" and a role in the film version of "Bye Bye Birdie". He was all smiles and quips as he sauntered up to the counter to order his fish sandwich. (He was in town as an NU alum to be Grand Marshall of the homecoming parade.)

I happened to notice a tall, lanky African-American man leaning against the wall near the entrance with an expression like a thundercloud. He was not a happy man. "Whassamatter, man," I wondered, "did we forget to hold the onions?" The next day there were headlines in the Tribune and Sun-Times. The unhappy man was a distinguished faculty member and Paul Lynde, undoubtedly not 100% sober, had loudly hurled a racial slur at him, an incident I'd missed. Whoops....

3. STYLE-SCHMYLE
I took a class in 18th-century performance practices with a renowned harpsichordist named Dorothy Lane. If you don't know, this is a class in which the accumulated global knowledge of how Baroque music should sound is revealed; proper execution of ornaments and the like. For reasons never clear to me, all we did - all we were held responsible for - was to memorize the line of succession to the English throne through the centures. Word. NOTE: at no point in my life have I been capable of reciting this information, even if a gun were at my head. When it came to Baroque style, Ms. Lane said, "Trust your ears. If it sounds right to you, it probably is."  ....................gee thanks.

4. YOU DON'T LOOK SO GOOD...
My piano instructor was an urbane, fussy, slightly eccentric man named Donald Isaak. I loved working with Mr. Isaak, but he had some definite quirks. He was perpetually concerned to the point of obsession with one's health. Any time our paths crossed around the Music Department, he would stop and approach me as one might approach a grieving mourner. With concern in his eyes and his brow creased, he would ask me in hushed tones. "How ARE you???? Are you okay? Do you feel all right?" I was a pretty healthy specimen in those days, so I never knew why the hell he was asking. "Uh........... yeah, I'm fine, thanks", I would mumble in reply, thinking "WHAT? Am I BLEEDING FROM THE EARS??? Is my skin GREEN??? WHAT, for God's sake???"

5. ALCOHOL - IT'S ALWAYS A PRIORITY
Mr. Isaak could be so odd. He had four doctoral students in his studio: myself, Mary Stubbs, Jamie Hagedorn and James Martin. We would all meet weekly to play for one another in his studio. At one such group performance class Isaak was planning a dinner at his home for us, and he went around the room polling us as to our beverage choices. "Jame: do you like red wine, white wine or beer? Uh-huh, good, good. James, how about you?", and so on. When we'd all voiced our preferences, I began to play the material I was working on: a very strenuous and virtuosic set of the Etudes-tableaux by Rachmaninoff. These took probably 25 minutes to perform. As I played the final, elephantine, crashing sonorities of Op. 39, No. 9 in D major, I was perspiring heavily, breathing hard, red in the face. And TWO SECONDS after I'd finished; no really, literally TWO SECONDS LATER, I hear Mr. Isaak's calm, conversational voice saying "And your wife, Glenn? Does she like red, white, or beer? Or maybe a soda for her?" It was as though there had been no musical interruption at all....

6. HOW TO FOOL A KEYBOARD LEGEND
Bach: HE'S dead, not so much his music...
I also had the opportunity to play in several master classes with the great American pianist John Browning, a part-time faculty member who came three times a year to work with piano students but only in master class formats. My first term at Northwestern Mr. Isaak said he wanted me to play in the upcoming Browning class. Since I'd not had time to work up new repertoire, we agreed I'd just play one of my audition pieces, the Partita in C Minor by Bach. I had a couple of brush-up lessons on it with Isaak prior to the master class with the Famous Virtuoso.

Now, the opening "Sinfonia" of the partita features a lengthy and expressive section with lovely flowing lines. I originally studied this work with the pianist Jorge Bolet, who had played it for Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute. Bolet had given me Serkin's highly detailed phrasings for this section, markings which lent it a graceful, dancelike affect. When I played it for Mr. Isaak, he didn't like it. "Oh, you're playing that New York style of Bach", he opined, "I think we should do something different. Try playing it completely legato, with no dynamics or phrasing whatsoever. It should sound like you're sleep-walking." "What the HELL?" I thought, but said nothing. I played it as he asked, which made me sound like I was on Valium or possibly total anesthesia. "Like that?" I asked uncertainly. "YES!" he crowed, "I LOVE it!!" Well, I didn't, but I was going into financial debt to learn from him, so at the Browning class I played the Valium-Bach on those two pages, reverting to my accustomed styled for the rest of the partitia.

When I'd finished, Mr. Browning slowly climbed up onto the stage. He had a puzzled expression and paced around for a few moments before speaking, as if collecting his thoughts. Finally, he approached me and said something like this: "Look, you're very talented, and technically it's excellent, and I like a lot of it, but ....I didn't get the Sinfonia at all. It sounded......... dead. Look," he went on, "I'm going to put you on the spot. I want you to play the Sinfonia again, and just play it differently. I don't care what you do or how it sounds, just come up with a completely new interpretation right now. Make it up as you go along, okay? And.... GO!"  Well, kiddies, I'm not sure what he was expecting, but Your Humble Blogger launched into a delightful and authoritative interpretation courtesy of the immortal pianist Rudolf Serkin. Browning was ASTONISHED, I tell  you, at my "improvisatory genius". Heh heh heh.....

7. When practicing the piano turns very very very awkward.
The old Music Building at NU was a converted women's dormitory and the practice rooms were suites; that is to say, there was one entrance for a pair of rooms. To get to the room at the back you had to traipse through the front room, meaning that whoever was practicing in that room had to put up with a constant parade of students going in and out to see if the back room was available. There was one piano grad student named Jane something. I often found myself in the adjoining room of whichever suite she was practicing in.

Jane had a bad habit: as she played, she would moan with the music in a constant sound that rose and fell along with the dynamics and shapes of the music. "ooooooOOOOOOOOooooooooOOOOOOOOO" and so on. It sounded distinctly erotic, not to say openly sexual. It was like listening to a woman experiencing perpetual orgasm, I'm not kidding. I don't know if Jane was aware of her vocalizing and it's not exactly the kind of thing you up and ask a stranger about, if you know what I mean. A gentleman doesn't. To say it was a.w.k.w.a.r.d is a great understatement. I mean, how was I supposed to work on Prokofiev with THAT going on??! Prokofiev requires mental clarity and focus; that went out the window when ol' Jane started her groans of passion. I only hope she eventually acquired a partner who could provide an appropriate.....................   outlet...................

August 2, 2014

On the passing of Carlo Bergonzi

The recent passing of the great tenor Carlo Bergonzi has been a painful loss for many lovers of singing around the world. In this post, I want to convey what he meant to me and why I admired him so. In reading about him in the various obituaries and interviews that have surfaced since his death, I now have reason to admire him more than ever. It appears he was a man of amazing integrity, dedication and, as you'll read below, even heroism.
Carlo Bergonzi
photo by Pramzam45

A few years ago I wrote on this site about the experience that introduced me to opera. To sum up: as a young pianist, I was bored by the opera unit in my 7th-grade music class at Nichols Junior High School and *cough cough* flunked the test on Madama Butterfly.  (That's right, folks; my public school general music class included Italian opera in the curriculum. Hey - it was the '60's) My mother took exception to my attitude and dragged me in for a conference with the teacher. It was decided that if Mom purchased a recording of the opera and I did some independent study I'd be given credit for the exam.

So once I actually, you know, like, listened to the music, my better musical instincts were ignited and I dived head-first into perhaps the great infatuation of my life. And it was largely due to Bergonzi.

Mom bought the London recording with Tebaldi as Cio-Cio-san, Enzo Sordello as Sharpless, Fiorenza Cossotto as Suzuki and Bergonzi as Pinkerton, Tulio Serafin conducting. The rest of the cast was fine, although I was disturbed by Tebaldi's matronly appearance in the photos of her in the libretto; she didn't confom to my image of a teen-aged Japanese girl.

But Bergonzi was a revelation.

I drank in his voice; I inhaled it; I mainlined it; I soaked it in like a sponge. He sounded so full of youthful vitality and passion and spontaneity and the sheer impetuous  joy of producing honeyed golden vocal lines that my head was spinning with his performance. Especially touching was his achingly beautiful reading of Pinkerton's cowardly expression of remorse, "Addio fiorito asil" in the final scene. Even at age 12 I was aware of the way Bergonzi kept his high notes within a musical line; no punching, lunging, bleating or yelling. His B flats were on the breath, though I didn't yet know that term.

As I began to acquire more operatic recordings, I noted that Mario del Monaco (London Record's other tenor of choice) was an unmusical thug in comparison, with an unremittingly loud delivery. Di Stefano? Too wide-open at the top to my boyish ears. Corelli? Exciting, but often sounding as though singing a melody was heavy, effortful lifting. I enjoyed Tucker's Radames in Toscanini's Aida, but otherwise found his mannerisms annoying. And Peerce's top sounded dry and forced to me.

Nope, Bergonzi was the King of my operatic galaxy, with only Bjoerling offering comparable pleasure. When I reached my college years and began singing in the chorus of the Indiana University Opera Theater productions (though I majored in piano), I was disturbed to learn that many of the opera folk said Bergonzi's voice was too small to be considered a great tenor; that he was often inaudible in a large house. (I never did get to hear him live and in person to judge for myself.)

But now I see that, in retrospect, Bergonzi is praised for not having pushed his instrument to create artificial heft and size, as noted in this New York Times obituary. The conventional wisdom is that Bergonzi is the finest interpreter of Verdi to take the stage in the modern era. His recordings of the Verdi canon are considered models of style and musicality.

But here's what I've only now learned.

First, Carlo Bergonzi was a war hero. Opera lovers: were you aware that as a young adult he spent three years in a German concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities? Dio mio! When he finally returned to Italy, it is said he weighed only 80 pounds. I never knew about all this! I hope there are sources I can access telling the full story of this episode.

And there is another aspect of his character worth sharing: the way in which he exemplified a dedicated artist's life.

I studied piano with the great Romantic pianist Jorge Bolet from 1970-1976 at Indiana University's School of Music. Once, at a studio dinner party, Mr. Bolet began speaking about his personal life, a rare event for him. With resigned wistfulness, he talked about the demands of a touring virtuoso's life, and how he realized early on he would never have a normal family life. Playing over 120 concerts a year is no existence in which to have a wife and children; at least, this was his decision.

Now, in an interview published by the Bel Canto Society, I read Bergonzi speaking of a life defined by 35 years of sacrifice:

"We sacrificed everything. My wife and I have travelled around the world perhaps three times. The satisfactions have been few. We have gotten to know New York a little in recent  years, but in the other cities we have known only two things: hotel and theater. And my wife has prepared the luggage many, many times.

This is the dirty little secret of the performing arts: those with the greatest gifts usually come to understand that the price paid for being thus kissed by Nature is a life of relentless drudgery and isolation. The reward is not that of applause or wealth; it's the fulfillment of giving one's best to something that matters and creating a body of work that contributes to world culture and will outlive the performer.

Riposa in pace, signore. Ben fatto.

Post-script: Faithful Readers, are you interested in supporting the creation of new music? Here's a worthy opportunity. My daughter Kathleen Winters, a doctoral flute student at the University of Illinois School of Music in Urbana, is using Indiegogo.com to raise funding for a project involving the commissioning and performance of new music in a way that integrates art with the community. Full details are at this link: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/intercultural-connections. You are invited to read about it and, if you like the mission and objectives, contribute any amount.

July 26, 2014

A backstage guide to the opera chorus

Chorus scene from Bellini's "La Sonnambula"
As debate continues over the reports of Metropolitan Opera chorus members being paid salaries of $200,000, let's take a moment to meet some characteristic members of any opera chorus anywhere, shall we? Let's do! (DISCLAIMER: folks who sing in an opera chorus are good folks and true, easily worth any salary within budgetary limits. I've been one many times and I love them.)

  • The Habitual Shusher. She takes it upon herself to maintain quiet and decorum in the wings, hissing "SHHHHH" so loudly at conversing colleagues that she's actually more audible than they are.
  • The Rebel. He will talk, laugh and vocalize ("mi-mi-mi-mi-miiiiiii") offstage, oblivious to whether the audience or performers onstage can hear him. He appears to be unaware of the existence of The Shusher.
  • The Veteran. She's in her 22nd season of second-alto work and has seen it all. She spends time offstage working quietly on a never-ending needlepoint project. Nothing ever disturbs her calm, smiling presence, and nothing impresses her. She's done this so long that she takes it all in stride: crises, catastrophes, brilliant debuts, or celebrity guest-stars? They all take second place to her needlework.
  • The Rookie. He is most likely a college undergraduate and this is the first time he was ever paid for singing. Talk about stars in one's eyes - yessiree! His face shines perpetually with the wonder of it all: the music, the makeup sessions, the wig pinned to his head, ALL of it. He stands in the wings, listening to every note of the scenes he's not in, while the rest of the chorus resumes their card games or laptop correspondences. He's committing it all to memory and when he gets home, he'll go to Youtube and listen to fourteen different recordings of the big aria in this show.
  • The "Pro". It is very important to him that all his colleagues, not to mention the crew, the stage director, and even the ushers (should he find himself interacting with them) understand his lengthy professional experience. He'll regale everyone with unwanted and pointless stories about how this opera was staged with such brilliance and innovation when he was in that production in Des Moines... or Sarasota... or Aspen... or wherever. If a famous diva's name is mentioned, he'll brightly ask "Oh, how is Renee doing these days? I haven't seen her since the L.A. Streetcar - that's such a good role for her." He won't mention that he was in the audience for that one...
  • The Understudy. She just completed her Master's degree in vocal performance at this school or that and she is here as a Young Artist in the company's apprentice program. Though exhausted from two months of daily performances of a children's opera at elementary schools, she has not yet reached the "burnout stage", career-wise. With memories of her performances as Adina, Rosina and Norina from her college days still fresh in her memory, she goes about her business being as helpful and punctual and collegial as possible, not to mention being a literal fountain of positive energy. Especially when the conductor and/or Artistic Director are within earshot. She will be taking her lumps in the next few years as reality sets in, but tonight she is the first soprano of a chorus master's dreams.
  • The Busy One. Eschewing card games, small talk or flirting, he spends every spare minute hunkered down at his laptop. It would appear that the ideal time to work on furthering his career is during performances, rather than, say, ...well, any other time. Emails are returned, resumes drafted, edited or updated as needed, and there is endless tweaking of his website. He combs the World Wide Web for audition notices. By golly, he'll probably get a text from Chicago Lyric before Act IV at this rate! Oh, and please don't disrupt him with chatter or idle questions or party plans. He gets a little stand-offish. Busy, you know. Important stuff.
  • The Class Clown. Oh no. Protect us from him, opera gods. His endless impressions and banter and routines cause everyone to duck into the nearest toilet stall or stairwell. To his credit, he knows better than to approach The Busy One. Oh no - that wouldn't be wise. (Note: can only be male; I have yet to encounter a female of this species.)
  • The Doofus. It's always dicey when one of his scenes begins, as you never know if he'll make his entrance on time. He gets distracted, yakking about beer-making with the Wig Master back in the make-up room. Or maybe listening to one of the janitors telling about an article he read about holistic cancer cures. Whatever. At the last dress rehearsal he incurred the crew's wrath for being five seconds late for the ball scene, bursting onstage in hectic confusion just in time to sing. He's too gregarious by half, this one - needs to learn to focus or he might not be asked back next season.
  • The Invisible Man/Woman. He or she always remembers his/her blocking. He/she has the music memorized by the date requested. He/she has arrived 15 minutes early for every music rehearsal and has never once missed her posted call time for a dress rehearsal or performance. He/she doesn't complain when tech rehearsals run long or the maestro asks for the finale to be gone through yet again. He/she leaves his/her personal problems at the door, but listens sympathetically when others bring theirs to him/her. He/she watches the conductor at all times, especially those whose tempi tend to vary from night to night; consequently, he/she is never the one dragging behind the beat. He/she invests the same high level of energy on the eighth performance as on the first. The chorus master relies on him/her with utmost confidence, and every production is a little better for his/her presence in it.
Every opera chorus has its share of Invisible Men and Invisible Women; they are invaluable components of the opera world. They deserve their share of the applause.

June 25, 2014

Blog-to-blog rebuttal: my list of difficult arias

As I write this, Facebook is rippling with multiple posts of a blog on Listverse.com with the headline:"Top 10 Horrifyingly Difficult Opera Arias"

What's that? You're shocked to learn that there are other opera blogs in addition to this one? I know, I know - this will be a big adjustment for you. But it'll be okay.

Lists like this have two goals. First, there is the overriding goal of attracting page-views. (We don't do this for our health, people.) Second, to provoke discussion and debate.
Rogelio de Egusquiza's "Tristan and Isolde"

I'm here to discuss and debate.

First, let's review the Listverse choices, in case you were too lazy to click on the link above. (Some of you just can't be bothered to lift a finger. Tsk tsk tsk.) Here they are:

10. The Modern Major General from Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance.

9.  Largo al factotum from Rossini's Barber of Seville.

8.  Großmächtige Prinzessin from Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos

7.  Martern aller Artern from Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio

6.  Di quella pira from Verdi's Il Trovatore

5.  Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire from Adam's Le Postillon de Lonjumeau
4.  Credeasi, misera from Bellini's I Puritani
3.  Ha, wie will ich triumphieren from Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio
2.  Der Hölle Rache from Mozart's Magic Flute
1.  The Mad Scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor

Now then, what to make of these? First of all, the inclusion of anything from the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas? Pardon me, but you've already lost me and we're one aria in. The only thing remotely difficult in Major-General Stanley's patter showcase is, obviously, managing all those syllables at top speed. But how difficult is that? It's just a longer version of the old McDonald's jingle: Two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.

When I was a kid, there were friends of mine who could not only fire off those words at super-sonic speed, but could also do it BACKWARDS. 

The truth? Whenever I do one of my opera appreciation lectures at a retirement community and I mention Gilbert and Sullivan, the odds are good that an elderly resident will approach me afterwards and proudly launch into some patter song or other, holding me captive prisoner while he displays his Mad Patter Skillz.

Patter is like riding a bike; it's really really hard at first, but once you "get it" it's never difficult again for the rest of your life. Give a break, Listserve.

Moving on, let's consider No. 5, the tenor aria by Adolph Adam, a composer better known for having written the now-hackneyed Christmas chestnut "O Holy Night", beloved of wobbly church sopranos everywhere. I don't think much of this choice either. In fact, I harbor dark suspicions that it was included to demonstrate the author's esoteric knowledge of rare literature.

The aria has one hurdle, and one hurdle only: a high D near the end. Other than that one moment, it's a fairly bland ditty in the tenor's lower-middle range. I would counter with "Celeste Aida" from Verdi's Aida for two reasons: 
  1. The tenor playing Radames has no chance to warm up. Other than a brief recitative, the aria is the first thing out of his mouth. Singing "cold" like that is cruel and unusual punishment. And
  2. While the top note is a "mere" B flat, the challenge is to sing it as softly as Verdi demanded, molto pianissimo. There are few tenors who manage that, particularly as the role really calls for a trumpet-voiced dramatic tenor. Other than Jon Vickers, few of those have been up to the task. Whereas tenors singing the high D in the Adam aria are, in effect, yelling their heads off on pitch. 
But let's not dilly-dally with our little nit-picks. Let me just post my own durn list, with commentary as needed.

NOTE: these are in no particular order. They're all, like, really hard, dude!

10. Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein, the Prize Song from Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Again, context has a lot to do with gauging difficulty. The Prize Song occurs at the END of the opera, and I've never heard any tenor, no matter how legendary, make it through to the end without sounding like he was pushing a jeep out of a ditch or passing a hundred kidney stones.

9.   Großmächtige Prinzessin, or No. 8 from the list above. We're in agreement here. What's hard about the number is that it's very very long; the Zerbinetta has to have comic chops while she's tossing off her coloratura; and it's become traditional to stage the piece with a lot of physical "business". No "park and bark" for Strauss's clown-ette.

8.   Martern aller Artern, No. 7 above, so another point of agreement. However, my fellow-blogger's commentary does not mention the truly remarkable aspect of this  unique aria: it is really an instrumental composition in which the soprano voice is merely one of the instruments. The form of the aria resembles a sinfonia concertante, more or less like a concerto featuring more than one virtuoso soloist. This places special burdens on the soprano playing Constanze.

7.  Salome's final scene from Strauss's opera of the same name. During Strauss's lifetime, it was not unusual for sopranos to sing the role but opt out of the "Dance of the Seven Veils", allowing a stand-in to shake Salome's royal booty. But these days, in the Age of Physically Fit and Ready-For-Video artists, no soprano would dare omit the dance. By indulging in an orgasmic several minutes of choreography, the difficulty of the climactic finale is thus increased several-fold. --Hey, YOU try it!

6.  The Mad Scene from Lucia. Yup, it's tough, no two ways around it. Again, you can't stand there like you're waiting for a bus and just vocalize; you have to ACT. The audience should be unable to breathe; held in the grip of creepiness and fascinated revulsion. YOU try it! 

5.  Libera me from Verdi's Requiem. Here I offer more of my philosophy about the definition of "horrifying difficulty". It's not automatic that really fast coloratura and/or really high notes above high C automatically get you on the list. Just as some people are so flexible they can easily bend their bodies into every yoga position imaginable, while others of us are as stiff as styrofoam, some voices are just gifted by Nature to have facility in matters of range and agility. The "Libera me" only goes to a high B flat, but what a moment! Again, it comes near the end of this mammoth choral work, and the entire range of a full lyric is exploited, including chesty bottom notes. But the end of the number tapers down to exquisitely floating pianissimos, and the final utterance
 on the word "requiem" involves the sudden leap of an octave up to that B flat. Trust me, it is a terrifying prospect for a tuckered-out soprano, worthy of peeing one's pants. There have been many disasters in live performances of the "OOPS, almost but not quite" variety. It's a moment where we separate the women from the girls, so to speak.

4.  È sogno? o realtà? Ford's monologue from Verdi's Falstaff. Just to, you know, provoke debate & discussion & everything, I'm inserting this number in place of Figaro's "Largo al factotum" above. While the Rossini aria does have the difficult aspect of being the first notes out of the baritone's mouth - he doesn't even get a stinkin' recitative - the chief difficulties are 1) high tessitura, and 2) that rapid-patter thing. Actually, the difficulty of diction increases when the aria is sung in English. It's the dirty little secret of Italian patter that the same words tend to be repeated over and over, whereas English translations avoid that particular cop-out and get a lot wordier.  Now, Ford's so-called "Dream aria" in Falstaff has a similarly high tessitura, but is less bel canto in the vocal writing. Ford's high notes are mostly explosive and violent expressions of comic rage, which means the singer is working much harder. And the final phrase, "Laudata sempre sia nel fondo del mio cor la gelosia" is a slow, sustained, Mt. Everest-like ascent up to a sustained high G, followed (on the same breath) by a secondary ascent to the final E flat. YOU try it! (I have - with no success.)

3.  Der Hölle Rache I have to agree with the famous "Queen of the Night" aria from Flute, even thoug there is precious little acting or even physical movement required of the soprano. It truly is "park and bark", but the opera world had never heard anything like it before. It belongs on the list.

2.  A te, O cara from Bellini's I Puritani. Just to be really poopy, I'm discarding the Puritani aria cited above and substituting another one from the same opera! Yes, that's pretty obnoxious, I'll cheerfully admit it. But to my (educated) ears, "A te" has a higher overall tessitura and seems more exposed. And it does call for a high D flat, so you have the double whammy of high notes plus high tessitura, plus lack of much support from the orchestra. You're pretty much naked out there, on a high wire like in the circus.

1. The Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. It was either this or Brünnhilde's famous "Ho jo to ho" entrance in Die Walküre . Either way, omitting Wagner from a list of difficult soprano arias is a no-no. The Liebestod builds to a climax requiring super-human reservoirs of power to soar over an orchestral passage of historic intensity. Also, as we've stressed above, it comes at the end of a demanding opera. Good luck!.

THERE! Whatcha think, opera peeps?

June 15, 2014

Suggested roles for Placido Domingo

You have to admire a guy like Placido Domingo. After a lengthy career as a world-class tenor and the resultant wear-and-tear on his voice, did he retire to a secluded villa for a life of ease? Nope. Did he attempt to become an orchestral conductor or opera-company administrator?

Well, yes - with spotty results. But that's not my point.

No, the astonishingly admirable thing is that Domingo, his tenorial chops permanently frayed, continued his on-stage performing career. Like a baseball pitcher who, having lost his fastball, finds success on the mound by learning the knuckle ball, Domingo turned to the baritone repertoire and plowed ahead with singing gigs. Rigoletto, Boccanegra, the elder Germont, Count di Luna; one after another the baritone roles have been falling like dominos.

Now, to my ears, it's all a bit iffy because being a baritone isn't just a question of hitting all the notes of a role; it's also a question of timbre, weight, tone color and so on. I hear a tenor woofing around in roles with, let's just say, "inauthentic" results. But that's just me, and hey - a guy has to make a living, right?

The problem is that none of us can outwit Father Time, and eventually even baritone roles will prove too much for our aging icon to handle. But why should that stop him? A galaxy of roles within his compass will still be available! Here are just a few:

Another potential Wall in The Fantasticks
  • The Wall in the classic musical The Fantasticks (Yes, that's an actual role. Look it up.)
  • Buoso Donati, the dead guy in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. 
  • Toby, the mute boy in Menotti's The Medium
  • The Little Boy in Act 2 of La Boheme who plaintively wails that he wants a trumpet and a toy horse.
  • The Jailor in Tosca whose entire role consists of the summons "E l'ora".
  • The Page in Der Rosenkavalier, or alternately,
  • One of the children claiming Baron Ochs as their daddy in Rosenkavalier. The only vocal lines are a few iterations of "papa". You'd have to be in a bad way not to be able to pull that off...
  • King Duncano in Verdi's Macbeth. Yeah, another mute part, but a cool costume and an important role, plot-wise. Domingo, with his stage presence, could really bring some regal authority to Duncan's scene.
  • The Big Monster-Dragon Thing in The Magic Flute. And if it's done via one of those costumes requiring two people, i.e. one for the tail end and one for the front, well obviously don't put Domingo in the tail. I mean, this is Placido Domingo we're talking about. He's an icon, for Pete's sake - let him be the head.
  • The Prince of Persia in Turandot. One caveat: the Prince is, technically, a tenor, and his one line, delivered a moment before his beheading, consists of bleating Turandot's name for all he's worth on a high note. However, if Domingo experienced a vocal failure, this could be explained by, you know, the axe severing his neck and stuff.
And finally, if I ever realize my dream of adapting the movie Weekend at Bernie's into a full-length opera, you KNOW I'm going to offer Placido the chance to create the role of Bernie.