September 30, 2016

The mystery of "Pagliacci"

Do you ever listen to soft-rock oldies? You may have encountered a ballad called "Brandy" from the band Looking Glass. It recounts the story of a barmaid and the sailor who (repeatedly) told her "you're a fine girl; what a good wife you would be". Released in August, 1972, the song caught on and spent a week at #1 on the Billboard charts on its way to selling a million records. (No, children, not downloads or digital files -- nice, round, waxy vinyl discs played by needles on turntables.)

They never had another number one song again. They were the proverbial "one-hit wonder".

And now to consider the second half of Virginia Opera's season-opening double bill, Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. This story of a troupe of clowns proved an immediate success upon its appearance in 1892. Discounting a first attempt at opera composition when the composer was not yet twenty years old (an opus called Chatterton that he attempted to re-write and launch a few years later), Pagliacci was his first completed opera. An impressive feat! Not everyone can write operas, you know; it's pretty difficult -- calls for a variety of skill-sets. Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Bizet -- all had apprentice periods during which they wrote operas that have rarely been performed. Eventually, of course, they "found their voice" as writers love to say, and masterpieces followed.

The strange aspect of Leoncavallo is that Pagliacci, a work showing a skilled hand in characterization, orchestration, melodic invention and narrative skill, was followed by a dismal string of unrelieved failures. These include:
I Medici
La bohème (don't get excited; it's not "the" Bohème, it's "a" Bohème)
Der Roland von Berlin

Wow - wouldn't the talent and technique so abundantly on display in Pagliacci have suggested that the law of averages would yield at least one success for the balance of his career?

What? Happened?

I think the key lies in analyzing the formula that made Pagliacci so sure-fire. It was a formula that could not with honor be repeated. It appears to me that Leoncavallo modeled his 1892 hit show on plot points, characters, vocal styles, musical characterizations and structures from three operas he admired and wished, as a young composer learning the ropes of operatic creation, to emulate. These are:
1) Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (1890); the traditional double-bill partner of Pagliacci;
2) Verdi's Otello (1887); and
3) Bizet's Carmen (1875)

Of course, the sensation of Cavalleria directly inspired Leoncavallo to try his hand at the genre, sensing that Mascagni's star was well worth hitching his wagon to. But it wasn't just the peasant class and their bad behavior he emulated. Mascagni's substitution of a short orchestral intermezzo in place of an intermission led Leoncavallo not only to borrow the idea, but to make his a virtual clone of Mascagni's.

The Cavalleria intermezzo begins with a chorus of pianissimo high strings playing a melody of pathos. In short order it builds to a climax of throbbingly passionate rhetoric. By no coincidence at all, these characteristics define the intermezzo in Pagliacci  as well.

Now, don't get upset; I'm not dissing Leoncavallo! Less experienced composers generally lean heavily on the work of masters they admire in their early works. Mozart wrote in the style of J.C. Bach at first, and there are many similar cases. And Leoncavallo's intermezzo is gorgeous. But the structure and effects are much the same as those in Mascagni's model..

The most important model, however came with Otello. Leoncavallo claimed that the genesis of Pagliacci's plot was a sordid murder trial from the 1860's, one in which a family friend was the victim and the future composer's father presided as magistrate. The famous Prologue that opens the piece appears to reference this, saying: "Deep-embedded memories stirred one day within (the author's) heart, and with real tears he wrote". (This is likely the only case in which a fictional character seems to know the back story of the artist who created him!)

As quaint and Romantic as this notion is, it collapses when one realizes to what extent Pagliacci is a verismo re-writing of Otello. And I do mean Verdi's opera, not Shakespeare's play, as aspects of the music are similar in addition to this side-by-side summary of plot and characters:

OTELLO, leader of his people, is married to DESDEMONA. He loves her, but his love is tainted by pathological jealousy. IAGO resents Otello and plans to ruin him by suggesting that his wife has been unfaithful. OTELLO is devasted and heartbroken, leading to the murder of DESDEMONA in the opera's final moments. OTELLO discovers that IAGO was lying: DESDEMONA was innocent. Realizing he has lost his honor, OTELLO takes his own life.

CANIO, leader of an acting troupe, is married to NEDDA. He loves her, but his love is tainted by pathological jealousy. TONIO resents Nedda and plans to ruin her by suggesting to Canio that she has been unfaithful. CANIO is devastated and heartbroken, leading to the murder of NEDDA in the opera's final moments. Since the opera is in the verismo school, TONIO was not lying: NEDDA was guilty, meaning that Canio has regained his honor. He kills her lover Silvio.

Heard in this context, Canio's iconic aria "Vesti la giubba", especially in the climactic "Ridi pagliaccio" passage, can be understood as a descendent of Otello's "Dio! mi potevi sciagliar". Both are anguished monologues in which the cuckolded husbands grieve for the loss of their marital happiness with stentorian outbursts.

Similarly, Tonio's big moment of treachery, reporting Nedda's affair to Canio, is presented in a passage that puts the listener in mind of "Era la notte" the solo in which Iago floats his false accusation. Neither baritone role is conceived as an over-the-top villain, blustering, shouting and cackling. Each adopts a low-key, conversational tone; each knows that their victim needs only the merest nudge to cause an eruption of suspicion and rage. The vocal styles are appropriately restrained.

And as for Carmen, here Leoncavallo duplicates with great precision the final confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose. Holding a knife to her throat, Jose threatens to kill her on the spot unless she tell him she loves him. With a defiance bespeaking her stubborn insistence on living life on her own terms, Carmen refuses with a compelling declaration ending on a sustained high note. Death follows within moments.

Note the end of the clown show in Pagliacci. Canio, no longer in character, brandishes a knife as he demands to know the name of Nedda's lover. Her response of fiery denial is an obvious homage to Carmen, and she too is stabbed immediately. The use of a knife, rather than strangling as in Otello, is another nod to Carmen.

Now, don't get me wrong! Again, ALL young composers engage in such borrowings early in their careers. I'm not disparaging Leoncavallo or his opera. In fact, the skill with which he stitched all these elements into a visceral and thrilling work of theater is stunning. He did good!

So what went wrong with his post-Pagliacci failures? Simply this, I suppose: eventually, composers must turn away from models and find their own distinctive voice. No more borrowings. In Leoncavallo's case, turning away from red-blooded verismo (a term he hated) left his "authentic" voice exposed, with the depressing reality that it simply wasn't sufficiently interesting to carry the day.

But Pagliacci is a legacy any artist would be proud to claim. It will never die.

September 25, 2016

The Music of Weill's "7 Deadly Sins", part 2

My last post introduced you to the musical riches of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht masterpiece The Seven Deadly Sins up through the "Anger" movement. Now let's continue Anna's tour of American cities en route to earning enough money to allow the family back home in Louisiana to build a house.
Kurt Weill (1900-1950)

Anna I and her "sister" Anna II have made their way from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. (Remember that the two Annas are really contrasting aspects of one woman; Anna I, who sings, is practical and a bit cold-hearted in pursuit of material gain, whereas Anna II, who dances, has higher aspirations and an artistic nature.)

Anna is silent in this number, with the male quartet depicting her family giving voice to concerns about her weight. Her contract as a showgirl stipulates a maximum weight, it seems; exceed it by one pound, and she'll be out of a job. This is cause for familial concern, as we're led to believe young Anna can really chow down. Still, as a solo tenor sings delicately, they have faith in her:

This amiable, folk-like tune leads to some ironically exquisite unaccompanied four-part harmony as the family rhaposidizes about the Southern cuisine Anna will have to forego until her return in a few years' time. The close harmony and sense of whimsy are a winking homage to a male singing ensemble known as the "Comedian Harmonists". This group was at the peak of their considerable popularity at the time Weill wrote Deadly Sins, with numerous recitals throughout Europe and a volume of recordings played on radio. Click here for a sample of their sound. The similarity with this "Gluttony" passage is deliberate.

But the important thing here is Brecht's point about this particular sin: the imperative of earning money has turned "eating when you are hungry" into a "sin". Starving oneself is now "virtuous".

Enjoy the whimsy of "Gluttony"; it's the last trace to be found in the work. As Anna makes more and more compromises on her ideals and aspirations in order to earn a buck, the cost to her psyche becomes more and more unbearable. And this movement is a turning point.

Spending a year in Boston, Anna appears to have a reprieve from dancing and stripping. Like Violetta Valery in Verdi's La Traviata, she has a wealthy man lavishing riches on her. However, Anna I finds to her dismay that Anna II is in love with a man who must have no money; she is supporting him, because she loves him.

Fully aware that ending the affair could cost her "sister" her only chance at true love, Anna I rationalizes the desire for romantic happiness as a "sin", counseling Anna II to remember which side of her bread is buttered. This passage is set to music so beautiful, so ravishing and of such utter heartbreak and pathos that Deadly Sins, up til now expressing irony and whimsy, now turns tragic:

The first two phrases of the vocal line, you'll recall, manifest the duality motive observed in the Prologue as explained in the previous post: two nearly-identical musical gestures, the second one ending a half-step lower than the first. One woman with a dual nature symbolized by one phrase with contrasting final notes - this is found on every page of the score.

Weill wrote another song about lust: the "Barbara Song" from The Threepenny Opera some five years earlier. Interestingly, Anna's "Lust" song quotes a phrase from the earlier composition. This is a connection he could credibly have expected listeners to recognize, given the notoriety of Threepenny which by now had been performed tens of thousands of times and translated into several languages.

The orchestral postlude to "Lust" is perhaps the most intensely operatic moment in the piece. A tortured harmonic progression rises and falls in aching, arcing cresendos, clearly depicting Anna's despair and heartbreak, giving the lie to her hard-hearted words. This is a climactic tipping point; the cumulative effect of too many moral compromises has proven too high a price for material gain. Something within Anna's soul has died.

Perhaps too traumatized to express herself, Anna, now in Baltimore, is silent in this movement. Her family notes that her name constantly appears in news reports, and the reports are troubling. Brecht mentions, with tantalizing lack of detail, that "men are shooting themselves over her". Whatever her game, Anna, now deadened to conventional morality, is running wild, amassing money as fast as possible. The orchestra describes her new affect with great precision in furious passages in which no trace of Anna II's soulfulness can be detected:

You know, I'm not convinced that Brecht ever consulted a map of the United States in sketching out his libretto, so convoluted is Anna's trail from city to city. Having escaped Baltimore perhaps one step ahead of the police, she spans the continent all the way to San Francisco before returning in the Epilogue to Louisiana.

In any case, Anna II, says her vocal "sister", is tired and envious. And who are those who inspire the sin of envy? Anna I ticks them off: people who eat when they're hungry, protest injustice, are loyal to their true loves, and so on and so on -- you know: the "bad people"; the "sinners"; those fools who gave in to the temptations Anna has resisted for the sake of pursuing material gain.

So Anna gives the moral remnants that remain within her dual nature a pep talk. To music that sounds like a stirring triumphal march but is actually a brutal parody of one, music that never fails to give me goose flesh and make my hair stand on end,

Anna congratulates herself for having stuck to her guns. Those "sinners"? They'll be sorry. This pep talk takes the form of four verses, The prancing dotted rhythm is a fiercely emotional distortion of the dotted rhythms that marked the trudging, melancholy march of the Prologue:
Immediately after her climactic final phrase, the family bursts forth with dramatic shouts of praise to the Lord for having led her to her Reward.

It's very clear that Anna is whistling past the graveyard where her better nature -- her soul -- is now interred. As a parody of a triumphant conclusion, this movement puts one in mind of the finale to the Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich, who simultaneously delivered and mocked the conservative style demanded of him by the Kremlin during the same decade.

Bertolt Brecht, who had come to loathe both Weill and his music during the tempestuous discord caused by Mahagonny rehearsals, was dismissive of Deadly Sins. "Pretty but unimportant", he remarked to his wife. I think I know precisely the aspect of Weill's score that would have produced his scorn. To Brecht, political messages were everything, and music a subservient and secondary tool for projecting those messages. Deadly Sins is an indictment of the dangers of pursuing the Western dream of home ownership when the dream overshadows all other considerations. He likely meant us to feel superior to Anna I in the way she bullies her metaphysical sister into abandoning her humanity in favor of The Almighty Dollar.

I suspect that, had he set his own text to music, the Epilogue would have sounded nothing like Weill's conception. Weill who, far from despising Western materialism, became an American citizen, sets Anna's return to Louisiana in music that manipulates the listener into identifying with her traumatized condition. A fortune has been won, but Anna's utterances are a dirge of withered affect.

Anna and, perhaps, her sanctimonious family may learn the difficult lesson learned by many who attain their "dream house": that "home" is more than a building, and a house can't make you happy. Mansions can be prisons.

September 18, 2016

The music of Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins"

For a short piece of just 40 minutes’ duration, Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins” offers a richly varied feast of extremely compelling, truly memorable theater music. Weill’s art succeeds at humanizing Anna, the drama’s protagonist with a dual nature made manifest in two onstage performers: a singer for the character’s coldly practical side, and a dancer for her artistic, sensitive nature.

Bertolt Brecht’s text, I suspect, was meant to be a cynical satire on Western materialism. In each of the seven cities Anna visits, her cockeyed view of resisting “sin” and “temptation” results in the compromising of her better instincts for the sake of earning money for her family back home in Louisiana. Brecht might have preferred a more sardonic musical setting, one that would leave the audience looking down on Anna for her obsession with The Almighty Dollar.
Weill, however, sets the text to music that takes a different point of view. The listener empathizes with Anna; we feel all too keenly that heartbreak and despair are the consequences of the choices she makes. Her story remains a cautionary tale about “selling out” in the pursuit of the American Dream of home ownership.

(By the way, there is heavy irony in the creation of a drama about a homeless individual traveling to strange new cities with the imperative of earning money, as Weill and Brecht found themselves in that exact situation as they wrote the piece. Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 forced both artists into a hasty exodus from Germany, leaving their fortunes behind.)

Here is my number-by-number guide to the music; my summary of what to listen for in each movement:

The first thing you hear is really important; the source of the rest of the score. So be ready! Two clarinets emit a pair of mournful descending phrases:

The second phrase, importantly, ends a half-step lower than the first. So: two nearly identical musical gestures, one ending higher, the other lower. This is Anna! Or rather, it’s the musical representation of the duality of Anna I and Anna II. Throughout the rest of the work, this motif will be a constant presence; at times in the orchestra, at times in the vocal line, short musical gestures a half-step apart will dominate. The accompaniment figure in the example above features an interesting orchestral color: the banjo. It’s stark pluckings help establish a sense of place: the American South.

Anna explains that she and her “sister” (there are two performers on stage, but only one Anna) are leaving their home in Louisiana on a journey of seven years, with the goal of earning enough money for her parents and two brothers to build a house. Now, most young people heading out to big cities to perform for money would be excited, dreaming of fame and success. Weill, however, makes it clear that Anna is a reluctant traveler. The Prologue has a melancholy, blues-y affect; rhythmically, it has the dirge-like pace of a funeral march. Anna, like Weill leaving his beloved Berlin, faces her adventure with reluctance and dread, hoping to return sooner rather than later.

Remember that Deadly Sins began with a sad march. There will be a transformation of marching music later on.

Anna I does not vocalize in the first movement; it is the male quartet that sings, worrying about the young girl’s ability to buckle down and be productive. The orchestral introduction is a turbulent, whirling tarantella, suggesting the family’s hope that Anna will be busy as a bee:

Weill sets the family’s declarations in the form of call-and-response, perhaps another nod towards their Southern roots, suggesting work-songs in Louisiana cotton fields. The mother (at least it was George Balanchine, the original choreographer, who decided that the bass portray the mother, a touch of absurd whimsy) frets about Anna’s history as a lazybones while the men-folk respond with a sanctimonious religious bromide:

This section, as with the entire work, presents both challenges and opportunities for the stage director/choreographer. The text does not function like a traditional libretto; no specific action is spelled out for the Anna’s; there are no stage directions. This affords an unusual degree of liberation, with possible scenarios limited only by the director’s imagination.

In Memphis, Anna is dancing in a cabaret club. Brecht turns the notion of the sin of pride on its head; Anna II wishes to dance in an artistic manner, but Anna I points out that the customers here care nothing about Art and wish to see her naked body; Anna is working at a cheap striptease joint. Her warnings to leave pride to those who can afford it are sung to a beguiling and elegant waltz-tune, one of many Weill-ish inspirations in the piece:

The theme presents the motif of duality as it toggles back and forth between half-step intervals in both melody and the oop-pa-pa accompaniment. The significance of this passage is the obvious disconnect between Anna’s words and the character of the musical setting. The music is Anna II’s aspirations of a classic and “classy” performance, while Anna I speaks of vulgar debauchery. 

Anna is in Los Angeles, working (one gathers) on a film set as an extra. The ironic take on the sin of anger is that Anna II is outraged at some unnamed injustice she’s observed (in the original production it was mistreatment of animals, though again, the libretto is vague), but Anna I warns her to swallow her anger lest they be fired. Thus injustice is allowed simply because it comes in second to making money.

An orchestral passage neatly alternates depictions of Anna’s anger with a suggestion of vintage Hollywood-style dance music in which the motif of duality is observed in the accompaniment:

When Anna I offers her advice on the perils of anger, it is to a rhythmically square tune that sounds very “American” in its forthright optimism, however faux that attitude may really be. By now, you may be looking for the duality motif – you’ll find it in the final notes of Anna’s first two phrases.

If it strikes you that this tune appears to foreshadow Billy Bigelow’s “My boy Bill” from Carousel, a show that wouldn’t appear for another dozen years, then we are in agreement. It makes Weill’s evolution into a Broadway composer seem a natural progression.

Well, this post is a bit wordy, isn’t it? That’s probably enough for today. In a few days I’ll finish my survey of the music of a show I have come to love.

September 7, 2016

Seven Deadly Sins: art reflects life with homelessness in Louisiana

Summer is OVER, opera pals! College football players are already nursing bruises, opera companies are rehearsing like mad, and Your Humble Blogger is tan, rested, and ready to shed light on Virginia Opera's 2016-2017 season.
Kurt Weill (1900-1950)

On September 30, the curtain at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk will rise on a double-bill: Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, and Leoncavallo's reliable Pagliacci. Suck it, Mascagni! Breaking tradition here; a good thing! My first several posts will deal with the Weill piece.

Can I just say that I have become obsessed with Deadly Sins? For most of my life, my acquaintance with Weill was limited to "Mack the Knife", "Lonely House" from Street Scene, and "September Song" from Knickerbocker Holiday. But I'm making up for lost time, having A) studied Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, among other works; and B) have fallen in total, blissful love with Deadly Sins. I've purchased no fewer than eight recordings on CD or DVD of the piece which I will briefly critique below.

But first: how ironic and improbable is it that, just as tens of thousands of people in Louisiana have lost their homes in the wake of the recent devastating floods, Virginia Opera is staging a work about a family striving to build a home in a fictional Louisiana? Seriously, what were the odds?

Think about it: in Weill's masterwork, a woman called Anna leaves her home "where the Mississippi waters flow beneath the moon" on a mission: to earn enough money as a dancer to "build a little house" for her family. The libretto, by the mercurial German theatrical genius Bertolt Brecht, does not explain the family's circumstances or why a home is needed. It's tempting, however, to imagine a natural disaster in the light of current headlines.

It's hard to discuss this "sung ballet" (as the publisher called it) without stricken Louisiana residents in mind, so how about this: whether or not you can attend our production, here's a way you can help: click on this link to go to America's Charities Disaster Recovery Fund, where you can safely and securely make a donation of any size to help relieve the suffering of the real homeless people.

How bad is it down there? According to the website link above,
"At least 11 deaths have been attributed to the flooding, more than 30,000 people have been evacuated, and 12,000 are currently in shelters. More than 40,000 homes and businesses are without power and Louisiana State University has shuttered its doors as a result of flooding on the campus."

So please consider doing what you can to help all the real Anna's out there.

But back to Weill and his incredible forty-minute gem. I'll never forget the first time I heard this music; I'd just gotten the first of my several recordings. I popped the disc into my laptop, opened the libretto and almost instantly was GOBSMACKED by some of the most arresting, compelling, unforgettable theater music I've ever heard. My litmus test for a new piece I've never heard before is simply this: having heard it once, do I ever want or need to hear it again? My most recent post about Godard's opera Dante was on this topic. Dante wasn't horrible, but it lacked whatever it is that makes great music great. Having heard it once, I realized "That's it. Don't need to hear it any more". The opposite was true with Deadly Sins. When it was over, I had an immediate hunger to hear it AGAIN. And AGAIN. And AGAIN.

The piece is hard to pigeon-hole; it defies categorization, which may account for it's slow road to acceptance by the public. I mean, Aida is an opera, Nutcracker is a ballet and Das Lied von der Erde is a song cycle. Simple. But not Seven Deadly Sins! It's part opera, part ballet, part cantata, part cabaret, part symphonic song cycle..... whew! Weill produced a work of art that is truly unique. Nothing else bears any resemblance to it.

I'll discuss the music in more detail in future posts, but for those who don't know the work and would like to hear it, I'll quickly describe the recordings I've acquired, in ascending order from LEAST recommended to MOST recommended, identifying the vocal soloist and conductor. So at the bottom of the pack:

1) Marianne Faithfull, (Dennis Russell Davies) Weill wrote the work for an operatic soprano with full orchestra (and a male quartet to depict her family back home in Louisiana.) When Lotte Lenya (the composer's wife and creator of the role of Anna) wished to record the piece following Weill's death, her voice was no longer capable of negotiating the original high key. So a transposition was made, pitched a fourth lower, to accommodate her tabacco-ravaged range. Marianne Faithful, whose voice makes Bette Davis sound like Minnie Mouse, can't even manage the low key, so her solution is to sing in the original key, but one octave lower. She growls seductively, with an articulation of the authorized English translation that makes her sound like she's on her fourth scotch-rocks. This is NOT what Weill had in mind. Deadly Sins has elements of cabaret, but cabaret it is not. Not recommended.

2) Lotte Lenya, (Wilhelm Brueckner-Rueggenberg) Lenya achieved international stardom by performing her husband's music. She was the Clara Schumann to Weill's Robert; his muse and his trusted interpreter. SO: this one should be the "real deal", right? Well, no. Again, an estimated 500,000 cigarettes had robbed her of youthful vocal ease, if not her distinctive personality, with a disappointing result. Her effortful vocalism actually deprives her of the chance to impart pathos and dramatic subtlety to her performance. Recommended ONLY as a document of historical interest.

3) Karen Herr Erickson (Samuel Cristler) Here is a performance in keeping with Weill's intentions: sung in the original key by an operatic performer. And it's in English, to boot. The downsides are mushy acoustics (the performance was a live broadcast heard on NPR and not available on CD) and a curious dramatic blandness. The singing was not particularly full of character or individuality. But it's the only choice for an English-language recording in the high key.

4) Ute Lemper (John Mauceri) If you want to hear a low-key performance, in the original language, sung by a cabaret singer with real credentials in that field, this is a fair choice. Ms. Lemper sings with committment and belts effortlessly in climactic moments. Makes one wonder what Barbra Streisand in her prime might have made of this material. Still not my recommended version.

5) Teresa Stratas (Kent Nagano) Stratas is a justly famed intrepreter of Weill, and she sings her face off in this staged DVD performance. The music sounds fine, even though the soprano was no longer young when this was made, and let's just say that the steel belt occasionally appears in the radial tire of her splendid voice. There's a bit of strain. But a larger reservation is Peter Sellars' predictably idiosyncratic direction. Lots of deliberately confused, jerky, chaotic camera-work; lots of abstraction in the story-telling. Look: it's one thing to take a well-known standard opera like Cosi fan tutte and give it the Regietheater treatment by setting it in a diner. But it's another to distort this piece in a video that is likely to be most viewer's first introduction to it. And no sub-titles!! Boo.

6) Angelika Kirschlager (H.G. Gruber) This is another DVD, done in concert style. That in itself is not a problem; I myself saw a live performance last spring by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. with the cabaret singer Storm Large. Weill's piece actually lends itself well to semi-staging, and Ms. Large captivated her audience. But this video performance is a mixed bag. I don't quarrel with Kirschalger's singing; it's fine, on a par with Stratas. HOWEVER: it's not "semi-staged"; she simply stands in place as if singing a Bach cantata. Acting is limited to facial expressions. Still, it has its points.

7) Elise Ross (Simon Rattle) Here is a performance sung as Weill intended, in German with a lyric soprano. The biggest plus to this disc: Rattle's stylish conducting. Ms. Ross is occasionally a bit monochromatic in terms of vocal color, but she does a solid job. I prefer her rendition of the "Pride" section to all the others.

But top honors (and it's not even close) go to:

8) Ann Sofie von Otter (John Eliot Gardiner) This is a sublime recording. Von Otter imbues every syllable with heart-breaking meaning; she makes the character of Anna truly come alive. In the climactic "Envy" section, she sings with such vivid ferocity that it gives me goose-flesh every time. In the "Lust" section, she sings with such emotional directness and intimacy that it's almost unbearable. This disc is definitive and indispensable for fans of Kurt Weill. Highly recommended.

And again - if you're going to pony up for any of these recordings, at least consider donating the same amount to the charitable website I mentioned above. All the real-life Annas will really appreciate it.

August 17, 2016

My complete comments to The Economist on opera prodigies

Mario del Monaco:
Old enough to learn by mimicry
A couple of days ago I was contacted by Hallie Golden, a journalist who frequently writes for The Economist. She was working on an article about children who sing opera, obviously having run across my viral post on the subject. We agreed that she would supply a list of questions and I would respond to them.

Not 48 hours later, the completed article appeared on my Facebook feed this morning. Since I'm in a linking mood, you can click here to read it in its entirety. I assumed she had contacted several professionals in the opera field during the course of her research, so I wasn't surprised to see that from all the material I'd provided, one short phrase was included in the piece. A literary sound-bite, if you will.

I know I've blogged about this on more than one occasion, but since
1) I put some time and thought into my answers, and
2) it's always fun to see a lot of page-hits on this site (call it "operatic click-bait"),
I'm going to reproduce my "virtual interview" with Ms. Golden by printing her questions along with my replies. Et voila:

Hallie: Is there such a thing as an opera prodigy? If so, please explain why they are so rare:
Glenn: If the definition of an "opera prodigy" is limited to "a child singing in an opera", then the technical answer would be yes: there are opera prodigies. But it's important to place the term in the context of operatic roles written for a child's voice, with children the intended performers. Examples of such roles include the title role in Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors", Miles in Britten's "The Turn of the Screw" and a few others. Such child performers would be "prodigies" in the sense of having the requisite musicianship and discipline to deliver a high-level performance of complex music. Roles written specifically for a child's voice always take into account the limitations of immature voices. As far as being rare, in my opinion young people with advanced musicianship are usually instrumentalists (piano, violin, etc.). Since many singers take little interest in singing until after adolescence, when their voices began to emerge, it's no wonder that there will always be fewer kids prepared to tackle Menotti and Britten.

Hallie: From a biological standpoint, are prepubescent bodies equipped to handle the skills and technique required for opera singing? Please explain.
Glenn: Prepubescent children can and should sing! There are many healthy outlets for this most natural of activities: a children's choir (this is a growing field; many communities large and small have professional children's choirs run by well-trained directors), school choirs, church choirs, and the like. Even private lessons beginning around age 12 can be appropriate provided the instructor is responsible in selecting repertoire. The best metaphor is with children's athletics. Little League baseball is okay; encouraging young players to throw stressful pitches like curve balls and sliders is not. In the same way, a child singing a folk song in a choir is an age-appropriate scenario; a child singing adult operatic music is not. It's a fact that even adult opera singers must guard against damaging their delicate vocal folds due to the high physical demands of Verdi, Puccini and the rest. It's a question of understanding the nature of how voices are supported. Mature opera singers engage their entire bodies to prevent debilitating tension in neck, jaw and vocal folds. Muscles of the torso, buttocks and even legs work hard to provide a strong foundation for the voice. Obviously, a child lacks such resources of physical strength. My best advice for a child with a serious interest in singing would be to begin private lessons in piano or guitar. This provides a basic musical literacy that will enhance vocal instruction whenever it begins.

Hallie: Does it have to take years of solid opera training to be able to sing opera correctly, or is it possible for a young child to simply pick up these skills naturally, without training, or by way of mimicry?
Glenn: Solid training certainly never hurt anyone from achieving excellence, but mimicry is a device that must be employed with great care, and only at a particular stage of life. A child employing mimicry will not pick up skills. If a child imitates his math teacher, does that mean no further math study is indicated? Not so much! However, with young adults who have attained the requisite physical development, mimicry has its place. The Italian dramatic tenor Mario del Monaco was primarily self-taught, though teachers and coaches aided in polishing his art. I'm guessing he listened to a LOT of recordings of tenors. So here's the real value of young children listening to opera singers: it's important for the sound of a trained singing voice to register in their minds and become familiar. Voice students with minimal exposure to operatic singing prior to beginning studies face a different challenge that those who are pre-programmed to recognize the goal.

Hallie: What are the risks associated with an opera prodigy?
Glenn: The risks associated with children singing opera include these: --the formation of growths called nodules on the vocal folds. These can require surgery to remove. --being exploited by opportunistic parents, teachers or managers. --lasting damage to the vocal mechanism, thus sabotaging chances for adult vocal training. --developing a false notion of success in the arts when praise comes too easily and too soon. I will add that, for me, one of the most distasteful aspects of children singing opera is that adult soprano arias (and it's always girls who sing opera, not young boys) deal with adult sexuality and adult emotional states that are painfully inappropriate for a young girl. As an example: many prepubescent girls have sung "Musetta's Waltz" from Puccini's La Bohème. In this aria, a courtesan named Musetta observes that when she walks down the street, men lust after her and imagine her body naked. The idea that any parent would allow a young child to sing this is repugnant, and a sign that neither party has bothered to translate the Italian.

Halle: Can you give me examples of any opera prodigies who have gone on to have long, successful careers as an opera singer? What about ones who have had their careers cut short because of vocal injuries?
Glenn: I know of only one "opera prodigy" who went on to have a significant and lasting career as an adult: Beverly Sills. My explanation is that Ms. Sills was an anomaly; a "freak of Nature". On the other hand, Charlotte Church is as good an example as any of the more typical story. A one-time teenage millionaire thanks to record sales, Ms. Church's fortune is gone. As an adult, she turned from classical music to pop, but now has given up both genres.

Halle: It is possible and even common for there to be singing prodigies in such areas as pop music and musical theatre. Why is opera so different?
Glenn: Opera differs from pop music and music theater in that opera singers use no electronic amplification, which is standard in the other areas. A sound system takes the place of all the physical strength opera singers must employ to be heard. Recording engineers can manipulate both the voice and the accompaniment to achieve the proper balance. Not so in opera. Adult operatic music also requires more flexibility and agility than other vocal styles, with rapid runs and trills not uncommon. Of course, when young girls sing opera, it's not in the context of performing a complete role in a staged production with orchestra. It's always a question of singing individual arias, usually with piano accompaniment. But that merely removes it from the absurd to the genuinely risky, since the basic stresses remain, as do inappropriate lyrics

If it strikes you that the nature of the questions betrays a built-in negative attitude toward pint-sized Toscas, well, I'm actually okay with that! Preach, Hallie Golden! Go, sister!

July 12, 2016

Opera and golf and the talent it takes to be mediocre

Benjamin Godard
I don't play much golf any more. I never played a lot, but I enjoyed hitting a bucket of balls on the driving range, and my sister-in-law's husband took me golfing on his municipal course a few times. Well, that was years ago. My sister-in-law divorced her husband and surgery on my cervical spine makes it painful to swing a golf club. So much for active participation!

It's just as well - I wasn't very good. But I still follow the PGA and, to a lesser extent, the LPGA. One thing about golf no one can fully appreciate who has never tried to play the game: IT'S SO HARD.

The pro golf tour is made up of three basic levels: stars, journeymen and "rabbits". The rabbits are the pros who play constantly but seldom if ever win. They struggle along, just breaking even, driving high-mileage cars to the next venue instead of flying because they're running low on cash. But don't kid yourself - those rabbits could beat you like a drum, you amateur, you.

Even the worst pro golfers are really, really, really, REALLY good. Whoever is last on the PGA money-winning list (currently one Tommy Gainey) is a fabulous golfer who can make every shot in the book: booming drives, knock-em-stiff iron shots, delicate chips and amazing lag putts. You see, what a golfer goes through just to earn his PGA tour card is a gauntlet requiring nothing less than skill sets that would win your local club championship every time. Even if he never wins a pro tournament!
Tommy Gainey

And what does this have to do with opera?

A lot.

The percentage of all the operas ever written that end up in the "standard repertoire" - heck, let's expand the category to "operas performed from time to time" - is miniscule; statistically insignificant.
And certainly, there are operas that are really, truly awful, either due to weak libretto, ineffective music, or other factors, or a perfect storm of complete ineptitude.

But the reality is that it takes real talent - amazing skill-sets - to create a mediocre opera; one that is seldom if ever revived. Opera is to music composition what neuro-surgery is to medicine. It's hard. It requires comprehensive mastery.

I was reminded of all this as I took my dog Joy The Friendly Beagle on a walk a few weeks ago. Stomping along a nature trail on a mild Saturday afternoon, I put on my headphones and used a music app on my phone to tune in a Saturday afternoon opera broadcast. That day's offering from WETA FM in Washington D.C. was the opera Dante by Benjamin Godard.

Confession: I didn't know Godard wrote operas...

To me, he was the middling composer of flowery salon pieces for piano, perfumed but slight. So the revelation that he wrote operas came as a surprise. "Okay", I thought, "as an opera professional, I am curious to sample this rarity. Bring it on!" My expectations were low. Generally, there are good, solid reasons that neglected pieces are neglected. I recall having delivered a lecture in downtown Richmond, VA years ago after which a gentleman came up to chat. There are two questions employees of opera companies are asked all the time:
  1. "Why do you always do the same tired old operas? Why not branch out a little?" Or,
  2. "Why do you do weird ugly operas no one's ever heard of? Why not do the 'good ones'"?
This guy was asking #1 above. Obviously wishing to demonstrate his amazing opera knowledge, he clucked his tongue and said "I mean, why not stage Schubert's Alphonso und Estrella? It's absolutely charming!"

Uh huh. Thanks a lot, we'll get right on that, you pretentious twit...

It's not that he was wrong, of course - it's just that a regional opera company like Virginia Opera, especially in bad economic times, would be committing marketing suicide by scheduling a failed opera. See, it's different with opera than with orchestral music or instrumental solos, or even solo vocal music. We musicians can and do perform mediocre or neglected works from those categories all the time, because the investment of resources is relatively small. But opera is expensive! It costs a fortune! You have to take into account scenery, props, costumes, choreographers, electricians, crew members, transportation, airline tickets and housing for singers, ... the list goes on and on. Companies simply can't make an investment like that if the show won't be of interest. It's usually a bad investment to do an oddity, a rarity, a forgotten opera.

But Dante was produced by the Munich Opera, where state funding is more generous than in America, so Godard's shade can rest easy: his piece has survived him, however briefly.
I listened attentively for not quite half an hour, feeling at a disadvantage with neither libretto nor score with which to orient myself. It opened with a highly dramatic chorus, followed by a recitative for the tenor (the character of Dante), a tenor aria with some more chorus, a baritone aria and a duet for the two of them. The opera dates from 1890, according to the announcer.

Then I got to my car, the hike completed, and had to stop my sampling. You can't legally drive with headphones on, and I couldn't hear it over traffic noise without them.

But I'd heard enough to get the idea.

Was it bad? NO! Not at all!. It sounded a little Massenet-ish here, a little Bizet-ish there, with elements of Wagner and late Verdi sprinkled in for good measure. The choral writing was expert. The vocal writing was assured. The orchestration was fine. Many phrases for Dante and his baritone colleague rang out in an impassioned manner.

If you're not a musician, you can't appreciate the level of musicianship, talent, training and experience it takes to compose choral music, learn the craft of orchestration, and write gracefully and effectively for all ranges of male and female voices.

In case you're thinking "A-ha! A neglected masterpiece!", let me quickly assure you it's no such thing.

I don't know Dante well enough to state with authority why it has not entered the standard repertoire. I can only tell you my reaction: I never need to hear it again.

That's my litmus test for evaluating a work I've never heard before, operatic or otherwise. Do I want to hear it again, or was once enough? I recall my first introductions to many favorite works of music: Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, Boris Godunov, the "Liebestod" from Tristan, Brahms' F sharp minor piano quintet, many others. With all of them, I was so gob-smacked by the compelling nature of the music that I realized I SIMPLY HAVE TO HEAR THIS AGAIN! In many cases, over and over...

Not Dante. It was fine; there was nothing particularly wrong per se with it. It just failed the litmus test. I can't really explain why. I suppose the opening chorus seemed a bit long, over-dramatic and extended for a curtain-raiser. Just by a fraction.

Sometimes, with mediocre operas, there is the sense that the composer was trying as hard as possible to make each moment of music "the ultimate opera music", as though every moment had to be climactic.

The great ones save climactic moments for, you know, climaxes. Continual climaxes pall. Maybe I sensed a bit of that in Dante; maybe a tad over-wrought.

You can listen for yourself. The same performance is available as audio on YouTube. Just enter "Godard Dante" in the search bar. I had it on while typing this post, wondering if it would strike me differently. Not so much. The end of the first scene brought weak scattered applause from the audience.

Benjamin Godard: a "rabbit" composer who could make all the shots and compose all the things. These days, he might have to drive his car to hear his opera performed instead of flying.

Final thought: this analogy of composers and pro golfers really holds up pretty well. Take the most famous of recent golfers: Tiger Woods. I could make the case that he corresponds to Richard Strauss. Both set their respective worlds on fire as young men, Woods winning the Masters by nine shots at age 22, Strauss penning his tone poem Don Juan at age 24. Yet both careers tailed off in the latter stages. Tiger went into a steep decline years ago, and Strauss sank into mediocrity as time went along.

Both fields have their "one-shot wonders", or individuals who show flashes of brilliance that never translated into long-term brilliance. You say Ruggiero Leoncavallo, whose only success was Pagliacci, I say Keegan Bradley, who won a major tournament several years ago but has won nothing at all since 2012.

Woods and Strauss: Stars.
Bradley and Leoncavallo: Journeymen.
Godard and Gainey: talented, highly skilled................... rabbits.

June 22, 2016

The spider's web of Virginia Opera's new season

C. M.von Weber, composer of... TURANDOT?
Virginia Opera has announced the 2016-2017 season with the usual ballyhoo of brochures, subscription sales and press releases. Briefly stated, it shapes up this way:

Sept/Oct: A double-bill of Kurt Weill's "ballet chanté" The Seven Deadly Sins with another treatise on sin, Leoncavallo's familiar Pagliacci.

Nov/Dec: Rossini's beloved sit-com The Barber of Seville.

Jan/Feb: Weber's masterpiece Der Freischütz

March/April: Puccini's unfinished spectacle Turandot.

Starting around September I'll resume weekly posts sharing my insights about what makes these pieces tick. For now, however, as I'm hip-deep in the process of studying them, I'm struck by a web of unlikely coincidences and interconnections linking these works, which otherwise would seem to having nothing in common.

Take Turandot, for example. Amazingly, Carl Maria von Weber wrote an overture in 1809 for a production of the Carlo Gozzi drama on which Puccini based his opera. It's an odd, idiosyncratic march-like piece trying hard to sound "Eastern" with a perkily disjointed, asymmetrical tune sounding rather jolly for such grizly goings-on. You can hear a recording of it at this link.

Another surprising mention of Turandot happens in delving into the career of the great German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose text for The Seven Deadly Sins formed his final collaboration with Weill in 1933. It happens that not only was Brecht's final play a comedic version of Turandot, but - like Puccini! - it was left unfinished at his death in 1956. Brecht began his Turandot before leaving Germany during the rise of Hitler; feeling its subject matter unfit for American audiences, he did not turn his attention to it again until his return to Germany. It's not clear why he didn't get around to completing it.

Like all of Brecht's stage works, his Turandot is a political statement; unlike his other works, however, Turandot is said to be a broad farce, using heavy satire to criticize the class of liberal intellectuals the playwright held in contempt. In this version of "ancient China", the Emperor is a weak ruler, manipulated by the intellectuals of the royal court. The traditional plot-point of riddles and decapitation of those who fail them is tweaked to offer a critique of a failed economy:

A dispute has developed between the Union of Clothesmakers and the Union of the Clothesless. To settle the matter, the Emperor orders a grand debate. The wisest men in China must offer plausible answers to the question: "Where is the cotton?" so that the people of China can understand where all the cotton has gone. The intellectual who comes up with the best answer will marry Turandot (who is quite the flirtatious sex-pot in this telling); all the rest will taste the executioner's axe

So much for Turandot as a common thread in this coming season, but I have another: the Thirty Year's War.

Lasting from 1618-1648, this bloody conflict began when Protestants rebelled against attempts by the Holy Roman Emperor (Ferdinand II of Bohemia) to stifle religious freedom. The war caused over a million casualties and redrew the map of Europe before it staggered to its conclusion.

The first link to the Thirty Years' War in our season is straightforward: Der Freischütz takes place immediately after the war's end. Arch-villain Caspar, it turns out, was a combatant. Who knows? Maybe he wasn't evil so much as suffering from PTSD, right?

Where else does the war turn up? Again, in the works of Bertolt Brecht. The play many consider his masterpiece, Mother Courage and her children, written in 1939 to protest the rise of Nazism and Fascism. Though clearly addressing contemporary times, the play takes place in Germany during the Thirty Year's War.

I haven't mentioned Pagliacci or Barber yet, you'll have noticed. Anything cooking there, link-wise? Well, sure. Uh... er... they're both Italian.

Uncanny, isn't it?

See you after Labor Day.