December 14, 2014

The sunny, jolly NIGHTMARISH (OMG!) world of fairy tales and folk tales

Virginia Opera's Education Department has asked me to write the children's operas for the 2015-2016 touring season. So it's back to the collections of traditional children's literature, mainly because I'm too darn lazy to dream up an original libretto - I'd rather adapt something pre-existing. Besides, school administrators are more likely to book a show with familiar characters.

The search for suitable material is complicated, and 99% of the stories out there won't do for one reason or another. For one thing, I have to stick to stories that can be told with a cast of three.In this case, I already know the Opera will hire a soprano, a mezzo and a baritone.

Hans Christian Andersen
So stories with titles like "The Baker With 12 Sons" are a no-go. There can be a certain amount of actors playing multiple roles, of course, but even so, casting issues eliminate most of the field.

But what I really want to vent about this week is the GROSS, VIOLENT and OBSCENE stuff goin' on in your typical folktale. Geez, Louise! Fairy tales are not all rainbows, beautiful princesses, glass slippers and chaste kisses.

Are you one of those movie-goers who despairs at the bathroom humor in modern comedies? Have you ever ranted about endless jokes involving bodily functions in Hollywood films? I've got news for you; it has been ever thus.

Take the legendary German folk character Till Eulenspiegel, immortalized in Richard Strauss's tone poem. I've been exploring ol' Till since the subject of my next opera will be Tricksters, those archetypal jokers who appear in all cultures and in all time periods of human history.

Paul Oppenheimer translated Till's adventures in 1999 from the German. Let me share with you some of the chapter headings which, in bygone literary fashion, provide a thumbnail of the action to come:

  • Chapter 10: How Eulenspiegel became a page-boy; and how his squire taught him that whenever he found the plant hemp, he should shit on it; so he shitted on mustard, thinking that hemp and mustard were the same thing.
  • Chapter 12: How Eulenspiegel became the sexton in the village of Bueddenstedt; and how the priest shitted in his church and Eulenspiegel won a barrel of beer.
And lest you think that our man Till's interests are all scatalogical in nature, there's this mental picture I could have done without:
  • How Eulenspiegel was banished from the Duchy of Lueneberg; and how he cut open his horse and stood in it. (Someone get PETA on the phone, STAT.) 
But bodily functions are a recurring motif throughout the folk tale universe. I will also be including an age-appropriate tale of the ancient Turkish Trickster known as Nesreddin Hodja. Some of his "folk tales" are plot-driven stories suitable for stage adaption, but a number of them are simply R-rated jokes. I envision them having made the rounds on the ancient Turkish Borscht Belt. Here's a "folk tale" presented in its entirety:

The Squeaky Shoe

A guest of the Hodja's broke wind, but he hid its sound by rubbing his shoe across the floor at the same time.
"You did well by covering up that sound with your squeaky shoe," said Nasreddin. "But unfortunately you did not hide the smell."

The End. Charming.

But let me finish with the alarming intense gore and sadism found in every nook and cranny of fairy-tale-land. From the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm to the works of kindly Hans Christian Andersen, fairy tales are mostly nightmares depicting a cruel world inhabited by psychopaths.

Andersen's very first effort in the field, written in 1835, is called The Tinder Box. In this somewhat lengthy saga, our "hero" is a soldier returning home from the wars. He encounters a witch who promises him access to a fortune in silver and gold if he will only return to her a tinder box which once belonged to her grandmother. After loading himself down with treasure, he decides to keep the box; when the witch protests, he cuts off her head, leaving her body in the road.

He proceeds to blow his fortune on clothes, food and entertainment. Figuring out that the tinder box has magical properties, he uses it to visit a beautiful princess he's been lusting over but whose royal parents keep her locked up. They don't approve. The soldier goes on creating trouble and is brought to justice, but just as he's about to be hanged, he magically summons monsters to attack and kill the king and queen. With them dead and out of the way, he marries the princess. The End.


And the Grimm's stories? An unending litany of birds pecking out eyeballs, people being boiled, eaten, devoured by dogs - you name it. But my favorite "fairy tale" recorded by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is also the shortest. I end this post by presenting it to you in its entirety. NOTE: you might want to sleep with the lights on after this. Or take some Xanex. Something.

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do what her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purppose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

Alrighty then! I'm not saying that might not make a compelling opera, mind you. In fact, don't you wish Richard Strauss had taken a stab at it? 

Longtime Faithful Readers will know that I've blogged about fairy tales in the past; specifically, about "Hansel and Gretel" when Virginia Opera staged the Humperdinck opera in 2011. Drawing from Bruno Bettelheim's landmark book The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, I discussed the subtext of the Grimm Bros. oeuvre and how folk-tales contribute to a child's development into a well-balanced, functioning adult. To do that, the stories must take us to places we'd rather not go, looking with unblinking eyes at ugliness and traumatic scenarios, at times with metaphorical significance.

That said, I have a theory about the origins of The Willful Child. Something tells me that, centuries ago, some beleaguered mother with a particularly bratty child made up this little tale as a sort of medieval "scared straight" tactic; the rough equivalent of saying "If you keep making that face it'll freeze that way".

Next week I'll tell you which stories I ended up choosing and why.

December 7, 2014

About NBC's "Peter Pan"

THIS Hook didn't phone it in...
(illustration by F. D. Bedford, 1911)
It's a Friday night; I've had 24 hours to mull over last evening's live telecast of Peter Pan and I have some thoughts. If only I had a blog where I could share them with...

WAIT! I DO have a blog! (Silly me - kind of forgot myself there for a second. Won't happen again.)

A survey of reactions on social media has taught me that I'm entering treacherous territory. For every individual wallowing in the Schadenfreude of gleeful criticism, there's another professing earnest admiration for the entire concept and its execution. So I'm probably doomed to annoy or anatagonize somebody no matter what. 

But hey, I probably do that on a weekly basis anyway, so here goes nothin'.

Peter Pan Live was markedly better than last year's sodden, awkward, miscast Sound of Music, but that really is as faint as praise gets without entirely "damning".

For me, the show lacked pace, sparkle, and a sense of "The Joy Of Performing". I found that the lack of a live audience resulted in a sterile, artificial, cautious ambience. The actors, (though not all of them) appeared to be trying not to screw up. There was the vibe of first-time drivers doing 45 MPH in the right lane of a high-speed highway. The lack of an actual audience providing laughs, applause and other interactions can't help but have contributed to the situation, not to mention the frequent and extended commercial breaks. I imagine the cast standing around, all dressed up, adrenaline pumping, trying to stay in character while the ads rolled.

See, the reason the entire world likes Broadway musicals is because of the irrepressible high-octane, optimistic ENERGY we Americans summon up. It's in our DNA; we're the people who had the energy and gumption to get the hell out of Europe or wherever and journey to America for (ostensibly) a better life. And this energy informs our musical theater.

NBC's Peter Pan was a couple of quarts low in this respect.

Allison Williams exemplified this issue in her opening scene in the Darling children's nursery. Her singing voice, a smallish if attractive instrument, betrayed nerves in a lack of breath support and a little clunkiness in negotiating the break between registers. She didn't "take the stage"; rather, she felt her way into the show, gradually getting her sea-legs.

I believe she was awarded the part not (entirely) because her dad is a Big Dog at the network, but because she looks EXACTLY as we all imagine Peter Pan. She actually looked a lot like the Pan of the Disney animated film. But her voice IS small, with limited range; she sang "Neverland" in A, a half-step lower than Mary Martin's classic rendition in B flat. This was clearly done to spare us strained notes at the high end, but resulted in nearly inaudible, breathy lower notes at the bottom. 

If she sang without the amplification standard in modern music theater, no one would hear her over the orchestra past, say, row 10.

Her acting was far from amateurish, and she had a likeable presence. But that's not the same thing as "charisma". Bear in mind, the limitation a telecast like this imposes on the artists is that all they get is an opening night, and few musicals are at their best on opening night. It takes a run of performances for a cast to find their rhythm, chemistry, nuances and best pacing. It takes audience reaction to know if what you're doing is working.

Williams' weakness lay in too-often singing to Wendy or some other character rather than to the "audience", which is a big deal, actually. As an example of what I mean, let's compare her reading of "Neverland" to Martin's. 

First click here to watch a video of Mary Martin's performance. Notice how, as she begins the song, Martin sings directly to her Wendy to establish the point of the song, but then changes the angle of her face to move away from the girl and simply sing. Pan is really dreaming of his beloved home as he describes it, and singing "out" to the "audience" (also non-existent here) turns you and me into the group of people to whom he's expressing himself. It frees the artist to access a greater range of freedom in acting, and makes the viewer feel included.

Now  click here to see the same number as sung by Williams. What strikes you? Do you see how her eyes remain locked on Wendy's for far too long? It makes her appear to be afraid to look away and sing to the tens of millions she knows are watching, even if she wasn't feeling that way. And it's not necessary; we KNOW to whom you're singing already - an occasional glance at Wendy is sufficient to re-establish the relationship. 

Martin was really PERFORMING. Williams was delivering the notes and words accurately.

{Brief blog digression. Why, actually, is the role of Peter always assigned to a female? Is it a rule? If I, Your Humble Blogger, were to plan a new production of the show, rather than cast an idiosyncratic 70-year-old actor as Hook (see below), I would cast Kyle Brenn as Pan. Mr. Brenn is the high-school student who was wonderful in the role of Tobias when the New York Philharmonic did their concert version of Sweeney Todd last March. And don't you wish Neil Patrick Harris had had a go at the part back in his teen-aged years? You should. End of digression}

How did you Faithful Readers feel about the flying? I'm not going to carp about visible cables; that's the deal with flying on stage. HOWEVER: it struck me, and perhaps some of you, that this "special effect" looked pretty much the same here in the Year of our Lord 2014 as it did in the '50's and 60's. Peter Pan went up and then swung back and forth like pendulum. That's it? We can't somehow figure a way for this god-like creature to have a bit more directional control in the bedroom? It just seems like they put this element on cruise control, but this is starting to sound like carping, so - never mind.

Hook.  Captain Hook  James T. Hook.


I enjoy listening to Tony Kornheiser's radio show on 980 AM radio in Washington. He's an educated, erudite, witty talk-show host who has a wide range of interests in addition to the sports-talk genre which is the program's nominal raison d'etre. So this morning Tony and his crew were re-hashing the Peter Pan telecast, and spent a lot of time reviewing Christopaher Walken's "star-turn" in the role of Hook. Tony was very dismissive, finding the actor hopelessy miscast and tired-looking. His co-host Jeanne McManus, on the other hand, positively gushed: "Oh, I LOVED him! I like him in anything he does! He's one of those actors you just can't take your eyes off of!!!"

Like that.

I imagine most viewers adopted one or the other of those extremes. For Walken geeks, the man can do no wrong, and they will dutifully bring up the actor's long history as a song-and-dance man. I myself remember his video of Puss In Boots, a movie my toddler-aged daughter watched over and over.

But he was a catastrophically awful Captain Hook. Oh my. Sluggish, laconic, no sense of character, no vocal energy - I could go on and on. He appeared to be marking in his initial scenes. I truly believe I caught him reading lyrics off cue cards in an early number. He was "staring with purpose" at a fixed point off camera while singing, slumped in his throne like a man with a hangover.

My friend, if you're going to be Captain Hook you have to SELL IT. 

Robert Bianco, TV critic for USA Today, remarked in his review that Walken gave the impression he was considering not returning after each commercial break.

But here's where his style created stylistic dissonance: the material given to Hook both implies and demands a certain style. Hook is a dandy, a supercilious fop, a bit prissy, which is a delightfully ironic note for a "bloodthirsty pirate" and prevents the character from being too threatening for younger audience members. This is how the great Cyril Ritchard played him, and it's how Dustin Hoffman played him in the Robin Williams version of the story. 

What I mean by "the material given him" is that schtick in which Smee, just as Hook is about to launch into a rant, asks "Tempo, Captain? What tempo?" And Hook answers "Tarantella" or some other dance, spurring his pirate orchestra to wax lyrical. This schtick demands a delivery of elegant silliness and a certain putting on of airs like an "artiste".

Walken didn't go for that, which rendered the whole "Tempo" thing kind of puzzling and irrelevant. In my opinion. (You are allowed to disagree, if you can live with the fact that I will think less of you.)

And finally, the decision to spare Walken from playing the father was a bad, bad, bad, bad, REALLY bad decision. It should be patently obvious that Mr. Darling, in his children's minds IS Captain Hook. If you're going to ignore that little metaphor, then for Gawd's sake DO NOT have Father turn into Mr. Smee. NO! NO! NO! MAKES NO SENSE! DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING! NO MEANING!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?!?  *pant pant pant* (There. I feel better now.)

The fight choreography was tepid and careful, considering that the production was reportedly in rehearsal for a long period of time (I read "months" in one article). Again, I feel that the presence of a real audience might have lent more intensity, urgency and "going for it" to the fight sequences. That said, perhaps intensity wasn't the goal, mindful of the youngest viewers' capacities for rough stuff.

It was too long. The commercials made my liver itch with impatience. The added material, not in the original show, added only length, never a good reason for inserting a new song.

SO: what did Mr. Cranky-pants actually like? Anything?

I thought Wendy was okay. I thought Kelli O'Hara as the Mother was GREAT. I missed her when she wasn't on stage and was glad to welcome her back. THAT, my friends, was a total pro at work.

And the dog was great! Hit every mark! Now I want to teach my beagle to turn down the bed. Plus, how did they ever corral a major actress like Minni Driver to play the walk-on role of grownup Wendy? Geez. 

Overall grade: C+.  I know some theater-loving folk who aren't in favor of criticising the show; they want to reward NBC for taking a risk with live theater; they're aware of the huge obstacles involved in bringing off such a project, and they feel that encouragement is due. My problem: I can't pretend to like something I didn't. Ask yourself: if this had been presented on Broadway, would you be generous?

But keep trying, NBC. Keep trying until you get it as right as a single performance without an audience can ever be. I'll be back next December with high hopes (but moderate expectations) for The Music Man. 

November 30, 2014

Operatically Thankful

Thanksgiving has come and gone. My wife and I are spending the holiday weekend at a rented beach house on Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, very near Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers conquered flight.

The traditional feast has become a bit more complicated since Celiac Disease has left my wife unable to tolerate gluten. No yummy rolls for her. She has to make her own pan of stuffing and her own pie. Just one of the countless adjustments one has to make in the face of getting older. In my case, my serving of pumpkin pie was the first dessert other than fresh fruit I've had in six months, ever since the results of a blood-sugar test came back with a grim warniing.

But this post is not for carping about life's limitations and adveresities (well, so far it has been, but never mind...); nope: it's for doing what everybody does this time of year.

Being thankful.

And since this an opera blog, I'll center on the blessings that have come my way since 2004, when I joined the staff of Virginia Opera.

  • I AM THANKFUL to still be employed in the face of financial stress for performing arts organizations in general and my company specifically. When the recession hit in 2008, donors went away in large numbers, ticket sales declined, and hard times arrived. Today, the staff employs fewer full-timers and budgets have been trimmed. The thing is, my position was created when I was hired; they did without a Community Outreach Musical Director for the first 30 years of their existence. That means they could do so again. When others have been laid off, I'm beyond grateful that I continue to be part of the family.
  • I AM THANKFUL that they took a chance on me in the first place. Let me tell you, friends, it's no picnic to find yourself unemployed at age 50. To those dire circumstances, I'll add that nerve damage to my left hand left me unable to function as a pianist or piano teacher -- me, with a doctorate in piano performance. I hadn't taught at the college level in 10 years; the future looked... scary. Then along came this job, in many ways the job of my dreams.
  • I AM THANKFUL for the opportunities to compose that have come my way. In January of 2000 I decided to try my hand at composing words and music for an opera. No one asked me to; I did it purely for my own pleasure, in addition to seeing if I had any aptitude for it. I chose Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing". Since 2007 I've composed five operas plus a couple of "pastiche operas" using standard operatic excerpts. All have been performed successfully. I've been asked to create at least two, and possibly three new works for the 2015-2016 touring season. If you had told me I'd have become a successful composer back in the 1990's I'd have laughed in your face.
  • I AM THANKFUL that Lori Lewis asked me to write words and music for my one-character monodrama Katie Luther: the Opera in 2012. It now appears a realistic goal that this piece, which has already been heard in Albuqurque, St. Louis, Baltimore and Newport News, will be performed in Martin Luther's home of Wittenberg as part of the 2017 festivals celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Are you kidding me? I have yet to make a penny from this opera, but it is my best work and I'm proud of it.
  • I AM THANKFUL that Katie Luther received a good review from critic John Campbell in the online journal Artsong Update. You can read the review at this link, but scroll down the page as a symphony review appears at the top of the page.
  • I AM THANKFUL that, as I look back on my musical career, quite a number of experiences that seemed like a lark at the time actually were training ground for my current position. Singing baritone roles for the Opera Theater at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond; being a guest artist for the Operafestival di Roma where, besides performing principal roles, I had a turn as chorus master and stage director for a student program of scenes; and others as well. 
  • I AM THANKFUL for the platforms my job has afforded me: regular broadcasts on two public radio stations; authoring a book (which people bought); teasching opera appreciation classes for eight colleges and universities around the region; and this blog, which has seen readers from every corner of the world.
I could go on, but let's face it: you stopped reading after the first couple of paragraphs at the top, didn't you? Didn't you?!?!?

Oh well - I'm thankful you read that much, actualy! Cheers! So long from Kitty Hawk!

The first manned flight. That's me on the right. I was so thin back then!

November 19, 2014

A free opera video and a GIF

This week's post serves to introduce you to my new children's opera The Empress and the Nightingale, adapted from the story The Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen. It was commissioned by the Education Department of Virginia Opera and is currently on a regional tour with the company's Emerging Artist program.

The performers are soprano Sarah Gilbert as the Village Girl and the Nightingale; mezzo-soprano Alyssa Martin as the Empress; baritone Trevor Martin as the Lord Chamberlain, and pianist Cody A. Martin.

Believe it or not, none of these Martins are related! What were the odds of that?

The puppet depicting the Nightingale was created by Jennifer Noe of the Virginia Opera costume shop. I think it is adorable. (Note: for you millenials, that's "totes adorbes"...)

The opera has been very well-received. While the intended audience is elementary-school kids, adults have been enthusiastic as well.

Here's a complete performance given at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, VA on Saturday, October 4, 2014. It's just under forty minutes in length" Give it a watch!

And for good measure, here's a GIF of my favorite "action moment" in that performance. I call it "When Mezzos Turn Violent: Empress Gettin' All Feisty".

Hope you enjoy the show, Faithful Readers!

November 9, 2014

Pinafore: looking ahead to Ogden Nash and back to Pamina

What does American poet-humorist Ogden Nash have to do with H. M. S. Pinafore?

A lot, from where I'm standing.

I don't know whether or not you Savoyards have noticed, but much of Nash's characteristic style owes a LOT to a moment in Act 2. I'm thinking of Josephine's recitative before her big aria "A simple sailor".

Let's compare a passage from that recitative with a typical bit of light verse from Nash. First, here's Josephine, with her knickers all in a twist:

On the one hand, papa's luxurious home, hung with ancestral armour and old brasses,
Carved oak tapestry from distant Rome, rare "blue and white" Venetian finger glasses,
Rich oriental rugs, luxurious sofa pillows,
And everything that isn't old, from Gillow's.
And on the other, a dark and dingy room, in some back street with stuffy children crying,
Where organs yell, and clacking housewives fume, and clothes are hanging out all day a-drying,
With one cracked looking-glass to see your face in
And dinner served up in a pudding basin!

Now here's an excerpt from an Ogden Nash rumination on marriage called "I do, I will, I have":

Just as I know that there are two Hagens, Walter and Copen,
I know that marriage is a legal and religious alliance entered into by a man who can't sleep with the window shut and a woman who can't with the window open.
Moreover, just as I am unsure of the difference between flora and fauna and flotsam and jetsam,
I am quite sure that marriage is the alliance of two people one of whom never remembers birthdays and the other never forgetsam,
And he refuses to believe there is a leak in the water pipe or the gas pipe and she is convinced she is about to asphyxiate or drown,
And she says Quick get up and get my hairbrushes off the windowsill, it's raining in, and he replies Oh they're all right, it's only raining straight down.

Case closed!

One more suggestion for your consideration:

Isn't Josephine's first-act aria "Sorry her lot" a subtle parody of Pamina's "Ach, ich fühl’s" from The Magic Flute? They share tempos - a lugubrious Andante - and both characters are emoting about their heartbreak. The textures are similar as well, with the orchestra playing simple chords underneath the vocal line. Both are in duple meter, 6/8 and 9/8 respectively. And let's compare the opening phrases of those vocal lines. First, here's Pamina's:
How is this melody put together? It begins with a short descending scale fragment starting on the 5th note (the dominant, for you music theory nerds -- and I know you're out there) down to the keynote of G (the tonic). That's followed by a graceful and ethereal ascending octave leap to the high G, which begins another descending fragment.

Got it? Okey-dokey. Now here's the opening phrase of "Sorry her lot" from Pinafore:
What have we got here? Is there a descending scale fragment starting on the dominant? Check. (It takes a little detour in the second bar, but does land on the tonic in bar 3). Is there a graceful ascending octave leap? Check. Does that begin another descending fragment? Check. The melodies are clearly close cousins in structure and expression.

Finally - what does this mean; was it intentional on the part of Sullivan? Given that his modus operandi was to include parodies of famous operas, including Mendelssohn, Donizetti, Verdi and others, I'd say yes. 

Given that, we have to look on Josephine's "Pamina connection" as a bit of sly humor. It's another example of Sullivan's music "playing it straight" and staying in character regardless of the absurdity of the operetta's plot and characters as a whole. In this fashion the composer followed the lead of his librettist, who famously demanded the same style from his actors on stage. 

That's probably it for my Pinafore posts. I'll write about this-and-that in the opera world until the first of the year, when we'll start exploring Richard Strauss's Salome. (It's pretty much EXACTLY like Gilbert and Sullivan, just with more veils...)

November 1, 2014

Pinafore: What if Buttercup traded places with Butterfly?

BREAKING NEWS: In a development that has rocked the opera world, Mrs. Cripps (a.k.a. "Little Buttercup") of Portsmouth, England, has agreed to take the place of Cio-Cio San (a.k.a. "Madame Butterfly") of Nagasaki, Japan in the Puccini opera in which she was scheduled to appear.

This butter don't fly....
When questioned, Buttercup stated she was happy to help out a fellow fictional character in a time of need. "Poor little blighter, right croupy she was; couldn't hardly breathe. I told her to stay in bed and that Little Buttercup'd soon put things right."

We take you to Japan where the wedding party of Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton awaits the entrance of his bride:

There! Coming up the hill! It is the gentle voice of my delicate little geisha, Madama Buttercup!

You must not toy with her affections, you heartless naval officer, you.

BUTTERCUP: (entering, accompanied by an entourage of Japanese women)
Cor, somebody get me a bloody chair, my feet are fair killin' me.

Was the climb difficult?

Who's idea was it to marry on top of a blinkin' mountain? What's wrong with a proper church and a proper parson?

"Miss Buttercup" - your name suits you to perfection.

So I'm plump, am I? Go ahead and say it; I'm not ashamed of my body. Men like me this way.

PINKERTON (to Sharpless)
She's a flower! Her exotic fragrance has intoxicated me.

That's the tobacky, darlin'. I've got pipe tobacky and snuff, both on sale this week.

How old are you?



HA! That's comical, that is. Back in my baby-farming days I used to nurse this handsome lieutenant here.

Wait... what? Ew. (Suddenly the party is interrupted by the entrance of The Bonze, an angry Buddhist priest.)

Buttercup! Buttercup! Abomination! You have renounced our ancient faith! WE RENOUNCE YOU!

What's wrong with the good old Church of England, I'd like to know? Simmer down, or I'll have the Archbishop give you a good talking to. Here - I'll give you a good price on these lovely peppermint drops. I don't care if you're Buddhist or Hindu or a bloomin' agnostic - everyone enjoys a lovely peppermint drop.

But - we renounce you!!!

How about some jacky? It's excellent.

Got any treacle?

What about toffee - got any toffee?

Step over here where we can talk business, gentlemen. (As the men start bartering over Buttercup's goods, everyone gradually forgets about the wedding and wanders off. Curtain.)

When asked to comment, Cio-Cio San was quoted as saying, "This was a bad idea. I'm going back to bed."

October 26, 2014

My theory about Buttercup's aria in "Pinafore"

The first principal character to sing a solo in H.M.S. Pinafore is Mrs. Cripps, the robust vendor known to the crew as "Little Buttercup". She launches into a coy introductory song in which she seems unduly concerned that we completely internalize this nickname:
Vintage "Pinafore" poster

I'm called Little Buttercup,
Dear Little Buttercup,
Though I could never tell why.
But still I'm called Buttercup,
Poor Little Buttercup,
Sweet Little Buttercup I.

She goes on to provide an inventory of her various wares. There is a subtle irony in the girlish simplicity of the number, as the coyness and girlishness is in overt contrast to her (traditionally) matronly appearance.

But I think there is another element factoring in to account for Sullivan's musical choices here.

In the series of lifelong learning classes on this operetta I've been teaching for the past several weeks, I used a DVD of a live performance done years ago by an Australian company. It's a fairly conventional staging, both musically and dramatically, with one glaring exception: the artist playing Buttercup. Rather than a Savoyard-style contralto of classical timbre, this Buttercup mugged, belted and (at times) yelled like Carol Burnett doing her Tarzan impression. In short, she went for laughs. Over the top? Oh, yes.

For W.S. Gilbert, this style of comedy was anathema; he bullied all his comedians into trusting the material and "playing it straight", If he was observing this performance from the viewing lounge in Theater Heaven, he must have buried his face in his hands and cursed.
Stephen Collins Foster

So why did this production team cast it in this way? Why make that choice?

I have a theory.

Listen, I am second to none in my admiration for Sir Arthur Sullivan's genius in the sphere of light comedic opera. Not every musician can strike just the right tone in every situation with the grace, skill and melodic facility of Sullivan.

That said, the melodic material in Buttercup's aria is..... how can I say this and not make you G&S fans upset with me? - a bit banal. A bit basic, really. Neither rollicking like Sir Joseph's entrance aria nor toe-tapping like the Act 2 trio nor convincingly impassioned as in Josephine's solos.

Here  click here and listen for yourself in a traditional performance. Musically, it's pleasant but not especially memorable. I'm inferring that the Australian team decided the number posed the threat of a "dead spot" right at the top of the show and, therefore, in need of over-the-top "punching up" to keep the energy flowing.

This begs another question: when Sullivan was clearly able to manufacture lively, entertaining tunes like Ford manufactures pick-up trucks, why did HE make the choice of such a tame vocal line and undistinguished chord progressions?

I have another theory.

I suspect it was, as much as anything, a business decision. A choice calculated to augment the revenue stream. Of course, in light of the historic success of Pinafore, they were really creating more of a flood than a stream, but then every shilling helps, right?

Think of it this way: if you love a current Broadway musical like The Book of Mormon or Hedgewick and the Angry Inch, you have more ways to consume the music than buying a ticket to see it at the theater. You download it into your iPod, you electronic wizard you, and listen to it while you sweat on a treadmill. And commerce happens; money is paid and made.

Now jump back a few decades to what many consider the heyday of American musical theater with composers like Richard Rogers and Frank Loesser. They, too, were anxious for a healthy portion of their music to achieve popularity outside of the theater. No iPods, but there were 45 RPM records and, even more importantly, RADIO.

Much of the Broadway music of the 40's and 50's was written in a deliberately popular style, to be in sync with the kind of music Tommy Dorsey or Bing Crosby were purveying on the airwaves. There's a great example in Loesser's masterpiece Guys and Dolls in Sister Sarah's ballad of tipsy flirtation "If I were a bell". Click here to hear the recording from the original Broadway cast.

This song proved such a hit that it was recorded in various pop/jazz arrangements, including this notable version by the great Ella Fitzgerald. Radio stations plugged it, records were sold, money was made. Et voila.

Now jump back to 1878 in London. Gilbert and Sullivan, I believe were just as attuned to the market of home entertainment as a revenue source as any 20th-century composers. But what was home entertainment in the mid-19th century?

Sheet music. Parlor music. The same market for which Stephen Collins Foster wrote his great songbook of American songs, robbed of profits though he was by unscrupulous publishers.

The music of Buttercup's aria is of a level suitable for young girls in their formative years to play without much difficulty on the family spinet while Uncle Leroy, Aunt Agatha, Father, Mother and even little Junior gather around and bellow along: "I've snuff and tobaccy and excellent jackey" and so on. Good, innocent fun, and another valuable skill for young 13-year-old Mary Margaret to display, keyboard-wise, to go along with needle-work, pie-baking and the other proofs of her potential to be a good catch for some lucky man.

This video depicts exactly what I'm talking about: a nice teen-aged girl playing Buttercup's repetitive, not-too-challenging melody at a piano. Think that sheet music she's reading from came free? Don't think so. Music was purchased; money was made.

Now, compare that last video with this recording of Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" played on a period instrumet. The simplicity of keyboard texturer and tune is similar in both pieces.

And, I'm certain, at least partly for the same reason. Revenue for the creators.