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" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1kdEFr7Aiw. 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:

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

SHARPLESS:
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.

PINKERTON:
Was the climb difficult?

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

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

BUTTERCUP
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.

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

SHARPLESS
How old are you?

BUTTERCUP
Guess.

SHARPLESS
Fifteen?

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

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

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

BUTTERCUP
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.

BONZE
But - we renounce you!!!

BUTTERCUP
How about some jacky? It's excellent.

SHARPLESS
Got any treacle?

PINKERTON
What about toffee - got any toffee?

BUTTERCUP
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.

October 19, 2014

A Love Expert Explains Josephine's Marital Prospects

Duana Welch, Ph.D.
This post was written with the assistance of a good friend whom I've never met.

(Don't you just love social media?)

The friend is Duana Welch, Ph.D. She teaches psychology at Austin, Texas universities and has a popular website called lovesciencemedia.com. This site is kind of a contemporary take on the old "advice to the love-lorn" column old-timers like me associate with Dear Abby and Ann Landers.

Folks write to Duana with questions about their love lives, sex, and relationships. What distinguishes her responses is that they aren't based on "life experience" or "good old common sense", but rather the body of scientific data and research pertaining to each question. In addition to the Love Science site, Duana is also a frequent contributor to Pychology Today and eHarmony.

I've gotten to "know" Duana via Facebook and we interact frequently. She's a good egg. At the end of this post I'll include information on how YOU, Dear Reader, can purchase her new book.

I occasionally ask Duana to drop some knowledge on me as relates to amorous predicaments that arise in opera plots. This, despite that she has no particular interest in opera herself. (Hey, I never said she was perfect.) However, opera librettos do raise issues of general interest when it comes to how men and women pursue one another and get along.

Lately, I've been thinking about Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore and the subject of marriage and social class. One of W.S. Gilbert's targets for satire is the British class system. In Pinafore, the plot is driven by this situation:

Josephine, the daughter of middle-class Captain Corcoran, has been betrothed to the aristocratic Sir Joseph Porter, But he's old and gross, and she'd rather marry the handsome young sailor Ralph Rackstraw. That's not a viable option since Ralph is a commoner; Josephine shouldn't marry beneath her social status.

Does that strike you as a bit hypocritical? My question to Duana was this: why is it okay for Sir Joseph to marry beneath HIS class but not okay for Josephine to do the same? To avoid offending Sir Joseph, father and daughter claim that Josephine's reluctance to marry him is due to his "exalted rank", which is "intimidating" to a "humble Captain's daughter". Sir Joseph magnanimously assures the girl that social class should never be an obstacle to true love. He thinks she'll interpret that as a green light for her to marry UP to his level, but (naturally) she hears it as a license to marry DOWN to her low-born beau.

Again: what exactly accounts for the societal attitude that men can marry down (like Sir Joseph hoped to do) but if a woman does so it's scandalous?

Duana wrote back promptly with this reply:

Esteemed Opera Dude: 

While I've never written on the topic directly, I've often indirectly addressed it via something called assortative mating, or "the matching phenomenon". Basically, the more alike two people are - not only in physical appearance, but in nearly every way - the happier they are together. Couples with more similarities are not only more likely to begin dating than people who are dissimilar, they're also more likely to keep dating, fall in love, get engaged, get married, and stay happily wed. It's a phenomenon that's now been validated in more than thirty-seven cultures and countries. The upshot? Most of the time, when folks marry, they do so in their own social class, just as they usually marry someone who is otherwise similar. But when there is a violation of similarity in terms of social class, it tends to be a case of a young, beautiful woman who marries an older, less-attractive-yet-resource-wielding man. This is still a match: men value youth and beauty, just as women value resources. So if folks are going to make a trade, that seems to be the one that works out. 

Yes, she really did call me "Esteemed Opera Dude". (She's clearly in awe of me.)

So this explains a lot, really. The reason that Rossini's Dr. Bartolo expected Rosina to marry him, Sondheim's Judge Turpin expected Joanna to marry him  and Sir Joseph expects Josephine to marry him is that they have resources compensating for their lack of other merits. 

It's also why, once the Big Plot Twist has been revealed, namely that Ralph and Captain Corcoran were switched at birth (thus instantly swapping social classes), Josephine is STILL in the position of "marrying up in class" and it's still okay. And now the newly-middle-class Ralph is in the catbird seat, since 1) his new status will ensure the resources that women value, and 2) he's cute and cuddly, so Josephine remains attracted to him in any case.

As for me, your Humble Blogger, I am stunned and amazed that my own marriage has lasted for thirty-eight happy years despite that fact that until recently I HAD NEVER HEARD OF "ASSORTATIVE MATING". 

And now to plug a book that you'll shortly be seeing at your local bookstore: Duana is the author of Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps From I Wish To I Do. For more information, click on this link; you can read about the book and download a chapter for free.

Thanks, Duana!


October 12, 2014

Pinafore 1: Gilbert and Sullivan defined as co-workers

Virginia Opera's 40th season got off to a triumphant start with a stunning production of Sweeney Todd that received ovations at every performance.

Now on to the second of our four mainstage shows, H.M.S. Pinafore by W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

Gilbert
Think of it as the comforting "good cop" following the edgy "bad cop" of Sondheim's bloody spectacle. YO! All of you HSP's ("Highly Sensitive Persons") who have been hiding under your beds until the Demon Barber went away: it's safe to come out now.

For my initial Pinafore post I'm going to recap a speech I heard back in the 90's. I wish I could remember the name of the speaker, but I can barely remember what I had for breakfast this morning. (As we age...) So whoever you were, at least know I'm not taking credit for your insights. The speech was the keynote address at a national convention of arts administrators I was attending back when I was directing a community arts school in Richmond VA.

If you know anything about Gilbert and Sullivan's partnership, you know it was hardly a matter of rainbows and unicorns. Their beleaguered producer Richard D'Oyle-Carte had to use super-human gifts of tact to keep one or the other from quitting the Savoyard venture for good, as they each threatened to do on more than one occasion.

Sullivan
Gilbert was annoyed that, in their joint public appearances, Sullivan was clearly more popular - more of a celebrity - than he himself was. Stupid idiots always like the music best, don't they? He also hated it when Sullivan would read through his latest libretto with a distinctly "MEH" reaction. Not original enough. Too much like the last ones. Can't you do better, old fellow? That sort of thing.

For his part, Sullivan (to a degree) felt trapped by their very success. He had not been the darling of both the Royal Academy of Music and the hallowed Leipzig Conservatory in order to grind out catchy-but-simplistic musical doggerel. No, he was the Great White Hope of British Music, destined to be England's answer to Schumann, Brahms, Wagner and Verdi. He was destined to be a musical Moses, leading his homeland out of the musical wilderness (in which their greatest composer was not native-born, but rather the Saxon G.F. Handel) into the Promised Land of international stature. He would produce symphonies, oratorios, chamber music and (especially) GRAND OPERAS.

Not this silly, absurdist comic stuff.

Now for the recap of that speech. It was all about how to characterize workplace relationships; all of them - even the ones YOU have had in YOUR various jobs, Dear Reader. Here's how it works:

All relationships between co-workers necesssarily fall into four, and only four, categories. Thees categories are defined by the degree of

  • AGREEMENT and
  • TRUST
between the two parties. Here are the four categories defined:

  1. COLLEAGUES: co-workers who have HIGH AGREEMENT and HIGH TRUST.
  2. ADVERSARIES: co-workers who have LOW AGREEMENT and LOW TRUST.
  3. OPPONENTS: co-workers who have LOW AGREEMENT but HIGH TRUST. (In this scenario, one thinks the other person is an idiot, but an honorable/good person even so.) And finally,
  4. BEDFELLOWS: co-workers who have HIGH AGREEMENT but LOW TRUST.
If you review your own personal work history, you'll find that every person at every job you ever held falls neatly into one of these categories. Of course, politicians running for office love to invoke number three above. Even when rival candidates are in reality bitter adversaries, when they're debating on CNN they love to say things like "My opponent is a patriotic man, but I'm afraid his ideas on foreign policy would weaken our country." Et voila...

The point, of course, is that D'Oyle-Carte's librettist and composer were at best in the category of bedfellows. They understood that they could not really walk away from a money-making bonanza like their series of English comic operettas, but testiness and guarded civility were often the rule.

Until, of course, Sullivan did finally walk away, convinced that his true destiny was still within reach, hoping to make his bones as the English Verdi with Ivanhoe in 1891. 

As it turns out, he'd have been well-advised to heed this old saying: 

The way to have what you want is.... to want what you have.

October 5, 2014

Sondheim, Parsifal, and Tobias the Fool

Scene from an 1882 production of Parsifal
One more Sweeney Todd post before we lift our bloody razors in a farewell salute and gear up for a run of Gilbert and Sullivan...

Sondheim's "musical thriller", as pointed out previously, is chock-full of an assortment of literary references. These include The Barber of Seville, Rigoletto, and even Hansel and Gretel (a witch meeting her end in a roaring oven). But there's one more that might not have occurred to you: Wagner's Parsifal.

Granted, in musical terms the two works are galaxies apart. But consider the simple young Tobias: here a case can be made that he carries some of Parsifal's DNA. They are both "holy fools".

The concept of a "Holy Fool" dates back at least as far as the first century A.D., when the apostle Paul wrote "We are fools for Christ's sake" in a letter to the church at Corinth. He went on to explain that "the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight". In other words, to be a true child of God, one must be so detached from worldly affairs, agendas and standards that one appears impossibly or "foolishly" naive. There is an inherent unspoiled spiritual purity in such innocense.

In Parsifal, the warrior Amfortas has been wounded by the magician Klingsor who used the flower maiden Kundry to lure Amfortas to him. The knight's pain can only be relieved with a touch of a holy spear now possessed by Klingsor. The only person capable of retrieving the spear is a "pure fool", one as yet untouched by the evil of the world: Parsifal.

Parsifal, in Wagner's libretto, is linked to early Christian traditions of the Holy Fool and to St. Juniper in particular. One of his fellow monks told Juniper that he wanted a pig's foot. Juniper rushed out to a herd of swine and rashly cut the foot off a pig, leaving the animal to die while he returned to present the foot to the monk. Parsifal, on the other hand, is found to have killed a swan in Act 1 of the opera, unaware that doing so was wrong. As the opera progresses, Parsifal's experiences will teach him of the evil of the world, leading him to destroy Klingsor's kingdom.

In Sweeney Todd, Tobias is observed unwittingly participating in evil as well, first drumming up business for that "arrant fraud", the Great Pirelli, later doing the same for Lovett's pie shop. Despite being taken in by Lovett as a de facto adopted son, Tobias is innocent of the gruesome nature of her meat pies. In his pathetic mental simplicity, Tobias stands out from the other townspeople of London for his naive goodness and trusting nature.

Of course, like Parsifal, Tobias gradually discovers the nature of the evil hovering about his world. Lovett's explanations for the disappearance of Pirelli are belied by her possession of the latter's purse, raising suspicions of Mr. Todd in the barber shoppe. In the end, he too will bring about the end of Sweeney's "kingdom", using a razor in place of a spear.

The difference, of course, is that rather than becoming a Knight of the Holy Grail, ushering in an era of peace and happiness, Tobias pays a heavy price: utter madness. He is the final victim of Todd's mayhem; when Fogg's Asylum is re-opened (under new management, certainly), Tobias will be the first inmate if he isn't hanged first.

This makes him the most tragic character in the story. He and Sweeney are both men ruined by others' evil, but Tobias' simplicity, gentleness and purity - a purity Todd probably never possessed - render his fate more difficult to take.