Musical Words: “You’re damn good, Vickers”

The great tenor Jon Vickers has died, age 88. Gramophone has an obituary with the “damn good” quote from Sir Thomas Beecham, as well as a reflection from the much missed critic John Steane about one thing that makes a great singer:  a ‘quality around’ particular aspects of the voice: that golden core of sound that can go from soft to overpowering by seeming to glow brighter rather than merely get louder.

Vickers, with that torrent of sound and extraordinary stage persona, had this quality in spades. Here’s his performance of Otello’s death scene, which gives you a sense of the voice, the sovereign vocal skill and that  wild place–it always feels “outside” to me somehow–that his performances came from.

After that (particularly that staggering “I have a second dagger moment”) you are grateful for the applause and for the calm reasoned voice of Martin Bookspan to bring you back to earth.

Jon Vickers, who died age 88 on July 10, 2015. Pictured here in Les Troyens one of his great roles, with another treasured and much missed artist, Shirley Verrett.

Odd Worlds: Robots in Opera

Possibly a first in alternative casting, Komische Oper Berlin, has built an opera around a robot who is learning about opera.  The Guardian has a video report.

robot_operaAnd there is more info on KOB’s site about the piece, My Square Lady. While you are there, check out the imaginative production of Magic Flute they recently had on. This was staged by the innovative London-based outfit 1927, a group that, among other things, integrates animation and film into live theater. Judging from this Flute, this is an approach that makes for sophisticated theatrical dazzle. Da Ponte (and Brecht too, for that matter) would be pleased I bet.



Die Zauberflöte Trailer from Komische Oper Berlin on Vimeo


30 Days of Opera Tidbits Day 2: G&S and Character

stampContinuing my ( occasional) posting on bite-size intros to opera, today a quick consideration of Gilbert and Sullivan. This refers to a collection of comic operettas written by Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert over about 25 years in the last quarter of the 19th century.  Very topical in their time, these tuneful pieces sent up everything from the “aesthetic” movement of Wilde et al, “A languid love for lilies does not blight me!” confesses the faux aesthete in Patience to  the do-nothing politicians that seem to plague any era, “The House of Peers, throughout the war/Did nothing in particular, And did it very well” (From Iolanthe).

There are all kinds pleasures big and small in the G&S oeuvre worth pointing out, but I’ll keep it to a couple that relate to opera directly, first in re the old debate about words and music. G&S provides an object lesson of how both can work together, a requirement for a successful opera, which is, despite its reputation a theatrical not a purely musical form. There is probably not much profit in trying to analyze of why or how exactly it works (in G&S no less than in Mozart and DaPonte), but somehow when the wedding is successful you hear the narrative, dramatic, and expressive, ideas of the music realized in the words, and vice versa. The whole gains moral force some how. There is also the need for attention to the sounds of the words as a aspect of the music in itself, something which Gilbert managed, while also managing to let off quite a lot of comic firecrackers.

In capsule: in opera, ideally words and music work together, melding meaning as well as sound.

Then to character: The other thing that G&S shares with opera is the use of an aria to introduce and illuminate a character. (This is not unique to opera, Shakespeare has “aria” like introductions for some characters, and movies and plays introduce characters, whether simple ‘types’ or more nuanced. Sondheim’s <em>Into the Woods</em> does this almost schematically, something thrown into unfortunate relief by the recent film.)

However, opera gets some special kung-fu from the opportunity it offers a protagonist to come out on stage, say “welcome to me!” and proceed to show his or her vocal and theatrical stuff. To wit (chosen from many good examples):

Kevin Kline in the Public Theater’s production of The Pirates of Penzance from the late 70s; he certainly offers a winning self-introduction!

The Met in HD and Regional Opera

The old Met, back B.D. (before digital), the mother ship for opera in the U.S.
The old Met, back B.D. (before digital), the mother ship for opera in the U.S.
We are in the thick of the opera season, and one way you know that is that the Met radio broadcasts (which have been around since 1920) and the Met in HD theater simulcasts, that started in 2006, are going full swing.

If you haven’t heard of the Met in HD, it is a successful effort by the media savvy general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb, to get the Met to a wider audience. On selected Saturday afternoons, 12 this season, the opera is also transmitted live to movie theaters, in a way that is both screen friendly, that is, with hosts and interviews, but also manages to relay some of the vibe of attending the real thing. All this happens for the price of a $20-30 ticket. There are also repeat showings, and the videos are made available online via a subscription service, on DVD, now on Amazon Prime, and even once in a blue moon on PBS, which is pretty allergic to opera these days.

I’ve caught a bunch of the Met HD performances and am looking forward to The Merry Widow next weekend (even though the reviews are not particularly glowing). In DC where they show at a couple of theaters it’s sometimes so packed you have to get there way early—at least in Bethesda, and the behavior of the crowd has some of the pleasures and plagues of the actual Met Opera attendees. Dressing in evening clothes for a Saturday movie is one odd vestige. Looking back over the five or six I’ve attended, the only place where I really saw a mostly young crowd was State College, PA, a university town.

The Dilemma
But in any case, people are going, and in droves. This has raised a question: is the Met in HD, for all the theatrical pleasures it offers and its democratizing spirit, eroding the audience for regional opera companies in the U.S. and abroad? It’s a hard question to answer with complete confidence–by some measures live performing arts audiences across multiple, although not all, categories are declining, and opera audiences–although we are loud and ardent–are not all that substantial a percentage in the first place.

Even if, definitely linking the advent of the MetHD simulcasts to audience decline is probably not possible, you certainly hear anecdotes to this effect. The Telegraph music writer Rupert Christensen has noted this phenomena and I heard about a town in Canada that used to organize bus trips to a larger city for people who wanted to attend live opera, but once the small town got the Met in HD nobody signed up.

If you grant the premise, that the MetHD (and the reality that we have more content at the push of a button than ever before a non-stop 24/7 amount of classical programming from Sirius/XM and Medici) is killing off at least some regional opera, I think that may be okay.

That’s apostasy, I realize, and my argument goes back a bit for context: In the 19th century, opera–like other performing arts events–was mostly available in the U.S., if at all, through touring companies that traveled from venue to venue. Big stars and companies were the ones traveling from town to town (or in some cases across oceans see Fellini’s magical “And the Ship Sailed On” for a taste of this) and venues in each town formed a network of presenters. It really was the venue that formed the main nodes in the network.

These mostly weren’t opera companies in the modern sense. Although, the Met the oldest company in the U.S. dates from 1883, and there was some activity in New Orleans before that, the notion of home-grown regional production of opera (or regional theater for that matter) is a 20th century phenomena, one that grew vibrantly in the middle part of the century. In part this is thanks to the business model of the subscription season which provided enough money to plan ahead. (The subscription was invented in Chicago by an enterprising publicist named Danny Newman, for many years associated with Lyric Opera of Chicago, which was and is a very successful example of a regional opera company.) Organizations with a subscriber base, a venue, and some year around artistic and administrative staff became the norm.

The narrative about these local opera companies is heart-warming: “look, we’ve got opera in [fill in the blank with a mid-size city] and singer [blank] started here and still returns.” But, and this is said with deep respect for what a difficult and expensive art form this is to present, the results were widely uneven. If, as Placido Domingo has quipped, opera is like vocal Olympics, and it is, small companies were tasked with putting on the Olympics three or four times a year for a few days, providing jobs and entertainment it must be granted. (That the Met, Vienna Opera, Covent Garden and Paris Opera have to do it every night for 8 months is too crazy making to think about.)

The productions these regional opera companies gave were local franchises of a national brand called “opera.” They drew often, not invariably, from the same pool of singers (that is good singers but who were affordable, plus the occasionally higher tier star or two, supplemented by young artists on their way up), they did the same operas, generally pulling from the top 20 most popular, and relied on the artistic staff and materials–be that directors, sets, costumes, etc. that were shared and rented to and fro. (When I was going to a lot of regional opera for work, you could see the same set pop up in city after city. It happened last year with WNO’s Elixir, a set I saw first a decade and a half ago in San Diego.)

This “franchise” approach wasn’t characteristic of every company, and what regional companies provided was far from uniformly bad. But bad or good, it has been deeply disrupted by technology and digital distribution—as surely as Amazon has disrupted the book business. The Met in HD is only the most obvious sign of this disruption, but it’s not the only one and it’s not going away, any more than Amazon is.

The Amazon analogy has its weaknesses—if you ordered Dublinesque from Amazon or if you bought it from Borders, you do after all get the same book. Whereas if you want a live experience, the movie theater is only sort of live, whereas the in-person opera house performance is. But the question is complicated by cost—Merry Window is going to be $24, and isn’t otherwise on this season in DC or Boston, the places I work and live, and if it were, it’s not likely to include the participation of Renée Fleming, Nathan Gunn, and Susan Strohman. Instead, it might well have a cast that comes together relatively quickly to put on a show at a professional but not a distinctive standard and then scatters to travel to the next gig.

Regional opera is stuck with this dilemma, not every company or every production, but enough to ask whether it’s reasonable to expect their audience to come to productions of operas on the HD schedule. If the heart of your artistic product is something that is available down the street—in a similar enough experience–at significantly cheaper cost and at higher quality level, why should people go? A new network provides multiple ways to get a good, if people exploit that network instead of remaining loyal to your version, it seems to me useless to go “bad network!” and gnash teeth. That’s what tech innovation often does, it disrupts! More profitable is to ask: what need could we fill now? and what does this mean for the future?

The first question seems to me the easier one to answer, and some opera companies are doing so–that is, offering something that the Met, and more generally, the digital network isn’t going to do, and do it with some a locally-responsive (locavore opera, if you will) artistic and administrative approach. In some cases, these are things opera companies have often offered, but doing them conceptualized in a new way–premieres that relate to local stories, engagement with young artists, community outreach that is two-way–where the community influences the company and vice-versa. But it does require two things: putting to rest the last vestiges of a long-lost touring tradition, where big stars blow through town, do their party piece and leave. “Pearls to the provinces” has to go.

The other thing that has to go is the implicit and related “it’s all about the big shows” mentality. That means, to put it crassly, if your education and outreach is ultimately about building audience for your main stage “franchise” productions, you are doing it wrong way around. Your education goals—and community goals—should drive your main stage activity. This probably means that a company will be organized around something other than “the national franchise” no “top 20 operas” focus, but rather take an alternate path. Opera Layfayette in Washington and NYC has done this by mining true rarities. (And we’re not talking Rossini’s “La Donna Del Lago,” here, but rather Félicien David’s “Lalla Roukh”.) There are other ways I’m sure are being cooked up in opera—it is an artform remarkable for reinventing itself. Some of those ways probably involve digital learning, after all Peter Gelb isn’t the only one allowed to be technically innovative!

It may be that for some companies, it’s just finding graceful ways to wind down, and to accept that at least in the present form that are not needed. But I honestly think shifts–and the preservation of jobs–are very possible, maybe even likely. I would point to bookstores like Politics and Prose or Brookline Booksmith that have responded to destruction of one aspect of the bookstore eco-system by Amazon by becoming part of a new eco-system of bookstore as community organization.

The other, and to me more challenging question is what this does to “place.” In essence, the MetHD does embody that horrid phrase “the world is flat.” The Met is all over the place now, and as digital networks further infiltrate everybody’s life and choice of what they do with their time, the one-time status of having a venue (and its corollary the subscription series) is not long for this world. Something that is no doubt being tossed around at this weekend’s Arts Presenters conference. Sipping loose of venues is already occurring in arts presentation—in DC we’ve got classical things, which some critics sniff at, in a synagogue cum community center. In Boston, there’s an enterprising group doing house concerts with string quartets and the like. And in a very real sense, the “venue” now often means digital space, fed by a digital product, be that a movie theater, the iPad, the phone, Google Glass, god knows what’s next. That may excite you or freak you out–or just make you tired, but to pretend that it doesn’t exist seems ridiculous. Given enough computer savvy and willingness to pay for subscriptions—not insignificant issues, I grant—you can get as much opera as you ever could in the history of the world. That world may not yet have arrived at your doorstep as an arts professional or an arts goer, but it will, so might as well embrace it, and turn to some–however wary–embrace, rather than resistance.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 29, The “seance” of music history

A TLS review of a new music book caught my eye, as it began, “Everything you know about the history of popular music is, in the view of Greil Marcus, most likely wrong.”

Paul Genders follows with a nice precis of Marcus’ argument:

[The] official, non-secret history referred to is the strictly chronological one: of jazz, blues and country giving rise to Elvis Presley, who gave rise to The Beatles, who changed everything – and the evolution has continued, with next year’s sounds emerging out of this year’s, in neat linear fashion. The problem is, of course, that the music itself doesn’t work nearly as prosaically as that narrative suggests. A great piece of popular music is less a “progression of the form” from an earlier work than a “rediscovery of a certain spirit”, or even a “step out of time”; this is an artistic medium best understood not as a sequence of forward manoeuvres but as “a drama of direct and spectral connections” between performers at different moments in history. We have “no reason to be responsible to chronology”, says Marcus, when considering something that moves as mysteriously as rock ’n’ roll.

I love this, and would only add that it’s as true of “classical” music as it is of rock ‘n’ roll. Although the time span goes on a little longer, the official history is still peddling a similar progression: baroque, to classical, to romantic schools, with Beethoven, who gave rise to Wagner, who “changed everything” serving as Elvis and the Beatles.

In fact, progression in music– maybe in any art form?–isn’t ‘forward’ –it’s multidimensional, and performers and composers are always waging restoration and revolution on their predecessors and successors. Does Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre” sound old or new? Is it still new primitive or is it old primitive now? Or consider his once derided opera “The Rake’s Progress,” which converses spectrally with Hogarth, Auden, Kalman, classical and bel canto musical forms, mid-20th century harmony, and, among others, via the medium of Dawn Upshaw, one of the great singers of yet another era.

Here is her performance of the soliloquy, “No Word From Tom,” at once an old-fashion scene and aria, and music that could have been written yesterday or tomorrow.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 28, In Praise of One Own’s Time (2)

Rosa Ponselle, considered the greatest soprano of the 20th century. She was no Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient,

Longing for the “good ole days” is particularly prevalent in opera. I’ve come to see such nostalgia as silly, even corrosive in large amounts. After all, “the end [of opera] has always been nigh,” as Rupert Christiansen put it in a recent issue of Opera, going on to point out that “in 1834, Richard Mount Edgcumbe was unmoved by Pasta or Malibran and complained that he ‘never expected to hear again…any new music, or new singers, that will make me amends for those which are gone’; in 1906 (considered the heart of one of opera’s many golden ages), W.J. Henderson was lamenting ‘that the race of beautiful singers is diminishing with every year, and in its place there is growing up a generation of harsh, unrefined, tuneless shouters.” Guess that included Ponselle, who was 6 in 1905, Caruso, who was at the height of his powers, Claudio Muzio, Farrar, Journet, McCormack, et al and many more. Now of course these singers are dubbed the best who ever lived, and used to spank the current crop as, “tuneless unmusical shouters” or worse.

Well, there are spectacular talents in our midst; here is one I heard just recently at the Kennedy Center, the young South African soprano Pretty Yende, getting her coloratura on in a Rossini scena.
She is a natural on stage, totally communicative, and it’s also remarkable that her voice is not only fluent and supple, but huge. (Coloratura sopranos often trade agility for tonal richness and full sound, Yende, like many of the greats she is compared with and may well take a place beside, has both). She also communicates things via singing that you don’t get any other way, and believes every moment.

Oh, and she’s 29.

30 Days of Musical Tidbits: Day 23, Magda Olivero

The cult of the operatic diva is one of the things that makes outsiders to opera a little curious (or put off, even). Although smitten in my past with certain singers, I am mostly past that stage, for better or worse. By midlife, you sort of find yourself saying, “they don’t make divae like they used to.” Even if this is perhaps not an entirely bad thing, when one of the genuine articles departs, it’s something to note.

The soprano Magda Olivero was one of these inimitable ones. She died this September at age 104, and Ira Siff captures what she was all about in his Opera News appreciation, well worth reading. Here is an excerpt from his tribute, describing her Met debut at an age when many opera singers are long since out to pasture in Bloomington or some such place.


But it was not until 1975, at the instigation of her great admirer Marilyn Horne, that the Met finally invited Magda Olivero for three performances as Tosca. She made her debut soon after her sixty-fifth birthday. Although the audience was wildly demonstrative, this was no mere nostalgia event. After a few minutes to warm up and conquer nerves, Olivero’s voice was astonishingly fresh, shedding decades by Act II. At the second performance, this listener was treated to the most touching, spectacularly sung “Vissi d’arte” of his experience. During Act III, Olivero’s ascent to a spectacular, lengthy high C and plunge down two octaves into chest voice on the line “Io quella lama” earned her a spontaneous ovation. This old-school audience response was inspired by the artist’s old-school stage deportment; it was an evening that, in the best sense, turned back the clock whenever she was onstage. Olivero’s total belief in the reality of the drama prevented her performances from ever being reduced to shtick. And her prodigious technique and breath control spoke of a bygone era, but one in which she was unique among veristas, none of whom matched her vocal capabilities.

You can find a pirate of the Vissi d’arte in question online, as well as the NYTimes notice.

Oddly, I found this bit of “The Cherry Duet” from L’Amico Fritz from some Italian TV show more touching, not least for the smile in her voice that her sweet toned tenor evokes.

It’s all a bit odd, and not voices that you’d cast today; (nor would you hear an opera duet on a general interest TV show for that matter.) But you feel with her, and with him too, that you know a bit about them through their singing, and that bit you know is authentic.

30 Days of Music Tidbits, Day 10, Handel Singing to Remember

“Front page Ariodante.”  via Wikimedia Commons.

For today: British mezzo Sarah Connolly singing “Scherza Infida” from Handel’s “Ariodante.” This was one of those recordings that seeks you out. Connolly had sung for “The Sixteen,” Harry Christopher’s elite chorus, and then started a solo career, which has become pretty starry. This early solo recording of hers–about 12 years old now–garnered great favor in Gramophone. I heard this cut from it excerpted on the demo CD they used to send. And I found myself playing it over and over…something I haven’t done for years, then got the full CD, which I have played over and over since then.

Something about her ardor and restraint is so very British, and so very moving…

Don Giovanni Online

The London Telegraph is streaming the 2010 Glyndebourne Don Giovanni, with, among others, Gerald Finley and Luca Pisaroni. Not too shabby!

Although not as hard to book as Bayreuth, Glyndebourne is one of those nearly mythical destinations for opera lovers, so this is a real treat.

It’s only available until 7/13 (although snippets have been around YouTube).

The autograph of Don Giovanni, one of the three incomparable works that Mozart created with Da Ponte.