Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Where Am I Going?

I just started writing a very downward-spiraling posting. Completely inappropriate for this blog, I realized. More the sort of thing to talk about with a close friend or to write about in my journal than to post for anyone happening by this page to read.

So instead of focusing on things that will only depress me further, how about taking stock of what I am doing and have done.

I sang four concerts in three weeks. Given the dearth of work over the past year, this was a welcome boost.

I am in the process of planning repertoire and structure for my one-man show. Will it be a cabaret act or will it be scripted? Will it draw on autobiographical elements or will it be theme-based? How can I choose pop music that is appropriate for my voice and won't sound like some pathetic self-produced, poorly-advised no-talent? (Oops... let's not slip into negativity there.) There are so many songs that I'd like to sing, and I'd love to nestle opera and art song right up there next to as many different pop styles as I can bring off. Keeping on the up and up with this is a real challenge.

I am well on the way to finding a new agent, and I am always thinking of new ways to create opportunities for myself instead of waiting for City Opera to call again, which, for some reason unknown to me, they have not done and simply may never do.

I have been teaching and coaching on a more consistent basis and I am very, very good at what I do. The challenge for me is to actually turn this talent into a money-making pursuit. Surely I am not SO anti-capitalist that I can't at least make a living!

I have been reworking and revising my three books for children and am taking a course at the New School starting next week on writing children's picture books. These stories are so good; I know that, and yet it's so hard for me to put my work out there to be judged.

Okay, I have aired enough of my dirty laundry for today. I have an audition coming up for a new opera this fall and if I get my shit together, I know I can get the job.

I'll come back tomorrow or the next day with a reinforced sense of myself and my own self-worth. I'll probably take this posting off anyway.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Legendary Met broadcasts

Indisposed and confined at home today, I have been ripping and listening to a variety of music. The two standouts are broadcasts from the Met: a Trovatore from 1961 featuring Leontyne and Corelli coming just eight days after their legendary debuts in that house. The thrill of hearing these two in their respective primes is overwhelming.

Leontyne sings with such scrupulous musicianship and so much less whooping than one normally associates with her. The registers are more firmly knit, though she makes ample use of chest voice, and she does not use that awful measured trill in the last aria that she made such consistent use of almost immediately afterward. Her "D'amor" is by no means the finest I have ever heard from her: neither her ascent to the interpolated high D-flat in or the note itself is quite perfect, but it's still an impressive performance. In general, she is sometimes a little slovenly here and there, but the control of not only the cavatina of the the first act but the cabaletta in the first act aria is remarkable. I always found her handling of coloratura to be a little hit or miss, but she is more on top of it than I have ever heard before, both here and in the cabaletta to the Di Luna duet in the last act. At times she sounds a little at the edge of her resources by her attempts to shape the drama, but altogether, this is an exquisite documentation of an artist who, at her very best, was transcendent.

And Corelli: he is an animal, although he sings a very beautiful "Ah sì, ben mio" followed by a powerhouse "Di quella pira" (which, admittedly is down a half step, but who the f*ck cares. I have never heard a tenor who was particularly well-served by those shakes/trills in the vocal line of this aria; if the high notes come out gleamingly, then the performance is a success. But his singing of "Deserto sulla terra" and the "Miserere" are spot-on and while his mannerisms are also in evidence, anyone who loves Corelli has long ago accepted those quirks, that aggressive yet somehow assiduous musicianship that one hears (at least I do) in his bull-in-a-china-shop Roméo. Not to be vulgar or anything, but for me more than any other tenor, he sounds like sex on a stick. The high D-flat that he and Leontyne sustain at the end of the Act I trio is one of the most thrilling sounds I have ever heard.

The other principals are Irene Dalis and Mario Sereni. Dalis sings her "Stride la vampa" quite cleanly, but she is somewhat wild dramatically: it's an odd dichotomy, and the audience affords her no applause after her aria. I confess I haven't listened to more of her performance, at least not yet.

Mario Sereni was, in my opinion, an exceptionally good singer, and his work here is beyond reproach, and sometimes a good deal more than that. He deserved much more recognition as he deserves a permanent place in the collective memory of opera lovers. But alas, that doesn't happen nearly enough. How short people's memories are.

And Teresa Stratas is the Inez! She sounds very young and her Italian is not idiomatic, but she holds her own in her solo lines and it is quite clearly her!

The other live Met recording I've been enjoying in snippets is a Vespri with Caballé from 1974. The supporting cast is not quite her equal, but she is supreme. All of her big moments, especially the first act scena and the "Arrigo" are breathtaking.

Gedda as Arrigo is better than I thought he would be. That is quite simply an impossible role, and he handles it as well as almost anyone else I have heard. Mind you, I only listened to excerpts.

Aint he (not) looking yummy?

Sherrill Milnes can't hold a candle to Sereni. He is up to his usually vocal tricks, hooking up to his high notes with the most distorted and unpleasant vowels he can possibly summon. Funny that in the early years of their careers, he and Domingo were frequently paired; there was even an RCA issue of "Domingo Conducts Milnes; Milnes Conducts Domingo". Who would have predicted that the tenor would take up the baton more or less for real further down the line? And yet Milnes' star set very, very quickly. In my opinion he never lived up to his promise. Even in 1974 he sounds woolly and not terribly pleasant.

I have not yet listened to Justino Diaz as Procida.

But what a lovely way to spend a sick day!

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Divas of a different stripe

Summer must be upon us... I've laid my opera recordings down for a bit and am listening to pop music again.

I was just poking around online and I found this clip from the 2000 Joni Mitchell tribute.

I just think that Cyndi Lauper is one of the great pop singers of the last fifty years. Of course, I always put myself out on a limb, but I dare anyone to watch this performance of "Carey" from Joni Mitchell's BLUE album (which is without a doubt one of the great achievements in pop music) and tell me that she is not a great singer.

And if that wasn't enough, here is another one who fits into that category. Since I never watch "American Idol", I have no idea when this event occurred, but it was obviously quite recently. I run hot and cold on the song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (I actually think it's one of those songs that I am embarrassed to like) but when it is sung like this, it's incredibly moving.

Sorry, you don't get to see this one, either, but there is still a youtube video of her doing her amazing song "Pavement Cracks"... so enjoy this instead.

Finally, a single clip of my favorite pop singer of all time, the immortal Dusty Springfield. She could, and did, sing it all. From tender to raunchy (c.f. Blind Sheep, Crumbs off the Table), from show-stopping heartbreakers to bubble gum to disco, she was supreme in all she did.
This is a clip from an American TV appearance in what appears to be the late sixties (I have the documentation somewhere): "People Get Ready". She is the epitome of cool and class. Luv hah!

OOPS! I'm running late for meeting a friend for dinner... it's so easy to lose track of time listening to this stuff, isn't it?

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Yesterday's Playlist

I listened to a couple amazing things yesterday while I was working at my desk:

The Julia Migenes Voix Humaine (God, that's twice I've mentioned her in two days; here she is in her element)

A live Toscanini Verdi Requiem from London in 1938 with Milanov, Thorborg, Rosvaenge and Moscona (this was a Testament issue that I borrowed from the Lincoln Center liberry), and another liberry selection:

Suzanne Danco live stuff with Anserment and the Suisse Romande: Britten Les Illuminations, the Falla Canciones orchestrated, Chabrier's La Sulamite (which in my opinion is infinitely more vivid than the Suzanne Mentzer recording), the Battered Broad aria (in Czech, surprising for that era, but not for the ever-fastidious Danco), the Enfant Prodigue aria and the Geneviève scene from Pélleas (does she sing that in the second Ansermet recording with Erna Spoorenberg?) She is amazing, sometimes a little fluttery, but it was never a sensual instrument. Her musicianship and diction are absolutely peerless, though!

Also a REALLY good Erwartung with Sinopoli and Alessandra Marc (aka Judy Borden), of all people! That disc also featured an interesting Pierrot with an Italian soprano named Luisa Castellani who specializes in contemporary music. Highly musical, one of the better versions, up there with Lucy Shelton and Jan de Gaetani and maybe even the sublime Mary Thomas, but not as lurid as any of them.

Sometime soon I will write about my experience performing Pierrot Lunaire, which I am supposed to repeat sometime soon with a major symphony orchestra (but I don't want to put the mouth on it, so I will say nothing more at present!)

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Roberta Alexander

I rediscovered another singer yesterday who has somehow fallen through the cracks of our collective memory.

I remember hearing her Ives and Strauss song recordings in the late eighties and thinking, yes, this is interesting. At the time, her voice and artistry struck me as lacking in freedom and spontaneity.

Having just listened to her recording of Samuel Barber songs yesterday, I wonder what the hell I was thinking back then. Perhaps I have just heard so much lousy singing since that her true worth is only now apparent.

On this recording she projects elegance and profound musicianship, as well as a voice that functions beautifully in all its registers. But even more than that, in a song such as "Bessie Bobtail" that always seemed ineffectual to me, she draws upon great stores of empathy and conviction that make the song devastingly powerful.

Her Hermit Songs also seem faultless. I love Leontyne, as I have said repeatedly here, but she was not always the most scrupulous musician, nor the most... specific... interpreter. But Roberta Alexander gives each song its own character, and she is able to modify her vocal color to convey the ecstasy of "St. Ita's Vision", the desolation of "The Crucifixion", the playfulness of "The Monk and His Cat", the drama of "Sea Snatch" and the profundity of "The Desire for Hermitage." And her sheer vocalism is pristine: St. Ita's high pianissimi, while admittedly not Leontyne-esque, are transcendently beautiful in their own way.

I found a wonderful interview with her that was conducted not quite ten years ago, in which she reveals herself to be a person of great intelligence, sensitivity and wit.

I met Roberta Alexander briefly backstage at the Châtelet when I was singing in Le Luthier de Venise and she was appearing in Peter Eötvös' Angels in America. There was enormous interest surrounding the presence of three divas who had had prominent careers in the eighties and beyond: Julia Migenes and Barbara Hendricks in addition to Roberta. Her music was written in such a guttural way that one assumed that the voice was completely decimated. And yet my friend Derek Ragin, who was also in the cast, told me of sitting in his dressing room and hearing in the hallway a voice singing Mozart that was so pure, so poised, that he couldn't figure out who it was. It was Roberta's voice; and when he complimented her on her vocal state, she said that, sadly, no one was really interested in hearing her sing that music anymore.

Which makes me lament the short-sightedness of this business, when such a magnificent singer simply falls off the map, while her voice still retains much of its former beauty.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Pleasant Surprises

I have been listening to the usual plethora of singers and I have heard a number of things recently that delighted me no end, including the work of a number of artists to whom I had not previously been kindly disposed. To wit:

Kiri Te Kanawa: I always thought it was a beautiful voice, for the most part well-used, but uninvolved to the point of being unartistic. I still don’t think she is the world’s most scintillating singer, but two recordings have caused me to significantly revise my general opinion of her.

The first of these is a live Carmen from Covent Garden, 1973. In many ways, this seems to me the best recording of this opera, live or studio. Shirley Verrett is impeccable musically and a tigress dramatically. Yes, her American-tinged French rankles a bit from time to time, but it does not detract from her overall performance.

Plácido Domingo, a singer whose work I have often found generalized and inspecific, gives the best performance I have heard him give as José (pronounced with an initial ‘H’ here, à l’espagnol). He even manages a piano-ish B-flat at the end of the Flower Song. And the final scene is quite dramatic, even if he does not sing the high B on “démon” which can be so thrilling when someone like Corelli attacks it.

José van Dam is a faultless Escamillo, and this performance is at least as good as any of them he recorded in the studio (which, if I’m not mistaken, he did on four separate occasions (Lombard, Solti, Karajan and the Maazel film). Here his “Si tu m’aimes” is done with such élan and eroticism that it took my breath away. I had to play it three times in a row just to bathe in that sound, and in the way he molds the phrases, so softly and yet with such virility. Yeah, I like him.

And then there is Kiri as Micaëla. She is on the verge of international stardom and she sings the aria with such creamy tone and with such surprising urgency and drama that I would have thought to be reserved for her Elvira (which, in fairness, I’ve never heard, but which I have been assured is thrilling). The voice sails forth with such assurance that I found myself wanting to revisit more of her work. So I put her recording of Les nuit’s d’été on my player. And yes, it sounds just as beautiful as one might have imagined, but what impressed here was her scrupulous musicianship. None of that wallowing around that has become synonymous with French “style” thanks to some recent superstars who shall remain nameless on this site.

So there’s Kiri. Another shocker for me was listening to a live recording of Grace Bumbry’s Norma. I remember her studio recording of the “Casta diva” as being willful rather than plangent, and in truth, that aria is a low point in her performance. She can’t really handle the fioriture of the role, and I don’t think she was the greatest vocal actor to ever take on this part, but her commitment was laudable, and, to my great shock, her high notes were faultless. They rang out with such ping that she sounded like the natural-born soprano I never really thought her to be. Some while back I saw a DVD of a recital she gave at the Châtelet within the past five years or so. The voice was free of the excessive vibrato that has plagued it in the eighties, and once past a somewhat rocky start, she sang with such care and beauty and clarity that would be the envy of singers half her age and more. She learned from Lotte Lehmann the art of singing Lieder vividly (indeed, the recital was a tribute to her former mentor). In addition, her performance of “D’amour l’ardente flamme” (the first time she had ever sung this aria in public!) was beyond all of my expectations. (In the live Norma her Adalgisa was Lella Cuberli, a singer I had never really understood; though her high notes were no match for la Bumblebee’s, her performance was fairly admirable.)

Dawn Upshaw: Another singer I have not been thrilled with in the past, though my friend David assures me that she was unforgettable in Golijov’s Aindamar. I remember hearing a recital early in her career in which she sang, among other things, the John Harbison Mirabai Songs. I also heard a well-worn performance of Britten’s Les Illuminations at Tanglewood within the past five years which I found extremely disappointing. I also did not care much for her Tribute to Jane Bathori recording, though I think she is often quite good in French rep. But on the recommendation of a friend, I decided to listen to her recording of Blitzstein, Bernstein, Sondheim and Weill entitled “I Wish It So”. The title song is one of my favorites and her performance couldn’t hold a candle to Rosemary Clooney’s definitive version from the early sixties, but the rest of the album was a near constant-delight. Her “Saga of Jenny” from Lady in the Dark had personality to burn, as did her “Glitter and Be Gay” where, apart from her adorably humorous performance, she was the complete mistress of its technical demands.

I have always admired Dawn Upshaw for her commitment to the music of contemporary composers, and for the way that she carved out a real niche for herself, though the voice itself is not truly memorable. But the way she inflects a text, the way she, to quote Elly Ameling, “taste[s] the words” makes her immediately identifiable. I understand she recently gave a magnificent “comeback” performance and I hope she is with us for many years to come.

Perhaps most surprisingly for me, I have a new-found adoration for a singer I formerly had held in some degree of disdain: Irmgard Seefried. Yes, she had the mastery of Lieder that only a native German speaker can achieve. But her voice always struck me as relatively colorless, and her technique shamelessly bad. I remember in particular a live performance of “Exsultate jubilate” on a Christmas collection that shocked the bejesus out of me. But I decided to give her one more chance. There are a number of live Salzburg recitals from the late fifties available on the Orfeo d’Or label, and I sampled the Schumann first. It was revelatory. She carried the mantel of Lehmann in the immediacy of her delivery, the insight with which she pointed the texts, the plangency of her tone and the exquisite musicianship. She is often thought of in coupling with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and yet these two singers are polar opposites. To my ear, La Blackhead is so mannered, so calculating in her delivery as to render the music stillborn (though I might even be revising my opinion of her: stay tuned), whereas Seefried is so eager, so astute, so spontaneous. And in song, the limitations of her technique are barely in evidence. I have since listened to her live Wolf recording which is even better. The humor of the Italienisches Liederbuch is enormously difficult to convey. Either it’s too heavy-handed (Thomas Quasthoff, a singer I normally revere, and Angela Denoke in a Carnegie Hall performance with Barenboim several years ago was the most egregious example of this) or it’s so damn cutesy you want to throttle the singer. So Seefried’s insouciance, though by this time it came as no surprise, was a constant delight.

I nearly forgot to mention the real kicker in all of this: On Sunday I happened to hear a 1944 recording of excerpts from the Verdi Requiem conducted by Karl Böhm in which Seefried appeared as the soprano soloist. This seemed like the most egregious bit of miscasting of this part EVER, and that includes Schwarzkopf's two traversals with de Sabata and Giulini (ah, the benefits of being married to the head of a record company). So imagine my surprise to find that Seefried, while hardly idiomatic, delivers a vocally quite secure performance of the "Libera me". I tell you, if I hadn't heard it with my own ears, I wouldn't believe it! Admittedly, the only comparably early recording of hers is her famous live Komponist in honor of Strauss' eightieth birthday (which I must confess I have never heard), but the last thing I expected to hear in her Verdi was a secure top, able to handle both fortissimo and (relatively successfully) a pianissimo B-flat on "Requiem". Just proves I guess that the proof is in the pudding.

Finally, a singer that, amazingly, I used to not “get” in the least, but whose memory I hold in deepest reverence (there really is no other word): Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. My lukewarm opinion of her changed when I heard her recording of the Bach cantata “Ich habe genug”. I never dreamed that someone could surpass Janet Baker’s recording of this in my esteem, and yet Hunt Lieberson did. The depth and desperation and resignation of her performance floored me. There are not nearly enough examples of her work by which to remember her, but this is the supreme one. Also ineffable is the live recording of her husband’s Neruda Songs. The end of the last song actually evoked Das Lied von der Erde for me, and that is the music I want to hear on my deathbed.
Yesterday I got a copy of her Wigmore lunchtime recital from the late nineties. The Mahler Rückert Lieder, two Handel arias and several works by her husband, Peter Lieberson. All of them beautifully conveyed (except the Ariodante aria, which I found too fast and rather messy in a not-good way). But it was the two encores that brought me to tears. Brahms’ “Unbewegte laue Luft” has been a favorite of mine since I heard Elly Ameling’s early recording of it as a youngster. But Hunt Lieberson captures the initial mystery and subsequent rapture of this piece in a way I have never heard before. She dares to take a very slow tempo at the beginning, which allows the music to unfold in a way that suspends time, and makes the transport of the following section that much more moving. And then there is “Deep River”. Of course, now that the singer is no longer with us, it feels as if she is speaking to us from the great beyond. She conveys such peace, such fervency, such sadness and calmness, that words fail me.

And for now, that’s where I will let this rest.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Losing My Callas Virginity

There is nothing I can add to the wealth of material that has been written on Callas (a large of amount of it pure trash, to be sure), so I won’t attempt any overreaching statements or opinions.

The most controversial singer of the last century (and perhaps also the greatest), her voice divided opinion from the very beginning, though her brilliant musicianship and theatrical sense were universally acknowledged. As I wrote a while back here, when I first heard her voice, I thought the LP was pressed off-center.

And yet she fascinated me nonetheless, even before I became a Callas freak (memorizing what she sang, where and when, collecting postcards, studying her recordings) – even before all of this, it was the eyes that haunted me: the cat eyes looking sideways, the hair pulled back, the lips preternaturally red on that otherwise all-white cover of the Lucia stereo remake. That, and her strange, imperfect voice which wove itself around me. I found that there were people, some of them quite aware musically, who found it impossible to get beyond the peculiarities of the voice itself to the profound musical intelligence underneath. I have actually questioned my compatibility with friends and lovers who were not beguiled by Callas.

Of course it is because the voice was imperfect that she was compelled to make her mark in other, subtler ways. Tebaldi and Milanov, for example, possessed instantly recognizable voices as well, but neither one of those was allied with the musical genius of a Callas. Their voices were intrinsically beautiful in a way that Callas’ was not, but she dug deeper because she could not compete in that arena.

It was through her recording of “J’ai perdu mon Euridice” that I first ‘got’ Callas. She embodies Orphée in all his desperation with that instantly recognizable sound, plangent yet bottled. She makes ample use of chest voice, yet is infinitely subtle as well. The tenderness of “C’est ton époux” broke my heart over and over. I simply could not stop listening to this recording. There were other things on that recording of French Opera Heroines that I treasured (the Dalila in particular), yet it was this first cut that held me riveted.

One day in September 1977, my mother looked up from her newspaper and said, “you’ll never guess who died.” Without a single beat, I replied, “Callas.” And she asked if I had heard it on the radio and I said no, I could just tell from the tone in her voice. She didn’t believe me, but it was true.

The next day, a Saturday, was a prayer retreat that I was obligated to attend. Genuinely bereft, if also just a touch melodramatic, I dressed quite ostentatiously all in black. No one else there showed the slightest grief over Callas’ death: those who had heard of her knew her only as Onassis’ mistress. My peers, out of earshot of their parents, referred to her as Maria Cow Ass.

All those children of God, young and old alike, whether they knew who Callas was or not, were in agreement on one thing: my behavior was just more proof that Pastor Ted’s middle son was strange and most likely ungodly, concerning himself with matters that no “normal” Christian cared about. Didn’t the Greeks worship idols, after all? And what about that other opera singer that he was always going on about, that black woman with the big lips and the afro and the weird name?

I found solace alone in my room with Callas as Orphée, who sang of the utmost heartbreak in a melody which, though unremittingly in the major mode, yet conveyed the profoundest sense of alienation and loss.

Another iconic Callas recording for me is the Berlin Lucia. The first time I heard this recording, it was Christmas break of my freshman year of college. My parents moved away from Oshkosh the day after I graduated from high school. I arranged to stay behind with a family from my father’s former church, since I already had two summer jobs lined up and, more significantly, did not want to say goodbye to my high school friends before it was time. So when I returned to Oshkosh at break, my visit had particular poignancy.

One person that I particularly wanted to see was my high school English teacher. In my junior year of high school I had been dangerously depressed: my family had moved a few months before, I had no friends, nor did I know how to make any. Unlike the people around me who should have noticed but were clueless, Gladys recognized that I was in trouble. She took me under her wing and I gradually gained confidence to step less fearfully, more confidently, into the big world beyond my father’s church. It is not exaggerating to say that in so doing, she saved my life.

So I went to Gladys’ on one memorable evening during my Christmas pilgrimage. A few other friends of Gladys’ were visiting, persons I had never met before, which made me a little uncomfortable. Conversation turned to the gift that Gail, Gladys’ daughter-in-law had given her: a live recording of Lucia from Berlin, conducted by Karajan. I did not know the opera all that well, but I knew the mad scene, from the Sutherland recording that, a few years before, I had listened to and vocalized with ad nauseum. Sure Dame Joan is vocally astounding, but with her garbled diction and a voice of a single color, she is a far cry from actually being Lucia. This was the first time I had ever heard a recording of Callas live, and it blew my mind. I was stunned by her daring tightrope walk through the omnipresent musical and vocal pitfalls. When she sang the words “il fantasma” I felt a surge run through my body. I held my breath during her first cadenza with the flute; my eyes rolled back into my head at her “Spargi d’amaro pianto”. By the time she sang that final E-flat, I was overwhelmed yet electrified; I could not even speak.

Gail made a joke about the performance causing me to have an orgasm, which deeply offended my still-puritanical tendencies. She was right, though at the time it didn’t feel like a sexual thing at all. When I lost my virginity nearly a year later, I realized that great singing and great sex evoked a remarkably similar response in me. In both cases, my life changed entirely over the course of a few short moments, relatively speaking. Maybe I really lost my virginity to Callas that night after all.

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