Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Another one...

Another great artist has transitioned to another plane: Ingmar Bergman.

God! I think the first Bergman I saw was Smiles of a Summer Night. I did not realize until years later that Sondheim's Little Night Music was based on that near-perfect film. Now, I like Sondheim (after many many years of not getting him) and I like Night Music, but it is a completely different experience than the film. And for me, the film is only one among his many peerless masterpieces.
I've seen some bad Bergman, too, but most directors wish they could make movies as good as Bergman's worst. (Maybe I should withhold that comment until after I have seen The Serpent's Egg!)

In fact, I have not seen every Bergman film. Not even close. But I have seen many of his early ones (I believe the earliest I've seen is Sommarlek (or Summer Interlude, as it is sometimes translated) and I saw his last one, Saraband, which reunites the characters of Scenes from a Marriage thirty-odd years after their divorce. The former is really good, even memorable, but not great, the latter is his final masterpiece, absolutely breath-taking. And I've seen many if not all of the great ones in between. Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, The Seventh Seal, The Magician, the great trilogy from the early sixties (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence, the last of which I was privileged to see on the big screen at the Berlinniale two years ago... it was fucking amazing), Persona, Autumn Sonata. But my favorite of all has got to be Cries and Whispers. It is as great as anything by Ibsen, anything by any of the greatest Scandinavian artists, by any artist of any time.

I can't even describe it. I don't want to try. You just gotta see it. You owe it to yourself. You owe it to the memory of a supreme artist.

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Life in the Big City

I had the most extraordinary day on Friday. Merriam-Webster online offers these definitions of the word extraordinary:

1 a : going beyond what is usual, regular, or customary b : exceptional to a very marked extent c of a financial transaction : NONRECURRING

All three definitions apply.

On my trip back uptown from one of my weekly standing appointments, I rode in a very crowded subway car. I had my backpack on, looped through both arms. It's a very snazzy backpack. Coach. Leather. Very attractive. Normally I only loop it through one arm; I can keep a closer eye on it this way and it also occupies less room during rush hour. But that day I was trying to read a book and I needed both hands. At one point someone bumped into my backpack and I rearranged myself.

On my short walk home, I reached into the exterior zipper pockets to extract my keys and discovered that both zipper pockets had been unzipped. I knew that they had been zipped, so I realized immediately that I had been pickpocketed. I rummaged through the pockets to ascertain what was missing. My cell phone was still there, my checkbook was still there. My wallet was in the zippered leg pocket of my cargo shorts. So what was actually missing? My glucometer (I'm diabetic) and my keys. And the thing about my keys was this: on my way out the door to my appointment, I could not find my own set of keys. After looking for several minutes, I grabbed the extra set of keys from the desk drawer.

Here is what is on my regular key ring, the one that I left behind in the apartment: a mailbox key, the only one we have, and a full set of keys to my friend David's apartment (which is still my legal address).

David is in London at the moment and I am charged with bringing in the mail and checking the apartment every few days.

Okay, so I was robbed, but all they had taken was the extra set of apartment keys and my glucometer. They might have thought it was a blackberry or something, since it's in a case. And the extra set of keys was in a little pouch that looked like a coin purse. So they probably thought they were getting a lot more than they actually got.

I arrived at the apartment remarkably calm. I had assessed the losses, and was amazed at my relative good fortune: no credit cards or stolen checks to deal with, no irreplaceable keys lost, no cell phone lost, no wallet stolen, no money of any kind lost. This kind of theft simply doesn't HAPPEN in Manhattan. Such events are major catastrophes. This was Robbery Lite.

I just had to get the extra set of keys from the super. I couldn't find the super. I rang his bell and he did not answer. He started work just a few weeks ago, so I hadn't programmed his number into my phone. I wasn't even positive what he looked like. But there was a man standing outside the building; I asked him if he was the super and he said no and I explained my situation to him and asked if he would let me into the building. Amazingly, he consented. (I guess it's a good thing I'm not a young African American male or I would have had the cops on me.) I decided to just check each floor to see if the super was lurking somewhere. I hit the fourth floor and sure enough, I saw a refrigerator going through an apartment door. Ah-ha! There he was. He asked me even more questions, and rightly so. I said to him, when we open the apartment door, a big black dog will come barrelling out and you will be able to tell from her response to me that I belong there. Phoebe was there and corroborated my identity with her usual yelps, caught somewhere between ecstasy [you're back!] and desperation [where have you been?].

I made a few calls and my glucometer was in the mail, replaced completely free of charge. (What a blessing insurance can be; it would have cost me more than a few shekels to replace.) I said to myself, "Self," I said, "someone was really watching out for you back there."
Oh, and the kicker: my full set of keys was right there on the dining room table, right where I thought they were, right where they most definitely were not when I had been looking for them earlier. "Self," said I...
* * * *
A few hours later, I was to meet friends for one of the final performances of the revival of 110 in the Shade.

(A little aside on 110: when I think about it, the story's very much like La fanciulla del West, except that Lizzie (Minnie) does not go off with Starbuck (Dick Johnson) at the end, but stays behind with File (Jack Rance). The Jack Rance stand-in is a much nicer guy in this version. How un-Puccini-like! But the essential plot points are virtually the same, down to Lizzie bargaining with the sheriff to let the outlaw go free.)

I had been advised by David that I simply had to see this show. He had seen it in previews and then again just a few weeks ago, and he waxed rhapsodic over Audra McDonald. I am a fan anyway, and we tend to have quite similar taste in things musical and theatrical, so I knew I was in for a treat. However, when he wrote the following to me after seeing the show the second time, I thought he was being excessive:
"At the end of the show I was thinking that I never saw Callas or Bernhardt,
but I have been lucky enough to see Audra McDonald.
That's how good she is."

Guess what? He wasn't exaggerating. It was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. I went off on my own ecstatic response a few days later when I wrote to my teacher (who is also Audra's teacher):

"Audra last night was radiant. Out of this fucking world. David was not far off. One does not see this sort of performance very often in one's lifetime. She had the guts to do the "Old Maid" song that ends the first song expressionistically, barely singing it. The rage and longing came from her true center, way beyond her actual singing voice. And the end was so joyous. The audience went completely crazy. So did I. Just thinking about it now makes me smile. More than smile. [It still does.] I see why David was so beside himself when he saw it the second time. The rest of the cast was very good too, especially John Cullum as the father and the guy playing Starbuck, who evidently did not get good reviews. I thought he was just perfect, actually. The guy playing File, the sheriff, was a good actor, but that singing voice was excruciating, out of tune and unfocused. I hope he was sick, but evidently he's been more or less like this throughout. But who cares? This wasn't about him!"

The success of the show rides on the Lizzie, and Audra had moments I will simply never forget. Of course "Raunchy" was show-stopping, even better than it had been on the Tonys telecast, but it was the little moments that told the most. Her transformation from homely to radiant happened entirely in her face. All Starbuck did was let down her hair; the magic, again, came from within. Every so often one sees something that one will simply never forget, that can never be surpassed. I saw Vickers do Tristan and Otello, I saw Stratas as Suor Angelica, I saw Cotrubas as Mimi, I saw Quasthoff sing Winterreise, I saw Lois Smith in Trip to Bountiful, I saw Vanessa Redgrave as Lady Torrance in Orpheus Descending (twice!). I've seen a handful of other things that matched those. And this was one of them. I think she should be dubbed "The Duse of Broadway" in the same way that Muzio was known as "The Duse of Song."
So even on the day that I was robbed on the subway, I was still grateful to be a New Yorker. Sometimes it still does feel to me like the greatest city in the world!

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Days past/Days to come

I have been asked to put more recordings on here of singers that I have referenced in earlier postings.

I will be very happy to do so in the near future. Right now, I am newly home from the anniversary party, which was a trip, to say the least. A trip down memory lane and a few other places as well, but on the whole, a positive experience, and eye-opening, as every visit to my family proves to be.

My younger brother has his camera constantly at the ready, and he captured some pretty wonderful photos. These may not mean anything to people who don't know me or my family, but I'm going to post two or three of them anyway.

Enjoy. I promise that you will enjoy those recordings even more. I have so many things I want to share!

My parents

The three brothers

The five siblings

My brother Jonathan and me

And my personal favorite:
"The Gundlach females" (as my mother calls them): my sister Diane, my sister-in-law Mary Kay, my sister Sarah, and my sister-in-law Sharon (each captured in her full essence)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Happy Anniversary!

My parents are celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary tomorrow. I am here in Milwaukee at my brother's. Each of their children has been asked to "say a few words" in honor of the occasion. As Jonathan and I discussed it, all I could think of were either excruciatingly painful memories or ridiculing, slightly disdainful reminiscences. My childhood was not what I would call a happy one. Growing up gay in a household that veered so exaggeratedly to the right that it's amazing the whole thing didn't tip over, I lived in fear that my minister father would damn me to eternal hellfire. I suffered from being never understood, never nurtured in ways in which I needed to be nurtured, never valued or treasured for who I was. Hardly appropriate material for such an occasion.

I finally decided that I was just going to turn the whole thing into a big joke. I was pretty surprised when I sat down at my computer to write it out and this came out instead:

When my paternal grandparents celebrated their fiftieth anniversary twenty-eight years ago, I remember thinking to myself, jeez, are these people OLD! Just yesterday I sat in a restaurant with my parents and my niece, telling Laura stories about Miss Lisius, the Jewel Tea man, and Frieda’s heroic efforts in the summer of 1973; my beloved grandmother who would be ninety-nine if she were with us today. These and so many other memories, be they vignettes or monumental events, have long since taken their place in our family lore. I imagined myself in Laura’s shoes, listening to these stories that occurred years before she was even born. She was probably thinking to herself: jeez, are these people OLD!
For a person who has been thirty-five for quite some time now, I find it hard to wrap my mind around the passage of time. I see my mother and father in front of me today and I am amazed that they have aged at all, since in essence they are very much the same people they have always been, the same parents that I have loved all these years. Those incremental changes from week to week that one barely notices one’s self appear more jarring to me since we only see each other a few times a year. In my mind’s eye we are all still the same as we were in 1971. Reading over some of Dad’s old Christmas letters yesterday (whose parenthetical glories we all remember with such… strong feelings), I was struck by how clearly our destinies were written even then. Those images were sketched very early, but the etching of all of these age lines has rendered those drawings deeper and more subtle with the passage of time.
So today we not only celebrate fifty years of Ted and Jane’s married life, but we also acknowledge all the past experiences that formed us and them. We laugh, cry and ruminate over memories that both delight and haunt us. And we bow before the very passage of time itself. I am in wonder and awe that these two very different people have shared such a rich lifetime, that they created and shaped the lives of five very different children, that they now delight in a new generation of their children’s children. (Sorry to let you down on that one, but some of my other siblings have more than made up for that!)
Time passes. There’s no escaping that. But perhaps it’s not something we should even attempt to escape. Without the passage of time our lives would have no perspective. Without the passage of time we would have no memories to treasure. Without the passage of time, our relationships would not evolve, mature and deepen. And without the passage of time we would not be here celebrating our love for these two people and their shared lifetime of love.

I guess I'm going to live through this after all!

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Thank you, Jerry

...and thanks to each of you wonderful people who wrote with your own tributes to him. I was profoundly moved to read them, and I'm sure others reading this blog will have the same response.

Those of us who suffered with/from depression know what havoc this can wreak on our lives. As a friend said to me last night, we must support each other so that we never fall into that deep pit of despair ourselves.

There are artists the memory of whose tragic lives often threatens to take precedence over their artistry: Judy Garland, Piaf, Billie Holiday, Callas, and others. And those who died nobly but too young are not exempt from these either: Ferrier, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Lipatti, among others. And those others who also ended their lives by their own hands: Saramae Endich, Marie Collier, and Susannah McCorkle, about whom I was just writing the other day. And yet in the end, one wants these people to be remembered for their supreme and unique artistry. Jerry represents the very best among his generation of tenors and I hope he will always be remembered this way.

I was just writing to another friend this morning about some of my favorite memories of Jerry. One day he and I took a U-Haul out to Jersey to pick up some furniture that a friend of ours was buying from another friend who was moving away. We had the most rollicking good time. I remember he backed the van into the mailbox as he was maneuvering onto the driveway. Loading up the van was somehow uproariously funny as well. And afterward, we sat at the GWB for ages waiting for the backup, and just talked and talked about anything and everything.

I don't quite have the heart to post a clip of his singing right now, but I have Lipatti's performance of the Schubert G-flat impromptu that I will put here instead. This is from his last recital in Besançon, 16 September 1950. Leukemia felled him less than three months later. Here is an almost desperate lyricism, the summoning of waning strength to share one last moment of Schubert's poetry. I think it's a fitting tribute to Jerry, and to all those other artists whom we have lost before their time.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Jerry... if we had only known

What a blow yesterday to read of Jerry Hadley's botched-but-probably-soon-to-be-successful suicide attempt. To say that I am crushed and devastated would be an understatement.

Jerry was a friend of mine. A few years ago as he was revamping his repertoire he coached some of his roles with me: Cavaradossi, Faust (Damnation de Faust), Pinkerton. These last two he had done frequently, but at the time Cavaradossi was still new for him. What an honor it was for me to work with him. What was even more amazing to me was his humility and his willingness to take my suggestions and run with them.

Yeah, he was a tortured soul. But he didn't wear it on his sleeve. He was such an affable guy. And frighteningly intelligent. He knew absolutely everything there was to know about the Civil War and he would regale people with it as long as he held the floor. (Kind of the way that I can go on and on about singers and singing if I feel like I have somebody's ear.)

Long before I even met Jerry, there were stories going around in the business (and if I was privy to them, then they were hardly secrets) that in spite of his continuing success (this was in the mid-nineties) that he was dissatisfied and unfulfilled in his life. And there had been such a slew of setbacks for him in recent years. The public ones we know about; the personal ones can only be guessed at by those who didn't know him.

>I could get up on my soapbox and talk about what a cruel business this is; that someone can be on top of the world at one moment and a piece of dog shit on the sidewalk the next. I have had this experience repeatedly myself, albeit on a much lesser level ('s-Hertogenbosch, Stuttgart, Paris and other places as well) and it's no fun. And if one is plagued by perpetual self-doubt, as both Jerry and I were/are, it's not such an easy thing to laugh off.

Someone I was speaking to about this yesterday said: What a selfish thing for him to do. And yes, suicide is often seen as the ultimate narcissistic act. But part of that is because it's just too scary for the survivors to try and get into the head of the person who has done this unspeakable thing. Frankly, there are a lot of people in this business who should be feeling hugely guilty right now for the way they treated him.

I am reminded of Susannah McCorkle, that beautiful jazz singer who also suffered from crippling depression and who, after a particularly public professional slap in the face, committed suicide. I was haunted by her death for months. Those who have not experienced this depth of depression just can't understand what would drive a person to do this. And intelligence and the powers of reasoning are nothing against this torture.

The only way one can do justice to those great artists whose lives end tragically or in suicide is to remember their contribution to our lives, how, putting all demons aside, they managed to bring us joy, sadness, beauty: the whole range of human experience. Life isn't all tragedy; we should remember primarily the happiness Jerry brought, both to his public and to his friends. We need to fight for joy as best we can.

Jerry Hadley the Artist I will remember as one who sang with such taste, musicality, scrupulousness. His operetta recordings are possibly the best we've heard from an American tenor ever. And his performances in the lyric tenor repertoire, Mozart especially, are to be treasured. The guy Jerry Hadley that I am going to remember is beautifully captured in the photo below. Pure joy, in spite of all that other crap: this was the essence of Jerry.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Fairy From the Ice

I gave a friend a recording of Eidé Noréna the other day; he had never heard of her and asked me to write a blog entry about her. I am all too happy to acquiesce, first of all because it allows me to put off other work, and second because she is one of the greatest singers I have heard and surely one with one of the most unusual career trajectories. Which fact is, of course, of great comfort and inspiration to the likes of me!

Karoline Hansen was born in Oslo in 1884. She made her debut in 1904 as Amor in Orfeo. She made a few recordings under this name for Pathé, but for all intents and purposes it was a provincial career through WWI and beyond. We are told that the voice was small and unremarkable. I have not heard these early recordings, so I cannot comment.

She married a famous Norwegian actor named Egel Eide and began singing under the name Kaja Eide. Eide (Egel, that is) proved to be greatly instrumental in perfecting her acting style, which was consistently remarked upon.

She received vocal advice from Nellie Melba, not a singer celebrated for her generosity toward other singers, sopranos in particular. Thus armed with some fragments of technique taught to Melba by her legendary teacher, Mathilde Marchesi, Kaja Eide completely reworked her technique with Raimund von zur Mühlen until she had achieved a voice of great purity and evenness, but also one strong enough to sustain the great dramatic intent she brought to her singing.

Eide Norena (for she had by now changed her name one last time), made a Scala debut at age forty as Gilda under Toscanini. The same year she sang at Covent Garden and eventually sang in Chicago, Salzburg, Amsterdam and eventually the Met (there is, in fact, a broadcast recording extant of her Juliette in Roméo et Juliette with Charles Hackett from 1935, two years before her retirement at age 55). Her career, however, was centered in Paris (hence the accents aigus often added to her name).

The range of her roles was extraordinary: Ophélie, Butterfly, Blondchen, Desdemona, the Queen of Shemakha in Le coq d'or, Mathilde in Guillaume Tell, Violetta, Liu, Antonia in Contes d'Hoffmann, Mimi, Marguerite, Nedda. She held her own against Martinelli's Moor, Thill's Don José and Maria Nemeth's Turandot. She clearly possessed an extraordinary technique to be able to conquer such a wide range of repertoire make an impression next to such huge voices. At the end of her career, she made a recording of Handel's "Care selve" from Atalanta which is at least the equal of the celebrated recording of Alma Gluck and the less well-known version by Florence Quartararo (who will, I hope, be the subject of my next entry).

How can I possibly choose one or two recordings to share of this singer, whom the always hyperbolic André Tubeuf referred to as une fée des glaces (a fairy from the ice).

All right, I'll pick if I have to: in tribute to her Norwegian heritage, I offer her recording of "Våren" by Edward Grieg and Pamina's aria from La flute enchantée (for, like so many of her recordings, it's sung in French). You can hear the vulnerability, the beauty and the great inner strength of this singer. Eide Norena, Eidé Noréna, Eidé Norena: I don't care how it's spelled. Hers is some of the most perfect singing (whatever that means) on record: exquisitely inflected, clearly articulated, informed by a great technique and a deep commitment to the drama.

I'm looking for more photos; she was clearly a beautiful, glamorous woman.

God, I wish I had room to post her Liu as well. Or her Juliette. Or her Violetta. Well, perhaps some other time. If I get any requests...

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Friday, July 6, 2007

Ma belle amie est morte

I am getting sick of paying tribute to the greats. I love singing their praises, but it breaks my heart observing their passing. What a week of loss for lovers of great singing. First Bubbles and now Régine Crespin. As I wrote to a friend earlier, in the course of a few days we lose the quintessential American soprano and now the quintessential French soprano.

This is a singer I loved like few others. She had enormous reserves of power but her singing always had delicacy and a certain Gallic élan that few non-native French speakers ever muster (of course I except Maggie Teyte and Mary Garden). I was privileged to be able to see her when I was young as Madame de Croissy in Dialogues of the Carmelites (and yes, it was in English) on the Minneapolis stop of the Met tour. Her performance was riveting, perhaps surpassed in my experience only by Teresa Stratas as Suor Angelica (what is it with these divas and nuns?) One really felt that she was going through the death agonies. I only hope that, unlike her Croissy's, her passing yesterday was peaceful.

In my Sills entry, I forgot to mention that in my mind, she will always be as she was in the mid-seventies. The other, more hard-boiled Sills was perhaps a natural outgrowth of that other persona, but she should be remembered as a singer, not an administrator, as she herself said. But Crespin always gave the sense of being beyond age. Her Carmen and Charlotte toward the end of her career were as magnificent as her Kundry and Marschallin toward the beginning. And she always presented herself with such a sense of glamour and "womanliness", the term used perhaps most frequently to describe her and her singing.

There are so many recordings of hers I'd love to put on here. But how could I possibly choose: her faultless recording of Fauré's "Soir" from her 1966 EMI song recital? But what about that transcendent "Sombre foret" or "D'amor sull'ali rosee" from her 1958 EMI aria recording? Much less well-known but riveting are the excerpts from Hérodiade from 1963, one of a series of excerpts from French operas done by Pathé in the sixties. Even her effervescent Offenbach and Satie recordings from later in her career are to be treasured.

Given these and so many others that are more readily available (her definitive Nuits d'été and Shéhérazade, her exquisite Poulenc recordings (the Stabat Mater, which displays her exquisite pianissimi, the Dialogues des Carmélites, the ultra-beautiful profoundly moving recording of "C") I have chosen two of her more rare recordings. They are both from a 1967 Hunter College recital with my dear John Wustman at the piano.

I have friends who were actually at this recital and they said that it was as unbelievable live as it is on recording. This is how I will always remember her, expressive, exquisite, powerful, and sublime.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Sitting shiva for Beverly

I join my voice with multitudes of others who mourn the passing of this extraordinary singer.

I sat up half the night last night reading the various tributes to her, including those posted on her wonderful website, listening to her recordings and watching the rare and marvelous clips on youtube which I cannot recommend highly enough.

In my youth I would argue her supremacy over Joan Sutherland. As far as I was concerned, there was no contest, particularly in roles that they shared (Lucia, Bolena, Fille du Régiment, etc.)

Here is a woman at the beginning of her career, as a house soprano (not unlike Sutherland, in fact), sang anything and everything. Yes, she did over-ornament her da capo arias, sometimes even before the da capo. It was not by chance that the frilliest pink iris of them all is named the "Beverly Sills".

But she was no shrinking violet: she was a risk-taker, and we loved her for that:

With her light voice, to take on Roberto Devereux (which many consider her greatest role) and to open the door to so much unexplored bel canto repertoire.

To give the best years of her career to City Opera, the company that she loved, and in more that one way, saved.

To have the courage to say no to the Met until the right role came along.

To overcome her first battle with cancer toward the end of her singing career.

To take on new and challenging roles (Norma, Thais, Giulietta in Capuleti) even as her voice began to fail her somewhat.

To find the strength to persevere in spite of personal heartbreak.

To popularize opera without trivializing it, all the while remaining quintessentially American (and specifically New-Yorkian).

To commit so completely to the dramatic element of opera, even if it took years off of her career.

To move ahead, to not look back, and to continue to dedicate her life to music, even after her singing career was over.

There are those who say that the voice was never beautiful. I strongly disagree. The flutter became excessive at the end, but her technique never abandoned her. Here is the final vocal performance she gave on any stage and even at this late date, the voice is exquisite, as is the personality behind it:

It just so happens that today I finally figured out how to post sound files on my blog, so here is a fitting tribute to a woman who unknowingly changed my life, as she did for so many others:

Gehen wir ins chambre séparée (Der Opernball)

Ruh' in Frieden, gesegnete Sängerin. Wir werden dir niemals vergessen.

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