Monthly Archives: June 2013

Showdown: Birgit Nilsson vs. Jessye Norman

Jessye, You’re Goin’ Down.

There’s a little cocktail party game that we opera fanatics just love to play.  We’re sort of always playing it, whether we realize it or not.  It basically amounts to Who Sang It Best?

I got into it on Twitter not long ago when I declared that the very best Turandot is a 1965 recording with Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli, and Renata Scotto.  One of my followers replied declaring that I was wrong, the best was an earlier recording, also with Nilsson, but substituting in Jussi Björling and Renata Tebaldi for Corelli and Scotto.  (Oh, hell no.)

We do this all the time.  It’s kind of like our own casual version of Fantasy Football.

Now, the other day, my friend Rameen declared that his favorite Liebestod is sung by none other than Jessye Norman.

Excuse me?

Setting aside the fact that Birgit Nilsson is my spirit guide, I’d like to break down why there are many, many singers I’d rather hear sing the Liebestod than Jessye Norman.

First of all, I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t like Jessye Norman.  I just don’t think she’s suited to Wagner.  This excerpt from a 1973 recording of Aida is gorgeous.

But let’s talk about the Liebestod.

The term Liebestod refers to the finale of Wagner’s star-crossed lovers tale Tristan und Isolde, in which the heroine Isolde rapturously admires the visage of her beloved lying dead at her feet.  And it is also some of the most spine-tinglingly, toe-curlingly thrilling music in all of opera.

And there is a very specific reason for that.

You see, the ground breaking musical landscape of Tristan und Isolde is built around an unstable harmony that the composer leaves unresolved for about three hours, something unfathomable when the opera premiered in 1865.  This opera is musical foreplay, and when the harmony does finally resolve a very specific moment of the Liebestod, the result can be literally orgasmic.  (More detail is here)

Here’s my spirit guide performing it in a concert in 1962.

(WordPress isn’t allowing me to embed YouTube videos for some reason.  In the meanwhile here’s the link.)

Wagner starts to really tease you at 4:00 and then the moment comes at the 5:00 mark.

Cigarette?

Now, here’s the thing, I talk a lot about vocal focus.  That is the idea that the voice sort of becomes a laser beam of sound.  Birgit Nilsson did this better than anyone.  I think this is so necessary in music like this because of how the thick, swirling orchestral texture contrasts with the steady, resolute vocal line.

Now listen to Miss Norman sing it.

(link)

Gaudy.

The thing is, this music is already so, well, so Wagner.  So romantic.  So lush.  It doesn’t need anything extra.  The Liebestod is chocolate ganache cake with a scoop of hand churned vanilla ice cream, and Jessye Norman feels the need to add caramel, chocolate syrup, pecans, whipped cream, and a cherry.  And then all of that extra stuff just blurs the release in the crucial moment.

Rameen, here are five singers, in addition to La Nilsson, that can do it better than your wide-mouthed homegirl.

1.   Kirsten Flagstad, 1936

2.   Shirley Verett, 1977

3.   Deborah Voigt, 2003 (There used to be a live recording of this with video on YouTube, but it appears to have been yanked.)

4.  Waltraud Meier, 2007

5.  Nina Stemme, 2007   (If you ask me, she is the best one singing it today.)

So go listen to Jessye Norman sing Aida.  The bitch is fabulous.  But Isolde belongs to Nilsson.

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We are Living in a Material World and I am a Material Girl.

I once spent a summer at a yoga ashram in the French countryside trying to learn how to obtain a higher state of consciousness. (In spite of the absurdity of that statement, it is 100% true.)

To be clear, this was not Yoga ™

yoga (tm)

It was Yoga.

This is Swami Vishnu-Devananda.  He founded the organization that ran the ashram where I studied.

This is Swami Vishnu-Devananda. He founded the organization that ran the ashram where I studied.

While I was there, my fellow yogis and I spent our days doing yoga exercises, helping with chores around the ashram (they called it “karma yoga”  psh!), dining on bland vegetarian cuisine, participating in Hindu pujas, studying the Bhagavad Gita, and meditating.  There was a lot of talk about “detachment.”  That is, freeing oneself from the material world, possessions, stuff, etc.

Fo' realz.  This was me.

Fo’ realz. This was me.

I’m soooooo not into all that rubbish anymore.

In fact, for two or three weeks now, I’ve been waiting on a paycheck for the three Sundays I spent singing in a church whose teachings I found to be pretty offensive, and as one does while waiting for a windfall of money, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it.  I expect I’m not the only person who goes, I really want/need this thing, but I can’t have it.  But maybe when I get that money I’m waiting for, then I’ll buy it. But, then you find yourself saying that about so many things, that it would take five times the money you’re expecting to get to buy it all.

These are some of the things I want:

  1. A massage.  No really.
  2. A haircut.  Seriously, look at this mess. bad hair
  3. Some new clothes.  I hate all my clothes.  I hate my work clothes.  I hate my regular clothes.  I hate my fancy dress-up clothes.  I hate my underwear.  I hate my shoes. 
  4. A bicycle.  I’ve been thinking about this for, like, three years.
  5. A new iphone.  They make those things so that they will break as easily as possible.  The cracked screen on mine is not a good look.
  6. Books.  But then again, conversely . . .
  7. A flat screen TV.  Just a little one.  Just because I’m the last person on earth who has a big, clunky television.  It’s ugly and old and I want it gone.

 Here are some things that I actually need:

  1. Voice coaching.  For the uninitiated, this is a little different than my usual voice lessons.  Coaching focuses on music and language, rather than vocal technique.
  2. A renewed YAP Tracker subscription.  This is a service that provides audition listings for opera companies and Young Artist Programs.  It will be more important toward the end of the summer and the fall, but it’s good to be on top of it.
  3. To record some of my arias.  
  4. To pay down my student loan.  Ugh.
  5. To pay down my credit card.  Ugh. Ugh.

Here are some of the things I am most likely to spend money on now that I have it:

Wine.

Some Things Never Change

“He expects to find the woman singer at least passably good-looking, graceful in bearing, well gowned, and generally attractive.  The fat, ill-dressed, phlegmatic prima donna of the early sixties, who had a good voice and a pure trill, is no longer tolerated. (. . .) too many opera goers have learned to admire a new sort of prima donna, a person who has a robust voice and an exceedingly robustious style, who rushes energetically from one side of the stage to the other, who pants and puffs from the violence of her exertions, but who projects passionate temperament into the atmosphere much as a fire engine squirts water from a hose.  This sort of prima donna is typical in Germany, where she is worshiped with an adoration quite blind to the fact that she knows no more about the laws of singing than a bull-finch does the rules of mathematics.”

An opera fan who reads this passage might assume that it came from the vicious commentariat of Parterre Box or, perhaps the frustratingly narrow minded horde who frequent this Facebook page throwing shade at yet another “eurotrash” opera production. So you might be surprised to learn that it is from W.J. Henderson’s introduction to Ten Singing Lessons, by renowned pedagogue Mathilde Marchesi, published in 1901.

It seems that there always has been and always will be cause to lament the dying art of high-quality bel canto singing.  It keeps dying, and dying, and yet it still isn’t dead.

 

 

Commence Molly’s Summer Singing Bootcamp!

No, I’m not launching a new business meant to capitalize on the shame of fat opera singers. Instead, I’m kicking-off a summer of (mostly) self-directed efforts to whip my singing into shape in time for YAP auditions in the fall.

After a weekend of two solo performances, which were mostly a success, and were totally  fun, but they did reveal a few glaring problems that I am not going to be able to get away with if I’m going to be competitive in this biz.  These problems were foretold by my wise and all-seeing voice teacher who has been particularly tough on me of late.  I’m realizing that it’s time to stop getting frustrated with her nit-picking, and start getting to work on eradicating the nits in the first place.

In my last lesson she said something that all-but stopped me in my tracks, “I know that you practice,” she said, “but I worry that you’re practicing the repertoire and not the technique.

In an attempt to defend myself against an accusation that I’m not sure I fully understood the meaning of in the moment, I muttered something about doing both.

But I had her admonishment in mind when I sat down in front of the piano this evening.    I sang every phrase of Ernani Involami thinking, “Would my teacher let me get away with that?  How would she tell me to fix it?”  And then going back and doing just that.

The result was a much more grueling practice session which produced much better singing. I plan on continuing this method, combined with my usual lessons, and as many coachings as I can afford, and I am going to greet September as a polished, confident performer.