Category Archives: An opinion about everything

The Wrong Ways to Talk About the Body-Shaming Reviews of Der Rosenkavelier

Have you been following the story about the horrendous, sexist, tasteless reviews of Tara Erraught’s performance last weekend in Der Rosenkavelier at Glyndebourne?  Of course you have, but if not, you can do some quick catching up here

Der Rosenkavelier

Tara Erraught pictured on left.

In spite of the fact this story is days old now, practically pre-historic in internet time, I have some more things to say that I can’t fit into 140 characters.  Mostly that I’m not entirely okay with the direction some of the (very-well intentioned) discussions of this issue have taken. 

Let’s have a look at each of the erroneous arguments that have been swirling around one by one, shall we?

1.  “Tara Erraught isn’t even that fat!”

This is most emphatically not the point.  Whether a singer is a little bit heavy-set, or morbidly obese shouldn’t matter if her performance is on point.  It seems to be widely agreed by Saturday night’s audience, and the cruel critics who railed against Erraught’s appearance, that her performance of the role of Octavian was, vocally and dramatically, excellent.  These stick-in-the-mud, middle-aged, white dudes, found it hard to believe that a woman as tall and thin and beautiful as Kate Royal’s Marschallin would fall in love with an Octavian that looked like Erraught.  This perpetuates the kind of bullshit thinking that leads to tales of karmic justice like this one  and the supremely frustrating phenomenon of men who love big women, feeling ashamed of their preference and trying to deny it or hide it. 

In case you didn’t realilze it, here’s the truth:  Women can love short and/or fat men.  Men can love fat and/or tall women.  It happens every day in the real world.  It doesn’t happen nearly enough in the movies, or on TV, or even in opera.

2.  “Skinny people aren’t as good at singing as fat people!”

Even though I adore Alice Coote, and respect her as one of the most intelligent singing actresses in opera today, this is a fairly problematic argument for several reasons.  First, it plays into the super annoying, never-ending discussion about how opera is being “revived” with a generation of young, hot, singers, which I belive to be utter bullshit.

Secondly, I’m not entirely sure I agree.  I’ve seen very thin singers put out lush, theater-filling sounds just as often as I’ve seen fat singers with lighter voices. 

And what about thin singers whose size has changed?  The terrible saga of Deborah Voigt’s weight loss surgery is well documented.  And what about Anna Netrebko’s weight fluctuations?  Does her move into more dramatic repertoire have to do with her new voluptuous figure, or is it a natural maturing of the voice that comes with age?

I think Jenny Rivera put it best on this week’s Opera Now! podcast when she said that a singer is at his or her best when their body is in its natural state.  That is, if you are someone who is naturally thin, then being thin probably won’t harm your singing, but if you’re someone who is naturally a little more meaty, then, in my opinion, pushing yourself with intense dieting and exercising to look like a model might have a less than desirable effect on your voice.  Basically, opera singers need to be healthy and strong, two words that are not necessarily in my mind synonymous with either fat or thin, in order to be able to perform the vocal athletics that our art form calls for.

3.  “The original Octavian was also zaftig.  That’s how Strauss/Hoffmansthall would have   wanted it!”

What if I said, “Verdi never intended for La Traviata’s doctor to be lurking silent on stage througout the entire opera, calling Violetta’s attention to a giant clock that is ticking down to the end of her life!”? (I know I reference that production constantly, but it is just my favorite, okay?)  My point by saying that is this:  Richard Jones’ interpretation of Der Rosenkavelier for Glyndebourne was hardly what you’d call “traditional,” so it is fallacious to apply the kind of curmudgeonly anti-regie arguments that get used so often to lament the increasing popularity of so called “eurotrash” opera productions.  Opera is a living, breathing, evolving art form, and we should keep experimenting with new takes on our favorite works, whether that means Valkyries on motorcycles, Gilda stuffed in the trunk of a Cadillac, or (gasp!) an Octavian who isn’t tall and thin.

When Tara Erraught went onstage as Octavian last weekend, she didn’t look the way some critics expected an Octavian to look, that is, tall and thin.  But why should she?  She is not Joyce DiDonato or Susan Graham, she is Tara Erraught bringing her own interpretation to the role as Richard Jones directed it.  Do we really want to live in a world where every Octavian (or Marschallin, or Sophie, or, for that matter, Mimi, Aida, Siegfried, or Peter Grimes) looks or even sounds like a cookie-cutter cut out of the one that came before?  Art is about exploring possibilities.  It’s about imagining a world that could be, or a world that can’t be, or a world that we hope will never be, or even the world exactly as it is.  But it certainly isn’t about fitting in to a prescribed notion from some stuck-up opera critic about how it it ought to be.

Finally, to Terra Erraught and the fat and thin and tall and short and dumpy and black and white and latina and asian and gay and straight and trans opera singers of the world, I dedicate this song to you:

My Taste is Super Sophistocated and Edgy . . . Isn’t it?

After a beer and a snack at a Capital Hill dive bar that was, of course, decorated with vintage political campaign paraphernalia, my friend Michael and I headed into the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium for a concert of 20th and 21st century chamber music conducted by Oliver Knussen and performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, because I see myself as an adventurous, open minded lover of an ever-evolving artform and I dig New Music. 

I look down my nose at the kind of snobby classical music curmudgeons who are prejudiced against modern or 20th century or contemporary or “weird” or avant garde or experimental music and just put it all into a box labeled “atonal,” and shove it into the basement, never to gaze upon it again. 

I crave new opera, like Nico Muhly’s Two Boys  or Paul’s Case by Gregory Spears; and new takes on the standard rep, like my beloved Willie Decker production of La Traviata. 

That’s of course, not to say that I love everything I see and hear.  I generally find most of what’s come out of the minimalist movement to be just plain boring. You couldn’t pay me enough to sit through an entire performance of Nixon in China or Einstein on the Beach.  And I’m pretty sure John Cage is just trolling everyone.  But I certainly wouldn’t dismiss anything out of hand without hearing it first. Of course I wouldn’t, and I appreciate these works, even if I don’t particularly want to listen to them. 

No really, please don’t make me listen to them.

There are just some tropes in modern music that I can’t get past.  I’ve always believed that “classical saxophone” is an oxymoron.  And what is with all the crazy-ass insturmention in contemporary chamber music?  You’re going to write a quintet for harp, oboe, violin, viola, and snare drum? Really?  And requiring pianists to get up, reach inside the piano and pluck the strings with their fingers?  (Don’t even get me started on “prepared piano.”)

I was discussing some of this with Michael, a composer of New Music himself, as we left the concert and walked back to the Metro on Tuesday night.  What was with the instrumentation on that Schoenberg Serenade?  I was giving major side-eye when a clarinet, bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello, mandolin and guitar took the stage.  Mandolin and guitar?  You could barely even hear them over the ruckus created by the other instruments. 

“Yes, but, get it?  It’s a serenade?”  He pointed out.

“Well, yeah, I get that, but. . .”

“And it did in certain moments sound sort of Italian . . .”

“In a distinctly Schoenbergian way,” I snarked.

As we walked, I mentioned that my favorite piece on the program was Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance, performed beautifully by Huw Watkins.  “But I guess that was the easiest to listen to piece on the program.”

“It really was,” he said.

And I complained that I was enjoying Tropi by Niccolo Castiglioni but it lost me when the pianist got up and started plucking the the strings.  “It’s just silly to me.”

 “I really like way it sounds.” my companion said.

“Well, maybe I’m just old-fashioned.  I guess I’m a snob.”

To that, he bluntly said, “Yes.”

The Power of Sisterlove, or, Why I got so Emotional while Watching Frozen

 

Spoilers for Frozen below, but really it’s just Disney and in my opinion you can still enjoy the movie even if you know what’s going to happen, so read what I have to say.

FrozenSisters

“It’s a blonde sister and a redheaded sister!” I whispered, to my own redheaded sister, as we watched one of the opening scenes of Disney’s Frozen, in which the younger Anna eagerly wakes up her older sister Elsa, asking “You wanna build a snowman?”

We were at the theater on a family outing to celebrate my sister’s birthday.  She’s two and a half years younger than me, and I instantly saw ourselves reflected in the movie’s two main characters as they were introduced, and was holding back tears in the movie’s first ten minutes when the toe-headed Elsa accidently injures Anna with her frosty magical powers.  In the coming years, Elsa forces herself to withdraw from Anna in order to prevent a repeat accident, leaving Anna feeling lonely and abandoned.

Sisters

It would seem that if you spend enough time pointing out the kinds of messages that most Disney movies (and many movies for children) send to girls (and boys) about gender roles, eventually they will listen. Frozen delighted me in how it managed to take a pile of sexist fairy tale clichés and turn them upside down (while still telling a delightful, engaging, funny, sing-along worthy story at the same time).

The central relationship in the movie is between two sisters, neither of which was a villain, or even remotely evil.  When the younger sister, Anna, meets and falls in love with Hans at Elsa’s coronation (and performs the best love duet Disney has presented us with in years), and announces to her sister that they’ve decided to get married, Elsa immediately advises against marrying someone you’ve just met that very day, this sentiment is later echoed by the reindeer wrangling Christoph.  Then, when Elsa, after losing control of her magical powers, causing her Nordic fairy tale kingdom to succumb to an enchanted winter, retreats to the top of a mountain far away from civilization, it is her sister Anna, not a handsome young prince, who mounts a horse and embarks on and adventure to rescue her.

But the movie’s greatest flip-flop comes when, just as she had feared she might, Elsa accidently curses Anna again, this time “freezing her heart,” and causing her to slowly freeze to death.  Anna is told that the only remedy for a frozen heart is “an act of true love,” and she believes that act must be the magical “true love’s kiss.”  (She must have grown up watching Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, the Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast.) In the movie’s climax, Christoph is rushing to save Anna with the required kiss, but just as she is about to freeze over, Anna retreats from him in order to save her sister from being murdered by the movie’s villain.  As Anna steps in front of the villain’s sword, she freezes into a solid, icy statue, and Elsa (and I along with her) cries over the loss of her sister and the bravery of her sacrifice.  But it is this sacrifice that proves to be the act of true love that breaks the spell.  Anna is thawed, and Elsa realizes that she has the power to end the enchanted winter.

Allow me to break this down for you again, in case you missed it:  The heroic Christoph, as he rushes to save the day, is made superfluous by two sisters who discover that they can solve the problem on their own.  And then, at the end of the movie, just like so many action heros before her, Anna is rewarded for her valor by getting a kiss from the hot Scandinavian Christoph.

I don’t know what has led to this welcome change in tone from Disney.  Maybe it was criticism from Feminist Frequency and Advice from a Cartoon Princess, or the success of Brave, or the wild popularity of the Hunger Games (in which the lead character makes her own sisterly sacrifice)?  But I hope Disney keeps moving in this direction.  And I hope everyone takes their Daughters (and sons!) to see Frozen.  Or if you’re lucky enough to have one (or as lucky as me to have two!) go see it with your sister.

 

A Postlude of Clueless Grownups

That comment was one of the first to appear in my Twitter feed last night shortly after the Metropolitan Opera’s premier of the much anticipated Two Boys, a new opera with a score by hipster wunderkind Nico Muhly and libretto by Craig Lucas, began in a performance that was streamed live at the Met’s website.  I’m not sure if the above tweet’s author could foresee that it would describe perfectly the public’s reaction to the opera this morning.

I certainly didn’t.  I was surprised this morning, when, mind still fluttering with the swirling orchestrations, elegantly cacophonous choruses, and Alice Coote’s hauntingly beautiful singing that I had heard tell the darkly tragic story the night before, found Anthony Tommasini’s review on the New York Times website.  Then I read Anne Midgette’s take in the Post.  The reviews for the opera that I had been so enchanted by were largely negative, while the sentiments expressed in my corner of Twitter, populated by tech-savvy opera fans and performers, were full of nothing but adoration.

The cause for the sharp divide in how the performance was purcieved quickly became apparent:  reactions from the major news publications and the (beloved) snob contingent over at Parterre Box mostly panned the piece, while most of my peers and I were gushing.  One particularly vicious comment on Parterre outlined several seemingly carefully selected comments from twitter by “women under 30,”  side-by-side with comments from the Parterre’s chatroom.  The twitter comments basically amounted to “OMG THIS MUSIC IZ SOOOO GREAT!!!” while those from Parterre complained of how boring it all was.

In the words of the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff:  “Parents just don’t understand.”

My friends and I agree that these guys just didn’t get it, and they didn’t get it because they never experienced it.  They don’t know what it was like to stay up hours and hours after your parents went to bed, sitting in front of the computer and communicating with strangers from all over the country or the world.  They didn’t know what it was like to hide behind a screen name and lie about your age and appearance, disguised as a fantasy version of yourself, and feel the virginal blend of curiosity, excitement, and squeemishness when the conversation became explicit.  You had heard the warnings about predators who lured young teens, but you knew you would never fall for that.

And maybe all the mature opera fans who didn’t care for this opera know all about the chat rooms of the late 90’s and early aughts, maybe they were there, having illicit conversations of their own, but they still don’t get it.  Why?  Something that I think people seem to forget as they grow older is how, when you’re a teenager, every experience is heightened.  Every emotion, every obsession, every crush, every anxiety, to a child of 13, 15, maybe as late as 18, has the gravity of a black hole in space sucking you in.  Those late night internet chats, to us, at the time, were enormously important, and Lucas’ libretto combined with Muhly’s score to recreate that feeling in a devastatingly tragic way.

So here are some choice selections from my own Twitter feed during the performance:

Now, the opera world has spent a lot of time lately wringing their hands about how to “save opera,” how to “attract younger audiences.”  By all accounts, the audience at last night’s premiere skewed much younger than the usual Met crowd.  If more performances like Two Boys is the bitter pill that can cure opera from whatever disease it is inflicted by, will the establishment swallow it?

Symphony Concert Cancelled: Musicians unable to play due to Drooling over Sexy Condructress

File under:  Things that have Never Happened

I have a habit, when an idea for a blog entry occurs to me, to send an e-mail to myself with the idea.  For months now, I’ve had an e-mail sitting in my in box which says simply, “conductor gender gap.”

I’ve always been interested in finding ways that two of my favorite topics, classical music and feminism, intersect, and with a dearth of woman on the podiums of the world’s orchestras, this was an obvious source of blogging inspiration.  But I could never quite figure out how to approach it.

Enter Vasily Petrenko

The young and hot (in more than one sense of the word) music director of the Oslo Philharmonic has enraged level-headed classical music fans after some pretty backward remarks he made in an interview with a Norwegian newspaper.  Norman Lebrecht’s blog* has the following translation: 

I believe that when women have families it is difficult to be as dedicated as is required in this business. Another side is that orchestra musicians respond better to men at the podium. They have less sexual energy and can better focus on the music.  A sweet girl on the podium makes them think about other things, says Petrenko.

When one is angry it is advisable to count to ten.  1. . . 2 . . .3 . . . 4 . . . oh fuck it.

Let’s break this down.

I believe that when women have families it is difficult to be as dedicated as is required in this business.

Any woman who has ever tried to advance in any professional field has probably encountered this sentiment at some point.  “Women dont work good cuz women make babies.”  This is Feminism 101.  In the 21st century, society still believes that when a man and a woman start a family, it must be the woman who sacrifices her professional career to care for children.  This is the “Having it All” debate.  There’s not much point in discussing this first part of Petrenko’s statement because feminists have been discussing it for fifty years.  So let’s move on.

Orchestra musicians respond better to men at the podium. They have less sexual energy and can better focus on the music.  A sweet girl on the podium makes them think about other things, says Petrenko.

First of all, does the phrase “sweet girl” give anyone else the willies?  I’m interested to know if it sounds just as creepy in the original Norwegian.  (I’m looking at you, Aksel!)

Now, what this remark says to me is that Petrenko is incapable of seeing a woman as anything more than a sex object.  It makes me wonder how he is able to concentrate on conducting when there might be a “sweet girl” caressing her cello in the front row of his orchestra?

Petrenko has since apologized, claming that his comments were misconstrued, and he has the utmost respect for the likes of Marin Alsop, but if you ask me, his attitude points to a glaring problem in classical music. 

Think for a moment.  How many famous conductors can you name off the top of your head in ten seconds:  James Levine, Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, Esa Pekka-Salonen.  Oh look!  They’re all men.

How many famous women conductors can you name?  Marin Alsop.  Wikipedia lists only 65 women in its catalogue of women conductors

This season, Jane Glover will make her conducting debut with the Metropolitan Opera, leading the orchestra in (the most misogynistic opera ever written) Mozart’s The Magic Flute.  She will be only the third woman ever to lead the Met’s orchestra.  That’s three women since 1880.  Hooray for feminism!

It would seem that this is a glass ceiling that has only begun to crack, and the likes of Vasily Petrenko are working to keep it in tact.

*A blogger who finds sexism abhorrent, unless, of course, it’s used to smear a musician he doesn’t like.

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.

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.