Category Archives: I’ve got a little list

One Singer, Two Masters

This week, I had the opportunity to participate in a couple of private master classes, one with a singer who is in the midst of a fairly prestigious international opera career, and another who is retired from one. For the first, I sang In Quelle Trine Morbide, from Manon Lescaut.  It’s probably my best aria right now.  For the latter, I sang Non Mi Dir, an aria that I’ve been struggling with.

It was a wonderful opportunity to get feedack on my singing from some experienced mentors who know the biz.  I’m so grateful to these singers for taking the time to listen to me and two of my fellow students and offer their advice and wisdom. 

Here are some takeaways:

  • I need to work on breath control and support.  I knew this.  Now I know it more.  “You’re not supporting well and it’s causing pitch problems.”
  • Nerves are also a problem.  I also knew this.
  • I should put Non Mi Dir on the back burner, and spend some more time with Dove Sono.
  • I need more coachings.  I should start doing them regularly.  I’m not sure how I’m going to pay for it.
  • I have potential to be a proper dramatic soprano, but I need to stick to lyric soprano rep for now.  For the second time in my life I was told that I could sing Turandot one day.  In the meanwhile, I could look at the lighter soprano role from Puccini’s final opera, Liu.
  • “Get a girdle.”
  • I asked whether I ought to look at Mimi. “No one’s going to cast a big girl like you* as Mimi.  You don’t look consumptive.”
  • “You’re tall, good looking, and you’ve got a big voice.”  Thank you.
  • I need to trust my teacher. 

*I’m nearly 6 feet tall and 200 lbs.  Total Amazon.

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.

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.

A Bleeding-Heart Liberal’s Election Day Playlist

On Tuesday, millions of progressives across the 50 United States and the District of Columbia will head to the polls to cast their votes for the most liberal candidate Barack Obama.  We are voting this way because we know that the economic policies of Mitt Romney and the Republican Party won’t do anything for anyone except wealthy few who look down on the rest of us from their Hamptons mansions.  We also know that the party’s social stances are bad for women, bad for minorities, bad for the LGBT community, and basically, bad for anyone except white Christian men.

If all that isn’t enough to get you sufficiently fired up to cast your ballot (assuming you havn’t already) and proudly don your “I Voted!” sticker, then load this playlist into your mp3 player of choice and let Neil Young and Ani DiFranco move you to stand up for the 47%. Continue reading

Six Operas for Halloween

Oh October!  There’s a chill in the air, there’s pumpkin spice in your coffee, and movie theaters are filled with ghosts and gore.  I love spooky stories as Halloween approaches.  This time of year, you might find me reading 19th century gothic novels, or watching the 1963 classic The Haunting (With the lights on, I might add.  I’m not that hardcore.), or you might find me in the opera house.

If you’re surprised to learn that opera can make for the perfect Halloween spookfest, then you probably don’t know much about opera.  Here are my top six operas for All Hallows Eve.

6.  I Pagliacci

What makes it scary?  Two words:  murderous clown.  This is the climactic final scene where Canio murders his adulterous wife Nedda while the audience of their comedia performance looks on in horror.

5.  Mefistofele

What makes it scary? Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three operatic renditions of the Faust legend, but not all of them deserve the Halloween treatment.  Gounod’s Faust reads as a morality play more than anything. If you’re looking for devilish fun, go for the version that titled itself after the Devil himself.

4.  Un Ballo in Maschera

What makes it scary?  A witch, a murder conspiracy, and a costume party make this Verdi classic perfect for Halloween.

3.  Lucia di Lammermoor

What makes it scary?  This bel canto masterpiece is one of my all time favorite operas.  The famous mad scene takes place on the title character’s wedding night, shortly after she’s chopped her poor, unsuspecting bridegroom to pieces.  Now, I’m all for finding new and inventive ways to stage classic operas, but when it comes to Lucia, if there’s not a blood-spattered wedding dress, yer doin’ it wrong.

2.  The Medium

What makes it scary?  The story of  a fraud medium who begins to hear the voices of what seem to be real spirits causing her to question her own sanity.  This opera is an example of the very scariest kind of story, in my opinion, one where the audience isn’t quite sure if the spook was real or just a figment of the characters’ imagination.

1.  The Turn of the Screw

What makes it scary?  Based on the novel by Henry James, Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw is the ultimate operatic ghost story, with a haunted house, creepy nursery rhymes, and a pair of malevolent spirits.  I would argue that this is the spookiest opera of all time.