Category Archives: Opera

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.”

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?

Unexpected, Unplanned, Art-Induced Ecstacy

It was the sort of perfect early autumn day where the sun is warm, but there’s a sort of cool breeze, and the sky is blue and cloudless, and I was walking back to the metro under the influence of several mimosas that I had enjoyed at brunch with several close friends, when I happened upon one of my all time favorite divas, Leontyne Price.

Leontyne

It’s not something I do very often, but upon seeing this ad, I thought, well, it’s not like I’m in a hurry, and admission to the Smithsonian doesn’t cost a penny, so I decided to go in to the gallery and take a look.  When I asked about the ad I saw, the woman at the information desk directed me to the third floor where I found an exhibition of portraits of great American entertainers, which included the above portrait of Leontyne Price, and two other opera singers, Marian Anderson and Maria Callas, alongside portraits of the likes of Duke Ellington, Ethel Merman, and Leonard Bernstein.

Marian

I had only intended to see the exhibit advertised with the portrait of Leontyne, but it’s so easy to succumb to an art binge once you’re in the gallery, isn’t it?  So, of course, as I was making my way back out of the gallery, a flashing light caught my eye, and I went to take a look at the large exhibition room of modern art where that light was coming from.  I became immediately drawn to a sculpture of a horse built from driftwood, whose skeletal form was striking and beautiful from every angle.  Ok, just this hall and then I’ll head home, I thought, and wandered around to look at the other works on display.

gallery

I never could have guessed what was about to happen to me as I made my way into a darkened alcove where there was a colorful installation painted on the wall and floor, with colored lights shining on it.  It seemed to glow.  Neat, I thought the artist used a black light on florescent paint.  But then, as I started to leave the dark room, I noticed that something had changed.  It had turned red.  Oh, the lights change color.  As I made my way back into the center of the room, the painting changed again.  I gasped as the lights now made the paint appear black and white.  It was like it was an entirely new painting.  I sat down on the bench as the light began to alter again.  Now light was focused on just one small area of the painting, leaving the rest black, now the light changed to a blue-green tint causing one shape to appear to emerge in three dimensions; as the light and colors continued to change the painting seemed to come alive. Maybe it was the mimosas, but I felt a knot in my stomach as my pulse quickened.  I suddenly felt quite emotional.  It was beautiful and strange and haunting and cheerful and sad.

I’m not sure how long I sat, bewildered and in awe of this magnificent art installation, but eventually I made myself get up.  Outside the darkened chamber was information about the artist and the work:  

David Hockney
Snails Space with Vari-Lites: “Painting as Performance”

When I read in the blurb that Hockney had a long career designing sets for opera, the emotional response I had experienced seemed to come into context.  This art installation is like a silent opera, with all the drama and catharsis a good opera ought to have.  It moved me, just as an opera should.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been so affected by a piece of visual art.

All of this is to say that, the next time you’re out wandering the city, and you see an ad promoting an art exhibition, go take a look!  You might find something unexpected and wonderful.  And if you’re in DC, go see this piece!

 

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.

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.