September 18, 2016

The music of Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins"

For a short piece of just 40 minutes’ duration, Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins” offers a richly varied feast of extremely compelling, truly memorable theater music. Weill’s art succeeds at humanizing Anna, the drama’s protagonist with a dual nature made manifest in two onstage performers: a singer for the character’s coldly practical side, and a dancer for her artistic, sensitive nature.

Bertolt Brecht’s text, I suspect, was meant to be a cynical satire on Western materialism. In each of the seven cities Anna visits, her cockeyed view of resisting “sin” and “temptation” results in the compromising of her better instincts for the sake of earning money for her family back home in Louisiana. Brecht might have preferred a more sardonic musical setting, one that would leave the audience looking down on Anna for her obsession with The Almighty Dollar.
Weill, however, sets the text to music that takes a different point of view. The listener empathizes with Anna; we feel all too keenly that heartbreak and despair are the consequences of the choices she makes. Her story remains a cautionary tale about “selling out” in the pursuit of the American Dream of home ownership.

(By the way, there is heavy irony in the creation of a drama about a homeless individual traveling to strange new cities with the imperative of earning money, as Weill and Brecht found themselves in that exact situation as they wrote the piece. Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 forced both artists into a hasty exodus from Germany, leaving their fortunes behind.)

Here is my number-by-number guide to the music; my summary of what to listen for in each movement:

The first thing you hear is really important; the source of the rest of the score. So be ready! Two clarinets emit a pair of mournful descending phrases:

The second phrase, importantly, ends a half-step lower than the first. So: two nearly identical musical gestures, one ending higher, the other lower. This is Anna! Or rather, it’s the musical representation of the duality of Anna I and Anna II. Throughout the rest of the work, this motif will be a constant presence; at times in the orchestra, at times in the vocal line, short musical gestures a half-step apart will dominate. The accompaniment figure in the example above features an interesting orchestral color: the banjo. It’s stark pluckings help establish a sense of place: the American South.

Anna explains that she and her “sister” (there are two performers on stage, but only one Anna) are leaving their home in Louisiana on a journey of seven years, with the goal of earning enough money for her parents and two brothers to build a house. Now, most young people heading out to big cities to perform for money would be excited, dreaming of fame and success. Weill, however, makes it clear that Anna is a reluctant traveler. The Prologue has a melancholy, blues-y affect; rhythmically, it has the dirge-like pace of a funeral march. Anna, like Weill leaving his beloved Berlin, faces her adventure with reluctance and dread, hoping to return sooner rather than later.

Remember that Deadly Sins began with a sad march. There will be a transformation of marching music later on.

Anna I does not vocalize in the first movement; it is the male quartet that sings, worrying about the young girl’s ability to buckle down and be productive. The orchestral introduction is a turbulent, whirling tarantella, suggesting the family’s hope that Anna will be busy as a bee:

Weill sets the family’s declarations in the form of call-and-response, perhaps another nod towards their Southern roots, suggesting work-songs in Louisiana cotton fields. The mother (at least it was George Balanchine, the original choreographer, who decided that the bass portray the mother, a touch of absurd whimsy) frets about Anna’s history as a lazybones while the men-folk respond with a sanctimonious religious bromide:

This section, as with the entire work, presents both challenges and opportunities for the stage director/choreographer. The text does not function like a traditional libretto; no specific action is spelled out for the Anna’s; there are no stage directions. This affords an unusual degree of liberation, with possible scenarios limited only by the director’s imagination.

In Memphis, Anna is dancing in a cabaret club. Brecht turns the notion of the sin of pride on its head; Anna II wishes to dance in an artistic manner, but Anna I points out that the customers here care nothing about Art and wish to see her naked body; Anna is working at a cheap striptease joint. Her warnings to leave pride to those who can afford it are sung to a beguiling and elegant waltz-tune, one of many Weill-ish inspirations in the piece:

The theme presents the motif of duality as it toggles back and forth between half-step intervals in both melody and the oop-pa-pa accompaniment. The significance of this passage is the obvious disconnect between Anna’s words and the character of the musical setting. The music is Anna II’s aspirations of a classic and “classy” performance, while Anna I speaks of vulgar debauchery. 

Anna is in Los Angeles, working (one gathers) on a film set as an extra. The ironic take on the sin of anger is that Anna II is outraged at some unnamed injustice she’s observed (in the original production it was mistreatment of animals, though again, the libretto is vague), but Anna I warns her to swallow her anger lest they be fired. Thus injustice is allowed simply because it comes in second to making money.

An orchestral passage neatly alternates depictions of Anna’s anger with a suggestion of vintage Hollywood-style dance music in which the motif of duality is observed in the accompaniment:

When Anna I offers her advice on the perils of anger, it is to a rhythmically square tune that sounds very “American” in its forthright optimism, however faux that attitude may really be. By now, you may be looking for the duality motif – you’ll find it in the final notes of Anna’s first two phrases.

If it strikes you that this tune appears to foreshadow Billy Bigelow’s “My boy Bill” from Carousel, a show that wouldn’t appear for another dozen years, then we are in agreement. It makes Weill’s evolution into a Broadway composer seem a natural progression.

Well, this post is a bit wordy, isn’t it? That’s probably enough for today. In a few days I’ll finish my survey of the music of a show I have come to love.

September 7, 2016

Seven Deadly Sins: art reflects life with homelessness in Louisiana

Summer is OVER, opera pals! College football players are already nursing bruises, opera companies are rehearsing like mad, and Your Humble Blogger is tan, rested, and ready to shed light on Virginia Opera's 2016-2017 season.
Kurt Weill (1900-1950)

On September 30, the curtain at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk will rise on a double-bill: Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, and Leoncavallo's reliable Pagliacci. Suck it, Mascagni! Breaking tradition here; a good thing! My first several posts will deal with the Weill piece.

Can I just say that I have become obsessed with Deadly Sins? For most of my life, my acquaintance with Weill was limited to "Mack the Knife", "Lonely House" from Street Scene, and "September Song" from Knickerbocker Holiday. But I'm making up for lost time, having A) studied Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, among other works; and B) have fallen in total, blissful love with Deadly Sins. I've purchased no fewer than eight recordings on CD or DVD of the piece which I will briefly critique below.

But first: how ironic and improbable is it that, just as tens of thousands of people in Louisiana have lost their homes in the wake of the recent devastating floods, Virginia Opera is staging a work about a family striving to build a home in a fictional Louisiana? Seriously, what were the odds?

Think about it: in Weill's masterwork, a woman called Anna leaves her home "where the Mississippi waters flow beneath the moon" on a mission: to earn enough money as a dancer to "build a little house" for her family. The libretto, by the mercurial German theatrical genius Bertolt Brecht, does not explain the family's circumstances or why a home is needed. It's tempting, however, to imagine a natural disaster in the light of current headlines.

It's hard to discuss this "sung ballet" (as the publisher called it) without stricken Louisiana residents in mind, so how about this: whether or not you can attend our production, here's a way you can help: click on this link to go to America's Charities Disaster Recovery Fund, where you can safely and securely make a donation of any size to help relieve the suffering of the real homeless people.

How bad is it down there? According to the website link above,
"At least 11 deaths have been attributed to the flooding, more than 30,000 people have been evacuated, and 12,000 are currently in shelters. More than 40,000 homes and businesses are without power and Louisiana State University has shuttered its doors as a result of flooding on the campus."

So please consider doing what you can to help all the real Anna's out there.

But back to Weill and his incredible forty-minute gem. I'll never forget the first time I heard this music; I'd just gotten the first of my several recordings. I popped the disc into my laptop, opened the libretto and almost instantly was GOBSMACKED by some of the most arresting, compelling, unforgettable theater music I've ever heard. My litmus test for a new piece I've never heard before is simply this: having heard it once, do I ever want or need to hear it again? My most recent post about Godard's opera Dante was on this topic. Dante wasn't horrible, but it lacked whatever it is that makes great music great. Having heard it once, I realized "That's it. Don't need to hear it any more". The opposite was true with Deadly Sins. When it was over, I had an immediate hunger to hear it AGAIN. And AGAIN. And AGAIN.

The piece is hard to pigeon-hole; it defies categorization, which may account for it's slow road to acceptance by the public. I mean, Aida is an opera, Nutcracker is a ballet and Das Lied von der Erde is a song cycle. Simple. But not Seven Deadly Sins! It's part opera, part ballet, part cantata, part cabaret, part symphonic song cycle..... whew! Weill produced a work of art that is truly unique. Nothing else bears any resemblance to it.

I'll discuss the music in more detail in future posts, but for those who don't know the work and would like to hear it, I'll quickly describe the recordings I've acquired, in ascending order from LEAST recommended to MOST recommended, identifying the vocal soloist and conductor. So at the bottom of the pack:

1) Marianne Faithfull, (Dennis Russell Davies) Weill wrote the work for an operatic soprano with full orchestra (and a male quartet to depict her family back home in Louisiana.) When Lotte Lenya (the composer's wife and creator of the role of Anna) wished to record the piece following Weill's death, her voice was no longer capable of negotiating the original high key. So a transposition was made, pitched a fourth lower, to accommodate her tabacco-ravaged range. Marianne Faithful, whose voice makes Bette Davis sound like Minnie Mouse, can't even manage the low key, so her solution is to sing in the original key, but one octave lower. She growls seductively, with an articulation of the authorized English translation that makes her sound like she's on her fourth scotch-rocks. This is NOT what Weill had in mind. Deadly Sins has elements of cabaret, but cabaret it is not. Not recommended.

2) Lotte Lenya, (Wilhelm Brueckner-Rueggenberg) Lenya achieved international stardom by performing her husband's music. She was the Clara Schumann to Weill's Robert; his muse and his trusted interpreter. SO: this one should be the "real deal", right? Well, no. Again, an estimated 500,000 cigarettes had robbed her of youthful vocal ease, if not her distinctive personality, with a disappointing result. Her effortful vocalism actually deprives her of the chance to impart pathos and dramatic subtlety to her performance. Recommended ONLY as a document of historical interest.

3) Karen Herr Erickson (Samuel Cristler) Here is a performance in keeping with Weill's intentions: sung in the original key by an operatic performer. And it's in English, to boot. The downsides are mushy acoustics (the performance was a live broadcast heard on NPR and not available on CD) and a curious dramatic blandness. The singing was not particularly full of character or individuality. But it's the only choice for an English-language recording in the high key.

4) Ute Lemper (John Mauceri) If you want to hear a low-key performance, in the original language, sung by a cabaret singer with real credentials in that field, this is a fair choice. Ms. Lemper sings with committment and belts effortlessly in climactic moments. Makes one wonder what Barbra Streisand in her prime might have made of this material. Still not my recommended version.

5) Teresa Stratas (Kent Nagano) Stratas is a justly famed intrepreter of Weill, and she sings her face off in this staged DVD performance. The music sounds fine, even though the soprano was no longer young when this was made, and let's just say that the steel belt occasionally appears in the radial tire of her splendid voice. There's a bit of strain. But a larger reservation is Peter Sellars' predictably idiosyncratic direction. Lots of deliberately confused, jerky, chaotic camera-work; lots of abstraction in the story-telling. Look: it's one thing to take a well-known standard opera like Cosi fan tutte and give it the Regietheater treatment by setting it in a diner. But it's another to distort this piece in a video that is likely to be most viewer's first introduction to it. And no sub-titles!! Boo.

6) Angelika Kirschlager (H.G. Gruber) This is another DVD, done in concert style. That in itself is not a problem; I myself saw a live performance last spring by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. with the cabaret singer Storm Large. Weill's piece actually lends itself well to semi-staging, and Ms. Large captivated her audience. But this video performance is a mixed bag. I don't quarrel with Kirschalger's singing; it's fine, on a par with Stratas. HOWEVER: it's not "semi-staged"; she simply stands in place as if singing a Bach cantata. Acting is limited to facial expressions. Still, it has its points.

7) Elise Ross (Simon Rattle) Here is a performance sung as Weill intended, in German with a lyric soprano. The biggest plus to this disc: Rattle's stylish conducting. Ms. Ross is occasionally a bit monochromatic in terms of vocal color, but she does a solid job. I prefer her rendition of the "Pride" section to all the others.

But top honors (and it's not even close) go to:

8) Ann Sofie von Otter (John Eliot Gardiner) This is a sublime recording. Von Otter imbues every syllable with heart-breaking meaning; she makes the character of Anna truly come alive. In the climactic "Envy" section, she sings with such vivid ferocity that it gives me goose-flesh every time. In the "Lust" section, she sings with such emotional directness and intimacy that it's almost unbearable. This disc is definitive and indispensable for fans of Kurt Weill. Highly recommended.

And again - if you're going to pony up for any of these recordings, at least consider donating the same amount to the charitable website I mentioned above. All the real-life Annas will really appreciate it.

August 17, 2016

My complete comments to The Economist on opera prodigies

Mario del Monaco:
Old enough to learn by mimicry
A couple of days ago I was contacted by Hallie Golden, a journalist who frequently writes for The Economist. She was working on an article about children who sing opera, obviously having run across my viral post on the subject. We agreed that she would supply a list of questions and I would respond to them.

Not 48 hours later, the completed article appeared on my Facebook feed this morning. Since I'm in a linking mood, you can click here to read it in its entirety. I assumed she had contacted several professionals in the opera field during the course of her research, so I wasn't surprised to see that from all the material I'd provided, one short phrase was included in the piece. A literary sound-bite, if you will.

I know I've blogged about this on more than one occasion, but since
1) I put some time and thought into my answers, and
2) it's always fun to see a lot of page-hits on this site (call it "operatic click-bait"),
I'm going to reproduce my "virtual interview" with Ms. Golden by printing her questions along with my replies. Et voila:

Hallie: Is there such a thing as an opera prodigy? If so, please explain why they are so rare:
Glenn: If the definition of an "opera prodigy" is limited to "a child singing in an opera", then the technical answer would be yes: there are opera prodigies. But it's important to place the term in the context of operatic roles written for a child's voice, with children the intended performers. Examples of such roles include the title role in Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors", Miles in Britten's "The Turn of the Screw" and a few others. Such child performers would be "prodigies" in the sense of having the requisite musicianship and discipline to deliver a high-level performance of complex music. Roles written specifically for a child's voice always take into account the limitations of immature voices. As far as being rare, in my opinion young people with advanced musicianship are usually instrumentalists (piano, violin, etc.). Since many singers take little interest in singing until after adolescence, when their voices began to emerge, it's no wonder that there will always be fewer kids prepared to tackle Menotti and Britten.

Hallie: From a biological standpoint, are prepubescent bodies equipped to handle the skills and technique required for opera singing? Please explain.
Glenn: Prepubescent children can and should sing! There are many healthy outlets for this most natural of activities: a children's choir (this is a growing field; many communities large and small have professional children's choirs run by well-trained directors), school choirs, church choirs, and the like. Even private lessons beginning around age 12 can be appropriate provided the instructor is responsible in selecting repertoire. The best metaphor is with children's athletics. Little League baseball is okay; encouraging young players to throw stressful pitches like curve balls and sliders is not. In the same way, a child singing a folk song in a choir is an age-appropriate scenario; a child singing adult operatic music is not. It's a fact that even adult opera singers must guard against damaging their delicate vocal folds due to the high physical demands of Verdi, Puccini and the rest. It's a question of understanding the nature of how voices are supported. Mature opera singers engage their entire bodies to prevent debilitating tension in neck, jaw and vocal folds. Muscles of the torso, buttocks and even legs work hard to provide a strong foundation for the voice. Obviously, a child lacks such resources of physical strength. My best advice for a child with a serious interest in singing would be to begin private lessons in piano or guitar. This provides a basic musical literacy that will enhance vocal instruction whenever it begins.

Hallie: Does it have to take years of solid opera training to be able to sing opera correctly, or is it possible for a young child to simply pick up these skills naturally, without training, or by way of mimicry?
Glenn: Solid training certainly never hurt anyone from achieving excellence, but mimicry is a device that must be employed with great care, and only at a particular stage of life. A child employing mimicry will not pick up skills. If a child imitates his math teacher, does that mean no further math study is indicated? Not so much! However, with young adults who have attained the requisite physical development, mimicry has its place. The Italian dramatic tenor Mario del Monaco was primarily self-taught, though teachers and coaches aided in polishing his art. I'm guessing he listened to a LOT of recordings of tenors. So here's the real value of young children listening to opera singers: it's important for the sound of a trained singing voice to register in their minds and become familiar. Voice students with minimal exposure to operatic singing prior to beginning studies face a different challenge that those who are pre-programmed to recognize the goal.

Hallie: What are the risks associated with an opera prodigy?
Glenn: The risks associated with children singing opera include these: --the formation of growths called nodules on the vocal folds. These can require surgery to remove. --being exploited by opportunistic parents, teachers or managers. --lasting damage to the vocal mechanism, thus sabotaging chances for adult vocal training. --developing a false notion of success in the arts when praise comes too easily and too soon. I will add that, for me, one of the most distasteful aspects of children singing opera is that adult soprano arias (and it's always girls who sing opera, not young boys) deal with adult sexuality and adult emotional states that are painfully inappropriate for a young girl. As an example: many prepubescent girls have sung "Musetta's Waltz" from Puccini's La Bohème. In this aria, a courtesan named Musetta observes that when she walks down the street, men lust after her and imagine her body naked. The idea that any parent would allow a young child to sing this is repugnant, and a sign that neither party has bothered to translate the Italian.

Halle: Can you give me examples of any opera prodigies who have gone on to have long, successful careers as an opera singer? What about ones who have had their careers cut short because of vocal injuries?
Glenn: I know of only one "opera prodigy" who went on to have a significant and lasting career as an adult: Beverly Sills. My explanation is that Ms. Sills was an anomaly; a "freak of Nature". On the other hand, Charlotte Church is as good an example as any of the more typical story. A one-time teenage millionaire thanks to record sales, Ms. Church's fortune is gone. As an adult, she turned from classical music to pop, but now has given up both genres.

Halle: It is possible and even common for there to be singing prodigies in such areas as pop music and musical theatre. Why is opera so different?
Glenn: Opera differs from pop music and music theater in that opera singers use no electronic amplification, which is standard in the other areas. A sound system takes the place of all the physical strength opera singers must employ to be heard. Recording engineers can manipulate both the voice and the accompaniment to achieve the proper balance. Not so in opera. Adult operatic music also requires more flexibility and agility than other vocal styles, with rapid runs and trills not uncommon. Of course, when young girls sing opera, it's not in the context of performing a complete role in a staged production with orchestra. It's always a question of singing individual arias, usually with piano accompaniment. But that merely removes it from the absurd to the genuinely risky, since the basic stresses remain, as do inappropriate lyrics

If it strikes you that the nature of the questions betrays a built-in negative attitude toward pint-sized Toscas, well, I'm actually okay with that! Preach, Hallie Golden! Go, sister!

July 12, 2016

Opera and golf and the talent it takes to be mediocre

Benjamin Godard
I don't play much golf any more. I never played a lot, but I enjoyed hitting a bucket of balls on the driving range, and my sister-in-law's husband took me golfing on his municipal course a few times. Well, that was years ago. My sister-in-law divorced her husband and surgery on my cervical spine makes it painful to swing a golf club. So much for active participation!

It's just as well - I wasn't very good. But I still follow the PGA and, to a lesser extent, the LPGA. One thing about golf no one can fully appreciate who has never tried to play the game: IT'S SO HARD.

The pro golf tour is made up of three basic levels: stars, journeymen and "rabbits". The rabbits are the pros who play constantly but seldom if ever win. They struggle along, just breaking even, driving high-mileage cars to the next venue instead of flying because they're running low on cash. But don't kid yourself - those rabbits could beat you like a drum, you amateur, you.

Even the worst pro golfers are really, really, really, REALLY good. Whoever is last on the PGA money-winning list (currently one Tommy Gainey) is a fabulous golfer who can make every shot in the book: booming drives, knock-em-stiff iron shots, delicate chips and amazing lag putts. You see, what a golfer goes through just to earn his PGA tour card is a gauntlet requiring nothing less than skill sets that would win your local club championship every time. Even if he never wins a pro tournament!
Tommy Gainey

And what does this have to do with opera?

A lot.

The percentage of all the operas ever written that end up in the "standard repertoire" - heck, let's expand the category to "operas performed from time to time" - is miniscule; statistically insignificant.
And certainly, there are operas that are really, truly awful, either due to weak libretto, ineffective music, or other factors, or a perfect storm of complete ineptitude.

But the reality is that it takes real talent - amazing skill-sets - to create a mediocre opera; one that is seldom if ever revived. Opera is to music composition what neuro-surgery is to medicine. It's hard. It requires comprehensive mastery.

I was reminded of all this as I took my dog Joy The Friendly Beagle on a walk a few weeks ago. Stomping along a nature trail on a mild Saturday afternoon, I put on my headphones and used a music app on my phone to tune in a Saturday afternoon opera broadcast. That day's offering from WETA FM in Washington D.C. was the opera Dante by Benjamin Godard.

Confession: I didn't know Godard wrote operas...

To me, he was the middling composer of flowery salon pieces for piano, perfumed but slight. So the revelation that he wrote operas came as a surprise. "Okay", I thought, "as an opera professional, I am curious to sample this rarity. Bring it on!" My expectations were low. Generally, there are good, solid reasons that neglected pieces are neglected. I recall having delivered a lecture in downtown Richmond, VA years ago after which a gentleman came up to chat. There are two questions employees of opera companies are asked all the time:
  1. "Why do you always do the same tired old operas? Why not branch out a little?" Or,
  2. "Why do you do weird ugly operas no one's ever heard of? Why not do the 'good ones'"?
This guy was asking #1 above. Obviously wishing to demonstrate his amazing opera knowledge, he clucked his tongue and said "I mean, why not stage Schubert's Alphonso und Estrella? It's absolutely charming!"

Uh huh. Thanks a lot, we'll get right on that, you pretentious twit...

It's not that he was wrong, of course - it's just that a regional opera company like Virginia Opera, especially in bad economic times, would be committing marketing suicide by scheduling a failed opera. See, it's different with opera than with orchestral music or instrumental solos, or even solo vocal music. We musicians can and do perform mediocre or neglected works from those categories all the time, because the investment of resources is relatively small. But opera is expensive! It costs a fortune! You have to take into account scenery, props, costumes, choreographers, electricians, crew members, transportation, airline tickets and housing for singers, ... the list goes on and on. Companies simply can't make an investment like that if the show won't be of interest. It's usually a bad investment to do an oddity, a rarity, a forgotten opera.

But Dante was produced by the Munich Opera, where state funding is more generous than in America, so Godard's shade can rest easy: his piece has survived him, however briefly.
I listened attentively for not quite half an hour, feeling at a disadvantage with neither libretto nor score with which to orient myself. It opened with a highly dramatic chorus, followed by a recitative for the tenor (the character of Dante), a tenor aria with some more chorus, a baritone aria and a duet for the two of them. The opera dates from 1890, according to the announcer.

Then I got to my car, the hike completed, and had to stop my sampling. You can't legally drive with headphones on, and I couldn't hear it over traffic noise without them.

But I'd heard enough to get the idea.

Was it bad? NO! Not at all!. It sounded a little Massenet-ish here, a little Bizet-ish there, with elements of Wagner and late Verdi sprinkled in for good measure. The choral writing was expert. The vocal writing was assured. The orchestration was fine. Many phrases for Dante and his baritone colleague rang out in an impassioned manner.

If you're not a musician, you can't appreciate the level of musicianship, talent, training and experience it takes to compose choral music, learn the craft of orchestration, and write gracefully and effectively for all ranges of male and female voices.

In case you're thinking "A-ha! A neglected masterpiece!", let me quickly assure you it's no such thing.

I don't know Dante well enough to state with authority why it has not entered the standard repertoire. I can only tell you my reaction: I never need to hear it again.

That's my litmus test for evaluating a work I've never heard before, operatic or otherwise. Do I want to hear it again, or was once enough? I recall my first introductions to many favorite works of music: Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, Boris Godunov, the "Liebestod" from Tristan, Brahms' F sharp minor piano quintet, many others. With all of them, I was so gob-smacked by the compelling nature of the music that I realized I SIMPLY HAVE TO HEAR THIS AGAIN! In many cases, over and over...

Not Dante. It was fine; there was nothing particularly wrong per se with it. It just failed the litmus test. I can't really explain why. I suppose the opening chorus seemed a bit long, over-dramatic and extended for a curtain-raiser. Just by a fraction.

Sometimes, with mediocre operas, there is the sense that the composer was trying as hard as possible to make each moment of music "the ultimate opera music", as though every moment had to be climactic.

The great ones save climactic moments for, you know, climaxes. Continual climaxes pall. Maybe I sensed a bit of that in Dante; maybe a tad over-wrought.

You can listen for yourself. The same performance is available as audio on YouTube. Just enter "Godard Dante" in the search bar. I had it on while typing this post, wondering if it would strike me differently. Not so much. The end of the first scene brought weak scattered applause from the audience.

Benjamin Godard: a "rabbit" composer who could make all the shots and compose all the things. These days, he might have to drive his car to hear his opera performed instead of flying.

Final thought: this analogy of composers and pro golfers really holds up pretty well. Take the most famous of recent golfers: Tiger Woods. I could make the case that he corresponds to Richard Strauss. Both set their respective worlds on fire as young men, Woods winning the Masters by nine shots at age 22, Strauss penning his tone poem Don Juan at age 24. Yet both careers tailed off in the latter stages. Tiger went into a steep decline years ago, and Strauss sank into mediocrity as time went along.

Both fields have their "one-shot wonders", or individuals who show flashes of brilliance that never translated into long-term brilliance. You say Ruggiero Leoncavallo, whose only success was Pagliacci, I say Keegan Bradley, who won a major tournament several years ago but has won nothing at all since 2012.

Woods and Strauss: Stars.
Bradley and Leoncavallo: Journeymen.
Godard and Gainey: talented, highly skilled................... rabbits.

June 22, 2016

The spider's web of Virginia Opera's new season

C. M.von Weber, composer of... TURANDOT?
Virginia Opera has announced the 2016-2017 season with the usual ballyhoo of brochures, subscription sales and press releases. Briefly stated, it shapes up this way:

Sept/Oct: A double-bill of Kurt Weill's "ballet chanté" The Seven Deadly Sins with another treatise on sin, Leoncavallo's familiar Pagliacci.

Nov/Dec: Rossini's beloved sit-com The Barber of Seville.

Jan/Feb: Weber's masterpiece Der Freischütz

March/April: Puccini's unfinished spectacle Turandot.

Starting around September I'll resume weekly posts sharing my insights about what makes these pieces tick. For now, however, as I'm hip-deep in the process of studying them, I'm struck by a web of unlikely coincidences and interconnections linking these works, which otherwise would seem to having nothing in common.

Take Turandot, for example. Amazingly, Carl Maria von Weber wrote an overture in 1809 for a production of the Carlo Gozzi drama on which Puccini based his opera. It's an odd, idiosyncratic march-like piece trying hard to sound "Eastern" with a perkily disjointed, asymmetrical tune sounding rather jolly for such grizly goings-on. You can hear a recording of it at this link.

Another surprising mention of Turandot happens in delving into the career of the great German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose text for The Seven Deadly Sins formed his final collaboration with Weill in 1933. It happens that not only was Brecht's final play a comedic version of Turandot, but - like Puccini! - it was left unfinished at his death in 1956. Brecht began his Turandot before leaving Germany during the rise of Hitler; feeling its subject matter unfit for American audiences, he did not turn his attention to it again until his return to Germany. It's not clear why he didn't get around to completing it.

Like all of Brecht's stage works, his Turandot is a political statement; unlike his other works, however, Turandot is said to be a broad farce, using heavy satire to criticize the class of liberal intellectuals the playwright held in contempt. In this version of "ancient China", the Emperor is a weak ruler, manipulated by the intellectuals of the royal court. The traditional plot-point of riddles and decapitation of those who fail them is tweaked to offer a critique of a failed economy:

A dispute has developed between the Union of Clothesmakers and the Union of the Clothesless. To settle the matter, the Emperor orders a grand debate. The wisest men in China must offer plausible answers to the question: "Where is the cotton?" so that the people of China can understand where all the cotton has gone. The intellectual who comes up with the best answer will marry Turandot (who is quite the flirtatious sex-pot in this telling); all the rest will taste the executioner's axe

So much for Turandot as a common thread in this coming season, but I have another: the Thirty Year's War.

Lasting from 1618-1648, this bloody conflict began when Protestants rebelled against attempts by the Holy Roman Emperor (Ferdinand II of Bohemia) to stifle religious freedom. The war caused over a million casualties and redrew the map of Europe before it staggered to its conclusion.

The first link to the Thirty Years' War in our season is straightforward: Der Freischütz takes place immediately after the war's end. Arch-villain Caspar, it turns out, was a combatant. Who knows? Maybe he wasn't evil so much as suffering from PTSD, right?

Where else does the war turn up? Again, in the works of Bertolt Brecht. The play many consider his masterpiece, Mother Courage and her children, written in 1939 to protest the rise of Nazism and Fascism. Though clearly addressing contemporary times, the play takes place in Germany during the Thirty Year's War.

I haven't mentioned Pagliacci or Barber yet, you'll have noticed. Anything cooking there, link-wise? Well, sure. Uh... er... they're both Italian.

Uncanny, isn't it?

See you after Labor Day.

May 23, 2016

If Turridu married Turandot: TurTurTur

Turandot & Turridu, sittin' in a tree...
Sit back, Faithful Readers, and watch in jaw-dropping, awe-struck amazement as I CREATE right before your eyes. I'm feelin' it. The genius-juice is flowing, my people. Ready?

I have a scenario all sketched out for a new opera. Working title: Turridu and Turandot. Right away I've got you hooked, right? Two popular heavyweight opera characters, hooking up together onstage in a brand new story. The storyline is still kind of rough - not really a "libretto" per se as yet, and I'm sure I'll tweak it before the world premiere, but it goes something like this:

ACT I: Turridu and Turandot get married and move to Turin. On their honeymoon, he serenades her with the classic Irish ballad "Tura-lura-lura". Anxious to impress him with her domestic side, Turandot prepares a big tureen of turtle soup. But Turridu detests turtles and insists on a diet of turnips. Turandot philosophically replies "To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn."

ACT II: Turandot and Turridu face turbulent times when Turkey declares war on Turin. Comforting his bride, Turridu sings the consoling aria "Non ti turbare". The mayor of Turin, learning that Turridu has been spying for Turkey, confronts him: "You TURNCOAT!" Turridu admits he was turned by double agents and, revving the turbo engine of his Mercedes (this is the Eurotrash modern staging of Turridu and Turandot), escapes imprisonment.

ACT III: Alone and abandoned, Turandot ponders her fate in the scena "Men are turds".

I sense how deeply moved you all are. I feel both humble and proud.

May 8, 2016

That time I picked up Manson-clone hitchhikers

Never, NEVER pick up
hitchhikers. Serioiusly.
Look, friends, Virginia Opera's season is over. The artists have departed, the scenery has been struck, the wigs and costumes all put away. Frankly, I could use a break from the whole deal. Don't misunderstand: I love opera. I'm an opera composer, librettist, lecturer, educator, and occasional performer and coach. And when the 2016-2017 season cranks up, I'll be blogging like a crazed man, sharing insights with you Faithful Readers.

But this week, I'm sharing a story that is:
  1. completely unrelated to any aspect of opera;
  2. and yet kind of operatic in its high drama; and
  3. 100% true. The following events really happened just as I'll describe them.
In 1977, I was a newlywed, having gotten married the previous December. I also had a shiny Master's degree in piano from Indiana University in my pocket, with plans to begin a doctorate at Northwestern University in my hometown of Evanston IL.

My wife was a year behind me back at Indiana, so we would be separated for the duration of one academic year, a situation that appalled parents and friends alike. Our response: it wasn't as if we would miss each other less if we weren't married, so why not go ahead and tie the knot?

In any case, the time came when I needed to motor up to Evanston and look for an apartment for that upcoming school year. I took off by myself, zipping up Interstate 65 as I'd done many times during my years in Bloomington. I was driving an elderly Plymouth, a hand-me-down from my wife's parents.

I stopped for gas about midway. Standing in line to pay, I was suddenly approached by a couple of clean-cut looking young guys. They were well-groomed, with fresh faces and - I swear - rosy cheeks. One of them, the more talkative, had thick black hair; his quieter companion was a mousy blond. They each had a backpack strapped behind them. I guessed they were 4 or 5 years younger than me; I was 24.

"Excuse me, sir", politely asked Black Hair, "would you by any chance be going to Chicago?"

"Uh... yeah...", I answered with no enthusiasm.

"Would you possibly consider giving us a lift that far? It would really be a big help, if it'd be no trouble. Do you think you could help us out?"

Don't ask me why I didn't come up with any of the 500 answers that might have avoided all the trouble that ensued. "Sorry, I'm sick." "Sorry, my psychiatrist says I should avoid all human contact until the voices go away." Anything. But they had caught me off-guard. In one of those moments when you seem to be standing outside your own body, I heard myself say,

"Um. Sure. No problem."


So I got back on the road with two very eager and chipper passengers, Black Hair in the front seat and Mousy Blond claiming the back.

At first, during the period I now think of as the calm before the storm, things went well. Black Hair noticed that the old Plymouth lacked a radio antenna and offered to jerry-rig one out of some wire in his back-pack. I consented to pull over, and within a minute or two we were on the move again, now with a functioning radio. Black Hair scanned the dial as Chicago drew closer, looking for music while we engaged in trivial small-talk.

After a while, he came upon a station playing some cacophonous acid rock with unintelligible lyrics. Black Hair perked right up. "LISTEN TO THIS, MAN!", he gushed, "this song says it ALL, man!" He looked at me for validation.

"Right on!" I piped up companionably, though I had no clue what the artist was screaming about.

By this time, we had entered the Chicago area, heading straight for a bank of skyscrapers looming in the distance. We were on the Dan Ryan expressway; traffic had thickened, with an unusual number of 18-wheelers careening along on either side of the Plymouth, as well as blocking my path in front.

And this is when my brakes stopped working.

Due to what turned out to be an oil leak dripping onto the brake pads, the brakes' performance had been deteriorating for several miles. At first I had to tap them 2 or 3 times to get a response. But now, with tractor-trailors threatening to run roughshod over me, it had reached the point where I had to pump the brakes a dozen times or more before they would work.

In the meantime, Black Hair had launched into a rant about vaguely anarchist topics, inspired by the angry rhetoric of that song on the radio. Giving me a sidelong look, he asked me if I'd ever heard of Manson.

"Ch... Charles Manson?" I gulped. Black Hair gave what he thought was a sly grin.

We were now on the South Side, with working-class neighborhoods on either side of the highway. Black Hair's voice turned conspiratorial. He shared with me the back-story of my two passengers. They were gradually working their way North from Alabama (or maybe it was Arkansas, I'm not sure any more), financing their travel by shoplifting and other criminal acts. They had plans to end up in Montana, where some Manson-like commune awaited them.

"Hey man," he said, "you don't really have to stop in Chicago, do you? We'd kind of like to go all the way. We figured you might want to take us there."

Holy crap. What had I done, what had I done?

I don't know whether Black Hair was giving me the straight dope, or whether his tale of theft and a commune was all a fantasy, created to give me a hard time; a little prank he and his buddy could laugh about later. I can tell you I was pretty much in a state of panic. And, of course, I was negotiating the oil-slicked brakes as best I could, trying to avoid rear-ending vehicles ahead of us.

All of his former politeness and inhibitions now gone, Black Hair rolled down the window and began shouting obscenities at the cars we passed.

"Hey man," I said, trying to sound cool by speaking his lingo, "cool it. You'll get us in trouble with... the pigs; you know, with The Man."

Black Hair suddenly turned to me. "I have to pee. Take this exit." Getting off the interstate seemed a step in the right direction, so I was happy to comply. Still deep on the South Side, we pulled into a Shell gas station right at the top of the exit ramp. Black Hair jumped out. Instead of heading for a rest room, he ambled over to the side of the building, unzipped his jeans and began christening the wall.

Mousy Blond, who had been pretty quiet thus far, suddenly piped up. "I'm gonna pee too." And with that he flipped open the door and headed towards the same wall.

The car was empty. They were 15 feet away, the rear door still open. I saw my chance, and I acted. Cranking the ignition, I slammed my foot into the gas and tore rubber towards the street like a scene from a Vin Diesel movie. Behind me, Black Hair and Mousy Blond began galloping after me, waving their arms and screaming in outrage.

"Well," I thought, merging onto the little one-way side street, "they wanted a ride to Chicago and I gave them a ride to Chicago. They can't complain."

I'd only gotten a half-block down the street when I had to stop for a red light. The two guys were in hot pursuit, running for all they were worth. And then I realized what I'd done.

Their back packs were still in the car. Oops.

Desperate times do in fact call for desperate measures. Reaching to close and lock the door, I looked out for cross-traffic and ran the red light, zooming recklessly until I'd left my former passengers out of sight.

I was still concerned,  because getting back on the expressway would involve making a U-turn. This, of course, would bring me back to the gas station where they could be waiting for me.

As it turned out, I made it back on I-94 without spotting them.

I had a long, anxious ride to the North Shore and the Evanston city limits. I imagined Black Hair phoning the police and reporting my theft. They might even know my license plate! There might be an APB out for an old black Plymouth! I might be arrested!

And what about those back packs? What in God's name should I do with them. And WHAT IN GOD'S NAME WAS IN THEM???

In this stressful state, I had a strong instinct: to return to my childhood home. My parents had moved to Virginia years earlier, but home is home is home. So as evening shadows began to lengthen, I headed towards my old house on Lake Shore Boulevard. Driving down the alley behind the garage, I stopped the car and laid the back packs beside the same aluminum trash cans that were there in my high school years. I would not have opened them to inspect the contents for anything. I didn't know, and didn't want to know.

Exhausted by the dual trauma of bad brakes and giving a ride to possible Manson clones, I crept to my motel room, half-expecting a detective to knock on my door in the middle of the night.

That was the end of it. I have no clue what became of Black Hair and Mousy Blond. I suspect they were resourceful enough to figure something out. As for me, I found an apartment and began classes in September.

It seems a hundred years ago............