Sunday, June 21, 2015

As Callas said about sex ... New Operas Part 2



Fat Callas, Barbieri and ... unknown
I just decided on that title to see if I could get some attention. Leo Lerman knew Maria Callas very well socially and has some funny stories about her. He was the "Arts" person at the various magazines that were acquired by Condé Nast. They're in the book The Grand Surprise, an extensive (actually endless) compilation of journal entries, letters and the short articles and character pieces he wrote over close to fifty years.

But first...

After the run down last week, I promised "reviews" or "impressions" of the new works mentioned. For those who happen to trip over this, like baby's first skate left in the shadows on the stairs -- run!!!!

My twin, Albert Innaurato, worked with a small (tiny?) opera company here in the city of turds and Weh where the idiot who ran it, a mama's boy "conductor" who was a lot like Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, agreed that for a few years they could try Albert's idea of doing new work in small productions, and developing other new operas. Albert directed a few new operas and worked with a fair number of composers and librettists.



The Shops, directed by Albert, rehearsal for American premiere
Sadly, with the death of arts in America a lot of idiots run these potentially valuable organizations. They get sprayed with RAID -- I mean REALITY -- but they're like roaches. Bottom's back -- tremble!!

But in working with all kinds of composers and their librettists (when they didn't write their own texts), Albert realized another art form was largely dead.

The theater.

None of these people understood that a stage work has to be dramatized. Even though the music is the most important element of an opera and can cover some faults, the "play" being set, must work somehow as a "dramatic action". Almost none of these people knew much about opera. But (though all were phenomenally well educated musically) 
they and their librettists were totally ignorant about the theater.

They did not understand that in the operas they did know the story was dramatized, not narrated, hinted at or left somewhere in limbo: suspense, revelation, reversal, surprise and resolution happened in front of the audience. 


The question Albert would always ask the composers is "what sings to you in this material?" He was always met with incomprehension. He understood that to mean that the composers had no theatrical instinct. They left it up to the librettist and tried to set what they got.

Nixon in China by John Adams set a ruinous precedent. At least a famous title to these composers and sometimes more, they didn't realize that the pretentious concept of Peter Sellars and the ludicrous text of one, Alice Goodman, wrecked a great idea. Sellars having failed in the spoken theater had no idea how to dramatize a story, substituting the bizarre for revelation. Adams, prodigiously gifted and at his freshest, was sabotaged. It was worse in The Death of Klinghoffer. What should have been a powerful dramatization of what Aristotle would have called "the union of opposites" is an easily misinterpreted mess.

Adams knew too little about how operas really work in a theater and his wonderful musical inventions tended to fall flat in context. The composers we still encounter in the opera house and admire had taken the lead in deciding how to present the story they were setting. (Adams is still among the three most produced American composers of opera in the world, but I think that says more for his gifts than the actual works as a whole).

Philip Glass (the most produced American opera composer in the world) was a huge influence on the younger composers. This was not always for the best. The "minimalism" he developed came from within him after rigorous study along more conventional lines, the influence of that great outsider Morton Feldman, as well as his own firsthand exposure to Indian and Tibetan music.

He worked in the "experimental" theater of his time, one that abandoned the concept of "author" for free-associative and imagistic confrontations with time, memory, "truth" conflicting with "pretense". His decisions were organic and essential to him. When Einstein on the Beach was given at the Metropolitan Opera (not produced by that company) a huge audience had a transcendental/puzzling/thrilling experience.

There was the very long parade onstage of the strange, the crazy, the communicative, the obscure accompanied by a remarkable music which only occasionally took an "articulative" place in the proceedings. In the audience the "downtown" arts scene assembled en masse, hipsters attended to get high and groove, the well-heeled and curious were held fast by horror and shock and opera queens stumbled in to be angry ("what, no high notes? No coloratura?") 

The apparent chaos on stage was mirrored by the real chaos in the vast, gilded auditorium as people came and went, danced, screamed, fought, tranced out. It was an explosion, astonishing in that staid place and exactly what the then remarkable Robert Wilson (the architect of it all) and Glass had wanted. And that was the point: where was the "opera"? On the stage or in the auditorium or both simultaneously?

In an "opera" such as the masterpiece, Satyagraha, Glass focused his talents but avoided "drama" and narrative altogether except for slight hints and saw to it that the focus had to be on sounds by setting glorious music to Sanskrit! 

Since those times, Glass has changed much and even distanced himself a bit from that brilliantly cultivated savage of those early days. The younger Glass was singular, a nuclear blast that mirrored and prefigured a time of rapid change. But he was not someone who founded a school which graduated composers refining and expanding his techniques.

Today, in the new operas that we see, although a straightforward narrative is no longer essential, it is still the most common currency on which a sound "dramatic" structure is erected. So again, even with the few minimalists Albert would ask "how does this technique work for the theater piece you want to make? What sings in you?"

Albert was arrogant enough to think that Verdi in encountering Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse felt that -- in the opera called Rigoletto --he had to set the scene where the venomous jester 
rages furiously against the courtiers who have abducted his virginal daughter, the sole love in his life. He tries to break into the duke's chambers -- to save her from being raped. Amused, they stop him. He wrestles with himself (aloud) and then hating himself for having to do it but loving his daughter more, he begs these despicable pigs for mercy on his daughter.


Rigoletto - Leo Nucci - begs for mercy for his daughter 

I suspect Verdi only had to read that scene to know that the fury and anguish of this outsider throbbed in him and would sing through him. He knew himself as a creator for the theater, and that this strange story, robbed of Hugo's political agenda and multiple ironies could work. And it has for 164 years.

But all of this came from the composer. He bullied his librettist into giving him what he needed, only as many words as would do the job, clarify the situations, re-enforce the characters.

I could multiply examples -- Mozart somehow understood (identified with?) the multiple ambiguities in Cosi fan tutte. Perhaps he knew something about circles where the trading of sexual partners went on?


Mozart defied the bullying Archbishop to whom he was bound and ran to Vienna, facing poverty rather than service, a choice that confronts Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro, and yet I bet he also identified with the endlessly randy Cherubino and even with the sexual urges of the count. I think he fell in love with Susanna as Figaro does, understood the nostalgia and sorrow of the Countess. Again, one of the few great writers who could manage librettos, Lorenzo da Ponte, erased the political and autobiographical obsessions of the playwright, Beaumarchais, and omitted a lot of the intrigue in the play. But knowing Mozart he captured the essentials for what would sing through him.

Albert shut up! He (?) will talk your ear off and I'm sure you get the point. In the new operas that have surfaced recently, one finds the same problems that Albert did in that tiny, horribly run company. 


Yardbird was by far the most successful of these recent operas, both with the audiences in Philly and with reviewers. It was a wonderful experience and is a good candidate to have a life beyond its next engagement at the Apollo Theater in New York.


Brownlee and Brown - mother and son in Yardbird

But there were problems with the libretto. Bridgette A. Wimberly, credited with text, did provide singable lines, and the composer, David Schnyder took them and ran. But, where was the drama? If you didn't know anything about Charlie Parker, known as Bird or Yardbird, you were lost. Impressionistic "poetry" touched with sentimentality doesn't tell a story, establish character or motive or add up. Wimberly had no idea how to make clear just who the characters were, and felt no obligation to fashion a dramatic arc leading to an inevitable climax, not just a cliched ending ("you mean we've been seeing Bird's last seconds alive as he, OD-ing, sees his life flashing in front of him? Why, fancy that!").

In our America, I suspect quite a lot of people won't know who Bird was, or about Birdland (the people around me at Opera Philadelphia's Oscar only knew the name, Oscar Wilde.Though well enough off to afford expensive seats and presumably educated, they knew nothing of his life). Many opera-goers may not even have heard of Birdland or know much about the great history of American jazz. 

But somehow Ms. Wimberly and Mr. Schnyder think everyone will know who Charlie Parker was, how he lived his life, how he died and who was important to him. And some fool will say, "but this is opera, we don't need to know". But we do. Opera and theater are both about the immediacy of effect, they are about this second, and the next and the next. If one has to wonder, "who the hell is that?" or "what is going on?" then the opera loses its impact.

This is not a sermon against ambiguity, fantasy, abbreviation, dream sequences, poetic flights. Of course, the life of Bird, like that of Oscar Wilde, would have to be compressed and abbreviated to work in a play, let alone an opera. But just who those white women were and why they had such an interest in Bird is important (and in real life they were interesting people not just female voices to make an ensemble). Why is Bird a junkie, what is his mother doing in the ghostly Birdland? And if you're vague about Charlie Parker are you going to know Dizzy Gillespie? Will you have a notion that they invented bebop, or even know what that is and how it sounds?

Making a libretto, like writing a play, is solving a puzzle. Ms. Wimberly and Mr. Schnyder clearly wanted a tight 100-minute work, one that flowed. So the challenge was to make clear in a theatrical shorthand, what was going on. (The Baroness "Nika" a remarkable jazz age character in New York, is just a lady in a fancy coat in the opera but dramatizing her impact might have made for a richer evening. The scenes between Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were musically wonderful and very well performed but if you aren't really sure who they were and what their relationship was those scenes didn't "land".)

Archetypal scenes work (Bird and his mother -- although the fantastic Lawrence Brownlee and the charismatic Angela Brown may have had something to do with that) and Schnyder's process, licks from Bird worked into musical cells that combine, intersect, invert and a rhythmic certainty that creates a strong forward movement help the emotional "feel" of the piece, stretches of harmonically enriched bebop are gorgeous to hear. But a scene where Bird and some others wander about in straight jackets in a weird light with no explanation at all, despite the powerful musical interlude under it, had some people around me tittering. (Bird was arrested for drug use after he set a hotel room on fire and institutionalized for a time but who knew from this?)

The challenge is to solve a puzzle not create a "well made" play or even a complete narrative, it's being sure that we know precisely what we need to know, no more, and not ever in a wordy way, to enter this world and be moved by the outcome. 

But Schnyder, who is 53, is one of the two composers of new operas who has developed a personal style (the other, very different, is the amazing George Benjamin, at 54 also a mature artist, in Written on Skin). Though influenced by "bop" Schnyder uses his own sense of how to build melodies, use complex chords to enrich them, employ classical forms to unite the work and he can write both soaring vocal lines and "scat" -- seeming to arise spontaneously from the ongoing musical discourse of the 14 instruments in the pit (from which Schnyder elicits gorgeous and surprising textures -- as an ironic gesture he does not use Bird's instrument, the saxophone).

Some flabby transitional moments aside the music is magic and may allow the work a triumphant progress, whatever Albert (and I) may think of the libretto.


Oscar and Bosie in life

Oscar presented earlier by Opera Philadelphia was everything that seems wrong with "new operas" written in America. Albert -- my guest for the evening and too large to fit into the small seats of the beautiful but old-fashioned Academy of Music -- was transported back to the conversations with those composers in the tiny opera company. 

He wanted to ask the composer, Theodore Morrison (at 77 one expects he knows his own mind), what sang to him in the libretto presented to him by the very experienced John Cox (a director but functioning as librettist here)?

The opera started with Walt Whitman. What was he doing there? Well, Oscar made a point of meeting him as did many English Uranians of the time but in the opera we didn't see their meeting (which doesn't seem to have been momentous). Walt was there to narrate -- speaking, not singing (sad that Dwayne Croft got only a few chances to show off a still lovely baritone)!

Now, in a play or an opera this is a bad sign. Yes, "show don't tell" is a cliche but it's true. An audience needs to see transactions between characters and learn from them what the creators want to demonstrate; telling them is not nearly as effective.

The idea was to set Oscar up as a celebrity so his fall would be more painful. So we got David Daniels for whom the part was written speaking the curtain speech Wilde gave after the sensational first night of his play Lady Windermere's Fan. Why? And why all this speaking? Twenty minutes in, one was wondering what the opera was about. 

Yes, one understands, it's theme was the downfall of a celebrity of the time, a homosexual icon. But how interesting is that? Those who know the sad, sordid tale and its awful end hardly need this carrying on and those who don't know much or anything won't care. What would make them care, empathize, even understand Oscar?

Love.

Albert, being full of himself would have pointed out to Mr. Morrison (a very distinguished man) that NOTHING sings like love. And nothing sings more heartrendingly than thwarted or blighted love. Oscar was in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie, a younger man. Where was he in this opera?

DANCING!!!

Apparently influenced by Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, Morrison and Cox had decided to make Bosie a dancing role, as Tadzio is in the Britten work. But Tadzio is 14 and he never speaks to his stalker, Aschenbach.

But Bosie was 21 going on 80 when he met Wilde. Unlike the poet, he was a pervert, having come up through the English "public" school system and enormously experienced in the ways of procuring boys for hire, and the homosexual underground that provided ways for men to meet for sex when sex between consenting adult males was against the law and severely punished.

Oscar was married and a father but naive and found himself passionately in love with the empty headed, selfish and sybaritic Bosie whose appalling father would trigger the events that brought Wilde down.

Now, perhaps in a play one might suggest how shallow Bosie was, how spoiled and superficial, though at the same time highly taken with Wilde, like a wild child who has found a teddy bear to cuddle and torment.

That ambiguity is hard to deal with in an opera (that would take a Janacek who wrote his own texts or the Britten of Turn of the Screw supervising a kindred spirit), and perhaps it's not the point Cox and Morrison wanted to make anyway. So why not make Bosie a character who sings, who interacts with Wilde? Why not show their passion, both romantic and sexual? If one is going to show a "past" before Wilde's troubles, why not a love scene between the two men?

Wilde was 37 when they met -- older than Bosie but there would hardly be the awkwardness of his being taken with a young boy. Shouldn't we see at its height the passion that Wilde never denied and which destroyed him? And what calls for music in an opera more than a passionate profession of undying love? Bosie, who lived until 1945, rewrote his life extensively, downplaying both the emotional and physical aspects of his involvement with Wilde. But perhaps at that moment he did respond to Wilde's unquestioning, unconditional love.

Instead, in Oscar, Bosie danced and danced and danced. There were no scenes between him and Wilde. 

The opera jumped to the night before Oscar was to be sentenced. His friend (also notorious but heterosexual) Frank Harris -- sung by the great American tenor William Burden sadly underused here -- advises him to flee to France as many an Englishman in similar straights has done, for the verdict is sure to be guilty and the penalty, brutal. Oscar refuses but advises the dancing Bosie to flee.

But isn't that a scene that invites music? Perhaps Bosie puts up a (pro forma) objection while Oscar genuinely begs him to save himself, promising they will meet again and Bosie agrees to flee, likewise promising to stay faithful to their love.

Yes, Oscar was sentenced to two years hard labor, put in a cruel prison, and the experience ruined him physically, problems resulting from the labor probably killed him a few years later.

In Morrison's opera, we got a half hour of sounds suspiciously like themes from Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten. Oh, yes, Bosie in death mask danced through this too during a completely irrelevant execution. But Opera is full of solo prison scenes where an unjustly imprisoned man cries out his grief, terror, hope. 

Not much use was made of the gifted David Daniels but what an opportunity for him would such a prison soliloquy have been!

After serving his full term, Oscar has no choice but to go to Paris. He is destitute. There is a story that Oscar hopelessly walking the streets to see if he could find food saw the coach of the great diva Nellie Melba. He approached her, looking like a bum and said, "Excuse me, Dame Nellie, I used to be Oscar Wilde. I am starving. Can you help me?" Melba, notoriously tight-fisted, gave him all the money she had on her, and some of her jewels and hurried away.

Albert might have told this story to Cox and Mr. Morrison not for them to use but as an example of how one might SHOW Oscar's desperation and the depths to which he had sunk.

There were other opportunities for scenes in Paris: surely, there would be the farewell between Bosie and Oscar, who has never lost his love. In fact Oscar's wife had offered him a modest stipend if he agreed never to see Bosie again, not to "stop" his homosexuality but to get him away from someone she understood all too well. As desperate as he was, Oscar refused. But Bosie had already moved on. They did meet to say goodbye, and I can't understand not wanting to write the scene and music for it of this wrenching farewell. But there was no such scene, nor was there a death scene for Oscar. Cox tried to use as many of Oscar's words as he could, how could he have resisted what some have suggested were Oscar's last words after much suffering: "Either this wallpaper goes or I do?"

Mr. Morrison is distinguished (as is Mr. Cox) but I thought the music lacked variety of color, imagination, a distinctive voice or even (whatever Mr. Morrison might have felt in himself) emotional conviction. It was a clumsy take on an interesting subject, badly and rather stupidly staged, where a fine singing cast and a dancer of remarkable stamina (Reed Luplau giving his all in this bizarre iteration of Bosie), were wasted.

Well, this is Philadelphia where good people come to die (and where the doomed Oscar Wilde met the elderly and rather puzzled Walt Whitman!). So what can you do?

Well, I could end this but I haven't dealt with Matthew Aucoin's Crossing or the work of Nico Muhly, both much younger than the composers I've discussed here.


Antonacci as the beset mother in Two Women
But perhaps we could have a word or two about the "lush" new opera, designed to save people from "musical torture" given in San Francisco: Two Women by Marco Tutino. It was panned by the national reviewers. I can only speak to a few clips sent me by a spy. As is often the case, idiots on line invoked Giancarlo Menotti as an influence or heaven help us the witty, light-fingered Nino Rota. 

But Tutino (61) writes in the style of Renzo Rossellini, the brother of the great director Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini wrote the scores for his brother's famous movies from the mid-1940s, Rome: Open City, Paisan, and others. The score for Paisan goes on and on very loudly. It shows a rich orchestral texture and harmonic procedures of the 1890's with some haunting original melodies plus a few folk tunes adapted to a lush style. He wrote at least 15 operas, many of them given at La Scala. His biggest success was A View from the Bridge, a professional work in a very old fashioned but not ineffective style.

Tutino as far as I could hear proceeds exactly the same way, alternating noisy effusions with "found" music, including a rather haunting folk tune. I can't say more not having seen the work. Rossellini, born in 1908, sounds more spontaneous. Tutino (born 1954) sounds contrived and obvious as far as I could tell. For some well-placed reviewers, the work fell flat. 

The whole endeavor seems naive to me. A creative artist can only write for his or her own time. Parody or pastiche may be amusing but has limited expressive uses in serious, emotional material. 

Rossellini wrote in a style that was old-fashioned and tired but could still possess some immediacy of effect. Tutino is writing camp and unless the work is intended to be a send-up, it becomes irrelevant. That isn't the same thing as "conservative", it's the same thing as pointless.

The flight into the past so typical of opera lovers today is an embrace of death. Schnyder's style, hardly radical and never unapproachable, or Benjamin's somewhat tougher but utterly fascinating approach, are powerful ways to meet the challenge of opera in a world that is spinning away from the cultural norms that supported it for so many years.

And we so must end. If anyone is still reading, next time I will try a few words about those youthful hopes Aucoin and Muhly. For now -- oh wait! Callas speaks:

On page 269 of the book, Lerman quotes Maria Callas, who he adored: "After fifty, singing is like sex, you never know if you'll make it."


Saturday, June 6, 2015

DEATH OR TRANSFIGURATION? (1)

                                   



from CROSSING by Matthew Aucoin at A.R.T



What's needed to renew opera is new operas. The crisis is very real. These figures are from Opera America. The "main season attendance (not counting outreach, student performances, etc. 4.1 million in 1990), went from 3.6 in 2007 to 2.9 in 2009. This decline is a steady slope since 1990."

In America of all the Arts opera is the most endangered because it's the most expensive. "Regie production", is possibly not the answer anywhere. Those are 
director-driven presentations of popular operas that none the less go in radical directions far away from what experienced American opera lovers are used to seeing. We need a reinvention of the form through its basic unit, the opera itself. 

This has dawned on people for at least the last fifteen years and is getting its annual attention in the press. The New York Times did a big piece on Matthew Aucoin, the "boy genius" who appears to be abundantly gifted as a conductor but who's new opera, Crossing, was just given at ART, the theater at Harvard and was covered widely, including in the New York times.



OSCAR Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia did two new operas in 2015: Oscar by Theodore Morrison, with a libretto by John Cox, which concerns the downfall of the famous playwright and wit, Oscar Wilde. It was jointly commissioned with Santa Fe Opera which gave the world premiere in 2013. And on June 5, 2015, Opera Philadelphia gave the world premiere of Yardbird, the nickname of Charlie Parker, also known as Bird. Music was by the Swiss, Daniel Schnyder, text by Bridgette A. Wimberly. I saw both of these.


Yardbird Opera Philadelphia 

San Francisco will soon give the world premiere of Two Women, an opera by Marco Tutino, to be directed by Francesca Zambello.

Interestingly, Italian conductors provided the impetus for Yardbird and Two Women. Corrado Rovaris, the Music Director of Opera Philadelphia, spoke to the "fusion" composer Daniel Schnyder. They arrived at the idea of an opera that takes place on the last day of Parker's life. Nicola Luisotti convinced David Gockley the General Director of the San Francisco Opera to commission an opera of "lush and powerful" music to relieve the audience of the pains of "modernism" and "musical torture".


But a local spy confided that San Francisco Opera sent out an email advertising a 40% discount on seats for Two Women. Is the issue that people who pay for live performances only want Tosca or equivalent and won't even take a risk on something that has gotten sweaty assurances by all that it will be at worst a dental checkup with lolly-pop and not a painful procedure?

This informant also wondered if Two Women could possibly be worse than Gorden Getty's Usher (words and music by Mr. Getty, an 81 year old billionaire) on a bill with a recent completion of Claude Debussy's Fall of the House of Usher by Robert Orledge in December. This bill has already been given by the Welsh National Opera in June, 2014 to less than a rapturous reception (Debussy left very little, Mr. Getty reportedly remembers too much). 

Nico Muhly writes a lot of music. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned and gave the world premiere of a new work of his called Messages at its last concerts in the Kimmel Center in May, 2015 (I heard it May 16). Afterward, the orchestra's music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin called Muhly "a genius, a great genius!"



Two Boys, Metropolitan Opera
Muhly has written two operas. The Metropolitan Opera gave the American Premiere of Two Boys in the fall of 2013. The libretto is by the distinguished American playwright, Craig Lucas. The English National Opera gave the World Premiere in 2011. Opera Philadelphia joined one of its partners, Opera Gotham, a small but well-funded company in New York, to give Muhly's first opera, Dark Sisters, written in 2010. It was about this time that Muhly was being given the enormous promotion that has been given Aucoin. He has been commissioned by the Metropolitan opera to compose an opera called Marnie for now, for the 2019-20 season.

Meanwhile, the Lincoln Center Festival will give Written on Skin, a new opera by George Benjamin with text by Martin Crimp. Benjamin was a pupil of Olivier Messiaen and is now 55. He works slowly but has composed much beautiful music in a sophisticated contemporary style, which both invokes the past and has many remarkable, personal aspects. Written in Skin had its world premiere -- an enormous success -- in Paris in 2012. It was a sensation at the Royal Opera in London, in 2013 where a DVD was made. Americans will weigh in this July, 2015. 


This summer, Minnesota opera will give the world premiere of The Shining based on the Stephen King novel. The composer is the veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning mediocrity Paul Moravec.


This August, Santa Fe Opera will give the world premiere of Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon, another veteran and Pulitzer Prize winner, text by Gene Scheer. It will then be given by Opera Philadelphia in February, 2016 and by the Minnesota opera in 2018. All three companies co-commissioned the work. This kind of sharing, of productions and commissions, has become commonplace in American opera since 2000, it's considered a survival tactic. Higdon is a former composer in residence at the Philadelphia Orchestra and teaches composition at the Curtis Institute.


More will occur; there is clearly a determination to create a repertory of new and recent operas that can be produced often and attract a public. The rather chilling insistence that a new opera should be "lush" and "powerful" suggests that as in all things in fecund America today, soon to be renamed Koch Country, there is a large element of philistinism. Higdon and Moravec are conservative composers (although Higdon is talented), and Morrison who wrote the hopeless Oscar, composed it in a very derivative style (Benjamin Britten).


The late Daniel Catan (Florencia en al amazonas and Il Postino among others) and the very much alive Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking among many others) write in a quasi Puccini style and have been praised for it. Opera News, a worthless rag run by a bunch of fools has used the phrase "movie music" as praise. So why not just show Robin Hood on a huge screen in the opera house? It has a "lush" score by Erich Korngold, as does Gone with the Wind, with its famous score by Max Steiner. 


When I've heard Catan and Heggie they've reminded me of how daring and challenging Puccini actually was. When La Boheme was first given in New York it was called a "tuneless sewer". A great diva of the time, Nellie Melba, who wanted to sing Mimi, nonetheless had to sing the Mad Scene from Lucia after the opera, to be sure her fans came and stayed. But within a few years of its world premiere in Turin, in 1896 it had been given in an amazing number of opera houses and by 1900 was a massive worldwide hit.




Teresa Cerutti Italian sorpano dancing as Salome

Salome by Richard Strauss was considered musically cutting edge and shocking in its subject matter. It had its world premiere in Dresden in 1905. Within two years, it had been given in 50 other opera houses. It was withdrawn after one performance by the board of the Metropolitan Opera on moral grounds in 1907. The review quoted by the Metropolitan Opera Data Base contains the following "There is a vast deal of ugly music in "Salome"-music that offends the ear and rasps the nerves like fiddlestrings played on by a course (sic) file.." The writer was the appreciable Henry Krehbiel in the Tribune.


But Salome was a hit when performed by Oscar Hammerstein's company at the Manhattan Opera house. Hammerstein also had hits with the more difficult Elektra and the elusive Pelleas et Melisande by Claude Debussy.


When new, Puccini, Strauss and their operatic competitors were not heard as "lush" at all. Now, we can hear much of their music that way (but not Elektra's confrontation with her mother, sections of Salome, Die Frau ohne Schatten, or parts of La fanciulla del west or Turandot).


Wozzeck by Alban Berg has been given at the Metropolitan Opera 67 times, that is more often than I Puritani, Nabucco, Porgy and Bess, La Rondine, Rusalka, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Dido and Aeneas.


Wozzeck had its world premiere in 1925. It was a scandal and a sensation and became enormously popular in German-speaking countries, and then gradually elsewhere in Europe. It made Berg an international celebrity. The Nazis stopped that in 1933. However, Leopold Stokowski had given a staged performance in Philadelphia in 1931. Extended fragments were broadcast in England in 1932. The complete opera was given in concert in London in 1934. It was given at the Rome Opera in 1942 despite the Gestapo by Tullio Serafin with Tito Gobbi. After World War ll it began slowly to become a repertory item all over the world. The Metropolitan Opera was late doing it in 1958 and frightened too. It was an enormous success. No one would call Wozzeck "lush" or suggest that it was essentially background music.


But we are in a culture of distraction. The goal behind doing new operas has been in part to lure "the young" back into the opera house. But we know that in America at least, the average person under thirty is looking at three screens at once. Attention jumps back and forth to multiple entertainments as well as real life situations happening simultaneously.


As someone who deals seriously in press for "high art" put it to me (and he is in his early thirties), young people "curate their own entertainment today". They don't leave it up to stodgy opera companies or symphony orchestras, or theaters, or ballet companies to organize elaborate seasons and sell them subscriptions. They decide on what they're in the mood for and indulge that for as long as they're interested, moving on to something else with the lightening speed our amazing technology allows.


In a country that despises the well-being of a huge percentage of its population, education, science, rationality, all the arts, one can't expect American youngsters, even those from "good backgrounds" to know anything, to have a frame of reference, to concentrate for long, to retain information, to know much of anything other than what is hot right now, what is "happening" that the corporations are using to make massive profits while deadening their brains.


Yes, the elderly idiots on the various opera lists dislike "difficult" music, which is only difficult if you're brain is deadened by age and seventy years of listening to Tosca and Adriana Lecouvreur hundreds of times ("I have 300 performances of Norma," one of these fools bragged on a list. But could he read a piano/vocal score of Norma, or even a few arias from it? Of course not.) 


We've betrayed ourselves, those of us who are old; we've allowed this country to be bought and the brains of our young to be crushed. And we argue over Milanov and Callas and Tebaldi as though it were eternally1958.


Zambello and Gockley looking to produce a "lush" opera where perhaps no one has to strive to understand what is going on, are old too. Whatever they may really believe, and they are both the tough survivors of many a battle, they think assuring an audience that it can come to the opera and not work, even doze to pleasant sound is a way forward.


But I will end by quoting Flannery O'Connor: "Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.” But an opera impresario will say, "Nice. Now how do you pay for it?"


This, alas, is part one. I've heard many of these operas, read the scores of others and of course have irrelevant opinions. But that must wait for --dare I call it -- part two?






Thursday, April 2, 2015

AN IMPROVISED REQUIEM




Eric Owens cried openly during the "Schubertiade" presented on March 25 by The Philadelphia Camber Music Society in the intimate Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center.

He burst into tears during Fahrt zum Hades (The Journey to Hell). He started to sob in the quiet section where the dead person whispers "Neither bright sun shines nor is starlight seen nor even a song can be heard." Tears rolled down his face in Prometheus and again he had to fight sobs during Gruppe aus dem Tarturus, especially in the second strophe, "Schmertz verzerret ihr Gesicht"... "Sorrow deforms their faces...".

In a time when few classical artists show much emotion ever, even on stage in opera (Opera Stars for example now study "The poker face" as a technique) such a display was shocking. 

After intermission, Owens emerged with a music stand and seemed very upset. He addressed the audience. He said, "we lost colleagues today in an airplane accident, Maria Radner, and Oleg Bryjak. I knew Maria Radner who was lost with her husband and child. She was a special soul. I thought I'd keep the music just in case I get a little distracted. "

He sang two familiar songs, Ganymed, an equivocal text by Goethe, which has an aspect of sexual ambiguity about it for Ganymed was a beautiful boy abducted by Zeus. But for Owens it became a song about the soul after death, He stressed "Ich komme, Ich komme! Wohin? Ach, Wohin?" "I come, I come but to where, ah to where?" The last strophe, often done as a comfort, was instead mere speculation as Owens stressed it, that there was perhaps something after life, "a loving father." He didn't lighten his full, rich tone or move quickly through, singing not as a boy ascending but as a man trying to believe that maybe there is somewhere a comfort. The great song Der Wanderer followed. It is a song about one who has left home, perhaps forced out, to find himself a stranger without an anchor. Owens' rich sound and slow exploration had a tremendous heavy sadness.

At the end of that group he moved his music stand all the way to the lip of the stage, saying "I want to be as close to you as possible", and cried through An die Musik -- On music. "Du holde Kunst", thou holy art, I thank you for taking me to a better world... The song is often somewhat sentimental and I've seen it done in a simpering way but not here, as Owens appeared to be reaching out to embrace all of us in the paradox of music itself, suspended time in forward motion, not a comfort or a distraction, but a way of being, at least for a few moments in an awful world where we will all suffer and then have nothing to show for that but death. 

I've seen many of the great and very good song recitalists who emerged after World War Two, some late in the day. I've even been at and indeed, been a participant (as a notably stumbly pianist) at some master classes. Virtually none of the teachers I played for as a weird teenager, and certainly none of those famous people whose master classes I attended under one pretext or another would really have endorsed Owens. They would have suggested that he hit one aspect of the texts too hard, that showing emotion to that degree was inappropriate, that it was important to evoke tears in the audience and not oneself in a sad song, and never to be indifferent to irony and ambiguity. All true.

I've certainly seen famous Lieder singers who obviously loved what they were singing and were invested in it. Two of the most moving were Hans Hotter (who I was able to hear in two recitals a year or so before he retired at 80) and Gerard Souzay who gave his entire being to a song. Even Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, who I often call Evil Incarnate, since she was an information officer in the Gestapo, was fully engaged in what she sang and had the gift of projecting with her eyes mysterious, complex emotions.

But I have rarely been moved in the way Owens moved me. Perhaps it is death getting closer and closer to me that caused me to understand the lament in his singing, supported by an unhistrionic, utterly sincere commitment to his particular vision on this evening.

In any case, the audience adored him, wept along eventually, and in Maria Huang he had an accompanist who obviously could alter what I suspect they had prepared and support him in the moment, without losing focus and command.

Otherwise, the mostly familiar program was shared with Susanna Phillips who forgot the words to "Gretchen am Spinnrade" of all things and seemed unsure as to how to perform the songs, tending to act them and play with tempos, also not in easy voice. It was great to hear "Auf dem Strom" with Jennifer Montone's gorgeous horn, and the concert ended with "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen" with Riccardo Morales, the phenomenal clarinettist once with the Met orchestra, now with the Philadelphia orchestra, playing with incredible sweetness and charm.

Owens is very versatile (professional level oboist and conductor as well as imposing bass-baritone) and has a magnificent sound. The concert had been postponed from early January when Owens was evidently having some physical/personal problems and Phillips I suspect had been better prepared then. She has a beautiful voice but appeared to be having technical difficulties, and her concentration was off. Myra Huang was possibly 
too indulgent with the soprano (although she may have deferred to Phillips who pushed and pulled at tempos and dragged the end of Gretchen -- after she had consulted the music -- unconscionably). Perhaps she too was distracted by the deaths of colleagues. 


Time moves so quickly that this has probably lost its relevance. The co-pilot of the plane, possibly suicidal, possibly concerned about an eye problem that would cost him his job, described in many American outlets as "depressed" (as though depression prompts murder/suicide) locked the cockpit door and crashed the plane killing 150 people. Indiana passed a virulently anti-LGBT law but as of today has watered it down following quick and extensive national backlash. There was more evidence of religious repression in Russia as regards opera. 

But I wanted to describe a concert that occurred at the Kimmel Center in the intimate Perelman Theater by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. That's among the best musical programs in Purgatory transitioning to hell, Philly. Miles Cohen is the Artistic Director. 

There had been some doubt about whether the concert would happen at this later date, but according to him, Owens had become available and since he is from Philadelphia and even went to the city's historic high school, Central (as did my twin brother, many years before), then after Temple University (perhaps even in his time a personification of third stage syphilis although they've spent money on an upgrade in the last twenty years) attended The Curtis Institute. Morales, though not born in Purgatory, grew up here and went to the same grade school as Owens. He did a phenomenal job in the once cliched (but now no one knows these songs) Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, and although Phillips still seemed to be navigating the vocal line cautiously, she obviously enjoyed his playing.

The Widder has neglected her blog but may do a summary of other concerts in this series that has featured Jeremy Denk, Bernarda Fink, Gerald Finley, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and perhaps giving the most conventionally successful vocal recital, Matthew Pollenzani. And one should comment on Miles Cohen a uniquely Philadelphia creature, who acts as host. But that must wait for another time.



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Callas Crazies

THE CALLAS CRAZIES





December the second was the ninety first birthday of poor Maria Callas. It was also the anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock and his bride and life long assistant, Alma. Who, I wonder made the greater contribution to Western Civilization?

Callas was only a singer, in an art form that is badly outmoded and in America at least, in trouble. Judging from my experiences with the guppy generation, Hitchcock's name has been forgotten but his mastery of a form that still matters is remarkable. None the less, the encomiums of Callas hysterics will appear on the opera lists; last year there was even a doodle on Google. Isn't that a thrill?

There's a picture of La Signora Maria Meneghini Callas, as she was then, already losing weight but clearly able to bench press the older man beside her. That is the famous conductor, Tullio Serafin. He conducted Callas' debut in Italy, La gioconda at the Verona Arena in 1947, and promptly forgot her.

The man she lived with and then married, Battista Meneghini, kept after Serafin and anyone else he could find to give Maria another chance to no avail -- until Maestro Serafin needed an Isolde (or Isotta as Wagner's potion poisoned heroine is known in Italian) and couldn't find one. Battista assured him she knew the role cold. She didn't know it at all. But she went to the audition and sight read parts of the score. Serafin was impressed that she read it so well and he hired her. Associated with her in the moron mind because he was hired to conduct many of her records, he declined to list her among the "miracles" he had known among singers. Some of those records he conducted by default.

EMI, run by the Nazi sympathizer Walter Legge, kept trying to interest Herbert Von Karajan who had pulled off the amazing feat of joining the Nazi party twice into conducting her records. Karajan did do a tour of Lucia with her when her voice was starting to fail (their performances from La Scala1954 one of which is a pirate in quite bad sound  are remarkable, though she doesn't make pretty sounds, exactly, but the famous Berlin Lucia from a year later finds her struggling. Of course for anyone with an IQ above poodle the musical point of Lucia is very likely to prove elusive).

The picture, where La Signora Meneghini Callas evidently needs a milkshake, is of her confrontation with a process server in Chicago. Callas was being sued by a manager named Bagarozy with whom she had had a fling though he was married to one of her friends but far more unwisely, she had promised him a share of her eventual earnings (if any) as he paraded her around America in the late forties to no avail.

Although the uniqueness of her sound was part of the problem, and the fact that her timbre was "arresting" rather than beautiful, she was a fat girl from a provincial background with no important patrons. 

Bagarozy is the one who hustled La Callas to an audition in New York for the first Verona Festival after the Second World War. Giuseppe Zenatello, of an age but still a famous tenor, was organizing this. He had chosen Faust (already cast, starring Renata Tebaldi) and an opera called La gioconda. La gioconda's primary value is as an intelligence test. To like it is to fail. Sadly, I love it. Poor La Gioconda, who, with her blind mother, wanders about Venice, singing and putting out, has fallen in love with a john named Enzo, a prince in disguise who drops her in favor of a princess, already married but who's counting? The music is to match. So we have established that poor Widder Claggart is an idiot (well look who I married!).

Bagarozy had heard that Zenatello had offered the title part to a singer of no value but who in the fifties would come to be adored by the queens of the Metropolitan Opera, Zinka Milanov, a master of extreme sharpness in tuning with more rump than musical sense. She had made a specialty of faking her way through the role by holding a long high note very softly as she moved across the stage in act one. That's all those queens cared about (look, Ponchielli was no Palestrina but was actually a musician of ability and there is music of a certain appeal and even accomplishment in the opera. But queens never like or know music). Milanov was an established singer, though she had left the Met in anger (temporarily, it turned out), and she wanted a big fee, all expenses, and round trip first class travel. Zenatello didn't have the money, so that was that with Zinka.

Although the exact truth of Zenatello's encounter with Callas is a little hard to discover (the story of his being so excited he got up to join her is a lie you can find in her Wikipedia entry, written by some fool), she sang, he was encouraging but felt he could only offer her the understudy, if she could get there under her own steam. He turned to a Buxom Italian-American, Herva Nelli ("Helluva Nervi" as the campy scamps called her), who later became a cook, but in those days was loved by Arturo Toscanini. Nelli accepted the part. Bagarozy fumed. Then Nelli pulled out. No one knows why. Though she did try to have an Italian career, and the Toscanini faction in Italy was powerful, this once she got cold feet. I've always thought Bagarozy who doesn't seem to have had a savory background threatened to break both her legs if she didn't. But there's no proof. (By the way, Bagarozy's suit was sufficiently legit that Callas had to settle.) 

With time galloping on, Zenatello had no choice but to offer the role to Callas. According to legend, not only was her fee pitiable, but she was not offered travel expenses of any sort. She jumped (figuratively) at the chance and took the job, taking ship with Mrs. Bagarozy, and the bass, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, who was enjoying Miss Callas' sexual favors.

Michael Scott in the only biography of the younger Callas (it ends with her divorce from Meneghini in favor of Aristotle Onassis) that actually uses documentary evidence as opposed to the improbable lies of the Callas fan girls, is skeptical that the deal was so disadvantageous. But those documents have vanished, and he has only the pictures of Callas sporting beautiful clothes for the chic but chubby on board ship to raise his questions.

All great careers involve improbable good luck. In Callas' case, the luck was her meeting another man exactly like Bagarozy: middle aged and a chubby chaser. But this was the better catch. Battista Meneghini laid bricks in between well upholstered sopranos and ran a prosperous company with innumerable brothers and a domineering mother, who all hated Callas on sight. He hadn't married, perhaps had never been in love. But it was love at first sight with Callas. He insisted she reciprocated. Others have had their doubts and we'll never know. (Meneghini published Callas' tender and romantic love letters to him, then published her tender and romantic love letters to Bagarozy, written earlier. The only difference is the Italian translation.) What is certain is that she was a fat lady with an odd voice and no options. She was broke, she had failed to make an impression in New York (where she was born and lived long enough to develop a sailor's vocabulary), and Greece, where she had studied and matured, was in political turmoil and offered no prospects. 

Moreover, in Greece where she had sung professionally as a teenager, probably starting the destruction of her voice by forcing and artificially darkening it (among her roles was Fidelio of all things; apparently she was wonderful -- Michael Scott has the reviews in his book -- but it's a role that leaves few singers unscathed), she had made more enemies than friends.

She was stuck; Meneghini was struck, better, he was rich. Like La Gioconda, she gave herself to him, but this prince was loyal. For ten years he took care of everything, but first he saw to it that she was well dressed, comfortably housed, legal in Italy, and able to travel anywhere there was an audition. He used what contacts he had to get her auditions. He paid for intense coaching with the esteemed Ferruccio Cusinati who taught her Italian, drilled her in the various styles of Italian opera and helped her refine her roles. 

Meneghini (who just liked fat women, not opera) never had a doubt that she was great and the world would agree; she had lots of doubts and needed someone like him; many have testified to her combination of ruthless arrogance and paralyzing insecurity. Eventually her reputation grew; when Serfain planned the florid I Puritani and the heavy Die Walkuere (La Valkyria) back to back in Verona in 1949, and lost the scheduled coloratura for Puritani with no substitute to be found, he let Callas try them both. That sensation propelled her into national prominence in Italy. La Scala, which had resisted her strongly, gave in. She even eventually ousted the great favorite there, Renata Tebaldi (Tebaldi found adoration at the Met).

Callas' early triumphs extended to Mexico and to Covent Garden; at both places she was adored, and the pirated records show why, along with technical issues that in retrospect are warnings, but didn't seem so at the time. 

Decca (known as London Records in America) made a big commitment to Tebaldi, EMI did the same for Callas. Decca's recent Tebaldi collection is halfhearted, though it includes the first commercial release of a spectacular Verdi Requiem conducted by the great Victor de Sabata.

But Warner Records has issued a wonderful sounding, complete collection of Callas' studio records. The only problem is that Decca recorded Tebaldi only in roles she actually sang and was right for. EMI recorded Callas in many roles she never or rarely sang and didn't have much spontaneous feeling for (reading the score scrupulously is something else) such as Mimi, in La Boheme, Manon Lescaut, Carmen, Nedda in Pagliacci.

In the story, Nedda is the victim of the evil clown, Tonio, who incites her homicidal husband Canio into killing her. In the recording, Callas' Nedda sounds like she'd have ripped Tonio apart alive, and gouged Canio's eyes out before running off with her lover (a case of life intruding on fiction!)

EMI re-recorded Callas as Lucia, Norma and Tosca in stereo when her voice was waning badly rather than documenting her in roles where she showed a remarkable sympathy for the emotional impact of the florid writing (not automatically obvious). Despite her vocal trouble in the late fifties she could -- at least in the studio -- have done Rossini's Semiramide, Donizetti's Anna Bolena, Bellini's I Pirata and other operas in that style. One can only tremble at the coarse, cut besotted conductors they might have stuck her with -- but Giulini was an EMI conductor, maybe they could have brought Von Karajan aboard for one of those, he was also an EMI artist. Leonard Bernstein's imaginative and musicianly treatment of the somewhat dubious La Sonnambula live at La Scala makes one wonder if they couldn't have enticed him (with Columbia's permission -- as Sony was then known -- into doing one of those works). At that time EMI had Gedda and Kraus under contract, Simionato might have been sprung from Decca for the Semiramide (Sutherland had not yet become a sensation and when she got to the opera preferred Marilyn Horne), Cossotto was also an EMI artist. It would certainly have been possible, but EMI gave us Callas' SECOND La gioconda instead!

Anyone with an interest knows the bad luck of the Callas story. She was in obvious trouble by 1956. Joan Sutherland, one of the miracles of the last "golden age" in opera but who began in small parts, sang the servant, Clothilde in Norma, the opera of Callas' debut in London in 1952. She said, later, "if you didn't hear Callas before 1955, you didn't hear Callas." 

That poor woman when asked in her last years how things were, would reply, “one day less!” She ended up miserable and alone. She was 54 when she died in 1977; her voice had collapsed ten years earlier and she had sung with reduced volume, range and control for four years before that. She had, a few years before her death, made money touring the world, sort of Sunset Boulevard meets The Marx Brothers with the then broke tenor, her once famous colleague, Giuseppe Di Stefano. One hopes she knew it was a joke but perhaps she didn't. 


Some say she needed an infusion of cash, too; that her widely reported affair with Aristotle Onassis gave people the wrong impression of her finances. Onassis’ sudden marriage to The Widow Kennedy hoping for her in- laws’ influence in his American businesses and the ensuing stresses, kept Callas before the public as the cast off whore of a billionaire. Only Jackie the Greedy won in this strange interlude. But Callas became a tabloid floozy instead of the great artist she had aspired to be. She also didn't need the money, it turned out. She had fourteen million dollars in her American bank accounts alone; in the 1970's that was a huge amount.

Sadly, she had bought into her myth. Privately, she continued to work on her voice; a few late fragments on tape even sound like her. Could she perhaps have mastered part of the huge song repertory as the great Victoria de los Angeles did when her opera career ended early? But as Callas thought of herself as a diva, that was beneath her. She did try two sets of master classes and found the students poorly prepared and not stimulating. Her reward was an internationally successful play by Terrance McNally. A clever writer of soap operas in Boulevard Play form (his work lacks the intelligence of a true Boulevard Playwright such as Somerset Maugham). Many thought it was true to Callas, though the complete tapes of her Julliard master classes, some of which I saw, show a very different person: shy, correct and helpful. The brassy, bitchy, competitive, sex obsessed fictional character is of course the product of a profound hatred of women.


When a woman is magic she is either burned at the stake, or, worse, sometimes, set upon an altar where her achievements in reality are obscured by sick men, mostly morons. Why, one can read one of the opera lists, Opera-L, run by an idiot named Robert Kosovsky to make the world safe for such as the the ravings of a dog handler named Patrick Byrne who has ripped Callas off by publishing pirates of her performances (as have any number of the mentally crippled). Byrne, a barely literate goon, scum personified, belongs in one of his kennels muzzled like the rabid mutts he pleasures with his tongue all night to one of his distant swishy pirates of poor Maria. This is a lover of art? This is someone who responds to music?  Even in a society where pretty much everything has been defined down, and the notion of il sacro fuoco — the sacred fire — that Callas embraced is now a joke, she deserves better.

How could she have come to that? 
But what really can be said about her without qualification? You and I have read all the lies: she was a "great actress" but the complete second act of Tosca televised from Covent Garden, staged when she had lost her voice, shows a well past her best opera singer going through the usual business (though well drilled by the opportunist leach Franco Zeffirelli who had apparently managed to stay away from the docks, or maybe he had just juggled his schedule). Callas moves awkwardly, has dandruff and a faint mustache. That's acting? She "rediscovered the great works of the bel canto period." Not really. Norma had always been in the repertory; Puritani and Sonnambula were familiar works. She did do a highly cut, horribly edited version of Rossini's Armida, desecrated by Serafin and she did a handful of performances of Anna Bolena, Poliuto by Donizetti, and I Pirata by Bellini. All of these were heavily cut, re-scored and done in "verismo" style. She did not use her clout to get these operas recorded complete in scholarly versions; she defended the unmusical cuts.

The many idiots who adore her forget that the singers from the early 19th century that she was compared to all sang NEW music. They put their own careers on the line with the creators of operas. Callas we are told was a fantastic musician but she mocked the one chance she had to create a role in a new opera (Vanessa by Samuel Barber) finding that "he did not know women" (he probably didn't but given the orientation of her craziest fans even in her life time, one has to wonder at her contempt). Unlike the singers who really were superb musicians (I always mention Jan deGaetani but we can look at the great Eleanor Steber, Arleen Auger or Lucia Popp) in her time, she stayed safe, inserted high notes and held them for dear life, even though that was unstylish and it sounded as though it would kill her. Of course, the crazies will all die off, like Patrick Byrne, throat ripped out by one of his poodles probably. So what will be left of Callas?

Meryl Streep evidently planned to play her in a movie with Mike Nichols directing, but all the fake hair in the world disappeared and he died (she's now reportedly doing a film about the American nut case Florence Foster Jenkens who shrieked and gurgled serious music thinking she was great. It's all the same to Streep. She of course has never produced one of her own projects or developed a property as many movie stars have, nor has she juggled stage with screen work. Instead she has made a fortune, and I guess, secured her name, in masterworks like Mamma Mia to the indelible horror of eons of Abba's "music" (I think ISIS must be behind that) and a white wash of the monster, Margaret Thatcher, recently shown to have been -- in addition to all her ghastly political grotesqueness -- den mother to a ring of child molesters who appear to have killed some of their victims. Well, after McNally, how much worse could a Streep tic filled exploration of an accent be? 

But is it possible for an opera singer to be a "genius"? Normally, we think of genius in the creative sense. But are there a few, a very few, singers who have a density of affect in what they do, who when the stars are fortunately aligned and the opera is the right one, can work a spell, way beyond what enormously talented, deeply serious, hard working performers do? Are there people we can never understand who transform in front of us into an bolt of electricity, one that might singe us if we get too close? And are there mere performers who can take artistically equivocal work and somehow breathe truth into it, provide -- despite the tinsel and contrivances, the conventions and the noisy idiots -- an ecstasy where horror at what we know life is and joy at being alive anyway combine into an unforgettable moment? For the music lover sometimes, hardly often, a microphone can capture that bolt of lightening and let us revisit it. Perhaps this is something that Tallich and Furtwaengler and De Sabata could do, even with music hardly worth the effort of beating time, or that Cortot or Richter could manage even in the simplest and most familiar piece. Who can understand the motives of these people, their personalities, their destinies?

One hesitates to put a mere singer in that category, for one can sing to the great satisfaction of the mental defectives who love opera, by having only high notes, or volume, or flamboyance; the fans are mostly too dumb to notice anything else. But if there has been a singer who had some of that quality, a mysterious, bizarre, unkempt allure, achieved with an ugly/beautiful tone, with odd register shifts, within the sometimes primitive style that prevailed in her time and very often in laughable, inferior music, it was Maria Callas. No, not always or in everything but now and again. Oddly enough, I would chose the despised La gioconda — her second recording, made when her voice was failing, as an amazing, perhaps unique, example of spinning pathos out of dross.

Yes, one can read the score and notice her elastic but marvelous rhythm, her powerfully inflected words, her imaginative phrases, and yes there is the tight rope walk through a role beyond her by then. Above all though, there is the magic of what she does, a heart break one might have felt but could never express, wouldn't know how to express, a moment of exultation that stings, of ferocity that trembles in terror at itself. I personally don't think Ponchielli did all that badly, or all that well; and the surrounding performance is routine. But for those with that disease, the opera disease, Callas creates sounds that become part of one's own life. One might chose otherwise, one can't help it. So yes, one can bristle at all the idiocy, and the grotesque fan fools, and the indiscriminate fetishists, and the preposterous fantasies and outright lies and pirate industry. But a few moments of Callas in those rare lightning strikes erases all that. So, yes, perhaps she was, now and then and against the odds -- as much from her own strange nature as from destiny -- a genius. And maybe that's why all of us now and then, just for a little while are Callas crazies. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

ANNA MOFFO






I'm going to write what I know, for the hell of it. She was a wonderful person, right to the end of a protracted, gruesomely painful fight with cancer. Even at the end she answered fan mail (there was always a lot) promptly and by hand. She was generous to talk with, by which I mean she was funny, observant and emotionally available. Sick as she became there was something healing about her.

She was a phenomenal musician; the best among singers that I met before Renee Fleming (who can reduce an orchestral score at sight and play an arrangement of it at the piano without preparation). Moffo could also read a partitur, she was a master of solfege, she was harmonically very sophisticated, she could dissect modulatory movement like a professor and she had broad tastes in serious music. She adored music with both an emotional and an intellectual passion (I have met singers who didn't much like music at all, they just happened to have the sort of voices and training that let them support themselves better by singing serious music than they could have by doing any other kind of work that was feasible for them). 

I think she had one of the most beautiful natural voices ever documented. The audition tape she made at seventeen, "dead with nerves" to get considered at Curtis, is a heart stopping, beautiful and deeply felt "un bel di". Her performance of that aria on her complete recording sounds IDENTICAL.

That suggests an amazing innate ability, musical (she taught herself the aria), emotional (it is really felt and utterly sincere but within the style and line of the piece as indicated in the score) and vocal (it is a gorgeous sound). Of course she got in, and that began the odd mixture of great and awful luck that characterized her career,

That she sang the same way after an extensive course of study meant she was singing as she felt, not with awareness or understanding of the process. But at Curtis she was snatched up by Madame Gregory (nee Eufemia Giannini of the Giannini family, as prominent a musical family as ever was native to Philadelphia, her sister was the great if eventually rather steely toned Dusolina Giannini, and her brother was the very gifted composer Vittorio Giannini, who though born in the wrong time, given how conservative he was, was really gifted and ideally would be rediscovered.)

In Moffo's time, Madame Gregory wore a hearing aid, and seems to have been largely ignorant of vocal production (she also taught the wonderful Frank Guarrera, whose family were neighbors of my family). As with Frank, whose early self made records show a gorgeous voice, and who recorded some tenor arias showing such bright richness and squillo that he was very likely a tenor, Madame Gregory tended to miss overtones and the "hints" of potential in young voices. Moffo thought she was (improbably) a mezzo, and when she won her Fulbright, the only arias she took to Italy to audition with were mezzo and contralto arias, including Dalila's from Samson, as well as a sheath of songs in the contralto keys!!!! 

It was Mercedes Llopart who taught Moffo for a time in Italy, Llopart also taught Renata Scotto and Alfredo Kraus who swore by her, Kraus thought she was a genius as a teacher (she also taught Cossotto and then, yes, Elena Suliotis!!!) Llopart identified Moffo's voice as a high set lyric coloratura and was supported in that belief by Luigi Ricci, the great coach, sometime conductor and best musical friend of all the verismo composer (he was personally devoted to Mascagni). 

Moffo said these two got her to vocalize higher and higher, and to do scales and fioratura. They also thought she had to sing Lucia (she had never thought in those terms, and would have agreed with Genevieve Castle Room that it wasn't much musically). But from a working class family, having studied for four years with only a year in Italy paid for by Senator Fulbright, she had to make a decision. She needed to start a career. So she started auditioning around, instead of staying at least another year with Llopart.

She did not secure her breathing, or the way she managed register shifts, and although she had the high notes easily, was insecure singing them and was apt to force and move off the breath (the earliest habits a singer develops very often become what governs their singing for their entire career; if they are bad habits, problems will occur. It takes someone made of steel to change, the good kind as with Birgit Nilsson, who abandoned most of her training after being forced to sing Salome over a bad cold and having a triumph by doing exactly the opposite her teachers had recommended, or the Krupp's kind of Madame Schwarzkopf who invented a technique for herself and kept it going).

But the Butterfly RAI film was a sensation and she worked constantly after it. For a while she still sang high, florid roles but her temperament and musical taste was geared more toward the challenges of Pamina (she was the first person to point out to me that the g minor tonality of the aria is a "secret" in the way the aria is written with its shifting dominants, showing up only as Pamina accepts death at the end, until then, the unthinkable; Violetta and Melisande for example (where her looks were a great asset).

Sadly, she made a bad first marriage to a husband who micro managed her career and never let her rest. Besides her stage engagements, she had TV shows in Italy and Germany, sang concerts at the drop of a hat, sang live on radio in various countries, acted in movies, made tons of records, and needing to fulfill contracts, got through indications of vocal trouble, papering over nascent but obvious vocal problems. She had at least one physical collapse. But she often had to sing ill, and she did not have the technical savvy not to damage herself by doing so. 

Born in 1932, she was from a generation and background that was not sophisticated socially. Her first husband was gay. Many heterosexual female opera stars who have weathered vocal or emotional crises have told me that the love of their husbands (or a caring man in their lives) had helped them survive. Moffo had neither and no one to save her from the crazy schedule or to point out that increasing evidence of vocal decline was not a passing indisposition.

Her voice remained quite beautiful (heard when she was relaxed) into the early eighties, but by the late sixties she was often exhausted, her nerve and courage was shot, her marriage was a shambles and even getting away to think was difficult for her.

She began seeing teachers for quick fixes but had to maintain her schedule. I believe, as Beverley Johnson did -- she was the person who really tried to help her -- that had she simply taken two or three years off, practiced a sensible vocal routine every day under the microscopic ears of an expert, she could have regained much of her earlier form and sustained a career. However one issue was never going to be solved, she had barely had the power and stamina for singing in a house the size of the Met at her best, and she might have had to limit herself to European houses and concert tours in America.

But this was hard for her to hear, as inexorably waning success while still relatively young is hard to bear for anyone. However, luck struck again, with a wonderful second marriage to a wealthy man, Robert Sarnoff. He provided the love and support she had needed all along and helped in the early years of her illness, but he predeceased her by almost a decade.

I think in her best work, Moffo is ideal. She sang gorgeously into the sixties, is wonderful musically, always expressive and loves the words. On records she manages some heavier music memorably for she retained the enticingly ripe lower octave that had misled Madame Gregory. She also made unforgettable records of lighter music; this rep has rarely been sung with a timbre so beautiful, such lively words and such musical sense, which does not cause her to condescend to the material or tempt her into mannerism. 

She had some very bad luck and that included a documented wildly circulated disaster during a Met broadcast. But I can't tell you how visceral my loathing is for pigs who have done NOTHING with their lives but pirate the work of others, who on the face of it are unmusical fools, who are stupid scum, mocking this wonderful person who might well have been a vocal genius for a time (if such can be said to exist). We can all grant that after about twelve years at the top (sensational Salzburg debut 1957), she declined and then fell precipitously. But that at her best, she was great; and the documents, live and canned are there.