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.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

OPERA NEWS AND THE ARTS ARMAGEDDON






Reading about opera has been discouraging. It seems that many people who comment on the Opera 'Net don't understand reality. They don't know the difference between not-for-profit (as the Met is) and commercial funding (such as Broadway, movies and TV). There is a tight dislike of unions. There is the cheering for Peter Gelb who has no experience producing anything, was dumped by Sony after a bad showing there, knows very little about arts in general (I wrote for him at Sony and know his limits).

But there is a loathing for unions, even though they represent highly specialized, trained and experienced people who are essential for production of opera, and who in most cases have studied long and borrowed much to finance their educations. That these people have a right to decent earnings and protections in one of the world's most expensive areas in which to live leaves the wealthy or stupid list commentators cold. That Gelb was rebuked by the leader of the union that represents the chorus for trying to contact individual members enraged some fools.

A union is a collective, divide and conquer are maneuvers by management of long standing to destabilize unions. But union members vote on their representatives and will vote on any recommendations those representatives suggest. It is proper and fair for Gelb and henchpeople to meet with union representatives who understand from the point of view of their members what is essential and where compromising might be acceptable. Certainly art unions are in a more precarious situation than the movie and TV unions (I belong to three). There are problems in LA certainly, but there is also so much money, and so much potential for profit from many different platforms, that union members who work there can demand high pay, good benefits and tough protections. But the arts are terribly vulnerable in America; no institution can survive if two thirds of its cost are union costs (the claim of Met management and probably the truth). Union members may need to accept some reductions in pay and benefits, and redefinition of special services and overtime. Will they? Should they? Well, that is a long, speculative piece.

But I am more interested right now in Opera News. There is a new publisher, the second in a year. During some debate about the value of Opera News and the challenges that face it, one elderly lady notorious for her solipsistic gushing on various lists, cited the magazine's "frank" interview with Anna Netrebko earlier this season and cried out that as long as SHE loved Opera News it was safe and good.


Why is that stupid? Well, if one moronic reader were enough, Opera News would be golden. If ten were enough, if a thousand were enough, if ten thousand were enough and not all were idiots there wouldn't be a problem. Nor would there be the odd turnover of publishers. The new one follows another lady by only a few months. 

Presumably there are two connected issues that one dope given to fan drooling isn't going to fix.

1. ADVERTISERS
2. Circulation numbers (consistent as opposed to intermittent).

I wrote for the magazine a lot in the 1990's and liked the second publisher I dealt with very much (he was very Metropolitan Opera Guild, a white Anglo Saxon Protestant from money). But he was a smart, decent man.

At that time there was much hand wringing over advertising in Opera News. Although the magazine was subsidized directly by the Guild, the Guild was subsidized by members who joined for a lot of reasons. Although back then I don't think Guild memberships were falling off significantly, advertising in Opera News had stagnated by 2000 and I assume has fallen off considerably since then (Brian Kellow kicked me out as a contributor around 2001). Advertising revenue was necessary to supplement what the average Guild member paid (Opera News was a perk for joining at the lowest level).

Opera News had begun as a pamphlet focused solely on the Saturday afternoon broadcasts and based largely on the Met. It's important to be clear though, the Guild and the Met are two different entities with different missions. Opera News was an "official" document only at the beginning (1936) and perhaps for twenty years afterwards. Because the magazine was small, it had a small staff, paid little, offered limited photography in black and white, not typically of the highest quality. There was advertising from the first but not a great deal and since the pamphlet style was inexpensive, it wasn't crucial.

However, in the 50's Opera News began to expand. Though it kept its small size, there was a slow but inexorable increase in pages. The staff grew. While the staff wrote a lot of the articles, there was more of an effort to recruit free lance writers from America and Europe (so long as they could write in English) to provide "articles". These included interviews with stars who were not in New York at the time of the interview, or even Met artists. These were also think pieces, expanded pieces about the history and time period of a given opera, articles on composers, famous singers from the past and trends in the opera world.

These writers needed to be paid, and the Guild to its credit understood that you get the best by paying well. Photography became more a part of the magazine and it was of a higher quality (Erica Davidson was quite a gifted New York arts photographer but the magazine also bought photos made by others, some in England and Europe). Making sure those photos looked good in all the issues was itself an expense, and getting good photos by outside photographers meant paying competitive prices. This meant a need for more advertising.

Mary Ellis Peltz, the first editor, a smart, tough minded arts journalist was replaced in 1957 by Frank Merkling who was a highly sophisticated editor in this period of expansion. But the most important editor (and probably the best in the magazine's history) was Robert Jacobson who began in 1974. A visionary, and an intense worker, obsessed with opera but arts savvy in general, he expanded the magazine to its current size, added pages, added color, wrote long articles himself, and recruited others to do the same. He increased the amount of reviewing the magazine did not only of the Met and occasional New York offerings, but of opera around the country and in Europe. I believe he was the first to go to Europe and report first hand on happenings there (and I think he sent a few others to do the same). 

Jacobson changed the tea and crumpets aura of Opera News for a more flamboyant, newsy, sometimes gossipy and much tougher minded magazine. It had been stated before that Opera News was not a house organ for the Met, but Jacobson abandoned the euphemisms, high church tact, and omissions that had been in use from the beginning for franker and tougher assessments of the performances reviewed, and the policies of the house in general.

I don't think the magazine had ever pretended there wasn't opera elsewhere but Jacobson covered opera in America thoroughly, recruiting often tough minded local journalists (Stephanie von Buchau, among the best of these, was one of Jacobson's first hires. Her beat was the West Coast. She was sharp. funny, sophisticated. She was one of the first fired by Brian Kellow, the power though not the editor from 1999).

Jacobson dealt with the City Opera (now dead), smaller companies that did new, unfamiliar work often in challenging productions (most gone now or much reduced) and got "you are there" type articles about European endeavors, including one he wrote himself, a memorably frank analysis of that era's Bayreuth Festival. But all of this meant a greater outlay of money for fees, and for writer expenses, and to print the magazine. 

His confidence was based on the explosion of the classical record industry that followed the first years of long playing records and the need of those labels for advertising and endorsements. He also courted manufacturers and sellers of audio equipment who found willing buyers among those who wanted to realize spectacular sound in their homes. He glamorized a lot of the "divas" of his era (he was friendly with many personally) and used them to advertise clothes, jewelry, accessories and so on. It was very likely the last era when Opera meant glamour. social status and seemed important. 

He got the job by telling the Guild's Board that he was Norwegian when he was Jewish, which he did not admit on the job, One of his important writers changed his name from Zinzer to Wadsworth for similar reasons. 

Jacobson died a lingering horrible death, and I think that was the end of the great Opera News. He was replaced by a long time staffer, Gerald Fitzgerald, small minded, mean, who was taken off by the plague as well. The Guild refused to appoint another staffer, the invaluable Jane Poole, because she was female, and hired an Englishman who soon became famous for his drinking. It was Roberta Peters, the great coloratura, who asked at a meeting of the Guild Board "why do we need an English editor when we are an American arts organization?"

The Englishman staggered out to be replaced by Patrick J. Smith who hired me to write, which I did a lot. He was another WASP of wealth, good manners and discretion with a strong interest in American opera, new work and challenging productions of familiar operas. He followed Jacobson's example of allowing reviews of Met productions to be frank, and sometimes even allowing articles to be critical of Met favorites. I wrote two of those, so three enraged phone calls were received by the first publisher Patrick worked with, Patrick and me. I thought Joe Volpe was funny but I grew up like him and knew many people of the same sort. The WASPS shook. But Patrick stood his ground bravely.

Brian Kellow had been hired in Fitzgerald's time. A very ambitious not to say lean and hungry type, he became Patrick's right hand, and was a great help. For all Patrick's excellent intentions and right mindedness he was indecisive and disorganized. He had run a valuable small magazine about serious music with an emphasis on the new but Opera News had become quite a big proposition needing a tougher minded and more decisive editor. It is my memory that Kellow added pages, expanded photography and like Jacobson, allowed longer articles by a range of expensive writers. I also think he and Patrick expanded the staff. Advertising became more and more important to underwrite ambitious articles about opera everywhere, not just in New York. 

And that was when I was aware that there was anxiety that the magazine was becoming too expensive. Patrick left in 1998. During an interregnum, Kellow cleaned house but decided not to become editor, getting his long time friend, F. Paul Driscoll, an authority on Gilbert and Sullivan, to do that job, officially in 2003.

These two have run the magazine since. They tried various initiatives. Seeking to expand readership especially among a younger demographic, they put good looking, hunky baritones on the cover; they commissioned PEOPLE like tabloid interviews, such as the idiot I mentioned above, loved. They were dumbing the magazine down but not without reason. They were seeking advertisers and hoping that by presenting a hip, contemporary look and "vibe" they could attract people in the 18-39 year old demographic that advertisers want, and thereby attract more advertisers and perhaps increase the cost of advertising in the magazine. The gay angle became important. I believe the thinking was that gay men, supposedly and perhaps actually, the backbone of opera in America, have on average higher disposable incomes and even when older are more conversant with current trends.

However, they had to weather continuing crises in the economy, as well as a huge cultural shift, of which so many of the elderly and about to be ancient commentators on the 'Net (I am one myself) seem unaware. 

"High Culture" no longer means anything, there is no longer glamour and social status to be gotten at the Opera. Even Netrebko's impact is "soft" compared to the pop, movie and reality TV divas that get huge coverage in the most accessible markets of our culture, while opera and all other high art endeavors are entirely ignored. Surveys show not only a tiny number of people interested in various art forms (2.5% of Americans say they have an interest in opera and the spoken play for example) but younger people are farther and farther away from being exposed to any of the art forms inherited from the 19th century.

The death of newspapers and general interest magazines nearly all of which had substantial cultural pages thirty years ago, the total lack of mainstream TV production and discussion of any of the arts (in fact there's not even an on demand or pay cable channel showing the telecasts of opera, concerts and plays that are frequent in Europe) is devastating. PBS scheduling of Met HD telecasts and occasional concerts is often confusing, slotted in inconvenient time periods, and not carried at all in various parts of the country. Education in the arts is hap hazard when not lacking entirely. As he writes in Inside A Pearl, Edmund White was shocked that when he returned from twenty years writing in Europe that what he accepted as commonplace there, frequent discussions on main stream television and the radio of all the arts, with new novels, works of non fiction and their authors frequent guests not only to promote themselves but to debate and analyze what their colleagues were writing about struck Americans as bizarre. He and his many writer friends in France and England, in Germany and the Czech Republic were at least known by name to a large public; in America no one knew of any serious writers at all and there were absolutely no mainstream outlets for discussion of literary, historical, philosophical work. 

Moreover the cultural change I refer to means that people under 40 are far likelier to stay home and play video games, surf the net and multi-task in their rooms than they are to go out to anything. For example, overall attendance at movies has suffered as much as anything else. The wiping out of a serious, artistically oriented but commercial movie industry by remakes, endless reiterations of sci fi, superhero, cartoon character, "gangsta" style films of chases, shoot outs and mayhem, frat boy comedies and recently, movies that show that women can behave as disgustingly as men and achieve profitability is a tribute to the death of a varied but often seriously intended adult culture in this country. Movies now, many dependent on mechanics rather than scripts or acting and none in need of ideas, are an attempt to lure "tweens", teens and young adults in America. But they are also a concession to an unfortunate reality: a huge foreign market, which accounts for almost half and sometimes more of the money made by movies in general release. Extensive, sophisticated dialogue is hard to translate and means hiring expensive voice actors fluent in the many different languages, ideas can shock or enrage foreign cultures, better a fantasy about giant monsters and cars that become lethal people than anything that concerns real human beings. Old people can watch pay cable and the endless reruns in syndication of the sit comes of their youth and middle years.

Even if many of the popular movies of the studio era (its best years ended by 1955) were pulpy and manipulative, they included a huge range of actual human experiences, characters and dilemmas, enacted by recognizable human beings. Joan Crawford walks into the sea to kill herself after smoking a carton of cigarettes and knocking back a bottle of vodka. Her one time lover and protege, now a famous violinist, is playing the Liebestod in a concert being broadcast nationwide. That is the end of Humeresque, a hit of 1946, partially written by the great American playwright, Clifford Odets.

Although it has its amusing aspect, her sorrow and mourning for love lost, her understanding of what making serious music demands from those who would make careers doing it, the power of the music itself (played in a Franz Waxman arrangement by Isaac Stern) make an effect still for that waning population that understands what is happening. Showing this to a texting, sexting college class elicits yawns or guffaws and when questions are asked, much puzzlement about everything that has happened. Even bright young people who have educational backgrounds beyond the usual, no longer have the frame of reference such a movie demands; 90% of its original viewers had not gone to college and many had not finished high school. The brighter College students may be astute enough to disdain Godzilla or Transformers, they may agree that Neighbors is unfunny and improbable and oddly, titillatingly and pointlessly or dishonestly gay in subtext, but their brains and cultural awareness have been sabotaged anyway.

One statistic that has borne up through different kinds of polling is that the average person under 40 is watching three screens at once most of the time (some watch more screens simultaneously). For forms that require concentration, good short term memory, patience and intense focus, this is death.

So suddenly the light of day hits Opera News. Advertisers work from numbers. How many people read the magazine regularly and carefully. How many people get the magazine because they are Guild members but throw it out after at best a skim? The advertisers discount the skimmers. 

What is the age range of the average reader of Opera News? Advertisers want that younger demographic, but if they don't dominate the number of readers, it's not worth the money to advertise. What is the average amount of disposable income of those younger readers? For example if you have a circulation that is 250,000, people on limited incomes are only a part of the readership, you will have a significant number of well to do and rich readers.

Specialized industries, the producers and sellers of music that people actually buy, the makers and sellers of high end sound and picture reproducing equipment, "high priced opera tours", glamorous hotels -- the standbys of Opera News advertising, are either out of business or stressed by contemporary economic realities and ever changing trends in leisure time. Those who sell very high end fashion and accessories, trendy clothing, and gadgets have research that shows that customers are no longer mostly middle aged and older but a smaller number of younger people with large disposable incomes, But those people have no idea about opera, no interest in it and are better reached elsewhere than a magazine that no matter how broad and obvious its coverage has gotten does not attract them.

For young gay men The Opera, the Ballet, The Symphony, The Theater are no longer rights of passage into a cultured circle, but irrelevant, silly (visits to the gay discussion board Datalounge >get your fix of gay gossip, new and pointless bitchery< (http://www.datalounge.com) shows long threads where nothing but contempt is spewed at these arts forms beloved by elder scolds, as people younger than me who dare show an interest are called ("hisssssssssssss" is the way people my age are indicated.) But when I moved to New York in 1974, the hoards -- it seemed -- of younger gay men could be seen in standing room, as guests of better off older connoisseurs of those art forms and everybody had arts oriented talking points however superficial their interest was.

I assume this new Opera News publisher, from an odd background (the higher level skin magazines seem to have been her breeding ground), has demonstrated to the Board that she can turn some tricks to attract advertising -- maybe she has done it before. Presumably she has contacts in mass market advertisers and perhaps she can make a case to them. I have no idea if she will have an impact on what Opera News covers, how it looks, or how it is distributed and I don't know how dire the problem is (if she can do somewhat better than her predecessors it may be enough for now, particularly if the magazine cuts back on the number of pages and there is some thinning of the staff, Kellow is no kid and might be looking to retire, I assume he has the highest salary).

But Bob Kosovsky of Opera-L made a good point: Opera News itself is on line but other on line forums compete effectively with no or limited cost, especially among the somewhat younger people the magazine needs to BUY it and what it advertises. I wonder if the fate of Opera News is to become an exclusively on line enterprise? This can be done with a very small paid staff (three people?) and operate like Musical America and The Huffington Post. It can pick up articles published elsewhere (say in England and Europe, translators work cheap), it can find bloggers who will work for free, or if there are a few favorites they will blog for a pittance. Portal enterprises have not been a huge success except in porn (as witness the troubles of the New York Times on line and in general) but perhaps there can be a sort of subscription level to lure the obsessed to more detailed and "insider" style articles -- save those can be had in a lot of places for free on the 'Net.

Opera News was certainly a great institution for American opera lovers but one begins to have the feeling it is going to be yet another victim of the Koch Brothers culture: the creation of an uneducated, culturally ignorant, poorer but huge underclass, easily distracted, contemptuous of the higher things, who disdain unions and think it only just that they be exploited by a smaller ruling class.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

NEW YEARS EVE 2013


I am sorry not to have been more active this last month. Some of it I blame on my Siamese Twin (we are pictured in our comely youth, which alas has fled) who uses the unpronounceable name, Albert Innaurato (who would call themselves that? I'd pick Mamet or Durang!) who has been asserting him/herself blogging at Musical America. His last there was called the Callas Cliche: 
https://www.musicalamerica.com/mablogs/?p=14741.

It got him into trouble and that preposterous fascist, AC/DC Douglas complained. He has a rival blog and sent it to The Powers that Be, some thought it hysterically stupid, but poor Albert had to do some sweet surgery. Douglas is one of the Wagner creeps: that is he embraces the grotesque, hideous and horrible stories with their monstrous implications but NEVER talks about the music. Wagner, probably a transvestite -- he was a lady's man because he wanted to BE a lady --is only of value as a long winded, pretentious but remarkable composer, often of genius and genuinely a tremendous influence on those that followed, even those who hated his operas. I, Mrs. John Claggart, have dealt with Wagner's modulatory innovations in the otherwise appalling Parsifal, his undermining of tonality, his remarkable use of chromaticism there and his phenomenal orchestration, right here in my poor blog, despite being prone to spelling mistakes ("better prone than supine," our mother used to say when giving sad Albert and glorious me our sex education.) The grotesque story with its vision (explicit) of racial supremacy, gross misogyny and bogus religiosity is nauseating. But no one with an interest in music can ignore that aspect of the work -- except Douglas who in all the years that he has bored people at Opera-L has NEVER so much as mentioned a key change in Wagner. What a fool. Opera lovers often hate music but at least the queen who wants an unwritten high E flat at the end of act one of Traviata isn't embracing the ugliest sensibility in opera. 

I thought it amusing reading a typical discussion on Opera-L about whether Verdi had been influenced by Tristan und Isolde in Otello that Douglas could only make moronic generalizations. It's easily settled, he should know Tristan note by note, don't you think? One need only compare that score (free on line) with the score of Otello (free on line) to come up with a very specific point where Verdi shows he knew Tristan and remembered a particular sequence. Wagnerian techniques of transition and the shaping of lines are also present in the opera, which however remains a great work by Verdi, not a derivation. As do all professional composers (including ones called Wagner), Verdi used techniques taken from others that he thought worked for him in a particular piece. But I thought (Albert was too kind), what kind of pompous, perverted fraud has made Wagner his Christ but can't even make generalizations rooted in the music?

Oh well, "the idiots of the earth have ye with ye always," saith the Risen One, or those who were inventing him (take your pick) and we should leave it there.

I promise to write here more. I am really grateful to those who have joined (brave souls!), and appreciate all who read. I wish everyone whose eyes fall on this by accident or design a better new year than I am likely to have, in fact a wonderful new year. One needn't be a prophet to see that things are going badly in fecund America today (Emerson), so how long anyone has before things fall apart must be a matter of speculation. But I wish all who read as much joy as they can seize. 

Mrs. John Claggart

Monday, November 4, 2013

THREE TENORS; ONE'S BECOME A BARITONE!



The regular release of operatic recitals on CD is long dead. But three tenors -- oh, I'm sorry -- two tenors and someone who says he's a baritone now, have recent releases: Jonas Kaufmann, currently the male Anna Netrebko, a super star; Klaus Florian Vogt, a German lyric tenor who is singing Wagnerian roles and was quite wonderful in his two Metropolitan Opera performances as Lohengrin in 2006; and Placido Domingo who in The Widder's opinion wasn't much of a tenor but was acclaimed by the multitudes as a great tenor who is now pretending to be a baritone and is getting acclaim for that too.

I used to think no one who had ever heard a great tenor, Corelli, Tucker, Bergonzi, Aragall, Del Monaco before his auto accident could confuse Domingo with one of them, and I thought those who heard the younger Atlantov, Cossuta, Giacomini on a good night, all Domingo's generation, couldn't really think of him as someone equal to them, likewise the younger Neil Shicoff (and there are those who felt that Merighi, Martinucci, Bartolini were easily as good if not better) .

Domingo started as a lyric tenor with no volume and no high notes, so there was no comparing his sound to Pavarotti. And though, when audible, Domingo in his prime had a rich, chocolate mid range, the sound was nothing compared to the younger Carreras. Came the day Domingo decided he would massacre Wagner with horribly pronounced German and bland, unenterprising interpretations -- and these too were acclaimed. Those who had seen Jon Vickers or James King could scarcely believe it. Though he did build his tenor for volume without losing his voice, and turn the high B flat from a crack into a hit or miss reality, that meant Domingo had more vocal smarts than many singers, his vocal equipment was still modest and he was a bore. And as time went on he transposed down further and further, more and more often. Yet what love from the well-washed and wealthy! The moronic reviewers who had no idea of what a good tenor or a good anything is, poured out their love, and recording wallets opened up. So if he wants to say he's a baritone, why, I guess he's a baritone.



But perhaps we should start with the least known of these three in America, Klaus Florian Vogt. He suddenly appeared just as Lohengrin does, in two performances of that opera, unheralded. He was unknown at the Met. He was wonderful. Aryan looking and good on stage, he has a light but beautifully projected tone that had a genuine radiance about it. He was commanding when need be and more audible than one would have supposed in act two, but act three was full of  "old fashioned" tenderness, sweetness and pathos. He reminded me of those wonderful Lohengrin records in Italian made around the turn of the 20th century by Vignas and De Lucia (both get complete collections from Ward Marston's superb label), tender, caressing accents, breathtaking piani and wonderful float. This was another world from the generalized, businesslike Domingo, or the well intended and good looking but gruff sounding Peter Hoffman, or a younger Siegfried Jerusalem who had a lovely sound in the middle but lacked the projection and the float of Vogt. Vogt had a huge success with a shocked audience, but hasn't been back. He is very busy in Germany, though, and has sung major Wagner roles all over the place, including Bayreuth. He can be seen to good effect on DVD's of Lohengrin and Parsifal.


His voice, curiously, resembles what Jonas Kaufmann described as his young voice, a voice Kaufmann didn't want and worked to change. Vogt is a high set, very German tenor, nothing of the baritone coloration we've come to expect in Wagner, and a high, bright production throughout the range. He can sing the lower tessitura (range) that Wagner often uses for his tenors, but the sound remains high and even "piping". The annotator here mentions the great Karl Erb, a similarly high, bright tenor. I'm sometimes reminded of the great Julius Patzak, who, over a very long career, sang a wide range of roles, many heavier than one would have supposed right for his voice.

Vogt's CD, available for about seven months on Sony, but only as an import, mikes him rather closely, never a great idea for an opera singer. One doesn't get a strong sense of how his voice expands and fills a space, and the somewhat "white" quality of the tone is too apparent if one listens to the whole thing at one sitting.

But individual selections are often beautiful. The tone with its heady sweetness is ideal for Lohengrin, his farewell to the Swan and parting gifts given to Elsa should her brother return, is filled with pathos. His enunciation is ideally clear, and not dependent on vowel manipulations; and by singing on the breath, not forcing, he is able to make a sudden soft tone (a subito piano). Parsifal's two big moments, Amfortas die Wunde!, and Nur eine Waffe taugt, are firmly sung. In the highly chromatic first, his intonation is superb, he sings tricky intervals clearly and cleanly without swooping, and his rhythm is dead on. The aria's climax is "Erlöser rette mich", often blasted, but Vogt sings it as the words suggest it is, a prayer. He executes the diminuendos as written from loud to soft (almost no one does) on "Erlöser" and "rette mich", makes a plausible crescendo (as written) on "als schuld beflekten Händen" but then, as almost no one does, sings the pianpiano marked (pp) until the final cry for The Redeemer. Fundamentally, after Parisfal's first realization, this is an intense and private prayer by someone who is still a boy, and that's how Vogt does it. It's wonderful. Nur eine Waffe taugt is a benediction; Vogt gives it a tender reading, with really beautiful words, absolutely clear intervals, enough contrast between louder and softer dynamics, if not the thrust that one might want.

Vogt made an earlier Wagner CD, which has not circulated at all in America, and there he sings more of the lyrical music. To balance this CD he sings some heavier music, such as a nicely managed but slightly thin sounding Allmächt'ger Vater from Rienzi. But he and Camilla Nyland sing a soft, tender, inward and sweet "O sink hernieder", part of the long act two duet from Tristan und Isolde. They sing the intervals in tune and he floats his line (higher at times than hers) really magically. This would be a small house Tristan and it's perhaps a role he won't do, but a recording with these qualities would be rewarding. He also sings the dying Siegfried's farewell to Brunnnilde: Brunnhilde! Heil'ge Braut, again a role it would be hard to imagine him doing, but this short segment is very beautifully done (and quite wonderfully accompanied by Jonathan Nott and The Bamberger Symphoniker).




Vogt and Nyland reunite for the end of act one of Die Walkuere. A Finn, she, like Vogt, has a lyric voice but sings some heavier roles. As far as I know she has sung with the San Francisco Opera, alone in North America. Vogt starts with Ein Schwert Verhiess mir der Vater.  Siegmund is  a very low lying role; the cliche that "any Verdi baritone could sing it" is true enough. Jon Vickers, though he had a bright sound, was really at ease in this tessitura and had a massive romantic sound and manner that was thrilling. James King who had begun as a baritone but had an easier top than Vickers, was also wonderful, if less unique. The famous Siegmund in the 1950's, Ramon Vinay, had started as a baritone and returned to being one, and Ludwig Suthaus, a great singer of the role, had the ripe easy lower range needed, as did the somewhat gruff sounding but moving Jess Thomas. The über Siegmund of course was Lauritz Melchior who began as a baritone, but is in a class of his own.

But of course, tenors have sung the role often. Wolfgang Windgassen who the conductor Hans Knappertsbusch dismissed as a "cravat-tenor" (an operetta singer) was famous in the role, Peter Hoffmann sang it, famously, in the Bayreuth Ring produced by the late Patrice Chereau, Siegfried Jerusalem sang it carefully (there is even an exciting video with him and an older but still wild and woolly and really thrilling Leonie Rysanek) and so on.

Still, when Jonas Kaufmann sang the role in the Machine production at the Met (the machine didn't kill him but just made him look foolish), he didn't have the impact the role needs in that big house. It's very hard to imagine Vogt doing the role live in a big house (though I believe he has sung it).

He doesn't seem to have problems with the lower writing and as the line gets a bit higher for the notorious climax on the name, Wälse, (G flat and G natural where the tenor break supposedly happens), he has no trouble. The youthful tonal quality is appealing. I love hearing the words pronounced so clearly and lovingly. Still, a weightier tone and darker color can work better in this music. But it is novel and rewarding to hear this sung with no sense of forcing or artificial weighting of the tone and the songfulness he brings to the end, "Nächtiges Dunkel deckte mein Aug'", is really lovely. Nyland (this finale starts with "Du bist der Lenz") has a pleasant not quite steady voice and knows the style. Their soft and tender give and take is persuasive (and rare). When he pulls the sword from the tree. he sings cleanly and honestly without forcing but to be fair, without quite the needed impact either. This is an interesting way to sing a lot of this music by a total professional; I'd be interested in hearing that earlier CD. But I'm willing to bet we never see him again at the Met.

Jonas Kaufmann began, he has said, with a voice he hated, "like Peter Schreier". Schreier had a small, bright, rather white tone but made a distinguished career in Bach, in Mozart roles and in some large character roles (he is a wonderful Mime in the Janowski Ring, available cheap from Sony). He is also a conductor. Kaufmann took the risk of changing his entire technique to build a darker, fuller, larger tone, that would make him a candidate for leading roles. He did this while married (to a singer) and raising children, so he obviously had both courage and a lot of faith in himself.

He used the technique pioneered by an American, Douglas Stanley who was very influential across Europe, but especially in Germany. Kaufmann changed his voice with the very last living student who had actually worked directly with Stanley. Stanley's method was controversial and still enrages pedagogues who insist that it ruins more voices than it helps (Hildegard Behrens was taught the Stanley method by Jerome Lo Monaco, who had also worked with Stanley himself, her badly tuned shrieking speaks for itself -- it certainly doesn't sing. But her motives were the same as Kaufmann's. She started as a light lyric and wanted to sing the big roles; she praised Lo Monaco for teaching her to use her chest voice, among other things. But Nelson Eddy was also a Stanley apostle and kept a very nice tone).


(Stanley gives Eddy a lesson)

Stanley's main idea was to throw out the old notions of "placement" and "making the sound" and instead concentrated on giving the singer a maximum control of his/her larynx. By lowering the larynx, freeing jaw and tongue and breathing correctly, Stanley argued, any voice would become larger, darker and the singer's stamina would increase. Stanley's disciples modified his teaching somewhat, training their students to judge in preparing a role when to use the lowered larynx and when to let the larynx ride higher, using (slightly) some of the "old fashioned" ideas of "head tone", sensation based singing, which reflects changes in the vocal folds (feeling a "buzz" above the bridge of the nose, or at the top of the scalp).

Ideally, then, a Stanley trained singer could go back and forth; Kaufmann could sing with far more force and thrust than he had with his conventional training, but still sing softly and sweetly when he wished, and there was no danger to his top. Actually, Stanley doesn't effect the extremes of the voice much. Even those who the method very likely harms, such as Behrens, keep high notes and can belch out low ones however long they sing. If there is going to be wear on the tone it is in the middle where the voice can stiffen or even fall back on the throat (both happened to Behrens after a few years as an international singer), and tuning can suffer especially throughout the middle (true of Behrens) and as time goes on over the entire range (Behrens' high shrieks though they thrilled certain sexually ambiguous male Asians for some reason were usually very sharp, but after a while her middle would either stiffen into sharpness or sag into a horrifying flatness).

For a lot of people, including idiot Wagner fetishes, screaming is part of the thrill -- the singers scream for hours, then they scream in adulation. Such fans are fools of course, Leider, Flagstad and Melchior were not screamers, and the last two, both using rather conventional methods, lasted a very long time. But then again, no one would ever have heard of Hildegard Behrens outside the German circuit if she had not dropped her jaw, mangled her larynx and shrieked like a banshee. Oh, she acted too. She raised her shoulders and popped her eyes. Isn't that acting?

So far Kaufmann is holding up. He and Anna Netrebko (a coarse, hard Tatyana in the Met's recent Onegin, breathing hard and screaming flat now and then) have been marketed the same way. But it came easier to Netrebko who out of the box had a very attractive and at times, beautifully full tone. It took Kaufmann longer. They are the same age but for no reason I am going to bet on his holding up longer.


Verdi, one might expect, would expose him much more than Wagner. But in fact, the best performances I have seen him give at the Met have been in three non Wagnerian roles, Cavaradossi where his high A sharps on "Vittoria!" really flashed out into the house, thrilling the audience; a phenomenally well acted and sung Don Jose; and his Faust, which if not ideal, contained some very impressive singing. However much vocal manipulating he is doing, he has held on to a basically lovely and quite distinctive timbre; he has an easy top and he sings within his means. He had a lot more volume in Zurich and Munich than he has at the Met but in the huge house he does not force. I didn't think the Siegmund special, the Parsifal was a very shrewd piece of singing, carefully judged and very effective when need be. For today's audience it helps that he's great looking and by operatic standards a persuasive actor. 

On the Verdi album he has very good Italian, not only pronouncing well, but with what Italians call intenzione, using the color and emphasis within the word to convey meaning and emotion. His tone is firm and arresting, if not always strictly speaking glamorous in the sense of Tucker or Corelli. He makes a wide range of dynamic and coloristic choices, some of them self conscious but many of them provide an expressive impact, which has gotten far too rare even from Italians. That easy, thrusting top is also right in this style and imparts a sense of excitement to what he does.

O tu che in seno agli'angeli from La Forza del Destino is a heart felt, exceptionally accomplished performance of a killer aria -- it's been a very long time since one has heard this combination of vocal skill and emotional readiness. Though the mikes come in for a close up and he ignores the written portamenti, he certainly manages a glamorous Celeste Aida, with a very impressive breath span, The tricky rise to the high B flat on "ergete un tro(no)" is thrilling and he carries the phrase over, making a very long diminuendo holding the piano f into the start of the reprise, and he ends the aria as written with a morendo (dying away) of the high B flat attacked very softly. The vowels on the two earlier B flats are opened more than is usual for him, very exciting, but that final "o" on "sol" is very covered, I believe I saw the poster at Opera-L, Gualtier Malde, use the term cupo piano to describe Angela Meade doing something similar, so if you read that, here's an example! 

The Barcarole from Un Ballo in Maschera is somewhat throaty ("ingolata" is what Italians say) and without much charm, but Riccardo/Gustavo's long scena, Forse la soglia attinse... ma se m'e forza perditi is given with passion, with relatively open vowels and much sweet soft singing. The final scene of act three of Il Trovatore is given complete, with Erika Grimaldi throwing in Leonora's lines. "Ah, si, ben mio" is fast. It's marked adagio and this isn't one, and for one of the only times in the album Kaufmann muscles his way through, sounding decidedly like a German, a little rough and the tone throaty. He scoops intervals and grunts his way through "dal ferro ostil trafitto ch'io resti fra le vittime..." in a manner better suited to Tiefland. He also smears the implied coloratura writing earlier, not firmly establishing the sixteenth notes on "il braccio avro piu forte" for example. He does manage the two trills (first one is better) but ignores the demi-staccati, a feature of this aria (for example ("la mor - te a me" -- or later, "so - lo in ciel" -- these form grupetti that add contrast to the slow melody and are part of Verdi's emotional rhetoric). The fast sixteenth notes in Di quella pira are smeared, his voice isn't responsive enough to do them, and he ignores the marcato signs that are all over the aria, "madre infelice" for example. The descent from the first unwritten high C is very clumsy, the second unwritten high C sounds throaty and although he hangs on, it's not easy.

The great Luisa Miller scena starts unpromisingly, the grand recitative, "oh fede negar potessi" is too fast and Kaufmann's sound seems backward, but the aria goes well. The tempo seems right (marked andante, the solid conductor is Pier Giorgio Morandi) and though his tone is slightly rough, he does catch the nostalgia and grief in Rodolfo's remembrance of happier times, and while the closed "o's" aren't ideal ("lo squardo innamorato") the whole has a convincing shape and the play of soft and softer singing finds some honey in his tone. The Otello arias are done well too. Though I thought "Dio, mi potevi" too considered sounding, there is a deeply committed and beautifully sung " niun mi tema". 

The fans on line think Kaufmann will sing EVERYTHING. I don't know how well he would do some of these Verdi roles, or whether he'd have the volume in the biggest houses for some of the Wagner roles. But the recent Wagner CD was a very successful record artistically. This Verdi compilation is somewhat more rough and ready with singing that occasionally shows strain or contrivance. Sadly, it does seem as though he is imitating Domingo now and again.




And that brings us to Domingo the baritone. But this has gone on long enough and I have already bashed the tenor. Caruso when once asked what made a great tenor, said, "luck and good health". Domingo has had both to a remarkable degree; at an advanced age for anyone, let alone an opera singer (he is in his seventies, though the exact birth date has been debated) he still can make a sound. It's not a baritone sound, and it's not rich and beautiful, but we live in a time with no impressive baritones in the big Italian roles. The days are long gone when Taddei, Gobbi, Guelfi, Bastianini, Panerai emerged into the world after World War 2, and Americans like Warren, Merrill and somewhat later, the younger Cornell Macneil were active, more or less at the same time, and the Germans had the glorious sounding Josef Metternich, Russians had the improbably beautiful sounding Pavel Lisitsian, the Estonians had Georg Ots and the Romanians had Nicolai Herlea. A second generation of Italians emerged with Cappuccilli and the French born Italian, Managuerra (both dead), Bruson and Nucci (though old, still singing now and then). The people trotting out on the world stages today range from lovely lyrics who force unmercifully to bellowers with no real vocal quality and no interpretive or stylistic affinity for the roles they sing.

In that world Domingo seems less like an egomaniac unable to let go, and more sensible. Though none of the singing here matches the better let alone the best versions put on record since the cylinder (do people know of let alone care about Amato, Ruffo, the miracle Battistini, de Luca, Giraldoni, Stracciari, Ancona?), none of it is disgraceful. More arresting is the realization that Domingo really understands how this music should go. Whether he can give voice to that insight memorably has to be put to one side, but from vivid recitative, beautifully and meaningfully pronounced, to arias that have at least the right musical shape and emotion, he really does more than his rivals today. He belonged to the last generation that really felt this music and identified with the style; and he has survived as a demonstrator of what can be done for the bland and clueless who are hired everywhere. I for one think there are very impressive people out there who just aren't hired at the big houses or promoted; I've heard some very impressive Americans, struggling in their forties. But if one simply takes the familiar names, Domingo has an old man's triumph -- maybe more symbolically than in actual sound -- but then again, most of the others sing badly despite their relative youth.

One of the great Verdi baritones, Pasquale Amato



Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Verdi Tells the Truth





I am sorry to do another Opera Blog. I don’t have to. Saturday the fifth, I saw the Philadelphia Orchestra do the Britten Variations on a Theme of Purcell, and the Mahler Fourth, a symphony I adore – which has a quote from Aida by Giuseppe Verdi. That occurs in bar 80 of the Third Movement. In the opera it is to the words: “Far from the sight of all humans – lontan’ d’ ogni umano squardo.” That certainly suits the “private” nature of this movement, at least until the explosion at the end. Mahler, always economical, used the same melodic tag in the slightly later K
indertotenlieder, in the second song “… warum so dunkle Flammen”. But Aida got there first! And then in the Britten Variations he uses the “polacca” rhythm so typical of Verdi’s cabalettas (fast sections) for the variation which most prominently features the strings.

But then, the night before the Orchestra, I saw Verdi’s first hit, Nabucco, as presented by Opera Philadelphia. It was as though one could not escape Giuseppe Verdi. And this is his birthday year, his two hundredth birthday.


One can never get away from Verdi in the opera house, now. For a long time he was an object of contempt but now he is almost as dominant as Puccini. Oddly enough one must look to the later 20th century for Verdi’s influence. In the generations immediately following his death (in 1901) only a few opera composers used his work as a template. Chief of those was Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari who used Falstaff as a basis for his short, charming Goldoni based operas. The best known is I quatro rusteghi from 1906 and even better, his quietly heartbreaking Il Campiello from 1936. It was Igor Stravinsky who shocked intellectuals who thought Verdi was a joke by citing him in his great Oedipus rex from 1927, the first four notes sung by the chorus are from Aida. Oddly enough, Ralph Vaughan Williams also quotes or near-quotes Verdi, most obviously in his last symphony, the 9th , 1956-57, and Verdi is never very far away from Benjamin Britten’s mind and permeates Billy Budd (there is also a homage to Verdi in one of his early masterpieces, Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge).


Although Verdi returned to his own version of Monteverdi’s recitar cantando in Falstaff, and various verismo composers are aware of that (Puccini most obviously in La fanciulla del west), Massenet first, and Wagner, eventually, triumphed among the Italian opera composers who came after Verdi, creating the verismo movement, with Wagner being the massive weight on 20th century composers, those who adored his work, and those who hated it (even Gliere uses The Annunciation of Death motif from Die Walküre in his shall we say, kitschy if fun, Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra!!).


Falstaff always strikes me as the best Verdi opera. Of course, that is fatuous. In a very long career,”Joe Green”, as his name translates, had written for a variety of reasons, mainly commercial, but covering a very large range of effects. He had been so successful by 1847, when he was 34; he seriously thought that the first version of Macbeth would be his last work.


He had met the woman with whom he would spend his life, Giuseppina Strepponi, who had created the role of Abigaille in Nabucco, lost her voice, but became very close to the composer in Paris where she had retired with her brood of illegitimate children. Verdi refused to marry her for twelve years after their serious commitment to one another. His reason was that in doing so he would have become financially responsible for her bastard sons. They had “out of wedlock” children, no one is sure how many; Verdi made his devout father drive the ones that lived to the local convent and drop them off as unwanted – the old man, evidently wept and said the rosary the whole time – quite a feat of cart driving. As for Josephine and Joe, they played a lot of billiards and if Joe didn’t win, he broke things. Also, at the time of Macbeth he had made enough money to farm full time, which he always claimed was his first ambition. And he was serious – throughout his life his big farm was a technological marvel – he even imported expensive irrigation equipment from England. He acquired a lot of land but suffered a serious reversal in the agricultural slump that occurred in Italy in the mid 1860’s and continued for the rest of Verdi’s life.


But he couldn’t give up writing for the stage. I think he was a man of many poses; the gentleman farmer was one. But he loved Paris, the glamour of the stage; and the ladies of the stage, too. He was certainly not faithful to Strepponi, which she knew and endured. And perhaps, mindful that he had written lucrative hits, he wanted to show he was more than a writer of tunes for which the organ grinders of the world and their monkeys were profoundly grateful.


Of course, harmony and orchestration mattered only incidentally in his world – primarily the Italian opera, though he kept abreast of newer trends and the influence of the amazing Hector Berlioz shows up now and then. There were a few in the nineteen sixties who also felt that “systems of composition and musical aesthetics” were overrated and had done more harm than good. There are people even now who feel that the increasing emphasis on harmonic surprise and experiment that began after World War l led inevitably to an alienation of the public that before then had been thrilled and stimulated by the idea of “new music”. These ideas are not surprisingly embraced by right wing hacks such as Jay Nordlinger and the mindless Manuela Hoelterhoff, Queen of the art province of the Dwarf King, Michael Bloomberg (I once mentioned George Crumb to Hoelterhoff. Her response: “Who?” And this wins a Pulitzer Prize IN MUSIC?).


They also find an echo among harmless eccentrics. Surely, they argue, as I saw on line this past weekend, that Nadia Boulanger had systematically designed a system so that all the Americans who journeyed to Paris to study with her would destroy melody and with it new music. I guess that explains the arcane, tuneless exercises of Burt Bacharach, her student, and The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow is a regular time bomb to disable Western Music, since its composer, Charles Strouse, was also one of her students. They used Elliott Carter as an example, forgetting that the eminently tuneful Aaron Copland, the lush David Diamond, the thoughtful and lovely Walter Piston and the folksy but ironic Virgil Thomson had all studied with her.


But Carter actually wrote tunes, and very beautiful music, so have many great composers I can think of, such as those villains, Ligeti and Messeaen (both more aware of Verdi’s music than many assume). It’s well to remember that La Boheme was described as a “tuneless sewer” in New York in its very early days and few people would describe The Rite of Spring as bubblegum, yet the first CD of the fresh Philadelphians is that noisy Stravinsky piece, which occasioned a riot (or something staged to be one) at its world premiere. A group of pimps such as DG would hardly launch a new association and more importantly to them, because who likes music after all, a new cutie conductor to promote, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, with an off putting work, would they?




It probably comes down to how one hears, how many chances one will give a new piece to unfold its magic (if it has any), and what those trite words such as melody and beautiful really mean. Of course, people drawn primarily to opera now are nearly always profoundly unmusical and many are fools. This may not always have been the case; Verdi and Puccini were very responsive to music and so were the people around them. But the opera house has had to juggle the sports arena and the theater, the whorehouse and the church, more so now, when all the arts we inherited from the 19th century are so marginal, so unimportant, so bizarre to the billions. With age comes a need for the very, very familiar, and our audience in America is ancient, so the recent polling suggests. And there is this delightful and typical sensibility recently posted on an opera site:


“Listening to a lot of Verdi today. That will

include listening to the Requiem tonight while
watching Oakland and Detroit battling to face my Red Sox..... Bob in New Hampshire”

Since Verdi’s Requiem is a literally tremendous work, 
the first where he shows, in a sustained way, his enormous musical culture and imagination, and reveals a harsh, ferocious heartbreaking despair (as opposed to “faith’), an art form for idiots who no longer really listen or feel but need a noisy thumping of the big drum as background for the TV is surely doomed. A fellow standee at La Scala greeted Carlos Kleiber as he took his bow before act one of Otello by screaming “Povero Verdi!” But that was a disgruntled fan’s view of a great conductor. That some among the few who care about a performance of the Requiem need to be distracted from it is a cancer on our culture. Poor us!!

Melodic inflection is not so easy, though it’s a simpler technique than some of Madame Boulanger’s apostles were drawn to. If one takes Verdi’s setting of the Sleepwalking Scene, Lady Macbeth’s broken phrases are part of a tune, yet the way they are set on the melody dramatizes her madness and provides her with a surprising pathos, stronger in music than in the play. The last act of Luisa Miller, most of Rigoletto, all of Il Trovatore, shows an amazing resourcefulness with sung melody. Verdi is able to establish characters, complicate them, and give them tremendous emotional force by designing his melodic effects precisely, supporting them efficiently in the orchestra and using a large number of simple devices – repetition, delayed cadences, syncopation, and contrast in tempo to build suspense and achieve emotional release. He learned some of this in Paris from hearing Chopin. Il Trovatore, still mocked by the morons, is an extended nocturne of remarkable imagination (with pauses for the inevitable marches and gypsy choruses). It is a triumph of the Romantic imagination. And while perhaps La Traviata relies too much on the waltz – of love, of pathos, of party – and the mazurka, the march, it too is touched with a persuasive theatrical fever. And though his means are simple, in the last act Prelude, Verdi achieves a precise and chilling portrait of death by suffocation, a portent of Violetta’s end through TB, but an implication that stupid convention, mindless Puritanism, middle class hypocrisy have killed her as surely as an infection not understood at the time and thought to be a sexually transmitted disease.


A pity that Verdi’s ambition to be taken seriously as a composer took its toll on this remarkable gift. By the time of the revision of Macbeth, first given in Paris in 1865, The Sleepwalking scene, which surely was the overwhelming climax of the first version and startlingly original when new, seemed crude after the many new orchestral touches, the harmonic 
daring of the new ballet, the hard, stunning compression of La luce langue, the astonishing power of the new chorus, Patria oppressa, not a political anthem of the Italian Unity movement (The Risorgimento) like the nostalgic Va Pensiero from Nabucco, or the conventional but in the composer’s lifetime enormously popular Signore del tetto natio from Lombardi, but a devastating dramatization of the displacement and anguished exhaustion of refuges we’ve come to know too well in the 20th century. We lament simplicity (and mistake it for simple-mindedness  but sometimes in the theater it is far more compelling than complexity.


Verdi's early years are described as his “galley years” where he faced the typical pressures of Italian opera composers, tight deadlines, dreaded censors from government and from church, where it was hard for a creator to assert his rights against a ruthless impresario or the prima donna (though as an old man, Verdi allowed that bad as the prima donnas had been, the rising vogue for powerful conductors was worse). But it was these years that made him very rich and very celebrated.


The middle period began with three amazing achievements, RigolettoLa traviata and Il trovatore, all three packed with remarkable operatic music and none conventional in theme or characters. Rigoletto is a hunchback who works as a jester, Violetta is a whore. To get around Italian Puritanism and church interference, Verdi and his librettist Piave had to come up with a title different from the French novel and play, La Dame aux camélias. They chose the arcane Italian word traviataa female who is an outcast for vague reasons. Finally, in that riot of romantic rampage, Il Trovatore, Verdi was able to bring to life, an amazing character, like Rigoletto, or Violetta, a divided character, by no means “good” in a conventional sense. Rigoletto indirectly 
causes the death of his adored daughter, and Azucena, in Trovatore, perhaps means to kill the boy she has raised as her own and then… perhaps not.

As a romantic, Verdi was drawn to the colorful, the unexpected, the extravagantly theatrical. But perhaps he too was “divided”. A creator does not draw on his or her own life literally, as the idiot reviewers often suggest. But creators might draw on something hidden within them, a secret strangeness that only they know.


Verdi made up a life for himself, one he stuck to even when he was world famous. It is encapsulated in this sentimental portrait:



But Verdi wasn’t a peasant. He came from small business people, his father owned an inn as well as land that he rented out to be farmed. In a poor part of a poor country that didn’t mean abundance but it was several steps above peasant stock or even the working poor. Verdi loved the lie that his mother had taken him in swaddling clothes and hid in the church to escape Russian troops during the Napoleonic wars – but the time line doesn’t add up. An uncomfortable truth though was that the result of those wars was a huge defeat for the Catholic Church which had to sell a lot of its land. Verdi’s father remained devout, a Catholic in faith as well as politics and perhaps that is why Verdi (an atheist) hated him and treated him so badly, even on his death bed.

Verdi’s “true” father, Antonio Barezzi was of the other party. Barezzi was wealthy and may have bought some of the local Church land dividing the boy Verdi from his family. Barezzi

was described as “music besotted” by a relative, with the kind of passion for that art that only an amateur can have. It’s not a surprise he worshiped Verdi. Eventually the boy Verdi lived in Barezzi’s house, fell in love with and married his daughter, who died as did their two children. Verdi suffered a grotesque, emotionally inexplicable loss, was struck down, he felt, by life. Though some of the great Romantic composers had hard early lives (Beethoven perhaps as much as Verdi, though the circumstances were different) none of them suffered as Verdi did when so young.

Verdi loved to claim he was uneducated as a musician and this monstrous fable was repeated in early biographies. But the best thing that happened to the young Verdi was his rejection by the Milan Conservatory, a third rate, backward place that educated its students badly. He was past the age of eligibility though exceptions were sometimes made and his (perfectly adequate) piano playing was deemed unimpressive. But the man Verdi studied with privately forced him to sweat over counterpoint, posing difficult problems and demanding solutions. Verdi had to 
study the great fugues of Frescobaldi, and to analyze the works of Haydn and Mozart – not for their tunes but for the miraculous ways those masters handled harmonic issues and form. This would not have happened at the conservatory. But finally, at the very end of his very last opera, Verdi writes a rumbustious but perfectly cogent fugue – its text? “All the world’s a joke and all the people in it, clowns.”

Asked about verismo, the movement of “truth” in opera, Verdi wrote in 1871: “Copying the truth may be a good thing, but inventing the truth is better, much better.” Verdi had the genius to create “truth” in stories that strike us as silly -- the craziness of I Lombardi, or the last act of Ernanior the coincidences of La Forza del destino, the lightening changes in mood in so many of the operas (Amonaso hurls Aida to the ground, cursing her but a second later is embracing her as she relents) all are managed with such musical force and impact that one is swept into the unlikely or strange.


Verdi was an angry, cruel and ruthless man who frequently treated allies badly, and was sexually exploitative of women. He had few friends of any kind (hence all those billiard games with Giuseppina) but when he found one, the conductor, Angelo Mariani, he used him like a slave. The intensity of the feeling between the two was real; leading the great Verdi scholar Mary Jane Phillips-Matz to shock an Italian seminar of critical eminences by claiming the two had had an affair!! (Very unlikely, but it was her attempt to explain the tenderness and intensity in the relationship between Don Carlo and the “brother” who dies for him, Rodrigo, very rare qualities between men in Verdi operas and their friendship was at its height during the composition and subsequent revisions of Don Carlo). Mariani was all too willing to grovel to the composer but when he had an amorous triumph with the soprano, Theresa Stolz, who Verdi desired, the composer turned on him viciously and continued his cruelty even as Mariani lay dying of cancer. The longest male survivor of an intimate relationship with Verdi was his invaluable disciple, Emanuele Muzio, who was a “yes man” but not a toady. In letters to third parties, he had many the story of Verdi’s bullying and harshness – “men of genius torment themselves but torment others more,” he wrote as a warning to Verdi’s publisher, Tito Ricordi, who was on friendly terms with the composer but was afraid of him all the same.


But Verdi knew all this. There is sometimes a chilly awareness in his work. In no other opera does a character curse God except in La Forza del destino. Don Alvaro who has seen the love of his life stabbed to death after terrible suffering in search of her, screams: “E tu paga non eri, o vendetta di Dio? Maledizione! Maledizione!” His longed for Leonora gets him to repent as she dies, but the moment is bloodcurdling in its nihilistic -- and as we know from the 20th century -- realistic fury at the helplessness of human beings stuck on this malignant planet.


But what can we do but take our chances and smile? In Falstaff, the mocking self quotations are numerous and nasty, especially the use the sublime Hostias movement from the Requiem is put to in the tormenting of poor Falstaff – it’s also a send up of Church music. But Verdi understands something about drama and its origins. Tragedy means “goat song” in Greek. The tragic hero becomes a sacrificial beast to be offered up for the salvation of the community. And there is something sacred in the obese beast, Falstaff. The iconic mask of comedy is a smile, and yet, as Eleonora Duse wrote to Verdi after seeing the opera, “how sad is this farce of yours!” I think she knew what she was talking about.