Sunday, April 14, 2013


Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen should be playing in the background.

Mrs. John Claggart is sad. The Lumbago Rear-up afflicts her this week. So do the lacrimae rerum. Thanks to Publius Vergilius Maro, Virgil to you, for the phrase. I prefer to think that by "the tears of things" he means that "this is a world of tears". But then there are those consarned Latinists who think that the things poor Aeneas sees depicting the lost world of Troy weep for those whose eyes fall on them. In this sense even monuments weep. Well, Mrs. Claggart is monumental (see picture above). That, alas, cannot be denied. So she weeps for the world. But Mrs. Claggart is also sad, so she weeps for herself. In a monumental way.

She has more sobs than thoughts this week. Why bother with the appalling Die Walküre at the Met? There have been other awful performances there that have been broadcast and even celebrated. It's possible the ghastly setting and non-direction of Robert Lepage have discouraged good Wagner singers from committing to this revival. But since offers go out four or five years in advance, this awful cast may more support the notion that Gelb's Met is thought lesser by a lot of people internationally.

And the value of a big American career (crucial from the early fifties through the mid-eighties) has largely vanished. In a war wrecked Europe American fame had great prestige. And, after all, once upon a time when recorded music was a large and profitable business, record companies told singers that their getting a contract for more than a recital disc depended on a successful career at the Metropolitan Opera. And it was not only success in New York that mattered. The Texaco broadcasts were crucial in getting names out into the country. "New Releases" were always offered as part of the reward for having a question used on the famous Texaco Opera Quiz in the good old days, when they had guests who knew something about opera.

The Met tour, though not something every star liked, was important in giving singers prominent appearances and press in places where there was little or no professional opera. Finally, though travel was not as fast then as it is now, there were provincial companies that would cough up gilded fees for Met stars (though the star's colleagues might be Z league). They could be commuted to over a long weekend, which might include a no-rehearsal concert with a C level symphony orchestra.

There were rich symphony orchestras all around New York that would hire as a guest someone prominent from the Met and if they were famous, that was part of a "gala". And finally but importantly, from the early thirties to at least the early seventies, there were touring organizations that presented recitals by singers "Of The Metropolitan Opera", as part of season long series with "world famous" concert artists. These were a tremendous cultural gift to many remote places. I had a friend (yes, Mrs. Claggart has had them) who, in Anchorage, Alaska of all places, heard two or so "Stars of the Metropolitan Opera" every year in the local concert series. Naturally he and a lot of others (relatively speaking) went out and bought their records; and there, the local classical record store had an employee with stacks of LPs for signature and sale backstage after the final encore.

"Of the Metropolitan Opera" meant so much for a singer that the company had to threaten singers with suit for misusing it (or so Rudolf Bing's ghost writer avers in one of his books).

But the touring business is dead, sadly. The ramshackle "opera companies" of the fifties through the mid-seventies are gone too. Yes, they'd spend most of their budgets on a few Met stars, yielding up funny/thrilling performances, sometimes (unlike the "Old Met" or the new one for that matter) these were usually human sized theaters where big voices rang out resplendently, and the excited local obsessives drew sometimes committed performances from those who viewed New Yorkers more cynically. And sadly, all the local newspapers are gone. Those papers covered the visits of these stars as though the survival of the Western World depended on it. And the brick and mortar stores that stocked classical records, and used the visits of stars not only to sell their records but all the records on their labels that were in stock. And the radio is gone; the one local commercial station that played "classical" music (whatever the local definition). And the college stations that would saturate the air waves with the records of these stars and their colleagues and even their competition -- they're gone too.

And the record companies have all gone, and with them, the motive for singers to put up with their demands: royalties. Only a few super stars today have contracts that guarantee them one or two CDs a year and maybe a complete opera now and again. Sales figures can be hard to uncover, but it is safe to say that in comparison to the many recital discs and complete opera "sets" and "highlights records" of the nineteen sixties, for example, they are puny. In the past, Cecilia Bartoli and Angela Gheoghiu have sold between 150,000 and 200,000 copies world wide of each new CD, with good sales continuing for at least a few years. But Miss Bartoli, so I am told, is under 100,000 for her recent CD, for the first time since she became truly famous. And Madame Gheorghiu has fallen off more, with some recent recordings and one recent DVD described as "very disappointing". Opera DVDs are rarely much more than a break even enterprise.

With downloading, the carefully conceived and produced record album with its beautiful cover, expansive program notes, and texts and translations is really a thing of the past. Hell, that went the way of all flesh with the rise of the CD (the last profitable phase for classical recorded music; it's best years were twenty to thirty years ago).

I am sure for many very famous singers a triumph at the Met is still something they'd like; perhaps it is no longer something they dream of, and some even turn a potential triumph down. Met fees are not competitive with the biggest European houses; New York is far away from the always useful for income in and out guest appearances in Europe (especially since the death of the Concord). And while the HD broadcasts from the Met, with their doctored sound and carefully calculated camera angles are appealing, there is a long wait from their limited "live" transmissions to movie theaters to their appearing, frequently oddly scheduled and under-promoted, on sometimes hard to find PBS TV channels. This is very unlike Europe where telecasts of operas (and concerts) on TV and via Internet are commonplace and easy to find.

And naturally, the culture has changed. Who facing death now, can forget High Fidelity and Stereo Review, actual magazines, thick ones, with at least a few good writers on staff. Opera lovers were lucky to be able to read Conrad L. Osborne at High Fidelity, and William Flanagan (a composer with an interesting take on non vocal rep before he killed himself) at Stereo Review.

The tony, needless to say, waited, breath bated, for Gramophone, the English whore house, where record companies, through their huge ads, assured raves for often dreadful performances and expected reverence. (I remember enraging EMI, which paid for me to go to The Vienna New Year Concert as 1999 became 2000, Muti conducting. I was amused at how much fakery the producer ordered the engineers to do in "correcting" small performance flubs -- different players brought in for this or that solo for example, though the result of course would be be billed as "live".)

I was banned from the magazine for noticing how a recital record was laid out so that some music was recorded lower, then "lifted" to key digitally, how only sections of arias were recorded, so the final takes had in fact been assembled over four or so days each per aria, and most of the high notes were recorded on one long, tense morning, A, B flat and B and in reality, two very thin high C's -- later swollen by the magical console. Naturally, my copy was rewritten to avoid all hints of this phoniness. The relics who lasted at the Gramophone forever were mostly fools and frauds, but were revered by American idiots who of course could not consult a score, or even hear very well. Just read the recording morons at Opera Hell.

Well about Die Walküre, it hardly matters. I am told that ALL the Ring performances are being papered, and there is a heavy reliance on student and other discounts to try and "dress" the house. It may have less to do with ghastly casts and more to do with the irrelevance of the art form, which has a bad case of the lacrimae rerum, as it oozes from a "minority" interest into the esoteric and bizarre. Odd that "Gayness" once to be found all over the opera house (I saw lots of same sex acts in upstairs standing room but in downstairs standing too); and at best considered by the humane a "minority" sexual adaptation, is now a hot issue, with the quondam "impossible" gay marriage a litmus test of equality generally, but that opera is dead (in America).

But about Die Walküre, where are the voices? One would think that in the first world (and if anything is a first world entertainment it is opera)where nutrition and education have improved vastly since the days of Caruso, and health care is far more sophisticated and widely available than it was, there would be a plethora of grand, magnificent voices, some of them lodged in the throats of smart people with a commitment to new work, the only realistic way the form can survive.

Oh, there is one BIG EXCEPTION to that generalization. There is a huge first world country that has more starving people than China, one in six; where high school students are fifteenth in reading comprehension and writing skills, twentieth in science and twenty-fifth in math scores compared with other "advanced" countries, not all of them strictly "first world". Of course, people live less long there, suffer more and pay infinitely more for often restricted health care, too. That place is called The United States of America. Oddly enough there are lots of American opera singers, some very talented, who spend themselves into madness "training", then go out into the world. Most disappear.

In Europe it seems vocal talent has dried up -- yet it is there that the morons who are still at Gelb's Met in "casting" look, yea, even for Papagena and Zerlina, Masetto and Marcello. In the bygone era of a large, very poor working class, and a lower middle class richer in attitude than coin, there were innumerable singers emerging in Germany and France. They seemed to come from the mud in Italy. But French opera singing has died save for the Baroque specialists; there are good German voices but the system there as it has been revised from the "good old days" that lasted into the 1990's, now seems to ruin them before the singers mature and achieve technical proficiency. Dramatic voices are especially scarce. In Italy opera is a disaster. An interesting site, using "www. operabase/com" has complex numbers. At the end of the year 2010, twenty countries were ranked by number of operatic performances relative to population and size. Tiny Austria ranked at number one, Italy at number seventeen. In terms of 100 cities with the most operatic performances, Germany led the list with forty seven cities. Italy had only four cities that ranked -- Milan came in at number fifty four, Rome, at seventy one, and Trieste and Verona were ninety-five and ninety-nine.

In that year, Riccardo Muti, conducting Nabucco at Rome's Teatro dell'Opera, addressed the audience when they hysterically demanded an encore of the "Va', pensiero" chorus. He ferociously attacked the government for cutting Italy's art budget (Fondo Unico per lo Spettacolo). He said, "I don't want, today, in 2011, for Nabucco to become a funeral hymn to culture and music. I tell the chorus, the orchestra, the technicians to keep up their work, but their salaries don't even let them pay their bills at the end of the month. Culture is seen as some kind of aristocratic bonus by too many politicians, instead of being intrinsic to the nation's identity."

Oddly enough this year, Mrs. Claggart, old and alone, aweeping one afternoon, watched the trendy young political wonks (wankers might be the juster term) on MSNBC dismiss the value of PBS specifically because it telecast opera. This was led by one, Ezra Klein, who has learned to pleasure himself left handed (it probably feels like another person, a clumsy, tremulously shy frat bro doing it) while pecking out his screeds right handed, Game Boy close to hand, for even the young must fear chapping after their onanistic exercises. Other idiots on the program threw in the ballet, the symphonic concerts on PBS as ridiculous (I don't think there is much of either, actually). These morons are "liberals", the fighters for a better tomorrow in America.

Speaking of idiots there was excitement at Opera Hell this week:

Opera Hell (depicted)

Genevieve CR of shocked, pointed out that Richard Tarushkin, among the anointed, in giving a blurb to a recent book about opera A History of Opera by Abbate and Parker, wrote “Writers on opera tend to fall into two mutually hostile camps: the mind people and the body people, the Kermans and the Koestenbaums."

Oddly, Genevieve's high dudgeon, especially about a "scholar" (Tarushkin?) taking Wayne Koestenbaum's roll of used toilet paper The Queens Throat seriously, prompted Cato the Censor of Opera Smell, one, Robert Kosovsky, to a rare bon mot: "Writers on opera tend to fall into two mutually hostile camps: The idiots and the dopes."

Koestenbaum's tome is a preposterous display of idiocy and philistinism, which no doubt prompted his brief celebrity among "Opera writers" and the interest of editors who hire them, back when there was print media in America. Two of those who thrived were the creator of Alex Ross, the contemptible Charles Michener, at the New Yorker, a drooling fool and grotesque idiot, whose sayings on art were so stupid that even the well bred (and needy) gasped.

(Charles Michener disguised as human)

And James Oestreich of the New York Times, recently fired after long "service". I don't know what happened to Michener. I hope he is lying conscious but disabled in an excrement filled ditch while hyenas devour his flesh -- disappointed -- (there was less brain but there was little meat).

As for Oestreich" (Times air brush)

Just try reading his "reviews", the mistakes are so blatant they beckon one in for anal sex -- he wrote in a review of a recent Carmen that "​Anita Rachvelishvili, who performed the title role, shaded flat a couple of times in The Flower Song"!!! A correction cited that as even the fools who know only their highlight CDs are aware, The Flower Song is sung by the tenor! No doubt though, Oestreich received a handsome severance. But I hope he dies slowly starving in agony in a cardboard box. (Mrs. Claggart under a different name worked for both Michener and more often, for Oestreich, that is why she so often watches old fashioned Westerns, hoping the native American slaughter ALL the Americans they come across, these two fetid fools are what America has vomited up. And they haven't even run for office!)

But weep some more, Mrs. Claggart, that end in a cardboard box is more likely yours. The comfortable death of the monster Margaret Thatcher carried with it the truth. The Hebrew God, cruel, merciless and perverted, is a reflection of the Universe's Truth, evil wins out. After having been canonized by Meryl Streep in her cheapest, corniest performance in a ghastly movie called The Iron Lady (though "Mamma Mia" does give one pause in that respect), Thatcher is being widely celebrated in America, when she should have been slowly tortured to sustained agony over years. Some artists have integrity. One may, on You Tube, witness the great Glenda Jackson's astounding and profound rejection of Thatcher as even a human being."

Oh well, Mrs. Claggart will comfort herself with the RAI tape of Mildred, Madre sfruttato ma desolata. The opera, by Renzo Rosellini, was broadcast in 1951. This is based on the movie, Mildred Pierce (1945) based (with added inventions) on the wonderful pulp masterpiece of the same name by James M. Cain. He was quite an original and wrote Double Indemnity and the story of my life, The Postman always Rings Twice. Joan Crawford pretended to be sick on Oscar night but won and held her Oscar in bed.

Against all expectation, Cain came from an upper crust family and his mother is described everywhere as a coloratura soprano. In fact another of his novels, Serenade is about a failed operatic baritone who takes refuge in Mexico -- it was massaged into a vehicle for Mario Lanza. It's clear that Cain knew a lot about the business of opera in his time and the personalities of singers. One of my favorite lines in the novel concerns Mildred's ferociously selfish, ungrateful daughter, Veda, who is described thus by an Italian coach who knows her: "All coloratura, they got, 'ow you say ? -- da gimmies. Always take, never give."

Renzo Rosellini was the brother of the famous film maker, Roberto, (Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero all collected in a must have Criterion Box -- the brothers must have been close. Renzo provides all the music and it's deafening in all three films! Renzo is best remembered for his opera of Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge" (Uno sguardo dal ponte, 1961), a more intense take on the work than Bill Bolcom's rather awful version, though that has a nice tenor aria. But Renzo's opera of the movie rather than the novel Mildred Pierce is a must have for the spectacular cast of the radio broadcast:

La Mildred, aka as La Pierce (pronounced Peeeriche): Maria Caniglia (pictured)
La Veda: Lina Pagliughi

(both are listed under Pagliughi in Google Images!)

Signora Ida Corwin (Eve Arden in the movie): Maria Meneghini Callas
La Nera, Lottie (Butterfly McQueen in the movie): Maria Vitale

Signora Lee di Pasquale (Lee Patrick in the movie): Miti Trucato-Pace
La voce bellissima ch'implora la pietà di dio (add by the composer): Renata Tebaldi
Signor Valli Faie (Wally Fey in the movie) Jose Soler

(Jose Soler)

Conductor: Antonino Votto


  1. I am reading religiously, Mrs.JC.


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