Editor's Desk

The New Normal

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Broadway, Musical Theater) Permanent link

Why are so many people I know so resistant to the ongoing reinvention of the Broadway musical? Why should love of the great classics of the form — South Pacific, Oklahoma!, Gypsy, Guys and Dolls — blind us to the creative explosions that have been erupting on Broadway in the past several years? I have never seen a musical that plumbed the sorrowful complexities of love as deeply as Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza. And Grey Gardens was the richest, saddest, most hilarious examination of an incredibly difficult subject that I could possibly imagine. (My best friend and I had one of our rare disagreements when he told me that he thought Scott Frankel's music sounded as if it was written by a high-school student; I found it an uncannily perfect fit for Michael Korie's lyrics — the best lyrics, incidentally, I've heard in years.) Both The Light in the Piazza and Grey Gardens had difficulty finding their audience, and Grey Gardens never really succeeded in doing so. But despite the fact that they both took place in the American past, these shows crackled with a modern sensibility — and not enough people cared.

Recently, I urged friends to catch Next to Normal, which now stars husband-and-wife artists Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley as a couple whose lives are blighted by the wife's ongoing mental illness. The score, by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, is an amazingly demanding one, and it's unthinkable that the stars could get through it without exercising everything they know about technical command, about holding back vocally and not getting so lost in the emotionalism of the music and words that they do themselves permanent vocal damage. Yet I've seldom seen two performances in the musical theater that I thought showed less artifice, less obvious "control." One of Mazzie's strong suits is her astonishing ability to generate heat onstage. Anyone who witnessed her brilliant turn as Lily Garland in the Actors' Fund of America concert version of the Cy Coleman–Betty Comden–Adolph Green On the Twentieth Century, back in 2005, will know what I mean. In Next to Normal, her tormented Diana seems utterly skinless: there is no barrier between her and the audience; she submerges herself so deeply in the role that you wonder if she will ever be able to come back for the curtain call. As her husband, desperately trying to see his wife through an illness for which the "remedies" are notoriously short-term and not even understood fully by the doctors who administer them, Danieley gives a moving, beautifully judged performance. The scene in which he reluctantly agrees to let Diana undergo electroshock treatment is all but impossible to shake off. Mazzie and Danieley plan to be in the show until January. It would be a grave mistake to miss them. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Yellow Tail Wine's Operatic Offense

(Observations, Adam Wasserman, Listening, Criticism, Commercials) Permanent link

Opera and television occupy decidedly different spheres of my life, and, truth be told, I'll almost always choose the former over the latter. Television usually only fits the bill when I'm looking for a quiet night in, with minimal impact on my grey matter or wallet. And — as someone who really only finds inner peace after a stressful day by watching onions caramelize — I'll often default to just three channels during the course of an evening in front of the tube: the Food Network, the Cooking Channel and the Travel Channel. As a result of occupying what I assume is a rather predictable gustatory demographic, the number of times that I've encountered the below commercial for Yellow Tail wine in the past few months now stands somewhere close to the number of pages currently stuffed into Charlie Sheen's police file.

Fellow opera-goers, I ask you: is this not the lamest, most odious commercial ever aired? If any of you are like me, the appearance of this ad must also prompt your family and friends to burst into laughter at the conspicuous rising of your blood pressure, that pulsing vein in your neck, your violent clenching of the chair arms, followed by obscene gesturing at the television and an apoplectic descent into the nadirs of the English vocabulary. Let me say, unequivocally, that I despise this commercial more than any piece of advertising I've ever encountered. According to the information accompanying the YouTube video, the ad was created by the Burns Group, an agency known as such a conspicuous arbiter of good taste that its other clients include Fruity-Cocoa Pebbles, Beck's Beer and Hebrew National hot dogs.

I suppose what makes this ad so fundamentally insulting to me as an opera-goer is that, in addition to it being obvious that the director knows nothing about the art form he's skewering, it's viscerally repellent. Clearly filmed on a shoestring budget — it was shot on location in the perennially teeming vacation spot that is Rovinj, Croatia — the spilled wine looks like thick strawberry Kool-Aid and the voices are out-of-sync with the actors. Most notably, though, their voices are off pitch and abysmal. They're not just bad parodies of trained operatic voices — they also happen to bad. Could the folks at the Burns Group really not find a pair of young, conservatory trained singers that could, at the very least, do this lame jingle justice?

The tagline for the ad, "Great wine doesn't have to be expensive," seems to suggest that the commercial's creators equate opera — or some terribly conceived signifier for it — with the one label that still seems deserving of derision in an era notable for the relative degree of political correctness in commercial advertising: elitist. The truth of the matter is that opera isn't nearly as snobby or — with the popularity of Live in HD screenings and rush ticket programs — expensive as the commercial's creators seem to think. Nor, for that matter, is Yellow Tail's shiraz anything even approaching "great." (According to the company, Yellow Tail's chardonnay is "best served at backyard temperature," while a recommended food-pairing for its merlot is a chicken sandwich. Bacchus, it seems, has become a fan of KFC.)

Maybe I'm being oversensitive about a mindless portrayal of an art form that I love, or maybe it's just that this ad seems so completely devoid of any of the redeeming characteristics attendant in the other commercials that have drawn opera as inspiration. (Ghirardelli Chocolate and British Airways, which both use Lakmé's flower duet, and Johnsonville Italian Sausages, which ran a commercial with Domingo's "Di quella pira" as its soundtrack a few years back, stick out in my mind as particularly effective.) Either way, it's rare that I see a commercial that strikes me as so repugnant that I'll actually go out of my way to avoid a company's product — let alone write a 700 word screed about it. Yellow Tail has done the deed. I'd rather have a glass full of bits of cork. spacer 

ADAM WASSERMAN

Big Music in Little Spaces

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Keeping it Local) Permanent link

In the past couple of weeks, two musical events of a somewhat homespun nature have reminded me that the soul of great music lies not in such commercial principles as starry names and big crowds, nor even in note-perfect renditions of a score, but in the dedication, love and joy the performers bring to their task and the magical realms they weave for their listeners in sound. At any level, music-making, to be any good, must be a labor of love that draws the audience in and lets us share in the triumph, and that is precisely what emerged on both these occasions.

The first was a house concert hosted by my friend Jim, who decided on the spur of the moment to offer his living room as a venue for three talented musicians to try out a new program. The second was a concert performance of Handel's Rinaldo, uncut, with piano accompaniment, given at my local church by the New York Opera Forum. My friend's living room accommodates something short of twenty-five seats, and though the church is somewhat larger, it was, alas, less than a quarter full for this event. From a commercial standpoint, one might have thought it a waste of the artists' long hours of preparation to perform for audiences that, combined, would not have filled a single row at the Met.

Not so.

When the young violinist Colin Pip Dixon introduced the Kreuzer Sonata by reminding us that its dedicatee had declined ever to attempt the piece on the grounds that it was unplayable, then proceeded to play the bejesus out of it; when Ivy Adrian, at the keyboard, drew a whole symphony orchestra's worth of sound from Jim's parlor upright, with the rest of us so close behind her we could almost imagine we were playing this incredible music ourselves, surely Beethoven was well served.

When Tonia Manteneri all but literally raised the roof of the church with a whopping high note, from a spot barely twenty feet in front of us; when, in the Rinaldo–Almirena duet "Scherzano sul tuo volto," Marilyn Spesak and Karole Lewis traded exquisite and ravishingly voiced pedal-point effects that seemed to suspend time, or Spesak and Manteneri faced off in a war of notes more viscerally thrilling than any hyper-realistic 3D movie battle; when Richard Nechamkin, at the piano, transported every person in the room far from big-city cares to Almirena's serene and bucolic garden; when Tyler Wayne Smith, a countertenor I'd never heard of, sailed through Handel's formidable hurdles unscathed, in a voice of rich resonance and expressive warmth — surely these earnest performers' labor was not lost.

And when a casual operagoer cannot help laughing in sheer delight at the vocal fireworks; when an entire audience leans in to the keyboard as one with the pianist in a particularly intense passage, or exerts all its collective energy to will a singer through a particularly challenging passage, then cheers him to the rafters when he succeeds, the musical gods must be smiling as beneficently on these anonymous efforts as they ever smiled on the top box-office draw at the greatest opera house in the world. 

These names may never be household words in the music industry, but in my book, the thrilling connection they made with a small handful of music-lovers on those two memorable nights rendered them worthy present-day votaries to the same muse that inspired Handel and Beethoven so many years ago. spacer

LOUISE T. GUINTHER


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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10