Editor's Desk

The Diva Who Laughs

(Brian Kellow, Performances, Crossover, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Musical Theater, Cabaret, Humor) Permanent link

Recently, on a Sunday afternoon, my partner and I walked into Mel's Burgers in our Columbia University neighborhood. In addition to having the greatest burgers on the West Side, Mel's is something of a sports bar. "Which game would you like to be seated next to?" asked the hostess when we walked in. "Um," said my partner, "I dunno. Do you have figure skating?"

I'm afraid this about sums up our degree of attachment to the world of sports, but we were of course keen to tune in on Super Bowl Sunday this year, because for the first time, the event would feature an opera singer — none other than soprano RENÉE FLEMING — singing the National Anthem. In the days that followed, we were frequently asked what we thought about her performance. My take was: slow beginning, odd, goopy arrangement. In the beginning, I experienced my familiar irritation with Fleming's refusal to sing English words simply and cleanly, without affectation, but I thought she dug in as it went on and finished up triumphantly. 

Then I was sent a YouTube clip of soprano/comedienne DOROTHY BISHOP, performing her spoof of Fleming's performance of the anthem. It's not the anthem at all, but a re-lyriced version of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," which Fleming has performed in concert. "It must be a drag / If you don't love the flag," sang Bishop, launching into a wild scat section and then coming back with "It makes no difference if I'm black or white / I'm singing 'Oh say can you see' tonight!" Along the way, there are riffs on "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," too. It's a very funny — and not at all mean-spirited — takeoff on Fleming's ideas about singing jazz and pop music. I have never liked most of what Fleming has done in this area — I usually feel she is avoiding any real connection with the music in pursuit of what she considers "style" — but the odd thing about Bishop's performance is that it made me relax a bit about Fleming's pop side. It's obvious that Fleming loves this music, and Bishop somehow tapped into the star's immense likability factor. (There's also a strong resemblance between the two women — so much so that once, when Bishop got tired of being stuck in Met standing room, she jumped a parterre box seat and fended off an usher by telling him she was Renée Fleming.) New York audiences will have a chance to experience Bishop's take on Fleming when she brings her show The Dozen Divas to the Metropolitan Room, one of New York's top cabaret venues, on April 30 and May 5.

Bishop is a Yale-educated soprano who came to New York and enjoyed what she describes as "a successful, ten-year B-level career that wasn't going where I wanted it to go." She noticed that she was getting cast in comedies — she did dozens of Rosalindes and Fiordiligis, and she gradually began moving into musical-comedy cabaret, which is not the most remunerative of genres. "I saw that there was money headlining in the cruise ships," she recalls, "and so for a number of years, I made up my own Sarah Brightman show and did a pop-opera tribute — not necessarily to Sarah, but kind of copying her own style. I started throwing in a lot of comedy. I left the ships in 2011, burned out and frustrated artistically, and started to develop The Dozen Divas." The show featured Bishop's impersonations of Cher, Adele, Stevie Nicks and others, and for its run at the Manhattan night spot the Iguana, Bishop was nominated for a Broadway World Award for Best Musical Comedy Cabaret Performance. 

"Renée has that gorgeous spin that separates an A-level singer from a B-level singer. My voice probably has more metal, but hers is so pure and spinny. I wouldn't even try to imitate her opera singing. But people are sensitive about her — and about 'The Star Spangled Banner,' too. I think at the moment on YouTube I have fifty-five likes and forty hates. I left some of the bad comments up, but there were so many, with people writing stupid stuff. A lot of Vietnam vets said they were offended that I made fun of the National Anthem.

"Renée is, for some people, the highlight of my whole act," says Bishop. "I don't know her personally, and I'm not making fun of her fabulous, glorious opera singing. I have people who claim to be friends of hers and who have come to my show and say, 'She doesn't care.' Now when I was doing Sarah Palin, she sent some people, and they sat in the front row with arms crossed, not laughing at all. They did not laugh. I closed with a very funny parody of "Rose's Turn" — "Sarah's Turn" — you can imagine. Then I did sing-along Christmas carols with a Rudolph parody that ended with her shooting John McCain. Afterward, they were very sarcastic. They said, 'We're so happy we can go back and tell Sarah she has nothing to worry about.' I just smiled and said, 'Thank you for coming.'"

This July, Fleming herself will be reaching out to a new audience when she stars in Joe DiPietro and Garson Kanin's comedy Living on Love at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. spacer

BRIAN KELLOW

The Pop Side

(Brian Kellow, Crossover, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Musical Theater, Theater, Cabaret) Permanent link

Anyone who wants a juicy demonstration of savvy, old-time show-biz razzle dazzle shouldn't think of missing Sin Twisters, the new club act starring ANITA GILLETTE and PENNY FULLER at Manhattan's popular theater-district nightspot 54 Below. I attended the opening on October 2. Sharply and confidently directed by BARRY KLEINBORT, Sin Twisters is frequently hilarious, frequently touching, and even more frequently awe-inspiring. Gillette and Fuller never attained top Broadway stardom, but they are two of the most respected and versatile actresses of their generation — what used to be called darlings of the theater. The show's title is a spoonerism — a treasured gag that runs through the show, adding to its infectious spirit. ("Pit it, Haul!" Gillette called out at one point to musical director PAUL GREENWOOD, whose stylish pianism and gorgeous vocals added immeasurably to the evening. I should probably admit here that I've always been a sucker for spoonerisms, "Ballulah Tankhead" being my own personal favorite.)

In this generously programmed act, both Gillette and Fuller showed crack comic timing and solid vocals, as they wove their way through a loose narrative that ticked off high points of their careers but never became stale or predictable. A raucous high point was Gillette's ultra-swacked rendition of "If I Were a Bell," from Guys and Dolls; she reached a stunning emotional peak with "Isn't He Something?" from Stephen Sondheim's Bounce, and the gorgeous "Once Upon a Time," from All American, which she sang with Fuller. (I've never known anyone of a certain age who didn't succumb to this lovely song). I had always considered "One Halloween" one of the junkier numbers from the 1970 musical Applause, a show that an Encores! concert presentation of a few years ago proved is beyond reviving. But in Fuller's expert hands (she received a Tony nomination for the role of Eve Harrington), it was magical — an example of a real artist transforming her mediocre material. In duet, Gillette and Fuller shone in "Little Me" and a medley of tunes from Cabaret; both actresses had their turn playing Sally Bowles on Broadway. The audience, which included SHELDON and MARGERY HARNICK, JOHN GLOVER, HARVEY EVANS, SONDRA LEE, MALCOLM GETS and LEROY REAMS, came away with a bracing sense of two women who have gotten the most out of their careers and still have many premium performing miles to go. They'll reprise Sin Twisters at Club 54 on October 9. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Live and Well

(Oussama Zahr, Performances, Crossover, Keeping it Local) Permanent link

Blog Amos Poisson Rouge lg 1012
Tori Amos at (Le) Poisson Rouge
Photo by Ebru Yildiz for NPR

Tori Amos — pop siren and dazzling keyboard technician — gave a special, one-night-only concert on Friday at New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge. Over the past few years, classical musicians in search of the below-Fourteenth Street crowd have gravitated to this cabaret venue on Bleecker Street, so it makes sense that Amos, who has partnered with the Deutsche Grammophon label, would embrace the quirky venue for a chamber concert with string octet. Tickets were free and available exclusively through a lottery on LPR’s website, though I noted at least one lucky, ticket-less fan who waited out the line, which wrapped around the block, and gained standing-room admission.

Amos was promoting her latest album Gold Dust, a collection of greatest hits in newly orchestrated renditions, marking the twentieth anniversary of her breakout success with Little Earthquakes. For fans who grouse that the updating on Gold Dust is too subtle, that the new versions sound suspiciously similar to the old versions, this concert was a revelation. 

In the live show at (Le) Poisson Rouge, Amos’s interaction with the string players felt substantial and collaborative. The crescendos in “Cloud On My Tongue” were excitingly synchronized, and she sprinkled extra measures of music throughout the song, exposing the seams between verse/chorus, giving the piece a sense of expansiveness and showing off the instrumentalists. Even a fan-favorite like “Hey Jupiter” got the revisionist treatment: Amos deconstructed the song and put it back together, turning a teary, haunting ballad into an up-tempo cabaret number, with plucked strings and percussive keyboard effects. It sounded like a cross between Gotye and Kurt Weill. Going solo for some selections, Amos proved that she could turn a beautiful composition that had seemed too earthbound on record into a buoyant success — most notably “Taxi Ride,” her tribute to makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin, who died in 2002. 

Of course, Amos’s prowess in a live setting is well documented. Rolling Stone acknowledged her undeniable onstage allure in 2003, placing her at No. 5 in its list of the “20 Greatest Live Bands” and branding her “a one-woman wrecking crew.” With the industry-wide decline of CD sales, Amos is one artist who has benefited from the increased importance of concerts and tours in bolstering a recording artist’s profile. Luckily, NPR Music sponsored and broadcast the LPR concert, and it is now available in streaming fashion in their online archivesspacer 

Diddling While Rome Burns

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Cinema, Crossover) Permanent link

For a filmmaker who has repeatedly taken as his subject the jumbled, chaotic world of artists, Woody Allen has amazingly little of any freshness or depth to say about the creative life. I started to get nervous back in 1978, when he unveiled Interiors, his drama about a New York family of people obsessed with achieving creative perfection and always feeling that they fall short of it. The dialogue seemed so stilted and self-conscious that at times I thought Allen was offering up a parody of Bergmanesque angst. Since then, with the exception of 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters, which revealed some rather funny and touching truths about another New York family of artists, he's been spinning his wheels. The dramatic situations he sets up have a peculiarly artificial scent about them, like one of those model apartments where you can smell the newness of the carpeting and furniture. He deals in types and clichéd situations, and no matter how cleverly certain scenes are brought off, everything feels too worked out and predictable. (This was true to an extent even in Hannah and Her Sisters; the only scene that genuinely surprised me was the one in which Maureen O'Sullivan poured out her drunken resentment of her husband, played by Lloyd Nolan.) 

I was going to skip Allen's new film, To Rome with Love. I didn't, for the simple reason that I was drawn by the opera elements in the plot. Allen plays Jerry, an avant-garde stage director who has been reviled for tampering with the classics. (One of his famous productions is a Rigoletto with everyone dressed as white mice — a detail that, like practically everything else in the film, isn't nearly as funny as it's meant to be). Jerry and his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis), travel to Rome to meet the Italian man their daughter plans to marry. The boy's father is an undertaker named Giancarlo (played by tenor Fabio Armiliato). When Giancarlo steps into the shower and begins singing, Jerry, standing outside in the hallway, hears evidence of a remarkable voice, and Jerry hectors him to turn pro. The trouble is that Giancarlo can't sing well except when he's in the shower: when Jerry organizes an audition for him in front of a group of top-flight opera managers, Giancarlo blows it completely. Jerry comes up with a solution: recitals and stage productions will be engineered so that he can sing while showering. The gag is mildly amusing the first time but less so in its many repetitions. And really, the whole conceit of the talented amateur being terrified to perform in the professional arena is old-hat. (Remember Marilyn Horne guesting on TV's The Odd Couple, as the opera singer who couldn't open her mouth unless her pal Oscar, played by Jack Klugman, was in the room?) Allen skips lightly over the opera material as if pleased just to show us another facet of his cultural fluency; he never really gets into it at all — never does anything truly inventive with it. 

The main raisons d'être for To Rome with Love are Darius Khondji's lovely, terra-cotta-tinged scenes of Rome, the funny individual moments contributed by Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni and Judy Davis and the film's biggest surprise — the relaxed, appealing screen presence of Fabio Armiliato. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Found Opera

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Crossover, Television) Permanent link

From the moment I first won gainful employment at OPERA NEWS, I have regularly faced those uncomfortable cocktail-party moments when some new acquaintance, learning how I earn my living, says with wrinkled nose, “And do you actually like opera?” Now, I know we don’t all have the luxury of choosing a congenial career, and I freely confess that as a college grad desperate for a job, I once interviewed for a newsletter called “Garbage Collector Weekly,” eager to get my foot in the publishing door any way I could. But it’s hard to imagine a consenting adult spending nearly a quarter-century at the same magazine if its subject did not genuinely appeal.

Those conversations are always a rude reminder that opera, though thriving in many respects, is still not exactly a mainstream entertainment. So it always pleases me when I run into it in unexpected places. The most recent such encounter was in a re-run of the Inspector Lewis series on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery. Back in the days of Lewis’s erudite predecessor, Inspector Morse, it used to be a fair bet that the culturally savvy protagonist’s elitist pursuits would periodically lead to some reference to the lyric art — perhaps even with some actual music thrown in. But with Morse replaced by his erstwhile sidekick, the distinctly working-class Inspector Lewis, the opportunity for operatic enlightenment seemed to have passed, so I was surprised to find Wagner at the center of a recent episode.

With the murder victim an Oxonian Wagner expert, connected obliquely to a Stasi informer with the code name Siegfried, the master of Bayreuth had a prominent role in the plot, but the fun part for me came toward the end, when Lewis — partly in a nostalgic tribute to his old boss, partly as a way of trying to understand the dark forces at play in the case — put on a Ring recording and sat down to listen. It wasn’t a long excerpt; Lewis’s operatically challenged partner arrived all too soon to pre-empt it with some modern musical drivel of his own. Still, it pleased me to think there might be mystery fans out there in TV-land with no previous experience of the Ring who might be sufficiently drawn in by the intriguing plot references and the brief snippets of that glorious, sweeping score, to find their way to Youtube for a second helping. And from there … who knows? spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

Elina Garanča's New Music Video

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr, Crossover) Permanent link

Reports of the death of the music video, much like that of print media, are greatly exaggerated. Lady Gaga proved as much earlier this month at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she nabbed eight "moonmen" (MTV’s equivalent to the Oscar statuette) in recognition of her revitalization of the genre.

Classical-music marketers never met a pop trend they didn't like, so Deutsche Grammophon gives us "El Vito," a music video of mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča singing Obradors' song in support of her latest album, Habanera.

The video seems singularly designed to convince us that Garanča is a sexy minx in her role as a hard, bewitching, capricious Gypsy — but is that enough of a concept to sustain its three-and-a-half minutes? Music videos were created to visualize pop music, and over the past thirty years, the style of their presentation has evolved in tandem with the style of that particular genre. Does Garanča's video embrace the idea of a cinematography of classical music? No. Could one be created? Maybe. spacer 

OUSSAMA ZAHR

Summertime Blues

(Recordings, Observations, Tristan Kraft, Listening, Crossover) Permanent link
Blog Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin 9110  

George and Ira Gershwin's melodies pervade popular culture with the same frequency as Carmen or Debussy's "Clair de Lune." Two weeks ago, Brian Wilson contributed to the fold of Gershwin interpretations, releasing his newest album "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin." The album, issued on Disney Pearl Series, is his second after the release of the much-anticipated "Smile" in 2005.

As you might expect, the former Beach Boy presents these standards, musical theater numbers and arias in cooing, three and four-part harmonies awash in reverb. Wilson plays "'S Wonderful" as a bossa nova, à la João Gilberto; he redefines "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" from Porgy and Bess as a instrumental jig for harmonica; and he adds both string and saxophone accompaniment to "Summertime" , singing with what you might call Southern California sprezzatura.

If it's too weird for you, there are plenty of other renditions to fall back on. Take the following, for instance: Leontyne Price singing "Summertime" for Jimmy Carter in 1978. spacer 

– TRISTAN KRAFT

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