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The Big Buzz

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Arts Journalism) Permanent link

There's no ignoring the power of buzz, and no singer this season has yet proved as buzzworthy as Marina Poplavskaya, who recently made her Met debut as Elisabetta in Don Carlo and is poised to sing Violetta with the company in Willy Decker's already-famous "red-dress" La Traviata. It's a rare thing — it always has been — for an opera singer to be the subject of a major profile in a mainstream magazine. So when Gay Talese's profile of Poplavskaya appeared in the December 6 issue of The New Yorker, I was happy to see the magazine, which is increasingly weighed down with wobbly fiction and dominated by lengthy political analyses, paying a little more attention to cultural matters, which are, after all, what established its reputation.

Since Don Carlo opened, I have received an amazing number of phone calls from friends and colleagues who wanted to know what I thought about Poplavskaya. What I find interesting is that they don't really want to know what I thought about her performance as Elisabetta, which I heard recently. They want to know what I thought of Talese's profile. "Have you read the Poplavskaya piece? Have you read it? WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU HAVEN'T READ IT?" I was beginning to get the feeling that the other things occupying my thoughts — what to get my sister-in-law for Christmas, where to find a contractor to do house repairs, whether to take my cat to the dentist, or finding the time to finish writing my latest book — were all things I didn't deserve to be worrying about. I should instead be experiencing what I was beginning to think must be a milestone in cultural journalism.

This morning, I finally sat down, closed my door, turned off the telephone and read Talese's profile.

It opens with a very New Yorkerish nonfiction trick — the relating of a specific action in the subject's life, told in plangent detail. You know the type: "On a recent chilly morning in September, Estelle Rubin left the apartment she had occupied for the last forty-five years on Manhattan's West Side, on a grocery-shopping expedition. As she approached her neighborhood Food Emporium, she noticed a man she had never seen before standing on the corner, wearing nothing but ankle socks and a surgical mask, loudly singing a ballad from the obscure 1940s musical Ankles Aweigh...."

Talese's article began this way: "On an August night this past summer, the opera singer Marina Poplavskaya lay motionless for nearly three hours on the floor of her mother's apartment in Moscow, having collapsed shortly after 4 A.M. from inhaling noxious smoke from the forest fires that were burning out of control in the countryside...." The author developed this scene at some length, in the process confusing me. I was beginning to wonder what the point of it all was: was he suggesting that Poplavskaya had somehow started the forest fires? But the point eventually became clear. The soprano telephoned a friend: "'Darling, I'm about to die," she whispered into the receiver. 'And so I ask that you help take care of my mother!'" It was Talese's clever way of setting up Poplavskaya as a creature with a truly dramatic nature.

I was expecting this to be a prelude that was going to make the link between the diva's often excessive and outrageous behavior in real life and the spell she weaves on the stage. But that never happened: Talese's piece was really just a catalogue of bizarre personality quirks, ranging from Poplavskaya's tendency as a child to burst into song in the classroom whenever she was bored, through her terrorization of cab drivers and rehearsal pianists, to her insistence on bringing her own towels to her Met dressing room. At no point did Talese attempt to connect all of this with her artistry and musicianship. Nor, for that matter, did his article delve into her singing in any detailed way. Seven pages of text, plus a full-page photo — and no real discussion of her an artist.

I think there's plenty to say about Poplavskaya. Listening to voices is a highly subjective thing, and I don't quite agree with critic Zachary Woolfe that her tone has a "smoldering darkness." The night I attended the Met's Don Carlo, I didn't hear a great deal of color in her voice at all. But she can act, and she has presence — and she was certainly light years ahead of her countrywoman Anna Smirnova, who was vocally the clumsiest Eboli I've ever experienced.

Talese has sometimes not shown the best timing in his career. His 1971 novel Honor Thy Father, about the mob, appeared two years after another book on the same topic, called The Godfather, caused something of a stir in the publishing world. But his article on Poplavskaya never gets out of first gear. It came as something of a jolt, given the magazine's distinguished history of music reporting — from Winthrop Sargeant to Andrew Porter to Alex Ross. Does the Poplavskaya profile represent the standard of cultural coverage we can now expect from The New Yorker? spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

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

Bad Press

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Criticism, Advice) Permanent link

Not long ago I was introduced to a New York voice teacher, an ex-singer who had kind of a half-baked career and is still looking for someone to blame for it. When she found out that I worked for OPERA NEWS, she said, "Oh ... well, we all know how you get into that magazine, don't we?"

"Actually, no," I said. "How do you get into it?"

"Oh, come on — everyone knows that the singers' publicists pay for that kind of coverage."

Well, that's news to me. In the twenty-two years that I have worked for OPERA NEWS, I've witnessed many jaw-dropping incidents with people who work in the music business, but never has a publicist offered to pay to get a client into the magazine's pages. Who knows how people get these ideas about what goes on behind the scenes at our publication? If publicists paid to get their clients into the magazine, does anyone honestly think I'd still be living in a small one-bedroom apartment and planning budget trips on Expedia? But this little episode did get me to thinking about why people talk so much about music publicists, assigning them such a significant role in the way the business works.

I'll tell you something: many of them are quite insignificant. What's more, many of them are quite unnecessary.

Now, institutional publicists can do a great deal of good. Large symphony orchestras and opera companies need good P.R. and marketing people, and they can be of enormous benefit to the singers who perform with those organizations. (I'm not so sure about some of the smaller organizations: there's one group in New York that changes publicists the way I change rolls of paper towels, and it never seems to make any difference.)

But I think that every single one of my OPERA NEWS colleagues agrees with me on this point: an individual singer or a conductor has the greatest need of a publicist when the career has grown so unwieldy, so complicated by millions of details, that a publicist can act as kind of a combination of clearing house and production stage manager. A lot of singers — younger ones, especially — sign on with publicists because they are under the impression that publicists will bring them greater visibility and that greater visibility will yield more work. Back in the day when cultural departments in media outlets ran wider and deeper than they do now, and when everyone was reading the same magazines and newspapers and watching the same T.V. shows, that might have been the case. But the whole media scene has changed so dramatically. I'm not a member of the Greatest Generation, and I hate to sound like one, lecturing those darned kids on the importance of a proper work ethic. But: the best way to secure more work for yourself, to build your career, is by showing up on time for rehearsals, knowing your music, performing your heart out, not making a pest of yourself with management — in other words, doing your job. That way, you have at least a fighting chance of being re-engaged.

Whether you are a young singer or one in mid-career, a publicist really can't help you get work. If you are a young singer, what most publicists are going to do is charge an exorbitant monthly fee. Most likely you will be charged every time the publicist has lunch with someone like me for the purpose of pitching a story. One thing I think a lot of young singers don't understand is that a lot of editors and writers keep their eyes open — they can spot young talent and develop an interest in it without some paid handmaiden spoon-feeding information to them.

Now, I know that this is not always the case. There are some editors who rely heavily on publicists to supply not only the story idea, but the whole package — the writer included. I think this is a horrifying practice: at OPERA NEWS, we tend to resist the idea of the publicist recommending a writer, because we automatically assume that what we're going to get is a piece that the publicist has unduly influenced.

There are good publicists around, too — smart, seasoned pros who really know how to pitch a story and don't whine if you say no. But I'm afraid that they're outnumbered by the publicists who don't do their homework, pitch story ideas that have appeared in the magazine only a few months earlier, or alienate the editors by trying to use various forms of bullying or emotional blackmail to get their way. I'm not going to mention any names, not even the names of the good ones, because if I do, the "others" will be calling me wanting to know why their names were included, and why they thought I always liked them, and wondering what they've done to offend me and how they might make it up.

The music business is in a shambles, and it simply can't — or shouldn't — support the number of publicists who have hung out a shingle for themselves. So, especially to those struggling young artists, I would say: use that money that you were saving for a monthly P.R. commission to hit that sale at Barneys or Bloomingdales. Buy your grandmother that Three Irish Tenors CD she's seen advertised on TV. Hire someone to teach you how Wozzeck really goes. spacer 

— BRIAN KELLOW

 

No Explanations

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances) Permanent link

The brilliant pianist and pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne used to tell her students, "Isn't it wonderful that music is not a science?" Well — yes, it is wonderful. But in these days when arts leaders seem more often to speak in terms of quantification than to assess the quality and merit of various projects, I'm all too happy to be reminded that music is not a science.

I confess that I've often been surprised by how difficult it is for many musicians to discuss the nuts and bolts of how they do what they do. When I began writing for OPERA NEWS, back in the late 1980s, it didn't take me long to discover that singers and conductors — singers, particularly — were often at something of a loss to describe the evolution of their performances in anything other than rather vague and general terms. I would nervously traipse off to an interview armed with a list of questions that I hoped would trigger a provocative, detailed conversation — and often I was disappointed in the result. Not always: Dolora Zajick, for example, can hold forth on technical matters in a way that's endlessly fascinating. Too often, though, I came away feeling that I had learned half of what I'd hoped to learn.

It took me a while to understand that many singers — many musicians, period, in fact — are much better at making music than talking about it. In the August issue of OPERA NEWS, Richard Bonynge freely admits this. In fact, in my experience, I have had many more precisely detailed conversations with writers and professors about the structure and demands of various works than I have had with performers themselves. Why? I think it's because those writers and professors tend to approach music as a problem to be solved, and understood; they're always looking to crack the code of some monumental work, as if understanding every facet of how it's all put together will lead them to a more profound appreciation of the piece itself.

There's no guarantee that that will happen, of course. I was thinking of this recently as I was listening, once more, to Eileen Farrell singing Brünnhilde's immolation scene — a live performance from 1951, with Victor de Sabata conducting the New York Philharmonic. The soprano is in astonishing form — although she sang brilliantly for much of her career, she never sounded as ravishing as she did during the 1950s, before gall-bladder surgery cost her some of the refulgent bloom at the top of her voice. Her Brünnhilde is a staggering achievement, sung in firm, taut musical lines, and in sensuous, impassioned, womanly tones. (Although Farrell is one of my favorite sopranos, I have no trouble admitting that she doesn't always inhabit her music as fully as she does here.)

I began thinking of the two years — 1997 to 1999 — when I collaborated with Eileen on her autobiography, which the publisher, Northeastern University Press, stuck with the meaningless title Can't Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell. (When the book was published, Deanna Durbin wrote me a letter from France, indicating that the title was more appropriate for her life story than for Eileen's; I didn't argue with her.)

While we worked on the book, I frequently pummeled Eileen with questions about how she did this, how she did that. Usually, what she did in response was bite her lip and frown at me. Once, she made me fall over laughing by saying, "Do you think I give a shit about stuff like this?" She had a great appreciation of the various twists and turns of her own career, a terrific, self-deprecating wit, and she told a story like nobody else. But I soon realized that she wasn't giving me much about how she had mastered various parts of the Ring or Cavalleria Rusticana or Wozzeck … because she didn't quite know herself. She'd been a good student. She'd worked hard. She'd perfected her technique. She could sing a vast and varied amount of repertory incredibly well. She was touched with musical genius, in an unlikely package. But she didn't know exactly how she'd done it all. She'd just done it. Like all great artists, to a certain degree she'd been a creature of instinct, and there was only so much she could tell me. She knew how it felt, and that was enough. Once, while she was teaching at Indiana University in the 1970s, a student bombarded her with a string of technical questions. Eileen put her hand up and said, "Listen, honey — I don't know your soft palate from a hole in the ground."

All of that technical knowledge is nice. Book-learnin' is a wonderful thing. I prize it. But how much does it really enhance our experience of listening to a great performance, which most often skips the brain and goes straight to the heart? Isn't the most important thing to be able to feel that magic, to recognize and respond to it, when it really happens? spacer 

– BRIAN KELLOW

 

 

 

New ... Again

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances) Permanent link

The most thrilling performance in the Met's season came at its very end, and it was a revival at that. I wasn't fortunate enough to catch Teresa Stratas as Alban Berg's Lulu (she sang it at the Met premiere of the complete version of the work in 1980), but I have seen later revivals of the famed John Dexter production, with Catherine Malfitano and Christine Schäfer. Both had their merits, but neither one approached the brilliance of the recent outing, with Marlis Petersen in the title role. I saw it on May 12, and Petersen was a revelation, as completely satisfying as I had found her disappointing in the Met's Hamlet two months earlier. The entire cast, in fact, seemed unusually in sync with each other, as if they all understood the real point of Lulu: that it's an extended sick joke. But most of the credit for the success of the performance belongs to Fabio Luisi, the Met's recently appointed principal guest conductor. This Lulu was a tantalizing promise of what Luisi may bring to his future work with the Met orchestra. I've never heard a live performance of this opera in which the score's bluesy, subversive wit rose to the surface so consistently. And the audience was keen to what Luisi was up to, laughing out loud at several points, and not just at Lulu's magnificently amoral antics onstage — they seemed to be laughing at the effects served up by the orchestra. This hasn't been the case in past performances I've heard conducted by Met music director James Levine. Although Levine always drew beautiful, transparently detailed work from the players, he never quite seemed to be in on the opera's central joke. Masterful as his touch was, it felt that he conducted the work with a straight-faced sobriety, a certain portentousness — as if the entire opera were to be done in the tone of the chilling final scene. Much of what makes that last scene so powerful is that what comes before it doesn't really prepare us for it — we've had the rug ripped out from under us.

In the 1980s, when I worked on the performing arts staff of the 92nd Street Y, the program's director, Omus Hirshbein, worked overtime bringing a wide range of twentieth-century music to the Y's somewhat hidebound audience. I used to answer many of the letters from subscribers who wrote in angrily protesting that they had to sit through works like Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht or Berg's Chamber Concerto, which they usually derisively characterized as "new music." Berg was near completion of Lulu when he died in 1935, but for me, the Met's recent performance carried the wallop of discovery. This time around, it really did seem, in so many ways, like "new music." spacer 

– Brian Kellow


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