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I Fanciulli del Met

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther) Permanent link

One of the particular pleasures of my duties at OPERA NEWS is the privilege of attending final dress rehearsals at the Met. If anyone had told me as a young teenager, when I was first bitten by the opera bug, that some day going to the opera would be part of my job, I would have been in a much bigger hurry to grow up.

Of course, just getting to sit there for free in a red-plush seat (during the work day, no less) watching the great vocal artists of our time ply their trade is a pretty nifty perk in itself. But for me, a big part of the fun nowadays is being present along with a whole balcony-full of young people as they discover opera — many of them, no doubt, for the first time.

Last week, the Met revived Gian Carlo del Monaco's lively spaghetti-Western production of Puccini's brilliantly colorful and dramatic, achingly sentimental Fanciulla del West. It gave me a great kick to sense the surprise and excitement of those youngsters as they realized that this elevated art form had room in it for lusty barroom brawls, live horses and gunslinging women holding their own in an overwhelmingly male world. There was a distinctly twenty-first-century-feminist tinge to the audible reaction from the peanut gallery when Minnie first pulled her tiny pistol out of her bosom to fend off the advances of Jack Rance. And there's definitely something to be said for straightforward realism, especially where new audiences are concerned. I strongly doubt that if Minnie and Dick Johnson had appeared in some high-concept production, in the guise of, say, apes or bumble bees, the kids in the family circle would have burst into spontaneous, giggly applause when the heroine surrendered to her first kiss, or cheered her so heartily when she arrived just in time to free him from the posse.

There are times when audience noise can be a most unwanted distraction. (At that very same rehearsal, one fan was so eager to share his admiration of Marcello Giordani's "Ch'ella mi creda" that he shouted "Bravo!"at the top of his lungs just as an emphatic chord from the orchestra punctuated Jack Rance's punching the unfortunate Johnson in the gut. This musically and dramatically misplaced interruption gave the effect that the shouter was encouraging the sheriff's brutality.) The irrepressible and instinctively appropriate responses of the schoolchildren at the back of the house, on the other hand, lent an added charge to the proceeding that enhanced the experience for at least one jaded operagoer down in the orchestra section. spacer 

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

 

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

Elina Garanča’s Body Language

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances) Permanent link

Some of the Met's revivals this season have been somewhat dispiriting for audiences and critics, so I am particularly grateful for Elina Garanča. Her interpretation of the Gypsy in Richard Eyre's production of Carmen, which I saw again last Tuesday night, has only improved with further outings. She has been criticized for "under-acting," but I find her calculating, fatalistic Carmen gripping. Garanča is at her best in Act IV: I have never seen a Carmen who physicalizes the final confrontation so breathtakingly. The way she works the train on her dress, whipping it through the rose petals strewn for the toreadors or collapsing into it when Don José tackles her to the ground — it’s an achievement in itself. spacer
OUSSAMA ZAHR

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

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

Take a Bow

(Observations, Performances, Elizabeth Diggans) Permanent link

As the opera season draws to a close and American Ballet Theatre takes up residence at the Metropolitan Opera house, a change comes over the audience. When the final curtain falls on even a first-rate opera performance, audience members rush toward the exits with the panicked urgency of passengers just informed, "By the way, that iceberg was a tad larger than we thought, and it turns out we're a bit short on lifeboats." Maybe I'm being unfair. I suppose there might be one or two brain surgeons in the audience who've turned their cell phones back on to find their presence is needed in the operating room STAT. But can all those frantic people clambering over me without apology really be brain surgeons? Is it asking too much to give the singers the courtesy of a few minutes of appreciation? On some nights, people don't seem to mind waiting around to boo; why not wait around to applaud on other nights? What's the hurry?

On the other hand, at the end of an even average ballet performance, a whole new show begins in front of the curtain. Any prima ballerina worth her salt recognizes that she now owns that little piece of the stage, and she's not about to let anybody take it from her. This is her moment, and you'll get none of that surprised "Oooh, all of you nice people standing there applauding for little ol' me?" attitude from her. And her male costar (no matter how spectacularly he himself has danced) gallantly assumes the role of her enslaved go-fer, trotting around obediently picking up bouquets and presenting them to her on bended knee with an expression of adoration (probably concealing the fact that he can't stand the very sight of her). She may deign to remove a flower from a bouquet and return it to him with a gracious nod or affectionate kiss (never letting on that she's not quite certain what his name is). This can go on for quite a while, and the audience loves it — and stays to watch, as if the ballet hadn't really ended when the prince pledged his undying love to the wrong swan and had to go back to that damn lake to find the swan he truly loved.

So, should opera singers take a lesson from this? Would a master class on the art of the curtain call taught by one or two (preferably Russian — they do it best) ballerinas help? The problem, of course, will be how to train the tenors to pick up the bouquets — and actually hand them over to the sopranos. Maybe that's where the baritones come in. spacer 

— Elizabeth Diggans

 

 

Hearing Loss

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Listening) Permanent link

The rap against Kathleen Battle used to be that her voice was not big enough to fill the Met. I never had the slightest difficulty making out Battle's pealing, silvery tones in the vast spaces of the house. The roles I saw her in — Susanna, Adina, Pamina, Rosina — were all canny repertory choices for her pristine and youthful sound, with its unmistakable ping, and she seemed always to be paired with conductors who knew how to achieve transparency of orchestral texture and balance with the voices whereby the collective climaxes emerged thrilling and undimmed, with no sense of holding back.

The radio broadcast of Battle's Adina from 1992 features another artist of small but spectacular vocal means: Stanford Olsen, who sang Nemorino, was a light lyric tenor blessed with rare musicality and refinement. Like Battle, he possessed the clarity and brilliance of tone, the incisive articulation and the instinctive feel for the shape of a phrase to project an illusion of vocal power when needed, so that even without a big, beefy sound he could produce a whopping musical effect. When he sang softly, you could probably have heard a pin drop in the hall, except that the audience tended to be so rapt at those moments they would have died rather than drop one. And because he had the courage, the technique and the delicate beauty of sound to offer a true pianissimo — always audible in the prevailing hush it inspired — his fortes, though never loud by Met standards, provided sufficient contrast, build and ring to pack a genuine punch within the context of his nuanced singing.

I've never quite understood why Olsen did not have a bigger career. His Ottavio was suave, manly and heartfelt; his Belmonte made the long, sustained phrases and tricky articulations that can come across as a tenorial obstacle course into the miraculous expressive devices they were meant to be. His Nemorino was poignant, mellifluous, honey-sweet, at once dignified and hilarious. And he had one thing that is in far too short supply — the ability to float an ethereal note or phrase so freely and easily that it seemed to emanate straight from his heart, bypassing the constraints of his throat, and hang effortlessly and magically in the air.

I often wonder whether the current craving for big, blaring voices is a result of generational hearing loss occasioned by too many rock concerts and sessions with the headphones set on high, or is part of a discouraging trend toward passive participation in the arts. Nowadays, we seem to require the singers to come to us with a kind of in-your-face boldness that demands our attention, whether we like it or not, rather than requiring us to prick up our ears and lean forward eagerly to catch every shade of musical meaning.

Do we go to the opera just to hear the music as it goes by, struggling to drown out the din of our own distracting thoughts — or can we muster the extra effort to focus actively on taking in every word and note of something worth really listening to? spacer 

— Louise T. Guinther

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

 

 

 

LuAnn Foster Jenkins

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances, The Real Housewives of New York City) Permanent link

Florence Foster Jenkins is so infamous nowadays for being spectacularly untalented (and deluded about her untalented-ness) that the mere mention of her name has become shorthand for an inept singer of means and daring who would inflict her peculiar brand of art upon the world.  

Jenkins’s latest heir apparent is Countess LuAnn de Lesseps, from the Bravo TV show The Real Housewives of New York City, who decided one day to record and release a dance-diva, spoken-word track called "Money Can’t Buy You Class." (We can count our lucky stars that Jenkins’s brilliance was untouched by Auto-Tune, which La Contessa uses quite liberally.) 

The comparison begins with their shared trouble in tackling ascending intervals, but really, do we need a point-by-point? Enjoy!

– Oussama Zahr

 

Cremeistersinger

(Performances, Tristan Kraft, Cinema) Permanent link

Last week I took advantage of the rare opportunity to watch the film components of Matthew Barney's entire Cremaster Cycle — the artist's monumental multimedia installation/performance piece consisting of sculpture, photography, installation and film.

The five films, which were being screened at Manhattan's IFC Center, almost defy written description: there are surreal creatures, abstract and remote settings, and a loose, coming-of-age plot to the cycle, something like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man set in Narnia. Music is an integral part of the cycle, and composer Jonathan Bepler has scored nearly every moment of it. In Cremaster 3, the protagonist (played by Barney) rigs an elevator shaft in the Chrysler building as a harp — leaving the other empty shafts as drones — which a Gaelic-singing maître d’ (played by Paul Brady) uses to accompany himself.

I saw the cycles in order by title (Cremasters 1 through 5 were filmed in 1996, 1999, 2002, 1995, 1997, respectively). This is an occupational hazard, admittedly, but as I watched the films, I wondered what it would be like if Barney were to direct an opera. Cremaster 5 offered the answer to that question: Barney set most of the film inside Budapest’s State Opera House, with the Budapest Philharmonic playing in the pit, while a costumed climber (again played by Barney) climbs up, across and down the proscenium, as former Bond-girl Ursula Andress "sings" from the theater’s Royal Box. (Soprano Adrienne Csengery does the actual singing.)

The result, however, is a bit of a letdown. Bepler, who is a talented orchestral composer, fails to create much variation in the vocal parts. Where he is otherwise capable of creating spontaneous rhythmic texture, he provides Csengery with what seems like one endless legato phrase, with a tepid orchestration underneath. She is less than pleasant to listen to: her intonation is spotty and she sings with one of the widest vibratos around. Andress, and her accompanying twin sprites, perform a campy lip-syncing job to go along with it.

With the proliferation of operas in high definition, it’s possible to imagine Barney directing an opera, without omitting any of the media he synthesizes so well. Judging by the ending of Cremaster 5, I’d say the director may be ready to direct Rusalka.

– Tristan Kraft

More information can be found at www.cremaster.net, the IFC Center and the fan-site Cremaster Fanatic, where one can see Barney and family sitting at the MOMA’s Marina Abramović exhibit, or the avant-garde artist modeling for Macy's in the late 1980's.

Barbiere-Shop

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther) Permanent link

Time was when no social gathering would have seemed complete without somebody sitting down at the piano for a sing-along. Nowadays, the need to make our own music has long since been obviated by the phonograph and its long line of descendants. We need only pop in a CD or download a tune — or 500 — onto the old iPod to have our fill of Beethoven, Chopin or Lady Gaga, without having to lift a finger to practice a single scale. But there is one form of home-grown musicale that seems to retain widespread popularity — the barbershop quartet. All you need are three buddies with decent intonation (or strangers who will soon become buddies if their intonation is decent enough) and tolerant neighbors who won’t mind a free "concert" now and then.

I recently discovered the pleasures of barbershop singing when a group of friends decided their male quartet needed a female adjunct to provide variety (and perhaps to liven up the inevitable post-rehearsal cocktail hours). Barbershop is toe-tapping fun, and though I confess to liking it best in its original low-voiced form, it’s a great outlet for vocal wannabes like me, who can count and sing pretty much on pitch and even manage a passable "Voi che sapete"in the shower but outside the friendly acoustics of that tiled echo chamber could not produce a lush, opulent tone if our lives depended on it. Those four parts together, even sung in thin, individually unremarkable voices like mine, produce all the rich resonance one could wish for, and it is quite a thrill to be partially responsible for such a sound, even if one can only claim one quarter of the credit.

"So," a friend asked me at one of those cocktail hours, "has there ever been an opera with a barbershop quartet?" He thought he was kidding, but the answer, of course is yes. (Is there anything of musical value or interest that has not made its way into opera at some point in the long history of the lyric art?) There may be a multitude of examples, and I would be delighted to hear about them if anyone out there is familiar with others. The one that came to my mind was "We will rest awhile," from Scott Joplin’s only opera, Treemonisha, a work never produced in its composer’s lifetime, but which has enjoyed sporadic revivals in recent years. I sort of knew it was out there, but it wasn’t until I had tested the quartet waters myself that I grew eager to hear and inwardly digest the operatic form of that time-honored and very American genre.

 YouTube to the rescue. In among a surprising number of dreadful renditions by amateur choral groups (one foolproof way to kill the spirit of barbershop is to perform it with massed choral forces, rather than one voice to a part) I found the following homemade video, taken in a backstage corridor during a performance. It’s not only good barbershop singing: it overflows with the sheer joy of making music and the matchless sense of true bonding one derives from collaborating in a tight ensemble. Watch the guy on the left — that electric smile and the way he locks in the other three with his hands, his eyes and every other expressive means at his disposal. I dare you to listen to it and not be tempted to try it yourself.

– Louise Guinther

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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