Monday, October 5, 2020

Did y'all know I'm kinda fond of the Verdi Requiem?

This post (link) a few years ago was the beginning of my infamous Ten Days, Ten Verdi Requiems series. Rereading the post now brings tears to the eyes, for the work is so emotional in so many ways. I didn't finish my ten days. My life was in a bit of turmoil at the time, and much as it pains me to say it, I became emotionally exhausted. Still, I never miss a chance to hear a good one.

Such a one I found on YouTube this evening. This (link) was from the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and the MDR Rundfunkchor, under the direction of Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Soloists were Erika Grimaldi, Soprano; Violeta Urmana, Mezzosoprano; Saimir Pirgu, Tenor; and Kihwan Sim, Bass. The performance was at the Alte Oper Frankfurt in October, 2017.

Violeta Urmana
Photo:  Ivan Balderramo

This was a highly skilled and nuanced performance. Great praise are due to conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada (and chorus master Philipp Ahmann), and to the Frankfurt Symphony and the MDF Rundfunkchor. But I must confess I have a small child's wonder of amazing soloists, and heard four this evening. 

I believe the most famous soloist to Americans might be Violeta Urmana, famed for mezzo and zwischen-fach roles such as Santuzza. She assayed roles such as Aida at the Met, but not with the success of her other roles. In this performance Ms. Urmana left nothing to be desired--rich, sonorous, voluminous, and subtle are just a few way to describe her singing. I always say "Liber scriptus" must part your hair, and boy howdy, did it ever.

I was just as pleased with soprano Erika Grimaldi (although I haven't been able to find a photo I liked enough to steal use). I don't believe I knew of her before, but as I often say when I hear a singer I like, I want to hear her much more. She had power and tenderness, earthy desperation an heavenly float when called for. Of course, in this work any soprano is judged by her "Libera me". (Unfair to judge any singer by just one aria or movement, but I am guilty, and there you are.) Again, Ms. Grimaldi did not disappoint. Hearing this lovely woman was a pleasure, although sometimes her face belied less peace than one would wish.  

Samir Pirgu
Photo:  Pierre Monderau for Opera News
Handsome Albanian tenor Samir Pirgu was pleasing in his role, both in ensemble passages and in his aria "Ingemisco".  I had heard this man's name before, and I had seen YouTube videos, but nothing compared to his beautiful singing in this performance. I highly recommend seeking him out on YouTube, recordings, and in live performance.

Bass Kihwan Sim was quite good in most parts of the bass soloist role.  What is it about "Mors stupedit"? If a bass ends that section in tune with the orchestra it's such a surprise one wonders whether he's done something wrong. No such cause for wondering in this case, but I have observed this transgression so often that I take it into account. Everything else was very well done. This fellow has a beautiful voice and uses it skillfully. 

Overall I call this a fine performance. Again I give praise to the chorus and orchestra. I highly recommend seeking it out.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Die Wahrheit! Die Wahrheit wär sie auch Verbrechen!

 We shall speak the truth, even if that be also a crime.

Noble words one doesn't hear much in our day. But Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is a work about ideals, and often about how noble efforts conflict with earthy pleasures.  I was happy to view a recent Royal Opera House YouTube post (dated June 25, 2020) of a 2017 Flute performance.  

No one who knows me or who has been reading this blog for very long can doubt my love for Mozart and his sublime operas.  I have sung and studied more Mozart roles than any other, and indeed, Tamino was the first full role I ever sang.  

This was a 2017 revival of a David McVicar production, under the direction of Thomas Guthrie.  I'll start with some of the visual elements I liked.  I found it a great relief to have the chorus of priests dressed in 18th century costume instead of the muu-muus one often sees them wearing.  Having said that, Sarastro must guard against looking too much like Pangloss.  In this production Papagena (Christina Gansch) looked more like a late 1960s glamor-puss cougar than a grandmother.  One could be forgiven for expecting her to sing "Ladies Who Lunch" at the drop of a fur-brimmed hat (does anyone still wear a hat?), but when she revealed herself, she became a current-day young woman--very nice.  Tamino's trials by fire and water--rather than having Tamino and Pamina trudge through lame set pieces intended to represent flame and water, in this case they remained in one position while dancers and supernumeraries behind them, aided by skillful lighting, represented flames and waves of water.  A good solution to a scene requirement that is often rather awkward.

Often I start of with glowing descriptions of singers who left me charmed and enraptured, and I can't say I was disappointed by any of the singing.  (Well, perhaps in one case, but we'll get to that later.)  Tamino was sung by Mauro Peter, a tenor I did not know.  I hope to hear more of him as this young man's career progresses.  His singing was 100% secure, and he handled this traditionally stoic park & bark role admirably.  Pamina was quite beautifully sung by Siobhan Stagg, and young Australian soprano who has achieved great acclaim throughout Europe.  Reviews at the time mentioned her absolute understanding and commitment to the text and the strength she gave Pamina.  And let's face it--Pamina has her issues.  Sarastro was quite nobly sung by Finnish bass Mika Kares, another young singer with an impressive list of accomplishments and a promising future.  Sabine Devieilhe sang the Queen, and vocally was completely present and beautiful. One hoped for a little more madness during her vengeance aria, but in her introductory aria there were girlish elements I had never seen before, as she spins her web to convince Tamino she is in the right.  

The character tenor is an unusual breed.  Usually sought after for his acting, in some cases his singing doesn't matter. Think of Monostatos, Pedrillo, Franz in Les Contes d'Hoffmann. The singing of this Monostatos must not have mattered at all.  Yes, the man can act, and yes he looked menacing, especially in his Nosferatu-like costume and makeup, but I dreaded every time he opened his mouth. The world is full of accomplished character tenors who can sing much more beautifully than Peter Bronder--were none of them available?

As expected, the chorus and orchestra of ROH Covent Garden were excellent. Conductor Julia Jones gave a spritely, nuanced, and compelling performance.

I would recommend this YouTube video.  It's beautiful, and beauty is what it's all about for me.

Friday, September 18, 2020

In memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

It is with great sadness that I share news of the death of our dear Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18. It is difficult to write this without crying. Not only do Iconsider myself fortunate to have lived in the same world as RBG, but I have been blessed to be in the same room with her several times. I've written of my many trips to the Glimmerglass Festival, and on at least two occasions I was fortunate to see programs where she introduced opera scenes that had to do with the law. I was to have seen the opera based on her correspondence with Antonin Scalia--although politically opposed, they were apparently great friends--but was prevented from going to Glimmerglass that year. Best of all were the several times I was in the auditorium at Glimmerglass, and she entered to enjoy the evening's opera as an audience member. Every time she entered the auditorium there was an explosion of applause and everyone stood. If the US had royalty, This great lady definitely deserved to be counted among them.

What follows is picked up directly from Wikipedia's article about the dear lady:

Ginsburg has been referred to as a "pop culture icon".[164][165][166] Ginsburg's profile began to rise after O'Connor's retirement in 2006 left Ginsburg as the only serving female justice. Her increasingly fiery dissents, particularly in Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 2 (2013), led to the creation of the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr and Internet meme comparing the justice to rapper The Notorious B.I.G.[167] The creator of the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr, then-law student Shana Knizhnik, teamed up with MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon to turn the blog into a book titled Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.[168] Released in October 2015, the book became a New York Times bestseller.[169] In 2015, Ginsburg and Scalia, known for their shared love of opera, were fictionalized in Scalia v. Ginsburg, an opera by Derrick Wang.[170]

Additionally, Ginsburg's pop culture appeal has inspired nail art, Halloween costumes, a bobblehead doll, tattoos, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and a children's coloring book among other things.[168][171][172][173] She appears in both a comic opera and a workout book.[173] Musician Jonathan Mann also made a song using part of her Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. dissent.[174] Ginsburg admitted to having a "large supply" of Notorious R.B.G. t-shirts, which she distributed as gifts.[175]

Since 2015, Ginsburg has been portrayed by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live.[176] McKinnon has repeatedly reprised the role, including during a Weekend Update sketch that aired from the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.[177][178] The segments typically feature McKinnon (as Ginsburg) lobbing insults she calls "Ginsburns" and doing a celebratory dance.[179][180] Filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen created a documentary about Ginsburg, titled RBG, for CNN Films, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.[181][25] In the film Deadpool 2 (2018), a photo of her is shown as Deadpool considers her for his X-Force, a team of superheroes.[182] Another film, On the Basis of Sex, focusing on Ginsburg's career struggles fighting for equal rights, was released later in 2018; its screenplay was named to the Black List of best unproduced screenplays of 2014.[183] English actress Felicity Jones portrays Ginsburg in the film, with Armie Hammer as her husband Marty.[184] Ginsburg herself has a cameo in the film.[185] The seventh season of the sitcom New Girl features a three-year-old character named Ruth Bader Schmidt, named after Ginsburg.[186] A Lego mini-figurine of Ginsburg is shown within a brief segment of The Lego Movie 2. Ginsburg gave her blessing for the cameo, as well as to have the mini-figurine produced as part of the Lego toy sets following the film's release in February 2019.[187] Also in 2019, Samuel Adams released a limited-edition beer called When There Are Nine, referring to Ginsburg's well-known reply to the question about when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court.[188]

We have lost a great lady and a great voice for educated, enlightened people.  All the fear I had about the future is now increased tenfold!

Them Lammermoors Just Ain't Right

Once again I sing the praises of Eurovision as a source for beautiful opera, ballet, and concert.  It's all free, but most of the videos are there for a period of a few months to a year.  The repertoire is varying, the productions ranging from traditional to Euro-trash.  You be the judge.

Photo:  Matthew Murphy
I knew of this production of Lucia from Madrid's Teatro Réal already because of dear Lisette Oropesa, who very kindly granted me an interview that resulted in this artist profile in 2018.  As I recall, one of my first questions was something like, "You know that thing where you sound totally free, comfortable, and beautiful regardless of tessitura or repertoire?  Um, how do you do that?" In earlier, more ignorant days, I considered Ms. Oropesa a lyric coloratura--a Susanna or Blondchen.  I wrote in glowing terms about her Werther Sophie at the Met.  Then I saw her Violetta in Philadelphia.  The memory still brings tears to the eyes.  She shared with me that while she was singing very light roles in a very large house, she was coaching on meatier roles that fit her voice and the smaller European venues that are fortunate to enjoy her talents nowadays.  If you read the profile, you'll see she graciously shared a metric ton of information and insight, and I must say she was extremely kind and friendly during our Skype interview.

I was looking forward to seeing this production, having read reviews and knowing it was a bit controversial.  Some critics wanted a bigger voice for the role, and some took issue with the production itself.  True. it is updated a bit, but I'm OK with that.  It has been said that Lucia is already a bit mad with grief over her recently departed mother before the story begins.  In this production we see suggestions she's not the only mad one in her family.  True, Enrico is desperate to marry Lucia off in a way that will benefit the family, but that was the period, and the family was suffering hard times.  (Women of a certain economic class were chattel, breeding machines, and in the literature of the period, marrying for love seems more a pipe dream than a reality.  Can you tell I'm a big Jane Austen fan?)  

Edgardo by Javier Camarena.  Were I really up on my game, I'd already have written extensively about my admiration for this fine singer. The Enrico of Artur Rucinski left nothing to be desired. Big moments like Enrico's Act I aria, Lucia's "Regnava nel silenzio", the famed sextet--all completely amazing in vocal power and in commitment by the singing actors. The extended applause following the sextet was quite moving, and nothing can describe my delight when they repeated it as an encore. God bless those Europeans! 

Mad scene:  Oh.  My.  Gawd.  Becky!!!!!  They used a real glass harp! And this is where Ms Oropesa's ability to easily and beautifully float a melody line were contrasted with her ability to capably sing more agitated vocal lines. Her performance of the scene as envisioned by director David Adler was beyond reproach. What I would have given to see the performance live in the house instead of online!  Ms Oropesa's maintenance of a crucified posture during the extended applause alone was well worth the ticket price! I don't know if it was a tear or a trickle of sweat (stages are very warm places!), but in the end, it didn't matter--we saw the illusion of a tear after all that applause and posture holding.

Other production elements: Many seemed to suggest Lucia's status as a young woman still until the tutelage of a governess. School rooms and windows. It's OK, and is better than some other productions I've seen.  The costumes--well executed and thorough, but suggestive more of a mid- to late-19th century setting, certainly more advanced than Sir Walter Scott's 1819 novel publication date or Donizetti's 1835 opera composition date.  I just don't see the reasoning behind updating from a remote period in history to a less remote period in history.  (Unless you count the many productions where designers are allowed to run amok with their Jackie-O flair. I suppose that's OK, it being Jackie-O.)

But there were ways in which the lighting was absolutely inspired.  

Regarding conductor, orchestra, chorus--my tendency is not to notice them unless something is wrong.  I might write about excellent and sensitive phrasing and very well prepared ensembles (I've done opera chorus--it can be very difficult indeed), but usually if I don't notice a conductor or a pit orchestra it's because they doing a good job of supporting what is happening on stage. This is such a case.  While I must give conductor Daniel Oren his due for all the skillful wrangling that is involved in conducting a production, the fact that I never once thought about him should be taken as high praise.  (I have written before of conductors who disappointed, so don't take this as laziness on my part.)

My lasting impression.  Damn, what fine singing!  And this is a production worth seeing!  I suggest you follow the link above and find this and other Eurovision presentations, all free, and enjoy at your will.  (Tip:  Headphones and earbuds give you better sound than whatever speakers are internal to your computer.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

A recommendation I should have made long ago!


I studied with Claudia for several years and learned tremendous amounts.  Her teaching style and my learning style were completely compatible, and she is very much the voice scientist.  I would highly recommend this book.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Giudici! Ad Anna!

This is not exactly a review, but more a report on an opera performance I heard streaming online yesterday through the wonder of  This comes from Latvia.

Sestdienas vakars Opera (Starts at 1808/2:08PM): G. Doniceti opera "Anna Bolena"
Opera Rayal de Wallonie Lježā, 2019
Olga Peretjatko (soprāns),
Sofija Solovija (mecosoprāns),
Čelso Albelo (Celso Albelo, tenors),
Marko Mimika (Marko Mimica, basabritons),
Frančeska Askjoti (Francesca Ascioti, kontralts),
Opera Rayal de Wallonie koris,
orķestris un diriģents Džampaolo Bizanti (Giampaolo Bisanti)

Of course I don't know any of the singers, but boy howdy, did I hear some beautiful and passionate singing!  I'd gladly pay to hear these singers again.  Who'd like to sponsor a trip for me to Latvia?

Sunday, February 9, 2020

I'm older than you are! I know what I'm saying!

So says Don Alfonso in the G. Schirmer English version of Cosi fan Tutte I performed in the 1980s.  (When I was 3.)

Guglielmo, Dorabella, Fiordiligi, Ferrando
On Friday evening I was fortunate to see a student production of Cosi fan Tutte at Southern Methodist University here in Dallas.  Because I've sung Ferrando in Cosi, and because Mozart always has a special place in my heart, I hold this opera dear.  And overall I was pleased with Friday evening's performance.

Most of all I was impressed with the potential on stage.  Because it was a student production, and because I only heard one of the two casts, and also because no singer bio-blurbs were provided, I won't mention the individual singers by name.  But I will say this:  there was not a one of them I wouldn't want to hear again with another year or two of training and polish.  There were one or two whose voices I don't think fit the roles they were assigned, but I would gladly hear in them in bigger roles now and in the future.  There also those those voices fit their roles perfectly.  Again, I would gladly hear them all again, and I would love to be kept apprised of their vocal and professional progress.

Ferrando and Fiordiligi
I've written many times before of my feelings about updated productions. The usual stated intention is to clarify relationships and social positions. In my humble opinion, it doesn't often work. If that was the intention this time, one wonders why Despina was portrayed as a custodian but the English titles and the stage actions still suggested she was really a lady's maid.  (This school clearly has an arts budget--how much does a dramaturg cost?)  Why set Cosi in a modern prep school?  And while the sets and costumes were well executed to portray the concept, I just can't go with the concept. I once interviewed a high-profile opera director for these pages, and she said when she works with students she wants to know they have a thorough understanding of droit du seigneur before listening to their ideas about staging Marriage of Figaro on a tennis court.  I don't know other work of this production team, but I'm not getting a picture of that level of understanding in this case.

These are not huge objections. I have often stated I'm all about the singing. I walked away pleased and hopeful for the futures of these young artists.  For readers in the Dallas area, I highly recommend catching one of the remaining performances.

Monday, January 27, 2020

An essay on beauty, inspired by a Mozart Requiem performance

ossia, Taminophile's Credo

Leonard Bernstein was once quoted as saying "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." There is a reason people seek out choral music in good times and bad. After what we now call 9/11, performances of Brahms and Mozart Requiems could be found in abundance. I'm told this is exactly what happened after the JFK assassination in 1963.  And there's another quote I love: "He who sings, prays twice."

Let me be clear. I trained to be a public school music teacher. I know about boundaries, particularly between church and state. I don't care what you believe. That's not what I'm about. I want you to have understanding and empathy for people whose beliefs and world views are different from your own. If I were teaching Durufle's "Ubi caritas" or Bruckner's "Locus iste" to a high school choir (my dream when I started college--OK, I still dream of doing that!), I would want the students to understand world views that were part of these amazing works. Think of the fear and desperation in the "Libera me" of Verdi's Requiem. Think of the stately elegance and reverence of the masses Mozart and Haydn left us.  Think of the absolute adoration and adulation, leftover from Medieval era ideas about monarchy, in Parry's "I was glad".

All of this contemplation was brought about by finding a beautiful performance of the Mozart Requiem on YouTube.  The Simón Bolivar Orchestra and Simón Bolivar National Youth Choir of Venezuela, under the direction of Gregory Carreño, performed in March, 2012. I was blown away by the reception the maestro received just walking on stage, and the ovation at the end of the work was heartwarming. Mostly, I was moved by the phrasing, the dynamic shading, the subtleties of this performance. Tears were shed.

Thinking about this, I can recall meeting with advisors at various times in my life for various purposes, and each time starting off with a lot of head knowledge and analysis. That's my way. Without exception, once they got me talking about music or opera, my expression changed, my manner of speaking changed, everything about me changed. It's about beauty. It's about spirit.

One such advisor taught me that dear St. Francis once wrote, "God, you are beauty."  Being the son of an English teacher, I know that this also means, "Beauty, you are God."  I can not express how freeing that was.  It's OK to revere and draw spiritual strength from beauty, whether it's in nature or in man-made works. It's OK to be more drawn to a clergyman's needlework stole than his words.  It's OK to find a huge, descending Advent wreath more beautiful than the ascending chandeliers at the Met.

I'm not about obsequious worship. In my favorite church tradition, we sometimes say, "We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under thy table...." I appreciate the archaic language in the same way I appreciate the language of Shakespeare and the Victorian fiction writers, the way I appreciate the faith I imagine is behind the great works of J.S. Bach and dear Mozart.

In the end, I'm there for the beauty.  The beauty of the words, the beauty of the music, the beauty of the architecture sometimes, the beauty of the spirits around me, and yes, sometimes the physical beauty of a few individuals.  It's all there to be enjoyed, to find connection, and if crumb-gathering is your thing, to be worshiped.

I started this article writing about choral music. To me, choral music and opera--music in which the voice grants us beauty and feeling and countless other gifts--is the ultimate expression of beauty. Bach's St. Matthew Passion and B-minor Mass, Mozart's Mass in c-minor and Requiem, Verdi's Requiem--the list in endless.  To me these, along with totally amazing operas that I could list for days, are the ultimate expression of beauty, and thereby of God.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

I was wrecked!

On Sunday I was privileged to hear a concert presented by soprano Angel Blue as part of Dallas Opera's Robert E. and Jean Ann Titus Art Song Recital Series.  The excellent collaborative pianist was James Baillieu.  The Moody Performance Hall was sold out for this concert, so I feel quite fortunate indeed.

In preparation for this concert, I did my research.  I found videos of truly beautiful singing, and even more exciting, I found videos of truly intelligent and well-spoken interviews.  See below:

Please, please, please watch the kids video!  It's amazing!

There are many more videos to be found on YouTube and at Ms. Blue's own web site.  How I would love to have met her in person, but schedules are schedules, and I'm a lowly blogger while she's off to the Met to resume her run as Bess in the current highly acclaimed production of Porgy and Bess.  (Porgy and Bess is scheduled to be broadcast to cinemas across the country as part of the Met's HD series on Saturday, Feb. 1.  Yes, I'll be there.)

The concert itself.  I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me.  Honestly, I knew I would be moved, and I knew I would hear beautiful, skillful, and expressive singing, but I didn't expect to be sobbing at the end of the last encore.  On its surface, it seemed like a typical recital a program--Mozart's Alleluia (a good warm-up piece), four R. Strauss songs, four Rachmaninoff songs, and so on.  But what's this?  A zarzuela aria? Ms. Blue spent several years in Spain, singing both zarzuela and traditional opera, and clearly knows how to perform a zarzuela aria effectively.  The English translation in the program was quite saucy, and one could see that in the performance on stage!  Then three songs by Jake Heggie, of whom I've written before. (His Dead Man Walking remains one of the most powerful operatic experiences I've ever had.)  These were beautiful songs.  There was also song not on the printed program, "Valley Girl" by Bruce Adolphe.  Totally cute!

Then came the spirituals.  Oh.  My.  Gawd.  Becky!  From the opening of "Deep River" I was convinced I was witnessing magic.  It was gentle and comforting and wrapped one in a blanket of gorgeous sound and intent.  And then an immediate segue into a very exciting "Ride On, King Jesus!"  By the end of that I was exhausted!

And then there were encores!  First was the predictable "O mio babbino caro", sung really quite beautifully.  Did I mention this woman knows from legato?  Then a song she announced, I believe a song of faith called "He's Been Faithful".  (If I find further information I'll update this article. She does present a performance of this song on her web site.)  Ms. Blue related stories of her father, himself a trained singer who taught her from a young age, a successful singer in the region where she grew up, singing many different styles.  At the end of that song I was wrecked.  Wrecked, I tell you!  My friend told me, "You really should lean on me instead of that stranger on the other side if you're going to cry!"

I am a changed man.  I have a new opera artist to follow with great interest.  I have a new relationship with the lovely PR Diva at Dallas Opera.  And I had a perfectly beautiful Sunday.  Why must tomorrow be Monday?