Category: Thoughts on Opera

Bohème and Me: 12 Things

I couldn’t possibly write anything grown-up about La Bohème, which I’ll be seeing tonight at the Canadian Opera Company. Like many of the operas I loved before becoming sophisticated, the music is more like a part of my body than anything I experience with my mind. So, I give you my personal history with it, in the form of a list of trivialities.

1. Bohème was my first “favourite opera,” the first opera that really sunk its manipulative little hooks into my teenage brain. I got there through a “best of opera” compilation that included Che gelida manina. The operas I loved back then remind me now of taking the bus to the mall and having a lot of feelings.

2. The part I still love the most is the first 20 minutes or so, with the friends grumbling, celebrating, and carousing before Mimi shows up. The first couple of bars promise that exciting things are about to happen.

aside: Carreras sure was handsome back then.

3. The part I put on opera mixtapes, however, was the Mimi/Marcello bit from Act III.

4. I couldn’t afford to buy opera box sets (and wouldn’t buy “highlights” discs on principle) so I got them out from the library instead. The recording I learned the music from featured Renata Scotto and Gianni Poggi. Later, looking it up in the Penguin Guide, I discovered that it’s considered to be rather dreadful. I eventually bought myself a cheapo set featuring Miriam Gauci. It was unsatisfying.

5. Tonight will be my fifth live Bohème, I think. This is the quintessential date-night opera, but I’ve always attended alone. The same will be true tonight.

6. My first was at Edmonton Opera in 1999, and I cried, of course. After I became a full-blown opera lover, my mother became a member of the opera guild, primarily for my benefit. It mostly meant I could hang around backstage with her before and after the performance (one chorus member taught us how to correctly pronounce the word latte). I also had good access to posters. After that first Bohème, I took a poster to the Mimi’s dressing room to have it signed. Her name was Monique Pagé, she was French-Canadian, and she was very kind to me.

7. My second Bohème, in 2005, was an accident. I had just moved to Toronto, wanted to Take Advantage of the Cultural Offerings, and fixed my intentions on a string quartet performance. My path took me past the COC’s erstwhile venue on Front Street, and on my way to the chamber music someone called out: “want some opera tickets?” Turned out I did. After some mild haggling I gave him $25 for an orchestra-level seat, perhaps too much given that the performance had already started. The ushers were kind enough to let me in during Act I to stand in the back. I was bored of Bohème by then, but I still cried at the end.

8. Against the Grain Theatre’s version had a modernized libretto that included the phrase: “the first chance I get, I’ll make an appointment for some manscaping.” That’s the main line from Joel’s libretto that I remember. I still cried at the end.

9. Bohème was a supremely comforting opera for me as someone on the cusp of adulthood. It’s about young artists in the big city! They don’t have money or success, but they are full of energy. They eat, drink, and carouse; they fold themselves into the bustle of the city; they form deep and close friendships; they embark on exhilarating romances. And they work on their art. Those were all things I wanted for myself. The prospect of dying of TB wasn’t a concern.

10. I’ve met people who never really grow out of the things they loved when they were young; whatever movies and albums blew their mind at age 16 are on their top five lists for all time. Perhaps all of us are like this at heart, but for anyone aspiring to connoisseurship it’s imperative to develop and discard.

11. There are so many reasons for an advanced opera-lover to discard Bohème: its postcard nostalgia, its cold and cloying manipulations, the fact that it’s comfort food for your aunties and a cash cow for opera companies who churn out plush productions in soft colours season after season. If you go to the opera with any regularity, Bohème’s popularity will virtually ensure that you soon tire of it.

12. Even so. When I think of how many great operas are dull or straight-up incoherent in patches, how many attempt sweetness and fail, how many depict love in a way that seems mechanical and foreign, or don’t make me cry in the sad scenes, it’s hard to see Bohème as anything other than a masterwork. It is precisely what it needs to be.

Why I am at the Opera Tonight

(La Boheme is my example this evening, because it is the first opera I ever loved)

1. Because I love La Boheme.

2. Because I’ve been a subscriber for thirty years.

3. Because my girlfriend just broke up with me, and La Boheme always makes me cry, and I need a good cry.

4. Because I’d given up on productions of La Boheme after seeing five dull ones, but I hear this one is really something.

5. Because my favourite singer is in it.

6. Because my friend from music school is in it.

7. Because I think it will impress my date if I take her someplace where she’ll feel slightly intimidated.

8. Because my date loves the opera and I need him to think I love it too.

9. Because I am obsessed with Phantom of the Opera and would love to see a real live opera.

10. Because I was saying to Ginny the other day, isn’t it silly that we live three blocks away from the opera house and we’ve never been?

11. Because I’m obsessed with opera and see everything I can, whether it’s a student production of The Magic Flute or The Ring Cycle set in colonial Hong Kong.

12. Because I could never sit through any of that modern trash but I just love Puccini.

13. Because I’m trying to convert my friend to opera and I think this will be the perfect “foist.”

14. Because my 10-year-old nephew is singing that line about wanting the toy trumpet.

15. Because my company got some comp tickets and it’s the perfect place to take that new client.

16. Because I desperately want somewhere to wear my new silk dress.

17. Because I work for the opera company and am taking full advantage of the free and cheap tickets.

18. Because I work for the opera company and attend out of a sense of obligation.

19. Because I work for the opera company and it’s better to see the show than twiddle my thumbs for an hour between the pre-show and the intermission.

20. Because my opera-loving friend assures me I’ll like this one, really, the music is very pretty and romantic and it’s a classic love story and it’s short. And she came to see my boyfriend’s band play so I owe her one.

21. Because I’m in the city for the very first time and try to go to the opera in as many cities as I can, in order to educate myself.

22. Because I think this young singer might be on her way to a good career if she plays her cards right, and I want to see how she handles this role.

23. Because I want to see this very-famous-but-getting-long-in-the-tooth singer before he retires.

24. Because since leaving University I feel like I’m getting dull and boring, and want to keep my cultural appreciation skills sharp. I used to read Spenser, dammit! I’ve got to prove I’m still capable of enjoying something other than Real Housewives!

25. Because I think it’s important to support the arts.

26. Because I think it’s important to support this tiny opera company, even if their standards aren’t as high as the big organizations.

27. Because I’ve only ever been to the opera at my mediocre regional company, and traveled to the big city just to get a taste of what great singing sounds like.

28. Because I think my kid will benefit from being exposed to it.

29. Because my kid has suddenly gone opera-mad and has been begging me for months to take her.

30. Because I wanted the chance to see the inside of this building.

31. Because all my friends will be there.

32. Because someone I really want to meet will be there (I think I’ve even figured out what section she’ll be sitting in).

33. Because I just turned 29 and realized I’ll only be able to get the cheap tickets for one more year.

34. Because I”m in music school and need to beef up on my knowledge to keep up with my classmates.

35. Because I’m in school and have a desperate crush on the professor who organizes the departmental tickets and I want to impress him with my cultural literacy.

36. Because the paper gave it a good review and the photos they ran looked pretty.

37. Because the director has a very interesting concept and I want to see how it plays out.

38. Because “che gelida manina” is on my CD of “20 most romantic opera arias.”

38. Because no matter how many times I hear “che gelida manina,” it still thrills me.

39. Because I think “che gelida manina” is overrated but I love “donde lieta.”

40. Because I just started taking singing lessons and my teacher suggested it might be a good “aspirational” outing.

41. Because my friend had an emergency and was giving away her tickets, and I thought, what the hell, why not.

42. Because it’s a stop on my five-city, ten-night opera tour, and though I really do prefer Wagner, you can’t help what winds up in the package.

43. Because I’m bent on seeing every single performance by my diva assoluta (and hopefully work my way into her good graces). I save money by buying standing room and afterwards I wait for her by the stage door.

44. Because there’s a dearth of good musical theatre to go to, and someone said Sweeney Todd was kind of like opera, and I love Sweeney Todd so it seemed worth a shot.

45. Because usually I go to the ballet but their season doesn’t start for another month, and I wanted a night out.

46. Because my girlfriend’s irritating brother is staying with us and I desperately needed a reason to get out of the house.

47. Because last time I saw this production someone was unwrapping a cough candy during Musetta’s Waltz, which I wanted to hear more than anything. This time I bought a box seat.

48. Because I need somewhere to go with my secret lover and I know I won’t run into anyone we know at the opera.

49. Because I was walking past the rush line this morning and felt that anything with that long of a line must be worth going to, so I thought “why not be spontaneous” and got in the line myself.

50. Because I would rather be at the opera than anywhere else.

Sondheim: “Big Problems” in Contemporary Opera

I had the great pleasure this evening of attending the Mirvish-produced Evening with Stephen Sondheim, featuring the man himself being interviewed by critic Robert Cushman. Because I was raised on American musicals and continue to love them to this day, the works of Rogers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, Cole Porter, Gershwin and the rest are embedded deep in a primal place in my brain, along with Sondheim, a titan of the genre. His work meant, and continues to mean, so much to me – as much as opera does. Sondheim is probably the most operatic of the major musical theatre composers, and opera is of course an older sister to that genre, so when the question “would you ever write an opera” was posed to him, I perked up my ears.

Throughout the evening he’d acknowledged the debt of modern musical theatre to opera – how the transformation from “number”-based musicals to more integrated ones mirrored how opera had transformed itself a century before; and how opera composers have always known the ways that music can be used to convey subtext.

But when asked if he’d ever compose an opera, his answer was “no”, because he believes that the current institutional structures in place for premiering new works cause the work to suffer.

He explained that he views the audience as a collaborator, and that the process of modifying a work based on audience response is indispensable to him. Without being able to have several performances (several nights in a row, with a consistent cast) in front of a real audience, observe where they’re rapt and when they’re bored and then tweak accordingly, he believes that no new work can truly succeed. “For this reason, most contemporary operas have big problems,” he concluded (I paraphrase).

His complaint put me in mind of this John Terauds blog post, discussing an Opera America article that I (sadly) have not read. “The System is Set Up to Fail New Operas” is its provocative headline, and though the reasons are different, the underlying sentiment – that there’s something strangely clinical, detatched, and unexciting about the way we approach new works – is quite similar.

In Which I Let Others do the Work For Me

I’ve been meaning to post this particular item for several weeks, and since I can’t permit this hiatus to continue any longer, now is the perfect time. This youtube clip comes via a Parterre Box comment thread, one of the epic youtube contests that have yielded up a bounty of treasures from the bowels of the internet.

The entire comment thread is worth digging through, as is the one for the other contest. Until you find the time, just watch this:

You’re welcome.

Smartphones and the Opera

Twitter Fail Whale
Twitter Fail?

I will soon be the owner of a shiny new smartphone, from which I will be able to (but will most likely refrain from) broadcasting various details of my life and activities. Announcing one’s activities, no matter what they might be, is growing more commonplace, and the opera is no exception. Take, for example, this piece in Wired describing the author Dylan Tweney’s attempt to live-tweet a performance of Die Walküre (flagrantly ignoring the pre-performance request that all electronic devices be turned off).

You might think that Twitter and opera (not the browser) don’t work together. On the one hand, you’ve got epically long, rich visual and auditory feasts for the senses that require significant education to appreciate. On the other, you’ve got a text-only medium that restricts you to 140 characters, is free to use, and currently reaches more than 30 million people, who use it to broadcast such prosaic items as what they’re wearing, whether its raining or if Ronaldhino has just scored a goal.

On top of that, opera is, well, old. I think the medium was last popular in about 1895, whereas Twitter is very much a child of the 21st century’s always-on, internet-saturated lifestyle.

But if you treat opera as an event, it sort of makes sense to integrate it with Twitter. After all, people have live-tweeted Steve Jobs keynotes, ballgames, breaking news events and even births. Twitter is very well-suited to giving people a glimpse of something as it happens, adding a communal (and even global) dimension to real-time events. So why not opera?

I have mixed feelings about this. It drives me nuts when I can see someone’s glowing smartphone screen from three rows away. If you’re really that bored, stay home, I usually think. And it’s been a while since I’ve attended a performance where at least one cell phone didn’t go off (followed by panicked attempts to silence it). The substance of Dylan Tweney’s tweets doesn’t do a whole lot to argue his case: he mostly tweeted plot details, which don’t really benefit from a live account (imagine live-tweeting the contents of a book). On the other hand, I think a new breed of discourse is emerging on twitter, and opera companies ignore it at their peril. Opera-listening can be enhanced by communal experience, whether it’s an appreciative nod to the friend sitting next to you after a particularly well-executed high note, or chatting with a fellow opera-lover while listening to a recording or watching a DVD. Vancouver Opera has found a way to live-tweet performances in an innovative and non-disruptive way: tweeting during the performance from backstage (here’s VO’s OperaNinja account).

Here’s a sampling of the comments, positive and negative, from the Wired story:

Dude, if you decide to be in a place where electronic devices are not permitted, then it is your responsibility to turn them off or, even better, leave them at home. There’s more to life than texting and tweeting, even if you write for Wired. You wrote an entire article detailing your own obnoxious behavior.

*

congratulation…you’re a cultural surrogate. an electronic replacement for hearing, seeing and thinking.
you also an alchemist, since you managed to transmute a complex cultural experience into some banal, pointless observations. you’re also a broadcaster, since you had the technology to transmit your observations to others. you’re a new world man…and i pity you

*

Allright, so your behavior (tweeting at the opera) seems to have ticked some folks off. Probably would have ticked me off a few years ago too, as folks around you paid a lot of money for their tickets…but I digress. I’m actually a big fan of using this medium in order to bring in a new audience to opera. We have to reach people where they are, and where they are is on twitter and facebook. Folks can either admonish you for your behavior, or thank you for spreading the word. As an opera singer myself, and as the director of a burgeoning regional company that embraces social media and technology, I feel that we have to find a middle-ground. I think we’ll reserve our back-row for twitter-heads this coming season. I, for one, would much rather see the word get out (in a way that doesn’t disturb others) than see the art-form that I love, die a slow and painful death as people lose interest.

*

I am a composer of operas, and a professor of music as well: one of my students from my spring course on opera forwarded your tweet about the Wagner performance — and I am still laughing so hard, it is almost impossible to type this….Power to you! The art form has a long and complex history, which most genuine opera lovers should know by now: for instance, Italian opera houses (until Napoleon) had exclusive legal gambling rights (which I assume helped to subsidize the costs); boxes were equipped with mirrors, so one could play cards or chess without missing too much of the action; food was served (of course, so no one would leave in your calorie-deprived condition). And so forth. Opera now is very little like opera as it has historically been– and, at best, tries to duplicate the conditions that prevaiied ca.1895. But what about opera in 1675? or 1750? Does anyone actually know the totally wacky stuff that used to go on, routinely? Does anyone read Casanova’s memoirs about castrati — and women posing as castrati, who (he claims) he can tell by intuition? As an ardent admirer and current practitioner of the medium, I support wholeheartedly any and all efforts to bring it back to the lively, low-brow, FUN genre it has been over the ages. Which means opera is not, and cannot ever be, outdated.

This last comment appeals to history – in the past, opera audiences didn’t listen in silence, but rather chatted, ate, and even gambled during the show. The trouble with this kind of argument is – do we really want to return to those days? Even at the movies, still for the most part a populist entertainment, people generally prefer silence and attention from the other members of the audience. The benefits of this are obvious. While increased conversation about opera must always be a good thing, it’s also valuable to retain some experiences to which we are prepared to give our full attention.

Opera for Major Life Changes: Les mamelles de Tirésias

I will shortly be beginning a new job, and in seeking out a thematically appropriate opera, was struck by how few operas deal with the question of work and vocation. I suppose this is a function of many opera plots featuring characters who are either divine beings or members of the nobility – none of whom “work for a living” in the usual sense.

Here is one of the exceptions, although its concern with “jobs” is rather oblique: Poulenc’s surrealist opera Les mamelles de Tirésias (English translation: The Breasts of Tiresias), a short, goofy opera dealing with gender politics and birth rate panic. The opera is partially a satirical response to alarm at falling birth rates in early 20th-century France, as well as the changing role of women in society. The principal character, Thérèse, is unsatisfied with her feminine role and announces early in the opera that she is a feminist. She rattles off a litany of male occupations that sound much more appealing than cooking and childbearing, then promptly dispenses with her breasts (represented by two balloons that she removes from her bodice) and becomes male. Later in the opera, her husband decides that he must make up for his wife’s unwillingness to bear children by having some of his own – and by the following day he’s given birth to over forty thousand of them.

It’s tempting to read the opera as attempting to subvert traditional gender roles, and that likely accounts for much of its renewed popularity – but it seems just as likely that it’s an attempt to point out what 1930′s traditionalists would have seen as the absurdity of the feminist project. I certainly prefer to see it as both silly and subversive, especially since the music has a tuneful vaudevillian lean and showcases Poulenc at his most hedonistic.

Here’s a YouTube performance from the Liceu Barcelona of Thérèse/Tiresias transition from female to male (nudity warning!). The sound quality is rather poor but the performance is exuberant. The 1999 Barbara Bonney recording is a staple of my listening.

Learning to Love Modern Opera

Photo from Robert Lapage's production of Schoenberg's Erwartung. Photo by Michael Cooper, Canadian Opera Company

Like a lot of people, I learned to love opera by listening to Puccini. There’s a reason why people who rarely go to the opera will buy a ticket to La Boheme and bawl their eyes out at the end – Puccini was a master of isolating the “good parts” (i.e. immediately, popularly appealing) of opera, cranking them up to maximum intensity, and cutting back on everything else. This is extremely difficult for a composer/dramatist to accomplish – several centuries of operatic output have yielded maybe ten works that reliably bring in the crowds now that the form is outmoded. Shakespeare alone has a much better track record for longevity than all the greatest opera composers combined. But there are downsides to loving Puccini. He only wrote a handful of operas and a couple of those are duds. The good ones don’t have a lot of thematic variation (the plots of them could be summed up as, woman falls in love, suffers, dies). If you’re listening and going to the opera with any regularity, you’ll probably get bored of the big three (Boheme, Butterfly, and Tosca) pretty fast.

Of course, there’s Mozart and Verdi and Rossini and Wagner to explore, each with their own rewards and drawbacks. There’s the French and Russian repertoire. But even after exhausting these options, many people avoid “modern” (meaning, post-WWI) opera like the plague, despite the fact that, by definition, it’s the only site of new operatic production. And this is a shame, because it’s one of the most rewarding areas to explore, an entire branch of repertoire that can make you think about what opera should be and what it’s truly capable of when divorced from the popular appeal that used to sustain it.

Aversion to modern opera is easy to understand. The music, rather than being tuneful/romantic/charming, is often highly abstract and difficult to follow. A lot of post-WWI operas have unrelentingly bleak plots, and may also look drab on stage. The fact is that, in the 20th century, opera transformed from being popular entertainment to a niche interest, and opera composers are no longer bound or motivated by the desire to appeal to popular tastes. Alienation is therefore part of the territory.

Some people assume that you need to be musically educated to appreciate this style of music. I think there is some truth to this, but not in the sense that formal or “book-learning” is necessary. I think what’s required more than a study of the principles of twelve-tone music (or whatever) is the willingness to listen widely, and with an open mind. Modern opera won’t get you drunk and sweep you away the way Puccini does, but it can inspire devotion just as intense. So, here are my tips for dipping into opera post-WWI.

1. Give it time. If necessary, wait until you start getting bored with the standard rep. If you put on Bluebeard’s Castle and hate it within the first ten minutes, don’t try to force it and don’t start complaining to everyone within earshot that no one knows how to write pretty music anymore. Put it back on the shelf and go back to Verdi; in a few months you might surprise yourself by giving it another shot and loving it.

2. Look for works “on the border”, or works that wear their classic influences on their sleeve. Salome and Jenufa are examples of the former, and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is an example of the latter. If you’re already an opera lover, you’ll have a good grip on the roots of these works and a good basis for exploration. Give Benjamin Britten a listen, save Alban Berg for later.

3. Listen to more baroque opera. This might seem counter-intuitive, but a lot of modern opera is inspired by a desire to return to the relative austerity and technical complexity of the pre-Mozartean era. If you have a good ear for Montiverdi, Gluck, and Handel, you’ll have a better idea of the kind of effect many modern composers are going for.

4. Relish works in the English language. If you’re an English speaker (which you must be if you’re reading this), the English-language repertoire has gotten much vaster and richer in the last century of opera composition. Not only that, but the literary quality of opera libretti has gone way up, and enjoying the textual element of opera is much easier and more rewarding now. This is what struck me about listening recently to Nixon in China – hearing lines sung like “I want to hear the sound of industry borne on the wind” reminds me that opera isn’t only a musical experience.

5. Attend live performances when possible, or rent a DVD. Public libraries often have an excellent selection of opera on VHS and DVD, and something that may not immediately make sense aurally may become easier to understand when put in its proper stage context.

6. Some modern works are actually comedies! Not all of them are about the bleakness of existence. The Rake’s Progress and Les Mamelles de Tiresias are both excellent and lighthearted.

Underlying all of this is one basic principle – try to stay open-minded. If after several listens you hate Richard Strauss, that’s fine, but that’s no reason to also write off Bartok or Carlisle Floyd. If you subscribe to the local company’s season, don’t go to Barbiere but sell your ticket to Lulu because you assume it will be no fun. No one has to like everything, but cutting yourself off from a whole branch of the repertoire does no one any favours, especially not the composers, directors, and singers who are looking for ways to keep opera vibrant and living.

Sometimes Blogs Lead to Good Things

So, back in January, I finally started an opera blog after many years of thinking about it. I was a bit insecure about this endeavour, and wasn’t quite sure how I’d fit into the online opera world, but went ahead with it anyway. I wasn’t really sure what would come of it, but I thought at least it would lead me to learn interesting things. My first post ever was about an Opera 101 event hosted by the Canadian Opera Company.

Then I wrote a post about Opera Atelier and that led to volunteering for them and making some new and wonderful opera friends. I encountered other interesting bloggers. I felt like writing All Time Coloratura was making my life better in some very direct ways.

Then, when the Canadian Opera Company announced a job opening for a Social and Interactive Media Coordinator, I took the plunge and applied, thinking that even if I didn’t get hired it would be a chance to meet people at the COC and perhaps raise my own profile. Last week they offered me the job. My work will involve maintaining a blog, managing the COC’s presence on various social networks, and cultivating relationships with other people in the online opera community.

It’s possible, I suppose, that I could have been hired without the blog, but I’m sure that it would have been considerably more difficult to make my case without being able to point to All Time Coloratura. So, thank you to everyone who stopped by, linked to me, left a comment, or encouraged me to keep writing. I honestly feel as though I’ve become part of a real community.

I start working for the COC a couple of weeks from now. I intend to keep blogging here, in a non-official capacity. Some aspects of the blog may need to change given the change in my circumstances – particularly the coverage of COC productions – but I hope you all keep reading. And, if you have any thoughts on how an opera company can engage its audience online in a way that’s warm, exciting, and innovative, please get in touch with me (alltimecoloratura at gmail)! Actually, get in touch with me even if it’s just to introduce yourself. Talking about opera on the internet will soon be what I get up in the morning to do.

I Heart Ruggero Raimondi

When I was first getting into opera, Ruggero Raimondi was my guide, at first without my really realizing it. In the beginning I wasn’t paying much attention to the names on the CD covers, but once I started paying attention I realized he was on all my favourite recordings. I started off with Puccini, and Raimondi was there on the 1979 Carreras/Ricciarelli Tosca, as the smoothest evilest Scarpia out there. Then I moved on to Mozart, and Raimondi was there as a chocolate-tongued Don Giovanni and a Count Almaviva with gravitas. Then I started getting into the Russian rep and Raimondi was there in the Russianest opera of them all, Boris Godunov. Then I was interested in Rossini and Raimondi was there again in a variety of comic roles.

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