Category: Thoughts on Opera

The Pleasures of Opera on Vinyl

Many of us are familiar with the vinyl fetishism that is gaining ground among rock, pop, & jazz enthusiasts. These days every self-respecting Brooklynite mp3 blogger owns a suitcase turntable (which can now be purchased from Urban Outfitters), and a lot of new indie releases include a vinyl option. Deep into the iPod age, it turns out that many people still want a medium with pretty packaging: something that they can hold in their hands, organize on a shelf, and dig through bins for. While sales of just about everything music-related are plummeting, the LP is actually clawing its way back up.

Classical and opera seems to have remained largely immune to this trend, with fans choosing to mostly buy recordings on CD or electronically, even though we opera-heads arguably have much more compelling reasons to stick to the old medium. The downsides of electronic formats for opera are vast and much discussed. In addition to vague claims of loss of “warmth” with digital formats, there’s the issue of fragmentation: while the iTunes world urges us to abandon the album and instead shuffle through an ever-changing playlist of 4-minute favourites, opera benefits from being listened to all the way through, in the intended order. And let’s not get started on the best way to deal with all those recitative tracks.

If you are lucky enough to live near good record stores (Toronto is particularly blessed in this aspect), it’s well worth taking the time to dig through their bins. What opera you find is likely to be extremely cheap once, I found a complete Deutsche Grammophon box set of Die Zauberflote in pristine condition, complete with fat, glossy libretto, for $3. I found the Leontyne Price Tosca and a lovely Contes D’Hoffmann languishing in a bargain bin. My Springsteen-loving boyfriend, used to record store rock sections that have been picked to the bones by hipsters and collectors, was jealous of the quality of recordings available. If you’re patient and willing to sift through the bins at the back of the store (in a lot of places, the classical stuff just winds up in a section called “bargain” along with Nana Mouskouri), you’re almost certain to be rewarded.

Granted, there are some downsides. New opera releases rarely come out on vinyl, so the things you’ll find tend to date from the 80’s and earlier. You have to turn over the record a lot more frequently than you’d have to change a CD. But the vast selection of first-rate recordings for rock-bottom prices, as well as the pleasure of beautiful packaging and big libretti in a reasonable font size, makes it worth pulling that old record player out of your parents’ basement.        

People Who Like Opera

Last Thursday, Robert Thicknesse of The Guardian published a piece highly critical of opera and opera culture. Though he has long been an opera lover, he says, he’s been finding it difficult to keep the faith in the face of what he perceives as the elitist nature of the form.

You hardly need me to tell you that opera is pretty stupid. Ask the audience: plenty of them will tell you the same, if you can get them to wake up. Is there any other form of entertainment so frequented by people who do not like it? This notion – that opera is not actually all that much fun – is hardly new; that’s why it comes all dollied up in red velvet, snobbery, fancy dress and vats of alcohol, sops to the considerable sections of the audience who are there for reasons not associated with aesthetic pleasure, the socially ambitious, the conspicuous spenders, those trying to beguile clients or spouses or potential mistresses.

I have indeed met people whose enjoyment of opera was transparently a product of their class aspirations, and people who are attracted to the opera more because of the atmosphere of red velvet, snobbery, and fancy dress than because of the music (usually this viewpoint has been informed by movies and TV, and they are sorely disappointed when they attend an actual opera). But Thicknesse’s description really isn’t my experience of the “opera crowd” at all. When I think about the people I know who regularly attend the opera, few of them fit into this stereotype. So in response to this essay, I’ll talk about what “the opera crowd” means to me.

***

My mother dated an opera singer in her youth and watched the performances from the wings. She always, always cries at the end of Madama Butterfly and La Boheme. When I started getting seriously into opera, she usually watched the opera videos I rented with me. She loves Ben Heppner over all tenors, even though she doesn’t like Wagner.

***

My Grade 12 History teacher was “the cool teacher”, full of facts and a fantastic storyteller, with a strange and much-parodied-by-students way of shaking his hips while writing on the blackboard. He described opera as one of his great passions, and told us he’d been attending the opera for over 20 years. He liked Aida but hated Lucia di Lammermoor, and said he was the only person in his rock climbing group who listened to opera on his walkman while scaling walls.

***

I made a mix tape (back when these were actually cassette tapes) for a girl in high school who was growing into a good friend, who introduced me to the cool kids and invited me to parties. She played on the volleyball team and wore peasant blouses. The tape I made her had opera on one side, and instrumental classical on the other side, and I remember it being very heavy on Puccini. She told me that she loved it and listened to it constantly, as she fell asleep at night and when she woke up in the morning. She wrote me detailed notes on her response to each track and asked for more tapes, which I happily made. She loved the sound of the soprano voice.

***

When I’d outgrown Opera for Dummies and other introductory opera books, I started gleaning knowledge from online discussion groups, principally rec.music.opera. The most vocal members (in memory, anyway) were New Yorkers who spent a lot of time collecting bootleg recordings and reminiscing about The Old Days. They had the most vicious, creatively-worded flamewars I have ever encountered on the internet (which is actually pretty impressive), they were generally not rich people, and they loved opera with a fiery intensity. Splinter groups started forming on Yahoo groups, which were a bit less homogenous/nasty (with particular fondness I remember “Gay Opera Punks”, “Opera Dykes”, and “The Parlour of Opera Lovers”). They were full of young people who weren’t from NYC. They even included some teenaged girls who felt about Eugene Onegin the way some girls feel about Edward Cullen.

***

I worked during university at a ladies’ shoe store, staffed in large part by immigrants from Europe, some of whom had worked there ten years or more and had cultivated a loyal clientele. One of my favourite co-workers was Hungarian. She wore a pixie cut and heavy eyeshadow, and was always debating whether or not she could allow herself a muffin from the Treats kiosk in the food court. Though she never said anything about it to me, other co-workers told me that her family had escaped from behind the iron curtain on the pretext of a vacation, leaving all their possessions behind in Hungary. She said she didn’t miss Hungary at all, but that she deeply missed going to the opera. She had given up trying to take her husband to the opera in Canada, because he always fell asleep. She loved Tosca and Edith Piaf.

***

The man who taught my Modern Poetry class in University last year is an opera lover. The first day of class he wore a t-shirt that read “Pure Hell” in pink lettering. He is the only person I have seen successfully wear a pink tie/pink shirt combination. He never explicitly told us in class that he loves opera, but it is obvious – he lingered lovingly over the lines in T.S. Eliot that allude to The Ring Cycle, never failed to mention when a poet had also written an opera libretto, tried to recruit students into making use of the cheap tickets available from the English department, and organized screenings from his opera DVD collection. He made terrible, terrible jokes in class (sample: “Let’s get Wasted!” for The Waste Land), even in the weeks following the death of his mother that year. He admired Robert Lapage.

***

My friend Heather, who regular readers will remember as a contributor, is a graduate student who was once in the army and is now getting her PhD in 18th Century English Literature. Opera tickets are sometimes difficult for her to afford, but that doesn’t stop her from taking a chance on difficult or unfamiliar works. When she lived in Toronto (as she will again soon), we would attend together, both of us in the cheap seats in the fifth ring, and booze it up after the performance. Sometimes we listened to opera while working together at her apartment. She was the person who first took me to Opera Atelier.

***

For me, the stereotypical “opera crowd” includes a lot of teachers and academic types, music students, and retirees who probably didn’t listen to opera in their youth but are now interested in delving into a different kind of musical experience. At the end of La Traviata I usually hear sniffles all around me. Whenever I try to go see the Met movie telecasts they’re usually sold out, despite the plebian multiplex setting and proximity to screenings of Iron Man 2 or whatever. Sometimes I experience opera burnout, but not because I think everyone in the audience is a social climber or an idiot. Because, in truth, most of them aren’t.

UPDATE, 6:40 PM: Why not make this into a collaborative effort? In the comments, post a description of someone you know who really likes opera, and who does not fit the description of “the socially ambitious, the conspicuous spenders, those trying to beguile clients or spouses or potential mistresses”.

Why I’ve Stopped Looking for “The Best”

In opera, as in many things, there’s sometimes an obsession with the idea of “the best”. Is the best live opera to be found in North America or Europe? Was Maria Callas the best Tosca, and was Corelli the best Radames? Is Verdi’s early work his best, or his later? Is there any point in recording another Rosenkavalier, or will the Schwartzkopf one always be best?

I think the opera lover can benefit enormously from setting aside attempts to define “the best”.

Here’s an example: I have a friend who is a devoted opera lover, full of intelligence and enthusiasm. His opera DVD collection is massive. And he works in New York City, where first-class opera and world-famous singers can be seen almost any night of the week. And yet, he rarely goes. The last time I asked him (which was admittedly a while ago), he told me he hadn’t been to the Metropolitan Opera at all since moving to the area.

I was stunned. I couldn’t understand why he never went to the Met when it was right on his doorstep. The explanation he gave me was that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it unless he had really good seats, and the really good seats at the Met cost hundreds of dollars. Family circle? I asked. Standing room? But he wasn’t having any of it. It was the best, or nothing.

It’s true that as you get more familiar with an art form and come to recognize what separates the acceptable from the exquisite, standards are bound to rise as the flaws become more obvious. Also, the nature of internet discussion encourages writers to try to stake a claim, and defining things according to a strict standard – either by proclaiming something to be “the best” or insisting that it falls short of it – is an easy way to set oneself apart.

Here, I’ll do it now: The Metropolitan Opera in New York is widely considered to be the best opera company in the world. But I don’t remember any Met performance as fondly as Les Contes D’Hoffmann at the Edmonton Opera. Ruggero Raimondi probably wasn’t “the best” Scarpia, but even if Gobbi could be resurrected, be-wigged, and restored to glory, I’d still listen to my Raimondi recording. Debates about “who sang it better” are almost always, as Holly Golightly might put it, a thumping bore.

I hope I am never the kind of opera-goer who is unable to enjoy a student production, or a cheap seat at the theatre, or an interesting singer whose high notes are wobbly. Opera itself is beautifully flawed, and sometimes an interesting flaw is better food for thought than the clearest high note.

On The Countess

Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Peggy Kriha Dye & Wallis Giunta. Courtesy of Opera Atelier.
Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Peggy Kriha Dye & Wallis Giunta. Courtesy of Opera Atelier.

Last night I had the opportunity to see Acts III and IV of Opera Atelier’s The Marriage of Figaro after volunteering at the subscription renewal tables. I realized that even if I only ever wrote about The Marriage of Figaro on this blog, I’d probably never run out of material. And soon, of course, I will be writing about other operas (next up: Idomeneo) but I’d really like to linger a little longer on this subject.

The way I see it, one’s concept of Figaro – what kind of opera is it? What’s important about it? What does it have to say? – really hinges on the figure of La Contessa. Even within the confines of this single opera, she’s an incredibly complex character, and when you expand your frame of reference to include the other two plays in Beaumarchais’ trilogy and the operas they inspired (the first of which – The Barber of Seville – is very familiar to opera fans, the third – The Guilty Mother – much less so), things get even more interesting.

How does she fit within the paradigm of lighthearted-but-politically-and-emotionally-charged farce? First, she is undeniably a full participant in the comedy. To treat her as the “straight man”, at a regal remove from the hijinks, is to do her a disservice. In The Barber of Seville, she’s as much an engineer as Figaro of the comedic schemes; The moment when she produces the letter Figaro has just been urging her to write (Un biglietto? … Eccolo qua) is possibly my favourite moment in that opera. In The Marriage of Figaro, Figaro himself is pretty ineffectual and it’s the great lady herself who ultimately brings her husband in line. In the scenes with Cherubino she sparkles with mischief, an intelligent, worldly woman who knows exactly how to torment a naive young boy.

On the other hand, in The Marriage of Figaro she’s the only character who seems to be experiencing any sort of long-term anguish (apart from sexual frustration). Figaro’s feelings of betrayal in Act IV, while genuine and movingly expressed, are short-lived and based on a misunderstanding that is easily resolved. For the Countess, however, both of her arias (Porgi, amor and Dove sono) are sorrowful, expressing profound disillusionment with love and marital happiness. They are also absolutely necessary to the drama, and must be taken seriously if Contessa, perdonothe opera’s final moment of forgiveness and reconciliation - is to have any emotional impact whatsoever.

By the time we see her in The Marriage of Figaro, she can hear about her husband making a pass at her best friend without sobbing or flying into a rage in grand operatic style. Five years before, perhaps the first couple of times, she would have done those things. But she’s been entirely worn out. You can hear this, in Porgi, amor – the long ascending line on lascia, the let in the phrase let me die. She longs for release, relief, rest. And she still loves him!

So, how do you play the Countess? I recall seeing one Figaro on DVD a while ago that depicted her as the victim of physical abuse by the Count. This seems to me to be incorrect. Not that it wouldn’t be historically accurate – I’m sure plenty of 18th century Countesses were slapped around by their Counts – but it’s wrong for Figaro, which is first and foremost a comedy. This heavy-handed treatment seems to me to be symptomatic of the changing narrative about Mozart: starting with the early narrative of the perfect prodigy, composer of beautiful but somewhat sterile music; continuing to Shaffer’s Amadeus, the vulgar, dirty-minded boy with a direct line from God to his pen, unequal to his music; and then the current attempts to correct both of those narratives by emphasizing how hardworking and thoughtful Mozart actually was, and how much emotional richness his music actually contains. A Figaro that focuses excessively on the class and gender politics constitutes an effort to convince the audience that Mozart! Is! Serious!, and reveals the consuming fear of irrelevance that seems to continually plague the opera world.

And yes, Mozart is serious. And I’m as much in favour of ferreting out hidden subtexts as any self-respecting amateur critic must be. But, the truth is that The Marriage of Figaro really doesn’t need to be propped up the way that, say, Il Trovatore sometimes does. It works just fine on its own – marvelously, in fact. It’s funny, it has no longeurs, and it carries no problematic cultural baggage like Cosi fan Tutte or the Ring Cycle. The Countess can be sad and she can sparkle, just the way she does on the page and at the piano. And this is mostly how Opera Atelier approaches it – as a comedy that requires no gimmicks, where movement can be guided by the music and the audience doesn’t need to be browbeaten into laughing at the jokes.

I warmed up considerably to Peggy Kriha Dye’s performance upon a second viewing (although I still think Canzonetta sull’aria was way too fast). She moves with grace and agility, and is immediately believable as an astute noblewoman. During Dove sono she allowed her voice to break at strategic points, to give the impression of being on the point of tears, and the transition from sorrow to anticipated triumph was managed perfectly – with help from a few clear, very powerful high notes. She gives the impression of a great force just waiting to be unleashed. And Piu dolce io sono came, as it should, like the unfolding of a flower, or the exhale after a three-hour inhale.

An interesting choice was made in the final tableau, which showed the Countess in Cherubino’s arms with the other characters pointing and reacting with shock. This looks ahead, of course, to Beaumarchais’ third play, The Guilty Mother, that sees the Countess pregnant with Cherubino’s child after an impulsive one night stand. I like that Figaro’s “happy ending” is actually somewhat compromised – it gives me more fodder to ruminate endlessly on it.

Can Opera Ever Really Be “Accessible”?

Back when I was an avid reader of rec.music.opera in the late 1990′s, there was a discussion about why modern opera composers write in such opaque musical styles rather than the sweet, soaring, melodic style of the most popular opera composers. “Where is the new Puccini?” someone wondered.

“The new Puccini has been around for a while,” went my favourite response. “His initials are ALW.”

I was reminded of this exchange (the initials, of course, stand for Andrew Lloyd Webber) when reading Opera Rat’s discussion of the state of opera criticism.

Opera is operating right now in a vortex of inaccessibility. Classic operas are performed so often that the conversation about them is dominated by subtleties. Newer operas are dominated by music appreciated mostly by experts. And opera in general is all but neglected except in the specialty press.

I think this is all unquestionably true. The standard repertoire gets boring fast if you attend the opera with any regularity, and the newer works will sound strange to ears that haven’t been to music school and attended Modern Music 101.

So, can opera ever be popular again the way it was in previous centuries? Are new operas with tonal, hummable music the way to bring in fresh blood?

The truth is, it’s already been done, and the people who are doing it (Webber et al) have adapted the operatic form into something else that sells a lot better. And that’s because opera, in its traditional form, is Kind of Weird, and really wedded to a particular time and culture – and that’s actually part of its idiosyncratic appeal.

Let me explain.

What makes Phantom of the Opera, say, different from La Traviata? The snarky among you would be inclined to say, “Verdi wasn’t a hack”, but that’s dodging the question. Webber’s late 80′s magnum opus features a lot of the characteristics we associate with opera – stage drama set to music, mostly through-composed, arias for each character meant to show off the singers’ voices, ensemble numbers, high-drama plot with murder, etc. It even, as I recall, features pastiches of a Verdi chorus and an 18th century bedroom farce. So what’s different?

Mostly it’s the style of singing. The singers are trained for Broadway or opera-lite (a la Brightman and Bocelli) rather than opera houses. They use microphones. The vibrato isn’t too heavy, and the overall sound is more palatable to people used to pop vocals. Frankly, most people find operatic voices something of an acquired taste (except, perhaps, when they sing a few ethereal high notes on a movie soundtrack).

Contemporary stage dramas set to pretty, hummable music? We’ve got Webber and the Les Miserables collaborators at the low end, and better quality stuff like Sondheim at the high end. Most of it is very accessible, and people who will never see the inside of an opera house happily fork over truckloads of money for it.

And that’s okay. I’m happy to consider Steven Sondheim as Strauss’ (or Massenet’s, or whomever’s) heir. Sweeney Todd is amazing.

The parts of opera that haven’t been passed down to contemporary romantic musicals are mostly the parts that would seem weird and awkward if they were to appear in a contemporary work.

And thus, I give you Weird Things About Opera:

1. Recitative. If understanding the words is so important, why not just speak them? And what’s with the harpsichord?

2. Foreign languages AND translations from same. If it’s in a foreign language, it’s in a foreign language, and that’s a barrier to accessibility in itself. Translations often seem awkward – the wrong syllables are emphasized, the wrong words are emphasized, and the dirty secret is that hearing the words sung in an unfamiliar language often has the happy effect of obscuring their ridiculousness. Plus, even if you have a brilliant translation, chances are you won’t be able to make out the words anyway when they’re sung. I’ve seen works performed in English that required supertitles.

3. Some people are really disconcerted by seeing a conventionally unattractive singer playing a romantic lead. I find this unfortunate, but that’s beside the point. People who don’t like opera love to joke about “the fat lady” and her presumably screeching voice. Older singers, heavier singers, singers who are a different age or race from the character they are playing – all a part of the operatic tradition as we know it, and all potentially alienating to neophytes no matter how transcendent their voices. Despite this effect, I think this is one of “the good parts” of opera – for what other performers, especially today, can we truly say that talent trumps appearance?

4. The voices. Classical voices are now only heard in the classical music world. Since the introduction of the microphone, that allowed quieter voices to fill big halls, average listeners have preferred their voices softer, breathier, less trained, closer to speech and smaller in range. And this only seems to be getting more and more true – pop voices seem to have gotten breathier and less substantial over time. Operatic voices, to an ear that isn’t used to them, can seem shrill, pushy, and unnatural in contrast. Plus it’s sometimes hard to make out the words. Many people overcome this barrier, and once you overcome it, you’re in for a thrilling experience. But pretending it doesn’t exist is silly.

So, we have a perfectly good modern form popular opera a la Puccini that has none of these problems – the sophisticated musical. Of course new operas should be written, but I’m most interested in them when they’re offering a real alternative to Sondheim et al. I’d rather our crazy modern opera composers kept doing what they’re doing. The world is full of sweet music and it’s easy to find – it’s tougher to find something that challenges me a little, and if that means we sacrifice some accessibility, so be it. The opera I’m most looking forward to seeing next year is Nixon in China. Writing opera in the old style is a bit like writing a new French cabaret chanson – sure, it’s pretty, but is it really giving me anything I can’t get from Piaf and Trenet? Do we need more music for people to lindy hop to?

Where I agree with Opera Rat is in the way the standard repertoire is discussed – mostly concerned with subtle differences between one particular performance and the hundreds of others the reviewer may have seen or listened to. I’d rather talk about what makes an opera interesting or moving – what gives it dramatic and musical force – than analyze the nuances of Gheorghiu’s performance vs. Netrebko’s.

And, part of what makes opera fun is that it’s so different. The emotions are big and florid, costumes are cut for maximum cleavage, it’s a glimpse of a different time and place and it opens up your musical and aesthetic understanding when your ears have been stunted by too much Lady Gaga (or, hell, too much Wolf Parade). The strangeness is what makes it good – otherwise we’d all just listen to Voi che Sapete and Nessun Dorma and dispense with all the troublesome theatrics. The people I know who are interested in opera are interested in it because it’s a little bit strange. If people who might be interested are alienated by snobbery and aggressive fact-hoarding by buffs, that’s bad; but many people won’t be interested at all, and that’s okay. Opera today is a niche interest rather than a mainstream one – alongside other cool things like typography, Werner Herzog movies, and conceptual art. I’d rather have a vibrant, quirky, niche (where people take artistic risks) than bland accessibility.

EDIT: I realized this post makes it sound like I don’t like opera! I assure you, the opposite is the case. I’ve made minor edits to tone down the language.

Page Turning Excitement

First: new (to me) and interesting opera blogs!

opera-toonity – lighthearted opera blog by Gale, who is writing an opera-themed comic novel

Opera Rat – opera discussion from the perspective of a non-insider

Second, all about me:

I spent Tuesday evening volunteering for Opera Atelier’s Versailles Gala, where I administered a rum tasting (rum is interestingly gendered; none of the women were the least bit interested, but the men were very enthused) and turned pages for the pianist accompanying the Figaro cast.

Page turning is fun in the right circumstances, but very stressful in others. If the pages are clearly printed, the book doesn’t want to flop over, and the pianist gives clear nods, it’s a fun way to be part of a musical event without actually producing any music. Otherwise, you wind up with the fear that you will ruin the performance by turning too early, turning too late, or accidentally knocking the book on the floor. This time, everything went beautifully, the singers looked and sounded gorgeous, and there were no disasters. After hearing the talent, I am looking forward to The Marriage of Figaro even more than before.

The Many Sins of des Grieux and Manon Lescaut

The awesome cover art for my paperback copy of Manon Lescaut

If you’re like me, and encountered the story of Manon Lescaut solely through the operatic adaptations of Puccini and Massenet, you might think of the character of Manon as a naive, slightly bird-brained, affluence-loving faun, and des Grieux as a kind, guileless man utterly undone by love. Perhaps you might have also been a little confused at the vast plot differences between the two operas. I recently snapped up a paperback copy of the novel, Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost, from the half-price sale at Balfour Books, and was surprised and entertained to find Manon and des Grieux to be a lovable but utterly irredeemable pair of reprobates. des Grieux becomes a professional card sharp, flits in and out of prison (along with Manon), repeatedly hits up his friends for money, as well as promise large sums for favours from various random people, promises on which he’s unable to deliver. Manon, for her part, spends a considerable amount of time trying to extract money from her rich admirers; sometimes sleeping with them and sometimes not. des Grieux feels no remorse about murdering a porter while breaking out of prison, but sticks resolutely by Manon even after she’s been unfaithful to him repeatedly.

In short, the book’s great fun. I recommend it.

Here are a few choice passages (from Donald M. Frame’s 1961 translation):

After they first run away together:

Passionate as I was for Manon, she succeeded in persuading me that she was no less so for me. We were so unreserved in our caresses that we did not have the patience to wait until we were alone. Our postilions and hosts looked at us with wonder; and I noticed that they were surprised to see two children of our age who seemed madly in love with each other. Our plans for marriage were forgotten at Saint-Denis; we defrauded the church of its rights; and we found ourselves man and wife without giving the matter a thought.

Her first temptation by a rich lover, to which she yields:

She told me that having seen her at her window he had become impassioned for her; he had made his declaration like a true farmer-general, that is to say by notifying her in a letter that the payment would be proportionate to the favours; she had yielded at first, but with no other purpose than to extract from him a considerable sum that could serve to let us live comfortably; he had dazzled her by such magnificent promises that she had let her resolution be shaken by degrees; I should judge her remorse, however, by the grief she had manifested on the eve of our separation.

des Grieux learns how to cheat at cards:

In a short time I profited from my master’s lessons. I acquired an especially great facility in turning cards over and in recognizing them by their backs; and with the very great help of a long pair of sleeves, I could conjure a card away deftly enough to deceive the eyes of the sharpest and quite naturally to ruin many honest gamblers. This extraordinary skill so hastened the progress of my fortune that in a few weeks I owned considerable sums, besides those that I shared in good faith with my associates.

Manon writes to des Grieux about her second rich tempter, and sends a pretty girl whom she hopes will serve as a substitute:

This is about what she told me: G… M… had received her with a politeness and a magnificence beyond her wildest dreams. He had loaded her with presents. He made her glimpse the life of a queen. She assured me nevertheless that she was not forgetting me in this new splendour … to console me a bit for the pain she foresaw the news might cause me, she had managed to procure me one of the prettiest girls in Paris, who would be the bearer of her note.

Prevost’s Manon and des Grieux never stop swearing eternal love to one another despite their various crimes and infidelities, but the overall picture is rather different from Puccini’s:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEVH5yS8FbE&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

Berlin, Or Not

The “opera tour” is one of my travel fantasies, although I’ve never quite achieved it. In contrast to rushing from city to city, trying to hit the top five sights of each and fretting that you won’t be able to eat as well as the travel writers, there’s an unmistakable appeal to traveling with a specific purpose in mind. Decisions become simpler, and you know you’ll come away from it with more than a vague dissatisfaction and a dilettante’s appreciation of neoclassical architectural details. However, packaged opera tours are relatively rigid and prohibitively expensive for me.

Hence, Berlin. My plan was to find a cheap-ish vacation apartment and spend the month of May in cafes, attending several concerts and operas every week. I was particularly excited to see Ruggero Raimondi perform as Scarpia at the Deustche Oper Berlin. He has a special place in my heart: my transition from opera appreciator to opera obsessive coincided with my viewing of his 1992 television broadcast of “Tosca in the Settings and at the Times of Tosca”. It would be much classier to say that it was the Maria Callas/de Sabata recording that held that special place in my heart, but I am ready to admit my deficiencies in  taste.

Recent developments have upended all my plans, and Berlin will likely have to wait for next year. I hope Ruggero Raimondi doesn’t pick this year to retire.

Operas for Springtime: Les contes d’Hoffmann

I have lived all my life in cold climates, and of the places I have lived Toronto is one of the warmest. But I still feel the misery of winter, and spent January and February trying to cheer myself with thoughts of March. When spring clothes arrived in the shops a few weeks ago, it felt like a cruelty. They mocked me from the windows while icy water seeped into my boots.

But then March 1st arrived, and the weather turned. I still need to wear my winter coat when I go out, but hearing the melting snow rushing into the drains makes me breathe easier. Without my hat, gloves, and scarf, I feel lighter and freer. This is the time of year I usually buy a new summer dress.

This is the time of year for French opera, or really any opera that’s lush. For me this will always be exemplified by Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann.

My favourite moments in Hoffmann:

1. Hoffmann, to amuse his friends, is singing a comical song about an ugly man named Kleinzach. Halfway through the song, about to describe Kleinzach’s figure, he is interrupted by thoughts of his former love and begins describing her beauty, confusing his audience greatly. The music accompanying his erotic reverie, honestly, isn’t especially interesting on its own – but the juxtaposition with the low, broad Kleinzach ditty is a little odd and completely charming.

2. Hoffmann has unknowingly fallen in love with a mechanical life-size singing doll. Her maker, who is throwing a party, brings her out to impress his guests. She performs a party-trick aria, full of almost-absurd coloratura fireworks. Listening to a soprano who can really pull this aria off is a joy in itself, but there’s more to it than that. Opera is full of party-trick arias that require mechanical precision to sing convincingly. Having a story where one performed as an actual party trick, by an actual machine, gives it another layer of interest and self-referential quirkiness.

3. Antonia is wasting away of a mysterious illness, that is somehow aggravated when she sings. The evil quack doctor, the ironically-named Dr. Miracle, purports to be able to treat her; but her father will have nothing of it. Dr. Miracle insists on seeing her, and tells that he can treat her from afar. He addresses an empty chair as though it were Antonia, and mimes taking her pulse. At first it seems like a charade, but when he commands her to sing, we hear a thrilling high note from offstage, followed by a descending scale. Equally exciting (to me) is the following sequence where Dr. Miracle attempts to sell his medicines, clicking his bottles together like castanets.

4. Antonia knows that if she sings too much, she will die. Part of what makes her sacrifice especially painful is that her mother was a famous diva, whose portrait dominates the scene. Under the influence of Dr. Miracle’s magic, the woman in the portrait stirs to life, imploring Antonia to keep singing. Her melody is diva-worthy.

The opera takes place over a series of dream-like fantasy sequences, wherein Hoffmann longs for idealized women who die, break, or leave with other men. It celebrates longing and fantasy (alcohol-fueled, of course) with one eye turned to the inherent ridiculousness of it all, knowing that there’s something both silly and exquisite about desires that can never be fulfilled. It’s this touch of irony that prevents its romanticism from becoming sugary, and that makes it the perfect theme music for the first nice day of spring.

Here’s the full portrait scene (portrait starts singing about 3 and a half minutes in):

New (to me): Four Saints in Three Acts

Image via flickr user tambako

My poetry professor is an opera lover. He’s never explicitly stated this, but it is easy to infer. Even relatively slim connections to opera in our reading materials are expounded upon in great detail, and he organized a screening for students of a DVD of The Rake’s Progress (relevance to reading material: a libretto by W. H. Auden).

Today in class he introduced me to an opera I’d never heard of before: Four Saints in Three Acts, with music by Virgil Thomson and libretto by Gertrude Stein. I found the short segment he played in class to be utterly charming – the musical language familiar to anyone fond of romantic-era opera; the words entirely opaque. Hearing a chorus sing “Prepare for saints” with all the musical earnestness of the announcement of the coming of a Verdian king is an interesting operatic experience, especially for those of us who do not speak the language of our favourite operas.

Listening to an Italian opera when you don’t speak Italian is to experience the words as sound-patterns or elements of the music, rather than as referential or communicative. A single word might leap out here and there – amore, morto, avanti – but it’s mostly syllables. Four Saints in Three Acts, although it’s in English, isn’t that different. An understandable phrase will leap up now and then – prepare for saints – but most of the time it’s music-word after music-word.

I leave you with the text of what is, according to Wikipedia, the most famous aria: Pigeons on the grass alas.

Pigeons on the grass alas.
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons
large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the grass.
If they were not pigeons what were they. If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what were they. He had heard of a third and he asked about it it was a magpie in the sky. If a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas.They might be very well they might be very well very well they might be. Let Lucy Lily Lily Lucy Lucy let Lucy Lucy Lily Lily Lily Lily Lily let Lily Lucy Lucy let Lily. Let Lucy Lily.