Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Two more days until Christmas! Also, some things that I have learned about my voice.

How shall I celebrate Christmas this year? Thankfully, I shall be at home with my immediate family, which is definitely more than some of the population of our country can say. However, despite all of the typical, traditional, warm feelings associated with the Yuletide season that usually make up my mood annually, I do not feel as joyous as I have previously felt as a rule. Be that as it may, Christmas alone is enough to brighten the spirits of even the coldest heart, and so it continues to do with me as the calendar progresses to December 25th. Let us take every opportunity to thank our Heavenly Father for the most precious gift of His Son for our salvation.

Whatever the reason for this phenomenon, Christmas carols, especially the sacred works written for the holiday, convey to us all of these many years later the glorious occasion that was Christ's birth. I have three favorite recordings of Christmas music, and these are:

3. Sing We Christmas by Chanticleer: This disc easily reminds us of what the season is actually celebrating. This CD's repertoire covers everything from the Renaissance to modern times (1900's). In my opinion the rendition of Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen, which is excellent on this recording, is angelic on another of Chanticleer's Christmas themed projects, Christmas With Chanticleer which features soprano Dawn Upshaw. Surprisingly enough, both recordings have very little overlap of music; there might be three or four of the same carols on both discs that average 20.5 tracks. Even when confronted with another version of a selection on the other of the CD's do not hesitate to listen to it another way; you will not be disappointed.

2. Christmas with Chanticleer by Chanticleer and featuring Dawn Upshaw: Even though I have already given my readers a brief overview of this fine project, I have still more that I could say about it. First, I must admit that I was rather skeptical and suspicious of including a woman with a men's chorus, but I was quite willing to take the risk when I was able to purchase this CD for the paltry sum of fifty cents (!) at a library sale; little was I aware that this was to become a staple of my leisure listening. Dawn Upshaw's voice, which is so clear and silvery, even in English, is an optimal addition to this album, and her inclusion on several of these tracks makes them heavenly. Stille Nacht and the Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen cycle are tracks that are beyond beatiful. I hope the choirs of Heaven sound as good as this.

1. Sacred Songs by my favorite soprano, Renee Fleming: This recording is a must for either adoring fans of Renee or for those who can listen to carols and sacred works any time of the year. I can listen to this disc straight through without interruption and hear it again without it sounding old. My favorite track on the CD is her duet with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham on Engelbert Humperdinck's Abends will ich schlafen gehn is truly "angelic indeed" as Opera News' Features Editor Brian Kellow says in the album's liner notes. Other notable tracks on the recording are Handel's/Och's Dank sei dir, herr, Bernstein's Simple Song from his Mass, and Schubert's Ave Maria. I really love this recording and the DVD of the same name. Both are arguably the best compilations of Christmas carols and "sacred songs" available.

Now to some random trivia about my voice and my journey to wanting to become an opera singer.

Most of what I have discovered about my voice has come from my involvement in community musical theatre. For example, this spring during a production of The Secret Garden I was chosen (okay, okay, I actually volunteered) to sing a high C with the sopranos, many of whom could not safely reach that high with them being so young. Then late in that same production, I learn from one of my dear friends, and for all practical purposes my "vocal coach," the man to whom I go whenever I have any sort of problem with my singing, that he believes that I have a good voice. According to him, such words of praise are not to be taken lightly, and since he worked for Word Records for quite a few years and lived in New York (regular trips to the Met included) before coming here, he ought to know. A considerable amount of my colleagues in community theatre also assure me that my voice is quite good, some of whom are voice teachers; therefore, in my spare time, as little or as much of that as I possess, I sing whatever opera arias I can, and I try very hard to avoid choral pieces which wreak havoc on operatic technique. Until I make my entrance into either an university or a studio program, I shall continue to do exactly what I am doing, which is learning languages (I have moderate proficiency in Spanish and Latin, so the other Romanesque lexicons should come easily to me.) and practicing music. I am proud to say that I took Renee Fleming's advice about learning to play piano, and it has helped me very much in finding the limits of my vocal range. Some of the things I have learned to do: build almost any major or minor chord with my voice from a tonic note; if I have been adequately warmed up vocally, I can pick out any pitch in a scale - I had to teach another person a song without a piano by starting on a root note and climbing or lowering through every pitch of a scale, and he did not know a thing about music; I can sing a high C without much difficulty, and generally without much perparation; my diction is rather good. Some of the things I would like to improve are: get better at melismatic passages (The melisma of Gregorian Chant is very different from Italian operatic melisma.); get better at controlling my breath consumption; get better at auditioning (!!!!!).

Finally I wish all of my readers a Merry Christmas and a Blessed, Happy New Year!


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Never Believe What You Read on the Internet, or A Tale of Desperation Trying to See the Met's "Thais" at the Cinema.

This is a most depressing story that actually occurred today as I went to see the Met's Live in HD broadcast of Thais. Renee Fleming is without question my favorite female opera singer, and I was downcast and distraught for weeks after I was not allowed to see her in recital when she came to Oklahoma last year, and I was disappointed that I was not afforded an opportunity to attend the Met's Live in HD broadcast of the Opening Night Gala (I would have killed to witness that live at the Met), so I was excited that I could finally see her in something from the Met; at least I thought I was going to see the performance. Last night I had meticulously searched for data as to which theaters were carrying the series, and I providentially found that AMC theaters offer us this luxury. Knowing that it is only at select locations, however, I made sure that it was at a local mall theater, so my mother could easily deposit me at the theater and continue to manage various errands in the immediate area (You see, I do not yet drive. I do have a truck, but I do not drive. That must sound extremely strange.). The website of the individual theater claimed they had it, but to my astonishment when I arrived some fifteen minutes after it began, the rather perturbed ticket vendor rudely told me that the theater was not playing it, and that if I wanted to see it, I would be required to travel some twenty miles in the opposite direction from which I had come to go to another affiliate of AMC at another mall. I was extremely disappointed, to say the least. It seems as if I shall never see Renee Fleming live in anything!(It is one of my most fervent desires to meet Renee Fleming one of these days after one of her captivating performances. I shall, too, if I have anything to do with it!) Of course, it is not quite so bleak and grim a picture as I paint it because I have watched the TDK releases of her Manon and Capriccio, and I own her Eugene Onegin from the Met (Not to boast, but I received that and about $170 worth of other merchandise from having one of my numerous questions to the Met's Opera Quiz answered on the air.) I almost neglected to mention that when I tried to tune into the performance that my local radio station was having technical difficulties, and I did not get to join the opera until the second act! A partial consolation was that I have the Decca recording of it with Fleming and Thomas Hampson. With my sour luck today, I would wager that if I had had a laptop with me, I still would not have been able to tune in for any various reason the machine or the Internet wanted to offer me. If anyone else saw it, please give me a review of it.

You may have noticed the nice music player I have put to the left of my blog posts. I think here presents an opportune time to discuss my selection of music. First comes the traditional Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. It is done by Phil Keaggy and Kim Hill. I am not sure what part Ms. Hill contributes to the song, because Mr. Keaggy could play this song with all of the vocal and instrumental effects added without anyone else involved. This pays dutiful homage to Phil Keaggy's amazing talents. He is regarded as the world's premiere fingerstyle (classical) guitarist. The reason I know he could do this whole song himself is that he has a "looping" machine that he frequently uses to his musical advantage, though anyone will tell you he hardly requires it. He can generate almost any sound out of his accoustic or electric guitars with either his on-board controls or an e-bow. This is all I could really find from him that would adequately reflect his talents on playlist.com, but if anyone is interested they need look no further than YouTube for some of his unbelievable playing. In fact, try watching these videos, and tell me your opinion of his abilities.

The Twilight and Shadow piece was the only suitable selection featuring Renee Fleming that I could find. I own four discs of hers, so I already knew much of what I desired to add to my playlist from her. To compensate for this, I may put up some YouTube videos on my blog to help us celebrate her voice.

As for Peter Kater's Water Ballet, I heard it once, and ever since then I have been hooked. Its simple, free flowing passages are none too difficult to play, and they are relaxing. To set the record straight, I do not like any of the New Age tenets or beliefs, but some of their music is quite enchanting.

All of the selections from Enya, another New Age composer and gifted vocalist, are simply beautiful. If you are not acquianted with Enya or her more traditionally Celtic sister Moya Brennan, I would suggest looking them up with Google after you listen to the tracks I have. Be forewarned, however, that there are quite a few songs attributed to Enya that are not done by her. Two of the most popular are Now We Are Free from the motion picture Gladiator and Adiemus. Enya usually does all of the instruments in the song through synthesization and all of the voices with the same process. She composes all of her music, as well.

Julie Andrews does the best rendition of this carol, I Wonder As I Wander, that I have ever heard. Since she is a Broadway, film, and television legend in her own right and any of my readers are likely to know her by name recognition, I will not say much about her, only that it is so sad that her voice is gone and that hers, Bernadette Peters' amd Liz Callaway's are the definitive voices for Broadway.

The 5 Browns' Gregory Brown does an impressive job with this Elegie, but this recording is done by someone else with what must be less experience, for they make considerable mistakes on this piece. I ought to know, too, since I know this piece by heart from listening to it so regularly. If one can hear Gregory Brown play this, they should not hesitate to listen.

As for the tenor selections, these are my personal favorites to hear and sing, though I have yet to sing Celeste Aida. The final two by the great Pavarotti are regretfully incomplete. In my opinion Placido Domingo sings E lucevan le stelle better than Pavarotti.

Thanks for bearing through my long post.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Life's Often Overlooked Blessings and Thais This Saturday...

Here is a post form my Noble Pursuits blog. I conceived the notion that it might be a timely addtion to this blog as it deals with things close to my heart despite the subject of the blog. I hope that my readers find it duly appropriate, I pray they enjoy it. In keeping with the topic mainly associated with this blog, please allow me to courteously remind everyone that the Met's Live in HD broadcast of Jules Massenet's Thais starring the radiant Renee Fleming and talented Thomas Hampson this Saturday, December 20, 2008. I hope to go and see it, but I am not sure if I shall be able to watch what promises to be an excellent performance, so I expect to read many posts reviewing the event coming Monday (or whenever everybody finds time to write of it).

Not long ago as I let my mind drift away, allowing it to flow freely from subject to subject, I found myself asking how people could make Christmas lists for all of the things the year has not already brought them and not make another list of the things with which God had so generously blessed them. Of course, I divined the obvious reason for this abnormality in human behavior immediately thereafter, and that is because if we as humans have not practiced discipline and modesty in the area of want, we cannot see what things we still possess. I could perhaps give a lengthier, more explanatory exploration of this, and I may puprose to do so in future, but that would be to digress from the topic at hand. I populated my list as follows. May God continue to enlighten me to the blessings of ordinary life daily.

First and foremost, God allows me to spend this most sacred holiday with my immediate family. Of this I am very glad, for there are too many in the world today, particularly the soldiers protecting our country, who are not afforded this grand privilege. Let us pray that these honorable men and women who deserve our deepest gratitude and highest respect shall be able to come home soon, but only after our work abroad is finished. I can also add that I shall have a warm house in which to congregate with my family for Christmas Day, and this is more than so many of the homeless people in the world can say. I am the first to admit that there are many of these people of nefarious repute and that they have no intention to labor to rescue themselves from their present condition of ill fortune, but there are yet many who are people of virtue and who would willingly do whatever they could to help themselves. Let us pray for these latter ones, that in the coming year God will provide for them a way to deliver themselves, and for the former also, that they may accept wisdom on the matter and educate themselves to cast away the chains of helplessness and look to God for providence.

I also must thank God for His divine providence and care for me that I have had the opportunity to aid and work for a ninety-five-year-old man who has offered me so much in the way of knowledge and wisdom. It is through this man that my ardent liking of piano music has grown this past year. I pray that he remains in a state of good health until I may see him again next year. I petition God that he may have a blessed Christmas though he has no relatives.

Third, I offer God my gratitude for the two marvelously wonderful acquaintances, Leah and Samantha, that I have made in so short a time of creating my blogs. They are nicer than I ever expected anyone with an identity on the Internet to be to me. I thank them for making my foray into blogging a pleasant one. I pray that God lets me have the opportunity to enjoy the pleasure of their distinguished company for many years to come. If they become professional singers, I shall track their engagements with genuine, avid interest. May God bless them both immensely for showing kindness to a stranger according to the promises He has made.

Finally, for brevity's sake, though there is so much more I could put on this "Christmas list" for which I am thankful, let me conclude with thanking God blessing us with the gift of life. We go on, day after day, without ever thinking about the impressive capabilities with which God designed us to function. We are not mere robots! We have the enviable ability to reason upon multiple levels about different things based on incoming data. We alone possess this amazing attribute of all of the other animals which God created. Let us be thankful that God chose us to be His precious children, and not the apes, whom the evolutionists would have us believe are our cousins or fathers, depending on how one views the relationship between time and evolution. Perhaps sometime soon I shall write of this excellent creation of God's world. I pray that God provides me with the wisdom and eloquence to effect that end.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Richard Tucker Awards Gala on PBS!

As the blogs have been buzzing lately of this wonderful evening of entertainment for opera aficionados, I thought that I would give my take on the event. As to the whole affair, I really enjoyed it, but I still cannot understand why it is called an "Awards Gala" because no awards were presented. In any case my thoughts of the individual performances, that is to say the ones that were so excellent that I still remeber them, are below.

Joyce DiDonato's hosting, first of all, was quite enjoyable. She just may turn into the next Susan Graham, who is hosting a number of events at the Met. I must say that her first performance, that of Una voce poco fa, had me a trifle worried at the beginning; it at first appeared that she would never move during the aria, and I was thinking, "What does everyone see in her portrayal of Rosina?" Of course, I need not have feared for long, for though it was probably not quite so good as her performance of it in the Met's current production, she did not do so bad as I originally thought she might. Her duet with Diana Damrau from Der Rosenkavalier was beautifully sung and acted on both parts. I liked the anecdote that went with the performance as to how Diana had lent Joyce her pants for the duet. I do not think that I shall ever forget that story.

Simon Keenlyside's performance was good. He sang the Prologue of Pagliacci, and after a few tense moments when neither the baritone would make his entrance or the conductor, who was Ascher Fisch, would begin the music because of miscommunication, the music commenced and the baritone made a dramatic entrance singing his way onto the stage. His hat and scarf made his recital feel more like a performance. It was great.

A leve-toi soleil from Charles Gounod's Romeo et Juliet was sung by tenor Eric Cutler, and the audience loved it. The only apparent flaw was in his appearance; I think he ought to trim his hair. Despite this, he is a tenor I would gladly pay to see and hear. His top notes sound effortless.

I was starting to wonder if I had heard wrong when I learned Renee Fleming was going to sing on the broadcast, but she finally came out, and hers is one of the two performances I liked the most. Her and Joyce DiDonato's rendition (has anyone been counting how many times Joyce has made it to the stage?) of Ah, guarda sorella from Cosi fan tutte sounded perfect! I was glad to see Renee make a return to her Mozartean roots (I can hear her singing Dove sono in my mind as I write this). I hope she does more of the standard Italian repertoire soon. I hear that she is to sing Rossini's Armida within the next two years at the Met. Let us pray we get a broadcast of that! Back to the Gala, though, it was a pity that she did not sing again.

Diana Damrau and Eric Cutler sang together with ease in Tornami a dir from Don Pasquale. I think her acting was the most diverse of the evening. Was she not quite humorous and believable in Bernstein's Candide? Her English was entirely understandable, a quality rarely found in opera singers, and it did not sound German. She used the entire stage for that song.

Maria Guleghina gave a most poignant performance of Pace, pace, mio Dio from Verdi's Il Trovatore. It was so moving partly because of the performance itself and Joyce's informing us of the circumstances surrounding the aria. I do not think I have ever heard it sung better.

Finally, and I am sorry that I cannot remember more of the evening's festivities, since I know that DVR's are relatively common even though I do not have one, I expect to see these performances on YouTube and in high quality video with stereo sound!


P.S. The reason we are seeing the 2007 Awards Gala and not the latest one is because of a lack of funding. In an older edition of Opera News magazine, I read an article on the subject of less opera being put on television and even on classical music oriented radio. I can attest to both of these practices. Often I have suspected my local PBS affiliate of putting some local programs on over an opera or musical. I have no proof, however, but I am sure they must because of the infrequency with which these sorts of programs are aired. As for my local classical music radio station, I know that they are using less opera or vocal music to fill their hours, although of late during the Christmas season, they are playing some carols and sacred works by some of the world's great choral institutions. We used to be privileged to two opera broadcasts a week, but since the recent passing of our opera announcer here, who had been on the station for some forty years, we lost one of these, the historic one. Does anyone recall the "old" Viva La Voce internet radio station? I wish it was still with us. They used to play operatic vocal music 24/7. Ah, those were the days...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Opera for Your Listening Pleasure

I thought it would be nice to compile a list of some recordings that I believe people who enjoy opera should hear. This list is mainly culled from my own listeneing experiences, but I have occasionally referenced some critical reviews to add to this list. I hope you enjoy these recordings when you can hear them as much as I have. Start checking for them at your local library and on YouTube for the live performances, and I wish you the best of luck in finding them!

Music For A While - Dawn Upshaw: I cannot explain the envy sopranos must have felt when they heard the clear diction of Ms. Upshaw's recordings and performances. Her voice has such clear timbre and tonal production. Her singing has such a silvery sound to it, one that is rarely found in opera singers, and I like it very much. Ms. Upshaw's voice is equally suited to choral music as you shall hear in the next six tracks from Chanticleer's album "Christmas With Chanticleer," upon which she was a collaborator. I think her voice sounds best when it is unaccompanied; it is able to express a full amount of emotion not usually attributed to opera singers. However, this peice, by Henry Purcell, who was a Baroque English composer, is an excellent display of her wonderful gifts.

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen - Chanticleer and Dawn Upshaw: This extended choral setting of this popular German Christmas carol is by Hugo Distler. The rythyms are often complex as are the chord structures, but it blends together so very nicely that I do not think anyone listening to it would really mind it. The choir or ensemble singing it would very probably find it somewhat challenging, and I am sure that it has been the bane of more than one conductor; nevertheless, one can just close their eyes and become enraptured and enveloped by this divine music. Dawn Upshaw does a tremendous job with Chanticleer on this piece. The rest of the album, which is entitled Christmas with Chanticleer, is a must for any library of music with a Christmas theme.

Vissi d'arte - Renee Fleming: This well known aria from Giacomo Pucinni's Tosca is perfectly sung by Fleming. The feeling her rendition evokes is enchanting. One at once feels every pain Tosca experiences, and this aria, all the way to its end, will leave you on the edge of your seat. This is taken from her 2007 release Homage: The Age of the Diva. That disc was nominated for two Grammy Awards, but unfortunately it did not receive them. Fleming has won the award twice and been nominated for it at least six times.

Abends will ich Schlaffen gehn - Renee Fleming and Susan Graham: I am almost certain that you shall not be able to listen to this without hitting the repeat button. This duet is from Engelbert Humperdinck's opera Hansel und Gretel; it is a prayer sung by the protagonists, Hansel and Gretel, while they are lost in the forest overnight. Renee included this on her Sacred Songs CD because it sounded so "angelic." As she put it, "Who could resist singing about fourteen angels?" Even though it did not exactly fit the criteria for that recording, she will be immediately forgiven for the choice once it is heard. As for Susan Graham, she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions the same year Fleming did, and they have collaborated on a number of recordings thereafter. She is one of the few mezzo-sopranos who are treated as stars in the world of opera.

O mio babbino caro - Renee Fleming: Before she became the Strauss soprano we know her to be today, Renee Fleming had to make her way into the world of opera with all of the standard repertoire. Three of her discs, The Beautiful Voice, Renee Fleming, and Signatures, were all devoted to this. This is taken from the Renee Fleming recording, an album which many who do not like Fleming say is an effort to show that she can sing higher and hold a note longer than other sopranos. While this was obviusly meant to be an insult to her degree of artistry, I thought that if it were indeed as they say, that this ought to be the reason that any purveyor of opera loved her. I believe this aria shows her ability to hold notes and sing well, and in my opinion some degrees better than the rest of her colleagues. To me it is a pity that she does not perform so much opera as she did when she was first starting. I would like to see her do more of it. Recitals are indeed wonderful, but an opera does allow for more of a performer's talents to be displayed. I am happy, though that she continues to sing at the Met and that she considers it her operatic home.

Ombra mai fu - Renee Fleming: This beautiful aria is from George Frederick Handel's opera Serse, or Xerxes as it better known in English, is traditionally sung by a mezzo-soprano or countertenor, but Renee Fleming does an exceptional job in this with her clear diction of the Italian lyrics, which, unlike the versions of many other singers, are easily heard. In other singers' performances or recordings, the sections in the upper registers of the aria do sound rather muddy and unitelligible; this is perhaps due to the fact that those singers who do not possess the higher register of their voices quite so extended as Fleming's have trouble making the high notes clear with the words understood. In any event, this is an almost perfect musical respite. It is taken from Fleming's 2004 disc entitled simply Handel.

Mesicku na nebi hlubokem (Song to the Moon) - Renee Fleming: Fleming is often kindly regarded as the definitive Rusalka of Dvorak's opera. Hers is the portrayal most sought and most lauded by critics around the world. It is easy to understand why this is so after hearing her perform this aria, which is taken from a live performance in response to her receiving the Swedish Polar Music Prize. She brings her poignant interpretation of Dvorak's heroine to the Met this season in late March.

The Holly and the Ivy - Renee Fleming: This traditional Christmas carol is sung beautifully by Fleming. This is on the Sacred Songs DVD. I watched it on PBS the year it premiered, and I could not believe the beauty of the repertoire she chose for the event. I am a little disappointed that it is not included on the CD of the same name, which I now own, but I suppose that that fact just provides me with an incentive to buy the DVD. It does not sound specifically like an opera singer is singing it since it only has a little vibrato in the phrasings, and the words are easily understood. This carol easily puts one in the mood for Christmas even in July.

Ah, Non Credea Mirarti... - Renee Fleming: This is from Fleming's Bel Canto CD, and when she wrote her autobiography in 2004, this was her favorite recording from all of her work. Many critics felt that her lyric soprano voice was not suited to this genre of opera, but I like this CD. It takes you in another direction from what you normally hear her sing, and I would have to agree with Renee that this is indeed one of her best recordings to date. This aria is from the Vincenzio Bellini's opera La Sonnambula, and while Fleming does an excellent job with this piece, Natalie Dessay does equally well. I do not really care for Anna Netrbko's version of it; in fact, I do not like Anna Netrebko very much at all outside of her vocal talents, for she uses deplorable language for a woman to utter, and she is a darling of the media outside of opera though her voice is not any better than Fleming's or Dessay's.

I Shall Be Satisfied - Jacqueline Horner: This song is a traditional hymn, but with Horner's voice singing it, it does not sound anything close to the music one usually associates with church music; rather, it sounds angelic. It makes it even more thrilling to listen to it knowing that this is a live performance and that Horner is Irish. Horner belongs to the female quartet Anonymous 4. Anonymous 4 is basically the equivalent of Chanticleer in the world of a cappela female singing. Their disc entitled American Angels, a collection of American folk hymns, is quite rewarding to hear. It does not sound like hymns at all; it sounds more like the Medieval repertoire they usually perform. If you ever get the chance to attend one of their recitals, DO IT!!!!!!!!!!!! I do not care if you have to travel across state lines; it is a performance you will be talking about for weeks after the event.

Dite oime - Cecilia Bartoli: Bartoli's mezzo-soprano voice has long been heralded as the best in the world of opera, and despite its being a rather small one, it sounds very pleasant and has the quality most opera companies desire, which is sounding Italian. This selection is from Antonio Vivaldi's opera La Fida Ninfa and is from Bartoli's recording called The Vivaldi Album. It is, to my belief, the best track on the album, and it is a calming piece. It is tenderly sung by Bartoli and exudes a warmth to all who hear it.

Sveturata navicella - Cecilia Bartoli: The tender ballad we just heard does not sound like it could possibly come from the same singer we are about to hear, but it does. That is one of the amazing aspects of Bartoli's voice: it can handle any type of music one wishes to hear. One moment she can sing something so lightly, and in the next minute she can deliver rapid Italian in a fiery torrent of excellent diction. Notice how the words are so easily formed in this aria. We do not hear any straining on Bartoli's part at all; she has no difficulty in maintaining her commitment to the music itself, either. This recording truly is a treasure for all of the devoted fans of Vivaldi's operas and Bartoli's artistry. I am proud to say that I own this recording.

For those of us who mark the annual ending of the Met radio broadcasts as the blackest day of the year, I desire to tell you that we can save these broadcasts for future listening with only an internet connection. You can record these treasures of broadcast media by recording them with a program you can download for free called Audacity. This application is veritably the greatest recording software available. Once you have downloaded it, visit the station finder section of the Met Broadcast site, and find a station that streams their program content. Got to the station's website, click on the streaming audio button, and start Audacity. In the Audacity program choose the correct source of your audio input from the drop-down menu, and press record. It records the broadcasts in real-time, and the best part about it is that, if there are any glitches in it, you can edit it in real-time after you have recorded it. If you want to free space on your hard disk, just transfer the file to CD-R and you can listen to it in your compact disc player. There is, as with all innovative ideas, only one problem: you cannot use your computer for anything else while the broadcast is being recorded lest Audacity record any sound another program emits on top of the opera. If this happens, one might be able to edit it out of the recording, but this calls for someone with some expertise. Should you worry about editing the glitches, you can do this with a minimum of knowledge about the program as you can zoom in on the recording area volume level and edit it out a section at a time and preview it until it sounds the way you wish it to sound.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Is Opera an Elitist's Form of Art?

I recently read one of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato's blog posts, and she addressed the unresolved issue of whether or not opera should prepare to lose its state of current prosperity. She did not think so, and she gave the fact that history was on our side when it came to surmounting such difficulties as an "economic crisis" as evidence for her opinion. I am inclined to side with her, for did opera not survive the Great Depression of the last century; indeed, did not the world? As I recall from consulting an authoritative reference on the subject, many were worried about the immediate future of opera then, but in retrospect it was said that soprano Lili Pons made the 1930's a glamourous time at the Met.
Opera, as with any other service or form of entertainment, must be profitable; when it ceases to be maintained by a supportive audience, it becomes a liability to those who would offer it, and they will discontinue its operation. It may be argued that today many arts institutions require grants and assistance from private donors and the government, but this erroneous falacy fails to consider the effects of poor management and the greater existence of inflation, to which all economic calamities may be attributed. (To understand my reasoning upon this matter, which would require far too much time and space to provide here, I emphatically recommend that you read a short book by Richard J. Maybury entitled Whatever Happened To Penny Candy?) However, in this detour onto the subject of economics I digress from my intended inquiry of the intellect.
As to the question at hand, that being whether opera is an entertainment only for the wealthy, we must, as in all things, look to the history of this world for our answer. Opera as we know it today was originally intended as entertainment for royalty and members of nobility, and it is perceived by some today who have little understanding of opera and its audience to be the same as it was some 600 years since. Those of us who enjoy opera whether regularly or occasionally are more realistically informed, and it is not too much to think that we consider ourselves to not be very much different than other people. If, as some will believe, opera is entertainment for only the privileged few, then surely people are misinformed. Perhaps they do not understand that it was only a hundred years ago that opera held a level of popularity that surpassed that of the cinema. A short journey to Europe in the summer will reveal that opera is still very much in vogue for the plebian as well as the limited aristocracy. Classical music festivals abound in almost every country with most of these showcasing the opulence of the voice of an opera singer or the sheer beauty of the music composed for the voice. There are some, and the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Italy, comes to mind, that are solely dedicated to opera. One will invariably find that the vast majority of people who attend these are not the wealthy, since they cannot support it alone, but, rather, the middle class. Another recent example is the Metropolitan Opera's Concert in the Park performed by two of opera's grandest stars, Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. The concert, which was held in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, drew a crowd of fifty thousand, and it was free to the public.
I believe that I have presented evidence enough to convince the toughest skeptic. Opera is definitely entertainment for everyone.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Miscellaneous Met Happenings

For those of you who do not know, the Met Opera Shop, which specializes in selling anything even remotely related to opera has been recently remodeled. Soprano Renee Fleming will be there from 12:30 to 2:00 pm Friday, December 12th to sign copies of her latest recording, Richard Strauss' Vier Letzte Lieder, or Four Last Songs as it is translated into English. On their website the Met has a headline announcing Fleming's future presence as an opportunity to meet the star diva, and if all of the reports given by Leah in her Opera_luvr blog are to be credited as true, then it will surely be a chance to do so and one not to be missed. Excepting that I live almost 1,500 miles away, I would most certainly go; however, since I am forced by the great expanse of distance to remain where I am, I hope that some blogger will go and meet her and write about their experience.
Today the Met plans to light their Christmas Tree on the balcony of their beloved opera house. The Met's Children's Chorus will be on hand to sing Christmas carols, as will be the members of the Met Orchestra's brass section, with their instruments, of course, to "spread holiday cheer," as the news portion of their website reads. Sheet music will be provided for all of those who will be waiting to sing along, and hot chocolate shall be offered to those braving what surely must be cold temperatures in New York by this late in the year courtesy of Patina. Someone please comment as to what sort of entity Patina is, for through my ignorance I cannot divine what it is. The tree, a stately, magnificent blue spruce donated by the Met's current General Manager, Peter Gelb, and his wife Keri-Lynn Wilson, stands twenty-eight feet tall and will be decorated by the Met's electrical and scenery departments. This tree replaces the usual Lincoln Center tree at least for opera aficionados due to construction on the Plaza.
In the realm of performances, controversial Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa returns to the Met podium after a number of years to conduct Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades. (An idle thought: does that title not sound just a little like Prokofiev's The Gambler? I was just wondering.) Some herald this as an artistic level of excellence while some of Ozawa's and the Met's harsher critics proclaim this as mediocrity. Some even go so far as to say that the Met, in all of its greatness and glory is a second-rate opera house now. In other words, to use a symbolism, it is becoming what McDonald's is to food connoisseurs. I cry a hearty not so to such remarks.
Since we are talking about the Met, I was wondering if anyone knew what has happened to soprano Ruth Ann Swenson. I looked her up on Wikipedia, and the author of the article said she is singing in La Traviata at the Met in 2008. If this is indeed truth, and one would hope so however so foolish a hope it were, it is news to me, and I make it a special point to have knowledge of the current Met season's roster. So far as I know, Ms. Swenson, whom I liked in the Met's production of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, is not singing anymore. Does anyone have any further information on the subject?


Monday, December 8, 2008

Thais at The Met!

John Cox's "new" production of Jules Massenet's opera Thais opens tonight at The Met! As so many bloggers have stated before me, it stars Renee Fleming, Thomas Hampson, and Michael Schade.
This is not new territory for Fleming, however, as anyone who follows her career will know. Massenet is one of her favorite composers as she has stated in Opera News magazine during the Met's production of Manon in 2005-06. She and Hampson recorded Thais in 1997-98, and, according to Opera News' David Shengold in this month's issue, it is one of the best recordings currently available. Nevertheless, it does have its fair share of criticism. Shengold writes,

"...For Decca, Yves Abel judges this and other purely instrumental passages correctly; plus, his orchestra boasts the freshest sound; on the other hand, the older French recordings, particularly Albert Wolff's, bestow a kind of tonal patina on the orchestral work that suits the piece very well. But Abel's reading never flags or lets the listener down. From her first entrance, Fleming produces the sensual, often radiant sound that has become her trademark. Just as characteristic of her recent work is an indirect approach to line, heavy on swoopy portamentos. Textual detail is meticulously considered, if sometimes overemphatic. (Hampson's French diction, by contrast, emerges unmannered.) Fleming's high notes and trills are most impressive. One less pleasing aspect of Decca's recording is that she sounds, even in duet, as if she were in a different acoustic from Giuseppe Sabbatini (the fine Nicias) and Hampson's stylish, handsome-toned if sometimes audibly hardworking monk. (Reliable insider reports allege that — in jet-age fashion — the two leads were recorded separately in widely spaced studio sessions held more than a year apart.) Assured and impressive as the protagonists are, one hopes that when they are onstage together at the Met a few more sparks will fly. ..."

His article, which was highly educational, compared the various audio recordings of the past century, and I am happy to see that this was one of the better reviews given.
Fleming herself says of this gem of her repertoire in an interview with Matt Dobkin for The Metropolitan Opera,

"You're known as one of the great interpreters of Thaïs. What draws you to this character?
Thaïs is one of the iconic roles in the entire soprano literature and the most musically glamorous role I sing. This opera uses every single vocal mechanism in the entire soprano lexicon, from full-bodied lyricism to high pianissimo singing... Every three pages there's some effect that sounds terrifying and risky and difficult–and it is–but it's worthwhile, and the role fits me in terms of vocal weight and tessitura. The best roles are the ones that are interesting and challenging dramatically as well. Thaïs is one of perhaps four roles in my entire repertoire that could have been written for me.
What makes it such a good fit?
It's the tessitura. Thaïs is high-flying, but the general tessitura is very much middle-voice. That's the key for me. The Massenet roles really want a full lyric voice in addition to lighter qualities. Anything heavier, for me, weighs the voice too much, which is also very much dependant on the orchestration.
Thaïs is not just a vocal showpiece. From an acting standpoint, it's an interesting psychological study as well.
She is such a modern figure. One of the things that's important to understand is that the word "courtesan," particularly in the time that Massenet was writing, had completely different–and much more positive–connotations than it does today, more kept woman than prostitute. There's a fantastic book by Joanna Richardson called The Courtesans: The Demi-monde in 19th Century France. It's a profile of all of the top courtesans of that time, and what you realize is each of these women, if they were lucky and financially savvy and healthy, then they had fascinating lives. They were completely independent, unlike married women, and could surround themselves with the greatest artists and minds of the day. Thaïs is also a great actress and performer, a star, which is precisely why Athanaël wants to convert her. So she is a wonderful character to play both in her outward confidence and in the way she uses her seductive gifts to rule her world. But she is also incredibly lonely. She sees very much in her future that once her beauty fades, she will have no value anymore in society, and she's desperately looking for more. That quest for a spiritual life beyond passing physical beauty relates to us today–it has related to people in all times. ..." (for the rest of the interview visit www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/news/interviews/detail.aspx?id=6068 )

I think that this will be a performance to remember for years to come. It might even be one of those that I shall tell envious younger generations of when I am older that they shall marvel at what an incredible defining interpretations of the various roles within the opera.
For those of us who are not lucky enough to be at The Met tonight or any time during the run, this production will be streamed live over The Met's website via Real Player tonight at 8 pm eastern time for free and broadcast over the radio and into movie theaters in HD on December 20th, 2008. Happy listening and viewing to all! By the way, if anyone sees the performances, feel free to pst a review of it on my comments!


Sunday, December 7, 2008

Met Broadcasts, Anyone?

A week and a day since, the 78th (?) season of the beloved broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera House of New York began. With its perennial return to the airwaves, I begin to wonder if they are still a viable way to promote opera anymore. I am relatively new to the world of opera having only come by it four years ago. When I first heard it, it was through the broadcasts that I became coaxingly addicted. Now that management has changed since I started listening to the weekly jewels, it seems that the Met has given the broadcasts a backseat to their new media initiatives. This, however, is not quite so bad as it might first appear because they now have live audio streams from their website weekly, live performances streamed in high definition into movie theaters around the world, and there own satelite radio station. Most recently added to this roster of modern technical marvels is the Met Player, an on-demand, a la carte performance player. It is moderately priced at 14.99 a month, I believe, but one must still buy the individual broadcasts they want to see or hear for different prices depending on the type of broadcast they choose (audio, standard-definition video, or high-definition video).
With all of these wonderful, new choices available to us, it is a miracle that there are still any of us listening to the free radio broadcasts anymore. Some of us, though, do not have a choice; it was only last year that The Met: Live in HD broadcasts came to one of my local theaters, and before that anyone in the thriving metropolis of Oklahoma City, one without a viable venue for opera, and the surrounding cities had to drive at least an hundred miles to see them. Whatever new ideas The Met may have in the future, my preferred method of enjoying The Metropolitan Opera's world-class performances shall be via the radio. By the way I love the way announcer Margaret Juntwait can tell a story. Feel free to comment on this or any other of my blog posts.