The New Opera, Breaking The Waves: What Would Mozart think?

Warning - some of the images below may be disturbing to some viewers.

Perhaps you know you have suffered an arts experience when you find yourself thinking about the performance two days later.  Maybe you can’t exactly say you liked it; you also can’t say you didn’t.  It has engaged you in an aliveness, a relationship, and will not let go until you come to terms with it.  That is my reaction to Breaking The Waves, a new opera by composer, Missy Mazzoli, and librettist, Royce Vavrek, produced by Opera Philadephia for its world premiere on September 22.  When my wife asked what I wanted for my birthday, I stated attending this opera as my first choice.  I, for one, am hungry for new opera.  We attended the final performance on Saturday night at the Perelman Theater.  I covered the announcement of this production briefly in my report on Opera Philadelphia’s 2016-2017 season back in April.

 John Moore as Jan and Kiera Duffy as Bess.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

John Moore as Jan and Kiera Duffy as Bess.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The opera is based on the 1996 film by the same name, which I have not seen.  The movie received critical acclaim and some box office success.  The story is difficult to convey in a few words.  A young woman, Bess, in a tightly controlled Calvinist community in rural Scotland marries an outsider, Jan.  Jan is paralyzed in a oil rig accident, and she pursues a dark path to save him, believing she is serving God and her husband by doing so.  I will only say further that it has interweaving themes (God, religion, hypocrisy, community, love, sex, mental health, the nature of goodness, and sacrifice) that are gripping. 

 Kiera Duffy as Bess and John Moore as Jan.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Kiera Duffy as Bess and John Moore as Jan.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Michael Bolton, Vice President of Community Programs at Opera Philadelphia, gave the pre-opera talk and discussed these issues and their portrayal in the opera.  He also talked about staging the opera and pointed out that when contacting singers to invite them to auditions that a first question was "are you willing to appear nude?"  There was concern whether classically trained opera singers would be able to sing well in the nude.  He talked about reactions to the opera so far.  A few audience members were back for a second or third showing.  One came back to focus on listening to the music this time.  It came out in the discussion that the composer’s mother and an aunt of the lead soprano were in the audience.  Mr. Bolton asked them if they would comment to the group on what this opera has meant to their family members.  Each pointed out with pride the hard work and dedication they had seen go into it.  It was revealed that Ms. Mizzoli spent four years composing this opera.  She was sponsored for three of these years by Opera Philadelphia as a resident composer, which gave her the opportunity to work with other artists, preview segments of her opera for feedback, and learn more about the craft of composing.  Other events were scheduled concerning the opera such as a Brunch with Missy Mazzoli.  I, again, as I did earlier this year in attending Cold Mountain in Philly, got the feeling that Opera Philadelphia is responding to and reflecting a vibrant arts community in the Philadelphia area. 

Like the woman mentioned above, I wish I could hear the music again.  My attention was strongly on the story and the acting and singing.  I can’t tell you how the music stands alone, but I can tell you it was effective.  The orchestra included just 15 musicians.  The percussionist had an number of interesting instruments, such as a car suspension spring.  There were brief inclusions of electric guitar played as recorded by Missy Mazzoli, who has played in a band, but these were woven seamlessly into the score.  When I noticed the music it was always supporting the singers and the story and the mood.  The arias were tightly integrated into the story.  None stood out to me for humming after the performance.  However, both the vocals and music were effective in telling the story and making it come alive.

The voices fit their characters and each performer sang well in their individual roles.  Kiera Duffy who played Bess deserves special comment.  She is a good soprano.  I can’t say yet just how good.  She is a great actress.  Of that I am sure.  Her performance was key to the entire production and she was brilliant.  He co-star John Moore, baritone, was also effective in his role and singing.  The male chorus was menacingly effective and contributed to the dream-like character of the opera.  The set design was minimalist, a couple of gray walls and angled blocks of flooring.  Projections on the wall of ink or oil oozing about help set and maintain the mood, manifesting the feelings I sometimes had oozing over me.

 Kiera Duffy as Bess with other men.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Kiera Duffy as Bess with other men.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

There was full male and female nudity in the production, in keeping with the telling found in the movie.  I found it a little shocking being live, even though such nudity and language can be seen on cable TV any day of the week.  It must be daunting for singers who might want to appear in future productions.  Was it integral to the story?  It was.  Was it salacious or gratuitous?  No, it was not.  Would the opera have been as effective without the nudity?  I doubt it; it added significant impact to the drama.  I was in no way offended.  What I can say for sure is that this opera worked as it was performed and presented.  Change it and it might not work.  For me, Waves was actually better than Cold Mountain which I liked very much.  As always, the thrill of seeing new opera added additional excitement.

The timing was remarkable for me.  I enjoyed seeing the Washington National Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro a week ago.  Figaro and Waves could hardly be more different in styles.  I was more affected by Waves, but I enjoyed Figaro; I think that the third time around for me,  Figaro has become more of an entertainment experience than an arts experience.  I wonder what Mozart would think about Waves.  I bet he would like the sexual aspects, and in particular, the shock value of the sex.  What would he think of the music?  I bet he would think it was creative and inventive and that it worked.  He would like its originality and the freedom available to its composer.  What else?  Keeping in mind that I am not trained in music, It seems to me that for both Cold Mountain and Breaking the Waves, the music was very much in service of the story.  Interestingly, I had the impression that Puccini was moving that way in La Fanciulla del West which I saw recently.  But in general for the great composers of the past like Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and a few others, it sometimes seems to me that sections of the music are there for their own sake.  An aria might be as much a vehicle for the music as it is in service of the story.  How would today's approach set with Mozart?  Not well perhaps.  We can't really say, but Breaking the Waves was not composed for 18th century audiences; it is cutting edge for now.  It is opera that connects us with our time.

Professional reviews of this production are accessible by links in the performance listings in the sidebar to the right (or bottom on a mobile device). 

WNO’s Season Opening, The Marriage of Figaro: The Fan Experience

Vienna, VA about noon on 9-22-16

Ok, opera tonight.  Washington National Opera’s 2016-2017 season opener – The Marriage of Figaro at 7 or 7:30 pm at the Kennedy Center.  Ugh, expect traffic, but oddly excited to see Figaro yet again.  Several name brand cast members I am anxious to hear.  Need to print off parking voucher ($20 after $2 discount for reserving online early) or maybe just rely on texted copy on cell phone?  Done that before ok.  Have to go solo tonight.  What to do about dinner?  Maybe grab something in the Terrace Cafeteria there.  Let’s see, I think the opera is 7:30.  Should leave about 5:30 to pick up my ticket exchange at the box office will call booth and to have time to eat.

About 5 pm

Time to dress.  Wish I felt comfortable attending wearing a T-shirt and jeans.  Hmmm, sport coat and slacks, but no tie!  Shoes need shinning.  Should I wear a tie?  Almost 5:30. Time to go.  Gotta take confirmation number for ticket, and oh, I think I will print off parking voucher.  Darn, already 5:40.

Good grief!  Tyson’s traffic is at its rush hour worst.  OMG, I need gas.  Back in traffic, now 5:50.  Starting to feel a little time pressure.  Starting time is 7:30, not 7:00, right?  Traffic crawls to Rte 66 bypas (sorry fella, I had to move over; your gesture was amusing) and then crawls past Lee Highway exit on Rte 66.  Moving now.  Another back up on the Bridge.  Breathe, remember to breathe.  Another back up getting into Kennedy Center parking lot.  Glad I printed off voucher; calling up text on the cell phone takes time.  Saying to myself: metro next time, but driving to park at station and the ride in, plus getting from the stop to KC, takes almost as much time and my knees say no, no, no.  Wonder what a limo costs.  Going home will be easier.  Ok, where to park to exit fastest when its over; best closest to entrance.  Yikes, it’s a couple of minutes before 7 pm.

Good thing I know my way around the Kennedy Center.  Picked up ticket, no line; lady was grateful I had confirmation number.  Find cafeteria.  Wrong turn.  Where am I?  Found it.  Time for quick salad.  Food is good.  Visit toilet.  Just thought -  I am so familiar with Figaro I forgot to check on the pre-opera talk; bummer, bummer, I always get more out of the opera when I attend the talk.  In place, in seat.  Time is 7:25. Piece of cake, even time to text wife.  Turn off cell phone.

About 7:40 pm

Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director for WNO, comes out from behind the curtain.  Usual welcome and encouragement to subscribe for the season.  Says traffic on Rock Creek Parkway has caused 400 ticket holders to be late; I am sympathetic. Will start now but will allow late seating in first act.  Decent.

 Elizabeth Bishop as Marcellina, Ryan McKinny as Figaro, and Valeriano Lanchas as Dr. Bartolo.  Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO; photo courtesy of WNO.

Elizabeth Bishop as Marcellina, Ryan McKinny as Figaro, and Valeriano Lanchas as Dr. Bartolo.  Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO; photo courtesy of WNO.

The music starts,

Applause for the entrance of the conductor, James Gaffigan.  The overture begins.  Love this music by Mozart.  Playing seems uninspired to me.  I am seated center and sixteen rows back.  Is the sound not as good as the upper tier where The Ring sounded so great?  Enter Ryan McKinney as Figaro and Lisa Oropesa as Susanna.  McKinney is a big handsome dude; voice sounds nice, rather a deep baritone.  Oropesa is attractive too; she has a pleasing soprano voice and sings well.  This is promising.  Colorful period costumes and attractive set design.  Wow, Oropesa is a charmer; I will forgive her most anything, but nothing to forgive.  Ok, this Figaro is going to be light hearted with the humor emphasized.  McKinney’s Figaro is more the jealous boyfriend than the wise, manipulative Figaro we sometimes see.  And this Susanna is more the cute young girl trying to avoid the imposing letch than the more mature woman trying to deal with a social order in which she is victimized that we sometimes see.  Joshua Hopkins as Count Almavira has a beautiful baritone voice, but often sings with low volume; I wonder if the folks in the back can hear him.  Aleksandra Romano as Cherubino is a scene stealer eliciting laughter and quickly becomes an audience favorite.  Had not seen Amanda Majeski before.  Her voice is strong and lovely, carrying the melody with such feeling.  I could listen to her more. Hey, I am really enjoying this.  The excellent performances stack up.  Valeriano Lucas as Dr. Bartolo, Elizabeth Bishop as Marcellina, Timothy Bruno as Antonio, Ariana Wehr as Barbarina, and Rexford Tester as Don Curzio all have professional voices and sing well.  Keith Jameson as Don Basilio stands out for his fine voice and comedic flair.  Mozart’s ensemble arias, duets, trios…up to a hextet with the singers singing different lines at the same time are so impressive!  Orchestra is playing it role, though sometimes the volume seems a little off.

 Joshua Hopkins as Count Almavira, Lisette Operpesa as Susanna, and Amanda Majeski as Countess Almavira.  Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO; photo courtesy of WNO.

Joshua Hopkins as Count Almavira, Lisette Operpesa as Susanna, and Amanda Majeski as Countess Almavira.  Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO; photo courtesy of WNO.

About 11 pm,

Last scene concludes, curtain goes down.  Quite a few people move out of their seats and head to the exit.  I have enjoyed a surfeit of singing and am grateful to the performers.  Am a little resentful of fans leaving without giving up their applause to a deserving team.  Bows are being taken, and slowly more and more people rise, me among them, until there is a standing ovation.  Curtain down for last time and applause subsides.  Head for car to navigate the interweaving jam to leave the parking deck. Head out and once away from KC the traffic has cleared and an easy ride home.

Afterthoughts at home,

A glass of wine and musings on the evenings performance. Having seen Figaro a couple of times before, the humor can only be so amusing for me, but the audience was certainly in to it.  Some of the effects in the last act were funny but departed noticeably a bit from reality.  I maintain that there are at least three groups that make up the audience: the critics, professionals, and the opera cognoscente is one group; the opera newbies are another; and finally those folks like myself somewhere in between.  These groups are likely to react differently to the same opera.  I suspect the first group will long for something more substantial; the newbies will love it, and the last group will be won over after a few arias.  I suspect this production will succeed with the Opera in the Outfield crowd on Saturday night.  You can argue with Zambello’s choice of operas, but she gives us a quality product.  There will likely be several reviews of this performance by professional writers.  How can I offer a report that is different, hmmm?


There was a 25 min intermission, enough time for a bathroom break and/or collect a drink or snack, though with long lines; also a chance to take stroll on the deck outside and view the Potomac at night.  Being a season subscriber has its advantages.  I was able to easily move to an earlier performance date, and I was able to upgrade my ticket ($162) by just paying the balance.  Professional reviews of Figaro are linked in the monthly performance listings in the sidebar on the right and are also now included on the Seasonal Listings page.  The remaining performances of Figaro are on Sep 28, 30, and Oct 1 and 2.  My advice is to go, relax, and enjoy it for what it is, a treat for the eyes and ears with some comedy thrown in.

“La Momma Morta”: Netrebko versus Callas

I occasionally enjoy dialing up a specific aria on YouTube or Apple Music and listening to the same tune sung by different singers.  The juxtaposition in my head of Anna Netrebko’s new album, “Verismo”, the subject of my previous blog post, which features “La Momma Morta” from the opera Andrea Chenier by Umberto Giordano and remembering the use of “La Momma Morta” in the movie Philadelphia, sung by Maria Callas caused me to wonder how they compared to each other.  Ms. Netrebko is today’s leading soprano by most accounts, and Ms. Callas is one of the most famous opera singers of all time; she was labeled “La Divina”, Italian for “the divine”, and tops many lists of best sopranos of all time.

The funny thing is that I have tried and tried to become a Callas fan, but my enjoyment of her work is spotty.  During her era, her followers were sometimes fanatics, to the point of attending rival soprano performances, especially Renata Tebaldi, and booing.  She and star tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, were possibly the two most influential singers in promoting opera’s popularity in the second half of the twentieth century.  Callas is credited with having revived the bel canto genre of opera, primarily operas by Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini.  Her life story is fascinating and is featured in a Federico Fellini film, titled “Callas Forever”, 2002, and actress Noomi Rapace is portraying her in a film coming out in 2017 titled, “Callas”

My difficulty with Ms. Callas is one shared by quite a few others; it’s the voice.  New York Times critic, Harold C. Schonberg, writing after her death, said of her: “Her voice was in some respects a flawed instrument, undependable in the high register. In the middle range it had a haunting beauty. Her imposing bottom register had a different quality entirely and it was said of her, not always admiringly, that she had three voices.”  I am very much a voice person.  I have to like the voice to really like the singing.  I have listened to her recordings enough to appreciate her tremendous artistry and her ability to infuse drama and emotion in her performances.  While I am not fond of the sound of her voice, I recognize that it has a natural pathos.  I cannot listen to her without feeling that I am on her side and often have the desire to comfort her.  In her lyrical upper registers, her voice can be quite beautiful, but for me, when it sinks to the mid and especially lower ranges, it can at times grate on my ears.  If you have not given Maria Callas a try, I recommend the album, “The Very Best of Maria Callas”, for a good selection of her arias.  There are also a lot of arias by Ms. Callas on YouTube.  Though it must be appreciated that it was her ability to connect with her audiences in live performances that may have been her unparalleled achievement. 

I have now listened several times to “La Momma Morta” in the YouTube clips further down, by both Callas ( and Netrebko (  The lyrics can be found below and should be read to get the most out of the aria.  The singer is Maddalena and the time is that of the French revolution.  She is telling a suitor, Gerard, of her mother’s killing and their house being set afire.  Her servant, Bersi, sacrificed herself to prostitution to save Maddalena, and Maddalena is hopelessly in love with the poet, Andrea Chenier.  She sings that she had lost faith, but is now inspired by love.  Lyrics in Italian and English, side by side, are available from Wikepedia  .  English lyrics are below:

They killed my mother
at the door of my room
She died and saved me.
Later, at dead of night,
I wandered with Bersi,
when suddenly
a bright glow flickers
and lights were ahead of me
the dark street!
I looked –
My childhood home was on fire!
I was alone!
surrounded by nothingness!
Hunger and misery
deprivation, danger!
I fell ill,
and Bersi, so good and pure
made a market, a deal, of her beauty
for me –
I bring misfortune to all who care for me!
It was then, in my grief,
that love came to me.
A voice full of harmony says,
"Keep on living, I am life itself!
Your heaven is in my eyes!
You are not alone.
I collect all your tears
I walk with you and support you!
Smile and hope! I am Love!
Are you surrounded by blood and mire?
I am Divine! I am oblivion!
I am the God who saves the World
I descend from Heaven and make this Earth
A heaven! Ah!
I am love, love, love."
And the angel approaches with a kiss,
and he kisses death –
A dying body is my body.
So take it.
I am already dead matter!

Netrebko has a beautiful sound and sings the aria beautifully with great deal of power and emotion. Clearly she has totally invested herself in this performance.  Hers and Ms. Callas’ renditions are both moving.  The vocal fireworks of both are impressive.  The accompaniment is similar on both recordings, though to my untrained ears, the Pappano orchestration on the Netrebko recording seems more rounded out and movie-like than the rawer classical version on the Callas one, which I like better.  Both the Callas and Netrebko versions are spectacular performances.

Here is the punchline in terms of which recorded version I like better: my gut feeling is that I have to give the slightest edge to the Callas performance, though both are great.  I may have been prejudiced by hearing Callas in the Philadelphia treatment, but I think the opinion I formed by watching that video was mainly an appreciation for the aria.  With Ms. Netrebko, I hear a strong woman who has been wounded and brought down by unspeakable loss, who becomes inspired by love.  With Ms. Callas, I hear a vulnerable woman who has suffered tragedy and found salvation through love.  I think somehow the roughness of Ms. Callas voice emphasizes the pathos inherent in her voice and elicits greater sympathy and empathy.  As a result, what I dislike about Ms. Callas’ voice actually works for her in “La Momma Morta”, for me.

Having declared the slightest and surprising (at least to me) preference for the Callas recording, let me emphasize, I do not wish to give up either version and will listen to both many more times.  We are blessed.  Both are terrific.  I prefer a smorgasbord of greats to a basket of number ones.



Anna Netrebko’s “Verismo”: What You Hear Depends On Where You Sit

 Anna Netrebko at Romy Awards 2013.  Photo by Manfred Werner (Tsui); taken from Wikipedia (

Anna Netrebko at Romy Awards 2013.  Photo by Manfred Werner (Tsui); taken from Wikipedia (

Anna Netrebko, one of the reigning divas of present day opera, has released a new album titled “Verismo”.  I think it will be perceived differently by three groups of listeners. One group includes the critics, musicologists, and opera connoisseurs.  Another is the opera newbies, and a third is those in between, where I reside, fans who have enjoyed opera for a while, but are not expert.  The professionals and cognoscente will analyze whether the arias are good examples of “verismo”; they will find the flaws in her diction, singing, and emotional interpretations.  They will question whether this lyric soprano has the correct voice type now to sing many of these arias that require dramatic heft; many will worry that doing so may erode her voice.  Hers will be compared to other singer’s interpretations and performances.  Her conductor, Antonio Pappano, will also draw critical comment.  Many will praise all those things and profess her to be an extraordinary singer whose beautiful voice has matured as she has reached the height of her powers.  Many reviews can already be found online from around the globe, as examples of these views.  For those of us who are perhaps more familiar with pop music, this album could be compared to Barbara Streisand or Frank Sinatra publishing in their maturity ‘the’ definitive album of pop standards, arranged around a theme.  Opera devotees can think of it as an outstanding recital.

The opera newbies will be thrilled by the gorgeous singing and emotion of the arias.  It will be like getting to eat the center cut of a beautiful and perfectly cooked piece of meat; the serving is flawless.  They will look up what the label verismo is supposed to represent and find that it was a post-Romantic style favored mainly by Italian composers around the end of the nineteenth century, best represented by two short operas often performed together, Cavaleria Rusticana and Pagliacci; a selection from Pagliacci is on the album.  Roughly translated as realism, verismo opera sought to focus attention on the problems and raw emotions of ordinary people.  It reflected a literary style of the same name and was sometimes shocking and offensive to the opera fans of its day.  For opera newbies this album will be a treasure revisited many times.

For those of us who sit in between those first two groups, listening to “Verismo” is akin to eating that delicious meat but also experiencing the absence of the sauce, and the potatoes, and the steamed asparagus, and the wine.  It is indeed beautiful and perfectly prepared, but it is meat followed by meat followed by more meat.  I found that in the second half of the album that the arias were starting to sound somewhat alike.  For those arias for which I know the back story I was able to supply some of the missing context, enhancing my enjoyment.  For those for which I did not know the story, it was beautiful singing and sound.  To best enjoy the album it may be advisable to read the libretto for each aria.  While I listened to the album, I could not help wishing during each aria that I was instead in the audience watching and hearing a great diva, especially Anna Netrebko, performing each of these operas.  I wanted the sauce (hearing it live) and I wanted the potatoes, asparagus, and wine (the context).  This was a new feeling for me while listening to recital albums.  Oh, I will go back to listen to “Verismo” again, and probably again, but as great as it is, it will never be as satisfying as being there.  To get an idea how context affects the impact of the arias, listen to the sample below from "Verismo" and then listen to the same aria as utilized in the movie, "Philadelphia"; you can find the film clip in the OperaGene blog post on how to listen to opera.

"La mamma morta" aria from "Verismo", a leader sample available on a Vevo/Youtube video (

Ms. Nebrebko is one of the most recorded modern opera stars.  The album by Deutsche Grammophon contains 16 arias; the last five are essentially the last act of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. It also includes the aria "Ebben?  Ne andro lontana" from La Wally which was used in the movie "Diva", warmly remembered by me.  You can view the entire aria list on the Amazon website.  For the album, Antonio Pappano conducts the Chorus and Orchestra of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia; it also includes duets with her husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov who sounds great to me.  The “Verismo” CD is available from the usual outlets for about $16-20.  It is $12 on iTunes and can be streamed from Spotify or Apple Music by those with subscriptions.  It is most definitely worth a listen.  You can also view the trailer about the making of the album below, focused around the "La mamma morta" aria.

The Pearl Fishers: Did Bizet Get It Wrong?

 Georges Bizet studio photograph circa 1800;

Georges Bizet studio photograph circa 1800;

I find myself in the position of recommending a video recording of an opera.  The Pearl Fishers, recorded from last year’s (Jan 16, 2016) Met Opera staged production at Lincoln Center deserves some attention; it is also known in French as Les Pecheurs de Perles.  I taped it from a May 22 broadcast on a PBS station and just recently watched it on a big screen TV.  It is relatively short at 2 hrs 15 min and is now available in HD on Met Opera On Demand, which I discuss in more detail below.  The production garnered a good deal of praise at the time (NYTimes review and Washington Post review).  It will not be repeated this year and is well worth watching, even at home on video.

  The Pearl Fishers  2016. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

The Pearl Fishers 2016. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

The Met version serves as an example of the impact that staging and singer selection can have on the success of an opera.  The special effects in the opening sequence were spectacular, realistically portraying pearl divers underwater; the village docks on the rocky shore and the switch to the blighted apartment complex were also effective.  Kudos to director Penny Woolcock, the Met technology folks, and the creative staff.  The opera has been considered historically as a somewhat flawed opera with an uneven score, a mix of great and lesser moments, and a libretto described by one critic as “clunky” (hey, Bizet composed it when he was only 24 and the libretto is by Eugene Cormon and Michael Carre).  However, it contains one of the most famous and thrilling arias of all time, “Au fond du temple saint.”  Normally, I would insert a Youtube video recording of the aria at this point (you can do it yourself), but I really want to encourage you to watch the Met video version first.  More on that soon.  I think the staging by the Met was near perfect, at least it worked perfectly in supporting the mood and placement of the story. 

Photos above: Mariusz Kwiecien as Zurga, Diana Damrau as Leila, and Matthew Polenzani as Nadir.  Photos of Kwiecien and Polenzani by Ken Howard and photo of Damrau by Kristian Schuller; all photos courtesy of Metropoitan Opera.

Three outstanding singers were selected for the main roles, two friends and the woman they love. Mariusz Kwiecien fit the role of Zurga, leader of the village, quite believably as well as bringing a rich baritone voice to the role.  I expected soprano Diana Damrau playing Leila, the Brahmin priestess loved by the two male leads, to be great.  My big surprise was Matthew Polenzani, whom I have seen a couple of times previously in lighter roles.  In The Pearl Fishers, he remarkably and effectively played the role of Nadir, a determined adventurer; his look and acting were excellent.  I wonder if this represents a growth spurt for him and want to see him in future roles.  Ms. Damrau sang wonderfully as I anticipated, but her acting was not always on point and this was emphasized by the close ups you get with video.  Indeed, often the video director chose to go with close ups when I think views of the full stage would have worked better to place the difficulty of their love affair in the context of its conflict with their social responsibilities.  The score uses the simple duet (Triangle) theme effectively throughout the opera in recalling the love of the main characters for each other.  There were several beautiful arias, and the scene in the second act with Leila, herself a capture, pleading even fighting with Zurga to save Nadir really drew me into the drama.  The Pearl Fishers does have a few major implausibilities (this is opera), and I might have chosen a slightly different ending, but the story was effective nonetheless.  For me, it had the feel of watching an old movie because nothing else was on and finding that it was surprisingly good.

I had heard and enjoyed its most famous aria, the baritone-tenor duet several times over the years, but I did not know the story or the words of the aria.  Watching the video, I believe that, while it is a great melody, the music in this aria does not really fit the words or the story.  Let me explain.  Reading in one of my son’s college music theory texts, I found a selection from “Man The Musician” by musicologist Victor Zuckerkandl which stated that the role of music is to “help us to share actively in what is being said.” You derive your own emotion.  The music accompanying singing provides you entry to the experience outside yourself.  What we learn prior to the ‘au fond’ aria is that two friends became rivals because they fell in love with the same woman that neither was able to obtain.  They reaffirm their strong love for each other and claim that they have gotten over their passion for the woman.  Yet, their true feelings for Leila arise again and they struggle against them.  The duet proceeds in this context.  When I hear the music I am experiencing their comradeship, but I am feeling inspirational passion, not the passion of brotherly or romantic love, but a commitment to each other through a common cause.  It is as though they are singing together their love for their homeland.  There is the possibility that I have been influenced by having seen the musical Les Miserables first, because I feel like maybe the French flag should have been the center of the scene with cries of liberty, equality, and fraternity in the background.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love the aria and Kwiecien and Polenzani provide a beautiful rendition, but for me, Bizet got it wrong.  Ok, I know your arrows are already pulled out, so shoot.  But, maybe that is why the duet has become more popular beyond the opera itself; the words would limit its popularity.

All things together, the opera worked for me.  It’s short, not longer than the average movie these days; it has an exotic locale, the drama of a passionate love triangle, and some great arias.  And I admit to tears in my eyes at the end.  I am surprised that this opera is not done more often.

Ok, a word about viewing The Pearl Fishers on Met Opera On Demand.  The website gives details about which devices you can use to view the video and audio recordings.  Samsung smart TVs can play them using an app and you can stream them using other services to capable TVs.   You can subscribe for $15 per month or annually for $149.  However, you can also view them individually for $4 for SD recordings or $5 for HD recordings; the operas when purchased individually are streamed to you directly over the internet.  You have up to six months to start the videos and 24 hours to finish them once started.  Signing up is relatively painless, but you can spend some time finding exactly what you want on the website.  A free seven day trial is offered, but when I tried that a few years ago it only allowed you to view sections of operas, not the whole operas.  This may have changed but I can't tell since it won't let me sign up a second time for the free trial.  I am hoping Met Opera will choose to broadcast The Pearl Fishers again in the coming year as part of their HD in Cinema Encore series.



Weekend Round Up – Opera in the Outfield, FFJ, Left-Handedness, Opera as Anti-Depressant, and Ex-iPhones

Opera in the Outfield,

Want to see The Marriage of Figaro with Lisette Oropesa and Amanda Majeski at a cheaper price?  You can.  The Washington National Opera and the Washington Nationals have teamed up to make it possible with “Opera in the Outfield.”  On Saturday, Sep 24, Figaro will be simulcast from the Kennedy Center to the Nats Park’s jumbo screen.  And the price is free; how’s that for a cheaper price!  Gates open at 5 pm and the opera starts at 7 pm.  There is also a contest online you can enter right now to win free tickets to the next Kennedy Center production, Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment.  Seating is available in the outfield and the stands.  If you haven’t been to Nats Park, parking is available, but the Green Line’s Navy Yard-Ballpark subway stop is right beside the park.  You will have to pass through security to enter the park;  I recommend checking the Nats’ Guest Conduct Policy’s 'prohibited items' list before attending if you are thinking of carrying more than a sweater and blankets with you.

Florence Foster Jenkins,

I went to see this film out of curiosity and because there is an opera connection with FFJ.  Ms. Jenkins became a celebrity by singing notoriously out of tune.  I think it is a good movie, though it raises some strong feelings in some viewers concerning how she was treated in real life, a point of some debate.  The movie will not convert any new fans to opera, but there is no question that Ms. Jenkins aided many young opera stars in developing their careers.  I liked the view of the 1940s world of the well-to-do in NYC, which Hollywood is good at recreating.  The scene featuring a young Lily Pons, played by soprano Aida Garifullina (winner of the 2013 Operalia competition), is an opera highlight.  And of course, it has Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.  The very balanced review by Ann Hornaday can be found at this link

Musicians and Left-Handedness,

 Nicola Benedetti at Royal Albert Hall by Allanbeavis, Sep 2013.

Nicola Benedetti at Royal Albert Hall by Allanbeavis, Sep 2013.

This article on left-handed classical musicians caught my attention because I saw Twitter posts saying that two of our greatest composers were left-handed (Guess who? See the article. Ok, their last names begin with B and M), and I always wondered how musicians deal with being left-handed, or if it matters.  The data is not exact, but about 10% of the world’s population is left-handed.  President Obama is left-handed.  According to a CNN report, the scientific basis for handedness is yet to be established, but involves more than simple genetic differences and seems to occur early in fetal development.  Sports seems to be one area where it can be a clear advantage.  If I am reincarnated, I pray I will return as a left-handed Washington Nationals baseball pitcher who can sing.  The last example of musician left-handedness in the article above is concert violinist, Nicola Benedetti, who clearly had a rough time initially dealing with hers: “The Scottish violinist claims she doesn't have any memories of before she played the violin, but she shared this early one in a 2010 interview: "I couldn't stop crying because, being a shy, small girl and left-handed, I kept holding the instrument the wrong way and felt terribly self-conscious."”  Ouch, it certainly matters, but it didn’t stop her and she will be the featured violinist with the NCO at the Kennedy Center, Oct 27-29.  The CNN report states that over a lifetime, handedness doesn’t seem to have much of a measurable impact.

Opera as an anti-depressant,

Ok, now for a little foolishness and fun. Take a look at this James Corden Youtube clip when he is visited by soprano Ailyn Pérez and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni of the Metropolitan Opera.  It cheered a sad James up, and I hope it does as well for you.

Ex-iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches,

This has nothing to do with opera, unless you use your Apple products to view and/or listen to opera.  However, the new iPhone 7 is expected to be announced on Sep 7, and I always wonder how to clear my old phones before disposing of them.  Maybe you do too.  At the following link, Apple provides their recommendations for what to do before getting rid of your old device:


Washington Concert Opera: It’s All About The Music

 Image courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Image courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Suppose they gave an opera where there were talented, accomplished singers, a full chorus, and a full orchestra, and the singing was with emotion and in character, with supertitles overhead, but there were no costumes, no sets, no dancing, and no action on stage.  Well, that would be called ‘concert opera’, a form of opera that is enjoyed by many fans.  And you don’t have to choose.  In the mid-Atlantic region you can have both; in addition to our many first-rate staged opera companies, there are several prominent concert opera companies in our region.  In Washington DC, we have the highly regarded Washington Concert Opera, and that is the company I will be discussing in this blog report.  I plan to report on Baltimore Concert Opera and ConcertOPERA of Philadelphia in future posts.  And full disclosure – I have not as yet attended a concert opera, thus I spend some time below examining the genre.  My bottom line is that attending concert opera is now on my opera to do list.  I think after reading my report you may as well.

You might ask why give up costumes, sets, dancing, and action?  The Washington Concert Opera (WCO) has a motto of “It’s all about the music.”  And therein lies the primary basis for this form of opera’s appeal.  The performers do not have to be concerned with their costumes and makeup, how they fit and changes; they do not have to be concerned with dancing and movement and being in the right place at the right time, or physical interaction with the other singers, and managing to control their breath while moving around.  It’s like listening to studio recordings of opera except it’s live music.  The performers can focus on the music and on their connection with the audience.  You get the singers full attention. They are placing themselves before you for your scrutiny, as well as enjoyment, and the results are immediate.  The audience must also stay engaged.  There are no do overs for either the performers or the audience. The two are in an intimate relationship for the evening.

There are other benefits as well: you will likely get to hear operas that the full opera companies can’t or won’t do; the orchestra is on the stage, not in a pit, playing a more prominent role; the tickets are likely cheaper because concert opera is less expensive to perform; and you will be better able to employ the creative role of imagination.  You will follow the story through supertitles or not, but your imagination will provide form and color to the play in your head.  You will not have to split your concentration with questions like why is Senta strangling herself on the bed instead of taking the leap off the cliffs?  You will provide your own interpretation of the opera without dealing with a director’s conception.  In a sense, it is an audio book.  Or, you can forget the story and just enjoy the live music.

I will talk more about concert opera in future posts, but let’s get back to DC’s company, Washington Concert Opera. I first became aware of this opera company a few years ago and have seen them praised in critical reviews and by word of mouth.  They employ both established singers of renown and young and upcoming ones.  Ann Midgette of the Washington Post regularly reviews WCO performances; here is a quote from one of her reviews: “Concert opera companies often end up specializing in a form of opera akin to an athletic event: The focus is turned from the drama onto the physical feat of producing the sound.  The Washington Concert Opera is a fine purveyor of this manifestation of the genre, often focusing on bel canto opera, which is not much done by major opera companies (too long, too esoteric) but which, when you get the good singers and an involved audience, can move the crowd-pleasing needle high up into the green.”

This quote was in a review of Semiramide from last year, in which the critic found the performance itself lacking in some ways, but in their second production of the season, La Favorite by Donizetti, she found much to favor.  My point here is that this company’s productions are considered significant enough to the Washington DC opera scene to be consistently covered by the Post’s chief classical music critic.

WCO’s mission statement includes “provide a secure home for rarely performed operatic masterpieces” as one of its goals.  The 2016-2017 season includes two such operas and a 30th anniversary celebration concert:

September 18        WCO 30th Anniversary Concert

Novermber 20       Jules Massenet’s Herodiade

March 5                  Ludwig van Beethoven’s Leonore

The performers for 30th Anniversary Concert, a celebration of the company’s legacy and success since its inception in 1986, will feature international opera star, Angela Meade.  Massenet's Herodiade (premiere in 1881) is based on a story by Gustav Flaubert about the historical character, Salome; librettists are Paul Milliet and Angelo Zanardini.  This opera enjoyed a good deal of staged success until Richard Strauss’ Salome (premiere in 1905) offered a version based (and sensationalized) on the biblical story of Salome as written in a play by Oscar Wilde.  Strauss’ Salome is a tense psychological portrayal and offers the provocative dance of the seven veils.  Herodiade portrays Salome in a very different, rather noble, light and offers the calmer, more seductive music of Massenet, but is still edgy due to its portrayal of a suggested romance of biblical characters.  The cast is impressive, starring Michael Fabiano, Joyce El-Khoury, and Michaela Martens.

Leonore by Beethoven may raise a few eyebrows. We are told that Beethoven wrote one opera, that one named Fidelio.  True or not?  Well, yes and no.  Ludwig worked over ten years on his sole opera, premiering his original version in 1805 named Leonore, and nine years later in 1814, premiered the final version named Fidelio.  Interesting, over that period he wrote four overtures, Leonore #1, Leonore #2, Leonore #3, and Fidelio.  I don't know which WCO will be using.  Here is a hook to try to attract the younger demographic to this one (I would like to see more young people at operas).  I read that millennials are having less sex and moving more slowly in seeking commitment and marriage.  Millennials, Leonore is for you!  The original name for the opera was a little longer -  Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe;  English translation – Leonore, or the Triumph of Marital Love.  It’s about a woman who demonstrates extraordinary commitment and bravery to save her husband, and also gives Beethoven a chance to make a political statement about freedom.  What more could you ask for?  Great singers, maybe?  They got’em: soprano Marjorie Owens, heldentenor Simon O'Neill, and soprano Celena Shafer.  As a special treat, they even throw in Alan Held, Wolf Trap Artist in Residence, and Washington National Opera’s Wotan in its recent Ring Cycle.

All performances are on Sundays at 6 pm in Lisner Auditorium on the George Washington University campus in Washington DC.  Tickets for the two operas range from $40 to $110 for single tickets and $72-200 for a season subscription covering both.  Tickets for the 30th Anniversary Concert are $15-90.  Tickets to all can be purchased online at this link, or call the box office at 202-364-5826.  Pre-performance talks are held one hour prior to the performance in Lisner. 

Because I have not attended a performance in Lisner as yet, I cannot comment on acoustics or seat selection.  I'm planning for this to change. 



La Boheme at Wolf Trap, the Missing Act, and a Lesson in Seat Selection

 Public domain - 1908 photo of Giacomo Puccini

Public domain - 1908 photo of Giacomo Puccini

 Public domain - Original 1896 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein.

Public domain - Original 1896 poster by Adolfo Hohenstein.

Nothing more highlights the difference between the experts and practitioners of an activity and its fans than the case of Giacomo Puccini.  La Boheme is exhibit A.  My reading reveals that a surprising consensus among critics, musicologists, and musicians is that Puccini is considered a very good composer, but not a great one.  He is not considered a musical genius with contributions to music on the level of Wagner or Verdi, for example.  Yet, among opera fans, he is considered one of the greatest composers of all, as judged by fans voting with their feet; La Boheme may be the most performed opera of all time.  For me personally, La Boheme is the opera equivalent of the movie, Casablanca.  Somehow, all of the elements in both works came together in this crazy world in just the right proportions and just the right construction to make a great work of art. Both of them work because they work, and just about perfectly.  Was that genius or just a lucky shot, like that one photo that you take in a few thousand that you know is special?  I am willing to let the experts work it out, as long as they keep performing this enchanting opera. 

This report will be distorted because of my seat location relative to the stage at last night’s (Aug 5) performance, which affected my ability to see and hear the opera.  More on that later, but before my tale of woe, let us examine that of La Boheme’s and the case of the missing act.

The missing act,

I have seen two live performances of La Boheme now and watched one HD video recording.  I’ve enjoyed them all, including last night’s version by Wolf Trap Opera.  However, I have been puzzled by the break in story line between Acts II and III.  I heard someone leaving the performance expressing the same sentiment; so I investigated further.  Puccini leaves Mimi and Rudolfo rapturously in love at the end of Act II; yet, begins Act III with the couple estranged.  There was friction between Puccini and his librettists, Giuseppe Giocosa and Luigi Illica over the telling of the story.  It turns out that the original libretto had five acts and Puccini cut one, sort of tightened it up.  It would be difficult to argue now with the wisdom of that decision, but the missing act sheds some additional light on the story.  In the deleted act, Musetta throws a party at which Mimi dances with a Viscount making Rudolfo jealous, revealing her to also be a woman who, like her friend, Musetta, lived by her wits and charms; Rudolfo makes reference to the Viscount in Act III.  There are theories why Puccini cut the missing act.  Boheme is not long by opera standards.  I wonder if the decision to trim it was at least somewhat influenced by the fact he was in a race with Leoncavallo to compose an opera based on bohemian stories by Henry Murger.  Leoncavallo lost the race; premiering his version of La Boheme a year later than Puccini, it had limited success and the competition created a rift between the two.  However, don’t feel sorry for Leoncavallo.  He is widely known for his popular opera, Pagliacci. I wish Puccini had written the music for the deleted act so we could compare versions, or maybe because I wish there was even more Puccini music out there.

My personal favorites from the WTO performance,

In general, the singers carried the night for me; each had their moments:

 D'Ana Lombard as Mimi; Yongshao Yu as Rudolfo; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

D'Ana Lombard as Mimi; Yongshao Yu as Rudolfo; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

D’Ana Lombard – last night’s Mimi was excellent; this is Ms. Lombard’s second year as a Filene Young Artist; she played Rosina in last year’s Ghosts of Versaille; I always feel a little tension at an opera until I hear the lead soprano sing; if she is good, I relax and enjoy it.  Ms. Lombard is very, very good. Her singing was expressive and her voice has a beautiful tone.

YongzhaoYu – I had not been especially impressed with Mr. Yu in Aria Jukebox; I am now impressed; he has a lyrical tenor voice with a beautiful tone that was perfect for the romantic Rudolfo and sang the melody with apparent ease, a pleasure to hear.  He could work on facial expressions for his acting, but in the third and fourth act he seemed to loosen up and show more emotion.

 Shea Owens as Schaunard; Yongshao Yu as Rodolfo; Timothy Bruno as Colline; Reginald Smith, Jr. as Marcello; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

Shea Owens as Schaunard; Yongshao Yu as Rodolfo; Timothy Bruno as Colline; Reginald Smith, Jr. as Marcello; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

Reginald Smith, Jr. – a very good Marcelo with a colorful baritone, especially effective in the early playfulness with Rudolfo that got the opera off to a good start.

Shea Owens – his voice and the professionalism of his singing almost stole the show for me. 

Summer Hassan – she showed the verve and fire one expects of Musetta.

Timothy Bruno – with a distinctive bass voice, his aria to his overcoat was a highlight.

 Yongshao Yu as Rudolfo; D'Ana Lombard as Mimi; Shea Owens as Schaunard; Timothy Bruno as Colline; Reginald Smith, Jr. as Marcello; Summer Hassan as Musetta; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

Yongshao Yu as Rudolfo; D'Ana Lombard as Mimi; Shea Owens as Schaunard; Timothy Bruno as Colline; Reginald Smith, Jr. as Marcello; Summer Hassan as Musetta; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

The key to me for La Boheme is creating the mood and sustaining it in each act, especially by establishing in Act I the rapport among the young men who have chosen the bohemian life, sacrificing comforts for the sake of art.  The principal players, the minor players, and the supernumeraries in the performance all did an excellent job of this in each act.  Kudos all around, not the least to the director, Paul Curran.

 Chorus; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

Chorus; photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera 2016.

Once again, the average age of this opera crowd was substantially lower at the Filene Center than typically seen at opera houses.  I suspect many were there for their first opera and I also suspect some young converts were made.  I believe that the reason for the lack of young people, especially young families, at our opera houses has to do with the need to dress up, painful commutes, high parking prices, the formality overall, and high ticket prices.  Opera at Wolf Trap is an enticing alternative.  Lower the barriers and they will come.

Low points, including a lesson in seat selection,

One low point was the humidity.  We can’t control the weather, but requiring the performers to wear overcoats and wraps in August at Wolf Trap is hardship duty; perspiration was in evidence on stage and in the crowd.  If Wolf Trap Opera does this one again in the Filene Center, move the setting to the French West Indies and let them wear bathing suits.

A more serious low point for me personally was the acoustics from where I sat.  I was two rows from the stage and on the very right side facing the stage.  The Filene Center is a very large house with a very wide angle stage.  When you are far right or left and very close to the stage you are almost looking directly across the stage.  The view from the center stage you do not have at all.  When the singers faced me I heard them clearly in their natural tone, but when they turned away, I could hear distance in their voices. On the positive side, when the singers came over my way and they were close to me, those moments were thrilling. 

I think that the Filene Center is a difficult venue for opera in terms of sound anyway.  There are no enclosed sides or back wall for the sound to bounce off and the lawn seats are a long way from the stage.  It appeared the singers were wearing microphones, and I would guess that to reach the lawn seats amplification and speakers are needed, not traditional in opera.  I don’t mean to discourage opera productions at the Filene Center; far from it.  Just an observation to take into account.

The orchestra also seemed a bit distant to me.  Part of the problem was that the orchestra was seated behind the stage during the performance and for two acts a huge set structure blocked them from the audience.  I find myself unable to comment on the playing or sound received by a center cut of the audience.  Being on the far right side created an unevenness in the sound volume in my area depending on which section of the orchestra was being emphasized.   My bad for seat selection, but it was an unusual set up as well.

I also cannot comment much on the staging due to the placement of my seat.  However, it seemed true to the story and was a new adaptation by Mr. Curran, moved up in time to 1917 and the end of World War II.

The Washington Post review by Grace Jean was laudatory and covers the orchestra and staging, though rather briefly.

an unfortunate development,

Compounding the undesirable effects of my seat choice was an unfortunate development.  In choosing seats this time I wanted to be up close to the performers and took the closest seats available in the prime orchestra section.  I knew which seats I was purchasing and the trade-offs I was making.  However, to my surprise a railing for steps and a landing had been constructed on the right side of the stage directly in front of where I was sitting.  It gave the set the impression that the performers were ascending apartment stairs as they entered and exited.  For me, it meant I was viewing the performance through a fence with cross railings.  It was frustrating the entire evening.  I contacted Wolf Trap patron services the day after and received a call explaining there was internal miscommunication about the railing and an apology with an offer of restitution in the form of tickets to a future performance.  Stuff happens and it was nice of Wolf Trap management to try to make amends.

Summing up,

One conclusion to offer is that at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center choose seats as close to center as you can for opera, especially for the best sound; I got a lesson in seat-manship that I hope will benefit OperaGene’s readers.  A more important conclusion is that La Boheme is worth seeing, yet again and again.  I can also whole-heartedly recommend seeing and hearing Wolf Trap Opera’s 2016 Filene Young Artists wherever they go in the future.  What a pleasure this season has been (including The Rape of Lucretia and L'Opera Seria).  I wish them all the best going forward in their careers.  And I hope the Filene Center will continue to offer opera and make new opera fans, especially within the younger demographic.  So, in the final analysis, I can honestly say, even with issues noted in my report, I enjoyed the performance overall and am glad I was at the opera.

Why Singing Opera Could Be An Olympic Event

 Image in Public Domain

Image in Public Domain

 AP Wire Photo - Public Domain

AP Wire Photo - Public Domain

Opera is a “performance” art.  In fact, one that involves a lot of physicality, exemplary muscle control, and total body awareness.  The singers in the photo are icons of modern operatic history, the great soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland, and one of the greatest tenors of all time, Luciano Pavarotti; their singing power and acumen was truly extraordinary.  Let’s consider the challenge they faced when singing in an opera house: they project their voices such that they are heard clearly, without amplification, in the back seats, which might be 150 feet from the stage, and do so over the sound wall made by a full orchestra.  Their lowest and highest notes must be heard clearly using their softest and loudest intensities.  They must carry the melody with excellent diction.  And they may need to sing in musical keys outside their comfort zones.  They often must sing in languages not their own.  Oh, and they must sound beautiful while exhibiting the emotion in the story.  All of this is subject to evaluation by human judges, similar to many Olympic events that will begin this weekend.  Young opera singers will often compete in voice competitions in developing their careers.

How hard is it?  Think you can sing opera?  In fact, most people can’t, and for those who can, it is not natural.  Popular music singers have rarely received training.  They sing in whatever fashion is effective for them, possible because they typically are singing into a microphone.  Singing opera has to be learned, much like learning to play a musical instrument.  The muscle control and body awareness that allow singers to project and control their voices in this way is both an art and science, and must be tweaked for individual bodies.  The process is called technique.  You may hear the phrase that a singer is working on their technique.  It involves a number of terms that I don’t fully understand.  For example, there is a throat voice, a chest voice, and a nose voice.  Singers must be aware of and relax any tension in their bodies, because tension can affect voice sound and breathing.  They must be aware of their body alignment, and perhaps most important, their breathing and how to control it.  Good health through proper diet and fitness are high on the agendas of opera singers.  They also must pursue their careers with awareness of what their voices can withstand.  There are risks.  The vocal folds, more commonly referred to as vocal cords, may not be fully developed until college age and attempting strenuous arias before their development is ready can cause permanent damage, as can overuse later in their careers.  And voices change over time.

The San Diego Opera webpage has a sub-page titled “Music and Science Curriculum” that discusses the biology and physics of opera.  Five lessons are offered in Biology Connections, four in Physics Connections, and two in Physical Science Connections (the second one appears to have a broken link).  Some of the topics are the anatomy of the human voice, how singers use their body to produce sound, the physics of music, and emotional responses to music.  One interesting tidbit I learned from Physics Lesson Two:

“Can a singer shatter a wine glass with the pitch and intensity in their voice? The answer is yes and modern physics prove it.  This takes a combination of pitch and intensity. To find the frequency of the glass, run your fingers around the rim and listen for the sound it creates. Chances are good that this is a High C flat. Now the singer must be able to match that pitch, which is about 105 dB and 556 hertz, and hold that pitch and intensity for at least 3 seconds.  If the pitch and intensity are correct, and constant and if the wine glass has any type of microscopic flaw in it, the glass will shatter.”

I thought it was just a cartoon cliché, but it could be an Olympic event by itself, though I doubt many serious opera singers would risk their voice to it, and according to the Myth Busters video the competition from heavy metal singers could be vibrant.  For a more scientific discussion of how singers sing over the orchestra by focusing their power on a singing range above the orchestra and by use of vibrato, click here.

Why do we enjoy watching Olympic Events?  For one thing, it is a competition, and that builds anticipation and excitement.  For another, it is people who are the best in the world at what they do that are competing and have been preparing for this competition for many years, often their entire lives.  We know that the performance level will be extraordinarily high.  We expect that new world records will be set in some events.  All of this makes the Olympics fun to watch.  There is, however, another element to consider, our knowledge of the events.  We know what the athletes are trying do and how they are going about it and the broadcast announcers go to great lengths to inform us of special preparations the athletes make and detailed explanation of what the athletes must do in their events.  Our brains are ticking off accomplishment of these sub-aims as an event proceeds and we feel our excitement or disappointment wax and wane as the a performance progresses.  The anticipation creates tension in our bodies and the results resolve that tension, and pleasure is released. 

In performing, both opera singers and Olympic athletes come to know the thrill of victory (a standing ovation) and the agony of defeat (not hitting that High C).  And we their fans, thrill and suffer with them.  All of these things keep us coming back to the Olympics over and over every four years.  Opera fans also keep coming back, but it is of course not going to become an Olympic event, even though I think its athleticism would qualify it.  Opera’s ultimate purpose is different from athletics.   First, the higher purpose of neither the Olympics nor Opera is to entertain us.  I think that the Olympics’ purpose is to inspire us with human achievement and its potential.  Opera’s is to touch our hearts, minds, and souls by re-connecting us to our humanity.

Still, most people do not realize the physicality involved in singing opera.  Fans familiar with opera understand what the singers are trying to accomplish, but those not familiar with opera do not.  I think if more people understood the Olympic-sized challenges of singing opera their appreciation for and interest in opera might increase.

Opera: What’s In A Name?

Shakespeare contends that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but does opera in any other form than a full opera, live in a theater deserve to be called opera?  I read a letter to the editor in today’s Washington Post defending cinema broadcasts of opera as opera.  In remembering the article to which the letter writer was referring, I recalled the opera critic’s reference to opera HD cinema broadcasts as an “opera product.”  It kinda bothered me at the time, and I wish to return to it now.

Referring to opera broadcasts in this way as a “product” to distinguish it from the real thing denigrates cinema broadcasts and thereby those who enjoy it.  The intent of the article was to encourage fans, especially young fans, to engage the full experience of live theater opera; this is praise worthy.  However, when expressed as disparagement of alternatives, it carries another message.  “Product” used in this context to me carries the connotation of “byproduct,” as in cheese product rather than real cheese, which sounds like something to eschew.  It subliminally creates a class divide, those who attend opera in opera houses and concert halls and those who settle for opera byproducts.  Ok, a bit of an overreaction perhaps, but this tempest in my teapot has boiled over.  I can’t get away from the fact that it bothers me.  It puts live opera performed in a theater on a pedestal and anything else is well, less than that.  It’s all very nice for those of you who like to watch the cinema broadcasts, who love Met Opera radio Saturday broadcasts or listening to CDs or streaming opera audio, etc., but you realize you are not enjoying the real thing.  Class division is one of opera’s lingering problems.  A new acquaintance recently asked how I got into opera and said he always thought of it as something for academic types.

On the other side, does not the real thing, the full-fledged live, acoustic, in the house performance deserve some special distinction, its own designation?  I just read a charming affirmation of live opera in an interview with Mr. Aaron Blecker, a 105 year-old opera fan.  In it, he describes his first opera.  He saved up for tickers and took his wife to their first opera (noted in Slipped Disc and published in Met Orchestra Musicians).   Mr. Blecker’s comment on live opera:

“We loved it. It’s 80 years later and I still remember it. She was happy that I got it and we were both happy that we saw it. To go to the opera was a great treat for us. To be able to see it in person and hear the splendid voices…with the records you had a lot of static, and to hear the voices live was a much more thrilling experience.”

With a testimonial like that no one should be worrying about the demise of opera.

Recordings are better now, but virtually everyone still agrees that live opera in theaters is the best experience of opera.  Should we give that experience a new name?  Maybe so, or maybe I should just try to forget about “opera product.”  Let us encourage anyone interested in opera to pursue their love of opera in any form available to them (I do personally), which means we need to embrace all avenues to enjoy opera including, but not exclusively, attendance at live theater performances. 

What do you think?  Do we need a new name for opera performed live, acoustically in opera houses and concert halls?  Or should we adopt the term “opera product” for everything else?  Or should I just pipe down and let it go?

The Thief of Bagdad (1924): An Opera Without The Singing?

The authors of “The History of Opera” (Abbate and Parker, 2012) suggest a working definition of opera is that opera is a play in which all the actors sing for all or most of the time.  How then could a movie be referred to as opera without the singing?  Let me explain, but first a personal comment.  Movie decisions in my family involve a lot of compromise.  My wife likes foreign films, preferably ones that wrench the heart and the gut; my son likes what I will call Aristotelian movies, films that are instructive in how to make a movie or to live a life.  Personally, I just want to see James Bond outwit the bad guy and get the pretty girl with a few laughs along the way.  I must admit, however, that one of the many things I like about wife is her enjoyment of foreign films with feeling, and I love my son’s passion for classic movies.  On many occasions I get drawn into watching movies that I would not on my own, and I am typically glad that I succumbed.  So it was with my son’s insistence that we watch the silent film, The Thief of Bagdad (1924, Restored Kino Edition), which is loosely based on “One Thousand and One Nights” (a book which spawned at least six operas, though none have made it into the modern repertoire).   

The Thief of Bagdad has a larger than life operatic plot: a compelling love story with a hero who, though flawed, finds redemption in love.  It has a beautiful princess and suitors competing to win her hand in marriage.  Our hero must overcome the intrigue spawned by an evil adversary and his spies.  The plot utilizes magic objects and someone brought back to life.  The exotic sets and special effects were advanced for its era.  It even has sexiness with attractive main characters, and a sexy spy - a young Anna May Wong’s career in Hollywood was launched by this movie.  It has excellent direction and storytelling.  I have placed the Thief of Bagdad (1924 version) in my list of top ten movies, although to be honest, I’m not sure how many movies are in my top ten.  After all, and even if it is a silent film, Thief eventually has James Bond outwitting the bad guy and getting the pretty girl, with a few laughs along the way.

I watched the movie by streaming it from Amazon ($2.99 for seven days use), but it is also available on Youtube at

Now, what does this movie have to do with opera: I think it offers an illustrative example that might be useful in dissecting the elements of opera.  A classic scientific experiment is to take away one possible cause for an outcome and see if you get the same outcome.  Let’s set aside for a moment that it is a movie and the music is recorded sound, and for the time being, I will claim that our experiment is still valid for the following reasons.  The movie has a story of operatic dimensions, with big events - a passionate love story, deception, redemption, magic and intrigue.  It uses intertitles (like supertitles in opera), with written dialog to clue the audience to how the story is unfolding (this actually keeps you involved in the story – there is no spoken dialog to help you keep up while checking your email), and it had music.  In the Kino Edition, the music is an original score for the film, though you will recognize many of the melodies, which supports its mood and action.  The one element missing compared to opera is singing, the single distinguishing feature of opera.

Without the singing, what was the production missing?  I think it is an excellent movie.  What was missing from this experience that singing/opera might have provided?  First, what did it have going for it that staged opera does not.  Let’s look more closely at the fact it was a movie and the sound was recorded.  First, it has action; this is a swashbuckling action adventure, fast paced in a way that might remind one of The Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Such action in opera, with chases and travel, are mostly alluded to.  Film also allows the volume and rapidity of scene changes with set and backdrop changes not possible in opera.  Movies can engage us with action and multiple settings and time periods, areas where opera is more limited.  Movies also have the advantage of close-ups.  The non-verbal communication possible with close ups can reveal much about the characters and the story; silent movies thrived on this point.  I thought this was used in an extraordinary way in the movie Gone Girl.  One of the criticisms of HD in cinema broadcasts of opera is that it splits the attention of the director, who must decide whether to use grand gestures to reach the back of the opera house or facial expressions in close-ups to communicate on the big screen.

Ok, we’ve designed our experiment focusing on one variable - singing, and we’ve examined some potential complicating variables - action, setting, and close-ups.  Here are my thoughts on what opera brings to the table that the movie does not.  It is instructive perhaps to ask what I felt watching the movie and what I learned about the characters and story, and what was revealed of importance to life.  Did the movie rise above mere entertainment to somehow impact audience members in more enduring ways?  Thief is largely escapist fare. I enjoyed the ride, chocked with delights.  The story was told sequentially in an interesting way, and I wondered what novelty might pop up next. Dramatic suspense was only a minor factor – I always knew the hero would win – and I got a happy ending. I learned little about the characters as complex human beings or the forces that drive human interactions, or the movement of history, the human story.  Even the redemption aspect which might have been interesting in a different movie was used just to allow us to feel good about the love story, yet allow the hero to brandish his bad boy charms.  I suspect Thief’s enduring importance relates more to how it affected movie making in its day, rather than how it affected moviegoers, though I may be undervaluing movie magic.

If The Thief of Bagdad were an opera, how might it have been presented differently?  One answer is that it would have gone more slowly.  The motivations and depth of feeling of the characters would have been emphasized.  The tension would have been palpable.  My pulse rate would likely have been affected.  The truths of human interactions would have been revealed.   We might have related to the characters in perhaps uncomfortable ways.  Opera also has unique ways to enhance storytelling.  We are told that the critical element in remembering something is its importance to us.  How is importance communicated in telling a story?  The director may choose didacticism.  The opening to Thief has written in the sky “Happiness Must Be Earned” and the lesson is demonstrated with the story.  Ok, nice life lesson, let’s move on, and likely forget it.  The storyteller can say loudly, “This is important!”.  That gets our attention, but it does not necessarily make us believe it is important.  Our gut collects lots of data in an instant to tell us whether something is important and relevant to us.  What is unique about how opera communicates importance? 

First, it does a better job of communicating with the music.  The music does not just become background music following the story; it is involved in telling the story.  It speaks to us in a way that only music can, using a language of its own to summon or belay our expectations and feelings.  But here is what connects us with our humanity, with each other – the human voice.  Think about the phrase, “The sound of your voice.”  It is a phrase of enormous impact.  It’s like snuggling up against your mother when you were five years old and having her sing or hum to you.  Opera has voices and singing, and voices communicate relevance to humans more effectively than storytelling alone. Funny, but the words are important too, even if we don’t understand them.  The History of Opera notes that no one would want to hear an opera of just la, la, la and more la, la, la.  But is singing necessary.  Might talking movies achieve the ends I have been describing.  Yes, but singing communicates in a way that speaking does not, more deeply and effectively than dialog alone.  That was the supposition of the Camerata at the origin of opera, according to Abbate and Parker, based on the endurance of Greek tragedy, incorporating song.   It has been borne out by the healthy survival of this implausible art form that emerged late in human development, only four hundred years ago.

But here’s the thing.  Might Thief have been better if it had been a talkie?  Maybe.  Film in Thief’s day was in black and white.  Color might have added some of the flavor and emotional intensity of life to the movie, probably why audiences were later won over by color movies.  Would Thief have been better if it were in color?  Maybe.  Singing, like color, adds another dimension to the storytelling.  Would Thief had been better with singing?  Maybe.  To all the maybe’s we have to point out that each change would make Thief a different experience, and the director optimized use of the elements for what could be done at the time.  The experience it offers, working with the elements it had at its disposal, is worthwhile as it is.  Each dimension that an artist has to work with provides a tool to use or not, to create the effect intended by the artist.  Use of different tools creates genres of art, and comparing genres gives us an opportunity to appreciate the power of those tools, and thereby reach a better understanding of the power of the various art forms. 

So, while I must concede that the Thief of Bagdad is not opera.  I hope, however, that considering it as such has been revealing both regarding a classic silent film and the unique features of opera and their power.

New Feature: Show the Critics Some Love

One of the first pages that I added to was a listing of opera critics and as much of their biographical information as I could find.  I have previously discussed why critics are important and what can be gained by reading reviews.  I’d like to add one more reason for your consideration:

Reading the reviews and commenting online is a way to support the arts. 

Newspapers give priority to news areas that generate reader interest, and tallying clicks and comments to the articles online is one way they do that.  The Washington Post review of L’Opera Seria by esteemed classical music critic, Anne Midgette, got zero comments (before yours truly added one) even though it got 2000 hits online and was read by an indeterminate number of subscribers to the print edition.   Compare that to any sports article and its number of hits and comments.  Editors and publishers notice.  They also notice other aspects of visits, such as how long the visit to an article occurs on average.  There is no way to know how many readers print newspaper articles get or demographic data of visitors, or patterns of visits, but very quantitative data is generated by online visits.  A survey two years ago showed that there were 11 full time classical music critics left at U.S. newspapers; two decades ago there were 65.

Reading critical reviews of opera performances contributes to your opera education.  Any thought that bloggers can replace critics should be put aside as unrealistic.  I have in the past emphasized that my opinions are those of an opera fan who knows what he likes, but opera critics bring critical knowledge and experience to the discussion.  Critics are both reporters and judges.  When you read a critical review, you will likely learn more about an opera, its history and historical context, its staging, the music, and how well the performers did from someone who knows what they are talking about, and to some extent, the evening will be re-created for you in prose.  Like any judge or umpire, sometimes they get it wrong.  So?  That’s where you come in, to take the critics to task - online!

Classical music critics perform an absolutely critical function in ensuring that standards of the art are upheld.  Suppose baseball asked for volunteers from the stands to umpire the games and these umpires called balls and strikes according to how much they liked or disliked the pitch.  What would that do to the game?  I have observed that, like umpires, critics take a fair amount of abuse, being accused in comments of being haters, of routinely trashing operas, and doing so to enhance their careers.  One comment I saw accused the critic of not appreciating people who can’t afford front row seats because the critic came from a wealthy family.  I think very few critics are critical because they have have an axe to grind or a mean streak.  They have a job to do.  They keep the bar high and negative comments actually lead to better opera in the long run.  So, if you care about the arts, especially opera, show the critics some love. 

Fortunately, we are blessed with some outstanding classical music critics in the mid-Atlantic region.  I urge you to read the reviews and comment on them. Tell your friends who appreciate the arts to read the reviews and comment.  You will feel better, or not, but if you do, the newspapers will give more of their limited pool of resources to the journalists covering the arts.

To help you access the reviews, I will add review links to the three-month listing of operas in the side bar of the blog page.  Check the side bar now and you will find that Read Review links for operas already performed have been added for L’Opera Seria, Julius Caesar, and The Silent Woman.  If you spot a review I have missed, please bring it to my attention.

WTO's L'Opera Seria Takes Opera Off Its High Horse And Makes It Fun Again

Was opera ever fun?  I know opera to be beautiful, affecting, and enriching, and some operas are amusing and occasionally elicit a laugh, but… is opera fun?  I honestly cannot say based on my experience that it is, but I have read that there was a time when it was more of a social event.  Wolf Trap Opera Senior Director, Kim Witman, made this point in her pre-opera talk.  In the baroque era, the lights were up during the performance and people chatted with their friends.  They brought in food and cards, and were sometimes rowdy, with ‘claques’ (fan clubs) cheering their favorite performers, occasionally shouting comments, and sometimes booing their competitors.  During the boring parts their attention strayed from the performance.  The performers sometimes reacted to what was occurring in the audience.  In my experience, attending the opera is more akin to attending a religious service these days: no talking, drinking, or eating for the audience, and no deviation from the canon for the people on stage.  The third act of L’Opera Seria gives the audience a taste of baroque atmosphere, and the laughter that frequently broke out in acts one and two of the night's performance, reached sustained levels in act 3.  It was fun and I want more.

Ok, what about, you know, stuff like the singing, the plot, the staging, the music, the individual performances and the refreshments at intermission.  Actually, intermissions could be fun, except for the pressure to get your refreshments and consume them before the next act.  The Barns actually helps with this - orchestra seats have cup holders.  Moving on to the story, I have previously discussed L’Opera Seria as a satire presenting an opera within an opera.  The plot is about what goes on between opera company members arriving, rehearsing, and performing an opera.  No one involved escapes skewering.   I give the performers high marks all around, as well as Ms. Witman and the WNO staff for bringing this opera to Wolf Trap for its U.S. premiere.  I predict it will soon be taken up by other U.S. companies.  Kudos to the director of this production, Matthew Ozawa, and his creative team, who trimmed a four-hour opera into a three-hour version with punch; the ending could have been shortened even a bit more – by that time I was sated with laughter, but that is the only critical comment I care to make.  Eric Melear led the orchestra well, especially in having to sound discordant and out of tune at times.  I do wonder if this opera would work better for American audiences if there was an English version; the one liners come very fast.

Let me say first of all that the talent of these young singers as a group is impressive.  And not only can they sing, but they can act.  I think we will hear much more from many of these people.  Previous comments on these singers can be found in my report on Aria Jukebox.  Here are my favorites from the night’s performance in order:

1.     Clarissa Lyons, who played Stonatrilla (out-of-tune), has a beautiful voice as noted by me before.  She can also act with a deft comic touch, easily provoking laughs with her expressions.  Acting for tv and the movies could be in her career path.

2.     Christian Zaremba, who played Passagallo, was a huge surprise.  I previously praised him for his role as Collatinus in The Rape of Lucretia and his tender singing of a Russian folk song for Aria Jukebox.  He seemed to be the tall, serious hero type to me, but in his performance, as the effeminate dancing master, strutting and bouncing around the stage, he was hilarious.  Some smart tv producer should start working on the Clarissa and Chris show right away

3.     Kihun Yoon, who played Sospiro, showed off that big baritone voice in a significant role and nailed it.

4.     Amy Owens, who played Porporina (purple face) sang effectively in a comedic number, and the dancers who accompanied her contributed to making the tuna and dolphin aria a hoot!

5.     Richard Ollarsaba, who played Fallito (failure) has a strong, beautiful bass-baritone voice and showed his acting aplomb in this production.  Success is ahead for this young man.

6.     Mane Galoyan, who played Smorfiosa (smirk face), sang beautifully.  I thought she was quite impressive.

7.     Florian Gassman, the composer, must have been bold to put forward an opera that some might take offense at if they thought a character was about them.  He has given us an inside look at opera in his day and I suspect in ours as well.  I found his music to be delightful and fit the story beautifully.

Overall, this was a comedic ensemble piece which seems to work well in the Barns.  They also offered an outstanding production of The Ghosts of Versailles last year that was an opera within an opera.  It was also fun.  Now that I think about it, it was also fun to attend Madame Butterfly at the Filene Center last year and am looking forward to La Boheme on August 5.  The Filene Center itself adds a bit of fun to the proceedings; it is an outdoor arena, easily accessible with free parking, and lawn picnicking seats are available as well as other dining options. Last year I noted a much higher than average ratio of young people in the audience, I suspect due to the venue. 

The opera enterprise should take note about what is happening at Wolf Trap Opera.  Presenting something new or reviving something overlooked, removing the barriers between the opera professionals and the audience, making opera more easily accessible, and even making it fun on occasion, while insisting on a high talent level and commitment to the art form might be a winning formula for other companies as well.  And a personal plus is that I no longer have to feel guilty about eating my lunch while I am watching opera dvds on my big screen tv.  Eating during the performances used to be normal.  No one wants to abandon the great, grand opera that the major opera houses can do so well, but a little fun occasionally even there might be a good thing.  One of Ms. Witman’s comments in her pre-opera talk was to say not to worry about the details or the plot, that if by the third act this was important to you they had not done their job.  They had done their job and that is real involvement.

Oh, there is one more performance on Saturday night, but it has been sold out for several days.  You can’t say you weren’t warned.  Hopefully you also saw the Post review of the opening night’s performance.   




First Operas in the New Season and Ticket Availability Dates

It is not too early to begin planning for operas you wish to see this coming season.  Single ticket sales for the 2016-2017 season for Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center and the Metropolitan Opera in New York are ongoing already, and those for other opera companies will become available between now and the end of August when exclusivity for season subscriptions expire.  Seasonal listings for opera companies in the mid-Atlantic region can be found here.    .

Timing is important.  The good seats go first, especially the good cheap seats; matinees also tend to fill up early.  If you are well off or want to splurge, and want to be nose to nose with the singers, or want to hang with the gilt-edged crew, then get the expensive seats and shine, but don’t pooh, pooh the cheap seats.  I sat in the first and second tier balcony seats at the Kennedy Center for the recent four operas of the Ring Cycle; the views were good and the sound was great, better I think than the orchestra section seats!  Cheap seats also allow you to see more operas.  I sat next to a young woman on a flight from NYC recently who said she had attended almost all Met Opera performances the last two years, usually spending about $35 per seat.  I was envious. 

Right now you can buy full-view tickets to the WNO production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro for as low as $45.  Figaro is on just about everyone’s list of the ten best operas of all time, and Met opera star, soprano Lisette Oropesa will play Susanna.  Also, please keep in mind that such a low a price may not be available later.  Beware the Kennedy Center's "dynamic pricing": as demand for tickets goes up, so does the price of the remaining tickets.  I learned this the hard way with my late purchase of Ring tickets.

To help get you going, here is a chart with the dates when public sales of single tickets begin and the first opera offered by that company for the 2016-2017 season.  Good luck and see you in the cheap seats:

Opera Company              Tickets avail.          First Opera and First Date

WNO/Kennedy Center….... Now…………..….The Marriage of Figaro, Sep 22

Opera Philadelphia…………..Aug 1……………..Breaking the Waves, Sep 22

Virginia Opera*…………….…. Aug 22……………The Seven Deadly Sins/Pagliacci, Sep 30

Pittsburgh Opera……………..Late Aug…………La Traviata, Oct 8

Metropolitan Opera…………Now………………..Tristan und Isolde, Sep 26

Met Opera in Cinemas……..Jul 20………………Tristan und Isolde, Oct 8

I included Met Opera because, even though not in the mid-Atlantic region, it is hard to leave the Met out.  I included Met Opera in Cinemas because that is a locally popular series available at theaters though out the region.  Anne Midgette of the Washington Post wrote an interesting and timely article recently on the impact of HD opera in cinemas, very balanced and insightful; recommended reading, and you will see several comments from OperaGene in the comments section if you access the article online.

*Keep in mind that Virginia Opera performances rotate from Norfolk to Fairfax to Richmond.  The Seven Deadly Sins/Pagliacci offering begins in Norfolk on Sep 30, moves to Fairfax on Oct 8 , and to Richmond on Oct 14.

Wagner Leitmotifs and the Optimistic Rat

Scientists are at it again.  They can now tell whether rats are optimists or pessimists.  Rats can’t answer a rat therapist’s questions, so how can scientists tell?  In a clever and amusing article in today’s Wall Street Journal, columnist Robert Sapolsky explains how.  First, did you know that rats chirp when they feel pleased, sort of like cats purring I suppose?  You may not know this because it is inaudible to the human ear (not sure about cat's ears), but scientists have instruments that can record it.  Let rats play or mate with other rats, they chirp.  They will even press a lever to hear rat chirps.  And tickle them, they chirp.  Sorry, I haven’t read up on how to tickle a rat.

Now let’s stick with rats but change gears slightly.  Rats quickly learn to exhibit behaviors to seek rewards or to avoid actions that lead to pain, not unlike humans in this regard.  In a clever scientific experiment, rats learn that pressing lever number one when an A-sharp note is played gets them a reward and by pressing lever number two when A-flat is sounded they avoid a shock.  A-sharp, you can get a reward; A-flat, you can avoid a shock.  Easy.  But what if an A-natural is played, a note in between the A-flat and the A-sharp; what should they do? It turns out that some rats consistently choose lever one and some consistently choose lever two.  Some rats are optimistic about getting a reward and some are more worried about getting a shock.  I must point out that I can’t vouch for the validity of the results just from reading the WSJ article, either statistically or in terms of proper controls; for example, might have the rats who decided to avoid the shock been more sensitive to shocks or partially tone deaf?  Hopefully the scientists accounted for other possible causes for the results, but my real point to make here is that hearing musical sounds leads to expectations about what is going to happen.  Composers often change notes and scales to play on your musical expectations, but when we get to Wagner, it gets even more involved.

The Sapolsky article itself goes on to speculate on potential implications (and do keep in mind that those are speculations and not in any way proven, in particular as it relates to humans).  The pessimistic rats were more prone to depression.  It was found that tickling rats (chirping) made them more optimistic; so did antidepressants and enriching their surroundings, but stressing rats made them more pessimistic.  Sort of I think, good feelings build on good feelings and vice versa, and boredom doesn’t help.  I have made light of these studies as an amusement, but they are quite serious and important in their attempts to establish the relationships between behavior and emotions and their exact impact on health.

What does this have to do with Wagner?  Well, remember my earlier post with a brief discussion of leitmotifs, those charming little themes that foretold a presence in the story and elicited our associated remembrances and feelings?  I also talked about these in my reviews of the Ring Cycle.  Wagner was an innovator who employed these extensively to introduce characters, moods, and ideas.  So with Wagner, we hear something and we think, feel, or anticipate something.

Below is a Youtube video that presents movie themes as lietmotifs, to introduce high school students to the concept.  It is fun to see how many movies you can recall from the movie themes played, and it does point out the concept of musical cues to connect musical themes with expectations, a concept used in music long before Wagner:

Another, more in depth, explanation of leitmotifs and why Wagner was an innovator can be found in this Backstage Lincoln Center Youtube video:

I suppose that we now must expect that the emotions each leitmotif elicits in us may be somewhat different for different people, depending on whether they are more optimistic or pessimistic.  When you hear Siegfried’s theme do you remember his heroism and promise or his death and its implications for the world?  I first remember the feelings associated with his beauty and promise.  In fact, I also recall the beauty and grandeur of the Ring, and how lucky I feel to have seen it.  I’m an optimistic rat.  Opera helps.


Top Ten Lists Of Operas

I ran across this Top Ten List on Opera America's website that set me to thinking about top ten lists, and I did a little searching.  The Opera America list is their Ten Most Frequently Performed Operas in alphabetical order.  The source of data or inclusive dates is not given, but it is a believable list and the only surprise to me is Hansel and Gretel, an opera often produced at Christmas time for children.  Opera Pulse has a website that maintains statistics on opera performances.  If we look at the data for 2014-2015 season from the Opera Pulse database for the operas most frequently produced in that period, we must remove Aida, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel from the Opera America list and add Tosca, Rigoletto, and Don Giovanni.  However, we can't fault Opera America too much; the three deletions from their list are nos. 12, 27, and 16 on the Opera Pulse list; note that means that Hansel and Gretel is still in the top twenty.

Opera America List              Opera Pulse List

Aida                                                                      The Barber of Seville

The Barber of Seville                                        La Boheme

La Boheme                                                         Carmen

Carmen                                                               Don Giovanni

Cinderella                                                           Madama Butterfly

Hansel and Gretel                                           The Magic Flute

Madama Butterfly                                          The Marriage of Figaro

The Magic Flute                                               Rigoletto

The Marriage of Figaro                                  La Traviata

La Traviata                                                        Tosca

How many have you seen?  Well, starting in August you can add FIVE operas to your ‘seen in person list’ over the 2016-2017 season: La Boheme (Wolf Trap Opera), The Barber of Seville (Virginia Opera), The Marriage of Figaro and Madame Butterfly (Washington National Opera), and La Traviata (Pittsburgh Opera).  These companies are also offering other members of the classic repertoire as well as newer operas; see the Seasonal Listings page.

One might also ask how do the lists of most performed operas compare with the ten “best” operas lists sometimes seen.  These are lists compiled by critics and other writers about opera. However, this is where it gets…shall we say complicated.  It depends a lot on who has compiled the list, usually one writer or one critic, and often they make a number of caveats or qualifying statements about the list, and sometimes, it is really just a most popular list.  Forthwith, let’s take a look at a Best Operas of All Time list on the website,  It turns out that the ranking is determined by audience votes, making it more likely a popularity contest. 

Gramaphone, a well-known classical music review site published their Ten of the Best Operas list, which they termed “a newcomer’s starter pack,” and it's worth a look; they are trying to give you a broad view of opera.  In addition to operas already mentioned above, they included Fidelio, Tristan and Isolde, and The Cunning Little Vixen, and helpfully, also specified the specific recordings to listen to.  First I have heard of Janecek’s The Cunning Little Vixen; got to check that one out.

The Guardian, another trusted website is unable to stop at ten and lists the Top Fifty Operas, which is a good list to help focus your attention on consensus repertoire members.  I am not familiar with his website, but The Imaginative Conservative lists the Top Ten Greatest Operas; it is a somewhat different list, but to the author’s credit Nixon is not on the list and there are several we can agree on.  For liberals, NPR (hey, that’s what conservatives say) has taken a stab with our longest title list, 10 Operas You Need to Know from the World of Opera.  Additions not previously mentioned include Pelleas and Melisande, Wozzeck, Eugene Onegin (one of my favorites), and Werther; audio samples are offered from each opera.  Their list also includes Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen.

It’s interesting that the “classic repertoire” of operas that get repeated over and over is largely a recent development.  Until the mid 1800s, operas were produced and offered a few times, maybe then moved on to opera houses elsewhere.  But mainly, they played a run and were soon replaced by a new offering, sort of like movies currently are.  It is only recently that new operas have slowed in coming and opera as an enterprise has moved to largely repeating classics.  I think I am seeing a move to more new operas.  We'll see.

You can find other lists on the internet or in books.  There is a lot of overlap, but each may have a few favorites of their own. However, make sure you check the basis for the selections to understand where the list comes from.  You can start your own list, which is after all the most important one, and living in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., you will have lots of opportunities to add to it .

Saturday Roundup, 7/9/2016 - Tweaks, Washington Concert Opera, Streaming Opera for Free, Non-singers Help, and Rick Steves Opera Note

note to readers on changes,

A few more tweaks have been made to the website: 1) a search bar has been added to the blog page that searches all pages on the website; 2) an Archive page has been added that lists all previous blog posts, hyperlinked, by year and month.  These additions should help when looking for something you read that you want to go back to or to see if a topic has been covered.  I have also updated the ‘For Parents’ section.  I still would welcome any suggestions for this page or the ‘Opera Ed To Go’ page.

washington concert opera's new season posted,

Do you mostly just want to listen when you attend opera, or want to try opera in a different format?  Washington Concert Opera’s motto is that “it’s all about the music,” and its website  states that “A concert opera is a complete, full-length opera presented with the soloists, orchestra, chorus and conductor on stage. There are no sets, costumes or props to distract the eye…and ear...from the operatic score. The focus is entirely on the performers and their dynamic interaction with their audience.”  Many recordings of operas are made this way (but usually without the audience), and I have heard good things about this company’s performances.  The performances are in Lisner Auditorium on the George Washington University campus.  I have added their 2016-2017 season to the ‘Seasonal Listings’ page and plan to do a more detailed blog post on them in August.

two more options for streaming live opera, both for FREE,

I have heard, of course, of “pants” roles in operas whereby a female, usually a mezzo soprano, plays a male role, such as Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi .  This is typically not due to a shortage of male singers, at least in this era, but to the composer’s intentions.  However, I just read an article about “no pants” opera – think about that for a moment; ok, now lower your expectations.  The article addresses what to do when you want to watch opera but don’t want to put your pants on and go out.   This Observer article by James Jorden covers Met Opera in Cinema and Met Opera On Demand, the PBS Great Performances at the Met series, and using Youtube to watch opera, all of which I covered in Affordable Opera, part I and part 2.  However, he also includes two services I had overlooked.  First, Staatsoper.TV broadcasts live opera for free; the next two scheduled broadcasts are Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes on July 24 and Wagner’s Der Meistersinger on July 31.  These appear to be Met quality productions.  Opera star and perhaps the current leading tenor in the world, Jonas Kaufman, will appear in Meistersinger. I am not familiar with Indes, but heartily recommend Meistersinger if you are game for a five-hour affair.  Since these broadcasts are live and from Germany, you must allow for the six-hour time difference, which means the opera will likely start around noon, U.S. east coast time.  Visit the website to see all the devices these can be streamed on.  The second service that Mr. Jorden revealed is The Opera Platform which streams recorded videos on demand for free, which I imagine does not make the Met a happy camper.  I signed up for their newsletter and watched a few minutes of their recording of Carmen.  It looks great to me and offers subtitles in English, French, and German.  The opportunity to see different versions of operas is actually pretty exciting.

can’t sing, you are wanted,

Every once and awhile I run across a feel good, human interest story, and this is one concerning scientific research.  First, you should understand that I can’t sing and truly wish that I could; I’m sure that I would qualify for this study.  I first ran across this piece in Slipped Disc: the Guildhall School of London has initiated a research study that will focus on learning best practices for teaching adult non-singers how to sing and the best methods of supporting them in the process.  The study is motivated by much more than a desire to help people who want to sing.  Studies have shown that participating in music is good for your health.  Just last week I ran across this report, “Playing a Musical Instrument as a Protective Factor Against Dementia and Cognitive Impairment: A Population-Based Twin Study.”  I cannot say for certain the results apply to singing, but my expectation is that they would.  Besides, it is heartwarming to run across research so directly involved in helping people.  If you are going to be in London in July and August you could try applying.  I notice that one of the co-authors of the study is at Bucknell University in the US; maybe there will be some replication attempts here.

rick steves agrees vacations are opportunities for opera,

A reader alerted me to a recent post on the Rick Steves travel blog pointing out that live opera was being videocast onto the street in Vienna, Austria just outside the Vienna State Opera House; he was making a point about Vienna’s commitment to culture.  It raises another good point.  Opera is popular in Europe.  If you are vacationing this summer in the EU, check out what is being performed at the opera houses or in more local venues, such as museums or parks; it will be enriching in many ways.  See my blog post on Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu as an example.