January 4, 2013


A select few performers have learned (or knew instinctively) how to use social media to enhance communication with the public. None more so than the phenomenal mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. An hour ago a woman tweeted:

Bess Moser @moserbess
Tonight I will be seeing my first performance @MetOpera. Tonight I will be seeing @JoyceDiDonato onstage for the first time. #bestillmyheart

Because of the hashtag, the singer saw it and tweeted back

Joyce DiDonato
Tonight I will be singing live for @moserbess for the first time! 😉

This is brilliant — and legitimate. After all, Bess Moser is presumably paying a substantial amount of money to hear an artist who is being paid a really substantial amount thanks to the public. And the obligation of performer to audience is even greater in non-tangible terms. But few so clearly recognize it as does Joyce DiDonato.

The distinguished lutenist Joel Cohen, free of literalist ideas, explains why watching a Baroque opera on television can make for a remarkably historically-informed experience.

The Mattila Case

April 28, 2012

Whether you admire the music or not (and I do) and whether you like her voice or not (and I do), you owe it to yourself to see Karita Mattila in The Makropulos Case at the Met. Rarely can anyone have owned that stage the way she did at tonight’s opening. There are four remaining performances.

The whole subject of how opera productions should look is much controverted these days, especially in online discussion. Much is made of the idea that Broadway and its practitioners are influencing, for conspicuous example, the Met. Some find this a blessing and some a bane. But we should remember that Broadway shows have changed at least as much as opera productions have. Here is a set of video views of NoĂ«l Coward’s 1929 Bittersweet, which was presented in that year both in the West End and on Broadway. It should help clear our minds of any idea that lavish, hyper-realistic productions began with one Signor Zeffirelli.

Tip of the hat to Robert Francks


April 17, 2010

Today the Metropolitan Opera’s broadcast of Verdi’s La Traviata reminded me of an old story about Jellico, Tennessee’s own Grace Moore. (Did you know that Elvis named his Graceland after her?) She was singing a recital in which audience members kept annoying her by coughing. After a while, she announced from the stage that she had recently sung for a sanatorium full of tuberculosis sufferers. They, she said, had been entirely silent during her singing.

A week ago tonight, the more attentive audience members at a concert I attended were sorely tried by the coughing of folks who were evidently very near to death. (The same thing happened at the Met this afternoon while poor Violetta was trying to die over the din.) It reminded me that, in the programs of my very favorite concert hall, Barcelona’s Palau de la MĂșsica Catalana, they have printed a notice to this effect:

Una prova efectuada en aquesta sala de concerts demostra que una simple tos, mesurada instrumentalment, equival a la intensitat d’una nota «mezzo-forte», emesa per una trompa. Aquest mateix so, pal·liat mitjançant un mocador, Ă©s equiparat a un lleuger «pianissimo».

A test performed in this concert hall shows that a simple cough, measured by instruments, is equivalent to the intensity of a note played mezzo-forte by a horn. This same sound, modified by a handkerchief, is equivalent to a slight pianissimo.

Why can’t all halls do something like that? Do any of you know of other venues that tackle the problem in such a direct and helpful manner?

*My translation

The Grecian Formula

December 11, 2009

Two nights in a row I sat in a darkened room and watched, and especially heard, great stories of enduring power brought to life as vivid as that of the most dramatic current headlines. More so, actually, since the only reason we’re still rehearsing these millennia-old plots is because they are so dead-on. Savvy opera composers have long known that a sure-fire libretto can emerge from these stories. Stories that have long since proved their universal applicability will find a target in virtually every human heart.

So it was on Wednesday evening at the Manhattan School of Music and on Thursday evening at the Metropolitan Opera House.

I remember once in my youth having made some ill-considered, boiler-plate remark about music as a universal language, only to be told that, for disproof of that idea one need look no further than the reputations of Reger in Germany and of FaurĂ© in France, where they occupy a status reserved for Bach in the United States. While, at this date, FaurĂ©’s passport gets a good deal more use than Reger’s does, he owes his mobility mostly to the songs and above all to the early and atypical Requiem. His late and mature opera PĂ©nĂ©lope is not much heard in comparison, and it was good to encounter it in fine shape at the MSM. This will never be a wildly popular piece, and FaurĂ© must have known that he was composing a kind of twentieth-century musica reservata. But for those who can do without a lot of action and can bask in the sublime for a couple of hours, this is an opera to treasure. There are to be two more performances of this production, and I recommend it to all who are within reach of it.

Of course one reason that the story of Faithful Penelope, as my first-year Latin textbook always called her, is so rewarding is because an expectation is relentlessly built up, meditated upon, made the hearer’s own, and then rewarded. It is not just the expectation that Penelope will be reunited with her Ulysses, for we’ve known all evening that that event was already set up with the arrival of the disguised king. Whether we allow ourselves to realize it fully or not, what we are really waiting for, as we admire the heroine’s constancy and bathe in FaurĂ©’s chaste opulence, is the slaughter of those annoying anti-Ulysses suitors. This is the real climax of the action, and the inevitable love-duet afterwards is, in plot terms, a victory lap just as much as the final “Lets be merry” chorus of Figaro is.

In Strauss’s Elektra, while the return of the wandering Orestes is longed for, what we really are building up to is the violent murder of the mother and her guilty spouse. We are asked to join Elektra in the most nakedly bloodthirsty suspense. And just as the music of FaurĂ© leads us into a female mind of the utmost refinement and gentleness, that of Strauss invites us to the most primitive kind of vengeful rage and unmitigated hate. The Met’s first presentation of its current revival of the work was pretty overwhelming — largely due to the orchestral playing and the magisterial Klytemnestra of Felicity Palmer.

Clytemnestra is of course the reverse-image of Penelope: she’s the unfaithful wife upon whom revenge must be taken by her children. Oh, dear. These Greeks really did know how to lead us into subjects and psychological situations we’d rather avoid, didn’t they?

Alive and Well

November 20, 2009

Handel statue in the Vauxhall Gardens

We have been in an encouraging period for the lyric art in New York lately. While the Met is basking in the signal success of the twin debuts of Patrice Chereau and Esa-Pekka Salonen (a production to be commented on here only after I’ve seen it a second time), a revivified New York City Opera is knockin’ ’em dead next door, and the Juilliard Opera has, in my book, made history as well.

First, a bit about the latter. Opening night of the Juilliard production of Handel’s Ariodante, while excellent in itself (surely the best music-school operatic production I’ve ever seen and heard), was also redolent with wider significance for our musical life. While no students of singing who hope for an ecclectic career can be expected to dedicate themselves completely to the way we might think Handel’s singers sang in their smaller theaters and amidst different audience expectations, the singing was on such a generally stylish level as I had long ago stopped hoping for in such circumstances. And, twenty years ago, the idea of a Juilliard orchestra playing Handel with the devoted attention and verve we heard would have been laughable. It was easy to forget that modern instruments were involved. We saw a production in modern dress and with modern manners that somehow managed to partner with the spirit of an entertainment devised for audiences long since safely stowed in the churchyard, on a subject even more antique. It was impossible not to reflect on how improbable this success (and perhaps even the programming of this opera) might have been but for the popular successes of Handel works across the plaza at the City Opera — the best of which issued from the same director as this triumph, Stephen Wadsworth.

Going across that increasingly spiffy plaza next night for the City Opera’s Don Giovanni, the first new production of its phoenix-like fall season, and the first under a much-discussed new rĂ©gime, was to encounter the same conductor as at Juilliard. (One hopes it was widely noticed and appreciated that Gary Thor Wedow conducted Handel on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday and Mozart on Thursday and Saturday — Levine-like exertions.) And the results were surpassingly fine in the performances I heard. Both orchestras played with accuracy and liveliness. Christopher Alden, who is not an unknown quantity in general, revealed a genius for innovative staging and faithfulness to aspects of score and libretto that we rarely have seen. This ultra-modern production showed that conceptions that make explicit, in modern terms, emotions and motives inherent in the libretto (including, but not exclusively, human sexuality) can be done gracefully and entertainingly. It also gives the lie to the idea, much spun after the Met’s new Tosca opening, that New York audiences are stuck in the mud of mindless traditionalism. They surely seemed to like this far more intelligent venture, which is also arguably a far more venturesome one.

The next night was my first visit to their revival of Esther. I had seen the premiere in 1993 but really didn’t know what to expect after all this time. I remember that, on that earlier occasion, I was sitting two rows in front of the composer, who had led a doctoral seminar in 19th-century opera that I had taken. Weisgall was a great favorite of mine as a personality (irascible but fair) and an intelligence (encyclopedic in its knowledge of vocal and dramatic values). He also told memorable stories about past events and colleagues. What I was unprepared for after all this time was the sheer beauty of the music. Supported by a sturdy libretto marred by a minimum, considering everything, of propaganda aimed at modern conditions, I found the performance exhilarating beyond my dreams. Others I know felt the same way, while others expressed only modified rapture. The presentation of this work, difficult for some, expresses, in large letters that the community can clearly read, the seriousness of purpose of City Opera’s new intendancy and its interest in enriching us over the long term without undue regard for instant popularity. Not that I subscribe to the take-your-medicine-it’s-good-for-you school of programming; as I’ve already said, I found this modern work musically elegant, dramatically persuasive, and … entertaining.

And let’s not forget to commend them for the technical command and artistic focus to take such a difficult piece and make it sound easy.

Two other issues command attention with regard to our current experience of the New York City Opera:

(1) Where are all those people who so loudly shouted, both in certain corporate media and in endless anonymous tirades on blogs, that the NYCO was moribund, if not already dead through well-deserved indigence? They sneered at the engagement of Alden for standard repertory and at the immediate presentation of a “too-modern” work, they ridiculed the retention of musical staff, they proclaimed the impossibility of maintaing ensemble morale — or even the fending off of ruinous strikes by unions. But what do we see now? Not only are fund-raising efforts healthy (the opening night alone bringing in $2.3 million) and ticket sales brisk, but raw observation would indicate that the halls are alive with the sound of the clanging of the till at bar and gift shop. What looks like unusually cheerful audiences disport themselves in the generous public spaces so lacking at our noble Carnegie and Metropolitan piles — and this not only during such genial departures as Jewish Singles Night (for a performance of Esther, fittingly enough).

(2) The acoustical properties of the theater: Bearing in mind that there is much work still projected (with only a few months since the arrival of the new General Manager and the application of a newly-engaged acoustical firm with different ideas than had been governing reconstruction up to then), it’s still unavoidable to reflect on what has been accomplished so far. Apart from the Opening Gala, the two performances noted above are my only experiences of the latest renovations. The gala accomplished what it needed to accomplish: it was an enormously festive evening that showed some of the jewels in the NYCO’s crown. Not least among these are the chorus and orchestra that we were so often told would disintegrate, but which instead show an esprit that not only seems quite new but is rare in any opera house. Naturally, we must look to actual operas to judge the most crucial qualities of the performance spaces (for a stage, pit, and various parts of a house can be all-too-radically different spaces acoustically). I can report that the Mozart, heard from the first row of the First Ring, was appealingly present and almost consistently in appropriate balance with the orchestra, which is of course not entirely a function of room acoustics. The stage set, very intelligently, seemed designed to project the sound toward the paying customers, and I was very impressed with what I heard all round.

For the Esther in row H of the Orchestra, I naturally felt even closer to it all. This can be a negative if being closer to the orchestra makes it overpower the singers. This was not the case with what I heard, even with a set that was not as acoustically indulgent as that of the night before.

Add to this my first impression on walking into the room on Opening Night, confirmed by others who told me they felt similarly, that the rearranged room feels almost intimate compared with its former configuration. I’d never have believed that quite moderate changes in seating could have made such a difference.

Now, it probably needn’t be said that these are subjective and situational judgments. But then all estimates of acoustical phenomena depend on various personal physiological and psychological factors. It is, for example, beyond me how the very honest Allan Kozinn, in the pages of The New York Times, can pursue what begins to seem a vendetta against the acoustics of the revised Alice Tully Hall. Just last night, at the recital debut of the ravishing young soprano Susanna Phillips, a marvelous voice rang out thrillingly. (I was in row S but have heard all kinds of music in many areas of the hall since it reopened.) To my ears the Tully room has, very noticeably, more reverberation than before, and a pleasing “ping” that I certainly don’t remember from the old days. So we shouldn’t be surprised if reactions will vary in the newly re-christened David H. Koch Theater, as well.

So there we are. One man’s response to what have been highly pleasing, even exciting, communal events of music lately. Feel free to contest or supplement those reactions with accounts of your own experience.

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