Six Hours of Stamina: A Review of the Met’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

One can spend a six-hour period of time doing a lot of things. It is about the length of a school day, it is how long you have to practice driving before getting a permit in the state of New Jersey, and one could watch La Bohème more than two times with two intermissions. Die Meistersinger by itself runs six hours long: Evenings from 6:00 to midnight; matinées from noon to 6:00. Sitting for six hours in front of the Met Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists was definitely worthwhile.

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Michael Volle as Hans Sachs with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus in Act III of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, The Metropolitan Opera, December 2014, © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

This Meistersinger was all about stamina. Both Michael Volle and Johan Botha triumphantly made it through their lengthy roles. Volle managed to stay lyrical and strong throughout, without giving way to speaking or cracking. As James Morris once said: The part of Hans Sachs is longer than all three Wotans of Wagner’s Ring Cycle put together, therefore, it is a real trial for even a true professional to sing it through. Volle remained poetic throughout, appropriately similar to Hans Sachs’ profession, by caressing the text and making it meaningful. This was especially shown in Act III Scene 1, when he helps Walther compose his prize song. It was obvious that the lyricism of Botha’s singing and the lyrics themselves meant something to Volle, as he went from scribbling to pacing to listening. Despite Sachs being one of the longest roles in all of opera, Volle displayed that he has mastered the character, especially after singing it in Salzburg and other houses. He was very active throughout the duration of the performance, consistently staying conscious of his endurance.

Botha played the perfectly clueless Walther who stumbles upon the Mastersingers and their set traditions. His expressive “Am stillen herd” rang through the house beautifully. By Act III, Botha showed absolutely no sign of fatigue, pitch-trouble or hoarseness. The chorus had no reason to laugh at him as they did at Beckmesser earlier in the final scene. Stamina was definitely on his side, just as it was for Volle.

Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Beckmesser was truly the highlight of my six hours. For once, Beckmesser was played without being overdone. Beckmesser is a mastersinger himself, after all, he is not supposed to sound ugly. Kränzle managed to portray the snide town clerk while simultaneously keeping his line lyrical, or like that of a mastersinger. His duet with Sachs that ends the second act had me in stitches, not because it sounded awful, but because it was actually funny!

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Annette Dasch as Eva with Hans-Peter König as Pogner in Act II of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, The Metropolitan Opera, December 2014, © Beth Bergman/Metropolitan Opera

Annette Dasch’s ringing top really works well in the Met’s 4,000-seat theater. While it covered some singers at times during ensembles, such as the Act III quintet, it managed to float above rather than completely obliterate the other singers’ sound. For a woman who just recently gave birth, Dasch played a very youthful and spritely Eva. Her sparkling blue eyes and her bouncy blonde wig made her a very innocent-looking catch for Walther and Beckmesser alike. After a five-year absence since her Met debut as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, it is lovely to have her back on the Met stage.

Karen Cargill played the matronly, no-nonsense Magdalena, which fit her dark, resonant low register into which the whole audience sank. Her boyfriend David, sung by Paul Appleby, complimented her well with his low and middle register. At times, it was a bit difficult to hear his top. However, his athleticism and animation in the brawl at the end of Act II and in his monologue in the middle of Act I, respectively, were very entertaining. After seeing him as the internet-introvert Brian in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys last season, it was great to see him in higher spirits.

The Met Orchestra and Met Chorus both performed brilliantly. The woodwinds sounded particularly crisp on the fugue-like passages, and the brass sounded rich and powerful. The Chorus, as always, looked like they were having such a fun time. From teasing David in Act I, to pillow fights in Act II, to the Festwiese in Act III, they too were conscious of both their stamina and their acting.

I look forward to seeing Die Meistersinger again this coming Tuesday, December 23: The last time it will be put on the Met stage in the iconic Otto Schenck production. It will truly be missed!

Meistersinger Memories

The Metropolitan Opera puts Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on the stage this month. The cast includes South African heldentenor Johan Botha in the title role; James Morris/Michael Volle as Hans Sachs; German soprano Annette Dasch as Eva; Paul Appleby as David; Karen Cargill as Magdalena; and Hans-Peter König as Pogner. Die Meistersinger is being welcomed back to the Met with open arms, as last season’s repertoire included no Wagner whatsoever. The last time the Met performed Die Meistersinger was in March of 2007; I was only nine at the time. However, even at my young age, I went to the see the opera several times, and I was seen singing on stage in the final scene of Act III alongside the Met Chorus, James Morris, and the Met Orchestra, all under the baton of James Levine.

My parents introduced me to Wagner at a very young age, when I incidentally heard a broadcast of Siegfried from the Bayreuth Festival at age five. This spawned an interest that swept my family upstairs to watch the entirety of the Otto Schenk Ring on DVD, and a year later, to the Met to see the Ring live (with my teddy bear, of course). Wagner’s music, from then on, had a greater meaning for me.

I joined the Met Children’s Chorus when I was eight years old, and only about six months later I was cast as a supernumerary, a character that does not sing or speak, in Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rusticana. I knew before entering the chorus the season before, 2005-06, that Die Meistersinger would be on the stage that March. I wanted so badly to be cast, knowing that it was Wagner’s music and that it happened to be my father’s all-time favorite opera. It would have meant the world to me to sing the music of the very composer who harvested my interest in opera.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 I am pictured on the right with long blonde hair and a brown apron.

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
I am pictured on the right with long blonde hair and a brown apron.

In February of 2007, to my luck, I was cast in Die Meistersinger: The first opera in which I actually had a singing role. I vividly remember my mother picking me up from my fourth grade classroom so we could go into the city for “our” rehearsals. At the Met, the ten of us in the Children’s Chorus would change into our costumes, mine included a beautifully embroidered white frock, a brown apron, and a flower and ribbon-bedecked wreath pinned in my hair, and we would then head down to the Met stage. The assistant directors gave us directions about our entrances, exits, where we would leave props, how we should avoid getting in the way of the artists, and other crucial information. We would run the scene a couple of times each rehearsal, so I constantly hoped that James Levine or the directors would want to run it more than once so I could go back on the stage in my costume (or because I did not want to return to school for the last part of the day). I even once joked with Johan Botha, our Walther von Stolzing, backstage that he would have to win Eva again when we did a repeat of the scene. He let out a boisterous laugh.

The day of the final dress rehearsal came. Both of my parents were there: My mother played Second Oboe in the orchestra pit, and my father was in the audience. There was a twist, though: I sat in the audience with my dad for Acts I and II before I was called to warm up backstage for Act III. It felt so good to experience seeing Die Meistersinger for the first time with him, as he had been telling me for years how much it meant to him, and how much he looked forward to the day when he would share it with me live. That day had come.

I watched Johan Botha, James Morris, my mother, Maestro Levine, and many of the same people performing in this current December run give it their all in the first two acts. My dad then took me backstage so I could perform with them in the next act. We warmed up, put on our costumes, and headed down to the stage after we heard “Children’s Chorus to the stage (along with hundreds of others)” on the backstage PA system. After the quintet at the end of Act III Scene 1, Wagner wrote a ninety-second interlude to the second scene of the act. That is how long the talented, hard-working Met stagehands have to change the set of Sachs’ home into the meadows in the outskirts of Nürnberg for the song contest. Standing off stage right, I stood in disbelief as stagehands swirled around Sachs’ books, furniture, and desk, replacing them with banners, greenery, backdrops, and benches, let alone at least a hundred choristers and soloists. The soloists from the quintet would skip offstage just near where I was standing, so I would get waves of hello from Matthew Polenzani, who sang David, and others. It truly felt surreal to be in the middle of all of this.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 Members of the  Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus skipping around the tailors

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
Members of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus skipping around the tailors

After ninety seconds, most of the chorus ran or jumped onstage in excitement for Johannistag, the festival being celebrated. My entrance came just after the curtain opened, when the timpani starts rumbling. I remember the assistant director telling me “Run on right after the sausage man”, or one of the many merchants on stage selling his craft at the festival. I ran on, big-eyed, to see 4,000 faces in the Met audience, the Met Orchestra creating swells of sound, and everyone on stage enjoying the festivities. The shoemakers, the tailors, and the bakers would arrive, in that order, to present their products and make us laugh. Each of the children in the chorus were given little, fake trumpets to skip around the dancing tailors in a circle (I was always worried about tripping in my dress).  Soon after the dance started, in which all of us taunted David about “Lena” watching him dance with other girls, pointing in different directions of where she was to confuse him. The dance suddenly stopped because the master singers  were about to enter in the procession. John del Carlo, who sang Kothner, would always be one of the first masters out, walking downstage with his radiant smile. Hans Sachs would always enter last, picking up one of the children as he marched downstage to the sound of our cheers. After whispers of “Silentium”, the Chorus serenaded him in the great “Wach auf”, or “Wake up”, chorus, describing how a new day was dawning. I stood front and center, right next to James Morris, without an obstacle in the way of James Levine’s beat. Sachs responded in his monologue, praising the masters and the arts, leading to the song competition itself.

The choristers returned to their places and sat down in the grass, under the hot lights, to enjoy the contest. Beckmesser, sung by Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, began his song. He had stolen the lyrics from Sachs in the previous scene, but unfortunately he memorized the words incorrectly. We all laughed at his making a fool of himself until he stopped and blamed his performance on Sachs. As much as I feel the real children at the festival would have wanted to stay and hear Walther von Stolzing sing the Prize Song, the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus chased Beckmesser offstage after he embarrassed himself. All of us then went back upstairs to the Children’s Chorus studio, changed out of our costumes, and greeted our parents at the stage door close to midnight.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 Laughing at Beckmesser

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
Laughing at Beckmesser

Four more performances would follow this final dress rehearsal, and each of them were completed in the same fashion as the last. At all five performances, including the dress rehearsal, I shared the first two acts with my father in the audience, and sang on stage in Act III.

Seeing the final dress rehearsal of Die Meistersinger last Friday afternoon was tough. As I enjoyed the entirety of my Children’s Chorus career, even seeing the Children’s Chorus now sing in operas like Carmen and La Bohème makes me wistful. The children in this run are actually only supernumeraries, so they do not get to sing in the “Wach auf” chorus. However, seeing those kids up on the Met stage taking in that scene and being surrounded by Wagner’s music felt fulfilling, in that I was given the chance to perform in 2007, in place of someone else, and now someone was taking my place. Many of us choristers who sang in those performances in 2007 are now in college or are seniors in high school, and some of us are pining for careers in music!

It also made me feel good to see my mother playing in the orchestra pit, just as she was seven years ago: The lady who drove me into rehearsals, who I waved to in the orchestra pit, and who played in those very performances, continues to make me proud today. I still wave to her at every performance I attend at the Met, from the audience side instead of the stage. Die Meistersinger will always hold a special place in my heart, both as an opera and as a symbol of my family’s love of and devotion to music.

Stalin’s Loss: A Review of the Met’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brandon Jovanovich, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus in the Met's Act II © Hiroyuki Ito, New York Times

Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brandon Jovanovich, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus in the Met’s Act II
© Hiroyuki Ito, New York Times

Joseph Stalin attended Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on January 26, 1936 in Moscow. Luckily he was able to stay and see most of it, but unfortunately he stormed out, along with the rest of his Communist friends, before the final scene. He must have had something better to do. Two days later, an editorial appeared in Pravda, the Communist Party’s official agent of communication, denouncing the opera for “tickling the perverted taste of the bourgeoisie with its fidgety, screaming neurotic music” (Ashley). Many claim that this article was, in fact, written by Stalin himself. For the next 30 years, the score of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk would remain closed, and Shostakovich would remain fearful of the secret police. He managed to tastefully revitalize himself through “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Criticism”, or his Fifth Symphony, one of his most well-known pieces.

Stalin let the Soviet Union down in numerous ways: This was one of them. Denying his people the opportunity to see this magnificent work for thirty years was a mistake. He not only made it is his own loss, but the Soviet Union’s as well.

On a happier note, the Metropolitan Opera put Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, screaming neurotic music and all, on the stage this November. The cast included Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role, Brandon Jovanovich as the sex-hungry Sergei, with James Conlon on the podium. Fourteen years have passed since the Met last put on this Shostakovich, as it was previously done with Catherine Malfitano as Katerina and Vladimir Galouzine as Sergei under Maestro Gergiev. Between those fourteen years, Met audiences were introduced to Shostakovich’s The Nose, which holds similar connotations of “thumbing one’s nose” at Communist society, no pun intended. The Nose acted as a stepping stone to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in that both the Met audience’s ears and the Met Orchestra and Chorus truly stepped up their game for this more colossal work.

Eva-Maria Westbroek has had the role of Katerina Ismailova under her belt for a number of years, as she made her Royal Opera House debut in the role in 2006, and sang it at the Netherlands Opera the same year. It was so obvious in her performance that she knew the role so well, in that she truly reflected her own representation of the Katerina she wanted to be. She was very passive, laid-back, and bored, especially around the crazy circumstances that occur in the opera. The way she kept plopping herself back into the armchair or walking away after Boris would criticize her was hilarious. Musically, she sustained her range magnificently throughout the entire opera, which is a true feat, as the part is tremendously long (along the lines of Isolde or Susanna).

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Brandon Jovanovich in Act I. © Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Brandon Jovanovich in Act I.
© Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

Brandon Jovanovich was a very strong Sergei. He came off as an overly-confident high school sophomore boy with a mental capacity small enough to fit only sex. He captured Sergei’s swagger so well that Jovanovich actually made the audience laugh when he claimed that he was not like the “other guys” and that he was all for “true love”. The role of Sergei requires stamina, not so much due to the length of the role, but due to the physical activity involved, which includes being whipped, making love, killing, hoisting bodies into cars, etc. He never shouted or belted; he managed to keep his line as lyrical as Sergei would allow, and he never forced. Much like his Don José, Jovanovich managed to keep his Sergei lyrical despite the physical demands required.

The Met Orchestra and Chorus seemed to honestly have fun in this work. From their acting drunk at Katerina and Sergei’s wedding ceremony to being nerdy police officers reading comic books, the Chorus had a great deal of fun on stage. The Orchestra truly brought out the snide, mocking sort of humor that Shostakovich depicted about the Communists. The percussion and extra brass gave it their all, and one only had to listen to the E-flat clarinet line just to get that sarcastic connotation. Conlon truly let everyone perform with no strings attached, no pun intended. The sound that rose from both the pit and stage was “screaming”, but in a good way, in that there was nothing careful or restricted about it.

It is a shame that the Met did not schedule Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to be presented in movie theaters worldwide, as the production is just as insane as the plot. Graham Vick captured both the implicit and explicit sides of the housewife in the home: Explicitly through the television set, the refrigerator, the armchair, and the car; and implicitly through the dance of the vacuuming brides and symbolism pertaining to sex. Just as Sergei squeezes Katerina’s hand and points out that her “her ring of marriage is hurting”, Vick displayed the hardships of a housewife through a typical, boring household setting (she says she is bored right at the beginning), and the dances of unsatisfied wives longing for their husbands or entertainment while doing housework. Katerina fetches beer, mushrooms, and/or rat poison from the refrigerator while her father-in-law, Boris, acts as an ominous presence from the other room: A TV flashes on his face to give him an ominous glow. Between action, the wives dance in their wedding dresses with vacuums, chucking flowers on the ground to show their frustration with their dull futures and lack of excitement.

Out of this boring set emerges eroticism and sex through the hot pink bed with satin covers; a giant flower that symbolizes Katerina’s being “deflowered” in a way, and the car, in which she and Sergei place the dead Zinoviy Borisovich and on which they have sex. Through Vick’s production, it was made clear that both Sergei and Katerina are two bored people with too much time on their hands, with sex acting as both a highlight and an escape from the boring household atmosphere.

The disco ball was another great part of the production, in that it was formerly a wrecking ball used to crush the car in which Katerina’s first husband was stuffed. That same wrecking ball is later used as a party prop, a disco ball, as if Katerina and Sergei were using it to cover up their plot. Maybe if the production Stalin had seen had included a disco ball before the last scene he would not have left!

I truly hope that the Met does not go another fourteen years without doing this piece. This opera cannot be called a tragedy, in that it had everyone in stitches. This was absolute dark comedy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Recollection of the Met’s 2013-14 Season

Hi, followers!

I know I have not blogged in a long time, since November in fact, but I am hoping to get back on here this summer with more posts and reviews. I have had a lot going on with the obligations (complications) that come with junior year in high school, such as AP exams, SATs, ACTs, and the rest of the alphabet. I have also been doing a lot with music, including studying both voice and French horn at Manhattan School of Music Precollege this year, taking piano lessons, singing and playing recitals, and continuing to see performances at the Met, as well as at l’Opéra Bastille (My family and I took a trip to Paris for Spring Break). This year has been a great challenge for me, however, I have enjoyed it thoroughly because of the more rigorous environment in which I have been placed to prepare for senior year and college, musically and academically.

This year may have been exciting, however, I have not had time to talk about all that I saw at the Met last season! I was very impressed with the performance level last year, and was not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. There was no Wagner last season, which is my absolute favorite, and I am not as big a fan of Donizetti and Bellini, which came in abundance. However, I enjoyed going to the opera last season not only as a relief from the constant studying that came with junior year, but also how great the singing was! My top three favorite performances last season were Die Frau ohne SchattenWerther, and  La Cenerentola.

Die Frau ohne Schatten:

Before last season, I had never sat down and listened or watched a Frau in its entirety. I knew that it was by Strauss, and that I loved Strauss, so why wouldn’t I love it? I also never knew that it would become my favorite opera, and that I would return to the Met to see it three more times after the final dress rehearsal. From listening and seeing most of Strauss’ operas, I have found that each one has its own unique tone and style. For example: I feel that Elektra is just the craziest of the crazy, Der Rosenkavalier features a lot of personifications of both people and objects in the orchestra, such as trilling clarinets for candles, and Capriccio is very talky and light. Last season, I determined that Frau is my favorite style of Strauss: Wagnerian. The way in which the motif for Keikobad kept returning in its natural form or arrangements, as well as the repetitive C sharps to signal the Falke, reminded me a great deal of the style of my favorite composer: Wagner.

The music of Frau not only struck me, but all of the performances just drew me in and left me in awe at the end. I had never heard Christine Goerke live before, but boy did I ever hear her whenever she opened her mouth as the Dyer’s Wife. She had such control and maintained her superb vocal quality throughout her entire range. She also brought energy and personality to each of the performances I attended, I especially loved how hilariously she treated Barak’s three brothers by spraying them with water, and how she acted lavishly whenever the Nurse conjured up the paradise she would live in if she gave up her fertility. Through all of the performances of Frau that my dad and I attended, we found each other constantly turning to each other with our mouths gaping open, later saying, “Could you believe how freaking amazing she sounded?!”

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra also outdid itself in this Strauss masterpiece. The swells and waves of sound that constantly emerge from this piece came off as magnificent, yet natural for an orchestra of that level. Even at the relatively fast tempi that Maestro Vladimir Jurowski took, the Met Orchestra went right along and produced big, magnificent, perfect Strauss sounds.

Photo: Die Frau ohne Schatten, production by Herbert Wernicke

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Finally, I also absolutely fell in love with the Met’s production of Frau, designed by Herbert Wernicke. There were two main elements of the productions: Mirrors and stairs. Colorful lights and crystal-bedecked costumes yielded extraordinary reflections on the mirrors. The stairs were a key element of the production, because they were constantly used to move between the spirit world and the real world. I found that this abstract, colorful design really worked for Frau, as it is a magical fantasy more than a relatable story. I truly wonder why the Met decided not to feature Frau as an HD broadcast in movie theaters around the world. The mirrors may cause problems with camera reflections, and the opera is also lengthy, but it is an absolutely beautiful production that people around the world should see! This production really caught my eye and drew me further into Frau.

Werther:

I decided to watch Massenet’s Werther on DVD (the 2010 one with Jonas Kaufmann from the Bastille) last summer in preparation for the Met’s coming season. I think I went through one box of tissues through watching the short fifteen-minute fourth act in which Werther (spoiler!) shoots himself. My dad came upstairs and asked why I was sobbing and I said, “You told me it was sad, not this sad!” Yes, I did cry over how sad the plot is, but I also enjoyed Massenet’s music, the French style, and of course, Jonas Kaufmann.

I attended three performances of Werther at the Met last season, all of which left me moved to tears, not only because of the plot, but the unbelievable level of singing. As much as I like Kaufmann in heavier German repertoire, I loved his lush and sensitive portrayal of the fragile Werther. His dark tone worked especially well as he sorrowfully sang “Pourquoi me réveiller”, as well as the duets with Sophie Koch as Charlotte. Just as he does in every role I have seen him perform, Kaufmann inhabited the role of Werther, conscientiously displaying his despair and desperation. Sophie Koch was a magnificent, reserved Charlotte, who worked with Kaufmann very well, possibly because they did the same opera together in Paris in 2010. Lisette Oropesa was a delightful Sophie, she truly held up the only joy and happiness that emerges from the opera. Werther has a very easy structure: If Sophie is on stage, things are going fine, everything is beautiful, life is grand; If Sophie is not onstage, and either Werther, Charlotte, or others are onstage, things are depressing and melancholy. Oropesa’s voice soared when she sang about the sun and flowers and all of the delightful things that Sophie sings about, and kept a healthy balance between the happiness and the gloominess of the opera. Finally, the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus did a fantastic job, both the seven solo roles for the siblings of Charlotte and Sophie and the chorus that sings “Noël! Noël! Noël!” at the end.

Photo: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, © Ken Howard

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This production of Werther was a premiere for the Met, directed by Richard Eyre. From my first time setting eyes on it, I truly loved it. It focused very much on nature, greenery, and simplicity, and left enough of the stage alone for more attention to be drawn to the singers. I felt that because of the tremendous amount of focus on nature, as trees, various landscapes, skies, birds, snow and other elements were shown, this production could easily be used again for Siegfried! The production also enabled Werther to really stand out from the other characters, in that he was dressed in a long black coat, while the others were adorned in colorful dresses, hats, and suits. By standing out physically, Eyre allowed Werther to be perceived as an extreme outsider to the world of Charlotte and her family. My preference in opera productions is for the singers and the music to be my primary focus, and the sets and possible director’s concept to be secondary. I felt that this production matched my preference perfectly, in that it focused on a simple theme: Nature, and let my attention be drawn to the outstanding singing of Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, and Lisette Oropesa.

La Cenerentola

Cenerentola was outstanding for only one, but one very important reason: The singing. As most bel canto operas go, many people go for the thrilling coloratura and the light, happy music, rather than for the (usually) simple and uncomplicated plots. For those who attended performances of Cenerentola, including me, we were not disappointed. Joyce DiDonato, Javier Camarena, and Juan Diego Florez all outdid themselves as the leads, as well as Luca Pisaroni and others in smaller roles. From the flying coloratura and forte spots, to the precise, staccato, piano spots such as “Questo è un modo avviluppato”, the Act II ensemble, the performances of Cenerentola were extraordinary.

This run of Cenerentola included Joyce DiDonato’s last run singing the role of Angelina, as she is retiring the role. She may have been retiring the role, but she left it with a bang. Her coloratura is simply unmatched by anyone on today’s stage, as it soared through the house and made each performance I attended absolutely exciting and thrilling. In whatever she is singing, DiDonato always displays acute breath control and electrifying dynamics that always define her performances. It is always an incredible opportunity to hear her live simply for her very conscious effort of maintaining breath control while simultaneously giving a solid, thrilling performance. DiDonato also displayed fantastic acting techniques as the poor, barred, yet hopeful Angelina, as she bounced around the stage the entire evening showing a mix of annoyance and scattered-attitude as she assisted her step-sisters, and absolute starry-eyed, whimsical movements whenever she was in the presence of the Prince. I absolutely loved DiDonato’s Angelina, vocally and acting-wise.

Photo: Joyce DiDonato and Javier Camarena in La Cenerentola, Metropolitan Opera, taken by © Sara Krulwich/New York Times

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Javier Camarena had made his Met debut in the 2011-12 season in another leading Rossini tenor role in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Juan Diego Florez was scheduled to sing all six performances of Cenerentola, however, he canceled the first three performances, allowing Camarena to fill in. I was blown away. I found that Camarena had the same flourishing, thrilling coloratura that Florez has, but he actually had a bigger voice. His voice especially rang when he sang his top Cs and Ds in “Si, ritrovarla io giro”. The audience, in fact, was so impressed, that he did an encore of the aria for the second and third performances in which he sang! It was incredible to hear him sing this aria, one or two times per performance, and I look forward to hearing more of his incredible coloratura in future seasons: Camarena is scheduled, according to Peter Gelb’s comment in the New York Times, to sing the lead tenor role in Rossini’s Semiramide opposite Joyce DiDonato at the Met in the 2017-18 season.

Juan Diego Florez, in the last three performances, was also outstanding. Even with his slightly smaller voice compared to Camarena, Florez played his usually incredible coloratura game. Florez, unlike a lot of singers, is virtually flawless vocally each time he performs. It is amazing. Very rarely, if at all, does one hear that Florez cracked this note or that note, or was sloppy in this or that passage of coloratura. For Cenerentola, Florez showed his elite vocal accuracy, precision, and consistency.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra were also wonderful in Cenerentola. It is amazing how each of them can sing heavy, Strauss operas one night, and sing light-Rossini the next. Fabio Luisi did an incredible job keeping light tempi throughout, and leaving me on the edge of my sight throughout each of the performances I attended.

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2013-14 season was fantastic, and I especially enjoyed it through each of my top three operas. I am anxious and excited for the 2014-15 season to begin in the Fall! I am also looking forward to preceding the Met’s 2014-15 with a fulfilling summer of writing, playing music, watching performances, traveling, and relaxing.

 

“Chatting” about Two Boys

This fall the Met has featured many operas that many people call “typical”, such as NormaRigoletto, and Tosca on its stage. However, Two Boys is far from typical. It is like nothing the Met has ever done before.

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The story deals with, in fact, two boys (no, really?), one named Jake, age 13, and the other Brian, age 16. The opera deals with a murder mystery, a case assigned to Detective Anne Strawson, involving evidence posted on the internet through chat rooms, only it is difficult to know who is who in these chats. It is difficult, because Jake, at the tender age of 13, has several different personas that he uses to chat with Brian. There is Rebecca, a teenage girl/love interest around Brian’s age, the “Fake Jake”, or Brian’s imagination of who Jake would be, Peter, the “perv” gardner, Fiona, a friend of Jake’s who is responsible for telling Brian to kill Jake, eventually, and the real Jake eventually chats to Brian as himself. So why does Jake use all of these personas to chat with Brian? At first, Jake is interested in Brian for a relationship, but later on in the opera when the two boys meet each other in person, Brian rejects Jake’s love interest. After that, Jake twists the story and plans a murder plot…for himself. Through his personas, Jake tells Brian exactly where to get a knife and where to meet him and kill him, and Brian does exactly that, hence the first lines of the opera, “Help! Help! My friend has been stabbed!”

Nico Muhly, the composer of Two Boys, and Craig Lucas, the librettist, have something in common that no other opera composers and librettists have at the Met this year (unless you count Enchanted Island)…they are both still alive! When my mother rehearsed Two Boys on C-level and on the stage, Mr. Muhly would be listening intently, talk to orchestra members, and communicate with Maestro Robinson. Imagine if Mozart, Verdi, or Wagner could come back from the dead and do that today! My mother was even able to ask Mr. Muhly about a certain spot in the music, where the oboe was supposed to be playing in a certain way where the mouth surrounds the entire reed, or a shawm. My mother was able to play the passage a few times for Muhly, and he, (yes, the composer), was able to say “Yes, that is exactly what I want!”

Photo: Alice Coote and Paul Appleby in Two Boys

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When I walked into Two Boys, I was worried that it was going to be too modern and too eery for my taste, and that the music would sound like the work of some modern composers that I do not particularly like. I had nothing to worry about! When I first heard Two Boys I heard a lot of music that sounded like Wagner and Debussy, rather than random clinking and clonging. After the second time hearing the opera I was able to pick up on leitmotifs that follow characters around, such as the rhythmic ‘G’s on the timpani and low brass that follow Fiona around, or the chromatics that follow Anne Strawson’s mother around. The music was very interesting and indeed modern, yet I enjoyed listening to it!

The production by Bartlett Sher really caught the darkness and travesty that can occur on the internet. He used many projections of various prisms, shapes, lines, boxes, and other figures that we, as the audience, were supposed to interpret as the internet. Sher also used projections for the chat windows, where moving text could be seen line by line along with profile pictures, and even a video camera! The production also used dancers to express the randomness and complicated nature of the internet, and the chorus held laptops that produced light to glow on members’ faces. Overall, the production was very dark, except for the light of computers and projections, which captured the mysterious nature of the internet perfectly.

Photo: Act II of Two Boys, chatting between Fiona (Sandra Piques-Eddy) and Brian (Paul Appleby)

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The singing in Two Boys was magnificent. Alice Coote outdid herself as Anne Strawson. Her acting and her singing were amazing, in fact, if Two Boys ever comes back to the Met, I cannot imagine anyone else except Alice Coote singing that role! She became the detective! Paul Appleby played and sang a perfectly smug, stubborn sixteen-year old Brian. Jennifer Zetlan had a lovely lyric sound and some great high notes as Rebecca. Sandra Piques-Eddy was a very dark, evil Fiona, whenever she sang to Brian I was on the edge of my seat! Keith Miller sang a very evil Peter, in fact, he was so scary that when I told him that I was coming to see the show he said “Oh dear…”. The singing done by the chorus, and the orchestra under Maestro Robertson were also amazing! All of these roles must have been very difficult to memorize, because there are numerous short lines that characters sing when they are in “chat mode”, so bravi to everyone!

I thoroughly enjoyed Two Boys. When I first heard that this opera was coming to the Met, I honestly thought that it would be a piece that I would not like, and that I would first listen to on the radio to hear if I really would want to go see it. The complete opposite occurred. I saw it on Opening Night, and went back to see it again! Why did I like this opera so much? It felt so relatable to what I do as a teenager on the internet. First of all, I am on it all the time, just like Jake and Brian, and I love to use my blog, Twitter, and Facebook to chat with people, some I know better than others. Two Boys served as a reminder to me to be very careful on the internet, and remember that you never know who’s out there. As Fiona sang, “You don’t know me, but I know you. Choose your friends wisely”.

Opening Night at the Metropolitan Opera: Русский-Style

Last night was Opening Night at the Metropolitan Opera for the 2013-14 season. It opened with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, starring Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin and Anna Netrebko as Tatyana. This was the second time in Met history that a season was opened with Eugene Onegin, as the Met’s 1957 season opened with it starring George London as Onegin, Lucine Amara as Tatyana, Richard Tucker as Lensky, Rosalind Elias as Olga, and Giorgio Tozzi as Prince Gremin. In that year, Tchaikovsky’s work was sung in English, but this season it is being sung in the native-Russian language of Tchaikovsky. Interestingly enough, all of the stars of this season’s run are either Russian or Polish, making the language and text of Shilovsky and Tchaikovsky’s libretto come alive more for Met audiences, including last night’s audience at opening night!

Photo: Anna Netrebko as Tatyana in the Letter Scene (Act I Scene 2)

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Mariusz Kwiecien played the perfectly careless, selfish, almost lazy Onegin. His darkly toned, Slavic voice matched the character perfectly. Anna Netrebko’s Tatyana was incredibly moving and stunning. In the letter scene especially, she sang some pianissimos that made the audience’s hearts stop. One feels that this is the repertoire that really fits her like a glove, along with some of the Verdi roles, such as Elisabeth from Don Carlos, that she recorded for her new CD: “Anna Netrebko: Verdi”. Oksana Volkova’s Olga was incredibly bright and fun. Volkova made her debut as Maddalena in Rigoletto last season. She played Olga to Tatyana as if she was singing the role of Sophie in Werther to melancholy and conflicted Charlotte. She hopped around the stage, often in step to the music, teasing her sister Tatyana and Lensky, singing brightly with her complimentary, high cheekbones. Her singing was one of the highlights of the evening. Piotr Beczała’s Lensky was also so incredibly moving. His “Kuda, kuda” was so heart-wrenching, that no one in the audience wanted him to be shot in the duel only seconds later.

Photo: Mariusz Kwiecien (Onegin) holding Piotr Beczała (Lensky) after the duel (Act II Scene 2)

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This fantastic performance was conducted by Maestro Valery Gergiev, who last conducted Eugene Onegin at the Met in 2007. Throughout the evening, Gergiev conducted and formed a very velvety and mellow sound, especially through the woodwinds and the brass. In the letter scene, when the oboe and the horn exchange the melodic line, the sound was perfectly seamless and connected. The Mazurka and the Polonaise were both greatly and entertainingly conducted, but one was quite impressed with the legato line and velvet texture he gave for the orchestral sound. He also obviously worked with the chorus on their Russian, because their diction was fantastic, and they sounded wonderful!

The production was perfectly satisfactory. There were no random leaves and sweeping, as the previous production had. It might have been a bit ahead of the time period of Eugene Onegin, in that Onegin came into the Larin Estate to tell Tatyana that her act of writing the letter was childish wearing a Panama-type hat. Had Panama hats really reached Russia in the 1820s? The sets were perfectly traditional and simple. The ballroom in Act II was very open with one giant carpet in the middle of the room where dancing, arguing, and dual-calling would take place. One of my favorite sets was for the Polonaise: Simple white columns, with enough room to dance around, with a beautiful shade of blue in the background, and the dancers wearing lightly-colored dresses.

Photo: My favorite set of the opera (Act III Scene 1)

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One of the aspects of the production that one was not particularly enthusiastic for was the unnecessary kissing and intimacy between Onegin and Tatyana. At each point in the opera when one confronts the other in interest of love, the other is not interested or is too self-absorbed to realize what he or she wants in his or her love life. It did not make sense when Onegin told Tatyana that he was not interested in her childish love letters, and then giving her a passionate kiss to say goodbye. Later on, in the last minute of the opera, a humongous pause was taken for Onegin and Tatyana to really “make out” as a goodbye to each other. It is indeed true that Tatyana admits her love for Onegin in those last few minutes, but it is also true that she is supposed to run offstage, away from Onegin, encouraging herself to remain faithful to Gremin and to completely escape her previous life. The relationship between Onegin and Tatyana in this production was a bit too intimate, in that the relationship should really have been portrayed as more cold and careless.

Attending opening night was an incredible experience. This was my second Met opening night because I attended the opening of Das Rheingold in 2010. Seeing so many opera enthusiasts, opera singers, and famous actors dressed up in long gowns and tuxedos was a fantastic sight. Half of the fun of opening night was people-watching! Part of the “fun” in people-watching/hearing was the ruckus that was made when Gergiev took the podium before Act I. LGBT protestors from the Family Circle tried to make their voices heard, but were eventually defeated by the choruses of “SHUT UP”s and “BASTA”s. This opening night also began my 11th season of attending operas with my father, who introduced me to opera, and seeing my mother play second oboe in the pit of course! Congratulations to the Metropolitan Opera on a fantastic opening night, and a strong start to the 2013-14 season.

Photo: My dad and me at Opening Night!

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“Tuning up” for the Met’s 2013-14 Season with Metropolitan Opera Oboist Susan Spector

Opening night at the Metropolitan Opera is approaching quickly! The Met will open its 2013-14 season with a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, starring Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien. For this opening night to be put on, however, a lot of work has had to be put in by the star singers, the chorus, the stagehands, the radio department, lots of other departments, and of course, the orchestra! My mother, Susan Spector, is the Second Oboist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and has been for twenty-two years. She sat down with me and gave me the scoop on how pre-season went, and what to expect for the upcoming season:

Photo: Susan Spector © Michael Ouzounian

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Melanie Spector (Ms.OperaGeek): Overall, how was pre-season? You just finished it yesterday with the final dress rehearsal of Eugene Onegin.

Susan Spector: It’s a shift of gears from summer to spending all day rehearsing. Some of the orchestra members have come to call it “boot camp” *laughs*! After three weeks of pre-season, it’s awfully nice to play for an audience, which is what we did in the dress rehearsal yesterday.

MS: Which operas did you rehearse in pre-season?

SS: I rehearsed Così fan tutte and Eugene Onegin, and one day with just orchestra of Falstaff with Maestro Levine. Other people have been playing The Nose and there have been a couple of rehearsals of Norma.

MS: Now that James Levine is back, I would expect that conducting from a wheelchair would be slightly different—for him and for the players in the orchestra.  Can you elaborate?

SS: There has been major construction inside of the pit and outside, leading up to it. One lift has been installed outside of the pit, a special ramp has been installed in the pit behind the players, and we’re still working out the logistics of having him enter and then resetting certain seats and stands in the orchestra once he is in the pit. As a matter of fact, the area most directly in the path of where the wheelchair needs to come through is the oboe section–where I am. Ironically, oboe players tend to have the most “stuff” or “fiddly reed things”, tuners, knives, etc. It might be a challenge for us, but we’ve done it once and it went mostly smoothly, and I have some ideas for a more speedy departure from and re-entry into the pit! (And, no, my ideas do not include skipping the overture and coming in late!”) *laughs*

MS: What are you most looking forward to playing this season and why?

SS: I am really looking forward to playing Die Frau ohne Schatten. My two favorite composers to perform at the Met are Wagner and Strauss. They probably have the most colorful, intricate, and challenging orchestral palettes of any composers of opera. Frau is also so rarely done, that I am really looking forward to its return. Also, another opera I’m looking forward to is Prince Igor. Even though I do not have a part, I am really looking forward to watching it from the audience. I look forward to hearing Noseda conduct, but I will miss playing for him. I always find his performances to be very committed and riveting (and he’s a nice guy!).

Photo: The Met’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten

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MS: Have you had any fun encounters backstage or down on C level during pre-season, or heard any other people rehearsing?

SS: I hear the Ballet rehearsing at the same time we are, and the Chorus has been back since July. I’ve run into James Morris who is here for Norma, I’ve seen the cast of Onegin, the Children’s Chorus for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Also, our orchestra lounge has also served as a temporary repair shop during pre-season:  a place where stagehands make their annual repairs to the backs and seats that need to be reupholstered in red velvet for the house. This was another surprise:  I saw the set for Onegin and there were so many mirrors on it that I thought it was the Met production of Frau!

MS: Who are you looking forward to hearing sing this season?

SS: Juan Diego Florez and Joyce DiDonato, even though La Cenerentola is all the way in April. I love Jonas Kaufmann, and I am not scheduled to play Werther, so I will be in the audience!

MS: Which conductors are you looking forward to working with this season?

SS: I love working with Yannick Nézét Séguin, and am looking forward to seeing him conduct my teacher Richard Woodhams in the Oboe Concerto of Richard Strauss with the Philadelphia Orchestra next month, and then playing Rusalka with him at the Met! I also am glad that James Levine is making his return to the podium.  He has a particular affinity for the works of Mozart and Verdi, in my opinion, so Così and Falstaff will no doubt be highlights of the season.

MS: Is there anything that you are dreading about the upcoming season?

SS: No Wagner! Where’s the Wagner? Where’s the beef?! I love playing Wagner, and I am sad that there is none of his music this year. Also, I am not playing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I love Britten, so I am a little disappointed in that. I will also miss looking up from the pit and seeing my daughter singing on the stage with the Children’s Chorus…and I will miss seeing her in light-up horns at the Ring!

MS: What happens over the summer? Are there any meet-ups during the summer? Festivals?

SS: Once the opera season ends, the members of the Orchestra usually do not see one another. We had one Carnegie Hall concert immediately following the end of the season, and then we were on vacation until after Labor Day. On September 4th, we returned and rehearsed Mahler VII in anticipation of the December Carnegie Hall concert. Some Orchestra players saw one another at the Tahoe SummerFest at Lake Tahoe, some played at other festivals, others like myself used the vacation to get a little time away from the instrument. Some people like to play different kinds of music other than opera during the summer, symphonic or chamber music, for example.  I love having the chance to go hear performances during the summer. I loved going to Covent Garden and Glyndebourne this past summer, listening to BBC Proms concerts over the Internet, and watching the performance of Elektra with Esa Pekka Salonen that streamed live from Aix-en-Provence was totally riveting.  Finding the time for opportunities to attend and listen to other performances is much more difficult when I’m in the midst of a busy opera season and my own performances.

MS: That’s nice that you get to attend things during the summer and be in the audience! What was the highlight of your summer musically, as an audience member?

SS: Seeing Britten’s Gloriana at Covent Garden while being in London at the same time as Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee to celebrate her reign was amazing! It was written for her, making it a very unique piece, and I just love his music. Also, being in London- seeing so many things on Queen Elizabeth I, the subject and main character in Gloriana, was very cool!

MS: Any last words for anxious opera fans waiting for the season to start?

SS: I think it’s going to be an exciting year for the Met: in the opera house, on the airwaves, and in the movie theaters. Opera fans can be the most fanatical fans (in a good way!), and members of the Orchestra hear that in your applause and “Bravo”s as well as in your excited tweets and blog posts. It can sometimes be difficult repeatedly playing the same repertoire, so your excitement keeps it exciting for us! It is so nice seeing a passion for opera by so many people, and it helps us remain passionate about playing.

If you would like to read more about Susan Spector read here: http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/about/whoweare/detail.aspx?customid=3 (Scroll to Susan Spector in the oboe section)

Thoughts on “The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer” by Renée Fleming

In between reading the books that I was assigned in June for my summer assignments, I picked up The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer by world renowned soprano Renée Fleming. I had wanted to read this book for a long time, but I felt that reading it while I was preparing to go to Manhattan School of Music for precollege voice would be a good idea, so I could familiarize with how music schools work and how students, specifically voice students, make their way in the music world. I am so glad that I read it this summer, because it really did make me more aware of what I am getting myself into by pursuing entrance into the field of music.

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Every young singer should read this book. Ms. Fleming’s book is different from most other opera singer’s autobiographies. Instead of just talking about her career and background, Ms. Fleming goes in depth about her voice lessons, her teachers, her audition techniques and the results, and many other things that are always in the minds and schedules of young singers. She even gives vocal tips and practicing tips that she learned from her teachers, such as holding your upper lip to release tension around the mouth, and bring out more sound. Who would have guessed that? She also admitted that it is a rough road to drive on to succeed vocally in the music world, and even spoke of times when she almost gave up on her idea of a singing career, or other people told her to wrap it up. During college, she won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Frankfurt, Germany for a year. She said that she was lucky that planes do not turn around once they are in the air, because she was asking herself what she was doing on a plane flying to Germany, not knowing a word of German or where to go when she got there! That sounds so scary, yet so relatable to a young singer traveling the world to study. Ms. Fleming’s book can be very relatable, and almost comforting to read, or even re-read, for young singers who are struggling to keep faith.

Once Ms. Fleming finishes her parts about her schooling and auditioning and hits the many big, operatic stages, it is very interesting reading about her actual performances! For example: She talks about her Met Debut as Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and how she was so giddy and excited to be singing onstage with some of her idols: Samuel Ramey as Figaro and Frederica von Stade as Cherubino. Today, so many young singers look up to Renée Fleming and would feel the same giddiness and excitement singing onstage with her that she did back on March 16, 1991 in her Met Debut. Ms. Fleming also said the same about autographs. She had the amazing opportunity to meet Leontyne Price when she was 10 years old where she grew up in upstate New York, and Ms. Price became an idol and mentor to her in the future. Now, Ms. Fleming signs autographs for 10 year olds and young singers today, just as she did when she was younger.

Renée Fleming as Countess Madeleine in Strauss’ Capriccio

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I would recommend this book to any voice student, or even music students in general, more than the regular opera attendee. This book not only talks about her career, but also her journey to where she is today, voice lessons, technique, teachers, and tons and tons of auditions. Every young singer should read The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer by Renée Fleming.