Happy 100th Birthday, Birgit Nilsson!

One hundred years ago today, Birgit Nilsson was born on a farm in rural Sweden. She would go on to become not only the greatest Wagnerian specialist to date, but in my opinion, one of the greatest artists in the last century. I am not old enough to have had the honor of hearing Birgit live. As I have come to understand, it is impossible to experience the very same magnitude of her voice through recordings compared to live performances, however, that is the only way I, a 20-year old voice student, have been able to admire her.

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, from the singer’s archives

I admire her for many reasons. If a group of people was gathered in a room, blindfolded, and asked to identify the singer on a recording of the Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung, it would be impossible to mistake Birgit for another singer, or deny it was her voice in the first place. Her voice is so versatile in its ability, color, impeccable intonation and steel that it has remained defiantly unique among thousands of other singers. For most other voices, it is far more difficult to distinguish one from another.

When discussing Brigit’s voice, many tend to spend time talking about how unbelievably resonant and voluminous it is. This is true, one only has to put on recordings of her Elektra or her Dyer’s Wife in Strauss’ Elektra and Die Frau ohne Schatten, respectively, to hear how “loud” she could be. One of her signature exciting moments is at the end of Act II of Turandot when she holds two forte, sustained high ‘C’s over the orchestra, chorus, and Calaf. Most Turandots are drowned out at that moment; not Birgit. One cannot deny hearing her resonant voice sail over the hundreds of people singing and playing at the same forte volume.

Birgit Nilsson as Isolde in 'Tristan und Isolde'

Birgit Nilsson as Isolde in her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1959

However, her soft singing is not to be overlooked. During a recent Toll Brothers Metropolitan Opera Quiz on which I was a panelist, we were asked to discuss our favorite long deaths in opera (as morbid as that sounds) and include lines from those deaths that were special to us. I chose to discuss the “Liebestod” at the very end of Tristan und Isolde, and I chose specifically to discuss Birgit’s interpretation of it on the 1966 recording from Bayreuth with Karl Böhm conducting. Isolde’s very last words are “höchste Lust”, which roughly translates to “sublime delight” as she sinks to die alongside Tristan. “Lust” is written on a long ‘F-sharp’ at double pianissimo for the voice and the orchestra. After singing at volumes far stronger than that for the five hours Tristan und Isolde lasts, it was as if Birgit took her Hummer of a voice, and parked it in a space the size for a smart car. Yet, she never parked outside the lines; she produced the most delicate, intimate sound imaginable.

As a person, Birgit was the quintessential “down-to-earth” diva, if a diva at all. Even at the height of her career, she would return home to her farm in Sweden to milk her cows. She was a human being living during an era in which many singers (especially sopranos) considered themselves important, or what others may call “holier than now”. While recording her signature role of Brünnhilde with the Vienna Philharmonic under Sir Georg Solti, members of the recording team brought a live horse into the studio. While this fun jest may have ruffled the feathers of other singers, one sees Birgit on Humphrey Burton’s documentary The Golden Ring – The Making of Solti’s “Ring” break out into giggles.

According to those I know who were lucky enough to meet her, she was kind, approachable, and downright hilarious. There are so many funny stories from throughout her career, especially from her relationships with conductors. In 1967, the famously stern and serious Herbert von Karajan, who Birgit referred to as “Herbie”, directed a new production of the Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera with extremely dark sets and lighting. In a rehearsal for Die Walküre, Birgit entered onstage wearing a miner’s helmet donned with valkyrie wings.

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde in Die Walkure at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde wearing a winged miner’s helmet as a joke in ‘Die Walküre’ at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967. Photograph: Louis Mélançon/Metropolitan Opera

Birgit’s legacy lives on in many forms. She made multiple recordings, both live and studio. In addition to many books written about her, she wrote two autobiographies: Birgit Nilsson: My Memoirs in Pictures and La Nilsson: My Life in Opera. Her childhood home has become a museum dedicated in her honor. The Birgit Nilsson Foundation, which she established late in life, continues to promote her artistry and awards the acclaimed Birgit Nilsson Prize for “outstanding achievement in opera, concert, ’Lieder’, or oratorio”. Just this week, the Swedish dramatic soprano Nina Stemme, who some consider to be one of Nilsson’s successors, was given the 2018 award.

While I never was able to meet her or hear her live, Birgit Nilsson is a singer who means a great deal to me. She was an artist who not only had astounding talent, but she was also a hard worker and an approachable, sensible person. Birgit is the kind of artist, musician, and person I aspire to be. Happy 100th Birthday, Birgit!

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Put It in the Books: My Freshman Year at MSM

It’s finals week at Manhattan School of Music. Juries took place last week, so all of the practice rooms are silent and empty. Even the hallways are quiet because classes are over and everyone is busy cramming in their own quiet places. I’m currently sitting in the library staring out at a blooming Riverside Park and thinking about summer. I’m also thinking about leaving this place until September and it’s making me feel really low.

How is it that freshman year is over? I’m now a quarter of the way through my undergraduate degree and I still haven’t gotten used to people calling me “collegiate”. Looking back, I feel like I’ve changed a lot since high school and that I can do so many more things now than I could have a year ago. For the longest time I was deathly afraid of riding the subway, and now I have the entire map memorized – even the trains I don’t ride. Picking up a phone and calling, now a fellow, adult is second nature. I don’t even think twice anymore about jumping at opportunities, musical or nonmusical, for which last year I would have gotten cold feet. Musically, I can’t even fathom how much I’ve changed: In both vocal maturity and mindset.

I think back to September when I got up to sing in my performance class for the first time. I sang Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”. I was so nervous introducing myself that I pronounced “Spinnrade” like an ignorant American would say “spin class”. My nerves allowed me no dynamic contrast, so the whole buildup to hysteria that the song is known for was not there. After sitting down and watching other people get up and naturally express themselves, I felt so behind.

Now I think back to last month when I got up in front of over a hundred people and sang several intense, long runs of coloratura in Handel’s famous “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” from Messiah at the Spring Vocal Recital. After eight months of building up support, stamina, musicianship, technique, expression, language, and countless other factors with my teacher, I felt comfortable enough to get up and sing a challenging piece, which everyone and their mother knows, in front of a large number of people. I even sang it at a faster tempo than normal, which felt all the more exhilarating. I later did the same at my jury in front of a faculty filled with former iconic Met artists like my teacher Mark Oswald, Mignon Dunn, and Catherine Malfitano to name a few.

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Performing “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen” from Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’ at MSM with my mom (Susan Spector) on November 7, 2015

In between September and April, I did a few other things of which I’m pretty proud: I organized an arrangement, with the help of my mother Susan Spector, Second Oboe of the Met Orchestra, of “Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen” from Weber’s Der Freischütz for soprano, oboe, and piano to perform at the Fall Vocal Recital. A prominent oboe obbligato is orchestrated in the aria, so we took advantage of it. We also performed a recit and aria from Bach’s Wedding Cantata for my Baroque History class along with a couple of classmates of mine on cello, double bass, and even harpsichord. I played Principal Horn on a soundtrack of Don Giovanni for an NYU film project and for the MSM Senior Opera Theater’s production of Delibes’ Le Roi l’a Dit, which was an American premiere! As a member of Symphonic Chorus, I performed with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra led by Jacques Lacombes in Berlioz’s Lélio at NJPAC and in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, one of my favorites, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with Kent Tritle leading the MSM Symphony. I took a fun, but challenging, course on Richard Wagner, my favorite composer, and his Ring Cycle. The class was so enjoyable, as we had such engaging discussions and listened to Georg Solti’s brilliant recording, that it didn’t feel like work. Not to mention that last semester I earned straight ‘A’s and a 4.0 GPA. Do you see why I’m going to miss this place over the summer?

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Kent Tritle conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Photo: Sally Benner

I’m also going to miss the incredible friendships I’ve made. Unlike high school, I feel like I’ve finally found common ground with the classmates I see everyday and an ideal place to make friendships that last a lifetime. It may sound cliché, but what they say about music bringing people together is true. I find now that when I am with a group of friends, I think in terms of instruments we have for chamber music rather than names. Some of my favorite nights at MSM were spent laughing and accompanying my friends on piano for fun while they rehearsed their pieces for lessons. Other nights we’d go out and take advantage of the city by going on subway adventures downtown to try the newest trending dessert places or go to the Met. Since most of my new friends are from outside New York or even outside the United States, I’ll have to wait until September for more adventures.

I not only learned from my teachers and my friends, but living in New York has enabled me to go to countless performances at the Met, David Geffen Hall, and Carnegie Hall. I got to witness live the premieres of the Met’s two best productions of the season, in my opinion, Lulu and Elektra. I also managed to see several of my favorite orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, who brought a cycle of Beethoven symphonies to New York in the fall. Before their concert featuring Beethoven Symphonies No. 4 and No. 7, I attended a master class by Fourth Horn Sarah Willis, after which everyone who brought a horn got to participate in a flash mob. Not just any flash mob, however: In this flash mob, we played on the roof of Carnegie Hall, followed by the offices inside Carnegie where we played for Executive Director Sir Clive Gillinson. Even by getting outside the conservatory, New York helped me to learn more about music and performing this year by welcoming professional artists from around the world to its stages.

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“Flashmobbing” on the roof of Carnegie Hall with Sarah Willis and twenty-five other horn players, November 20, 2015 ©Rob Davidson

I know this probably sounds like bragging and shameless self promotion, which it probably is. However, I only wanted to express just how happy I am with myself about completing my first year of college and why I will miss MSM over the summer. Many say the transition from high school to college is one of, if not, the hardest in one’s life. I’m happy with my results.

One other tidbit I am proud of from this year is an amazing opportunity I am going to have this summer. In March, I interviewed for an internship position at Opera News, and, well, I got it! For eight weeks this summer I will be working at Lincoln Center in the Opera News office, assisting F. Paul Driscoll, the Editor-in-Chief, and other staff members. Afterwards, I’ll be returning to MSM in the fall to begin my sophomore year. Who knows what next year will bring?

The House of Atreus Brings Down Met Opera House: A Review of the Met’s ‘Elektra’

The audience roared on Thursday night at the Metropolitan Opera after the premiere of a new production of Strauss’ Elektra by the late Patrice Chereau. Not only did Elektra and her siblings bring down the House of Atreus, they brought down the Met. Swedish soprano Nina Stemme starred in the title role; Adrianne Pieczonka was her sister Chrysothemis; the treasured Waltraud Meier played their mother Klytämnestra; and Eric Owens played the long-awaited returning brother Orest. Conducting the production, which was first done at Aix-en-Provence in 2013, was Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen.

 

Waltraud Meier and Nina Stemme in the Met’s ‘Elektra’. Photo by Marty Sohl.

Under Chereau’s masterful judgement, only the bare necessities of Hofmannsthal’s adaption of Sophocles’ play were kept. The courtyard of Agamemnon’s palace was barren, dominated by hard cement to make real Elektra’s prison-like treatment since the killing of her father. The curtain rises on the maids of the house sweeping the stairs and completing household chores, making it all the more shocking when the first blast of the “Agamemnon” motif puts things in motion. Elektra is made to look as unfeminine as possible in her grey, ragged garments and her short, greasy hair as she crawls around the stage in contrast with Klytämnestra’s regal green dress and jewels.

Ms. Stemme’s Elektra challenges Evelyn Herlitzius’ as far as whose Elektra was better in Chereau’s production. The utterly full, bold sound Stemme produces in such large quantity is astounding. Similarly to Birgit Nilsson, notes were hit confidently without the use of swooping or other mannerisms. Her staggering and unsteady dancing made her look all the more demented, and all the more convincing that she alone was not ready to take on the task of avenging her father’s death until her strong brother returned home. Adrianne Pieczonka played the thin-skinned, idealistic Chrysothemis. On only a couple of occasions did her top become strident, yet she kept it exciting enough to match Stemme. In the small, yet powerful, role of Orest Eric Owens sang with compassion towards/with Ms. Stemme.

Waltraud Meier could have spoken her lines and she would have been just as eloquent. She is a master at understanding character. While many view Klytämnestra as a maniacal, murderous creature, many forget that she has reason to be upset, as Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenie. Instead of playing her as a monster, Ms. Meier played her as the distraught mother who is scared out of her wits by her nightmares and the prophecies of her own daughter. The orchestra covered her in some spots, as her voice did not carry as well as Stemme’s did. However, the many times she was heard her delivery was crystalline, as she made lines such as “Ich habe keine gute nächte” sound like speech.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting was riveting. He makes conducting a humongous orchestra look so effortless in his smooth motion. The orchestra played with exuberance, especially in Elektra’s dance of death. While Maestro Salonen had them under control, simultaneously the players made it sound as if her dance was going faster and there was no brake, just like Elektra’s demented state of mind. It can’t be easy to control music that is supposed to sound out of control, yet the Met Orchestra unsurprisingly succeeded.

Performances of Elektra run through May 7.

Redhead Reigns in the Met Premiere of Roberto Devereux

     On Thursday night the Met presented its premiere of Donizetti’s last of his three “Queen operas” Roberto Devereux. In a new production by Sir David McVicar, Sondra Radvanovsky starred as Queen Elizabeth (despite not playing the title role), Matthew Polenzani was Roberto, and Mariusz Kwiecien and Elina Garanca were the Duke and Duchess of Nottingham. Maurizio Benini conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchetra and Chorus.

 

Sondra Radvanovsky as Queen Elizabeth in Sir David McVicar’s production of Roberto Devereux

 
Ms. Radvanovsky sang full throttle, her high register dominating the entire performance. Her high D at the end of the opera rang brightly and contained unbelievable substance. Not only she did she manage to impress the audience with her vocal fireworks, but also with her uncanny impression of Queen Elizabeth; Hobbling with a cane and constantly throwing herself into hysteric fits of frustration. At the very end, she faces her own death by staring into a white light shining on what appeared to be her tomb in Westminster Abbey. Wig-less and sans cane Ms. Radvanovsky dramatically collapsed to give a striking close to the end of the Donizetti Tudor Trilogy.

     Ms. Garanca made the most of her relatively small role as Sarah, the Duchess of Nottingham. Her first aria “All’afflitto è dolce il pianto” was incredibly serene and legato. She grounded large ensembles powerfully and provided richeness in smaller ensembles, especially in her Act III duet with Mariusz Kwiecien. One wishes she could have brought her Jane Seymour to the Met when the first Queen opera, Anna Bolena, was performed (she cancelled the run due to illness). Mr. Kwiecien was dramatic stagewise, yet his singing did not match the dark and vengeful colors of his character. Throughout the evening he sang largely at the same volume, presenting a lack of contrast. Mr. Polenzani played a brutish Roberto, acting as a catalyst for Ms. Radvanovsky’s outstanding rages. He exemplified his middle register nicely, however, due to possibly pushing, his high register began to sound more raw as the evening went along. Maestro Benini conducted the orchestra and chorus fervently, with only a couple of minor pit and stage disconnections.

     Sir David McVicar’s single dark and candlelit set provided a small and chamberesque feeling for such a grand scandal. In all three acts, chorus members or supers are on stage trying to eavesdrop on the four main characters’ conversations. McVicar was quoted as having said he wished to create a “very febrile, claustrophobic, [and] candlelit world”. One felt claustrophobic in the audience in that we, like the supers or chorus members, were eavesdropping on the Queen’s scandal along with them.

     Performances of Roberto Devereux run through April 19. Don’t be like Queen Elizabeth handling Roberto’s death warrant; Buy tickets before it’s too late!

My Bucket List: Singing in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony

Last week I checked off the biggest bullet point on my bucket list I had accounted thus far: Singing in a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, also known as the “Symphony of a Thousand”. As part of a collaboration with the Oratorio Society of New York, the Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Choir, Women’s Chorus, and Symphony under the direction of Kent Tritle performed at no less than the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine – the largest neo-Gothic cathedral in the world. With 450-500 musicians total, a huge noise was made, especially with the help of Saint John’s gigantic pipe organ. The church played a role as an instrument itself, in that the reverberation of the sound produced lasted close to eight seconds. While this piece is normally performed in a concert hall with minimal reverberation, the cathedral added excitement to an already thrilling work. This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the American premiere of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, which was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski on March 2, 1916. I not only got to check this ultimate bucket list item off once, but twice- as a second performance was added only a few weeks before our scheduled single performance on February 25 by popular demand.

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*** New caption *** American Premiere of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”) Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra Academy of Music, Philadelphia 2 March 1916

 

One might ask why singing in Mahler 8 was at the top of my bucket list. Why not sky-diving or backpacking through Europe? That question could be answered in many ways, but maybe it’s enough that I have and will continue to go backpacking long distances to see this symphony, let alone perform in it. As of today I have seen, including performances in which I have participated, approximately nine performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. That is nine more than most people on Earth will ever see or dream of seeing. How could I have seen so many performances of a work that is so rarely done? The forces are too gargantuan for it to be done regularly- even in New York. To those unfamiliar with Mahler’s Eighth, here are, roughly, the forces required: One festival-sized orchestra with multiple doublings, organ, piano, off-stage brass, eight soloists, two SATB choirs, and a children’s chorus.

My dad and I, we like to think famously, have traveled over the last eleven years to see this work done as many times as possible, specifically on the East Coast. The first time I saw it we had driven up to Tanglewood to see it with the Boston Symphony. I was only seven years old and, shaking in my seat in the Shed because of the organ, knew that I had to perform in that symphony one day. We later made multiple trips to Philadelphia, back up to Tanglewood, to the movie theater for live simulcasts, and to venues in New York.

Mahler’s symphonies also got me to enjoy symphonic repertoire and helped me along my own musical road. For a while opera was the only performing art that appealed to me; I found sitting in concert halls watching orchestras play hour-long symphonies to be torturous. That changed when I found myself enraptured for an entire hour and twenty minutes of both vocal olympics and orchestral aerobics in Mahler’s Eighth. Symphonies could have that many singers? Mahler’s Third Symphony was the first Mahler symphony I ever saw performed live, and despite its vocal presence, I give it credit, along with many works by Wagner and Strauss, for influencing me to play the French horn. I really don’t see how anyone could go see a symphony that starts with eight horns all playing forte in unison and not want to begin horn lessons immediately afterwards. Thanks to Mahler, I learned to truly appreciate live instrumental music.

From September to early February during piano/choral rehearsals for our Mahler 8, I found that I was the only one enjoying them. Getting people to learn Mahler’s notes and intervals was like pulling teeth. After all of my own experiences I had had with my dad, it made me sad to see everyone around me view Mahler in a distasteful light, or toss him away as a ridiculous composer. Many complained about the difficult vocal lines, some even claimed that we college students shouldn’t be touching Mahler- even the choral parts. Once we got into the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine a couple of weeks ago, however, people realized how big of a deal his symphony actually is. Everything came together, and everyone began to have a good time. Chorus met orchestra, both met soloists, and a chemistry between the three lit up the entire cathedral. In only a week, most people in my choir learned to love and appreciate Mahler, which, on my part, was a really heartening and reassuring thing to see. We also introduced a whole lot of people to Mahler’s Eighth who had never experienced it before: The audience and us.

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Kent Tritle leading the MSM Symphony, MSM Symphonic Choir and Women’s Chorus, and the Oratorio Society of New York in Mahler 8 at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. © Sally Benner 2016

Mahler said writing his Eighth Symphony was the grandest thing he had ever done. To describe it, he said “Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound. There are no longer human voices, but planets and suns revolving.” I am not one for having “out-of-body” experiences, but being in the middle of Mahler’s description motivated me to become one who does. I felt as if my soul had floated up to the Heavens he had opened and that my voice had become part of the “planets and suns revolving.” Having my dad there to witness my singing in both performances made it extra special. That is why singing in Mahler 8 was at the top of my bucket list.

Is Opera Color Blind?

A couple of weeks ago I had the immense pleasure of hearing Nina Stemme tear up the house as Turandot live at the Met. The sheer size of her voice brought me back to see her again, only at a movie theater instead of the Met so I could witness her power live in HD. Yet again, her entire range was solid as a rock. She never let a stray note waver or sound out of place in the vast space she creates in her skull for successful resonance. Seeing her Live in HD did leave me with something else to think about other than her musical performance, however.

Stemme-as-Turandot

Nina Stemme as Turandot © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera, January 2016

There is no question that the Met HDs are geared towards the movie industry. The film crew behind their production makes a viewer more aware of a singer’s makeup and appearance than he or she ever would sitting in the opera house. As I was enjoying listening to Ms. Stemme’s astounding sound, I could not help but be distracted by the heavy makeup around her eyes, which was utilized to give her more of an Asian look. The character of Turandot the ice princess came from a Persian collection of stories titled “The Book of One Thousand and One Days” ; and the word “Turandot” itself means “daughter of Turan”, Turan being a region located in Central Asia. Puccini set his opera to take place in the city of Peking, or present-day Beijing, China.

While Ms. Stemme’s makeup did not affect my enjoyment of her performance, it did take me back to a contoversy earlier this season over the use of blackface in the Met’s new production of Otello which opened the season. In this case, Shakespeare created Otello as a “Moorish captain”, based on the story “Un Capitano Moro” published in 1565 by Cinthio. While “Moor” has been used as a term to describe Arab and Berber people emigrating from North Africa to Spain, many have simply identified Othello as distinctly darker than Iago and Desdemona, and thus, isolating him from the light-skinned society for which he serves as a general. Countless references are made in both Shakespeare’s text and Boito’s libretto to Othello’s “blackness”. In the duet between Otello and Desdemona at the end of Act I of Verdi’s Otello, Otello describes how “scendean sulle mie tenebre la gloria, il paradiso e gli astri a benedir” or “upon my darkness shown a radiance, heaven and all the stars in benediction”. Desdemona responds: “Ed io vedea fra le tue tempie oscure splender del genio l’eterea beltà” or “And I descried upon your dusky temples genius’ ethereal beauty shining there”. In other words, it is made obvious that Otello should be personified as a character with darker skin than Desdemona.

When posters were first hung up and New York City buses began bearing ads for the Met’s new production, outrage broke out over Aleksandrs Antonenko’s dark makeup. After Nina Stemme’s thick eye makeup was shown to viewers all over the world on Saturday, I wondered where that same outrage was. For many years, the government of the People’s Republic of China banned performances of Puccini’s world renowned work because it gave an unfavorable portrayal of China and the Chinese people. In the past, productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly have been criticized for using “yellowface”, or a type of Hollywood-born makeup used to make actors look “more Asian”. As it was obviously intended by the makeup artists to give Ms. Stemme the complexion of a Chinese princess, where was the fuss? Should her face have been left alone to only let her costume advocate her Asian heritage?

With operas like Otello and Turandot, we are lucky. Costumers and makeup artists have the choice and disposal to create certain complexions they have in mind for the stage. In operas like La Fanciulla del West, however, that choice is not provided, as hints of racism are depicted in the speech or vernacular of the characters. Wowkle, Annie’s pregnant Native American servant, and her husband, Billy Jackrabbit, repeatedly say “Ugh”- filling the popular “stupid Indian” stereotype white Americans used at the time they were trying to move further West.

Is there reason for outrage or is the Met correct in following Puccini’s intentions for an Asian title character? I am very interested in hearing your responses. Please comment below if you have any thoughts.

To Shush or Not to Shush?

As we live in the age of the iPhone, there is no question that the average attention span of the human race is getting shorter. While they are useful and have changed twenty-first century lifestyle for the better in many ways, they undeniably contribute to many of our distractions. This issue makes activities such as concentrating at work, driving, and even going to the opera more difficult. This lack of attention motivates us during a performance to stare off, steal a glance at our watches or maybe even our phones before directing our eyes back to the stage. For some, the problem is made worse by having an even shorter attention span and/or not knowing the rules of concert etiquette. Back when my father was attending Met performances as a college student, he would see printed articles in his programs going in depth about the practice of performance etiquette. After an incident I saw play out last week at the Met, it would seem that a revival of this is desperately needed.

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David Pershall being shushed as Papageno in Virginia Opera’s production of The Magic Flute

Last week I paid a good sum of money to sit in a very nice orchestra-level seat at the Met for one my favorite operas. Through all of the first act, a young couple seated across the aisle from me whispered continuously, noisily feasted on Altoids and chocolate wrapped in crinkly foil, and passed an iPhone between them which had to have been dropped on the floor at least three times. A brave man at the beginning of Act II decided to put an end to it by executing a quick and quiet “sh”, providing the rest of us with peace for the duration of the act. At the end of the act, I overheard the shushed victim reprimanding the hero, saying something along the lines of, “If you ever shush me like that again I’m going to punch you.” I was horrified by this and intended to thank and reassure the man who gave us the chance to hear Act II without interruption, but unsurprisingly, the man did not return to his seat to enjoy Act III. For all I knew the man was back at home already, knowing that it was not worth trying to enjoy the performance, a performance he without a doubt paid a handsome sum for, just as I did.

What is to be done? Has concert etiquette been buried so far into the ground that it is worth giving up one’s enjoyment of a performance at the expense of rude patrons? Has the  attention span of an average audience been so mangled with by new innovations like the iPhone, that someone with a more focused attention span is looked upon as the bad guy? Two thirds of the tickets for an average performance at the Met are priced at over $175, meaning those coming have made a serious investment. Going to the opera itself does not have to be serious, but taking into account other people’s enjoyment always has to be taken seriously.

I am very interested in hearing responses to this. What are your thoughts? Is there a better way to stifle noisy audience members, or is better to sit and suffer? Do you have your own stories to tell? Please comment below or tweet me @MsOperaGeek.

Swedish Steel: A Review of the Met’s Turandot

The Met opened its last run of Turandot for the 2015-16 season on Monday night. Nina Stemme starred in the title role, Marco Berti was the daring Calaf, Anita Hartig sang the tragic role of Liù, and Ukranian bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk was Timur. Paolo Carignani conducted the Met Orchestra and Chorus. 

Nina Stemme taking her bow after Turandot on Monday night

 

Nina Stemme is a Turandot made of Swedish steel. Maybe the icy waters of the Baltic Sea carry treasures to produce the rich Swedish ranks of Birgit Nilsson, Iréne Theorin, and other dramatic voices. If so, we should be grateful for how they enhanced Ms. Stemme’s solid high notes, dead-on pitch, and perfect attacks. Her performance bade well for what she will bring to the Met’s new production of Elektra, coming from Aix-en-Provence, when she sings the title role. Marco Berti forced as Calaf, causing some of his sustained high notes to either disappear or crumble. It came as a surprise to hear a dead audience at the end of “Nessun dorma”, which normally rouses fanatic applause.

Anita Hartig put the never-ending devotion of Liù’s character into her voice. She never let it drop as she ventured through her pasaggio and jumped registers. Her legato was sensational; none of her phrases died away. Timur’s last appearance in which he is told of Liù’s death was all the more devastating, as Mr. Tsymbalyuk sang so tenderly. He caressed each phrase, particularly when he was singing about Liù and how God would frown upon all who supported her torture. Dwayne Croft, Tony Stevenson, and Eduardo Valdes were hilarious as the kooky trio of Ping, Pang, and Pong, respectively. Each of them stayed on the beat in their tricky passages in Act I. Mr. Croft gently reminisced about his house of bamboo, generating a feeling of sentimentality.

Maestro Carignani conducted without bombast, allowing the singers to be heard and creating an ideal balance in the orchestra. The thorny passages in the woodwinds were managed particularly smoothly. The Chorus acted as a strong force, and the backstage Children’s Chorus acted as a comforting break from the violence caused by Puccini’s special princess.

Performances of Turandot continue through January 30. Go enjoy some hardcore Swedish steel!

A Tribute to Pierre Boulez and the Centenary Ring

When I heard Pierre Boulez had passed away on January 5, I cannot say that I let his death pervade my thoughts or affect me significantly. One of the few performances I saw him conduct was Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at Carnegie Hall in May of 2009. The piece was what it was, gargantuan and monumental, but I did not feel uplifted when I left the auditorium, which is normally a given after listening to the “Symphony of a Thousand”.

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Pierre Boulez, ca. 1976 ©Pierre Petitjean

That was until I was introduced to his Jahrhundertring, or the “Centenary Ring” production presented at the Bayreuth Festival in 1976 for the one hundredth anniversary of Wagner’s four-part series of epic music dramas. In a collaboration with the legendary French director Patrice Chéreau, Maestro Boulez and he created a launching pad for “Regietheater”, advocating broad-mindedness for not only musical interpretation, but taking liberties with the staging and setting as well. The artists in this revolutionary production did not channel their characters in traditional mythological garb: Sir Donald McIntyre’s Wotan was dressed in a frock coat as a banker in the Industrial Revolution, and Gunther sports a tuxedo to contrast with his blood-sworn brother Siegfried, who is dressed in rags as a dragon-killing, mountain-climbing, fire-jumping hero. The Ring itself is born from gold stolen from a hydro-electric plant, not from the banks of the peacefully blue Rhine river.The struggle between capitalists (Wotan and the rest of the Godly race) and the working class (the Nibelungs) undermines the conventional Norse mythology found in Wagner’s work.

Boulez and Chéreau’s combined work was booed mercilessly at Bayreuth for years. After its final performance in 1980, however, it was given a 45-minute ovation, showing that the staging of opera was moving in a new direction and that audiences were conforming and opening up in response.

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Sir Donald McIntyre as Wotan in the final scene of Act III of Die Walküre

Nothing like Boulez and Chéreau’s collaboration had ever been done anywhere else previously, let alone atop the sacred Green Hill. Remember in 2013 when audiences for the Met’s new production of Parsifal were getting hot flashes because Jonas Kaufmann unexpectedly loses his shirt before his big smooch with the supernatural Kundry? That erotic style of staging for Wagner was very similar to the staging for Peter Hofmann, another very good-looking German tenor, as he loses his shirt during the Todesverkündigung with Brünnhilde. What seemed deranged and nutty back in the late seventies is perceived as typical on today’s stages. Maestro Boulez was a man ahead of his time.

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Peter Hofmann as Siegmund and Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde in Act II of Die Walküre

While I may not have enjoyed some of his speedy tempi and abrupt endings to phrases, I understand that his background of contribution to the development of innovations such as computer music, integral serialism, and controlled chanced allowed him to introduce opera to the future, and looking back from 2016, the longterm. The intense, dramatic acting and intimacy between characters implemented in the Centenary Ring has become a necessity for Ring productions today. Maestro Boulez created a new standard with which opera directors in the present day work, and for that, the music world should be forever grateful.

The 2015 Metropolitan Opera Guild Holiday Card, Designed by Melanie Spector

2015 handed me some incredible opportunities. I was accepted to Manhattan School of Music, am studying with my first-choice voice teacher, and I even got to see my favorite team, the New York Mets, battle it out in the postseason – to the bitter end. One last opportunity granted to me in 2015 was to have the honor of designing the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s holiday card. After seeing some of my other works, such as my 2013-14 Met Season drawing, those on the Guild were interested in having me design their card. Here is the final product:

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The front of the 2015 Metropolitan Opera Guild Holiday Card © Melanie Spector 2015

As the English-version of Die Fledermaus is being performed at the Met right now and as it is always associated with New Year’s Eve and the holiday season overall, I figured it would be a perfect theme for a holiday card. Champagne bubble letters, I believe, are appealing to everyone. I did have another idea, however, that I was hoping would pull through as the favored design of the two I created. Here is my other card design:

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2015 Metropolitan Opera Guild holiday card alternate design © Melanie Spector 2015

One with any prior knowledge of opera would understand that this is a reenactment of the end of Act II of Puccini’s Tosca. Instead of Tosca stabbing Scarpia with a knife, however, she kills him with snowballs. The two candelabra set on either side of him are seen in any production that is true to the libretto. The snowman is obviously not in the libretto, but I thought it would be a nice touch to a relatively vulgar holiday card. This design was not chosen to be used, however, I’m sure I can make use of it in the future.

I hope all of you readers have a wonderful new year. Thank you so much for keeping up with my posts in 2015. I look forward to writing more about opera and other subjects in 2016. Happy New Year!