Conquering Fear at BSM Brass Week

Last week I conquered one of my greatest fears: Sleepaway camp. The idea of leaving my tempur-pedic mattress and guaranteed air conditioning to venture to essentially the middle of nowhere had always troubled my mind. For the last few summers, I’ve scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed seeing fellow high school musicians posting photos from countless summer programs such as Tanglewood, Chautauqua, you name it, as I sit in my comfy chair with my laptop wearing sweatpants. Even though I have spent the last several summers continuing voice, piano, and French horn lessons from the academic year, and even participating in a chamber music day camp on piano last summer, I still felt like I could have been accomplishing more at a program that would require me to sleep over. This summer was the summer I would cure this personal fear.

For seven whole days I ate, slept, and played French horn in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at Berkshire Summer Music, a program initiated my Met Principal Trumpet David Krauss and his wife Kristen that is just in its second year of operation. The program is held on the campus of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an early college during the academic year for child prodigies and geniuses who graduate high school before the twelfth or eleventh grades. The first week of the program is dedicated to brass players, and is thus known as Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week. For a program so new and small, the faculty is incredibly rich, including David Krauss, MET Principal Trumpet; Joseph Foley, Principal Trumpet of the Rhode Island Philharmonic; Erik Ralske and Javier Gandara, First and Third Horns of the MET Orchestra; Toby Oft, Principal Trombone of the Boston Symphony; and Denson Paul Pollard, Tenor/Bass Trombone of the MET Orchestra. Each day was packed with studio classes, lessons, coachings, mock auditions, recitals, and concerts by faculty and students, leaving me with little to no time at all to fret about being away from home. In fact, by the time I left the camp after the final concert, I was sad to say goodbye.

I felt very intimidated the first day I was there. Many of my new fellow campers had already gone for years to Tanglewood, Kinhaven, Interlochen, and other famed summer music institutions. I was a rookie, and I knew it. I was not only a camp rookie, but as I was coming from a background spiced more with opera and vocal repertoire, my knowledge of horn and brass repertoire was fairly limited. I figured out by the second day that this did not matter at all. In a master class held by Javier Gandara, I played an arrangement of “Va tacito e nascosto”, one my favorite arias from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, featuring a huge horn solo. It was neither a concerto, nor a fancy etude. After having listened to others perform pieces for him such as the Weber Concertino and etudes by Gallay, I walked in somewhat sheepishly feeling that my Handel was overly simplistic. Never would I have thought that I would learn so much about articulation, phrasing, color, and singing through the horn with my uncomplicated piece. I had Strauss 1 and Dukas’ Villanelle as complex pieces on the back burner for the master class, but from a piece as simple as “Va Tacito”, I learned so much, thanks to Javier’s amazing insight. It is astounding just how much he knows about the horn.

Later on, I even gained enough confidence to play the excerpt from the opening of Mahler 9 in front of MET Principal Horn Erik Ralske, who had just played that very same solo so elegantly with the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in October. I had been there to see it and had been moved to tears by his playing. As one can imagine, I was scared right down to my socks. My heartbeat was just as irregular as that of Mahler when he was writing his Ninth; The first movement is underscored by an uneven beat which is meant to symbolize Mahler’s failing heart and health. I then remembered: this is summer camp. We’re all here because we share a love for music and we’re here to help each other. This isn’t an actual audition or performance. I played the solo flawlessly, and with Erik’s invaluable advice, I was able to make more not only of the notes and phrasing but even the rests- something to which I had not previously given any thought.

Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week 2015 Horn Studio on the steps of the Kellogg Music Center. Erik Ralske and Javier Gandara are pictured on the top row

Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week 2015 Horn Studio on the steps of the Kellogg Music Center. Erik Ralske and Javier Gandara are pictured on the top row

Despite my trouble sleeping during the first couple of nights, it was worth the tossing and turning to try new things at camp that I would never have been able to do lounging at home in my sweatpants. Never before had I played in horn quartets, let alone octets. On the first night, I ended up spontaneously joining a pick-up horn quartet in which I played some of my all-time favorite pieces: The Pilgrims Chorus from Tannhäuser, The “Wach auf” chorus from Die Meistersinger, and a bit of Schumann’s Konzertstück. I was even introduced to composers of whom I had heard, such as Gabrielli, but whose music I had never actually played. It did not matter that other people in the group were in the middle of or had completed their masters or bachelors degrees at prestigious conservatories, while I had not even begun pursuing my degree at MSM on a completely different instrument. We all simply loved the horn and the sound it makes. The horn octet in which I played was the performance portion of our horn studio class. Throughout the week and at the final concert, we played Abendsegen from Hansel und Gretel (I played fourth horn next to Javier- MET Third Horn!!), an arrangement of “Soave sia il vento” from Così fan tutte, and arrangements of Requiem and Kyrie, Rex Tremendae, and Sanctus from the Verdi Requiem. After years of feeling honored to be able to listen to these pieces in opera houses and concert halls, it was even more of an honor to actually play them. The feeling of playing in the very quiet beginning of the Verdi Requiem is indescribable.

Another thing that I had never done before is play a composer’s music for a composer himself. American composer Eric Ewazen joined the camp for a couple of days to listen to ensembles play his pieces in master classes and recitals. One morning, I woke up having never heard of Eric Ewazen or his Grand Canyon Suite for horn octet. In the afternoon, I was playing the first movement of it under his baton. In the evening, we sat at the same table for dinner discussing Wagner and other fun music trivia. Any anxiety about my lack of knowledge of his music was completely wiped away by his beaming smile, as I sat fascinated by the fact that I was eating dinner and conversing with a live composer. Thanks to BSM Brass Week, this was made possible.

Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week 2015 students and faculty. Eric Ewazen is pictured in the blue plaid shirt. (From left to right at the bottom of the photo: Erik Ralske, Javier Gandara, Denson Paul Pollard, David Krauss (up a step), and Toby Oft)

Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week 2015 students and faculty. Eric Ewazen is pictured in the blue plaid shirt. (From left to right at the bottom of the photo: Erik Ralske, Javier Gandara, Denson Paul Pollard, David Krauss (up a step), and Toby Oft)

Berkshire Summer Music became a family. I would be sitting alone at a table for dinner, and it would later fill up with renowned faculty and students, who are now friends, from all over the world. Discussions ranged from different types of mutes to appreciation of the structure of Bruckner symphonies versus Mahler symphonies to Wagner’s Ring. We even watched all of Das Rheingold together as part of BSM Brass Week’s movie night. By the end of the week, I felt like I truly belonged at this wonderful institution, surrounded by great and talented people. Now, I feel ready to take on any previously scary-sounding six to nine week music program out there and meet more of the small world of classical music. Thank you, BSM Brass Week, for helping me conquer my fear…and enabling me to learn a lot about music and a bit about myself, too.

Things to Learn from Marilyn Horne: The Song Continues

Marilyn Horne’s autobiography, published in 2004 with the help of Jane Scovell, serves not only to discuss her career and artistry, but also to enlighten young singers in their endeavors to become professional musicians.

Marilyn-Horne-The-Song-Continues

She begins her book telling how she played the mighty and powerful soldier Tancredi, who has been exiled in Rossini’s opera of the same name. In the end, Tancredi wins a victorious battle and is united with his lover Amenaide for a happy ending. Throughout her book, Horne evokes this very confidence as she fought for her career in music; never was there any doubt in her mind that she could make it, even if it took embarking overseas to Europe for opportunities. She eloquently described the fear factor of this whole process, crossing over the Atlantic to countries in which language barriers were prevalent, living conditions were questionable, and the uncertainty of success, even after traveling such great distances, loomed. (Nowadays, as she mentioned, singers are able to start their careers in the United States, whereas up until the mid to late twentieth century singers were obligated to venture over to Europe and beyond).

Cover of Marilyn Horne's 1989 recording of Rossini's Tancredi

Cover of Marilyn Horne’s 1989 recording of Rossini’s Tancredi

As the book is written chronologically, she also describes how she was able to overcome the loss of her parents, siblings, friends, and many others in order to get her job done on the stage; an almost impossible feat in light of such emotional events. This confidence factor that she carried throughout her career is something young singers should take to heart and remember over the course of their trials and errors.

However, just as Rossini revised the ending of Tancredi to have him mortally wounded in battle and learn then that his lover never betrayed him, Horne goes into great detail the pain and anguish the very life of a singer caused her. Even though opera singers largely have individual and self-motivated careers, they all have people in their lives who can be affected by the unattractive aspects of the career: traveling being a big factor. It is clearly shown through her warm reverence that family meant a lot to Marilyn Horne, even though she could not be around for every single life event. She and Henry Lewis loved each other dearly, yet due to the gruesome aspects of the life of a singer, as described by Horne, their marriage was not meant to succeed. There was no operatic betrayal involved, like that found in Tancredi, it was just a real-life, offstage tragedy.

On a lighter note, Horne’s humor made her book truly enjoyable. It is evident how funny she is simply based on what she did for her career. Even at the times when her weight became an issue, she managed to turn it on other people. When one German opera company hesitated in hiring her because of her weight, she stood back and sang a ringing “Ritorna vincitor” for the director, who later ended up hiring her. As weight has become a prevalent issue in recent years for singers due to the Met Live in HD series and more stress placed on productions and “vision”, carrying Horne’s passive and humorous attitude towards the matter is an idea to keep in mind. It is a shame that there was even a slight chance that Marilyn Horne’s weight would have spoken louder of her ability as an artist than her immense talent, corresponding to what happened earlier last year with Irish Marilyn Horne-esque mezzo soprano Tara Erraught at Glyndebourne.

marilyn-horne-masterclass

Marilyn Horne giving a master class at Carnegie Hall on January 13, 2014 (Pete Checchia/Carnegie Hall)

It was a delight reading about Marilyn Horne’s career as both a singer, and later the proponent of the Marilyn Horne Foundation, launched on January 16, 1994. The organization allows young artists to explore the world of recital-based singing, and to participate in master classes, a few of which are held at Carnegie Hall annually during the week of Horne’s birthday, held by guest artists and Ms. Horne herself. I have had the lucky opportunity over the last few years to attend her master classes, as well as adjunct ones taught by Christa Ludwig and Anne Sofie von Otter, in 2014 and 2015 respectively. She is sharp as a tack when it comes to dealing with singers’ proper breath support, of which she is a huge advocate, as well as diction, and having an idea of the background information. In her 2013 master class, I vividly remember her getting on a singer, whose art song was based on William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for not having read the play. This proved to be a valuable lesson in song preparation for not only the poor singer but to every vocal student sitting in Carnegie Hall that night. Her tact and aptness in her preparation during her career showed brilliantly in her autobiography, just as they do in her master classes.

I would recommend this book to vocal students who are looking to pursue solo careers like she had. Many of the hardships she described relate to traveling and feeling far away from home, therefore, I think anyone pursuing a career that requires being separated from family and friends would appreciate her confessions of how tough that life can be. Her book was truly enlightening, just as she acts as a beacon of light for the next generation of classical vocalists.

A Tribute to Margaret Juntwait: The Host of My Days

Juntwait-in-booth

Margaret Juntwait in the MET Opera Radio booth

Earlier this morning, the longtime radio host of the Metropolitan Opera Margaret Juntwait passed away from ovarian cancer. She died at the age of 58. The last Met broadcast she hosted and the last time her voice touched the ears of opera enthusiasts live was during last year’s New Year’s Eve gala of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow. To think that her beautiful voice will never soar live through the airwaves again is tragic.

I first met Margaret Juntwait when I was an outgoing, nine-year-old fourth grader. I had joined our elementary school’s Literary Magazine committee, and as MET Opera Radio SiriusXM was new that year, I wanted to write a feature on it. She kindly agreed to be interviewed about it, and I finally had the opportunity to journey to the sixth floor of the Met where the radio department is located. When I arrived, she was just as sweet to me, a nine-year-old literary magazine reporter, as she would have been to a New York Times critic or anyone from the press. I asked her the questions I prepared and she answered them to the fullest.

Little did I know that after our interview she would ask me if I would like to be interviewed on MET Opera Radio as one of the first guests on the new station. I had only joined the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus about a year earlier, and I had only mentioned the fact that I was in it once to her. I could not believe it! My family and I ventured back up to the sixth floor during a March 2007 broadcast of Turandot, in which I would be interviewed during one of the intermissions. She made me feel right at home; I did not feel nervous at all. She made the interview seem as if I was talking to an old friend; we were chatting, laughing, and even singing a little bit! I will forever cherish that sensation of friendship that she made real that night live in the studio.

Every morning I wake up to MET Opera Radio. I keep my stereo singing all through the night because I cannot get enough opera during the day. Sometimes I would even wake up in the middle of the night to Margaret’s recorded introductions to a 1980s broadcast of L’elisir d’amore, or credits after a long haul of Götterdämmerung. I one time even joked with her that I used to think she would sneak in my room and talk to me in my sleep. That is how close a presence she was, even though there were always a stereo and microphone between us.

Each morning at 7:30 when my dad and I leave the house for school, we often check what the 6:00 AM broadcast is (even though most of the time I know what it is from already having checked), or what excerpt is being played. Whenever it was timed well enough so that Margaret could tell us what it was, my dad and I would look at each other and say simultaneously, “That’s our friend!”.

In the evenings after dinner, my family and I always gather in our den to listen to MET Opera Radio broadcasts on certain days of the week. As I launched into my homework or a new book or my newsfeeds on Facebook and Twitter, I would smile when I heard Margaret arrive on the air welcoming everyone for the night. It was comforting to know that she was hosting my evening’s soundtrack as I worked on my assignments. During intermissions, William Berger often asks trivia questions, for which one can email answers to radio@metopera.org to get possible shoutouts. Whenever I was mentioned for my responses, Margaret would cheer or even say “what a surprise!”, because she always admired my knowledge of the art form.

Once I was ready to fall asleep, Margaret’s voice would often be the last one I heard for the day. Sometimes if I heard her, I would say “Goodnight, Margaret!” before I turned over and shut off the light. I wish I could have had a chance to say that “Goodnight” in person, just as she said to me hundreds of times at the end of live broadcasts. Her curiosity, passion, and love for opera will be missed by the thousands of people who tune into MET Opera Radio and WQXR every week.

As I enter as a freshman vocal performance major next year at Manhattan School of Music, just as she did after her senior year of high school, I will think of her as I walk through the hallways and when I continue to have MET Opera Radio playing in my dorm. Thank you, Margaret Juntwait, for always being a part of my day, a familiar voice, and a friend. You will be missed.

A Different Genre of Prom

Mahler, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Verdi go to prom  Credits to Susan Spector, my multi-talented mother

Mahler, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Verdi go to prom
Credits to Susan Spector, my multi-talented mother

It is the end of May. As a high school senior, I should be excited and be looking forward to putting on makeup, my overpriced dress and shoes, and getting out on the dance floor to have a fun time at prom. For some reason, none of this sounds appealing to me. Paying $300 (dress and shoes not included) for myself, an outside date, and crappy food to be stuck in a hotel ballroom until 2:00 AM does not sound “fun”. I refuse to believe that I will look back when I am in my forties, pondering over why I chose not to attend my school’s prom. Maybe I am just a curmudgeon, but I am looking forward to prom in a different way. A different kind of prom: The BBC Proms live from Royal Albert Hall. Beginning in July over seventy concerts will be broadcast live from the great concert hall in London. This year’s program features everything from Alice Coote singing Handel with the English Concert to all five Prokofiev piano concerti. To me, this sounds far more fun, even just listening on a stereo at home, than going out on Friday night to my dreaded school prom and sitting on the Jersey Shore all weekend.

Here are twelve proms that I am looking forward to “attending”:

Logo for the BBC Proms 2015 season

Logo for the BBC Proms 2015 season

Prom 7: July 22

Prom 7 celebrates the 150th birthday of Carl Nielsen with Mark Simpson playing his iconic clarinet concerto. Instead of getting “summer vibes” from the Jersey shore, the concert will also feature the BBC Symphony under Sir Andrew Davis playing Delius’ flowery “In a Summer Garden” and Ravel’s romantic Daphnis et Chloe.

Prom 11: July 25

For something offbeat, Bryn Terfel will star as Tevye in a semi-staged version of Fiddler on the Roof. After his terrifyingly good performances as Sweeney Todd on the stages of New York and London last year, this is a not-miss. This will also be a debut for the Hampshire Grange Park Opera at the Proms.

Prom 14: July 28

To celebrate Tchaikovsky’s 175th birthday earlier this month, Valery Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra in all three of his piano concertos with soloist Denis Matsuev. On July 28, Gergiev will accomplish a similar feat by conducting all five of Prokofiev’s piano concertos. Three different pianists will split this daunting task: Daniil Trifonov will play Concertos No. 1 and 3; Sergei Babayan will play Concertos No. 2 and 5, and Alexei Volodin will play Concerto No. 4. Gergiev conducted all five in a row with the Mariinsky in 2012. This time, however, the London Symphony will take a stab at these five monsters.

Prom 23: August 2

Considering I am going about my last days of high school thinking about prom as a “Dies Irae”, I think I should look forward to the Verdi Requiem with the BBC Scottish Symphony and Donald Runnicles on the podium. Three out of the four soloists will be making their BBC Prom debuts: Angela Meade, Yosep Kang, and Raymond Aceto. Karen Cargill sang with the BBC Scottish Symphony as the mezzo soloist in Mahler 3 at the 2010 Proms. For those hot days at the beginning of August, the Verdi Requiem is guaranteed to chill your spine.

Prom 39: August 14

I was reminded this past February how delightful a piece Die Entführung aus dem Serail is after playing the overture with my youth orchestra at Manhattan School of Music. The petite Glyndebourne Festival Opera takes the enormous Royal Albert Hall stage in this amusing work. Robin Ticciati, who most recently succeeded Vladimir Jurowski as the director of the Glyndebourne Festival in January 2014, conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Prom 40: August 15 – Symphonies No. 1 & 2

Prom 42: August 16 – Symphonies No. 3 & 4

Prom 43: August 17 – Symphonies No. 5, 6, & 7

All seven of Sibelius’ symphonies are being performed at the Proms this year on three separate nights. What a way to FINNISH off senior year, eh?! Ok, let’s continue…

Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Marco Borggreve

Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Marco Borggreve

Prom 49: August 22 – Mahler 6

Prom 51: August 23 – Shostakovich 10

On their most recent New York tour, the Boston Symphony performed Shostakovich 10 and Mahler 6 on consecutive nights. Andris Nelsons’ agile and limber movements on the podium brought joy to these pieces when I saw the BSO at Carnegie Hall in April. His stress for line and legato allows even Shostakovich’s turbulence and the pandemonium found in Mahler 6 to be lush (with the exception of the hammer blows). It will also be worth tuning in to hear John Ferrillo’s oboe playing. His cantabile and light style of playing is attractive and sweet compared to some of the pinched oboe sounds coming out of some European orchestras.

Prom 65: September 3

The beginning of September will bring Alice Coote singing Handel with the English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket. Last November, she and Joyce DiDonato costarred in Handel’s Alcina with the same orchestra, giving a fiery performance at Carnegie Hall. She will sing several cantatas and arias from various operas brought to the surface in the Marilyn Horne era of Baroque singing, including Giulio Cesare and Semele. Handel’s music has a way of taking anyone’s swirling, violent emotions, about the end of senior year for example, and rushing them into a rhythmic, powerful storm of sound. It seems to me like this would be much more exciting than the computer-fabricated dubstep at your normal, everyday prom.

Prom 66: September 4

The London Philharmonic returns to the Proms with Shostakovich 8, one of his later war symphonies. These musicians went to battle on the piece back in October of last year at Carnegie Hall, where I got to witness the low brass section give their all for Shostakovich’s demands. The trombones particularly blasted their parts, not in an ugly manner, however. Maestro Jurowski will lead Shosty 8 once again on Friday, September 4. Mitsuko Uchida will precede the Shostakovich with the Schoenberg Piano Concerto.

Jonas Kaufmann, photo featured on RAH's website © Gregor Hohenberg

Jonas Kaufmann, photo featured on RAH’s website © Gregor Hohenberg

Prom 76: September 12

Last but not least, the Last Night of the Proms will be a real treat this year. Jonas Kaufmann is this year’s featured guest who has the honor of singing “Rule, Brittania!” at the conclusion of the BBC Proms season. He will also sing several opera arias, including “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot and “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Lehar’s Das Land des Lächlens. It would be a dream if Jonas Kaufmann took me to prom, however, I can settle for this amazing concert.

As I reassure myself that prom is really not crucial in the grand scheme of things, which includes graduating, going off to college, and trying to make a career in music happen, I realize that listening to the BBC Proms would be an ample substitute. They always feature fun commentary and provide a niche for classical music during the summer, while New York has an awkward gap between the spring and fall. Instead of struggling to understand why I am not enjoying the end of senior year, I will look forward to all of these BBC Proms concerts in July, August, and September.

Musing about the Met’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann

On Saturday night the Met’s last performance of this season’s run of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann took place. Under the baton of James Levine the cast included Matthew Polenzani in the title role, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Nicklausse, Laurent Naouri as the four Villains, Audrey Luna as the doll Olympia, Susanna Phillips as Antonia, and Elena Maximova as Giulietta.

Audrey Luna and Matthew Polenzani in the Met's Les contes d'Hoffmann, © Corey Weaver, Metropolitan Opera

Audrey Luna and Matthew Polenzani in the Met’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, © Cory Weaver, Metropolitan Opera

Hoffmann is one of Levine’s specialties, as he has conducted it over twenty times at the Met alone and extensively at the Salzburg Festival. As a result, he kept everything under control. The Met Orchestra played gorgeously; the winds particularly played with sensitivity and sparkle. The Met Chorus was fantastic as always; the men’s chorus especially outdid themselves in the Luther’s tavern scenes with the drinking choruses and “Chanson de Kleinzach”. The very stage presence of Bartlett Sher’s production is complicated, as characters from one act appear in others where they are not included in the libretto. Having clones of the doll Olympia stalking and waltzing around mechanically in Giulietta’s palace was disconcerting, but entertaining nonetheless.

Personally, I have always thought of Matthew Polenzani as a light Mozartian tenor. His Hoffmann was a very Mozartian one; slightly reserved, controlled, and never belted. Even at climaxes, such as the end of Act I when Hoffmann realizes that Olympia is only a robot, he did not push himself over the edge. His companion, Jennifer Johnson Cano sang very richly and darkly, similarly to how Kate Lindsey sang the role earlier in the season. As they are both young, one feels that their voices could develop further in the future in order to inhabit bigger French mezzo roles such as those in Susan Graham’s repertoire. With her costume and the dark set, Johnson Cano managed to blend in as the transparent, ever-watching Nicklausse. Naouri was cleverly and entertainingly evil throughout the evening. He seemed to particularly enjoy being Dr. Miracle, as he clinked his flasks and conducted Antonia from a chair. It was astounding how he did not have to reach down to access his lower register; it seemed as if he was sitting right on it, especially in the ‘A’ to ‘D’ slide in “Scintille diamant”. His diction was impeccable; it probably helps that he is a native speaker and he lives under the same roof as former Met soprano Natalie Dessay.

Laurent Naouri and Matthew Polenzani in the Met's Les contes d'Hoffmann, © Cory Weaver, Metropolitan Opera

Laurent Naouri and Matthew Polenzani in the Met’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, © Cory Weaver, Metropolitan Opera

Audrey Luna was truly out of this world. Her multiple ‘Ab’s, ‘G’s, and ‘F’s above high C rang through the house. Those made up for the rest of her register down below, as her entire range has adopted the same strident nature as her high notes. Susanna Phillips was marvelous as Antonia. The part truly fits her voice well. Her top bloomed in “Elle a fui, la tourterelle”, even more than in Musetta’s Waltz earlier this year. Maximova’s sound was a bit closed and narrowed in her Giulietta. Her duet with Polenzani in Act III was balanced, however.

Unfortunately the Met is not rumored to be bringing back Hoffmann in the next few seasons. It would never be too soon for this Offenbach masterpiece to return to the Met stage.

Thoughts on Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva

The cover of Deborah Voigt's new autobiography "Call Me Debbie: Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva"

The cover of Deborah Voigt’s new autobiography “Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva”

In the last three days I have devoured and finished Deborah Voigt’s new autobiography Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-To-Earth Diva. I found her story fascinating, less so from her musical perspective but more so from her struggles with her addictions: Eating, alcohol, and men. Her target audience, I feel, should include not only opera fans, but also those struggling to overcome addictions in general. Through her comparisons between the roles she sang and her own life events, she made both opera and her diseases accessible and easy to understand for readers. I particularly liked her comparison of her own life to Sieglinde, as both of them were forlorn and feeling trapped in the lives they were living; Voigt due to her own physical and emotional constraints, and Sieglinde due to her unhappy marriage to Hunding.

If everything in the book is true, it seems as if Voigt did not hold anything back. She goes into gruesome detail about the amounts of food she gorged, leading to her heaviness and embarrassment from events such as the “Little Black Dress” predicament. Nothing is sugarcoated; she puts everything out in the open. Despite some grammatical and factual errors, such as discussing a “Minister” as a character in Götterdämmerung, it remained sincere and authentic.

Her sincerity truly touched me the most at the very end. At one point during the time she is in rehab for alcoholism, she describes how she was assigned to draw a Tree of Life, on which she drew her dog Steinway, music notes, and other happy thoughts. She then drew a Tree of Hope, on which she depicted herself as happy and free, which are the exact characteristics she was striving to achieve for herself throughout the entirety of the book. I was left in tears knowing that she was able to pick herself up through drawing after years of suffering.

Voigt’s new book truly made me appreciate her journey to becoming and conquering her career as an opera singer. It also made me more thankful than ever that she is still alive on this Earth and benefiting the world of music.

This Don is on Fire: A Review of the Met’s Don Giovanni

On Wednesday night the premiere of Don Giovanni took place at the Met. The cast included Swedish baritone Peter Mattei in the title role, Luca Pisaroni as Leporello, South African soprano Elza van den Heever as Donna Anna, Emma Bell as Donna Elvira, Kate Lindsey as Zerlina, and James Morris as the Commendatore. This performance was the beginning of another run of the Michael Grandage production which opened in the 2011-12 season.

Peter Mattei in the title role in Act II of Mozart's Don Giovanni. © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera 2015

Peter Mattei in the title role in Act II of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera 2015

Peter Mattei was the highlight of the show. His voice shimmers and has a sincere, sweet quality to it that has worked for his Don Giovanni, as well as other heavier roles such as Amfortas in Parsifal. This sweetness was particularly prevalent in “Là ci darem la mano” and “Deh vieni alla finestra”, as he used that tone especially well when serenading and flirting with various women in the opera. I, on cue, practically melted in my seat. His intensity on stage was also admirable. For a man well over six feet tall, he was able to stoop down to other singers’ levels, jump on tables, and sink into the fires of Hell without letting his vocal quality decrease. His diction was also impeccable; I had never heard “Fin ch’han dal vino calda la testa” sung with such crispness. Overall, Mattei was the highlight of the evening, wowing with me with every line that poured out of his mouth. He had the entire audience in the palm of his hand.

Pisaroni played a hilarious Leporello; his comic timing is priceless. He had the audience howling with laughter when Giovanni forces Leporello to put his own clothes on in disguise to woo Donna Elvira. His reluctant facial expressions and his collapsing out of fake infatuation for Elvira were hysterical. Pisaroni’s singing was largely lyrical, just as it was in La Cenerentola last season in the role of Alidoro. His “Catalog Aria” was not overdone; it was sung beautifully.

Elza van den Heever wowed the audience with her “Non mi dir”. She played a largely independent Donna Anna, rarely putting her head on Don Ottavio’s shoulder. I only wish that “Non mi dir” and “Or sai chi l’onore Rapire a me volse” could have been on the more exciting side. The tempi seemed to drag under the baton of Alan Gilbert for many portions of the opera. I felt the same way about Emma Bell’s “Mi Tradi”, one of, if not the most exhilarating aria of the evening. It did not feel driven enough, in my opinion, as entrances were hesitant and long lines tended to drag.

The septet at the end of Act I of Mozart's "Don Giovanni". © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera 2015

The septet at the end of Act I of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera 2015

Kate Lindsey’s voice seems to grow richer each time she steps on the stage. She is sounding more and more like a dramatic French mezzo, or the likes of Susan Graham. As the petite Zerlina, she sounded grounded and steady. Her voice did not waver or go sharp, which can happen to more “flighty” Zerlinas. Her counterpart, Masetto, sung by Adam Plachetka, was very solid in his Met debut. Russian tenor Dmitri Korchak also made his debut on Wednesday in the role of Don Ottavio. Other than some unsteady approaches to high notes and taking more time then needed on some phrases, he sang a lovely performance.

The Met Orchestra was captivating. The Met Orchestra musicians always play Mozart so well, as they keep it very chamber-like and crisp. The Met Chorus also did a wonderful job; they sounded lithe and graceful in the happy scenes and dark and menacing in the scary scenes!

Performances of Don Giovanni run through March 6. Go see this Mozartian drama before it is too late!

Seeing Double: A Review of the Met’s Double Bill: Iolanta/Bluebeard’s Castle

On Thursday night the Met put the premiere of Iolanta/Bluebeard’s Castle on the stage. Both new productions directed by Mariusz Trelinski were supposed to open on Monday night, however, the impending “blizzard” did not allow for that to happen. On Thursday the weather was still blustery and nippy, giving an appropriate feel for both the Tchaikovsky and the haunting Bartók.

Starting with Iolanta, the production was very much focused on the stark differences between what Iolanta, sung by the fabulous Anna Netrebko, pictured despite her lack of sight versus what everyone else around her could see. Her bedroom, small and isolated on the big Met stage, lacked any color except for some lifeless deer heads mounted on the wall. The only instance when color came into play was when Vaudemont, sung by Piotr Beczała, arrived and questioned Iolanta about the red and white roses. As Iolanta is somewhat of an obscure opera written by Tchaikovsky immediately after his masterpiece The Queen of Spades, the production’s darkness and ambiguity did not bother me.

Anna Netrebko in the title role of Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta". © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera, 2015

Anna Netrebko in the title role of Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta”. © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera, 2015

The music for Iolanta fits like a glove in Netrebko’s voice. Her sound was truly voluminous, just as it was earlier in the Met’s season when she sang Lady Macbeth. Her rich middle register is something in which one can just sink him or herself. Beczała’s voice was very silvery as Vaudemont. There is nothing artificial or fake to his sound; it has become increasingly pure, at least to my ears, over the last few seasons at the Met. Aleksei Markov played a boyish Robert, high-fiving and performing an elaborate handshake with Beczała at one point when he returns to the stage. Ilya Bannik did a great job filling in for Alexei Tanovitski as King René, Iolanta’s overbearing and protective father. As my dad said in regard to Iolanta’s family keeping the fact the she is blind hidden from her, “These people really need to get out more”.

The Met Orchestra played superbly in both the Tchaikovsky and the Bartók, with only a few minor disconnects that will be fixed as the run continues. The chorus sounded magnificent in Iolanta, as they do not have a role in Bluebeard. The final scene in which Iolanta is finally cured of her blindness is movingly accompanied by the chorus and the rest of the cast.

The performance was dampened, however, by an unfortunate event that occurred during the bows before intermission. During the week, I had seen protests outside both Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera against Maestro Gergiev and his “friendship” with Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia who has faced a lot of controversy in the last year over his policies towards homosexuals and his attitude towards Ukraine. In light of these events, security at the Met was tighter than usual on Thursday night. That did not stop a protestor from hopping onto the edge of the pit on the Stage Right side, walking around the rim onto the stage, and unfolding an anti-Putin, Gergiev, and Netrebko poster with a Ukrainian flag drawn on it to the audience, and then to the cast. Scarily enough, it took more than just a half-second for a stage manager to point the protestor off stage left, let alone tackle him, so he could then be arrested. That excitement left a bit of a bad taste in all of our mouths as we left the theater for intermission.

As all of us hesitantly walked back into the theater after that awful incident. I never would have guessed that I would grow increasingly scared and haunted through the rest of the evening. Bluebeard’s Castle truly left me shaken, not only because it is a terrifying opera in and of itself, but because the production was so downright creepy. The opera began with the traditional poem read in Magyar booming through amplified speakers throughout the theater accompanied by creaking noises. As we were listening to this ominous, deep voice speak, the entire theater’s lights were dimmed to black, as we virtually walked through a dark forest thanks to Trelinski’s vivid projections. The production was overall very dark and dismal; lighted scenes came as a shock. For example, the flashes of red and white light in the torture chamber as well as the immaculate-looking, white-tiled bathroom containing the Lake of Tears came as real surprises. At several points, Judith was blind-folded by Bluebeard before opening the doors, connecting Judith’s being “blinded” from the truth and Iolanta’s physical blindness. The most terrifying factors I found in the production were the almost three-dimensional projections that allowed audience members to feel as if they were walking with Judith down the corridors of Bluebeard’s Castle, and the amplified noises that echoed throughout the house.

Nadja Michael as Judith in Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle". © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera, 2015

Nadja Michael as Judith in Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”. © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera, 2015

Nadja Michael played the innocent ingenue Judith very well. Her looks allowed for her to be enticing and sexy at the same time; at one point she appears completely nude coming out of a bathtub behind the door of riches. Her high C upon opening the fifth door positively rang through the house. I felt as if she had much more control in this role than when she sang Lady Macbeth in the 2011-12 season. Mikhail Petrenko played a somewhat quiet, held-back Bluebeard, acting as if he had been down the road three times already with three previous wives preceding Judith. He blended well with the production in his pitch black suit and wig while showing off his gloomy castle to Judith. At some points it was difficult to hear him, but that was made up by his sound being creepily amplified at other times when Judith was alone on stage. Amplified noises and voices in an opera house may not be traditional, but for a horrifying opera like Bluebeard, I felt like it really worked.

I look forward to returning to see Iolanta/Bluebeard’s Castle in the movie theater Saturday, February 14, if not before at the Met!

Tossing Opera to the Younger Generation

The subject of “Opera and classical music are dying art forms” has been the dreaded fear for music lovers over the last century. As horrifying as it sounds, is it actually true? Opera companies around the world such as the Seattle Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago have incorporated opera institutes and guilds in which children and young adults can participate. Orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic host children’s concerts, such as O TannenBRASS!, and make themselves accessible to the larger public through their use of the Digital Concert Hall. If opera and classical music are still dying, is the message not getting through? For kids to be interested in these art forms, every opportunity should be granted allowing them even the opportunity to develop an interest. Maybe the classical world is working too hard and is attempting to “force feed” classical music, pushing it to the point of forcing it upon on the younger generation.

It is true that some people do not need extra nurturing to find interest in classical music. I endured Wagner’s heavy nineteen-hour Ring Cycle at age six and fell in love with opera without much previous experience. I watched the entire Ring on DVD before attending the Cycle live, and had been introduced to opera previously through recordings. However, I had grown up around my musical parents, with classical music playing constantly in my home. What about the kid who lives nowhere near the Met, surrounded by family members who never keep an ear to WQXR or opera broadcasts elsewhere, and who has had no exposure to classical music even within his or her school? He or she is not going to take on the Ring as it is, let alone “lighter” operas such as Carmen and La Bohème. For someone who has had no exposure to the art form whatsoever, I feel it is important to give him or her every single opportunity to experience it: Watered down or not.

Luckily, through the Internet, non-profit musical organizations, and other sources, opera and classical music are spreading to the younger generation. Through the Internet, for example, groups such as Opera 5 on YouTube present shortened opera plots in two to three-minute videos in order for opera to “make sense” to the naïve or uninitiated. A kid who has never heard of Richard Strauss’ drama Salome might find it funny how Salome’s step-father is somewhat of a creep or “perv”, asking his step-daughter to dance in the nude for him. They may call their videos “Opera Cheats”, but I don’t feel that watching these videos should be considered cheating if watching them leads someone to finding an interest in opera, and then proceeding to research what the real thing is like.

When the Met Opera Guild takes its presentations to schools in and around New York City, their representatives are not putting on fully-staged three to four-hour performances. The Guild’s various program offerings include allowing students to write their own compositions, voice instruction, student performances, and giving libretti, CDs, and English translations of operas to teachers to present to their classes. After the students are introduced to opera through this gentle approach, they have the opportunity to see final dress rehearsals at the Met itself. Instead of throwing operas such as La Bohème at them and saying, “Take it or leave it,” the Met Opera Guild coaxes their interest and then reveals to the students what the real deal actually is. Four hundred sixty New York City school children attended the dress rehearsal of La Bohème in September through the efforts of the Met Opera Guild.

Maybe some of those kids would have had a positive reaction even if La Bohème had been outright thrown at them. It was undoubtedly more meaningful to them, however, having previously had the presentations and opportunities given to them through the Guild, to have it mildly tossed to them. The younger generation is not going to suddenly become the next generation’s opera buffs with merely age and maturity nor should the opera world expect to alter or change the younger generation. That is why the more experienced side must conform for—or at the very least accommodate–the other side in order to spawn interest, not vice versa. Opera and classical music are arts that must remain accessible to everyone, not just to those who are willing to bravely plunge in without prior information or to those who have existing knowledge about the art forms. It is the informed side’s fault if the younger generation “misses a chance” to hear about or try opera. Missed opportunities for new people to experience opera, watered down or not, are unfortunate.

Without Joan Sutherland’s “Who’s Afraid of Opera?” videos using puppets and $10 sets, it is certainly possible that opera would still have interested me just as much as it does today. These delightful “condensed” versions of operas, seen at an extremely young age, could not have hurt, however, in fostering my early positive response to music as well as furthering my interest. I do not know if I would have experienced the same passion for the Ring had it been informally shoved at me in its full unadulterated form from start to finish when I first experienced it. Luckily, however, through Joan Sutherland’s videos and other “dumbed down” classical music videos, I did not miss my chance to try it. Perhaps “dumbing down” allows for opportunities for quite smart and surprising revelations—on the part of the uninitiated as well as the diehard fans.

Boxing Day: Opera Edition

Today is December 26, the day after Christmas. Presents have been opened, carols have been sung, and Christmas festivities are dying down. However, today is a holiday in itself: Boxing Day! Originally, Boxing Day was a holiday for servants and tradesmen to receive presents from their bosses or employers. Now, it is a day for people to flood to the mall in order to take advantage of end-of-the-year sales and to “box” up presents for returns.

Imagine if opera characters could do the same thing…

Here are some great regifting and return ideas for distressed, dying, and discontent opera characters:

The Ring

The Ring in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is a seriously dangerous stocking-stuffer that would be great to return at the mall. Imagine if the Ring hadn’t been put in the hands of so many villains! The Gods, Siegfried, Fasolt, and a bunch of other characters’ lives would’ve been saved. I’m pretty sure if Brünnhilde had taken the Ring to Tiffany’s rather than riding with it on her finger through the Gibichung pire at the end of Götterdämmerung to give it back to the Rhinemaidens, she would have lived too. Wotan’s regifting the Ring for the Rhinemaidens right at the end of Das Rheingold would have been really convenient…but he waited 16 to 17 hours to do the same thing at the end of Götterdämmerung after a lot of bloodshed. I guess he was trying to wait for those end-of-the-world sales…

Otello

Johan Botha as Otello and Renée Fleming as Desdemona in Verdi's "Otello" at the Metropolitan Opera , © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Johan Botha as Otello and Renée Fleming as Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” at the Metropolitan Opera , © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The handkerchief in Otello would have saved both Otello’s and Desdemona’s lives. If Iago had returned the handkerchief at Nordstrom, (or even given it back, or “regifted” it, to Desdemona herself), instead of tormenting Otello’s mind, everyone would have been fine. Then again, he didn’t even buy the handkerchief- he stole it through Emilia. He is more like one of those stupid people who thinks its funny to still Christmas packages off people’s porches. If Iago had not STOLEN the handkerchief, he would still have been jealous of Otello’s rank, but he might not have come up with another plan to torment/kill him.

Tristan und Isolde

Isolde should have taken some serious thought into regifting that chemistry set her mom got her for Christmas. Considering she doesn’t know how to read directions, or refuses to read them…or lets Brangäne read them, it was definitely not the best gift. First of all, she is crazy enough to almost give Tristan lethal poison in Act I because she is so angry with him for killing her previous fiancé Morold. Brangäne then decides to mix the drinks (remember, kids, never accept or leave out open drinks at a party), and, instead, serves Tristan and Isolde a love potion. They evidently fall in love, and five hours later, they are both dead. If Isolde had regifted that “cool” chemistry set her mom got at Toys R’ Us, both she and Tristan would have still been alive. (Isolde would probably have been reluctantly married to King Marke, however).

Faust

Faust is an aging scholar who wishes he had appreciated his youth more than he did. He decides to transform into a younger man so he can date the girl of his dreams by selling his soul to the devil. Méphistophélès, the devil, helps him through the process, and they both go off to stalk Marguerite (the girl of Faust’s dreams) in Act II. In Act III, Méphistophélès helps Faust leave a jewelry box and a hand mirror on Marguerite’s doorstep (Siébel, another one of her lovers, had already put a lame bouquet of flowers on her porch that was now trumped by the jewels). Marguerite finds the jewels and falls in love with them, as well as Faust himself, but then he seduces, impregnates, and abandons her, motivating her to kill her own child and go to jail where she eventually dies, not to mention that she was cursed by both her own brother AND the devil. As much as Marguerite cherished the jewelry box, it would have been nice to take Siébel’s lame-looking flowers instead and to regift the jewels. He seemed like a nice guy anyway..

Tosca

Karita Mattila in the title role on the cover of the Met's DVD of Luc Bondy's production of  "Tosca"

Karita Mattila in the title role on the cover of the Met’s DVD of Luc Bondy’s production of “Tosca”

It would really have been to Tosca’s advantage not to have flipped out over Scarpia’s “gift” of the Attavanti fan. If she or he had regifted the fan, Scarpia’s groupies would not have found Cavaradossi and Angelotti in the first place. Her jealousy of Cavaradossi and Marchese Attavanti’s nonexistent affair, provoked by Scarpia’s discovery of the fan in the chapel, allowed Cavaradossi to be tortured and eventually executed. She gets so upset over his death that she flings herself off the roof of Castel Sant’Angelo. Thanks to a fan that could have been regifted, or returned for an even better Christmas present, Scarpia, Cavaradossi, and Tosca were all killed brutally.

Wozzeck

Marie and Wozzeck are two desperate individuals living very poor lives. Marie goes after other men to find security and to avoid his general weirdness, while Wozzeck himself works odd jobs involving catching salamanders, eating beans, and urinating only when told to do so. Marie, being the desperate woman she is, gets involved in an affair with the Drum Major, who gives her a nice pair of earrings. One day, Marie is trying on the earrings when Wozzeck walks in and asks where she found them. Instead of saying she bought them on sale at Bloomingdale’s, she tells him that she just “found them” in the street. Wozzeck thinks its utter nonsense, saying that no one ever finds two of the same earring on the street. This initiates his suspicion of her having an affair. He eventually finds out about her affair with the Drum Major, and promptly knifes her while on a nice stroll by the lake…and then he drowns by trying to throw the knife he used further and further into the lake. If Marie had regifted the earrings or gotten some money back after returning them, she and Wozzeck would have been able to put food on the table and feel more secure. Marie may have continued her affair, however…

I guess Boxing Day does not exist in the opera world. Even for little problems like curses. If Rigoletto had been able to return Monterone’s curse, he might still have a daughter. Then again, opera would be far less entertaining if the troubling factors and powerful symbolism found in certain objects like handkerchiefs and earrings were taken out. Happy Boxing Day!