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!

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

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

VolleMeistersinger

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

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

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

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

MeistersingerAnnetteDasch

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

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

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

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

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

Meistersinger Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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