Macbeth: Shakespeare vs. Verdi

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Yes, that’s me. Dressed as a witch. Holding a book on Verdi. Why do you ask?

For the past week I have been preparing myself for seeing William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth at the Globe Theater. I read the play for the first time this week and I have seen the opera by Giuseppe Verdi several times. After reading the play, I wondered how closely Verdi had followed Shakespeare’s lines and plot…

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Verdi managed to include everything essential to make the plot flow. However, there are a few minor details that he did not include in the opera. For example: In the play, King Duncan’s sons Donalbain and Malcolm flee from Scotland. Donalbain flees to Ireland and Malcolm flees to England. MacDuff also joins Malcolm in England. Neither MacDuff’s nor Malcolm’s escape to England are mentioned in the opera. When the curtain opens in Verdi’s Act IV, we find both of them with their armies at the border between Scotland and England. It comes as a surprise!

Verdi also did not mention some of the characters. For example: Hectate, the goddess of witchcraft, who helps the witches conjure up Macbeth’s apparitions. Verdi used an entire women’s chorus to act as Shakespeare’s three Weïrd Sisters, so one of them could possibly have been Hectate. However, if it was planned that way, it is not clear to the audience. Verdi also did not mention Donalbain, the second son of Duncan who flees to Ireland. Donalbain is not featured in the play after he flees to Ireland. He is also the younger brother of Malcolm, putting him out of the competition for the title of king if Macbeth was thrown over. 

King Duncan, as important a character as he is in Shakespeare’s play, does not sing or speak one word in Verdi’s opera. He is only shown marching in with his train into Macbeth’s home, and walking to his bedroom where he will be murdered later that night. In some opera productions, like the Met’s most recent one, Duncan’s bed, drenched with blood, with him in it, is carried out for the household to see. However in most productions, King Duncan is not featured as greatly as he is in the Shakespeare play.

Macbeth and Banquo’s Ghost at the Metropolitan Opera 2007 © Ken Howard

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The same goes for Banquo’s son Fleance. He has plenty of conservations with his father in the play, but does not say a word in the opera.

One other part of the play that Verdi did not include in his opera were certain scenes. For example: There were several scenes of King Duncan talking to his sons, Macbeth, and other characters. Duncan does not even sing in the opera! There were also scenes where Ross, Lennox, and other Scottish noblemen would talk over the situation of Macbeth, and the mysterious deaths that were occurring in Scotland. There is also one scene, Act IV Scene 3 to be exact, where Macduff and Malcolm meet each other and plan their battle in Scotland. Malcolm at first is suspicious of Macduff, and thinks he could possibly be a spy for Macbeth. Proven wrong, Macduff and Malcolm trust each other and prepare their armies. Finally, one of the other scenes that Verdi did not include was where Lady Macduff and her children are murdered by Macbeth’s men. The witches tell Macbeth to beware of Macduff, so he decides to brutally kill his family. In the opera, Macduff receives a letter telling him that they were murdered, and regrets the fact that he was not there to protect them in his aria, “Ah, la paterna mano”. The feeling of regret that Macduff experiences in the opera is reflected in the way Lady Macduff refers to him in the play. She tells her son that his father was a traitor for leaving the family unprotected in Scotland, that he should feel regretful. Verdi exclusively included Macduff’s reaction, rather than including both Macduff’s and his wife’s reactions.

The characterizations that Shakespeare made for his characters and the ones that Verdi created for his characters differed. For example: Both Shakespeare and Verdi made Macbeth a careful, scared character, who followed all of his evil wife’s commands. However, once Lady Macbeth dies, their characterizations became diverse. In the Shakespeare, Macbeth becomes ruthless and nasty to his servants, making them keep watch for Birnam Wood and prepare for battle. He also goes into the actual fighting and kills young Siward. In the opera, Macbeth keeps that scared and nervous attitude, just as he had when he encountered Banquo’s ghost at the ball. He is killed by Macduff with no other fighting or killing. The characterizations of the other characters remain equal with each other, especially the outright evil and demon-like characterization of Lady Macbeth.

Birgit Nilsson as Lady Macbeth (Verdi)

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The play and the opera are not completely different. Verdi did in fact follow the text of the play closely, and wove it into his libretto. For example: In the opera, Lady Macbeth’s aria in her sleepwalking scene is called, “Una macchia è qui tuttora!”, meaning “Yet here’s a spot! (V.1.31)”. That line is uttered by Lady Macbeth in her sleepwalking scene in Shakespeare’s play. Another line that Verdi copied was “He has no children (IV.3.222)”, which is said by Macduff. In reference to Macbeth, Macduff explains to his men that he [Macbeth] is brutal and that he killed his [Macduff’s] wife and children because he has no children of his own. This line is also sung in Verdi’s opera.

I am a huge fan of both Shakespeare and Verdi, making Macbeth one of my favorite plays and operas. I am looking forward to seeing the Shakespeare play live at the Globe Theater, the theater that Shakespeare built specifically for his plays, just as Wagner built Bayreuth specifically for the Ring and Parsifal. I will also looking forward to its return to the Met in the future.

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Happy Johannistag!

Today, June 24th, is Johannistag, or St. John’s Day in English. It is a celebration of the birthday of John the Baptist, and also a celebration of Midsummer’s Day. Typical celebrations include pyres, flowers, dancing, and beautiful outfits. This celebratory day is featured in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The celebration takes place in the second scene of Act III, where flowers, dancing, and beautiful outfits can be seen, maybe not pyres because nobody would want the fire alarms to go off. This is also where the Prize Song Contest is hosted, where Beckmesser makes a fool of himself and Walther wins Eva as his bride. It is a very fun, entertaining, and beautiful scene to watch, especially after sitting through five other hours of it!

Here are some photos of various productions of the Johannistag scene (Act III Scene 2):

     Glyndebourne’s Die Meistersinger staged at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2013

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Bayreuth’s Die Meistersinger directed by Katharina Wagner

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Covent Garden’s Die Meistersinger in 2011

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A colorful interpretation of Die Meistersinger from Komische Oper Berlin

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The Metropolitan Opera’s Die Meistersinger in March 2007. (I am in the middle, to the left of James Morris, long blonde hair and a brown apron) © Beth Bergman 2007

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What do all of these photos have in common? They are filled with color, life, happiness, and celebration over Johannistag! Now go out and celebrate by listening to a recording of Die Meistersinger!

Auditions, Auditions, and More Auditions

Looking at the title, can you guess why I haven’t written on my blog very often lately…

AUDITIONS

For the past month, I have been running all over New York City auditioning for precollege music programs. The precollege programs are basically another day of school built in on Saturdays, except it is a whole day of musical training, performing and theory classes. I auditioned for three specific schools: The Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, and Mannes College of Music. I had been preparing for these auditions for over a year with various voice teachers, and they finally came at the end of last month and the beginning of this month.

In total, I took six auditions. All of them were within 15 days of each other. A lot of school was missed, there were a lot of nerves, but in the end, there was joy:

Audition #1:

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It started on Saturday, May 18th with Manhattan School of Music. I was welcomed with open arms at that first audition, because I not only found the atmosphere warm and close-knit, but I said hello to several of my friends from the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus. I knew from there, that if I got in here, it would feel like family!

My audition there went very well. I sang “Lachen und Weinen” by Franz Schubert and “Silent Noon” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. There were seven people on the committee, and it was in a beautiful room with long windows, and a great view of Riverside Park. No questions were asked, I just sang and left.

10 days later on May 28th, I received an email saying that I was scheduled for a callback audition on June 1st! I was so excited!!!

Audition #2:

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Three days later on May 21st, I auditioned for the Juilliard School. Having it placed right next to Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera already gave me a warm feeling inside. I did see one fellow Met Children’s Chorus member, and I knew from prior knowledge that more were auditioning. My audition took place in a giant ballet studio, with giant windows and giant walls, making me feel like the smallest molecule in the universe. There were three people on the jury. I sang the same two songs that I did at Manhattan School of Music, and I also sang “Già il sole dal Gange” by Alessandro Scarlatti. This time, questions were asked. They were mostly about my musical background, and it was kind of funny pointing out the window saying that I had sung in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus next door! The auditioned ended and I left!

That night I received an email: I had gotten a first callback for the Juilliard School. I was thrilled!

Audition #3: My Juilliard Callback audition happened on May 23rd, two days later. This audition was much different. First of all, I had to take music theory and ear training placement tests. If I were to go to any of the schools, Manhattan School of Music and Mannes included, I would have to take music theory and ear training. They each gave placement tests for both, so it would be easier to organize classes for those accepted. I took each of the exams at Juilliard, finding ear training to be challenging, but theory to be a piece of cake. Then the audition:

This audition was MUCH different than the one before it. First, I sang “Lachen und Weinen” with my glasses off! I couldn’t see! I guess she wanted to see my expressions…? Then I did acting, and took my shoes off! I played the “mirror game”, where you imitate someone and they imitate you back, with a Juilliard college student. There was yelling, there was jumping, all of the typical things you would do at a singing audition. After that, they tested my range, I went up to a high E. Then they did rhythmic exercises. Then I said the words to “Silent Noon” like a poem, sang it, and finally, they said, “Thank you, very nice audition”. After all that, that audition was over!

On the evening of Friday, May 24th, I received another email: I had gotten a SECOND callback for Juilliard….it would take place at the home of Juilliard’s precollege main voice teacher. Wow! They never mentioned second callbacks in the papers I signed, but I was obviously lucky to have one!

Audition #4: My second callback audition for Juilliard was on May 29th. My parents and I found the teacher’s apartment and went inside. This time, I was really wondering, is this really an audition? Could this be an interview for how interested I am in going? What is this?! I walked inside the apartment, and it felt like I was walking into any friend’s apartment that lives in New York City. I sang my three pieces, and the jury tested me on different things. Making pianissimos, crescendoing, etc. They also tested me on vocal warm-ups, scales, and how quickly I could pick up on what they wanted. In this audition, I felt more like a science experiment, where they could observe me and take notes on my progress. I guess any audition is really like that, but this one especially felt like I was in laboratory. Even with the scientific thoughts, I finished my audition, and left!

Audition #5: Remember Manhattan School of Music? After three consecutive auditions at Juilliard, I finally had my callback audition at Manhattan School of Music on June 1st. I took their ear training and music theory placement tests, and found a boiling hot, unairconditioned practice room. The audition took place in a much smaller room. No bigs windows or great views. They had asked callbacks to prepare an art song and an aria, so I sang “Vedrai Carino” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and I sang “Silent Noon” again. They also wanted to hear “Lachen und Weinen”, which I put down on my forms. They stopped me in the middle of “Lachen und Weinen” to say they had heard enough, so I thanked them and left.

Audition #6:

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You must have a great memory if you remember that I said I was auditioning for this place called “Mannes College of Music”. This audition took place on Sunday, June 2nd. Mannes, unlike Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music, is tucked in a side street on West 85th street. So, when I walked in, it felt like I was going into an apartment building. It was much, much smaller than the other schools. I took their theory and ear training exams because they did not have callbacks where people could take them. I warmed up, and I gave my tempos to their provided accompanist. I walked in the audition room with dimmed lighting and greeted the jury. I told them I was going to sing “Lachen und Weinen” and “Silent Noon”, neither of which they had heard of. I motioned for the pianist to start and she did. Probably at least 50 meters under the tempo I gave her. I thought, “Should I stop? They haven’t heard of the song before..”. But by the time I had thought of that, I had to come in for my cue. So a song that would have taken a minute and half, probably took more than three minutes to perform. “Silent Noon” went more smoothly than the other piece. I finished my audition, and since the jury was made up of all women, I got gushes of “Where did you get that dress? Let me see the back? Oooo so pretty!”. Hey, at least they were friendly!

So now all of these auditions are over and are behind me….but what happened?!

Here you go:

I am going to Manhattan School of Music for Precollege Voice!!!

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Yes, I am going to be in a precollege voice program next year at Manhattan School of Music. I received the email on June 6th. Not long after, I received an email from Juilliard: I had been rejected. However, the rejection letter surprisingly was very nice, saying basically that one can succeed in the music world without Juilliard. It was the warmest rejection letter I had ever received.

The next day, I got an email from Mannes: I had been accepted! I knew from the start that I had wanted to go to Manhattan School of Music more, because of the atmosphere, the teachers, and all the people that I know that have gone there for school. I kindly sent them a letter saying I would not attend their school, and put my “Yes, I will be attending Manhattan School of Music” letter in the same mailbox.

It was a life-changing experience auditioning for all of these schools. The best way to practice being a singer or any musician really, and getting rid of stage fright, is auditioning. Waiting and waiting and waiting for emails is also good practice for the world of music. Auditioning is the best practice any musician can use. I am thrilled that I will be attending Manhattan School of Music in the fall. It will make the end of summer a bit easier.

….and yes, I will be back blogging regularly now…I apologize if my last month was preventing me from doing so 😉

A Review of Jonathan Carr’s “The Wagner Clan”

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Through a massive amount of homework and auditions, I managed to read Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany‘s Most Illustrious and Infamous Family in between. For Wagner lovers, this book is filled with the gleaming treasures of the Wagner family history. It uncovers not only Richard and Cosima’s ordeals, but also Siegfried and his siblings, Wieland and Wolfgang and siblings, and generations after!

This book is not a light read (just like Wagner’s operas and personality were not “light”). The content of the book largely covers the history of the family and how Nazism was tied into it, rather than the musical aspects of Wagner. The book mainly deals with family rivals, the chosen heir for the parent of “baby Bayreuth”, Nazism, and how marriages and extended family affected the roots of “The Wagner Clan”.

Surprisingly, this book may not be for those who appreciate Wagner solely for his music, let alone general opera lovers. In other books on Wagner, the chromatics of the famous “Tristan chord” are analyzed. The Wagner Clan, however, simply identifies which operas were performed by which conductor in what year, such as Hans Knappertsbusch conducting Parsifal  and The Ring at Bayreuth in 1951. In other words, Jonathan Carr provided readers with historical facts about the performances, rather than actual musical criticism of those operas.

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Photo: Adolf Hitler with Siegfried Wagner’s daughters Verena (left) and Friedelind (right). Friedelind trashed Hitler and the Nazis in her book Heritage of Fire.

For those who enjoy not only Wagner’s music but also the crazy family history, The Wagner Clan is pure rhinegold! The book starts with the Richard and Cosima generation and their involvement with King Ludwig II, then it moves to the children of Cosima, fathered by both Richard and Hans von Bülow. The Wagner torch is passed to Siegfried who takes over Bayreuth, while also competing with Winifred, his wife, and her close friendship with Adolf Hitler. Siegfried’s children then take over, particularly Wieland and Friedelind. Wieland stayed close to his mother and the Nazis, and directed newer, more modern productions in many German opera houses, while Friedelind escaped Nazi Germany, headed to Britain and the United States, and trashed the Nazis in her book Heritage of Fire. The book ends with Wolfgang and the inheritance of the Bayreuth throne by Eva, who sits on the throne today, and the refusal by Gottfried. The content of the book is a mapped family tree while also a timeline of the multiple generations of the Wagner family.

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Photo: All the children of Cosima Wagner with Maestro Hans Richter (from left: Eva, Isolde, Siegfried, Daniela, and Blandine)

I enjoyed The Wagner Clan immensely. Ever since I set foot on the “Green Hill” at Bayreuth last summer, I have been fascinated by its history and Wagner’s history. This book was the answer. It was well written, organized, and gave juicy details that Wagner lovers lust after. The Wagner family history is so crazy and full of operatic twists, that an opera could be written about the family itself!

I would recommend this book to Wagner enthusiasts, not general opera lovers, and those interested or studying the Third Reich. There are so many fascinating (and even funny) stories about Hitler and his closeness with the Wagner family, that a student or reader could get a good idea of Hitler and his interests. As a Wagner enthusiast and a student in Advanced Placement US History, I enjoyed Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan!