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.