Is Opera Color Blind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To Shush or Not to Shush?

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

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

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

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

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

Swedish Steel: A Review of the Met’s Turandot

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

Nina Stemme taking her bow after Turandot on Monday night

 

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

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

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

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

A Tribute to Pierre Boulez and the Centenary Ring

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

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Pierre Boulez, ca. 1976 ©Pierre Petitjean

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

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

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

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

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

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