Happy 100th Birthday, Birgit Nilsson!

One hundred years ago today, Birgit Nilsson was born on a farm in rural Sweden. She would go on to become not only the greatest Wagnerian specialist to date, but in my opinion, one of the greatest artists in the last century. I am not old enough to have had the honor of hearing Birgit live. As I have come to understand, it is impossible to experience the very same magnitude of her voice through recordings compared to live performances, however, that is the only way I, a 20-year old voice student, have been able to admire her.

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, from the singer’s archives

I admire her for many reasons. If a group of people was gathered in a room, blindfolded, and asked to identify the singer on a recording of the Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung, it would be impossible to mistake Birgit for another singer, or deny it was her voice in the first place. Her voice is so versatile in its ability, color, impeccable intonation and steel that it has remained defiantly unique among thousands of other singers. For most other voices, it is far more difficult to distinguish one from another.

When discussing Brigit’s voice, many tend to spend time talking about how unbelievably resonant and voluminous it is. This is true, one only has to put on recordings of her Elektra or her Dyer’s Wife in Strauss’ Elektra and Die Frau ohne Schatten, respectively, to hear how “loud” she could be. One of her signature exciting moments is at the end of Act II of Turandot when she holds two forte, sustained high ‘C’s over the orchestra, chorus, and Calaf. Most Turandots are drowned out at that moment; not Birgit. One cannot deny hearing her resonant voice sail over the hundreds of people singing and playing at the same forte volume.

Birgit Nilsson as Isolde in 'Tristan und Isolde'

Birgit Nilsson as Isolde in her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1959

However, her soft singing is not to be overlooked. During a recent Toll Brothers Metropolitan Opera Quiz on which I was a panelist, we were asked to discuss our favorite long deaths in opera (as morbid as that sounds) and include lines from those deaths that were special to us. I chose to discuss the “Liebestod” at the very end of Tristan und Isolde, and I chose specifically to discuss Birgit’s interpretation of it on the 1966 recording from Bayreuth with Karl Böhm conducting. Isolde’s very last words are “höchste Lust”, which roughly translates to “sublime delight” as she sinks to die alongside Tristan. “Lust” is written on a long ‘F-sharp’ at double pianissimo for the voice and the orchestra. After singing at volumes far stronger than that for the five hours Tristan und Isolde lasts, it was as if Birgit took her Hummer of a voice, and parked it in a space the size for a smart car. Yet, she never parked outside the lines; she produced the most delicate, intimate sound imaginable.

As a person, Birgit was the quintessential “down-to-earth” diva, if a diva at all. Even at the height of her career, she would return home to her farm in Sweden to milk her cows. She was a human being living during an era in which many singers (especially sopranos) considered themselves important, or what others may call “holier than now”. While recording her signature role of Brünnhilde with the Vienna Philharmonic under Sir Georg Solti, members of the recording team brought a live horse into the studio. While this fun jest may have ruffled the feathers of other singers, one sees Birgit on Humphrey Burton’s documentary The Golden Ring – The Making of Solti’s “Ring” break out into giggles.

According to those I know who were lucky enough to meet her, she was kind, approachable, and downright hilarious. There are so many funny stories from throughout her career, especially from her relationships with conductors. In 1967, the famously stern and serious Herbert von Karajan, who Birgit referred to as “Herbie”, directed a new production of the Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera with extremely dark sets and lighting. In a rehearsal for Die Walküre, Birgit entered onstage wearing a miner’s helmet donned with valkyrie wings.

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde in Die Walkure at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967

Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde wearing a winged miner’s helmet as a joke in ‘Die Walküre’ at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967. Photograph: Louis Mélançon/Metropolitan Opera

Birgit’s legacy lives on in many forms. She made multiple recordings, both live and studio. In addition to many books written about her, she wrote two autobiographies: Birgit Nilsson: My Memoirs in Pictures and La Nilsson: My Life in Opera. Her childhood home has become a museum dedicated in her honor. The Birgit Nilsson Foundation, which she established late in life, continues to promote her artistry and awards the acclaimed Birgit Nilsson Prize for “outstanding achievement in opera, concert, ’Lieder’, or oratorio”. Just this week, the Swedish dramatic soprano Nina Stemme, who some consider to be one of Nilsson’s successors, was given the 2018 award.

While I never was able to meet her or hear her live, Birgit Nilsson is a singer who means a great deal to me. She was an artist who not only had astounding talent, but she was also a hard worker and an approachable, sensible person. Birgit is the kind of artist, musician, and person I aspire to be. Happy 100th Birthday, Birgit!

A Recollection of the Met’s 2013-14 Season

Hi, followers!

I know I have not blogged in a long time, since November in fact, but I am hoping to get back on here this summer with more posts and reviews. I have had a lot going on with the obligations (complications) that come with junior year in high school, such as AP exams, SATs, ACTs, and the rest of the alphabet. I have also been doing a lot with music, including studying both voice and French horn at Manhattan School of Music Precollege this year, taking piano lessons, singing and playing recitals, and continuing to see performances at the Met, as well as at l’Opéra Bastille (My family and I took a trip to Paris for Spring Break). This year has been a great challenge for me, however, I have enjoyed it thoroughly because of the more rigorous environment in which I have been placed to prepare for senior year and college, musically and academically.

This year may have been exciting, however, I have not had time to talk about all that I saw at the Met last season! I was very impressed with the performance level last year, and was not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. There was no Wagner last season, which is my absolute favorite, and I am not as big a fan of Donizetti and Bellini, which came in abundance. However, I enjoyed going to the opera last season not only as a relief from the constant studying that came with junior year, but also how great the singing was! My top three favorite performances last season were Die Frau ohne SchattenWerther, and  La Cenerentola.

Die Frau ohne Schatten:

Before last season, I had never sat down and listened or watched a Frau in its entirety. I knew that it was by Strauss, and that I loved Strauss, so why wouldn’t I love it? I also never knew that it would become my favorite opera, and that I would return to the Met to see it three more times after the final dress rehearsal. From listening and seeing most of Strauss’ operas, I have found that each one has its own unique tone and style. For example: I feel that Elektra is just the craziest of the crazy, Der Rosenkavalier features a lot of personifications of both people and objects in the orchestra, such as trilling clarinets for candles, and Capriccio is very talky and light. Last season, I determined that Frau is my favorite style of Strauss: Wagnerian. The way in which the motif for Keikobad kept returning in its natural form or arrangements, as well as the repetitive C sharps to signal the Falke, reminded me a great deal of the style of my favorite composer: Wagner.

The music of Frau not only struck me, but all of the performances just drew me in and left me in awe at the end. I had never heard Christine Goerke live before, but boy did I ever hear her whenever she opened her mouth as the Dyer’s Wife. She had such control and maintained her superb vocal quality throughout her entire range. She also brought energy and personality to each of the performances I attended, I especially loved how hilariously she treated Barak’s three brothers by spraying them with water, and how she acted lavishly whenever the Nurse conjured up the paradise she would live in if she gave up her fertility. Through all of the performances of Frau that my dad and I attended, we found each other constantly turning to each other with our mouths gaping open, later saying, “Could you believe how freaking amazing she sounded?!”

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra also outdid itself in this Strauss masterpiece. The swells and waves of sound that constantly emerge from this piece came off as magnificent, yet natural for an orchestra of that level. Even at the relatively fast tempi that Maestro Vladimir Jurowski took, the Met Orchestra went right along and produced big, magnificent, perfect Strauss sounds.

Photo: Die Frau ohne Schatten, production by Herbert Wernicke

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Finally, I also absolutely fell in love with the Met’s production of Frau, designed by Herbert Wernicke. There were two main elements of the productions: Mirrors and stairs. Colorful lights and crystal-bedecked costumes yielded extraordinary reflections on the mirrors. The stairs were a key element of the production, because they were constantly used to move between the spirit world and the real world. I found that this abstract, colorful design really worked for Frau, as it is a magical fantasy more than a relatable story. I truly wonder why the Met decided not to feature Frau as an HD broadcast in movie theaters around the world. The mirrors may cause problems with camera reflections, and the opera is also lengthy, but it is an absolutely beautiful production that people around the world should see! This production really caught my eye and drew me further into Frau.

Werther:

I decided to watch Massenet’s Werther on DVD (the 2010 one with Jonas Kaufmann from the Bastille) last summer in preparation for the Met’s coming season. I think I went through one box of tissues through watching the short fifteen-minute fourth act in which Werther (spoiler!) shoots himself. My dad came upstairs and asked why I was sobbing and I said, “You told me it was sad, not this sad!” Yes, I did cry over how sad the plot is, but I also enjoyed Massenet’s music, the French style, and of course, Jonas Kaufmann.

I attended three performances of Werther at the Met last season, all of which left me moved to tears, not only because of the plot, but the unbelievable level of singing. As much as I like Kaufmann in heavier German repertoire, I loved his lush and sensitive portrayal of the fragile Werther. His dark tone worked especially well as he sorrowfully sang “Pourquoi me réveiller”, as well as the duets with Sophie Koch as Charlotte. Just as he does in every role I have seen him perform, Kaufmann inhabited the role of Werther, conscientiously displaying his despair and desperation. Sophie Koch was a magnificent, reserved Charlotte, who worked with Kaufmann very well, possibly because they did the same opera together in Paris in 2010. Lisette Oropesa was a delightful Sophie, she truly held up the only joy and happiness that emerges from the opera. Werther has a very easy structure: If Sophie is on stage, things are going fine, everything is beautiful, life is grand; If Sophie is not onstage, and either Werther, Charlotte, or others are onstage, things are depressing and melancholy. Oropesa’s voice soared when she sang about the sun and flowers and all of the delightful things that Sophie sings about, and kept a healthy balance between the happiness and the gloominess of the opera. Finally, the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus did a fantastic job, both the seven solo roles for the siblings of Charlotte and Sophie and the chorus that sings “Noël! Noël! Noël!” at the end.

Photo: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, © Ken Howard

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This production of Werther was a premiere for the Met, directed by Richard Eyre. From my first time setting eyes on it, I truly loved it. It focused very much on nature, greenery, and simplicity, and left enough of the stage alone for more attention to be drawn to the singers. I felt that because of the tremendous amount of focus on nature, as trees, various landscapes, skies, birds, snow and other elements were shown, this production could easily be used again for Siegfried! The production also enabled Werther to really stand out from the other characters, in that he was dressed in a long black coat, while the others were adorned in colorful dresses, hats, and suits. By standing out physically, Eyre allowed Werther to be perceived as an extreme outsider to the world of Charlotte and her family. My preference in opera productions is for the singers and the music to be my primary focus, and the sets and possible director’s concept to be secondary. I felt that this production matched my preference perfectly, in that it focused on a simple theme: Nature, and let my attention be drawn to the outstanding singing of Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, and Lisette Oropesa.

La Cenerentola

Cenerentola was outstanding for only one, but one very important reason: The singing. As most bel canto operas go, many people go for the thrilling coloratura and the light, happy music, rather than for the (usually) simple and uncomplicated plots. For those who attended performances of Cenerentola, including me, we were not disappointed. Joyce DiDonato, Javier Camarena, and Juan Diego Florez all outdid themselves as the leads, as well as Luca Pisaroni and others in smaller roles. From the flying coloratura and forte spots, to the precise, staccato, piano spots such as “Questo è un modo avviluppato”, the Act II ensemble, the performances of Cenerentola were extraordinary.

This run of Cenerentola included Joyce DiDonato’s last run singing the role of Angelina, as she is retiring the role. She may have been retiring the role, but she left it with a bang. Her coloratura is simply unmatched by anyone on today’s stage, as it soared through the house and made each performance I attended absolutely exciting and thrilling. In whatever she is singing, DiDonato always displays acute breath control and electrifying dynamics that always define her performances. It is always an incredible opportunity to hear her live simply for her very conscious effort of maintaining breath control while simultaneously giving a solid, thrilling performance. DiDonato also displayed fantastic acting techniques as the poor, barred, yet hopeful Angelina, as she bounced around the stage the entire evening showing a mix of annoyance and scattered-attitude as she assisted her step-sisters, and absolute starry-eyed, whimsical movements whenever she was in the presence of the Prince. I absolutely loved DiDonato’s Angelina, vocally and acting-wise.

Photo: Joyce DiDonato and Javier Camarena in La Cenerentola, Metropolitan Opera, taken by © Sara Krulwich/New York Times

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Javier Camarena had made his Met debut in the 2011-12 season in another leading Rossini tenor role in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Juan Diego Florez was scheduled to sing all six performances of Cenerentola, however, he canceled the first three performances, allowing Camarena to fill in. I was blown away. I found that Camarena had the same flourishing, thrilling coloratura that Florez has, but he actually had a bigger voice. His voice especially rang when he sang his top Cs and Ds in “Si, ritrovarla io giro”. The audience, in fact, was so impressed, that he did an encore of the aria for the second and third performances in which he sang! It was incredible to hear him sing this aria, one or two times per performance, and I look forward to hearing more of his incredible coloratura in future seasons: Camarena is scheduled, according to Peter Gelb’s comment in the New York Times, to sing the lead tenor role in Rossini’s Semiramide opposite Joyce DiDonato at the Met in the 2017-18 season.

Juan Diego Florez, in the last three performances, was also outstanding. Even with his slightly smaller voice compared to Camarena, Florez played his usually incredible coloratura game. Florez, unlike a lot of singers, is virtually flawless vocally each time he performs. It is amazing. Very rarely, if at all, does one hear that Florez cracked this note or that note, or was sloppy in this or that passage of coloratura. For Cenerentola, Florez showed his elite vocal accuracy, precision, and consistency.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra were also wonderful in Cenerentola. It is amazing how each of them can sing heavy, Strauss operas one night, and sing light-Rossini the next. Fabio Luisi did an incredible job keeping light tempi throughout, and leaving me on the edge of my sight throughout each of the performances I attended.

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2013-14 season was fantastic, and I especially enjoyed it through each of my top three operas. I am anxious and excited for the 2014-15 season to begin in the Fall! I am also looking forward to preceding the Met’s 2014-15 with a fulfilling summer of writing, playing music, watching performances, traveling, and relaxing.

 

2013-2014: A Busy Season for the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus

Today the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus returns to the Met to rehearse for next season. This season will be very busy for them, because there are eight operas featuring the children’s chorus! That is quite a lot compared to past years, such as last year, where there were only four operas for the children’s chorus: Turandot, Tosca, Carmen, and Parsifal. You
might be saying to yourself, “Well, the children’s chorus parts are not very long or difficult so what’s the big deal?”. The children’s chorus rehearses vigorously for at least three days a week in the summer, two days a week during the school year, and each chorus member cast in an opera knows his or her part cold and backwards. August 5 is a very early date for the children’s chorus to return to the Met, in itself proving how busy the season will be.

Here are the operas that will feature the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus this season (I was able to take a photo of the chalkboard before I left the children’s chorus last season):

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

This opera by Benjamin Britten is a very busy opera for the children’s chorus. It features the children’s chorus as fairies along with the four solo fairies: Cobweb, Mustardseed, Moth, and Peaseblossom. The children sing in all three acts, and it is not a short opera. The rhythms and melodies for the children are also very complicated. Try saying this phrase quickly (not even to a melody): “Are you not he that frights the maidens of the villagery”. It may not be difficult now, but with a complicated rhythm and melody, it is challenging. This opera was already cast in May with members of the children’s chorus because it is so close to the beginning of the Met’s season in September. I had the opportunity to learn some of Midsummer before I left the children’s chorus, and I discovered myself that singing in Shakespearean English is not easy. At all.

Tosca:

Tosca has a short part for the children’s chorus in Act I with the sacristan and then the “Te Deum” at the end of Act I. The part with the sacristan features both boys and girls, but the director, Luc Bondy, only wanted boys featured in the “Te Deum” scene, and those stage directions have been kept. The sacristan part flies by and can be difficult, especially the phrases: “Si festeggi la vittoria, e questa sera, gran fiaccolata”, which conductors tend to speed up. Since it can be sped up, the children’s chorus will rehearse those phrases to death to adapt to the conductors’ (This season: Riccardo Frizza and Marco Armiliato) tempi. It is a short part, but a difficult one.

Photo: The Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus in Zeffirelli’s production of Tosca

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Tosca also features a solo in Act III, the shepherd that sings on the morning of Cavaradossi’s execution day. It can be sung by a girl or a boy soprano (most of the time a boy soprano), and it is a scary solo, because you have nothing under you except some double basses skipping fifths from E to B, and the oboe singing in between your lines. The solo really
leaves you alone, like a lone shepherd singing to the sheep in the fields.

Die Frau ohne Schatten:

This incredible Straussian opera is making its return to the Met stage after 10 years of not being performed! It is also going to be uncut, under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. This children’s chorus part lies very high, as they represent the poor, hungry children that Barak brings home. It is in two parts, but the tops start on a high A: “O Tag des Glücks, o Abend der Gnade!”, which is a high start for a children’s chorus. As it is uncut, there might be other places where the children’s chorus could be featured, such as the voices of the unborn children near the end. Strauss is not easy.

Der Rosenkavalier:

The children in this opera are all younger children and short children, with a maximum height of five feet approximately. They are featured in Act III and play the pretend children of Baron Ochs under the plotting of Annina and Valzacchi. They sing, “Papa! Papa! Papa!” and bat Ochs to get him flustered and annoyed. It is a short part for the children’s chorus, but it is difficult because of the entrances, and identifying entrances with certain words does not help in this case because the only word the children sing is “Papa!”.

The Magic Flute:

Photo: Diana Damrau with the Three Spirits at the Metropolitan Opera in Julie Taymor’s production :

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This opera by Mozart (Well, not really since they cut almost half of it including many great parts and changed it to English) features the three spirits, or three boy sopranos. They are a key part in The Magic Flute because they guide Tamino and they prevent the suicides of both Papageno and Pamina. Solos are always exciting for the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, special classes are even scheduled to rehearse for auditions for the solos! What boy soprano would not want his name on one of the giant posters out on Lincoln Center Plaza?

La Bohème:

Puccini gave this children’s chorus part as a gift. It is fun all around. First of all, the children’s chorus is onstage for all of Act II (I know, it is only 15 minutes long), and they have a whole lot of fun singing and not singing. The Met performs La Bohème with the iconic production by Franco Zeffirelli, and Act II features bagels, lollipops, Oreos, toys, French flags, flowers, and even gigantic wheels of cheese for the children’s chorus to use in acting. If you are in the children’s chorus and you have a cool prop (or costume as a matter of fact), you are automatically popular. You are also cool and popular if you receive a toy from Parpignol, the famous toy salesman that the children’s chorus bombardes in their solo part of the act. The children’s chorus also enjoys getting to sing in the crowd scenes, welcoming Musetta, and of course, the big parade at the end…and then waving to the audience at the end of the act.

Photo: Act II of La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera (I am somewhere in there…)

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The singing n La Bohème itself is somewhat challenging, because there are many unexpected entrances in the various crowd scenes. Some children’s chorus directors feel that this opera is a good “first opera” for a children’s chorus member
because it is not difficult, just as it is considered a good first opera for audience members. I do not believe this, at least for the singing part of it. Crowd scenes are always difficult because you are surrounded by people who are singing different lines, and for a young child who is singing in his or her first opera, it can be overwhelming. It takes a while to learn because the children’s chorus sings for the entire act, and it takes some diligence to know when to come in for those rough entrances, such as “Parpignol Parpignol Parpignol Parpignol”, before Colline can finish singing “Salame!”.

Werther:

This opera is returning to the Met’s stage for the first time in nine years! The children’s chorus is featured as the brothers and sisters of Charlotte. It is a similar part to the children in Der Rosenkavalier as the pretend children of Baron Ochs. There are about the same number of them in Werther and they are just as cheery, unlike the opera. They sing at the beginning and the end of the opera, singing “Noël! Noël! Noël!” even though it is not Christmas. They also get to interact with Werther, Sophie, Charlotte, and Le Bailli, making them a real character all together in the opera. It is almost erie when you hear them come back singing “Noël! Noël! Noël!” at the end of the opera, after Werther has shot himself and all is not happy like Christmas.

Wozzeck:

This is possibly the most difficult of all the children’s chorus operas, and yet has one of the shortest parts. The opera was composed with atonality, meaning it does not define any key. The notes are somewhat random, making it very challenging to memorize and sing for adults, let alone a children’s chorus. The children sing “Ringle Ringle Rosenkranz!” while dancing in a circle. This is complicated in two ways. First, the children have to sing this difficult melody while holding hands and skipping in a circle, and second, half of them are not facing the conductor on one diameter of the circle. The children have a difficult entrance off the beat from the orchestra, while the curtain is rising, so some children can see the conductor while others have to crane their necks to spy a monitor. All in all this is a very, very difficult opera for the children’s chorus, musically and acting-wise.

Photo: Alan Held and Waltraud Meier with the “Hop hop” boy in Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera

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Wozzeck also features a solo boy, who is the son of Wozzeck and Marie. He acts through many scenes of the opera, but he has his little, sad solo at the end. In the children’s chorus, we call him the “Hop hop” boy, because that is all he sings. The other children yell, “Dein Mutter ist tot!”, meaning “Your mother is dead!”, but he just sits on his hobby horse and sings “Hop hop” to himself, as if he does not understand or is preoccupied. At the end of the opera, the other children run off to see the bodies of the boy’s dead parents, while the poor, little boy is left with his hobby horse, all alone while the curtain descends.

The Metropolitan Opera Children’s is featured in other non-singing operas. For example: There are newspaper boys that yell in Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, there are children that play insects and animals surrounding Ježibaba while she makes the potion in Dvořák’s Rusalka, and there are acting parts for children in the Met’s productions of Norma and L’Elisir d’Amore. Surprisingly, the Met’s new production of Falstaff opening December 6 does not feature any children. The old
production, that even appeared at the old Metropolitan Opera House, featured children dressed as fairies and witches!

I will miss performing with the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus terribly, but I wanted to write this as an outsider to show to myself and the world how busy, yet fun, being in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus can be. I wish all the luck and “Tois” to my friends in their performances this season. I will be cheering on from the audience…and maybe even singing along a bit…