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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

HOW TO GET BOOED AT LA SCALA

All the opera boards are clamoring about the incident last week at La Scala, Milan, when the tenor Roberto Algana was booed at the beginning of a performance of Aida, just after his difficult aria 'Celeste Aida'. Alagna, a decent French born tenor is a few sizes short of being a Radames, but I heard the previous performance on line and he sounded fine. This night however, as the booing began he flipped off the audience and walked off the stage. His understudy, in Reebok's and jeans walked out singing and the performance continued without a pause. Opera loves a good scandal and this one has some impressive mileage, thanks to the endless posts on opera-l and the event itself all over YouTube.

The consensus is Alagna behaved like a brat, and ultimately did himself no good. He's been fired from all the performances of Aida, and law suits and press conferences are flying back and forth all over Milan. Just before the third performance, from which he'd been fired remember, Alagna instead sang OUTSIDE La Scala to the amusement of the crowd who no doubt thought him just another panhandler, albeit better dressed.

Did anyone tell Robertino that everyone gets booed at La Scala?
The great tenor Carlo Bergonzi was booed thirty years ago, also in Aida. He too flipped off the audience but continued to sing.
By Act 3 the audience was screaming at him "Perdona Carlo! Bravo!"

And then there's Maria Callas.
Yeah I know we all talk about her too much.
Herbert Breslin is his loads of fun book about working with Pavarotti (The King and I)
says that EMI markets her recordings so aggressively and people buy 'em up so much that everyone's convinced she's still alive, and she'd been dead for thirty years.

Anyway, Callas was Queen of La Scala for years.
Not bad for a Greek girl from 178th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
One night she was singing Medea. One of her signature roles.
She was in poor voice. The audience began to hiss. 4,000 people hissing.
Then the boos started. Callas came to the line in the opera that she was supposed
to address to Jason: "Crudel! Ha datto tutto a te!" Cruel one, I gave you everything.
What did she do? She ignored Jason, strode to the footlights, lifted her fist to the audience and sang that line in their faces. And the cheering went on all night.

That kids, is how you sing at La Scala.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

MESSIAH: Which to buy?

It's the time of year when many listeners call in saying, Y'know we just realized that we don't own a recording of Handel's Messiah-so which should we buy?
Yikes! How do you like your pizza? The choices are many and varied.
You can spend $5 and you can spend $50.
Here are some that I've enjoyed over the years.
amazon.com or arkivmusik.com should have these

In no particular order

The Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra, with Judith Raskin, Florence Kopleff, Richard Lewis and Thomas Paul. This was new to cd in 2005. It features the bracing, clear choral singing in the smaller forces we think Handel would have used (who really knows? everybody's dead)
and exemplary soloists, especially Richard Lewis and the sublime Judith Raskin. A 2 cd set at mid price.
RCA RED SEAL 82876-62317-2

Boston Baroque, conducted by Martin Pearlman, with Karen Clift, Catherine Robbin, Bruce Fowler and Victor Ledbetter. Pearlman's forces are similar to Shaw's in number, but he uses more appogiature and ornaments, again what Handel would have expected for a nice, varied sound texture, well recorded. A 2 cd set from TELARC, CD-80322

The Trinity Church Choir and Orchestra, Owen Burdick, conductor
Messiah had its first performance in the New World in 1770 at New York's Trinity Church,
near Wall Street. This recording was made there 225 years later. The vocal soloists are chosen among the members of Trinity's exemplary choir. This 2 cd set from Naxos (8.554511-2) is a fine performance, hard to pass up at a budget price.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra U.C. Berkeley Chamber Chorus, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Janet Williams, Patricia Spence, Drew Minter, Jeffrey Thomas, William Parker. This three cd package is set up in such a way that the listener may program one of several different versions of Messiah. It can all get a bit fussy and is not for the casual listener-its also expensive. BUT McGegan and his forces are magnificent musicians who for all thier pedantry don't forget that Handel himself called Messiah "an entertainment".

HERE ARE TWO MORE. NEITHER SHOULD BE YOUR ONLY RECORDING OF MESSIAH

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, with Jennifer Vyvyan, Monica Sinclair, Jon Vickers and Giorgio Tozzi. This over the top orchestration by Eugene Goossens features large choral forces, no decorations whatsoever, and instruments Handel had never heard of. Saxophones, xylophones, they're all here. As far from the current Historically Informed Performances as you can get, this is the recording with which many of us grew up. Fantastic and musicologically wrong. There's a one cd of highlights available: RCA RED SEAL 9026-68159-2

English Chamber Orchestra, Ambrosian Singers conducted by Richard Bonynge with Joan Sutherland, Huguette Tourangeau, Werner Krenn and Tom Krause. This set attracted a lot of criticism when it came out in 1970. It is sumptuosly decorated, the choral work is clipping and fine, the orchestration is fussy, its fantastic to hear Joan Sutherland sing "Rejoice greatly o daughter of Zion!" and contralto Tourangeau is so awful she's fascinating. But I do love this performance. 2 cds on LONDON 433 740-2

Thursday, November 02, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND

I was lucky enough to snag an interview yesterday with Dame Joan Sutherland,
on the phone from Sydney. Dame Joan celebrates her 80th birthday on November 7th.
Certainly she was an astonishing artist, one I heard many times dating back to 1970, and one I shall never forget.










The kindly press office at Opera Australia told me to call Dame Joan on November 1st at 4 p.m. my time. They must have told Dame Joan something else. Here's our conversation:

CP: Hello, this is Christopher Purdy from Ohio for Dame Joan Suth--
JS: You're a day late!
CP: Late? Uh...I'm sorry, I was told November 1st my time
JS: And today's the 2nd isn't it...and here you are
CP: Yes. I'm sorry. Can we speak now?
JS: Well, its a day late but go ahead.

At this point my trusty engineer was having trouble securing the connection for recording this interview. So now I'm a "day late" AND keeping Dame Joan Sutherland waiting on the phone. We do not do much small talk.

CP: Thank you for waiting, Dame Joan. We can begin now.
JS: Good!

CP: It is one of the great honors of my life to speak with Dame Joan Sutherland who is on the phone from her home in Sydney-welcome, Dame Joan

JS: Thank you very much!

CP: I know you were influenced early in your singing life by your mother. I wonder if you could describe your mother's voice.

JS: Well mother was a mezzo soprano and her teacher wanted her to go abroad and study in Paris and so on, but she said she was too nervous and didn't want a career and she didn't want all that. She wanted to go to the cricket matches and be with her friends and so on.

CP: Did you listen to her from her earliest childdhood?
JS: Oh yes, I used to sit at her feet and listen to her practise from the time I was quite small.

CP: Did she think you would have a great career?
JS: I don't think she imagined the success I eventually had, but she knew the material was there and she knew that it would mean a lot of hard work.

CP: Did your voice always have that trill and that agility?
JS: The trill was always there, yes. I never sort of pursued the agility so much.
I followed my mother who was a lyric mezzo. So I sort of put a lid on my voice because I wanted to sound like her.

CP: And I know that Kirsten Flagstad was a singer you greatly admired
JS: Oh I adored the voice of Flagstad. That was really an incredible person. And with a wonderful appearance when she sang -she was totally involved.

CP: Recently here at the station we played a recording of Lucia made in London in 1959-that was the production that brought you international fame. What do you remember about those performances?

JS: I have the feeling there's something wrong with the second part of the mad scene there. There's something wrong with transferring the tape-it's pitched too high
But the production was wonderful. Zeffirelli was the producer and Serafin conducted.
I just saw Lucia in Brisbane with my husband conducting up there. And the Australian
opera set was nearly a copy of that Zeffirelli set. Every single set I've worked in in Lucia over years, people remembered that Zeffirelli set and it's been re produced
so many times since 1959. And again in Brisbane it was very much that physical production except now it has someone else's name on it...

CP: I know that 1959 production in London was very important for you but it was important for Lucia ,too. The opera hadn't been done for a long time

JS: No, back then it hadn't been done in years

CP: Another opera I have great memoreis of your performances at the Met was Norma.
That's a pinnacle for so many artists and it was unforgettable then

JS: Well, it's an unforgettable opera. It's a great piece. It's probably one of my favorites, if not my favorite. That and Esclarmonde

CP: What makes Norma a favorite?
JS: I think she's a very recognizably human person, where some of the characters are rather cardboard

CP: How is it you sounded fresh at the end of Norma? That's a long sing
JS: Oh it has a few breaks in it. You learn how to sing it with confidence and you learn the pitfalls, and you get to be confident about singing the role.

CP: And Massenet's Esclarmonde-that was an opera nobody knew. I don't think it had been done since Sybil Sanderson-this great French Wagner pageant. It was a big hit

JS: It was terrific. And I was amazed when Decca decided to delete the recording. I thought that was ridiculous. I was amazed because it was the only recording of the piece. So I was hot on the telephone saying what on earth do you think your'e doing? Not because I'm singing but because it's the only recording of it.

CP: I think they listened to you because I saw it the other day

JS: Oh yes, now it has been repoduced many times over
CP: How did you ever find Esclarmonde?
JS: I didn't. My husband did. He read a lot about Massenet along with the Italian bel canto composers. And he read that Massenet thought it was his best work. He found tattered copies of the vocal score in Paris, and later was fortunate enough to buy the complete orchestral score when it came up for auction.

CP: One of my regrets is that I did not get to see you in Alcina
JS: That was a great piece. I loved all the Handel I did. Rodelinda, Julius Caesar.

CP: And what about singing today? What are you hearing? You told me you were at a big competition last night in Sydney.
JS: Very good voices! There were a lot of male voices. In fact there was only one woman last night. And I think Richard and I agreed on the winner. The young woman was quite good but the young man who won, from Western Australia, I think he'll do very well

CP: Are there specific young artists today you admire who you are following with interest?

JS: Well there are very good voices here certainly, but I don't follow it too much. I've had a few difficulties recently with arthritis, and just recently with knee replacement surgery. So I don't get about like I once did. So I tend to rely on recordings and television. I go when I can. I'm not that drawn to it I'm afraid. I don't like the producitons. I don't like all this updating and stagings that don't go along with the music

CP: Well, let's change the subject to something happier! How will you be spending your birthday?

JS: At home. A nice birthday lunch at home in Switzerland. Lots of things were on offer. One of our friends wanted to do a big party at his restuarant but we'll just be back from Australia. We're leaving on Friday-and Friday in case you don't know is tomorrow (laughs). But here we are. We finally made it!

CP: Touche! And I've waited all my life! (both laugh)

Do you realize how important your recorded legacy is?

JS: Well I mean I hear people saying they seem to play it everywhere. They take recordings with them and play them in the car. I'm very gratified that people enjoyed what I did. I wouldn't have lasted as long as I did if people hadn't enjoyed it.
It was great--Richard and I did a lot work on preparing the pieces. And I like to go along with him now and see what he's doing

CP: Where is Mr. Bonynge now?
JS: Right now he's upstairs, fast asleep!

CP: I want to wish you a happy birthday. Thank you very much-for everything.
JS: Well thank you, thank you for all your good wishes.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

MARILYN HORNE AT OBERLIN 2006

Late October has come to mean Marilyn Horne's annual visit to Oberlin College.
If the beauty of the campus in mid fall tends to lull us into a happy stupor, the
energy of this lady-cetainly the greatest artist I ever heard live
(and I heard her a lot, praise God)is a terrific tonic.

Now in her seventies, Miss Horne looked great following a year battling health problems. She was radiant in attendance at the Florez recital that afternoon, and lavish in her praise of this great young singer. I remember a line from her memoir: "I've always been thrilled by great singing, period!" (Me too).

Miss Horne had been in Oberlin for several days of masterclasses and private coachings. I heard the last public masterclass, with an impressive crowd for a cold Sunday night. There were five students. All attractive, all musical and all blessed.

To a young soprano singing "Prendi, per me" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore:

Wonderful. Just great. I really don't have much to say.
Now listen. When you do that descent on 'prendi' the very first word.
Give me more D in prenDI. A little bite here is good.
Listen, you're an attractive girl. I want you to use that bod you've got!
Use your hands and your face.....OK. The coloratura needs more energy. You gotta pick it up a bit because the pitch will sag otherwise. Now look, you have a lovely voice. But I want you to sing louder. I don't mean to push or force in any way, but you are being a little too careful. Sing out.

(When she sang out it was a pealing, silvery voice. Exquisite)

To a young tenor singing Si ritrovarla from La Cenerentola

This young man met Juan Diego this afternoon. Juan Diego asked him what's your reportoire and I piped right up and said, "Yours!"
This was very good. But I want you to keep it Right Here..forward, in the mask-always. Especially with this, so much legato and then all that coloratura-you know I'm all about support. Your body has to work all the time, the entire body to provide the enrgy you need for this music.

(If this kid can bring some ring and support into his top notes, he'll go far. He's a baby still and his singing was mighty impressive)

To a young soprano singing Porgi amor from Le nozze di Figaro

Well! You have a very big voice, don't you? Wonderful. There aren't that many out there. But you are singing this too carefully. It's perfectly fine to sing this with a big voice. But use it....Oh, my I'm getting a wiggle in your voice. I think it's because you are holding back. Don't. Sing it. Also be very careful of your placement. C'mon...right here... right between the eyes. See? You sang out and no more wiggle. I want you to be very aware of that. You can fix it. Breathe low and support. You need to fill yourself with that good compressed air-and then keep feeding the breath slow and steady. Look, this is a difficult aria-its the first thing she sings and it must be rock steady. It's really all about technique. But with a big voice like yours
you really have to use it all-or else that wiggle. You can fix that. Your voice is wonderful!

A young man came out to sing Richard Strauss's Befreit. A long, higly emotional and dramatic lied. The voice was good and the musicianship very good. I'll bet Dieskau himself found this song a challenge. This young man was twenty-two. To him, Miss Horne said "Great. Wonderful. Just great. I really have nothing to say except congratulations!"

And last but not least, a young woman with another Strauss lied "Allerseelen". Her somewhat nasal production was attended to. Right here! A little higher, between the eyes. Miss Horne was big on using the entire body. No standing rock still for her.
You must engage everything. And very quickly, our Allerseelen artist came out with a march larger, warmer and rosy tone.
She also sang Allerseelen again, this time with real commtimewnt. In ten minutes there was a dramatic difference.

By this time it appeared Miss Horne was tired. It had been a long day. And certainly a wonderful day for music. The kung pao chicken at the local Chinese bistro wasn't bad either. And let me by all means acknowledge the gifted painists, Howard Lubin and Daniel Michalak, great musicans both, not fazed by anything, and totally in support of the young artists.

Now stop reading this and go play one of MArilyn Horne's recordings.

MARILYN HORNE AT OBERLIN 2006

Late October has come to mean Marilyn Horne's annual visit to Oberlin College.
If the beauty of the campus in mid fall tends to lull us into a happy stupor, the
energy of this lady-cetainly the greatest artist I ever heard live
(and I heard her a lot, praise God)is a terrific tonic.

Now in her seventies, Miss Horne looked great following a year battling health problems. She was radiant in attendance at the Florez recital that afternoon, and lavish in her praise of this great young singer. I remember a line from her memoir: "I've always been thrilled by great singing, period!" (Me too).

Miss Horne had been in Oberlin for several days of masterclasses and private coachings. I heard the last public masterclass, with an impressive crowd for a cold Sunday night. There were five students. All attractive, all musical and all blessed.

To a young soprano singing "Prendi, per me" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore:

Wonderful. Just great. I really don't have much to say.
Now listen. When you do that descent on 'prendi' the very first word.
Give me more D in prenDI. A little bite here is good.
Listen, you're an attractive girl. I want you to use that bod you've got!
Use your hands and your face.....OK. The coloratura needs more energy. You gotta pick it up a bit because the pitch will sag otherwise. Now look, you have a lovely voice. But I want you to sing louder. I don't mean to push or force in any way, but you are being a little too careful. Sing out.

(When she sang out it was a pealing, silvery voice. Exquisite)

To a young tenor singing Si ritrovarla from La Cenerentola

This young man met Juan Diego this afternoon. Juan Diego asked him what's your reportoire and I piped right up and said, "Yours!"
This was very good. But I want you to keep it Right Here..forward, in the mask-always. Especially with this, so much legato and then all that coloratura-you know I'm all about support. Your body has to work all the time, the entire body to provide the enrgy you need for this music.

(If this kid can bring some ring and support into his top notes, he'll go far. He's a baby still and his singing was mighty impressive)

To a young soprano singing Porgi amor from Le nozze di Figaro

Well! You have a very big voice, don't you? Wonderful. There aren't that many out there. But you are singing this too carefully. It's perfectly fine to sing this with a big voice. But use it....Oh, my I'm getting a wiggle in your voice. I think it's because you are holding back. Don't. Sing it. Also be very careful of your placement. C'mon...right here... right between the eyes. See? You sang out and no more wiggle. I want you to be very aware of that. You can fix it. Breathe low and support. You need to fill yourself with that good compressed air-and then keep feeding the breath slow and steady. Look, this is a difficult aria-its the first thing she sings and it must be rock steady. It's really all about technique. But with a big voice like yours
you really have to use it all-or else that wiggle. You can fix that. Your voice is wonderful!

A young man came out to sing Richard Strauss's Befreit. A long, higly emotional and dramatic lied. The voice was good and the musicianship very good. I'll bet Dieskau himself found this song a challenge. This young man was twenty-two. To him, Miss Horne said "Great. Wonderful. Just great. I really have nothing to say except congratulations!"

And last but not least, a young woman with another Strauss lied "Allerseelen". Her somewhat nasal production was attended to. Right here! A little higher, between the eyes. Miss Horne was big on using the entire body. No standing rock still for her.
You must engage everything. And very quickly, our Allerseelen artist came out with a march larger, warmer and rosy tone.
She also sang Allerseelen again, this time with real commtimewnt. In ten minutes there was a dramatic difference.

By this time it appeared Miss Horne was tired. It had been a long day. And certainly a wonderful day for music. The kung pao chicken at the local Chinese bistro wasn't bad either. And let me by all means acknowledge the gifted painists, Howard Lubin and Daniel Michalak, great musicans both, not fazed by anything, and totally in support of the young artists.

Now stop reading this and go play one of MArilyn Horne's recordings.

JUAN DIEGO FLOREZ AT OBERLIN

Sunday, October 30, 2006

Juan Diego Florez sang a recital at Oberlin College's Finney chapel today to a cherring, stamping, shouting crowd the like of which I haven't heard since the autumnal days of Callas and Tebaldi. The difference was, as Marilyn Horne commented later "You are hearing a magnificent artist in his absolute prime with all engines running and everything working."

Florez had an ingratiating "aw shucks" stage demeanor, endless legato, perfectly placed coloratura-no machine gun apsirating here-and ringing high Cs
(and Ds, thank you very much). Tonio's aria from Fille du regiment was the first of three encores!

The program opened with three Mozart arias: from Die Zauberfloete, Il re pastore and Il mio tesoro (Don Giovanni).
The tone was evenly porduced and the languages sung with undertanding and love. Il mio tesoro ran on with the elegance and effortlessness heard on the classic John McCormack recording made ninety years ago. There were Rossini arias from Il turco in Italia and Elisabetta d'Inghliterra. In this last Florez any semblance of youth and humor and became a warrior.There were luscious Peruvian songs, and an exquisite "Ouvre tes bleu yeux" by Massenet, which was all about line. Refreshingly, Florez ended the printed program with a contemplative aria from Donizetti's Linda di Chamonix.

Florez's stage presence sometimes threatened to induce sea sickness-he's a bopper and weaver-but to see this wonderful looking young man sing his heart out so thrillingly, well-like the song says, "I'll tell my grandchildren."

Encores: Ah, mes amis; La donna e mobile and one more Latin song.
The audience would have kept him all night.
This was first rate bel canto. Pianist Vincent Scalera matched Florez note for note for energy and elegance.

Not even the death of my van in the Oberlin parking lot at 11 pm-which had to be towed to Columbus ($377.88!) at 3 a.m. spoiled the sound of that wonderful singing and playing still ringing through my sleepy ears.

Monday, October 02, 2006

SISTER ANGELICA

I've been offered a wonderful opprotunity this fall to direct most of Puccini's one act opera 'Suor Angelica'. I say "most of" because we're doing the second half. At one hour the whole is too long for a scenes recital. Performance date is November 21. Now, a nice Irish boy like me from Boston with a sentimental streak a mile wide may or may not be the best choice to handle this delicate work. It's the stroy of a Florentine princess who is put away in a convent by her outraged family after bearing a child out of wedlock. One day, after seven years of silence the princess-now "Sister Angelica" is visted by her forbidding, eldery aunt. The old lady has no compassion for her niece. She has come only to obtain a signature from Angleica who is told to renounce all claims to her family's estate in favor of her younger sister, who is about to be married

ANGLIECA: After seven years I stand before you
Let this holy place inspire you
It is a place of pity, a place of forgiveness

AUNT: A place of penance!

Your sister Anna Viola is to be married

ANGLEICA: Married? Little Anna Viola, married?
My little sister-Oh, seven years have passed
Who is she to marry?

AUNT: To one whose love has allowed him to overlook
the disgrace you have brought to our noble family

ANGELIA: Sister of my mother-you are unforgiving!

Angelica signs. She asks timidly the fate of her young son.

AUNT: Two years ago he was taken ill.
Everything was done to try and save him

The child is dead. The old lady leaves without a word of kindness.
Angleica brews herself a tea of poisoned herbs.
In drinking this she realizes she has committed the mortal sin of suicide.
She manages to pray to the Virgin for forgivenss.
She dies with a vision of the virgin leading her young son toward her.


ANGEICA MAdonna, madonna salvami
Per l'amor di mio figlio
ho smarie la ragioe!


Well, now. That can be pretty hokey even for me!
I remeber every Easter as a kid sitting through "The Song of Bernadette" on TV and by 11 pm Jennifer Jones would be on her deathbed crying "I really did see her! I really did see her!" and dying as MGM's chorus of off camera angels switch from a minor to a major key for the end credits.

(You should always die in a major key)

In fact, Sister Angelica was not a sccess at its premiere. It is the seocnd of three operas written by Giacmomo Puccini intended to be performed on the same evening as Il trittico-The Tryptich. The first, Il tabarro-The Cloak is a steamy sex and blood and guts shocker...and the third is Puccini's only comedy, the wonderful "Gianni Schicchi". But ister was left alone and unloved on and off the stage.

Here's a review of the first night by the cirtic W.J. Henderson:

There is dignity unalloyed, majesty untempered, reverence unlimited in "Suor Anglica." There are conscious efforts to lighten the score by the introduction of trivial incidents-the arrival of a stock of good food into the nunnery courtyard or the scramble to pluck at raspberries-and here the music is highly ingenious.
But it is almost always metronomic, dull, drilling upon its theme with the persistence of a dentist at a tooth. There is no blood or bone to it, no strength to uphold the nun's veiling of the concept.

Miss Geraldine Farrar deserves all credit for what good impression the short tragedy made. Her acting of the nun who has endured seven years of vindictive loneliness, who learns of her child's death, who brews and drinks a fatal cup, and prays for a miracle to prove the Madonna's forgiveness-her acting of all this lugubrious
fustian was magnificently noble. Her voice was by no means at its best, but she carried the role and the auidence equally far. The miracle proved a tame affair. To a Metropolitan clientele on familiar terms with miracles...this one had the taint of much modesty.--WJ HENDERSON, NEW YORK SUN, Dec. 16, 1918

I think writing such an opera for an important premiere in New York may have been a mistake. The Metropolitan Opera must have glittered on December 14,1918. Puccini was the world's most celebrated opera composer. He had visited New York ten years earlier to supervise the local premiere of his "Madmama Butterfly." His delicate geisha-needing lungs of steel to sing over his large orhcestra-was the American glamor girl Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967). Puccini reportedly did not like her but that hardly mattered. Lovely of voice and figure, Farrar -the daughter of a baseball player from Melrose, Massachusetts, was the darling of the public, second only to Causo in box office popularity. She had the further advantage of being Arturo Toscanini's mistress. Conductor and diva began as sworn enemies at early rehearsals

FARRAR: Do not correct me, Maestro.
Remember, I am a star

TOSCANINI: Signora the only stars are in the heavens.
On the earth there are only good artsits or bad artists
You are a bad artist

By 1918 Farrar had gone Hollywood, becoming a bona fide movie star-playing everything from Carmen to joan or Arc-and Toscanni had left the Metropolitan. No doubt she was chosen for Suor Angleica for her box office clout. Farrar herelf seemed unimpressed by the opera. She wrote later "Suor Angelica made no dmeands on me". HMMMM
I doubt the New York public found the glamorous Geraldine, who counted the Crown Prince of Prussia among her lovers, a convincing nun. She recorded no music from this opera. She sang a dozen performances of Angelica from 1918 to 1921. The opera was not given again at the Met until 1975. Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi managed to hang on.
In Vienna, Schwester Angelica became the property of the great Lotte Lehmann, who was not the looker Farrar was, but Puccini called Lehmann's performance 'soavissima'.

Is Suor Angelica a bad opera? No. I'm, willing to bet that the first audience nearly 90 years ago was cyncial enough to laugh at visions of the Virgin Mary walking around on stage. The all female cast may have been aurally monotnous.
Opera demands that audiences and performers ignite their imaginations and leave cynicism at the door. Doing that is made easier when the stories are dramatic, when audiences are lulled or manipulated into some kind of strong emotional response. Wagner does this through his music. Verdi through his music and situations. Puccini comes across as unashamedly sentimental. Everyone cries when Mimi dies at the end of La boheme. Cops, prize fighters and even Republicans leave the theater weeping.
OK, the Virgin Mary might be a bit much-but what helps Puccini along is the utter sincerity with which he depicts his characters. He's been the step child of the critics for one hundred years. But we beleive in his operas and his creations because he does. If there's any cynicsm in the theater, its off stage and off the printed page. Puccini meant to tell the tragedy of a woman who has lost her baby and who seeks redemption and he did so.

But there's a complication. For all her gentless, Angleica's music demands a dramatic soprano voice, with the beauty of a waterfall and the strength of a cement mixer.
You may wish to play this opera as a blushng flower but the music doesn't support you. Convents were houses of prayer yes, but they were also as with Angelica prisons for fallen women or women whose fmailies could not marry them of advantageously. They were places of anger, petty jealouies, sexual confusion and divine grace. Angelica has tried to live a serene life for seven years, keeping her pain and loss wrapped tightly inside of her. What toll does that take on any of us? How many of the older nuns, who have presumably been there for years-are acutlly serence and at peace.
Would pretty music serve them? The other sisters, must be made individual characters. Theer music is not especially flavorful but the sternes of the Sister Monitor means that Ssiter Dolcina's funny gluttony and Sister Osmina's defiance must be brought out to balance Sister Genevieve's youth and naivte and Angelica's pain. These are supporting roles but the opera will not function at all if they are not played well. Likewise the Aunt, la zia principessa is less interesting played as a harridan rather than a woman who wants to be past the pain of life, and for whom her niece Angelica, whom she cannot forgive, is a symbol of that pain.

I don't think the music is monotnous. I think it reflects the teduim and pain many of the sisters found in thier daily lives. Farrar ddin't get it. I doubt she wanted to. Her recordings of music from Tosca and La bohmee are marvelous. She "owned"
Madama Butterfly whether Puccini-or Toscanini- liked her or not. She may have played Angelica's supposed timidity too well, or over played it. And I doubt she had the voce di petto-the growling dramatic chest voice Angelica needs when she rebukes her aunt, her one act of defiance in this fifty minute opera

ANGLEICA
Sorella di mia madre, voi siete inesorabile
Sister of my mother, you are unforgiving

********************

Perche tacete?
Un altro istante di questo sileznio
e i dannate per l'eternita!
Le vergine vi acolta e Lei vi giudica

Why are you silent?
Another moment of this silence
and you will be damned forever
The virgin hears you, and judges you

Even Renata Tebaldi, surely the most glorious Italian soprano voice of the past fifty years never sang Angleica on the stage. "Troppo emozione" she said. Her 1962 recording of the opera finds Tebaldi in poor voice, ducking the one high C-never a good note for her anyway. Renata Scotto gave memorable performances in the 1980s.
We laughed then at her fractured voice and dramatic excess and we miss her now.
She probably made us uncomfortable with her honesty. Callas never attmepted Suor Angelica. Its a vocal and emotional wallop balanced by a delicacy that's hard to pull off. Angelica has to seem to want to explode emotionally while almost never doing so. She is a destroyed woman playing a contented woman.
And she needs a big, lusicous, gleaming voice.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

LONG HOT SUMMER-DICHTERLIEBE RECORDINGS

Actually there was quite a lot going on this summer I could have posted about, but Luddite that I am I forgot both password and user name and whatever else one needs to climb the cyber walls back into the blogosphere. I think I'm okay now.
I'm doing pre cocnert talks here in Columbus OH to everyone and their mother. I tell poeple if you don't like me go on and have another booter and come back later.

DICHTERLIEBE

Earlier this year I kept a diary while preparing Schumann's Dichterliebe with my friend Ben. We were doing this as a challenge from a local church that dared us to prepare this for one of their lunch hour concerts. I meanpeople would actually ATTEND! We cancelled the church, sang it at a Women's Club and now the church gig is on for October 3rd. As usual I've been comparing a buttload of recordings...six by Dieskau...Fritz Wunderlich, a little bland but sublime, Aksel Schiotz with Gerald Moore, fantatic and my two favorites, Lotte Lehmann with Bruno Walter (1940) and Charles Panzera with Alfred Cortot. I love Lehmann's guts- hearts on sleeve out there brilliance. With Panzera, it is all about the words. His graceful and very subtle use of rubato goes right to my heart. For me, its an experience at tackling a great work with a great friend for nice people. The spirit is willing and eager, and if the pipes never were there, well, it'll be a day out at least. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

MORE THAN MUSIC 101

Join me for six two hour explorations of music
from the 14th century to the 21st, with stops along the way to disucss performance
practise-why adagio meant something different 400 years ago than it means today-
artists, style and most importantly the day to day lives composers and the historical ontext in which many of our greatest works were created.

It'll be a combination of good informaiton, some listening, and stand up.

MORE THAN MUSIC 101

Wed. July 19th
Thu July 27
and

Wednesdays August 2, 9, 16 and 23

7-9 p.m.
ST JAMES CHURCH
3400 Calumet St. @ Oakland PArk
Clintonville
plenty of free off street parking

$200--

Please RSVP to christophercpurdy@yahoo.com

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

APRILE MILLO, SOPRANO

Aprile Millo performed Tosca in Cincinnati recently to packed and enthusiastic houses. Since her debut in New York in 1984, Millo has sung 157 performances at the Metropolitan, always in the big girl Italian repertoire including: Aida, Trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, Andrea Chenier, Luisa Miller and Tosca. There was a falling off of appearances in the mid 1990s but lately Millo has triumphed at Carnegie Hall in concert performances of La Gioconda, Adriana Lecourvreur and The Girl of the Golden West. Twenty years ago she was resolutely touted by press and public as the new-last member of the old school style of Italian singing. Her Met performances are rare these days, but they always attract the full houses and the "buzz" one heard on nights Tebaldi was singing. We spoke on June 20, 2006

CP: I talked with some young people at your Tosca last week, and they hadn't heard the Italian style before. They hadn't heard capital R Real opera

AM: They heard exalted Broadway...

CP: They didn't know Tebaldi...

AM: Oh, my God!

AM: And I told them, well she's in heaven but you'll hear Millo

AM: Oh, I'm so glad. Thank you for that. That's so nice.

CP: When you open a score to Tosca or Trovatore and you look at this character, and you learn the words and the notes, then what?

AM: Well, that's saying a mouthful, because the score is the blueprint for humanity. Not only of the composer but of the character that you're singing. There was a wonderful interview years ago where the great Maria callas said, you look at something with a straight jacket. That's a wonderful expression. You do it exactly as it is written. In the hands of a great master, it generally is exactly the character's state of mind. So you try it first very stiff, very ...exactly as written. Then of course, inperceptively your own personality is going to find resonance with what you're hearing and what you're saying, and then it takes off from there.

CP: And that must happen, right? Your own personality to some extent must get in there?

AM: Well, I think that's the only salvation at all, because if you look at how many great singers have already sung this music, the best has already been done in my mind. All you can bring to it in all humility is your soul, and how it will color that particular kind of music.

CP: And what about the people to whom and with whom you are singing? The people on stage? What do you need from them?

AM: I wouldn't dream of naming names! What I hope for on stage is a feeling of religiosity for the music. That it isn't something where you wear leisure suits to come to rehearsal. I am sort of young enough to have been a bridge to the old school, like with Bergonzi, with Fiorenza Cossotto, and then with the younger older school, with Domingo and Pavarotti, and now of course the current stars. And you look at them and you say, My God, no one used to come to an opera house without being fully dressed suit and tie.

CP: It must be seen as being very important to you, what you are doing

AM: ..what they are trying to reduce opera today to is exalted Broadway.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with Broadway. The kind of Broadway I would have preferred, I was too young to have seen was Mary Martin and Ethel Merman...Gertrude Lawrence, or something of subtlety and beauty that used the natural voice to project. What we're finding in opera is that they want that same thing now. They want the body looking perfect. The don't care if you can hear it, and I'm sure we'll be into miking before the end of the next fifty years, which will then deprive us of the last bastion of real, authentic sound. The way the oboe, the viola, the clarinet sounds, that is how you hear it in the theater. When the body, which is the human Stradivarius, is singing without amplification on stage is the last true human experience in so grand a setting.




CP: Do you have to decide who Tosca is? She lives in a specific time and there are historical persons and events mentioned and it's even supposed to take place at a specific date and place (Rome, June 15, 1800) Do you decide what kind of a person she is?

AM: I think Puccini decided it first. Then I try to wed myself as much as I can to what he asks for. But again, your own personality will peep through. I made sure that
I was always backed by people who lived closer to the time when it was written, like Magda Olivero or Renata Tebaldi.. I made sure to speak to these people to say look, in your experience would this be acceptable? Direct from the line of the composer, especially with Madame Olivero who actually actually know most of these people

CP: Do you remember the first time you heard operatic singing, live?

AM: It took my breath away. I remember exactly. It was listening to my mother and father singing the Cavalleria duet. And I kept thinking where did my mother and father go, because they were no longer themselves, they seemed to go into another world. My mother said oh,no that's just opera. When you are singing opera you go to another world. Later on in life whenever she would hear a piece of music, her face would leave and she would be in a sort of exalted state, like a trance. It sounds stuffy, but if you've ever seen a parent look at something with a sense of transfiguration, you want to know why.

And as I sing now I know exactly what my parents were talking about, I think it's a direct line to another world. Some people want to call it heaven, or another dimension. However you call it, it is a better and more beautiful world, and so now because I just lost Mom in June of last year and my Dad a few years ago, now when I sing I'm talking to them. It's my only time to be with them. Now, I'm truly gone!

CP: How do I get young singers to listen to the older recordings?

AM: I think you just have to expose them and I think the evening they're exposed has to be incredibly fun. People come to my performances because they know it's a free for all in the theater. People are cheering and stamping on walls..it's very exciting. Whereas if you come into the theater and you're taught like we are in the rest of life we're taught to not make a sound, to be adult children...don't speak unless you're spoken to...don't try to be original...but don't be yourself. So in a theater it's a victory in a way that a woman is singing over an eighty piece orchestra and you can hear her. Then, people go nuts! They're screaming and it's so exciting.

CP: Who are the singers who were your role models?

AM: No question, Claudia Muzio, a fabulous Italian soprano. No question Zinka Milanov. And of course my great friend Renata Tebaldi- and Rosa Ponselle without a doubt, an absolute God of vocality.





CP: What is your hope for opera in the future?

AM: That it doesn't sell out.

CP: In what way?

AM: That it doesn't try to be all things to all people. If you look at the Mona Lisa in a fantastic museum, she does not try to be The Last Supper. She does not try to be the Transfiguration in the Papal residence. She is what she is. You are ennobled by looking at her...there's an enigma, blah blah blah. What opera does not need to do is to make itself over. It is already very timely, it is already very accessible. It's big, it's grand, it's triumphant. It is a human being singing directly to you. And now they say they have to look like movies stars. No, they don't...What's annoying is that several of the ballerinas who are singing today, there's nothing wrong with it if you're up close, and ah yes, it's an intriguing smaller voice and how lovely and sometimes they do something with the text. Most times they don't. And so you say okay, okay, okay. If you're sitting further back what you notice is the annoyance in the audience that they can't hear!

CP: And lastly, what is meant by style? The Italian style, the French style? Are these viable phrases today?

AM: Yes...for me when you sing in the French style you sing as a French person would speak with music. If you sing in the Italian you're singing an Italian thought which means you really have to know how they think...if it's a good composer they are going to express it to you in a particular kind of line, or utterance that is exactly how they speak. If you listen to the real Italian literature, a true Bellini phrase is very different from Verdi and Mozart. There's a longer, longer bow used in the bel canto; then it's transferred into what I call verismatic bel canto, which is Verdi, and then of course Puccini takes it further and it becomes absolute conversation. Through it all there's a sense of legato that is completely missing today. Completely missing! ...I heard recently at a very highly touted evening in which we were to be unbelievably blown away by some piece...but it had to have a bel canto phrasing. And you heard two or three notes and you thought oh good, good, good, they're going to go ..it's going to be magnificent. And then all of a sudden it got chopped, or they used a consonant to destroy the line. It doesn't have to be a robot, but it has to vibrate, like Fritz Kreisler on a violin. It has to breathe , it has to be elastic, but it does have to have the legato, and I think that's one of the great things missing today, is a sense of really beautiful expression within the sound.
We want an athlete on stage just throwing out high notes, but those notes are sometimes wed to emotion.

CP: And they're connected to other notes

AM...of course!

CP : There's a whole string of pearls there in connecting the notes you want to go for. If anyone heard Callas sing Norma you know...

AM: And look..the conductor Tullio Serafin taught Rosa Ponselle. He then updated or adjusted it to the Callas Norma. He then updated and adjusted to Joan Sutherland. Those three giants he taught Norma. Yet they all have the absolute requisite legato and Bellini style. It proves it can be done.
The problem is that today we have many lovely voices who are used up by the recording companies. And they are also in the hands of maestri who want to be symphonic conductors. And there's not enough symphonies for them. So they "settle." That's a key word, they "settle" on opera. And they know nothing about voice...so then you have these young babies in the hands of babies, and no one really understands the style. Or they think they're going to "re write" it, as if they have a direct line. Tradition is important to observe.
___________________________________________________________________

Aprile Millo sings Tosca, La Gioconda and Maadalena in Andrea Chenier at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2006-2007 season.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

PATTY DUKE on mental illness

Actress Patty Duke was born Anna Marie Duke and was taken from her parents at a very young age to be raised by a theatrical agent couple, the Rosses, who developed a young girl into a meal ticket. Miss Duke won an Academy Award at sixteen for her portrayal of Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker", a film shot during the day while she played the role nightly on Broadway. "The Patty Duke Show" is an icon of the bubble gum sixties; its long run made her a household name. Her career in TV and films has continued since then, with a number of ups and downs, notably a diagnosis of bi polar disorder over twenty years ago. Today, Patty Duke has reclaimed her name Anna. She's the author of two books, "Call Me Anna" and "A Brilliant Madness".
Her TV and film roles run from Martha Washington to Neely O'Hara in
"Valley of the Dolls" to Annie Sullivan in a TV remake of "The Miller Worker".
Today, Anna Marie Pearce aka Patty Duke is happily maried to Mike Pearce, and is the mother of 17 year old Kevin. One of her older children is movie star Sean Astin.
She lives in Idaho. We spoke by phone on June 14, 2006 for a planned broadcast special on mental health issues.

CP: In one of your books you wrote that as a young child you were told by your guardians, "Anna is dead. You're Patty now." To say that to a child made my flesh crawl...

PD: Isn't it astonishing, no matter how stupid somebody is, they gotta go pretty far to come up with that one!

CP: The thrust of my program, which I hope will air later this fall is the lack of any kind of safety net or any kind of care for a kid with mental illness after he ages out of his parents coverage. You're on your own.

PD: Yup

CP: At least you are here in Ohio...

PD: Everyhere!

CP: That's what I want to dig into...

PD: It seems to be that in the 17-18-19-20 area, it seems to be the most intense and with the least available help.

CP: Do you mean the disorder becomes more intense then?

PD: I think so. In my twenty three years of being what I call an expert patient, its just been my personal observation. Its also the toughest time to make the diagnosis, in the teenage years, because when we're teenagers we do outrageous things
..so to sort it out from being a wacky teen to being a chemically imbalanced person, is really tough.

CP: In reading about your life and your own childhood, there was a lot of horror that went on, and at the same time you won an Academy Award at sixteen..so I'm trying to make sense of that level of accomplishment coming out of that much horror-

PD: ...I know that I was born with a chemical imbalance. I didn't know what it was until much later, but I was also born into a family with at best severe emotional problems, in New York, in the lower class neighborhood, and there's almost a street fighter in me, which I notice when I watch The Miracle Worker...

CP: That's interesting because when you have been written about about as an actor, the word "powerful" is usually attached to your name. She's a powerful actor.
She's a strong actor

PD: Honest to God I think it is that incredible spirit to survive, whether it takes anger or charm, or ocassionally grace, whatever it takes not go down. I think that those things might have existed without the illness...

CP: Do you think you would have been the same powerful actor with a safer Mom and Pop type upbringing?

PD: No, I don't. But that bothers me because then I'm saying that you have to have some torturous life in odrer to be creative and powerful. And I don't really believe that. I've worked with people all my life who didn't grow up in dysfunction and severe rage in their lives, and they're really solid and inspired. But I've also worked with at least as many who come from my kind of background.

CP: You write very poignantly of how when you were very young you were cast in a film with Judy Garland, and you wound up taking care of her. And the irony of that was not lost on you, even then

PD: No, it was not. And again, I had yet to be diagnosed. But there was a simpatico.
First of all she was JUDY GARLAND. Also, that fragile wounded bird like character that she was, it was like the strongest magnet I've ever felt

CP: Was she attracted to you in the same way?

PD: I believe so. Yet neither of us would drop our pride long enough, or knew enough about ourselves to know that we were two peas in a pod.

CP: You were born with a chemical imbalance, you came out of the web with a physical problem, but you also had that street fighter smarts, were you born with that or did you learn that as a survival technique as a little kid?

PD: Both.

CP: They do go hand in hand. That may be why you're still here and still working.

PD: Exactly. Yes, because who was my own worst enemy all those years?...the self sabotage was at least as bad as the cruelty as I experienced.

CP: Did you ever have a light bulb moment as a kid when you said, Not everybody lives this way?

PD: I don't know if I'd call it a light bulb moment..because for that the light goes on and you see in the light and you move in a direction. I do remember when I was about 16 realizing that hey, this isn't how people live. How come I don't see other kids like this? And unfortunatley I turned it in, because the fear was still greater than anything else. The fear of this unknown that the Rosses held over me over all those years...

CP: And until you were a legal adult it was in noone's best interest to get you help.
You were earning money. You were a big star. So by the time you didn't legally need to be attached to anyone any more it was totally up to you to get help for yourself, or to know you needed help, and that's a problem hat persists today. A lot of these kids turn 18 or 21 and you are on your own even if you have the best parents in the world in terms of The System....

PD: Exactly.

CP: ...but just he money to pay for the medications...

PD: One of the great tragedies of these illnesses and whether or not people get care ie economic. People tell me things. My response is You know there are people that have studied these illnesses who can be helpful, and just beause they are psychiatrists doesn't mean we should avoid them. And I go into this whole long soulful thing...describing help that is available and by the time I get to the end of it the person says, I have no money. I have no insurance.
It stops me in my tracks. I am beginnig to learn through my travels, that there are indeed some frail systems available for people without money, but its the best kept secret in America...

CP: Well its been kept from me, this is good to know.
One of my goals for this program is to piss people off so they turn on their elected represetives and demand some changes

PD: I have been deficient. In all of my work and it hads been really diligent,
I have not gone to-probably because of fear-I have not gone to the most powerful resource, which is-piss 'em off. To actually gather folks, and remember we are allegedly by the people, of the people, for the people...

CP: Do you think pissing them off is what its going to take, both the people affected and our legislators, to get some laws enacted to protect people who can't protect themsevles?

PD: I'm afraid we're going to need a healthy portion of that. The other thing is to turn on the light bulb and show that we've been in the dark and we've been terrified. And I firmly beleive ...fifty percent of our crime would stop.

CP: Pete Earley, you blurbed his book, "Crazy"..

PD: Oh! I'm telling you...!

CP: Here's this man and the authoriites say to him well, if your son tries to kill you or kills himself, bring him back...they literlly said that to him!
Because he's past legal age and they can't admit him involuntarily

PD: That book had for some of the missing elements we've talked about this morning. It had for me that impetus that rage can give you. That you can use in a healthy way. It was also such a source of information. I'm someone who thinks I live in the mental health community, and there was so much I didn't know about legislation, about care, about the lacks thereof!

CP: Does that get tired for you, to be know as the mental health advocate rather than the the actor, the mother, the wife?

PD: No. You know I'm about to start a low budget film. A friend of mine wrote it. We're going to get some drapes and paint the barn and make a movie. So I have an emotional investment. And yet, the closer the time comes to starting the more it seems alien to me. It's been true for a while. As uncomfortable as I was when I started publically talking about mental illness and mine in particular, it is now where I live. It's where I'm comfortable. It's where I get the most satisfaction. There isn't glory all over it, and nodody rolls out a red carpet

CP: The payback-spiritually-must be intesne.

PD: And it takes so little for me. It take sme telling my story, telling what I'v e learned over these twenty some odd years and being willing to be truly naked so that others can say, Oh she has the same thing I have..Its strange to me about our society that celebrities can have such an impact and when it dawned on me
I siezed the moment...

CP: Well, I went to school with litle girls who had Patty Duke lunch boxes

PD laughs

CP...they went out AS you trick or treating. The boys would go as John Glenn.
The girls went as Patty and Cathy and the boys went as John Glenn...

PD: Oh my God! You have just tickled me so!

CP: You've said you've been taking lithium twice a day for years.
A lot of people don't get a drug cocktail that works. Did you luck out?

PD: Number one I lucked out. I don't have any noticeable side effects.
Other people unfortunately may over long term use have very severe side effects. Kidneys, liver, weight gain...Nowadays there are a good 60 to 150 types of drugs available, each very specific and each an alternative for something that was prescibed that doesn't work. But I also say to people, sometimes we do not give it a chance. One of the things we're working with is that we're new to the idea that we have this illness and we're new to the idea of side effects, and sometimes we program these. I urge people to please give whatever medication they're prescribed a chance and know that there are alternatives. And sometimes its a hunt and peck...

CP: Lithium takes time to kick in...Do you remember the first day you woke up and felt different after being on lithium?

PD: I do. I remember there as nothing dramatic. I just remember after being up for a couple of hours I actually noticed an absence of the motor running, and the fidgety kind of behaviors that I had besides the behavioral crazies. I noticed it but I didn't trust it. It took a couple of days more for me to really start to believe, maybe its these pills I'm taking. The building of the trust in it takes a while.

CP: It's a long habit to feel bad, so you have to learn to feel good.

PD: You develop certain habits that you are now accustomed to, and when the feelings that provoked those are gone, you have to relearn habits. You get to invent
new habits, positive and negative!

CP: That's a a gift of getting older. You can screw up in a different way

PD: It is! Its a compensation. I'm going to be sixty this year...I have found when I stop the superficial railing at aging, there really are compensations-separate from a clinical diagnosis. There are differences that happen and the wisdom really does come!..I'm vey lucky. I accidently on purpose surround myself with young people.
We have a 17 year old son. He has about six buddies who are habitiual weekenders here, and now one of them has a girlfriend and now she's become part of the group.
And I'm just, I try really hard not to be obsessive and possesive but I find that there energy is tremendously helpful...

CP: There are a couple of websites for you and there's a fabulous blog on it www.pattyduke.net

PD: I read every single e mail. They all get answered by me.

CP: It doe sa lot of good, and I thnak you again for your time and your enoristy

PD: Oh Chrisotpher,I've had so much fun

CP: And I wish I had that lunch box to send you...it'd be worth a lot of money now on EBAY!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

JOSEPH VOLPE and THE TOUGHEST SHOW ON EARTH

The following is a tracnscript of a telephone conversation I had with Joseph Volpe,
General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, on June 1, 2006

Joseph Volpe went to work at the Metropolitan Opera over forty years ago as a carpenter, and this year he retires as the Company's General Manger,
which means he is the boss of all bosses at the world's most famous opera house.
His new book is called The Toughest Show on Earth.
_______________________________________________

CP: Your book is called Toughest Show on Earth...so what's so tough?

JV: The job itself, the way I did it. It was the focus of my life. I was hands on in everything. I needed to see everything first hand. I'd go in at 9 or 10 in the morning and still be there after the evening's performance, close to midnight.
It ends up being your life. Anytime there were problems it always came first. I just thought it was a catchy title-Toughest Show on Earth-but the job gave me such great pleasure. I'm going to miss it.

P: If I were a kid and I wrote you a letter asking you, what do I have to learn in order to run the Met someday, what would you tell me?

JV: I'd first say you should learn everything you can about opera and theater.
You can do that anywhere. Any small opera company. But truly devote yourself to learning...you have to dedicate yourself to learning everything you want to do.
Even after a late performance, when I was master carpenter I would take the train home after the performance and I would be constantly reading about different aspects of it. Really dedicating yourself to learn everything you can, so you are prepared to run it if you get that opportunity.

CP: That is the school, just going and doing it.

JV: Absolutely!

____________________________________________________________________
NOTE: Volpe's first boss at the Met was Rudolf Bing (1902-1997).
Bing ran the Met from 1950 to 1972. He was not known for personal warmth.
Check out his memoir '"5000 Nights at the Opera"
____________________________________________________________________
CP: You began there during the days of Generl Manager Rudolf Bing.
The great Brigit Nilsson said of him, "When Bing retires he'll be missed, even if people don't like him now." You have some very interesting stories about him and especially about a confrontation with a stage director.

JV: I felt he was a wonderful general manager, he was very hands on. Yes he was aristocratic in a sense, and probably very imperial in the way he did things, but he really was a wonderul fellow. The stage director happened to be Franco Zeffirelli. I didn't know who he was. I was trying to make a production work of (Samuel Barber's new opera) Antony and Cleopatra, and Zeffirelli saw that I was really throwing out, disposing of some of his scenery, and he was taken aback. He said, What are you doing? And I responded, I'm trying to make this show work. We have some wacko designer here...and the next morning Mr. Bing called me into his office to introduce me officially to Franco Zeffirelli...and the funny thing Christopher was that at my Gala concert a few weeks ago, there's an interview with Zeffirelli and he talks about it-and he's very charming.
________________________________________________________________________________
NOTE: The Gala Concert honoring Joseph Volpe was given at the Metropolitan Opera house on May 22 2006 and later televised throughout the country on PBS.
________________________________________________________________________________

NOTE: Soprano Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004) was a beatiful woman with a glorious voice. She was the artist most beloved by the New York audiences from her debut in 1955 to her retirement in 1973. If you don't know her recordings, go to the library.


CP: Recently a colleague of yours, the soprano Loretta di Franco, was interviewed
and she mentioned Renata Tebaldi coming onstage in "Adriana Lecouvreur" and she said this was one of the great moments, it was great for the audience and for di Franco herself. Did you have moments like that with artists?

JV: Well Renata Tebaldi, I remember when she did "La Gioconda" and I was just so taken by her. I didn't think of the audience (laughs) it was very personal with me, and I just flipped, she was so wonderful...When she stopped singing, she was under the impression that she would receive a pension from the Met and of course the star singers did not, and I was the one who had to tell her the bad news. She was very upset about that. Years later she came back to New York to visit. We had a big luncheon for her, and we had a wonderful time, she was a singer that set me and so many others on my ear. She was just incredible.

CP: Even when Tebaldi wasn't singing, she WAS the show

JV: Yes! She walked down the aisle at the Met druing her visit many years after she had last sung here to her seat before a peformance and the audience was just so excited Renata Tebaldi was there!

CP: You write in your book that one of your favorite Met productions was of Kurt Weill's "Mahagonny" staged by by John Dexter....

JV: Right. Well, John was a really man of the theater. He was a believer that you do productions with less scenery and less clutter because then the singers would act more. And of course it starred Teresa Stratas and she is a favorite. I was so enamored with the entire cast and the way John directed. It was one of the best productions I've ever seen. And Teresa was a large part of that.

CP: She's a little woman, maybe 90 pounds wringing wet and she's a huge artist

JV: Oh...

CP: I remember back in the 70s when the courtain went up on John Dexter's staging of "Dialogues of the Carmelites", no one knew what this was...

It was a broadcast, the house premiere, and there was a gasp before the opera even began

JV: Do you remember the opening scene? When the nuns lie there outstretched, cruciform..John was just an incredible director

CP: He was a Brit, from the spoken theatre, well known for "Equus"
You have a lot of strong personlities at the Met. How-er, dynamic can it get?

JV: With strong personalities there are always differences of opinion, and one needs to work them out. I find that's one of the biggest responsibilities, being supportive to the performers, to the artists, so that they can perform in an environment when they can do their best work, so you have to find ways to do that. It's been said Christopher that I have a strong personlity

CP: No! Who said that?

JV: (laughs) Well its been said but it only helped me with everyone else. You cut through all the negotiation and get down to the real facts because they knew I wasn't going to fool around and have long discussions. If there was a problem they knew we'd look at it and we would resolve it. Period. And we got on with things. But no, over the years, I must say I will miss the artists greatly, the artists and the company members, because that is what the Metropolitan Opera is about..it's the Company, the performers, that's what the Met is.
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NOTE: One of the most controversial moments in Volpe's Met career came shortly after he was given the title General Manager in 1994. He fired the soprano Kathleen Battle for "unprofessional behavior" during rehearsals. An exquisite vocalist, Battle had reportedly long shown disdain for her colleauges and a temeperament thought to be counterproductive and destructive. She has not appeared in opera since 1994, but continues a hghly successful concert and recording career. Battle's firing from the Met was front page in the New York Times.
________________________________________________________________________________

CP: Is it your job to be proactive in the care of artists? I do have to bring up the Kathleen Battle situation because you devote an entire chapter to her in your book..
You said that was one of your great regrets, that it couldn't have been resolved

JV: I was very active in helping artists, and being supportive. But it is a big regret. Obviously Kathy had a lot of probems. And it got so I had to make the decision I did to fire her, but it was unfortunate. In a way, that was a failure of mine. I tried very hard to work it out so she could perform, but I wasn't successful, and I don't know what more I could have done...

NOTE: In the book Volpe reports on a heated exchange with Battle's manger. He said, "Bing was known as the man who fired Maria Callas. Do you want to be known as the man who fired Kathleen Battle?" To which Mr. Volpe replied, "Kathy Battle is no Maria Callas."



CP: She is an extraordinary artist

JV: Yes, absolutely.

CP: What do you want the Met's future to be?

JV: My hope is that the Met and opera in this country will continue to flourish, even though certainly the economy and 9/11 and the war in Iraq have kept people from going out and spending money. My hope is that we protect the wonderful art form that it is. What concerns me is that when there are new works and composers write works that require amplification, I do want to make sure that opera does not go the way of Broadway. Years ago Broadway was wonderful and you had people who could really sing. Now with the amplification, that's no longer so important...Well, its not opera, and it can't be great opera or grand opera if we amplify. That's one of my biggest concerns.

CP: How about your own future? You're going to work for Rudolph Giuliani

JV: Yes, I'm going to work with Rudi and we''ve got a lot of projects I'll be involved in and managing. I said I wanted to do something completely different before I retire for good and working with Rudi in this way is a great opportunity. I don't know what Rudi will be doing as far as his political career, but I'm not going to get involved there. I couldn't be elected dog catcher, nor help anyone, so its better I stay away from that front!

CP Oh come on!

JV: No, I'm not!

THE TOUGHEST SHOW ON EARTH by Joseph Volpe

Monday, June 05, 2006

Intrerview with Pete Earley, author of CRAZY

CRAZY: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness
by Pete Earley
c.2006 G.P. Putman and Sons

READ THIS BOOK! IT IS HORRIFYING AND RINGS ALL TOO TRUE!

see also www.peteearley.com

This is a transcript of a phone conversation between myself and Mr. Earley as I prepare a broadcast on the problems in safely and effectively treating those with mental illness. Mike is Mr. Earley's son. He was diagonsed five years ago-at 22- with bi polar disorder.

PE--Pete Earley
CP--Christopher Purdy

RAW TRANSCRIPT

PE: Mike is my son, when he was in college he developed a mental illness, bi polar disorder. I rushed him from New York where he was attending school to Virginia, where I lived, and during that four hour trip, it was unbelievable. His moods would shift. At one moment he'd be laughing, the next minute he'd be sobbing. It was very difficult to watch. And then he said to me, Dad how would you feel if someone you loved killed himself. So of course I rushed him to an Emergency Room to get him some help. And the intake nurse rolled her eyes when he told her that he believed pills were poison, and that he was God's messenger. We waited for four hours, and then a doctor came in and I'll never forget, he came in with his hands raised, as if he were surrendering, and he said, Look I'm sorry, I'm not going to be able to help your son. And I said, You haven't even examined him! He said, it doesn't matter, the nurse told me your son believes that pills are poison, he doesn't seem to me to be in any iminent danger, either to himself or others, and under Virginia law he has either to be hurting himself or hurt someone else, in order for me to forcibly treat him. So take him home, and if he tries to kill himself or kill you, then bring him back and we'll try to do something.

C: He actually said that to you, we can help him if he tries to kill himself or you?

PE: That's right....I took him home and for the next forty eight hours I watched him sink into this mental abyss. At one point he had tin foil wrapped around his head and he was watching TV because he thought the CIA was trying to penetrate his
thoughts through the airwaves. He slipped out of the house. He broke into a neighbor's house, luckily they weren't home. He went in there to take a bath, and he did quite a bit of damage in the house, and then the police came. It took five of them to drag him out of there, and they took him to a mental health center. And I thought, Good! Now he'll get some help. When I got to the Center the police said to me No, he's still not considered a danger to himself or others, so unless you go in there and tell people he threatened to kill you, we'll take him to jail and you don't want that.

So I went in and I lied. I said, My son has threatened to kill me. That got him in the hospital...then I was told no, he STILL didn't seem to be a danger, so he would be released unless he became violent. Then the police called to tell me he'd been charged with two felonies. I was so frustrated because here the law had kept me from getting him help, and now the law wanted to punish him for a crime he committed when he was obviously ill.

CP: In your book you mention "the crimilaztion of the mentally ill"

PE: That's exactly right. That's what's going on right now. Jails and prisons have become our new mental asylums. 700,000 people with severe mental illness go through the justice system each year. The largest mental facilty in the United States is not a hospital, but the Los Angeles County jail.

We are turning those places into our new asylums. That's where people end up when they need help with their mental illness, and that's not right.

CP: You book, CRAZY focuses on your son Mike and also the mental health system and lack of any safety net for the mentally ill

PE: I wanted to put a human face on this story, so with Mike's cooperation I decided to tell his story. But I interwove it with the bigger story. I went to Miami where 9% of the population has mental illness, and I wanted to see how that community deals with persons with mental illnesses. And what I found out is rather typical. They either end up in jail, they end up eating out of garbage cans in the streets, OR some with chronic diseases end up in assisted living facilites. Boarding homes that the state pays for. There are 4500 people in Miami who live in 647 of these homes, 400 of them can't even pass minimun safety standards. They're slums.
In Washington there was a recent expose telling how many patients in facilities like these were murdered, actually murdered by caregivers, they were starved to death, they were abused. A Milwaulkee newspaper just did a series on the mentally ill and how people were being mistreated there. So its grim all the way around. There's a tremendous lack of services in communities and some of the laws in place are throwing up roadblocks instead of helping us get people help.

CP: We can help you if you kill somebody, but if you don't kill somebody we can't help you.

PE: Exactly.

CP: A lot of people do well on medications, but some seem not to do well; it's also an issue of getting people to take their medicaitons

PE: That's right. You know it takes more than just sticking a pill in someone's mouth. A lot of these mental illnesses are biological problems, they are chemical imbalances which affect how nerve cells send and receive messages. So medicaton can help, it is effective in about 80% of severe mental illness, the trick is 1. getting the right medicaitons and getting people to take it.

My son was on probation for two years, took his medication every day, did a great job
with it, six months later he stopped. Two weeks ago he was forcibly hospitalized. This breaks your heart, but it seems to be part of the cycle you go through.

CP: Often there are devastating side affects to medications, even if they keep you relatively safe...

PE: The first medication my son was on made him gain forty pounds, made him lethargic...he looked like a zombie. None of us were happy with that. A lot of folks with mental illness struggle to find the right balance.

CP: What is Mike's life going to be as far as you can tell? How old was he when you took that four hour ride?

PE: 22 years old. He's now 27.

CP: Did you have any hint of this?

PE: One year before he had had some problems, some bizzare behavior, and we sent him to a psychiatrist who said he might have bi polar disorder. We were all in denial. It was such a devastating diagnosis. He would stay up for five days and we said, Oh well, its stress, and it's not going to come back. And it does come back.
The sad thing about mental illness is that it's a lifetime sentence. You can be treated, but for a severe illness like bi polar disorder or schizophrenia, those are awfully tough to cure. That's what we're living with now. It's really tough. You want to say to somebody who is now 27 years old, well its up to you, your fate's in your hands, take your medications and you'll be fine. But sometimes medications don't work. It's like asking someone with 2 broken legs to run a marathon.
If you have a disease, when does the diesease kick in, and what do you blame on someone being irresponsible. It's tough call.

CP: What has to change so that Mike and everybody else can have a better quality of life, and not be blamed for something in their brains they can't control?

PE: That's the key point. We have to stop making persons with mental illness into criminals. My son now faces a double stigma, both being mentally ill and now having a criminal record. Jails and prisons can't be part of the care process. We have to provide better community sevices, and we must get rid of a lot of the stigma. We have to realize that people who have a mental illness are sick. If your heart gets sick, your brain can get sick. We don't like to do that. We want to blame people for their mental illness. It's not something they did or a weakness in character. If we don't do this we realize it could happen to us, and that's scary.

CP: Would you describe Milke's life now at 27 as 2 steps forward 3 steps back?

PE: I was very optimistc. He was on 2 years of probation. He went to work, had a job. No one would have guessed he had a mental illness. He stopped taking his medication. I can't explain why. Then you watched him decompensate, and then 2 weeks ago he had to be forcibly hospitalized, its a reminder that this is what our life is going to be like, until he either reaches a point where he stays on the medicaiton or he gets worse. Each time you have one of these breakdowns, you do know that it's harder to come back from them.

June 5, 2006

Monday, May 01, 2006

FAREWELL MET...IT WAS GREAT!



I did the second of my two annual Metropolitan Opera intermission feature gabfests this past weekend. The opera was Wagner's Lohengrin, in a controversial staging by Robert Wilson. There were no sets. The stage cyc was lit blue, white or -very briefly green. There were beams of light at right angles. Stage movements were stylized slo-mo. Costumes were plain, in blues, dark wine red for Ortrud, gray for the men. And I loved every minute of this. I found it very moving, focusing entirely on Wagner's magnificent music, with the light washes and movements filling in just enough to tell the story. I expect this was my last Met broadcast. The management is changing. The production team, my second, that invites me is being replaced. But what a twenty plus year ride I've had! I met great people and I heard performances from the best seats in the house I will never forget, and got lunch, yet! Some of these people made ME seem shy.

I got smashed at an RCA "do" in 1983 held to celebrate the Metropolitan Opera's 100th anniversary. RCA producer Richard Mohr was hovering near the bar. He had hired most of the famous, now elderly (most in heaven today) opera stars in the room. Richard had recently been named Producer of the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. They had been on air since 1931. He said to me You look like you're under 100, do you want to be on the air? If you can speak I'll take you. At that point I nearly couldn't speak. I was fascinated by a well preserved diva, sixty if she was a day, in a red dress slit up to were you could count her...never mind. Anyway, I said yes and a few weeks later there I was.

The panel on that day (the opera was Tchaikovsky's 'Eugene Onegin') included of George Jellinek, President of WQXR in New York, author, teacher; and Alberta Masiello, a Met pianist and conductor who counted Maria Callas among her pupils.
Then there was me, who sold records at Barnes and Noble. And I went back every year.
My mother in Boston was hysterical. She kept calling my answering machine: "Jesus, Mary and Joseph! I had no idea what the hell you were talking about but it sounded wonderful I just wish those people would stop singing! Your Aunt Mary called me and said for chrissakes my kids barely speak English!" Ma heard one more broadcast and passed away.

Richard Mohr was a curmudgeonly type who liked his gin and tonic and who had spent fifty years as a record producer for RCA and felt that in his old age he could finally say whatever the hell he wanted to about any bloody artist living or dead, and did! I was asked to write an obit for him and the Met broadcast it a few years ago. It's somewhere on this blog. Richard's assistant was the great Miss Vinnie Volpe, a diminutive Italian lady from New Jersey who knew where all the bodies, fictional and real were buried. She weighed ninety pounds and was somewhere between seventy and ninety and feared no one. If you hadn't finished your lunch before the opera began she would wrap the leftovers in the the Met's best linen napkin and you could take your chicken hash right into the the center box, the best seats in the house. People like Leontyne Price, Cesare Valletti, Donald Trump and Rudi Giuliani would sit in those seats, along with Christopher who sold records at Barnes and Noble. God forbid you were in the wrong seats. She told the CEO of Texaco to move and he did. One day a large group of beefy men in Armani had the adjoining box. Miss Volpe said, Oh look there's John Gotti! He smiled and bowed to her.

I cried when Miss Volpe died. She would tell Richard to have me on a lot "because he can't afford good seats and he needs a meal." Nobody, but nobody else in my entire life has ever looked at me and said I needed a meal.

Richard would go on about his departed favorites, whose recordings he had produced: Stokowski, "the best ears in the business, ever".
Toscanini "A pussycat, he never gave me a bit of trouble" unlike that maestro's reputation for a Vesuvian temper. He got a kick out of soprano Zinka Milanov. "Zinka would go into this dive opposite the old Met on thirty ninth street just before a performance and she'd bark "Gimme a sviss cheeeeese on rye vit plenty moooostard!" and then damned if she wouldn't cross the street and sing an Aida to knock you out! "

Richard had flashcards which he waved at us during the-live-in-front-of-a-studio-audience broadcasts. They said, longer, shorter, five minutes, stretch and shut up. Period. You would look at these cards and try not to giggle. Once in a while he'd let me host the panel. His stage whispers on live radio were terrifying. "What an asshole this jerk is" he'd hiss at me between clenched teeth 10 inches from the mikes.



And the guests! I grew up with Miss Masiello, who shed tears on cue at any mention of Callas ("Onassis, he keeel her, he murder her") and who was a chain smoker and would light right up in her wheelchair and cough and growl away. She switched to Nicorette but it was too late and she died. Ma in Boston would complain, why did they let that man talk so much. I still miss Alberta. Father Owen Lee, August Professor of Classics at University of Tornoto was one of my favorites and what a privilege to know him! He'd laugh at my Boston Irish funeral stories
("Grammy was laid out for three days until the bootlegger called and said he couldn't make it! Grampy almost had a stroke") and he would explain Wagner, Nietzsche, Sophocles and basketball in a way that would have you enthralled and begging for more. Albert Innaurato, playwright and commentator shocked audiences by saying "Years ago the nuns in Philly told me, Oh dago boys don't go to college" Edward Downes would be gracious and polite to all and sip his light seven n seven and invited me to his home in the Dakota upstairs from Yoko Ono and dictate his memoirs. They are also on this blog!

Richard died. Vinnie died. Miss Masiello died. Mr. Jellinek retired. Edward died. Later on the broadcasts became more professional, more polished and not quite so warm or exciting. It was run by professionals who treated us all with class and respect. No gossip. No more gin at lunch. Sigh. I was cast as the brat and ran with it. Why not? I had enough good stuff to say that I got away with mistakes, like confusing a canon and a fugue, and this past weekend I went on about American Idol when clearly my co guests had no clue what I was talking about. That's okay. America knew.

If I never go to New York again, I have twenty years of memories of fantastic people
to keep me company. Miss Masiello found Callas in heaven. Edward Downes is talking to Wagner, in perfect German no doubt. Miss Volpe is telling God that her cloud is too damned crowded, and she's crying for joy at the sight of Renata Tebaldi singing in heaven. Richard Mohr is rolling his eyes and holding up his SHUT UP flashcard.

I heard tremendous performances: Leonie Rysanek as the Kostelnicka in Jenufa; Domingo and Voigt in Die Walkure, Pavarotti's final-ill advised-Radames in Aida-Renee Fleming as Violetta and Rodelinda. She made a believer outta me.
War and Peace. Christa Ludwig as Klytamnestra in Elektra, one of her last performances. Thomas Hampson and Susan Graham in Werther; Dimitrova in Turandot-whew! And I will never forget what a compliment from Miss Masiello or a hug from George Jellinek meant to me.

I began attending performances nearly thirty years ago, in standing room. Very top of the house. You could get vertigo but oh my you could hear. Standing room was $2 back in 1979. Today its $20. And last Saturday, after seeing this marvelous Lohengrin from the best seats in the house, seats I could never afford, I came back a few hours later for Tosca, not because I really needed to see Tosca but because I wanted to be closer to heaven to thank a lot of old ghosts, and to say goodbye...from standing room.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

WE DID DICHTERLIEBE!!!!!

Ben and I performed Dichterliebe the other day in toto for the Ladies (capital L)
of the Worthington-Columbus Symphony Support Unit.
Our hostess, Mrs. Hamilton said to me, "I'm on the young side of this crowd, and I'm seventy-nine. The last time you spoke to us was it Liselotte's house. She died, you know. Went in with an aneurysm poor soul, they were working on her and she said Leave me alone! I'm ninety-two and I want to watch my soap operas. So they left her alone and she passed away watching The Young and The Restless in intensive care! Do you want another brownie?"

Ben and I went up there and did thw whole thing, soup to nuts.
The Ladies, over 30 of them in one living room! made cooing noises
and the terms "adorable" and "too fat" were muttered beneath the smiles.
Ben was adorable. I was...

Even with some adjustmeents for hearing aids and the plethora of Breck and
Alberto VO 5, it was a lovely morning.
Ben and I worked hard. My German wasn't awful, and if I didn't sound like Dieskau I still made music and told the story. Unrequited love and the war between our physical and spiritual natures. I came into my own telling The Ladies: "Listen for the words HERZ, SCHMERZ and GELIEBTER. There's the whole friggin' history of music right there!"

After this, how about the Hermit Songs or Fiancailles pour rire?
I'm bitchin' to go on, and The Ladies will always be with us,
even Liselotte --in heaven watching The Edge of Night.