Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Peter Gelb for a Day

I've never met Peter Gelb. My name will mean nothing to him.
Peter Gelb is the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera.
He's responsible for a half billion dollar company which for many reasons must maintain its status as the world's finest.

His job is to put together a top quality product for about 250 performances a year.
His bigger job is to put fannies in seats.
I'm being polite here.
The Met board is lacking in the old money because the old money is either dead or gone the way of Bernie Madoff.  I daresay most of the board members to whom Gelb must answer are or were financial mavens oriented to the bottom line. The old question, "Why do you need all those violins anyway?" is not a total joke. So it is that in this lousy economy, the sight of empty seats must mean trouble in the upstairs boardrooms.

Look folks, Gelb is having to balance musical and dramatic sophistication with an audience that wants to be entertained. Or a company controlled by those who want to be entertained. Few of this potential audience-the mass audience, reads Opera-L or patretrre box und so weiter. They pays their money and they don't want to take no chances.So Gelb has to come up with, if not sure fire winners, then flops that can be re- imagined for good copy.

I don't imagine the to-do over the Robert Lepage Ring staging is causing sleepless nights. This kind of argument is good publicity. What is not good publicity is looking like an idiot by silencing a magazine or a blog. Discussed elsewhere. 'Nuf said..

Could you do Peter Gelb's job for one week? Be the target boy for people who express genuine critical concerns over the product, or for those who bitch and don't attend, and for people who have more than a few screws loose, and for those in the middle, who enjoy finding things and people to hate. Then there are the parties to be satisfied and kept happy: Singers, chorus to Renee Fleming, orchestra, wardrobe, stage hands, lights, camera you name it. Any one group can shut down the show. Then there' s the board, needing to be stroked and petted for that extra five hundred thou Bernie didn't get. 

Never mind when Karita or Juan Diego or Riccardo decide not to show up, and Jimmy is sick and some idiot is moaning on line that the soprano in The Enchanted Isle (A Gelb hit in my opinion) smiled too much.You think its all limos, luxury apartments, gourmet on the grand tier and the directors box for Les troyens? For all the time a person has you might as well live across the street at the West Side YMCA and chew on a tuna fish sandwich. Hookers and blow would be nice if they were offered (I'm not saying they are) but not much fun if you're too aggravated or too fucking exhausted.

Gelb is probably not helping himself much with his cold demeanor. He comes across as forbidding and awkward. We don't need a teddy bear in this job, but a little of Rudolf Bing's timing and punchy humor would go a long way.

I have to love an impresario who gives us From the House of the Dead and The Nose; who engages a producer who understands that The Barber of Seville is meant to be funny. The HD presentations make the Met an international brand in the way radio broadcasts used to. We who don't in New York (and I grew up in upstairs standing room but saw my last Met performance in 2005) find ourselves invested in the Met and its repertoire, if not always its people, in our local movie theatres.

Peter Gelb. Want his job? I dare you.
Failures? Who liked the Tosca? I suspect we've seen the last of The First  Emperor. The Ring is the one-or four-productions the public loves to hate. It had a lot to do with machinery and very little with characterization. Peter Grimes, if they had opened one more freakin' window...But Gatti-Casazza had his failures too. Joseph Breil's The Legend was assigned to the young Rosa Ponselle. Sixty years later she told her biographer, "The girl had a feather sticking out of her somewhere" and reported she had burned the score. Who remembers Cleopatra's Night or La campagna sommersa-the latter a flop by Respighi which Elisabeth Rethberg and Martinelli couldn't save. And if you know who the hell is Gatti-Casazza, you need to get out more.

Catherine Russell

Catherine Russell
This goes under the category "Where have I been?"

A chance listen to Terry Gross's Fresh Air on NPR introduced me to singer Catherine Russell.
Now I can't get enough. Why should I?
It's a voice like honey-molasses. Bake it in a pie or eat it right out of the bottle.
This is wonderful, energetic and personal singing:

Oh my, I love me some Catherine Russell.

She has a great webiste:


Friday, May 18, 2012

Not Seeing DFD

The great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has died, at 87.
His name was a footnote to me in my foolish youth, because he was not known for loud, florid Italian opera.
He was a lieder singer. German art songs. Very prissy. Stand there in tails and sing in German to an audience that didn't understand German but got together for one of his American concerts because, like castor oil, it was supposed to be good for you.

Isn't it great to be young and stupid?

I remember a time when I thought Hugo Wolf was boring (no tunes) Schoenberg was a fraud and the sun rose and set on Donizetti and Puccini. I still love Donizetti and Puccini. Hugo Wolf is now a god to me. Schoenberg?: Oh, well. I do love my Moses und Aron

Back to Dieskau. From him I began to understand the art of intimacy. It takes a lot of power to hold  people around your little finger. DFD could do that:

I used think that a concert with one singer and one pianist was a rip -off. I was with Anna Russell who said, 'The German lied has to be approached with great reverence and utter seruiosness'. she was only partly serious. There's a lot of room for charm, blood, sex, emotion and fire. Dietrich Fischer Dieskau did not have a rolling glorious  baritone voice. It was a good voice. But nobody ever told a story better than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. isn't that what singing is? Telling a story? Take a walk on a lovely spring day. Smell the flowers. Pay attention to the sky:

I saw him twice in concert. The first time at age 12. How and why I got there at that age is another story. I had been fit for glasses the week before. The glasses that I left at home that Sunday afternoon.
From the second balcony I recall the outline of a very tall, big man. He sand 'Dies schoene Muellerin.' I didn't know it. They didn't teach German in Sacred Heart parish. I remember nothing about what I heard, and remember I couldn't see either.

Any one of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's recordings of 'Die schoene Muellerin' would go with me to the desert island. (Aksel Schotz, too)

 I saw Dieskau again, also in Symphony Hall, ten years later. It was an all Mahler program. A lot of the Knaben Wunderhorn songs. By now I was starting to get it. What I remember most is that he made lieder conversational, and that he was singing only to me. The hall was of course sold out, but there I was, now with glasses on-and Dietrich Fischer -Dieskau had me laughing and crying and everything in between. To me his gift was making conversation in and with music. You didn't have to know a word of German to understand, his inflexion and musicianship were so striking.

Still, I regret being blind and deaf to Schubert's lovely mill maid. A great 'what if' for me, along with two others, Tito Gobbi as Scarpia and Cesare Siepi as Don Giovanni. I saw 'em. I was there but damned if I can remember . I'll tell you about them another time.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Carmen, October 15, 1979

A few weeks after I moved to New York in the fall of 1979,the big news on the streets was the impending New York City Opera debut of Victoria de los Angeles. The great lady had not sung a staged opera in New York for many years. Engaging her was thought to be both a coup and savvy publicity for Beverly Sills, new as General Manager of the Company.


There were two occasions I remember when the return of a beloved artist brought with it great love, great joy and unrealistic expectations. Mme de los Angeles return as Carmen was one of those times (the other was Carlo Bergonzi's Otello in Carnegie Hall in 2000).

But what did I know? I was 22! loved opera and (thought I) knew all about Victoria and Carmen. The City Opera was across the street and the tix were $4. (I always felt welcomed there) It was announced that Mme de los Angeles would sing several performances each of the Countess and Carmen

I  had already crossed Broadway a few times, for Faust and Tosca. Beverly Sills, red hair flaming to shame Lucille Ball, would sit in the first seat stage right of the first level. She was there that October night.

The place was sold out. Victoria de los Angeles had legions of fans, as she does today, a few years after her death. And people loved the City Opera's Carmen. Good cast: Ricardo Calleo (handsome) Robert Hale (dashing)  Gwenlynn Little-a lovely voice you could fall in love to. And one of the great names in opera in the title role. For four bucks.

Recently I found a CD rom of 18 performances of Carmen-beginning with Stignani and Gigli in 1949 (there's a mental image)  and very much including that October performance in New York. I was up there in the cheap seats. I remember VdLa's delayed entrance. At La voila! Voila la Carmencita! the men sang into  the wings...and waited...and then out she came, hands on hips. Deafening applause. A roar that went on and on.

Oh, dear.

Even from the cheap seats it was obvious this was an older lady. Victoria made her New York debut in1949 and her Met years were 1950-1962. What were we to expect in 1979? She began to sing and you felt the nerves in the audience. The color was there. Her voice was recognizable, but very thin, small and dry. She had trouble holding pitch. There were real flashes of the good ol' sound-like an orange rind-but the lady was working mighty hard! There was a fair amount of quasi parlando going on. And no, I don't remember the sound over thirty years ago.Charles Wendelken-Wilson* conducted. He really tried to help her. I remembered being disappointed in her looks, pig that I was. She didn't sound like her Beecham recording and that disappointed me.

 I left after the first act. It seemed more respectful not to stay.

She canceled all the other performances and left town.
What had been a coup for Sills (should she have known better?) turned out to be a flop.

But I'm listeningg to the performance now. Chorus, orchestra, supporting cast all first rate. Robert Hale is very sexy, even audio only. I like Calleo a lot. And de los Angeles has fine moments I didn't stay to hear.

I did see the lady again, 10 years later! in recital at Manhattan music. She had a thread of voice. A frayed thread. She sang Brahms, Falla and Granados in a small hall. She was enchanting. God bless her.

I've said it before. I will always love the city Opera.

   *I heard many of his NYCO performances. Years later he was conducting and broadcasting in Dayton. I could have driven forty five minutes and said hello. I didn't.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Vedem, Lori Laitman and The Lost Boys

Vedem (Czech: "In the Lead") was a magazine cobbled together by the teenage boys living in a "dorm" at the Terezin (Theresianstadt) concentration camps. It was thought by the Jewish elders of the camp that children would be better served if they could be distracted-even a little-from the horrors surrounding them.

Very few of the boys survived. The elderly gentleman in the clip are among them:.


Lori Laitman has written an oratorio called Vedem, using the actual texts these children wrote as they faced death. David Mason wrote the libretto. Mina Miller writes:

"Every Friday night for two years between 1942 and 1944, they read aloud their week's contributions...At age fourteen, Petr Ginz became Vedem's first and only editor-in-chief. At age sixteen he was sent to his death in Auschwitz.

The oratorio of Vedem is important because it's beautiful, and Lori Laitman's music returns and amplifies the humanity of these boys so prevalent in their writing.  The score is melodic, clear, simple and deeply moving. The words are set to be heard. The words in of themselves are not high poetry. But I'll say it again, they were written by children facing death.The work is scored for  boy's choir, clarinet, cello and piano.  

Vedem  was recorded by Naxos shortly after the 2010 premiere in Seattle.

Music from the holocaust (inspired by? devoted to? written during?) is not new. We've had cabaret songs, cantatas, art songs, oratorios. Composer Paul Krasna died at Auschwitz. His opera Brundibar was written for the children at Terezin to perform. Viktor Ullman is remembered today for his opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis in his death in the gas chambers. Contralto Ottilie Metzger perished, as did violinist Alma Rose, who was Mahler's niece. Tragically, on and on and on and on.

Vedem is simple and moving and let's the context of the words work their their magic.
Thank you, Lori Laitman. Boys, God bless you.

The boys of Terezin reunited in Seattle, 2010

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Wagner's Dream

Here's what I liked most about Wagner's Dream: we got to see some vulnerability from Peter Gelb. He seemed human and reachable. His public facade up until now had been aloof and reptilian. He was channelling Rudolf Bing, who it was said had a very dry and active wit. Gelb looked worried and looked tense. It made me like him.

The 2 hr film was more the story of Robert Lepage and his ExMachina Company in Quebec. The building and assembly of the controversial machine-the set for the new Ring Cycle at the Met-is certainly a story, but this film was more Robert's Dream than anyone else's. It's a PR tool for the Metropolitan. No harm there but how much blocking and staging was actually done. Why so little discussion of the characters? It was all mechanics and very little character.

That said, I know James Levine withdrew because if illness early on, but still. Where the hell was he? A few rehearsals shots were not enough. He is the artistic conscience of the company and has been for forty years. He deserves respect. If he was unavailable for an extensive interview he could have been acknowledged more. James Levine conducting the Met orchestra in Wagner is was one of the best experiences of my life.

The story of Jay Hunter Morris pinch hitting and making good is worth a separate film. A big, good looking bruiser from Paris Texas who can actually sing (yes, sing) Siegfried. What's not to love? He gave a brief interview during the HD Walkure a few months ago. The audience where I was fell in love with him.

We had a lot of Debbie Voigt-no bad thing. I would have liked more Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe. Who wouldn't? And one thing was clear. Like it or not, I doubt anyone can work on the Lepage Ring without an engineering degree. I fear for all the expense and all the trouble, the 'mystery will be gone' and theRing in New York will no longer be a great event. It was that as recently as the mid nineties, in the Otto Schenk production that had held forth for years. And they didn't have the two big boys: Bryn 'n' Jay.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

FALSTAFF at Ohio State

The School of Music at The Ohio State University presents Verdi's FALSTAFF in Mershon Auditorium, Friday May 4 at 8 pm and Sunday May 6 at 3. 

The production is staged by A. Scott Parry and conducted by Marshall Haddock. The costumes are by Christine Kearney.
Todd Thomas sings the title role, surrounded by a (wonderful) all student cast.

The Sunday performance is broadcast live on Classical 101.1 FM... on line at
Falstaff by Gruzbeck
Falstaff! The final opera by Giuseppe Verdi. The composer was eighty years old at the opera's premiere at La Scala, Milan in 1893. He may have protested too much, crying "think to my age" when enticed by his librettist Arrigo Boito to end his career with comedy, and one of the composer's greatest loves, Shakespeare.

Verdi and Shakespeare were old friends. Macbeth was his first turn at the Bard, in 1847. The composer considered this opera a favorite child, revising it in 1865. To then end of Verdi's life there were hints at King Lear. In the past ten years scraps by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert  have been found. Who knows what lie in the attic and cellars at Sant'Agata, Verdi's estate outside Milan?

Otello came forty years after Macbeth. Verdi had settled into a peaceful retirement, so he said. His letters at the time say he was content and finished with the theater. I don't buy it. The composer of Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La Traviata, Don Carlo (written for Paris) La forza del Destino (written for Russia) and even I masnadieri (written for London and Jenny Lind, no less) can't have been happy sitting watching the flowers grow, lovely estate or not.

Verdi (R) with Boito at Sant'Agata
Verdi and Arrigo Boito had met years before-the esteemed composer, a world celebrity, and an angry young man making his way at the expense his betters. A hot and heavy affair with Eleonora Duse gave Boito some social cachet. Boito's  relationship with Verdi grew into friendship with Otello. Boito's Italian language libretto has been called superior to Shakespeare's play (I ain't goin' there). Verdi's music was sensational. The opening storm choruses hav the audience reaching for rain gear to this day. There is no love duet more deeply moving than that between Otello and Desdemona at the close of Act I. The haunting kiss motive will come back, haunting indeed, at the end of the opera.

"Opera needs laughter as well as tears" Verdi said. His one comedy was his second opera, Un giorno di Regno (King for a Day)  written during a time of deep personal tragedy, nearly fifty years earlier. It seems that killing 'em off was more lucrative.  But there was Verdi, fresh from Otello's triumph, in his cool, dark rooms in Milan-applause ringing in his ears-leafing through Shakespeare. It was Boito who came up with the idea for Falstaff, helping himself to The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV.

The French baritone Victor Maurel, Verdi's first Iago, put on the phony belly and took the title role at the premiere. Guess what? Maurel recorded Falstaff's little ditty from Act II, Falstaff's "seduction" of Alice 

 When I was a pageboy to the Duke of Norfolk, I was so skinny, (sottile) I would slip through the ring on your finger!'

Here's Monsieur Maurel in 1907, six years after Verdi's death. He sing sit three times, being cheered on-and then once more, in French!

Here's more of that seduction. Silly Sir John has written the identical love letter to two ladies, Mrs. Ford and Mrs.Page.-the better to get more much needed pennies to finance his besotted lifestyle. The ladies get the joke and want revenge. Sir John ends up in a laundry basket thrown into the Thames

These clips are from the Metropolitan. Falstaff was first heard there with Victor Maurel, on February 4, 1895. W .J. Henderson in the New York Times:

Surely none left the auditorium without feeling that they had been in the presence of a masterwork, and one, too, little short of miraculous in its superb vitality, coming as it did, from the pen of a man who had passed the allotted three score and ten.

Falstaff has an adorable if naughty title character, the Merry Wives of Windsor, two young lovers, an angry husband and some creepy hangers-on. There's even kissing behind a screen, and a phony marriage in Windsor great park!

And all ends well. Verdi ends his operatic career with a magnificent fugue, as difficult to conduct as it is engaging to hear.Gone are the pyramids, and the hunchbacks, and the murderers and the tubercular heroines. Gone are the monarchs wanting to kill their sons and the sons wanting to sleep with their step mothers. What's left is 'Tutto nel mondo eburla"--All the world is a joke, wisdom is laughter:

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Columbus Symphony and La belle epoque: It really IS all about sex.

(OK, it really isn't)

The Columbus Symphony concludes the 2011-2012 Classical Series this weekend with music by French composers of the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts,  with Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano and the Columbus Symphony Chorus.

The program on Saturday May 5 at 8 PM is broadcast live on Classical 101 FM and streamed on the web 101.

Pre-concert talks this Friday and Saturday at 7 pm. Just because you read this doesn't excuse you!

Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Faure:     Pavane
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe, suite 2
Chausson: Poem of Love and the Sea
Durufle: Requiem

Much of this music is all about color- what do I mean 'all about color?' Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were less concerned about the element of music most accessible: melody. There are tunes a- plenty, but these composers, and their contemporary Ernest Chausson, were coming of age in the era of the impressionist painters. Monet, Manet and especially Matisse used color to create what they wanted to see rather than what was literally before them. Oversimplification? Yes. But the texture and the light of many of these paintings mirrors (there's a word the impressionists loved) the sound collages you'll hear tonight.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) followed Wagner in experimenting with tonality and rhythm. The downward chromatic figure that begins Prelude a l'apres midi d'une faune told the public in 1894 not to get too comfortable. The bar line rhythms of Mozart were giving way to an opaque texture filled with suggestion. You can hear the Faun scampering about on a hot summer afternoon, chasing nymphs-and this brief piece has an orchestral climax Wagner would have loved. Although this music flows, it doesn't 'land' where the ear expects. Debussy's music happens rather than being played.

Debussy and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) were too good for Serge Diaghilev to resit. The Russian born impresario of the Ballets Russes, with top hat, tails and rakish mustache, with his public and hedonistic affairs with Vaclav Nijinsky Michel Fokine and Leonard Massine WAS Parisian culture just before World War I. . Debussy and Ravel were well established world celebrities by 1912 but Diaghilev gave them the best kind of notoriety, the: success de scandale. The great Nijinsky choreographed and danced the faun to Debussy's music. The performance titillated, shocked and goaded the Parisian audiences with its heat and self-love.

Ravel didn't really want to work with Diaghilev. He knew that any success would be Diaghilev's and any failure would be Ravel's. Daphnis and Chloe was danced by the Ballets Russes in 1912. The idea came from choreographer Michel Fokine-and he caused Ravel  lot of consternation:

 " I must tell you I just had an insane week: preparation of a ballet libretto for the next Russian season. Almost every night, work until 3 a.m. What complicated things is that  Fokine doesn't know a word of French, and I only know how to swear in Russian. In spite of the interpreters, you can imagine the savour of these meetings."

If the Greek legend of children raised by foster parents who fall in love and are separated and then reunited is a tad obvious, you can hear the Ravel provided music is anything but fey-indeed it has a lusciousness and sensuality primed for (splendid) dancers. Ravel's score long outlived the Ballet Russes. He later adapted  Daphnis and Chloe into three suites for orchestra,of which we'll hear Suite 2. There's a spectacular sunrise, pirate ships, an abduction and a steamy reunion. Daphis et Chloe is Ravel's longest and largest scaled work-but no miniaturist he. (Last time I heard this work the friend who joined me remarked, 'At last, a composer who can make love without slobbering!')

Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) died a fascinating death. He crashed his bicycle. This somewhat overshadows his life at the center of a Parisian salon attractive to Debussy, Faure, Albeniz, Turgenev and Monet. He was an attorney with a respectable profession and an attractive wife-and he had the Wagner bug as well, encouraged by Cesar Franck.

Who knows how Chausson would have developed had he lived longer? I'll bet he would have discovered jazz and gone running after Schoenberg and twelve-tone music..for a bit.

The Poeme de l'amour et de la mer for voice and orchestra took eight years to complete, 1882-1890. Chausson had already produced a terrific opera,  Le roi d'Arthus and another 'Poeme' for violin and orchestra.

The Poem of Love and the Sea sets two poems by Maurice Bouchor-and the sea imagery is made for the play on light and the chimera of the impressionists

"The wind has changed, the skies are sullen/and no more shall we run and gather/the lilac in bloom and lovely roses/the springtime is sad and cannot bloom"

Chausson doesn't tell us if the voice is more important than the orchestra or vice versa? The fabric is pretty tight. The voice rises from the orchestra (as if from the seas?)  This is music in which to wallow.

Very different is the sublime Requiem by Maurice Durufle Durufle (1902-1986). Just as sonority-how the orchestra sounded was paramount to Debussy, so generations later Durufle gave us an other sonority, based on Gregorian Chant.

Durufle became devoted to chant as practised at the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes. He came by this love naturally. for fifty-seven years, from 1929 until his death 1986, Maurice Durufle was organist at the Parisian church of  Ste.-Etienne-du Mont. There he prepared the first performance of his Requiem, a lament for post-occupation France, in 1947.  Durufle was one of the great church organists of Paris-a city where the king of instruments is taken very seriously to this day.  Not for Durufle the eroticism of Debussy, Chausson and Ravel. As well crafted as those scores are, Durufle is restrained, careful, dignified and emphatic. You don't mess with Durufle.

What a program for our final Columbus Symphony concerts this season! The sensuality and heavy breathing, the colors of Debussy, Ravel and Chausson, and the piety mixed with gorgeousness of Durufle's Requiem. We'll hear our splendid Columbus Symphony chorus directed by Ronald Jenkins, and a fantastic mezzo-soprano, Jennifer Rivera. .Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts. What's not to love?