February 22, 2015

Violetta and her musical lie-detector

A lie detector. As you can see, Violetta's really ill.
In one of my recent Salome posts, I referred to mankind’s duality as manifested in Strauss’s characters. Salome and the rest of King Herod’s court represent human carnality, whereas human spirituality is symbolized by the prophet Jochanaan.

In La Traviata, these same impulses drive the story, but now they’re both in one person, the tragic heroine Violetta Valery. As the curtain rises on Act 1, her entire adult life has been devoted to pleasure and frivolity, as was the case with her real-life counterpart, the courtesan Marie Duplessis. But from the time Violetta encounters Alfredo Germont, she discovers what may be called her “authentic self”, a genuine and down-to-earth woman seeking the fulfillment of true love.

I believe that Verdi intends us to see the frivolous woman as an individual holding up a mask; a “happy-face” mask, as it were. It’s an attitude she exhibits to the outside world and to herself when she tries (as in the aria “Sempre libera”) to convince herself that partying and carnality is the lifestyle she prefers.

As I look through the score, I see a musical feature that only appears when Violetta is being dishonest or insincere. It disappears when she is being sincere; speaking from the heart; being honest with herself and others.

That musical feature: the trill. Something as simple as that: the trill. A rapid fluctuation between two successive notes.  The presence of trills in the orchestra or Violetta’s vocal line means she is lying, dissembling or holding up her mask of insincerity. When the vocal line takes the form of long, smooth, unadorned melodies, it's a signal that we are in the presence of the authentic, “spiritual” Violetta, stripped of her posturing.

I’ll prove it.

As the curtain goes up on Act 1, scene 1, the orchestra tells us (whether or not we’re deciphering the code as yet) that we are in the presence of superficial frivolity with a lively tune. It consists of parallel 4-bar phrases, each phrase beginning with a festive trill:
Later, Violetta bids her party-guests adjourn to the ballroom for an evening of dancing. An off-stage band strikes up a tune, the sheer banality of which, not to mention the presence of trills, underscores how shallow they all are:

Alfredo makes his declaration of love in a disarmingly simple (and unembellished) passage beginning "Un di, felice". Violetta responds lightly and flippantly, explaining that she can only offer friendship. Her music is light-hearted and ornate, matching her words. However, there are no trills in vocal line or accompaniment. Why not? She is being candid and honest with this young boy, choosing not to "string him along". No lies = no trills:

Left alone, however, the mask begins to slip just a little. In her great scena to close out Act 1, Violetta muses on her loneliness. The aria "Ah, fors’è lui" dispenses with trills or any other ornaments:

But in the virtuosic cabaletta that follows, "Sempre libera", trills come back with a vengeance as Violetta flips the mask back in place in an attempt to bury her doubts and fear of commitment under a thick layer of coloratura:

Not convinced of my theory yet? Hang with me for three more examples and you will be.

In the great Violetta-Germont duet of Act 2 during which she agrees to abandon Alfredo to protect his family's reputation, the emotional affects are as brutally honest and sincere as human beings can be. 

No trills.

When Germont departs and Alfredo enters, he finds his lover highly emotional, clearly distraught for no reason he can think of. When Violetta realizes she's on the brink of revealing his father's demands and the bargain she's made, she summons up the wherewithal to pretend that everything's okay. Smiling bravely, she tells him "I'm calm now; I'm smiling". It's a lie, of course; her heart is broken. And in the orchestra, dancing, trilling violins document her fib.

In fact, when she makes a hurried exit following her celebrated volcanic outburst "Amami, Alfrredo", a slow trill in the orchestra ushers her out.

In Act 3, Violetta has returned to her party life, but her music has not! In a neat bit of musical paradox, Verdi makes it clear that, having once embraced her authentic and honest self, she can no longer stomach her former life of frivolous posturing. When Alfredo crashes the party to engage Baron Douphol in some cut-throat gambling, Violetta utters a fretful prayer sans trills; in fact, it's in Verdi's trademark arcing contour:

And finally, the trills make a brief, final appearance shortly before Violetta dies. Reunited with a contrite Alfredo, Violetta is joyful but collapses in a sudden spasm of weakness. Alfredo is alarmed. She answers "Ora son forte. Vedi? Sorriso" (Now I feel strong. Do you see? I'm smiling.") Alfredo is not buying it, and neither are we, for her words are set to a vocal line both tragic and pathetic it its attempt to hold up the mask one more time. She is telling a lie born of her desire to reassure herself and her true love. And Verdi's lie-detector is in place one final time:

None of this is coincidence; it is fully deliberate; it is craftsmanship. A trill in itself is not remarkable; by actual count trills have been utilized 55,000,000,000,000 times in the history of music. (NOTE: I made up that number, but as a guesstimate I'd say it's pretty good.) The stunning effectiveness of trilling in La Traviata lies in how -and when - and when NOT - it is employed by Verdi as a gauge of Violetta's sincerity every time she speaks or thinks.

It's brilliant.

February 15, 2015

That time Verdi made an opera about Anna Nicole Smith

Verdi's La Traviata is at once one of the most familiar and one of the least-understood operas. To many an opera-goer, the saga of Violetta Valery will seem like "a typical Italian opera". You know: a scarcely-believable plot involving a dying soprano, true love, blah blah yada yada.
Violetta Valery, er, Marie Duplessis, er,
Anna Nicole Smith. Yeah, that's it!

The celebrated conductor Anthony Pappano feels that this model has long since run its course. In an talk he gave on Mark-Anthony Turnage's 2011 opera Anna Nicole,  Pappano said:

How do you do modern operas today? Do you do Shakespeare? Do you do the great American novels? Do you do ... great literature? And the idea was not to do that, but (to) really write a contemporary opera about a contemporary subject.

Fine. But if Giuseppi Verdi could have been present for that remark and the talk that followed, he might have raised his hand politely and said, "Scusatemi, Signore. Pardon me. Been there, done that."

Because that's what Traviata was. This was an exception to the normal Verdi oeuvre. Here was no Macbeth or Othello; no Old Testament King as in Nabucco; no ancient history as in Don Carlo or Simon Boccanegra or several others; no mere fictional literary adaptation like Rigoletto.

Nope: just as Turnage chose the story of a hedonistic party girl who became a celebrity and died too soon, a character familiar to everyone in the audience, Verdi did........  well, he actually chose the exact same story.

Violetta Valery was based on the life of the great courtesan Marie Duplessis, a hedonistic party girl who became a celebrity and died too soon. Everyone in the audience would have immediately recognized Marie in the character of Violetta. Marie died in 1847, and Traviata, based on the play La dame aux camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils, premiered in 1853. Memories were still fresh.

Marie Duplessis was as iconic a figure in that era as Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe or Angelina Jolie. She was the woman men wanted to be with and women wanted to be, even if secretly; a woman of distinctive beauty and overwhelming charisma and presence.

In this regard, Verdi broke the mold and truly anticipated modern operas like Anna Nicole, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and many others of recent times.

As proof, compare scenes from each opera side by side. First, the opening of Act 2 of Anna Nicole depicts her hosting a lavish party financed by the elderly billionaire who supported her: Click here to view "Partay!" Now here's the equivalent scene in Traviata as Violetta, financed by a stable of elderly and wealthy admirers, hosts her own lavish "partay". Click here for identical sentiments couched in more elegant music. The similarities are significant; the differences are trivial.

Why did Verdi choose this character? Was it for the sake of launching off in a new direction? Being innovative for the sake of innovation? I would say not. Verdi's interest in the play had less to do with the real celebrity behind the highly sanitized heroine of Dumas' play and more to do with his own personal history.

For Verdi, this was personal -- and painful.

In Violetta (called Marguerite Gautier by Dumas), Verdi saw both of the women in his life. Violetta's tragic death at an early age (Marie died at age 23) brought back the painful memory of his first wife, Margherita Barezzi, who died of encephalitis, just months following the deaths of their infant children Virginia and Icilio. She and Verdi had been married only four years. In addition, the dramatic conflict engendered by Violetta living with Alfredo in the country outside the bonds of marriage was very close to Verdi's relationship with his second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi.

Strepponi retired from a successful singing career to be with Verdi, but found him unwilling to go through with a church wedding. (The death of his wife and children had killed his interest in religion.) Thus, they cohabited in a common-law arrangement in the composer's tiny hometown of Busseto, a bastion of conservative church-going Catholics. Giuseppina found herself a pariah amongst her "respectable" neighbors. In a circumstance ironically similar to Germont's visit to Violetta in Act 2, Verdi's old father-in-law Signor Barezzi came to upbraid the composer, warning him of the consequences of the scancal.

What's more, the fact that Germont comes to love Violetta like a daughter, only to witness her death, adds another element: Traviata becomes another in the series of operas by Verdi in which a father loses a daughter, joining Luisa Miller, Rigoletto and many others.

One reason I admire Verdi as a man as well as a creative genius is the manner in which he rescued himself from the black hole of depression that struck him following the deaths of the children and Margherita. Bear in mind, in the 1840's there were no medications like Prozac; no grief counselors; no psychiatrists to treat the afflicted. A lesser man might have succumbed to depression and survivor's guilt.

Instead, Verdi became his own therapist, expressing his grief time after time in operas echoing his personal tragedies. The result? At age 80 he had recovered sufficiently to compose that most sunny and positive of comedies, Falstaff. The great man healed himself through his art.

He couldn't NOT write La Traviata. And in the process, he ended up with what we would call a "bio-pic" in the movie biz; a searingly contemporary work commemorating one of the most fascinating women of mid-nineteenth century France.

And then went back to history and Shakespeare!!

February 8, 2015

Salome and Violetta: Tough beginnings, bleak endings

Marie Duplessis: potato-lover
Since the current seasons of Virginia Opera ends with Strauss's Salome and Verdi's La Traviata, this post will be a "compare and contrast" exercise about the two leading ladies. However, since Violetta Valery is an idealized portrait of Verdi's real subject, the courtesan Marie Duplessis, let's go straight to the source observe the similarities between Marie and the daughter of Herodias. (And yes, Salome is also a highly fictionalized version of an actual person, but our knowledge of the "real" Salome is so scant we don't even know her real name. "Salome", which is a Westernized version of the Hebrew word "shalom", showed up in later re-tellings. My notes on her life will draw on the Wilde play that, abridged and translated, became Strauss's libretto.)

By the way, my information about Duplessis comes from Julie Kavanagh's full-length biography The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis. For lovers of the Verdi opera, I recommend it highly.

1. Sexual attitudes influenced by troubles at home.
Salome (painting by Bernardino Luini)
Marie, who was born Alphonsine Plessis, was the product of a mother from a good family and a roustabout, roughneck father, one Marin Plessis. Marin was a neighborhood troublemaker in their town, and abusive to Marie. In fear for her life, she fled, leaving behind two daughters. Alphonsine was alternately neglected and abused by Marin. At one point, hoping to make her someone else's problem, he essentially pimped her out to an elderly man in need of a girl to cook and clean, as well as to be subjected to whatever remained of his sexuality. When that arrangement ran its course, the girl returned to Dad, where it appears incestuous experiences awaited her, rumors of indecent cohabitation that drew the attention of local police. Marin eventually deposited her in Paris, where she made her own way and found a new life; a life in which she would continue to attract the
attentions of elderly men.

Salome also came from a broken home; Herodias having divorced Herod Philip I, her daughter's biological father. Once in residence at the court of her stepfather Herod Antipas, she found herself in an environment of rampant sexuality where everyone, down to the palace guards, were devoted to gratification of the self. Worst of all, Antipas made no effort to conceal his lust for the girl. That Salome died a virgin is a mere technicality; once Jochanaan awakened her own sexuality, she was consumed by it.

2. Lesson learned: men will give you stuff.
We know that, upon arriving in Paris, Marie was penniless and hungry. Nestor Roqueplat, a writer, theatrical director and general man-about-town, observed the waif watching potatoes frying at a street kiosk. He asked her if she would like some, and bought her a bag. From then on, her life was devoted to trading on her looks so that wealthy men would provide the things she wanted.

Salome, whose life we observe for less than a day, nonetheless proves adept at getting what she wants from men by manipulating them sexually. Early on, when Narraboth declines to produce Jochanaan for her to inspect, she tells him that if he does what she's asking, she will look at him through her musin veil and, just perhaps, smile at him. And of course, Herod offers her a long list of gifts, including wine, food, jewelry and half of his kingdom. Knowing she has total control over him, Salome obtains the thing she wants: John's severed head. For her, you see, that's a real luxury.

3. When those who care about us tell the truth, you tune them out.
During her short but brilliant career as the most glamorous courtesan in Paris, Marie encountered men who were concerned with her welfare and tried to reason with her. Alexandre Dumas fils, her affair de coeur who wrote La dame aux camellias, worried about all prostitutes and their place in society (years later, he wrote a tract on the subject in which he actually invented the term "feminist") and Marie in particular. As does Alfredo in the opera, Dumas attempted to lead Marie to a normal life. She found, however, that she missed both luxury and sex. They broke up. She had a platonic friend, the writer Romaine Vienne, who served as a confidante. On more than one occasion he attempted to persuade her to consider her future; to make plans for the day when her looks would fade; to lead a responsible, less frivolous life. (In Traviata, it is the elder Germont who warns her of a bleak future when she is no longer young.)  Invariably, Marie would acknowledge that he was right, and then choose to ignore him completely. She was dead by 23.

Though he was far from a confidante, Salome got some unsolicited advice from Jochanaan. He counseled her to turn away from her sin; to find Jesus of Nazareth; to seek forgiveness for the sake of her soul. He might as well have been speaking in Mandarin Chinese. At one point, when the prophet advises her to seek the Son of Man, she asks, incredulously, "Why? Is he more beautiful than you?" In her final crazed delirium, she speaks of "strange music" when in his presence; I take that to mean her inability to relate to his spiritual messages. She was dead by morning.

Two young women caught by bad choices just at the onset of adulthood, blessed with rare qualities of charisma and beauty, but doomed by childhood stresses and the drive of self-gratification.

February 1, 2015

Salome: when a mind disintegrates at time-lapse speed

Confession: I'm one of those lazy guys who will hear an author talk about his latest book and seldom if ever actually buy the book and, you know, read it. If the interview is pretty comprehensive, I'll figure I got the gist of the book and be content with that.
Dr. Frances E. Jensen, author of
The Teenage Brain

Recently I heard NPR's Teri Gross interview such an author on "Fresh Air": a neuroscientist, Dr. Frances Jensen, has written a book entitled The Teenage Brain, in which she explains adolescent behaviors in terms of synapses and other technical brain terms that are over my head.

It was interesting.

As I am knee-deep in all things Salome these days in advance of our current staging of the opera in Virginia, one particular remark of Dr. Jensen's reached out and grabbed me. Paraphrasing as faithfully as I can, she said that the lack of complete development in the teenaged brain makes young people especially vulnerable to stress. Stress in teens, she said, if sufficiently intense, can result in chronic life-long depression and other mental illnesses.

Let's apply this concept to Herod's veil-shedding step-daughter and see where it gets us.

First, here's a list of the stresses which Salome has been shouldering:

  • Her parents' marriage broke up. Herodias dumped Salome's biological father Herod Philip I and for all we know, daddy and daughter were very close. Philip might have read Salome bedtime stories, comforted her when she scraped her knee while roller-skating, -- you know: Dad stuff.
  • Now she's got this step-father Herod Antipas, and he's creepy. He's always staring at her, kind of undressing her with his eyes and just generally making her feel like a piece of meat.
  • Her mom doesn't seem very happy with this new relationship either. She and step-dad are always arguing. Herodias is scornful, angry, and has turned into a shrew, if we're being honest.
  • Not only that, but in the culture of the Jewish people in Judea, Salome's mom is a rotten adulteress. At least, that's what everyone says about her, especially that prisoner in the dungeon.
  • In fact, the entire court of Herod is creepy, as if they're all taking their cue from step-dad. The soldier who guard the palace are pretty sex-obsessed as well, and the head guard Narraboth follows her around like a big muscle-bound puppy dog. A big, muscle-bound, randy puppy dog.
All this rampant hyper-sexuality and stress has built up in Salome to the point of erupting. Think of those cartoons in which someone ties a knot in a water hose, causing a huge balloon of trapped water that eventually explodes.

The stress that breaks the camel's back of Salome's mental stability is the rejection of Jochanaan, a.k.a. John the Baptist. When she first lays eyes on John, she coos in girlish fascination about how "terrible" he is. She is, as she feasts her eyes on his skin, hair, and red lips, discovering her own sexuality, unconsciously imitating the grown-ups in her life, the only models available on "how to act grown-up".

In fact, her infatuation with John is a typical act of teen-aged rebellion. It's possible, perhaps even likely, that the REAL attraction of this bedraggled preacher is that her mother doesn't like him. You women amongst my Faithful Readers; did you ever want to date the "bad boy" in high school? The one with tattoos, a nose ring and a pink hair? The one that dismayed your parents? This is Salome, which is why her whispers of "he is terrible!" are said with delight.

But then, the worst happens. John says, in effect, "ewwwww. As IF...", tells the guards to make her stop looking at him, and finally retreats to his cell, cursing her. Total rejection.

Salome is a princess. This means she's gotten everything she wanted. She's never been denied a single thing. She was the first girl in Judea to get an iPhone, a sports car and a skiing vacation in Aspen, or at leat the ancient Judean equivalents. So when John rejects her, the anger that overwhelms her becomes that final bit of stress fracturing her sanity.

You're doubtless aware that actors in non-musical plays are always encouraged to develop sub-text for their characters; they invent an implicit history for their role. In a staging of Oscar Wilde's play Salome, for example, the actor playing the title role might want to consider: at what exact point does Salome go mad? And different actors might answer that question in different ways.

But in Strauss's adaptation there can be no doubt. The composer gives us a moment in time in which she enters into a psychotic break.

Because there is one final bit of stress to cite: the Dance of the Seven Veils. What's remarkable in this orchestral episode is that the musical treatment gives us still more subtext. It's Herod who asked for the dance and since Salome finally complies with his wishes, he reasonably assumes that she is dancing for him. "I KNEW she was into me!!!", you can practically hear him thinking to himself, patting himself on the back.

But the music makes clear that in Salome's mind, there is only one audience: she's dancing for John, as if her were there to watch. We know this since the orchestra parades out all the themes she sang at him when praising his skin, hair and lips. As the dance progresses from section to section, the texture becomes ever more animated, heated, and finally frenzied and wild. Salome is expressing her sexual frustration in her wild gyrations. Right in front of our eyes, she is metamorphosing from a curious infatuated girl to a voluptuous, sexually mature woman. The fetid, putrid stew of corrupt values in which she's been simmering is causing that aforementioned water-bubble in the kinked hose to rupture and spray out in all directions.

UNTIL ------------ until one of the great strokes of music drama genius in all of opera, one Strauss never duplicated again. At the height of the instrumental chaos, Salome (and the orchestra) come to a screeching halt, frozen. High winds and strings trill, creating a white noise like the buzzing in the head heard by a mental patient. One of her themes of infatuation, which originally had been a coquettish, ultra-feminine melody of rhythmic swing and tuneful sweetness, is now an eerily grotesque fragment of its former self, emitting mindless repetitions of the opening motive:

This gesture perfectly depicts, in musical terms, what has happened to Salome. Her mind has been shattered like a crystal vase knocked to the floor. That vase is no longer a vase; there remain only shards of the thing it used to be. Salome's mind is likewise in shards, leaving her with only vestiges of her humanity.

Those synapses described by Dr. Jenson are now firing only sporadically and haphazardly; her decline into a ghoulish, sub-human state will be swift and fatal.

Yes, in a real young woman, all this might take weeks, months or longer to produce this catastrophic result. Oscar Wilde and Strauss have employed a bit of telescoping of time for their artistic purposes for this drama. In the course of some 100 minutes, like time-lapsed video of a flower blooming and withering in seconds, we the audience witness a rapid process: sexually-awakened girl to sexually-frustrated woman to fixated madwoman.

The time frame might not be accurate, but the psychological truth is deadly accurate: stress is toxic to young people. Salome, as imagined by Wilde, is a case study of the phenomenon.

How am I doing, Dr. Jensen?

January 25, 2015

Salome and "niceness": carnal force meets spiritual object

Have you seen the film version of Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods yet? I loved it. Of course, that's a topic for another time and another blog, but still there's a tenuous connection between that show and Strauss's Salome.
Titian's "St. John the Baptist" (1540)

At one point, the Witch sings this line: “You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, You're just nice." That's a really loaded thought she' warbling there! I also Googled the phrase "good but not nice" and got a mountain of sources, including, among many others,

  • an article in Psychology Today: "Are you nice but not good?"
  • a Huffington Post piece: "Nice but not good: the art of spotting narcissists" 
  • a novel by Iris Murdoch entitled The Nice and the Good" and
  • an article from Quartz advising "How to hire good people instead of nice people.
The last item included this pithy observation: "The opposite of good is bad. The opposite of nice is unlikeable".

Tell me about it, Quartz! I'm currently spending my days trying to motivate groups of highly conservative, generally religious, mostly senior-aged residents of the Bible Belt to attend upcoming performances of an opera populated by a depraved, neurotic king who lusts after his step-daughter, climaxing in a scene in which the step-daughter makes love to a severed head.

I had lined up a speaking gig for a large group at a local Baptist church in Norfolk. They'd contacted me, asking for a talk about opera. Cool! We're doing a story about the death of John the Baptist! Several days later, a minister on the staff contacted Virginia Opera to cancel; she'd obviously looked up the opera and read the synopsis. "We were hoping for a pleasant, entertaining program", she said, "this material is not appropriate for our group."


I'm familiar with this attitude - I grew up with it.

My mother, who I lost to Alzheimer's six years ago, would have said "AMEN!" to this minister's objections. Mom liked her opera pleasant; edifying; nice. About more serious fare she was wont to say "I have enough troubles of my own in my life; why should I pay money to go see other people's troubles?" Boy, if I had a dollar for every time I heard her say that....................

But I really, REALLY wish the church group had let me come. Far one thing, the demographics of our audience base puts a cap on how graphic the staging will be in this version - we're not in Berlin, we're in Southeastern Virginia. Our Salome, the fine soprano Kelly Cae Hogan, is not going to pull a Maria Ewing and finish her dance with total, full-frontal nudity. You kidding me? The last time we had anything objectionably racy on our stage, dozens of subscribers called the next day to cancel their subscriptions.

But my real frustration is that Salome is, ironically, the most moral opera I can think of. In one sensational act, it neatly defines one of the largest issues facing mankind:

The pursuit of carnality versus the pursuit of spirituality.

Are human beings ruled by their physical appetites, or can they achieve a higher plane of existance? Herod is driving himself mad with neuroses made manifest in his semi-incestuous, pedophilic obsession with his wife's child. Herodias is an adultress, having defied cultural norms by dumping her husband to become the wife of the Tetrarch of Judea. It's little wonder that Salome herself, having been raised in this hot-house of twisted carnal desires, is vulnerable; little wonder that her curiosity about Jochanaan leads to a frenzy of sexually-charged desire. The sexuality engulfing the House of Herod is the irresistable force.

In contrast stands John/Jochanaan, an immoveable object in his total denial of carnal pursuits. This man, dressed in rags, with no matereial possessions, living the most spartan and austere lifestyle imaginable (we're told in the New Testament that he subsisted on grasshoppers and wild honey), is impervious to secular temptations of any kind.

Both in Oscar Wilde's play and the opera's adaptation of that play, this battle between carnality and spirituality is expressed and symbolized in a single word:


In Salome, the act of looking at someone represents desire. Flip through the pages of the libretto, and you'll find this word appearing on every page, uttered by every principal character.
  • Narraboth looks at Salome; the Page warns him not to look at her;
  • Other guards remark about Herod's "dark look" and wonder who he's looking at;
  • Salome complains about Herod looking at her "with his mole's eyes";
  • Salome tells Narraboth "I would have a look" at Jochanaan
  • When Narraboth replies he's under orders to keep the prisoner below, Salome promises to look at him the next day;
  • Herodias chides her husband: "You're always looking at her (Salome)";
  • When Herod sees Narraboth's corpse, he says "I will not look at him"
  • Herod tells Salome: "I would love to (look at) your shining teeth"
  • Herod to Salome: "The head of a dead man that has been cut off from his body is too vile to look at"
...and so on, with many such examples studded throughout the text.

In contrast, here are some of Jochanaan's lines:
  • (referring to Herodias) "Who is she who indulged in the lust of her eyes", etc.
  • (referring to Salome) "Who is this woman who is looking at me? I'll not have her eyes on me."
  • (to Salome) "I do not want to see you. You are cursed."
Once this confrontation between Man's dual nature is grasped; once we view the opera through the prism of carnality vs. spirituality, we understand that this is a cautionary tale. The Page is speaking to you and me in his many warnings to Narraboth, his several prophecies that "bad things will happen". This is the bottom line:

There are consequences for choosing to pursue carnal pleaures. Be like Jochanaan. DON'T LOOK. Bad things can happen if that path is followed.

Does the notorious final scene, Salome's perverted apotheosis, glorify depravity? No; in this case, Herod's horrified reaction is a proxy for our own. The sensuality and gorgeousness of Salome's ecstatic outpourings are an exercise in point of view. The disconnect between the grotesque tableau of the severed head and the sound of the music tells us that we are experiencing Salome's final moments from "inside her head", as it were. This is what opera can do, via musical craftsmanship: it allows us to adopt another person's point of view, temporarily shelving our own. Salome is in her own irrational world, driven mad by carnality, and - just for a moment or two - we experience what that world is like. 

Is it "nice"? DUH, it's not nice. I totally get it that this material is anathema for folks who want their trip to the opera house to be pure escapism; rollickiing comedy, sweet romance, the heroes and villains of fairy-tales, and (above alll) tuneful melodies.

Oh, opera audiences: let's set our sights higher than niceness. There's a lot of good going on in Strauss's Salome.

January 18, 2015

Salome: Nothing ever changes.

Olive Fremstad, Salome of
the Met's cancelled first production
Happy belated New Year, Faithful Readers! I haven't posted in a few weeks. I strongly sense that you missed me. Well, here I am, ready to blog about the remaining two productions of Virginia Opera's current season. First up: Richard Strauss's Salome.

It's a funny thing about opera; 95% of the people who attend opera performances view it as high-class escapist entertainment. (I sense that this statistic is accurate. Gee, I'm very sensitive today!) The standard repertoire is popular because it's safe and familiar. A spunky girl and hilarious capers in Barber of Seville. Champagne and frolicking in Fledermaus. Pageantry and romance in Aida. Young love and a "pretty" death in Bohéme. Heroes you can root for, villains you can boo, and all swathed in melodies sweet and melodies lively. 

Then there's Salome. 

I was disappointed a few week ago. I had lined up a speaking engagement at a large church in Norfolk, with an audience of over 100. My topic: Salome. Perfect, right? An opera with roots in the New Testament for a church crowd.

Then my supervisor at Virginia Opera toIld me that one of the ministers on staff there had called to cancel. She had looked up the story, read the part about kissing the severed head of John the Baptist, and called to say "this material is not appropriate; we wanted something lighter and more entertaining."

It's amazing that, 107 years after its world premiere, this opera still has the power to shock and repulse conservative audiences. What does that say about society? Film and television have long since prospered by going to unpleasant places for the sake of telling compelling stories, but opera gets static when it attempts to follow suit.

Rudy Giuliani: how about a nice Aida?
Here's an example of how little progress has been made in overcoming squeamishness in opera audiences: let's compare the Metropolitan Opera premieres of Salome and a more recent work, John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer.

In 1907, the New York Times reported on the imminent debut of Salome. Following the final dress rehearsal, attended by numerous Manhattan big-wigs, readers were greeted by this headline: 

TAKE OFF SALOME, SAY OPERA HOUSE DIRECTORS. PROTEST FORMALLY AGAINST A REPETITION OF THE OPERA. "The wealthy men who own the Metropolitan Opera House have put their ban on 'Salome'” (the article went on to say). "They have notified Herr Direktor Conried that they consider the opera objectionable and detrimental to the best interests of the opera house".

The Tribune's critic, in his review of the rehearsal, said that "(a critic) should be an embodied conscience stung into righteous fury by the moral stench with which "Salome" fills the nostrils of humanity..."

The Sun's reviewer pondered "the question of whether the causation of nausea should be regarded as a laudable purpose for dramatic and musical art".

And so, despite the fact that the cast and the orchestra had been rehearsing for months (Strauss's "crazy modern music" was difficult to master for artists of that generation), the production was cancelled by the Board of Directors. This, despite the triumphant reception given Salome throughout Europe. It would be several years before it returned.

By the way - none of the artists were paid for all those rehearsals, believe it or not. Orchestra and singers were paid for performances only. Yikes!

Now fast-forward all the way to 2014. The Metropolitan Opera, never much of a risk-taker through the 20th-century, plans the semi-bold step of staging Klinghoffer, a much-praised drama which has been playing for fully two dozen years in opera houses around the world. General Manager Peter Gelb has added it to the slate of Saturday radio broadcasts and HD cinema transmissions.

Of course, the how depicts unpleasantness. Palestinian terrorists commandeer a cruise ship filled with Jewish vacationers and throw a wheelchair-bound man, the titular Klinghoffer, overboard to his death. 

So, this was a smashing success, right? I mean, c'mon - it's 2014. We're all accustomed to provocative, edgy, unpleasant drama. We're living in the post-Breaking Bad world. 

Not so much.  Here's what greeted Times readers just three month ago:

Protests Greet Metropolitan Opera’s Premiere of ‘Klinghoffer’
At the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance of John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer” on Monday night, men and women in evening attire walked through a maze of police barricades, while protesters shouted “Shame!” and “Terror is not art!” One demonstrator held aloft a white handkerchief splattered with red. Others, in wheelchairs set up for the occasion, lined Columbus Avenue.
Political figures, including former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, joined a rally, several hundred strong at Lincoln Center, to denounce an opera that has become the object of a charged debate about art, anti-Semitism and politics.

And while the production was not cancelled, the radio and cinema broadcasts were axed, leaving opera lovers unfamiliar with the piece to decide for themselves whether it was art or not.

In another 107 years, it'll be 2122. Assuming the planet hasn't been destroyed, that New York city still exists, and that opera is still performed by then, I wonder if the attitudes of opera-goers will have evolved to the point of allowing music drama the same freedom of expression that has become routine in other genres.

Is it me, or is it only opera, among the arts, that remains ruled by the prim and prudish, unenlightened, reactionary, conservative sector of the public? I'm sure that yesterday's HD transmission of The Merry Widow was lapped up, with no complaints, like the sweet, sweet cream it is. 

About 2122:
I'm not holding my breath. (Well, of course I'm not - you can't hold your breath for 110 years, silly!)

December 23, 2014

The Top 10 opera-related stories of 2014

To close out a year in which news stories both in the world at large and in the opera world were turbulent indeed, here's my list of the top 10 news stories involving my profession, in no particular order

San Diego, scene of a resurrection
10:  Financial woes at the Metropolitan Opera. Heavy indebtedness resulted in near-disastrous labor negotiations, a flirtation with bankruptcy and (as of this week) the lowering of the company's credit rating.

9.  The "Death of Klinghoffer" protests. John Adams' opera about Palestinian terrorists aboard an Israeli cruise ship has been staged without incident around the world for decades, but this was to be its first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera. Less-than-informed protesters caused CEO Peter Gelb to cancel plans to air the piece in movie theaters and over the radio. Much teeth-gnashing and Monday-morning-quarterbacking ensued. You are free to make your own comparisons to the Sony movie studio's cancellation of their comedy about North Korea, The Interview.

8.  The death and re-birth of the San Diego Opera. Small-market performing arts organizations have been succombing to deficits ever since 2008, but when an opera company's Board of Directors voted to shut down in a city of the size of San Diego, it caused international headlines. This was a company which had lure headline divas and stars. A flurry of hastily-raised cash donations and a Greek chorus of protesters around the country as well as the community have, temporarily, produced a trial season at a fraction of the budget. It remains to be seen if the public will pony up to see "rising young artists" instead of Voight, Netrebko, Furlanetto and their like.

7.  The return of Maestro James Levine. All careers come to an end, though orchestral conductors seem especially long-lived, with most luminaries remaining active into their 80's and beyond. Credit the cardiovascular benefits of arm-waving. But many suspected that the Met's Chief Musical Guru might have seen a premature retirement coming with his multitude of physical woes in recent seasons. Thus it's somewhat surprising to see him return to a full schedule of late, waltzing through behemoths like Die Meistersinger from his wheelchair. More power to him.

6  Joyce DiDonato retires the role of Cenerentola. The pre-eminent coloratura mezzo currently before the public, her iconic performances as Rossini's Cinderella have come to an end with the recent Met production.

5.  Anna Netrebko's triumph as Lady Macbeth. I, Your Humble Blogger, missed the Met's HD transmission, but critics fairly swooned at the diva's star-turn in Verdi's first Shakespearean opera. After a career dallying with roles like Lucia, Adina and other bel canto parts, she seems to have demonstrated that she's ready for the leap into dramatic soprano territory.

4.  The ascent of tenor Javier Camarena to stardom. Lawrence Brownlee and Juan Diego Flórez have some serious competition in the bel canto tenor arena. Mr. Camarena's performances in Rossini and Bellini at the Met have made him a rock star. Here's a gushy review from the NY Times  "It is not every singer who can steal the spotlight from the radiant Diana Damrau, who played Bellini’s gentle Amina. His high notes secure and his phrases long and arching, Mr. Camarena managed it again and again, singing Elvino’s downcast soliloquy, “Tutto è sciolto,” with perfect poise while aching with emotion."

3.  The death of Lorin Maazel. The maestro's sudden passing happened in the midst of the Castleton Opera Festival, his most recent project at his estate in Virginia. His was a storied career, with many notable achievements and posts in the opera world.

2.  Turmoil in European Houses. Riccardo Muti left Rome Opera; the Vienna State Opera had to find last-minute replacements to conduct 34 performances when its Music Director bolted, and there were other feuds, resignations and kerfuffles. Google it.

1. A soprano saves the day. File under "it pays to be prepared": When soprano Anita Hartig became too ill to sing Mimi in an HD-transmitted performance of La bohème at the Met, Kristine Opolais took her place on short notice. What makes one sit up and take notice is that Ms. Opolais had just sung the taxing role of Cio-Cio-san in Madama Butterfly THE PREVIOUS DAY, and had virtually no sleep. She gets the "Purple 5-hour Energy Award of Valor" for the year!