August 23, 2015

Sizing up the Met's 2015-2016 "Live in HD" cinema season

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Hey, are you married?
Because there's a woman I want you to meet...
We're about a month away from the Metropolitan Opera's opening night, and one further week removed from the first of ten HD transmissions at your local cineplex, assuming you have one. (I mention that because my daughter, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois in Urbana, lives in a community without access to these opera-at-the-movies presentations. Wassup wid DAT, Champaign-Urbana?)

I thought I'd peruse the list and share my observations and thoughts with you, my Faithful Readers.

First up: geez, Met, were ticket sales THAT bad last season? Following seasons in which we've had such non-standard fare as The Enchanted Island, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, The Nose, Francesca da Rimini and Nixon in China, the most outre production on tap this season is Berg's Lulu, which is not really off the beaten track. Furthermore, exactly half of the operas are by Verdi and Puccini.

So yes: the Met is a museum. This doesn't outrage me as much as it does some of you, because in the larger context of contemporary opera,we're living in a very active period, especially for American composers.

I was also struck by the cast list for Verdi's Otello. Given the nature of the scheduled artists, I'm surprised they haven't re-titled the piece Otell-ski. Five of the eight listed singers are Slavic! Yes, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, "not that there's anything wrong with that"; it's just such a contrast with the ethnic makeup of much of the company's history. These "Venetians" will be sung by:
  • Sonya Yoncheva (Bulgaria)
  • Hibla Gerzmava (Republic of Georgia)
  • Aleksandrs Antonenko (Latvia)
  • Alexey Dolgov (Moscow)
  • Željko Lučić (Serbia)
Again - not complaining, nothing wrong with it; I just note it with interest. 

One other note about Otell-ski which is of political/historical interest but will have no particular effect on the performance: for the first time in Met history, the title role will not be depicted in so-called "blackface", the device of applying makeup designed to make a white performer appear to be a person of color. (Otello is a Moor, a dark-skinned North African.) This is a good move, Peter Gelb; late in coming, but good.

Both of the Verdi productions (Trovatore is the other one) follow the current norm of moving the time period away from that of the original libretto. If you're the cranky-pants kind of opera-goer who just hates that aspect of the opera world, then the Met's Tannhauser is for you. (Forgive my spelling - Blogger doesn't permit symbols like umlauts. DOGGONE IT, BLOGGER!) This will be as traditional as traditional gets, with an Otto Schenk production. Schenk and Zeffirelli productions are the ones with the kind of sets and costumes one might have seen in the 1950's.

In reading the blurb about Lulu on the Met's website, I had to chuckle at the optimistic way the music is described: 
"Berg's score employs the 12-tone technique pioneered by his teacher Arnold Schoenberg but in a keenly dramatic way that makes it accessible to all kinds of audiences."

Look, I adore Berg, but that sentence lacks a certain connection to reality. C'mon, now: "all" types? Um, no.

My guess is that the production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers will be a break-out hit; a box-office smash. How this company managed to ignore such a juicily melodic score by a master composer for ONE CENTURY staggers my imagination. I don't get it. It's no Carmen, but the list of operas inferior to Pearl Fishers routinely staged by the Met would be a substantial one. And the cast, with Damrau and Pollenzani in the leads, should be capable. This will be "boffo" (as opposed to "buffa", which is a whole different thing.)

Wait - wasn't I just talking about Franco Zeffirelli a couple of paragraphs ago? Well, speak of the devil! (Or - for traditionalists, the angel..) The old boy's Turandot crops up this season, probably the most appropriate of all operas to be a vehicle for his lavish eye-candy. Do we need a Turnadot set in ISIS headquarters, or Catfish Row, or the South Pole, or a Nazi Concentration Camp? Nah - we don't even want it in modern Beijing; give me PEKING, baby! Start roasting that Peking Duck NOW! I want it CRISPY!!!

I'll be grateful for Donizetti's Roberto Devereux for two reasons:
  1. It's not Lucia di Lammermoor which (IMHO) has worn out it's HD welcome with over-exposure, and
  2. The presence of a glorious and likeable soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky. 
Madama Butterfly? Whatever. It's the same production already seen in cinemas in 2008. That puppet is looking a bit frayed by now. Consider this the soybean meal in the hamburger that is this season.

I'm more interested in the same composer's Manon Lescaut. For one thing, it boasts the tenor who makes women's hearts (and possibly other organs) go pitty-pat: Jonas Kaufmann as Des Grieux. Also, I suspect I'll find Kristine Opolais a more effective Manon than Karita Mattila, who sang the role several years ago. 

The season will end on an artistic high note with a masterpiece: Elektra. Everything about this production looks stellar: the conductor (Esa-Pekka Salonen), the principals (Nina Stemme, Waltraud Meier, Eric Owens, et al) and the look of the production itself. 

By the way, not to play matchmaker, but wouldn't it be cool if Maestro Salonen were to marry actress S. Epatha Merkerson? Esa-Pekka Salonen and S. Epatha Merkerson: now THAT'S a fun couple.

August 9, 2015

Why I'm "meh" about opera highlight concerts

I really like the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. It's one of those movies that I can't turn away from when I find it on cable, regardless of how many times I've seen it in the past. Remember Ned Ryerson? He's the dorky insurance salesman who assails Murray's character over and over with obnoxiously inappropriate familiarity and frantic shtick. Finally, Murray can't stand it any more and sucker-punches Ned with a cold-cock right roundhouse, sending him pirouetting into the street.


Now, suppose you have a friend who has never seen Groundhog Day and let's also suppose that the sucker-punch scene is your favorite bit in the film and makes you laugh every time. You don't have the time to show your friend the entire movie, so you fast-forward to the scene in the GIF above. 

"Isn't that a riot?" you ask, barely suppressing snorts of laughter. "Uh, yeah, I guess", offers your friend, "why did he punch him? Is he mad at him? I don't get it."

After a few moments of exasperated impatience with your friend (who never DID appreciate real comedy), a profound truth occurs to you:

It's just not as funny out of context.

We only really find it funny when the punch-moment is a payoff set up by all the previous meetings with Ned during which we came to dread seeing him confronting Murray yet AGAIN. It's not a "joke", it's a "funny moment in a comedy in which humor results from character".  Like that.

This - THIS! is my issue with recitals of opera arias.

I hesitate to mention this, because such recitals constitute a portion of my responsibilities with Virginia Opera. We call our young professional apprentices the "Emerging Artists" or EA's for short. Each season, besides touring the children's operas written by *cough cough* Your Humble Blogger, they present concerts we call "An Evening of Arias and Broadway" at retirement communities, concert halls and other venues around the region. The EA's trot out their audition repertoire, throw in some duets or trios, top it off with four or five tunes from music theater and Bob's your uncle. I often serve as Master of Ceremonies for these, introducing each number with a bit of snappy patter.

People love this. They LOVE it. 

And why wouldn't they? It's all the luscious ear-candy without the boring recitative and dialogue. No soybean meal of plot exposition, just the juicy red meat of Musetta's Waltz, the Toreador Song, and other "Gems of the Opera". There really are people out there who would rather hear such a recital than actually attend a full production.

And it's just not my thing. Why? It's "Ned Ryerson Syndrome":.

Opera is NOT A CONCERT. It's not a collection of nice tunes. It's THEATER.

T.H.E.A.T.E.R.

If you've only heard Musetta's Waltz sung in the curve of the piano, YOU DON"T GET IT. You miss the irony of the situation; namely, that it's being sung by a woman pretending to ignore her former boyfriend when she's actually hoping to drive him insane with desire because she wants him to take her back. You also miss the amused and amusing commentary of the ex-boyfriend's pals as they watch the situation develop. 

If you only know the Toreador Song from seeing some baritone flounce around a concert stage by himself while the pianist pounds away on the keyboard, you miss more irony. See, Carmen is waiting for Don Jose to arrive at the tavern because she's agreed to be his lover in consideration for his having gone to jail for her. But even before he gets there, we see the electric chemistry between the Toreador and the Gypsy woman and we in the audience realize that whatever happens between Carmen and Jose cannot and will not end happily. It's not in her to be a one-woman man, at least not with THAT man, her impending seduction of that man notwithstanding.

And those are fairly upbeat numbers, not moments of high drama like the Miserere from "Trovatore" or Violetta's "Sempre libera". It's even more vital with tragic moments that we know what has happened to these people to cause them to emote so intensely. THAT'S what makes the music masterful, not how pretty the soprano looks in her gown, or how memorable the melody. I want LUMPS IN YOUR THROATS, people, not tapping toes. Sheesh.

Exactly 0% of any of that comes through in the context of a recital with voice and piano, leaving us with merely the memory of a high note nailed or a melody crooned. Big deal. 

Any opera aria suffers when it's heard without the build-up of characters and their interactions that brings us to the moment of that aria. That makes it different from any pop song you hear on the radio.

This even holds true for opera arias that are heard right at the start of an opera, like Radames' "Celeste Aida", the aria heard just as the opera begins. Context doesn't matter there, right? After all, there haven't BEEN any interactions yet; there IS no context. The curtain goes up, and BANG - the tenor is singing away on this pretty tune. So that's the exception, right?

Wrong.

Context can be retroactive, my friend. Once we see everything that Aida is going to put Radames through in the drama that follows, our perception of "Celeste Aida" changes; we see how ironic it was all along. Radames of the final scene isn't as tragic without the sunny innocence and optimism of Radames in the opening moments. The value of his opening aria is not solely its beauty; it's how it serves as a point of reference we'll look back upon later to realize the journey we've taken.

I acknowledge that for many people, arias in and of themselves, and the beauty of the voices singing them, are indeed a portal of entry into the world of opera appreciation. But I also know that for many of those same people, their appreciation never goes any deeper. And they will never truly, really understand the emotional roller coaster of a brilliant - and COMPLETE - operatic production.

July 31, 2015

The presidential hopefuls debate - OPERA!

In just a few days, the 2016 presidential election cycle kicks into high gear with the first televised debate featuring those hoping to be the Republican nominee. Somehow I doubt that the subject of opera will come up, so as a public service. this post will try to remedy that glaring omission with an imaginary debate on our favorite topic. Long-time Faithful Readers will recall a previous post like this during the last election cycle, so YEP: I'm going to that well again. But with new material!

Donald Trump: talks to orchestras on the phone
(photo by Gage Skidmore)
Oh, and unlike the real event, I'm going to have Republicans AND Democrats participate! Because I can, and also so I can not be accused of picking on one side over another. Naturally, I will act as moderator.

GLENN:
Welcome, everyone! I have the same question for all of you folks tonight, namely: if elected president, what specifically will you do to improve the opera scene in America? Mr. Trump, as you remain atop the Republican polls at this time, I'll begin with you.

DONALD TRUMP
Glenn, I'd just like to say that Peter Gelb is a loser. He's done a terrible job running the Metropolitan Opera, which is the greatest opera company in the world by far. Yet with this clown Gelb making a mess of it - and I like Peter, by the way, he's a great friend - but it's disgraceful that he can't make a go of this business. I could run the Met at a profit with one hand tied behind me. If I ran the Met, people would know that the operas would be first-class all the way and they would support it. The best, most expensive singers all love me and they would line up for the chance to perform in New York. Also the orchestras. I'm personal friends with several orchestras  - I talk to them on the phone all the time and they constantly tell me, "Don, we're voting for you because we know that with you as president, opera will be great."

GLENN
Uh.... orchestras tell you this? On the phone?

DONALD TRUMP
Are you calling me a liar? I will take you to court and sue you.

GLENN
Let's move on. Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin, how about you? How would you improve American opera?

SCOTT WALKER
First, I'd break up the unions. The musicians unions, the stagehand unions, all of them. Next, I'd cut the budgets of all professional opera companies. Next...

GLENN (interruupting)
Thanks, I think we get the idea. Jeb Bush, it's your turn.

JEB BUSH
¡Hola Glenn! Como ustedes saben, mi esposa es de México. Me gustaría ofrecer amnistía para óperas de compositores mexicanos.

GLENN
You're talking in Spanish...

JEB BUSH
Yes, to show my support for Hispanics and Latinos. As I was just saying, my wife is from Mexico and as President I would offer amnesty for operas by Mexican composers.

GLENN
"Amnesty"?? For... operas?

JEB BUSH
My favorite opera is La Mujer y su sombra by Alcázar. 

DONALD TRUMP
Alcázar? He's an idiot. I'll make sure he can't cross the border. I've got his phone number right here. Also his children's names, his home address and his checking account number. 

GLENN
That'll do, Mr. Trump. You're up, Rick Santorum.

RICK SANTORUM
I would ban the opera Faust by Charles Gounod. And here's why: first of all, Satan is one of the characters. I consider that an assault on religion. People of faith don't need to see Satan glorified in our opera houses.

GLENN
Uh, Senator, I don't think it actually glo-\

RICK SANTORUM (ignoring me)
Second, I saw this opera once. It was offensive. The part of Siebel was portrayed by a female opera singer, and the character was in love with the heroine Marguerite. That's a lesbian lifestyle, and it has no place in our society. I consider it perverted.

GLENN
No, see, this is what we call a "pants role", and.....  you know what? Never mind. Let's hear from Governor Rick Perry. How would you answer the question, sir?

RICK PERRY
I'll tell you one darn thing. If I'm president, the good people of Texas who enjoy the great Houston Grand Opera wouldn't have to worry about the Metropolitan Opera invading us and taking over our productions. No siree bobtail. I also firmly support the open carry of guns in the opera house. People coming to see opera should feel safe. Give the ushers guns, give the stagehands guns, give the conductor-feller a gun, and the audience members as well. Terrorists will think twice about going to the opera if y'all vote for me.

GLENN
Wow. Let's hear from the Democratic hopefuls. Bernie Sanders, how would you improve the American opera scene?

BERNIE SANDERS
Very simple. When I'm in the White House, the government will fully fund opera. All of it. 100% Every opera company. And opera singers will be paid well, with great benefits. We can do away with ticket sales. Let everyone in if they like opera. 

GLENN
Uh huh, I see. Sounds a bit daunting, but you certainly have a great vision there. Hillary Clinton, it's your turn. 

HILLARY CLINTON
May I just say, as a woman who cares passionately about families, and women, and equality, and immigration, and all people everywhere, that I love opera?

GLENN
Mrs. Clinton, isn't that a bit of a flip-flop? I believe there is an email recovered from your private email account in which you say "Opera is like musical Sominex".

HILLARY CLINTON
I deny that I have flip-flopped. I would say that my views on opera have "evolved".

MIKE HUCKABEE (suddenly breaking in)
BENGHAZI!!!!!!!!

GLENN
Mr. Huckabee, let's not get off-topic here.  What's your take on opera?

MIKE HUCKABEE
Glenn, I'm concerned with the unhealthy eating habits that are associated with opera.

GLENN
The what, now?

MIKE HUCKABEE
A number of prominent opera stars are Italian, meaning they bring with them their starchy pastas and fat-laden pizzas. Americans are eating themselves to death with this un-American, fattening diet. Wake up, America! I will teach folks how to save their lives with good, healthy eating habits.

GLENN
Gotcha. Okay, we're almost done, but I did want to hear from Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Senator? Uh........... where is he?

REPRESENTATIVE
The senator is running a bit late. Again. How about some Andrews Sisters music while we wait?

GLENN
I'll pass, thanks.






July 19, 2015

What do we mean when we sing "O"?

What's the most common word used in vocal music? If you're into opera, I suppose "love" (or "amore", "amour" or "lieb") would be the logical guess.

But I'll bet you a shiny dime that "love" doesn't even approach the instances of the simple word "oh". This word is everywhere!
England's "own goal". Oh no!

Oh! Susanna, do not cry for me
("Oh! Susanna", by Stephen Collins Foster)

O dolce fanciulla
(Rodolfo in Act 1 of Puccini's La bohème)

Oh, the pops are sweeter and the taste is new/They're shot with sugar through and through.
(Vintage advertising jingle for breakfast cereal, ca. 1960's)

O du mein holder Abendstern
(Wolfram's aria in Act III of Wagner's Tannhauser)

It's the shortest word in any opera libretto, song, or TV jingle. It's found in all languages. But why does it exist? What does it add that we would miss if it wasn't there? 

Language - so interesting; so weird.

Meaning in language always depends on context. "O" sometimes means "Hey", as in "hey you!"; in other words, as an implied manner of catching someone's attention. Faithful Blog Readers of a certain age may remember radio commercials for the Culligan water treatment company. Every commercial ended with a female voice yelling (in a Long Island-ish accent): "Oh, CULLIGAN MAN!", as if the dude was driving away and she was trying to flag him down. 

Perhaps that's what Rodrigo had in mind as he dies in Verdi's Don Carlo when he gasps "O Carlo, ascolta" (Oh Carlo, listen.) Put yourself in his place. You've been mortally wounded; you know you'll be dead in a few moments and you have something important to express to your BFF Carlo before you go. If you simply say "Carlo, ascolta", without the "O", he might not be listening; he might be so upset to see you in this condition that he's not focused on what you are saying. So that "O" is the equivalent of today's ubiquitous "YO!" 

But then again, maybe he is expressing more than that. In addition to the "hey you" implication, isn't that "O" also laden with despair and desperation? Isn't it a groan of regret? I imagine that millions of British soccer fans (pardon me; of course I meant "football fans") were moaning "Ohhhhhhhhhhhh" when England's Laura Basset kicked the ball into her own goal, dooming her team to lose to Japan in the semi-finals of the Women's World Cup a few weeks ago. Yeah, "O" can be that sort of emotional exhalation as well. As I write this, I'm watching the third round of golf's British Open on TV; one of the leaders sliced his tee shot so badly it struck the roof of a building abutting the course. This prompted the commentator to exclaim "Ohhhhh nooooo" in shocked disbelief. "Oh" can be a reflexive utterance, like "Ow" when you stub your toe.

It's a versatile word. It's also a linguistic stalling device; a way of giving yourself time to think through the thing you're about to say. If someone asks "What do you want for lunch?", you might well respond :Ohhhhh, I don't know. Soup, I guess." That's also the role played by "um", "well", and their annoying cousin "y'know". But is there an opera aria that puts "oh" to that use? I can't really find one.

"Oh" can also be the response to information received; a way of saying. "I see"; an acknowledgement of another's statement:
"I just read where another state legalized same-sex marriage."
"Oh."
That usage isn't really a good fit with opera, as it's characterized by the absence of emotional affect, rendering it pretty much anti-operatic.

Of course, not all emotional outbursts are tragic as that of Verdi's Rodrigo or those British soccer fans. "O" can also be a sigh of pleasure or happy surprise. A good example is Vasco de Gama's aria in Act IV of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, "O Paradis", which could be updated to "Dude! This is, like, paradise!" 

Sometimes the context of an "O" suggests acknowledgement of due respect; a certain formality of address. I'm thinking here of the Rev. Olin Blitch's prayer "Hear me, O Lord" in Floyd's Susannah and Sarastro's "O Isis und Osiris" in The Magic Flute. When summoning deities, it's good form to be highly awestruck and respectful.

So here's a game you can play the next time you're at the opera: look for instances of our new favorite word "oh" and do a bit of quick analysis. What the character expressing with that "oh", and how would the sentence be changed if it wasn't there?

Um, I never said it would be your favoritei game...

What's that? You think you're unlikely to do that?

Oh.

June 25, 2015

Surefire pickup lines for opera-lovers

Cupid. He's lookin' at YOU, bro!
Guys - are you lonely tonight? Socially awkward? If your love-life was an opera, would it be a tragedy? Are you getting less action than a castrato?

I'm here to help you.

Here's the situation: you love opera. You're looking for a girlfriend who also loves opera. If you could just find a cute female who was into Verdi and Puccini, life would be SWEET!. Oh, the sparkling conversations you would have before she threw herself into your empty, empty arms.

But again, you're socially awkward. You attend a Virginia Opera performance and, during intermission, you spot a really nice-looking woman. From across the lobby, your eyes meet. There's a spark there, you can feel it. But you've always been TERRIBLE at breaking the ice. Once you open your mouth, the ladies lose interest.

There, there, pal - it's gonna be okay.

What you need are what us certified Lotharios call a "pickup line"; a witty bon mot to get the conversation started. From there, trust me, hormones and Mother Nature will take over.

Providing you've brushed your teeth and used deoderant, of course.

So here we go!  I'm happy to do you love-starved men a solid and provide you with

THE TOP 10 SUREFIRE PICKUP LINES FOR OPERA LOVERS

10. You must be an icy Chinese princess because I'm losing my head over you.

9. Howdja like to be listed in my own personal "Catalogue aria"?

8. Hey - wanna dress up as my maid and make out?

7. I've got a hundred yen in my pocket that says we're gonna hook up.

6. Hey baby - you and me and an air-tight tomb. Let's do this!

5. How do you take your elixir - neat, or on the rocks?

4. Let's role-play: I'm half-god and you're my sister.

3. They say love's a rebellious bird. Wanna stage a little rebellion at my place?

2. You're engaged? It's okay - I'm from Albania.

And the No. 1 surefire pickup line for opera-lovers:

1  Do you Bach here Offen?




June 21, 2015

That time Real Life didn't care I had a show to sing

My career path has been a little weird. I have three degrees in piano performance and studied with keyboard giants Jorge Bolet and John Browning, among others. But I haven't concertized in fifteen years, due to nerve damage in my left hand. I no longer teach studio piano, either privately or as a faculty member.
My dad, Glenn Winters Sr.

It's kind of odd that I ended up employed at a professional opera company, since I don't conduct, no longer play the piano, don't sing well enough to be useful and have no skills in the techie world. I get along on my public speaking skills and my flair for composing reliably stage-worthy children's operas for touring.

About my singing -

I'm a so-so singer with a light baritone voice, but have done more than my share of operatic roles thanks to my university positions and the endemic shortage of lower-voiced males at smaller programs. A few more professional gigs have come my way - comprimario roles at Virginia Opera and guest artist status at a couple of summer festivals in Italy (the latest one described in my book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates).

So between my ertswhile life as a pianist and my improbable outings in baritone leads (although I do think I made at least a presentable Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music) I have logged considerable time onstage in front of audiences.

This post is about the time I learned the obligatory lesson encountered by every performer the world over. Say it with me: THE SHOW MUST GO ON.

I really mean "the most extreme time", since difficult circumstances happen all the time. I played my Master's piano recital with a temperature of 100. I sang the role of the Marquis in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites when I was too sick to be out of bed. These things happen.

But the most trying was during a production of Rossini's Cenerentola.

This happened in 1998 when I held a staff position at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, directing a non-credit performing arts academy on campus. At this time, my parents were living in retirement in Williamsburg, midway between VCU and my home in Newport News on the Virginia Peninsula.

Health issues were taking a toll on both parents. My mom was afflicted with heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis, which taxed her with chronic pain. As for my dad, already a heart attack survivor, the spectre of Alzheimer's had begun to engulf him in darkness and confusion.

Following an episode in which he backed his car out of the garage without first having opened the garage door, not to mention the time he drove my mom to a hospital in Richmond and then couldn't find his motel, wandering on foot for hours before a compassionate stranger offered assistance, an appointment was made with his doctor to see what was going on. I went with him so someone clear-headed could recap the results for the rest of the family. Dad drove; he liked to drive.

Ever been to an Alzheimer's examination? It's both simple and eerie. After a few questions of a general nature, the doctor (who'd been treating Dad for a couple of decades) said "I'm going to name three objects. Then I will ask you to repeat them. Ready?"

Dad nodded.

"Okay", the doc continued, "here they are: apple, pencil, hammer. Now say those back to me."

I stared in slack-jawed astonishment at my dad, who was flummoxed. He couldn't even begin to summon the words he'd just heard five seconds earlier. He came up totally empty.  Oh my god.

I drove home.

So a new reality had settled in at my parent's house, with mom doing whatever driving was necessary, despite her pain and stiffness. 

At this same time, the VCU Opera Theater began rehearsals for Cenerentola, the annual full production with orchestra. I'd been assigned the buffo role of Don Magnifico, a role suiting me far less well than Fredrik. It's a huge role: two arias, pretty much every variety of ensemble imaginable, and bushel baskets of recitative, all in English. What I lacked in vocal power I tried to make up for with lively stage presence. In any case, rehearsal time flew by as it always does; suddenly, it was time for the excitement and glorious stress of Opening Night on a Friday evening in April.

That's when everything changed.

That afternoon, Mom and Dad had ventured out to the pharmacy to pick up some of their battery of prescription medications. While walking up to the check-out line, Dad suddenly weakened and staggered. It developed that he'd suffered a stroke. He was rushed to the hospital. Doctors were not encouraging about his prognosis. There was no guarantee he would live through the night.

And I was a full hour's drive up Interstate 64 in Richmond, a comic farce on tap.

I wasn't feeling comic.

Of course, there was no remedy, no convenient alternative; no understudy. In a daze, feeling detached and distracted, I got into makeup and costume. Around me, undergraduates and grad students were bustling about, giddy with pre-curtain nerves and excitement, cracking jokes and vocalizing and, naturally, oblivious to my situation.

Though I didn't want to make a big deal out of it, I did discreetly tell the stage director that a family health emergency was in progress and I wanted to go upstairs (we were in the basement of the Performing Arts building) to gather my thoughts backstage. It was a relief to escape all the youthful high spirits and endless iterations of "TOI TOI TOI!!!" for the sanctuary of the backstage area. 

The performance went about like it would have had no emergency arisen. With a role like Magnifico, there are no half-measures. Either you give it 100% or you don't do it at all. Muscle memory set in, as it always does. Actually, bellowing out all those thousands of syllables was a bit of escape from reality, although looking back on it, the out-of-body surrealism never completely went away. The burden of wondering whether or not my Dad was still alive hung over the evening like fog.

He did, I learned, survive the night. But that stroke was the beginning of the end. Over the next several months he bounced from rehab center to retirement community to nursing home until death took him. Those months were unbearable. The father I knew was gone. The figure that remained was one who at times kicked and struck his nurses in anger. He still knew my phone number, unfortunately, and would call at all hours to tell me in panicked whispers that he was at the Michigan Student Union and there were no taxis; could I come and pick him up? At other times he called to express his concerns that he was about to be fired from his job; the job from which he'd retired twenty-four years earlier.

Opera is wonderful. Alzheimer's is not. I wish for you Faithful Readers much of the former and none of the latter. 

June 14, 2015

The Eileen Farrell I knew: personal memories of an outrageous original

Eileen Farrell. I owned this album.
Those of us in that considerable group of musicians who studied at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music had interaction with a lot of famous musicians, thanks to the starry faculty roster they've always boasted.

I was there in what now seems like the heyday of the school: the Seventies. Consider a piano faculty with Menahem Pressler, Gyorgi Sebok, Jorge Bolet, Abbey Simon and others; an instrumental faculty with such luminaries as the cellist Janos Starker, flute guru James Pellerite, the distinguished violist William Primrose, and so on.

But with an opera program second to none, the voice faculty was as brilliant as you might expect. Virginia Zeani, Martha Lipton and Margaret Harshaw (among others) launched many important careers.

And then there was Eileen Farrell.

Here was an artist I'd listened to all during my opera-crazy teen-aged years, as soon as I'd discovered opera. To meet her and watch her in action as a teacher while accompanying several of her students, was like a baseball fan getting to meet Hank Aaron.

For those of you who admire her but never had the chance to know her a little as I did, I thought you might be interested in a few of my memories of a truly distinguished American artist.

To say that she was down-to-earth is to say that Rush Limbaugh is conservative. What can we say about a woman who had an oversized bumper sticker plastered to the wall of her studio bearing the words HELP STAMP OUT OPERA.

She was not given to flowery language, oh no. One of the students I accompanied was a scruffy young tenor named Ron (last name withheld). One day in the practice room Ron was vocalizing to warm up. He turned to me with a smile and said "Hey, listen to this." He then began singing a series of 5-note ascending & descending scales rising ever higher. This display climaxed with a final vocalise beginning on a high A flat and ending up on the E flat above high C.

At his next lesson, he was nervously excited:

"Um, Miss Farrell?"

"Yes, Ron?"

"Um I have something I want you to hear."

"Go ahead."

He duplicated the same vocalise he'd done for me, going higher and higher until that E flat of which he was so very proud buzzed off the studio walls.  There was a silence of a few beats. Farrell gazed at him impassively, her chin resting on one hand.

"So......  what did you think?" The answer came immediately.

"It sounded like you stuck a hot rod up your ass."

She was also a bit irreverent in her own performances. There was the time that several of us students made the short trip to Indianapolis to hear her in concert with the Indianapolis Symphony. It was at some gigantic church large enough to accomodate a crowd of hundreds. First on the program was the stirring aria "Divinités du Styx" from Gluck's Alceste.

Like many arias from that period, there is a lengthy orchestral introduction, during which Ms. Farrell stood motionless, projecting immense dignity, with a facial expression capturing all the character's intense emotional state, her brow furrowed as if burdened with the cares of the cosmos.  The moment of her entrance came at last.

She didn't sing - just kept standing there in immense dignity.

The orchestra kept playing as the conductor shot her a look. Within ten seconds the band scraped and tooted to an uncertain halt.

Farrell suddenly gave a double take and burst into laughter. I wish I could remember her exact words, but it's been about 40 years. It was something along the lines of "Well, that was dumb - I can't believe I did that! Let's try that again, Maestro!"  So they started again from the beginning, she came in, and sang like a goddess.

She had a sense of humor like a longshoreman, with a repertoire of adults-only jokes. If you promise to send your underage children from the room while you read this, I'll share three obscene riddles with you that I learned from her. Kids gone? Good.

Q: What's the difference between a woman in a bathtub and a woman in church?
A: One of them has hope in her soul.

Q: What's the difference between a band of pygmies and a women's track team?
A: One of them is a bunch of cunning little runts.

Q: What's the difference between a whore with diarrhea and an epileptic corn-husker?
A: One of them has fits while he shucks.

I can tell you're traumatized. Just breathe deeply; you're going to be okay. Promise.

If you wanted to see her in her element, you'd have had to observe a special class she taught in vocal jazz styles. I wasn't the only music student to audit that class, dropping in on several sessions as she took uptight young classical singers and attempted to pass on the tradition of American popular song that was mother's milk to her. There was a time when American opera singers enjoyed being crossover artists before crossover was a "thing". Farrell and Helen Traubel could both let their vocal hair down and belt torch songs like "Ten cents a dance" like a real "chan-toozie".

We got along fine, Ms. Farrell and I, because I truly liked her and she knew it. She treated me like the adorable young undergrad pianist I was and was kind enough to give me a recommendation when I asked her for one upon graduating. She wasn't, however, above giving me a hard time about the beard I wore for about a year.

A girl I was dating remarked casually that she thought I'd look good with a beard. Being easily manipulated by attractive women, I immediately began letting my beard grow in. It was reddish, in contrast to the sandy-colored hair on my head, and curly. After a while, two things happened: 1) the girl broke up with me. (We're Facebook friends today.) And 2) I grew tired of playing with it; pulling on it, twisting it in nervous moments, and scratching my itchy chin. I shaved it.

On my first day at school in this newly-clean-shaven state, I was sitting on a bench near the Dean's office when Ms. Farrell walked by. She stopped, took me in at a glance, and said "Well, thank goodness. You know that beard looked like pubic hair, right?"

Oh, Ms. Farrell, Ms. Farrell, Ms. Farrell ----  I miss you!