October 4, 2015

A short history of "obscene" dances with Jacques Offenbach

I'm shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you!
(photo by Brendan)
Have you been to a high school dance lately? Be warned: prom dancing ain't what it used to be. It's less "Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed doing the Charleston into a swimming pool" and more "simulated sexual positions". For real! My wife once volunteered to chaperone when our daughter was in high school and she came home visibly shaken - and she's no prude, let me hasten to assure you. Girls were bending over at the waist, and their partners were grinding their pelvises into the proferred rear ends. This, if you're curious, is known as "freak dancing".


But in a way, hasn't one of the functions of dancing always been to shock and appall the previous generation? It would seem so.

There's an object lesson on this subject to be observed in Offenbach's satiric romp Orpheus in the Underworld., both in ways he intended when he wrote it and in ways he would never know about after his death in 1880.

In Act II, the gods of Mount Olympus are on a field trip to Hades, where Pluto, Bacchus and all the demons of hell host a party to celebrate the occasion. Just when the party-goers are getting "all the way down", so to speak, Jupiter (you know: the head god; the Big Cheese of the Cosmos; the President of the International God Association) pipes up with a wet-blanket suggestion.

He wants everyone to enjoy a minuet.

It turns out that the God of the Cosmos is a buzz-kill, the guy you DON'T want at your party. But hey - he's the all-powerful ruler, so whattreyagonnado? They dance a minuet, with no great enthusiasm.

Now remember: one of Offenbach's goals is to make fun of the elite opera-going society in the Paris of 1858. His proposals to the Opéra Comique and the Paris Opera to compose new works were met with curt rejections. Smarting from their implied scorn, he chose to have his revenge by inflicting the weapon of satire on serious opera (such as Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice) and the old-fashioned musical styles those dignified houses often staged.

You know, the kind where they frequently have stodgy, boring minuets.

So the guests at the party in Hades move on quickly to the kind of cool, fashionable 1850's dance that was all the rage in Paris.

"I know, I know!" you're thinking, "the Can-Can!  Right-Right?"


If you weren't aware, the Can-Can was unknown in Offenbach's day; it wouldn't appear until the 1890's. What you identify as a Can-Can was really a galop. Now a quick bit of dance history.

There were two popular dances that swept Europe by storm in the 19th century, thanks to the Strauss family and a few other composers. The minuet was supplanted by the waltz. Now these days it's difficult to view the waltz as it was viewed 150 years ago. To us, it's wholesome, innocent and old-fashioned.

To Offenbach's audience, it was just a little racy. Unlike the minuet, in which men and women scarcely even touched one another, the waltz involved the man placing his hand on the woman's WAIST!  Mon dieu! Sacre bleu! Believe it or not, the older generation was shocked by this.

And the galop? Even worse. This was a rapid two-step in which a man and woman literally "galloped" across the dance hall together, then reversed their field and came back the other way. Rinse and repeat. Now bear in mind that most men did not take their wives out for a night of dancing; by and large, wives got to stay home with the children. Most often it was a middle-aged business man out with some young girlfriend half his age. As many of these men ate a rich diet and never exercised, morgues had a steady stream of the corpses of obese adulterous men who tried to galop with their younger, fitter partners and collapsed with heart failure in the process.

And if the waltz was racy, the galop was downright R-rated. And why? Because the level of physical exertion it demanded caused women to... (brace yourself) PERSPIRE! IN PUBLIC! O my GOD!!  We're not talking "glowing", we're talking "sweating like a hog". Again, the older generation was just as turned-off by this display as my wife was by the high school dance crowd.

So this is the trendy dance Offenbach wisely inserts into the party scene in Hades. But there's no way he could have known how his Galop Infernal would be employed by the chorus lines of the Moulin Rouge. They appropriated the galop for their own "shocking" purposes with the Can-Can, in which women were not just being touched on the waist and sweating, but HIKING UP THEIR DRESSES, SHOWING US THEIR UNDERWEAR AND FLASHING THEIR REAR ENDS IN OUR FACES!

What would Offenbach have though of THAT?  To tell you the truth, knowing what I've learned about him, I don't think he shocked all that easily.

Of course, he never chaperoned a dance at Woodside High School in Newport News, Virginia....

September 26, 2015

Verdi's Offenbach moment. (Wait, what?)

Have two composers who lived during the same period ever had less in common than Jacques Offenbach and Giuseppe Verdi? Yes, they both composed music for the theater, but give me a break; if they'd been modern-day film-makers, Verdi would have been turning out serious movies like Schindler's List while Offenbach would have been more likely to have made a Monty Python movie, or maybe Hot Tub Time Machine.
Verdi: he certainly can Can-Can! And he did-did!

By the time Orpheus in the Underworld premiered, Verdi had already composed nineteen operas, eighteen of them ranging from melodramatic to bleakly grim in tone. (Let's forget Un giorno di regno; I'm sure he'd ask us to...) His choral writing in these operas was no different; typical examples include the lyricism of "Va pensiero", that aria for chorus from Nabucco, to any number of "Oh my god we're horrified!!" choral moments responding to some violence or scandal (Macbeth, La Traviata). Lighter ensembles, such as the "Libiamo"in Act 1 of Traviata, were often in the so-called "big guitar" oom-pa-pa style of his early years.

Offenbach, on the other hand, is known for effervescent choral music of such naughty wit and fizzy gaiety that it strikes many as "Parisian", in spite of the composer's German Jewish origins.

Yet, within a span of a few months, Offenbach and Verdi created choral finales with parallel dramatic situations in eerily - and unexpectedly! - similar musical styles. Yes, Giuseppe Verdi created a moment that really seems to have the DNA of French operetta in general, and Orpheus in particular: the end of Act 1, scene i of his 1859 opera Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball).

Actually, the title points to a second similarity as well: both Offenbach and Verdi end their shows with a festive ball. But the two galas have nothing else in common. It's in the first act of each work that we can observe scenes with a great deal in common.

By the end of Act 1 of Orpheus in the Underworld, our feckless violinist-hero has reluctantly petitioned the god Jupiter to allow Eurydice to return from Hades. Long story short, all the assembled gods want to tag along to the Underworld because they're bored out of their skulls and a little road-trip sounds fun. When Jupiter says they can go, there is a joyful chorus to bring the curtain down. If you turn to the final three or four minutes of the video at this link you'll hear some typical Offenbach-style musical champagne: fizzy, bright, up-tempo and cosmopolitan in the extreme. Here's a bit of the score:

Now let's sample a bit of Ballo in maschera. The dramatic situation is almost identical. The "big guy in charge of everything" is not Jupiter the god, but Gustav the king. He's surrounded not by other gods but by courtiers and advisors. Also, unbeknownst to him, three murderous conspirators, but never mind that...

Just as Jupiter hears about trouble in hell and invites everyone to have a little fun and go along with him as he checks it out, so Gustav hears about an old woman, Ulrica, who might be in league with Satan himself. You know - Satan - from hell, etc. As Ulrica also tells fortunes, the king suggests everyone meet at her place to get their fortunes told, just as a lark. There is rejoicing as the courtiers celebrate in a chorus of such up-tempo verve and - dare I say it? - effervescence that we can scarcely believe it's by Verdi! Compare and contrast for yourself in this clip, or note the kinship in the vocal score excerpt below.

Heard in performance, the musical similarity is just as striking as the dramatic kinship. Add to this phenomenon the fact that Ball in maschera was premiered only months after the first performances of Orpheus, and you've got quite a coincidence.

So: was Verdi impressed with the Offenbach passage? And did he, either deliberately or unconsciously, appropriate the gist of it for his opera? Not a chance. Un ballo in maschera was composed prior to Orpheus, as a matter of fact; it was pretty much complete by 1857. Trouble with the censors forced Verdi to delay the premiere, eventually agreeing to change the local from Sweden to Boston.

I guess it's fair to conclude that this type of music, with a naughty, bubbly flair undreamt-of by Donizetti and Bellini, was simply "in the air" in Europe of the 1850's. And Verdi, whose style always evolved and changed with the times, felt free to use it as yet another dramatic color at his disposal.

September 19, 2015

Can this (fake) marriage be saved? Eurydice writes to a (real!) relationship expert

In Offenbach's loony bizzaro-world version of the story of Orpheus and Euridice, the happy couple is *cough cough* not so happy. They're a typical Parisian married couple of the 1850's; in other words...
Duana Welch, Ph.D.
Dispenser of advice to love-lorn opera characters

...they can't stand each other. They're bored bored BORED,  and they're both carrying on affairs with mistress and boyfriend, respectively. But not respectfully, if you see what I mean.

BUT! Thanks to the character of Public Opinion in this version, that middle-class matron who insists that Orffy and Eury "play it straight", Eurydice just texted me that she's willing to make one last attempt to save her marriage and, thus, her reputation.

So I put her in touch with one of my favorite Facebook friends, Dr. Duana Welch. As one learns on her websiteDuana C. Welch, Ph.D. (pronounced DWAY-nuh) is the relationship advice columnist known for applying social science research to reader questions about a variety of romantic-relationship issues.  Her blog, “LoveScience: Research-based relationship advice for everyone” is a best-seller in the relationship and behavioral science categories at Amazon.com, and is also available free at www.LoveScienceMedia.com.   Duana launched LoveScience in 2009.  She’s also a regular contributor at Psychology Today and eHarmony, where she muses about relationship science.  Duana’s book, Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do, released in January, 2015; it is the first science-based book to take readers from before they meet until they commit to The One. 

Critics have called Love Factually "a must read for all those of us seeking a lasting love", and "a smart, funny page-turner, full of heart and based on the best science."

From time to time I like to ask Duana to weigh in with her expert opinion on the often very complicated love-lives of opera characters, including the fun couples in Aida and Cosi fan tutte. So naturally, when it came to Orffy and Eury, I thought of her.

Eurydice was pretty pumped to find out about Duana! I was just checking my email, and Eury sent me copies of her correspondence with Duana. Here's how Eurydice spelled out her marital problem:

Dear Duana,

I  don't know if you can help me or not, but I loved your book and if anyone can save my marriage it's you. Here's my problem:

Everyone thinks I have the perfect marriage. People actually write poems and songs and plays and stuff about my husband and me, but I'm stressing out because I feel like it's a big lie.

My husband (let's call him "Orffy") is this big-time musician. Everybody is really into his music - they cry and swoon and everything - but he NEVER stops playing that damn violin and it's driving me NUTS. I don't know if it's misophonia or WHAT (I looked that up on WebMD) but the sound of that fiddle is stepping on my last nerve. He saws away on it when he's feeling romantic or whatever, and honestly, I just want to soak it in kerosene and set it on fire and stomp on the ashes. 

My other problem: just down the road lives this shepherd dude. He is, like, the cutest shepherd EVER. When we make eye contact I just get tingly all over and I know it's mutual. Plus, he isn't into music, so it's like we're soul mates.

I want a divorce, but I know "Orffy" will totally freak out and plus all the poets and painters and other artists who think we're such a perfect inspirational couple will go bananas.

What should I do, Duana?


Literally in Hades

Duana wrote write back (she's like that, you know, very efficient...) and here's her actual advice to Offenbach's unhappy heroine. Faithful readers, if the magic has gone out of YOUR relationship, you might give some thought to this:

Dear Mrs. Hades,

Being in a bad marriage is a lot like hell: hot, and not in the good way.  Fortunately, research shows that married people are twice as likely as the unwed to describe themselves as happy.  

Unfortunately, there are exceptions, and you're one.  

Before I go on (and on), may I ask: What drew you to Orffy?  Surely his love of his instrument was there when he was courting you.  Perhaps you've grown tired of a tune played too often?

If so, I urge you to avert your eyes from Mr. Shepherd Dude and return them to your melodious mate, for the following reasons:

1) The big lie is that you're living a big lie; what's really happening is that your memory is playing tricks on you. People experience the past in terms of the present.  In one study, almost 400 couples reported themselves very happy as newlyweds, but a mere two years later, only the still-happy could recall that early bliss; the rest mis-recalled that things had always been bad.  

I'm sure it will relieve you to learn there's a scientific term for this: state-dependent memory.   You're unhappy now, so you probably reminisce as if that was always the case, and that makes you think your marriage is doomed to misery~so what's the point?  It's like depressed people who commit suicide because they can't recall ever being happy, so they project into the future that they never will be.  But unless Orffy dragged you away by your unwilling hair, you chose him too; something was hot in the best sense when you started out.  

2) You can get the spark back.  Nearly 90% of couples who contemplate divorce, but stay married, are very happy together within five years.  So there's another big lie exposed: The idea that you're unhappy now, so you always will be, is a whopper.

3) Most people who divorce and/or change partners to get a better life say divorce was tougher than they thought it would be, and the new partner comes with a new set of intractable problems.  Did you know that fully 70% of all couples' problems will never be solved?  Yep.  And that includes all the happy couples.  You don't have to solve your problems to be happy, and you can be happy even in the face (or in this case, ear) of issues with your current mate.  

So not only will Orffy and the general public freak out about your break-up, but odds are that you eventually will, too late.  And I can assure you that the Little Drummer Boy there has his share of crazy-making quirks.  Why give up fame and adoration and your vows for a young hottie with a long staff?  Wait...that was badly said.

Anyway, the bottom line is this: There are times when divorce is appropriate, and they're what I call the Three A's: chronic addiction, adultery, or abuse.  About a third to a half of current divorces meet this standard.  People who divorce over these are indeed better off without their erstwhile spouses.  However, "chronic violin playing" is not on that short list.  

So don't ditch Orffy.  Instead, I recommend getting earplugs, creating an Orffy-free and sound-proof zone in your house, and telling him how sexy he is when he puts his instrument down.  Consciously return to listing the endearing things he does each day, rather than meditating on the one thing you don't like.  Let the man you've already got help you fall back in love with him, so you can revel in all those love songs being composed in your honor.  

Besides, baaaaa-ing gets old, too.  And you can count only so many sheep before the boredom sets in.  

Faithful readers, Eurydice might not be real, but Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., sure is. And if I were you, I'd check out Love Factually at the link above. 

Thanks, Duana!

September 13, 2015

Two operas that just NAIL "Frenchiness"

The conventional wisdom about Chopin's mazurkas and polonaises for the piano is that if you don't have Polish blood coursing through your veins, your interpretation will lack some indefinable aura of authenticity. The rhythm won't have the right nuance; the phrases won't have the right shape. You just won't "get it" like a native.
Paris  (photo by Myrabella)

That may be, but music history shows that, when it comes to composition, not being the native son of a country or culture is no impediment to adopting its style. Somehow, Gershwin, a Jewish guy from New York, had no trouble writing convincingly about a black community in South Carolina. Georges Bizet seems to have hit it out of the park finding his "Spanish voice" in Carmen, though it's probably fair to say that Bizet's Seville is one that exists only in his imagination - and, ever since, in ours. But it works!  Brahms wasn't Hungarian, but his Hungarian Dances are the real deal. There are lots of other instrumental examples, from Liszt's Spanish Rhapsody to Tchaikovsky's Italian Capriccio.

And just look at the first two operas of Virginia Opera's 2015-2016 season: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld and Puccini's La bohème. Both shows (and this is about all they have in common) are steeped in French atmosphere, yet neither composer was French.

The case of Jacques Offenbach is kind of odd. Thanks to the adoption of the "Galop Infernal" in Orpheus as the universal music of the Can-can, Offenbach is regarded as the most Parisian of musicians. His music reeks, REEKS, I tell you, of Paris - its sophistication, its naughtiness, its worldy wit. Which is pretty remarkable, considering that...

...he was a Jew from Germany...

Offenbach was born in Cologne as Jacob (not Jacques) Offenbach. Actually, his last name should have been "Erbst", but his father adopted the name of his hometown, Offenbach-am-Maim, since people got in the habit of calling him "that Offenbacher". It was just easier to go with it.

He came to Paris as a skinny gangly teen-ager to study the cello at the Paris Conservatoire. He never left, other than to go on tour as cellist or conductor. He married a nice French girl, converted to Catholicism and changed his name to Jacques. Et voila!

Steeped in la vie Parisienne (which later on was the title of one of his operettas), he wrote of his "take" on French music, noting that French comedies had “cleverness, common sense, good taste and wit”, 

The French embraced Offenbach as one of their own. They packed his theaters, lining his pockets with franc notes. Emperor Napoleon III not only granted him citizenship, he also bestowed upon him the  Légion d'Honneur.

Well, what the heck - the people of New York elected Hillary Rodham Clinton as their senator when she'd previously resided in Illinois and Arkansas, right? No biggie.

As for Puccini, it's not so much the music of La bohème that strikes us as French, although his style does adopt a polished international cosmopolitan effect at times; the opening crowd scene of Act 2, for instance. But when the emotions start running hot, the music turns as hot and Italianate as a summer in Naples

It's more his evocation of what it felt like to be a young Bohemian student in the City of Lights back in the day that is convincingly Gallic in tone. But don't take it from me: we have a documented testimonial from Claude Debussy.

It would appear that Debussy was pretty much the anti-Puccini, musically speaking. Where Puccini is obvious, Debussy is subtle. Where Puccini slathers on primary colors, Debussy daubs with pastels. Where Puccini takes hi-res photographs, Debussy does blurry sketches.

Yet, surprisingly, in a conversation with Manuel de Falla, Debussy averred that "I know of no one who has described the Paris of that time as well as Puccini in La bohème." 

Here's what's interesting about that statement: opera lovers know that Puccini often went for exotic foreign locales for operatic settings. He first chose France in Manon Lescaut and later depicted Japan (Madama Butterfly), California (Fanciulla del West), and China (Turandot). However, as with Carmen, Puccini's versions of these lands is not based on his having intimate acquaintance with those cultures. His California is more Tuscan than American; his China is a fairy-tale world that never was. But notice that Debussy is giving Puccini credit for finding something real and authentic in Bohemian Paris. That's remarkable.

So if you come to our productions of Orpheus and Bohème (and why wouldn't you?), you might want to stick a beret on your head and maybe tuck a baguette under your arm. You'll fit right in.

September 6, 2015

My new children's opera: tricky, tricky, tricky

I like every aspect of my job with Virginia Opera, but for me the most fulfilling assignment is that of creating short operas for the state-wide tours of our Emerging Artist young professionals. Since 2006, I've been privileged to write words and music for a number of original educational operas, including:
Till Eulenspiegel (15th century woodcut)

  • History Alive! A Telling of Virginia History (2006)
  • Tales From the Brothers Grimm (2007)
  • The Adventures of Pinocchio's Sister (2008) This is a "pastiche" opera, with an original libretto but incorporating standard operatic music by Handel, Mozart, Rossini and others
  • The Empress and the Nightingale (2014)
  • The Princess and the Pea (2014)
Now the latest show is going into rehearsals for the Fall, 2015 tour: A Trickster Trilogy. I thought the topic of the Trickster, a character common to every culture throughout human history, would provide an opportunity to explore some unfamiliar but fun stories.

What's a "trickster"? It's a character who breaks societal rules to get his way; a joker, a prankster, a rebel; someone who relies on his wits instead of violence to defeat anyone standing in his way. In the opera world, Don Giovanni and Mephistopheles are classic tricksters. But tricksters abound in every form of story-telling, including movies and TV in the modern era. Here are some notable latter-day tricksters:
  • The Joker (as in, the Batman character; and yes, in some versions he isn't averse to violence)
  • Bugs Bunny
  • The title character in the Jim Carrey movie The Mask
  • Fred Sanford, of the sitcom Sanford and Son
  • Ernest T. Bass, the troublemaker from The Andy Griffith Show
  • Bart Simpson of The Simpsons
  • The wily Ben from ABC's island drama Lost
I found so many likely tricksters in literature that, rather than devoting 45 minutes to any single one, I opted to write three short vignettes. Here's some background information on each, with a bit of commentary on my strategies in adapting them for and opera.

Nasreddin (photo courtesy of Dennis Jarvis)
1. TOM SAWYER. Mark Twain's all-American boy is likely the most familiar to the population at large, though I doubt if the children in our touring demographic (K-5, or kindergarten through 5th grade) will have read the novel. Be that as it may, I couldn't resist having a go at the episode in which Tom comes into his own as a classic trickster: getting his friends to paint his Aunt Polly's fence. If it's been a while since you've read Twain, click here for the text of the pertinent chapter, "The glorious whitewasher" 

My challenge here involved casting in that my options were very limited. The Fall 2015 Emerging Artist tour consists of a baritone, a mezzo and a soprano. That's it. As we read in the passage cited above, Tom tricks a bunch of boys to do the work. Clearly, I preferred for Tom to be a male, though as you'll see below I don't mind employing trouser roles at times. My solution was to replace Sawyer's male buddies with the familiar character of Becky Thatcher and her friend Nellie. Otherwise, the adaptation is quite faithful to Twain.

2. NASREDDIN HODJA. This character was new to me, and may be to you as well. Nasreddin (pronounced "Nahz-red-DEEN") is a legendary figure, likely based on a real historical figure, a 13th-century resident of Turkey. This link takes you to a website with a collection of stories about him preceded by an introduction. Read through them and you'll quickly see that as "literature" they don't aim very high. A lot of them are pretty much at the level of jokes you might have heard in a Henny Youngman routine: short, with a setup and a punchline. "The Robe", found at the link above, is a great example.

Nasreddin is often depicted as a village judge, a settler of disputes between neighbors and townspeople. His judgements often take an ironic turn, supporting his street cred as a trickster. The story I chose is one of these tales. Your thumbnail synopsis:

A beggar is hoping for a handout from a restaurant. When the cook accuses her (again, a woman in my version due to casting needs) of stealing food, she protests that she was merely smelling it. The cook demands payment, declaring that one must pay even to smell her food. When the beggar is unable to pay, the cook hauls her to Nasreddin, where she lodges her complaint. In the end, Nasreddin, who is wise to the cook's inhumanity, finds the beggar guilty of smelling the food but then offers to pay the cook himself. He jingles a few coins, then informs the cook that he has paid for the smell of food with the sound of money.

This ruling, unsatisfactory to the cook but delighting the reader (or the opera audience, I hope), reminds me of the Old Testament story of King Solomon's ruling about a stolen baby related in I Kings 3: 16-28. When Solomon, acting as community judge like Nasreddin, is faced with two women each claiming to be the baby's mother, he famously orders the baby divided in two with a sword. This, of course, prompts the real mother to reveal herself. So, as weird as this sounds, King Solomon turns out to be an authentic trickster! Who knew, right?

In my opera, I elected to make Nasreddin a speaking role; only the Beggar and Cook sing. This is because this Trickster is primarily a comedian; as such, I wanted him and his ironic sense of humor to stand apart from the two women in the greatest contrast possible. My ideal interpreters of the role would be either Jerry Stiller or Peter Falk. That's the over-the-top style I'm going for.

3. Till Eulenspiegel.  Here's a character familiar to all classical musicians and patrons of the symphony, thanks to Richard Strauss's inimitable symphonic poem, "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" Once again, we're dealing with a figure who likely was based on a real person (as described in the Encyclopedia Britannica) from medieval times and has since attained mythological status thanks to a large collection of stories. As with Nasreddin, these stories are decidedly not for kids! Till's "adventures" are full of raunchy sex and scatalogical humor, which is a fancy way of saying "lots of poop jokes". Poop is practically a character in its own right in Till's world.

So 99% of the Eulenspiegel stories were immediately disqualified from consideration as fodder for children's opera. However, I was happy to stumble on a G-rated example. This tale is basically a re-telling of "The Emperor's New Clothes", but has the advantage of being less tiresomely familiar. Or maybe "Emperor's New Clothes" is a re-telling of the Eulenspiegel story - who knows?

In any case, in this tale, a king has commissioned the German trickster to paint a portrait. Till warns the king that his art is so delicate that only true aristocrats of noble birth can see his paintings; to peasants, they're invisible. When he's done "painting", he reveals a blank canvas to the king, but not before collecting a sack of jewels in payment first. Of course, the king has no choice but to praise the "beautiful painting".

Even though virtually no one (other than the performers) will hear or appreciate it, I couldn't resist giving the title character a theme amounting to a sly paraphrase of the opening of the Strauss tone poem. Here's that famous motif, heard in solo horn:

In my little musical farce, all mentions of Till, in addition to his entrance music and, naturally, his aria, feature this theme, which simply alters the rhythm of the original:

My fingers are crossed that at least one adult in the audience - a teacher, a principal, a parent, will hear my little musical joke and smile in recognition.

This is the show with the trouser role; Till is portrayed by the mezzo-soprano. 

If you, Faithful Reader, reside in Virginia, especially Tidewater, Greater Richmond or the Washington DC suburbs, and would like a performance of A Trickster Trilogy at your child's school or for your civic or community group, that can happen! Just contact Virginia Opera's Education Department and they'll set you right up on the Fall tour.

August 30, 2015

"Mission Impossible" and Turandot

Have you seen Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation yet? My wife and I went last night. How was it? Not boring, that's for sure! I was already aware that it features a lengthy sequence taking place during a performance of Puccini's Turandot, but that wasn't the reason I wanted to see it. I wanted a slick action-filled roller coaster of suspense; you know - a Hollywood blockbuster with all the trimmings. But it does provide me with the opportunity to consider what can happen to operas when movie writers elect to incorporate the art form into a commercial movie.

In previous commercial films electing to have characters attend a live performance of an opera in an opera house (thinking now of Pretty Woman and Godfather III), there was an effort to treat the operas in question (La Traviata and Cavalleria Rusticana, respectively), with reasonable faithfulness to the original, even if the level of singing by some of the principals was not always big-league. (Michael Corleone's son resembled those tenors on the Lawrence Welk show more than the Turridu of one's dreams, let's just leave it at that.)

That's in contrast to the Turandot shenanigins taking place in Rogue Nation. I'm kind of glad they didn't choose an opera by a living composer; the dead know not what vivisection is performed on their creations after they leave this earth.

On the plus side, the singing was pretty good. I searched the International Movie Data Base to see if the singers were credited, but no soap. Actors were employed to play the roles of the various performers - even the conductor! Did actual orchestral conductors feel this job would be "beneath" them, or did the producers think an actor would manage to look more maestro-ish? Whatever. In a New York Times interview, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie asserts that all the actors used in the Turandot sequences were "aspiring opera singers" who "had experience singing opera", whatever that means. He also revealed that, as part of a contractual agreement reached with the Vienna State Opera for the use of their name, the singing artists heard are "the cast of their upcoming version of Turandot and their orchestra". So one has to search through the Vienna State Opera website to unearth the artists' names. Because why should THEY be credited publicly? Who cares about THEM? (Heavy sarcasm.) Anyway, if you've seen the movie and you're curious, Turandot was sung by Lise Lindstrom, with Johann Botha as Calaf. Well, they both have pretty good careers going; I guess they can live without the extra PR.

Oh, and if you're wondering if the opera sequence was filmed on the actual stage of the Vienna State Opera, ...it wasn't. There was a massive set built on a London sound stage, according to McQuarrie. Access to the real opera house was extremely limited.

Now, never mind the extremely unlikely backstage acrobatics taking place as Cruise's Ethan Hunt cavorted nimbly on theatrical equipment fighting a bad guy in a manner that made "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" look like a documentary. So it's unrealistic and over-the-top; we LIKE that, some of us! I wanted to know if the operatic staging would be as authentic as in the other two movies I mentioned.

Oh, dear.

I knew Puccini was in trouble when the curtain rose on Act 1 and the music began. For one thing, the Mandarin was alone on an empty stage to deliver his "Popolo di Pekino" line. Um, it's a crowd scene. The entire city is supposed to be gathered there. They all sing within seconds. How much would it have added to the movie's budget to have stuck a few extras on stage? THAT'S where you economize? Really? Isn't the spectacle of a crowd scene a GOOD thing?

Also: it's a little thing, but noticeable: the Mandarin started singing too early. They lopped off some of the orchestral introduction with those brutal chords that sound like chops of an ax. I'm not saying the singer goofed and entered early; I'm saying they cut like three seconds of music. Well, timing is everything, and Ethan Hunt has villains to kill - let's not dilly-dally!

From then on, it became apparent that our fictitious cast, orchestra and chorus had all dropped the pages of their music on the floor, with the result that they were hastily re-assembled in the wrong order. And, remarkably, all in the same order! While Ethan delivered karate chops, the music hopped around in some crazy-quilt order unfamiliar to opera-lovers. I can't EVEN re-construct how this worked, but we leaped from late scenes to early scenes and back again while, in contrast, the action unfolded in "real time", continuously. I would have loved for Mr. McQuarrie to explain the necessity of taking a hatchet to the opera, but the Times reporter didn't go there.

I once attended a recital by a pianist who specialized in contemporary music. The program closed with a piece whimsically entitled "Haydn in the Forest". (I don't recall the composer, this was some 30 years ago.) The joke was that pages of a Haydn piano sonata were cut into strips, upon which the strips were glued onto a large poster board in the shape of a tree. The strips were the "branches", sticking out at random angles. The pianist then played the notes visible on the strips, in any order he chose. This produced an extremely random-sounding mosaic of Haydnesque piano bits.

That's what Rogue Nation did to Turandot.

Also, the device of "hiding" the sound of a rifle shot (or a woodwind shot... don't ask...) under the blare of the high note in the tenor aria "Nessun dorma" is an homage. The same idea first occurred in Hitchcock's thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. Nice subtle touch, but in reality, wouldn't the three cymbal crashes at the end of "Non piangere, Liu" have been a more logical moment to cover a gunshot? Ah, but then the audience wouldn't get to wallow in their "favorite aria", assuming they paid attention to The Three Tenors back in the day.

Finally, those with ears to hear became aware that film composer Joe Kraemer used "Nessun dorma" in his underscoring, allowing the big tune to appear as some kind of - what? Leitmotif? - whenever Ethan and Ilsa, the female lead, made goo-goo eyes at one another. For a blockbuster, Rogue Nation is positively prim and prudish in matters of sex; there's not so much as a smooch on the cheek, and everybody keeps their clothes on. But we're led to believe that the un-coupled couple will hook up some day (...un bel di...) and Puccini's aria is the symbol of that potential.

It's not completely inappropriate in that context, actually. In the aria, Calaf is singing about a woman who is not yet his, vowing that he will kiss her at some point in the future, "when the light shines". That's clearly Ethan's general train of thought as well, right? Although he really seems, you know, married to his career.

So, my verdict: thumbs-up for choosing an opera as the context for an action sequence. Not original, but the more people see opera, the more it registers on their personal cultural radar. Thumbs also up for singing at a high level. But thumbs close into a fist when it comes to assuming that "us dummies" in the audience won't know or care if the opera thus employed is turned into a mish-mash of random musical passages, like a cinematic iPod scrambling a list of excerpts at random.

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.