January 31, 2016

Absent Love and Present Love in Romeo and Juliet

The most iconic adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is not an opera. I'm thinking of Tchaikovsky's Fantasy-Overture, one of the warhorses of orchestral literature. The love theme in that piece long ago made the cross-over from classical art to pop culture. It's been plugged into TV, movies and even animated cartoons too many times to count. Sometimes it's used seriously, sometimes with post-hipster irony. Everyone knows what it's intended to express, whether they have an ear for music or not.
Gounod at the piano

In the opera I'm writing about these days, Charles Gounod one-ups Tchaikovsky; if not in popularity, at least in quantity. In his Romeo and Juliet it appears to me that Gounod assigned not one, but two - count 'em! two! - official love themes to the famous couple.

Now, don't misunderstand: Romeo and Juliet sing many melodies during their four love duets. But for our purposes, a melody is not the same thing as a theme. I'm talking about a musical statement that recurs in different scenes, with a consistent extra-musical meaning each time it is heard. For an obvious, if somewhat cheesy example, think of the big sweeping theme by Max Steiner in Gone With The Wind that blares forth anytime mention is made of Tara, the O'Hara family plantation.

After due consideration, I label the two R & J love themes "Absent Love" and "Present Love". Each is heard four times during the opera; each recurrence seems to imply the same meaning and significance.

"Absent Love" is first heard in the orchestra immediately following the choral Prologue, just before the curtain rises on the Capulet ball. At a moderate sustained tempo, the strings present an elegaic, warmly expressive statement full of yearning. A pair of two-bar phrases (A1 and A2), each sketching the contour of a heavy sigh, is followed by a four-bar period (B) leading to a re-statement in fuller orchestration:

After this initial statement of the theme, "Absent Love" is not heard again until Act 4, when it re-appears as an introduction to the scene of Romeo and Juliet's wedding-night duet. As the duet begins, the newly-married couple have just concluded a night of marital fulfillment and are disheartened to see that the sun is about to rise. That's bad news because, of course, Romeo has been ordered to leave Verona forever in punishment for having killed Tybalt. So Juliet is faced with Romeo's permanent absence as he must now begin his exile. The duet (to which we'll return below for the first occurrence of "Present Love") comes to an end, Romeo departs, and Juliet ends the scene by lamenting his departure in a descant to another orchestral statement of "Absent Love". It's at this moment that the attentive listener should begin to appreciate the theme's significance.

The meaning of "Absent Love" is confirmed in Act 5 when Romeo enters the Capulet crypt and sings a mournful soliloquy over the (apparently) dead body of his wife; for Romeo, Juliet is now forever "absent".

As for "Present Love", it is entirely contrasting in mood and construction. This is the theme where the representation of love becomes ardent and passionate, more in the vein of Tchaikovsky's material. In its phrase structure, "Present Love" is a near mirror image of "Absent Love": a longer period is followed by two fragmentary periods:

The rhythmic character is dynamic and dramatic, suggesting impulsiveness and the heat of sexual desire. This is in contrast to the introverted melancholy of "Absent Love".

"Present Love" is first heard in an orchestral statement that follows the earlier duet passage beginning "O nuit divine". When that section has concluded and Romeo is almost out the door, Juliet begs him to stay just a little longer. (I like to think that this is an earlier version of two teenagers in love talking on the phone, each saying "You hang up. No, YOU hang up", etc.). When Romeo agrees to remain, a risky decision in view of his legal peril, the orchestra launches into "Present Love" sans vocalization; the lovers are in no mood to sing, locked in passionate embrace. The entire theme lasts perhaps 15 seconds or less. There is no way even the most attentive listener could comprehend that "An Important Theme" has just been introduced, but in fact that's what's happened. I call this passage "Present Love" because at that precise point, Romeo and Juliet are no longer regretting the past or fearing the future: rather, they are in the moment; they are truly "present", aware only of being together.

It's not until the finale that "Present Love" takes its place with the earlier theme as a defining concept of the lover's relationship. Romeo downs his dose of poison, Juliet's eyelids flutter as she awakens from her coma, and for a few precious seconds Romeo forgets about poison. The young couple, overjoyed to see one another again, believe they have beaten the odds: they are together; nothing else in the world exists.

They are present.

Of course, the ugly reality of the situation soon overtakes their euphoria; Juliet, unwilling to face life without Romeo, self-inflicts a mortal knife wound. So which theme accompanies their final moments of life? The choice is important, as it defines their mindset as life slips away. Rather than giving in to fear and panic of their looming mutual and eternal Absence, they remain focused on clinging to the experience of being Present as long as they can. As a solo violin plays a subdued, pianissimo version of "Present Love", Juliet whispers "avec toi". "With you". I am with you. We are present, right now, right in this moment.

January 24, 2016

Turning Shakespeare into opera: Queen Mab

Robin Williams: the ideal Mercutio?
(photo by Darsie, used with permission)
Since the time of Shakespeare, some 270 operas based on his plays have been written. Of these, about 3% are still performed today with any regularity. That short list includes Verdi's trio of Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor, Rossini's Otello, Thomas Adès' recent work The Tempest, and the piece I'm blogging about currently, Gounod's Romeo and Juliet.

That's a pretty dismal record of success. It demonstrates two big truths:
  1. Opera is a really difficult genre to master. The fact is that most operas fail. Also,
  2. The works of Shakespeare are an awkward fit for opera. 
Shakespearean theater is glorious, but messy. Too many scenes, too many characters, too much extraneous soybean meal filling out the red meat of the plot-line. It takes longer to sing words than to speak them, so composers and librettists have to take a pinking shears to the plays and pare them down to the bare essentials of the narrative. But the biggest problem is that much of what makes Shakespeare so memorable gets lost in translation.

Shakespeare's greatness is found in the flesh-and-blood complexity of his characters, from principal roles to minor parts, and in the scope of his amazing insight into human nature and the human condition. But there's another key to his immortality, one that is an unconquerable stumbling-block to opera composers: word-play.

Shakespeare's sheer virtuosity with words is overwhelming and dazzling. Said to have one of the largest English vocabularies in history, his word-play takes one's breath away. Dialogue is adorned with countless puns and plays on words. His characters express themselves in both street slang and the eloquent cadences of aristocracy with equal authenticity. Plots unfold with effortless iambic pentameter that creates its own expressive universe, and the profusion of rhymes makes Sondheim look like an apprentice.

Shakespeare is about words, but opera is about music! Talk about your square pegs and round holes...

The best example of Gounod's challenge in turning Romeo and Juliet into an opera is seen in Mercutio's famous Queen Mab speech. Mercutio, Romeo's BFF of long standing, is as mercurial a personality as his name would suggest. He's witty and charming, with a lightning-quick and highly imaginative mind. He's also sort of a motor-mouth; once he gets rolling, it's hard to shut him up. In my opinion, it's a shame that Robin Williams never had an opportunity to play this role. In many respects, Robin WAS Mercutio.

The Queen Mab speech displays all these qualities in a comedic rant that is funny but disturbing at the same time. Romeo is about to tell his buddy about a dream he had the previous night; that's the trigger for Mercutio to launch into a fantasy about Mab, the "fairies' midwife" who brings men their dreams as they sleep. Scarcely pausing for breath, he creates the image of a tiny spirit, darting about in a coach made of an empty hazelnut, grasshopper's wings and spider's legs, drawn by gnats.

At first, the speech appears to be sheer whimsy; as he speaks, a modern listener might picture Mab as a Disney-style animation like the three fairies in Discney's Sleeping Beauty. But as Mercutio's monologue gathers steam, the tone darkens and the imagery morphs from whimsy to the macabre. Sparing you some of his Elizabethan slang, I'll quote from a version updated into modern English:

"This is that very Mab
Who tangles the manes of horses in the night,
And plasters on bloody knots in the hair of sluttish women,
The untangling of which brings much misfortune;
This is the hag, who, when virgins lie on their backs,
Pushes on them and teaches them to stand the act of sex,
Making them able to bear the load of their husbands' bodies.

He would have gone on and on, we suspect, but at that point Romeo has had enough and cuts him off: "Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk'st of nothing."

How did we get from a delightful Tinkerbell to describing sex in such vulgar gutter-level talk? There are a couple of likely interpretations.

For one thing, Shakespeare is contrasting Romeo's idealized, chivalrous notion of Love with the other way in which men approach love: as something bestial and coarse, devoid of poetry or spirituality. Juliet's nurse also reflects an unromantic matter-of-fact point of view towards sexual relations. Men and women can elevate one another or debauch one another; it's their choice.

Another aspect of Mercutio's attitude may lie in his fear that his friendship with Romeo is being lost to a woman, this Rosalind who is the current object of Romeo's desire. Perhaps more enamored of Romeo than he might care to admit, Mercutio is frankly jealous, giving him a motive to depict male-female love in unappealing imagery.

Whatever the case, Mercutio's Mab speech reveals a certain cynicism and anger underneath the surface laughter.

Charles Gounod turns Mercutio's speech into a baritone aria. As heard in this excellent version by the great Gerard Souzay, it's splendid in many respects, but does only half the job of capturing the brilliance of Shakespeare's original. Unlike Verdi, who was elderly and wealthy when creating Falstaff and thus had only cursory interest in its box-office success, Gounod's objective was to turn Romeo and Juliet into an audience-pleasing 19th-century Romantic opera; one that would suit the tastes of a public accustomed to certain conventions in lyric drama.

So Mercutio's operatic Mab speech gets sanitized, keeping only the tone of whimsy. To Gounod's credit, he absolutely nails the tone of Mercutio's opening lines. Mendelssohn in all his pixies-and-fairies glory could not have conjured up the will-o-the-wisp, lighter-than-air atmosphere of the grasshopper wings and spiders' legs any better than in this piece.

But Shakespeare's Mab speech is a torrent of stream-of-consciousness. It's an improvised riff, the product of a mind almost out of control. The operatic Mercutio, on the other hand, neatly molds his speech into the three-part form of a standard opera aria of that period of history. It has an A section, a contrasting B section with a suavely lyrical vocal line, and then.... a recapitulation to A, repeating the music and words of the beginning. Even worse (for Shakespearean purists), it stops neatly with a "button" in the orchestra - two final cadential chords to signal the audience that the aria has ended. Romeo has no reason to cut him off.

The cynicism is gone; the hints of homo-erotic jealousy are gone; the expression of sexuality as something foul and dirty is gone; the effect of a terminal motor-mouth is missing. Mercutio, in this opera, has become something less than he was; a conventional comic supporting role.

BUT! We have to place this transformation into context. It's not a bad aria; it's a wonderful aria in its own right, on its own terms. We have a wonderfully evocative display piece for a lyric baritone; the baritone repertoire would be poorer without it. It's a fine foil for the stickiness of the four duets for the famous lovers. This aria was a deliberate compromise on the part of the librettists and composer; a gesture towards retaining as much of Shakespeare as possible without introducing an element distasteful to a bourgeois public.

It seems to me that Gounod's compromises have brought several tons of critical dismissal and scorn upon him, whereas the compromises made by Bernstein and Sondheim in West Side Story generally get a pass. Why are theirs okay, but Gounod's an unforgiveable betrayal of the Bard of Avon?

My advice: appreciate the aria, and the opera as a whole, for what it is, rather than trashing it for what it isn't. 

January 17, 2016

How Gounod "Faust-icated" Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet
painting by Frank Dicksee, 1884
When Giuseppe Verdi turned to Shakespeare, the writer he loved above all others, for his final two masterpieces, he had already lived a full life and amassed a fortune. Otello and Falstaff were labors of love; box-office success was not really an issue. That being the case, he was free: free to ignore the tastes of the public and focus his creative energy on being as faithful and true to the Bard as he could. This explains the fate of Falstaff, which has never achieved the popularity of Rigoletto or Aida despite the sublime nature of its quicksilver score.

In contrast, Charles Gounod's setting of Romeo and Juliet was created in an entirely different context, one in which commercial success was an imperative equal to artistic merit. A quick review of his operatic output prior to Romeo demonstrates his need for a successful production; it also reminds us that operatic composition is incredibly difficult and that the vast majority of operas fail.

The only well-received piece he could claim was Faust, and even that had fallen flat in the premiere production, only catching fire in subsequent stagings. Other than that, there was a list of operas that pleased no one: Sappho, La nonne saglante, Le médecin malgré lui, Philémon et Baucis, and a few others that bombed. Even Mireille, which began to find a niche spot in the repertoire in the 1940's, failed during Gounod's lifetime.

It's not hard to see the composer's battle plan for Romeo in the wake of continual discouragement. His goal was not Verdi's; that of using his gifts to channel the essence of Shakespeare's world. Rather, it was to turn a popular Shakespearean plot into the mold of Faust; to inject as many of the successful elements of Faust as possible into the new piece; to turn Shakespeare into the archetype of a popular 19th-century Romantic opera that would suit the tastes of his middle-class French audience.

He Faust-icated Romeo and Juliet. The result? I'm reminded of the expression coined by Stephen Colbert on his late, lamented "Colbert Report" show on the Comedy Channel: "truthiness". In that sense, compared to the Bard of Avon, Romeo and Juliet is, um, "Bardy". It has "Bardiness".

And it worked! The first performance in 1859, attended by tourists in town for the Paris Exhibition, was a glorious success, one that launched the opera on a giddy circuit of sold-out performances the world over. It's star has faded a bit since the 1800's, but not completely. Hey, Virginia Opera is now preparing it's second production in the past decade or so.

Here is a summary of how Romeo got Faust-isized and Faust-icated and ended up at least as Fausty as Bardy..

1. Oom-pah-pah in 4 part harmony

  • Act 2 of Faust ends with the villagers dancing a rousing waltz as the chorus sings of carefree pleasure.
  • In Romeo, the action begins with the Capulet ball (omitting Shakespeare's opening scene of the street brawl between servants of the feuding families). Surprise, surprise: the guests dance a rousing waltz as the chorus sings of carefree pleasure.
In both cases, the waltz was a shrewd choice, as Europe was in the throes of waltz-fever thanks to the Strauss family. The mania for waltzing was a horse any opera composer would have been advised to ride.

2. "I enjoy being a girl"
  • In the Garden Scene of Faust, Marguerite discovers the gift of jewels left at her door and, having adorned herself, sings the "Jewel Song" in which, probably for the first time in her life, she revels in feeling pretty and feminine. Oh, and it's another waltz tune.
  • Back at the Capulet's ball, Juliet's first aria "Je veux vivre" again uses waltz-time to express girlish joy at being young.
By the way, Shakespeare's Juliet never says anything like that, which means that in West Side Story, Bernstein and Sondheim followed Gounod and not Shakespeare when they assigned Maria the number "I feel pretty".

3. Sweet and mellow tenorial love
The tenor arias in both operas are close cousins. Faust's "Salut! demeure chaste et pure" and Romeo's "Ah, Lève-toi, soleil" are both blissful expressions of anticipated love immediately preceding a love duet. The melodic styles are closely related, opting for sweetness and gentleness rather than the raw passion of a Cavaradossi or a Manrico. You can imagine Gounod thinking "If they liked that one, they're gonna love this one!"

4. Garden vs. balcony
  • The love duet in Act 3 of Faust sees the tenor approaching the home of the soprano in full wooing mode, fending off distractions in the guise of comical banter between Mephistopheles and the elderly Marthe.
  • The Act 2 love duet in Romeo finds the tenor approaching the home of the soprano in full wooing mode, fending off distractions in the guise of the elderly nurse Gertrude bantering with a chorus of Capulet men.
5. Love those women in pants
  • Act 3 of Faust begins with a highly singable solo in popular style for Siebel, the boy who has a crush on Marguerite. The character is written as a pants role; a light mezzo in male clothing.
  • This is Gounod's most blatant and obvious instance of Faust-ification: he creates the role of Stephano, a young boy who sings a song (in highly singable popular style) to taunt the Capulets; an action that incites the violence that will take two lives. This character does not exist in Shakespeare!
6. When baritones lose sword fights
  • Act 4 of Faust sees the baritone character Valentin, brother of Marguerite, engage in sword-play with Faust, accompanied by dashing descriptive music in the orchestra, He dies, cursing his sister. The villagers sing an extended choral lament.
  • When Romeo declines to fight a duel with Tybalt, Mercutio takes his place. Their fight is depicted with dashing descriptive music in the orchestra. Mercutio dies, famously cursing both the Capulets and the Montagues. The villagers sing an extended choral lament.
Here, Gounod was fortunate. The fight scene in Shakespeare lends itself gracefully to the Faust formula without seeming forced.

To appreciate Gounod's Romeo and Juliet it's important to realize both what it is, and what it isn't. Rather than cast aspersions on the composer for the liberties taken with Shakespeare (and Faust-ification is just the beginning of those liberties), let's put ourselves in his position. The truth is that he was a child of his times with an audience that wanted what they wanted. In accommodating their hunger for refined, lyrical entertainment he left us with a richly melodic, sturdily-constructed piece that offers distinct pleasures, even if it's Gounod-ishness exceeds its Bardiness. Not many operatic adaptations of Shakespeare have succeeded; this one certainly has.

January 10, 2016

Sleepless in Verona - Charles Gounod's Rom-Com

Your Humble Blogger is back after taking a few weeks off for the holidays. My next several posts will be devoted to the third production of Virginia Opera's current season, Gounod's lyrical Shakespearean piece Romeo and Juliet. (Though the opera is sung in French, our marketing materials employ the familiar English version of the title, so I'm going with that. Excusez-moi.)
Romeo Hanks?
(photo by Alan Light)

Is it weird that, as I began to re-study the score, I found myself thinking of the Nora Ephron film Sleepless in Seattle? That was the first of two films pairing Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan. No, Shakespeare's drama is not a romantic comedy (although it greatly plays like one until the final act); it's a legitimate tragedy. And no, the plot doesn't exactly resemble Romeo, but there are points of comparison that are kind of fun to observe. One Hanks-Ryan moment in particular provides insight into one of the love duets. Having said that, there's actually a reminder of another movie Rom-Com: Four Weddings and a Funeral, with Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell. Given the structure of Gounod's libretto, couldn't he have called it Four Duets and a Funeral? But on with the Sleepless discussion.

The last six minutes of the movie simultaneously appear to reference the end of the opera as well as the lovers' first meeting. I'm thinking of the moment when Annie (Ryan), having hoped that Sam (Hanks) would meet her at the top of the Empire State Building, decides that he's not coming after all and dejectedly enters the "down" elevator. Just as the doors close on her car, the elevator doors on the right open, ushering in Sam and his son. This is "star-crossed" timing indeed, making us think (if we know our Shakespeare) of Juliet waking up from her drug-induced coma just in time to see Romeo expire from the poison he took in the belief that she was dead.

Of course, Sleepless in Seattle is a comedy, so Ephron wisely has Sam and Joshua come back up to retrieve the boy's backpack, allowing the fateful meeting to happen after all. It's not "cheating" in terms of drama, because Nora Ephron isn't trying to re-write Shakespeare. Gounod? Yeah, he cheats a little, allowing Romeo to hang on long enough for a fourth (and oh-so-final) love duet. Why? Because - love duet! Gotta have a sad 'n' tragic duet, right?

Right. It's OPERA.

But what happens after Sam and Joshua's return also brings to bear on Gounod's opera, in my opinion. Annie and Sam, remember, have never met before, not counting fleeting glimpses at airports and on city streets. So they do not rush into each other's arms for a big passionate juicy kiss at the end of the movie. Besides, Sam's little kid is there - it's not the time or the place for an R-rated love scene. Instead, they pass a couple of minutes without saying much, more or less staring at each other in a kind of besotted wonder, with implied thought-balloons of "Wow, it's really him..." "Wow, it's really her...". Finally, again eschewing (or rather delaying) passion, Sam tentatively offers Annie his hand, and she gently takes it.

So why am I recapping the end of a Hollywood comedy? Because it reminds me of "Ange adorable", the first of Gounod's duets, a moment that follows Shakespeare fairly faithfully. Having espied Juliet at the Capulet's ball, Romeo takes her aside and expresses his admiration and attraction. As in the film, this initial meeting is marked by a certain formality; each party is clearly staring at the other in frank and mutual wonder and appreciation. There are no declarations of passion and desire. And just as Sam's first gesture toward Annie is to gently take her hand, with the camera zeroing in on a closeup shot of their fingers touching, so Romeo gallantly sings in a similar vein:

Adorable angel,
my guilty hand
profanes, by daring to touch it,
the divine hand
which I imagine
no one has the right to approach!

A little shy, a little reserved, but clearly ga-ga with the lightning bolt of instant infatuation. That's Romeo, that's Sam, and - by the way - that was also the Beatles, who charmed millions of girls by earnestly singing "I wanna hold your hand" back in the sixties, perhaps the most "proper" love ballad in the rock and roll canon.

I'm making a big deal out of this analogy because it might help opera-lovers who don't know the Gounod Romeo very well to better appreciate "Ange adorable". Don't dismiss this duet because it's not exciting and passionate. In context, it's exactly right for the stage of Romeo and Juliet's relationship. The four duets will trace the arc and journey of that relationship. What wouldn't work would be to aim for each duet to be throbbing with passion - that would get old. All we're looking for in the first of their "hookups" is that sense of wonder and reserve.

That pretty much does it for commonalities between the movie and the opera, although I guess one could stretch the point and claim that Annie's fiance Walter is the Paris figure in my analogy and Sam's dead wife Maggie then corresponding to the unseen Rosalind, the woman Romeo loves before seeing Juliet. Like Rosalind, Maggie is unattainable for Sam (though for a different reason!) and causes Sam to do a lot of Romeo-ish brooding and moping. When Sam first glimpses Annie in the Seattle airport, he is clearly thinking something along the lines of "She doth teach the torches to burn bright".

Yeah, Maggie as Rosalind: that's definitely stretching things a bit. But that's what I do!

November 26, 2015

Music school and Burger King: a Thanksgiving memory

I began my doctoral studies at Northwestern University in January, 1977. I was a newlywed piano performance major with big plans, big dreams and a taste for Liszt and Rachmaninov. Finances were tight, so both my bride and I got part-time jobs at the Burger King across the street from the School of Music. For any Wildcats out there reading this post, that was the old School of Music downtown, not the shiny fancy lakefront location today's students enjoy. Nope, we practiced and studied in a creaky edifice converted from a women's dormatory. It was..... quaint.
Festive holiday feast, 1978, Evanston IL

But with today being Thanksgiving (and I hope all my Faithful Readers are having a great one!), my thoughts turned to the Least Festive Thanksgiving In Recorded History, and I thought I'd share some Burger King memories with you.

If nothing else, and presuming that you yourself were never employed at a fast-food joint, it'll give you one more thing to be thankful for.

So this was probably November of 1978, and I had to work at the King on Thanksgiving Day. "Well," I thought with remarkable foresight, "it'll make a good story years from now." Was it a slow day? Well, naturally - normal people are interacting with loved ones, arguing about politics and watching football, even though entrepreneurs had yet to give us Draft Kings and betting on the NFL was still largely confined to Vegas and Reno.

Yes, the hours passed slowly through what normally was the time block of "lunch rush". But here's the thing that struck me:

Several of the lunch "regulars" came in as usual, and ordered the same damn meal they ordered every other day. 

Now THAT'S sad.

There was a tall, gangly middle-aged guy with a pasty complexion, a permanently stone-faced expression and military buzzcut who always came in at noon and ordered two plain Double Whoppers, no cheese, just meat and bread, and two small cartons of milk.

Every day, five days a week.

And here he came through the doors on Thanksgiving Day, stepping up to the register.

And ordered his usual.

I wanted to say "Dude!" (Was "dude" a thing in 1978? Not sure...) "It's THANKSGIVING! Put some ketchup and mustard on it! Get some onion rings! Get the apple pie! SOMETHING!"

But of course, I kept my peace, took his money, made change, and handed him a tray of steaming beef and (hopefully, but no guarantee) fresh milk.

It really was part of my education to work at a fast food enterprise. Everyone should do it for a short while. Here are some other random B.K. memories:

When you start working there, the manager schools you in the proper way to apply ketchup on a burger. For the record, you're supposed to swirl it in perfect concentric circles beginning in the center of the patty. In actual practice, of course, it's busy and you're twelve orders behind, the cashiers are yelling at you, and so you grab the ketchup bottle and give one big SPLOOTCH that leaves the burger looking like the victim of an axe murderer. Pretty sure it ends up tasting the same.

Every now and then, when you're working up front as cashier, the manager orders you to push one particular side item or dessert. One time I was instructed to push onion rings with every order. Now, I'm fairly passive by nature and don't like to be pushy in the first place, so this made me uncomfortable. One afternoon, a harried businessman in a three-piece suit hurried in. The following scene ensued:

BUSINESSMAN: Coffee to go, please.
ME: Cream and sugar?
BUSINESSMAN: (testily) No! Black. I'm in a hurry.
ME: (with the manager eyeing me carefully) Would... *ahem* ...would you, um, like... onion rings with that?

This is a family blog (sort of), so I will not print his response. It was colorful.

Here's a tip for you fast-food freaks. Burger King makes a big deal out of special orders, right? One of their vintage TV jingles intoned "Have it YOURRRR way, HAVE it your wayyyyy". The company policy was that if a burger was made incorrectly, the customer could have a new one made at no charge. So people would take advantage of this. Quite often someone would bring back a double cheeseburger with one small bite remaining and complain: "Excuse me, but this was supposed to have no mustard." Sure enough, there was a smear of yellow on that remaining tablespoon of sandwich. They got a new one, no questions asked.

Finally, I remember the time we ran out of buns. That's right: the burger joint ran out of hamburger buns. Not every store manager is blessed with planning skills; they just hadn't order enough. So I, your Humble Blogger, was given a hundred bucks in cash and a mission: drive to every grocery store in Evanston IL and buy up hamburger buns.

That day, customers got their burgers on some unusual buns: some were whole wheat, some had no sesame seeds, and there was no help for it.

I hope your holiday feast is better than a couple of plain double burgers with milk!

...Unless that's your regular...

November 21, 2015

Why great opera music doesn't have to be great music to be great

When I travel around Virginia teaching opera classes or speaking to groups about opera, I sometimes get feedback like this:
Giuseppe Verdi: master of irony

"Glenn, all this information you give us is interesting, of course, but I'm going to confess something to you. When I go to the opera, I don't read the plot synopsis or read the super-titles or listen for the motifs or whatever. I just sit back, close my eyes, and enjoy the beauty of the music and the lovely voices singing it."


I really wish people wouldn't tell me things like that.

It's not that I don't understand where they're coming from; I do! And there is a degree to which great operas can be enjoyed merely for the surface attractiveness - or "greatness" - of the music. There's a lot of seriously beautiful, eloquent, profound, complex and utterly moving music in the operas we love. But one of my mantras as an opera educator is this: An opera is not a concert! Opera is theater!

There are numerous passages in the standard operatic repertoire which, if first encoutered on the car radio or via CD, would fail to measure up to a Beethoven concerto, a Brahms symphony, a Chopin ballade or some mountain-top piece of concert music.

There are, to be blunt, moments in several operas that, if heard out of theatrical context, would sound dorky, cheesy, trite, or all of the above to the uninitiated listener.

But that doesn't mean they aren't "great"! My theory: the most important quality of operatic music in rating its merit is appropriateness. Every musical idea in an operatic score must be:
  • appropriate to the character;
  • appropriate to the action;
  • appropriate to the words being sung; and
  • appropriate to the psychology of the scene.
Putting things at the simplest level: if a character is simple-minded, should it surprise us if his music is simple-minded as well? We also can't forget that irony is one of the chief weapons in the arsenal of effects available to composers of operas. Much of what's too often assumed to be shoddy is, in fact, pointed irony.

With this in mind, let me illustrate the point with a few examples of operatic passages that are "great" for their theatrical/dramatic value more than for intrinsic musical "greatness"; passages that, if first heard on the radio, might impel one to change the dial while muttering "Geez, opera is so tacky sometimes."

The Entr'acte before Act 2 of Donizetti's La fille du régiment. This lame little waltz for solo violin is so insipid that it rivals the lamest portions of Mozart's A Musical Joke. It begins around the 1:16:45 mark of this video of the opera. Here we have music that just begs one to skip ahead to the next track on a CD and move on to some comedy. But that misses the point that Donizetti is providing some wickedly witty commentary on Marie's new circumstances. This tomboy-ish daughter of the regiment, thanks to an Act 1 plot twist, has left military life to take up residence in a mansion with her high-society, elitist new relatives. The composer uses his drab waltz-tune to describe the bloodless, lifeless, useless milieu of the wealthy snobs who have claimed her. As a waltz, it's forgettable. As a foreshadowing of Marie's fish-out-of-water problem, it's perfect. It's.....  GREAT.

"Bella vita militar", chorus in Mozart's Così fan tutte. Let's just agree that, as a specimen of choral music, this little march (which you can hear at this link) ranks well below Brahms' Schicksalslied or Verdi's "Va, pensiero" from Nabucco. In this case, there is a cartoonish quality that is exactly what Mozart had in mind. Così is an absurd farce. The departure of the two soldier boys from their respective lovers is comically ridiculous, as is much of the action, including the moment when Despina produces her Big Giant Magnet to restore the "Albanians" to health. This is 18th-century Monty Python. Now, I'm the first to admit that Mozart has a seriouis and profound underlying message beneath the farce; but that's a subtlety. On the surface, nonsense prevails. The little chorus of villagers celebrating the valor of Ferrando and Guglielmo is thus appropriately pat and nonsensical. Who told these villagers about Ferrando & Guglielmo's plans? How did they know to show up? Are they in on the joke? It doesn't matter - they're a cartoon! It's perfect. It's......... GREAT.
And, sticking with Mozart for the moment, there's

Masetto's aria in Don Giovanni. If you'll scroll up a few paragraphs, I believe you'll see I used the word "simple-minded". Hello, Masetto!!! When the title character neatly elbows Zerlina's bridegroom out of the picture prior to wooing her, Masetto is rewarded with a short exit aria during which he pouts mightily at the turn of events. This aria: it's unimaginative harmonic scheme (lots and lots of toggling between tonic and dominant) is matched by its melodic plainness and lack of vocal virtuosity. All of this makes it perfect for Masetto! He's a plodding peasant; a country bumpkin; a good-hearted oaf. He'll spend his days laboring in the fields under the sun, never thinking about much besides dinner and taking Zerlina to bed. The small expressive scope of his solo is perfect for his small mind. Even when sung by an artist like Ferrucio Furlanetto as in this recording, Masetto's attempts to summon up heroic indignation are weak tea. It's perfect for Masetto. It's.......... GREAT.

The entrance of King Duncan in Verdi's Macbeth. Some of those operaphiles who revere Verdi as the god he was find themselves making excuses for passages in the operas of his early period. This holds especially true in his treatment of the orchestra, the so-called "big guitar" effect of too much oom-pah-pah. The parade of Duncan's retinue passing by Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth in Act 1, heard beginning at 26:36 in this recording, is less big guitar than a rural village dance band. You know those village bands that always turn up to welcome visiting mafiosi in the "Godfather" movies? They have their roots in this provincial, inelegant tune. If your car radio came on while this was playing, you'd be forgiven if your reaction was along the lines of "Sheesh - it ain't exactly La Mer, is it?" Dorothy Parker's quip about Katharine Hepburn displaying "the gamut of emotions from A to B" might apply to the range of orchestral color and overall musical sophistication in this banal episode. And that's what makes it great. No composer ever exceeded Verdi's grasp of dramatic irony and human psychology. Duncan's entrance is his only appearance in the opera, and he never speaks or sings a single word. He appears less as a flesh-and-blood human being than as a figurehead. Lady Macbeth is inciting her husband to commit an act of horrific violence. In order to bring himself to the point of following through with it, Macbeth must detach himself from the reality of Duncan's humanity and see him as merely the obstacle to his own advancement and success. The banality of the music lends an unreality to the king's procession, detaching him from the visceral passions and desires of the Macbeths. Verdi is allowing the music to establish point of view: we see Duncan through the filter of Macbeth's objectification. It's perfect. It's........ GREAT.

I'm not saying all opera music is great. Oh good Lord, no. There are, in this world, bad operas, bad ballets, bad symphonies, bad sonatas, bad jazz, bad Broadway musicals, and bad rock bands. LOTS of bad rock bands, let's be honest. And bad restaurants, don't get me started - whole other blog. What I AM saying is that you can't judge from your radio or home stereo whether a moment in opera is bad, or ironic.

You have to see the show to know for sure.

November 15, 2015

Chef Puccini reduces the Bohème sauce

La Bohème is remarkable not least for its fast pace. There are literally no dead spots in this opera; no soybean meal in the hamburger. That's not always true of masterpieces! I personally love Mozart's Marriage of Figaro more than Bohème, but I will confess that I squirm a little during Barbarina's little solo at the top of Act 4. And I'm grateful that the arias originally assigned to Basilio and Marcellina are virtually always cut.
A nice intense white wine sauce
photo courtesy of Adrian Dreßler

But in La Bohème, even expository dialogue is set to engaging music and every sequence seems essential. So my question: which moment or scene is the best? There are lots of candidates:
  • The back-to-back arias for Rodolfo and Mimi in Act 1, which are (as far as I know) the first time two arias had not so much as a single syllable of dialogue or plot advancement between them;
  • The end of Act 2 beginning with Musetta's "Quando me'n vo", remarkable for the use of a stand-alone aria to advance the narrative flow rather than interrupt it, and the way it expands and grows into a giant ensemble for all principals and chorus; and
  • Mimi's death scene, probably the greatest tear-jerker in opera history.
But I think those are all tied for second place behind the moment I consider not only the greatest moment in La Bohème, but a moment I would nominate to be included in a list of the best-crafted numbers in all of opera.

That would be the quartet in Act 3. This simultaneous break-up of the two romantic couples is about as good as opera composition gets. This is a composer at the height of his considerable powers. Is it the greatest music in opera? Well, no. But I'm talking about the craft of opera-writing, and in its conciseness, clarity of texture, vivid characterization and extra-musical meaning, Puccini's craftsmanship is simply staggering.


Are you into cooking? I confess that most Saturday mornings find me watching a series of cooking shows on public TV. I especially like Jacques Pepin and Vivian Howard, as much for their charm as their recipes. Now, once you start dallying in the world of cooking, you soon pick up a lot of jargon. As an example, what does it mean when a recipe directs one to "reduce the sauce"? Stated simply, this means to boil or simmer a sauce with lots of liquid until most of the liquid has evaporated. What remains in the pan is rendered more concentrated, the flavor greatly intensified.

That's what Puccini accomplished in this quartet.

Look: as I stated in an earlier post, one of the structural premises of this opera is the balanced and symmetrical contrast of comedy and drama. Here's the little chart of Bohème's structure I drew (rather exquisitely, wouldn't you say?) to illustrate the point. (Obviously, C = comedy and D = drama)

Fine. We toggle back and forth between laughs and pathos like flicking a light switch on and off. We grasp that Mimi/Rodolfo are the tragic couple whereas Musetta/Marcello are the (mostly) comic couple. Yin and Yang.

So: see what's happening in the quartet? This entire concept, which took two entire acts to introduce, is now boiled down to one six-minute ensemble in which the pathos and comedy of young love's struggles happen simultaneously.

What's more: there are moments, once Musetta enters in full hissy-fit mode, in which all four characters are speaking at the same time. Because I'm no spring chicken, I recall that in one of Leonard Bernstein's Omnibus television programs from the 1960's in which his subject was opera, he invited four stage actors to act out the Bohème quartet, speaking the lines as if in a stage play. The result was a muddle of too many voices at one time, creating incoherent babble. Then he had vocal artists come on and sing the number. Of course, the musical treatment makes everything crystal clear. Mimi and Rodolfo's nostalgic outpourings serve as a kind of descant to the more conversational cadence of Musetta and Marcello. It's so clear, in fact, that translations are hardly needed. I was a boy of twelve when I first listened to this opera, and without following a libretto I knew intuitively what was going on.

But there's a touch of genius at the climax of this ensemble that I believe escapes 95% of those who know it; even those who know it well. It has to do with the surprising appearance of a particular musical motive at the climax of the quartet.

Puccini's operas are filled with musical motives representing characters, objects or concepts. It's kind of a watered-down version of Wagner's more comprehensive textures built on "leading motives", but still makes for fairly tight construction and economy of means. An example of  a motive representing an object is the short phrase that always appears at any mention of the bonnet Rodolfo buys for Mimi in Act 2:

Several characters have their own individual motivic signatures. Rodolfo's, for example, is the jaunty phrase to which he sings his opening lines.

Mimi's is the legato ascending figure heard in the strings when she steps into the garret; it becomes the opening phrase of "Mi chiamano Mimi".

But, as with Wagner, I believe ideas and concepts are also represented in musical terms. The one I want you to observe is found in the first four notes of the opera. In fact, counting the original motive and its melodic inversion, these four notes are heard six times before the orchestra continues with new material:

These four notes, which I will refer to as "pa-dum-pum-pum" because that's what they sound like, are vigorous and energetic. I believe Puccini means the motive to represent the youthful energy of the four bohemians. "Pa-dum-pum-pum" recurs like punctuation throughout the comic half of Act 1, constantly reminding us of the ebullient (not to mention recklessly irresponsible) nature of the would-be artistes.

"Pa-dum-pum-pum" retreats once Mimi makes her entrance and does is not a factor in Act 2, or the portions of Act 3 featuring Marcello's interaction with Mimi and then Rodolfo. HOWEVER: listen to this recording of the quartet, skipping ahead to the 3:10 mark. Rodolfo and Mimi are waxing poetic about the evening breeze "spreading balm over human suffering"; Musetta is defiantly stating she'll make love to anyone she chooses, and Marcello hurling his own invective. Listen, just before the big climax, to the brass instruments. It's "PA-DUM-PUM-PUM", blaring out like gangbusters.

What does it mean? Puccini is dead, so we can't email him and ask him, so I'll tell you what I think.

I think it's an example of a composer inserting a bit of his own personal commentary on the characters. I think Puccini intends for us to recognize our own youthful selves as we watch the two couples breaking up, one with pathos and the other in a shouting match. Puccini remembers his own romantic misadventures from his own bohemian days. He was always a ladies' man, and did not always treat women in a way he could look back on with pride. He knows, Faithful Readers, that you and I might look back with discomfort, regret and perhaps a bit of shame at our immature, groping, struggling attempts to function as adults in our first romantic relationships.

Like the two couples in Bohème, it's likely we weren't always successful at the "mature grown-up" thing.

Puccini, in choosing the climax of the quartet to re-introduce the "Pa-dum-pum-pum" motive of Youth, is saying directly to every member of his audience: "Look at these four people: They're. So. Young. They have so much to learn about life and love! Do you remember, my friends of the audience? Do you remember when you were that young? I do, and I'll bet you do too."

That's what "Pa-dum-pum-pum" means, both in that climactic moment and the two further repetitions that follow with solo oboe in the bittersweet coda with Mimi and Rodolfo.

And it's great. THIS sauce has lots of flavor - LOTS.