Monday, August 20, 2012

Popera Singers: What is the role of Classical Crossover artists, or whatever you want to call them?

Most of my friends are not opera lovers.  It's not that they really dislike opera, it's just that they simply don't know.  "Opera?  You mean that fat lady with the horns?  Or do you mean Pavarotti?"  For most of the general public, this is all they know.  It's what mainstream popular culture tells us opera is.
Every now and then, when I converse with my non-opera-loving friends, our discussions turn to music.  And sometimes, one or another says something like, "Oh, I love Andrea Bocelli, and Sarah Brightman, too!  And how about that trio of teenage tenors, and Paul Potts?  And Jackie Evancho is absolutely amazing!  So, yeah, I guess I do like some opera!"

Now, after a statement like that, some more experienced opera lovers may be left scratching their heads and saying, "Huh?  Are you serious?  Have you ever even HEARD a real opera singer?"  I've seen many an online debate sparked by someone trying to compare Jackie Evancho to the likes of Renee Fleming.  And one time, my brother and I couldn't help bursting into raucous laughter when we walked past the music section in Target and saw a recording of Carmen starring Andrea Bocelli featured prominently in the Pop section, along with several other of his CDs.
Now, I could very easily join in with all the (sometimes good-natured) ribbing that often occurs at the expense of these artists.  Or I could point out that, while talent in its raw state may be present, only when Jackie Evancho hold her own with other singers on stage, be heard at the very back of a large opera house without the benefit of a microphone, and convincingly portray a role at the same time, can she ever be compared with Renee Fleming.  And, sure, I could have a lot of fun chuckling about these singers and their often rabid fan base.  But then I really think I would be missing the point of it all.
I mean, think about it.  Regardless of how you personally feel about crossover artists, actually stop and think about it.  Seriously.  I mean, there was a recording of CARMEN in the POP section!  Along with other opera-ish recordings!  Presented right there to the mainstream music audience, who might not even step foot in the classical aisle!

And that, right there, is the whole point I'm trying to make with all this.  These singers, while quite missing the mark for many of us, do play a vital role in the world of music.  They bring a taste of opera to millions of people who would otherwise never even give it a try.  And there is really no better illustration of this point than the talent shows that made many of these people famous in the first place.  I remember watching episodes of America's/Britain's Got Talent, with audiences full of average people, along with millions of national network TV viewers.  On those occasions, they often followed other musical acts, ranging from pop to rock, country to rap.  Then one or another of them would walk out onstage, open his or her mouth, and leave the audience absolutely astonished.  The next day, there would be headlines about this or that incredible talent that had just been discovered.  And each time, the singer continued through the competition to the very end, taking second place on the occasions where he or she did not actually win the whole thing.  And each time, it was mainstream audiences voting for their favorites who put these singers in the top spots.  People who were never exposed to opera before picked these artists as their favorites.  Many of those people have continued with independent exploration, and have thus arrived at the magical destination that is opera.  And those who haven't, have at the very least realized that opera is more than just a fat lady with horns.
 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Opera Girl has moved!


Dear readers, I have just left South Florida for the verdant hills of Oregon.  And I mean that quite literally, as I am currently looking out the living room window of a hilltop house, through the trees, at the college stadium all the way across town.  But I digress.  The point is that I will no longer be able to attend local performances in South Florida.  So what does this mean?  For starters, it means, obviously, that I will unfortunately not be reviewing those productions anymore.  It also means that my focus will shift to the small local opera company, and occasionally to some of the larger ones up and down the West Coast.  But I am still undecided about the fate of this site.  I don't know yet whether I will continue to write general posts here, or whether I will simply start a new page centered around opera in Oregon.  Either way, I will keep you posted.  In the meantime, keep enjoying that warm Florida weather, because I already need a jacket in the morning!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Exploring Artists: June Anderson


Welcome back, dear readers.  I must apologize for my recent absence, but a minor auto accident back in February has made sitting at a computer for extended periods of time a rather uncomfortable experience.  I am doing much better now, however, and I hope to continue to bring you lots of exciting information from the world of opera.  So today, I will continue our Exploring Artists series with one of the ladies from my childhood. 
As a teenager, and throughout much of my 20s, June Anderson was my favorite soprano.  To my ears, her voice was always a thing of beauty.  Yet recently I've found, more often than not, that when I mention her name, people look at me and say, "Who?"  I couldn't understand it, but then I realized that it has, indeed, been quite a bit of time since I heard her name mentioned by anyone else.  So for those of you  who are unfamiliar with her work, (and for everyone else, too,) here is a bit about June Anderson.
Ms. Anderson was born in Boston in 1952.  She began studying music as a child, and at age 17, she became the youngest artist to be named a finalist in the Metropolitan Opera auditions.  Her career, however, was not launched at that point, and she did not make her debut at the Met until 1989, when she sang the role of Gilda in Rigoletto.  Rather, she entered Yale University, where she graduated with a degree in French.  At that point, she embarked on her journey to become a singer, selecting law school as her fall-back in case she didn't make it.
Needless to say, Ms. Anderson never made it to law school.  She made her professional debut in 1978 with the New York City Opera, singing the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflote, a role she would later supply the vocals for in that great movie, Amadeus.
Ms. Anderson spent several years in Europe, where she specialized in bel canto roles.  During this time, she performed works by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and was, in fact, the first non-Italian recipient of the Bellini d'Oro award.  Over the years, she met with great critical acclaim for her bel canto singing, and particularly for her portrayal of Lucia di Lammermoor.



During the 1990s, June Anderson began to expand her repertoire to include works of Verdi and Tchaikovsky, among others.  In 1995, she made her role debut as Desdemona in Verdi's Otello opposite Placido Domingo, in a performance I was extremely fortunate to attend.  I was in my final month of high school, and I skipped a week of classes to do the nineteen-hour-each-way drive to Los Angeles with my mother.  It was a stunning performance, and we had quite an adventure backstage afterwards, but that story is for another time.  Here is Ms. Anderson singing the Ave Maria from Otello in 2001.


Since then, I have seen her perform at least one other time, and possibly twice.  I was positive that I had seen her in Rigoletto, but now I'm not so sure.  At the same time, only today, I realized that I saw her role debut of Leonora in Il Trovatore in 1998.  She last performed with the Metropolitan Opera about ten years ago, and since then, she has added several new roles to her repertoire.  Last year, she took on the roles of Madame Lidoine in Dialogues des Carmelites, and of Salome.  Her latest addition came earlier this year, as she performed the role of Pat Nixon in Théâtre du Châtelet's production of Nixon in China.  She continues to perform in concerts and recitals across Europe, and has even participated in a musical cruise of the Mediterranean.
I will leave you now with a 1991 performance of Caro Nome.  I hope to see you all back here very soon.  Ciao for now!

Friday, May 4, 2012

I know I'm late, but..... A tribute to the winners of the Opera News Awards


Last weekend, Opera News Magazine celebrated five great contributors to the world of opera with its 7th Annual Opera News Awards.  The honorees included sopranos Karita Mattila and Anja Silja, baritones Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Peter Mattei, and director Peter Sellars.  While I would have loved to write a nice long piece about each one of them, a shortage of time renders that temporarily impossible.  So I will rather pay tribute to them here with samples of their works.

Karita Mattila has been wowing audiences since she won the first ever Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1983.  Here she is in the Metropolitan Opera's recent production of Tosca.




Next up is Anja Silja, seen here in a 1968 performance of Fidelio.



Switching over to the men, we have another Cardiff winner, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in his most recent portrayal of Giorgio Germont, which he just wrapped up at the Met earlier this week.



Next, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei gives us a taste of the lighter side of opera with his delightful rendition of Largo al factotum.



Finally, we have director Peter Sellars.  Normally, I would have posted a clip of his film of Don Giovanni, but seeing that I just posted it yesterday in an unrelated piece, I had to find something else.  So rather than showing another clip of something he directed, I decided to share a short interview that provides a bit of insight into his thought processes.



And there we have the five honorees of this year's Opera News Awards.  I hope you will join me in sending them a huge "Thank You" for everything they have put into their art.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Love them or hate them? What's your take on modern productions?

We've all been there before.  You purchase tickets to your favorite opera.  You get dressed up in your best evening clothes, and you arrive at the opera house nice and early.  You find your seat, and wait in excited anticipation for the moment when the opening strains of that glorious music finally reach your ears.  The lights go down, the conductor steps up to the podium, and the curtain rises on... Leporello, dressed as a chauffeur, driving a limousine made entirely of chairs.  And that's it.  That's the extent of the scenery.  Just chairs.  There's nothing else on stage, absolutely nothing, for the entire three hours.  You sit there watching the performance and enjoying the music regardless of the scenery (or lack thereof), but throughout the entire evening, a part of you is unable to focus on the opera because you can't stop wondering what on earth the director was thinking.
I saw that particular Don Giovanni at the age of fourteen or fifteen, at a well-known opera house that shall remain nameless.  And to this day, I can't figure out what the point of it was.  The memory brings to mind my four-year-old son making trains out of our dining room chairs.  Maybe there was some deep message there, and I just didn't get it.  Or maybe the director was just trying to be different.
Over the years, I have seen many performances with "just chairs" scenery, in opera houses from Seattle to Tel Aviv.  And the only one that has worked, at least for me, was the Metropolitan Opera's recent production of Eugene Onegin.  But maybe that was because those chairs actually belonged there, and the director was going for minimalist simplicity rather than cutting-edge who-knows-what.


Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the encore screening of La Traviata in HD from the Metropolitan Opera.  I had heard much discussion about the current production, which utilizes as its scenery an Ikea sofa and a giant clock.  When I first saw the promotional pictures about a year ago, my initial thought was, "Oh, you have got to be kidding me!"  But then people began talking about it, and the concepts intrigued me.  I listened with an open mind, and I went to the theater with quite a bit of curiosity about what I would see.  The scenery, of course, was no surprise, nor were the costumes.  What I was waiting to see were the emotional, psychological, and atmospheric effects this staging would have.  And I got it.  I understood what the director was doing, and in a way, it worked.  The production magnified Violetta's sense of isolation and despair in the midst of a sinister society that would completely consume her and cast her aside, easily replaced by the next girl to come along.  She is haunted throughout by her impending mortality and by the knowledge that she cannot escape her fate.  It was dramatically very effective, and yet I did not initially like it very much.  I tried to put my finger on what it was that I disliked, and I realized that I have spent my whole life seeking out and admiring the most realistic, historically accurate productions I could find.
This realization made me do a lot of thinking.  Even as I write this, I am reexamining my approach to modern productions of classic operas.  I understand that these operas that have been repeatedly performed over the past 200 years or so, often in very similar productions around the world,  occasionally need to be examined in a different light.  While I always feel that the music should speak for itself, fresh ideas and new perspectives have the ability to add so much depth to the operas we think we know so well.
Now there are, of course, all kinds of updates.  There are those that transport the opera to a different time period, often moving the action up a century or two in history; for example, a Carmen I once saw set in 1930s Spain, or that brilliant modern-day streets of New York-style Don Giovanni that Peter Sellars produced back in the early 1990s.



Then there are those productions that mix the old and the new, effectively removing the story from any specific time period, and thereby demonstrating the timelessness of these great works.  Then you have your varying degrees of minimalist, surreal, and postmodern production, some of which work better than others.  And of course, you have productions whose aim is to create controversy, such as Rusalka in a brothel and the so-called Brokeback Onegin.



So the question is this:  With a growing number of opera companies opting for modern productions over more traditional ones, how much is too much?  Should these traditional productions be preserved, or should they all be replaced?  And to what extent should opera be updated?  Do these new productions have to try to make some sort of point, or is it enough to just be different?  When some productions provoke thought and others leave us scratching our heads, where should the line be drawn?  For myself, I'm taking another look at my longstanding opinions.  Where do you stand?  I would love to hear your opinion!