Friday, December 2, 2011

Listening to Paintings with the TMA Docents

Listening to Paintings: Soundsuits, Photos, Portraits & Landscapes
Taubman Museum of Art

Below are quotes & notes comprising the outline for the "Listening to Paintings" program I shared with the Docents of the TMA November 30. Starting with an untitled abstract watercolor by John Cage (Series I, No. 5, from 1988), I shared the following poem. We then used a chance operation to determine which song from the program I would sing first, and then commenced a tour of the galleries, during which we discussed ideas of perspective, connections between music and art, artists and society and any other thread we might unspool in the wonderfully labyrinthine world of the "meaning" of art...

from Communication by John Cage:

What if I ask thirty-two questions? / What if I stop asking now and then?
Will that make things clear? /Is communication something made clear?
What is communication?
Music, what does it communicate?
Is a truck passing by music?
If I can see it, do I have to hear it too?
If I don’t hear it, does it still communicate?
If while I see it I can’t hear it, but hear something else, say an egg-beater, because I’m inside looking out, does the truck communicate or the egg-beater, which communicates?
Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?
Are the people inside the school musical and the ones outside unmusical?
What if the ones inside can’t hear very well, would that change my question?
Are sounds just sounds or are they Beethoven?
People aren’t sounds, are they?
Is there such a thing as silence?
Even if I get away from people, do I still have to listen to something?

Zen proverb: Form is emptiness / emptiness is form

Questions for Today: What do we see / hear?
Artist places the viewer via perspective / looking out / in, etc…
Composer positions us as listeners by painting musical perspective…
Are we active or passive? Do we enter the work or (simply / merely) observe it?
Are we subject or object, viewer / listener or participant?

Philosophy & Art: Dialectics – Thesis / Antithesis = Synthesis
Ordinary / Everyday / Terrestrial / Rational / Normal are TRANSFORMED -
Extraordinary / Visionary / Fantastic / Magical / Excessive / Virtuosic…

(this transformation may be most obvious in the operatic "soundsuits" of Nick Cave...)

The dialectic is not as clearly delineated in contemporary / modern art –
lines, styles, boundaries, categories are blurred, mingled, irrelevant or fused…

Art can mean anything that appears or occurs in an art context


Duchamp proved the boundaries of art are dizzyingly ambiguous; he didn’t question their existence, and thereby grounded his ironies.
(P. Schjeldal, New Yorker, 21 Nov. 2011)

And we will return to Marcel Duchamp, courtesy of John Cage...

Shadow and Light:
I would know my shadow and my light,
so shall I at last be whole

from A Child of Our Time, by Michael Tippett

Roanoke Times Photo - / Video Journalism:
Dedicated to the Dream...MLK Jr Bridge
Steal Away is background song for this example of video journalism – the same African-American spiritual is tellingly used in Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, anti-fascist oratorio composed by an engaged British artist imprisoned as Conscientious Objector in WWII – “shadow and light” quote above forms the core of this work and the composer’s life as an “against the grain” artist – a gay pacifist who wrestled with big questions…

Roanoke Times Photographs:
Girl in Window, Residents in Manor
Portraits and Land- / City- scapes –
from the "Old Masters" (where genres like Portraits & Landscapes were distinct) to modern masters like Hopper where genres merge & categories blur -
(do portraits & landscapes merge in Romantic period?)
modern artists like de Kooning rotating the canvas while painting;
further blurring distinctions, categories, genres and perspective...

Britten Folksong: I wonder as I wander
Appalachian folk song from John Jacob Niles

arranged by a colleague and friend of Tippett’s, fellow gay pacifist composer Benjamin Britten, whose dozens of folksongs were written for his companion and collaborative partner, the tenor Peter Pears. If Britten & Pears did not invent the 20th century art song recital, they helped make it the creative, poly-stylistic dialogue –like a multi-artist exhibition – it can be…

American Gallery:
Rockwell: Framed (1946)
ironic, tongue-in-cheek humor; playful; painting within a painting,

art about art…

cf: Gerhard Richter, whose Shadow Painting of a frame casting a shadow - plays with “fictions of illusionistic space” by the very “facts of oil on canvas”
[From MCA Chicago’s current exhibit on minimalism,
The Language of Less (Then and Now)]

Ralph Albert Blakelock: Solitude
miniature impressionist nocturnal landscape –
is the focal point a lone figure
or is the central tree fantastically anthropomorphic?

what is the lone animal in the foreground - an elk, an antlered deer?
recalling the expressionist & surrealist (blurred genres, anyone?)
Franz Marc's question “Is there a more mysterious idea than to imagine how nature is reflected in the eyes of animals?”

Britten Folksong: At the mid hour of night – hauntingly beautiful nocturne…ambiguous perspective - who is the subject? object?

Leiber Handbags & Pillboxes:
Exquisite miniatures, ornate & “exotic” like ancient classical or Asian artifacts: marriage of “high” art & the functional “crafts” of artisan…

continuum of ornate / complex to simple / minimalist (Bauhaus, et al)

Musical miniatures & Romantic fragments – "perfect as a hedgehog" (Schlegel)
round and blurred around the edges
concept of Synecdoche (one part standing for the whole & vice versa...)

Goethe / Schubert Wandrers Nachtlied

Synecdoche & minimalism & fragments AND “maximum” works like Nick Cave’s…

Opera & Installations (Soundsuits): Multi - / Interdisciplinary –
to freely blur the lines b/w genres [quotes in italics from TMA guide]

Nick Cave: to surrender to transformation
such abandon (=opera singing!)= newness

something textural and visceral / union of form & content
evokes (visceral) response / emotion

ordinary to extraordinary
power of the fantastic in everyday life…

from a poem I love and have shared with opera patrons:

An image of articulateness is what it is:
Isn’t this how we’ve always longed to talk?
Words as they fall are monotone and bloodless
But they yearn to take the risk these noises take.

What dancing is to the slightly spastic way
Most of us teeter through our bodily life
Are these measured cries to the clumsy things we say,
In the heart’s duresses, on the heart’s behalf.

(from "About Opera" – William Meredith)

3 Types of Soundsuits: Bogeymen, Celestial Spirits and the Tree of Life
as “pure” art: color fields / like bands of Ab. Ex. paint
as costume (how operatic!), sculpture & installation
metaphors & symbols / talismans & totems

Tondo = mandala, horoscope, constellation & allegory (from ancient decorative and religious art to surrealism)

Ready-mades & found-art objects = folk songs, hymn tunes ("ready-made" songs...)

Cave the dancer – heritage from Martha Graham to her students:
Cunningham & Alvin Ailey –
(Abacus & Button Soundsuit reminds me of Cunningham & Cage
and their I Ching inspired chance operations...)

Read: Martha Graham’s letter to Agnes de Mille:
There is a vitality, a life force
A quickening that is translated through you into action
And because there is only one of you in all of time
That expression is unique...

If you block it it will never exist and be lost...

Masquerade, Cultural Remix and Empowerment – Artist & Identity -
Coexisting / Overlapping in concentric spheres -
Theatre / Ritual; Social / Political; Liberation (art & life…)

The “engaged artist” confronting the abyss – facing the void - faces choices:
retreat, capitulate, jump
(the high mental illness / suicide rate among artists is sobering)
Or respond – from Britten & Tippett to Cage & Cave – with affirming creativity…

All art - by the very nature of its existence - is affirmative...
(paraphrasing the so-called avant-garde writer Donald Barthelme)

Dada=subversive play / Fluxus=“happening” (performance art) play
Chance=freedom & anarchy=liberation from hierarchy or constraints of form

The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence
(Ravel on the alleged levity of his Tombeau – an homage to the Baroque composer Couperin)

In conclusion, sing John Cage:
from 36 Mesostics Re & Not Re Marcel Duchamp

you Must
youR paintings on the walls.
"i Can't stand to look
at thEm."
that's why you must hang them on the waLls.
the telegraM
i Read it.
death we expeCt,
but all wE get
is Life.

(from M: Writings '67-'72 by John Cage)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Il Trovatore: Symmetry & Polarity

[What follows is a critical or academic essay on Il Trovatore. Readers unfamiliar with the opera and its plot can find summaries online at sites like "Production notebook" entries are below this one, discussing some of the aspects of our new production.]

Il Trovatore: Symmetry & Polarity

El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (Goya)

I have borrowed Pierluigi Petrobelli’s epigram from his illuminating essay on Il Trovatore collected in Music in the Theatre: Essays on Verdi and Other Composers (Princeton, 1994).

Like many devotees of Verdi’s melodramatic middle-period masterpiece, I am in love with Trovatore for the searing power of its music, and the archetypal force of its quartet of principal characters. If its characters appear at times monstrous, if its bizarre plot blurs the boundaries of the reasonable, so be it. Verdi’s music always trumps. It is grounded in the sure-footed technique of a master and it is visionary as any dream.

Julian Budden’s The Operas of Verdi (Volume 2; Clarendon, 1978, 1992) is generous with excerpts from Verdi’s letters and full of prose vivid and apt as its musical subject. Trovatore charred the landscape of 19th century musical theatre, leaving it “burned up in the white-hot heat of a dramatic force Italian Opera had not yet known.” Here was a work “without parallel in the whole operatic literature – a late flowering of the Italian romantic tradition possible only to one who had seen beyond it.”

Budden says Verdi’s impressive oak of an opera is “melodrama purged of all inessentials.” The most successful of Verdi’s works at the time, it was a work that fit its time even as its anachronisms challenged trends and critics. “The nineteenth century was an age of moral confidence and certainty which found its ideals mirrored in an opera in which no one hesitates for one moment as to what action he or she should take.” Regardless of the implications of that claim, such mirroring resonance may be part of the reason it has returned with a vengeance over the last 50 years. It is worth noting two great singers of the 20th century, the Italian tenor Franco Corelli and the African-American soprano Leontyne Price both made their Met debuts in Il Trovatore – debuts which were greeted with a 42-minute standing ovation in 1961. Is such a curtain call still imaginable?

is a romantic melodrama and contemporary classic at once. Its force is elemental for its directness. It contains some of the most beloved arias and ensembles of its prolific composer’s career. The “Anvil” and “Soldier” choruses are among Verdi’s most famous. And Trovatore is his most pilloried. If imitation is the highest form of flattery then Trovatore is the most favored opera in the Verdi cannon. Parody is always - at some level - a form of envy.

And Trovatore was a target for parody, from the “barrel-organ” & “organ-grinder” labels affixed by critics to those popular choruses and the farcical plot device of the baby-swap “stolen” by Gilbert & Sullivan. The Marx Brothers’ classic film, A Night at the Opera depends upon the broad-side-of-the-barn-sized target of Il Trovatore. From their hilariously seamless insertion of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” into the opera’s Introduzione to the mad-cap up-staging of the tenor’s heroic aria near the climax of the opera (and the film), the Marx Brothers have as much fun as any of the comics & critics in the century following the opera’s 1853 premiere.

Yet its staying power is synonymous with Verdi’s, whose “secret…lies as deep as Wagner’s, and is much less obvious.” Speaking of Verdi’s “Opus Ultimum” Falstaff, the musicologist Alfred Einstein uses the supremely intelligent comedy of Verdi’s twilight to assert “the master who could create such an opera did not write Trovatore as mere hand organ music.”

Il Trovatore is a keen example of sharply etched musical architecture. Impressive in stature, the score is a bold union of form and content. Its four parts create a symmetry whose “structure…helps to concentrate the emotional fire” (Budden) of its four principal characters, and the two interlocking triangles of relationships at its molten core. Four principals and four acts. Two lovers at the common angle of two triangles anything but equilateral. Mirroring symmetries. Polar extremes. A bold palette. Here is the palette our design team chose for our new production:

Other Verdi characters are genuinely Shakespearean for their complex and sympathetic humanity. And like the Bard, Verdi creates villains as interesting and engaging as his protagonists. Iago is vital and central as Otello. Yet Azucena, Leonora, Manrico and Di Luna are more classically Greek than Shakespearean. They are archetypes, neither Shakespearean nor Verismo.

And the classical parallels begin at the beginning. Rather than a narrative prologue to introduce the drama a la Greek chorus, Verdi (dispensing with an overture to cut immediately to action) assigns the narrative to a supporting principal figure. The Captain of the Count’s guard, Ferrando narrates the melodramatic back-story, functioning as a choral prologue with the chorus of soldiers as his audience.

That back-story concerns machinations worthy of Greek tragedy. At a recent chorus rehearsal I described the revenge drama’s bizarre plot. Here’s the Met summary of the opening:

Ferrando, captain of the guard, keeps his men awake by telling them of a Gypsy woman burned at the stake years ago for bewitching Di Luna's younger brother. The Gypsy's daughter sought vengeance by kidnapping the child and, so the story goes, burning him at the very stake where her mother died.

We know Azucena murdered her own child by mistake, and consequently raised her enemy’s son as her own (Manrico). Manrico is torn between love for his (supposed) mother Azucena and his beloved Leonora. Leonora is torn between her secret love for Manrico and duty (to faith and family). Azucena is torn between love of her adopted son and the desire to avenge her mother’s execution. The mistaken identities, blurred boundaries and complex relationships - fraught with tension and ambiguity – are worthy of the moniker "Oedipal." One of my adult choristers commented on that parallel immediately. If that doesn’t help us unbend the twisted storylines, the Greek plays, equally full of melodramatic fantasy, are also the original psychological dramas. Our focus on special effects, the graphic (though not gratuitous) external details often obscure the inner truths and deeper meanings of our dramas (on stage & screen). As the director Peter Sellars observes, our audiences might comment on the “how” or “what” of Oedipus poking out his eyes; the ancient Greeks would plumb beneath the surface to ask “why?”

I’m not sure if Petrobelli had a particular canvas in mind in including the Goya epigram above, but I recall the famously disturbing one by the visionary Spanish painter depicting the mythical horror scene of Saturn Devouring his Son. I think of Trovatore, and I ask myself "why?"

Before we return to Trovatore, please allow another classical digression. The names Agamemnon & Aegisthus should be familiar from the Trojan War, and opera lovers will recognize them as characters from Glück and Strauss. In the latter’s Elektra, the title character’s brother Orestes returns from exile to avenge their father Agamemnon, murdered at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. Euripides and his fellow Greek tragedians were our first psychiatrists, and these plays, poems and stories chronicle (among other things) dysfunction. One of the principal reasons the Greeks wrote trilogies was to trace a set of “issues” through three generations of a family. And this family sure had their share.

The enemies Agamemnon and Aegisthus were the respective offspring of a prototypical pair of brothers-as-enemies, Atreus & Thyestes. Like the Biblical Jacob deceiving Esau out of his birthright, the Greek brothers fought over a “golden lamb, talisman of sovereignty” of their father, Pelops (himself both victim and perpetrator in the cruel games of fate played by the gods). Roberto Calasso, in his marvelous panorama of the Greek myths, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony says Atreus and Thyestes were “both afflicted by the curse of their father, Pelops, which echoed and renewed the curses…[beginning with] Zeus on Tantalus.”

Fighting over a talisman (which can be any coveted prize, title or trophy - and may be a person) Atreus murders Thyestes' children and feeds them to him. And this is just one extreme in a terrible and fascinating tale of obsession and revenge off the charts.

After this gruesome episode of infanticide & cannibalism, Calasso notes “from this point on the vendetta loses all touch with psychology, becomes pure virtuosity, traces out arabesques…” Tracing back to Il Trovatore, we find pure virtuosity in spades, and vendettas all around.

Vendetta is one of those great cognate words appearing often in Verdi and requiring no supertitle to be understood. In a gripping duet near the conclusion of Trovatore, Leonora invokes the name of God for mercy from the Count – who is about to execute her lover Manrico - his mortal enemy and (unbeknownst to both) brother. With exceptional baritonal vehemence, Di Luna replies E’ sol vendetta mio Nume (“My only God is vengeance”). The pith in that phrase epitomizes Trovatore’s undiluted strength at its purest.

Every scene in Trovatore is compact. The concentration of material and the musical (and dramatic) compression focuses the power of the music’s impact. Its nearly relentless perpetual motion sets the few moments of repose in even sharper relief, heightening the sheer beauty of the lyrical cavatinas of Leonora and Manrico. The playwright and opera connoisseur George Bernard Shaw praised the opera’s “tragic power, poignant melancholy, impetuous vigour and a sweet and intense pathos that never loses its dignity.”

These qualities should be kept in mind when listening to the popular choruses so easily dismissed as over-simple kitsch. Polarities imply extremes. And theatrical extremes– from the archetypal characters to the over-the-top melodrama – require extremely effective solutions where form and content meet in drama.

The so-called “barrel organ” music is an example of extreme directness and forthright simplicity whose functionality is as perfectly suited to the personae and setting as every other element in this elementally powerful opera. Like soldiers playing games, horsing around or singing a popular song together before the storm of battle, such moments in the opera are a release valve – if only for a minute – of the incredible musical and dramatic tension which makes Il Trovatore one of the most gripping operas ever composed.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Production Notebook: Verdi Forever

Last weekend, as Amy and I were moving into a new apartment in our building, I came across a magazine I’d saved. It was the first issue of the New Yorker to go to press after 9/11. Art Spiegelman’s cover design was simply entitled “9/11/01.” It appeared to be a monochromatic black color field. Upon closer examination the towers are revealed as etched shadows. The back page featured a haunting poem by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski called “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” The middle of the 21-line poem features a memorable sextet, apparently timeless and ever relevant:

You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

I paused in the unpacking last Sunday to return to that commemorative issue and re-read one of the only pieces in its pages seemingly unconnected to 9/11. The music critic Alex Ross had written an essay, Verdi’s Grip: Why the Shakespeare of grand opera resists radical stagings. It reminded me why Ross is one of my favorite writers on music.

The occasion for Ross was the centennial of Verdi’s death, and from a cross-section of the 400-some anniversary productions of his operas in 2001, he notes “Verdi seems to have lost little of the mass appeal that brought forth hundreds of thousands of mourners on the day of his funeral.” Almost all of whom joined the great Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini in singing – by heart, of course – “Va, pensiero” (the chorus of Hebrew slaves) from Verdi’s third opera and first success, Nabucco.

Ross goes on to observe “The Verdi year has supplied two major bits of information: first, that the audience for opera in America is steadily growing, and, second, that many of the directors who now dominate the opera scene do not know what they are doing.” Opera Roanoke audiences are in luck, for we have neither the interest nor resources to bring such directorial ineptitude here.

Verdi doesn’t need updating; nor do his musical dramas require literal faithfulness to the jot and tittle of period-specific minutiae. Ross aptly compares Verdi to Shakespeare, both of whose works “thrilled both the groundlings and the connoisseurs.” He also makes an interesting comparison to Alfred Hitchcock, another auteur with wide audience appeal. Verdi was a shrewd businessman who quipped “the box office is the proper thermometer of success.” While that axiom does not hold true in our pop-culture dominated world, it does remind us how precarious the balance between popular and critical success is. Verdi may be one of the last artists in classical music to achieve it during his lifetime. But that’s another story…

Il Trovatore is a crash-course in Verdi hallmarks, from his “raging sincerity” which heightens the emotional pitch to the breaking point and “a preference for action over theory” which moves even the thickest of his plots compellingly along. Ross says the sometimes difficult to define appeal of Italian opera has “something to do with the activation of primal feelings.” And “only in live performances, when the momentum begins to build and the voices become urgent, does it catch fire.” The melodramatic excess eventually became the stuff of cliché (as Mike Allen summarizes my take on Trovatore’s insane plot in the Roanoke Times Fall arts preview). Yet “Verdi’s beloved maledictions, vendettas and forces of destiny actually add plausibility rather than take it away; they make the violent actions of operatic singing seem like a natural reaction under the circumstances.”

Indeed they do, which is why Verdi is considered by many (myself included) to be the single greatest composer of opera in the genre. With all due respect to Mozart, Wagner and Puccini (the next candidates in line), Viva Verdi!

I wrote briefly last week about our production concept and design for next month’s Il Trovatore. Like site-specific Shakespeare, Verdi’s settings are secondary to the primary drama of those “primal” human emotions. Even in the most fantastic and supernatural of plots (from The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale to Macbeth) “the play is the thing” because the characters make it so.

We could transplant Trovatore from medieval Spain to the American Civil War, and the gypsy Azucena could be a mother to a band of escaped slaves and freedom fighters. Or the gypsies could be southern rebels fighting so-called northern aggression. Or like many a piece of Regietheater (Director’s Theater, affectionately known as Eurotrash), we could fill Trovatore with non-sequitirs intended as abstract expressions of a cryptic hermeneutics which would make Verdi roll over in his grave and prompt our audience to head for the bar. Instead, we’re setting Trovatore in a stylized middle ground intended to frame its archetypal characters and situations. We do not wish to burden them with the impossibility of historical verisimilitude nor the forced relevance of an avant-garde “interpretation.”

So why do we come back to the same stories, adventures, sequels, series and cycles? If there are no original tales left to tell, why do we continue to stare at the TV, sit transfixed in front of the movie screen and return to the theatre season after season? These stories are sustenance and stimulation, entertainment and exultation. Verdi’s music is full of the penetrating insight into humanity that “zooms in on a person’s soul.” His characters sing the way we long to express ourselves. If any of them are stereotypes, they "are richly detailed ones."

This week’s New Yorker is dedicated to the anniversary of 9/11 and the cover honors the towers’ absence from the urban landscape by reflecting their presence, imagined and remembered, upon the water. Ana Juan’s cover design also pays homage to Art Spiegelman’s from 10 years ago. I don’t know whether Linda Pastan’s poem “Edward Hopper, Untitled” is intended to mirror Zagajewski’s, but both brought Verdi’s universality to mind.

Pastan’s poem describes “an empty theatre: seats / shrouded in white / like rows of headstones; the curtain about to rise / (or has it fallen?) on a scene of transcendental / silence.”

The untitled Hopper painting she evokes could be any theatre or setting where silence speaks volumes, as it always does when we take time enough to listen. Pastan writes “this is quintessential Hopper - / cliché of loneliness / transformed…” Cliché and stereotype become so only from overuse and abuse, ignorance and thoughtlessness. It takes a Verdi or a Hopper to transform the canvas with color, sing memory to life and remind us why we need “to praise the mutilated world” in the first place.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Production Notebook: Designing Trovatore

It was a Verdi family tradition to plant a tree for each new opera the master composed. Il Trovatore is the central opera of three which helped define his career and solidify his reputation as the leading Italian opera composer of the 19th century. Rigoletto and La Traviata surround Il Trovatore and appeared in relatively quick succession between 1851 and 1853. The trees Verdi planted for this operatic triumvirate were a sycamore, an oak and a weeping willow. Our director of operations, Jenny Preece-Thompson won yesterday's office opera quiz by matching the tree to the opera. The weeping willow fits the beloved heroine of La Traviata. Connecting Rigoletto's stubbornness to the sycamore left the solid, enduring oak for Trovatore.

I just returned from a meeting with our designer, Jimmy Ray Ward who (along with his wife, Laurie) has designed the set for our upcoming production of Il Trovatore. Jimmy and I met at the beginning of the summer to discuss my concept for this oak of an opera. Verdi's music for Trovatore is as passionate and engaging as any of his two dozen-plus operas. The four principal characters are archetypes with 3D music to match. Their passions are mythic as Greek tragedy and their humanity as universal as Shakespearean drama (even if the melodramatic strangeness of their actions obscures some of those parallels).

Though I did not have the oak in mind, I did want a set which reflected the boldness of the fundamental passions of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, sacrifice and revenge. I was drawn by the parallels and the ambiguous tensions between the different "worlds" of the drama. A castle with a dungeon resembles the convent, a soldier camp could also be the gypsy camp. Seen from a distance, a sword stuck in the ground may look like a cross in a cemetery.

So Jimmy Ray and Laurie designed the set accordingly and we discussed their sketches. Now their designs are being built by Joey Neighbors and Rob Bessolo (our technical director and the production manager at "our" theatre in the Jefferson Center). Here's an example of one of the "worlds" Jimmy and Laurie designed:

We met today to discuss the colors the set will be painted, the textures which will help define the surfaces and bring our imagined dramatic worlds to apparent life. The oak-like stature of the opera is reflected in the height of the flats which form the walls. The parallels, mirror-images, tensions & reversals of the story are reflected in the design. This melodramatic story is a prototype for today's action movies, love triangles & / or revenge dramas. Trovatore features separated-at-birth brothers who are now adult mortal enemies in love with the same woman who is herself torn between love and duty. And we haven't mentioned the mad gypsy mother at the heart of the story, whose revelation at the opera's climax prefigures the "shocking ending" we love in our mysteries, thrillers & dramas (no matter how predictable or familiar they may be). Here is the sketch for the setting of that fateful final scene:

As work on the opening production of our 2011-2012 season, "Troubadours & Gypsies" progresses, I will return with more "behind the scenes" reports. Il Trovatore runs for two performances Oct 14 & 16. Visit for tickets.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Celebrating Summer with the BBC Proms

How do I love summer? Let me count listening to the BBC Proms as one of the primary ways. The Proms is the largest classical musical festival in the world, and is named after the "Promenade Concerts" begun in the late 19th century (from Shakespeare's day forward, Britain has had a cult-like love affair with the foot of the stage - it is quite a vantage point for an audience member).

The Proms runs from mid July to early September and features the gamut of classical music. Long associated with the pioneering conductor Henry Wood (pictured below), the Proms continues his tradition of eclectic, innovative programming. He championed "premieres of no fewer than 716 works by 356 composers" during his 5 decade tenure from 1889 to 1944. An astounding and inspiring record. And a provocative one, given the historic period under consideration. What will our record show, I wonder?

You can read more about these daily concerts featuring some of the greatest musicians and ensembles from around the world online:

Better yet, you can listen to every Prom live from the BBC site (GMT is 5 hours ahead of EST, so the 7:30 pm start times mean 2:30 pm matinees for East coast listeners). Each concert is archived for a week, which enables voracious listeners like myself to catch up on missed programmes, listen again to new (& / or unfamiliar) works, and spend time with old favorites.

On my mental shortlist of archived programs, I plan to listen to Prom 21, which features Strauss's great tone poem (based on Lord Byron's poem) Don Juan, Walton's Violin Concerto played by Midori, and Prokofiev's great cantata from his score for Eisenstein's epic Russian film, Alexander Nevsky. That Prom features the City of Birmingham SO led by their dynamic young conductor, Andris Nelsons.

I want to listen again to last Sunday's "Choral Prom" featuring Rachmaninov. Gianandrea Noseda - an Italian conductor with major posts in Britain and Russia (and one of the MET conductors our own Steven White has assisted and covered) led the BBC Philharmonic in a program that culminated in Rachmaninov's favorite among his own works, the 1915 cantata The Bells.

This musical "poem" for chorus, soloists & orchestra is a colorful series of 4 symphonic-inspired movements evoking the four types of bells in Edgar Allen Poe's "tintinabulation" of a poem. The "Silver bells" of winter, the "Golden bells" of marriage, the brass bells of "loud alarum" and the "Iron bells" not only inspire metaphoric associations and fantasies, but parallel the mythic "Ages of Humanity." (And that easily missed echo is an important interpretive consideration where Poe- and poetry in general - is concerned, those mythic resonances that help us moderns restore continuity across history and culture. Alas, a vast & vital topic, but I digress...)

Let's get back to that shortlist of archived concerts (all of which include the insightful commentary of the BBC journalists and the enlightening, entertaining intermission features). At the top is Prom 23: Liszt's great Dante Symphony (also featuring Noseda and the BBC Phil, joined by the women of the CBSO Chorus).

I just listened to one of 12 different concerts the BBC SO is giving this summer (there are 74 different Proms concerts in all), led by the brilliant composer and conductor Oliver Knussen. One of Benjamin Britten's young protege's, Ollie is a force of nature (my summers as a Britten-Pears young artist in Aldeburgh and Snape were among the greatest experiences of my life, not least because of the opportunities to work - or at least rub elbows - with the likes of Knussen, Sir Charles Mackerras, Elisabeth Soderstrom and among many others, Robert Tear).

He led an eclectic program of 20th-century music starting with two short tone poems by the swiss composer Arthur Honegger. Pacific 231 might be the greatest piece of classical music inspired by the railroad (and that could inspire another essay or program - songs, poems, tales & stories inspired by train travel...and a great topic in a rail town such as Roanoke, no?)

The concert featured a beautiful and typically evocative work of Britten's teacher Frank Bridge, one of the impressionist - minded composers under the Proms' 2011 programming umbrella focusing on French music and its influences. The concert concluded with the prototypical work of musical impressionism, Debussy's set of 3 symphonic sketches of the sea, La Mer.

Knussen prefaced it with the Proms premiere of a fascinating work by the Italian composer Niccolo Castiglioni. Inverno in-ver ("Winter, in truth" would be one translation of the title's play on words). This wild, often witty series of short musical poems on winter evokes Vivaldi & the Venetian baroque, Alpine landscapes and the Winterreise's of romantic artists of many ages. The final movement is a play on words and a nose-thumbing to the enforced dissonance that paralyzed so much academic, abstract music in the post-WWII generation of modern composers - of which Castiglioni (1932-1996) was one.

Its epigrammatic title is Il rumore non fa bene. Il bene non fa rumore ("Noise does no good. Good makes no noise"). This inspired 20-minute fantasia reminded me of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and the aforementioned Rachmaninov setting of Poe. Castiglioni's 11 miniatures inspired many associations, including - but not limited to - the particular sound-world formed from the fascinating blend of Northern European intellectualism with the sensual lyricism of the Mediterranean world, like the North Sea meeting the warm Adriatic Sun, or Apollo joining Dionysus...

This weekend the two season-long celebration of Gustav Mahler continues with performances of his beloved 2nd Symphony (the "Resurrection") on Friday with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. One of the bright young stars of British music, Edward Gardner leads the busy BBC SO & the BBC Singers in the next Proms "Choral Sunday" featuring Mahler's rarely heard early cantata, Das Klagende Lied (The Song of Lament).

Two elemental works by a musical colossus. Speaking of the elements, I think one sometimes can fight fire with fire. I can't imagine a better way to beat the summer's heat than with the white-hot variety that is felt & experienced through great live music.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

W & L Alumni College: The Romantic Era

Last week I had the honor and privilege of being a guest professor for the Washington & Lee University Alumni College. It was W & L that brought me to the region (I was associate director of choral & vocal activities from 1996-1999). Being in Lexington offered me the opportunity to join the Opera Roanoke family in 1998 as a guest artist and member of the (then freelance) conducting staff. Some of my most cherished professional friendships are with members of the Lexington musical community, both on the W & L faculty and in one of Virginia's most beautiful and historically significant "main street" towns. So Lexington is a place I've always considered another "home."

An aesthetic and metaphysical "home" for me has always been the Romantic period. And it was this beloved and fascinating period following the birth of the Enlightenment and our nation's independence (the rebirth of democracy, as it were) that was the topic of the W & L Alumni College last week. The interdisciplinary prism was "Chopin, Liszt and the Romantic Era" and I was grateful to teach alongside long-time W & L scholars (and distinguished artists in their own rights) Tim Gaylard (piano, musicology) and Pam Simpson (art history and incidentally, the first tenured female faculty at W & L...)

The relevance of the Romantic era's signature characteristics of innovation, boldness of vision, freedom of spirit, and exceptional evocation of the artistic paradigms of "the beautiful" and "the sublime" (to cite but two such concepts) was brought home to us in Lexington by the death of the great American, ex-pat artist Cy Twombly, who died in Rome July 5. Pam has written articles about Twombly's work, and spoke eloquently about his legacy.

The swimming pool at W & L is named after Cy Twombly, the elder, a famed W & L coach. Cy Twombly, the younger is its most distinguished artistic "alum," even if he attended for only a single year. Twombly considered Lexington one of his homes and continued to return to it. The University is proud to claim him, even if many Lexingtonians still fail to appreciate his art. This ambivalence extends beyond Virginia. In regard to his mixed critical acclaim, The NY Times obit mentions the ironically-entitled article "No, Your Kid Could Not Do This, and other reflections on Cy Twombly."

I was asked to share some about my lecturing on German Romantic philosophy, painting and poetry, respectively. It was a heady pleasure for me to return to my role as a college teacher and play professor for a week! I have posted some thoughts, quotes and poetic thinking on my companion "musings" blog (linked on this site in the right column) with some images of the great German Romantic Landscape painter, Caspar David Friedrich. Another post below it features musings on Romantic poetry and philosophy, and the dynamic relationship between the artist and society across the ages.

If every artist has a bias, agenda or "plays favorites" I stand guilty as charged of being a romantic. (In a gesture of romantic irony & synchronicity, an earlier essay at said blog features a piece I wrote on Cy Twombly and the late Romantic, early-modern German poet Rilke, another long-time personal favorite "romantic" artist from a discipline outside music...)

Below is the title for my third & final lecture - recital on the poet and critic Heinrich Heine and the subject of Romantic Irony, with live performances of excerpts from Schumann's Dichterliebe. Further notes and quotes elaborating upon the topic follow.

Lovers, Poets & Madmen:
Romantic Irony in Heine & Schumann’s Dichterliebe

Scott Williamson, tenor
General & Artistic Director, Opera Roanoke
Timothy Gaylard, piano
Professor of Music, Washington & Lee University


ROMANTIC IRONY: A non-violent (confrontation?) disruption of normality

Irony – a humorous (or arresting) tension or disconnect between appearance and reality,
between expectation / result,
revelation / fact or truth;
assumption, belief / fiction…

Almost every bit of intelligence – involving wit is ironic (as opposed to farcical?)

The ironic may be farcical, and a farce may be ironic, and they may be mutually exclusive…

Hegel, et al (Eagleton's "Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic") We live forward tragically, but think back comically.

Tragic art for Hegel is supremely affirmative.

Spirit restores its own unity through negation. Via negativa in philosophy.

Looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. (Hegel)

*Looking at the dark shadowy side of myth, using Procne and Philomela as oracular guides…

Philomela / Nightingale myth
as romantic symbol illustrates, illumines & enlightens
romantic project (telos or goal)
of unity, integration; assimilation & reconciliation of dichotomy, duality, dialectic.


Thoughts on Romantic Irony / Philosophy / Poetry
With Heine and Hesse (et al...) as guides...

From the Nobel Prize winning, anti-fascist German author - is it ironic to note the prize winners usually are anti- something?!? Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf (Holt, 1927, 1990).

Steppenwolf is a classic and beloved Bildungsroman (Romantic "Education" novel centered around the adventures of its heroic or "anti-hero" narrator).

The title character of Hesse's novel is a Doppelgänger or Jekyll & Hdye figure: one part bohemian, artistic, eccentric, unkempt, misfit, anti-establishment "mad-man,." And one part the Wolf's alter-ego Harry Haller, a respected bourgeois professor and professional, proper, educated, polite, an all-around upstanding citizen.

Steppenwolf differentiates Hesse's "shape-shifter" subject and literally refers to the wild and savage Siberian "wolf of the steppes."

While the specificity of Hesse's choice of title reflects a layer of meaning in interpreting Harry Haller, the archetypal nature of Hesse's creation connects to many mythological traditions.

From heroic savages like Hercules or Samson, mad poets and prophets from John the Baptist to John Clare, the rough wolf-like man is an archetypal character whose mythology has resonance for the dynamics between artist and society today. That always exciting, often volatile dialectic is at the heart of the creative flowering known as the Romantic Era. It inspired Hesse 100 years later, and it inspires us today, another 90 years on...

from Steppenwolf:

A man cannot live intensely except at the cost of the self. Now the bourgeois treasures nothing more highly than the self…And so at the cost of intensity he achieves his own preservation and security.

…break through the illusion of the unity of the personality and perceive that the self is made up of a bundle of selves…say so and at once the majority puts them under lock and key…

you will have to absorb more and more of the world and at last take all of it up in your painfully expanded soul…

We Immortals do not like things to be taken seriously, we like joking. Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time [says the Goethe / Mozart character].

A veil between me and the outer world seemed to be torn aside, a barrier fallen.

Man is the narrow & perilous bridge between nature and spirit…

Look at an animal…all of them are right. They’re never an embarrassment…They always know what to do and how to behave. They don’t flatter and they don’t intrude. They don’t pretend. They are as they are, like stones or flowers or stars in the sky.

The war against death…is always a beautiful, noble and wonderful and glorious thing, and so, it follows is the war against war. But it is always helpless and quixotic too.

There are always a few such people who demand the utmost of life and yet cannot come to terms with its stupidity and crudeness!

Music does not depend on being right, on having good taste and education…[It depends] on making music as well and as much as possible and with all the intensity of which one is capable.

You have a dimension too many…whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours…

You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time…

Let the sense of this ritardando touch you. Do you hear the basses? They stride like gods. And let this inspiration of old Handel penetrate your restless heart and give it peace. Just listen…listen without either pathos or mockery…Listen well. You have need of it [Mozart].

And whoever wants more and has got it in him – the heroic and the beautiful and the reverence for the great poets or for the saints – is a fool and a Don Quixote.


Schopenhauer’s On the Will in Nature. Ironic, mordant, trenchant wit. Unruly. Uncensored. Uncontained. Sarcasmos exemplified.

Referring to the technique & style – acquiring discipline called the work ethic, the philosopher, like every artist is using science to practice art. “In philosophy, nothing is given by revelations; and so above all a philosopher is bound to be an unbeliever.”

Like all poetry, mythology and scripture, philosophy should be taken with a grain of interpretative, contextual salt. The figurative always goes deeper than the literal. Reading between the lines, locating and situating artist and audience, subject and object, de-coding texts are all tools in the shed of romantic reading, listening and understanding.

The following statement is not intended to be taken literally, but is an example of irony, mordant, self-deprecating wit that shames his adversaries, critics &/or opponents while pulling the rug out from under their unsuspecting feet.

Now, there are two reasons why my philosophy is so hated by the gentlemen of the ‘philosophical trade.’ The first is that my works ruin the public’s taste for empty tissues of phrases, for meaningless word accumulations that are piled on top of one another. For hollow, superficial, and slowly tormenting twaddle, for Christian dogmatics appearing in the disguise of the most wearisome metaphysics, for the lowest and most systematized philistinism representing ethics…

He exposes the emperor’s clothes on the “gentlemen of the trade” in the power struggles that plague every category of human relationship.

One of the acknowledged greats in the philosophical canon stoops to describe his philistine opposites’ “numerous company whose ingenious members, coram popule, bow and scrape to each other on all sides.”

Is that rude? Spiteful? Unprofessional? Or disturbingly honest. Unsettling. Wry. Subversive. Dangerous. Artistic…

“The Spirit of the Age” as noted elsewhere, was one of unrest, upheaval and widespread change. Whether the romantic era brings to mind ‘The Lake School’ of Wordsworth & Coleridge, the Weimar of Goethe & Schiller (and later Nietzsche) the so-called ‘Satanic School’ of Byron and Shelley. The “founding classic of the feminist movement” that Mary Wollstonecraft entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman...(the wife of Shelley was also the author of that Romantic Gothic classic, Frankenstein. Also known as, The Modern Prometheus. Also always connecting to myth...)

All agreed “great spirits now on earth are sojourning” (Keats).

They “demonstrated and exemplified” (Coleridge) how “an electric life burns” (Shelley).

They were wary, suspicious and in an age of turbulent political tides, sometimes circumspect with sharing their “secrets:” “tell no one; only the wise…” (Goethe).


Thursday, June 30, 2011

Listening to Paintings at the Taubman Museum

Last Saturday I presented the first of what I hope will become an ongoing series at the Taubman Museum of Art. Below is the outline of "Listening to Paintings," listing the canvases from the Contemporary and American galleries and the songs I paired with them to sing (a cappella).

I have not fleshed out here the live commentary I provided connecting the paintings & folksongs. I make no claims as an art critic. My selection of paintings and songs was the result of the subjective intuition of an art amateur and a professional musician. I am interested in hermeneutics, the art of interpretation, or what / how / why art "means" something.

I believe threading together as many of the varied strands one can access in the fabric of aesthetic experience is one of the surest ways into what art is and how / what / why it means. I asked the audience the rhetorical question, "do I appreciate landscape paintings more because of my love for nature, or do I love nature more because I appreciate art?"

This venture is a tad philosophical. Allow at least another digression. The romantic poet Novalis wrote "the world must become Romanticized." He may have had in mind something like what this program attempts. And his poetic philosophy fits our venture:

When I confer upon the commonplace a higher meaning, upon the ordinary an enigmatic experience, I romanticize it. The operation is reversed for the higher, unknown, mystical, infinite.

Listening to Paintings in the Contemporary and American Galleries at the Taubman

“If all meanings could be adequately expressed by words, the arts of painting and music would not exist” (John Dewey)

Art & music speaking the same language / essential lyricism, ideal beauty, the sublime…

shared vocabulary: color, light, chiaroscuro, chromatic, harmony, line, form, texture, composition

Part I: Contemporary Gallery
1. Dorothy Gillespie: “Changing Seasons,”
Robert Stuart: “Shadowlands” & “Resplendent Light”
with “The Ash Grove” (British Isles / Benjamin Britten, arr. )

*tone / timbre – color / as narrative; form fitting & shaping content…
*abstract expressionism and subjectivity in interpretation...

“The inevitable self-movement of a poem or drama is compatible with any amount of prior labor provided the results of that labor emerge in complete fusion with an emotion that is fresh. Keats speaks poetically of the way in which artistic expression is reached when he tells of the 'innumerable compositions and decompositions which take place between the intellect and its thousand materials before it arrives at that trembling, delicate and snail-horn perception of beauty.'" (from Art As Experience, by John Dewey)

2. Janet Niewald: “Wave I / Ocean Isle,”
Sally Bowring: “A Quiet Afternoon” and Jake Berthot: "Untitled"
with “O Waly, Waly” (Water is Wide, Gift of Love; British Isles / Britten)

*associations / lists / references as interpretive guides: water=flood, oasis, storm, life…

3. John Cage: “Untitled II” and Carlyon: “missaid 3 (for John Cage)”
with “36 Mesostics re and not re Marcel Duchamp” (John Cage)

*dada / chance / Zen – East / provocateur / shaman - guru

“John Cage’s 4’33” is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the avant-garde’s best understood as well. Many presume that the piece’s purpose was deliberate provocation, an attempt to insult, or get a reaction from, the audience. For others, though, it was a logical turning point to which other musical developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring. For many, it was a kind of artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew. To Cage it seemed, at least from what he wrote about it, to have been an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music. It begged for a new approach to listening, perhaps even a new understanding of music itself, a blurring of the conventional boundaries between art and life.”
(from No Such Thing as Silence by Kyle Gann)

4. Paul Ryan: “Camp Under the Moon” and “From the Lake”
with “The Boatmen’s Dance” (Old American Songs / Copland, arr.) and
“The Last Rose of Summer” (Moore’s Irish Melodies / Britten)

*types of artistic “play:” with color / line / rhythm (=dance) / form itself…
Summer as fertile creative ground: play, escape, nostalgia, stages-of-life, et al...

Part II: American Gallery
5. Dewing: “The Rose” and John Singer Sargent: “Norah”
with “The Salley Gardens” (British Isles / Yeats / Britten)
and “She’s Like the Swallow” (Britten)

*tabula rasa for the artist & the audience – subjectivity & interpretation
in great portraits, divas and other characters...

6. Steichen: “Midnight Strollers” and Frieseke: “Nursery”
with “At the Mid Hour of Night” (Irish / Britten) and
“Long Time Ago” (Old American / Copland)

*romanticism, impressionism & the nocturne…

7. Durand: “Catskills with Round Top"
and Thomas Hart Benton: “Cotton Pickers”
with “At the River” (Copland)

*romantic landscapes and lyrical modernism

Watch this space for future programs. Arias, duets and dramatic "scenas" from the operatic repertoire would make for an exciting take on this idea. As would any number of "themed" programs (art & songs for: 1. the seasons; 2. nocturnes & lullabies; 3. love & relationships; 4. portraits & autobiography; etc...)

Ultimately, all talk about art is secondary and subservient to actually experiencing it. So visit the Taubman and look at the paintings (listen to them too). Come to the Opera and the Symphony, listen (and look at!) the music.

All that talk about art and music can become vague & cryptic anyway, so here's another intentionally provocative (characteristically light-touched) "piece" from John Cage to keep us musing with a smile.

from Silence
John Cage

III Communication

What if I ask thirty-two questions?
What if I stop asking now and then?
Will that make things clear?
Is communication something made clear?
What is communication?
Music, what does it communicate?
Is a truck passing by music?
If I can see it, do I have to hear it too?
If I don’t hear it, does it still communicate?
If while I see it I can’t hear it, but hear something else, say an egg-beater, because I’m
inside looking out, does the truck communicate or the egg-beater, which communicates?
Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck
passing by a music school?
Are the people inside the school musical and the ones outside unmusical?
What if the ones inside can’t hear very well, would that change my question?
Are sounds just sounds or are they Beethoven?
People aren’t sounds, are they?
Is there such a thing as silence?
Even if I get away from people, do I still have to listen to something?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Season Finale: Serenade to Orpheus

Below are my program notes for Opera Roanoke's season finale concert, Mother's Day Serenade. I hope you will join Maestro Steven White, celebrated soprano Elizabeth Futral, RSO principal horn Wally Easter, composer Ricky Ian Gordon and the rest of our musical team for a concert of beautiful vocal music, May 8 at 2:30 pm.

Serenade to Orpheus

The Serenade is a quintessential example of music existing for its own sake. The serenade may also be a nocturne, a lullaby or a rhapsody; it is a “song without words” (Lieder ohne Worte) when the voice is absent. When the voice sings the song the serenade is, it reminds us why the serenade is synonymous with music’s primary gift, the gift of melody. Harmony and rhythm may be melody’s equal partners in this triumvirate, but where she exists complete-unto-her-self, her brothers’ individuality cannot mask their interdependence. We remember music’s tunes, and for good reason. Song is what first inspired us to music, and melody is what keeps us coming back to this endless vault of artistic treasure.

The ultimate and original musical myth is that of Orpheus. The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice inspired some of the very first essays in the operatic genre. And from the 18th century on, Orpheus has been synonymous with the musician’s muse. As the Serenade is pure music, song at its most essential, the Orpheus legend is music’s “creation myth,” the story of music’s “intelligent design.” As Prometheus brought the power of fire to humanity, Orpheus bestowed an equally powerful gift. Song is the gift to move hearts, change lives and, if not alter the course of history, at least affect it. Simply put, the Orpheus story is about the impossible-to-quantify power of music.

The opening works on this Mother’s Day Serenade program are songs without words for strings. The Rachmaninoff Vocalise is one of the most beloved examples of a wordless serenade for voice. Vocalise is a literal “song without words” to showcase the sheer beauty, facility and power of the human voice. Dvořák’s Serenade is indebted to Mozart (whose most popular instrumental work, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik translates more accurately as A Little Serenade than A Little Night Music). The opening movement sets the lyrical tone of this beloved five-movement suite for strings. Elgar’s “Adagio for string orchestra” Sospiri (originally called Soupir d’amour, “sigh of love”) is one of the most achingly beautiful slow movements in all of music.

Benjamin Britten was one of the most prolific composers of vocal music in history. His Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is one of the masterpiece song-cycles in the repertoire. He is widely regarded as the greatest British composer after Henry Purcell, and the best song and opera composer in the English language. Britten was one of music’s true prodigies (in the line of Mozart and Mendelssohn). A modern polymath, Britten was equally distinguished as conductor, concert pianist & accompanist, visionary impresario and successful producer. He founded an opera company, and one of Europe’s most innovative annual festivals in Aldeburgh. With his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s legacy includes one of the finest training grounds for young musicians in the world. His output includes a dozen operas, songs in a half-dozen different languages setting a veritable compendium of “who’s who” in European poetry. Britten’s Serenade is one of the finest examples of the song-cycle as poetic “anthology.” Rather than a multi-movement work unified by a single poetic source (as Britten did for sets of Auden, Rimbaud, Michelangelo and Donne poetry), the Serenade charts a nocturnal progression from the gloaming of dusk to the “dead” of night using a varied chorus of poetic voices.

One of the distinguishing marks of Britten’s Serenade is the masterful counterpoint between the tenor voice and solo horn in duet. It is a compliment to Ricky Ian Gordon’s gifts that his Orpheus and Euridice is favorably compared to Britten’s Serenade. In his hour-long work of musical theater, Euridice is played by a soprano, and Orpheus is voiced in “songs without words” by the clarinet. The composer’s notes on his work illuminate the creative process and open a window of understanding to an artistic soul.

Hidden somewhere in my subconscious, an old obsession with the Orpheus and Eurydice myth was boiling to the surface. When I was little, one of the foreign films that one of my three sisters took me to was the beautiful Black Orpheus with Bruno Melo and Marpessa Dawn. What could I really have understood in that story?

Marcel Camus’ 1959 classic film is a (literally) brilliant retelling of the Orpheus myth set in the Carnaval of Rio di Janiero. Orpheus is the prototypical musician. He is the “original” troubadour, the first performing artist. When his beloved Eurydice is fatally bitten by a serpent, Orpheus “with his lute” charms even the lord of the underworld, Pluto (or Hades). He wins her life, only to lose her a second time when he turns back in doubt to see if she really is there. It is a story as haunting as it is resonant with meaning. Gordon’s modern-day Orpheus was inspired by the love and loss experienced by its composer. He continues his account of the work’s genesis:

But something lingered. Because one night, at four in the morning, I rose from sleep, went to the dining-room table, and wrote the entire text. It seemed I suddenly had a deep identification with Orpheus; only my Euridice was not bitten by a snake, but robbed slowly by an incurable virus. Somehow, in my mind’s eye and ear, I saw Todd as “Orpheus” playing his “pipe” instead of a lute or a lyre. Euridice (I changed the “y” to an “I”) was both herself and the storyteller; the notes were his and the pianist’s, and the words were hers.

Opera Roanoke’s presentation of Orpheus and Euridice is the first East Coast performance of the version for string orchestra. The composer describes the Lincoln Center premiere upon which the current version is based.

This [chamber] version of the piece was given its world premiere with the soprano Elizabeth Futral, Todd Palmer on clarinet, and pianist Melvin Chen, as well as Doug Varone’s dance company, on October 5, 2005, as part of the Lincoln Center New Visions, American Songbook, and Great Performers series. In his review, in New York Magazine, Peter G. Davis wrote, “Both Gordon’s text and music are couched in an accessible idiom of disarming lyrical directness, a cleverly disguised faux naivete that always resolves dissonant situations with grace and a sure sense of dramatic effect—the mark of a born theater composer.”

The mark of all the great theater composers on this program begins with and returns to song. Whether nocturne, vocalise, “song without words” or chamber opera, these serenades sing the power of music itself. It is our privilege to share this music with you.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Serving genius...with love: Carlo Maria Giulini

The great Italian Maestro, Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005) was trained as a violist, and among other things, spent nine months in a Rome tunnel hiding from fascists near the end of WWII. These two facts reveal "everything you needed to know about him as a conductor" according to the critic Mark Sved (quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from Thomas Saler's recent biography of Giulini, Serving Genius. Illinois, 2010).

He began his professional conducting career in 1944, making his debut with a score he learned by candlelight during that perilous hibernation. Brahms' 4th symphony was the centerpiece of the first orchestral concert held in newly liberated Rome. An unlikely choice, a symphony more autumnal than triumphant, it was a fitting one for an unconventional maestro who would be known as a "man of principles and ideals, a philosopher and a poet who happens to like music."

Giulini himself remarked about his unique debut, saying Brahms "took possession of me with the most irresistible prepotenza. I directed with all the emotional charge that could come to me at that particular moment."

Giulini's recorded legacy documents an extraordinary musician who was referred to as a mystic and saint as often as a maestro. His finely wrought, deeply affecting performances of Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert and Verdi (to name many of the core composers in his predominantly Austro-Italian repertoire) have possessed me with an irresistible force for the twenty years I've been listening to classical music.

Indeed, the first opera recording I owned was a cassette tape of highlights of Giulini's famed London production of Verdi's Don Carlo. That 1970 set (featuring Domingo, Milnes, Caballe, Verrett & Raimondi) began my love affair with what has remained my single favorite opera; the remastered CD is a "must-have" benchmark.

Placido has spoken of Giulini's uncanny ability to embody the music he conducted. In reference to the Verdi Requiem (another signature interpretation), Domingo said "he simply became the music to an almost frightening degree."

Domingo touches on a quality that distinguishes CMG's interpretations. In the words of a Chicago critic, Giulini has "sensitivity, imagination, and skill, and that extra, enkindling thing, the Promethean gift of fire."

His interpretations were borne out of a genuine love and respect for both the music and the musicians making it. Spending time around Giulini "can reawaken an almost forgotten sense of idealism and restore at least a part of one's faith," remarked another prominent critic.

Spending time reading about Giulini's life while listening to the music he brought beautifully, vividly to life is a reminder of the power contained even in a recording. And therein lies a paradox, for the power of great music cannot be contained. Giulini's music-making is red-blooded, visceral and fully human, awaking the senses and touching the heart. It is also searching, spiritual, mystical music for the soul. It resonates across the spectrum of emotions and is rooted in the fundamental core of humanity: love. The title of Saler's book refers to the conductor's calling. Its epigraph is a quote typical of this most self-effacing of "mega-star" maestros:

When you study a piece, the genius is there on the page, and I am here;
I must serve that genius--and serve with love.

"At once the most masculine and least macho of musicians" is another apt description of a master of balance, able to maintain the tightrope coordination "between thrilling fire and dynamism, and tranquil beauty and repose." That balance of polarities and the dynamic tension inherent in opposing them is as difficult to describe as it is to achieve. Saler discusses one aspect of this achievement in the tension between forward motion (horizontal rhythm) and the "retention" of tone quality (the timbre or color in vertical harmony). "There remained a pervasive sense of horizontal motion, with the music pushing through a thick and variably dense web of resistance, thus incrementally building an arc of tension over an entire movement and performance."

The cumulative effect of that "arc of tension" is a central factor in the effectiveness of any large work, whether it be a play, novel, symphony or opera. Sustaining--and then releasing--that tension is one of the impossible-to-teach challenges facing the creative artist either composing or interpreting the work.

I have three of Giulini's versions of the Verdi Requiem (another "desert-island" work). They all have his signature interpretive stamps: rich sonorities (especially in inner voices), committed, dramatic performances from choir, soli & orchestra, and the balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian alluded to above. All three recordings maintain the dynamic arc in different ways. The classic 1964 EMI set is another benchmark, and the obvious first choice. A recent BBC "Legends" live set from the same period is more viscerally exciting, though less polished--and with less distinguished soloists--than its studio counterpart. A 1989 DG recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is often dismissed (like many of Bernstein's late recordings) as being too lugubrious. It is notably "slower" than its predecessors, but no less dramatically paced. The attention to detail is astounding (Giulini was 75) and Gramophone magazine described it as "the most spiritual, reverential, and perhaps visionary yet to appear."

Those same qualities were sometimes found in excess by critics who accused Giulini of romanticizing every piece he conducted. In our era of historical "authenticity" and "period performance," Giulini's interpretations of Bach, Mozart & even Beethoven veer wide from the "early music" schools of interpretation. Saler relays an anecdote that caused the maestro to grin widely even as he told it. He relates a story about Paul Hindemith conducting Bach with a German orchestra aiming for historical "accuracy." Insisting they came "from the direct Bach tradition" they refused to comply with Hindemith's request for "a more beautiful sound and sonority." Giulini quoted Hindemith's reply: "But I don't know how, with no vibrato, Bach could have so many sons." Arguments about period performance style and practices aside, the final arbiter of merit for many of us is simply whether or not the performance was effective, accomplished, and moving. Attention to details of style and "authenticity" result in polished "authentic" performances that remain lifeless if not animated with attention to details of content & intent. Isn't all art essentially romantic?

Giulini paid attention to details of style and substance. That attention was honed in the conductor's nine months of silent hiding, studying Brahms by candlelight. Bernard Jacobson quotes Giulini's wonderful description of the elements that combine to give a composer and a work a distinct "physiognomy."

"At a given moment what we hear is the line that leads the composition. But this is the physiognomy of a face--the nose, the mouth, the eyes. Then there is something which is very important, and that is what is inside this. And this interior body, with the bones and the nerves and the blood--this is really something that I should say in Brahms...needs to be absolutely a part of the physiognomy of the line."

Giulini not only describes the process engagingly, but brings it dynamically to life. Jacobson goes on to remark the "interior body" is one of the reasons why listening to familiar works under Giulini's baton is like "hearing a piece for the first time." And participating in the raw power of viscerally engaging music--that is at once spiritually vital and "mystically intent"--connects one to that nexus where transcendence is experienced and meaning is lived.

Giulini's music-making manifests this nexus--the Apollonian intellect sparked by attention to details (technique, balance, nuance, voicing, texture, etc). The "physiognomy" of the "interior body" is balanced and enlivened with the Dionysian passion of "Promethean fire." (I invoke Nietzsche's polarity in the classical sense of Dionysian physicality, sensuality & emotional openness, not the pejorative Dionysus of decadent excess).

Giulini was not as "famous" as the "Dionysian" Bernstein or "Apollonian" Karajan. And he would have deflected attention drawn to such a comparison. "I think people should listen to the music. Opinions and details about the interpreters are not so important." Agreed. But CMG is in a class almost entirely his own. And it is a class we all need to attend.

In response to a question (in a BBC radio interview) about his repertoire of "grand, noble and spiritual" works and the existence of a moral force in music, he replied unequivocally. "Absolutely...Music gives to life one great thing: hope. If we don't have hope, what we can do?"

That is an important and distinguishing detail about the man and his approach to music. "Music must have a spiritual quality. It is absolute necessity for humanity. Man needs love."

One of the few prestigious offers of public recognition he did not refuse was from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Europe's "musical hall of fame," based in Vienna). He was one of only three living members in the society at the time of his induction in 1978. Karajan and Böhm were the other living heirs to Beethoven, Brahms and their immortal kin. Instead of speechifying, Giulini said "I am at the service of music. There is really nothing else to say."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Butterfly and the Sea...

Joseph Campbell delivered a series of lectures on mythology to the Cooper Union (for the Advancement of Science and Art) in New York City between 1958 and 1971. A dozen of these characteristically illuminating discourses are collected in the book Myths to Live By (Penguin, 1972, 1993).

I have had it on hand with other "reference" books in preparation for our production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Though Puccini's operas do not appear to be close relatives of myth (like those of Monteverdi, Glück and Strauss), his archetypal characters resonate with the force and depth of ancient Greece.

The central chapters in Campbell's book are called "The Separation of East and West," "The Confrontation of East and West in Religion," "The Inspiration of Oriental Art" and "Zen."

Following the posts below, I have been making notes and musing over an essay on the imagery of the sea in Madama Butterfly. In "The Importance of Rites" (from 1964), Campbell relates the structure and form of ritual to mythology, and its galvanizing force on communities that enact such rites. Campbell cites the "life-amplifying service of ritual" in the Japanese tea ceremony, and compares it to the exquisite Japanese garden "where nature and art have been brought together in a common statement harmonizing and epitomizing both."

After citing olympic-style athletic events (like track meets) he quotes Oswald Spengler's definition of "culture" as society "in form." His next example of "the high service of ritual to a society" is the "solemn state occasion" that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He mentions the necessity for a "compensatory rite to re-establish the sense of solidarity of the nation."

I know many of the members of the vibrant Japanese community in Roanoke are eagerly anticipating our production of Madama Butterfly, and are planning to greet the opening night audience in our lobby, dressed in traditional costume.

Victor Hugo's proverb, "music expresses that which cannot be said, and cannot be suppressed," reverberates today. I wrestle with the idea of even attempting to articulate thoughts about Butterfly and the sea in the wake of so devastating a natural disaster as the Tsunami that has ravaged Japan. I believe we can draw strength from Campbell and the "great cloud of witnesses" who have written, composed and created works that evoke--and activate--the deepest source of our human emotions. This body of creativity speaks to our shared humanity and connects us around the globe and across the centuries.

Campbell mentions the symbolism of the funeral rites for JFK, from the seven horses and the military groom to the "riderless saddle" with "stirrups reversed." He cites the "mythology of the seven spheres and of the soul's journey."

When we consider the sea as an archetypal image of the soul and the unconscious, a metaphor for the immensity of the deep and the void, a symbol for god and death, we are connecting to the power of myth to give form and structure to experience.

As Butterfly's friends first appear on the crest of a Nagasaki hill, they sing (in impressionist harmonies redolent of the ocean) "Ah! So much sky! So much sea!" As Butterfly emerges from behind her friends, they turn and sing to her (in lines lost in the wash of sound in one of opera's most beloved entrance scenes):

"Before you cross the threshold,
turn and look, turn and look
at those things dear to you,
look at this expanse of sky,
all these flowers, all that sea!"

The posts below are "about" some of the nature imagery in the opera, and reasons it remains popular and relevant. The eminent conductor, Joseph Flummerfelt has said the great composers give us the "gift of connection." The proverbial "spark of the divine" connects the artist to inspiration, who in turn "translates" the spark into the creative work, which is itself a gift. This connectivity extends across and between works and peoples. As Campbell writes, "these symbolic overtones--unheard by outward ears, perhaps, yet recognized within by all--" connect us to a/the source. Though Puccini did not expound on the role of mythology as a fount of inspiration, his fondness for the (nature) poet, Pascoli (referenced below) is an important clue in understanding why Puccini's music resonates with elemental power.

In the famous love duet that ends Act I, Butterfly contrasts the diminutive, modest tastes of her people to the immensity of the sea.

"We are a people accustomed
To little things,
Humble and quiet,
To a tenderness
Gentle, yet wide as the sky,
Deep as the rolling sea."

Puccini was criticized for a "soft" (ie: feminine) affection for his heroines and his "piccole cose" (little things). And his "sugary music" (musica zuccherata) awakens emotional openness--with all its vulnerability--vividly and directly. The gushing lyric beauty of his "heart on sleeve" voice has been copied and imitated ever since, but never surpassed.

Butterfly compares her hope to a "wisp of smoke rising over the horizon of the sea" as she awaits Pinkerton's return. When Sharpless confronts her with the possibility Pinkerton may never return, she becomes faint, and foreshadows her tragic undoing. She quickly recovers her composure and sings, "It's nothing. I thought I was going to die, but it soon passes, like the clouds pass over the sea."

Pinkerton's ship (the Abraham Lincoln--another name Campbell invokes in "The Importance of Rites") appears in the harbor, revivifying Butterfly and auguring the beloved "flower duet" she sings with her confidante. As they pick flowers to prepare a ritualistic hero's welcome, Suzuki reminds Butterfly

"So often you came to these bushes
to gaze far away, in tears
over the wide and empty sea."

Butterfly responds with poetry that resonates across historical time and cultural space:

"The long-awaited one has come,
nothing more shall I ask of the sea;
I gave tears to the soil,
its flowers it now gives to me!"

From the narratives of the great flood (common to all creation myths) to Homer and beyond, the sea courses with a through-line of connective energy that mirrors all facets of life on earth. It inspired much of what is arguably Puccini's most perfect opera.

James Joyce said the Greek dramas epitomized the central function of art, which is to inspire/provoke the fundamental human emotions: pity and terror (or, love and fear). That catharsis, regardless of type, distinction or quality, opens us to "unfathomed wonder" (Campbell) and connects us to the deep feeling of emotion which is our shared humanity.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Butterfly's birds & flowers...

Madama Butterfly is rare among operas for having a libretto that surpasses its original sources. Verdi's operatic versions of Shakespeare dramas are unequivocal masterpieces (and the libretti--operatic "scripts" or "screenplays"--Arrigo Boito wrote for Otello and Falstaff are brilliant). Verdi's Shakespeare adaptations co-exist with the Bard's plays, but they do not surpass Shakespeare's originals.

Puccini's librettists, Giacosa and Illica based their libretto on David Belasco's play, Madam Butterfly. Belasco based his play on a short story by John Luther Long. Belasco was known as the "Bishop of Broadway" for his innovative stagecraft (advanced lighting techniques and "special effects"). For Belasco, the play was not necessarily the thing, but the spark to fire the imagination for a spectacular production.

Giacosa and Illica's libretto, however, is brilliant. With Puccini, this "Trinity" of collaborators produced three of opera's most beloved masterpieces, La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. And while no one loves a Puccini opera for its words ("it's the music, stupid!"), there are layers of the intricate onion of Butterfly's libretto worth peeling.

I want to consider two such layers. One is a through-line of nature references, with a concentration on birds and flowers. Puccini wrote "If you want to understand my music, you have to understand Pascoli." Giovanni Pascoli was a Tuscan nature poet. In addition to being the composer's colleague, Pacoli was a fellow Lucchesi (analogous to a "Roanoker; " regional pride is as marked in Italy as in the USA).

Nature images abound in Puccini's operas, and they infuse Madama Butterfly from start to finish. Each of the five principal characters reference flowers as metaphor, symbol &/or sign. Butterfly's maid, Suzuki speaks with flowery chatter when first introduced to Lt. Pinkerton. The marriage broker, Goro compares his bevy of Geisha girls to a "garland of fresh flowers" as he tries to sell one to the US Consul, Sharpless. One of the most famous musical excerpts from the score is the "flower duet" Butterfly and Suzuki sing in Act II. The opulence of that music mirrors the excess of the imagery of (literal) showers of flowers flooding the spring with vibrant color and fragrant perfume.

Such imagery also resonates with tragedy. The flower's fragility, and the blossom's inherent transience heighten the tragic drama of Madama Butterfly. Pinkerton's brief closing romanza is a "farewell to a little flower" (Addio, fiorito asil). That his remorse--however belated--is sincere is underscored by his aside in the elegiac trio he sings with Sharpless and Suzuki. "How bitter is the perfume of this flower..."

Sharpless, the messenger (and reluctant prophet of the unfolding tragedy), delivers one of the more ironic instances of floral imagery when he attempts to read Butterfly a letter from the "husband" who has abandoned her. Pinkerton asks him to "find that beautiful flower of a girl" (and break the news to her gently).

The "love duet" that closes Act I is one of Puccini's most beloved scenes. It also features poetry that foreshadows the tragedy with irony worthy of Greek drama. Near the close of the duet's first section, Butterfly expresses her fears, and Pinkerton dismisses them with the words "love won't kill you." Later in the scene, she worries she will be caught, pinned and encased like a real butterfly. Pinkerton retorts, "there's a little truth in that, but it's so you won't get away..."

That this unsettling exchange is set to ravishing music underscores the tension in great drama, and is one of the reasons opera wields such power.

There was another kind of tension when Butterfly first opened in 1904. That premiere at La Scala was one of the most notorious opening night disaster's in the history of the theatre (and if time permits, I'll write a bit about that fiasco). Besides incorporating Japanese melodies into his Italian opera, Puccini aimed for verisimilitude with other musical details. Japanese bells and chimes are called for, as are bird whistles, all intended to evoke atmosphere (or "local color").

One of Puccini's biographers wrote about the crowd's reaction to those bird whistles (in the orchestral Intermezzo, before the last scene). Their unexpected appearance evoked a "deafening variety of cackling and animal cries" from the already vociferous opening night audience. The din was so great "La Scala became a lunatic aviary."

Not quite the impression Puccini had in mind by evoking the dawn with sounds from nature.

“I am writing birdsong, so beautiful!” Pascoli wrote in 1903 (while Puccini was composing Butterfly). The birdsong Puccini writes in the beginning of Act II is colorful and witty. Pinkerton promised Butterfly he'd return when the Robins come "home" to nest. When Butterfly asks Sharpless (in the aforementioned "letter" scene) when the Robins nest in America, a comic exchange occurs:

SH: "I don't know, I've never studied ornithology."
MB: "Orni...?"
SH: ...thology."

This scene is full of such witticisms pointed up by Illica's clever rhyme scheme. In this same scene, Goro tries to peddle Butterfly to a rich prince, Yamadori. Butterfly's control here belies attempts to oversimplify her as a one-dimensional naif. As the eminent songwriter Stephen Sondheim points out, speaking in rhyme is a sign of a character's cultivated intelligence. Butterfly is alternately lampooning and sarcastic, and in command of an intricate ensemble situation. She mimes an American courtroom scene with perfect comic timing, stumping Sharpless in the process. Puccini's use of musical parody (a slow "English" waltz, reminiscent of operetta) is another fragrant layer of significance.

Like the variations on the flower theme, the wit of these internal scenes heightens the drama, turning the screws as this heart-breakingly beautiful opera unfolds.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why Madama Butterfly Matters...

Below is a short "preview" appearing in the current City magazine. Opera Roanoke's stellar cast and production team are currently in rehearsal for our March 18 & 20 performances of Puccini's masterpiece, Madama Butterfly. Over the next couple weeks I will share more about the opera and Opera Roanoke's fully-staged production of it.


One summer night in 1900 London, a 41-year-old Italian, who spoke no English, went to see a new (English) play. This man, who preferred the country to the city, who loved his hunting rifles, who would soon become obsessed with racing cars, was the greatest opera composer alive. The play that inspired Giacomo Puccini that night became the most popular opera in the world, Madama Butterfly.

Madama Butterfly is an archetypal story that is both a relationship drama (a tragic love story) and a cultural one. The “east-meets-west” dynamic has always been vibrant. Consider the word “oriental.” In that single word (noun, adjective, stereotype) is an almost electric current that reminds us how powerful language can be. It also reminds us how important context & perspective are, and how volatile signs & symbols can be (“oriental” carries different meanings today than in Puccini’s time, for example).

Without getting too far afield, a (sensitive) word like “oriental” has enough of a spark to remind us that east-west “relationships” are still charged with energy and dramatic possibility. This potential for drama, emotional depth and catharsis is one of the reasons the Butterfly story is timeless. That this story, with the staying power of mythology and folklore, is best known as an opera tells us something significant about Puccini’s genius. It also opens a window on opera’s unique ability to evoke the entire range of human emotions, from the beautiful to the terrifying. Opera pinpoints these emotions with the concentrated focus of music (wedded to drama, theater and stagecraft) and brings them to life with one-of-a-kind power.

On the surface, Butterfly is a tragedy of lost love. A young Geisha marries a US Naval lieutenant, who leaves her (never having intended to stay), and only returns three years later, his American wife in tow, to claim his and Ms Butterfly’s child. She responds in the only way she knows how (in order to preserve her sacred, family honor): she takes her own life.

This classic, cross-cultural, wartime love story has currency from the ancient world to today, from Homer (Iliad) to Rodgers & Hammerstein (South Pacific). The opera’s abiding appeal resides with Puccini’s heroine, a complex, three-dimensional young woman whose apparent predestined fate never fails to move us. We love Butterfly because our hearts break with--and for—hers. She is an archetypal grieving mother (a variation on the Stabat Mater of Christian iconography). She is at once a self-determining tragic character, a sacrificial victim and a martyr.

And we have one of the world’s most gifted interpreters of Puccini’s heroine for our March production. Yunah Lee has made Butterfly her “signature role.” Opera companies around the world vie for the privilege of presenting Ms Lee’s “commanding and touching performance” consistently praised for “revealing the highs and lows of Madame Butterfly’s emotions.”

Hearing the drama and seeing the music of a great opera come to life before your senses is an experience unlike any other. Opera shares traits with musical theater, the world of “classical” music, and the soundtracks that accompany our movies and TV shows. One of the qualities that make a work of art “great” is its ability to transcend the limitations imposed by the specifics (of setting, situation, etc) to aim for the universal.

You don’t need to know anything about Nagasaki, the US Navy, Italian opera or Japanese tea ceremonies to “get” Madama Butterfly. Opera is special, but you don’t have to be a specialist to appreciate or enjoy it. Just get a ticket, bring a friend, and spend a couple hours with one of the world’s greatest musical stories. Come hear and see for yourself why Madama Butterfly is the most popular opera in the United States.