Opera and teenagers: Why opera?

“I have to kill 23 other children on live television to placate my totalitarian government.”
“I fell in love with a girl I just met, but I currently have a girlfriend.”
One is the premise of a teen novel, and the other a famous opera. Surprisingly, it is the first, much more unrealistic, premise (Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy) that has 26 million copies in print, and a movie tie-in which made over $150 million on its first weekend alone. The other is from Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier, the story of an upper-class cougar that graciously releases her boyfriend for a much younger woman. This is set to some of the most beautiful music ever written. To me, it’s obvious which storyline is more realistic and relatable – and yet opera still has a reputation of being foreign and artificial. To me, opera is the perfect art form for teenagers, who want to be simultaneously entertained and feel that they, and they alone, understand the true emotions and angst of a character.

I was first exposed to opera when I heard Escamillo’s aria from Bizet’s Carmen on my Babar the Elephant video, and I was 7 years old at the time. I decided that I liked the music, and forced my parents to buy me a CD of the opera. Of course, I soon became addicted to the art form, because I found the music so much more intense and beautiful than the pop music all of my friends were interested in. And as I grew older, I realized how powerful and therapeutic opera can be, and I can say without exaggeration that I could not live without opera. Live performances, CDs, Youtube videos, LPs, baroque or obscure bel canto or John Adams – I listen to whatever I can get my hands on.

As a result, it should be no surprise that I always try and convince my friends to come with me to performances, and it should also be no surprise that they always say no. Met General Manager Peter Gelb once proudly announced that the average age of his audience had dropped from something like 62 to 57 (I don’t remember the exact numbers, but they were close), so that’s a pretty good indication of how my 17 year-olds visit the opera on a regular basis. And every time I ask a friend to come along, they always say the same thing: “It’s too expensive, it’s archaic, and I won’t understand anything”. Of course, they are viewing opera in a stereotyped, and frankly inaccurate, way. They’re not even using the fat screaming lady excuse – James Valenti once performed Madama Butterfly in Vancouver, and they still refused to come.

Let’s start by getting the cost stereotype out of the way. We are no longer living in the Victorian era where we have to wear top hats and jewels to each performance, and opera is no longer (for some of the audience, at least) purely a social event. Most opera houses, in their attempts to attract young people, offer highly discounted rates and can be bought for under $20. That’s far less than the cheapest seats to a sports game or a pop concert, and let’s see what that $20 pays for in each show – on average, you have a few international star singers, some local singers in smaller roles, a full chorus, a 60-piece orchestra, a conductor, and a bunch of stagehands. Every single one of those people is performing for 3-5 hours each show, all for just $20 – and that doesn’t even include the director, set designer, costume designer, and the administration. Compare that to your $150 pop tickets, where there’s a small band, Lady Gaga lipsyncing to her own recording, and some strobe lights. Now I’ll admit, I like Lady Gaga’s voice and her shows are really quite entertaining. But if it’s a beautiful voice you want, let’s go to an Angela Gheorghiu concert. If you want spectacle, we can go to Zeffirelli’s Turandot, in which every square inch of the stage is covered in gold. If you want a shocking show, just google anything by Calixto Bieito.

Which brings me to my next point – the fact that opera is 400 years old is an asset in my opinion. Because there is so much diversity within opera, there is something for absolutely everybody at absolutely any time. There are certain arias I listen to when I’m need to calm down, wake up, get excited, go to sleep (sorry, Einstein on the Beach)… The advantage of an art form that IS 400 years old is that it has constantly developed and refined itself, and in doing so explored every possible emotion. Even if I can’t relate to Ariodante when he sings an amazing aria about being betrayed, the music and emotions are enough for me. Even if I haven’t been betrayed by my lover (pretty much every opera), or haven’t experienced death (pretty much every other opera), listening to these operas help me experienced these emotions in a less extreme and more contained way, and hopefully will help me deal with my own emotions when those things ever happen to me.

Finally – where did the impression that opera is incomprehensible come from? Sure, it’s often in a foreign language, but that doesn’t stop any of my friends to going to see the last big foreign film. Especially with the introduction of titles either projected above the stage or behind the seat in front of you, it’s no different from seeing a movie. Especially with online librettos and Wikipedia, it’s really so easy to google the opera and find the story beforehand.

And the other thing about opera – even though many of the emotional situations in opera are magnified and perhaps distorted, they are emotions that teenagers CAN understand. Think of many operatic characters: Madama Butterfly, Cherubino, Brunnhilde, Manon, Salome, Octavian, all of them are teenagers and have the same feelings and emotions as teenagers today. Most other operatic heros and heroines are very young as well – even though the singers may be older, Violetta, Mimi, Don Carlo, Carmen, and many many others are probably in their 20s. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the majority of operatic leading characters are under 30. Even the most extreme situations in opera – Wotan putting Brunnhilde to sleep on a giant rock, for example – is just an exaggerated case of a father punishing his rebellious daughter.

Take Manon, for example. Her first lines in the opera are:

Je suis encor tout étourdie,
Je suis encor tout engourdie…
Excusez-moi! excusez un moment d’émoi…
Pardonnez à mon bavardage…
J’en suis à mon premier voyage!

which roughly translate as:

I’m still completely dizzy and numb
Excuse me! Excuse a moment of excitement
Forgive my rambling,
I’m on my first trip!

Which is, in fact, exactly how I react every time I’m on a trip. Although Manon may not be the most famous teenaged operatic character (that would probably be Cherubino), I find her completely sympathetic and understandable. Of course, opera can be extreme, and that’s part of the reason I enjoy it, but we really need to move away from the stereotype of opera being an art form where women scream in iambic pentameter about their lost lovers. In my opinion, art is not just entertainment, it is a mode of expression that trains us to think in a certain way. And within the arts, opera is the most intense form of expression, with music, dance, acting, literature, stagecraft – that can seem simultaneously real and artificial.

Therefore, when I ask my friends to come with me to the opera, I never want to hear the phrase “but I don’t understand it” again. Even if you don’t understand the language (not that this barrier stops you from watching foreign films, by the way), the thoughts, emotions, and actions of the characters are just like yours, and you will be overwhelmed by its beauty and power.

CD Review – Poemes (Renee Fleming, Alan Gilbert/Seiji Ozawa)

Let me be upfront with this: I am not a fan of some of Fleming’s recordings. I admire Fleming greatly for her musical curiosity and intelligence, and her recordings range from Berg’s Lulu Suite to the final scene of Bellini’s Sonnambula to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, but recently I have begun to find her singing slightly overcalculated. Particularly in music that is easy for her (and no matter what anyone says, she has a fabulous technique), she can overemote and focus on textual details in a fussy, Schwarzkopfian manner. However, I am happy to say that her lastest CD of French song cycles is one of her best recordings.

Renee Fleming has been Decca’s superstar artist for a long time, and only someone with her recognition and fame would be able to make a recording like this. Of the three pieces, the Ravel is the best known and the one that she is least comfortable with. The piece was a specialty of Regine Crespin and has recently been recorded by Susan Graham, Magdalena Kasarova, and Jennifer Larmore, so the fact that the piece sits slightly too low for Fleming is not a surprise. My favourite among the three was “L’indifferent”, in which she maintained her trademark beautiful voice while bringing out different subtleties in the text. However, no matter how well she sings, she cannot match the seductive sound of Crespin or de los Angeles.

Although Messiaen’s are barely in the standard repertoire, I have had the good fortune to play two of his pieces – his Theme and Variations for violin and Piano, and the last movement of his monumental Quatuor pour la fin du temps. He writes very well for the violin, and I really love those pieces. However, I heard Fleming perform his “Poemes pour Mi” in recital a year or two ago, and I didn’t understand the music at all. Now, I still can’t say that I really understand it either, but the beautiful combination of her voice and the creative orchestration is enough for me to enjoy. The music is not Messiaen’s most modern – most of it is semi-spoken (is there a French equivalent to parlando) and highly reminiscent of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. However, there are enough dissonant or intense moments in the score to keep me from falling into a trance. Hopefully, I will grow to appreciate the music and this performance more.

More interesting for me are Dutilleux’s pieces – two sonnets from the 50s and “Le Temps Horloge” written a few years ago for Fleming. Dutilleux’s composing style really hasn’t changed that much over the 60-year span, and the music is more atonal than Messiaen’s. Both cycles are filled with interesting intervals and a wide vocal range, and coupled with fascinating orchestrations (harpsichord and accordion in the same piece?) makes for a thrilling listen. Although most will buy this CD for the Ravel or the Messiaen, the Dutilleux is currently my favourite.

All of the pieces have very important and at times very virtuosic orchestral parts, and both the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Alan Gilbert and the Orchestre National de France under Seiji Ozawa play these difficult scores accurately and expressively. Definitely a worthwhile recording, and I hope Fleming continues to use her fame to explore new repertoire.

CD Review – Homage to Maria Callas (Angela Gheorghiu, Marco Armiliato)

I’ve also decided to post my thoughts on CDs and DVDs – mostly new releases, but also some older recordings in my collection that I feel are particularly interesting or worth rehearing. Angela Gheorghiu’s first recital disc in years was released last November, and is a collection of arias, some expected, some not. She sings well throughout the disc, but I can’t help feeling that it would have been much better without the whole Callas-worship aspect.

Callas certainly had a great impact on opera and is one of the most well-known singers in the last century. However, every soprano who acts decently and is vaguely glamorous is instantly compared to Callas and many singers are pressured to push their voices into roles that are too heavy. Gheorghiu has always preserved her voice very well and, apart from Tosca, stuck to a very safe repertoire, but there are some frankly bizarre repertoire choices on this disc. The only reasoning I could come up with is that Gheorghiu wanted to record a recital of verismo arias (ones that Callas had also recorded), and EMI decided to market it as a homage to Callas. Why else would Gheorghiu possibly want to record “Dei tuoi figli” or “Col sorriso d’innocenza”? To be fair, she pulls those two arias off, but they really do not show her to her best advantage. Honestly, only three roles on this disc (Violetta, Medea, and Imogene) were roles associated with Callas, and although Callas’ “La mamma morta” is justly famous, it was only a role she performed once on stage.

The disc starts with Mimi’s “Donde lieta” from Act III of La Boheme, an opera that Gheorghiu performed often early in her career. Thankfully, she does not treat this aria as a self-pitying, over-the-top scene and instead, sings it with restraint and a sense of acceptance. Something I like about this recording is how she does not overindulge herself in her admittedly beautiful voice and go for cheap effects, which is lovely in the smaller-scale verismo arias Gheorghiu sings. Her “Ebben, ne andro lontana”, “Stridono Lassu”, and “Poveri Fiori” are similarly lovely and musical. The only verismo aria that pushes her voice is Cilea’s “La Mamma Morta”, but even that cannot be counted as a failure in any way. She performs the aria in a quiet but intense manner and emphasizes that despite everything, Maddalena is really just a young girl. However, I missed the sheer volume that singers like Callas or Millo can provide towards the end of the aria. She then travels to the opposite end of the Italian opera spectrum and sings two bel canto (-ish) arias: Bellini’s “Col sorriso d’innocenza” and Verdi’s “Ah fors’e lui…Sempre Libera”. The former is probably the weakest selection on the disc – although she hits all the notes in a rather bumpy way, she simply does not have the technique to use the coloratura as an expressive device as Callas so memorably did. The Traviata is much stronger, and her voice is admirably fresh almost 20 years after her famous Covent Garden debut in the role. “Sempre Libera” is taken at an insane pace more appropriate to Sutherland than a singer with Tosca in her active repertoire, but a few messy runs aside, conveys the Violetta’s hysteria convincingly.

The rest of the disc is filled with French arias, mainly falcon roles that suited late Callas’ voice very well. The only purely soprano role is Gounod’s Marguerite, and Gheorghiu sings Marguerite’s “Dieu, que de bijoux” very well, even incorporating a solid trill. Her Dalila is surprisingly solid for a soprano well-known to have a rather weak lower register, and she takes the “Ah, reponds a ma tendresse” line in one breath as Callas did. Her dark tone contributes to the overall seductive nature of the aria. Gheorghiu also sings Carmen’s Habanera, and after hearing this recording, I am relieved that she has decided against performing the role on stage. She tries to amp up her lower register by using some sort of weird chest voice, and the result is not particularly attractive and also ruins her diction. Her Medea (originally a French opera) is also not comfortable, although instead I felt that the aria was too high for her voice. The repeated high As on “Pieta” towards the end all sound stretched, and she barely hits the B-flats as well. However, her phrasing and musicality are fascinating as always, and a nice contrast to the usual Wagnerian interpretations. “Le Cid” is the only somewhat rare opera in this recital, and although Chimene is a role that is far too heavy and low for Gheorghiu, she makes a great case for a big modern revival. Perhaps the orchestration is lighter, but here she manages to ride the ensembles in way that she could not in “La Mamma Morta” or “Dei tuoi figli” and the result is very satisfying.

Marco Armiliato and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra provide excellent and sensitive accompaniment, and adapt their sound well to the diverse musical periods represented in the recording. Overall, a highly rewarding recording of a very musical artist, but I wish that EMI had not insisted on the Callas connection.

Radio Review – The Makropoulos Case (Metropolitan Opera)

This afternoon’s radio broadcast of Janacek’s The Makropoulos Case was my first time hearing the opera in full. I have seen clips of it on the internet, but was worried that I would be confused by the music without any visuals. As it happened, that wasn’t necessary. Karita Mattila, although probably past her vocal prime, has an incredible way of portraying her character’s moods and actions solely through her voice so that I never felt like I didn’t understand the story. What could have been a better introduction to this fascinating character and opera?

(c) Ken Howard

Janacek’s writing for Emilia Marty has a lot of leaping intervals that do not show of Mattila’s voice too well – she is now uncomfortable in her higher register, with some pushed high notes and a middle register with little vibrato and breathy tone. However, she utilized these different colours in her voice to great dramatic effect, and almost every note was inflected differently. She is able to vocalize changes of moods very effectively, particularly the sarcastic tone she uses when taunting the Baron. Personally, my favourite part was the very end, where she warmed up her tone and slowly morphed into the 300 year-old woman.

Thankfully, the Met has hired an excellent supporting cast in what is usually a diva showpiece. Richard Leech, who has not sung at the Met for a number of years, replaced Kurt Streit on late notice as Albert Gregor. Although he has a lovely voice, he seemed to be trying far too hard to be heard, and as a result his singing came across as being pushed and far too loud. In contrast, Baron Prus sang warmly and managed to fill the house without any sign of pressure. I certainly hope he will return to the Met, perhaps as Wozzeck or Barak. Emalie Savoy as Kristina has a lovely voice and a good grasp of the music, but she sounded uncertain. The rest of the roles were also very good, with Alan Oke standing out as Vitek.

(c) Ken Howard

Conductor Jiri Belohlavek conducted very, very well, and brought out many subtleties in the score while maintaining and clarifying the overall structure of the piece. While not all the singing was perfect and I was not able to see it in house, it was enough to pique my interest in this opera and I look forward to exploring it more.

Radio Review – Billy Budd (Metropolitan Opera)

Since there’s really not that much opera in my area, I’ve decided to review radio broadcasts and the Met Live in HD performances as well. I listened to the web broadcast of Britten’s Billy Budd, which is I believe the last run at the Met this season. It’s not an opera that I’m very familiar with, but this (and Makropoulos, which I will be listening to and review later today) is a welcome relief from all of the Traviatas and Bohemes everywhere. Overall it was a strong performance, but I can’t help thinking that this particular cast would have been ideal a) 5-10 years ago and b) in a smaller house.

(c) Ken Howard

Billy Budd is one of Nathan Gunn’s most famous roles, and his experience in the role shows. He managed to convey Billy’s rough, lower-class background while maintaining the purity and innocence differentiates him from the rest of the sailors. Gunn’s phrasing was excellent, and his big aria in Act II was sensitive and moving. However, Gunn’s voice is not a big voice, and even on the radio, he sounded overwhelmed at times. In addition, his voice has lost the freshness that it had on his 2005 recording of the role, and the whole time I thought that it was a bit late for him. It was also too late for James Morris as Claggart, who sang the role in the Met premiere in 1978. Morris is still an intelligent and musical singer, but his voice is obviously not as fresh as it was 30 years ago. In addition, I found his portrayal of Claggart to be a little bit too one-dimensional – there was a lot of growling and barking (which may have been a result of his vocal state). Still, he was still an effective, menacing Claggart.

The third principal of the opera is Captain Vere, sung in this performance by John Daszak. I found him a lovely singer, with a beautiful voice and excellent diction. However, he tended to push a little in heavier sections, and as a result, his intonation was slightly off at times. He phrased the music intelligently, but I did not hear the real emotional conflict that the character requires. I hope that he will develop further into this role though, as he sang beautifully in the softer sections. The rest of the cast was excellent and luxuriously cast, especially the wonderful Kyle Ketelsen as Mr. Flint. Ryan McKinny made his debut as Mr. Ratcliffe and was both vocally and dramatically excellent. Dwayne Croft was also very good as Mr. Redburn, but again would have been better about 10 years earlier. Elliot Madore as the Novice’s Friend sang well and will certainly make a good Billy Budd in the future, but like Gunn had a tendency to push his voice.

The chorus was excellent – every section was very tight, phrased well, and was very clear. The orchestra was also very good, although there were some issues in the brass and a few ensemble issues. Other than that, conductor David Robertson gave an exciting and clear interpretation of the piece.