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Post Opera? Not for Me
Created by John Eipper on 03/27/17 4:08 PM

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Opera? Not for Me (David Duggan, USA, 03/27/17 4:08 pm)

Opera-shmopera. In all my born years (65+), I've never sat through a full-length opera by a major company and I hope that I can depart this planet with that record intact (I'm hedging somewhat: I was a late arrival to a production by the NY City Opera of "The Merry Widow" and saw the fat lady sing; I saw the first few scenes of a dress rehearsal of "Don Giovanni"--I think--by Chicago's Lyric Opera; and I attended a "stage-play production" of "Carmen" by an off-brand company at Chicago's Grant Park--before Millennium Park opened). The notion of listening to super-sized performers in bizarre costumes sing in a language I cannot understand is enough to give me permanent tinnitus.

But dance, that's an art form I can get my arms and legs around. So last weekend I indulged myself and saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Louis Sullivan's magnificent Auditorium Theater in downtown Chicago. Though the founder has been dead for nearly 30 years (in 1989), his company lives on, performing his signature works such as "Revelations," while promoting his ideal of a multi-racial and cultural company. Contrast that with his rough contemporary Merce Cunningham whose company went on a memorial tour two years after his 2009 death and closed for good on December 31, 2011 (his legacy trust wields tight control over which of Cunningham's works will be performed and by whom). Dedicated WAISers may recall my account of seeing that company a month before its final performance as part of a 60th birthday celebration.

Ailey's company got rolling in the 1970s when New York City was awash with dance companies: the big three of classical ballet, American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey (Ronald Reagan's son was a dancer with this company), and Balanchine's New York City Ballet, but in addition Eliot Feld, Martha Graham, Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theater of Harlem, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor and Alwin Nicolais all had regular seasons with paid professional dancers. This is not to mention that Broadway was lighting up again after a near-decade of moribundity, caused largely by the success of "A Chorus Line," about, what else, auditions for a new show in the wake of the perpetual job insecurity that performance artists suffer. I have a dim recollection that Ailey's company made an appearance at Dartmouth in 1972 when its home-grown company, Pilobolus, founded by several friends was making a name for itself. I have an equally dim recollection of seeing Ailey's lead female dancer Judith Jamison perform her signature work, "Cry" in the late '70s in Chicago, using her white shawl as a cleaning lady would use a rag to clean the dance floor. It is an exhausting 8-10 minute solo (depending on the music played) that undoubtedly shortened Judith Jamison's career by decades (Martha Graham was dancing well into her 80s).

Saturday's performance featured three works by other choreographers, but finished with "Revelations," a raucous melange of company dances, trios, a duet and one solo set to spirituals, e.g., Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel, Wade in the Water and Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham. Several of the dancers came from Chicago, including 20-year Ailey company veteran Vernard Gilmore who danced the solo, "I Wanna Be Ready." And to think that other professional athletes are pinch-hitting or holding the clipboards after 20-year careers. Though you can catch many of Ailey's dances on YouTube, there's nothing like seeing them live. The company received a well-deserved standing ovation after this tour-de-force.

Chicago may be unique in the country with a mayor who once was a dancer (Rahm Emanuel danced in the annual performances of the Nutcracker and majored in dance at Sarah Lawrence College outside NYC). I'll leave to others to wonder how a man so theoretically attuned to the arts be so tone-deaf when it comes to understanding the black experience in his adopted city.

JE comments:  Right now, I'm imaging Mayor Emanuel in a leotard.  Just Googled it.  See below.

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  • Opera? Not for Me, Either (Nigel Jones, -UK 03/28/17 5:00 AM)
    Can I endorse everything David Duggan says (27 March) about that grossly overrated art form, opera?

    I cannot get over the essential absurdity of people singing a storyline at each other in--as David says--languages I don't speak, so I cannot follow the plots.

    And even if I do speak the language, as in German, I can rarely make out what the characters are saying/singing. I can admire the odd aria--I love listening to the late great Luciano Pavarotti belting out Nessun Dorma for instance, and I enjoy Carmen, but that is it. I am no philistine and lived for fifteen years within walking distance of that great country house Opera Glyndebourne, but only visited once and that was to oblige a friend who had written a libretto to a modern opera.

    In addition to all this Opera is insanely expensive and, like skiing, infected by snobbery.

    But can I insert a plug here? Every June I visit that temple to Wagner, Bayreuth , while leading the Face of Evil tour of Nazi Germany (www.historicaltrips.com).

    It's a fascinating little town, containing the great man's (extraordinarily ugly) house Wahnfried, his grave, and of course the legendary Festspielhaus where his works are staged every July. The seats are famously wooden just in case anyone has the temerity to be tempted to drop off during one of his interminable productions. Interesting politically and historically, but musically?

    The best bits of Wagner are the overtures and the musical sections like "Ride of the Valkyries" and Siegfried 's funeral music before they spoil it all by starting to sing!

    JE comments: To enjoy opera, you have to do some homework.  At the very least, study the libretto (or crib it from Wikipedia) before you go.  Some companies stream translated "supertitles" over the action, karaoke-style.  Purists consider this practice rather, er, Philistine.

    I had to Google up an image of the Wagner place.  From the pictures it looks cold and severe, but majestic in its own right.  Dare I call it "Wagnerian"?  It could also pass for a mausoleum.

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    • Opera, According to Mark Twain (Timothy Ashby, -Spain 03/28/17 2:17 PM)
      While I enjoy the music (but nothing else) of some classical operas (e.g. Handel's Xerxes and Mozart's Marriage of Figaro), I generally agree with Mark Twain's opinion of this "art form":

      "The banging and slamming and booming and crashing were something beyond belief. The racking and pitiless pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the time that I had my teeth fixed."

      JE comments:  And 19th-century dentistry was a full-contact sport.  Look at the toolkit below (courtesy of the St Lucie Cosmetic Center for Dentistry in Florida; I trust they've updated their equipment).

      A note on stylistics:  Operas are italicized, as Tim Ashby has done here.  I've been lax in my editing during this discussion, alternating between italics and quotation marks.  I always use quotation marks in the titles of WAIS posts, as our website doesn't permit italicization in the "subject" box--subject box?

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      • Gary Moore Performs at the National Theater, Kosovo (John Eipper, USA 03/29/17 4:22 AM)

        Gary Moore writes:

        All this WAIS talk about music is haunting me, because I want so much to participate,
        but am trapped in finishing a manuscript and can't take time off to absorb all these great comments--much less ruminate on phrasing my own.

        So a postscript, without the main letter:

        I may be the world's only solo headliner to ever have sung Albanian selections in an American
        accent in solo performance at the National Theatre of Kosovo, with backup by orchestra
        and choir. The house was packed--in part because kids passing on Mother Theresa Street
        saw the marquee outside and thought it was the other Gary Moore, the one with the blues guitar.
        However, more intentionally in the audience was the "Kosovo Nightingale," Nexhmiye Pagarusha,
        with a range of her own so incredible as to soar from magnificent ultra-soprano peals
        down to almost a husky, bear-like bass. She said she heard me and was moved to tears,
        hopefully not because I was that bad, but because of the poignancy of, at long last,
        after so much war and bondage, having internationalism recognize her culture's songs.
        I love singing.

        JE comments:  Gary, your experiences astound me.  I would be terrified to perform anywhere in the Balkans, as so many people carry AK-47s.

        Are you sure you're not the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World"?

        See below.

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        • Yma Sumac (John Heelan, -UK 03/30/17 3:16 AM)
          Gary Moore (29 March) wrote of "the "Kosovo Nightingale, Nexhmiye Pagarusha, with a range of her own so incredible as to soar from magnificent ultra-soprano peals down to almost a husky, bear-like bass."

          Anybody remember the Peruvian Yma Sumac (sic--or was it "Amy Camus?") with a five-octave vocal range?

          JE comments: Yma Sumac was an international sensation in the 1950s and early '60s. Wikipedia tells us she was a direct descendant of the Inca Atahualpa, and remains the only Peruvian with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A good way to start off the day is her 1953 "Chuncho" (The Forest Creatures). It's otherworldly.


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    • Operaphobes! There is Hope (Istvan Simon, USA 03/29/17 2:57 PM)
      One possible answer to David Duggan's and Nigel Jones's aversion to Opera is just "well, too bad, but hey, different strokes for different folks."

      Still, being a person who loves opera, I'd like to put in a good word for it. Indeed I dare say that if Nigel and David are unable to appreciate opera at its best, they are the poorer for it. I will illustrate what I am saying with two excerpts from Cosi Fan Tutte by Mozart. I challenge David and Nigel to listen to it with an open mind and tell me if they still do not like it.

      Mozart was a truly extraordinary musician who was able to put into music every human emotion with absolute perfection. And that is the first reason why I think that Nigel is missing the boat with his comments about how "ridiculous" opera is. Opera at its best, is not only not ridiculous, but a far superior art form to either theater or music by themselves. Opera is indeed the combination of theater and music, and that combination is far superior to either one by itself. Music can illustrate emotion far better than mere words can, and therefore it is superior to theater by itself, at least at the hands of a master like Mozart. And conversely, music without the words is too abstract and so also loses a significant component when concrete ideas need to be represented.

      Having said the basics above, let me illustrate it with two absolute gems from Cosi Fan Tutte. By the way, Cosi Fan Tutte is a marvelous opera, full of jokes, really good and funny jokes, and when well done it is tremendously enjoyable, not only because of the music, which is gorgeous and superb, but also for the theater which is also excellent.

      So for those that do not know Cosi Fan Tutte, let me tell the situation at the point of the opera where my first excerpt comes on stage. Cosi Fan Tutte starts with the banter of three friends at a tavern. Two are younger and very good looking soldiers, who are in love with two gorgeous young women. Ferrando loves Dorabella, and Guglielmo loves Fiordiligi, two sisters. The third friend, called Don Alfonso, is older, a bachelor, and a cynic. The younger men are indignant because Alfonso insists that all women are the same, and none has the virtues that the young men attribute to their fiance's, namely unshakable fidelity to their lovers. They end up making a bet. The men must follow every instruction of Don Alfonso for 24 hours, and he will prove at the end of the 24 hours that their fiance's are not faithful to them. The men confidently make the bet.

      The scene changes to where the women are. They are enraptured by looking at pictures of their beloveds. At the end of their singing literally the praises of Ferrando and Guglielmo, Don Alfonso appears at their door. He is deeply distraught, and is crying. Oh what a tragedy. My lips tremble with the terrible news I must give you. The women naturally get quite alarmed at this, and ask if their fiance's are dead. Well, Dead ... (shrieks from the women) they are not, but just a little less than dead. Hurt then? No. What then? The King ordered them to depart immediately for war. And they did not even say goodbye? The unfortunates are outside not having quite the courage to face you. It is at this point that the men come in, embrace their women and the quintet below starts.

      Before we start listening, let me explain that Mozart is an extraordinary master of ensembles like this quintet. His genius can combine the different feelings of all the participants--5 in this case, into one integrated beautiful piece of musical composition, and yet each character has his unique point of view perfectly expressed in the music.

      In our example the men and women are enraptured and in love saying goodbye to each other. The women are crying. This is expressed by them singing haltingly, each word syllable by syllable. They sing write to me every day. Twice if you can. The men agree, consoling their crying tenderly. Be constant to me alone says one of the women. Be faithful says the other. one. Addio sings one and then the other man. The women respond with an inverted melody (descending rather than ascending) like a dagger in the heart, Addio. Meanwhile Don Alfonso looks at this with amazed amusement, since he knows that it is all fake. And he sings: If this goes on any longer I'll burst in laughter. So here it is--two minutes of absolutely spellbindingly beautiful heavenly music:


      A few minutes later this is followed by the following marvelous terzetto. The men have just left and boarded their ship. In this marvelous trio the two women and Don Alfonso wish them a safe voyage:

      Let the winds be gentle, let the waves be tranquil, and all elements obey our desires. This is the marvelously simple yet of sublime beauty this trio starts with. But Mozart adds a characteristic twist the second time this material comes along. Then Mozart when the music comes to that's our desire, the word desir, in Italian, he adds a dissonant heart tugging chord, transforming the simple desire of farewell in the trip into sexual desire. Try doing this without music if we had theater only:


      JE comments:  David and Nigel:  you have your assignment!  Istvan Simon already knows that I much prefer the Romantics to Mozart, but I just listened to the quintet, and it is a masterfully crafted aria.

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      • In Praise of Opera San Jose (Clyde McMorrow, USA 03/30/17 3:31 AM)

        Istvan Simon (29 March) brought up Cosi Fan Tutte as an example of a snappy opera, and it is.

        Opera is an interesting art form and one that has strayed a long way from its pedestrian roots. Keep in mind that the reason for singing the lines is that the only other way to address the audience in those days was to shout at them since the microphone had yet to be invented. I am sure that I previously mentioned that my niece was part of the children's choir for the New York Metropolitan Opera and that, while I usually watched her at the local movie theater on Saturday (you could bring your own wine, eat nachos, and watch the Met, and everyone got the senior ticket rate), one time I saw the performance in New York. Very snooty. Nobody who was anybody watched the little screens with the translation, and everybody talked about how other performers had done the part so much better. The theater itself is cavernous and of dubious acoustic quality. I paid $36 for a single glass of scotch. It was a far cry from the delightful performances at Opera San José.

        Performing in the restored California Theater, every one of the 1,122 seats is excellent. The sight lines are good, the acoustics are OK, and the scotch is $7.00. It is also a first-tier training opera, so we see the stars long before New Yorkers do. My usual seats are Right Side Grand Tier so I can see my bros playing in the pit. But if you sit in the front rows of the Mezzanine, you will be among a large group of very vocal locals of Italian heritage. Ask them about French Opera. The San José audience cheers the heroes and boos the villains, something I never saw in New York.

        So, I suppose it is Grand Opera for grand people--we have one of those in San Francisco (I've never been, too hard to park)--and the real thing for the hoi polloi.

        The Opera San José 2017-2018 season will be Cosi fan tutte, La Rondine, The Flying Dutchman and La Traviata. Blockbusters all. But the best thing about Opera is that it employs musicians. Something to remember in this Trumpian era of concern for coal miners. My daughters want to know why we didn't show the same concern for women telephone operators, keypunch operators, and secretaries. Are we only concerned for technologically disadvantaged males? I seem to wandering off to another topic, so let me end by saying that Republicans should go to the Opera because it creates jobs and Democrats can go because they have good taste.

        JE comments:  Why is the Trump administration only concerned about "technologically disadvantaged males"?  I'm going to remember that question, Clyde!

        Adrian briefly had its own opera company in the late '90s and early '00s, Opera Lenawee.  (We're in Lenawee County.)  It eventually succumbed to economic realities.

        But $36 for a scotch?  Sheesh!  I went to the Met a few times in the 1980s, but must have stayed away from the liquor.  Economic realities...

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    • Nessun Dorma (Edward Jajko, USA 03/30/17 5:09 AM)
      "Nessa dorman"? (See Nigel Jones, 28 March.)

      How about "Nessun dorma!"

      It's a pity that Nigel's error slipped past the editing. Forse uno, l'editore, dormiva.

      JE comments: I thought I was awake, but... 

      Mea culpa, Edoardo.  Just did the edit.  Nessa Dorma--I must have been thinking about Jessye Norman.

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  • Three Opera Anecdotes (John Heelan, -UK 03/28/17 7:53 AM)
    WAISworld's conversation on opera reminds me of three amusing opera events I witnessed when I was working and had to entertain customers at these cultural offerings.

    The first two happened during a Scottish Opera's performance of "Tosca" many years ago. The rather rotund Tosca and her would-be rapist (Scarpia) collapsed on a somewhat rickety bed during the rape scene that in turn collapsed under the combined weight of the two singers. The audience chuckled, ruining the ambience of the scene. Even worse later, when Tosca hurls herself to her death from the ramparts of Castel San Angelo, somebody must have over-inflated the safety cushion on which she was supposed to land. From our viewpoint on the theatre balcony, we watched her bounce on the cushion to reappear above the ramparts two or three times before finally disappearing from sight with a sigh. By that time, the audience was in stitches with laughter.

    Christmas was always greeted by my wife with the moan "We not having to watch the @%#& "Nutcracker" again this year are we?" It was only the delightful company of our guests (and long-term friends) that made it bearable for the nth time.

    JE comments:  This one jarred my memory that WAIS did an opera "unit" in 2012.  John Heelan's "Tosca" experience should be replayed every five years or so:


    I quipped this wisdom back then, and I think it's worth an encore:  "A bad performance turns a comedy into a tragedy, and as John Heelan's experience illustrates, a tragedy into a comedy."

    How about this question:  Are politics in 2017 a tragedy...or a comedy?

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  • How I Took a Liking to Opera (Luciano Dondero, Italy 03/28/17 11:39 AM)
    I used to feel the same way as David Duggan and Nigel Jones about opera. Then one fateful day in Paris a young and lithe French girl put opera on as background music while we were getting acquainted with each other, and ever since I've been utterly unable to listen to opera without been touched inside.

    But you can't always wait for such a revelation.

    Try listening to Sarah Brightman in a duet with Andrea Bocelli.

    Neither one is formally a professional opera singer, but especially when performing "Time to Say Goodbye," they are superb!

    JE comments: Getting acquainted indeed!  In Hollywood films, opera is what serial killers play on the stereo as they ply their wicked craft.  I'm so glad your experience was better, Luciano!

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    • Opera, Chicago, and Karen Carpenter (Again); from Ric Mauricio (John Eipper, USA 04/01/17 3:21 PM)

      Ric Mauricio writes:

      I actually feel the same way about opera as David Duggan, Nigel Jones, and Mark Twain. But I do admire the vocal range of opera singers and there are some musical pieces from opera I enjoy.

      Luciano Dondero's mention of Sarah Brightman (March 28th) does bring up what I do like:  Broadway plays. Are not Broadway shows modern opera? I imagine some aficionados would react in horror that I would compare the two, but both opera and Broadway feature stories, music and excellent vocal talent. I've enjoyed the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the vocals of a Sarah Brightman, Michael Crawford, and Lea Salonga. When I brought my family to New York City, I introduced them to Broadway with a performance of Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. Other shows I enjoy but missed in live performance were Cats and Miss Saigon. And I did enjoy Jesus Christ Superstar (I know all the words).

      As for associating certain music with sad times, for the life of me, I cannot think of any. On the contrary, I often associate certain music with good times. For example, "Suavecito" by Malo reminds me of when I was dating my future wife. "We've Only Just Begun" by the Carpenters and "Just You N Me" by Chicago remind me of my wedding because it was sung by the musical group at my wedding. Beach Boys' music remind me of good times in Southern California and many of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother remind me of when I was a hippie. "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson, "Sweet Dreams" by the Eurythmics, and "Our House" by the British group Madness reminds me of when my kids were little. Looking back, I guess I've had a pretty happy life. My all time favorite song: "What a Wonderful World," by Louis Armstrong.

      18 more days. Question: why does only the District of Columbia celebrate Emancipation Day? I guess the rest of us are still slaves to Washington.

      JE comments:  Ric Mauricio WAISworld's resident CPA, is counting the days until tax season ends.

      I would agree that the "musical comedy" genre is basically a successor to opera--no April Fools'.  Isn't there nearly as much aesthetic difference, say, between Donizetti and Puccini as between Puccini and Webber?

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      • Opera and Me (Tor Guimaraes, USA 04/04/17 2:14 PM)
        I consider myself a relatively recent and picky aficionado of opera. As I seem to do in many other areas of human endeavor, I tend to focus on the output or results from the activity and mostly ignore the players. However, I have noticed a few player-specific things that I found captivating:

        1. The Sarah Brightman mentioned by Luciano Dondero is very pretty besides being a great singer. I guess there is no conflict there.

        2. I listened to Andrea Bocelli (who is great) singing "Nessun Dorma," followed by Pavarotti's interpretation of the same. Perhaps I was too picky, but to me there was a big difference in Pavarotti's favor.

        3. For those who think that opera is just a bunch of obese Italians screaming unintelligibly at each other, I challenge you to listen to Amira Willighagen singing "Oh Babbino Caro" or to others in the link below and not feel different afterwards. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz3OA_nzKe0

        JE comments:  America's TV "got talent" singing shows seem to prefer Puccini over the other Italian Greats.  Anyone care to speculate as to why?

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