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Showing posts from 2015

Disney Animated Opera

People like to complain about the terrible lessons of the old Disney films. Cinderella is too passive. Belle has Stockholm Syndrome. Ariel is just an idiot. And they've tried to appeal more to modern audiences by deviating from the standard stories and creating more proactive princesses in films such as The Princess And The Frog and Frozen, often to the point of feeling really self-conscious and heavy-handed. Not to detract from these movies, of course (and certainly not to detract from the scores, most of which are very good and by Alan Menken). I didn't generate these complaints. I'm relaying them secondhand, and relaying them because I think I can offer a suitable alternative. Several of these classic fairy tales have ready-made operatic alternatives with smart protagonists, good morals, good music, and are out of copyright and already Disney-ready. So to the Disney execs reading this (I know you're out there among my half-dozen or so readers I'm sure I dearly h…

Perusing Prunier

In spite of my last post, and perhaps against my better judgment, I really want to like La Rondine. It's a hodgepodge of romantic cliches, but I see why the characters and setting would have been appealing to Puccini. Well, except for the fact that he didn't seem to write any other operas that even approach being similar. Maybe a little Manon Lescaut. And on the face of it, La Rondine seems like, if not phenomenal, it should at least be a good respectable opera like Francesca Da Rimini. Zandonai's Francesca opera, by the way, is one I readily cite as an example of a terrific score making up for perhaps a less-than-satisfactory libretto. But to me, La Rondine falls flat. But I want to like it. So I'm going to dissect it, focusing on the character of Prunier, the poet. Because when all else fails, making things meta automatically makes them better.

Prunier is the first character to whom we're really introduced. He is a poet, and he has a half-finished song about a wo…

Happy Birthday Puccini! Now, A Question...

Dear Puccini,
First off, happy birthday! Thanks for the great operas and all that. Now, can I ask you a question about La Rondine? The question is... well, La Rondine. I don't get it. I mean, I understand it, but it's like Act I of Die Fledermaus followed by Act II of La Boheme followed by the first half of Act II of La Traviata, but without the baritone part that makes it legit. And then no one dies! So, good job on the music and all that. It's probably one of my favorite scores from you. But... La Rondine. What's up with that?

If You Want To Know Who We Are

Listen up, because I'm about to fix all of the race problems The Mikado may or may not have. My solution is simple and elegant. Set The Mikado in Scotland.

When Sidney Grundy wrote the libretto to Haddon Hall for Sullivan to set, he used a Scottish character to justify some extremely strained rhymes. It is, therefore, I think excusable to make the first line of the show "If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Scotlan'." And all occurrences of the word "Japan" are replaced with "Scotland" and ditto with their respective adjectives. In the case where a three syllable substitute for "Japanese" is needed, the word "highlander" will do, and I don't think anyone will complain.

As for names, well all we need to do is stick on a prefix. Pooh-bah? MacPooh-bah. Nanki-poo? MacNanki-poo. Pitti-sing? Pitti O'Sing. And if the accent is thick enough. No one will care. They'll just hear a sound they assume is a name. A…

This Blog Post Will Change Your Life!

Yesterday (practically, earlier today, but it’s past midnight now and I imagine that the few people who might be reading this will be doing so at a more reasonable hour), someone who had just seen Spring Awakening for the first time the previous night, described it to me as “life changing”. Actually, a handful of people told me it was life changing, but for the sake of story let’s just say it was one. Now I have a hard time swallowing this, because saying something is life changing is a pretty big deal. Or at least it seems to me that it should be. I don’t apply the label a lot, and the only thing I regularly describe as life changing in recommendation is Donald Norman’s book The Design Of Everyday Things. And I say that this book changed my life because I can honestly say that it actually did. I find myself applying what I learned from that book all the time. It’s become part of how I view design, and I can therefore say with complete confidence that it has changed my life.

This is t…

Great Strauss' Ghost!

An Englishman, a Frenchman, and a Hungarian walk into an opera house. The Wiener Staatsoper. The program is the overture to Die Fledermaus, by Johann Strauss II, followed by the rest of the opera, also by Johann Strauss II.

Following the overture, the opera proceeds in much the usual fashion, excepting for the part where everyone seems to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. At the first intermission, the Englishman, Frenchman, and Hungarian walk into the lobby and discuss the show.

"It's good," says the Frenchman, "but it's no French operetta."

"Of course not," says the Englishman. "It's a Viennese operetta."

"As are all great operettas," finishes the Hungarian. "So says the Hungarian composer of Viennese operettas, Lehar."

"But they're not as good as Sullivan's," says the Englishman.

"Or Offenbach's," finishes the Frenchman.

The Englishman turns his head, perplexed. "My good si…

Imagine If You Will...

Imagine if you will a bedridden girl, dying of tuberculosis. Her short breathy phrases are continually interrupted by fits of coughing. She is small, frail, and a two-hundred pound soprano. The orchestra surges, and she launches into a five-minute aria, seemingly unaware of the fact that her lungs ought to be filled with dust by now.

This is the sort of thing we take for granted in opera, and when your primary mode of storytelling is singing your lungs out in a foreign language, there's a lot you have to take for granted. The moment you step into an opera house, have to suspend your disbelief just enough to believe that a whole village of people can sing the same thing at the same time, that they can all launch into spontaneous dance, that they all share the exact same opinion about the leading players, that the leading players can waste ten minutes soliloquizing in song while the chorus just stands there and listens, and on and on and on and on and on. Our fifty-year old Pavarott…

Don't Play Dead

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I saw the City Center Encores! Off Center production of A New Brain yesterday. A New Brain, by William Finn and James Lapine, seems on the face of it a fairly simple concept. Composer-lyricist Gordon Schwinn is stuck writing for a kids' show, a job which he hates, and then he suffers a... brain thing, and has to undergo high-risk surgery, causing him to reevaluate his life, and emerge with a new appreciation for singing frogs. (This is based on a real event in William Finn's life; apparently James Lapine would urge him in the hospital to take notes.)

The musical also concerns how this situation is handled by the other people in Gordon's life, including his mother, his boyfriend Roger, his colleague and friend Rhoda, and a homeless lady.

I suppose I should give a review. (Look at that! My first review!) This review I should preface by saying I absolutely loved the show and all of its elements. I will, however, be trying to give an honest critique of the show. Whatever compl…

Happy Birthday Arthur Sullivan!

On May 13th, 1842, one of my all-time favorite composers Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, was born. Son of a bandmaster, he learned how to play all the wind and brass instruments before picking up a violin or sitting at a piano bench, and it shows in his music. His is easily some of the nicest writing for wind instruments I've ever come across.

At nineteen, he premiered his first major work, incidental music to The Tempest, which set him up quite nicely in the public eye, and he did not disappoint. In his next decade, he composed his greatest and/or most enduring orchestral pieces, including his only symphony, and his Overture Di Ballo. He also wrote a ballet, L'ile Enchantee which is not as well known, as well as the cantata The Masque At Kenilworth and the oratorio The Prodigal Son. The Overture Di Ballo is the only piece of this group that really endured, I imagine in part because its eclectic "potpourri" style, though without an opera attached, is…

Death-Free Drama

So, nobody dies in Aida.

How's that for a hook? Definitely a good tagline for an opera, "Nobody dies!" isn't it? I'd go see that opera.

But really, think about the plot of Aida for a moment. Set in ancient times, there's a king of a country near northern Africa, and he's fighting against a certain people to whom go our sympathies. This king's daughter is involved in a love triangle with a member of said people and a conflicted third party with interests in both factions. The members of the love triangle are a soprano, a mezzo, and a tenor, but not necessarily in that order. Anyway, through some shenanigans, the conflicted third party is sentenced to death, but don't worry, because member of fought-against-people-to-whom-go-our-sympathies and conflicted third party both survive the Act IV curtain, and presumably live happily ever after. Oh, also, there's a famous chorus in the second scene of some act or another that has people singing about th…

Cloncludo, Concludere

The Bridges Of Madison County: "But what is true is that we loved, and that I loved, and that I love, and I will always love."
Closed in three months after 137 performances.

Candide: "Amo, amas, amat, amamus."
Closed in two months after 73 performances.

Merrily We Roll Along: "That's what everyone does: Blames the way it is on the way it was; on the way it never ever was."
Closed in two weeks after thirteen performances.

Conclusion: Don't even try to conjugate verbs on a Broadway stage.

Is Opera Leavened?

There's a surprising amount of classical musical material for Jewish holidays. Handel has Chanukkah covered with Judas Maccabeus, and Purim with Esther. For Pesach, he gives us Israel In Egypt, and then later on we got La Juive from Halevy, and Mose In Egitto from Rossini. There is also Verdi's Nabucco, which, though not directly associated with any Jewish holiday, has themes applicable to Chanukkah, Mendelssohn's Elijah, the title character of which is invoked in the Passover seder, and Bock and Harnick's Fiddler On The Roof, in which Bryn Terfel will be appearing this summer, so it counts.

Now, Passover starts tonight, so wouldn't today be a good day to rant about one of these? I decided to do Mose In Egitto for two reasons. One, it's the one from this list with which I'm most familiar, and, two, I like bel canto.

Bel canto worked on a lot of Baroque traditions. Vocal frills the most obvious. Also the popular cavatina-cabaletta format, which is something …

Set, Trilogies, and Queen Elizabeth

The way you're brought up can affect how you view the world in some seriously strange ways. I, for instance, was brought up with the card game Set. We would mostly (and still do, though less frequently, particularly as we add new games to our collection) play this game on family trips during the evenings when we had nothing else to do. So I've never played Set seriously or competitively (if that's even a thing), but over the years of playing it occasionally, it seems to have become thoroughly ingrained in my mind. This Tetris effect has been lying in wait for quite some time before it decided to to come out into the open.

I was thinking the other day about Donizetti's three queens. I know it wasn't his intention for them to be presented holistically as a trilogy, but that's the way they are today, and so that's the way I was thinking about them. And in particular, I was thinking about all the reasons they make for a terrible trilogy. I mean, I love the thre…

The Tales Of Hoffmann: GOA Order

So I was considering the order of the acts in The Tales Of Hoffmann. Each act, save for the prologue and epilogue, is a mostly independent story about Hoffmann meeting a soprano, falling in love, and, of course, it doesn't work out for various reasons. Meanwhile Nicklausse is just hanging around waiting for Hoffmann to get a clue. The acts were written in the order of Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta (each act being called by the name of the soprano starring in it), which I will shorten here to OAG. But a lot of performances perform the acts OGA, swapping Giulietta and Antonia. There's a very good reason for this, I think, in that Antonia's act is the most dramatic, at least musically, and is the only act to end in true tragedy. Ordering the acts OGA, you start with the fairly lighthearted Olympia act, and then go on to the fairy-tale Giulietta act (okay, they're all fairy-tales; Giulietta feels the most like it to me; it's plot dense, alright?) before getting to the comp…