Wednesday, December 30, 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 hope but probably not), how are these for some upcoming features?

Cinderella La Cenerentola

What's the problem with Cinderella? Well she's too passive. She plays no role in her fate. She waits around for a fairy godmother, goes to a ball, and then leaves without taking any steps to ensure that anything will work out. That she loses the shoe is pure luck, and everything from then on is driven by the prince. Well, the primary boon of Rossini's La Cenerentola is that that prince finally has a name other than "Charming". It's Ramiro, and it's a perfectly good name, so I'm going to be calling him by it.

Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. These are the archetypal examples of fairy tale princesses just waiting for everything to sort itself out. The latter two at least have the excuse of being in comas, but Cinderella is due for a re-branding. James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim had an answer to the problem in Into The Woods. A clever solution too. In their interpretation, as can be heard in the song "On The Steps Of The Palace", is that Cinderella does not know what she wants. She therefore dodges the responsibility of having to choose by leaving the shoe on purpose, therefore putting the responsibility of dictating the ending in the prince's hands. Now she's not passive, but rather actively dodging responsibility. Now that works out well enough for Into The Woods, but isn't exactly a moral Disney might want when they're not planning to kill off half the cast in Act II. And so we need to find a more responsible Cinderella.

The answer is Rossini's La Cenerentola. In this version of the story, there is no magic -- although many productions stage it that way anyway. The fairy godmother stand-in is Ramiro's tutor, Alidoro. In the beginning, he is disguised as a beggar, and he shows up on Don Magnifico's (the wicked stepfather's) doorstep asking for charity. The two stepsisters turn him away, but Angelina (Cinderella/Cenerentola) gives him some food and coffee. On the reveal that Ramiro is searching for a bride at a ball he is throwing, it's made clear that Alidoro is going around scouting for a suitable bride, which is why he provides Angelina with the means to go to the ball.

But Angelina isn't the only person in disguise. Ramiro has disguised himself as his own valet, Dandini. Dandini in turn takes the place of the prince. This for obvious reasons. Angelina falls for the fake-valet, and vice versa. And now instead of running away and happening to lose a shoe, she deliberately gives him one of two matching bracelets for the express purpose of finding her later. In the second act, of course, all the disguises come off and all ends happily ever after.

And so there's no blind luck, no waiting for everything to work out, and most importantly, no glass shoes. Once she's able to, Angelina takes matters into her own hands. She's not going on any grand adventure or leading some movement, but Cinderella is a simple story, and Cenerentola is a bit better of a character. Certainly a better role model than Cendrillon. Also, she's a mezzo, and mezzo-sopranos suffer from a severe lack of good role models in opera.

Beauty And The Beast The Beauty Stone

I don't know that there's really a good way to spin the Beauty and the Beast story. The two main problems, at least with the Disney version, are that the Beast is not a very nice suitor. He essentially takes Belle prisoner. The Stockholm Syndrome interpretation is popular, as is the interpretation that Gaston (who is as far as I can tell Disney's invention) is completely justified in his actions. The other problem is that the Beast becomes a handsome prince at the end, which sort of undermines the "true beauty is on the inside" moral.

The better alternative is the least successful of the Savoy operas, The Beauty Stone. Mostly a failure because as far as serious drama is concerned, it makes The Yeomen Of The Guard look like The Pirates Of Penzance. After the titular stone has been passed around for three acts, it's taken out of commission by the Devil (who also introduced it to the plot and at every turn basically fails at being a devil), and everyone is back at their baseline level of attractiveness. First the cripple Laine gets the stone, and Lord Philip selects her for a bride. Then she becomes disillusioned with beauty, realizing that Philip only wants her for a trophy wife, so she demands to be let go and she discards the stone. Philip is thoroughly ashamed of all this and so he goes off to fight in whatever war is going on because of course there's a war going on. Then after some rigmarole, Saida, who was already the most beautiful soprano in the cast, gets the stone, but when Philip comes back from the war he goes back to Laine. Saida discards the stone in frustration and then the Devil tries to give Saida the "the beauty was inside you all along" speech for some reason. Like I said, he basically fails at being a devil.

There is one minor detail that somewhat undermines the moral, but it is a quick fix which I'm sure the Disney version will take care to make. Saida has the stone at this point, which, given that she was already the most beautiful person in town, makes her that much more beautiful and so all men on stage (except for the devil) automatically fall in love with her. When Philip comes back from the war, he is blinded, and that therefore makes him immune to Saida's spell. He recognizes Laine by her voice. The problem is that it is implied that the only reason Philip is choosing his bride by voice is because he can no longer judge their looks. The solution is to not blind him, but have Laine's voice win him out from Saida's appearance anyway. Laine singing offstage already managed to snap Simon back to his senses at the beginning of Act III, so there's precedent for that, as is there also precedent for Disney princesses having magic singing voices. So it really works out from all angles.

Speaking of magic singing voices...

The Little Mermaid Die Frau Ohne Schatten

This is one that will probably take some rebranding before Disney can roll it out. But then so did the original Little Mermaid. For a more accurate Little Mermaid see Dvorak's Rusalka. But the basic story elements are there, and Strauss' fairy tale opera Die Frau Ohne Schatten covers most of the issues. The main issue being that Ariel is an idiot.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten has no deal with the devil, nor does it have its princess give up her whole life for some man she's never spoken to. What instead sets up the plot is that the Empress (before she was the Empress -- unlike La Cenerentola, in which everyone has names, basically nobody is given a name in Die Frau Ohne Schatten) was a shapeshifter, and one day, in the form of a gazelle, was attacked by a red falcon. The emperor, in turn, was chasing the falcon. At the last minute, the empress assumed human form, and then lost the talisman that gave her her shapeshifting abilities. Stuck as a human, she ended up marrying the Emperor, who is now obsessed with finding that red falcon.

Now, the empress is still not actually a human, although she greatly resembles one. And what betrays this fact is that she has no shadow. Her father, the evil spirit Keikobad (who never appears on stage), insists that she obtain a shadow within an arbitrary time limit or else return to the spirit realm.

A lot of stuff happens in the opera, most of which I'll be skipping past for the sake of simplicity, and because Disney wouldn't include half the stuff in this opera anyway. The basic overview from here on is that the Empress and her nurse (who is the obligatory plucky sidekick -- in the Disney version she's probably a superintelligent axolotl or something like that) go out in search of a shadow. They come across a dyer (the only named character in the piece -- Barak), and his wife. Without going into details, the nurse cons the wife out of her shadow. Just as things are about to go bad (as things are wont to do when you give up your shadow apparently), the Empress has a last-minute attack of conscience at returns the wife's shadow. Keikobad drags them all to the spirit realm and insists that the Empress take the wife's shadow by force. The Empress refuses, and this act of defiance defeats Keikobad and grants her her own shadow. Also, it fixes the Emperor who had been turned to stone for some reason.

With the same basic plot concept -- magic humanoid non-human stuck among humans given arbitrary time limit within which to become human -- if this isn't an improvement over Disney's current Little Mermaid, who does absolutely nothing conducive to her obligatory happy ending -- I might add that the Empress already has a happy ending, no Disneyfication required -- I don't know what is.

Aida Aida

Disney already did Aida. I really don't know what's up with that. But I guess it's not the worst opera they could pick. I mean, it's not like anybody dies.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

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 woman named Doretta. This early in the show, most of the audience should still be paying attention, and so it's pretty clear that this song is going to foreshadow the events of the opera. For the second half, Magda, our leading soprano, takes over. So what we get out of this is that Magda is going to reject a rich suitor for a poor suitor. She's a courtesan, so that should be an easy enough plot.

So that's started out well enough. A little cliche, but at this point I was still willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Well, Magda relates some tales of her youth, and the comprimari suggest that Prunier write about her. Prunier declines on account of he prefers his heroines to have some sort of an edge. He cites Berenice, Salome, and Francesca. I can only assume that the Francesca here is Francesca Da Rimini, which I must take exception to. But then I guess Salome is edgy enough for two sopranos.

Now things get moving. Ruggero comes in. He's the tenor. I mean, Prunier's a tenor too, so you could have been forgiven for thinking he was the protagonist in the first twenty minutes, but now we've got Ruggero, and he's actually the tenor. The way it plays out, Ruggero starts to take the focus, but Prunier keeps trying to pull it back to himself. He is now reading Magda's palm. That's right. We've got a poet who writes prophetic songs and a fortune teller. Also, he calls her a swallow -- that is, a rondine. So now we've heard the title of the opera too. (And in a case where the title isn't the name of a character.) This is where I started to think the opera was getting a bit heavy-handed. But the scene sort of feels like a power struggle between Prunier and Ruggero. Ruggero doesn't really care about the plot of the opera, he just wants to have fun in Paris. But Prunier knows what's up. He's acting as though he's in an opera -- which he is -- and he thinks he's the hero -- which he isn't.

Ruggero asks what to do in Paris. Prunier, a Paris native, is unimpressed with the usual touristy stuff, but now we get a full introduction to Lisette. We'd heard her before. She's had some of the quickest music in the piece. The blabbermouth maid. Now it becomes apparent as she rattles off what one does their first night in Paris that she is the funloving maid as well. The Despina. The Adele. So now we've got two sopranos and two tenors. Prunier wants his soprano to have an edge, so he picks Lisette as the leading lady for his opera. She dresses up in Magda's wardrobe and goes out on the town. Magda dresses down and goes out on the town. Ruggero just goes out on the town.

So as far as Prunier is concerned, Magda is a romantic cliche. He would rather write something he finds interesting. But Prunier isn't the protagonist of La Rondine, Magda is. So this opera is going to be a romantic cliche. Prunier picked the wrong protagonist. He thinks he's in Pygmalion. That he's Henry Higgins and he's going to turn Lisette into a proper lady. But, of course, he's wrong. He's not the main character, and neither is Lisette. That honor goes to Magda. However much Prunier would like to be in another opera, the fact remains that he's in this one.

This could be the part where La Rondine becomes a treatise on opera itself. A sort of Capriccio on the shift from high romantic opera (La Traviata) to verismo (La Boheme). But there's no actual evidence to suggest that this was the intent, and in any case, it falls short, because Prunier's involvement in the opera rapidly decreases from there. After a little bit of stuff in Act II, he only shows up in Act III to tie up the loose ends so that the audience knows that everyone is basically back on square one. Apparently Lisette had a very short offstage singing career, and now she's back to being Magda's maid. Magda, arbitrarily deciding that she can't be with Ruggero -- even though he doesn't care about Magda's "dark secret" and there's no Germont to provide a legitimate motive -- presumably goes back to Rambaldo (who announces via letter that he's prepared to take her back). And nothing comes of Ruggero and Prunier. Not one bit of progress is made over the course of the opera. No one dies, no laughs were had, no lessons seem to have been learned, and Prunier apparently failed in writing an interesting story with an edgy soprano.

So if we take Prunier as the main character of La Rondine, and take his time offstage as important, La Rondine sort of becomes a failed romantic opera about a composer who tries and fails to write a romantic opera. It's the sort of meta-opera you'd find if you followed around the Count instead of the Countess during the events of Capriccio. It's the right opera from the wrong tenor and the wrong soprano.

Now didn't I say everything is better when made meta?

(Note: Basically everything I just said is complete nonsense. It's not Capriccio. It's just a story about a soprano who falls in love with a tenor and drama ensues. I'm reading far too much into it. But I like La Rondine a lot better now!)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

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?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

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. And, of course, we have Mr. MacAdo.

And the best part of this is that the pentatonic scale, which Sullivan uses to establish a Japanese style for the music, is also used in a lot of Scottish folk music. Miya Sama will sound thoroughly Scottish coming out of a bagpipe!

Doesn't it really all seem so obvious now?

Saturday, November 21, 2015

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 the primary case where something may be said to be life changing, and probably the best. A piece of work that presents new information, or presents old information in a new way, and such that it changes your way of thinking. In this way, I might say that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro changed my life, because in analyzing Allegro, I found a new lens through which to view theater. This is not the same as the work itself changing my life, however, and therefore by extension I might say that Sondheim’s book Finishing The Hat, and his musical Merrily We Roll Along changed my life, because it was through those that I first came upon Allegro, and provided me the context for analyzing Allegro that then gave me that new lens. Now Finishing The Hat had already changed my life much in the way The Design Of Everyday Things did, and I apply its teachings to analyzing theater and lyrics regularly, but you can see where this sort of thing gets complicated.

On another level, I might say that Turandot changed my life, in so far as it was my first exposure to opera. But while I still do have a soft spot for Turandot, there’s nothing so special about it that I might not have ended up the same had my first opera been La Traviata or Tosca or maybe something a little more kid friendly that I can't think of off the top of my head right now because I'm tired. By the same token, I am currently involved in a production of Patience, which I may say is changing my life simply from the experience of being in it. But then being in it has also gotten me to study it more, and appreciate it more, and find more in it, and also find more out of Gilbert and Sullivan in general. Now it could be that the opera itself, separate from the experience of being in it, will change my life some years after being first introduced to it.

This is a point in itself, as when something is described as “life changing” it is usually meant to have hit you like a wall the first time you come across it. But I see no reason why this has to be so, and considering this, I might describe a technical or reference book such as a thesaurus or dictionary as “life changing” -- although perhaps it’s best to leave technical aides to a separate category from works of art, and I will not get into the debate of whether or not the dictionary is art at this juncture.

All in all, whether or not something is life changing is very much dependent on context and preference, and above all, it is not an endorsement of quality. If Turandot changed my life, that is not because of anything in the work itself, but because of how it came into my life. The Design Of Everyday Things did change my life, but may not have if I had been introduced to its ideas in some other book, which I would then be touting as having changed my life. Really all it means is that this particular work got its ideas to me first. If a work is the only one of its kind that has those ideas, that just makes it a more likely candidate to be life changing. And that’s the cause of what I have just now decided to call the Oklahoma effect. It probably already exists as a thing under a different name, but I know Oklahoma!Oklahoma! was groundbreaking when it premiered, because no musical before it had integrated the songs into the plot so thoroughly. And even more thoroughly in Carousel. But now songs integrated thoroughly into the plot is the norm. Many musicals now are even entirely sung through, and have gone all the way back around to blurring the line between musical and opera! And because of this, Oklahoma! no longer seems like a game changer. Frankly, it seems a little silly. Oklahoma! would have been called life changing by the theater people at the time, but now when so many people are introduced to so many other integrated musicals first, Oklahoma! is hardly a blip on the map. I think that Carousel is ten times better than Oklahoma!, and between all of Rodgers and Hammerstein's other major works, I'm sure most people rate Oklahoma! fairly low (although it is by no means bad -- simply less impressive to me). But it was first, and so Carousel will never get the honor of being said to have changed the face of musical theater. To say something is life changing is not an endorsement of quality.

There was another reason hearing this person from the first paragraph describe Spring Awakening as life changing after seeing it the previous night bothered me. I mean aside from making me analyse what that phrase really means and stay up way too late writing a blog post. But for the phrase to really mean something, the work has to actually have changed your life. Am I expected to believe that you know within twelve hours of seeing a show that it has changed you as a person? Might you not relapse the next day? Give it some time to digest. If it twelve months you are still considering it as life changing, then I’ll believe you. None of what I listed above as having changed my life did I expect to. It’s only realized on looking back and saying “hey, I apply what I drew from X an awful lot. That must have made an impact on me.” And really, maybe I’m still too young to be talking about things being life changing. Allegro might seem important to me now, but maybe a few years down the line I’ll realize that it was actually just Sunday In The Park With George all along. I mean, I recognize Sunday In The Park With George as a great musical right now, but I don’t think it’s changed my life. Heck, there’s a good chance that I’ll wake up tomorrow (well, later today -- it’s past midnight at the time of writing, remember?) and say “you know what? That was a stupid blog post.” And then delete it and you’ll never actually read this. Unless you’re already reading this, in which case good for you! I didn’t delete this yet!

...I really need to get to bed. Please excuse any typos or other wrong sayings of things. I’m tired.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

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 sir, I don't believe Bach ever wrote any operas."

"Let alone the superior genre known as operettas," chimes in the Hungarian.

"No," agrees the Frenchman. "But Offenbach did."

"No, Bach did not!" exclaims the Englishman. "Or he did, but did so rarely!"

"I think I see our confusion," says the Frenchman. "When I say 'Offenbach did write operas', you hear I am saying 'Johann Sebastian Bach wrote operas frequently.' But I am not. Rather, I am saying that the composer Offenbach did."

"Did what?"

"Write operas."

"Now that's all well and good," agrees the Englishman, "But again I must exclaim 'My good sir,' as I do believe all the Bachs survived to adulthood with both parents intact."

"What are you talking about? What does this have to do with Bax?"

"Well," comments the Hungarian, "we did just sit through the overture to a picaresque comedy."

"Hardly picaresque," rebuts the Frenchman.

"Hardly a comedy,"

"Besides, it was followed by the first act. You can hardly say we 'just sat through the overture.'"

"What are you talking about?" interrupts the Englishman, struggling to get the conversation back on some sort of semblance of a track. "You refer to the orphan Bach, but I don't believe any of the Bachs were orphans. Unless, I suppose, you're referring to the disinherited PDQ."


"He hasn't been born yet, but he's been ready-disinherited."

"No, I'm with Jacque here," interjects the Hungarian. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm not sure..."

"Pay no attention to Arthur and that ridiculous accent of his, Franz," says the Frenchman. "He is an Englishman, and as such holds the work of Gilbert and Sullivan above all others."

"I do!" he exclaims in classic Gilbertian fashion. "For Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas alone maintain their worldwide popularity -- Lehar, Offenbach, and even Strauss only ever wrote one operetta of note. Between them, I think."

"This is true," concedes the Frenchman. "Sullivan has produced the most -- quantitatively -- popular operettas... that no one ever performs! Offenbach's Tales Of Hoffmann sees itself on the stages of opera houses worldwide. The father of French operetta -- the predecessor to English and Viennese operetta --"

"Is Donizetti," finishes the Hungarian. "Le Fille Du Regiment and all that. The only piece of Offenbach's that endures is the one thing he wrote that isn't a lousy operetta! But take Lehar's Merry Widow! Now that is a show that graces opera houses and Broadway theaters alike to cheering crowds! Truly, the Hungarian is the king of operetta!"

"Talk to me when 'Hungarian operetta' is a recognized genre," says the Austrian, stepping into the debate, "as are French, English, and, most importantly, Viennese operetta. The first Viennese school, the second Viennese school, it is only fitting that operetta find its home in Vienna -- where you are all having this debate if you go back and read the first paragraph of this blog post."

"But didn't opera originate in Italy?"

"Good opera originates in Vienna. Gluck and all that."

"Well if nothing else, you're ruining this debate!"

"Why is that?"

"Well, we had a good three-sided argument going to tribute Strauss," explains the Frenchman,  "the waltz-king, and then you show up and make it some sort of... infernal galop! A gavotte! No, worse, a polka!"

"Strauss wrote those too."

"So he did."

"And your idea of a tribute to Strauss was to debate between three other composers of operettas?"

"It wasn't the best-thought-out plan, I concede."

"No, it wasn't. You would have done better to just analyze the opera you're at this opera house to see -- the twelfth most popular opera in the world!"

"Thirteenth most if you count The Mikado" grumbles the Englishman.

"Yeah, well no one counts The Mikado," snaps the Hungarian, "so too bad."

"I don't see why they don't. It's just as artistically valid as operetta Hungary ever produced."

"What about Princess Ida?"

"That was one line because Gilbert wanted to rhyme 'ironmongery'!"

"Look," says the Austrian. "It hardly matters whose works are performed more than whomse, or whose are more artistically valid, or funny, or better salon music. Sullivan, Offenbach, Lehar, they all have their merits, but at the end of the day, the only composer anyone knows is Strauss. Because everyone loves a good waltz."

"You know, until that last bit," mutters the Frenchman, "I really thought he was going to try and unite us together."

"He did," says the Englishman. "He's uniting us against Strauss."

The Hungarian agrees, "I hate that guy now! Except for Capriccio."

The Englishman nods. "Except for Capriccio."

"You can hardly argue with Capriccio, " agrees the Frenchman.

"..." dramatically pauses the Austrian. "Wrong Strauss, idiots."

Sunday, September 20, 2015

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 Pavarotti is a sixteen-year old Manrico. Our five-foot-ten mezzo-soprano is a twelve-year-old boy. Our incredibly diverse chorus members are a homogeneous line of Japanese villagers, all of whom have the same thoughts and sing them all together.

You can probably see where this is going.

NYGASP recently announced that after some backlash, they have cancelled their production of The Mikado this holiday season. This on the heels of the Metropolitan Opera getting a lot of flak for their promotional pictures of Aleksandrs Antonenko playing a "bronzed up" Otello and then getting even more flak from announcing that Mr. Antonenko, to use their phrasing, would not be wearing any dark makeup in the production.

I wanted to talk more about suspension of disbelief, but racism in opera is the hot topic right now, so I'll come back to suspension of disbelief later.

Regarding The Mikado directly, it is important to separate the two types of accusations it's getting. One, that the operetta itself is offensive and should not be performed. Two, that the operetta itself may not be inherently racist, but it should not be performed in "yellowface," and ideally only performed by Japanese actors. I will tackle the first of these accusations first, because it feels more open-and-shut. The second accusation will take us into more discussion about suspension of disbelief. Don't believe me? Keep reading. I'll keep you in suspense a little while longer.

Let's open up the libretto to The Mikado, and using the wonder that is modern technology, let us Ctrl-F Japan. There are sixteen instances of that five character string in the whole libretto. Let's go through them.

The first instance is in the Dramatis Personae, simply listing off as a character "The Mikado of Japan". Completely innocent. The second instance is similarly innocent, as it is a stage direction explaining that the chorus is of "Japanese nobles".

The next two direct references to Japan occur in the opening number. And it is these two instances I could potentially see people taking exception to. The song is an introduction to the setting, and much like how the sailors on the H.M.S. Pinafore describe how they are sober men and true, and attentive to their duty, so do the Japanese nobles describe how they are depicted on many a vase and jar and many a screen and fan. Their attitudes are described as "queer and quaint", and while nothing particularly bad seems to be said, I can understand how this might raise some eyebrows. At the same time, this is no more pronounced than the extremely blunt introduction of the "dainty little fairies" in Iolanthe. It is an opening chorus, and Gilbert's opening choruses tend to be extremely blunt statements of the setting, and perhaps a little bit of premise.

What follows is Nanki-Poo enters, and he sings a song in three sections. A ballad, a march, and a sea shanty. All extremely British in tone, and if not for the fact that five minutes ago the chorus just announced that they are "gentlemen of Japan", you would never guess that this operetta did not take place in the default England. Similarly, when Pish-Tush explains how the Mikado has declared flirting a capital crime, this is absurd, but not at the expense of the Japanese setting. The Mikado could just as easily be Grand Duke Rudolph -- who does in fact pass similar laws restricting flirting in his own operetta, though his aim is economical. And the next character introduced, Pooh-Bah, may just as well be Lord Mountararat or Don Alhambra or any other of Gilbert's pompous noblemen. They are all written rather the same. Couldn't the three little maids from school be Melissa, Sacharissa, and Chloe, home from college at Castle Adamant?

In fact, the Japanese setting is not referred to again until Ko-ko requests that Pooh-bah greet his wards with an "abject grovel in the characteristic Japanese attitude". This is incidental. It matters not if the grovel is Japanese or Italian or Utopian. The joke is at the expense of Pooh-bah, trying oh so very hard to subdue his immense pride. The next mention is similarly incidental. Yum-yum mentions that in Japan, girls do not come of age until fifty. This is clearly ridiculous, but the exchange is similar to one Gilbert had previously written in Iolanthe, and I imagine he didn't want to repeat Phyllis' exact rebuttal. Again, it makes no difference whether the opera is in Japan or Italy or Utopia. Gilbert would have made the same joke, because, let's face it, he's Gilbert.

The operetta proceeds in the regular Gilbertian fashion. The tenor and the soprano can't be together, the comic baritone has to kill somebody, he and two of the basses pass the ticking bomb around in a delightful trio, all normal fare. Japan is not mentioned again until near the end of Act I. Nanki-poo suggests that he might distance himself from Yum-yum and leave Japan. Again, totally incidental. He could be leaving England or Germany or Mount Olympus.

The eighth reference to Japan in the libretto (there are sixteen total -- just about halfway through!) occurs in the Act I finale. The chorus cheers with "the Japanese equivalent of hear hear hear!" Which I think is an incredibly clever line, and also draws attention to the most particular point of the show, which I will come back to. But in the meantime, slipping into other languages, and referring to himself doing so, is something Gilbert indulges in often, perhaps most remarkably in Iolanthe, where in a single verse he states and draws attention to "a Latin word, a Greek remark, and one that's French". More confusingly, earlier in The Mikado, Yum-yum has a beast of a verse in "But as I'm engaged to Ko-ko / To embrace you thus, con fuoco / Would distinctly be no gioco / And for yam I should get toko!" Nothing Japanese here. I just get really impressed with Gilbert's linguistic playfulness.

The last reference to Japan in Act I is another stage direction. It states that the chorus shouts "Japanese words" to drown out Katisha. And it is here that I feel it necessary to point out that the Japanese words are authentic, even if no one in the audience can make them out. Similarly, the chorus Miya Sama in Act II is a legitimate Japanese march. Gilbert inserted it in the libretto and Sullivan merely orchestrated it. That, just as Gilbert insisted the sets and costumes be, is authentically Japanese. (There is some debate as to whether "O ni! Bikkuri shakkuri to!" actually translates to anything meaningful. It would seem to me that the general consensus is "yes, but loosely." It is probably not good Japanese, but it is Japanese.)

Come to Act II, Yum-yum talks of how she sits in her "artless Japanese way". Again, for "Japanese" read "Utopian" or "German" or anything else you please, and nothing changes. So it is also with how Yum-yum is "the happiest girl in Japan" and how the Mikado is "the emperor of Japan" and how he "in Japan exists" and how he is the father to the "heir of the throne of Japan" and how Ko-ko has apparently slain the "heir to the throne of Japan" and that breezes us through all but the very last mention of Japan in the libretto.

The last mention is a line in which Ko-ko mentions that Nanki-poo's name "might have been written on his pocket handkerchief, but Japanese don't use pocket handkerchiefs!" This along with the "Japanese equivalent of hear hear hear" and a few other incongruities with the Japanese setting (my favorite being the recurring joke of the second trombone -- thankfully the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas only feature two trombones in the pit or The Mikado would have been banned long ago) draw attention to the fact that The Mikado does not, in fact, take place in Japan. It rather takes place in what is basically the Knightsbridge Japanese village. This being the source of one of the most pointed, and missed, jokes in the whole libretto:
        Ko-ko: (Referring to Nanki-poo) In point of fact, he's gone abroad!
        Mikado: Gone abroad! His address?
        Ko-ko: Knightsbridge!

Right on the heels of the Meiji Restoration (depicted in Sondheim's musical Pacific Overtures, which does take place in Japan, though to less objection, probably due to an all-Japanese cast and just general obscurity), there was a huge surge of interest in England of "all one sees that's Japanese," as Gilbert puts it in Patience. In Patience, Gilbert parodies the sort of a character who would pretend to like Japanese culture to appear intellectual. In The Mikado, he turns it up to eleven. He was parodying the English craze with all things Japanese as today one might poke fun at western obsession with anime. (In fact, "anime nerds" might make a good addition to Ko-ko's list... "The followers of pop stars -- teenage lovesick maidens they / Whose screaming wont desist / I've got them on the list / And fellows who obsess with comic books and anime / They'd none of them be missed / They'd none of them be missed /  And people on their blogs who won't stop shoving in your face / Any issues The Mikado may or may not have with race / But of all these sins I'm listing, far the greatest of these wrongs / Is making up some different words to Mr. Gilbert's songs / So this impulsive urge to rhyme I will try hard now to resist / For I know I'd not be missed / I'm sure I'd not be missed.")

(Best way to protect yourself from criticism: Criticize yourself first. Best way to avoid being called out for dodging criticism: Call yourself out for it first.)


But the point is this. The Mikado is not set in Japan any more than The Gondoliers is set in Italy, or The Grand Duke is set in Germany. And let's face it. Is Yum-yum really that much more silly a name than the Baroness von Krakenfeldt? One need only hear "Knightsbridge!" or "A Wesleyan Methodist!" or any of Julia Jellicoe's lines to know that none of these operettas take place where the costumes suggest. They are all England with trimmings.

Those trimmings, specifically, are costumes, sets, and makeups, and this brings us to the second accusation against The Mikado. I have laid out the script. It's up to you to decide which references to Japan you find offensive, but I really only see one or two raising eyebrows on their own. The question now is whether it is acceptable to dress up non-Japanese actors in costumes and makeup that make them appear Japanese.

Right off the bat I think we can agree that any sort of garish yellowface makeup should not be used. But tasteful stage makeup and Japanese costumes? I don't see why not. In the original production, Gilbert tried his hardest to ensure that all the staging was as authentically Japanese as possible, and most good major G&S troupes attempt to do the same. It is incredibly difficult to collect an all-anything cast, especially in Gilbert and Sullivan where I imagine the audition pools are somewhat limited. In opera as a whole, really. As the demands made on the singers are very great, and it is often difficult to find someone even capable of singing a certain role, it is simply most reasonable to cast whoever is best qualified for the part, and count on the fact that it is literally the job of an actor to pretend to be something he is not. A human can play a fairy or a dragon. An office worker can play a king. Heck, a man can play a woman and vice versa! We're not going to demand castrati be brought back just to make Cherubino authentic, are we? So why draw the line at race? Especially when such lines are so uneven. Leontyne Price can play Sieglinde in Die Walkure, and I don't think I need to say what Wagner might have thought of that. Even more in Wagner's face, a Jew could play Parsifal! I don't know that any have, but I can't possibly see anyone objecting in this day and age. But while it's generally accepted, as it should be, that minority actors should be able to play typically white roles, could Leontyne Price play Cio-Cio San? Or Turandot? And can the Korean-american Kathleen Kim play the African Dido? The Metropolitan opera chorus has singers of all sorts of backgrounds, but they all need to be Scottish for Lucia Di Lammermoor and French for La Boheme and Japanese for Madama Butterfly. If a white Renata Tebaldi can play a highly acclaimed Japanese Cio-Cio San, why can't a white John Reed have the same liberty to play Ko-ko? And Madama Butterfly derives more from Japanese stereotypes than The Mikado. I don't want to cry "reverse racism" or anything like that, but there is definite inconsistency with how this whole race thing is handled, and while it would be nice to see it resolved if only for consistency, I don't think that's about to happen. Nor do I think it should need to.

Going back (in classic Da Capo fashion) to Aleksandrs Antonenko in Otello, there are a few arguments being raised, both in favor and against the Met's decision to leave him Latvian. On the one hand, dark makeup or blackface, even for a character in an opera, can be seen as offensive -- and is also almost universally bad makeup, drawing attention to the makeup and away from the story making it hard to take seriously. On the other hand, it is a character thing, and might playing Otello without makeup lead to audience confusion? On the other hand, the race of Verdi's Otello is not as big a plot point as it is in the Shakespeare play. And poetic language, as the librettos to operas usually  are (and Verdi's Otello is no exception) can often make things feel ambiguous. On the other hand, is this making Otello white? And if so, is that "stealing" a role that ought to be played by a black actor? And I don't think so. When you step into an opera house, you have to make certain allowances and be prepared to accept certain things. You must accept that that adult woman is a teenage boy, and that that poison is waiting to act until the soprano is done singing. You must accept that the entire chorus is all the same, and that some of them are pretending to be something they're not. Most of the actors are certainly pretending to be something they're not, whether that's a man, a woman, a lord, a farmer, a courtesan, a British soldier, a Japanese emperor, an African princess, anything at all. To quote Anna Russel, "That's the beauty of grand opera; you can do anything, as long as you sing it!"

I'd like to say that I'm really happy with how this blog post mapped out. The Mikado derailed me from the intended topic of suspension of disbelief at the beginning, but it has now brought me smoothly back. I hope I didn't leave you in suspense long?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Don't Play Dead

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 complaints I may have, though, and whatever flaws I may point out, the fact remains that I absolutely loved it.

As a show, A New Brain is oddly paced and surreal. Its roots as a song cycle show through at every turn, where it flits from action songs to soliloquies to Greek-chorus-style interludes with no discrimination. The show is mostly sung-through with very little intervening dialogue between songs, usually only a few words if anything, and so with all that flitting around, the pacing is somewhat haphazard.

I did not see the original 1998 off-Broadway production. I would have been too young. So this was my first experience seeing the show, though I'd done my research and listened to the original cast album (a good thing too, as at times the sound balance was such that it was difficult to hear what was being sung). It seems to me that some efforts were made to fix some of the more major pacing issues, including cutting out the two latter songs of what I gather was a sort of coma dream sequence, opening with Brain Dead, sung by Gordon, and followed by Whenever I Dream (sung by Rhoda), and Eating Myself Up Alive (sung by Richard, the nice nurse). I understand that even Brain Dead is highly surreal, and including the latter two songs would have only served to drag the show out, but I do miss them from the cast album, if for no other reason than that they're catchy.

All that said, there was one major problem with the pacing that could not be solved without seriously cutting down the show. The problem is that the climax of the show occurs in the coma sequence, Brain Dead being the eleven-o-clock number. Don't Give In seems like an ideal finale, and by that point the audience is perfectly content to see Gordon wake up from his coma and go home. But no, we have to see how the experience has affected him, and so we have to sit through another fifteen minutes of epilogue after it feels like the show has already ended. And it's a good epilogue, and I think it's important to the show to see how the experience affects Gordon, but it does not dramatize well, because that's all character observation. The plot ends when Gordon wakes up at the end of Don't Give In. The only reasonable solution I can think of that might work would be to cut out everything after Don't Give In, except for the final Spring Song, just cutting to that, making it clear in the direction that some time has elapsed in the interim. That bookends the show, displaying Gordon's character development from his first attempt at the Spring Song which opens the show. It's not a perfect solution, but it would fatigue the audience less while still incorporating Gordon's character development.

The surreal elements of the show got a little out of hand, notably in the character of Mr. Bungee, the singing frog Gordon writes songs for. Despite James Lapine's wonderfully inventive staging, it is not always entirely clear when Mr. Bungee is actually in the room with Gordon, or when he's at some other physical location, or when his appearance on stage is simply a figment of Gordon's imagination. This most notably in Don't Give In, which opens with Mr. Bungee directly addressing the audience (his audience on the TV show), but then turning to Gordon. He may still be metaphysical at this point, but then Roger, Rhoda, and Mimi (Gordon's mother), join in, and they are very clearly actually in the room with Gordon. It doesn't detract from the song, which is a wonderful one, but it's just a little odd is all.

I suppose this brings us to the cast. In short, the show was absolutely perfectly cast. Really, they were all phenomenal. But if you want to read specifics, by all means go on.

Jonathan Groff, of course, starred as Gordon Schwinn, and completely did justice to his being Jonathan Groff. I can't think of any significant way he could have been better, but still, he managed almost to be upstage in almost every scene by his co-stars, all perfectly cast. Perhaps it's more because the other characters tend to be more dramatic. Dan Fogler as Mr. Bungee in particular hammed it up, to the point that it was sometimes difficult to understand what he was saying, as he sacrificed comprehensibility for emotion. Ana Gasteyer sold her scenes exceptionally well as Gordon Schwinn's slightly manic mother, and Bradley Dean played the eccentric doctor with all the appropriate panache. It would also seem he doubled as Gordon's father, a character who appears in the staging only -- though in this production, the lines Gordon quotes from his parents in And They're Off were sung by those characters themselves. Quentin Earl Darrington sang the part of the minister splendidly, and though his character is not an important one, his singing easily carried the numbers he was in. I was highly disappointed in Gordo's Law Of Genetics not to hear him go the octave down on the final "will always predominate."

On the line of octaves, this brings us to the nurses. Josh Lamon played the character of Richard, the nice nurse, with as much ham as you could ask for. I was disappointed, though, because his part seemed to be transposed up an octave from what's on the original cast album (on which the role is sung by Michael Mandell). I am not sure if the style in which he sings works nicely with the tenor octave, but I suppose that's a matter of personal preference.

Jenni Barber was a particular highlight as Nancy D, the thin nurse. She easily matched Kristin Chenoweth's performance on the original cast album. After seeing her performance, I became retroactively disappointed in the removal of the character of the waitress from the condensed first scene. Originally, the waitress and the thin nurse were both played by Kristin Chenoweth. Seeing Jenni Barber interpret the hyperactive waitress certainly would have been a delight. But even without the extra character of the waitress, Jenni Barber played a colorful Nancy D, and held a wonderful good cop/bad cop dynamic with Josh Lamon as Richard. (Or a nice nurse/thin nurse dynamic, to be more specific.)

Moving on, Rema Webb brought down the house as the homeless lady. (Who is apparently named Lisa?) I don't know what else to say. She was fantastic.

Before seeing the show, City Center sent out an email, I suppose to build hype, which included a link to this video:

Clips from the show, including selections from several of the major songs from the show, including Change (sung by the homeless lady), The Music Still Plays On (Mimi), And They're Off (Gordon and company), and, of course, Sailing, sung by Roger, played by Aaron Lazar. Roger not being a particularly eccentric role, like most of the cast are, it was clear that Aaron Lazar did, in fact, legitimately upstage Jonathan Groff. Or, would have if, one, they shared more scenes together, and, two, they weren't such good actors as to play off of each other, making it difficult for anyone to upstage anyone else. Lazar in particular shone vocally, perhaps better shown in the preview clips from Theatermania, featuring him singing a more climactic cut from Sailing:

I feel I've been really underselling Jonathan Groff here. He was, of course, also fantastic.

Gordon Schwinn is the main character of A New Brain. He's the one the audience is most supposed to sympathize with, and, perhaps as an aspiring musical theater composer myself (samples of my music are on the other tab of this blog), I feel a little obligated to try and identify with Gordon. On the flip side of the coin is Rhoda. Rhoda seems like she should be the least interesting character in the show. She's there to give Gordon someone to complain to in the first scene, and also to tell him that Mr. Bungee is rehearsing the Yes song tomorrow. She's a conduit for exposition, and also a false-lead love interest so there's some comic element with the reveal that Roger is Gordon's boyfriend. At least, I think that's the case. The panic in that scene eliminated any comic element, but the setup makes it seem like it was supposed to be at least a little funny.

The Theatermania set of preview clips (the second set) includes a brief excerpt from Don't Give In. The bit where Roger and Rhoda join in with three words each. "Don't play games" for Roger, and "Don't play dead" for Rhoda. And this brings us to the last member of the cast.

Alyse Alan Louis as Rhoda completely sold me on those three words in the preview clip. I think it was probably a combination of the costuming and staging, the delivery, and just finally seeing that line with visuals attached, but all of a sudden, I was extremely excited to see Rhoda in the full performance. After hearing just three words.

I am happy to say Ms. Louis did not disappoint. Right from scene one, she and Jonathan Groff engaged in a delightful musical banter, and she continued to play the part perfectly through the following sets of concern, panic, and all of the other dozen colors the character can have with a good actress. Indeed, this actress offered a wonderfully nuanced interpretation which struck a chord with me. No pun intended about chords in a musical about a composer.

(I stated above that I understand why the latter two songs of the coma dream sequence were cut, but I would love to have seen her singing Whenever I Dream. Although perhaps that song is a little out of character for Rhoda.)

With this performance, suddenly a character who seemed so bland on the cast album suddenly clicked with me. I'm not quite sure why, but with this performance, the character I found least interesting before I suddenly find the most interesting. Almost certainly to do with Alyse Alan Louis' remarkable performance. She has performed on Broadway as Sophie in Mama Mia! and I hope to see her name again on playbills in the future in more and more major roles.

I thought I might have something more meaningful to say than just a straight-up review, but the review ended up taking so long that I guess that'll be it. I don't expect A New Brain to become one of City Center's Broadway transfers, like the long-running Chicago, but perhaps after Next To Normal became a hit, audiences are more receptive to A New Brain's eccentricities, and it will hopefully see increased popularity in the future. The show certainly deserves it. It is not without flaws, but the wonderful songs by William Finn, tied together by James Lapine's intriguing book fill their purpose about as well as any show could be expected in dealing with this subject matter. This show is what William Finn wanted to convey, and since he's the one who actually went through it, who am I to argue?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

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 most similar to the style he is famous for nowadays in he operettas.

The operettas were indeed a huge hit in his career, but he was a huge success aside from them as well. In his day he was England's top composer, and throughout the operettas, he continued composing his serious works, including incidental music to more plays, including a lot of Shakespeare, a number of part songs (of which The Long Day Closes still has some popularity), and The Martyr Of Antioch, which does somewhat qualify as a G&S collaboration, given that Gilbert did adapt the poem into a usable libretto for Sullivan.

There was another cantata too. The Golden Legend, which received rave reviews, and is easily one of Sullivan's greatest works. It quickly became Britain's second most popular oratorio, overtaking all but The Messiah. It is the piece that prompted Queen Victoria to tell Sullivan that he ought to write a grand opera; that he'd do it so well.

This was toward the middle of his career in operetta with Gilbert. Before their biggest hit with The Mikado, which could possibly make a claim to being the most popular opera in the world. Unfortunately, no one ever counts it in the polls, and most major opera companies will pass it over in favor of the oh-so-much-more-operatic Die Fledermaus, among others, so statistics put La Traviata on top for the time being.

If nothing else, Sullivan composed music to the setting, and this can be heard very well in the severely differing scores of the fairy-tale Iolanthe, the faux-Japanese Mikado, and the melodramatic Ruddigore, among others. But Sullivan was less than satisfied with mock-melodrama. He wanted to write something actually serious. Sure enough, his next collaboration with Gilbert, The Yeomen Of The Guard, was a more serious affair, with a much statelier score, befitting the Tower Of London setting in the 16th century. But stately is not necessarily what Sullivan was going for, and while he appreciated Gilbert writing a more serious text, he also found the text to be somewhat too rhythmically regular, and did not make for good musical setting. The result was a compromise in their next collaboration, and, to my mind, their best, The Gondoliers. Gilbert got to write the sort of comedy he did best, and Sullivan got a colorful setting with centuries of musical history to indulge in, plus a lot of extended sequences with little to no dialogue -- all music. The result is the closest Gilbert and Sullivan came to writing a full-on opera.

But not the closest Sullivan himself came. See, part of the compromise was also that D'Oyly Carte agreed to produce Sullivan's grand opera, Ivanhoe. Gilbert refused to write a serious grand opera libretto, feeling that, one, his words would then be simply to serve Sullivan's music, and, two, the public wouldn't accept a grand opera with Gilbert's name attached. The latter fear proved to be well grounded, as one of Sullivan's later operas, The Beauty Stone, though similar in form to the light operettas, was much heavier in tone. But the audiences, seeing Sullivan's name attached to a Savoy opera, were expecting a light evening. When they did not get that, The Beauty Stone, marvelous as it is, became Sullivan's biggest failure.

Not with Ivanhoe, though. Carte even built a new opera house just to premiere it! Ivanhoe achieved terrific success, running for an unheard of 155 consecutive performances. (The show was actually double-cast so that it could be performed on consecutive nights.)

With Ivanhoe, Sullivan set out to create a truly British form of grand opera. I think he succeeded. It is not Verdian, not Wagnerian, certainly doesn't resemble anything French, but instead sounds distinctly British. He touches on all aspects of nationalism, too. The scenes in the forest with the nature of England's terrain. The major political and religious conflicts in the story (while not nationalist, I must commend Sullivan considering his lack of experience in the area, on how he covers the Jewish character of Rebecca's music quite nicely). And the whole libretto has a whole lot of Anglo-Saxon pride. (It's based on a Walter Scott book; what did you expect?) It is an altogether terrific work. David Lyle compared the opera's nine scenes to nine finales, calling attention of the generally extended Act I finales of the famous operettas, the sort of which make up several scenes of The Gondoliers. But with respect to Ivanhoe, while I see where Lyle is coming from, I respectfully disagree. The Act I finales tend to be potpourri style, like the overtures, an episodic assortment of songs. Sullivan is sometimes criticized as having been unable to write long-form works, but this is simply not true. While Ivanhoe does have distinct arias, and could to an extent be called a "numbers" opera, it is through-composed as anything by Verdi. Maybe not quite so much as Wagner, but Puccini wouldn't be a stretch.

Unfortunately, Ivanhoe is unperformed today. It could do with a revival. Any opera companies want to get on that?

Ivanhoe wasn't without issues, though. During the run of The Gondoliers, Gilbert and D'Oyly Carte got into a dispute over whether a new carpet for the theater should be counted as a production cost. Sullivan, wanting to stay on Carte's good side to get Ivanhoe produced, sided with Carte. This led to Gilbert and Sullivan's falling out. They did eventually get back together with Utopia (Limited), which is sometimes considered a sub-par work, but I quite like it. To me, it's Gilbert and Sullivan's celebration and parody of themselves. There are a number of references to some of their prior works, and it's so much more over-the-top that it can almost only be enjoyed by already established Gilbert and Sullivan fans. It doesn't hold up as well on its own, but in the context of the entire Gilbert and Sullivan canon, it is a wonderful piece of work.

Sullivan generally isn't viewed as a landmark composer, but he should be. He's the first major English composer after Purcell, and he leads directly into the era ruled by Elgar and Holst and Vaughan Williams. Of these, his direct influence is most clear in Elgar, but it is present all around. Sullivan could easily be called the father of English nationalist music. This is perhaps most clear in one of his last works, the ballet, Victoria And Merrie England (and if that's not a nationalist title, I don't know what is!) written for Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee. Like Ivanhoe, the first (and perhaps only) English grand opera, Victoria And Merrie England covers all the aspects of nationalist music, and does so much more thoroughly. It opens with a peaceful pastorale, and the score is littered with smatterings of folk tunes, and good imitations of what sounds like folk tunes. Before Vaughan Williams, Sullivan evoked the English countryside beautifully in this ballet. The more stately political pride is covered too, as you might imagine. This ballet contains Sullivan's moderately-not-unknown Imperial March, as well as a humorous little quote of the "He is an Englishman" tune from H.M.S. Pinafore. Also a hornpipe.

Sullivan was not without criticism, though. He was sometimes accused of being lazy, using pedal tones, parallel fifths, not forcing his music into the regularly established strict forms. In that way, I guess you might say Sullivan was a progressive. Something I find both interesting and infuriating about his music is his tendency to seamlessly shift keys. It's nigh impossible to hear him do it from just listening, and it's not just tonic-to-dominant either. He even goes seamlessly between fairly remote keys! It's like he didn't know he was doing it either! No self-respecting serious musician (as Sullivan wanted to be) would do something so unorthodox, right? Well, when confronted about those parallel fifths, his response was simple:

"It doesn't matter, so long as there is no offense to the ear."

Listening to Sullivan's music, is anyone's ear offended?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

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 their homeland.

Why yes, I am using these incredibly vague descriptors to talk about about Nabucco!

I'm not going to pretend that Aida and Nabucco share a synopsis, because they don't, but there is at least similarity enough, even in the setting, that it makes sense to analyze these two operas together, particularly as an observation of Verdi throughout his career, Nabucco being his third opera, and the one that made him a real hit, and Aida being his third-to-last, as if that were an important number.

Verdi, aside from being the most popular Italian opera composer ever, with La Traviata being the number one opera worldwide according to Operabase, is arguably the most important Italian opera composer ever. True, Rossini was king in his day, but his operas were written to be disposable. Of his thirty-nine, only Il Barbriere Di Siviglia and La Cenerentola really stuck, though some of his grander operas like Semiramide and La Donna Del Lago make their rounds once in a while. Verdi made opera stick, and was the primary transitional composer of his time, coming in on the heels of the bel canto era, and paving the way for Puccini. Puccini never did anything quite so grand, but I could see him having written, say, Falstaff. And at the same time, it isn't hard to imagine that Rossini or Donizetti might have written Ernani. Verdi crossed an incredible range in his career, and of his thirty or so operas (depending on how you count revisions), ten of them make Operabase's top fifty. (For comparison, the next two leaders, Mozart and Puccini, each have five.)

Nabucco comes across about as you might expect an opera seria in the bel canto era. The dialogue is conveyed in recitativo accompagnato, often followed by a cavatina to which a cabaletta is attached. Regular bel canto fare, and for Nabucco, it fares very well. Some of the arias, particularly Zaccaria's, might run a little long, but Nabucco is an opera that runs on high strung emotional characters, shocking revelations, and epiphanies. Excellent subject matter for all sorts of exciting cabalettas. Meanwhile, Aida is an opera that runs on high strung emotional characters, shocking revelations, and epiphanies. Not good subject matter for wasting time of cabalettas.

Actually, Aida doesn't run on its characters, or even the plot, even though it's a pretty good one. Aida runs on the setting. It's the big opera everyone knows that takes place in ancient Egypt and might have an elephant. It's the archetypal grand opera. People go and see Nabucco for the script and the music, but people flock to see Aida for the spectacle.

Truth be told, I'm not exactly sure how to reconcile this with the different musical treatments Verdi gives them. In all honesty, it probably doesn't matter. They could have been written in the reverse order, and then I'd be talking about Nabucco as the spectacle and Aida as the bel canto follow-up. But grand opera was a thing in the bel canto era, and Rossini's Guillaume Tell runs just fine on recitativo accompagnato and his usual cavatina/cabaletta aria format, and Ponchielli's La Gioconda on its more through-composed verismo style. I would say Nabucco benefits from its late-bel-canto-ness, but that's because it has. Similarly how Aida has benefited from its early-verismo-ness. I'd be better off comparing the dozen different operatic adaptations of Jerusalem Delivered, but Verdi didn't write any of those.

Something curious in the development from recitative to through-composedness is how Verdi handles it toward the middle of his career. All over Rigoletto and Il Trovatore and, my favorite of his, La Traviata, is something that's not quite accompanied recitative, but still not what you might call a song. See the famous duet between Rigoletto and Sparafucile for a prime example. The orchestra is playing a rather hummable tune. Catchy, even. It moves along nicely. Meanwhile, our baritone and bass are singing over it in what feels like the regular pace of dialogue and normal recitative, occasionally slipping into the tune. This is not Verdi's invention. Mozart uses the in Le Nozze Di Figaro in the Act III finale. During the dance scene (or starting at Ecco La Marcia), the orchestra is playing a dance tune, but the characters are still singing what feels like recitative. La Traviata uses it an awful lot, which makes sense considering about half of that opera takes place at assorted parties. It's a curious thing, and an interesting step in the development of recitative -- or away from recitative, if you prefer. Aida seems to do away with the recitative altogether. By the time we get to Puccini, yes there are some clear individual arias, but it's not so clear what comes in between them.

Aida also notably does something interesting with the overture. Originally, Verdi had planned on writing a potpourri-style overture, like he did with Nabucco. But this was scrapped for something else. A prelude, very serene to start, but which picks up and then draws back again. That doesn't really matter. What does matter is that there does not feel to be a break between where the prelude ends and the opera begins. Yes, there is a distinct line that you can cut off at for the track listing, but the opera begins with what feels like an extension of the overture. Not like Rigoletto or La Traviata, which open with dark or grim themes, setting up the opera as a whole, while opening the first act itself with a wild party. That contrast is, I think, what makes those preludes so fantastic, because it is a contrast that pervades those entire operas, and the opening scene of any stage performance is an establishing moment that must be perfect. Nabucco's establishing moment, its overture of the potpourri style, tells the audience that this is a showpiece. A dramatic one, but a showpiece. It sets up the bel canto feel. The feel we might expect from a Broadway show before West Side Story came along with its ballet-prologue rather than an overture. Aida sets up something different. Something more serious. The audience is paying attention to the prelude, but at some point the prelude becomes the opera, and before you know it, you're halfway through the exposition. It sets up the opera to be immersive. And indeed, while in Nabucco the audience is thrilled by the vocal acrobatics and the wonderful melodies, in Aida, the audience is totally encapsulated all the way through to the happy ending.

Yes, it took me this long to come to the point where nobody dies in Aida. Well, now that you've slogged through all that, I'll come to it now. See, the curtain falls on Aida before she and Radames actually die. It falls as they're being sealed inside the tomb, but for all we know, Amneris secretly had an escape passage built in. Or the tomb isn't airtight and Aida smuggled in enough supplies to keep them going for a while while they dig themselves out. Or Godzilla smashes in and rescues them. Yes, it's cheap (though there have been other resolutions in operas just about as cheap), but it got you reading, didn't it?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

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.

Friday, April 3, 2015

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 like both an extension and reduction of the da capo aria. Less obvious is the return to high mythological or fantastical stories. Baroque operas tended to deal with gods and heroes and highly romanticized foreign locations. This tends not to be dealt with again until Wagner, but it is extremely prevalent in the bel canto era. This tends to be forgotten, as the most popular operas from this period, Il Barbriere Di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, L'Elisir D'Amore, Don Pasquale, and so on, tend to be light fluffy comedies for which the light fluffy music associated with Rossini and Donizetti seems ideal. Lucia Di Lammermoor is the only dramatic bel canto opera really in the standard rep. Dramatic bel canto is making a comeback, though, thanks in large part to Joyce DiDonato, who champions it. La Donna Del Lago took the Met stage for the first time last month, and next season it will see all three Donizetti queens. The oft-forgotten Bellini is also gaining in popularity, and thanks to Joyce DiDonato's recent Stella Di Napoli album, I won't be surprised if we see some of those operas take the stage in the near future.

Mose In Egitto comes from the middle of Rossini's career, one of his Neapolitan operas, written to feature Isabella Colbran. It falls in the same general set as Armida and Ermione, but perhaps is better compared to Rossini's last opera, Guillaume Tell. Rossini did revise Mose In Egitto later in his career, and it became a French grand opera, Moise Et Pharaon. Following it was Le Comte Ory (his last comedy), and then Guillaume Tell, so from that perspective, the two operas are not so far removed in his career. And Guillaume Tell got an Italian version later, so they're sort of on the same page.

The title characters of both are neither tenors nor sopranos, which seems to be the norm. William Tell is a baritone, and Moses is a bass. Speaking as a bass myself, I appreciate this. What I don't appreciate is that in both operas, that low-voiced titular character still isn't the protagonist. The main characters of these operas are, of course, tenors. Arnold Melchtal and Osiride. Arnold at least is a likable character, but I'll admit to not really being sure if Osiride is supposed to be a villain or not, and, to be honest, he kind of ruins the opera for me. Instead I might have focused more on Pharaoh (the French version of the opera is half named after him, after all), and make him a more nuanced character and foil to Moses than a bland villain who changes his mind a lot. Pharaoh is a character already in the story, and one that perhaps could use a bit more characterization. A lot of people complained about how the new Hobbit movies introduced an unnecessary romantic subplot that wasn't present in the book. That's basically how I feel about this opera. The romantic elements are either uninteresting or unremarkable, and it detracts from what I feel does make the opera interesting and remarkable.

Right from the beginning, it's clear that Mose In Egitto is not your normal Rossini opera. Mostly due to the lack of overture. The opera opens more theatrically than you would expect from Rossini, with the plague of darkness. It's kind of meta, if you think about it. When the lights go dark in the theater and the opera begins. There's a short orchestral prelude, and as the curtain rises and the stage lights come up, the plague lifts. And then there is a scena unlike anything else Rossini ever wrote. I would never have believed Rossini could have written it. I would have guessed Verdi. And not early Verdi either. This continuous throughout the opera, the brilliant un-Rossini-like music to the grand miracles. The storm of fire Moses calls for, and the whole final scene with the parting of the red sea, and the absolutely stunning trio-with-chorus, Dal Tuo Stellato Soglio, which precedes it. If not for the love story with Osiride and Elcia, or perhaps even despite it, I would say Mose In Egitto to be a real gem of Rossini's career, and the bel canto era as a whole. Perhaps we can have a reduced version for use at Passover seders? I wouldn't mind Miriam's role being a little expanded, though. Contrary to popular belief, Rossini could write grand opera. It's a shame he didn't write a few more of them.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

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 three queens (well, I love Anna Bolena, I like Roberto Devereux, and I enjoy Maria Stuarda for the music), and certainly do not want to detract from either their individual quality or the herculean feat of singing all three, but I was thinking, and I came to the realization: Wait a minute -- I'm playing Set!

Set is a pattern recognition game. There are eighty-one cards, all unique, and each with four attributes. Color, shape, number, and shading. Twelve cards are laid out on the table at a time, and the goal is to spot "sets" of three cards. Valid sets are such that for each attribute, the three cards in the set either share it between all three, or don't share it at all. In other words, no two can share an attribute without the third also sharing it. (Come to think of it, this is like an inverted visual version of the Incompatible Food Triad except not really.) So if we take Donizetti's three queens as a set, here are the various set violations:

  • Queen Elizabeth appears in two of the operas, but not the first. And worse, between those two operas, she is only the protagonist in one. She's the villain in the other, even though her role in both is similar.
  • Anne and Elizabeth both have rivals who are sympathetic mezzos. Mary's rival is an unsympathetic soprano.
  • Anne and Elizabeth are both undisputed  sopranos, while Mary is sometimes portrayed by a mezzo. (Love you, Joyce!)
  • Anne and Mary are both wholly sympathetic victims in their operas who get sentenced to death. Elizabeth is more morally ambiguous character in a position of power who does the death-sentencing.
  • Anne and Mary have their operas named after them. Elizabeth doesn't. This may well be because...
  • Anne and Mary both die in their operas. Elizabeth doesn't. Her opera is named for the character who does die instead.
  • Anne and Mary have the affections of tenor, and this runs parallel to the tragedy. Robert does not return Elizabeth's affections, and this precipitates the tragedy. Anne's case a bit more complex, but Henry was going to get rid of her anyway, and Smeaton got involved all on his own.
And these are the reasons I have a hard time seeing the three queens as a proper trilogy. If they were one continuous story, like the Ring Cycle, I think I could forgive them, the thematic links then being secondary to the story itself, but they're not one continuous story. (Well, technically they are, but they're generally not presented as being; Anna Bolena even has a completely different cast of characters from the other two, and there are no cross-references between any of them.)

But maybe there's a third opera we could substitute in to resolve these issues. I think there is, though it would require some rebranding. As much as I love Anna Bolena, I would let it stand aside as its own opera (it's certainly strong enough to do so), and I would place in as the first part of the trilogy the more obscure Donizetti opera Elisabetta al Castello di Kenilworth. That's kind of a long title. Maybe we could call it Amelia Robsart or something. Elisabetta Primo? Unfortunately, Elisabetta Regina D'Inghilterra is already taken.

Elisabetta takes place chronologically before Maria Stuarda (or so I assume, given that Mary Stuart died in 1587, Robert Dudley died in 1588, and Robert Dudley doesn't seem to be on the last year of his life during the opera.), and concerns Elisabeth dealing with a romantic rival (who is not officially a mezzo, but, like Mary, could probably be played by a mezzo (I don't know this for certain; IMSLP has one score for the opera, and it's a handwritten one that I don't want to even attempt to decipher, but Joyce DiDonato featured an aria from the character on her recent album Stella Di Napoli)), and given the character parallels, I thus propose that in all three operas, when presented as a trilogy, Elisabeth be portrayed by the same soprano, her rival by the same mezzo, and her uninterested love interest by the same tenor. The three queens trilogy becomes the Queen Elizabeth trilogy, and all the set violations are resolved.

Well, save one. In Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, Elisabeth deals with her problems by executing people. In Il Castello Di Kenilworth, she pardons Amelia and Leicester. I feel I can be a bit more forgiving with this, because if the operas are presented as a continuous story, that justifies their being presented together more than any thematic links could. Going chronologically, this is kind of a step down, character wise, going from forgiving to brutal-if-regretful. Maybe we could play it backwards. It becomes a Bel Canto Merrily We Roll Along. Merrily We Roll Along would just be depressing played forward, but going back in time as it does, it opens with the most grim events, and ends on an optimistic note, though it leaves the audience with a little bit of a sour note, knowing what's going to happen next. The trilogy, instead of just being three operas that happen to be about Tudor queens, becomes a character study on Queen Elisabeth. And if you don't want to do a character analysis, well, the music is still an absolute delight.

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 complete tragedy of Antonia. They increase in intensity, and that's good enough for most opera companies. So for the most part, the two generally accepted orders are OAG and OGA. But I would like to propose an alternate ordering. GOA.

My reasons are primarily thus:

  1. Though the acts do not necessarily increase in intensity, character arcs become more prevalent.
  2. Inserting the lighter Olympia act in the middle gives something of a breather for both the audience and the cast. (Except for the soprano playing Olympia, but if she's not playing all three roles (as is the case in most productions) what does it matter where her act falls. If she is playing all three roles, Olympia first might make more sense, but I'll leave that distinction to the sopranos.)
  3. Nicklausse directly references Olympia in the Antonia act, which makes most sense if Antonia follows Olympia directly. By this constraint, however pedantic, the only two acceptable orders are OAG and GOA. OAG is already one of the two defaults, so I really have nothing more to say on this point.
In a large part, The Tales Of Hoffmann is about the Muse and Stella fighting over Hoffmann's attentions, the muse taking the form of Nicklausse, and Stella taking the form of the three sopranos over the course of the opera. Presenting Giulietta first opens the tales with the barcarolle, possibly the opera's most famous tune, which has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story. It's a duet for soprano and mezzo, and presents Giulietta and Nicklausse, not directly rivals in this story, but rivals in the arc of the opera as a whole, in equal prominence, and sets up what I think the character arcs are, carried by the GOA order. Nicklausse, to start, is Hoffmann's loyal friend and sidekick. Nicklausse has Hoffmann's back, and helps him out of a pinch in the end. By the Olympia act, Nicklausse is a bit more cautionary, and attempts to warn Hoffmann about what's going on. Nothing much comes of this, but Olympia is kind of dramatically stagnant across the board. In the GOA order, it acts as a bridge. Were it just Giulietta and Antonia, there would be no progression, the characters would simply stop and jump to the next page. Olympia paces it, and even if the characters do nothing much, allows the audience to take in what's going on. This is good, because by the Antonia act, Nicklausse is much more forward, directly presenting to Hoffmann the choice between love and art, and singing the beautiful Violin aria. Hoffmann for the third time ignores Nicklausse's advice to turn back, this time with truly tragic consequences.

The first two sopranos in this order, Giulietta and Olympia, aren't tremendously tragic. Giulietta's a villain even, conspiring with the villain Dapertutto to steal people's shadows and reflections. Why? I don't know. Dapertutto pays Giulietta with jewels, so I guess she's vain or greedy or something and that's bad. The thing is, it presents the soprano and the bass together. (And at this point, I'd like to raise that Councilor Lindorf really isn't a villain. The one villainous thing we see him do is intercept a letter from Stella to Hoffmann, and while this isn't exactly nice, tenors in other operas have done worse.) Presenting Dapertutto and Giulietta together somehow, I think, makes Dapertutto less villainous. In the Olympia and Antonia acts, the villain is actively working against the soprano. For Antonia, he doesn't even have a motive, he just seems to be killing her for fun. At least with Olympia he was taking his revenge on Spalanzani for cheating him out of money. And with Giulietta, Dapertutto is not targeting the soprano, and even though we are not given a motive for why he wants Hoffmann's reflection, we see that he does not target Hoffmann specifically, but simply as one of his many victims. Dapertutto is more of a presence of evil than an active villain in this regard, and Giulietta's working for him. In this act, Hoffmann is simply an idiot, he should have listened to Nicklausse (this is a recurring theme in the opera), and everyone, if not happy, at least survives.

Olympia has no real tragedy. Coppelius smashes her to bits, sure, but he was doing so because Spalanzani cheated him, and Olympia wasn't even alive anyway. I don't really feel that sorry for the automaton. Now Coppelius does play a mean trick on Hoffmann, and makes a fool of him (though, again, Hoffmann is an idiot in this act, and should have listened to Nicklausse), but Coppelius doesn't really do anything truly evil. Maybe he just wanted to test out his cool augmented reality glasses, and since Hoffmann happened to be hanging around, used him as a test subject. And imagine how good that stunt must be for advertising!


See the world as it ought to be!

Hoffmann tested, Nicklausse approved!

Reduced price for a limited time only!

(I did not think this advertising thing through.)

And this brings us to the last act. Nicklausse makes his/her most desperate plea for Hoffmann to give up. Hoffmann doesn't listen. The character tenor gets an aria. And then we finally get Antonia and Dr. Miracle, and there is absolutely no given reason Dr. Miracle wants to kill Antonia. This is a point I'll get back to later. Here the soprano, the first one to actually return Hoffmann's affections (to recap, Giulietta was trying to steal his reflection, and Olympia was a robot) dies. And, once again, Nicklausse has to rush in at the last minute to save Hoffmann.

This is where the art versus love theme really comes to a head. Because Antonia has an incredibly convenient illness that will cause her to die if she sings. And of course Hoffmann inspires her to sing. (Dr. Miracle gets her to sing by conjuring up images of her dead mother, but that's beside the point.) And Hoffmann is willing to give up art for her. And then she dies, and Nicklausse wins. So in the end, I guess it could be said that we have the villains, especially Dr. Miracle, to thank for Hoffmann choosing art over love, but then the pseudo-tragedy for Olympia and Giulietta mostly results from Hoffmann being an idiot, so maybe not.

And this brings in the major point that in GOA order, as the stories progress, the soprano becomes more tragic, the villain more villainous, and Hoffmann less of an idiot. The stories also become much broader. Giulietta, on the whole, I think is the most complicated plot of the three, with more nuanced characters, and Antonia is the simplest, with characters characterized in simple character archetypes. And right after the tragedy of Antonia, we snap back into the real world, where Hoffmann is telling the story. He's telling the stories in a tavern, presumably having a few drinks, and the explanation for why the stories themselves progress this way is that over the course of the evening, Hoffmann is growing more drunk and distraught, and so the characters become more stylized and the plots less complex, but more emotional. When Hoffmann is finally pushed over the edge telling the story of Antonia, he snaps back to reality. The Giulietta act may appear to work better for bringing him back, as it would have him recognize that Stella is not right for him, and that maybe she and Lindorf make a better pair, but in the state Hoffmann's in at the end of the opera (Nicklausse describes him as ivre-mort, dead-drunk) I wouldn't think he'd be capable of forming a story like Giulietta.

The final remaining conflict I can think of right now is Nicklausse increasing prominence through the three stories, which other than that, become more Hoffmann-centric. If the three stories are supposed to be told as Hoffmann is coming to his epiphany, what's he doing foreshadowing his own tales with speeches from his best friend telling him he's wrong? At this point I'm actually justifying my proposal rather than actually arguing for it, but consider that Nicklausse is the Muse, and, given that he/she's right there when Hoffmann is telling the stories, could easily be inserting (or inspiring Hoffmann to insert) him/herself into the stories. From Giulietta to Olympia to Antonia, Nicklausse does progressively less in the story, and starts talking progressively more about the bigger picture of the opera. Nicklausse is a character independent of Hoffmann's stories, though present in them, and can thus go against the grain of Hoffmann's own storytelling.

So there you have it, The Tales Of Hoffmann in GOA order. To recap, presenting the acts in this order allows the stories to grow simpler and more emotional as Hoffmann drinks in the tavern throughout the evening. The characters become more stylized, and the endings more tragic. Nicklausse becomes more preachy, and in the end, wins for Hoffmann's attentions. On the off chance anyone is reading this, what do you think? Are there any details I overlooked? Let me know!