Sunday, December 20, 2009

l'Orfeo of Claudio Monteverdi

Let me say from the get-go that I was completely blown away by this production of l'Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi filmed live at La Scala Milano! This is a work that has been called by many to be 'the first real opera' (1609), and what an opera it is. Especially in this fantastic production directed by the genius Robert Wilson. He has set the scene in a sort of Limbo, not quite real but not completely unreal either.The opening set is made up of two rows of Lombardy poplars set against a blue sky, resting on a verdant green field. (The Elysian Fields, perhaps?). A golden lyre hangs down from Heaven.
The singers are costumed in off-whites except for Orpheus and Euridice, who are in black. 'Music' is dressed in gold and some of the other leading singers are in grays and one is in red. Their makeup is from the Comedia del Arte, white faces with very distinctive eye makeup. They all wear gloves in the color of their make-up giving a totally other-worldly effect. As the curtain opens, the cast is frozen in place during the overture and gradually starts moving about. A male dancer with a bird-mask appears throughout the opera tying things together. All the movement of the singers is very stylized. Often, even when moving about, the hands are held still in dramatic poses.
And they can all sing! They sing in a very appropriate style for this pre-Baroque masterpiece, with the correct ornamentation for that period. Georg Nigl was the magnificent Orfeo, singing with great emotion and drama. The rest of the singers were equally good. The ensemble singing was of the highest order.
In the second part as filmed, (The opera is in five acts and a prologue) Orfeo sings a very long, tragic monologue begging to be taken to Hades to free his beloved Euridice. It was mesmerizing. The style of singing Monteverdi composed was monody, a change from the earlier polyphony. You might call some of it extended recitativo, but it is breathtaking, at least the way this crew sang it.
I said to a woman who was sitting behind me in the Warner Theatre, 'They could never bring this off at the Met!'. And they couldn't. She and I were two of only 9 people who had bought tickets for this performance. What a pity. These poor 'opera-lovers' who think that La Bohème is the beginning and end of opera are left in a limbo of their own. As Auntie Mame said, 'Life is a banquet, and most poor bastards are starving to death!' I couldn't agree more.
Some years ago when in Venice, John and I were visiting one of the incredible churches in that watery city. All along the aisle were enormous statues of Venetian statesmen from long ago. As we turned up a side aisle, we noticed on the floor a small brass plaque which read 'Here lies Claudio Monteverdi'. Small tribute to a great genius, indeed!
The rest of the cast included Roberta Invernizzi as Music and Euridice, Sara Mingardo as Messenger and Hope, Luca Dordolo as the first shepherd, Leonardo Cortellazzi as the second shepherd, Martin Oro as the third shepherd, Luigi de Donato as Caronte, Raffaella Milanesi as Prosperina, Giovanni Battista Parodi as Plutone, and Furio Zanasi as Apollo. Rinaldo Alessandrini led the period instrument orchestra brilliantly, and of course, Robert Wilson was responsible for the incredible staging.
My hat is off to all of them! If you ever get a chance to see this film from La Scala Milano , run, do not walk to wherever it is playing. Bravi a tutti!

Friday, December 18, 2009

On Christmas eating!

Caloric Conundrums
Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we diet!
Peter Paul Rubens loved fat!
He knew just where it was at;
In fact, I'm sure I could have had a ball
With Peter Paul.
His nudes are a treat to the eye,
Well-endowed at the hip and the thigh;
No bony construction for him.
The word he liked least was 'thin'.
An artist of his reputation
Should experience regeneration.
This craze for the skinny and lean
Makes me think of Butterfly McQueen.
These bones that set people ravin'
Make me think of the Bard of Avon!
Now I'm all for equality,
If you're thin, that's just fine, but for me
It's the plump ones who know
The right use of their dough;
It's the fat ones who smile
On their last giddy mile;
It's the corpulent fellow
Who shaketh like Jello
In that Christmas rhyme
That you hear all the time.
So, here's to the well-endowed set
Who eat all the food they can get.
They may shimmy and ripple
And nibble and tipple,
But they look pretty good soaking wet!
(From Save the Wine for Me Another Day, by Herbert Burtis)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Have a very metallic Christmas!

Have a very Metallic Christmas!
Deck the streets with tinfoil holly!
Clinky, clanky, blinky, clink, clank, clunk!
Holly holly's not as jolly!
Clinky, clanky, blinky, clink, clank, clunk!
Red and green no longer say it
Orange and blue, orange and blue, puce, puce, puce!
All the TV stations bray it,
Clinky, clanky, blinky, clink, clank, clunk!
Drink we now the Christmas spirit!
Tinsel, tansel, tunsel, rip, crash, dip!
It's November first! Let's hear it!
Tinsel, tansel, tunsel, rip, crash, dip!
Only forty shopping days so
Hurry up! Hurry up! buy, buy, buy!
Local merchants seem to say so,
Tinsel, tansel, tunsel, rip, crash, dip!
Fast away October passes,
Rustle, wrestle, wristle, push, shove, pull!
To the stores, ye lads and lasses!
Rustle, wrestle, wristle, push, shove, pull!
Here's a gift for sweet Aunt Minnie,
Charge it up, charge it up, never pay!
Only two more months to go. I'll
Never get it wrapped by Christmas Day!
(To be sung to the tune of Silent Night, if possible!)
(From Save the Wine for Me Another Day by Herbert Burtis)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas 2009 at Rood Hill Farm

Christmas 2009
Alas, dear friends, it's been a while
Since I have tried to make you smile
At foibles rare and stories merry.
So I've saddled up my dromedary
And plan to do a little better
In sending out a Christmas letter.
Now that we have dumped the Bushes
We all have less pain in our tushes!
And Yoyo Ma, and yes, yo' Mama
Are doing well with B. Obama.
It would be great if he could do
All the things he's promised to.
But our Congress is the pits.
All it does is give me fits!
We should really fire the bunch.
Then I'll take you all to lunch!
Bon Noël to kin and kith
And all my colleagues up at Smith.
To friends at home and friends away
I send you cheer on Christmas Day.
In January I got busy
Traveling 'round. It made me dizzy.
Peg and I to Puerto Rico
Singing loudly, 'Tico-tico'.
Then to Florida once, no twice!
Seeing cousins. That was nice.
February, off to GLAD
To fight for things that make me mad.
An activist at seventy-eight
Meant quite a lot to fill my plate.
But someone has to take a stand
To bring equality to our land!
Then in March we did the deed;
Filed the suit to fill a need.
Only time and strength can do it
If lazy Congress e'er gets to it.
March was filled with interviews
Once the press received the news.
'Don't be mad and don't be peevy;
'Specially when you're seen on TV.
April brought a wondrous Saul.
The Harvard Choir just had a ball.
Ed Jones led the joyous mob;
Nat and Janet did their job.
They're the best to come along
Bringing splendor in their song.
Friends and singers from the past
Showed how friendship's made to last.
John remembered by a throng
In majesty and love and song.
May brought Cabarets galore
In Sandisfield and at the Shore.
Peg to sing and I to croak
Made a supercilious joke.
Then in June, did something vital:
Played an actual keyboard recital.
July and August lots of pals
Came to visit, guys and gals.
Then, dear friends, I put my tux on
And did a gig with Rachel Luxon.
I went Dutch in gay September:
New York City. I remember
Living there in 1950
Gosh, those days were really nifty.
Traced my lineage to the roots
From Alberti and his off-shoots.
October, published A Wet Noodle
Covering the whole kit 'n caboodle
Of how to play with speed and ease
Leschetizky in a breeze.
Fall Break- Off to hot Savannah;
Could have used an iced cabana!
Lovely houses, squares to see
But flat is not my cup of tea.
While staying there: quite an alarm!
A crocodile bit off an arm
Of a fellow sinking putts.
Not for me, dears, I'd be nuts
To wander round with club in hand
And then to lose it in the sand.
They sliced the croc to find the arm
And reattached it. So no harm.
I'll let you know if it still works.
Don't play golf where this thing lurks!
Why not take up table tennis
Where crocodiles will seldom menace.
To Jan and Jerry's for Thanksgiving;
They really help you know you're living.
Soup to nuts, a great repast;
Gourmet food from first to last.
Though my mind is in a fog
I began to write a BLOG!
Topics: Music, also Singers.
I have writ some real humdingers!
It feels good to poetize,
Cast my words before your eyes.
Do my best to make it scan
And rhyme according to my plan.
So my dears, I've had my say
Wishing you a happy day
And an even happier year.
Keep the faith, be of good cheer.
May your Christmas Day be cosy
May your cheeks stay bright and rosy.
This is how my greeting ends:
Christmas love to all my friends!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Frauen Liebermann und Leben

While this blog is really dedicated to talking about music and singers, in particular, I feel compelled to say something about the debacle that is going on in Washington over Health Care. As far as the slogan of the Senate and House goes: 'We don't care'! They are all trying to cover their asses so they will be re-elected at the next election. 'To Hell with the American people'!
I have to single out the Senator from my neighboring state of Connecticut as the biggest a-hole of them all. Nothing makes me happier that I am a citizen of Massachusetts than his re-election. I hope the voters of Connecticut are as happy about him as I am. Unfortunately, they are stuck with him for another two and a half years.
He will apparently do anything to gain the spotlight. He doesn't want a public option; he doesn't want an extension of Medicare. But he wants to keep his A-Plus Federal Government Insurance, you can bet! He is the ultimate 'We don't care' health plan provider. He is also the Senator from the state that has more insurance companies in it to pay his bills than about anywhere else!
When he comes on TV I do the same thing with him that I did with George W. Bush for eight years; I hit the mute button. I can't stand that shit-eating smile of his.
If only that would work in real life. Both the smile and the mute!
If he has his way, nothing good will come out of Washington for this possible relief for millions of Americans who have little or no health care options. We will continue to pay, through our taxes and increased insurance payments, for the millions of people who wind up in Emergency Rooms with no insurance, and for whom we wind up paying enormous amounts of money for their last week of life, which probably wouldn't be their last week if they had had a way of getting health care at a reasonable cost throughout their life, and which might have let them live healthier lives.
We are the richest country in the world, we spend more money on health care, but have a shorter life-span than people in most European countries have who have a health care plan that covers everyone from cradle to grave. In France, even if you are not a citizen, you get full coverage. And we have the nerve to berate the French! Freedom fries! Gimme a break!
Whew! It was good to get this off my chest.
Now, back to singing: on Sunday I will see a live film from La Scala, Milano of Monteverdi's Orfeo. That will get me back where I belong in music! But not for long. I'll let you know how I like it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

L'Histoire du Soldat

Tonight I witnessed an absolute tour de force when my good friend and sometimes student, Ben Luxon, simply took the stage apart in his role as the narrator in Stravinsky's l'Histoire du Soldat. With a very able chamber orchestra he kept a large audience totally in the palm of his hand as he portrayed all the various characters in this incredible work, going with ease from the Soldier to the Devil to the Old Man to the Old Woman in lightning speed.
Ani Crofut, Ben's stepdaughter was lovely as she danced the part of the Princess.
But it was Ben's evening. The energy he produced was palpable. It simply poured off the stage of the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington back to Row L where I was seated. I have seen Ben on stage a number of times previously, but this was his crowning role to date as an actor!
Having had an enormous career as an operatic baritone, then losing his hearing and being forced to stop singing concerts and opera must have been an unbearable trauma for him. His operatic career took him to most of the world's great opera houses- Covent Garden, The Met, La Scala, on and on.
Having to give all of this up seems unimaginable. But with his incredible acting instinct, he takes his place as one of the great actors of our time.
I told him once, having seen him perform in Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood, 'You should never be allowed off the stage.'
Tonight's performance proved this to be true.
Bravo, Ben!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Performance anxiety?

Public performance must be a part of the musical training of any serious musician. While it's fine to enjoy singing in the shower, to have a career in music one needs to stand up in public and share the wealth. Whether you are a singer, an instrumentalist or a composer, merely performing for yourself has a limited reward. We all need to share our talent with others and performance is the way to do that.
This week my six voice students at Smith College did just that. They stood up before an audience of family, friends, and strangers and sang. They all did very well. The more opportunities they have to perform, the better they will become at doing it.
Any young performer may have 'performance anxiety'. There are some of us who are born 'hams', who love to do nothing more than stand up in front of people and show them what we can do. But more of us may have questions in our minds about performing which will affect the way we present ourselves on the public stage.
For example, I asked my six young women to dress for an afternoon concert. You sing better when you present yourself in the best possible format. The way you look is one part of this.
A most important part of performing is the kind of preparation you do beforehand. Very few people can 'wing it' and get away with that kind of performance. One must have a thorough knowledge of the music, and in the case of singers, the text one is presenting. If you are unsure about what you are about to do, nothing very good will happen.
I remember as a young performer, I was given the plum job as Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster under the great Searle Wright at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University, my alma mater. At the beginning of the fall term that year, Searle told me that instead of doing five noonday services in St. Paul's Chapel, we would do three services and two half hour organ recitals. He said, 'You take Tuesdays and I'll take Thursdays.' At that point I had done exactly one full organ recital in my life! Needless to say, I worked my fingers off practicing all hours of the day and night to prepare for this barrage of public performances. Hitherto, I had often been nervous when I had to perform in public. Faced with a new program to learn and perform every week, I soon found out I had no time to be nervous. I just had to get myself ready and play the program. It was this pressure placed on me that brought me to the point where playing a recital became a joy rather than a job. I learned to love performing.
This is what all musicians must learn to do to get themselves out of the shower and onto the public stage.
I have told my voice students that my epitaph will be 'Just sing the damned song!' This is after the hours of practice, of course!
There have been numerous times when I have performed and become so committed to my program that time seemed to slip away. One instance was a concert in Weill Hall with my duo-piano partner, Eleanor Benoist. We were playing a tough program but had worked together many long hours. During the performance, when we came to the last piece on the program, I suddenly thought, 'How did we get here so soon? Did we leave something out?' Well of course, we hadn't, but our concentration was so complete that time had simply slipped away. It seemed to have sped up!This kind of experience is a good end to aim for by any performer.
My students will present another recital at the end of spring term and we will do an informal recital for each other sometime before that. Practice makes perfect.
Even though all of them may not become professional singers, they will have had this wonderful experience of the love that comes back to one when the audience joins you in the appreciation of music: they applaud! Applause is palpable love being sent to you over the footlights. That is the greatest feeling in the world!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

To memorize or not to memorize?

My students at Smith College are in the last stages of preparing their fall term concert which takes place next week and I find it interesting to see who can memorize easily and who has difficulty. Any singer will perform better when he or she is singing without the music in front of them. Too often, if the music is right there, they 'fall in love with the ink'. Even though they may only plan to glance at the music occasionally, the fact that it is right there overpowers their vision and they can get stuck on the page. It's a magnetic force.
I realise that different people have different ways of trying to memorize anything. There are those lucky ones who have a photographic memory, or as a malapropic friend of mine used to say, 'a photogenic memory'. Whatever. The rest of us need to develop a system that works.
Olga Averino, my dear late friend and mentor, was once asked by Kousevizky how she had memorized Lulu for the first performance in this country, which she sang with the Boston Symphony. This was of course, before any recording of the opera was available. She simply had to learn the notes! She said 'It's like teaching the rabbit to ride the bicycle. You do it over and over until he doesn't fall off.' That works for me.
Today, while working with one student, I realized that she really didn't have a good grasp of the meaning of what she was singing in a Mozart recitativo. I suggested that she get out her Italian dictionary and look up every word, placing the English word right over the Italian word. This does not make for a lovely poetic translation, but you begin to know exactly what you are singing, thereby helping you memorize the text. Too many people simply try to learn the words as you would teach a parrot, who can learn to say any number of phrases, to mimic what you tell him, but he probably has no idea what they mean. Fortunately, not that many parrots have operatic careers!
The ideal, of course, is to be fluent in every language in which you plan to sing. But a word by word translation is the next best thing.
I have always envied those people who can look at a page of music or text and immediately have it stick in their mind. I wonder how long this stays there if they don't use it regularly. Hmm. I should do a study on this.
Anyway, during their Thanksgiving break, I trust my students are doing their very best to come back next week with their program memorized.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Remembering Lorraine

Every once in a while something really unthinkable occurs to cast a pall over your life. That happened to me on July 3, 2006, the morning I received the message from Peter Lieberson that Lorraine had died. I seldom sent emails to Lorraine. She was not an email type of person, but that morning, knowing she was not doing well, I sent her one, hoping that she was feeling better. The email came back from Peter that she had died that morning. Lorraine and I were both Pisces and we had worked together for so many years that I probably should not have thought this was unusual, my sending her a rare email on the very day she died. But it was devastating. This is the wrong order for death to happen. Children shouldn't die before their parents and students shouldn't die before their teachers. Lorraine and I had worked together for twenty years so I lost both a student and a surrogate daughter all at once.

My first encounter with Lorraine was the Saturday after Thanksgiving about twenty-some years ago when she drove out to Rood Hill Farm from Boston to sing for me the first time. A mutual friend, who had studied with me for a while, had made the suggestion to her that she should work with me. He told me that she had 'been having trouble with her high notes'.

Although I did not know her by name at the time, she was at the beginning of what would become a major international career and was already recognized in major musical circles for her recordings of Handel.

I was a bit worried having the 'diva' show up out of the blue. Having worked with divas before, I knew how troublesome they could become the moment you stopped adulating them. Well, Lorraine was the 'anti-diva', as Charles Mitchener called her in his profile in The New Yorker magazine.

After we talked for a bit about why she had come to me, I asked her what she had brought to sing for me and she whipped out 'Parto, parto', not exactly anyone's piece of cake! She sang it all the way through quite brilliantly. Then I had to come up with something equally brilliant to say about it to make her two and a half hour trip from Boston worthwhile.

First I told her what a grand instrument she owned and then said 'Do you realize that you are singing 'puh-arto,puh-arto' instead of connecting the consonant to the vowel? She immediately set to work correcting the problem and solved it on the spot. I knew at once that this was a new breed of divas!

This was the way she solved any vocal problems we discovered together during our long relationship and we continued to work in this fashion until her death.
She would sometimes come here to Sandisfield to Rood Hill Farm for her lessons and sometimes I would teach her in Boston, either at Harvard's Memorial Church, where I taught Harvard students for ten years, or sometimes in the basement of Symphony Hall on Mass Avenue. The latter was arranged for us by another Boston student of mine whose husband played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

One amusing story about this period in our relationship is that once when this student had arranged for us to have the lessons in the large choral rehearsal room, a baritone and pianist were already working there. My student, all five feet one of her, strode into the room and imperiously ordered them out, saying that she had reserved the room and that they would have to go elsewhere.
About two minutes later the assistant manager of the BSO appeared and said to my student, 'Hamutal, that was Benjamin Luxon you just threw out of here. He is singing tomorrow with the orchestra. You will have to find another room!'
Just recently I finally got up the courage to tell this tale to Ben Luxon, who in the meantime has become my neighbor, sometime student, and all-time friend. He exploded with laughter.

One time when we were working at Harvard, after working on various pieces for a while, Lorraine said, 'Let's see if I can sing this', and handed me 'Abscheulischer' from Fidelio. She sang the socks off it!! She once told me that the manager at the Edinburgh Festival had heard her say that it was her fantasy to perform the role and, in fact, had asked her to sing it the following season. She told him it was her fantasy, but only a fantasy. But who knows what might have happened in a few years. Many of her fantasies did come true. On the other hand, she was very wise about what she should and shouldn't sing. And while she could sing the hell out of the aria she and I both really knew the complete role was not for her.

One summer a few years after we had begun working together, she spent the month of September at the summer home of one of my neighbors who kindly lent her their house which is just up the road from my home. What a glorious month for me! Every day she would come down the hill and we would work for three hours on Xerxes, the role she was preparing to sing with the Los Angeles Opera that fall. She had barely settled in to her new lodgings when her agent called to ask her to fly to Italy, learn the role of Orfeo (on the plane) and sing it from the score a week later. Wisely, she turned him down, though there was no doubt in my mind that she could have done it! She was scheduled to perform this same role at the Met in a production styled especially for her in the 2006-2007 season. The performances were given in her memory and David Daniels sang the role.

John Ferris and I went to Los Angeles that fall to hear her Xerxes in the brilliant production of Steve Wadsworth, a wonderful stage director. I have often had the experience, after working a long time on a role with Lorraine, to then hear her sing the same thing in public and be blown away. This magical thing always happened when she performed. This quality is something one is born with. No teacher can teach this. Lorraine had it is spades!

After the performance (a matinée) we went to dinner with Lorraine and a wonderful group of her friends who had flown down from San Francisco to hear the performance. She had played viola with them in a student orchestra in the Bay Area years before and they had become life-long friends. I know that they mourn her passing as deeply as I do.

We had a wonderful seafood dinner, then wandered next door to a cocktail lounge in a fancy hotel for an after dinner drink. None of us wanted the evening to end. We were the only ones in the room except for a pianist who was playing cocktail music, and playing it very well. At some point one of her friends persuaded Lorraine to get up and sing something. She swung into a popular song and sang it a la Ella. As the pianist was complimenting her on her singing someone told him that she had just finished singing the title role in Xerxes just down the street. He was quite amazed.

She continued to perform this production of Xerxes with the Boston Lyric Opera, the New York City Opera, and elsewhere for several seasons.

The last time I was with her in Boston, while working with her on Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, I told her that she should do a 'cross-over' album. We had been listening to Eileen Farrell sing the Immolation Scene followed at once by her album 'I've got a right to sing the blues'. Lorraine had never heard her before. She was entranced. I know that Lorraine could have made that same transition without losing a step. But that was the February before she died.
Once while staying with us at Rood Hill Farm, she sat outdoors on the terrace steps sipping her morning tea. I watched as a little garter snake coiled up near her. She was having a conversation with it. She extended her index finger and the little snake gave her a kiss on the tip. After that I was convinced that she was a good witch as well as a great singer!

My late Portuguese Water Dog, Zumba, fell madly in love with Lorraine (as we all did) while she stayed with us. Zumba would always lie under the piano while Lorraine and I worked together in my studio. Sometime later, a friend who was doggie sitting while John and I were abroad, put on a CD of Lorraine's singing. She swears that Zumba rose from a prone position and began to run to the windows and doors throughout the house looking for Lorraine. She knew the voice. Another time, this same 'Music Critic Zumba', while we were listening to a broadcast from the Met of Julio Cesare, and an inferior mezzo screamed out a high note, Zumba arose from the floor, glared at the speakers, and stalked from the room. Zumba was used to hearing nothing but the best from her friend, Lorraine.

Lorraine seemed to soak up music and ideas with the speed of lightning. When we were correcting a problem or working on a new concept, she would try it, get it, and then sing the passage numerous times, making it her own. I would see her do the same work on stage at a later time and she did it just the way we had perfected it. She continued to do this through all the years we worked together.

I would say the same thing about Lorraine that my late, dear friend and teacher Olga Averino, once said about Mary Carter, a student of mine whose singing she adored: 'Mary becomes the song'!

Well, Lorraine always became the song.

A number of times I went into Boston or New York City not only to give her lessons but to attend rehearsals and performances. She did Beatrice and Benedict of Berlioz with the Boston Lyric Opera Company. I can still see her floating across the stage of the Emerson Majestic Theatre as Beatrice in a diaphanous gown. I have always regretted that her Carmen never made it to international opera houses. She sang this with Boston Lyric as well and was incredible. She was asked to perform it at the Opéra Bastille in Paris but turned them down because she hated the acoustics. She finally did the last act in a Gala at the Met with Jose Carreras singing Don José. This was shortly after her surgery for breast cancer and he had just had knee surgery. She said it was a very tamed-down version of the death scene. Both of them were in some discomfort but her singing made up for any lack of physical agility.

I would often sit in on rehearsals and take notes on 'post-it' which I would stick in her score where I had a question or suggestion to make. At the end of the rehearsal we would go out for a bite to eat and go through the score from post-it to post-it as I made suggestions. It was always gratifying to me that when I would watch her do the performance the same points we had discussed were always there.

She is, of course, famous for her singing of Handel, Her ease with fioritura boggles the mind and the ear. We worked together on many roles and arias to achieve a clear, accurate, legato line to these difficult passages.
She also appeared with Les Arts Florissants, the Parisian opera company that specializes in French Baroque opera. We went to her début at the Salle Garnier (the old Paris Opéra) for her Médée of Charpentier. She told me 'You can't miss me, I have the biggest skirt on stage!', and sure enough, she had to enter sideways from the wings to get the dress onstage without a catastrophe. She received a standing ovation for her singing, but also, I think, for managing that skirt.

She invited us to her charming apartment on the Seine just behind the Louvre for champagne before we took her to dinner at a restaurant at Samairitaine, a large department store with a fancy restaurant on the top floor with views of Notre Dame and the Bateaux Mouches plying up and down the river.

At one point, when she was preparing a concert of Spanish music to be given at the Walter Reed Theatre in Lincoln Center with Steve Blier at the piano, after hearing a run-through, we went back to Steve's apartment on Riverside Drive to talk about the performance. It was at this point I said to her 'I think you need to decide what you are.' She had been billed by Colbert as Soprano-Mezzo-soprano for some time. She sang some soprano roles, especially when performed at early pitch, and some mezzo roles. As her voice matured and deepened, her center of gravity lowered. Her passagio was a third lower than the usual female passagio. She could go into the chest voice practically undetected. She always had the high notes but it was her mezzo, almost contralto range than identified her. In her later years, her voice sometimes reminded me of Kathleen Ferrier, but better focused.

I think the telling moment that decided her to change her billing, came when she had to sing the soprano arias in the Messiah with the San Francisco Symphony at modern pitch. That half step up in pitch can be a killer. We worked hard on the role before she went to San Francisco and she could sing it, but she felt very uncomfortable. She got splendid reviews, but determined that she would no longer take soprano roles.

She sang one of her most moving performances at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. It was a movement for mezzo from a Bernstein symphony. She stood quietly on stage and simply dissolved the entire audience, including me, into tears.

Of course, I was at her Met début as Myrtle in John Harbison's Gatsby. I also sat in on numerous rehearsals sitting next to her dear husband Peter Lieberson. I did the same thing for her performances as Didon in the Berlioz Les Troyens. I even made a comment about her costume as Myrtle, which I felt made her look ugly. Somehow, it got changed. While singing Didon, she had to sing a duet with a Russian mezzo who had a hideous wobble! Lorraine said she could never tell what pitch the woman was singing. She told me she wanted to talk to Jimmie Levine about hiring me as an 'anti-wobble coach'. Somehow I never got the call and a lot of Met singers are still wobbling to beat the band.
John and I had met Peter Lieberson in Santa Fe when we went out there for the première of his opera Ashoka's Dream. We went backstage afterwards to congratulate Lorraine on her brilliant creation of the role of The Second Wife. She said to us, 'I want you to meet the composer! - Oh! Peter!' Peter who was standing some distance off turned at once and came to greet us smiling broadly. I said to John on the way back to our hotel, 'There's more to that than meets the eye!'

The next day we were invited to lunch at the lovely house Lorraine had been given for the run of the opera and I bet John that Peter would be there as well. But no; no Peter. Later Lorraine told me that he came over later. When you get two Pisceans together, and one is Italian (!) it's hard for them not to read each other's minds.

Their marriage several years later was a great joy for both of them. It was all too brief.

Whenever I would go backstage at the Met, the Salle Garnier, City Opera, wherever, my proudest moment would come when Lorraine would introduce to me whoever was on hand with the words 'This is my teacher'. How many divas will even admit they work with anyone. But Lorraine always came to me and we worked as equals.

When she sang Britten's Phaedre with the New York Philharmonic, Sir Colin Davis was the conductor. I attended the piano and orchestral rehearsals with Lorraine since I was in New York to work with her on the piece. Sir Colin couldn't have been more cordial to a mere voice teacher. I sat in the front row of Avery Fischer Hall for the piano rehearsal. After hearing Lorraine sing through the Mozart aria that she was also doing on the concert he turned to the front row where I was sitting and said 'Did you say that this man is your teacher? Well, Bravo!' I would like to have had that in writing. I moved further back in the hall for the orchestral rehearsal. Ot one point he turned to me,though there were a number of super-numeraries sitting out there, and asked me about the balance. I said that the orchestra was a bit too loud when Lorraine did a pianissimo repeat of the first section of the Mozart. So he did it again and asked 'Is that better?' I said it was a bit better but he did it another time anyway until the balance was perfect. Not many conductors are this considerate of a singer's being pitted against an entire orchestra. And damned few would ask a voice teacher for an opinion.

It was during this time that Lorraine was having a lot of trouble with her back. She had broken her ankle in September while walking her dog, Coyo. When we were working in New York that November and December, she was having a lot of pain and walking with difficulty. Once she arrived at Maestro Mazel's studio in Avery Fischer to have me work with her vocally before a rehearsal and said she really needed to lie flat on the floor and do some back exercises. As she lay on the floor talking to me, the assistant manager of the New York Phil opened the door to speak with her. I explained that I had not knocked her to the floor but that she was merely doing some back exercises. But it must have looked odd to him. It was after these performances that she began to do a lot of cancellations.

She came back to sing the Bach cantatas that Peter Sellers had choreographed for her at Emmanuel Church in Boston and which she was singing in New York to rave reviews. She went a on a brief Eurpean tour with these but had to cancel some performances.
She came back to Boston once again and we worked on the Gurrelieder which she sang with the BSO. She then went on tour with the BSO singing Peter's incrediably beautiful Neruda Songs that he wrote for her. I told Peter after hearing her performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, that I could feel the great love they had for each other pouring from her voice and his music. This was the last time I heard her sing.

A part of me died when I got Peter's email about her death. Driving to Litchfield later in the day, Public Radio announced her death and played her performance of Handel's 'Angels ever bright and fair, take oh, take me to thy care'. I had to turn off the radio. It was too soon to listen to her who was no longer there. I know that if there were any angels hovering around Santa Fe that July 3rd, they did just that.

I miss her still.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ici on parle Français

This week while teaching my regular two days at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, I also taught a class in French pronunciation. My vocal students and two faculty members attended. We went through all the pronunciation exercises in Vocalizing from the Ground Up!, a book I published in 2001, that were designed by my friend, Jeanne Bovet. She has put together some delightful phrases in which the same vowel sound is repeated many times. Some of them are a bit of a tongue-twister, but we all had fun saying them and, I hope, learned something about French pronunciation.

French is probably the hardest of the Western European languages to speak correctly because there are so many sounds made in it that we do not use in English. Some of these include the vowel used in words like du, tu, pure etc. This sound has nothing to do with U. One must think and pronounce Eee while pouting slightly to achieve an authentic sound. Too often Americans try to turn this vowel into a diphthong, which it isn't. We all worked on this in the class and finally it became easier. Other difficult sounds are the various nasals that are used in the language. Portuguese has some nasal vowel sounds as well, but Americans only sound that way when they have a heavy cold. To make a nasal sound, one must allow the soft palate to drop so that part of the sound emerges through the nose and part through the mouth. To test if this is happening, play guitar on your nose while making the nasal sound. It should interupt the sound each time you tweak your nose.

One common problem is with the French word un. Many people simply grunt and think that they have pronounced this correctly. One needs to start with the vowel sound used in the name Goethe, and then allow it to become nasal. This is very different from the grunt technique. All of the nasal vowel sounds must start with the non-nasal vowel. This is explained in detail in Vocalizing from the Ground Up!.

Small French words like me, te, se, que are the Schvah but unlike the American Schvah (found in the second syllable of the word 'sofa') the French Schvah requires a pout. In every case this is an unaccented sound. Many Americans make this sound much too prominent both in French and in English.

Americans seem to have an especially hard time putting these sounds into fast moving phrases in a song or aria. One really needs to be able to say a phrase with these sounds very quickly before trying to sing it.

Since all of my students are responsible for learning at least one French chanson this term, they have all had to cope with and master these challenges. Two of my students are preparing French song cycles. One is working on Aires Chantez by Poulenc and another is learning "Chansons de Jeunesse by Debussy.

In the CDs that accompany Vocalizing from the Ground Up!, Jeanne Bovet says all of these phrases clearly and beautifully. Always try to hear a native speaker when learning a language.

Ideally, every singer should be fluent in all of the languages he or she sings. This does not always happen. But a singer must be able to produce the language in such a way that a native speaker assumes he is fluent. In addition to the correct sounds, one must also really know the meaning of each word one sings. That is why I suggest that the singer go beyond the translation that is usually given in the text, often in poetic form, where the English word does not always come in the same place the French (or whatever) word does, and write a literal translation, word over word, to every song one sings in a foreign language. A native speaker automatically has layers of meaning for every word. Those of us who are learning to sing in the language must do the next best thing and find as many different interpretations and colorations of each word as is possible. In this way we can do justice to the poet as well as to the composer. Since the composer obviously was hearing the original language as he or she wrote music, singing anything in a translation is never as good as staying with the language the composer heard when he was writing the song.

We singers must convince our audience that we know every minute gradation of meaning in whatever text we sing.

This is what makes the difference between a great singer and an adequate one!

Vocalizing from the Ground Up!, published by Alberti Productions, is available through my website It is priced at $35.00 plus $5.00 shipping and handling.

Monday, November 16, 2009

To wobble or not to wobble

"Why do the Met singers wobble, wobble, wobble?
While the good singers stay back home?"
(Apologies to Noël Coward- from Sail Away)

People often ask me about voices with too much vibrato. What causes it? How can you cure it? I have encountered many wobbles in my 60 years of working with singers and there can be various causes for this phenomenon. To me, a voice with a big wobble is a voice crying for help. "Let me out of here!"

Any voice that is pushed can develop a wobble. Trying to sing beyond the natural scope of the voice is never a good thing to do. Maria Callas developed a famous wobble later in her career that was so wide you could drive a truck through it. She was a fabulous actress with a fine instrument, but she insisted on trying to sing everything from Wagner to Lucia. I don't think that she ever really knew what she was doing technically.

While singers back in the 30's and 40's often sang both soprano and mezzo-soprano roles, they didn't push their voices to do it. Dusolina Gianinni, a wonderful soprano from that period whom I met in Seefeld, Austria in 1968, would sing Norma one night and Carmen the next. Singing in European opera houses, which are generally smaller than the Met, a voice can produce a free sound that carries to the back of the hall without screaming. The orchestra at the Met is almost always too loud. One singer against 85 or 100 instruments is not a fair balance unless the orchestra pipes down once in a while or the singer is Birgit Nilsson. When the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who studied with me for the last twenty years of her life, was singing the role of Didon in Berlioz's Les Troyens at the Met, I attended numerous rehearsals as well as several performances. I asked her if she felt that she had to push her voice to be heard in that room. She said that she didn't. She just sang as she always sang and the orchestra got out of her way. If you try to do 'Anything you can do, I can do louder', you'll never win.

A current basso at the Met produces a wobble that gives us exactly four wobbs per beat. Now that takes practice! (A wobb is the singular of wobble in my personal dictionary.) Bassos tend to vie with Met sopranos in the field of wobbling. Most tenors and mezzos keep in in check for some reason.

The current crop of sopranos I hear at the Met these days almost all have wide vibrati. When I think back to previous generations of sopranos like Kirsten Flagstad, Helen Traubel, Rose Bampton, Leontine Price, Zinka Milanov, Arlene Auger, Montserat Caballe, and others, even with large voices, the vibrato stayed within reasonable bounds. (I heard all of these singers live, by the way.) It's almost as if today's crop of Divas think that this is how an 'opera singer' should sound. My dear friend, the late, great Lucilla Udovich, had an enormous voice with a perfectly mellow vibrato. Try to see and hear her video of Turandot in the production from the Arena di Verona with Franco Corelli as Calaf. Now that's singing!. Lucille and I did concerts together some years ago which was a wonderful experience for me.

Different sizes of voice may vary in the amount of beats per square inch when in comes to vibrato, but when the vibrato is the first thing you notice, something is wrong.

Poor health and low energy can also produce a wobble. If one is physically weak, it is often difficult to summon enough energy to produce a steady tone. There is a fine line between using enough energy, through a well-taken inhalation, and pushing the voice.

Age does not necessarily bring on a wobble if one stays in good health. I find it is more apt to be inattention to the way one releases the sound that produces a wobble. Sitting on a note rather than seeing it move. Yes! Seeing it! For you must be able to see your sound as it moves away from your body. This is an image that every singer should try to develop.

On the other hand, a voice with absolutely no vibrato is also a problem. Every healthy voice has some degree of vibrato, depending of the size of the instrument. Vibrato is produced by the movement of the involuntary muscles that operate the vocal cords plus the passage of air through them. To achieve a vibrato-less voice, it is necessary to hold the muscles of the throat to stop these involuntary motions. In time, this can lead to a serious vocal problem. For a while, early music singers, sopranos especially, went out of their way to produce a straight tone. This is what Anna Russell termed 'the pure white English piercing soprano'!

When Lorraine Hunt came on the scene in the 80's with her recordings of Handel operas from Harmonia Mundi, she demonstrated that music of this period could be sung beautifully and in style with a rich, natural sounding vibrato.

To learn more about wobbles, you can read 'I wonder as I wobble' in my book Sing On! Sing On!, published by ESC Publications of Boston MA, and available through my website

Così fan tutte

Wonderful singing by a remarkable cast saved this production of Così fan tutte, filmed live in Salzburg last season, from being wrecked by the stage direction of Claus Guth. I saw this film at the Warner Theatre in Torrington, CT recently. As he did in his direction of Don Giovanni, also from Salzburg, Guth brought the action to the present day, which would have worked in this case, had he read the libretto and stage directions more carefully. Usually when Ferrando and Guglielmo come back disguised as Albanians, they are wearing enormous beards and mustaches, their heads hidden under large turbans, and wearing middle Eastern dress. In this production, they come back dressed in white suits; so, of course, Dorabella and Fiordiligi have no idea who they are. Give me a break! They also spend some time holding African masks in front of their faces, which, apparently, is a real turn-on to the girls. Have you ever kissed an African mask?

In Don Giovanni, Guth had everyone dripping in the Don's blood which was oozing from a wound he got right off the bat when the curtain went up. Later many of them were also covered in mud from rolling about in the forest while having sex. In Così the white-suited Albanians seduce the women in the garden and roll around in the mud again! I think that Herr Guth may have failed potty-training. Guth also likes to have people removing their clothes while singing and running around. covered in mud and blood. What a laundry bill they must have!

The excellent cast included Miah Persson, who looks like a young Renée Fleming and who sings a lot better. Miss Persson is a Swedish soprano with a beautiful voice and good looks. The Dorabella was Isabel Leonard, an American mezzo with a vibrant voice and great facility. Ferrando was sung by Topi Lehtipuu, a Finish tenor born in Australia and living in Paris. A handsome man with a gorgeous voice. Guglielmo was sung by Florian Boesch who is an Austrian baritone with ditto and ditto. Don Alfonso was sung by Bo Skovus, the Danish baritone whom I have heard sing before and who is singing beautifully. In this production Don Alfonso is made out to be a sort of evil magician who hypnotizes everyone except the audience into believing that these two guys in white suits are really Albanians. Despina was sung by Patricia Petibon who is a French coloratura known for her work in French Baroque opera. She was dramatically a bit over the top in this role, even for a Despina.

But what wonderful singing! Next time, leave the stage director at home!!

Don Giovanni from Salzburg

The Warner Theatre in Torrington, CT is showing a series of operas filmed live in European opera houses. Here are my thoughts on two of the productions.

It's never too late to learn something new. I found that out recently when I attended a live-filmed production of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Warner Theatre in Torrington, CT. The stage director, Claus Guth, had the brilliant idea to put the story into a contemporary setting- and in a woods????? What ever happened to castles in Spain? This became a sort of combination of Don Giovanni versus A Mid-summer Night's Dream, but without Bottom.

But we saw a lot of bottoms since most of the cast spent a lot of time taking their clothes off and rolling around on the ground while singing difficult arias. Peter Sellers! Where are you when we need you?

The cast was headed by Christopher Maltman, an excellent British baritone who was the 1997 winner of the Lieder Prize at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in Wales. Anatoly Kocherga sang, or tried to sing the role of the Comandatore. He just doesn't have those low notes the Comandatore needs to be authentic. Annette Dasch sang Donna Anna. She is a beautiful woman with a good voice who appeared to enjoy being raped by the Don. I'm not sure, Herr Guth, that this was da Ponte's original thought. Mathew Polenzani was the Don Ottavio, complete with cell-phone and plastic rimmed spectacles. Dorothea Röschmann sang Donna Elvira and seemed to enjoy lying on a bench in a corrugated metal bus stop while singing some of her arias. When Leporello sang 'The Catalogue Aria', he pointed to the bus schedule hanging on the back wall of the bus stop to enumerate the Don's conquests. 'Mil' e tre'. Erwin Schrott who sang the role is from Uruguay. Ekaterina Siurina, from Russia, was the Zerlina. She may have had the best of the female voices. Alex Esposito sang Massetto. The bass-baritone is from Italy.

Claus Guth should have spent a little more time reading the libretto and stage directions. In the beginning, when Don Giovanni and the Comandatore are fighting after the Don has attempted to seduce Donna Anna, the Don kills him with a large stick rather than stabbing him, whereupon the Comandatore then shoots the Don in the abdomen with a gun. In this translation the Don sings 'His blade has pierced me!' Ouch! (I added that bit) What blade? The Don continues to bleed on just about everyone, including himself, throughout the rest of the three hour opera. Where is triage when we need it?

Since we are in the forest, and not a palace, the singers roll about on the ground having wild and crazy sex and wind up covered in mud- as well as quite a bit of the Don's blood. I'd like to see the laundry bill for this production!

In the last scene it begins to snow. A combination of La Bohème and I don't know what. This, by the way, is all taking place in southern Spain where the average year-round temperature is 74 degrees.

When the Comandatore is supposed to come back as a talking statue, the basso comes strolling through the woods wearing the same clothes he had on when he was hit with the stick, but with a bandage around his head. Low budget, I guess. We he sings his famous accusation: "Don Giovanni" the low note just ain't there. Then, the Don, instead of being dragged into the flaming bowels of Hell, merely falls to the ground and writhes about, thereby getting more mud mixed with his still bleeding wound. Talk about flaming!

While some opera stories can have their time frame moved into a different period, this one obviously can not. The over-all singing was fair to good by the semi-naked cast. Fortunately, they all looked pretty good with their clothes in disarray.

The moral of the story: If it ain't broke, don't fix it!