Friday, April 29, 2011

Here comes the bride

Let's face it. The Brits know how to do a spectacle. I woke up at 6:00 a.m. and saw the whole wedding. I don't know what the networks were doing from 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. as advertized.

I was delighted that the choir sang Hubert Parry's 'I was Glad' for the procession. We used to sing that anthem at the Methodist church years ago when I was the Director of Music in Red Bank.

The recession was Walton's 'Crown Imperial' which I had the honor of playing on the organ, assisted by brass from the New York Philharmonic, for the Queen Mum in 1954 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue. It was the 200th anniversary of my alma mater, Columbia University. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was the honored guest and speaker.

I was the Associate University Organist and Choirmaster at St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia, at the time under Searle Wright. That day's processional was Searle's 'Fantasy on Wareham', with the St. Paul's chapel choir, organ and brass. It was a day I shall always remember.

Good show, folks!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Czech singers

Today I spent another delightful afternoon with my friend, The Other Voice Teacher.  She asked me about the operas and the singing I had heard while I was in Prague and I confessed that I was disappointed in both with possibly one exception, Pavla Vykopalov√°, the Rusalka.

We agreed that Slavic sopranos, whether by training or inclination, tend to have very bright, almost brittle voices. I told her what may be an apocryphal story of Galina Vishnevskya when singing the Verdi Requiem, being told by the conductor that the octave leap in the last movement on the word 'requiem' was to be sung ppp. She had sung it fff.  On hearing this she turned to him and simply said 'NO'. End of story. She sang it loud and very bright.

The best of the sopranos I heard while in Prague was Vykopalov√°, the woman I heard sing the title role of Rusalka. She had a bright voice but it was very well modulated and she used it well. 

The soprano who sang the title role in Tosca started out well but must have tired or forgotten her technique by the time she reached 'Vissi d'arte'. She strangled the climatic moments by taking what I call 'suicide breaths': gasping high breaths just before a high note, leaving her technique in the dust.

The soprano who sang Lucia was simply annoying in her shrieking of high notes, which, God knows, she had- but who cares when they are screamed?

My friend mentioned the wonderful Czech soprano Emmy Destinn, who it turned out, had studied much earlier with the same voice teacher my friend had later studied under. Emmy sang dramatic roles and was honored by having her picture on the Czech 2000 Kroner note. Not many opera singers wind up on the money.

Today there are several Czech sopranos who are well-known in the Czech Republic, but do not have international careers. Jarmila Novotna was another wonderful Czech singer from the past. 

We agreed that WWII probably
had an effect on European singers who
emerged after that period. Perhaps
in Czechoslovakia the whole concept of singing never recovered after that time. Certainly at that period many US singers went abroad to begin careers because of the lack of local singers.

I remain puzzled by the fact that almost none of the singers I heard in Prague, to quote my friend, 'knew how to sing!' I have discussed the foibles of the several sopranos I heard. The tenors all seem to know only how to bellow. Prague has an enormous musical heritage and should be able to produce better singers. Also, none of the singers in any of the operas I saw knew how to act. They had no respose to the other members of the cast, whether they be lovers, witches, or whatever. Sad.

Justino Diaz and Leontyne Price in the Met production of Cleopatra.

We got on to such varied topics as the first production of Samuel Barber's Cleopatra  which opened the 'new' Met when it moved up to Lincoln Center and was such a disaster. My friend covered the leading role for that opera but never sang it.

It is always a joy to pay a visit to my friend and exchange thoughts on singing and music and everything else. I look forward to our times together.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Peter Lieberson

This morning I learned of the death of my friend Peter Lieberson. He was a gifted composer and the husband of my dear Lorraine Hunt. His most beautiful writing, as far as I am concerned, came after their marriage. He once told me, when I was visiting them in Santa Fe, that he never really knew how to write for the voice until he met Lorraine. She was certainly his inspiration for his later outpouring of vocal music.

John and I met Peter when we were in Santa Fe for the premiere of Ashoka's Dream in which Lorraine was singing the part of the second wife. This was prophetic, since she soon became Peter's second wife. I have never known two people who were more in love. They made a pact that they would never be apart more than ten days. As a composer, he could go wherever in the world Lorraine went to sing.

They visited us at Rood Hill Farm a number of times when Lorraine and I were working on a role she was preparing. He was a lovely man and I shall miss him very much.

In March of 2006 I heard Lorraine sing for the last time. It was at the Performing Arts Center in Newark with the BSO. She sang a heart-breaking performance of Peter's Neruda Songs. I told him backstage afterwards that I thought these were the most wonderful songs I have ever heard. I still weep when I hear Lorraine sing the final 'amor' at the end of the last song.

Their love will continue in his music and her recordings. Two great souls who should still be with us. I loved them both very dearly.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Dear Doris

For lack of something better to do this afternoon, I tuned in to Turner Classic movies and found myself in the midst of a Doris Day and Jack Carson movie. This must have been early in her career because she got fourth billing and he got first. Janis Paige was listed above her.

The thing that impressed and amazed me was in the final scene of this predictable romance, when she sang 'It's magic', every time she took a breath in her skin tight gown, her belly button moved forward. Imagine that! She was taking a low breath. I have never thought of her as a prime example of vocal technique, but I also realised that she always sang through complete phrases without running out of air. Earlier in the movie (the title of which I never saw) she was seated or moving around so I did not get a good look at her mid section. I don't know why, but this just tickled me. Imagine, Doris Day knew how to take a singing breath. I can think of some opera singers who could learn something from her.

Singers like Kate Smith always took a deep breath. But Kate was a sizeable woman and didn't worry about trying to look thin. And could she ever sing! Stephanie Blythe from the Met, is doing a tribute to her as I write.

I was recently talking with a friend about the days on Broadway when musicals were not amplified. Long, long ago! That was when Ethel Merman and Mary Martin were in their prime and could sing, un-amplified, and reach the last row of the balcony without belting.

These days everyone is wired for sound. It's often difficult on a crowded stage to figure out who is singing, since all the sound comes from the same speakers. I simply look to see whose lips are moving.

I have been trying to remember when things changed. Possibly in the 60's, when suddenly, no one walked on stage without a microphone in her bosom or stuck in her hair. Nowadays, men and women all wear what I call telephone operator headsets. I often wonder when two people who are fitted out like this kiss on stage, how they avoid becoming permanently connected electronically, head set to head set. Some new kind of S and M.

When I think of some of the men I heard on Broadway 'back in the day', the likes of John Raitt and Ezio Pinza never needed amplification either. Or Danny Kaye.

Apparently today absolutely everything that has to do with sound must be amplified to the level of physical pain. I remember walking out of a production of Les Miz in Boston some years ago with a splitting headache from the intolerable din. Of course, the music might have had something to do with that as well! I felt that the show was well named.

There is a local movie house near here that in the past I have enjoyed attending, where you can order a drink, have a light supper, and enjoy the movie. These days the sound system is tuned so loud I have had to plug my ears to save my hearing. I even asked at one point if the sound could be turned down. It was lowered for about two minutes, and then went right back up to terrifying levels! I just don't go there any more.

I always thought as I aged, that my hearing would be apt to get worse. But looking around the theatre, everyone else seemed unaware of the painful volume. Either they have all lost their hearing or mine has improved with age. Some weird sort of miracle.

I never was close enough to Ethel or Mary to check out their belly buttons while they sang, but I'll bet a nickel they moved out when they inhaled. I'm sure that Kate's did!!

PS A friend who read this just emailed me the name for a navel watcher: omphaloskesis. I guess that makes me an omphaloskesist. I love it!! All voice teachers need to be one of these to make sure their students are taking a low breath.

PPS Another friend just emailed me that Doris graduated from the Cincinatti Conservatory of Music,my friend's alma mater . Go Doris!

Friday, April 8, 2011

To Write or not to write?

I debated overnight whether or not I should write about the high school performance of The Sound of Music that I heard last night. A year or so ago I heard a performance in this same school that was simply delightful. Last night, it just didn't work.

Any group that is going to present this show with young singers needs to be aware that while everyone in the cast, no matter how young, has probably seen the Julie Andrews film, when you order the orchestral parts you get the 1959 Mary Martin keys. Julie had a high soprano voice, Mary, in 1959, was definitely an alto, so all the songs are written in much lower keys.

Mary Martin

In the days when I was teaching a number of high school age singers, I always warned the girls trying out for the role of Maria, 'You are auditioning with the high key from the Movie Book. If you get the part, you are going to have to sing everything down about a fifth. Several of them got the part and were really not effective vocally in the lower key.

This was part of the problem last night. For Maria, and for some of the other female roles, the tessitura lies right over the passaggio. For a trained singer, one has hopefully learned how to cope with this area of the voice, but for a young person with little or no vocal training, this 'break' in the voice becomes the Grand Canyon. The young singer tries to sing the lower notes in the songs in chest voice and then when they have to go up, the voice nearly disappears into a tiny head voice.

The Mother Abbess has a similar, but different, problem. 'Climb every mountain' is practically an operatic aria. Patricia Neway, who sang this role in the original production of the work, had previously sung the role of Magda in Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Consul. This is opera at its best. Very few 16 or 17 year old voices can cut this kind of singing.

The young male roles have an easier time since none of them have ranges that go very high, thereby avoiding the male passaggio. Theodore Bikel, who sang the role of Baron von Trapp in the original production, had a mellow, folk singer voice. Most young men of high school age don't sound like this, but it is always easier for a young man to get away with singing show tunes than for a young woman.

I realise that from year to year the talent pool in any school may vary wildly. Almost all of the cast in last night's performance acted their parts well, but the vocal problems inherent in these roles make Sound of Music not the best choice for a high school musical.

A friend and former student of mine wrote to me just a day or so ago that she has been judging high school musicals in New Jersey for some group. One show she had to review was Sweeney Todd. I can't imagine any high school group that could possibly bring this off vocally. Apparently, when Paul Plishka was in high school he had a voice that sounded about the same as it did when he first went to the Met. OK. Then you can do Sweeney.