My Year of Opera 23: Kiss Me, Kate

I was thinking that June would be “Shakespeare Month” and that I’d watch a different Shakespeare-based opera each week. I now doubt that I’m going to do that (but I’ll probably watch Adès’ The Tempest rather soon).

You know how someone once said that Shakespeare is nothing more than a bunch of famous quotes all strung together? I sort of felt that way about the music. I’d heard so many of these Cole Porter tunes out of context that it was kind of weird hearing them IN context. Especially “From This Moment On.” Hearing General Whatsis sing that song as a march instead of Ella Fitzgerald singing it just seemed…wrong. I know that “Too Darned Hot” had to come from SOMEWHERE but I never would have guessed it was from Kiss Me, Kate.

I also didn’t know that this was a meta-musical. I knew it was an adaptation of Taming of the Shrew but I didn’t realize it showed the backstage drama, too. That was kind of fun, a nice extra layer to it all. I don’t think it was wholly necessary, I could have just had the Taming of the Shrew bit but mobsters are always a nice touch.

The production I watched was the 2004 revival. They tried to make it look like they were doing a live production but it was fairly clear that they weren’t. Something was missing from the energy of the performance even though the production values were rather high. I wasn’t as wowed as I expected to be but I wasn’t repulsed by it, either. I’d like to see it live sometime. I bet it would be funnier.

Cole Porter certainly was a clever one. My favorite number (which I hadn’t heard before) was “Where is the Life  That Late I Led.” “I Hate Men” was certainly fun, too. “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” I had heard before and found it charming until it just stretched out one joke too long too late into the show.

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My Year of Opera 22: He’s NOT The Messiah, He’s a Very Naughty Boy

THIS time, I knew I was going to get a comedy. A one-night only oratorio adapted from Life of Brian? I was quite excited to see it. I think Life of Brian is the best Python film and since I have heard rave things about Spamalot (but never seen/heard it myself), I was happy to find this event on Netflix.

It was disappointing. While I appreciate that they didn’t just go chapter-and-verse through all the gags in the movie, I wasn’t terribly excited about the drawing out of Brian’s story (ejecting most everything else). Set in grand British Oratorio Tradition, the music hit me rather flat, too. It sounded like someone writing what they thought music was supposed to sound like. Unnecessary songs were inserted for unnecessary reasons and mostly weren’t that funny.

Cameos were enjoyable (Terry Gilliam’s was the most appropriate) but basically the event reinforced that Monty Python, as an entity, is more of a museum piece than living, breathing, vibrant comedy. They were awesome, back in the day. Flying Circus and their films are still hilarious and fabulous. They haven’t progressed as a troupe, though, and it was wrong for me to expect otherwise. It would be the equivalent of seeing Victor Borge and expecting him to have new, fresh, topical material.

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My Year of Opera 22: He’s NOT the Messiah

THIS time, I knew I was going to get a comedy. A one-night only oratorio adapted from Life of Brian? I was quite excited to see it. I think Life of Brian is the best Python film and since I have heard rave things about Spamalot (but never seen/heard it myself), I was happy to find this event on Netflix.

It was disappointing. While I appreciate that they didn’t just go chapter-and-verse through all the gags in the movie, I wasn’t terribly excited about the drawing out of Brian’s story (ejecting most everything else). Set in grand British Oratorio Tradition, the music hit me rather flat, too. It sounded like someone writing what they thought music was supposed to sound like. Unnecessary songs were inserted for unnecessary reasons and mostly weren’t that funny. Cameos were enjoyable (Terry Gilliam’s was the most appropriate) but basically the event reinforced that Monty Python, as an entity, is more of a museum piece than living, breathing, vibrant comedy. They were awesome, back in the day. Flying Circus and their films are still hilarious and fabulous. They haven’t progressed as a troupe, though, and it was wrong for me to expect otherwise. It would be the equivalent of seeing Victor Borge and expecting him to have new, fresh, topical material.

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My Year of Opera 21: Der Fliegende Hollander

Yes, I know that after the whole Rigoletto thing I swore I was going to watch a comedy. But then Wagner’s 200th birthday happened and I thought it best to honor the man. I decided against Meistersinger because, while it may be possible that Wagner has a sense of humor, I’m not quite ready to spend 5.5 hours trying to find out. Instead, since I tend to blackout during late Romantic works, I picked an early opera of his.

I watched the Danish National Opera production that is available through the Naxos Video Library (a service I’m going to be using more for this little escapade despite many buffering issues). The staging was very austere; the whole thing was done on a white stage with glass doors separating the front from the back. The first act takes place on a cruise ship, the second in a spa, the third back on the boat. All the color and hints at the setting was communicated by the costumes. I think it worked well as a visual choice but the staging became “I am standing here now” which didn’t really engage me.

This is one of those operas which, like Turandot, I think I only know the plot to the first half but it turns out I really know the whole story. It was very simple and straightforward (for Wagner, I have seen 3/4 of the Ring so this was very “Dick and Jane” in comparison). I was also impressed at the amount of counterpoint Wagner delivered. I don’t think of him as a contrapuntalist; his music only exists in the world of functional harmony. Sure, there are melodies, but nobody ever seems to talk about them at all (outside of Ride of the Valkyries). Motives, yes. Melodies, no. So the contrapuntal stuff that gets used throughout the opera was kind of a surprise.

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Should have said this yesterday…

With all the 100th anniversary of the Rite of Spring mentions going around, I want to share my favorite experience with the piece.

In December 2009, the first winter we lived in Michigan, we took my then-4-year-old daughter Daria to see the Nutcracker in Midland (a merger between the Midland Symphony and the Grand Rapids Ballet). To prep Daria, I hauled out my VHS of Fantasia and we watched it. She wanted to watch parts of it again and again so for about a month we sort of steeped in Fantasia (and taught Daria about using tapes).

As we were getting ready to go to Midland, I asked Daria if she wanted to take some music for the car (Midland is about 45 minutes away). I asked if she wanted to listen to the Nutcracker because we were going to Midland to see it. “You know,” I said, “the stuff from Fantasia? We are going to go see it now.”

Daria shouted, with much excitement, “THE DINOSAUR MOVIE!”

Daria was a bit disappointed when I told her no, we were seeing the fairy/mushroom/flower stuff. So we listened to the Rite on the way there. And on the way back.

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My Year of Opera 20: Rigoletto

COMING SOON! The Met HD broadcast is going to be on Great Performances tonight. I missed the broadcast in theaters this past February but I’m not missing this one. I’ll be live-tweeting from my couch tonight starting around 9 PM EDT. Join in if you’d like or just let me clog your Twitter feed for 2.5 hours.

UPDATE:

I really enjoyed Rigoletto. It is the kind of Verdi that engages me. Aida, for all the adoration that people pour on it, hits me as dull. Rigoletto and La Traviata have the right amount of plot and scene separation for my brain. I’m a fan of segments. I think this is why Germanic operas are a bit lost on me.

The production was solid but I don’t really get anything out of the “update” to a Rat Pack era casino. There didn’t seem to be any reason for it, other than adding a stripper pole to the Duke’s bedroom in Act III. The Peter Sellars stagings of Mozart provided a very interesting context for the operas. Don Giovanni shoot up heroin, for example, makes a statement. But was great understanding of the story achieved by putting this in a casino? And updating the subtitles to include 50s slang? The story is simple enough as it is and it communicates in any setting. I didn’t find this staging particularly insightful.

I have GOT to get some comedies happening on this blog. I’m growing tired of all this morose tragedy. Wagner’s 200th birthday is this week, though, and he is not known for comedic flair. I suppose I could watch Meistersinger but it really doesn’t appeal to me. We will see what happens.

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My Year of Opera 19: Elektra

Ugh. This one. Did not enjoy it. Learned a lot about my tastes from it, though!

Some disclaimers: I’m not a fan of late-Romanticism. I appreciate it, I understand what people like about it, I know how the music “works,” etc. But it does nothing for me. I do not listen to it for pleasure. I don’t think the music is bad; it just doesn’t appeal to me. Like bacon. Bacon appeals to a lot of The Internet and I would sound pretty silly if I sat here telling you that bacon doesn’t taste good. As a vegetarian, bacon does not appeal to me.

What I can’t quite put my finger on, though, is WHY Elektra was so unappealing. Especially because I like Wozzeck. And this was the Vienna State Opera with Abbado, the same company that did my favorite production of Wozzeck. But there is something about Strauss operas that just irritate me. Everyone talks so much about the importance of Salome; so I study Salome, I listen to it, I watch it (a few times with different productions), I read about it. I can see why it was influential but it just doesn’t sound interesting to me.

So maybe I like Berg more than Strauss because Strauss “didn’t go far enough” in terms of breaking with tonality? So I decided to try Elektra which has a reputation for Going Farther than Salome. I understand German Expressionism, I get the imagery they were interested in, I know this is the stuff that launched the Second Viennese School (whose music I like). Elektra seemed to embody every possible stereotype that makes opera seem silly. This stage is DARK. As in, you can hardly see the people on the stage. The music is full of anxious activity but without focus. It reminded me of being in a car with someone who fills nervous energy by talking all the time.

So no, this was not something I enjoyed. I get why Strauss wrote it, I get why composers would be into it, I get why orchestras would be excited to play it, but I don’t get why singers would want to sing it. I’m really glad I’m doing this My Year of Opera. Not only am I learning a lot about the rep I’m seeing trends in my own tastes. Clearly I need to spend some more time with German opera to see if I can engage with it.

I’m planning a few “gimmick” months this summer. Instead of just randomly grabbing operas and seeing what happens, I’m coordinating a few themes. I think June with be “Shakespeare Month” where I watch 4 different Shakespeare operas (Adès’ The Tempest, Verdi’s MacBeth, maybe I Capuleti e I Montecchi, and Kiss Me Kate). I might do a Wagner month, too. I’m also curious about the same stories done by multiple composers. Romeo and Juliet, sure. Maybe Faust? I could probably pull together a Faust month…

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My Year of Opera 18: Giulio Cesare

Sadly this was not the recent MET Live broadcast. I had been planning on going to that all season but when it finally came time there were too many scheduling obstacles. Fortunately, I was able to watch what I believe was the same David McVicar production at Glyndebourne. This had Sarah Connolly* as Cesare, Danielle de Neise as Cleopatra, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by William Christie.

I’m a big fan of Handel and this opera is the perfect demonstration of why. The music is vibrant and lively and just all around great to listen to. The man can write a hell of a melody. Bach may have been the King of Counterpoint but Handel was Emperor of Tunes. Yes, the constant da capo issue makes each aria about 4 minutes longer than they “need to be” by today’s standards but it didn’t really bother me. What I thought was funny was the disparity between the amount of libretto to the amount of music. The librettist writes 3 sentences, Handel makes 6 minutes of music out of it. Hell, give the guy an open vowel and he goes to town for a solid 90 seconds.

The story goes from zero to severed head in, like, nothing flat so there is that. Who says Baroque opera is boring? This plot was pretty exciting. Ptolemy reached levels of “Salome Crazy” at times. I’m pretty sure “Salome Crazy” is a real opera term. It is in this household, anyway. Anyhow, this is a long opera but it never felt bloated or unnecessary (other than the da capo convention, of course).

The production and staging were brilliant, in my opinion. I loved the “British Colonial Period” dress, the action on stage (great bookends of the cleaning crew at the start and end of the opera – yes, I just reiterated what “bookends” means), lots of dance, and just lovely to look at. Cleopatra was clearly having more fun than everyone else – and shouldn’t it be that way? And the makeup was so good it took me a while to believe that Cesare was being sung by a soprano.

Come to think of it, there is only one low voice in the whole opera: Ptolemy’s thug who delivers that severed head. Other than this one baritone, everyone was in the higher vocal range (all the other male roles were either countertenors a trouser role). What I also found interesting was Handel’s use of the orchestra. We don’t think of Baroque composers and orchestration very much but we should. Handel used a lot of different colors to set each aria which kept the overall consistent texture/tempo issues from getting stale. I don’t know how many of those choices were made by the ensemble instead of Handel but my money is on the big G. F.

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My Year of Opera: End of the First Trimester

Having watched 17 operas so far this year, I’ve compiled some stats. Post #18 is forthcoming…

Composers Represented:

  • Berlioz (Les Troyens)
  • Sondheim (Company, Into the Woods)
  • Donizetti (L’elisir d’Amore)
  • Rossini (La Cenerentola)
  • Berg (Wozzeck)
  • Whedon (Dr. Horrible, Once More With Feeling)
  • Britten (Peter Grimes, A Midsummer Night’s Eve)
  • Zappa (200 Motels)
  • Verdi (Falstaff)
  • Sullivan (Pirates of Penzance)
  • Mazzoli (Song from the Uproar)
  • Poulenc (Dialogues des carmélites)
  • Massenet (Manon)
  • Adès (Powder Her Face)

Composers With the Most Operas So Far:

  • 3 way tie between Sondheim, Britten, and Whedon

Language Distribution:

  • English – 10! (I’m surprised at this)
  • French – 3
  • Italian – 3
  • German – 1

Number of Operas I Had Seen Before: 6

Number of Live Operas: 2

Longest Opera So Far: Les Troyens

Shortest Opera So Far: Once More, With Feeling

Biggest Surprise So Far: I like bel canto. And French opera.

Favorite Operas So Far: Dialogues des carmélites, Company (new) Pirates of Penzance (rerun)

Biggest Disappointment: Zappa’s 200 Motels

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My Year of Opera 17: Powder Her Face

Like there are multiple DVDs of this piece? I was glad there was one! I heard the work when it first made waves back in the late 90s and really didn’t connect with it. And this opera doesn’t really work as a purely auditory experience; scored for 4 singers three of which sing multiple parts (only Mary Plazas stayed fixed in her role as the Duchess). This DVD isn’t a staged performance it is a full-on movie. I’ve only seen one other staged movie of an opera (Verdi’s Otello) and I didn’t think it worked very well. With Powder Her Face it worked extremely well. It is almost necessary (especially after seeing some clips of a staging of it). The way that the character relationships change from scene to scene make almost no audible sense. Seeing the characters in different settings with different costumes (and done in a high quality way that couldn’t really be reproduced on stage) was absolutely vital. I think THIS is the way to experience this particular opera.

I’ve had a real hard time connecting to Adès’ music. It has been brought out a few times as “important stuff to listen to!” and “look what a great young composer he is!” and such. His music has never made a huge impression on me. It is always cleverly orchestrated but I couldn’t get anything past that. When I encounter music that I “don’t get” I usually put it on the back burner of my mind and try listening to it again. At some point, something usually clicks and even if I don’t like the music I have a sense of why the composer was doing what he/she was doing.

Having said all that, when I found there was a DVD to this piece I knew I had to see it. I think the case of Adès using popular  music is drastically overstated. Yes, it is sort of present some of the time. What I liked was how he got such great colors from a small number of performing forces. And some of the best “sound effects” moments came with knocking on doors, the masturbation scene, the seduction/bathroom blowjob scene (which was about as graphic as you could possibly make it without going into actual pornography — and now all the CMU students will race to the library to check out this DVD), etc. I also found the repetition of the word “Madam” very clever. It was a punctuation in the libretto that worked quite well.

At first, I didn’t really care about the characters. I figured maybe it would have made more sense if I was British and had that royalty stuff more in my cultural mindset. Nope. As the opera went along I found the Duchess to be a very sympathetic character (like Anna Nicole, hey, didn’t I just say that?).

The soprano part is a killer. The maid/friend/maid/lover part has some freakishly high stuff in it. But the aria “Fancy” was one of my favorite musical moments. And the way Adès makes the chamber orchestra sound like a phonograph at the end? Brilliant.

The DVD also had an hour-long documentary about Adès which I watched. I feared that it was going to be obsequious and precious but I was wrong. His music makes a LOT more sense to me know after I watched it. Adès is an introvert. The only person his music needs to make any sense to is himself. I spend a lot of time around extrovert composers who collaborate with lots of people, have outgoing personalities (personally and musically) and are interested in engaging lots of people. Adès is not concerned with these things. I can understand his music quite a bit more with that in mind.

I also found out I can rent his opera The Tempest from the MET website. I will do so and report back.

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