For maximum effect, you should watch these two videos in sequence. It’s the same aria in the same 2009 Metropolitan Opera production of “Tales Of Hoffman” being sung two very different ways.
Today, opera has pretentious undertones that scare people away. Okay, yes, it’s probably the undertones and all of the foreign speakey-talk. I myself didn’t really get into opera until I learned that reading the libretto beforehand wasn’t considered cheating.
Anyway, it’s a shame that so many people don’t give opera a try. Opera was never meant to be inaccessible. There was a time when it was simply the popular entertainment of the day, just like movies are now. Opera stories go all over the map. You have your intense dramas, your light comedies, your action and fantasy productions.
“Tales of Hoffman” has elements of many genres. It’s an anthology piece. Hoffman the poet is killing time in a tavern until his latest crush, an opera star, gets off stage. He’s entertaining the house with stories of unrequited love from his past. The first tale is about Olympia, a lifelike windup automaton whom Hoffman thought was a real woman because he’d been tricked into putting on magic eyeglasses.
(See? Opera doesn’t seem so highfalutin’ when you read the librettos. Michael Bay would have used a plot like that without thinking twice.)
And there’s another similarity between opera and movies: mainstream audiences wanted to be thrilled and excited. Witness “The Doll’s Song,” which is the coloratura equivalent of a scene in which giant robots throw each other into skyscrapers. It’s designed to push a performer almost to the limits of what the human voice can do. When this aria comes up, even modern audiences lean forward in their seats a little; they know they’re going to see something spectacular.
In this first video, Olympia is sung with vim, precision, charm, and humor by principal performer Kathleen Kim.
Why is it that you often see Craigslist cattle calls for TV singing competitions, but you never see one for a coloratura soprano role? Here’s the answer. The number of people who can perform at this level is miniscule. For proof, search YouTube for other performances of this aria. Even when they’re sung extremely well, if a performer is the least bit intimidated by the piece or if they only have 99% of the technique necessary to meet its high demands, that’s crystal-clear in thirty seconds.
Kim, an elite professional, accelerates through every curve. She seems to have no limitations; every note she sings is a conscious choice and she’s in full control of her instrument throughout. And keep in mind that as impressive as this performance was, it was all in a day’s work for her. She would do it again and again and again throughout the show’s run.
So. One night, Kim got sick and Rachele Gilmore was forced to make her Met stage debut on just three hours’ notice.
This second video is an example of what happens when a highly technical role is performed by a talented, hardworking person who knows that:
(1) This next performance is a huge moment in any singer’s career;
(2) This is an aria in which the singer is actually supposed to showboat during the reprise;
and maybe most importantly
(3) She doesn’t necessarily need to protect her voice for the next two weeks of performances.
Do watch the whole thing — it’s so worth it — but skip ahead to 3:35 if you only have time for the fireworks:
When she gets to the reprise, smoley hokes! Yes, you are hearing the audience gasping at what Gilmore is doing. The popular consensus is that her A-flat above high C was the highest note ever sung in a Metropolitan Opera production.
Whether it was or it wasn’t, just look at that response! The audience simply refused to allow the production to move forward until they’d worn out their arms and their hands applauding. Yeah, she probably did pretty good, there.
Live performance means real people immediately responding to the work of real people. Each performance is unique and some are devastatingly exceptional. That night, the audience saw something being done as well as any human being ever will, even under sub-optimal conditions. And because it was live opera, they had a chance to make their reaction immediately and fully known to the performer instead of just Tweeting about it during intermission.
The applause went from a visceral reaction to an emotional one, too. Once the initial thrill dissipated, the audience realized that this young performer had made her debut on one of the world’s premier stages on three hours’ notice and she’d absolutely killed. It just made them cheer longer.
It reminded me of another thing I love about live theater. How does the company deal with the unexpected? “The Doll’s Song” was written as a showstopper. Even so, the performers and musicians have no idea how long the applause will last after any given performance of the aria. That night it went on more or less forever. It continued for so long, in fact, that the people onstage needed to do things to keep the show moving even though it had stopped moving forward. I love how the man playing Spalanzani (the inventor) eventually chose to mill about behind Gilmore, accepting the handshakes and congratulations of the partygoers, as though the extended ovation were for his character’s engineering virtuosity instead of for Gilmore’s vocal virtuosity. He did it without taking the spotlight off of her, either.
The way the Met staged “The Doll’s Aria” was interesting. In that part of the story, Olympia is supposed to be performing to crowd of partygoers, so it’s perfectly in character for Gilmore to react to the Met audience’s applause by bowing. The other performers onstage are supposed to be muchly impressed and entertained by the demonstration of this amazing windup automaton, so it’s perfectly in character for them to react to Gilmore as though they were muchly impressed and entertained. Of course. That’s how they rehearsed the scene.
I’ve been watching the onstage audience. I don’t think they were completely acting. They couldn’t have been surprised by Gilmore’s performance (rehearsals, you know) but I still think they were almost as delighted as those people out in the real audience. They had much better seats and they got paid!
Added: Paul Henkiel was so impressed that he ran the audio through a spectrum analyzer and posted the video on YouTube. Check out the precision of those stair-step escalating notes.
Added: I’m getting lots of nice comments from people who’ve never really dipped into opera before. If you enjoyed this aria, you should definitely sample two albums by my favorite coloratura soprano, Diana Damrau.
“Coloraturas” contains track after track of what I think is technically-termed “Goddamned gorgeous singing.” This nice little behind-the-scenes video of the recording of the album includes (at 2:10) a full performance of the explosive first track, “Je veux vivre” from “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Arie Di Bravura” contains both of the Queen of the Night’s arias from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” This is the role that established Damrau as an international star, beginning with an incredible performance in a 2003 Royal Opera House production.
The more famous of the two arias is “Der Hölle Rache.” It’s so intense, in fact, that it defines the soprano vocal range. Mozart wrote this part specifically for the skills of his supremely talented sister-in-law and afterward, the International Committee Of People Who Decide Such Things said “Look, we’ll let you have this one. But moving forward, let’s all agree that if you expect a woman to sing notes higher than this top F6, you’re kind of being a d***.”
“Der Hölle Rache” is considered the coloratura aria. When I tell you that the title line means “Hell’s vengeance burns inside my heart” you get the idea that it’s going to get fairly Intense. The Queen of the Night feels as though she’s been betrayed by her daughter, Pamina. She hands her a dagger and orders Pamina to murder Sarastro, the Queen’s enemy. And if she fails, the Queen promises to bring the full furies of vengeance upon her head.
Many productions portray the Queen as a harpyish villain. Damrau plays her as a strong, independent woman who, after her husband’s death, has been dismissed and marginalized by male-dominated society. It’s almost literally sung in the story: “Silly, emotional, stupid woman. We strong, wise, and rational men are taking your daughter and your objects of power away from you because, honestly, a role of esteem and responsibility would only make you all confused and emotional.” Can you blame her for getting rather cross?
But her first aria is my favorite. It’s both emotional and subtle. The Queen is imploring Tamino, the Handsome Young Prince™, to infiltrate Sarastro’s temple and rescue her kidnapped daughter. She sings of her sorrow; she could hear her daughter’s cries for help as she was being abducted, but she could do nothing. She promises Tamino her daughter’s hand in marriage.
I must have seen this video a hundred times but I still can’t decide if the Queen is manipulating Tamino or if she’s being wholly sincere and requires his help in Pamina’s rescue so urgently that she’s not above playing on his emotions a little.
That’s what makes Damrau’s performance so gripping. It’s impressive enough to simply stand in the middle of the stage and sing this aria well. But her singing and her acting are ten out of ten. It seems superhuman to be able to sing something so technically difficult and have it read to the audience as a real, three-dimensional character. It’s like performing the role of Hamlet entirely while riding a ten-foot unicycle around the stage, and integrating this stunt so tightly into the role that a theater critic forgets to mention that detail in his review.
“The Magic Flute” is, incidentally, a great “first opera.” The Royal Opera House production is gorgeous. It’s true to the original spirit of the piece while still feeling thoroughly modern. It’s on DVD and Blu ray.