Tag Archives: opera

Diana Damrau interview

“Princess Di“:

Her voice drops a bit as she reflects on the life she has chosen. ‘Singing is such a whole experience for body and mind and soul,’ she says. ‘You have to have control over your body, but you must have the artistry to guide you, to go for the beauty. That’s what we want. If you sing the Witch in Hänsel und Gretel, or something like that, you have other goals. But usually, it’s the beauty. We are longing for beauty — and to touch people, and to be able to do this, it can take time. You can be brilliant in technique, and that impresses people. But it’s not the whole thing. It takes a long time to be able to combine these things, and you need time to grow. And’ — she sighs a little — ‘people are not too patient.’

(Via Opera News.)

I have so much respect for this woman’s profound talent and her artistic perspective. As someone who has to create stuff, I find something inspirational in most of her interviews.

If you’re not an opera fan, try out “Forever,” her first album of Broadway and film standards. It’s been in heavy rotation on my phone for the past year and a half.

Rachele Gilmore’s 100 MPH Fastball

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.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 11: “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön”


Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön

Fritz Wunderlich

Fritz Wunderlich: Musical Pearls

Genre: Opera

Amazon MP3: Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (Tamino)

I was surprised and flattered by some of the responses to my Flip Mino HD v. Kodak Zi6 demo videos on Vimeo. In addition to the wrong (wrong wrong so very WRONG) comments that claimed that the Kodak video was superior to the Mino’s, I got a couple of messages from people who said I had a Lovely Singing Voice™.

Well, thank you. I do enjoy singing. But I have a serious case of Tenor Envy.

God saw fit to equip me with what (in a better singer) would be termed a Lush, Full Baritone™. Which is all well and good, but in general, the most awesome rock songs are sung by tenors. Jazz standards are a little better: we’ve got Sinatra and Bennett on our side.

(Okay, okay…also Ike Turner. We don’t like to talk about him. There’s nothing worse than a baritone gone bad, is there?)

We move on to opera, however, and the tenors win, two sets to one. Consider Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The Handsome Young Prince™ (you know him better as Tamino) is a tenor part. Bumbling Sidekick™? a baritone. So Papageno the birdcatcher sings about chasing filthy birds all day long and not being able to score with women, while Tamino pours out his soul in devoted longing to the portrait of the woman of his dreams, before setting off to rescue her from the temple priest who kidnapped her.

That’s fair.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry. This is why Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins™. I shouldn’t burden you with my own petty and ugly disappointments. “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” is one hell of an aria, and before he kakked it in 1966, Fritz Wunderlich was one hell of a tenor.

You’re all smart people, so if you haven’t already gotten into opera, you’ll get into it eventually. I didn’t really discover opera until my early thirties. What got me hooked was the discovery that an opera singer’s career is all about the pursuit of mastery. They can’t succeed by starring in a hit musical and then landing a supporting role in a sitcom. Nope, have to work their way through the repertoire, opera after opera, role after role, performance after performance, demonstrating a range and agility not just for the music, but for the acting roles themselves.

This is unlike the way things work in rock or pop. Singers do indeed record covers. They’ve paid for the whole day at the studio and if they want to burn off the last forty minutes by having the Sex Pistols do their best with “My Way,” what’s the harm?

[Roughly 1400 words on the topic of “The harm of the Sex Pistols trying to cover Sinatra,” deleted for space]

In opera, by the time a tenor stands in front of people and sings “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” he does so with Intent To Distribute™. You just don’t toss out a line like “An diesen heissen Busen drücken/Und ewig wäre sie dann mein!” without getting all of your paperwork in order.

(Heh heh heh…he said “busen”! Dude!)

By the time you develop a reputation like Fritz Wunderlich’s, you’ve really wrestled this tune to the ground and found your answers. The upshot of all this is that 99 cents spent on an opera recording generally delivers the greatest value. Assuming that you want the performers to annoy and stress themselves out as much as possible for your entertainment dollar.

Buy Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön from the Amazon MP3 Store. That’s what heroes do.

Amazon MP3: Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (Tamino)

The iTunes Store has it, too. Though I understand that most of their stock comes from Asia and is not covered by US warranties. Apple also rummages through the box and pulls out the charger and the manual and all of the cables and they try to sell them to you separately. All in all, it seems like the smart thing would be to buy it from Amazon, where you’ll get it unlocked and at high bitrate and funnel another few cents into my Amazon Frivolity Fund, doesn’t it?