Friday, August 28, 2015

Bel Canto für Alle

*This article is a reprint from the original that I posted on the now defunct Associated Content website back around 2007. I'm afraid all the articles posted there are now lost except for a few saved in my aging hard-drive. So... there are some dated stuff in the post that have since been updated, like the definition of 'bel canto' in the Wikipedia article (that had really gotten a lot less narrow and 'conventional' in the last few years). A lot of the sentiments still apply, though.

Music is for everyone, and there is no accounting for taste. I listen mostly to classical music and opera these days... As you all may have noticed, we opera fans are a bunch of obnoxious nose-in-the-air snobs who screech like banshees when any attempt is made to popularize the genre or to make the opera more easily appreciated by people who can't read music or fluently speak at least three different languages - and the screeching only gets more hysterical if those unwashed folks dare to like any singer that we don't! From what I've seen of many of my fellow opera fans on sites like Youtube and other forums, that is an image that sticks worse than a hot wad of wet chewing gum on a road bike tire.

I don't know why many opera fans (at least the very loud ones) are so intolerant of the likes and dislikes of others. The genre is already over-saddled with centuries worth of baggage. (Most of the operas being performed at the theater near you are more than 100 yrs old). Even the most difficult of the arias found in them have, by now, been sung death many times over by various great and not so great singers ever since they were published. And the 'convention', the preconception that many accept as the standard way of performing a piece of music, has been taken for granted so much it's starting to resemble the smell of bodily discharge on the sidewalks of Downtown. After a while you come to expect it to always be there... and the 'whether it should be there or not' has became a forgotten question.

But why should new generations of artists be stuck with the ideas of past ones in the first place? Why shouldn't they explore new ground rather than just sticking to the same old singing style that pleases only the loudest (though probably not that heavily populated) segment of the audience while leaving the rest of us in the cold? And what if the 'convention' isn't even accurate and/or as long-lasting as they would claim it to be in the first place?

Take the characterization of what bel canto singing is from the wikipedia article;

"Bel canto singing characteristically focuses on perfect evenness throughout the voice, skillful legato, a light upper register, tremendous agility and flexibility, and a certain lyric, "sweet" timbre. Operas of the style feature extensive and florid ornamentation, requiring much in the way of fast scales and cadenzas. Bel canto emphasizes technique rather than volume: an exercise said to demonstrate its epitome involves a singer holding a lit candle to her mouth and singing without causing the flame to flicker."

Now... Bel canto music is the music of the early 19th century Italian opera... mainly those composed by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti (and, arguably, the early Verdi operas), and the era when some of the greatest singers to ever lived (Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran-Garcia, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, Isabella Colbran, Wilhelmina Schroeder-Devrient, were the superstars those great composers fell all over themselves to write opera roles for. The description given above pretty much accurately states the modern popular convention of how the music of this period is to be sung; in a voice that is perfectly even through out its range (same timbre on all notes), with easy fluidity and heavy emphasis on flawless technique and tonal beauty (hence bel canto... beautiful singing). And so, one of my favorite opera singers, one Vesselina Kasarova, is often the target of criticism that point to her register breaks and her aggressively drama-oriented style of singing with explicit aim of conveying the pathos of her operatic character rather than just singing the character's music beautifully (or tastefully... if we are to allow the critics their say).

(here she is, singing the utterly dashing Romeo in a performance of Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues)

How should I defend her? She does have the register breaks (the voice is not even, having many different colors in different regions of its vast range), and she is utterly aggressively dramatically inclined - willing to sound downright ugly rather than beautiful when the prevailing drama requires venom... even as she sings one of the most difficult bel canto virtuoso mezzo-soprano roles in the repertoire.

Well... listen to the clip above... and then read these:

1. "The characteristics of X's head-notes are almost diametrically opposed to the characteristics of her chest-notes; her falsetto is brilliant, rapid, pure, fluent and enchantingly light. As she approaches the lower part of this falsetto register, she can smorzare il canto (diminish her tone) to a point where the very fact of the existence of sound becomes uncertain. Without such a palette of breath-taking colour deep within her own being, and without such an extraordinary and compelling natural gift, X could never have achieved the over-mastering force of natural expression which we have learnt to associate with her - a miracle of emotional revelation, which is always true to nature and, although tempered by the intrinsic laws of ideal Beauty, always alive with that unmistakable, burning energy, that extraordinary dynamism which can electrify an entire theatre. But think how much pure artistry, and how much discipline and training has been necessary before this enthralling singer learned to harness the restive secrets of weaving such divine enchantments out of two different and utterly contrasting voices."

2. "It was not a creamy voice but had a distinct tang, rather like the bitter sweet taste of Seville oranges. What struck her audience most forcibly, however, was the intensity with which she sang. --- Alfred de Musset described her voice as 'a mixture of soprano and tenor, the lower part reminiscent of a cello, the higher that of a piano.' X's voice was resonant and clear, at once both bitter and sweet, but it was more than a voice, it was a soul singing." ...

3. "Her principal characteristic, however, was expression; and expression in all its features, shades, and varieties. From its loftiest epic flights, embracing the sublime of anger and the profoundly pathetic, down to the winning and playful. It is needless to recur to her expression in the most prominent parts of the Sonnambula and the Fidelio. But they who remember her in the Romeo, how piercing her tones of anguish! How intense the agony of her features! Or her look, attitude, and tones in the last scene of Gli orazzii e curiazzii, will store the reminiscence of them among the treasures of high art."

I replaced the names with X, but do you know which singer the quotes above apply to? What if I tell you that No. 1 is the description of the voice of Giuditta Pasta by Stendhal, her contemporary critic in his The Life of Rossini? And that No. 2 is the description of Pauline Viardot-Garcia in Barbara Kendall Davies' The Life and Works of Pauline Viardot-Garcia? And that No. 3 refers to the voice of Maria Malibran-Garcia, as recounted in the Countess of Merlin's collection of Malibran's memoirs and letters?

What do you think of the modern convention of what bel canto singing should be now? None of these most acclaimed of singers of the bel canto era had a voice with seamlessly integrated registers (and does anyone remember that three-voices-in-one-throat and utterly divine stage-animal named Maria Callas?). They were known for their many vocal colors, their florid agility, and, most of all, for their drama-oriented style of singing and acting. While much of the modern critics and audience value seamless voice and technically perfect and musically beautiful singing that is easy on the ears, those who actually lived in the bel canto era were more keen on something else entirely. Stendhal devotes an entire chapter of his biography of Rossini to describe Pasta's voice, asserting that; "No voice whose timbre is completely incapable of variation can ever produce that kind of opaque, or as it were, suffocated tones, which is at once so moving and so natural in the portrayal of certain instants of violent emotion or passionate anguish. Mme. Pasta may indeed sing the same note in two different scenes; but, if the spiritual context is different it will not be the same sound."

More quote from Kendall-Davies' book: "The critic and writer, Julien Budden, observes that: the real explanation lies in the nineteen century attitude to vocal registers, a subject that has not so far received the attention it deserves. Musicologists who are eager at all cost to revive the performing traditions of a past age would do well to remember that some of them might prove unacceptable today, as for instance, the alternative method of portamento that Niccola Vaccai advocates for fast movements in his singing method of 1833 and which now exists only in pop and folk music. The ideal of an even quality from top to bottom of a singer's compass was unknown to Verdi's contemporaries. A sharp break, like a change of gear, between registers, so objectionable today, was tolerated then and indeed this yodeling effect can still be heard in certain pre-electric recordings, such as those made by the contralto Clara Butt."

So much for the notion of any long-lasting time-tested 'convention' of how a piece of music is supposed to be sung! While Julien Budden would caution that the accepted technique of the bel canto period wouldn't go over well with today's audience, I am compelled to add that it is utterly unreasonable to expect the singers to cope with the music that was composed for the real bel canto voices (with all that register breaks and falsetto and yodeling) while complying to the today's notion of bel canto singing. The expectation is not practical! Why do you think the roles written for people like Rubini or Davide are nearly never sung in their original key anymore?

Now... Not to knock on those who actually enjoy music just for music's sake. As I said before, there is no accounting for taste. What I am objecting to is the practice of applying one's own personal preference/taste as if it is the universal standard that others are obligated to adhere to. If you are looking for a beautifully sung Ariodante or Ruggiero or Sesto or Romeo or Charlotte or Carmen or Rosina, there are many wonderful lyric mezzo-soprani out there with a beautiful voice and technique that will please you. I'm sure they would very much enjoy your accolade (though perhaps not any vitriol you might feel like spewing toward their friends and colleague). Turning up to complain about singers you don't enjoy on the video clips that you supposedly don't care about, however, says a lot more about you than about them. The operatic stage is big enough to accommodate more than just one type of singers.

As for me, there are enough singers around these days who sound and sing so alike that their identity isn't readily distinguishable even after the entire radio broadcast. I want someone who not only has a personality, but is also able to portray it, in all its shades, with a voice that I can identify within the first two notes I hear. I don't care if she isn't the prettiest or the vocally heftiest or the most adept at virtuoso vocal pyrotechnic around. I do care that when she opens her mouth and sings, I hear the utmost inner thoughts of a mythical character that has miraculously been restored to life even though he isn't called Lazarus, rather than just someone with a beautiful voice singing prettily about something somebody else should be feeling. If that isn't something that floats your boat, who is forcing you to watch or listen to them? Just leave them alone and go find the others that you like instead!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Just musing out loud quite topiclessly

Whew, what seriously wet (and literally electrifying) weather we had last weekend! When the local meteorologists mentioned that we might get a visit from remnant of Hurricane Dolores, I thought we might get some rain and cloud for maybe a day (or maybe just half a day). Instead, Coconut the English bulldog, and I were dodging lightning bolts during his visits to the doggies potty yard.

Took Coconut out for a walk after the first set of thunderstorms on Saturday.
Don't get me wrong, though, I'm really stoked that we got really good amount of rainfall over the weekend. We need quite a bit more just to raise the water levels in our local reservoirs to a more respectable level. As of last week, many of them were looking too much like dried up bush bowls than they did lakes.
El Capitan Reservoir a month ago. All the cars would have been submerged same time last year.
The east bit of Lake Hodges has been dry for so long it's now bush land rather than even dried lake.
In the meanwhile, I got to roll into Downtown for a bit yesterday. The place looks so different every time I drop in! There's a new park with some rather cool water features off 14th St in East Village that is still fenced off. The Callan Hotel on Island St in the Gaslamp no longer looks like an ill-maintained public toilet, and most of the restaurants along 4th and 5th are different from a year ago.
The new park off 14th at Island in East Village... looking amazingly lush and equipped with water display in the midst of the drought.

It's still there!
Guess what, that little tucked away Philippine Library and Museum on 5th Ave is still there... and mostly not-open as usual! I wonder how the place survives in such a prime location when it's closed for business most of the time...

Friday, July 17, 2015

Guest Announcement: San Diego Opera 2016 events

San Diego Opera Announces Opera Exposed 2016 Roster and Event
Audience Engagement Ensemble from the Company’s University Partnership Program to Present Free Community Concerts
San Diego, CA - San Diego Opera is pleased to announce the 2015-2016 Opera Exposed artists and events. Opera Exposed is a touring opera ensemble comprised of students from San Diego Opera’s University Partnership Program which currently includes vocal arts students from SDSU and Point Loma Nazarene University. All of the participants have auditioned into the program and represent San Diego Opera in recitals throughout the communities and neighborhoods of San Diego County, with a focus on underserved neighborhoods. In return, the students receive master classes with principal artists from San Diego Opera mainstage productions, meetings with senior staff, internships to bolster their resumés, in-and-out privileges for staging rehearsals and complimentary tickets to performances. This partnership offers young singers ample opportunities to hone their performance skills, while at the same time giving them a better idea of the processes of producing opera on a professional level.
“Last year, in the first season of Opera Exposed, we performed in neighborhoods and venues where San Diego Opera had not been before, like City Heights and Barrio Logan,” shares Dr. Nicolas Reveles, San Diego Opera’s Director of Education and Community Engagement. “This year will bring our first foray into the Diamond Neighborhood, the Malcolm X Library, as well as return visits to some of the venues where we performed last year. It’s tremendously exciting to bring opera to communities that haven’t yet experienced it, especially with these wonderful, enthusiastic young singers!”
All Opera Exposed recitals are free and are open to the public. Performance selections will vary from recital to recital but will include a selection of familiar opera arias, duets and ensembles from composers such as Puccini, Gounod, Mozart, Rossini, Leoncavallo, and Copland, among others.
The 2015-2016 Opera Exposed artists are:
San Diego State University
Alvin Almazan, tenor
Rachel Rothman, soprano
Lisa Parente, soprano
Ivan Ochoa, tenor
Amanda Olea, soprano
Nicholas Newton, baritone
Radames Gil, baritone
Point Loma Nazarene University
Kiana Bell, mezzo soprano
Carina Kazmierowicz, soprano
Jack French, baritone
Krista Wilford, soprano
Jonathan Lacayo, tenor
McKenna Slack, soprano
Kelsey Kammeraad, soprano

A list of currently scheduled Opera Exposed recitals is below. As recitals are added they can be found online at
August 15, 3:00pm                 Malcolm X Library
                                                5148 Market Street
                                                San Diego, CA 92114
August 30, 3:30pm                 Carlsbad Music Festival
                                                Magee Park, 258 Beech Street
                                                Carlsbad, CA 92008
September 30, 6:00pm          Weingart/City Heights Performance Annex
                                                3795 Fairmount Avenue
                                                San Diego, CA 92105
October 10, 7:00pm               Hillcrest Wind Ensemble Concert    
                                                First Unitarian Universalist Church
                                                4190 Front Street
                                                San Diego, CA 92103
October 18, 2:00pm               Central Library Downtown
                                                330 Park Boulevard
                                                San Diego, CA 92101
October 25, 2:00pm               Hope United Methodist Church
                                                16550 Bernardo Heights Parkway
                                                Rancho Bernardo, CA 92128
November 22, 2:00pm           El Cajon Public Library
                                                201 E. Douglas
                                                El Cajon, CA 92020
January 20, 11:30am             LGBT Center
                                                3909 Centre Street
                                                San Diego, CA 92103
The 2015-2016 International Season
René Barbera in Recital                                                                    September 19, 2015
Patricia Racette “Diva on Detour”                                                   November 14, 2015
Tosca                                                   Giacomo Puccini                  February 13, 16, 19 and 21 (mat), 2016
Ferruccio Furlanetto in Concert                                                       March 5, 2016
Madama Butterfly                                Giacomo Puccini                  April 16, 19, 22 and 24 (mat), 2016
Great Scott                                          Jake Heggie                          May 7, 10, 15 and 15 (mat), 2016

Friday, June 26, 2015

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Fifth Element Madness...

Roommie and I had a movie night last night to celebrate his return from a visit to the (extremely) rainy Midwest. The main feature for the evening was... The Fifth Element. It, of course, features a rather famous solo aria/fight sequence scene with a rather cool mix of a hardcore bel canto aria and techno dance music.

The first part of the solo (until 3:14 into the clip) is the 'Il dolce suono' bit from the very famous Mad Scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Albanian soprano Inva Mula Tchako provides the voice for the diva. Here she is, in person.

Does her voice sound different live versus in the Fifth Element clip? Sound editing (in this case, especially reverb-ing) can be a marvelous thing when done right! Don't get me wrong, I'm not even close to knocking her. I rather quite enjoy the Diva Plavalaguna mad scene/music mix... It goes really awesomely with the fight sequence it shares the scene with (tho I'm not quite sold on how fragile the aliens that Leeloo knocks out are).

Anyhow, it's like listening to Queen's heavily process/synthesized music (and, if you must know, Queen is like my all time favorite rock band. Freddie forever!). It's amazing what they cook up in the stereo... Of course, if you had ever gone to any Queen concert, it never sounds the same live. They use so many sound effects to create the vintage Queen sound that it is just not possible to replicate in live setting.

Of course, sound mixing/editing has come a long way since the days of Queen (when all the effects were actually done and recorded rather than digitally manipulated post-recording). There are music snobs who would poo-poo such a thing, but I think there definitely is a place for this. It's like a specialized art form that allows you to experience what the artists hear in their head that they can't do naturally. As far as I'm concerned, getting good glimpses of Freddie Mercury or Brian May or Eric Serra (the composer that created the Fifth Element mix)'s fantasies is a treat!

The trick is to recognize what you hear and admire it for what it is... and what it isn't. The Diva Plavalaguna scene is a cool and memorable (if weird) bit of faux opera enhancement of a weird movie (that obviously did something right to attain its cult following status). It's too bad nobody can sing/sound like that in real life... Though if you go to the opera house near you and get a ticket when they put on a bel canto show (you know, stuff by Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti), you can get yourselves quite amazed by what real life opera singers can do with their voice live... without even the use of microphone, all while acting. I mean... have you listened to Lucia's whole mad scene where the first part of the Fifth Element scene comes from?

Isn't it mad how someone could sing like that over a live orchestra with no sound enhancement at all?