Sunday, August 30, 2009

Summer blues...

Apologies for not being around much lately. My brain is behaving like a fizzling fried pudding at the moment. If it gets any hotter than it has been here (and, yes, I know there are places on this planet right now that are hotter, but I (thankfully) am not there) I'd probably sell my soul to the devil for the price of a working air-conditioner... Never mind a lovely Marguerite or a mansion on Malibu beach. A working A/C and a refrigerator-ful of cold Crush's finest orange soda and I'll paint my face red and don the devil's antlers and even think a few evil thoughts on the side (for no extra charge)!

But, thinking of Marguerite... well, if she looks and sounds like this, that sure wouldn't hurt...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

RIP Hildegard Behrens (1937-2009)

I have been off-line a lot in the last few weeks and so am a bit behind the curve on news and other things (emails and comments included). It appears that another remarkable operatic grande dame left us last night after many years of lighting up the stage with her combustible voice and dramatic presence. Hildegard Behrens, the 72 yrs old German dramatic soprano, was to give a recital in Tokyo, Japan yesterday when she fell ill and was taken to the hospital where she died of burst aortic aneurysm.

Not being a die-hard fan of Wagnerian and Strauss operas I wasn't as familiar with Frau Behrens' work as I should. Just about the only recording of hers that I keep digging up to play every now and then is the DVD of Mozart's Idomeneo from the 80's. Yep... a bit of an irony, I'm afraid. I bought that DVD almost exclusively because of that unlikely casting of Behrens as Mozart's (rather than Richard Strauss') Elettra.

As someone said in the comment session on Youtube, it was a sort of performance one came to boo and end up on ones' feet brava-ing. And though this clip perhaps doesn't show her in her best musical light, it does provide a good snap shot of the exact quality that made Behrens great and well beloved - she wasn't one to miss the forest for the trees. Music is very important in opera, but it ISN'T everything. Being able to sell the story of the opera to the audience IS. Many soprani out there can sing every note Mozart wrote down for Elettra perfectly, but not many can translate what the notes were meant to represent as convincingly as Behrens could.

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when she argued a case in court... The lass actually had a law degree from the University of Freiburg before she decided to become an opera singer! It was almost unfair how mentally acute she was while also being blessed with the dramatic fire that she had. Click here for a glimpse of that brain decoding some of the operatic heroines she portrayed in her glory years.


And here was Behrens in her element. One of the greatest Isolde to ever grace the stage. She wasn't the subtlest of singers or actresses by a long shot, but definitely one of the most sincere.

"Mild und leise wie er lächelt, ---- Mildly and gently, how he smiles,
wie das Auge
hold er öffnet ---- how the eye he opens sweetly.
Seht ihr's, Freunde? --- Do you see it, friends?
Seht ihr's nicht? ---- Don’t you see it?
Immer lichter
wie er leuchtet, --- Brighter and brighter how he shines,
hoch sich hebt? --- illuminated by stars, rises high?
Seht ihr's nicht?
Wie das Herz ihm --- Don’t you see it? How his heart
mutig schwillt,
voll und hehr --- boldly swells, fully and nobly
im Busen ihm quillt? wells in his breast?

Wie den Lippen wonnig mild --- How from his lips delightfully, mildly,
süßer Atem
sanft entweht --- sweet breath softly wafts ---
Freunde! Seht! --- Friends! Look!
Fühlt und seht ihr's nicht? --- Don’t you feel and see it?
Hör ich nur diese Weise, ---- Do I alone hear this melody,
die so wundervoll und leise, --- which wonderfully and softly,
Wonne klagend, --- lamenting delight,
alles sagend
mild versöhnend, --- telling it all, mildly reconciling
aus ihm tönend
in mich dringet, --- sounds out of him, invades me,
auf sich schwinget
hold erhallend, --- swings upwards, sweetly resonating
um mich klinget?
Heller schallend, --- rings around me? Sounding more clearly,
mich umwallend --- wafting around me ---

Sind es Wellen
sanfter Lüfte? --- Are these waves of soft airs?
Sind es Wogen
wonniger Düfte? --- Are these billows of delightful fragrances?
Wie sie schwellen
mich umrauschen, --- How they swell, how they sough around me,
soll ich atmen,
soll ich lauschen? --- shall I breathe, Shall I listen?
Soll ich schlürfen,
untertauchen? --- Shall I drink, immerse?
Süß in Düften
mich verhauchen? --- Sweetly in fragrances melt away?
In dem wogenden Schwall, --- In the billowing torrent,
in dem tönenden Schall, --- in the resonating sound,
in des Welt-Atems wehendem All --- in the wafting Universe of the World-Breath ---
ertrinken, drown,
versinken --- be engulfed ---
unbewußt --- unconscious ---
höchste Lust! supreme delight!"
Leb' wohl, Hildegard Behrens. Sie fehlt uns.

Friday, August 14, 2009

From the Streets of Downtown San Diego

Photos I collected over the last few months in and around downtown San Diego. There sure are a lot of homeless folks these days (it seems the economic collapse of late last year had put a lot of folks on the streets). I’m a libertarian-leaning independent, but man, I have to wonder if the liberal European countries are doing something much better than we do when they at least have something to show for all the tax they pay while the only thing we have to show seems to be our perpetually misused military... getting their butts shot at in various different countries then coming back here to find themselves on the streets.

(Music is an air check recording of Vesselina Kasarova singing Ruggiero's 'Verdi, prati' during a performance of Handel's Alcina at the Bavarian State Opera in 2005)
There are at least 200 people sleeping on the sidewalks of downtown San Diego every night simply because they haven’t got anywhere to go. All the shelters (most of them are funded by private charity rather than our tax) are full. Last I heard, the waiting list to get a cot in a shelter in San Diego is at least 3 weeks long! I’ve met some homeless here who probably wouldn’t have turned to smoking weed to escape from reality if they had been helped sooner (many made some thoughtless mistakes when they were young and have a criminal record… And that ruins their chance of getting employed for them even if the record only shows misdemeanors and not felony). Now they’ll likely die on these dusty streets sooner or later.

Oh, don’t ask me how they manage to get the weed… I haven’t a clue and neither did I want to know when I was out there. I was lucky that a few drug-free ones had taken it upon themselves to show me how to survive on the street and to stay relatively clean. It is a shame that they are still on the street while I’m not (if you don’t think you need a college degree to get out of the ghetto today, think again, kids!).

If you want to help these guys, DON’T give them money and/or food unless they look like they’re about to drop dead from starvation. Either offer them a job or donate to charities that offer shelters or day centers with counseling and job programs instead! Most folks gain weight rather than lose it living on the street (I was pretty impressed with that. I lost 8 lbs in 12 days myself).

Some of the homeless folks I know will want to bash my head in for telling you to teach them how to fish instead of just throwing a fish on their plate every now and then. But if you really would like San Diego to be free of homelessness, then REALLY help rather than just enable that living condition to proliferate. Donate to or volunteer at these organizations and really help the homeless transients get off the streets for good:
Interfaith Shelter Network
The Alpha Project
Rachel’s Women’s Center
San Diego Rescue Mission
Brother Benno
Salvation Army
Regional Task Force on the Homeless

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

San Diego Opera Announces a Second Helping of “Taste of Opera”

Guest Posting: Announcement from the San Diego Opera

San Diego Opera Announces a Second Helping of

Taste of Opera

San Diego, CA – San Diego Opera is pleased to announce the return of “Taste of Opera,” a series of events designed to offer an introduction to San Diego Opera’s 2010 season in informal and casual settings around creatively-themed dinners and events. Working off the successes of the 2009 “Taste of Opera”, this year offers an expanded menu of activities and events including a themed series of cooking classes at Great News Discount Cookware and Cooking School as well as “Entertaining Entrées to Opera” at some of San Diego’s hottest restaurants.
New this year are a series of opera-inspired cooking classes at Great News Discount Cookware and Cooking School . Chef Katherine Emmenegger has created four cooking class menus inspired by each of our operas in 2010: La
bohème (French), Nabucco (Israeli/Persian), Romeo and Juliet (romantic) and La traviata (champagne). Chef Emmenegger will be accompanied by sous chef (and San Diego Opera Geisel Director of Education and Outreach) Dr. Nicolas Reveles, who will entertain guests with facts and stories while these meals are being created.

A complete listing of the menus, dates and times, can be found at the bottom of this release. Continuing the popularity of last season’s events, San Diego Opera continues to pair up a speaker with some of San Diego ’s hottest restaurants for themed “Entertaining Entrees to Opera”. Dinners will be held at Bondi, Bertrand at Mister A’s, Tapenade and Currant Brasserie, to name a few. A complete listing of events, menus, dates and times can be found at the bottom of this release.

“Taste of Opera is a wonderful series of events that helps demystify the greatest art form in the world. By going into the community and engaging our neighbors in casual discussions over the dinner, participants get their first taste of opera and a great meal at some of the finest restaurants our city has to offer. Most of all, it is fun, which is what going to the opera is truly about,” comments Risë Walter, San Diego Opera’s Director of Marketing.

For more information and to RSVP to Taste of Opera events visit online at or call (619) 533-7000. Reservations to the cooking classes must be made directly with Great News at the contact information below.

The 2010 International Opera Season

Puccini's La bohème - January 30, February 2, 5 and 7 (mat), 2010

Verdi's Nabucco - February 20, 23, 26 and 28 (mat), 2010

Gounod's Romeo and Juliet - March 13, 16, 19 and 21 (mat), 2010

Verdi's La traviata - April 17, 20, 23 and 25 (mat), 2010

Purchasing Tickets

Three and four-opera subscriptions for the 2010 International Season are now available. Regular subscriptions range from $90 - $720 (some Saturday subscriptions slightly higher) and can be purchased by calling (619) 533-7000 or online at Senior citizen discount packages are available for full-season Tuesday night subscribers. Call (619) 533-7000 for more information.

For information about single ticket availability and prices please visit call (619) 533-7000 to speak to an opera representative.

$20 rush tickets, subject to availability, are available 90-minutes prior to performances. There is a one-ticket per person limit. Cash only.

General Information

A widely respected member of the international opera community, San Diego Opera brings the world’s finest artists to San Diego . Founded in 1965, and led for the last 26 years by General Director and Artistic Director Ian D. Campbell, San Diego Opera produces performances of the highest artistic quality while remaining financially stable. San Diego Opera is also home to one of the most extensive, diverse opera education and outreach programs in North America, reaching over 70,000 schoolchildren and 20,000 adults in San Diego County and Baja California .

Saturday, August 1, 2009

My deserted island DVDs: Kasarova as Gluck's Orphée

Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice (Munich 2003 - I Bolton/ Kasarova, Joshua, York):
If there was a single point in time where opera shifted from the Baroque into the Classical period, it was when Christoph Willibald Gluck premiered his operatic take on the myth of Orpheus in Vienna in 1762. Rather than being a string of spectacular arias to show off the vocal ability of his star singers, Orfeo ed Euridice is all about story telling. Every note of the music is there to relate the text, and to conjure up a convincing atmosphere in the audience's head.

This French version of the opera benefited from some judicious editing by Hector Berlioz, who will forever hold a favorable place in the heart of the mezzo-phil opera lovers for his tailoring of the title role to the
voice of the extraordinary soprano sfogato, Pauline Garcia - Viardot, guaranteeing a juicy trouser role for the deep voiced mezzo-sopranos of subsequent generations (and at least one opera in the standard repertoire that is completely free of any solo male voice!).
Most of us would already be familiar of the story, I think. The opera opens with the grief-stricken Orphée (the famous Thracian musician, Orpheus, whose musical language is said to be so eloquent that trees and boulders would uproot themselves to follow him around, assuring him the title of the most hated by gardeners on the lively side of the Styx) lamenting the death (by snake bite) of his wife, Eurydice, as the sympathetic crowd look on. His mournful melody is so devastating that Jupiter sends Cupid down to offer him a deal: Orphée will be allowed to enter Hades and try to convince the god of the dead to return Eurydice to him - though he mustn’t, under any circumstance, look back at her (nor can he tell her why) until after they have both crossed the Styx back to the land of the living... or she will be lost to him forever. The musical Orphée proves himself up to any task but coping with his wife’s tears (the lass has a temper tantrum when her beloved husband repeatedly refuses to even look at her). If you want to know how it ends, you’ll have to buy or rent this DVD to find out (the myth of Orpheus has many different endings... And, actually, even this performance shows 2 different ones. The opera ends one way and the ballet ends another way).

(Clip posted by pockhair)
This production at the Bavarian State Opera is staged by Nigel Lowery and Amir Hosseinpour as
a minimalistic theater that does a good job of focusing on the wonderfully theatrical cast and getting across the psyche of the story. It doesn't seem to set the story in any specific time or place, which is just as well considering the timelessness of the original myth. And when you’ve got a Vesselina Kasarova as your main man who has to remain on the stage for more than 75% of the length of the time, stage props are mere luxuries rather than necessities. The lass can do with just her eyes and a little turn of her glances what many can't achieve with a stage-ful of dragons and laser pyrotechnic. I’m afraid I lack a good enough vocabulary to describe how effective Kasarova is as a male character in an opera. Unlike some other mezzos who require second or third looks to confirm their true gender when they are in a male suit, Kasarova never looks or acts butch or manly. She is, rather, something harder to pin down...

One doesn’t fully grasp what androgeny is until one has experienced this woman in a trouser role. She transcends the notion of gender and just simply is Orphée... whatever he is - male, female, gay, lesbian, transgender - it doesn’t matter. You know he loves his Eurydice and literally runs through a whole gamut of emotions in the course of his supernatural adventure. Many opera singers can act well to the live audience, but there aren’t many who can deliver the drama to both the live audience and those looking in via the television cameras! I don’t know how she does it, but it is uncanny how Kasarova can always find the camera to focus her eyes on at key moments of the performance... without ever abandoning the live audience.

There are quirky humors infused in the staging and not all of them can be easily understood. All the same, they don’t (or perhaps I should say that up against the charisma of Kasarova, they fail to) distract from the running pathos of the story. I actually find it nice to get to laugh a bit at the notion of ever running into a polar bear in the Valley of the Blessed. If humans can have a happy afterlife, well, why can’t animals too? It keeps the show from being too serious, which isn’t a bad practice when staging an opera from the baroque - classical period.

Supporting Kasarova are the marvelous Eurydice of the Welsh soprano, Rosemary Joshua, and the delightfully spunky Amour (Cupid) of Deborah York. The Orphée - Eurydice duets are as much the highlights of the show as Orphée’s famous 2 arias are. The chemistry between the lovers is palpable and nothing is overdone (no unnecessary nudity or sex scene here). I must confess to being a little befuddled about Amour’s performance, though. I’m not sure that York sings the whole role in this DVD (it seems to be spliced from a few different performances, and one of them has this curly brunette singing Amour’s final act lines from the pit. The curly brunette also appears on the stage for the curtain call but isn’t given credit in the cast).

In the pit with the Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera is the delightfully supportive maestro Ivor Bolton. I think he could have conjure up more fire and doom in the famous Hades scene, but that is really a minor complaint considering how ably he keeps the story moving and his perfect pace-setting during
Orphée's famous lamentation, J'ai perdu mon Euridice (I've lost my Eurydice). If there is any quirk in Gluck's composition, it is how he assigned this supposedly mournful tune to the bright and cheerful key of C major... Many an able conductor have fallen into the trap of setting such a brisk tempo to the tune that not a shred of sorrow is left around to express itself in the opera's supposedly most tragic moment. Some, on the other hand, are so careful to preserve the sorrow that the end up dragging the tempo to the point where even the most sympathetic of listeners have to fight off sleep rather than tear half way through the thing. Here... it is simply perfect.

(clip posted by Arashi110)
There are a few good DVDs of Orphée et Eurydice around, but this one tops my list by a long shot so far. That isn't to say that the other DVDs aren't good... They just don't communicate to me anywhere nearly as convincingly as this one does. If only Studio Farao could have put in a little extra like cast interview and stuff...