Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why I Love Vesselina Kasarova

I am often asked why I enjoy listening to Vesselina Kasarova so much. A fair question considering how much she dominates my classical and opera music essays and reviews... and youtube channel. Don't think that I don't think about the danger of being so emotionally invested on an artist whose work I review both for work and for pleasure, though. I do.... A lot. It is a main reason why I don't usually go and meet performers backstage even when invited.
That said, here is what I consider one of the biggest compliments ever paid to me (albeit from behind my back and with a distinctly uncomplimentary intent):

The comment was caused when the youtuber left a slew of stuff he misguidedly called 'constructive criticism' at the youtube clip I post of Kasarova singing Carmen's Habanera during a song recital in the Netherlands in 1994. I don't know about others' sensibility, but I can hardly see the constructiveness in:
"Sounds like a whale vomitting: imprecise rhythm, blemishes in the coloratura, gratuitous glottal, etc. Very unusual for her but hardly surprising. What did Kasarova expect to happen with her forced technique? This is my favourite piece of music in existence, so this video is truly repulsive to me. Susan Graham and Anne Sofie von Otter are the real Ariodante's."
Since I let stand uncontested plenty of 'Don't like this singing. Prefer another's' comments there and elsewhere, I don't feel the slightest bit bad about my ability to let others fairly criticize Kasarova and other favorite singers... As long as the criticism is fair and not just a cover for personal attack on the performers or other youtubers.

At any rate, the part I regard as highly complimentary for my sensibility is the last part of the comment the troll posted on another youtube opera fans with the same big-dick-complex comes in the last bit of it:
"Good grief, even when Kasarova makes mistakes that Smorg even admits, she turns it around saying that it improves the music."

That... is what I strive to do when reviewing music. I don't omit the mistakes that my favorite singers make or the 'flaws' in their instrument. But I do my best to put into context what these irregularities bring to or take away from the performance. And even Kasarova is not exempt from that. That is what I think a good music critic/reviewer/writer ought to do. 

I may not succeed all the time, and there are performances that are so bad that they give no new or unusual insight to provide the show with a context worth dwelling on. But hopefully most of the time I am able to separate 'deciphering what the musicians are trying to do or communicate' from 'imposing wantonly on their performance my own personal standard/preference'. And so, when I read that even people who regard themselves my enemies notice with glee that I do state my all time favorite artist's flaws and vocal irregularities in my reviews of her performance and that I try to relate what those irregularities communicate in her story-telling. It is a compliment of the highest order for what I have been trying to do all along!

But back to the big question of why Vesselina Kasarova is such a big part of my life. Short answer: survival. She was unknowingly there when I needed someone the most (as she has been, equally as unknowingly, there for many others who still write to tell me every so often how their experience with her lift their spirits). And she has qualities that easily outlast the episode.

La Kasarova has a very complex and multi-layered singing voice that I find endlessly fascinating in its melancholic depth and kaleidoscopic coloration.... And she has a knack for acting; both vocally and theatrically, with this rare ability to endow her opera characters with all sorts of insecurities and emotional angst that she probably wouldn't dare to express in real life. 

I discovered her sometime in 2005 when I was having a rather rough time. In a ruinous health condition and distanced yet again by the one woman I can't stop loving, I spent much of my time in a dark depression away from everyone. Then I chanced on Kasarova's voice on a cable TV program singing the music I normally detested: opera. And, suddenly, for the first time in my excessively even-keeled left-brain-oriented life, I understood the value of good drama. It connects you with others and lessens the sense of vulnerability in real life. 

(Youtube video of Penelope's entrance scene to Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria. Posted by Arashi)

Thereafter, whenever I feel quite sucky and ill-understood I'd put her on the stereo and let her rant and rave in my place. It is sort of therapeutic since I don't really talk to anyone in real life and tend to keep my stress to myself. I'd listen to the lass sing something achy from I Capuleti e i Montecchi or Ariodante or La clemenza di Tito and allow myself to imagine that there is at least one person out there who had been there and knows exactly what it feels like. 

I don't know Kasarova personally and won't presume to know what sort of distresses she must have had in her life in order to be able to inject into her voice such devastating pathos... But I know that she grew up an only child in behind-the-iron-curtain Bulgaria where her granddad was a political prisoner and her dad drove a cab for a living because he was denied university education by the communists. She had to do well in school and conservatory to survive the fierce competition (the Soviet sucked at most things except for the arts and sports, apparently) and secure a chance to escape to the West, so I'm pretty convinced that she has a good capacity for empathy. Even if she hadn't experienced the exact things her operatic characters go through in the course of the preposterous stories (and that is being quite charitable... a lot of opera have such holey plots they make Emmenthaler looks like solid granite block by comparison), there certainly is enough tragedies and downers in her memory bank to allow her to approximate them very convincingly. And that is all that matters to me, really...

My favorite down song is actually rather morbidly humorous in the context of the opera story... Ariodante thinks his fiancee had cheated on him, so he goes and tries to drown himself in the sea, moaning along this 'I'm so hard done by' tune as he wades into the crashing cold waves... But then instead of going under and be done with it along with the final notes, the ocean coughs the dude back ashore very much alive, mad, and now also very wet... to add to the indignity of it all. Talk about being incompetent as an operatic superhero - the idiot can't even kill himself properly! But then the opera was named after him, so we can't very well have Ariodante drown half way into the story. As the plot goes, he dries up and gets back into town, finds out that the girl hadn't betrayed him after all and ends the opera on a happy note (lest the opera audience leave the auditorium feeling too down and depressed to patronize the fine restaurants and drinking bars on their way home... That would just be sucky for the local economy).

What listening to this does for me, though, is giving me the opportunity to indulge in some self-pitying by proxy. I can't bring myself to express what Ariodante spends nearly 15 minutes intoning in the piece, so I sort of let myself think that Kasarova/Ariodante is doing that on my behave. And, miracle of miracles, I feel so much better at the end of it while am still able to placate my overly proud conscience with the fact that I hadn't actually voiced such a humiliating emotional defeat myself. Another person is doing it and I just sort of latch on for the ride. It is only additionally cool that the person who voices the thing for me is also benefiting from the same sort of thing... letting her deepest angst out of her system under the cover of the opera character she is portraying. It is a sort of communal Schadenfreude in a Schizophrenic sort of way.

And to top it off, by all accounts Kasarova is one of the most well grounded and pleasant normal person off the stage. She is very well liked and well spoken. She is candid at interviews but goes out of her way to stick with the issues rather than personally attack others (she only names people to praise them)... and she dares to talk about the unpleasant parts of the opera business that less courageous souls wouldn't dare to risk touching them. 

I suspect many younger singers are grateful for the light she shines on the troubles they must face but can't publicly talk about without risking their nascent career in doing so. And also for blazing the trail in her will to use unconventional techniques at the service of story-telling in her performances even when that draws repeated critical face slaps in the mainstream media. She gives us audience more stylistic performance options to choose from in the days when most singers sound so alike that they can hardly be identified based on their voice alone, and she also takes the heat off younger singers who would love to do the same thing against the established trend toward institutional sterilization of the operatic singing voice.

And for that... I absolutely love the gal and those who are and who give her the support she needs in order to be able to deliver and live all that in relative happiness. Life is short and there are many who spend theirs without leaving much impact on others. Kasarova may not have set out to do it, but she is one whose impacts on many lives will outlast her career and even her lifetime. It is a sort of immortality that is well earned and worthy of cherishing, in my moderately humble opinion.

And.... if this extended rambling doesn't cure you of being nice enough to ask me anything about opera and/or Vesselina Kasarova ever again, then nothing will!


Georg said...

Congratulations Smorgy,

You have achieved to boast a personal internet ennemy! That's something to be proud of or at least to be satisfied.

As to the facts, don't let it bother you. Whenever you do or say something there will always be someone else ready to tell it's no good. For many people that's their only way to exist.


Smorg said...

Hallo Georgy,

I'm rather amusedly proud of it indeed. I've seen many overly large egos before, but it still tickles me reading how immodest dudes like that are. ;o) I just wish they'd quit citing 'free speech' as justification for it.

Hope summer is being good your way. I'm already overheated and the proper heatwave isn't even here yet (the weathermen are calling for hotter temperature tomorrow and Wednesday. Yikes!).

Smorgy :o)

yvette said...

The way you explain the essence of your feeling for Vessilina is just overwhelming and if you happen to have a real taste for fleshy, natural mezzo voice like I have, you definitely become convinced to make a move to go and see her on stage. This is it.
Thank you for all you write , it is so good! Here the hot season is on its cooling down side, a little bit more bearable...

berenice said...

ahhh mister Smorg, i must confess i haven't read the whole post, just parts, but it's sooo refreshing to see you are so passionate about something, this world, the virtual and real one, are lacking more people like you!!


Smorg said...

Chere Yvette:
Thank you very much! :oD I am endlessly mesmerized by the deep and dark mezzo-soprano voice indeed, and the way VK uses it on the stage just about turns me into a hypnotized stone. Stuck on the spot and care not about going anywhere else. ;o)

Glad to hear that summer is cooling down a bit your way, too. We finally are getting a break in the weather and a lot of beautiful clouds as bonus. I might not have to move into the refrigerator this summer yet!

Hola bella Bere:
You know, this will really surprise my folks, too. I'm really not known as a passionate person in real life... But then I'm not surrounded by fellow opera fans. ;o) My online friends are getting to see the Mr. Hyde side of me, I'm afraid.

Thanks very much for stopping by, ladies! Hope your week is winding down well and a fun and happy weekend awaits you in a few hours!

Smorgy :o)

André said...

What a beautiful post. I see we feel quite the same about Kasarova. I actually love her vocal flaws almost as much as her vocal prowess. It's the mix of both that makes a great artist in my opinion.

Lankin said...

I stumbled over you again ... googling for a specific picture of Carestini this time :P
I laughed so hard...
Yes... exactly those kinds of comments I dislike, a lot, and state so, not exactly making much friends with it myself.

Btw your lovely and accurate characterization of Ariodante reminded me so much of Bejun Metha introducing "Bella Asteria," stating that Andronico was "a bit of a wimp, imagine Ashley from 'Gone With The Wind.'" or something similar. ;)

afternote: I LOVE WIMPS IN OPERA! we need more of them! <3

Anonymous said...

Nicely thought out! I'm not that familiar with Kasarova. Liked her French Arias CD, however. She is lucky to have a real advocate like you as a fan. Much better than the many rabid fanatics that like to go around starting flame wars over their favorites' rivals.

Jim Ferraris