Sunday, May 31, 2009

Vesselina Kasarova: Mozart Arias (Mozart-Arien)

Among many opera singers and classical musicians, the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is regarded as the ultimate test. One just can't claim to have mastered one's musical ability until one has successfully mastered his music. But the rub is... most of it is so understatedly graceful and dramatically perfect that when you are successful at performing a Mozart aria well, well, you'll end up blending right into the story so that the audience may be excused for not being appropriately aware of all the vocalizing skills and control that you had put into the performance in order to achieve this easy-sounding music. To love Mozart is to never say 'look at me!', I guess... at least not when you are on the stage.

With old Wolfie demanding the highest level of technique and control in the performance of his cruelly exposed music (it is so lightly orchestrated that the audience can notice even the slightest bit of any wavering in the voice... among the many other things that keep singers awake at night), most singers have all they can handle just to sing his music - hitting all the right notes in the right sequence at the right tempo. And that is often good enough for many (after all, Mozart's music is nothing if not easy on the ears).
RCA Red Seal CD: Vesselina Kasarova - Mozart Arias
Once in a long while, though, we are lucky enough to encounter a singer who can not only recreate what Mozart had written on the score, but who can actually bring vividly to life the characters that Mozart's musical notations are meant to try to describe. The dark-voiced Bulgarian-Swiss mezzo soprano Vesselina Kasarova is one such artist... The voice is very alluringly plumb (with that ever present Slavic sad/mellow tinge to its basic clarinet-like timbre) and intriguingly androgenic... being equally compelling in male roles as in female ones. It is a very distinctly recognizable voice - if not conventional in its beauty. And one that is astoundingly adept at expressing emotion, able to shift into many different colors with endless shades of chromatic and dynamic nuances. Kasarova can bewitch you with a smooth-as-silk legato line, cause you to purr contentedly with her caressingly breath-taking soft singing, chill you from inside out when she takes away that warm vibrato in the voice, and then blow you right off the continent with her tornadic rage of her blasted fortissimo.

This CD of 12 Mozart opera arias and 2 orchestral interludes captures musical story-telling of the sort that leaves one with the impression of having been with Dorabella, Cherubino, Idamante, Farnace, Zerlina, Donna Elvira,
Cecilio, Sesto, and Vitellia as they live through the events of the opera where the arias occur - so vividly that one nearly compulsively duck as the frenzy Dorabella flies about the room flinging her arms and tossing things she knows she wouldn't break about in a show of temper that is as exasperatingly fake as it is adorable (#1, Ah, scostasi/ Smanie implacabili). We all know she hasn't a prayer at not cheating on poor Ferrando at the first chance she gets, but we are compelled to admire her effort to convince herself that she wouldn't anyhow.

Perhaps her assumption of young Cherubino (#2, Non so piu cosa son) is a little
. assertively hormone-driven (ahem!) than many opera lovers would be familiar with, but this is just the Cherubino that could grow into the tragic hero of Beaumarchaise's third part of the Figaro trilogy (The Guilty Mother) rather than the much assumed 'Don Juan in the making' mold. The profuse passion produced in this rendition is too sincere for me, at least, to foresee a cynical womanizing cad as the young lad's future incarnation.

Of another sort of character altogether is Kasarova's portrayal of the adamantly chivalric and noble (if youthfully sensitive) hearted Idamante (#3. Non ho colpa & #5. il padre adorato). The tessitura (average pitch) of this part is quite high for Kasarova and there is a biting edge to her high notes that somehow works to enhance Idamante’s indignation even more. It isn’t a malicious indignation, but there’s quite a bit of royal anger in it, too. The voice retains its richness very well even in higher passage (quite unusual for this role since he is usually sung by more light-voiced high mezzo or a soprano... unless the tenor version is use).

Especially revealing to me is her incarnation of Farnace from Mitridate (#6. Venga pur, minacci e frema and #8. Gia dagli occhi il velo e tolto), an opera seria that Mozart wrote when he was only 14 yrs old. Somehow this epitome of murderous prodigal son is nearly always sung by a male countertenor now, even though the alto castrato who originated the part obviously lived on his lower register (Mozart, unlike the modern composers, wrote his music to fit specific singers rather than voice types). As politically incorrect as this may sound... Kasarova sounds like she has enough testosterone in her voice to turn any countertenor into a basso profundo. But that isn't even the best part about these two tracks!

Her laughing passages in 'Venga pur' are disturbingly deliciously deranged... and my blood freezes when her
second pass on ‘l’ira sua mi rendera’ in the slow middle section of the piece just dissolves into blood-chilling coldness that convinces me that I wouldn’t want to be within a mile of this lass when she’s having a fit. This makes Farnace's turn around in the brilliant long aria of repentance, 'Gia dagli occhi', even more touching as a contrast. It is taken at a rather slow tempo, and it is a credit to Kasarova’s exemplary breath-control that no strain shows in her long drawn out really low passages... or even in those jumpy coloratura passages.

Zerlina the peasant girl may be a minor role in Don Giovanni, but Kasarova's Zerlina (#7. Vedrai, carino) carries a big stick when it comes to showering her man with some loving tender (disguise as bruise remedy). Many a Zerlina have made me smile with her rendition of this slick little sexually suggestive aria, but none had managed to make me blush beet red and steam up my glasses the way this Zerlina does... with just her voice! There is something seriously sensual about her use of vibrato and the rubato she employs that gets the message across even if you don't understand the Italian lyrics being sung. If one can ever successfully intone a quaking bout of sensual desires while delivering a melody... I'll just say that it is always a good idea to have some smelling salt handy when you listen to this CD... and leave it at that.

As far as I know Kasarova has never sung the batty Donna Elvira (#9. Mi tradi, quell' alma ingrata) on the stage. Listening to the hurricane force of this vocal tempest of a track, I wonder why not... She obviously wants to (has said so in interviews), and, by Jove, what Don Giovanni would have a prayer at dodging this insistent a stalker? I've heard many fittingly loony Donna Elvira, but Kasarova's Elvira comes with a twist... She is willfully loony. The Commendatore Statue really ought to leave Giovanni to this gal. She'd be a sorer punishment for him than any flame of hell would, I reckon (totally meaning this as a compliment, by the way).

Cecilio in Lucio Silla isn't one of my favorite opera characters by a long shot. He is usually not much more than a dream boat character who spends the opera being overshadowed by just about everyone else (the high tessitura of the role and its coloratura demand often reduce its singer to just singing the music). It is so refreshing to finally hear a Cecilio who doesn't sound like he is singing a set of written notes during the coloratura part of this aria, but that the coloratura is just his way of expressing his near delirium - of voicing his exuberant happiness. And, boy, do we all need to hear it before we get to the final two opera characters to appear on this CD.

Vitellia (#11, Non piu di fiori), the impetuous princess who longs for the imperial throne, is perhaps the juiciest role Mozart ever had the pleasure to musically characterize in his operas. Her final rondo carries the weight of the entire opera about love, lust, betrayal, and clemency, and it is one that requires a great singing actress to really carry out its dramatic potency. With an absurdly simple melodic line, Mozart endows his soprano with a chance to convince the audience that the vicious character who had spent the entire opera up to these final minutes of it scheming to murder and riot all for her own gain actually has a real conscience... and that she actually listens to it. Kasarova's deep and dark sound and her willingness to explore the ugly places in Vitellia's self-inspection along with her interplay with the bassett-horn obbligato create such a compellingly humane scene of how deciding to do the right thing can be such a trial to one who isn't accustom to self-sacrifice that suddenly you find yourself requiring Tito to be just as merciful as he would need to be to forgive such a wreck of a woman... rather than the usual contempt for the emperor's absurd obsession with clemency.

And to go from that Vitellia to this Sesto (#13. Deh, per questo istante solo), the model of a walking sorrow whose life would be willingly sacrificed in the name of love... One has to amaze at how such drastically different psyches can be so convincingly portrayed by the same soul. Here, more so than in the other arias on this CD, is where one really gets a good glimpse of the famously soul-shattering Kasarova pianissimo... the sort of softly sung phrases that float on the breath so that one can almost reach out and wave one's hand through Sesto's broken spirit. His self-loathing (totally justified, by the way) is so sincerely rendered that one feels barbarous to have to agree with his guilty verdict. The death penalty might just be more merciful for him than a pardon would be indeed.

And so, we come to the final track (#14), the concert aria Io ti lascio, oh cara, addio, originally written for a bass, and are asked by this serenely melancholic voice singing in perfectly silk-like legato to "Pensa che a te non lice, il ricordarsi di me, (Remember that you are not allowed to remember me)" ... Yeah, uh-huh, good luck with that... Listening to a CD like this you can either love or hate this singer, but to not remember her forever afterward is simply a non-starter! Utterly impossible!

Vesselina Kasarova is truly one of the most exciting opera singers around. She takes risks and her daring keeps you interested. Most of the times she pulls it off, and sometimes she doesn't but if there is one thing she isn't, it's being boring. And the most wonderful thing is she never sounds like Vesselina Kasarova is showing off her technical brilliance, but always like the character she is portraying expressing some thoughts or emotions. It also helps that she is wonderfully accompanied by the magnificent Staatskapelle Dresden under Sir Colin Davis. They are so in sync with each other that they make you forget that you are listening to choreographed music rather than being caught in a real conversation between composer and characters for the last hour or so it takes to play the entire disc.

There are lots of Mozart arias CDs out there, but there are only a handful that are sung with such distinct personality as to worth remembering above the rest. This is one of those few. Kasarova is not stuff of background music, so if you're looking for relaxing singing, you've better look elsewhere. This singer commands attention.

*1. Cosi fan tutte
: Ah, scostasi/ Smanie implacabili (Dorabella)
2. Le nozze di Figaro: Non so piu cosa son (Cherubino)
3. Idomeneo: Non ho colpa (Idamante)
4. Idomeneo: March of the Priests ( instrumental)
*5. Idomeneo: Ah, qual gelido orror/ Il padre adorato (Idamante)
6. Mitridate: Venga pur, minacci e frema (Farnace)
7. Don Giovanni: Vedrai, carino (Zerlina)
8. Mitridate: Gia dagli occhi il velo e tolto (Farnace)
*9. Don Giovanni: In qual eccessi, o Numi/ Mi tradi, quell' alma ingrata (Donna Elvira)
10. Lucio Silla: Il tenero momento (Cecilio)
*11. La Clemenza di Tito: Ecco il punto/ non piu di fiori (Vitellia)
12. La clemenza di Tito: March: Maestoso (instrumental)
13. La clemenza di Tito: Deh, per questo istante solo (Sesto)
14. Concert Aria for bass: Io ti lascio, oh cara, addio
Tracks 4 and 12 are orchestral pieces. I'd rather there being 2 more arias instead, but they fit well with the rest of the program.

1 CD. Sung in Italian. Booklet contains track list and printed libretto in Italian and English.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Last Week of May 2009

Apologies for being sporadic of late. I'm a bug magnet and was visited by another flu virus last week. We had such a good time fraternizing that I wonder if I'll ever catch up with all the emails and comments (and the unfinished articles I need to submit at AssociatedContent and other sites). Time flies when you're having flu!
Tip of Harbor Island from Harbor Dr bridge
Anyhow, I did manage to go out and walk around the last few days... enjoying the best of what the locals here call 'May gray' (morning fog that doesn't get burned off until late in the day). It's great weather to be outside if you aren't so fond of the sun. Above is a view of the manmade Harbor Island and the San Diego Bay from the Harbor Drive bridge just north of Spanish Landing (where Cabrillo came ashore and claimed the area for Spain in 1542). The park there, with the narrow waterfront pedestrian path lined with benches and coral trees, is one of my favorite quiet haunts.

Of course, this sort of weather also means a lot of homeless migrants on the downtown streets. You can pass 5 or more in a short city block! I get on well with most of them, but it is still pretty uncomfortable not having any change to give... And perhaps you shouldn't give them coins anyhow. Most of these guys have been panhandling on these streets for many years now. This year their rank has really enjoyed a growth spurt (the economic collapse of late last year and earlier this year really put a lot of people on the streets... young and old!).

Most of them are good about not being 'in your face' about their panhandling. And there are a few that even seem apologetic about it. I ran into one when I ventured up to Balboa Park who actually told me that he'd rather be given a job than small changes. I wish that's true to most of the others, too....

Balboa Park is surely the favorite place of many local San Diegans. All the gardens, museums, hiking trails, the zoo, theaters, and other public spaces. The Spanish colonial revival structures of various degrees of authenticity (only a few original structures from the 1915 California-Panama Exposition are still standing... and many of those are just facade (with much newer building annexed onto them)) are easy on the eye and provide many serenely secluded spots to hide and people-watch from.


And here is a video/slide-show clip of my favorite views there and in Banker's Hill, the uptown community just east of the park. I guess I owe a lot of appreciation to Kate Sessions, the horticulturist who planted most of the trees and flowering plants you see around San Diego today (the local flora consisted of coastal sage shrubs and chaparrals and some smallish fire-resistant trees... and, of course, the Torrey pines).

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day 2009

A few shots from Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma, the southward jutting peninsula that separates the San Diego Bay from the Pacific Ocean.

The news at the end of last week, of course, was full of the competing speeches of President Obama and Dick Cheney, who still insists on advocating waterboarding terrorism suspects (not convicts, mind you, suspects!) and that that is not torture. That egoistical sadist ought to put his money where his mouth is and have himself waterboarded to get the taste of what he is wishing on others (who have not been proven guilty of anything). Especially, seeing how a bit of real experience can really make some talkative naysayers do a 180 turn in a flash when it comes to whether waterboarding is torture or not (the libertarian Christopher Hitchen had done it, the conservative radio head Erich Mancow Muller had done it, isn't it about time Cheney does it?).

How many of the vets entombed at cemeteries like Ft. Rosecrans had had to endure torture in the line of duty because the people they were fighting against can hide behind the excuse of retaliation against our own use of it? How many of them died in combat believing that the US has the moral high ground when it comes to torture? And that we do know the difference between justice and vengeance (and care more about getting the right perpetrators of crime rather than just getting a neck to hang the charge on regardless of whether it is the right neck or not)?

And for Cheney, who has never served a day in the military, to go around doubting the honor and loyalty of someone like General Colin Powell, the non-diva-like guy who served 3 distinguished tours in Vietnam and, with one big spot when he worked for Bush 43 and Cheney, has always done his best for the men and women in uniform, is a travesty. And that there are people who would take Cheney's utterly unreliable words (how many lies has he told while looking straight into the camera already?) over Powell's is sheer madness. Beware of people who loudly demand loyalty at street corners like a bunch of scribes and pharisees... They are the ones who don't get it that it isn't enough to ask someone 'are you loyal?' without clarifying 'loyal to WHAT? Country or You? I have no doubt about where General Powell's loyalty lies. I have plenty about Dick Cheney's... Too often have he and his stooges prioritized their own political agendas over the best interest of the country and the troops!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Stylistic Samplers for Opera Newbies

For those who are new to opera and are curious about how differently the operas from different periods and countries sound, here are links to a few sample clips from the different sub-genres of opera. As you'll see, this is such a huge musical-theater genre that it really has something for everyone.
Renaissance Opera: (1400-1600) The earliest operas are from the late Renaissance period... with minimal instrumentation accompanying the voice. It is as much 'singing' as it is 'sung declamation': speech lifted to a higher emotional content in melody. Until Monteverdi's last opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) came along, operas from this period usually dealt with mythical figures and stories (Poppea in the opera is, of course, based on the 2nd wife of Nero, Rome's favorite bad boy emperor).
- Di misera regina from Monteverdi's il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ullyses to His Homeland)
- Pur ti miro from Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Baroque Opera: The Baroque period (1600-1760) saw the transformation of singing-theater into theater of singing extravaganza and spectacular stage spectacles. On the musical front, this was the age of the castrati, virtuoso vocal acrobats who, willingly or not, had traded their virility for the preservation of their boy soprano vocal range. The story of the operas from this period reverted back to the fantastic rather than the realistic, with magical fireworks, dragons, and griffins, and enchantress and exceedingly amorous leading ladies facing off prodigious knights. Baroque operas tend to be really long and overfilled with spectacular arias that show off the star singers' assets (opera was a socializing event back then and the audience were up and about eating and catching up with friends in the open amphitheater rather than condemned to silence and confined to fixed seat like we are nowadays). 

The Baroque singers really could sing anything from the most heart-breaking of melancholic ballads to feverishly furious rage arias that would rival any of today's heavy metal rock idols. The practice of castrating young men to preserve their singing voice is now (thankfully) illegal, so nowadays opera from this period feature either female mezzo-sopranos or male counter-tenors in the main male roles that the castrati used to sing (their voice range was too high for the tenor. Mezzo-soprani are preferred in heroic ex-castrato male roles because they have a more imposing lower range than most counter-tenors do).
- When I am Laid in Earth from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas

- Lascia ch'io pianga from Händel's Rinaldo
- Qual guerriero in campo amato from Broschi's Idaspe

And here is 'Con ali di constanza' from Händel's Ariodante

Classical Opera (1760-1820): Even spectacular music gets old on you after a while if the collection of it doesn't keep you involved in the main story, so Christoph Willibald Gluck came along to reform opera - turning away from showy music to one that is there to serve the function of telling a compelling story instead. The music of operas from the Classical period is more restraint and less tolerant of the showy improvisation (ornamentation) that was the bloom of the previous period. With Mozart, this period also sees the proliferation of beautiful and drama-oriented ensemble numbers (duets, trios, etc) and orchestration, as the opera story became more relatable to real life (at least the comic operas were, if not the seria ones).

Also in this period the tenor and baritone emerged as the male leads in the opera (castration was beginning to be discouraged then), though many leading male roles were still sung by castrati.

 - Orphée - Eurydice duet from Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice
- Ach, ich fühl from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)
- Der Hölle Rache from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte
- Soave sia il vento from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte
- Se al volto mai ti senti from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito

- Act IV finale from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro
Bel Canto opera: (Italian opera from 1810-1835) What Mozart left off, the bel canto composers (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti) developed into a brief period of vocal wonder at the opera. Bel canto operas were composed by voice-loving composers to the voice-worshiping audience... it pushed to the limit what singers could do with their vocal cords and lung capacity. Long and spun out melodic line both subtly and supply navigated, with fiery virtuoso ending cadenza that reminds of the glory of the Baroque period (but it has to also fit with the story now, and not just done for show).

Castration of singers was banned in the early 1800's, but the audience of those days were still very used to hearing the male soprano voice from the heroic male lead role, so the composers assigned some prominent male roles to the coloratura contraltos/soprano sfogatos instead (these were the equivalent of today's coloratura mezzo-sopranos). Male roles composed for the female voice are what we call 'trouser roles'. Toward the end of the bel canto period, the focus shifted toward making high tenors the romantic lead in the opera.
- Una voce poco fa from Rossini's il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)

- Oh patria/ di tanti palpiti from Rossini's Tancredi
- Spargi d'amaro pianto from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor
- Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi
(The Capulets and the Montagues)

French Grand Opera (1820's - 1880's): The 1800's was also known as the Romantic period in classical music for good reasons. Gone is the formal restraint of the Baroque and the Classical eras. We are now in for a colorful exploration of emotion and melodrama. Add to that a French flair for the exaggerated (and the fetish for the ballet), and you end up with a really long evening at the opera house (at least 3 hrs a piece... sometimes closer to 5 hrs). So, the music has got to be good enough to keep you in your seat. Also, the orchestra has emerged as a singing force all its own and not just background music accompanying the voice.
- Ah, leve toi soleil from Gounod's Romeo et Juliet
- D'amour, l'ardente flamme from Berlioz's la damnation de Faust
- O ma lyre immortelle from Gounod's Sapho
- Seguedilla from Bizet's Carmen

And here is the Bell Song from Delibes' Lakmé

German Opera (1800's-1920): French grand opera without the ballets (well, mostly without the ballets) and with the Teutonic sense of forboding rather than the French flamboyance... German opera, starting with Richard Wagner, uses the orchestra a lot in their story telling. Listen for 'Leitmotiv', or recurring themes when you listen. These theme represent certain characters or certain motivations or ideas, and the composer liked to wove them in specific sequences to get specific points across, sometimes developing them as the story moves along. Also, there no longer is any 'recitative' or clear cut 'songs'. The music is through-composed, flowing from start to finish to focus on maintaining the drama of the story rather than to allow soloists to show off.
- Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
- Hab'mir's gelobt from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier
- Gluck, das mir verblieb from Korngold's die tote Stadt
Verismo Italian opera (1875-1920): This was a really brief musical period where people flocked to the theater not to escape from everyday life but to get an overdose of it in an ultra condensed hour and a bit of musical blood and gore.
- Voi lo sapete from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana
- Vesti la giubba from Leoncavallo's il pagliacci

Italian opera (1860-): This is something of a bridge from the death of bel canto opera to the searing theatrical operas of Puccini. It's love, lust, and death... in music so beautifully emotive that you keep coming back just to see the soprano dies over and over again...
- Va, pensiero sulli dorate from Verdi's Nabucco
- Celeste Aida from Verdi's Aida
- Brindisi from Verdi's La traviata
- O soave fanciulla from Puccini's La boheme
- Quando m'en vo (Musetta's waltz) from Puccini's La boheme

Slavic Opera: This.. is romantic musical theater for the melancholic among us...

- Moon song from Dvorak's Rusalka
- Excerpt from Janacek's Jenufa
- Yeletsky's aria from Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spade
- Letter scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

Operetta: The lighter side of musical theater. Finally! This sub-genre of comic satire with sublimely spunky music is for those who would like to be able to walk out of the auditorium at the end of an opera performance without blood spatters on their coat.
- Olympia's doll song from Offenbach's les contes d'Hoffmann
- Barcarolle from Offenbach's les contes d'Hoffmann
- Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tirol from Zeller's Der Vogelhändler

And this is from Offenbach's La belle Helene.

Modern opera: (1920 - ) Ever since Richard Strauss showed the world how effectively an opera story can be conveyed with minimal tonality, many of the modern composers have been afflicted with the distaste for melody. Granted, there are some who still allow songs into their work, but most have opted for atonality and abstract sounds and patterns. It's interesting stuff if you can understand it. If not... ughhh.
- Excerpt from Berg's Lulu
- Excerpt from Fortner's Bluthochzeit (Blood Wedding)
- Excerpt from Britten's Billy Budd
- Excerpt from Glass' Satyagraha

- Excerpt from Picker's Emmeline

Though, there are always exceptions like this melodic tune, Surabaja, Johnny, from Weill's Happy Ends.

So, hopefully after having sampled a few clips from these different sub-genres of opera you would now have a better idea of the sort of opera you would or would not enjoy. I should caution against having too fixed an opinion on what opera to avoid, though. Our musical taste can change over time. Some works do grow on you after a while... so, keep trying the operas you don't now like. You never know, maybe some will become one of your favorites many years from now.

Other opera-related essays you might find of interest:
A Few Words To Opera Newbies, Commandments for the Operafans, 10 Beginners-Friendly Opera, Bel Canto Is NOT About Sounding Beautiful!, Do Today's Opera Singers Measure Up to Past Legends? -

Interviews: Juliette Galstian (mezzo-soprano), Christiane Karg (soprano), Elizabeth Tryon (soprano),

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The first full week of May 2009

I spent a lot of time on various buses last week riding around town collecting photos and info on various tourist attractions. We San Diegans really have the best MTS bus drivers around! They all know the area and the various bus routes so well that they can unfailingly point me to the right connections to get to where I want to go the fastest. And no matter how bad the traffic gets or how crowded the bus is, they are exceedingly courteous and patient... even when a few riders aren't returning the favor.

One bus driver who was running route 30 from University Town Centre to Downtown via La Jolla and Mission Bay last week not only told me what the nearest stop to Children's Pool (I wanted to see the seals) would be, but also took the time to tell me exactly how to get there after I stepped off his bus. Another lovely lady driver leaned out of her bus one morning to ask me where I was trying to get to when she spotted me looking perplexedly at the routes map posted at a bus stop in downtown. It is really cool to see folks who take pride in what they do and do their job really well!

Aside from hanging around the famous Children's Pool (where the seals are), I also got to see a lot of the gorgeously eroded La Jolla Cove, walked along much of the San Diego - La Jolla Underwater Park and even found the famous Sunny Jim cave (albeit from the sea... I hitched a ride with a local boat, thanks very much. Those 144 steps don't look all that friendly to three-legged me). There are 7 sea caves in the area and this is the only one that is accessible from land (though, apparently there is a $4 fee for using the steps from the Cave Store). If you want to see more photos from these trips, I put them together into 3 slide show clips at Youtube:
- Torrey Pines State Reserve
- San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park walk
- Torrey Pines Gliderport

Saturday night saw a different sort of adventure, though. My old golfing buddy, Clark Renner (who now teaches at Rancho Carlsbad Country Club), agreed to go with me to the opening night of Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the San Diego Civic Theater in downtown. A spectacular performance featuring perhaps the first pick for the title role on anyone's wish list, Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San (Mme Butterfly).

She didn't look much like a 15 yrs old Japanese ingenue, but the way she inhabited the role had us all sold on the concept from start to finish. And, man, it is so good to get to hear such a powerful and dramatically adept voice still in such a good shape after so many years in this demanding repertoire. None of that overly wide or prominent vibrato that is a given in a Verdi or Puccini (or Wagner) soprano nowadays. When the curtain came down the audience erupted into a roaring cheer that was loud enough to wake the dead.

On another note, I thought it was pretty darn obnoxious how loudly the audience booed Carlo Ventris' Pinkerton when he came out for his bow. I think it was in jest (as in 'booing the cad Pinkerton' rather than booing the performance of him), but still... That isn't how it is done at opera houses. I hope someone at the SDO explained to Ventris that the boo was to be taken as a cheer and not as a disapproval (as it would be interpreted elsewhere in the sane world). :oP Honestly... San Diego opera audience is really a certifiably strange crowd!

Anyhow... I'm willing to bet that most are scrambling to try to get a ticket to see another performance now. This show really deserve to sell out its remaining performances of the run (May 12, 15, 17, 20). Ya' gotta give it to the San Diego Opera for continuing to put on high quality performances even in this tough an economy!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Why I repented from Christianity and other religions

Apparently the only thing worse than being a non-Christian is being an ex-Christian... at least in the eye of many fundamentalist Christians. So... being an easily irritated bum (especially with the approach of the summer heat and sun), I'll just explain myself in this posting so that I won't have to keep repeating myself the next time the same old set of questions pop up about my lack of religion. Here goes:

I'm actually either an atheist or an agnostic... depending entirely on how 'god' is defined. I can perhaps believe in god if it is defined as nature itself or the most basic fundamental laws of physics
that make nature works the way it does. With that sort of definition, I can perhaps be called a theist, but I wouldn't be worshiping nature since I don't see the point to it. I and everything around me are parts of nature. I find myself in awe of the wonders of it all the time, but I'd rather admire it for what it demonstrably is rather than for what I'd like to ideologically project it to be.

As for 'god' as described in the religious texts, I don't believe in such a figure. In fact, to me, if a person god does exist, I'm more inclined to believe that it would be more appreciative of people who seek to understand it on its own terms rather than ones who would willingly accept other humans' version of the story that can't be verified with anything more than 'I said it, my church said it, the book that my church believes in said it, therefore it is the only truth there is and if you question it then you are insulting god' sort of rationale. Frankly, I don't find it very intellectually stimulating to try to have a conversation with people who can't differentiate their own ideas from that of a god.
I repented from the Christian faith back in 1999 when I was studying pre-medicine/chemistry in college and had a great professor who didn't mind admitting to not knowing everything. His very scientific mindset that uncertainty and doubt are nothing to be ashamed of and that they are qualities that enable even an already fantastically learned scientist to have the humility to strive to keep learning more was eye-opening for me.

After a while, I got around to re-examining my then belief in the Christian dogma and came to the conclusion that the only 'evidence' I had of what I believed about Christianity was the bible itself - since the bible was supposed to be directly dictated and/or inspired by an infallible god. Everything I knew of Christianity had its origin in the Bible. So I thought to myself that in the man-made field of science, it only takes 1 inconsistency or factual contradiction with experimental result/observation to derail even the most established of scientific theories. One inaccurate prediction and even the most established of scientific theories must be either discarded or modified to once again match up with reality. So it follows that the standard of a god who created everything in nature would surely not be any less than that of mere humans (to expect anything less would be rather insulting to such a deity, would it not? And should a deity exist who can't even live up to man's lowly standard, why should anyone bother to worship such a thing?). With that frame of mind, I opened the first page of the Bible and started reading the book of Genesis without the 'I believe it must be true regardless' lens to filter its contents.... and lost all faith before I got to the second page.

It was (irrationally, I'm sure) a wrench... but after some mourning (I'm really not sure what I was mourning for, really... the loss of innocence or the realization of my patent stupidity are the leading contenders) I decided that to attribute such a shoddy holey thing as the bible to be the inspiration of god is really a blasphemy I could do without. And if I discounted the bible, then I had to basically discount Christianity as a whole since it is based entirely on the bible and this notion that the bible is the infallible word of god. Anyhow... that kicked started a spree of religious and philosophical reading in the library (I've read the Torah and the Koran.... but couldn't quite finish the whole of the Bhagavad Gita). It was Thomas Paine's 'The Age of Reason' that resonated the most with me, though unlike him and other Deists I don't feel attached enough to the 'god' concept, no matter how hands-off it is, to join that sect.

Since then, I've occasionally looked back on my religious fanatic years with both shame and gratitude. It was one of those life lessons that just had to be learned first hand.... and it was a very educational lesson that makes me a lot less prone to arrogance now than before. All the same, I wish it hadn't taken that many years for me to realize just how ludicrously improbable the religious premise I was so invested in was and how dehumanizing the devotion to the very flawed idea can be. As a wise man once said, it really takes a religion to make good and sane people do really twistedly evil stuff (not that I ever did anything 'evil', but had I felt 'called on' to do something really bad in the name of religion, it was likely that I might comply. And just the thought that I was capable of having that mind set then chills my bones today).

There are many things about the monotheistic religions, especially Christianity, that bother me, some more than the others:

1. The inability to make the distinction between believing in a god as one understands it and believing in what another man (or man-made book and church) says god said. As I had previously wrote, a god capable of creating the universe and everything in it does not need a middle man to communicate with you. Especially when the middle man is just another human being (or books written by one).

2. The requirement for blind/un-questioning faith and the celebration of unearned slice of paradise just for believing. Salvation by grace? What is so graceful about removing accountability from the conscience of man? Haven't we outgrown the free love 60's and graduated to the responsible world of the grown ups who know that the worthy things in life are worth working for yet? If there is a god, it gave us a brain capable of critical reasoning for a reason and the best way of honoring such a gift is to use it to guard against being suckered by another man's tales when they don't jive with evidence and/or reason.

3. The notion that only non-believers cherry pick which verses to quote from the scripture.... and believers don't. That is patently false no matter how you look at it. The people who would quote from Leviticus to condemn homosexuals should also check to see if they are wearing clothings that are made of more than one type of fabric... And then immediately stone themselves. Just to be consistent.

4. The concept of 'original sin' and guilt by association perpetuated regardless of action for all eternity. One just has to be born to be guilty of the sin of Adam and Eve? And just how onerous is this 'original sin' anyhow? If you are to take Genesis seriously, then Adam and Eve did not gain the ability to distinguish right from wrong until they had eaten the fruit from the tree of knowledge. That means that they couldn't have known that disobeying god's order was 'bad' or a 'sin'. A god would surely be well aware of all the pertinent conditions, of course. That makes the whole thing a malicious set-up by an all-knowing god to entrap not only Adam and Eve, who lacked the ability to reason, but also their unborn (and utterly innocent) offspring for all generations. Preposterous! If anyone actually has any respect for even a possibility of a deity, then he wouldn't even dream of ascribing such heinous a conduct to that god at all.

5. The concept of 'eternal damnation/punishment' for those who don't share one's faith. It isn't a merciful or a just god who would sanction such a thing but a childishly vengeful one. There is no prospect for rehabilitation when the punishment is to last forever.

6. The thought that god can pardon all sins even when they weren't committed against god. If Jack shot Joe, then only Joe can grant Jack's forgiveness for that sin and not some bystander god who let Jack shoot Joe in the first place. When you sin against someone, you don't get to absolve yourself by conveniently praying to your god. You've got to face the person you sinned against and try to earn his forgiveness. That is a lot more decent than trying to duck your responsibility and use your religion as an excuse for a blank slate.

7. The unearned confidence of one's possession of the only true religion/concept-of-god/faith in spite of own ignorance of many if not majority of other religious dogma/god-concepts/faiths out there. How can you know you have 'the truth' if you don't even know what other competing 'truths' say? Simple. You don't, and are just mistaking the 'first' for the best.' And you really care more about being 'right' than about knowing the truth to begin with, else you would seek out what the other religions/philosophies say.

On another note, I don't regard having eternal life as a de
sirable. It seems to me that the perfect way of devaluing something is to have too much of it. Life is precious to me because I know that one day I will lose it. And the concept of having to live eternally in bliss really strikes me more as a punishment rather than a reward. Not only does one have to take life for granted for all eternity now, one must also take good and blissful things for granted, too. Think about it a bit, when all you get are good things, they are no longer good and blissful to you. They simply become 'normal' things.... You wouldn't appreciate the little good things others do for you because that would be just what you'd expect from them.

"What would you do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and from living beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light?"
- Mikhail A Bulgakov, Master and Margarita (as translated by Burgin & O'Connor)
And so... I am done with religions. Don't get me wrong, I don't care if you are religious... unless you are trying to use it to pooh-pooh or to bully others who don't share your faith. To me, religion and science are really two different approaches man devised to solve the same problem; what is this wonderful universe we live in and how we fit into it. The religious approach seeks more to alleviate the insecurity we all get when we realize just how vulnerable and inconsequential we are in the grand scheme of things. The scientific approach has accepted this vulnerability as fact and seeks instead to learn as much as possible about what the universe really is and how it works.

There need not be conflict between the two... but certain monotheistic religions seem keen on precipitating one. I note that no scientist has ever pushed for any science to be taught during the Sunday bible class or at the Mosque, but certain groups of Christians and Muslims are very keen on trying to make school teachers teach their religion's creation myth in science class. Religious people should keep that in mind before claiming that their religion is under attack from science. You can't claim self-defense when you are the ones playing offense!

More thoughts on religions, Late Night Rant, Critical Thinking, Mormon Encounters,

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Colorful Horton Plaza

Pete Wilson had his faults, but he also did many good things for San Diego, including revitalizing downtown area with the construction of this psychedelic Horton Plaza. One just can't get bored looking at the place.

For first time visitors, though, this place can be maddening. You can't find a simple way to get from one level to the next and end up circling the entire complex a few times before finally getting to the floor you want (there are 2 elevators, but they're tucked away on the east side of the building). Once you've familiarized yourself with the place, though, there are many benches and hidden corners where you can perch in while amusing yourself watching the newcomers do their circling around bit.

The mall is owned by Westfield. The newly renovated Balboa Theater isn't a part of the complex, though. The music in the clip is the air-check recording of Vesselina Kasarova singing Mozart's Lied, an Chloe (KV 524) from her January 2006 concert with the pianist Charles Spencer... at Vienna Concert House.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Vesselina Kasarova: Passionate Arias

I have been spending the last week in an acoustic bliss. Vesselina Kasarova's newest solo CD, Passionate Arias (on RCA Red Seal label), arrived in the mail... and it is even better than I had expected.
Those who are familiar with the state of the opera today probably already know her as one of the greatest Rossini and Mozart singers of her generation... and lately of Baroque music, especially in the trouser roles (male roles played and sung by female singers) due to that fascinatingly androgenic voice and look that she has. So, looking at the track list on this CD and one may be justifiably skeptical about the repertoire it present: dramatic vamps from the late Romantic Period: Principessa di Bouillon from Adriane Lecouvrer, Azucena from Il trovatore, Eboli from Don Carlo, Ioanna from Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans, Santuzza from Cavalleria Rusticana, Bizet's Carmen, and Dalila from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila.

See... these days, the Baroque-Mozart-Bel Canto repertoire and the Italian-French Dramatic repertoire are sung by 2 rather different voice types. The BMBC singers are like the flight-footed sprinters. They have lighter voice of large range and incredible speed that can cope with all the virtuoso demand of the music. The IFD singers, on the other hand, have larger and fuller voice that can deliver the drama better while being able to pierce through a much larger and louder orchestra. Kasarova's voice is unusual... falling somewhere in between the two. It is sizable, full, and darkly colorful enough to make you dream about her in Verdi operas, but it is also a heck of a fast-moving voice (when she does virtuoso bravura aria, one fancies her as a heavy metal rocker.... check this clip out and see how exciting a bit of opera singing can be!). But, at any rate, she's spent the last 20 years of her professional career singing exclusively Baroque-Mozart and Bel Canto music, so a jump into the heavy dramatic repertoire is at the very least interesting.

Listening to the CD, all doubts are scorched right off the my mind from the first track to the last. Kasarova is so terrifyingly good that I'm having a hard time writing a review this CD... I'll just say for now that those people who like to go around clips of her on Youtube to say that her voice had been ruined or uglified or whatever really haven't got their ears screwed on straight. Either that or they don't know what the hell they're mouthing off about at all. Her voice is bigger and warmer than before, and with an even more alluringly dark tint to the basic tone that really adds to her already considerable ability to breathe new life into whatever she sings.

Yes, I've seen a negative review of it on Die Welt online. To that I'll say, that all opera fans will likely already have preconceptions about the operatic characters appearing on this CD... and likely an ideal singer of Azucena (Podles?), Eboli (Baltsa?), Santuzza (Obratsova?), and Carmen (Resnik? Domashenko?) firmly fixed in their mind. Experiencing this CD will likely cause one to choose: do you stubbornly renounce Kasarova's portrayal as 'mannered' for being her own woman who might not fit snugly into your own previously conceived idea of her, or will you allow yourselves to learn more about this surprisingly complex character whose feelings and convictions are just as strong as your own?

Kasarova is the singer who threads fervishly on the line that separates pure singer from pure actor. And though she will occassionally cross the line and emits off some sounds that make you go 'Ugh!', more often than not she is spectacularly successful at pulling off the illusion that sung speech is what people do to communicate in real life and that it is the proud and jaded (though really quite a bit more beautiful than you'd have expected) Azucena herself who is recounting her mother's unjust burning at the stake to you as if it had happened only 10 minutes ago. From the vengeful Princess of Bouillon to the repentent Princess Eboli to the rebellious-bird-like Carmen and the mesmerizingly seductive Dalila... 

No, Kasarova doesn't just simply sing anything. She is much more than just a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice. Hers is a voice that carries a strong and yet sensitive character. One that enables the many shades of humanity that compels you to sympathize with her - knowing full well that the character is a murderess or a seductress.

Here's a sneak peek at the final track on the CD. It is uncannily dramatically effective how she connects her first pass at 'a voler dan tes bras' to 'Ah! répond à ma tendresse' with that gorgeously controlled diminuendo... and then accentuate the end of the phrase with those chest tones.

Then on her last pass of the same bridge she does the conventional little 'break' between the verses and smoothens the pass through the lower passagio because she knows by then that Samson is now hooked. He isn't going anywhere and will tell her what she wants... she just has to keep him transfixed). Kasarova doesn't sing any note just for the sake of sounding it. She does it in a certain way because what is coming out of her is meaning something. That's what separate a real artist from just singers!

And... the Dalila tracks aren't even the most impressive ones on this CD. Kasarova is accompanied by Maestro Giuliani Carrera and the Munich Radio Orchestra. The Serbian tenor Zoran Todorovich appears on 2 tracks (as Jose in the dance scene from Carmen and as Samson in Dalila's final aria).

So... you know what to do after glimpsing what a tour de force recital this CD is. Amazon has it for a very reasonable price!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A visit to the Torrey Pines Gliderport

Thanks to a tip from my friend Georg, I hopped on a bus north to La Jolla yesterday to check out the La Jolla Historical Society's event at the Torrey Pines Gliderport. They started leisurely late since the forecast called for potential morning rain, but when the clouds were doing a Houdini act (aided by the wind), a few paragliders and hang-gliders came out to play.

It turned out to be quite a gorgeous day! I snapped a few photos and put them together with some operatic music (though nothing tragic happens in it. Promise!).

Friday, May 1, 2009

Science makes me feel lucky (and giddy, for good measure)

It is easy to take the value of science for granted when all you do each day is to uncritically use its byproducts without stopping to think about what makes such a technology possible in the first place.

So... it is refreshing to me to watch the clip above every so often and be reminded of just how far we have come and just how much knowledge the human species has accumulated over the years. How lucky I am to live in the days when I have the ability to climate-control my living space so that I can sit nice and cool in an air-conditioned room in the dead of summer, sipping on a ice-cold Crush's finest orange root beer while the sun gives its best effort to sterilize my roof and lawn. How nice is it to be able to walk outside in the cold Midwestern winter, crunching through the layers of snow for hours without getting frost-bitten because of today's high tech clothing that traps body heat while allowing perspiration and keeping out moisture... all without weighing a ton.

It's a great comfort to live in a time when I can take over-the-counter medicine for minor aches and pain, and when I can be mostly certain that I'll be able to walk out of a doctor's office alive (they don't just bleed you to death as a way of fixing everything anymore) after allowing him and his colleagues a good look at what my internal organs are doing without having to be cut open. Coming down with an illness that has neurological symptoms doesn't immediately causes you to be accused of witchcraft and liable to follow the end path of Joan of Arc and the other 'heretics' that got either burned or stoned to death nowadays... well.. in most places of the world, that is.

And, get this, I can make my favorite opera singers sing for me all day long... over and over again at my command. All it takes is to hit a little button on the stereo and - voila! - endless acoustic bliss. It a luxury many people who are a lot more talented and deserving than I am never had the chance to enjoy. Mozart could only hear his music performed when someone paid for the musicians to do it for him.... live. The rest of the time he just had to do his best to re-create it in his memory. And he could only hear the musicians that he could travel to see live performances of while I have heard... or at least glimpsed at (since recordings sometimes can't capture a performance the way it really sounds in live setting) many great musicians and actors and other sorts of performance artists via CD, DVD, television and internet broadcasts that I wouldn't be able to ever experience in person.

Scientists don't know everything. Of course not. But they are the first to admit it and to keep working hard in order to know more and more. The incomplete knowledge we have today is a whole lot better than what we had a century ago (and beyond that). I just don't get it when some folks seem so keen on just dismissing this massively useful though 'incomplete' knowledge for its 'imperfection' in order to argue for some theology that offers nothing more than assurances it can't deliver. And I don't understand why some religious people are still fighting to discredit a scientific theory like evolution by natural selection without even knowing what the theory addresses and states (and not states) in the first place... all in their quest to pit the science against their religious teaching.

"The word of God is the creation we behold, and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man -----
In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the scripture called the Creation."
- Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

A look around the Maritime Museum of San Diego

Being decidedly not affluent at the moment, I wouldn't spend $17 on a non-essential... unless it is for a great and rare opera that I couldn't hope to ever catch live again in many many years or for a once a year tour aboard the impressive historic ships of the Maritime Museum in downtown San Diego.

The star attraction here is, of course, the Star of India... today's oldest ship still in active service. Above is a short-ish slide show of still photos of most of the ships (the Californian was, sadly, off limit when I dropped in). The music in the background is Sails by Chet Atkins.

You can actually get into the museum to see all these ships for $15, but adding $3 would also enable you to go on a cruise around the middle part of the San Diego bay on the little Pilot. A good deal!