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Thursday, December 29, 2005


Stolen from Dr. Barbara Baker, who cordially ripped it off from two other opera-type bloggers:

Name or Nom de Blogge: I thought about making up some fabulously exotic name under which to write this blog, but everything sounded so phony. Besides, no who knows me personally probably reads this thing, anyway. Paul Siegel is my name—there are two of us in town and we’re always getting phone calls about the other one’s dental appointments, since we both visit the same tooth practitioner. It can be annoying.

Age: 54.

Locale: Denver, Colorado.

Raison de blogre: “Seemed like a good idea—at first.” [My wife’s favorite quote by Crow of ‘MST3K’ fame]

Intended tone of blog: High-minded opera discussion that could deteriorate into mind-numbing drivel, if I work hard enough at it.

Voice type (real): Bass, although not having sung in decades, my range is something like eight notes (and not all of those consecutive—hah!).

Voice type (in yer dreams): Counter-tenor. Nah, just kidding. That voice type gives me the creeps. I’d settle for something along the Ghiaurov line, with a bit of Chaliapin thrown in for good measure.

Arias sung in the shower: Echoing Dr. Baker’s comments, “at my age I’m reduced to whistling.” Anything Verdian, although I usually forget the words.

Arias of other gender sung in shower: Last one I recall—“Un bel di.”

First opera seen: “Aida” with Leontyne Price, Cleveland, Ohio. [Met On Tour]

First opera to elicit enthusiasm, dedication or other obsessive reaction to a lifetime at the opera: the RCA Italia recording of “Lucia” with Moffo and Bergonzi.

Uberdiva, living: Mirella Freni.

Uberdiva of the past: Victoria de los Angeles.

Newest enthusiasm: Rolando Villazon.

Fave singer you never hear anyone else enthuse over: Dwayne Croft.

Favorite line from a libretto: “Maladizione.” [Rigoletto]

Opera you’d rather eat thumbtacks than sit through ever again: “Don Carlo,” parts of which I dozed through just the same.

Why won’t the Met / my local company put on …: ANYTHING by Meyerbeer!

A perfect role assumption I have seen was: Juan Pons as “Falstaff,” a last-minute sub at the Met for some guy I never heard of.

If I had a time machine…: The tantalizing offer Holmes makes to Watson at the very end of “Hound of the Baskervilles”—tickets to see Jean and Edouard de Reszke in “Les Huguenots” at Covent Garden.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Tag, I’m It

One of the fun things touring the Blogosphere, notably among sites that are members of the Opera Ring, is a game whereby one is asked to provide replies to “4…something, something…you’ve…something. Recently “victimized” by a fellow, anonymous Ring-er, here are my answers to …

4 Jobs You’ve Had in Your Life
Movie theatre usher
House painter
Marketing director
Book editor

4 Movies You Could Watch Over & Over
“A Night at the Opera”
“The Lady Vanishes”
“High Fidelity”
“The Producers”—the original with Zero, of course!

4 Places You’ve Lived
Cleveland, Ohio
St. Paul, Minnesota
Denver, Colorado
No more—how boring is that?

4 TV Shows You Love to Watch
“Mystery Science Theater 3000”
“The Simpsons”
“Curb Your Enthusiasm”

4 Places You’ve Been on Vacation

4 Web Sites You Visit Daily
Newslink.Org—compendium of U.S. and worldwide newspapers
Cubs.com—because one can never know too much about the Cubs
Denver Public Library—I love reserving books online and checking what’s overdue
Dr. Barbara Baker’s blog on opera

4 of Your Favorite Foods
Pastrami sandwich on caraway rye
Vegetable omelet
Cheese ravioli with marinara sauce
My bubbe’s lemon meringue pie

4 Places You’d Rather Be
The Met
Covent Garden
Teatro San Carlo
Palais Garnier

So, who’s next?

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Judging the Judges in Opera Competitions

This is part two of my commentary on vocal competitions for young opera singers. Part one can be found immediately below this post.

Once the singing is finished it’s time for the judges to decide who has won, and who gets thrown back into the pot for another try next year.

As I mentioned earlier, my experience with this has been as an audience member only, so I can only imagine what singers must go through on stage and afterward, as they await the decision that could well change their careers. I’ve sat through several dozen competitions in all, including the Met Regionals and the annual one offered by the DLOG. The process seems basically the same regardless of the organization running the show. Singers perform a couple of arias—usually the first of their own choosing and the second picked for them by the judges from a previously submitted list—and then toddle off backstage to await a decision several hours hence.

Oftentimes the judges are opera directors from various U.S. companies. Here in Denver we’ve had folks from St. Louis, Central City, Santa Fe and San Jose, just to name the few that come immediately to mind. We’ve also had a few “festival” directors, including people from Ravinia and Wolf Trap. And then there are the ex-singers, many of whom were not familiar to me, either because they’ve had careers that were focused overseas or had never been widely recorded—or both. The most famous judge in any of the competitions I’ve attended was at last year’s Met Regionals, when baritone Sherrill Milnes graced us with his presence. He was cordial to the audience, kind to the competitors, and an all-round pleasure to have in the auditorium.

One of the more interesting things for audience members to do at a voice competition is match wits with the judges. We enjoy rating the singers and then comparing our results to those announced at the end of the contest. Having listened to opera for decades, my wife and I like to think of ourselves as relatively well-versed as to what constitutes good singing. It’s pretty easy to tell when someone is off-pitch, or has poor breath control, or is in over his or her head in matching the voice with the repertoire.

But because we’ve never actually spoken to any judges, we don’t really understand the criteria employed to reach a decision. Oftentimes we’ve been spot-on (as the Brits say) in picking the winner and even the top half-dozen finishers in proper order. But other times our number one choice hasn’t even finished in the money, which has caused us to look at each other in bewilderment and ask (to quote Eric Cartman), “What the fudge?” or words to that effect. I recall one DLOG winner that was such an unpopular choice with the audience—or rather, the audience’s clear favorite had NOT been chosen as winner—that the judges were roundly booed for their selection. I’m sure the first-place singer must have felt more than a bit perturbed by that reaction.

I’m not suggesting that the audience is always right, either. Showy ornamentation or a favorite aria can garner much applause, whether the singer’s performance deserved it or not. And unless the field includes one singer who is head and shoulders above the rest—past examples in Denver have included Robert Garner, Helena Biktasheva, Yalun Zhang and Charles Taylor—it can be pretty much of a crapshoot to determine who the “rightful” winner should be.

Another factor to consider, I suppose, is the “on any given day” defense. On any given day, a singer can have a bad performance because of personal problems or illness. The Mile High City’s aridity must play havoc with singers’ throats, even for those who have lived here for years and are acclimated to it.

This is one topic on which comments from actual singers would be especially welcome. The standard speech contestants and audiences alike hear publicly from judges in the post-judging, pre-announcement stage of a competition goes something like: “We’re thrilled with the level of competition this year and, truly, you’re all winners for having competed.”

Everyone knows that this is a load of horse manure, but the panel seems obligated to roll out that old chestnut nonetheless. What I’d really like to know is what the judges say privately to the winners and losers. Do they offer suggestions on how to do better next time around? Do they make recommendations on repertoire choices? Do they say, “You know, you’ve got a perfect voice for dinner theater?” Until we learn more, I guess we’ll just have to roll with the punches and occasionally be dumbfounded by a judge’s selection. The 2006 Met Regionals take place in Denver at the end of February. I’m keeping my fingers crossed to NEVER have to hear “No Word from Tom” ever again, but—not bloody likely!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Opera Competitions

Over the past week I’ve had the pleasure of reading a number of blogs written by young opera singers, all of whom seem to spend their time either preparing for, participating in or recuperating from auditions. I discovered most of these blogs through a link known as RingSurf, of which I am now a proud member. You can gain access to these delightful sites by clicking on the “next five” or “previous five” links at the very top of this page.

As I was never an opera singer—a short stint with the Cleveland Orchestra chorus under Margaret Hilliard and a last-minute-replacement as bass soloist in Minneapolis for the Mozart Requiem have been my only non-school stage appearances—I can only imagine the angst that pervades a young performer’s life as he or she trudges from one audition to the next, never quite knowing what it is that the representative is seeking, what his or her hiring criteria might be, or exactly why they were ultimately accepted or rejected.

My only live exposure to this process is as an audience member during opera competitions. My wife and I have attended the Met Regionals in Denver pretty much every year since 1991, as well as the annual Denver Lyric Opera Guild competitions during that same time period. We’ve missed one or two of each over the past 13-plus years, usually because we forgot to mark the dates on our calendar.

Because I’ve only seen the results of training (the auditions themselves), I’m obviously a poor judge of the methods employed. I gleaned a certain insight into this world by reading the recently published book, “Fortissimo: Backstage at the Opera with Sacred Monsters and Young Singers.” Author William Murray, himself a former opera performer-turned-journalist, was granted unprecedented access to the Young Singers Program at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Mr. Murray chronicles a year in the lives of a half-dozen singers who spend their time taking private lessons, preparing themselves as “covers” for the various productions Lyric has planned for that season, learning other roles that might help them further their careers, auditioning for opera directors who make the trek to Chicago to stock their own companies for upcoming seasons, and studying with the Lyric’s in-house experts on vocal technique, stage movement, and other elements essential to mastering the opera singer’s craft.

Because my wife grew up in Chicago and her folks still live there, we visit that city several times each year. One of our highlights involves attending the Grant Park Music Festival, a series of free performances throughout July and August that take place in the band shell of the downtown park that’s mostly known for Buckingham Fountain. An opera program is invariably included among the many performances scheduled over the ten weeks of the festival and, throughout the years, we've seen a concert version of “Damnation of Faust” by Berlioz and a semi-staged production of Strauss’ “Fledermaus” (to name two that came immediately to mind) that, after reading “Fortissimo” I now realize involved singers from the Lyric’s “farm system.”

But I digress …

Since 1991 we’ve seen our fair share of “interesting” singers in local competitions. Because Denver is relatively isolated from the artistic hustle and bustle of either coast, it’s a fairly insular group of performers that grace the “bimah” (that’s what we call it in the synagogue, but I have no idea by what name it’s known among Christians) of a local Presbyterian church every February for the Met Regionals, or the stage at the Lamont School of Music a month later for DLOG. In more than a few cases we’ve seen singers “grow up” before our very eyes, becoming transformed over several years from can-barely-project-beyond-the-footlights timidity to full-blown artistic confidence, with a voice to match.

One such example is Daniel Fosha, a lyric tenor who, a few years ago, we referred to as a table, a table from the phrase in a “Manon” aria that he was fond of singing. After three straight years of failing to make the cut with the DLOG, he finally changed his repertoire—or as I now realize, his voice evidently matured sufficiently—so that he could carry off more substantial arias. The last time we heard him sing, he wowed the audience with a rendition of Lensky’s aria from “Eugene Onegin” that could have easily been part of a fully staged production. We wish him well in all future endeavors.

The Metropolitan Opera organizes regional competitions, culminating in the finals that take place with full orchestra accompaniment on the stage at Lincoln Center in New York. Here in the intermountain West, participants from Colorado and Wyoming come to Denver for a full Saturday of performances, while folks in Utah gather on the same day in similar fashion in Salt Lake City. One week later, the Utah finalists come to Denver and duke it out with whoever survived the cut on our side of the Rockies. A field of 15-20 singers is reduced to seven or eight and, combined with the half-dozen or so Utahns, end up with one person standing—or rather, headed for the Big Apple.

Denver Lyric starts with a much larger contingent, oftentimes 45-50 singers stretched out over a dozen hours on a Friday. That number is reduced by well more than half for the following day’s further winnowing, and a week later 10-12 singers spend their Saturday night vying for cash prizes that range from a couple hundred dollars at the low end of the totem pole to something like $1500 for first place.

Both competitions use similar formats. Each singer arrives armed with five arias. The first selection is of the singer’s choice, while the judges (usually three in number) pick a second song from the prepared list. Musical accompaniment is provided by a piano at center stage. Perhaps a third of the singers bring their own accompanist, while the rest take advantage of the “house” pianist. After all the singers have performed, the judges retire to some inner sanctum and spring forth a while later with their decisions.

My wife and I are occasionally merciless in our assessment of the various performances we hear and see. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit the sort of comments we trade between ourselves regarding the poorer examples of singing we hear. Some of that refers to the lack of breath control, the missed notes, the occasional inappropriateness of various outfits (especially among the women), or the selection of music. I realize that everyone who ends up on that stage has put in countless hours of work, spent tons of money they struggled in menial jobs to earn to afford voice lessons and all the rest, etc., etc. But it’s clear to us that some of these folks should not be singing opera. One woman persisted year after year with a lovely voice that would have served her well in operetta or dinner theater. Oftentimes her personal choice for a first selection was “Glitter and Be Gay” from Bernstein’s “Candide.” I’m sorry—that’s NOT opera, at least not in this setting. When some other soprano is competing with Puccini’s “Un bel di,” one should get a clue.

Our general antipathy for German opera (totally personal and probably irrational, but there it is) makes us cringe whenever a competitor selects (or has a judge select for him/her) something by Richard Strauss, or Wagner, or even something from Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt.” Any soprano who starts out with “No Word from Tom” from Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” is automatically off our list—and the same is true with songs by Menotti (although a selection from “Amahl” would be nice, except no one ever does that), or that horrible baritone aria from “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”

The standard fare, given the fact that we’re talking about young singers, is lighter material by Mozart, Rossini, Puccini and later nineteenth-century French composers. We hear a lot of “Romeo & Juliet” for tenors and sopranos, “Cenerentola” for mezzos, and “Magic Flute,” “Nozze,” “Don Giovanni” and “Carmen” from pretty much everyone. Massenet is surprisingly well represented (“Werther,” “Manon” and even “Thais”), but I read somewhere a few years ago that his music is especially suited to younger singers, so I suppose that makes sense.

Our favorites, especially when done well (but even a less-than-decent performance can be ameliorated in our minds by a well-composed aria) include the Silver Aria from “Ballad of Baby Doe,” “Song to the Moon” from “Rusalka,” “Dupuis du jour” from Charpentier’s “Louise,” selections from “Eugene Onegin,” or anything by Bellini and Verdi. Back in the early to mid-1990s we rarely heard anything by Verdi in these competitions—the occasional soprano aria from “Traviata” was the exception—but that’s changed over the past few years. Basses are singing the prologue aria from “Simon Boccanegra” (which I LOVE). Mezzos are singing Ulrike’s aria from “Un Ballo.” Tenors are tackling the two famous arias from “Rigoletto,” and even occasionally “Celeste Aida” from, well, you know …

It’s equally nice to hear something off the beaten path. Because I have collected and listened to so many lesser-known operas, I’m always impressed by singers who take the chance of making an unusual choice. What stands out, you may ask? There’s Cardinal Brogni’s first-act aria from “La Juive,” the sleepwalking scene from “Macbeth” as well as Banquo’s aria, the soprano aria from “Lucia” that opens the second act, plus the bass aria that closes the first act (I’m oftentimes terrible with aria names), plus the prologue from “Pagliacci.”

One of these days I’d love to hear some singer tackle the big tenor aria from Gounod’s “Sapho,” or the baritone’s first-act drinking song from Thomas’ “Hamlet,” or Alice’s second-act aria from “Robert le Diable.” Fat chance on the latter, I’m sure. But speaking of Meyerbeer, I’ve actually heard three separate mezzos perform the Page’s aria from “Huguenots,” so that’s nice.

When I started writing this post I’d planned to add commentary on competition judging—from the point of view of the audience, otherwise known as “They gave THAT person the top prize?” But this thing has run on long enough, so I’ll save the rest for another day.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Random Thoughts on Tenors

When I was 13 years old, in the space of something like two weeks I went from being a boy soprano (actually more of a contralto) to a baritone—with plenty of voice-cracking along the way. That played havoc with my Bar Mitzvah lessons, where I was learning to “chant” the portion of the Saturday morning service that follows the weekly Torah reading. Thankfully my voice changed completely by the time I had to sing in front of the congregation, so they managed to miss out on all the mid-phrase key changes.

As a result, I’ve never quite understood the tenor mindset. Oh yes, there is definitely such a thing. My best friend in high school, Mark Hein, was a lyric tenor who actually sang an opera aria (“Vesta la Giubba”) in our senior-year choir concert. He and I also made up half of a barbershop quartet known as The Men of a Chord. Yes, definitely a terrible name—even worse than Homer Simpson’s The B-Sharps. At least we never sang anything as insipid as “Baby on Board,” although we never won a Grammy, either!

Anyway, Mark and his voice-mates were always grandstanding—singing louder than the rest of us in the choir, pushing to the forefront of the stage both literally and musically, and generally making nuisances of themselves. But they did it in such an endearing way that the rest of us dismissed it with, “Oh, they’re just tenors.”

Back when Mozart was composing operas, tenors were generally cast in minor, supporting roles. Think about “Nozze” or “Don Giovanni” or even “Cosi.” All the dominant males in those operas are baritones. Even most of the comic roles are filled by low voices, generally basses (hooray!). The idea of the romantic, heroic tenor didn’t fully come about until Donizetti’s time, and Verdi was really the one to develop that agenda.

The first truly artistic tenor was Frenchman Adolphe Nourrit. His claim to fame involved the various major roles he created at the Paris Opera, starring in various productions by Meyerbeer, Halevy, Auber, etc. He was the first Robert in “Robert le Diable” and the first Raoul in “Les Huguenots,” among others. He even scored a writing credit in Halevy’s “La Juive,” supposedly penning the lyrics for “Rachel, quand du seigneur” that was reportedly Caruso’s favorite aria. Nourrit was such a force at the Paris Opera that Halevy chose to make Eleazar a tenor rather than a baritone to ensure his participation.

The opera world is rife with famous tenors, well-known because they bring such vocal pyrotechnics to the stage. The high male voice catches everyone’s ear, perhaps because it’s such an unusual instrument. Regrettably, recordings of any decent quality go back only as far as the 1920s, so we have a somewhat skewed idea of historical rankings. The scratchy reproduction of Caruso’s voice barely does it justice, but it’s all we have to remember him by.

In our day, The Three Tenors dominate opera recordings. The pop-like concerts they performed together (except perhaps the first one, which was more seriously operatic) hardly do the world of opera or their own careers justice. But a quick review of the complete opera recordings on which they performed tells an altogether different tale.

In examples from my own opera collection, Pavarotti and Domingo are reasonably well-represented, with Carreras less so. At last count the totals are Domingo 19 operas, Pavarotti 18 operas, and Carreras nine operas. As with his overall career, Domingo shows a much more adventurous recorded repertoire. Placido sings in such rarely performed pieces as Massenet’s “Le Cid,” Mascagni’s “Iris,” Puccini’s “Le Villi,” and “Il Guarany” by Gomes.

Carreras has likewise recorded some less-popular operas, including the aforementioned “La Juive,” plus Donizetti’s “Poliuto,” Giordano’s “Fedora,” and Verdi’s “Il Corsaro.” The only “obscurity” I own on which Pavarotti sings is Mascagni’s “L’amico Fritz.”

In the same way that hardliners argue over whether toilet paper should be mounted “over” or “under” (I’m sure you know what I mean …), it seems that lovers of Pavarotti’s voice cannot abide listening to Domingo, and vice versa. Conflicted discussions abound in the Blogosphere on one man’s voice versus the other—particularly where they share the same repertoire—but I cannot so blithely concur. Because my own CD collection has been built with breadth rather than depth in mind (single examples of a lot of different operas as opposed to multiple versions of far fewer operas), I have only two instances where each of the Big Two shares a role. One example is “La Traviata.” In the London version, Pavarotti is joined by Joan Sutherland and Della Jones and (in my opinion) is the superior choice. The Domingo version is on RCA with Martina Arroyo, Sherrill Milnes and Ruggero Raimondi. The other example is “Aida.” The Pavarotti version is on London (naturally), where he is joined by Chiara, Dimitrova and Nucci. The (much better) Domingo recording on Sony includes a dynamic cast of Millo, Zajick—whom I’m tempted to name as this generation’s quintessential Amneris—Ramey and Morris.

In his prime, I’d argue strenuously that no one tops Pavarotti for voice, interpretation and overall dominance. He’s my choice when it comes to romantic “late Italian” roles composed by Verdi and Puccini. I like Domingo for drama, perhaps because his darker tenor voice sounds better to me in those situations. He also handles French libretti far better than does Luciano.

Of the previous generation of tenors, I love listening to Carlo Bergonzi sing the romantic roles in such operas as “Lucia,” “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Luisa Miller,” while Richard Tucker clearly shines in the dramatic roles portrayed in “Traviata” and “Forza.” I defy anyone to name a better French tenor in the past 30 years than Alain Vanzo, whose recordings of Gounod’s “Sapho,” Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable” and Offenbach’s “Perichole” make it sound as if those operas were written with his exact voice in mind. And in the bel canto repertoire, Bruce Ford is a force to be reckoned with.

There are a few tenors whose voices I don’t especially like. They include Franco Corelli, whom I find much too strident and shrill, especially in his upper register, and Alfredo Kraus who, at least in the recordings I own, always sounds like he’s having trouble staying on pitch. Then there are a few operas in my collection that make me want to hear more of a particular tenor because of the way they interpreted that particular role. In this category I single out Rockwell Blake in Boieldieu’s “La Dame Blanche” and Ernesto Palacio in Donizetti’s “L’esule di Roma.”

Tenors are weird but, because there are so few great ones, I guess they’re entitled to act that way. Just ask one!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Denver’s New Opera House

Early in the last century, Denver’s Auditorium Theater was THE place to go in the city for professional musical entertainment. Eighty-plus years later, an entire performance complex has grown up around it. Known collectively as the DCPA (Denver Center for the Performing Arts), a glass-covered atrium links the old theater to a number of other venues in this three-square-block location, tucked between downtown office high-rises and the bucolic ambience of the Auraria college campus.

Boettcher Concert Hall is an in-the-round auditorium that holds around 2500 patrons, including the “parterre” bench-type seating behind the stage. The Colorado Symphony plays most of its concerts there. The Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre is a conventionally designed space that’s slightly larger than Boettcher (perhaps 2800 seats) and hosts traveling shows like “The Lion King” and currently Disney’s version of “Aida.” The Bonfils Theatre Complex features four theaters that are used primarily for drama.

Over the years I’ve seen perhaps a dozen operas in both Boettcher and the Buell. The latter was fairly decent for opera—certainly when compared to the alternative—but competition for space with other (read: better-attended, higher-profit) performances made Boettcher the default option. For those of you familiar with the way Opera Colorado used to design its seasons—three productions a year, four performances each—the fall opera (usually in November) was set in the more conventional space with full staging, while the two springtime operas (usually one in April and the other in May) were done in the round, with sparse (i.e., crappy) staging.

The use of Boettcher for opera brought the concept of minimalist production values to new lows. [My wife once called it the “two rocks and a bridge” set] But what was worse was the sound. Since the audience was wrapped around the stage, the singers were constantly spinning in place to project their voices to all listeners. One moment that illustrates the absurdity of this design involved a production of “Aida” where Amneris was facing north, Radames was facing east, and the title character was somewhere around SSW. Yet another flaw in the auditorium’s configuration involved the placement of the exits. In certain sections, the sound flowed directly over one’s head and out into the lobby. Oh, and the stage looks like it came right out of some college gymnasium—you know, one of those highly polished, slat-strip wooden floors that looks like it should basketball goals at either end and a giant 'U of C' painted at center court.

Maybe half a dozen years ago, my wife and I attended a performance of “Guys and Dolls” at the old Auditorium Theater. We sat in the balcony which, for anyone over 5-8, was a new experience in knee pain—admittedly not as uncomfortable as the OLD seats in the Central City (Colo.) Opera House, but unpleasant just the same.

Then two elections ago, Colorado voters approved a bond issue that, among other artsy-fartsy things, provided substantial funding to refurbish the Auditorium. Not unlike the gutting of buildings that took place in Cripple Creek when limited-stakes casino gambling came to the state in 1991, the outer walls here were left intact while everything inside was removed, and now probably rests in some high-plains, Eastern Colorado landfill. Private donations helped finish off the work, including a sizable gift from our city’s top opera fan, Mrs. Ellie Caulkins. She’s been a patron of the operatic arts for decades, including contributions to the regional Metropolitan Opera tryouts as well as to the Denver Lyric Opera Guild, which runs its own vocal competition every spring. Thanks to the amount of money she gave, Mrs. Caulkins was awarded “naming rights” and the space is now colloquially called “The Ellie.” I suppose that’s better than Invesco Auditorium, Janus Funds Theatre, or some such corporate silliness.

In September 2005, a gala opening concert featured Renee Fleming among other singers, and the first operatic production followed last month. Denyce Graves starred as “Carmen,” a role for which she has gained considerable acclaim in recent years—she managed to squeeze in three performances in Denver during a brief hiatus of the same role at the Met in NYC—but the real show was the theater itself.

Regrettably I was unable to see “Carmen.” I have since bought tickets for the production of “Norma” that opens in February 2006, but the budget was a bit too tight to do both. At that point I’ll be able to provide a first-hand account of the venue, but here are a few of the problems gleaned from stories written in one or the other of the Denver daily newspapers.

1) The orchestra sound was “muddy” or, in other descriptions, muted.
2) Seats toward either side of the hall faced across the auditorium rather than being canted toward the stage. [Sounds like a stupid design to me.]
3) Not enough drinking fountains, and the ones there are were poorly located.
4) Seat cushions too hard, and/or too narrow.
5) Auditorium chandelier poorly placed, blocking views of the stage.
6) The seat-back title system (same one at the Met, so I hear) operated erratically.

You can’t satisfy everyone, so I’m told, so we’ll have to see how this all shakes out. A friend of mine attended the Colorado Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” last week. The Ellie is home to both opera and ballet. His seat was on the ground floor, pretty much dead-center, right behind the main walkway, and he said that (a) the sight lines were excellent and (b) the orchestra sounded fine. But he also admitted that, after the past two years of the ballet performing at The Paramount downtown (where visiting rock groups often play), anything would have been an improvement.

The exciting point of all this is that Denver finally has a permanent home for its opera. The organization can now share productions with other U.S. opera companies, making it more cost-effective and (we hope) putting on operas that are not your standard mainstream fare. I’ve seen enough “Traviatas,” “Bohemes” and “Nozzes” to last me a few years, thank you very much. The “Norma” that’s upcoming is a great start—the May ’06 production, by the way, is Mozart’s “Die Entfuhring aus Dem Serail”—and maybe some day we’ll see such underperformed gems as Puccini’s “Fanciulla” or Verdi’s “Boccanegra” (the latter quite a hit at Santa Fe last year, so I heard). But don’t hold your breath for French grand opera—especially Meyerbeer—since I already asked and got seriously chastised. [Peter Russell was amazingly rude in his reply to me, and for no reason.] But that’s another story for another post.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Opera All Around Us?

Long before Bob Seger “loaned” his hit song “Like a Rock” (for a pretty penny, I’m sure) to the folks at Chevrolet to help sell pickup trucks, opera tunes were heard in TV commercials to promote a variety of products. Part of the fun involves identifying what’s being played, which can be difficult when only a few bars of music might be used. I’m sure that one of the main reasons for this is the fact that nearly all opera is in the public domain and consequently royalty-free.

Then there is the employment of opera as background music in film. Perhaps the most notable involves a plot point in “Moonstruck” where Nicholas Cage and Cher attend a Met performance of “La Boheme.” The soundtrack includes the luscious voices of Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi. In the foreign film, “Diva,” the title character is secretly taped singing “Ebben?” from Catalani’s “La Wally,” a rarely performed & rarely recorded opera that has almost no redeeming value beyond this one aria. The clearly awful “Pretty Woman” featured music from “La Traviata.” The nearly-as-awful “Fatal Attraction” included “Un bel di” from “Madama Butterfly.” The Tom Hanks Oscar-winning vehicle “Philadelphia” is clearly enhanced by music from “Andrea Chenier.” Going back a ways, “Godfather III” employed the intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana” (which shows up all over the place, it seems), and “Wall Street” contained an oddly truncated version of the already short “Questa o quella” from “Rigoletto.” I’m sure that there are many other examples, and I welcome suggestions from readers.

The Marx Brothers use Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” as their primary vehicle of satire in “A Night at the Opera,” although “Pagliacci” makes an early and brief appearance in the film as well when the action is centered in Milan, presumably at La Scala. The movie’s chaotic climax includes Azucena’s campfire aria, with Harpo and Chico stealing the scene dressed as fellow gypsies. The opera incongruously ends with the duet between Manrico and Leonora, bringing down the curtain well before the opera’s actual ending, where Manrico is beheaded (offstage) and the Count di Luna is informed that he has ordered the death of his brother!

One of the funniest episodes of “Seinfeld” uses the overture from “Barber of Seville” to dramatize the antics of two Italian barbers vying for Jerry’s business. And even “The Simpsons” are not immune to the use of opera to further a storyline. In the “Mr. Plow” episode, Homer’s late-night TV commercial features a surrealistic scene that has nothing to do with snow removal while music from Bellini’s “Norma” plays. [Marge: “Is that your commercial?” Homer: “I’m not sure!”] In an episode from a much earlier season, the family attends a performance of “Carmen” sung entirely in Russian. I can’t even begin to imagine where the producers found THAT recording?

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