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Friday, June 30, 2006

Owning the 19th-Century Opera Supply Chain

Because of a recent DVD acquisition I’d made a few weeks ago, it was my intention to discuss the opera “I Pagliacci” in my next essay. But while doing some research I ran across interesting material on a peripheral issue, so I decided to set this subject aside for a few days.

Anyone familiar with current business practices knows the inventory concept of “just-in-time” delivery. Thanks to the globalization of manufacturing, the rise of multinational corporations, and the advent of gigantic shipping containers—not to mention the increased cost of keeping large stocks of raw materials on hand—most companies are running considerably leaner operations these days. It’s not unusual for a U.S. car builder, for example, to stockpile only as many windshields as it might use in a week, figuring the company would much rather see excess stock sit un-invoiced in their supplier’s warehouse rather than stack up, already paid-for, in their own warehouse.

Another concept currently in vogue, but actually with a much longer history, is supply-chain economics.

One example of this involved the early days of the movie-making business. Motion picture studios in California saw the advantage of owning the places that showed their films to the public. With companies like MGM and Fox in control of the corner theatre, they had a guaranteed distribution channel to the ticket-buying public, plus little or no reason to negotiate booking discounts with independent theatre owners.

Attempts to control the means of production, however, went nowhere fast. Kodak held onto its film monopoly, Panavision and other camera companies continued their independence as well, and the whole thing collapsed in the 1970s and 1980s with leveraged buyouts, overpriced productions that earned “bupkes” (the movie “Heaven’s Gate” springs to mind) and ultimately the sale of Columbia Pictures to a Japanese conglomerate—which turned out to be one of the worst deals for a buyer in the history of international business.

Before the advent of recordings, anyone who owned the rights to a particular piece of music generally made money one of three ways—by putting on a production or concert and charging admission, by leasing the rights to an impresario and collecting a portion of the “gate,” or by printing the sheet music and selling it to the general public.

Practically from the time it was invented, one of the earmarks of wealth involved owning a piano. Throughout Europe in the mid-1800s, the growing middle class saw this item—more than any other and much the way middle-class American families in the early 1950s viewed the television—as a clear symbol that they’d “made it.” As a result, more and more people entertained at home by playing the piano. Obviously they needed something to perform, and transcriptions of both classical music and operas became all the rage. Composers who’d previously struggled to earn a worthwhile living from their material could become wealthy almost overnight by creating a piece that caught the public’s ear. Franz Liszt earned more from the sale of piano transcriptions he made of Beethoven’s symphonies than from the sale of his own sheet music. And Wagner was saved from abject poverty by the generosity of Giacomo Meyerbeer, who graciously allowed the Bayreuther full rights to the piano transcriptions he’d crafted of Meyerbeer’s first Paris Opera production, “Robert le Diable.” Only later did Wagner turn on his patron and rebuke him and his music with the sort of virulence that has lasted—regrettablyuntil the present day.

I assume by now the picture is clear—owning the rights to music, even back in the good ol’ days, could be incredibly lucrative. But most composers were hardly good businessmen, and many were as far from sensible with money as you could get. In the midst of what was likely the greatest market ever for theatrical productions—Paris prior to the Franco-Prussian War—Jacques Offenbach went broke twice trying to be both operettist and theatre-owner. Eventually he figured out which one he was best at, and it wasn’t the latter.

It was all well and good to sell tickets to the public, but there were problems associated with making that one’s sole path to riches. First, an opera house held only so many seats. Even the newest ones, taking advantage of up-to-date architectural designs that created larger and larger auditoriums, rarely accommodated more than a few thousand patrons. Second, success was as fleeting as one’s latest production. For every “La Muette di Portici”—the Auber piece often considered the first “grand” opera and one that enjoyed hundreds of sold-out houses in its first year of production—there were dozens of operas that closed after one or two performances. And even the masters of composition were not immune to the fickleness of the ticket-buying public.

In 1808, Italian violinist Giovanni Ricordi abandoned his playing career and began to print the music of his colleagues in and around his home town of Milan. After managing to put away a few “scudi” for a rainy day, he scored a coup in 1825 by buying up the entire musical archives at La Scala. In those days, theatres contracted directly with composers for productions to fill their houses. Although every once in a while a Cimarosa or a Donizetti wrote an opera “on spec,” that is, without having a paid contract in advance for its production, nearly every opera created in the 1800s was bought and paid for by the owners of the house in which it premiered. In a cost-of-living move, composers oftentimes traded future rights of publication or outright ownership for immediate cash in their pockets, so opera houses like La Scala ended up with a considerable library of works. Ricordi recognized the value of such a collection and made a very smart move financially.

Then in 1839 he signed a deal with Giuseppe Verdi, acquiring the copyright to all his existing and future operas. It was an especially good deal for the composer as it essentially granted Verdi a lifetime income, allowing him the luxury of accepting or rejecting any project sent his way. Few opera composers of any era have enjoyed that kind of independence.

With the Verdi catalogue under its belt, the firm Casa Ricordi soon grew to become the largest music publisher in southern Europe. Operations expanded across Italy, with offices opening in Naples (1864), Florence (1865) and Rome (1871) before jumping internationally to London (1878) and Paris (1888).

From Giovanni’s modest beginnings, three future generations of Ricordis led the company until outside management was appointed in 1919. Giulio Ricordi (1840–1912) took the business far beyond the simple printing of sheet music. This is where “owning the supply chain” truly kicked in. He locked up Giacomo Puccini much the same way his great-grandfather had secured full rights to Verdi’s material. But Giulio took things several steps further, expanding into the printing of advertising posters that became amazingly popular throughout Europe. Celebrated graphic artists constructed compelling images to promote the operas for which Ricordi owned the publishing and/or performing rights. Surviving original posters today command many thousands of dollars at auction, although it’s possible to purchase reproductions (I own a few, by the way) for as little as US$10-20 each. And while the names of these artists—Leonetto Cappiello, Franz Laskoff or Giovanni Mataloni—mean little or nothing to the average person today, it would be as if film studios had enticed Robert Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns or R. Crumb to draw up movie posters for display at the neighborhood Cineplex.

After World War II, during which the company’s offices in Milan had suffered considerable bombing damage—although the archives survived intact thanks to being stored safely off-premises—Casa Ricordi became first a limited corporation and then a publicly traded company. In 1994 it was acquired by BMG Music, a division of the German publishing giant Bertelsmann.

To rival the success of the aforementioned family, we begin with Giovanni Battista Sonzogno. A Milanese as was Ricordi, he founded the Sonzogno Publishing House in 1818 along with his two sons. The company’s early emphasis was away from music—specifically publishing textbooks on economics plus the daily newspaper “Il Secolo”—but in 1874 under Giovanni’s grandson Edoardo, it jumped into direct competition with its cross-town rivals. Whereas Ricordi concentrated on the publication of operas by Italian composers, Sonzogno acquired the rights to publish foreign operas in Italy. Most well known among these were “Mignon” by Ambroise Thomas and “Carmen” by George Bizet.

But since French or German operas didn’t sell nearly as well in Italy as did Italian ones, Edoardo came up with the idea of organizing a nationwide competition for the composition of operas. Budding composers were given the opportunity to showcase their talents in front of paying audiences, and Sonzogno had a guaranteed source of material for publication. The second year of the competition, Pietro Mascagni was declared the winner for his one-act opera, “Cavalleria Rusticana.” This contest helped bring about the rise of the Young Italian School, many of whose members had their works published exclusively by Sonzogno. Major composers who started off as members of this loosely formed group, in addition to Mascagni, included Francesco Cilea (“L’arlesiana” and “Adriana Lecouvreur”), Umberto Giordano (“Andrea Chenier” and “Fedora”) and Ruggero Leoncavallo (“I Pagliacci” and “Zaza”).

Further exploiting this “own the supply chain” concept, Sonzogno Publishing invested in several existing opera houses around Italy, and even opened its own theatre in Milan (The Lirico) in 1894.

As he had no direct descendents, Edoardo sold the company to two of his nephews in 1911. In 1920, industrialist and amateur composer Piero Ostali purchased the business, which was inherited upon his death by his son Enzo. Today the publishing house is run by Enzo’s widow, Nanda Bonini.

Today the Casa Musicale Sonzogno continues to sponsor an opera competition that adhere to the same basic strictures that governed the contest back in the 1880s—no more than four solo voices, plus chamber choir; orchestra limited to 15 players; minimum performance duration of 45 minutes, maximum duration of 60 minutes, and only one stage setting. The competition is open to any composer under the age of 35, of any nationality, and the work must never have been performed on any stage nor won prizes in any other contest. The libretto can be in German, French, Italian, English or Spanish, although a plot synopsis must accompany it in Italian.

On into the 1900s, Ricordi and Sonzogno jockeyed for position, each looking to gain bragging rights as Best Italian Opera Publisher. Once Ricordi went corporate, however, the steam seemed to go out of the rivalry, and today they’re simply two Milan-based houses looking to make a few bucks or, in this case, Euros.

Too bad I don’t meet the age requirement, since I’ve got a great idea for a one-act opera. You see, there’s this woman who’s hanging around a church on Easter Sunday. She’d like to go in and pray, but she’s kind of “persona non grata,” so… Oh, wait—you say it’s been done? Ah, too bad!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Doctor, Composer & Critic All in One

There’s a line from “Annie Hall,” one of Woody Allen’s most popular movies, which goes something like this: “Those who can’t do—teach; those who can’t teach—teach gym.” The same might be said about music critics, altered a bit to read, “…those who can’t compose, criticize those who do.”

Scratch a music critic, certainly one who’s being paid to write critically—unlike me, of course—and you’re likely to cause a frustrated composer (or perhaps a performer) to bleed, to carry the metaphor just a bit further. But the subject of today’s essay, Part Three in the continuing saga of little-known Italian opera composers, managed to do both—although his success as a critic far outpaced any acclaim he might have enjoyed in writing operas.

Abramo Basevi (1818–1885) grew up in Livorno and lived almost his entire life in Firenze (Florence), some 90 km east of the coastal town of his birth. While known worldwide for its art treasures, Florence is less-known but no less acclaimed for its music. The city is home to one of the oldest continuous music festivals in Europe—the Maggio Musicale—and its current opera house, built in 1862, plays host to a full season of operas every year. The Teatro Comunale (literally “city theatre”) was heavily damaged during WWII but became one of the first public buildings to be rebuilt at the end of the war.

Basevi began his professional career as a physician, a fairly typical profession for Jews of his time and place. But his intense interest in the arts, notably music, caused him to abandon his practice in favor of composition. Even back then Firenze was a second-tier city for opera—far more productions toured there than premiered there—but academic interest in musicology was strong. Basevi founded the musical journal “L’Armonia” (“harmony”) and remained its editor until his death at age 66. More famously, Basevi authored in 1859 what is likely the earliest critical analysis of Verdi’s operas. The book, “Studio sulla opera di G. Verdi” (“studies of the operas of…”), remains today an oft-cited resource in musical academia. Of course, at the time of the book’s publication Verdi had composed only 20 operas; lying ahead were such masterpieces as “La Forza del Destino,” “Aida” and “Otello,” as well as major revisions to earlier works including “Simon Boccanegra.”

In 1840, the opera “Romilda ed Ezzelino” debuted at the Firenze opera house. The name Romilda is a familiar one to devout opera attendees. She is the lead female in Handel’s opera “Serse” (Xerxes), a role sung by such recent luminaries as Anne Sofie von Otter and Yvonne Kenny. But lacking any evidence to the contrary, one must assume that the figure around which Basevi’s first opera is based rests in the other name in the title. Ezzelino III da Romano ruled Verona in the 1200s and was a forceful leader of the Ghibelline party in Northern Italy. If that term is familiar to you, it’s probably because the Ghibellines represent one side (the Guelphs occupied the other) of the conflict that is played out in the story of Romeo and Juliet. Also, the historical character of this particular Ezzolino shows up as back-story for two other operas. His sister Cuniza occupies the lead female role in Verdi’s first opera, “Oberto.” And the lead character in Mercadante’s “Elena da Feltre” is in love with one man, while Ezzelino’s minister Boemondo wants her to wed his son instead.

“Enrico Odoardo” received its premiere in 1847. True to the popularity of the times—including productions and/or revivals of “Anna Bolena,” “Roberto Devereux,” “Elisabetta d’Inghelterra,” etc.—the subject of Basevi’s second and final opera enjoyed English royal heritage. Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was Catherine Howard’s first cousin (she was the fifth wife of Henry VIII) and as famous for his poetry as he was for his place in history. Along with Thomas Wyatt, Howard was the first English poet to compose sonnets, a style later made much more famous by Shakespeare. He also was the first to publish blank (non-rhyming) verse. But I imagine it was Howard’s political situation that caused Basevi to set his life to music. Along with Henry Howard’s father, who was Catherine’s uncle, the two were on the “wrong” side of the conflict that became known as The Dissolution of the Monasteries, King Henry’s confiscation of monastic properties throughout England that followed his break with the Catholic Church. Howard was imprisoned and ultimately executed for treason, although his father escaped a similar fate by having the date of his death sentence fall on the day after Henry VIII himself died. Now that’s timing!

A thorough search yields no other compositions credited to Abramo Basevi—the surname, by the way, is an Italianate corruption of Bathsheba—although several Web sites refer to the fact that he had indeed written other material. With his interest in chamber music—one of his other “foundings” involved the creation of a Beethoven Society that promoted the playing of string quartets throughout Italy—it’s likely that he tried his hand in that musical form as well. But nothing survives, certainly not in recorded annals, and nowhere can one find even so much as a sung aria on record or CD.

When beginning this project some months ago, one of my primary aims was to highlight long-forgotten opera composers whose works had regrettably disappeared from the public’s consciousness. With such minimal information at hand, it’s hard to make a case for reviving either one of Basevi’s operas. Nonetheless, it would be fun to hear a few of his arias, if for no other reason than to see whether his fascination for Verdi’s material extended to his own ability for setting words to music.

Friday, June 02, 2006

A Tale of Three Orientalists—Opera Composers Darwish, Hosni & Lavry

Four or five years ago I devoured an entire series of books by A.T. Olmstead, former professor of Oriental studies at the University of Chicago. Prior to his death in 1945 he published some very scholarly tomes—“History of Assyria,” “History of Babylonia” and “History of the Persian Empire” among them. His archaeological efforts in the ’20s and ’30s in that part of the world—his teams excavated at Ur and Persepolis, among other sites—helped stock a magnificent gem of a museum on campus, located just a few miles west of the Museum of Science & Industry on the south side of Chicago.

As much as these are days of conflict in the Middle East, what we’re seeing today is considerably less violent as compared to the regional wars that took place in ancient times. Even if you take Olmstead’s estimates with the largest possible grain of salt, the number of civilian deaths and people sold into slavery following conflicts among the Assyrians, Hittites, Moabites and other “people of the Bible” are still staggering—affecting tens of thousands of people.

But this is not meant to be an essay on history, so on with the music discussion …

Play the word-association game with anyone even remotely familiar with opera and mention the term “Middle East.” I guarantee that the most likely response will be “Aida,” the Verdi opera commissioned to open the Cairo Opera House. [Note: the composition wasn’t completed in time, so the first opera performed on that stage was actually “Rigoletto.”] Other operas set in that part of the world include Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” (which actually takes place on the Barbary Coast, more than 1000 miles west of the Nile, but that’s close enough for me), Verdi’s “Nabucco” and “I Lombardi,” Rossini’s “Semiramide,” Meyerbeer’s “Il Crociato in Egitto,” “Akhnatan” by Phillip Glass, and a bunch more that don’t come immediately to mind.

With the emphasis on Italian, French and German opera in today’s repertoire—plus the exceptions noted in my final May posting—it’s easy to forget that people have composed operas in dozens of different languages over the last several centuries. While doing research on an unrelated topic, I stumbled across three Oriental composers whose efforts in the first half of the 20th century remain virtually unknown to the opera world at large. These gentlemen are the subject of today’s Opera Blog essay.

Sayed [or Sayyid] Darwish (1892–1923) was born in Alexandria, Egypt. His skills as a singer thrust him into the limelight at an early age, and he was soon composing songs that he performed in the city’s music halls and coffee houses. As Darwish became more serious about composition—receiving formalized training in Alexandria from British expatriates who lived there—he became obsessed with the idea of broadening the appeal of indigenous Egyptian music. He is reportedly the first composer to employ Western musical techniques—harmony, counterpoint, etc.—for scoring Arab music, as well as the first to pair traditional instruments like the oud (lute) with their symphonic counterparts.

It is broadly acknowledged that Darwish greatly admired Giuseppe Verdi, and several accounts of the Egyptian’s life tell the tale that he was planning to travel to Italy for further musical study when he met his untimely demise. Internet research turned up the tidbit that he expired from a cocaine overdose, but I could find no corroborating evidence.

Whatever the cause of his death, the loss of Darwish at age 31 could well be the equivalent in the Arab world to the death of Mozart in ours. He became famous for composing operettas—more than 25 were performed during his lifetime—and widely recognized as “the father of modern Egyptian music.” He penned the words and composed the tune to “Bilady, Bilady” [“My Homeland, My Homeland”], which is now the Egyptian national anthem. The musical theater in Alexandria, originally built to host traveling productions from the Cairo Opera House, was ultimately renamed for him. It was restored to its former glory in 2004 with the help of numerous foreign donations. President Hosni Mubarak presided over its rededication ceremony.

Given his interest in melding Eastern and Western music, Darwish composed the opera “Cleopatra and Marc-Antony” for Alexandria. He completed both the Arabic libretto as well as the musical score a few months before his death, but the piece did not reach the stage until 1927.

Earlier this year in Washington, D.C., a concert of Arabic music was given that included several songs written by Sayed Darwish. None of these involved excerpts from his opera, however. It appears that “Cleopatra” has never been recorded, and I was regrettably unsuccessful in locating even an aria from that work on any singer’s CD.

Daoud Hosni (1870–1937) was a Karaite Jew born in Cairo. The descriptive term refers not to an ethnic designation but rather a religious one. It means “Hebrew Scripturalist,” denoting a person “who lives by the Hebrew scriptures without addition or subtraction,” that is, someone who believes only in the teachings of the Old Testament and ignores subsequent material found in the Talmud or Mishnah. At the end of the 19th century, this Egyptian enclave of Jews—primary lower-middle class and engaged in jewelry making, among other similar ventures—was well integrated into the Arab world that surrounded it, identifying much more closely with their Semitic brethren than with their British overseers. As a result, there was a great deal of cultural cross-pollination that included the world of music.

Whereas Darwish’s musical fame came from singing, Hosni’s occurred due to his skill in playing the oud. But as with Darwish, Hosni became best known for his Arabic popular songs, composing more than 500 of them. He too found acclaim on the stage; his operettas were performed in cities throughout the extant Arab world during his lifetime, including Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad. As is generally the case with Westerners, Hosni took the poetic works of other writers and set them to music, rather than creating librettos on his own. His material combined sounds from the Arab souk, the call of the muezzin, and tunes from the Karaitic synagogue that he attended throughout his life.

Unlike other pretenders to the throne, Hosni is recognized as the first person to compose music for an entire opera in Arabic. This was “Samson and Dalila” (libretto by poet Bishara Wakim), first performed at the Egyptian Singing Theater in Cairo at some point between 1910 and the mid-1920s. [Note: Despite extensive research I’ve been unable to discover the exact year in which this debut took place.] According to commentary cited on the Web site “Historical Society of Jews from Egypt”—from which much of this information was borrowed—“critics considered it ‘a unique event in the history of Arabic music.’” He went on to compose other operas as well, including his own version of “Cleopatra,” with a libretto by Dr. Hussein Fawzi. He also collaborated on a three-act opera with two Muslims (Mohamed Kholi and Mohamed el Sonbati), each of whom composed the music for a single act of “Semiramis.”

An interesting circumstance that ties our first two composers together involves the fact that Hosni adapted the Darwish operetta “Hoda” into a full-scale opera, managing to capture Darwish’s musical essence so completely that critics believed the finished product was entirely the work of the Alexandrian.

Although Arabic singers over the past few decades have recorded some of Hosni’s more popular tunes—and several have even been turned into best-selling cell phone ring tones—no recordings apparently exist of either his operas or arias from them. That’s a shame, especially since Fawzi, his librettist for “Cleopatra,” described the Soldier’s Chorus as a “blend of mysticism with the sense of liturgical music.”

Marc Lavry (1903–1967) is recognized as the first composer to have created an opera in Hebrew. Unlike the two composers mentioned above, he enjoyed a successful musical career in Europe before his emigration to the Middle East in 1935. Lavry was born in Riga, Latvia. He studied music at the conservatory there as well as at the more famous one in Leipzig, Germany. From his earliest professional days he was interested in opera, working in the Saarbrücken Opera House in the 1920s as an assistant director and conductor. He moved to Berlin in the late ’20s, advancing to the role of principal conductor for the Berlin Symphony Orchestra in 1929.

When the Nazis gained power in Germany, Lavry returned briefly to Latvia but had the foresight to abandon his homeland prior to World War II, using a tourist visa to gain entry to what was then British Palestine. He started writing music in earnest upon settling permanently in Eretz Yisroel, beginning with the symphonic poem, “Emek” (“Valley”). This piece was the cornerstone of the first world tour taken by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra following statehood in 1948.

Prior to the late 1960s, when widespread industrialization started to exert a much greater economic impact on the country, the kibbutz was Israel’s cultural center. Communal living begat communal child-rearing, and descendants of the original settlers gathered together for more than simply financial reasons. Many places fielded their own acting troupes, chamber ensembles and dance corps. The kibbutz also reinforced the feeling of belonging, particularly for immigrants from dozens of different countries where they were always considered outsiders, no matter how many generations they’d lived there.

While Lavry was not himself a kibbutznik, patriotic feelings for his adopted country certainly predisposed him to an interest in that lifestyle. At some point during the 1940s he decided to create an entire opera in Hebrew and began casting about for a libretto that would exemplify his ideal Israeli setting.

Hebrew theater in British Palestine was generally a function of works translated from other languages. With the influx of refugees from Eastern Europe in the years prior to and during WWII, Yiddish theater was actually much more popular. Interestingly enough, Habimah (The Stage) was begun by Zionists in Russia, moving to Palestine in 1931 to become what is known today as the National Theater. Most of the plays written for this house, all of them in Hebrew, occupied two basic themes—Jewish (generally Biblical) history, and pioneering. One of those plays, “Life in a Kibbutz” by Sh. Shalom (who appears to not have had a true first name, since he is mentioned only this way in all of his Internet citations) attracted Lavry’s attention in a rather roundabout manner.

Max Brod was born in Prague in 1884. He became a music and theater critic there at the beginning of the 20th century, and his close friendship with Franz Kafka motivated him in 1937 to publish a highly regarded biography of the author. He moved to Palestine in 1939 and was named manager of Habima. Brod directed the production of Shalom’s play and, through a mutual friend, eventually learned of Lavry’s interest in finding an appropriate literary vehicle for his first operatic composition. With the playwright’s permission Brod created a two-act libretto, renaming the piece “Dan Ha’Shomer” (“Dan the Guard”) in deference to the main protagonist.

The play itself, as well as the libretto, is best described as a psychological drama. The action takes place exclusively on a (fictional) kibbutz in northern Israel, and two stories are interwoven to form the basic plot. The first is a love triangle involving Dan (baritone) and his new wife Efrat (mezzo), plus her lover and former boyfriend Nachman (tenor). The second is the struggle to keep the kibbutz viable in the face of adversity, from internal conflicts between idealism and realism to external influences such as attacks by robbers. The other main character in the opera, Rabbi Wellwelle (bass), is described as the “conscience of the kibbutz.” Although he is killed in one of those attacks, the opera is said to have a happy ending.

“Dan Ha’Shomer” was commissioned by the KKL, the national organization overseeing agricultural land development. One presumes that they saw the production of this opera as a terrific promotional opportunity for life on a kibbutz, despite the tragedies it portrayed. The opera had its premiere in Tel Aviv in 1945 and was reportedly performed in more than 30 other places over the next year or so before disappearing entirely from the stage.

Marc Lavry went on to compose a number of other classical pieces including an oratorio titled “Song of Songs,” plus other choral works. His “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1” (Op. 201) is available on CD on Doremi, featuring pianist P’nina Salzman and the Israel Philharmonic. Lavry also wrote “Four Wedding Dances” for violin and orchestra that can be found on any number of recording labels, some of which have transcribed the music for piano and orchestra.

His last major project, in 1965, involved composing the musical score for the hour-long U.S. television documentary, “Let My People Go (The Story of Israel).” This was a David L. Wolper production sponsored by Xerox and narrated by none other than stage-and-screen actor Richard Basehart. Lavry died in Haifa in March 1967.

While doing research on Marc Lavry earlier this year, I came across details of this opera in conjunction with Israeli conductor Benny Kedem. After writing to his agent in New York City—Novo Artists—I received a cordial reply from Maestro Kedem as well as a synopsis of the opera, which I’ve drawn on extensively for material in this essay. Kedem apparently rediscovered the work after it had lain dormant for more than 50 years, coming across the hand-written score in the musical archives of the national library at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In his e-mail to me he describes how this happened.

“My personal contact [with] the piece started when I studied at the Jerusalem
music academy. Professor Y. Hirshberg spoke often about the forgotten
piece and initiated my interest in it. A computer-printed piano reduction
and orchestral score of the overture and dance suite is ready for use. A
reproduction of the full score may take [up to] nine months. The manager
of the Israeli Music Institute in Tel Aviv is willing to print the score free of
charge, under condition that there will be [a] full production of the opera.”

An important historical work such as this deserves a chance to be heard. Here’s hoping that Maestro Kedem succeeds in convincing some person or entity to underwrite the project and help him realize his vision. For that matter, the same could be wished for Darwish’s “Cleopatra” and Hosni’s “Samson.” Am I the only person who thinks that a three-opera U.S. premiere—one by a Muslim in Arabic, one by a Jew in Arabic, and one by a Jew in Hebrew—could go a long way to bridging the cultural gap in the Middle East?

Ah, well—at least one can dream.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

It’s Hard Out There for an Opera Singer

Two events this past holiday weekend (as a note to my non-U.S. readers, it was Memorial Day last Monday) here in the Denver area provided an interesting contrast between amateur and professional participants.

For runners it was the Bolder Boulder, an annual 10K road race that attracts more than 40,000 participants to the home of the University of Colorado, 30 miles northwest of downtown Denver. Few of them are professionals, with minimal cash prizes (US$3000 or so) for each winner in the categories of fastest man, woman, wheelchair-man and wheelchair-woman. Winning times are typically in the 30-40 minute range, about the same amount of time it takes to drive from my house to the race site. But with that many people jamming the town that's tucked up against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains (Boulder—elevation 5400 feet, or 1650 meters), anyone not connected with the Bolder Boulder is advised to stay away for the day.

For opera goers it was a dual program at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. This year, director Kenneth Cox (Lamont Opera Theatre) set various opera scenes on both Friday evening and Sunday afternoon—a different program each day—within the intimate surroundings of the college’s Hamilton Recital Hall.

The DU campus, located in the residential heart of south Denver, has changed considerably over the past few years. A new business school (named for cable TV mogul Bill Daniels) and an even newer performing arts center have joined the ice rink and a general-purpose sports facility as the newest big buildings in that neck o’ the woods. Lots of commercial rebuilding has helped to revitalize the neighborhood as well, including the razing of a corner property that used to house The Best Damned Shoe Store (Don Q’s Walk Shoppe) in Denver. Fortunately, my favorite hot dog place—Mustard’s Last Stand—continues to serve up Chicago-style Vienna wieners with aplomb, as well as the best French fries in town.

The one-city-block-square Newman Center for the Performing Arts boasts several venues within its homey surroundings. Along with the auditorium on the main floor and the rehearsal rooms in the basement, the recital hall is a cozy place to hear music. Including the abbreviated balcony that rings three-quarters of the wood-paneled room, I’m guessing that the place holds barely more than a hundred seats. Even standing at the rear of the room, one is a mere 12-15 rows from the stage. It’s a great place for solo and small ensemble performances, although I can’t imagine anyone cranking up to full volume the pipe organ that dominates the area just above the stage. This is also the room where the Denver Lyric Opera Guild has put on several of its competitions—although not this year’s edition—and a much more pleasing venue than the church where the Met tryouts are held.

Listening regularly to recordings of professional opera singers—world-famous ones in most cases—and attending professional productions has a tendency to make one forget how difficult it is to be an opera singer. Whether it’s Anna Moffo’s seemingly effortless Madama Butterfly, Shirley Verrett’s mysterious Selika (from “L’Africaine”) or Joan Sutherland’s pitch-perfect Norma, it’s pretty easy to fall into that “oh, it’s not so hard” trap. Even singers well past their prime perform far better than the average Cosmo-drinking sports-bar aficionado, not that there’s much chance of locating a place that features opera karaoke—or even public-domain karaoke, as fans of TV’s “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” might recall with fondness.

It was with minimal trepidation that my wife and I walked into Hamilton Hall last Friday evening. After all, we knew that Ken Cox had a reputation for putting on a good show (the student production we attended last spring of Nicolai’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” was lively, well-performed and delightful), and the singers were all college students on an operatic career track, studying at the region’s top music school.

Boy, were we wrong.

Regular readers of this blog know that I generally subscribe to the policy of “if you don’t have something nice to say about whatever, don’t say (or write) it.” So it is with a heavy heart that I report on what was perhaps the rankest amateur opera performance I’ve ever had the misfortune to witness.

The program was decidedly weak, a disappointment to anyone who might have hoped otherwise. I didn’t show up expecting to see the sleepwalking scene from Verdi’s “Macbeth” (or even the one from Bellini’s “La Sonnambula”) or the sextet from Donizetti’s “Lucia.” But with literally hundreds of opera scenes from which to choose—including singer-friendly selections from “Marriage of Figaro,” “La Boheme,” or pretty much anything by Massenet—the Lamont School made selections from the following works:

1) The Magic Flute (Mozart)—These were the only scenes on the program not sung in English. The fact that I’m not particularly fond of this opera certainly contributed to my lack of enjoyment. I suppose it was a good thing that Cox didn’t choose the Queen of the Night’s famous aria. Although it’s probably the most compelling music in the opera, the general level of talent on display would have made it almost too painful to endure. The three spirits spent plenty of time clowning around on the stage but their wrong notes, sour notes and lack of breath control clearly showed that being actors who sing requires a whole lot more talent than simply standing in place and belting out the notes, which I also doubt they would have done satisfactorily.

2) The Consul (Menottti)—I don’t know what Gian Carlo was on when he wrote this piece of dreck, but one can hardly believe that the same composer also wrote the sublimely beautiful “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” The audience was treated to more antic, unprofessional singing—this time by a larger ensemble—and the fact that the clearly awful character of The Magician had an equally awful voice made the scene nearly unwatchable as well as unlistenable.

3) Hansel und Gretel (Humperdinck)—This Christmastime chestnut, dragged out before unsuspecting audiences as a “children’s opera” but with little to redeem it beyond its nursery-rhyme storyline (I’d much rather my children see “Faust,” to be quite frank), the two totally forgettable title singers performed a mismatched duet followed by the “sandman” scene. I was hoping that the Sandman was a mute role, but no such luck. The only saving grace was the fact that Hansel (or was it Gretel?) had such a weak voice that one could barely hear her beyond the sixth row. Regrettably, we were in the fourth row.

4) Martha (Flotow)—“The Last Rose of Summer” from Act II is a gorgeous piece of music. I have a CD where Leontyne Price does such an amazing job that the listener wishes the song would never end. Thankfully the directors selected an entirely different scene, leaving that memory intact, unsullied by an abysmal performance. The trio featured here did seem to go on forever—but not in a good way—and left no doubt in my mind why “Martha” is rarely if ever performed.

5) On the Town (Bernstein)—Sorry, but this is NOT an opera, just as Sondheim’s Broadway musical about a murderous barber is NOT an opera. Although there was one standout voice among the nine singers in this ensemble—a brunette mezzo with a well-trained voice and plenty of stage presence—the selections were pretty much of a muddle. One scene involved Madame acting as a voice teacher for the other females on stage. Each student in turn sings a scale under the old gal’s tutelage. Having never seen this musical, I assumed that the notes these women warble at the beginning of the scene are intentionally sung off-key to show that their teacher is working with a bunch of amateurs. But the sour notes continued throughout the rest of the performance, so I guess it wasn’t part of the act after all.

As each group left the stage my wife muttered under her breath, “Don’t quit your day job.” After hearing this two or three times I turned and gently reminded her that these were college students, so this WAS their day job. “Oh, right,” she replied grumpily.

As often as we have attended vocal competitions, we’re certainly used to hearing the occasional challenged singer. But there are some significant differences between these two groups. First, participants in either the Denver Lyric or Metropolitan Opera contests are generally mid-20s or older. These students were likely half a decade younger at the lower end of that spectrum. Second, no matter how nerve-wracking it might be to stand alone on stage, gripping the corner of the piano with one hand and gesturing indiscriminately with other while singing an aria you’ve done hundreds of times for your voice coach, it’s a whole ’nother story to interact with one or more other singers, move around on stage and make sense of what you’re doing, plus hit every note and pronounce every word clearly (unless you’re the aforementioned Sutherland, of course).

Despite the apparent youth of the singers last Friday, I had to constantly remind myself that these were college students. The collective quality of their voices brought to mind even more amateurish high school performances, hardly acceptable from a school that bills itself as the top music-learning institution in the Rocky Mountain region.

As far as the Sunday afternoon concert was concerned…I just couldn’t do it.

Instead I stayed home and watched the Chicago Cubs fall behind early to the Atlanta Braves, only to rally late and come up short by losing 12-11. Hey, at least THAT I expected.

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