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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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