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Friday, January 20, 2006

One Down, 87 to Go?

When agreeing to take on a task, even a self-assigned one, it’s often wise to consider all the angles before beginning it. For example, after deciding to hike the Appalachian Trail from Point A to Point B, it’s probably a good idea to make sure that you've packed the proper gear—sturdy hiking boots, rainwear, a canteen, etc.

Similarly when one wishes to look into the lives and works of 19th century opera composers, all of whom happen to have been born in Italy, being able to actually READ Italian is probably a good idea. Umm, did I forget to mention that I practically don’t read Italian at all?

Nonetheless I remain undaunted—not to mention endlessly entertained by the online “insta-translation” tools available to the erstwhile Web researcher. Some of the English phrases rendered by having Google automatically translate from Italian (or, in several instances, French) were hilarious; that is, when they were even remotely comprehensible.

My first subject, if for no other reason than I happened to be on the “L” page while doing some off-topic research on Israeli opera composer Marc Lavry (more on him later, I hope), is Giuseppe Lillo. Here’s what I’ve pieced together about Signore Lillo.

He was born in 1814 in Lecce and studied with several well-known teachers. The most prominent of them was Niccolo Zingarelli, who composed more than 40 baroque-era operas at the end of the 1700s. OperaGlass credits Lillo with having written 17 operas, although one does not have a confirmed date of debut. By far his greatest number of works—eleven of the sixteen—premiered in Naples. Most of those were written for the Teatro San Carlo.

His most propitiously timed opera was “Rosamunda in Ravenna,” selected to open the 1837 season in Venice upon the occasion of the rededication of La Fenice after it had burned down the previous year. Is this the most aptly named opera house in the world, or what?

The opera “Il Conte di Chalais” from 1839 boasts a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, best known for his “Lucia” libretto for Donizetti plus an early draft for Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” which he couldn’t complete because he inauspiciously kicked the bucket. Lillo also wrote “Caterina Howard” in 1849, yet another composer hoping to capitalize on the operatic popularity of queens of England.

By all accounts—the few that I could actually understand—it appears that Lillo’s crowning achievement was “L’osteria di Andujar” [The Tavern of Andujar], a comic opera that debuted in 1840 Naples. It appears to have enjoyed a number of performances over the following several years and was favorably compared to Auber’s “Fra Diavolo,” not the least of which because they shared similar settings in fifth century Spain. The libretto was written by Leopoldo Tarantini, a prominent poet of his day who was better known for penning a number of art-song lyrics set to music by Donizetti.

In 1849, the Italian composer Spontini invited Lillo to stay with him in Paris, where the latter reportedly rubbed elbows with the top opera composers of the day: Auber, Halevy, Meyerbeer, etc. But for reasons unstated he returned to Naples “after but a few months” and never again left his native country. His final two operas premiered in 1853, after which he “retired” at the age of 41 to devote himself to writing piano music and chamber songs. He suffered some sort of mental crisis in 1860, was committed to an asylum at Averso that same year, and died in confinement in 1863.

It should be noted that, back in those days, attending an opera in Italy was the rough entertainment equivalent of going to the movies. The main difference involved the fact that only the more exceptional operas had “legs” enough to attain popularity beyond the theatres for which they were originally commissioned. Also, with so many composers churning out operas—in his diaries, Meyerbeer writes of seeing premieres of new operas four or five nights a week “during the season” while living in Venice—there was always something new to experience. Except for productions that truly captured the public’s attention, buying a ticket to see something that had debuted the previous year was about as appealing then as watching summer reruns on television is today.

Interestingly, none of my research turns up performances of his operas that took place after his death. This seems to bear out the fact where, as is often the case with painters—except for the highly spectacular ones—the interest in their work dies with them. One has to wonder if autograph copies of his scores reside in some Lillo-based museum, or perhaps within the Teatro San Carlo archives and, that being the case, in what form they might be for purposes of revival.

Opera Rara offers a Lillo piece on its CD “Il Sibillo,” a collection of art songs published in a popular Neapolitan musical journal of the same name (it means “The Whisper”) that featured sheet music of a single song in every new edition. In a way it’s the vocal equivalent of the 1960s French quarterly “XX Siècle” that bound an unsigned original lithograph by a Parisian artist into every over-the-counter issue. But other than this song (which I have not heard, as this is one Opera Rara CD I don’t own), I’ve not found anything else written by Lillo that’s been recorded.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Local (Denver) Kudos

I could not let another day go by without providing some serious “shout-outs” to local Denver people and institutions that help make the opera experience a better one for those of us fortunate enough to live in the Rocky Mountain West.

On one hand I get jealous reading other opera-based blogs, since so many of them are New York City-centric. The opportunity to run out any given night and catch an opera performance here or there sounds like heaven to me. On the other hand, I think about what that kind of impulsiveness would do to my bank balance, and the jealousy magically disappears.

Living out here in Flyover Land, our options are somewhat limited. Opera Colorado does three productions a season—usually in November, March and April. They’re often close to sold out, especially now that they’ve moved into brand-new digs. Central City Opera does three productions every summer, much better attended since (a) the 19th-century opera house at elevation 8500 feet has new, comfier seats and (b) they’re doing operas in their original languages with SuperTitles, rather than singing everything in English.

That’s pretty much it for professional companies in this neck o’ the woods, although there are some semi-professional and college productions that can be pretty interesting. For example, the University of Colorado (Boulder) usually does one opera a year, in English, as does the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver. There's also a new theater on campus, by the way, with terrific sightlines and excellent acoustics. Last fall, Lamont did a fairly credible job with Nicolai’s “Merry Wives of Windsor.”

Thankfully there is a gentleman in the neighborhood who’s seriously plugged in to the Colorado opera scene. Once a week he updates his Web site and sends out delightful, full-page bulletins via e-mail that let all of us know what’s coming up. Mr. Charles Ralph runs Opera Pronto as a labor of love, and it is this man to whom I wish to extend Kudo No. 1 today.

Not only is his newsletter a terrific resource for opera listeners, but he also provides valuable information to and about singers in the region. Need to know about upcoming auditions? Charles has the contact details, times and dates. Need to find a last-minute fill-in for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem? He can point you in the right direction. He also files “local singer makes good” reports, which keeps those of us who’ve seen Colorado-based performers in local productions or voice competitions up to date on what they’re doing, and where. The latest “golden boy” is Charles Taylor, who won the Met Regionals a couple years back and has been doing well on the New York stage and elsewhere.

Kudo No. 2 is shared by four worthy sponsors, the aforementioned Opera Colorado and Central City Opera, plus KVOD-FM and the Denver Public Library. These institutions jointly offer a program titled “Opera 101,” which previews upcoming professional performances in the area. On the first Tuesday of the month during opera season, guest lecturers give an hour-long talk on the opera in question. Several hundred people show up—and pleasantly, many of them are under 50, which is an encouraging sign for the future. Last Tuesday, Opera Colorado’s Peter Russell presented an analysis of Bellini’s “Norma,” which will be performed by his company in February. As always Mr. Russell’s presentation was highly entertaining, as he not only synopsized the opera and pointed out key dramatic elements, but also gave the audience a feel for the era in which this work was introduced. On some occasions—although this was not one of them—live singers, mostly students, offer arias from the opera under discussion. Other times we are treated to audio and video clips of famous performances. At the end of the evening, anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes is reserved for questions from the audience, and before dismissal a drawing is held for a pair of tickets to one of the performances of that opera.

Despite the passage of several local bond issues over the past few years, the beginning of 2006 has seen a severe reduction in library hours. As recently as three years ago, all branch libraries in the Denver system were open six days a week, and the main library at 13th and Broadway was open every day. Now, every library is on a five-day, 40-hour-per-week schedule, which is both disappointing and inconvenient. Nonetheless, the fact that the downtown library donates the space and the equipment to put on these Opera 101 programs is heartening.

Participation by KVOD is equally appreciated. A few years ago, this stalwart of the Denver FM airwaves was one of the last privately held stations in the country to provide 100 percent classical music programming. On the verge of being sold, the format was saved by cleaving it to the local NPR all-news outlet, which switched to the AM band. For one season we had to endure listening to the Met broadcasts on some podunk radio station way out on the Eastern Plains, but now they’re firmly entrenched on KVOD-FM every Saturday afternoon, just like the old days.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Eighty-eight Italian Opera Composers

The essay by my friend Stephen Agus (“Hegemony of the Mundane”—see post below) has prompted me to do a little research. I thought I’d begin by sharing the early fruits of that labor before jumping into a more in-depth analysis that will logically take two distinct paths.

The gist of the discussion involves reviving operas that have not been performed in decades or, in some cases, not even in the last (twentieth) century. As founder and president of the Meyerbeer Fan Club, Agus is understandably anxious to see his favorite composer’s operas performed regularly. Having come to enjoy them immensely through exposure via CD and DVD, I concur.

The first option would be to select lesser-known works by well-known composers. Within the French repertoire, that might include “Les Pecheurs des Perles” by Bizet and “La Reine de Saba” by Gounod. In the Italian repertoire, that could include “Zaza” by Leoncavallo, “Mose in Egitto” by Rossini and “Giovanna d’Arco” by Verdi.

The second option would involve reconstituting works by composers unknown to modern-day operagoers, and it is this thought that caused me to do some Internet spelunking this past Friday.

Stanford University hosts a Web site that is amazing in its coverage of opera. One of the features of OperaGlass is the alphabetical listing of something like 4800 opera composers. Yes, forty-eight hundred! Not only does this site provide name, birth date and place, and date of death and place, but also a list of each composer’s operas, plus the year and location where that work had its premiere. There are plenty of holes in the data, especially for composers in the baroque era. But I can’t even begin to imagine how they compiled this thing; it seems like such a monumental task.

Nonetheless, I’m grateful that it exists—and I used it to some considerable advantage.

One cannot start a research project without a plan—arbitrary as it may seem—so my plan involved looking at Italian opera composers who worked during the 19th century. Additional criteria was minimal, except for the fact that (a) they had to be outside the mainstream, and (b) they had to have composed more than just a couple of operas.

My list totals 88 composers who fit that profile: alphabetically from Salvatore Agnelli (1817–1874) to Vincenzo Valente (1855–1921). Because of my familiarity with Opera Rara and its penchant for recording “neglected” operas from this era, I recognize some of the names and even own a few of their operas on CD. Composers most likely to be familiar to readers of this blog (presuming there are any, of course) would include Franco Alfano [who completed “Turandot” after Puccini’s death], Alberto Franchetti [famous for having been beaten out by Puccini for a shot at setting “Tosca” to music] and Temistocle Solera [known more as a librettist, notably for early Verdi works such as “Nabucco” and “I Lombardi”].

Time permitting I look forward to piecing together biographical data on as many of these 88 composers as I can. Although I’m far from a musical scholar, it should be interesting to see what the Internet has to say about them—other than simply a listing of their compositions, of course.

In a discussion many years ago with a friend of mine who played something like eighth-chair violin in the Cleveland Orchestra, he said “most compositions considered obscure today have got that way for a reason.” At the time his comment made sense. But having spent the past several years listening to some simply marvelous yet rarely performed operas I’ve found on CD—some of which are their only recorded legacy—that remark seems, well, ridiculous.

More to come…

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Posting Comments

If I were smarter or more computer-savvy, or both, I'd be able to figure out my minor dilemma. For anyone who cares to post a comment on this blog, simply click on the timestamp at the end of a particular entry, which will then bring forth the "comment" feature. Sorry for whatever inconvenience this extra step entails.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

“Hegemony of the Mundane”

Much of today’s post is derived from an essay written by Stephen Agus, founder of the Meyerbeer Fan Club, of which I am a proud member. This material is reprinted here with the permission of the author. Mr. Agus’ words are offset by quotes—and the title above is his as well.

The gist of his essay reflects on the fact that the operas of Meyerbeer and, by extension, those of similar grand masters, have been sadly neglected over the past decades. It is a concept well worth pondering.

“We always hear people saying,” Mr. Agus writes, “that there is nothing worthwhile on television, [that] most of the movies we see are terrible, and that most popular novels are terribly written [Ed.: John Grisham’s books spring immediately to mind].

“But when we do take time out to look at 19th century fiction and art, or listen to 19th century music, we are amazed at the beauty and the power of that culture…to entertain, to teach and to mesmerize us.

“But…atrophy has set in, one that we continue to witness [in] our concert halls and opera houses. The music of Meyerbeer is absent. It is now nearly thirty years since a single note from the pen of Meyerbeer has been sung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York [Ed.: Unless I’m mistaken the last work was “Le Prophete,” with Marilyn Horne as Fidés]. The New York City Opera has never performed a Meyerbeer opera. Instead, our opera houses feature the same operas, year after year. To freshen things up, ‘new productions’ of the same operas may sometimes appear. To blunt complaints from patrons who are tired of the same old fare, here and there a ‘different’ opera may be offered for a limited number of performances.

“We don’t need to see ‘La Traviata’ for the 31st time—and certainly not at the Met in a multi-million-dollar production. ‘Boheme,’ ‘Butterfly,’ ‘Aida,’ ‘Pagliacci’ and ‘Barber of Seville’—they stay on as the core group of what I call the ‘Hegemony of the Mundane.’ …these are great operas with great music, but they are worn and tired like an old record that [is] played too often. Five years without any of them will freshen them greatly; ten years will be good reason to revive them!”

No American opera company would abandon entirely the list of “mundane” operas. Because money makes the world go ’round—as Kurt Weill once set to music—standard-repertoire works pay most of the bills. For example, one of the most successful Opera Colorado seasons ever—ticket sales were reported to be 98 percent of available seats—included the aforementioned “Boheme” and “Traviata, with the third choice that year “Nozze.” One can hardly get more mainstream than that.

But the argument that Mr. Agus makes has serious merit, especially for those of us who listen to recordings of lesser known operas and have come to love them. Two years ago the Met staged “La Juive” for the first time since 1936. Neil Shicoff’s performance of Eleazar—the role was a reprise for him of a Vienna opera production from 2000 that has since been captured on DVD—received great critical praise, as did the opera itself.

“Neil Shicoff (…) born in Brooklyn has broken the spell. In recent years, this veteran tenor has found new solidity in his singing and acting, and with “La Juive” he is having the triumph of his career.”
The New Yorker, Alex Ross, November 24, 2003

“…a strong cast led by Neil Shicoff – in the performance of his life… Shicoff acted with magnificent restraint and sang with focused passion as Eléazar. He deservedly stopped the opera with “Rachel, Quand du Seigneur”.
Financial Times, Martin Bernheimer, November 11, 2003

“Mr. Shicoff deserved the frenzied ovation he received, not just for his performance but for prodding his hometown company into bringing back this worthy opera.”
The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini, November 8, 2003

Not everyone was as buoyant. From the New York Magazine review by Peter G. Davis:

“Director Günter Krämer and designer Gottfried Pilz apparently subscribe to [the] theory [that that Nazis and the Holocaust are solely responsible for suppressing a once-popular opera about a fanatical fifteenth-century Jewish goldsmith and his Christian oppressors], since they have stripped “La Juive” down to the barest essentials and updated the action, doing the opera few favors. Instead of the Swiss-German city of Constance in 1414, we seem to be in a pre–World War II Central European town. The split stage shows us the glittery salon of Prince Léopold looming over the dark, ghetto-like home of Eléazar and his daughter, Rachel, whose affair with Léopold leads to her execution and Eléazar’s sensational disclosure that she is in fact the long-lost daughter of Cardinal Brogni. Turning “La Juive” into an opera purely about identity politics is a big mistake. Halévy was no Verdi, and even with major cuts his music simply isn’t strong enough to sustain a questionable production concept over an evening that still lasts four hours.”

I’m generally a person who despises cuts, especially the kind Mr. Davis apparently expects. The sort of butchery evinced in many grand opera productions over the past 20-30 years and memorialized on CD—I refer specifically to the 1968 Myto recording of Meyerbeer’s “Roberto il Diavolo” in which even the liner notes savage the cuts made by the conductor—are oftentimes responsible for the disdain the general public holds for the work. It’s akin to chopping whole chapters out of “Moby Dick” simply because the editor presumes that a modern audience wouldn’t bother to read all those pages. Someone unfamiliar with the novel in its unabridged version would read the trimmed-down one and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Having gone off on something of a tangent, tomorrow I’ll follow up on Mr. Agus’ premise and make some suggestions for operas that should be revived, and why. Feel free to post your own suggestions here as well.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Eighty million???
Opera vs. Broadway

A story in my local daily newspaper on January 3, 2006, (the "Denver Post") reported that “Phantom of the Opera” was poised to pass “Cats” as the most performed musical ever on Broadway, with something close to 7500 performances. What shocked me more was learning from the same article that “Phantom” has played before an estimated 80 million people worldwide.

Don’t get me wrong—I have nothing against Broadway musicals. Although I’ve never actually seen one ON Broadway (or anywhere in NYC for that matter—New York is strictly for the Met, New York City Opera, and maybe OONY), my wife and I once took a trip to Minneapolis to see the musical, “Titanic.” We also saw “Guys and Dolls” in Denver at the old Auditorium Theatre. In high school I sang in the chorus in both “Brigadoon” and “Music Man.” And I don’t find anything objectionable about the music in “Evita” (high praise indeed, eh?).

Given all that, I’m appalled that “Phantom” has done so well while mainstream opera struggles. Let’s think about 80 million for a sec, shall we?

Puccini’s “La Boheme” has been around since 1896. Arguably it’s the most often-performed opera around the world, don’t you think? If the average theater holds 2000 patrons and was sold out for every performance, it would require slightly more than one performance a day anywhere in the world for the entire 109 years this opera has been in existence—actually 366-point-something performances per annum—to reach the 80 million mark.

Is that likely? I’m inclined to say yes, but it’s a staggering number just the same. Some researcher with more time than I on his or her hands will have to pass judgment on this concept, I’m afraid.

The appalling part in all this involves the sheer number of folks who’ve been bitten by the Andrew Lloyd Webber bug. The aforementioned “Evita” aside, all I can say is: yuck. Such insipid music; so many lame lyrics—and such crappy stories. With all the novels Victor Hugo wrote upon which opera librettos were based (“Rigoletto” being the best by far), is it any wonder that “Phantom” languished for decades until set for Broadway? I admit that there are some pretty lame story lines out there in opera-land. One that springs to mind is Verdi’s “Ernani,” where the premise involves the hero of the story promising to kill himself if ever the father of his beloved blows some trumpet. Oh, please!! And what do you know, THAT story is from a Hugo novel, too! And don’t even get me started on “Le Miz.”

When I started writing this post, I was hoping to come up with some notable conclusion or to dazzle my readers (both of them) with a brilliant analysis of the situation. But I guess this will have to stand alone as nothing more than a rant—not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. Meanwhile…80 million? I just don’t get it.

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