Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘opera’

Photo: Robert Kato Lionel/New York Public Library.
Early opera recordings on wax cylinders 1900–1904, recorded by Lionel Mapleson.

I recently finished reading an excellent biography of Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight, Moon and many other delightful children’s titles you probably would recognize. At the end of a life cut short by a blood clot in a foreign hospital (her dates are 1910 to 1952), she was experimenting with a wire recorder to make records of her stories and poems.

That took me back, for sure, as my father also was experimenting with a wire recorder around that time. All I have left of his experiments is a record, transferred years later to a cassette tape, called “The Birth of Willie” — me with a squeaky voice and an unfamiliar accent and my first brother, also squeaky, responding to the news of a new sibling. What a miracle that wire recorder once seemed!

It wasn’t the first such device, though. In today’s story we learn about recordings once made on wax.

Jennifer Vanasco reports at National Public Radio, “Before audio playlists, before cassette tapes and even before records, there were wax cylinders — the earliest, mass-produced way people could both listen to commercial music and record themselves.

“In the 1890s, they were a revolution. People slid blank cylinders onto their Edison phonographs (or shaved down the wax on commercial cylinders) and recorded their families, their environments, themselves.

“When I first started here, it was a format I didn’t know much about,’ said Jessica Wood, assistant curator for music and recorded sound at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. …

‘It became my favorite format, because there’s so many unknowns and it’s possible to discover things that haven’t been heard since they were recorded.’

“They haven’t been heard because the wax is so fragile. The earliest, putty-colored cylinders deteriorate after only a few dozen listens if played on the Edison machines; they crack if you hold them too long in your hand. And because the wax tubes themselves were unlabeled, many of them remain mysteries. …

” ‘They could be people’s birthday parties,’ Wood said. … ‘I really hope for people’s birthday parties.’

“She’s particularly curious about a box of unlabeled cylinders she found on a storage shelf in 2016. All she knows about them is what was on the inside of the box: Gift of Mary Dana to the New York Public Library in 1935.

“Enter the Endpoint Cylinder and Dictabelt Machine, invented by Californian Nicholas Bergh, which recently was acquired by the library. Thanks to the combination of its laser and needle, it can digitize even broken or cracked wax cylinders — and there are a lot of those. But Bergh said, the design of the cylinder, which makes it fragile, is also its strength.

” ‘Edison thought of this format as a recording format, almost like like a cassette machine,’ Bergh said. ‘That’s why the format is a [cylinder]. It’s very, very hard to do on a disc. And that’s also why there’s so much great material on wax cylinder that doesn’t exist on disc, like field recorded cylinders, ethnographic material, home recordings, things like that.’

“One of those important collections owned by the library is … a collection recorded by Lionel Mapleson, the Metropolitan Opera’s librarian at the turn of the last century. Mapleson recorded rehearsals and performances — it’s the only way listeners can hear pre-World War I opera singers with a full orchestra. …

“[Bob Kosovsky, a librarian in the music and recorded sound division] said that some of the stars sing in ways no contemporary opera singer would sing. ‘And that gives us a sort of a keyhole into what things were like then. … It’s a way of opening our minds to hear what other possibilities exist.’

“It will take the library a couple years to digitize all its cylinders. But when they’re through, listeners all over the country should be able to access them from their home computers, opening a window to what people sounded like and thought about over 100 years ago.”

More at NPR, here.

Read Full Post »

Photo: Russ Rowland/Heartbeat Opera.
Professional opera singers Kelly Griffin and Derrell Acon perform with incarcerated singers for Heartbeat Opera’s production of Fidelio in a dress rehearsal at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Positive things happen when punishment for people who have committed crimes doesn’t negate their basic humanity. That’s why I like posting stories about enlightened systems (see Norway’s successful rehabilitation process, here) and programs that bring the arts inside the walls.

Anastasia Tsioulcas reported recently at National Public Radio (NPR) about an unusual production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, the story of a man who has been imprisoned for political reasons.

“A group of enterprising artists has found a way to bring Fidelio, quite literally, into today’s incarceration system — and to bring the voices of those men and women to the stage.

“In this updated version of Fidelio staged by New York City’s Heartbeat Opera, the main character is Stan, a Black Lives Matter activist who has been thrown into solitary confinement. His wife, Leah, tries to rescue him. The music is still sung in German, but the spoken parts are in English.

“In person, this production is small: there’s just a handful each of instrumentalists and singers on stage at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. … But this production is a much larger effort, notes Ethan Heard, who is a co-founder and artistic director of Heartbeat Opera.

” ‘I revisited the story and was just so struck by the idea of a wrongfully incarcerated man and this amazing woman, his wife, who infiltrates the prison where she believes he’s been kept. And it felt like an opera we could really update for a contemporary American version,’ Heard says.

“Heartbeat first staged its version of Fidelio in 2018 [then updated it] to reflect certain events of the past couple of years, from the nation’s racial reckoning to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

“Stan has been jailed by the corrupt prison governor Pizarro [who exhorts] his cronies to ‘stand back and stand by’ as he plots Stan’s murder. A senior guard, Roc — who is Black himself — comes to wrestle with his position in the system. …

“The emotional apex of any version of Fidelio is a scene in which the prisoners are allowed a brief outing into the fresh air, exulting in a passing moment that feels just a little bit like freedom.

“In thinking about that scene, Heard and co-musical director Daniel Schlosberg hit upon a much larger idea that spoke to what they really wanted this production to address: mass incarceration in America.

“They connected with an old friend of Schlosberg: Amanda Weber, a prison choir director in Minnesota. She in turn helped put them in touch with other such groups. As a result, in Heartbeat’s production, singers from six prison musical groups — a mix of over 100 men and women who are incarcerated as well as about 70 community volunteers — are the ones singing the ‘Prisoners’ Chorus.’

“The groups are the Oakdale Community Choir in Iowa; KUJI Men’s Chorus, UBUNTU Men’s Chorus and HOPE Thru Harmony Women’s Choir in Ohio; East Hill Singers in Kansas; and the group Weber leads, Voices of Hope in Minnesota. …

“Schlosberg says that this moment in the opera [is] some of the most gorgeous music ever written for chorus in an opera, and that is the center, both emotionally and musically. Everything about this piece kind of comes from there.’

“In order to make this collaboration happen, the Heartbeat team had to earn the trust of the singers in prison. Michael Powell is one of those chorus members; he’s also known by the name Black. He was formerly incarcerated in Ohio, at Marion Correctional, and sang in the KUJI Men’s Chorus there. Above all, Black says, they didn’t want to be used as a prop. …

‘When Danny and Ethan came in, it was like the quick feel-out process — let’s see what’s going on there because we don’t want to feel exploited in any way. We already get exploited enough.’

“Derrell Acon is the associate artistic director of Heartbeat. In Fidelio, he sings the role of Roc. Acon says that opera can be a great vehicle for addressing and reflecting social movements. …

” ‘I’m someone who has been impacted by the carceral system. I have a sibling who was incarcerated. … This is not actually a mechanism for justice, but rather revenue,’ Acon continues, referring to the use of privatized prisons. ‘It sits on the backs of Black and brown people.’ …

“Black, the singer from the KUJI men’s chorus, was released from prison in 2020. He’s now the director of outreach and new initiatives for a small non-profit in Columbus, Ohio, Healing Broken Circles, which works with people touched by the justice system. …

” ‘If you really want to try to impact lives or if you care anything about prison justice reform or any of those things,’ Black says, ‘support the arts going into those prisons and support the community coming out of prison.’ ” More at NPR, here.

Music heals. And in case you missed it, see also what music can do for people in a bomb shelter, here.

Read Full Post »

Photo: Warner Brothers.
Bugs Bunny.

My husband was watching the Met’s Götterdämmerung around 4:30 this morning, so naturally I was reminded of Looney Tunes. Really. Bugs Bunny and the gang provided the best introduction to opera anywhere.

An article by Jaime Weinman at the Walrus (excerpted from his book Anvils, Mallets and Dynamite: The Unauthorized Biography of Looney Tunes) reflects on the durability of the Warner Brothers series.

“I grew up in a period when it seemed normal that a child born in 1976 would prefer to spend his Saturday morning watching cartoons from the 1940s and ’50s. A lot of the people I know enjoyed the same experience. Why did several generations watch old Looney Tunes alongside new work and actually prefer the stuff made before they were born? It was partly a historical accident caused by television’s demand for endless material at a relatively high cost. …

“Every television station required was a supply of preexisting content, something that might cost money to run but not to produce. The broadcasting rights for pre-1948 Warner Bros. cartoons weren’t very expensive, and the show was far better than most of the programming available for the same price.

“So part of Looney Tunes’ enduring success reflects the simple power of money. They were made for the big screen, and while they weren’t lavishly budgeted compared to the cartoons of Disney, they had much more time and per-unit money than television cartoons. On television, the Looneys were up against shows that had to turn out twenty-two minutes per week and looked like it. … Looney Tunes seemed edgier and freer than the new material. …

“However much kids loved watching Looney Tunes, the cartoons never got the credit they deserved. There hasn’t been much mainstream film criticism about them. When they were being made, they were almost totally ignored by all but two critics: James Agee and Manny Farber. Later, after the cartoons started appearing on TV, younger critics got interested. …

“The case has sometimes been made for the great Looney Tunes characters as underdogs, but it’s never a convincing case because the characters aren’t actually struggling against anything. They seldom have to try hard: as long as it’s funny, they can produce a weapon out of nowhere, and the most horrific acts of violence cause them no stronger reaction than irritation. In a more serious comedy, the characters feel an exaggerated version of what we might feel in their shoes, whether anger, fear, or determination. We can’t usually identify much with a Looney Tunes character because we know that nothing has consequences for them. …

“Bill Scott, who co-wrote cartoons at Warner Bros. for several years and then moved to [United Productions of America, the cartoon studio usually considered the most artistic and ambitious] said that ‘the kiss of death at UPA was to be considered a Warner Brothers writer.’ Looney Tunes writers, he added, were dismissed as ‘clothesline gag’ writers, for whom a story was just a cheap, insubstantial way to support the gags.

“That description wasn’t exactly wrong. If Warner Bros. creators have a choice between telling a joke and giving the film a consistent style, they’ll almost always choose the joke. …

“Warner Bros. cartoons had arguably the best soundtracks in American film comedy. Mel Blanc, who voiced all the important recurring characters except Elmer Fudd, was so essential to the studio that he became the first voice actor ever to get credit for short cartoons; composer Carl Stalling, who essentially invented the art of animated movie music when he worked for Disney, spent most of his career at Warner Bros., working closely with the directors (and sound effects wizard Treg Brown) to set a tempo for all the animated action and make sure that the sounds and movements complemented each other perfectly. The result of all this is a series where the dialogue has the wise-guy tone and fast pace of radio comedy, the music is funny, the animation is funny, the sound effects are funny, and none of them ever do something that’s redundant. …

“Like music, the laughs come from timing and rhythm. The gag is divided into three basic beats: Bugs hands the firecracker to the parrot; the firecracker explodes; the smoke clears, showing the ashen but otherwise unharmed bird. This all happens in just a few seconds, but each of these beats is held just long enough for it to play properly.” More at the Walrus, here.

To return to where I started today, here are a few online reviews of the Looney Tunes opera themes.

On “What’s Opera, Doc?” … “Elmer Fudd becomes the hero of Siegfried as he woos Brunhilde (played by Bugs Bunny in drag–if a rabbit can be in drag). This is a classic animated feature with full orchestration. It integrates the eternal effort of Elmer to kill the wabbit while repeatedly falling for the smart alecky rodent. The singing, of course, is quite horrible, but great credit to Mel Blanc for carrying on and staying in tune. What a remarkable talent Blanc was!”

On “Long-Haired Hare” … “Here Bugs takes his revenge on an opera singer named Giovanni Jones and does so with hilarious consequences. The last few minutes are absolutely priceless and one of my all time favourite endings in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Mel Blanc is brilliant as Bugs and Nicolai Shutorov gives a bravura singing performance as Giovanni.”

On “The Rabbit of Seville” … Bugs and Elmer “wander on to an opera stage and continue their combativeness to the music of the Barber of Seville. Apparently, there was a time when the average citizen had a thing for opera and these cartoon presentations fed into that. Anyway, the pacing is masterful. Elmer is about as gullible as he can be, and Bugs takes advantage at every turn. The pacing of the famous musical piece works very well and our two heroes find their way to a masterful conclusion.”

Read Full Post »

Photo: Bettina Hansen/Seattle Times.
Naomi André, Seattle Opera’s scholar in residence, is passionate about sharing her love of opera and making the art form welcoming to a wide range of people, reports the Seattle Times. “I feel that everybody can find something to relate to in opera,” she says.

In March of this year, Naomi André gave a virtual talk at Vermont’s Bennington College on opera and her role as the Seattle Opera’s first scholar in residence. She was appointed right before the pandemic to share her enthusiasm for opera with a new and more diverse audience.

Here’s some background on the opera company’s pathbreaking appointment from Gemma Alexander at the Seattle Times.

“A week before Naomi André’s panel [in February 2020] on Black representation in the arts, Seattle Opera closed registration for attendance. The number of online reservations had hit the 300-person capacity of the Opera Center auditorium for the first time since the building opened in late 2018. At least in local opera circles, André’s name had buzz.

“André is Seattle Opera’s inaugural scholar in residence. It is a role the company created specifically for her and may be the only job of its kind in American opera. As scholar in residence, André acts as an adviser to help Seattle Opera become more inclusive, both for audiences and behind the scenes. …

‘There’s a kind of joy in going to the opera and seeing it live. Unfortunately, opera has an elitist reputation,’ said André, a professor at the University of Michigan, where she has taught courses on 19th-century Italian opera as well as classes on race and gender. …

“Her personal experience as a Black woman in the opera field led to her most recent book, Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement, which examined African American and Black South African participation in opera.

“ ‘I feel that everybody can find something to relate to in opera. This is not a genre that should go away,’ André said.

“To help Seattle Opera become a place where everyone can find their something, André advises on issues of race and equity both in their internal operations and in contextualizing the works they produce for audiences. One of her first acts as resident scholar was a response to the death of pioneering African American soprano Jessye Norman.

“ ‘There were a lot of pieces being written, but they were all so white! No one wrote about what she meant to Black fans. So I suggested that and they said, “Great! When can you have it ready?” ‘ André said with a laugh. ‘I was so impressed that this isn’t contentious.’ The piece she wrote is posted on the Seattle Opera blog.

“André first came to the attention of Seattle Opera when she participated in a forum on race and gender sponsored by the Glimmerglass Festival, a summer-season opera company in central New York state known for producing rare and new works. Called Breaking Glass, the panel visited Seattle in tandem with the 2018 production of Porgy and Bess. Impressed by André, Seattle Opera brought her back for 2019’s Carmen. In a forum called Deconstructing Allure, André and a panel of academics and artists — all women of color — explored representations of women and ethnic minorities in art. They considered the responsibility of contemporary arts organizations toward both classic works of art and the people who may be misrepresented by those art works.

“ ‘Some people would view that as a pretty radical conversation in the opera space,’ said Alejandra Valarino Boyer, Seattle Opera’s director of programs and partnerships. The event was so successful that Seattle Opera designed the new position of scholar in residence to formalize an ongoing relationship with André.

“[André] has recorded an episode of Seattle Opera’s podcast and contributed essays for program booklets. But her most visible role involves a series of free, public community conversations that invite audiences to question problematic social themes and portrayals of marginalized communities in opera while appreciating the artistic elements that continue to hold up.

“On Feb. 13, 2020, she [moderated] the Black Representation in the Arts community conversation at the Seattle Opera Center with speakers Theresa Ruth Howard, curator of the Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet symposium, and Bridgette Wimberly, librettist of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.”

For her 2021 talk at Bennigton, André provided this preview: “In this talk, I outline some of the larger frameworks from my book Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement (2018) and take them further to include a quick mention of Beyoncé’s Homecoming (2018), and three operas on Black topics that debuted the summer of 2019 (Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Opera Theater of St. Louis; Anthony Davis and Richard Wesley, The Central Park Five, Long Beach Opera; and Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson, Blue, Glimmerglass Festival).

“I quickly contextualize Fire Shut Up in My Bones and The Central Park Five and then spend the most time with Blue. I have been fortunate to see all three operas and got to know Tesori and Thompson through several panels in the Breaking Glass series (run by Glimmerglass Opera Festival). From the legacy of minstrelsy and the frequent negative portrayal of Blackness in opera, this talk outlines a shadow history and explores how opera can be relevant for today and a space of liberation.”

More at the Seattle Times, here, and at Bennington College, here.

Read Full Post »

gordon-stewart
Photo: Victory Hall Opera.
Miriam Gordon-Stewart (above), artistic director of Victory Hall opera in Charlottesville, Virginia, and music director Brenda Patterson had the original idea for deaf opera.

Right before the pandemic, a cutting-edge company in Virginia put on an opera with deaf performers. The company is still going strong. Undaunted by Covid, it claims it was made for this moment and is offering a roster of outdoor performances for its 2021-2022 season.

An example of the company’s creativity was the deafness project. Thomas Floyd wrote the report for the Washington Post.

“Alek Lev understands that he’s not exactly a member of the deaf family, but he feels comfortable enough calling himself an ‘in-law.’ As a student at Wesleyan University, he took a sign-language class on a whim and subsequently dated a deaf person. Over the past two decades, the writer, director, actor and American Sign Language interpreter has largely worked in the deaf community on films and stage productions.

” ‘As someone who is fluent in sign language and has done this for such a long time, just seeing people sign onstage isn’t particularly thrilling now,’ Lev says. ‘It needs to be thrilling for some other reason.’

“One such reason arose in 2018, when Miriam Gordon-Stewart and Brenda Patterson of the boundary-pushing Victory Hall Opera in Charlottesville pitched Lev on a production of Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera Dialogues of the Carmelites, but with deaf performers.

“The concept came about after Gordon-Stewart, Victory Hall’s artistic director, and Patterson, the music director, read Andrew Solomon’s 2012 nonfiction book Far From the Tree, about how families accommodate children with disabilities. The book mentioned ASL’s roots in French Sign Language, dating to the deaf community of 18th-century Paris. They then drew parallels to Dialogues of the Carmelites, which follows a convent of Carmelite nuns pressured to renounce their vocation during the French Revolution.

” ‘Within the deaf community, there are a lot of similar issues that come up,’ Gordon-Stewart says. ‘There’s a pressure to assimilate with hearing culture, for example, which is intensely political. These things worked together for us into the idea of a production of Dialogues of the Carmelites that would be set in a deaf convent.’

“Victory Hall Opera [took] a step toward making the production a reality with a workshop Feb. 27 [in 2020, featuring] three sopranos singing alongside three deaf actors. …

” ‘There’s something about the challenge of figuring out how to do this and why to do this each time that is just more exciting to me than putting on yet another version of a play that’s been put on several times. … I like that we have a whole new problem now. We have sign language. We have deaf actors. We have hearing actors who don’t know sign language. I love the puzzle.’

“ ‘I’ve done a lot of workshops and productions that include hearing and Deaf actors, but the fascinating thing about those experiences is that it’s never the same,’ [Sandra Mae Frank, who in 2015 played the lead role of Wendla in Deaf West Theatre’s Tony-nominated revival of Spring Awakening on Broadway] writes in an email. …

“Most of the roles in that Spring Awakening production were doubled by a deaf actor, who used sign language, and a hearing actor, who simultaneously performed the vocals. Although that has become a common template for deaf theater, the [Victory Hall] team wants its performers to complement one another in an artistically innovative way. … The deaf actors act out the plot while the singers serve as spiritual guides, representing women who have endured similar oppression.

” ‘If we’re going to create an art form out of this, then we need to push the concept one step further than it’s been pushed before,’ Gordon-Stewart says. ‘There’s a potential for the result being a marriage between two art forms, rather than just the two art forms being simultaneously performed. You bring a potentially heightened physicality to both ends of that equation, making it a more visually compelling art form for the deaf performance, and making it a more heightened experience for the hearing audience.’ ”

More at the Washington Post, here.

Read Full Post »

Photo: Clive Barda.
Opera singer John Tomlinson rehearses
King Lear. 

I remember once watching an Aida on television with staging that made my skin crawl. Here was Aida, here was her true love — both knowing they were dying — singing to each other from opposite sides of the cave, no touching. Really? You can’t always blame opera singers for bad acting when it’s the director’s staging that makes no sense.

Today I have a story for all the people who like to listen to opera but hate unnatural staging and acting. Turns out, there are singers who have longed for a chance to show what they can really do with drama.

Michael Billington writes at the Guardian, “I had coffee recently with King Lear and Goneril. To be more precise, with John Tomlinson and Susan Bullock, who play these roles in a brand new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy – one to be staged at the Grange festival in Hampshire [in July] with a cast exclusively drawn from the world of opera. …

“Its director, Keith Warner, says it started with him, Tomlinson and Kim Begley (ex-RSC before turning to opera) planning a two-person version called Lear’s Shadow. Word quickly spread and a reading of the whole play was mounted in Warner’s house. The result is a full-scale production with a dream cast. ….

“Talking to Tomlinson and Bullock, I am struck by their passion for theatre. At college, Bullock played Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and became an ardent fan of Manchester’s Royal Exchange. ‘Seeing Uncle Vanya there with Albert Finney,’ she says, ‘made me think: “This is what I want to do.” When people ask me if I’ve ever acted before, I tell them I’ve been doing it all my life. You don’t get to play Brunnhilde or Electra without being able to act – and singing a Schubert song is a drama in itself.’

“Tomlinson, who made his stage debut at the age of six as a panto sultan, was equally turned on by Manchester theatre and recalls the excitement of going to drama, dance and improv classes when a student at the Royal Northern College of Music. Both are theatrical animals as well as singers – but is there a radical difference between working on an opera and a Shakespeare play?

“ ‘There are a lot of similarities,’ says Tomlinson. ‘You start with understanding the text, letting your imagination flow and working alone before joining the cast. The big difference is that in opera, we are used to emotions being sustained for a long time and underpinned by the music. In a Handel aria you might sing “I love you” for 10 minutes on end. In a play, particularly in Lear where the king is so mind-changing and capricious, you have to be more nimble and quick-thinking.’

“Bullock concurs, pointing out that in opera the drama inevitably starts in the orchestra pit.

‘What is so liberating about a play,’ [opera singer Bullock] says, ‘is that tempo and rhythm are in the hands of the actor, rather than the composer or conductor, and can vary hugely from one night to the next. I am loving the freedom and flexibility this gives me.’

“There is still a popular canard that opera singers are inferior actors: that, at best, they stand and deliver or deploy a limited number of traffic-cop gestures. It is a myth Tomlinson especially can’t wait to demolish. … ‘I’d say that in the UK from the 1960s to the late 1990s, singers were generally very good actors. But I admit that in the last couple of decades, operatic acting has often been stymied by hi-tech design and concept-driven direction that treats the singer as one item in a visual scheme.’ …

“What have Bullock and Tomlinson discovered in rehearsal? ‘That Goneril,’ says Bullock, ‘is not a figure of undiluted evil. She is a complex woman who has suffered from a dictatorial father, who knows that Cordelia is Daddy’s darling and who, quite reasonably, asks why he needs a train of 100 knights.’ …

“For Tomlinson, the whole play is a voyage of discovery. ‘Lear begins,’ he says, ‘as a brutally authoritarian figure but gradually becomes aware of poverty, homelessness, cruelty and injustice. The last is a subject he never stops talking about. … Lear, whose relationship with the Fool is a bit like that of Boris Godunov and the Simpleton in the Mussorgsky opera, also acquires a boundless curiosity. By the end he is not so much morally redeemed as spiritually enlightened.’ “

More at the Guardian, here.

Read Full Post »

Photo: ENO via CNN.
Australian soprano Alexandra Oomens singing for a English National Opera (ENO)
program that works on singing, breathing and well-being for recovering coronavirus patients.

Who has a story that could happen only in a pandemic? Today I have one silly one that involves me and one serious one that involves opera singers helping Covid patients.

Silly story first. Because I haven’t been going to stores since the pandemic started, I haven’t collected any five-dollar bills to give as tips to delivery people. So I write $5 checks to “cash.” Well. Twice now, a woman I have never met in a nearby town has rescued a muddied check I wrote from her driveway and mailed it back to me. We must have the same milkman, one who is careless with his tips. Meanwhile, I’m gaining a penpal!

Andrew Dickson writes at the New York Times, “On a recent afternoon, the singing coach Suzi Zumpe was running through a warm-up with a student. First, she straightened her spine and broadened her chest, and embarked on a series of breath exercises, expelling short, sharp bursts of air. Then she brought her voice into action, producing a resonant hum that started high in a near-squeal, before sinking low and cycling up again. Finally, she stuck her tongue out, as if in disgust: a workout for the facial muscles.

“The student, Wayne Cameron, repeated everything point by point. … Though the class was being conducted via Zoom, it resembled those Zumpe usually leads at the Royal Academy of Music, or Garsington Opera, where she trains young singers.

“But Cameron, 56, isn’t a singer; he manages warehouse logistics for an office supplies company. The session had been prescribed by doctors as part of his recovery plan after a pummeling experience with Covid-19 last March.

Called E.N.O. Breathe and developed by the English National Opera in collaboration with a London hospital, the six-week program offers patients customized vocal lessons: clinically proven recovery exercises, but reworked by professional singing tutors and delivered online.

“While few cultural organizations have escaped the fallout of the pandemic, opera companies been hit especially hard. … The English National Opera, one of Britain’s two leading companies, has been trying to redirect its energies. …

“In a video interview, Jenny Mollica, who runs the English National Opera’s outreach work, explained that the idea had developed last summer, when ‘long Covid’ cases started emerging: people who have recovered from the acute phase of the disease, but still suffer effects including chest pain, fatigue, brain fog and breathlessness.

” ‘Opera is rooted in breath,’ Mollica said. ‘That’s our expertise. I thought, “Maybe E.N.O. has something to offer.” ‘

“Tentatively, she contacted Dr. Sarah Elkin, a respiratory specialist at one of the country’s biggest public hospital networks, Imperial College N.H.S. Trust. It turned out that Elkin and her team had been racking their brains, too, about how to treat these patients long-term. …

“Twelve patients were initially recruited. After a one-on-one consultation with a vocal specialist to discuss their experience of Covid-19, they took part in weekly group sessions, conducted online. Zumpe started with basics such as posture and breath control before guiding participants through short bursts of humming and singing, trying them out in the class and encouraging them to practice at home.

“The aim was to encourage them to make the most of their lung capacity, which the illness had damaged, in some cases, but also to teach them to breathe calmly and handle anxiety — an issue for many people working through long Covid.

“When Cameron was asked if he wanted to join, he was bemused, he said: ‘I thought, “Am I going to be the next Pavarotti?” ‘

“But Covid-19 had left him feeling battered.. … ‘Everything I did, I was struggling for air,’ he said.

“He added that even a few simple breathing exercises had quickly made a huge difference. ‘The program really does help,’ he said. ‘Physically, mentally, in terms of anxiety.’ Almost as important, he added, was being able to share a virtual space and swap stories with other sufferers. ‘I felt connected,’ he said. …

“And how was Cameron’s singing now? He laughed. ‘I’m more in tune,’ he said. The program had helped him reach high notes when singing along in the car, he added. ‘Having learned the technique, you can manage much better,’ he said. …

“It wasn’t just patients and clinicians that had benefited, Mollica said: E.N.O. Breathe had also given musicians and producers at the company something to focus on during a bleak time. ‘Everyone’s found it really motivating,’ she said. ‘It’s fantastic to realize that this skill set we have is useful.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

Read Full Post »

what27s_opera_doc_lobby_card

Photo: Warner Bros. via Wikipedia
In 1957, Warner Bros. released a Bugs Bunny version of the Wagner opera
The Ring of the Nibelung. Creative folks are still thinking up engaging ways to involve children in the beauty and hilarity of opera.

If you love the field you are in and if you have some imagination, there’s always a way to inspire even the youngest children with your enthusiasm.

Michael Andor Brodeur writes about one recent example at the Washington Post.

“Like many a music lover of an age we needn’t get into here, my formative education in classical music and opera came straight from the masters: Bugs, Elmer, Porky. Bugs Bunny was my first Brünnhilde. (So I guess he introduced me to drag as well. Different story.)

“Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies and Silly Symphonies taught my wee ears how to listen, how to synthesize the music in my imagination with color, movement, emotion and irony. It was like a crash-bang-boom course in how to read sound: The vastness of Wagner became suddenly legible in the context of wabbit-killing.
Kids today are a bit more hands-on, as I discovered during a recent session of ‘Opera Starts With Oh!,’ an opera education program for ages 3 to 7, run by the D.C. and NYC-based company Opera Lafayette. …

“Each installment I watched of ‘Opera Starts With Oh!’ — helmed by director, choreographer and teaching artist Emma Jaster and Opera Lafayette community engagement manager Ersian François — kept its grid of budding opera buffs rapt with an action-packed half-hour of activities, performances and assorted operatic antics.

“ ‘Opera Starts With Oh!’ originated in 2018 as an in-person program to accompany productions in progress, but in its Zoom-based incarnation, each themed installment [centers] on a visit from a guest artist and a simple lesson. …

“At a recent workshop, the Zoom grid filled up fast with small faces smooshed into the frame. It was easily the most entertaining Zoom meeting I’ve had since this whole thing started.

“Lucy and Phoebe were sporting matching unicorn horns and dancing in circles whenever music played. Theodor was paying attention but kept changing his background — first it was outer space, then it was a hedgehog. Gabriel, Massimo and Timothy all crammed attentively into one square.

“Jaster led a round of warm-up exercises (her 6-year-old Ellis popping in and out of view), Nero performed the Passacaille from Lully’s ‘Armide’ (a performance of which Opera Lafayette recorded in 2007) and François skillfully moderated a quick Q&A session (turns out kids are way better at the muting/unmuting thing than adults).

“By the end of it, Helen, who had been pretty quiet up to that point, politely raised her hand, unmuted, and let the group know: ‘I think I want to play the violin.’ …

“ ‘I didn’t get to attend my first opera until I was about 26 years old, particularly because it’s a pretty expensive endeavor to attend an opera,’ says Natalia Lopez-Hurst, mother of Gabriel, Massimo and Timothy. ‘So I wanted to start my kids early with the exposure. I feel like opera encompasses so many different forms of art … We use it as a steppingstone to teach them about art, as well as history, as well as geography.’

“For Jaster, the kinetic goals of the workshop are as important as the aesthetic ones.

“ ‘I’m a movement director and choreographer, that’s how I came to opera,’ says Jaster, ‘But I have a 5-year-old and I live and witness every day how much children need to move their bodies.’ …

“Thus, much of the unbound energy that animates an average ‘Opera Starts With Oh!’ is channeled into twirling, interpretive dance, vocal exercises and functional training (like ‘finger ripples’) for aspiring virtuosos. ..

“ ‘What’s a fun way to take what we’ve learned and make it something that these children will do and be engaged with beyond and outside of this 30 minutes?’ says Jaster. ‘As a parent, 30 minutes is not a lot of the time that I actually need to occupy from my child’s day. So the more the children can be inspired to take this along and then go and make their own performance for all of their stuffed animals — that’s where I want to be.’ ”

More here.

Read Full Post »

portrait_of_shirley_graham
Photo: Carl Van Vechten
Portrait of composer Shirley Graham (1896-1977), later Shirley Graham Du Bois, taken July 18, 1946.

One of my favorite places to walk — because it’s lovely and because it’s easy to move away from maskless people — is the shady local cemetery. Naturally, I have read a lot of tombstone inscriptions on my walks, and one thing I’ve noticed is how often a woman’s marker says “his wife” or identifies the deceased as “wife of.” I have never seen a stone that describes a man as “husband of.” This hierarchy seems to apply to all races in our country.

So when I share today’s story about Black opera composer Shirley Graham, I’ll just say her husband was known as W.E.B. Du Bois and had a career in his own right.

David Patrick Stearns reported recently at WQXR radio that one Africana studies professor wants everyone to know Graham’s story.

“ ‘This is the time to unleash my voice again.’ Such is the message that Oberlin College’s Africana studies professor Caroline Jackson Smith is hearing, beyond the grave, from the late activist / composer / writer Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896–1977). … Smith moderated a panel following the Caramoor Festival’s recently streamed excerpts from Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, Du Bois’ 1932 opera that is said to be the first by an African American women composer. A full production is hoped for in 2021.

“From the outset, few listeners could’ve known what to expect, because — unfairly — Du Bois’ name has faded in history. … Born in Indianapolis, this daughter of a preacher lived all around the country during her childhood. As an adult, she was often on the move, most significantly with educational pursuits at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she studied composing and began writing Tom-Tom in 1926.

“The opera, however, predates most of what she was known for: Her joining the American Communist Party in the late 1940s, her 1951 marriage to the famous sociologist / activist W.E.B. Du Bois, their back-to-Africa immigration to Ghana in 1961, her later move to Cairo, and her many, many writings along the way.

“In fact, she seemed to write constantly, whether comedies and tragedies for the stage, biographies of fellow radical Paul Robeson (as well as Booker T. Washington and Gamal Abdul Nasser) as well as novels, almost right up to her death from breast cancer. Given her global existence, it’s fitting that she died in China but was a citizen of Tanzania.

In 1932, Tom-Tom was the kind of hit that composers dream about at its Cleveland Opera premiere. Reviews were excellent and two performances reportedly drew stadium-size audiences of 25,000.

“Descriptions suggest it was more than an opera — it was more like a pageant with dancers, singers, musicians, and even elephants. … Tom-Tom disappeared until a score was found among Du Bois’ papers in 2018 at Harvard by Lucy Caplan, then a Yale University doctoral candidate in American and African American studies. The six excerpts presented on the July 9 livestream from Caramoor revealed a convincing synthesis of spirituals and West African folk music applied to a Wagnerian template. …

“This is not a fragile but endearing ballad opera like Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha. … Tom-Tom is an opera with a mission: to connect the African American community with something beyond its history of American slavery. The only apt comparison that I can come up is Kurt Weill’s the Eternal Road, a 1937 pageant whose mission was to call attention to the plight of European Jews in Nazi Germany. …

“In writing Tom-Tom, Du Bois had plenty of education to draw on, and during her period in Paris at the Sorbonne, she discovered that the music that her missionary brother brought back from Liberia (as well as the spirituals she grew up with as the daughter of a minister) stuck in her head much more readily than the conventional chord progressions of western music, according to the 2000 biography by Gerald Horne, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois. Later, she would translate those impulses directly into Tom-Tom, whose prelude was played by three timpani that were translated into what she considered an accurate rendering of African drumming. …

“Act I takes place in 1619 Africa, when a tribal human sacrifice is interrupted by the invasion of slave traders. Act II is set in mid-19th-century America, progressing on to then-contemporary 1930s Harlem in Act III. … How this epic-sized production was financed and mounted remains to be revealed.

“For all of the success of the opening (Horne quotes critic John Gruesser as describing the piece as having ‘the length, complexity and power to be called major’), the opera’s moment in the sun was brief.

“As Horne put it, ‘She quickly discovered that writing operas during the Great Depression was not the soundest method by which an African American woman could escape privation.’ Du Bois went on to the Federal Theater Project doing just about everything, including composing a number of works, including a musical. But after the early 1940s, she seems not to have pursued the kind of composing career that would prompt her — or those impressed with Tom-Tom — to return to the opera in later years.

“Being female and African American in a white, male-dominated world couldn’t have been encouraging. But looking at Du Bois’ biography in the long term, she was about spreading her message — whether as a civil rights activist, advocate of Socialism in various guises, and much else — in whatever form was most effective. Almost anything is more agile than the high-overhead medium of grand opera.” More at WQXR, here.

Photo: Lotte Jacobi, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Composer Shirley Graham Du Bois with her husband on his 87th birthday, 1955.

shirley_graham_du_bois_and_w_e_b_du_bois_on_his_87th_birthday_1955

Read Full Post »

The English National Opera (ENO) is rethinking how to stage productions for the current self-distancing environment. A lot depends on when driving restrictions might be lifted.

Mark Brown writes at the Guardian, “English National Opera (ENO) has announced plans for what are thought to be the world’s first drive-in opera performances.

“Planned for the first three weeks of September, the idea is to stage live performances in the grounds of Alexandra Palace, north London, with musicians and singers spaced out to conform with physical distancing guidelines. If successful, ENO hopes to roll out the ‘Drive & Live’ concept to other parts of the UK.

“Stuart Murphy, ENO’s chief executive, told the Guardian it was part of the company’s mission of ‘opera for everyone.’ He said: ‘It is a bit of an experiment and if it works it might be a way of bringing the art form to people in a totally different and authentic way.’ …

“The idea is that the audience would be in 300 cars, with the bigger vehicles at the back. People on motorbikes and pedal cycles would also be allowed. Then windows go down and the audience watches the live performance unfold on a specially constructed set.

“The audience reaction could be interesting, Murphy said. ‘Instead of clapping or shouting “bravo,” it might be that people flash their lights or honk their horn. As long as it’s authentic, we’re not going to force it.

“ ‘I think it could attract a whole new generation to opera, people who love their car, see it as an extension to themselves.’ …

“Murphy said if the concept worked, then he could see drive-in operas being staged at racecourses or historic properties. ‘We’ve also had a couple of really productive conversations with international opera houses who think we’re on to something. It is an attempt to square the circle and let people have a big collective moment while staying safe.’

“The first 12 performances will be a shortened 90-minute version of Puccini’s La Bohème and a one-hour family-friendly version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

The first show will be free for National Health Service and frontline workers. …

“Murphy, who joined ENO in 2018 after a career in TV [said] all arts companies needed now to be ‘nimble and quick’ and react to circumstances, but at the moment ENO was not planning for seats being empty. …

“Some countries have allowed drive-in cinemas to remain open during the lockdown. Germany, for example, has two year-round operations, in Essen and Cologne. According to the Hollywood Reporter, both have sold out for every screening since Germany’s lockdown was declared. Makeshift drive-ins are also popping up around the country.

“In the US, the spiritual home of the drive-in, fewer than 25 of the nation’s 320 drive-ins are reportedly open for business, but that could change. The New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, said [in April that] he would consider allowing drive-ins to reopen. ‘Where is the public safety issue? It’s a drive-in theatre. You’re in the car with the same people,’ he said.”

Photo: Donald Cooper/Photostage
An English National Opera production of
The Magic Flute in the Good Old Days of 2019. Today ENO operas must take Covid-19 and social distancing into account.

3543

Read Full Post »

2503

Photo: Jack Devant
The Perm Opera theater in Russia is getting around quarantine regulations by performing to an audience of one. At least, that’s the plan.

I have been reading a lot of articles about organizations that, although hurting badly from the pandemic, are managing to limp along. You are probably reading other such articles. Just as humans with underlying conditions are said to succumb more quickly to coronavirus, so do institutions with underlying conditions. Some weak nonprofits and businesses have already folded.

Others may come out on the other side of this with new ideas for a stronger future.

It helps to be adaptable.

Andrew Roth writes at the Guardian, “Picture the scene: The curtain rises as the orchestra strikes up the opening bars of Puccini’s La Bohème or Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

And in the 850-person auditorium of a storied Russian theatre sits just one lucky viewer, a lottery winner whose prize is the personal performance of a lifetime.

“Barred from hosting audiences due to the coronavirus outbreak, a theatre in Perm, a city near Russia’s Ural mountains, plans to host a unique experiment – private viewings of the theatre’s ballets and operas for the price of just a normal ticket.

“The project, called One on One, is the creation of Marat Gatsalov, the principle stage director of the Perm Opera and Ballet theatre. The idea, he said, predated the coronavirus pandemic. …

“When the local government in Perm, an industrial city that also has a reputation as a cultural powerhouse, declared that events with large audiences should be cancelled, he realised the time for the experiment had arrived.

“ ‘We’d been told that we can’t let viewers into the theatre hall,’ Gatsalov said. ‘But that doesn’t mean we can’t let just one viewer in.’ …

“Russia’s coronavirus outbreak has accelerated in the last week and the government has passed tougher measures to prevent its spread. One on One had been scheduled to open with Puccini at the end of March, but the theatre has said that it will begin holding shows only when the rules for the country’s theatres are clearer. …

“The lottery will work like this: 850 people will register for each show, whether it’s an opera, ballet or concert, and a winner will be selected and invited to buy a ticket at the theatre for the normal price.

“Nobody else will be charged, although the theatre could use the funds. Financially, Gatsalov said, the coronavirus crisis has been ‘catastrophic.’

“Asked about how he planned to keep performers safe, Gatsalov said he was trying to follow safety rules ‘as much as possible’ and said the theatre regularly checked people’s temperatures and disinfected the premises. But it was clear that plans were in flux. ‘Of course the theatre can’t be operating as normal at the moment,’ he said.”

More at the Guardian, here. I sure hope it works and will look for a follow-up story down the road. Meanwhile, you can watch New York’s Met opera nightly as an audience of one in your home. It’s a free service while the pandemic lasts. Check it out.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Perm, Russia, where a lucky lottery ticket will get you an opera performance for you alone.
perm_in_russia

Read Full Post »

2048

Photo: Kim Stevens/Cape Town Opera
Vuvu Mpofu in a production of Donizetti’s
Maria Stuarda in Cape Town last year.

Who can say why certain random things draw our lives in one direction or another? Did a Mozart aria and a DVD of La Traviata draw this young opera star into an unfamiliar career because her family loved singing? Because the music was so sad? Whatever the reason, Vuvu Mpofu overcame many obstacles because of that powerful draw.

Dalya Alberge writes at the Guardian, “Vuvu Mpofu had never heard opera until, aged 15, she was overwhelmed by a Mozart aria at a school concert. In her home town of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, there were no opera teachers, the library had only one book on the subject, and her classmates were scornful of her interest. But Mpofu overcame all these hurdles: she taught herself to sing by mimicking the singers on two opera DVDs and, several years later, her talent was spotted by a voice coach.

“Now, at 28, the soprano has mentors in the world’s foremost opera companies. … Stephen Langridge, artistic director of Glyndebourne, said Mpofu had a ‘unique’ talent. … ‘People who sing very high in the soprano range can be very impressive … She keeps a humanity and warmth in the sound.’

“Mpofu has been taken aback by such accolades. It is a long way from the two DVDs – one of La Traviata and the other of The Magic Flute – she watched repeatedly as a teenager. ‘I come from a small town in South Africa,’ she said. ‘I never dreamed of any of this.’ Recalling the first time she watched La Traviata, she said: ‘It was overwhelming. I cried while I was watching it. It took my breathe away … I kept on watching, just mimicking how they sang, how they acted. That’s how I taught myself.’

“Mpofu went on to audition successfully for the South African College of Music at Cape Town University, a remarkable feat for someone with no formal training. A voice coach there spotted her potential and helped her get a student loan – although she has yet to pay it off.

“ ‘We were not rich,’ Mpofu said of her family, who loved singing, whether it was gospel, traditional music or choral. ‘I didn’t have things that other kids did … but my mum made sure that we always ate morning, afternoon and evening. At school, people didn’t bring lunches. You had money … If [mum] didn’t have it, I would just make myself bread. I was OK.’

“As she didn’t have a formal music background, her initial studies were challenging, particularly as her mother died not long after she had started. Nevertheless, she went on to study for four years as an undergraduate and two years as a postgraduate.

“Mpofu overcame other challenges. She was mugged by a man with a knife the day before she entered the International Hans Gabor Belvedere singing competition, opera’s ‘world cup,’ when it was staged in Cape Town.

“This was so traumatic that she nearly dropped out of the competition. But, feeling that music was ‘some sort of remedy,’ she sang an aria from La Traviata that got her into the final. She also came third in the prestigious international Operalia competition. …

“Mpofu said competitions had really helped her career. The Belvedere got her noticed by Diane Zola of the Metropolitan Opera, who became one of her mentors. ‘Entering competitions is a way of getting yourself out there to be seen by important people,’ she said. ‘Also, it builds confidence.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

Read Full Post »

aq2zizce_400x400

Photo: twitter.com
Much to her surprise, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila found a community on Twitter that helped her regain confidence after a painful divorce.

You may say that on Twitter we each live in a bubble of like-minded people and that no good can come of that. But sometimes like-minded people can support someone who is down and out. Consider the case of Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who was suffering doubts after a painful divorce.

Joshua Barone writes at the New York Times, “At 58, [Karita] Mattila, who is currently onstage here at [France’s] Aix Festival in Weill and Brecht’s ‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,’ is having something of a late-career renaissance: a newly expanding repertoire and newfound celebrity on Twitter, where she is beloved by some of opera’s most ardent fans.

“And she loves them right back. …

“On Twitter — where few opera stars, when they’re present at all, are active beyond blandly promoting their performances — she posts, often with an abundance of emoji, about everything. She reacts to the news, never shying from being political; she participates in polls; she shares her thoughts (and horror stories) about restaurants in Aix-en-Provence. …

” ‘I’ve decided to be me. … I used to be so overprotective of myself,’ she said. ‘It’s time to start having faith. … Twitter was — maybe it’s dramatic — it was my lifesaver,’ she said. ‘It really became my rescuer.’

“Before the divorce from Tapio Kuneinen, who was also her manager, Ms. Mattila wasn’t present on social media. … A girlfriend warned her, she recalled: ‘There will be people who hate you. And if there aren’t, it means you don’t have enough followers yet.’

“But Ms. Mattila gave it a try. And as followers came, she began to interact with them, more and more — engaging with fans and music scholars from around the world who also repost many of her tweets.

“ ‘I “met” so many of these people, and I cried so much because it moved me, how they analyzed music and what I was doing. Of course I have that music-training background, but it had been so long since I have had conversations about music, what I do for a living,’ she said, waving her arms for emphasis.

“When she was in New York this spring for a production of Poulenc’s ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’ at the Metropolitan Opera, Ms. Mattila began to meet some of her Twitter followers in person and was, she said, ‘totally in awe.’ …

“Twitter has also redefined Ms. Mattila’s relationship with music. As a busy international artist, she had long thought she didn’t have the time to listen recreationally. But now, she said: ‘There are these guys that send me what they are listening to. It’s re-established my appreciation toward my own field.’ …

“Throughout her career, Ms. Mattila has been famous for her dramatic prowess and visceral physicality, ingrained, she said, since her education at the Sibelius Academy in Finland. But Esa-Pekka Salonen, her fellow student at the academy and the conductor of the Aix ‘Mahagonny,’ described her theatricality as more extraordinary than schooling alone could produce.

“ ‘She is totally committed to the material, whatever it is,’ he said. ‘Things can be raw, they can be intense, they can be funny. But she’s always in it, totally.’ …

“During rehearsals, Mr. Salonen said, she had a talent for energizing the musicians, which then showed once the audience was added to the mix. She even appeared in good spirits on the night of the dress rehearsal, as she posted selfies on Twitter.”

More here.

Read Full Post »

sa27s_got_talent_logo_2016

Image: South Africa’s Got Talent
What are the chances for a taxi driver with a great voice to move from entertaining his passengers to the opera stage?

I wonder if someone with a tremendous talent who delights himself and a small circle of others with his singing necessarily wants an international audience. That is the question that came to my mind as I read about the fun that a taxi driver in South Africa is having as he sings for passengers.

Stephen Moss writes at the Guardian, “Are opera singers born or made? Are there wonderful natural operatic voices out there waiting to get a break on Britain’s Got Talent? Or maybe on South Africa’s Got Talent, because the reason to pose the question comes courtesy of an opera-loving South African Uber driver called Menzi Mngoma, whose impromptu performances in the front of his cab in Durban have caused a frisson of excitement among those who want to believe that great voices and instant opera stars are all around us.

“Mngoma is a self-taught tenor who likes to belt out arias for his passengers. One of his customers, Kim Davey, liked his singing so much that she posted a video on Facebook. That, in turn, attracted media attention and the 27-year-old Mngoma’s career was launched. He is said to be auditioning for Cape Town Opera. A stadium tour will no doubt follow.

“It generally pays to be suspicious of such stories. The media want to believe in fairytales because they make good copy. Being an opera singer is about more than giving a passable two-minute rendition of ‘La donna è mobile.’ It is singing and acting a role over three or more hours in an opera house twice a week; having the vocal technique to sustain a 20- or even 30-year career; performing a wide range of parts in up to five languages. It is bloody difficult.

“That said, Mngoma does have the spark of something. I played the clip to the Guardian’s opera critic Tim Ashley, and while Ashley said there was barely enough to make a judgment, he thought Mngoma ‘sang “La donna è mobile” perfectly decently and with no strain at the top [of the voice].’ Ashley says that being self-taught is ‘unusual but not completely unheard of.’ …

” ‘You have to be born with talent – that can’t be taught – but teaching will hone that talent,’ says Martha Hartman, the manager of the vocal studies department at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She says that singers do not have to start studying in their teens: the Guildhall has several students in their late 20s, including one who used to be a builder. But she emphasises that natural talent is not enough. …

“If Mngoma wants to be a professional opera singer, the hard work starts now. ‘If you find a singing teacher and if you hone your skills and if you have some classes in stagecraft and movement and drama and all these things that go into being a singer,’ says Hartman, ‘then you might have some roads open to you. But most opera houses and orchestras will demand knowledge of repertoire, and that’s a very big piece of the puzzle: knowing how to learn music and learn a role.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

Read Full Post »

1jeremydutcherheader

Photo: Matt Barnes
Jeremy Dutcher is a First Nations tenor and pianist who is getting a lot of attention in Canada and beyond.

Bit by bit we’re all learning more about the people around us, people who may have very different lives and who in the past we knew nothing about. Even those we thought we knew well sometimes have lives that are veiled to us, as I learned this summer when our niece sent me her story, a heartbreaking tale of a childhood that I had only perceived on the surface. You just can’t know what is going on behind someone’s eyes.

Among the kinds of people I am learning more about are indigenous people, both in the United States and elsewhere. This story is about a young tenor who belongs to a Canadian tribe.

Jeff Kaliss writes at San Francisco Classical Voice, “Interviews with Jeremy Dutcher figure among the new demands on a Canadian First Nations (indigenous) singer-pianist who’s risen rapidly to international attention. The 28-year-old Toronto resident needs now and then to take a break from the clamor, to return to something like the pastoral pace of his raising in the Maritime province of New Brunswick, as a member of the Wolastoqiyik [pronounced Wuh-last-o-key-yik] tribe.

“I first witnessed Dutcher a year ago, at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, performing on piano and singing in his tribe’s native Wolastoq language (the word denotes ‘the beautiful river’; renamed by the colonizers of New Brunswick as the St. John), in the basement of a church, a beautiful historical landmark. He hadn’t yet won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize, nor its Grammy-equivalent Juno Awards. Both of these wins would recognize his debut self-produced album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, translated as Songs of the People of the Beautiful River. …

“Dutcher incorporates in his live and recorded music an unusual and affecting act of legacy, playing transcribed wax recordings from 1911 by an early anthropologist of a tribal elder singing and speaking, and following the melodies with his own heldentenor voice and mellifluous keyboard compositions. The method and quality of his approach derive from his training, including classical voice with Marcia Swanston at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“Two semesters before completing his music degree, Dutcher enrolled in a class in Social Anthropology, and decided to stick around Dalhousie for an additional year, completing a second major and an honors thesis on the subject of Traditional Music in a Contemporary Moment: Musical Pan-Indigeneity as Revitalization in the Wabanaki Region. The region is a confederacy of five indigenous nations including the Wolastoq and extending across the current provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec, and the state of Maine. The thesis title took the form of a mission statement for Dutcher, who was led to the wax recordings by a living tribal elder, sweat lodge keeper, and First Nations ambassador, Maggie Paul.

“ ‘I made my way to Ottawa [the site of the Canadian Museum of History] and went down into the basement archives there and threw on some headphones and started a journey,’ Dutcher recalled for an NPR presentation last year.

“ ‘To not just hear the songs, but also to hear the background noise and to hear them laughing and telling jokes — there was a sense of entering into that space through these voices. And that was something that changed my life.’

“The Dalhousie anthropology faculty have declared in writing their admiration for where their alumnus has taken his education and his life. … ‘Dutcher honors intergenerational connections, his voice singing on with the voices of his elders … It disrupts widespread expectations of indigenous music as a thing of the past, and shows instead how it lives in the present, fully capable of working and remixing in contemporary idioms. This has a decolonizing effect, in that it unsettles public conceptions that all too often primordialize and essentialize indigenous art forms.’ ”

I love the idea of a decolonizing effect. I never thought about that — about not only promoting healthier relations between indigenous people and others going forward but actually starting to undo harm that was done in the past. How great if we could apply that idea to all kinds of wrongs the world has seen!

More at San Francisco Classical Voice, here.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: