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Photo: YouTube
Long ago, music was recorded on a wax cylinder like this. Out of curiosity, contemporary opera singers experimented with wax recording at Lincoln Center’s New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Once at my old job, we tried an ice-breaker game in which we said our first name and an adjective describing ourselves. My first name begins with “c,” and the first adjective that popped into my head was “curious.” Since then, I’ve often thought that was the right word for me. I am curious.

And I admire people whose curiosity takes them interesting places. Recently the curiosity of a Met tenor led to a fun experiment with wax recording that you can listen to online.

Anthony Tommasini writes at the New York Times, “Whenever Luciano Pavarotti was asked to name the greatest tenor ever, he always answered Enrico Caruso, who became a household name from his recordings, made from 1902 until his death in 1921.

“But how did Pavarotti know? Especially on Caruso’s breakthrough records, the sound is scratchy, wiry and wobbly. The same holds true for early recordings of Nellie Melba, Luisa Tetrazzini and other luminaries of that era. While there are entrancing hints of astonishing voices, it’s hard to tell what they were really like. If only we could record a singer today on the equipment used back then and compare the playbacks to modern recordings.

“Well, that precise experiment took place earlier this month at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, thanks to the curiosity of Piotr Beczala, a leading Met tenor.

“Touring the Met’s archives a couple of years ago, Mr. Beczala mentioned that his dream was to record some arias under early-20th-century conditions. He wanted to learn firsthand how faithful — or far-off — the results would be.

“Peter Clark, the company’s archivist, mentioned Mr. Beczala’s fantasy to Jonathan Hiam, the curator of the performing arts library’s Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound; Mr. Hiam then contacted Jerry Fabris, from the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey, who knows a collector in Illinois who makes wax cylinders like those Edison once produced. …

“The material surrounding the wax cylinders is not really wax, [Mr. Fabris] said, but something called metallic soap. Before using the cylinders, he had to warm them up under a light to make the material soft enough for the stylus to cut grooves as the disc spun. …

“Mr. Beczala was first up, singing ‘Quando le sere al placido’ from ‘Luisa Miller,’ accompanied by Gerald Moore, who played on a small upright piano so as not to compete with the voices. Putting the cylinder in place, Mr. Fabris was careful not to touch the surface: Even a slight thumbprint can create an impression. While Mr. Beczala sang, Mr. Fabris held a small brush in one hand and a little squeezable air bag in the other to disperse the dustlike shards of wax that are created when the stylus cuts into the cylinders.

“Since the machine has no meter to check levels, Mr. Beczala tried out the opening of the aria twice, the second time moving closer to the machine. Both times, the ringing, virile quality of his sound came through fairly well, though dynamic variations essentially disappeared. Mr. Beczala was most rattled that his intonation sounded off — though this was a flaw of the equipment, not of his solid technique. …

“Listening to the playback, he commented that the resonance was not bad and that the high notes were O.K. But his softer singing sounded faint and distant, and the consonants, he said, ‘are nonexisting,’ though in the room his diction was excellent.”

Read more about this at the New York Times, here, and listen to the wax cylinder recordings the experiment produced.

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Photo: James Glossop 
Charlotte Hoather as Uccellina in the “BambinO” production from Scottish Opera, Improbable theater company and the Manchester International Festival.

I know that babies take swimming lessons these days and yoga with Mama. I know they go to music classes (“put your instruments back in the Taster’s Choice bin before we go home”). But opera?

Well, why not? Some babies are so loud everyone says they will be opera stars when they grow up.

Michael Cooper, a reporter for the New York Times, wrote in March at about an opera actually designed for babies. “The average age at the Metropolitan Opera is about to get lower — much lower. Sitting still will not be required: Audience members will be encouraged to crawl around and interact with the singers if they like. The dress code will be so relaxed that many operagoers may opt for onesies.

“No, the barbarians are not at the gate. The Met is presenting a new opera for babies.

“The company will present 10 free performances of ‘BambinO,’ an opera for babies between 6 months old and 18 months old, from April 30 to May 5. …

“The most unusual opera, about a bird, an egg and chick, was written by the composer Lliam Paterson and developed by Scottish Opera, Improbable theater company and the Manchester International Festival. It was directed by Phelim McDermott. …

“ ‘In the Met’s never-ending quest to develop audiences of the future, we’ve decided to start at the very beginning,’ Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in a statement.

“The opera will be performed for 25 babies, who will be seated on the laps of their caregivers on benches with cushions around the perimeter of the stage area.

Changing tables and stroller parking will be provided.

“The Met’s education team will work with researchers in infant development and early childhood music education from the Rita Gold Early Childhood Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.” More at the New York Times, here.

I apologize for not posting this in time for New York readers to take babies to the opera, but you can read a thoughtful review at Broadway World:

“No one in the audience as on Facebook or Twitter during Lliam Paterson’s opera BAMBINO at the Met’s List Hall — a rare occurrence for the company these days — on Friday May 4. In fact, no one looked at a cell phone at all during the performance. And nobody fell asleep — even though the opera was written for 6-18 month-olds. …

” ‘It’s lovely to see the full range of reactions the show has received,’ says Paterson, ‘and that every little toddler is just a person — and you’re already seeing all of the characteristics that are eventually going to come out.’ ”

Let’s hope operas for babies help build audiences for the future. “Free” is definitely the way to start.

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Photo: National Institutes of Health via AP
Soprano Renee Fleming looks at a brain scan with NIH neuroscientist David Jangraw after singing in the MRI machine.

To help scientists understand how music helps patients heal, notable musicians like opera’s Renee Fleming are getting brain scans.

Lauran Neergaard writes at the Associated Press, “Music increasingly is becoming a part of patient care — although it’s still pretty unusual to see roving performers captivating entire wards, like at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital one fall morning.

“ ‘It takes them away for just a few minutes to some other place where they don’t have to think about what’s going on,’ said cellist Martha Vance after playing for a patient isolated to avoid spreading infection.

“The challenge: Harnessing music to do more than comfort the sick. Now, moving beyond programs like Georgetown’s, the National Institutes of Health is bringing together musicians, music therapists and neuroscientists to tap into the brain’s circuitry and figure out how.

“ ‘The brain is able to compensate for other deficits sometimes by using music to communicate,’ said NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, a geneticist who also plays a mean guitar.

“To turn that ability into a successful therapy, ‘it would be a really good thing to know which parts of the brain are still intact to be called into action. To know the circuits well enough to know the backup plan,’ Collins added. …

“ ‘The water is wide, I cannot cross over,’ well-known soprano Renee Fleming belted out, not from a concert stage but from inside an MRI machine at the NIH campus.

“The opera star — who partnered with Collins to start the Sound Health initiative — spent two hours in the scanner to help researchers tease out what brain activity is key for singing. How? First Fleming spoke the lyrics. Then she sang them. Finally, she imagined singing them.

“ ‘We’re trying to understand the brain not just so we can address mental disorders or diseases or injuries, but also so we can understand what happens when a brain’s working right and what happens when it’s performing at a really high level,’ said NIH researcher David Jangraw, who shared the MRI data with The Associated Press.

“To Jangraw’s surprise, several brain regions were more active when Fleming imagined singing than when she actually sang, including the brain’s emotion center and areas involved with motion and vision. One theory: it took more mental effort to keep track of where she was in the song, and to maintain its emotion, without auditory feedback.”

Read how the new insights are being used to study Alzzheimer’s patients and others here.

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Photo: Sara Miller Llana/Christian Science Monitor
The annual Festival Verdi in Parma, Italy, brings opera to the people by performing in private homes. Just like the old days.

I love the idea of having arts performances in one’s living room, whether it’s a cabaret duo, jazz, opera, drama, or anything similar. It’s partly because I used to write and perform plays as a kid, especially at Christmas in the living room.

Sara Miller Llana has a cool story about living-room concerts at the Christian Science Monitor, a really interesting newspaper with an international focus, in case you’re interested.

She writes, “A young tenor’s voice, in his rendition of ‘La donna e mobile,’ fills the palatial living room with one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most famous canzones from ‘Rigoletto.’

“It’s a late Thursday afternoon and the sun is setting, as guests seated around the piano begin to clap. The hostess is suddenly in the center of the circle for a short waltz.

“For a moment, it feels as though we are transported back to the 19th century, when Verdi, among the world’s most famous composers, created 27 operas, some of them the most-loved in the world.

“But it’s 2017, and this is the sidelines of the month-long Festival Verdi held each year in Parma, Italy. If any region can call itself a heartland of opera, it’s this one.

“The festival … aims to bring opera off the stages into the community in a series of events – from Verdi sung in rap, to the staging of ‘Nabucco’ by inmates at the local jail, to these living room performances for aspiring opera stars. And at least with the latter, the festival brings an ancient custom of private home performances that started in mid-18th century Europe to 21st century Italy.

“Accompanist Claudia Zucconi, who is studying for her masters and wants to specialize in opera, says that playing these antique keys in such a living room ‘was very emotional.’

“ ‘The piano was very ancient, so it was special for a pianist to play it. I felt like it was another epoch, in another time, like I could be dressed liked a princess playing in a room like this.’

“Opera – and specifically local hero Verdi – are so central to the town’s identity and culture that people debate it at locales the way they might discuss the latest soccer match. …

“The director general of Parma’s Teatro Regio, Anna Maria Meo, says the responsibility she feels is nothing short of enormous. Only a few nights ago, after a performance that had only one intermission, theatergoers stopped her on her way down from her office and asked why there weren’t two. She replied that the opera was already long. ‘ “But you can’t cut the space for us to discuss what we are watching, we need at least two,” they said,’ she recounts over a cappuccino in the theater’s baroque café.”

More here.

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Photo: Lemon42
Follow along at Vienna State Opera in any of six languages with the new subtitle system.

My husband and I use the subtitle feature for DVDs we get from Netflix, even when the movies are in English. We’re not hard of hearing, but it’s so easy to miss what people are saying — especially if the film is from England and the characters speak Mumblecore.

For the oddball plots of operas, subtitles can be even more important. Consider what the Vienna State Opera has done to keep patrons from too much confusion.

Elsabeth Parkinson reports at Limelight Magazine, “The Vienna State Opera has replaced its 16-year-old seat-back system with a new setup offering opera libretti in up to six languages …

“Since the opening of the company’s 2017/2018 earlier this month, subtitles are offered from suitably dimmed screens, in English, German, Italian, French, Russian and Japanese.

“A pre-performance information system provides such useful things to know as plot synopses, cast lists, and any general current news to do with the activities of the company. Audience members are able to view a list of frequently asked questions, or subscribe to the Vienna State Opera’s monthly newsletter. …

“Several other opera companies around the world have been diversifying their sub- and super-titling options in recent years. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera has been building on their custom-designed Met Titles system since 1995, and today it offers opera translations in English, Spanish, German and Italian. Opera Australia’s annual outdoor production Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour has allowed the audience to follow along in either English or Chinese since last year. …

“ ‘It’s extremely beneficial for [tourists] to be able to read the text in the language that they’re most comfortable with,’ [Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini] said. …

” ‘The trick is making it as unobtrusive as possible, so that you don’t detract from the performance and having it in the back of the seat is a fantastic solution to that.’ ”

Implementing such a system is more difficult when opera companies don’t own their home venues, of course.

“ ‘There are only a few companies in the world that have in-seat surtitles, and to the best of my knowledge they are only offered in venues which are controlled by those companies,’ [Victorian Opera’s Managing Director Andrew Snell] says.” More at Limelight, here.

Do you enjoy opera? I don’t go as often as I’d like. I do appreciate help with text. One of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed Resurrection, which composer Tod Machover based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, was that it had supertitles. Of course, when you use words above the stage, you really can have only one language.

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Photo: Craig T. Mathew / Mathew Imaging
Morris Robinson and Brenton Ryan in L.A. Opera’s “The Abduction From the Seraglio.”

Yesterday my husband and I were talking about Swedenborgianism. I’m not sure why. The little I know comes from an obscure 1876 Wilkie Collins novel called Two Destinies. From that I learned that followers of Swedenborg believe that nothing but trouble can result from trying to avoid your destiny.

Whether or not bad things would have happened to Morris Robinson if he kept running from his destiny, I can’t say, but as Christopher Smith writes in the Los Angeles Times, it sure took the acclaimed bass a long time to embrace it.

“Opera,” writes Smith, “is often called the most irrational art form. Seen through that lens, bass singer Morris Robinson’s unlikely career path makes wonderful sense.

“At a young age, from a family and culture that reveres singing, Robinson aspired to be a drummer instead. He ignored college music scholarships and conservatory programs for a free-ride to play football at a military college. Afterward, bypassing all thought of studying music at grad school, he worked for a Fortune 500 company in regional sales of data storage.

“At 30, in finally attempting to sing professionally, he tried out for the chorus of ‘Aida’ at the Boston Lyric Opera, the biggest company in New England. A week later, the music director handed him music for a solo role, accompanied by a plea: ‘Please don’t screw it up.’

‘A lot of the purists, they don’t believe my story,’ Robinson said. ‘They don’t believe it until they witness it themselves.’ …

“Now 47 and equipped with 18 years of major roles with A-list companies nationally and internationally, Robinson has forged a life path in opera that seems inevitable in retrospect. After all, he was ‘the rare person,’ L.A. Opera music director James Conlon said, ‘born with the great voice where strength predates technique. It’s a round, large voice.’ …

“But throughout his life he seemed to ignore, even actively ward off, singing — though it was always around him.

“Raised in a musical clan in Atlanta, Robinson had a dad, mom and three young sisters who all sang. Around 6, he participated in a church choir and then the Atlanta Boy Choir, alternately immersed in religious and secular music.

“But singing was at best a backdrop, maybe even an obstacle. …

“ ‘To me, at heart, I was a drummer. Because if you’re going to be in a church in the South, there has to be rhythm. It was always about beats, beats, beats.’

“He entered a performing arts high school. His senior year he made all-city band and all-state chorus.

“But all he really cared about? Football. Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing in the high 200s, he was aware ‘the cool guys are out there making plays on the football field while you are wearing your uniforms, marching around at halftime. … Who wants to do that?

“ ‘I had to redeem myself, my masculinity, I guess.’ ”

Read how Robinson kept resisting the inevitable and how destiny got the last say, here.

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Tim Jonze wrote a funny story at the Guardian about hiring a therapeutic opera singer to deal with his anxiety about becoming a father.

“The soprano reaches a dramatic climax, demonstrating impressive lung power as she sustains the dizzying peak note, before bringing Quando me’n’ vo’ to its close. It is a powerful, emotionally draining performance, and one that seems to resonate around the room for some time after she has finished. Which is why I get up off the sofa and ask her if she would like a cup of tea.

“This, as you might have guessed, is not your typical night at the opera – and not only because it’s only just gone 11 am. It is called Opera Helps, and is a project dreamed up by the artist Joshua Sofaer. The gist is this: contact the Opera Helps phoneline with a personal problem, and they will endeavour to send a singer to your house. Said singer will briefly discuss the issue with you, select a suitable aria that addresses it, then perform it for you while you relax in familiar surroundings: on a comfortable chair, for instance, or even in bed.

“It’s not therapy as such – in fact, they are very keen to stress that their singers are not trained therapists – but the project does aim to help you look at your problem from a new perspective and, hopefully, experience the healing power of music.

“ ‘It’s about giving someone the space for reflection, the same way having a chat with a friend might give you fortitude to carry on,’ says Sofaer, who found success running the project in Sweden before bringing it to the UK. …

“ ‘In my experience, you either respond to the music or you don’t – I don’t think it is based on your musical education or what class you’re from or how much money you’ve got, which is the common perception. The idea that opera needs an expert audience is a complete misnomer.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

Photo: David Bebber for the Guardian  
Opera singer Caroline Kennedy sings to Tim Jonze to relieve his stress.

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