Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Opera Wednesday

Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters had some serious star power. Peters, who made her Metropolitan Opera debut at the age of 20, was vivacious, cute, perky - and enormously talented. Merrill could do it all, from high opera to "Autumn Leaves" with Victor Borge, to singing the national anthem for his beloved New York Yankees. Together, they made for a dynamic duo both on- and off-stage (they were briefly married in the early 50s), and were fixtures on popular television, appearing often with stars such as Sullivan and Carson. Ah, those were the days.

Here they are singing the conclusion of the aria "Dunque Io Son" from Act I of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia in a 1962 broadcast of NBC's Bell Telephone Hour - a wonderful program that brought the best in classical music to the television audience through first-rate productions. (Little-known fact: every episode of the Bell Telephone Hour, from 1959 to 1968, was taped in color - a very forward-thinking move.)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Flashback Friday: On the decline of orchestras (and classical music) today

I began taking voice lessons after being inspired by a few friends, and in February 2002 took my first official foray into vocal lessons. I never thought I would see the day that classical music became "the" music for me, yet for Serena LaRoche, Leah Hungerford, along with choral directors Jennifer Adam, Peppie Calvar, Susan Kelly, Keith Walker, Lillian Quackenbush, Alicia Walker, and numerous other choral singers (Rebecca Cunningham), soloists (Ashley Briggs, Sarah Rich, Jaeyoon Kim, Jacob Will, Kelsey Harrison), my musical attitude took a turn for the better, and as we learned three and a half years later, perfect for Our Word.

Having sung in four Summer Choruses, two one-offs at various churches, and a Governor's Carolighting in the hastily organised choir, the dearth of choral opportunities at home with pop drivel and karaoke replacing serious material and orchestras concerns me. While listening to a talk radio show, the hostess noted, "We need to pray for the survival of classical music not only because of its beauty, but also because it reminds us of the centuries when our society was so infused by the Christian gospel."

Patrick Kavanaugh in World magazine commented on such musical problems. While he noted it may be economic, market, the bullying of bad rock music in our culture, it was easily noticed that Biblical text and Christian theology dominates classical music, noting Brahms’ Requiem, Händel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Compare the difference between the Mass in C Major and that of a modern rock tune certain Life Enhancement Centres play in their buildings. Nolo contendere est. Keep in mind in our society today, humanism is the official state religion, and to advance the cause they have to prohibit classical works from performance in order to force us to carry humanism's dark agenda found through the modern pop tunes of society today.

Here is Mr. Kavanaugh's thought about the trouble with music today.

Originally published October 22, 2012

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Opera Wednesday

Last month we took a look at Benjamin Britten's intense Peter Grimes. This week it's Britten's equally intense Billy Budd, based on the novella by Herman Melville with a libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier. Like Grimes, there is a homosexual subtext to Billy Budd, but I don't think it's gratuitous; rather, it becomes an integral part of the plot.

Here we see a clip from the Metropolitan Opera in their 1997 production, featuring the great James Morris as John Claggart, Britten's personification of evil. This is Claggart's famous aria; interestingly, when I was talking with Mitchell about this, he mentioned that this aria was cut from NBC Opera's 1952 production. Why? Well, it's true that cuts had to be made in order to squeeze the opera into NBC's limited timespace (there were so many cuts, in fact, that NBC wound up calling it Scenes from Billy Budd), but the real reason was that NBC Opera mastermind Samuel Chotzinoff felt television could (and eventually would) streamline opera.

Claggart's aria, as is the case with many arias, was designed primarily to give us a glimpse into the character's thoughts and motivation. Chotzinoff reasoned that television, with its ability to offer close-ups and other special effects, would be able to convey emotions and thoughts more quickly and effetively - a kind of opera shorthand - rendering such long scenes unnecessary. I don't think he was right then (and neither did Britten; he was furious at the cuts NBC made, leading to a profound distrust of TV's ability to broadcast opera), and I don't think he's right now. This aria, which Chotzinoff thought unnecessary, has come to be seen as one of the opera's greatest moments. You be the judge.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Flashback Friday: Searching for justice

Ihave never stuck up for any criminal. I have merely asked for the orderly administration of an impartial justice...Due legal process is my own safeguard against being convicted unjustly. To my mind, that's government. That's law and order."

 — Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Opera Wednesday

This week we look at Verdi's massive opera Macbeth, originally written in 1847 and revised in 1865. Verdi was a master at Shakespearian adaptations (what a pity he was not able to pull together the King Lear he had so wanted to do), and with Macbeth he found a ghost story perfectly suited to opera.

In this performance from 1978, we hear the great Shirley Verrett as the murderous Lady Macbeth in the famous scene where she is unable to wash the blood from her hands, haunted by the memories of her past crime. Una macchia è qui tuttora! - "Yet Here's a Spot." The conductor is Claudio Abbado, recorded at the famed Teatro alla Scala .

Friday, May 5, 2017

Flashback Friday: War as a metaphor for war

This extraordinary photo, of gas-mask-wearing soccer players (likely soldiers playing the game during some training or down time) accompanies Brian Phillips' equally-extraordinary account of soccer during World War I, "Soccer in Oblivion,"  at Grantland. For me, World War I has always held more fascination than any war other than our own Revolution, because the cultural implications are so distinct.

While it's important to acknowledge, as Spengler does in this Asia Times piece, that World War I wasn't necessarily any more horrific than other wars of the past, at least in pro-rated manpower, it's also true that the Great War inflicted a kind of cynical somberness that the world likely will never recover from.  The thought of God looking down on His creation, all of it, doing its damnedest to tear itself apart, is a sad one, perhaps one of the saddest that a religious person can imagine.

The money quote from Phillips' story, which should tell us everything we want to know about the war, and about ourselves, then and now:

Never such innocence again. But we still make the same mistakes, because we still understand war through analogy and our analogies still fail. Now we see it as a video game, or we see it as a component of the NFL’s set of minor paraphernalia, jet flyovers part of the same combo pack that includes beer commercials and classic-rock riffs. We’re still trying to make the metaphor work, only now we’re doing it in reverse, endlessly describing games in terms of who conquered/eviscerated/bombed/slaughtered whom. It’s the same old trick, though. It’s a way to hide the horror under one layer of spectacle and another layer of moral virtue — a way to pretend that war is like a game, that there are rules, that there is safety. A way not to look into oblivion. We missed the cruel irony in all those soccer balls that show up in World War I photos. Nothing is a metaphor for war. War is a metaphor for nothing.

Make no mistake - war, no matter how horrible, is sometimes necessary.  That should happen sparingly, and without celebration, though.  As the soldier (attributed to Robert E. Lee, perhaps apocryphally) once said, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.”

Originally published August 11, 2014

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Opera Wednesday

What's in a name? Let's find out.

Our first piece goes by the name "Moscow Nights." Singing is the great baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, performing at the last night of the BBC Proms from a few years ago. Not every classically trained singer can pull off singing popular songs (witness the Three Tenors singing "You'll Never Walk Alone," which I refuse to link to as a public service to all of you out there), but Hvorostovsky more than pulls it off, which is one reason why in his prime he was considered one of the most exciting singers in opera. (Catch him sometime in Evgeny Onegin if you get the chance.)


"Moscow Nights" is also known as "Midnight in Moscow," and it was under this name that Kenny Ball had this huge hit. No singing, and quite a different sound, but undeniably the same piece of music.


So which do you prefer? There is no right or wrong answer. The only answer is that good music is good no matter how you play it.
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