MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

High Notes and High Jinks: Lawrence Brownlee as Count Ory


Lawrence Brownlee; photo (c) Johnny Andrews/The Seattle Times

My profile of Lawrence Brownlee is out in today’s Seattle Times. The world-class tenor is back in town to star in Rossini’s Count Ory at Seattle Opera:

He’s in demand around the globe, a favorite of music lovers at the most prestigious venues for classical music.

But Lawrence Brownlee reserves a special fondness for Seattle.

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Filed under: Lawrence Brownlee, Rossini, Seattle Opera, singers

Buffa from Bolcom

Over at the Aspen Festival there’s a new production of William Bolcom’s comic opera A Wedding — based on the Altman film — starts tonight. Here’s my essay for the Aspen program:

A Perfect Marriage: Comedy and Collaboration in Bolcom’s A Wedding

Throughout his career as a composer and pianist, William Bolcom has broken down artificial barriers between styles, between perceived divisions that separate “serious” music from entertainment. Along with his prolific output in the traditional genres, Bolcom has breathed new life into popular American idioms from the late 19th/early 20th centuries: piano rags, cabaret songs, and show tunes from a vanished era.

He and the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris — his longtime performance partner and his wife — have concertized as a duo since the early 1970s, celebrating the variety of the American Songbook.

All of these abiding interests nurture the vital language Bolcom has evolved — a language he exploits with virtuosic mastery in A Wedding, the third of his four large-scale operas. (The most recent of these, Dinner at Eight, will be premiered next March by Minnesota Opera.)

Bolcom’s first three major operas were commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago: McTeague, based on the Frank Norris novel from 1899, premiered in 1992; an operatic treatment of Arthur Miller’s classic A View from the Bridge, was first seen in 1999; and A Wedding was unveiled in 2004. The Music Academy of the West subsequently commissioned a version of A Wedding scored for reduced orchestra, which was first staged in 2008 in Santa Barbara, California; this is the performance edition being used for Aspen Music Festival’s production.

Referring to the so-called eclecticism that is integral to his style, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bolcom says: “The process of composition, as the word indicates, is about how you put it all together. What will generate electricity when these various planes meet? This is where you have to go by instinct. It helps to have a vocabulary and a theatrical experience.”

Bolcom’s most ambitious work, Songs of Innocence and Experience: Musical Illumination of the Poems by William Blake (which garnered multiple Grammy Awards) exemplifies this sense of coherence amid its abundant mingling of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” stylistic references — and thus looks ahead to his achievement in A Wedding. Songs is a category-defying epic of invention that was more than a quarter century in the making: part song cycle, part cantata, and part theater work.

A Wedding marks the final major project he completed with longtime artistic partner Arnold Weinstein (1927-2005), a leading 20th-century poet and playwright. For A Wedding, Weinstein teamed up with the legendary film director Robert Altman (1925-2006) to adapt Altman’s 1978 film for the opera stage.

“Bob worked out at the scenario, asking, ‘What does a scene have to accomplish?’ and then Arnie would write it up,” recalls Bolcom. With its chaotic cast of 48 individual personalities, the film A Wedding might seem an implausible source for operatic treatment, yet the composer became intrigued by its potential as a comic opera and by the challenge of making this suite of characters musically memorable.

“You have to see the film several times to be able to work out the relationships,” says Bolcom. “It’s a whirlwind. I got to see the shooting script, where [Altman] had written out thumbnail sketches of the secret behind every single one of them.”

The composer’s solution was the musical equivalent of this process: to establish a musical “secret” that unlocks the heart of each character. For the cast of A Wedding, he applied “the same principle” he had used to cope with the variety of Songs of Innocence and Experience.

“Every one of these characters has a voice. Each character required a  song — a music to make them come to life. I have found that most people have at least one song within them. The popular music world is filled with people who wrote one perfect, amazing song and nothing else.”

Still, it took a long time to figure out a way to distill the original 48 characters of Altman’s film down to a musically manageable ensemble of 16 major roles for the opera, each with their own back story. (The four operas of Wagner’s Ring cycle, by way of comparison, encompass a cast of more than 30 distinct characters.)

“One thing Bob and Arnie figured out was to conflate some of the different film characters into one,” Bolcom explains. For example, the opera blends the art dealer who falls in love at first sight with Tulip, the mother of the bride (memorably played by Carol Burnett in the film) and the lecherous physician who treats the grandmother of the groom into the same character.

“The libretto is very skillful in how it negotiates all these characters,” observes stage director David Schweizer, who began his career as a protégé of Joseph Papp in New York. “The structure is a little surprising from time to time, which is part of the fun of it. It has a cinematic, fluid structure that makes it natural for me to think of simple, imaginative ways to move from moment to moment that are not dependent on big, physical sets. When I direct I like to think of how people move through space and how they would behave.”

Schweizer points to the congruity between Altman’s methods as a film director and Bolcom’s own background in the theater. “Altman was famous for the improvisatory approach he used with a group of actors who knew him very well. There was always something creative happening on the set. But that improvisatory quality was based on consummate technique. That’s very similar to what you find with Bolcom. He has the confidence of a mature artist who is unconstrained, who feels free to do what his instincts tell him to do as a composer.”

Schweizer remarks on the connection between Bolcom’s extensive background in improvisation and his musical style. He believes it’s a key to the composer’s ability to juggle with the myriad stylistic reference points that populate the score for A Wedding: madcap Rossini ensemble, Copland’s Americana, jazz, rockabilly Elvis, Broadway pizzazz, and a touch of Gershwin. Yet for all of its references, A Wedding “is not a pastiche. It has a voice of its own which is a contemporary musical voice — and that voice is also quite touching sometimes. The opera involves a tricky tone that hovers between farce and pathos. It can’t be too cartoonish but it also can’t be devoid of a sense of humor.”

“The language of A Wedding contains a lot of Americana, which is fitting for a summer in which we are looking at the mid-20th-century symphonists,” says Asadour Santourian,  Vice President for Artistic Administration and Artistic Advisor for the Aspen Music Festival. “Bill Bolcom — who is an alumnus of Aspen — is one of their descendants. This is an eminently American work in its musical syntax that hearkens back to a sound world all its own, quite different from what we find in Copland or Barber.”

Bolcom’s musical sleight of hand corresponds to A Wedding’s dramaturgy, which unpredictably mixes satire and farce with very serious situations. “There’s an almost musical Chekhovian quality in this group of people and what is happening to their spirits,” Schweizer observes.

If Chekhov is part of the equation, so is the effervescence of opera buffa as exemplified above all by Mozart’s innovative masterpiece — a work that similarly involves a wedding: The Marriage of Figaro. As an American corollary to Figaro’s fault lines between the aristocracy and the servant class, explains Bolcom, A Wedding pits “the nouveaux riche [the parents of the bride, Muffin] against old money [the groom Dino’s family background].” And, like Figaro, the very confusion of A Wedding’s story line is essential to its effect.

“Comedy is infinitely harder to do than tragedy,” according to Bolcom, whose first two operas were firmly rooted in the ancient Greek understanding of tragedy — particularly A View from the Bridge, for which playwright Arthur Miller explicitly had the model of Greek tragedy in mind when molding his drama set in working-class Brooklyn of the 1950s. The challenge of comic opera involves not only the timing but also motivation. “With tragedy you are talking about people who are the victims of forces that they may have unleashed themselves, pointing toward something spectacularly self-destructive. How many great laughs are there in opera?”

“Comedy requires its own skill,” says Schweizer. “What it has in common with music for the theater is timing. At the same time, opera singing is so emotional by its nature that to turn that to comic effect requires a real deftness that is not necessarily a province of singing.” Santourian believes this inherent tension poses a fascinating challenge for the young cast in Aspen Music Festival’s production.

“It’s not only about singing but about acting choices as well. Although it’s a comedy the performances must be delivered as seriously as possible.” He especially admires “the singability of this score. You see what a master Bolcom is at setting texts, so that even though the music flavors and colors what is being said, he always makes sure the text is not obscured.”

Because of these challenges — comic timing, the correlation of singing and acting, the ensemble coherence of the while — A Wedding is particularly well-suited to showcasing the talents of young, emerging singers. “With a young ensemble you can use their physicality to create a whole world,” Schweizer explains. Referring to a previous student production of the opera, Bolcom’s wife Joan Morris notes with amusement that “the kids were getting the jokes before their teachers did.”

“I’m glad that A Wedding hasn’t yet become part of that treadmill of conservatory operas,” says Santourian “This gives our singers an opportunity to tackle an American work that will be very fresh for them.”

(c) 2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Aspen Music Festival, William Bolcom

Jets vs Sharks


Filed under: photography

What Use Is Religion? Bayreuth’s New Parsifal

“…where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation.” –Richard Wagner (Kunst und Religion)

The 2016 edition of the Bayreuth Festival began today with a new production of Parsifal, staged by Uwe Eric Laufenberg (Intendant of the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden) and conducted by Hartmut Haenchen (following the controversial withdrawal of Andris Nelsons).

Laufenberg on the relevance of Wagner’s final stage work for an era beset by religious fundamentalism:

This piece basically focuses on the religion of Christianity. On one hand, the grail knights in “Parsifal” inhabit a realm of charity, empathy and sympathy, and they come to the aid of the needy. Then there’s the other side: a crucified God, blood rituals and military symbolism.

I believe that Wagner wanted to bring out the factors of benevolence and mystery in this work. Not to openly criticize religion, but to enable one to experience it. That’s interesting in our own times of widespread religious fundamentalism – but also in times of a Pope Francis, who has been de-emphasizing the institutional side of the Catholic Church and stressing the factors of mercy, grace and benevolence.

It’s always been pertinent to ask: What are religions doing, and are they allowing themselves to be abused for ideological purposes? What do they really stand for?

Laufenberg on setting Parsifal in the Middle East:

Wenn es um ein Stück ginge, das in Syrien oder Saudi-Arabien spielt, würde ich mich keineswegs um eine Auseinandersetzung mit dem Islam drücken. Wagner hat den „Parsifal“ in den Pyrenäen verortet, wir bringen ihn in den Nahen Osten, Richtung Syrien, Irak oder vielleicht Jerusalem, wo die monotheistischen Religionen einen Wahnsinnskampf gegeneinander führen. Im „Parsifal geht es aber um die Frage: Was ist uns die Religion wirklich wert? Wo berührt uns die Religion eigentlich noch? Was bedeutet das Mysterium des gekreuzigten Gottes?“

Hartmut Haenchen on conducting Parsifal:

BR-KLASSIK: Sie haben in einem Gespräch in Bezug auf “Parsifal” gesagt: Man muss erzählen und nicht zelebrieren. Was heißt es konkret?

Hartmut Haenchen: Wagner hat das Werk ja auch nicht “Oper” genannt – aus gutem Grund. Die Handlung des Stückes ist vor allem im ersten Akt beschränkt. Es wird erst Mal 45 Minuten lang erzählt. Und wenn ich das zelebriere, dass die Texte auseinander fallen, dass man die Textzusammenhänge nicht mehr verstehen kann, weil man Tempi wählt, die Textverständlichkeit unmöglich machen – dann wird es zelebriert, aber nicht erzählt. Und ich lege großen Wert drauf – und da stützte ich mich natürlich auf die Quellen – dass die Geschichte erzählt werden muss. “Der Fluss der Sprache bestimmt das Tempo”, – das hat Wagner selbst gesagt. Und dem muss man sich grundsätzlich unterordnen.

From a 1906 lecture by Rudolf Steiner:

Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote an epic on “Parsifal.” It was inartistic, but it sufficed for his time; for there were in those days men who had a measure of clairvoyance and could accordingly understand Wolfram. In the Nineteenth Century it was not possible to make clear to man the deep meaning of that great process of initiation in a drama. There is, however, a medium through which man’s understanding can be reached, even without words, without concepts or ideas. This medium is music. Wagner’s music holds within it all the truths that are contained in the Parsifal story.

 Complete cast list from Bayreuther Festspiele

Complete libretto (German/English)

More background on Parsifal

Filed under: Bayreuth Festival, conductors, directors, Wagner

Rameau to the Rescue

Today brings the premiere of a new production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1735 “ballet héroïque” Les Indes galantes, being streamed live from Bayerische Staatsoper (staged by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and conducted by Ivor Bolton).

A little background from Deborah Kauffman:

Les Indes galantes (1735) belongs to a different operatic genre, the opéra-ballet, which featured independent—but loosely connected—plots separated into several entrées. As the genre’s name suggests, dance played an important part in the opéra-ballet, and Les Indes galantes is no exception; each entrée closes with a divertissement, a collection of dance movements and dance songs that tie into the plot of the entrée.

Here’s an interview in the Süddeutsche Zeitung with the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui:

Es handelt sich um vier verschiedene Nationalitäten in vier Akten. Wie bringt man die in einer schlüssigen Handlung zusammen?

Indem wir, und daran arbeiten wir sehr hart, schauen, was sie alle verbindet, wie jede, jeder von ihnen Teil eines größeren Ganzen werden könnte. Jede einzelne Figur könnte genauso gut eine andere sein, was in unserer Annäherung an das Stück tatsächlich passiert: Phani und Fatime werden zum Beispiel von derselben Sängerin gesungen. Alle Charaktere könnten letztlich zu einer einzigen Person verschmelzen. Ich entwickle ein Narrativ, wonach ihre Geschichte eine Doppelung erfährt. Diese Methode, die handelnden Personen zu betrachten, macht aus dem Werk ein in sich geschlossenes Ganzes und bewahrt es davor, in vier Teile zu zerfallen.

See Bayerische Staatsoper blog post (also in German).





Filed under: ballet, Bayerische Staatsoper, Rameau

Debussy Plays Debussy

Via Open Culture (h/t Benjamin Lukoff).

Filed under: Debussy

Discovering Ursula Mamlok

I’ve been enjoying dipping into Bridge Records’ wonderful series devoted to the late Ursula Mamlok (who died this May at the age of 93).

From Margalit Fox’s New York Times obituary:

Ms. Mamlok, who moved back to Berlin 10 years ago, was for decades a fixture of the New York contemporary music scene. A longtime faculty member of the Manhattan School of Music, she was known in particular for her chamber music, piano works and vocal pieces.

From an interview with Bruce Duffie in 1996:

The purpose of music is probably that if you are gifted in music, to express yourself as somebody else would be in writing stories or poetry.  The purpose is to not entertain, but to give people something that could be either uplifting or disturbing; something for people’s emotional life.  Perhaps there is also an intellectual purpose, depending on what kind of music.


Filed under: Ursula Mamlok


240x775July is my favorite birthday month for artists (Mahler, Kafka, Hesse, Neruda, Thoreau, GB Shaw, Klimt, Janáček, etc.), so it’s always pleased me that Proust, one of my supreme idols, managed to be born in the heart of summer.

In honor of Marcel Proust’s 145th birthday (10 July), here are some reflections that have been circulating recently.

Biographer William C. Carter, who believes À la recherche du temps perdu is “arguably the best book ever written about perception,” on Why You Should Read Proust:

I think he helps us to see the world as it really is, not only its extraordinary beauty and diversity, but his observations make us aware of how we perceive and how we interact with others, showing us how often we are mistaken in our own assumptions and how easy it is to have a biased view of another person.

Daniel Mendelssohn, one of  Literary Hub‘s Six Writers on the Genius of Marcel Proust rails against the cheapening of the term “Proustian,” which has come “nowadays to refer to pretty much anything sepia-toned, anything having to do with ‘memory.'” Time, he asserts:

is not just the subject, or one of the subjects, of In Search of Lost Time; it is also the medium in which the novel must be read, if it is to be understood. To read this novel takes time; there is no faking it, there are no short-cuts, like five-minute yoga (one of the many fatuities of a frenetic era that is obsessed with “wasting” time, as if to spend time on anything were somehow a loss).

And Laure Murat ponders How the French Reread Proust:

To read or reread Proust brings about this symbolic identification at every level. From the first example to the last, it has really only ever been a question of being named or naming oneself: from “I am a writer” to “I am asthmatic”(or both), the Remembrance systematically determines names given and names taken individually, thereby establishing a relationship between the reader-rereader, the author, and the book that has no other parallel in the accounts of rereading other texts I have gathered.


Filed under: anniversary, Proust

Lethal Soundwaves

In her article “The Loudest Sound In The World Would Kill You On The Spot,” science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker describes the frightening power of extremely low-frequency soundwaves (infrasounds):

Humans exposed to infrasounds above 110 decibels experience changes in their blood pressure and respiratory rates. They get dizzy and have trouble maintaining their balance. In 1965, an Air Force experiment found that humans exposed to infrasound in the range of 151-153 decibels for 90 seconds began to feel their chests moving without their control. At a high enough decibel, the atmospheric pressure changes of infrasound can inflate and deflate lungs, effectively serving as a means of artificial respiration.

But at least humans are spared from hearing such massively loud infrasounds. Koerth-Baker quotes soundwave researcher Milton Garces on how humans evolved a way to cope with infrasounds that are pervasive as natural background noise (though thankfully not lethally loud). Such infrasounds include microbaroms from marine storms and the sound of wind: “We developed our hearing threshold so we don’t go nuts. If we had hearing perception in that band it would be difficult to communicate. It’s always there.”

Filed under: acoustics

Happy 156th, Gustav Mahler

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, Mahler

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