Last January I had the pleasure of attending a live performance of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love at the Metropolitan Opera, sung by the amazing veteran tenor Matthew Polenzani and rising star soprano Pretty Yende. Well, Donizetti and Pretty Yende are back at the met, this time for the La Fille du Régiment. So this Wednesday evening I’ll be headed back to the Met, and you can too—there’s a port key in your local movie theater! For $15 you can have a great seat in one of America’s great opera houses, and no hassles with TSA to get there.
If you’re tempted to catch the opera in your local cinema Wednesday, or if you’re just curious to learn a little more about opera while you walk you dog, check out an exciting new opera-related podcast called “Aria Code,” a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera a pair of NYC radio stations.
Aria Code is eminently listenable and often illuminating … a bonus feature for opera fans, and a welcoming entry point for newcomers.–NYT
Each episode focuses on a single aria and has an interesting format: Rather than featuring interviews in a traditional sense, each Aria Code episode blends audio from interviews with three individuals, at least one of whom is a featured performer at the Met. This episode, devoted to “Ah, mes amis” from La Fille du Régiment, includes an interview and singing by Javier Camerena, whom we’ll hear sing Tonio on Wednesday.
One day near the end of high school, I brought home from Westlake’s Porter Public Library a record album entitled something like “Classical Music: A Sampler,” put it on the turntable in our living room, and sat—fists clenched, eyes closed—and listened really hard. Trying with all my might to GET IT. Having been raised on Barbara Streisand and light rock and with no musical training, I might as well have been trying to read hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone. I’m not sure how long I gave the “greatest hits” blaring from our stereo, but it didn’t take long to realize I was in over my head.
Thirty-three years later, I still neither sing nor play an instrument, I still don’t read music, and I’m still listening really hard to make sense of the mysterious universe that is classical music. One big difference between my struggles then and my struggles now: Now I have some great mentors. Some of them are people I’m privileged to know and to attend concerts with. Others I learn from through amazing podcasts books. And some I discover in books. By way of recommendation, this post is dedicated to three excellent books I’ve read recently that offer valuable insights into classical music and how to listen to it, each representing a distinct approach.
This blog is primarily dedicated to opera, so let’s start there. One way to approach the task of initiating a reader (listener) into the world of classical music is through the grand sweep of history. Such is the approach of the magisterial (but not creatively titled) “A History of Operas” by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker. Starting with opera’s early beginnings in church music and chant, the book takes us through Mozart, the Bel Canto superstars, Verdi, Wagner … it’s all there. If you love opera and want to know more, this book is a worthy read. If you’re just getting your feet wet with opera, it’s probably not the best place to start. (That would be by attending a Met in HD presentation at your local movie theater!)
While certainly informed with deep knowledge of the history and development of the genre, Joseph Kerman’s approach in Concerto Conversations is more discursive, more topical than historical. Essentially a compilation of a series lectures Kerman, an American musicologist and critic, gave at Harvard in the 1990’s, Concerto Conversations looks at the concerto from a variety of angles. For example, in the opening chapter, “Getting Started,” Kerman examines various ways composers begin, focusing especially on the challenge of the relationship between the concerto’s two major “musical agents” (the soloist and the orchestra). Chapter 2: “Polarity and Reciprocity” discusses in a helpful way a significant difference in approach to how to manage the relationship between solo and orchestra: On the one hand, “polarity” is a mode in which solo and tutti are not responding directly to each other and may even seem to be in tension with one another. It is a mode of contrast. This is the mode of Vivaldi’s concertos. On the other hand, “reciprocity” is a mode of much more engaged, relational dialogue, in which the relationship between solo and tutti seem to be much more obviously in conversation with one another. This is the mode of Mozart, Beethoven and the Romantics. Other chapters/lectures include “Reciprocity, Roles, and Relationships,” Virtuosity/Virtù,” and “Diffusion: Concerto Textures.” The book is filled with dozens of musical examples and comes packaged with a CD, an attempt to allow the reader at home to experience some of the listening allow the way that attendees of the original lectures would have enjoyed.
Finally, another wonderful approach to taking a guided deeper dive into classical music is to read the biography of a composer. Judith Chernaik’s 2018 masterpiece Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, which I picked up not because I was dying to know more about Schumann but because pianist Jeremy Denk’s NYT review of the book was so compelling. This book is a revelation—a gorgeously and lovingly well written biography. And it’s such a treat to read a composer’s biography in this era of YouTube and Apple Music. I was able to soak myself in Schumann’s music—finding and listening to any and every piece Chernaik referenced as I saw fit, any time of day or night—during the 10 or so days it took to read this book.
Any one of these books would be a great way to take a big step forward in one’s journey in listening to and appreciating classical music. Happy reading! Tim
Scott Little’s debut opera, “The Story of an Hour,” will receive it’s world premiere production on Saturday evening, November 17, at Kent State University. It’s appropriate that the opera will premiere at KSU because Scott is a junior Music Education major there. The one-act opera, for which I wrote the libretto, is based on a Kate Chopin short story with the same title. Scott and I met just two years ago, introduced by a mutual friend shortly after I had decided to look for a composer interested in a collaboration. We had a first coffee in December 2016, and what’s happened since has been amazing: by June 2017 we had a reading at my home of a complete draft of the libretto, a first sing-through at Kent in November 2017, and now here we are.
I interviewed Scott this week about his experience composing his first opera. Here’s what he had to say:
The Opera Evangelist: I remember clearly that when we first had coffee, I knew that you were someone with whom I wanted to collaborate for two reasons: you asked good questions, and I could tell you were already thinking in terms of getting it up on stage somewhere. I’m curious, what about meeting me made you think this might be a workable partnership?
Scott Little: I liked how passionate you were about the project! I loved how you wanted to do something you hadn’t done before and wanted to expand your artistry. I really value trying new things and being the least experienced person in the room, which is why I do so many different projects. I saw those qualities in you, which let me know that working with you would work out!
OE: How would you describe what you’ve learned along the way?
SL: Oh gosh, I’ve learned loads. I’ve learned how long staged works take to create and what kind of artists have to be involved; I’ve learned about writing for the human voice and how to tell a coherent story; I’ve learned what it means to hustle in order to get your work performed (mostly from watching you, by the way); and I’ve learned that I can do it. There were many moments where I didn’t think I could finish the thing, and so I’m grateful for people like you and Professor [Marla] Berg who kept me going along the way.
OE: What has been the most difficult part of composing this opera?
SL: The most difficult part of writing an opera was holding myself accountable. You may recall that I was late to turn in music on a couple occasions (see above). Writing an opera is especially difficult because operas are long and they deal with a lot of emotional content. In other projects, if I don’t know how to write music that invokes a particular effect/image (e.g., the chaos of a train crash), I don’t have to write it. In the opera, I had to figure things out that I would have otherwise ignored. If I were to do another opera, I would set up systems of accountability, such as more meetings with collaborators where I have to show my progress.
OE: What’s been the most awesome part?
SL: I have so enjoyed working with the opera students and faculty at Kent State. These students have shocked me with how invested they are in the project! They are super excited to be able to bring characters to life, and I’m learning a lot from watching their processes.
OE: I know you reached out to faculty at KSU early on and along the way. How important have their help and support been?
SL: Professors Marla Berg and Dr. Jay White have been wildly helpful! As director of the opera program (and the director of the operas themselves), Professor Berg was the one who decided to program our work. She took a chance on us, and she has worked very hard to gather musicians and crew members, to stage the work, to advertise the program, etc. I’m currently taking voice lessons from Dr. White, so I see him coaching students on a variety of pieces—he spends a lot of time honing on in who a character is and what a song is saying below the surface. Seeing him apply the same expertise to our work when coaching performers has been an awesome experience.
OE: Early on in our work together I told you that I saw the composer as the “boss” in the composer-librettist relationship, and you bristled at the idea. Now that you’ve completed work on your first opera, do you still feel that way?
SL: I’m still not sure about the composer/librettist balance, but I have learned a lot about the composer’s role in the creation of opera as a whole: no one person, even the composer, is most important. I’ve actually been very “hands off” with the rehearsal and staging process over this semester. The actors, directors, conductors, and musicians have taken charge of the process—I’m just along for the ride! I think now that the composer is just one cog in a big machine. As audiences, we give the composer of a work too much clout and need to be more reverent of the people behind the scenes who are making that work a reality.
I may be an opera blogger, but I was a fiction writer first, so for the purposes of this post, I have fabricated five well-intentioned but naïve followers of my blog, and engaged in a little Q&A with them. I’d be delighted to engage in dialogue with real followers of the blog. Please consider posting a response!
I’m dying to attend an a great opera, but I live in a rural area, and we don’t have an opera company here. Whatever can I do? –Sally B., not too far from Topeka
I’m so glad you asked, Sally. The Metropolitan Opera, one of the world’s great opera companies, has for more than ten years broadcast part of each season live in movie theaters all around the country and increasingly around the world. It’s simply amazing. The program, which has grown to include ten operas each year, has made opera widely accessible to such an unprecedented degree that I have to believe it’s cultivating a whole new wave of opera fans. As for me, the Met in HD experience has single-handedly fanned the flames of my love for opera from a very slow burn over a 25-year period to an inferno of passion over the past five. Check it out!
Sounds good. I’m tired of watching all the shouting and bickering on my TV, and I’m going to need somewhere to go when 2020 hopefuls start invading my state. What’s up next? –@IKeepAmericaPurple, Ames, IA.
Hey there, Keep. Thanks for your question. Do you like Hitchcock films? You’re in for a treat! The prolific young American composer Nico Muhly has created a brand new opera based on Marnie, the story of “a young woman who makes a living by embezzling from her employers, moving on, and changing her identity (Wikipedia). Though Marnie is best known based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film adaptation, Muhly based his opera not directly on the Hitchcock film but on the 1961 novel by Winston Graham. Nonetheless, the set and costuming sure have the feel of a classic film, and the actress who brought the character to the screen, Tippi Hedren, now 88, took a curtail call with her operatic counterpart on opening night on October 19.
Mulhy’s Marnie will be broadcast live on Saturday, November 10 and encored on Wednesday, November 14.
Wait a minute. Puccini died in 1924. People aren’t really writing new operas, are they? –Roberto D., San Juan, PR
Oh, Roberto, don’t be silly. Of course they are! In fact, all of the major opera companies in the US have commissioned new works over the past few years (I attended the world premiere of Bel Canto, based on the novel by Ann Patchett,at Lyric in 2015). And festivals of new opera works abound, from the Cleveland Opera Theater’s New Opera Works Festival to the Prototype Festival in NYC, and beyond. This is actually Nico Muhly’s 2nd commission for the Met. His first Two Boys opened in 2013.
What can I expect if you go to the Met in HD screening of Marnie?
–Hakim A., Pocatello, Idaho
Good question, Hakim. First of all, expect high quality performances both by world class singers and by arguably the best opera orchestra in the world. Expect close ups interesting camera angles, good sound quality, on screen subtitles just like in a foreign language film.
I haven’t seen this opera or heard this opera yet. Here are a few insights from Anthony Thomsasini’s October 21 review in the NYT:
“ With his keen ear for unusual harmonies and eerily alluring sonorities, Mr. Muhly painstakingly tries to use his imagination — and his proven skill at orchestration — to flesh out Marnie’s inner life.”
“Mr. Muhly opted, it would seem, to maintain mystery through whole stretches of the score, to suggest emotions rather than making everything explicit. He may have held back too much. The music sometimes seems like an accompaniment to the drama, rather than a realization of it.”
“The best scenes in ‘Marnie’ come when Mr. Muhly, in sync with Mr. Wright, takes creative chances. Rather than providing Marnie with any sort of tell-all aria, the opera gives her short transitional ‘links,’ as Mr. Muhly calls them, disoriented soliloquy-like passages where in broken bits of restless, leaping lines she voices bitter, confused ruminations.”
But wait, there’s more. One of the best things about the Met in HD experience is a lot of cool behind-the-scenes material during intermissions. While the crowd in New York is waiting in line for the restroom or the opportunity to pay top dollar for plastic cupful of rum and coke, the evening’s host will treat the cinema audience to backstage interviews with the prinicple singers and previews of upcoming productions.
Oh, and popcorn.
Are there any downsides to seeing an opera in a movie theater as opposed to live? –Michelle O., Washington, D.C.
Sure, Michelle. Consider the analogy to watching sports in person vs. on TV. On TV you get the benefit of replays, close ups, and commentary, but you’re beholden to the camera’s eye. Usually that means following the ball or puck. In person, you can look where you want to. The same holds true at the opera. On screen, you’re stuck looking at whatever the camera wants you to see. The folks at the Met have gotten more sophistocated over the years, so you’ll get a variety of camera angles, but there are still times I’d like to be able to look elsewhere or be able to scan the entire stage at once. That said, the view of the Met stage from the Cedar Lee Theater is a lot better than it would be without the Met in HD. That’s where I’ll be next Weds at 6:30. You?
In my efforts to encourage potential opera lovers to give it a try, I’ve learned that part of the resistance to opera–even among sophisticated symphony and theater fans–is fear of the unknown. Pittsburgh Opera’s website has a great section of FAQ’s, and their answers can be helpful whether your planning a trip to the beautiful Benedum Center in Pittsburgh, the beautiful Maltz Performing Arts Center in Cleveland, or a live in HD broadcast from the Met in New York. Check it out.
Dr. Dulcamara (Paolo Pecchioli) with his Elixir of Love
I was lucky enough to see Elixir with my sweetheart at the Met, January 2018.
Pittsburgh has the “Elixir” You’ve Been Looking For
Get the Elixir of Love on your calendar.
Pittsburgh Opera’s production includes performances on Saturday evening, April 21
and Tuesday evening, April 24, each of which pairs nicely with a sporting event (see #2 below), so decide whether you prefer a weekend getaway or the extra boost that comes from playing hooky from work for a couple days. Pick the perfect night(s) for a getaway with your sweetheart (one someone you’re hoping to make your sweetheart) and order tickets today.
Note: Use the promo code POEVANGELIST and get 20% off when you order tickets!
Make it a double header: add a Pirates or a Pens game.
The Penguins, a perennial contender for the Stanley Cup, are scheduled to host the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of their seven game series on Friday, April 20. The Pirates, who are off to their best start in years, host the Detroit Tigers for an interleague game on Wednesday the 25th. Whether it’s hockey Friday/opera Saturday or opera Tuesday/baseball Wednesday, this Pittsburgh double header is sure to be a winner.
Book a room in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.
Whether you choose the Hampton (where I recently stayed—nice rooms, full breakfast included), the Marriott, or Airbandb, plan to stay in the Strip District, where you can park your car at the hotel and walk everywhere you need to go.
Where to Eat
On my last visit to Pittsburgh I had excellent meals at S&D Polish Deli, a super casual cafeteria with amazing food, and Gaucho Parilla Argentina, a crash-the-counter style (order then sit) chill place for wood-fire grilled meats, both on Penn Avenue in the heart of the Strip.
Snuggle up and listen to a little bit of the music in advance.
As I explained in a recent post, a little advance preparation can greatly enhance your experience at the opera. Start with a quick read of Pittsburgh Opera’s PDF study guide, which includes a synopsis of the opera, some background on Donizetti and the bel canto style, and some guidelines on what to listen for.
Next, of course, take time to get familiar with some of the musical highlights. Offer to rub your date’s feet or back while playing a few of these lovely songs in the background. Add some flowers, candles, a little Amoretto…. Encourage your amour not to fret about understanding the lyrics at this point. Just allowing the gorgeous melodies to penetrate your soul will give you some familiarity with the opera, making it easier to feel more a part of what’s going on on stage. By all means start by going to YouTube and listening to several great tenors singing “Una Furtiva Lagrima” (“A Furtive Tear”), one of the most famous opera songs ever written. This aria, which appears very near the end of the opera, celebrates the moment when the peasant Nemorino realizes at long last that the woman of his dreams loves him back. If you find yourself yourself drawn to this music and the emotion it conveys, dig around and find a few more of the opera’s famous songs: “Quanto amore” or “Voglio dire” or “Prendi, prendi.”
Sit back, relax, and give yourself over to the experience.
To get maximum enjoyment out of the opera night portion of your romantic getaway, make sure to check into your hotel in time for an afternoon nap (or at least some down time). Also, you might want to keep dinner on the light side and save alcohol for a night cap (or the ball game) so you don’t get sleepy during the performance.
Plan to get to the Benedum Center early and enjoy soaking in the beauty of this gorgeous 1928 gem of a performance space. (Scroll up and check out my blog’s cover photo, which I took inside the Benedum Center). Finally, don’t be thrown off by the subtitles. It’s just like watching a foreign language film. Within minutes you’ll be drawn in by the music and the story, and you’ll forget you’re reading.
Get yourself ready for Puccini’s Butterfly this month!
The raison d’etre for this blog is my belief that a lot more people—music fans, theater fans—would love opera if they gave it a real try. In my posts I try not only to let readers know about upcoming operas but also to offer tips on what to look/listen for to get the most out of a night at the opera house. In this post, I’d like to share my approach to preparing to attend an opera, because while beautiful music speaks for itself, a little advance preparation—having a sense of what to expect—can significantly enhance one’s experience of an opera performance.
Before we get into the opera directly, let me offer an analogy: Let’s say you’re getting ready for the newest release in the Star Wars franchise. It’s been a while since you saw the original six, and maybe adult life has gotten in the way and you haven’t seen all of the more the recent films (shame on you!), but your kid is begging you to go see this one in the theater. What do you do? One option, of course, is to feel frustrated and confused during the movie, then ask a lot of annoying questions later. Another approach is to keep interrupting the movie by asking your kid annoying questions throughout the screening. There’s got to be a better way, right? Right.
Question: So what do you do?
Read a review.
Do a little digging online to refresh your memory about how the Star Wars universe works, who’s who, etc.
Ask your kid a bunch questions before you go. (Which doesn’t mean she won’t still look at you like you’re an idiot, but what can you do?)
All of the above.
Answer: Partial credit for 1, 2, or 3. Full credit for 4.
Obviously, going to a live opera is different in many significant ways from accompanying your kid to The Last Jedi, but just as in the above scenario, taking some time up front to get ready for the opera can make the experience both more enjoyable and more satisfying. As an example of how I prepare to attend an opera, let’s look at the Cleveland Opera Theater’s upcoming production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, April 27 & 29 at the Maltz Performing Arts Center at University Circle.
What do I do? Not surprisingly, the answer is “I read, and I listen.”
Read a little. If I’m truly going to nerd out in advance of a performance, I may read a couple of scholarly articles or book chapters about the opera (and in the case of Puccini, a bunch of letters he wrote to his publisher and friends during the opera’s composition). But my general go to source to get started looking into a new opera is Sir Denis Forman’s A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings. Sir Denis isn’t quite as funny as he thinks he is, but I find his light-hearted plot summaries and assessments of key moments to “LOOK OUT FOR” (see below) to be very helpful.
If you’re interested, leave me a comment and I’ll find a way to get you a copy of his seven-page intro to Madama Butterfly. For a less detailed but still very useful overview, check out this four-page study guide that Pittsburgh Opera created for its Butterfly a few years ago. With plot synopsis, character intros, and a discussion of Europe’s fascination with Japanese culture at the time of the opera’s composition, the study guide would be great place to start.
Listen to the words and the singing. Once you’ve read a little bit about the opera, it’s time to dive in and listen. In my experience, it’s worth taking even a little time to listen to a recording, following along in the libretto, or script. Here’s what Fred Plotkin, former performance manager of the Metropolitan Opera and author of Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera, has to say about listening to an opera while following the libretto:
“While listening to a recording of the opera, you should try to read both the [Italian] and the English columns (see example below). This is not as difficult as it seems once you get the hang of it. In reading the English, you will know what is happening, when, and which music relates to those events. By reading the [Italian] while listening to the singer, you will learn what the words sound like and better understand the art of the composer.”
If you’re not so into tracking down a libretto (here’s a link—there goes that excuse), then at least give yourself the gift of listening to the opera’s opening (so you’re on familiar territory right away) and to a few of the more famous arias and duets. (YouTube is the easiest way to go here. Just search for some of the lovely duets as Butterfly and Pinkerton are falling in love: “Bimba, bimba, non piangere,” “Vogliatemi bene,” or “Viene la sera.” And certainly listen to Butterfly’s most famous aria, “Un bel di vedremo.” (One beautiful day he’ll come back for me. Spoiler alert: Don’t hold your breath, sweetheart! I’ve seen Miss Saigon. I know how this is gonna end.)
Listen to the music. No sooner does Fred Plotkin make his case for listening closely to the words—in two languages no less—than he immediately starts a chapter on “Listening to the Music” in which he advises: “Try to disconnect yourself from literal, rational thought; where music is concerned, allowing yourself to feel it without the encumbrance of analysis is crucial. When you feel music, you will find meaning in it that has nothing to do with words or events.” So who’s right, the Fred of “you should to read both” languages or the Fred of “disconnect yourself”?
Both, of course.
Digging into the story and the language of the libretto and feeling the power and beauty of the music are each rewarding in distinct but complementary ways. Put them together, and add scenery, costumes, lighting, and a room full of opera lovers, and you’re in for a treat. Buy yourself and a friend (or a dozen friends) tickets to Cleveland Opera Theater’s gorgeous Madama Butterfly, and come on down the Maltz. Whatever level of familiarity you have going in, you’re going to see an excellent performance, and the music and story will certainly carry you along. See you at the opera!