Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Scouting report


Christine Goerke with Sir Andrew Davis
     Opera must really be an odd taste, because it sticks in readers' minds, festering, and even though I only write a handful of columns about opera, it's often the go-to topic when angry correspondents are looking for something to toss back in my face. Outraged with my position on their pet fixation, they'll snarl, "Stick to opera!"
     Happily, at least for today, though it's a subject that, even after years, I'm still in the early stages of understanding. When someone accuses me of being an opera expert, I instantly correct them: No, I'm an enthusiast. An expert commands a body of knowledge and an acuity of perception that I can't touch. Andrew Patner, may he rest in peace, was an opera expert. Alex Ross is an opera expert. 
     I'm just a fan. I find that opera gives my life unique pleasure, scope and meaning. Opera is my version of following pro sports, only, you know, interesting. Though I'm open to the idea of eventually developing a better grasp of opera. Having dabbled, I've begun to notice certain glimmerings of a more subtle understanding, a few green shoots of insight. When the Lyric announced they'd be doing "The Merry Widow," next year, my first thought was, "What, again?" and then I smiled, realizing, "Ah, Renee Fleming wants to star in it. That's why it's back so soon. Now I see." 
     Or reading Alex Ross's "Musical Events" column in the May 11 New Yorker. I was on familiar ground from the get-go, since it begins talking about one of my favorite operas, Ruggiero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci," currently on-stage at the Met, paired, as is typical, with Pietro Masagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana."
     Of course, knowing of Cav/Pag isn't much—they're two of everybody's favorite operas, among the most familiar operas of all time. Pagliacci's "Vesti la Giubba" is the soaring aria evoked when popular culture wants to convey "Opera." Cavalleria is only a little less famous.
    Then Ross pivots from those pair of one-hit wonder composers to the workhorse of all opera, Richard Wagner. First Houston, an unexpected oasis of culture in the Texan intellectual desert, where "Die Walkure" is starring Christine Goerke. He moves to Eric Owens, singing "The Flying Dutchman" at the Washington National Opera.  
     Hey, wait a second, I thought. Goerke. Owens. I KNOW those guys. I MET them.  Goerke at a press conference announcing Lyric's ambitious presentation of Wagner's full four opera Ring of the Nibelung cycle, which will be performed at the Lyric Opera beginning in the fall of 2016 with "Das Rheingold." And Owens,  an excellent Porgy in last season's "Porgy and Bess," participating via Skype, will be the Ring's Wotan.
    Not that Ross mentions any of this. I was tempted to wave the oversight as a bloody shirt, more evidence of the unfortunate invisibility of Chicago to the Gotham elite. But Ross once commented on this blog—thank you Andrew—so I decided his heart is pure, and he probably just didn't have the space, and since I hate it when local media fusspots zing me without gathering the courage to ask for my perspective, I checked with Ross: slight to Chicago or not enough room? He replied:
Thanks for the note, and for giving me a chance to respond! Comments about New York ignoring Chicago are seldom unjustified — Andrew Patner might well have chided me on this very point — but in this case I don't feel guilty as charged. I had very little space to discuss the performances, and so I chose to focus entirely on what I heard in DC and Houston. Not only did I omit Goerke and Owens's future engagements in Chicago, but I also made no mention of Goerke's appointment to sing Brünnhilde at the Met in 2018-19. In other words, it was a rare case of New York ignoring both New York and Chicago. Needless to say, I am very eager to hear Owens's Wotan — I've been anticipating the occasion on my blog for several years — and plan to attend the Rheingold in Oct. 2016.
    Fair enough. So to bring this lengthy overture to an end, and get to the point of this: Ross's scouting report from the Grapefruit League in Texas and the swamplands of DC. (New York isn't the only city that gets to snap open the lorgnette and squint at smaller places). How did Goerke and Owens do, Wagner-wise? 
     "Both singers fell short of technical perfection," Ross writes, "at a few moments of high pressure, they issued tremulous, imprecise sounds. Yet they delivered portrayals of acute, pulsing emotion, belying the stereotype of the well-trained American singers who is expert in various styles and native to none."
     Good news, in the main (you should read his entire piece by clicking here).  Ross calls Owens "the most overtly human, openly wounded Dutchman I have heard live" and Goerke's entrance "ricocheted through the house and radiated joyous strength." 
     Joyous strength is good. That's what I go to Wagner to hear. Falling short of technical perfection won't even register on my score card. When I mention Wagner to people and they make a face and talk about his operas, which they haven't heard, taking a long time, I think, So does being alive. Ross said he paired these two singers because they are both "new" to Wagner—Owens first sang Wagner five years ago. It would have been nice if he had the room to tuck in that this duo will share a stage here for years. But his not mentioning it meant that I had to, sort of a gift, which mirrors how I came to writing about opera in the first place. Wynne Delacoma  had retired, yet the opera world somehow carried on, and I said to myself Someone has to pay attention to this

31 comments:

  1. Like many of life's finer pleasures, opera takes a little work compared to, say, musical comedies, because of its musical and dramatic complexity. Much as I enjoyed Lyric's "Carousel.," i have no burning desere to see it again anytime soon, and would need a strong incentive to sit through another "Sound of Music, However, I've see twelve or thirteen production of Mozart's "La Nozze de Figaro," and found something new to admire wih each.

    As for the performers, it's usually a lifetime career, with singers becoming exponens of he great roles in their fourties and fifties -- even older for the men. A voice teacher once observed: "Opera is hard. You have to relax your jaw and swear eternal vengeance." At any given time there are only two or three Wotans of the first rank walking the earth, and, having heard two of them in my time, Eric Owen's take on the role will be something to look forward to,

    Being at the moment in Firenze, one of the places opera was born, I wen't over to inspect the new, architectuarally splendid, opera house, soon to open .. Nice to know that despite their great financial difficulties, opera still survives in the country of its birth.

    Tom Evans

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    1. ah, Florence, Italy-glad to hear you visited there TE

      and you said it in Italian too, good

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    2. It's a magical place. Particularly at night. The restauranti, the ancient streets and piazzas, the strolling crowds, the virtuostic street perfomers. And the gelato!! Oh my God! The gelato!

      TE

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    3. yes, gelato indeed-that's why I prob have cholesterol problems

      grazie, signiore Tom, buon giorno

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  2. I traveled to Toronto to se Ms. Goerke's first Brunhildes. and I agree with Mr. Ross' assessment. I look forward to seeing her portrayal again here in Chicago.

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    1. See. I wish we could edit these comments.

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    2. The thing to do is copy your remarks, delete them, paste them back, make your correction and repost.

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  3. I saw/heard Renee Fleming's Meryy Widow at The Met. As much as I admire her, she seemed to be phoning it in. Cav/Pag there was magnificent... particularly the chorus and orchestra! By the way, nothing' occurring there now. The season is over.

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  4. First Consumer Reports and now a shout out to the New Yorker - if you can work the Economist into your next post you'll have hit all three of your magazine's! (To the less devoted NS readers, that's a reference to his "I only read three magazines" piece).

    Though I don't have much interest in Opera myself (save Carmen, but as the saying goes, "It's not Opera, it's *Carmen*") I have no problem with how much Neil writes about it. It would be fun if it aligned with my general criticism of his economic writing, except his writing on Opera doesn't convey aloof elitism or willful ignorance, let alone the snobbery at allegedly "lesser" forms of art such as in Alan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" (a thought provoking book but music isn't one of the stronger arguments in it). Neil's the enthusiastic fan and enthusiastic fandom usually makes for good reading regardless of the subject. (Read Lester Bangs' famous review of Astral Weeks and it will compel you to listen to the album. Then - save the one cut that everyone agrees is out of place - if you're like me you'll be baffled as to what the fuss is about).

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  5. Well I see the fat lady really is singing.

    Her last name is definitely German.

    I like Renee Fleming.

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    1. I think most of us would like Renee Fleming even slinging hash on Wells Street.

      John

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  6. A-N-A, ah Astral weeks, love Van Morrison's music

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    1. I know - I don't get what I'm missing! Every year I pull the album out (first vinyl, then I even bought it on CD) and each year I'm frustrated that I don't find it immensely beautiful like Bangs and so many others. Then I play "Jackie Wilson Said" and my Van Morrison world is set right.

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    2. JW said isn't bad, but not one of my faves of his.

      Vinyl? you must be older than I thought

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    3. And it stoned me from Moondance is a good one . Now this is a fun conversation.

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  7. anon not anon- You can't even give a small compliment or be agreeable without adding a zinger. How insufferably arrogant you are. You must be insecure deep down to always be having to look down your nose on everything. If you are so smart, learn a bit of humility too.

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    1. You may be right - I was going to compliment your spelling, but you did leave the dashes out of my moniker...

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    2. We can't all be humble and lovable. (Which indicates the level of my cultural depth.). But seriously, why lower yourself to personal criticism rather than taking issue with the actual statements made?

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  8. Oh, Tupelo Honey, Into the mystic, great stuff. Who else is a VM fan here?

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  9. Neil, You should do a blog article on your fave pop music.

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    1. I was thinking of that, a week on my favorite singers. They're an eclectic mix. The last two musical acts I actually bought tickets to see were, I believe, Montgomery Gentry and Tom Waits.

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    2. Gentry? never figured you to like country music

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    3. What classic rock era bands do you like?

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    4. A magazine had me interview Loretta Lynn once, and in doing my due diligence I had to listen to her music, which I liked. Then taking the family to Nashville, we of course went to the Opry, and MG was playing. Smart songs.

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  10. When Maria Callas sang for the first time at the Met, the New York papers headlined, "Maria Callas makes her American debut!"

    When someone pointed out that she had in fact sung the previous year at the Lyric, their attitude was, "It doesn't happen until it happens in New York."

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    1. ah those snobbish New Yorkers

      Scribe, you must be older than I thought

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    2. Not quite. I heard that story from my mother.

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  11. I never dreamed I would try attending an opera, but after experiencing "Carmen" at the Lyric a few years ago I ended up subscribing. Christine Goerke in Elektra was amazing; she actually startled me with her powerfully dramatic presence and singing.

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  12. Oh I see above a pic of Rahm in school. Funny, he doesn't want to pay the teachers more, he's almost as anti union as Rauner. And for his inaug, he side stepped the pension speech by talking about schools. He's still better than Daley of course.

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Thanks for commenting. As soon as I vet your remarks, they'll be posted, assuming they aren't, you know, mean and crazy.