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Music I am working on right now:

Erda's aria from Das Rheingold
A whole bunch of Handel
Schubert's Winterreise
Mahler's "Du bist der Welt abhanden gekommen"

...and today my singing teacher asked to hear Eboli's Veil Song from Don Carlo. Surprising. I remembered the words, but forgot the cadenza. Eeesh. Thankfully, the top As no longer present a problem.

Confusingly, I'm getting the Veil Song ready to audition for Amneris, because Amneris has no arias. It may well be the only audition at which I ever perform the Veil Song, since Eboli herself is sadly out of my reach (seriously, if I ever tried to sing O Don Fatale I'd end up splattered over the orchestra pit).

There are few things I love better than singing music with long, sustained phrases. To me, it feels like the vocal equivalent of speaking in complete sentences. Also-- I don't know if this is oxygen deprivation talking or what-- but there are times when those phrases make me feel this sort of expansive, wing-spreading euphoria, as if borne aloft on a tide of fire. It's a good feeling, and a salutary reminder of why I do this.

It has been a sad, barren year in terms of finding work, and the most high-profile job I had was in extremely difficult circumstances. I coped, because I am a warrior, and because the alternative was nothing-- but the end product was nowhere near as good as it could have been, had I been cast six weeks from opening night and not two.

It's hard to keep faith during the lean times. I mean, it's easy when one's mood is positive-- those times of "Rrrraaah! I am Elizabeth Oakenpiano, sole heir to the Kingdom Beneath The Stave! Fear my semiquavers!" I have learnt to recognise the negative moods and try not to introspect overmuch during them, or make any permanent decision while feeling lousy.

But in the practice room, things are going well. Whenever an opportunity comes onto the radar, I trust to be able to meet it halfway.
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A whole month since I last posted. LJ is such a ghost town these days.

(What is it with people who apologise for not having posted? Does any response exist other than "That's OK, there's a whole sparkly internet out there that I was reading instead"?

In the interim I have:

--done an avant-garde thing involving a Bach chorale

--started putting a set together with some excellent alternative-musician friends

--had the hideous cold that seems to be going around

--taught, sewn and not done enough practice.

Also, I saw some opera and some theatre. Every director who wants to be all edgy and relevant is inserting a Pussy Riot reference into their show. Obviously freeing Pussy Riot would be a very good and desirable thing, but in the meantime, the performer-with-bag-over-their-head meme is becoming a little tired.
Thoughts on ENO's Julius Caesar )
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Part of the track listing from Pro Cantione Antiqua's Purcell In The Ale House:
Yonder comes

Since time so kind

I cannot come every day

Once, twice, thrice

Tomorrow the fox will come

Canst thou love?
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It's probably a good thing that I'm busy tomorrow night, because otherwise I'd need to be at the Wigmore Hall listening to John Mark Ainsley, and I think his Dichterliebe would leave me crying my eyes out. Or turned to stone inside. Or something.

Ainsley was the generation before mine at Oxford, so I know something of his backstory. The first I saw of him, though, was his Idamante for Welsh National Opera back in the day. Since then he's been quietly demonstrating to the English tenors of this world what it sounds like to have testicles. If Britain holds an heir to the mantle of Langridge, it's probably him.

Meanwhile: Is there such a thing as a song cycle that ends happily?

The closest I can think of is the first of them all, Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte. Even there, the poet is not reunited with the distant beloved; he only derives some satisfaction from imagining her singing the songs he sends her.

The miller of Schubert's Schöne Mullerin drowns himself in the millstream; it's unclear what will happen to the singer of Winterreise, but I think we can all agree that it's nothing good.

To be fair, the singer of Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben is very happy throughout most of the cycle, which spans at least a few years of her life. But at the end, the husband dies; and of course she can never love again because she's only a woman and he was her whole world. So much for her.

The poet of Dichterliebe faces a similar fate. His beloved is not dead, but has rejected him after a brief but (to him) meaningful relationship. In the final song, Die alten, bösen Lieder, he bitterly abjures both the love he once felt and all the artistic inspiration that sprang from it. The cycle ends there because he is no longer a lover; but is he still a poet? And if not, who is he?

At least he gets over it (which the singer of Winterreise never does) and lives on; but to do so, he has to cut himself off from the source of what made him a poet. That is the most severe interpretation; the least severe is that he's just being a drama queen, and the restatement of the opening theme at the end of the song means that he will soon fall in love again in exactly the same way. He has, of course, learnt nothing; and so the cycle repeats endlessly.

All of which is to say: don't be the protagonist of a German song cycle if you can possibly help it.
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Tonight I saw British mezzo Alice Coote sing Schubert's Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall. Since I'm preparing my own Winterreise at the moment, I think this might be the moment to start writing about it.

Das Liederbloggen )
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Tonight I went to see a new opera that I really enjoyed.

I'm a little biased, because most of the cast and chorus were people I know. Also, I only got a couple hours' sleep last night, so my judgement may be a tad hazy. But Piccard In Space, by Will Gregory of Goldfrapp fame, made me exceedingly happy, and I'm very, very glad I heard it. Here's their publicity spiel:

Will Gregory’s debut opera is a classic adventure about the brilliant physicist, Auguste Piccard. On a mission to prove Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, he takes to the skies with his assistant in an airtight capsule. Travelling to a record-breaking 51,000 feet, they survive being roasted by the sun, toxic balls of mercury and crashing into the Alps. Clearly not a blackboard and chalk type of scientist, Piccard became world front-page news in 1931 and the inspiration for Hergé's cartoon character Professor Calculus in the Adventures of Tintin series.

Review below )
Piccard in Space will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Wednesday 13 April at 7pm. If you listen, I'd be intrigued to know what you thought of it.
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"Theresienstadt was and remains for me a school that teaches structure. Previously, where one was unable to experience that weight of cruelty due to 'comfort' (this magic of civilisation), one was allowed simply to disregard it; it was easy to create the beautiful form. Here, where artistic substance has to try and endure its daily structure, where every bit of divine inspiration stands counter to its surroundings, it is here that one finds the masterclass."

--Viktor Ullmann, Goethe and Ghetto, 1944
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The Emperor of Atlantis is a witty, mordant satire of the Third Reich, an audacious gesture of resistance from the Theresienstadt concentration camp where the composer and librettist were imprisoned. The music is surprisingly, hauntingly beautiful, but the inhabitants of Theresienstadt never got to hear it. When a couple of SS officers came to the dress rehearsal, they didn't like what they saw. The performances were banned, and the composer, librettist, orchestra and their families were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz. The score only survives because Ullmann entrusted it to a friend who happened to live.

It's also the first production by the new opera company I've founded, Dioneo. We'll be staging it at the Cello Factory near Waterloo, London, on April 5, 6, 8 and 9 (but not 7.) We have a cast of wonderful singers and a 14-piece band, ably headed by director Max Hoehn and conductor John Murton. I hope you'll come and see it.

The venue is intimate and only seats 60, so advance booking is recommended (details here). Part of Dioneo's mission is to make opera available to everyone, so we've priced tickets at only £12. Come one, come all!

EDIT: For a sample of the music, here's the finale [YouTube; 2:25; not by us]. As you can hear, it's sort-of-kind-of based on the Bach chorale Ein feste Burg, known to most English speakers as A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Enjoy.

Mezzo piano

Mar. 8th, 2011 11:54 am
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Right now, I have an opera in my house.

One of the reasons I bought this house was so it could be a rehearsal and performance venue, and I plan on having a lot of music here. That being the case, I'm sure there will come a day when opening the door and hearing singing isn't a surprise. Right now, though, it makes me go "Hmm, keys, junk mail... HOLY SHIT THERE'S AN OPERA IN MY HOUSE." And up the stairs I go with a ridiculous smile plastered all over my face.

Also, for the first time in my life I get to have a piano! My trusty 1992-vintage Casio is all very well, but an actual not-made-of-plastic *piano* will be delivered on Thursday. Then I'll have to wait about a month to get her tuned, but so it goes.

It's Shrove Tuesday: Mardi Gras, or Carnevale! In celebration, here's a link to the Carnival story I wrote a couple of years ago. Pancakes, anyone?
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Last Friday, the 4th, Buenos Aires airport was rife with cancellations and delays. We've all been there and can imagine the scene: uncomfortable airport chairs, weird airport-smell, awful airport food, and you're stuck there for hours with a huge crowd of reeking strangers...

Except that one of the passengers whose flight got cancelled was Cyndi Lauper, and she commandeered the announcer's mike, launched into "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and invited people to sing along.

CYNDI LAUPER, people. How glorious.
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On Thursday evening, I went to hear some Beethoven string quartets at the Wigmore Hall.

This is a bit of a departure for me. If I'm at the Wigmore Hall, I'm normally there to hear lieder or other vocal music. But my mother's in town, and she loves the wild-haired deaf guy, so we got tickets for the Artemis Quartet's show. On the menu: op. 18 no.6 in B flat; op. 18 no. 3 in D; op. 130 in B flat with the Grosse Fuge.

I first heard the late Beethoven quartets in the autumn of my very first year in Britain, at the house of an English tutor who was helping me prepare for the Oxford exam. I'd asked my friends what this tutor was like, and they said "He basically is Chaucer." So I rang the doorbell and was met by, essentially, the Franklin, with a floridly pink face and a shock of tousled white hair. He offered me a drink-- and insisted when I demurred, a marked contrast with every single American high school teacher from my past.

This chap did have a reputation for constant inebriation-- but he was a mellow drunk, and generally cheerful, so it was cool. He knew I was a classical-music sort, so after our study sessions he'd get out vinyl records of the late Beethoven quartets, and he'd hand me the score to follow-- he knew them all by heart-- and we'd listen to them. His very favourite was opus 130, and I still remember how lovingly he pronounced the words "alla danza tedesca", the heading of the fourth movement ("in the manner of a German dance").

I had hardly thought about those evenings until I glanced at the programme from my seat in the Wigmore. There, again, was alla danza tedesca. The esteemed Chaucerian tutor is, of course, long dead; I don't think I properly grieved for him until now, or thanked him nearly enough while he lived.

And only now do I have the years, and the regrets, to understand what those Beethoven quartets are saying to me.

(A coda: I knew I'd heard the melody from the alla danza tedesca movement used as shorthand for "posh people dancing" in the soundtrack to... a film? A Jane Austen TV series? I couldn't place it, until I finally realised that it's the music for the ball scene in the Firefly episode "Shindig": an elegant touch by series composer Greg Edmonson.)
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Below: a well-sung version of Auld Lang Syne. I like this man's performance; I like how it starts hesitantly and builds in intensity until it fades away. Also, he is properly Scottish, which is essential.

Mostly I like it because he's singing about what it's really about; mourning the distance grown between the poet and his former friend. That's what I think of when I sing this song these days: even in this age when we're all partly connected by the web, how easy it is, how painfully easy, to lose people.

One thing I've always believed is that the two great constants of existence are transience and recurrence. Transience seems obvious: nothing lasts forever. But it also seems obvious to me that nothing is guaranteed to be gone for good, and that things thought lost are often found again in unexpected ways, after a turn or two of the wheel.

That is my hope, at least. But we know hope lies to us all the time.

Let's just sing, shall we?

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[ profile] speedlime's visit is something I look forward to every year. It's typical of her magnificent generosity of soul that she chooses to spend her birthday in London with yours truly. (And then I generally spend mine with her family in DC. The German cookies and Glühwein make it a party not to be missed.)

This year we also spent a few days in Paris. While we were there, it snowed, making the whole city look like an especially misty Monet painting. It was beautiful, but also meant that some places we wanted to see were closed. Paris deals with snow even less well than London: it's like the whole city goes Ô MON DIEU QUOI LE FOUTRE IL NEIGE NOUS DEVONS FERMER TOUTES LES CHOSES INTÉRESSANTES.

One of the these places was the Sainte-Chapelle. I'd never seen it, but Speedy recalled being entranced by the windows as a child. Since we couldn't see it during the day, we booked tickets for a concert there that evening: Baroque flourishes, including Pachelbel's Canon in D and Vivaldi's Four Seasons.
So how was the concert? )
Meanwhile, I'm heading back to the US tomorrow. See some of you (including [ profile] speedlime) there!
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I'm typing this from a hotel room in The Hague. Rather surprisingly, I'm not currently on trial for war crimes.

I'd never been to the Netherlands before. I like it here, and wish I had more than two days (Amsterdam yesterday; the Hague today.) I've walked along canals, experienced a rijstaffel and seen more paintings than you could shake a stick at.

What's strange about being here, though, is that I speak not a syllable of Dutch. I can just about read it, given its close relationship to both English and German, but I have no idea how to speak it, or understand it when spoken.

It is so weird being in a European country where I don't speak the language. So weird.

Tomorrow: back to London; singing; then off to Berkeley Castle for the Berkeley Skirmish (featuring, should the reenactors not behave themselves, MORE SINGING).

Today I also learnt that the brilliant tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson has died at the age of only 69. It is a sad loss, but the real tragedy is that he had been retired for some years due to early-onset Alzheimer's. I will always remember his beautiful voice.

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Gioconda: RRARGH

Laura: WTF?

G: I love the same man you do!

L: ...

G: Aria aria destiny blah blah passion death yadda yadda!

L: Shut up bitch, I love him like all these metaphors.

G: Yeah? Well my metaphors are more awesome than your metaphors. I love him like COKE-SNORTING ROBOT VELOCIRAPTORS FROM SPACE. WITH LASER GUNS. So there!


If you don't believe me, here are some overacting sopranos on YouTube.
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It's all over the internet today (and by "the internet", I of course mean MetaFilter): the unveiling of a new structural theory on the works of Plato. It's being described in grand terms (not least by the author, who modestly claims his theories will "revolutionise the history of the birth of Western thought". ) What it really does at the moment is open the possibility of interpreting Plato's work, and possibly his creative process, in a new way.
On rhetoric )
The hypothesised relationship between Plato's rhetoric and the diatonic scale sounds a bit far-fetched, but it's certainly an interesting theory, and I'll be watching to see if it holds up to analysis. If it does, it would be interesting to see if, in any of his works, he employs a symbolic modality.
In which I attempt to explain what modality is )
So what I'm wondering is: Since so much of Plato's writing is in the form of dialogues between various characters, who tend each to represent a certain idea, viewpoint or philosophy-- might he have assigned to each prominent character a symbolic musical mode? Or each stage of the argument?

Obviously this depends on whether Barker's musical scale theory turns out to have any foundation. (Some preliminary responses can be found in the comments here at Leiter Reports.) But I can see how appealing it would be for a Platonist to associate the ascending scale with the reader's ascension toward wisdom, and the argument's ascension toward resolution.

I do think that the stuff about a "code" is overly sensationalistic; this is more likely to be about structure and interpretation than about arcane hidden messages. Still, it will be interesting to see how it pans out.

Disclaimer:My knowledge of Plato is a lay person's at best; my degree is in English, not Classics. Still, I've read most of his work in translation, and love it. (If you're new to Plato, start with the Symposium. It's basically a dinner party where everyone gets drunk and talks about love.)
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I'll be liveblogging England vs Germany at 3pm today! (This definitely counts as "having a life." Shut up.)

Some pre-match links:
Psychic Octopus Predicts German Victory; England Helpless Against Might Of The Great Old Ones

Vuvuzela Concert by gentlemen of the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin. If you haven't heard Ravel's Bolero performed on the vuvuzela, then it is my sad duty to inform you that you have not lived.
Excitement under here )
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John Adams's opera Nixon in China is up on YouTube in its entirety. This is the 1987 world-premiere production by Houston Grand Opera, including an introduction by American news anchor Walter Cronkite (who covered Nixon's visit to China himself) and interval interviews with the composer. Due to YouTube's 10-minute limit, it's in 17 parts, so I've made a playlist -- or you can just go to Part 1 and brew your own.

Did you know that John Adams has a blog? It's well-written and funny as all hell. Go read!
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When the rumour of Philip Langridge's death began to surface this afternoon, I strongly hoped it wasn't true. Not Langridge! He's too awesome to die!

But sadly, it's true. He's gone.

When I first came to this country, one of the first operas I saw was Britten's Billy Budd at ENO, with Philip Langridge singing Captain Vere. This was back before the days of supertitles, but Langridge never needed them: he has always had the power to make the audience not only hear, but feel, every word. Especially when you hear him singing in English, it's as though he's singing right to you.
"I am the messenger of death.
How can he pardon?
How receive me?"

Up in the gods at ENO, I was mesmerised.

That virtuosic marriage of text and music was one of the characteristics that led people to hail Langridge as the natural successor to Peter Pears. The renown he won for his performances of Britten's music was certainly well-deserved, but there was more to Langridge than that.

For example, Langridge was famous for singing the Witch in Hänsel and Gretel. (Yes, written for soprano; Langridge put on a dress and took it down the octave because he is just that awesome.) His last appearance at the Royal Opera was as the Tiresias-like sacrificial priest in Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur. How many artists have the get-up-and-go to create a role in a new opera in their late sixties? Langridge did, because awesome is his middle name. (He'd done the same the year before, as King Alonso in Adés's The Tempest, and was due to create the role of the 90-year-old husband in Mark Anthony Turnage's upcoming Anna Nicole.)

When you say "English tenor" to classical-music people, they'll think of a particular sound: clear, lyrical, beautiful, but lacking in strength and substance, limited by necessity to "earlies and moderns," with maybe some lieder in between. Philip Langridge kicked open the English-tenor box and left its fragments in his wake. Search YouTube for him, and you'll find French baroque, Handel, sure, but also Mozart, Janacek and Rossini (terrible sound quality, that last, but a masterclass in how to sing coloratura with lyricism and feeling.) Sadly, his Vere isn't up there; nor his Tom Rakewell; nor his Jupiter from Semele; nor the last role I saw him perform, Loge in das Rheingold (See also "awesome", above.) Right now, his agent's site still lists bookings up through 2013 for performances at La Scala, Teatro Real Madrid, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden.

Langridge was 70, and for many of those years he reigned not only as the supreme English tenor, but as one of the defining presences in British music. I've never heard him sing a phrase without feeling, nor have I ever heard him overdo the emotion. He had an unfaltering instinct for the rightness of things. Music-- in this country, in the international community of singers, in the Western classical world-- is lessened by his absence.

My thoughts are with his wife, one of the best performers and kindest teachers you could ever hope to meet, and his kids, talented people every one.

I was lost on the infinite sea, but I’ve sighted a sail in the storm, the far-shining sail, and I’m content. I’ve seen where she’s bound for. There’s a land where she’ll anchor for ever.

I am an old man now, and my mind can go back in peace to that far-away summer of seventeen hundred and ninety-seven, long ago now, years ago, centuries ago, when I, Edward Fairfax Vere, commanded the
Indomitable …
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I have a friend who has an Alexander McQueen coat. Because she is a woman of glory and valour, she let me borrow it once; I wore it to the opera and revelled in style-by-association. Since I heard the news of McQueen's untimely death, my thoughts have been lingering particularly on that coat and that friend.

Moth trails: long-exposure photos of moths and lights, inspired by this picture of a bat chasing a moth.

Drunkenness in bats does not impair their flight, scientists find. It does, however, make them wear little tiny fruit baskets on their heads.

Kitty Carlisle was a classically trained soprano who sang at the Met, among other places. In later years, she became politically involved with the arts, arguing strongly against censorship of such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe. (She was also a friend of my grandmother's, which I think is kind of cool.) However, she's best remembered as the attractive, dark-eyed girl from the Marx Brothers' film A Night At The Opera. The hit song from that movie was called "Alone," and here she is, singing it with sweet-voiced tenor Allan Jones on YouTube.

A few years ago, I found the sheet music to "Alone" in my local charity shop. I was overjoyed, since it's been out of print for many decades. I brought it home, but have never had a chance to sing it in public... until now. Tomorrow night, ladies and gents, White Mischief at Proud Cabaret! Be there! I'm singing 8.30 - 9pm, and afterwards we can all get drunk as a fruit bat.


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