My fifth and final song…do I go classical? There are a number of arias out there that I connect with: ‘È la solita storia’ from L’Arlesiana, ‘O nume tutelar’ from La Vestale. Or do I continue along the popular route? I’m an “emo kid” at heart, so perhaps a tune from Further Seems Forever or Jimmy Eat World? I could also go in a harder direction. I cut my teeth on Seattle grunge rock, so tipping my hat in the direction of Soundgarden or Alice in Chains would also be fitting.
When I really think about it, this list wouldn’t be complete without a selection from the man who is the reason behind my choosing this career path. A man who, as I stated in a previous post, inspired countless others to raise their voices and sing: Mario Lanza.
Lanza, for me, was the catalyst. I saw The Toast of New Orleans in my eighth grade music class and said to myself “THAT is what I want to do!” His voice had everything: caressing beauty in softer moments, and unmatched passion in powerful outbursts. Whether he sang opera, Neapolitan song, or any of his chart-topping standards, it was magic. One of my favorite recordings is a 1951 version of Victor Herbert’s ‘Thine Alone’. I get chills every time he arrives at at the climactic phrase “belov’d I swear that I will e’er be true” and if the listener isn’t already floored by the powerful high-A he launches on the following phrase “thine alone”, he repeats those three syllables, cresting on a final, sustained B-natural.
Rather than go into lengthy detail about the lives and careers of Lanza or even the composer Victor Herbert, I’d rather let the music do the talking! Please enjoy this selection and thank you for taking this five-day musical tour with me! It’s been a pleasure sharing some of my favorite songs with you!
Mario Lanza (V. Herbert) ‘Thine Alone’
Ten years ago, I discovered an Irish singer-songwriter by the name of Fionn Regan when listening to WXPN, a truly phenomenal member-supported public radio station from the University of Pennsylvania in my hometown of Philadelphia.
Despite my love for all things Italian, I am of Irish descent and two years ago gained citizenship. In addition to feeling more connected with that part of my history, it’s also incredibly convenient, as an opera singer who frequently travels internationally, to possess an Irish passport!
Fionn’s music was instantly appealing: mellow, relaxing, with nimble finger-picking patterns and interesting chord progressions. Lyrically, his songs are incredibly poetic. I would wait eagerly for him to complete each phrase, curious as to which direction he was heading. His rhythmic use of words and his sense of imagery are commendable. Lyrically/musically, he evokes Dylan…both Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas, that is. His 2006 first full-length studio release The End of History remains one of my favorite albums of all time. Songs such as “Snowy Atlas Mountain”, “Abacus”, and “Bunker or Basement” are sensational, but for today I’ve chosen “Be Good Or Be Gone” and its absolutely ingenious music video consisting of numerous multi-location performances spliced together.
When I was sixteen, I began taking formal voice lessons in Philadelphia. I found a teacher via a wonderful book on Mario Lanza I received for my birthday. I had just recently discovered him and was inhaling every book and record I could get my hands on. In this particular book, there were a number of testimonials from people who knew Mario, worked with him, or were inspired by his voice. One of these was written by Enrico Di Giuseppe, a wonderful tenor who enjoyed a long and productive career with the Metropolitan and NYCO from the 60s-80s in a variety of roles. At the conclusion of his chapter, he stated that he was teaching voice privately in Philadelphia. Inspired, I wrote him a lengthy letter requesting lessons. He called me one evening and we set up a trial lesson for that week. I brought him ‘Amor ti vieta’ from Fedora because “it’s short and only goes to an A”… his reaction was pretty priceless. After I bellowed my way through the aria like the sixteen year old baritenor I was, he handed me the “24 Italian Hits” and we started working together. He was my teacher for the next six years until his passing and in that time, he became very much like a grandfather to me.
A few months into my lessons, I told him I was studying German in high school. His eyes lit up and he leapt from the piano and over to his bookshelves. He handed me a couple books to take home and begin studying: they were Schubert’s ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ and Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’. I fell in love with them immediately. To this day, the music of Schubert brings back beautiful, simple memories of driving to and from lessons in South Philadelphia in the passenger seat of my mother’s car, or traveling around Germany in the summer of 2001 as an exchange student. It may seem strange that a teenager who was in a rock band and played sports had Schubert as the soundtrack to his high school years, but the music is inextricably linked to some very special moments that shaped who I am today.
I put German lieder aside for a number of years, focusing instead on standard operatic arias and American art song. When I moved to Europe to start my career there, the music understandably made its way back into my life. My first assignment as a member of the Young Singers Project at the Salzburg Festival saw Herr Schubert make a return. A year later, when I joined the Junges Ensemble at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, it was Herr Schumann’s turn. Each ensemble member was tasked with planning a full-length recital. I chose to sing ‘Dichterliebe’ for the first half. When I first studied this cycle, both my musical and German skills were not quite mature enough to comprehend the depths of these songs, each of them individual masterpieces. I remember exactly where I was when I translated the texts for the first time. I sat in a Starbucks a few paces from St. Stephen’s cathedral, slowly approaching the final song of the cycle. I remembered learning it in high school, but dismissing it as another ‘wimpy’ song where the narrator is again whining about his profound pain. This time, I listened intently. I thought about everything that had preceded this song, not just textually, but also musically.
Die alten, bösen Lieder. Die Träume bös und arg. Die laßt uns jetzt begraben. Holt einen großen Sarg
All of the old songs and dreams. Just bury them. And that coffin?? It’d better be %#$&@ huge..
(that’s an “Andrew translation”, mind you)
The narrator goes on to specify that the coffin should be as large as the great Heidelberger Fass, a massive wine vat located in the cellars of the Heidelberg Castle. The death bier upon which it should be placed must be longer than the bridge to Mainz. And to carry it, fetch no fewer than twelve giants, each of them with the strength of St. Christopher. They should drag it out and sink it deep into the sea, because a coffin of this magnitude deserves such a grave.
The music at this point just collapses into a slow and brooding pace. It’s as if the narrator has reached the height of his anger and frustration and smashed a mirror with his bare fist. He now stands completely still, catching his breath, and we get the kicker..
Wißt ihr warum der Sarg wohl
So groß und schwer mag sein?
Do you know why this coffin is so damn heavy and large??
It’s set deep in the range of the singer, be it a baritone or tenor, almost to forcibly prevent him from singing this hushed section too loudly or forcefully. Then the vocal line leaps up an octave, as the narrator just sinks to the floor crying. Mind you, this is not a loud, ugly cry.. this is an eyes-squinted-shut, mouth-agape-but-no-sound-coming-out cry here.
Ich senkt’ auch meine Liebe
und meinen Schmerz hinein…
I sank along with it my love and my pain…
I sat in that Starbucks, covered my mouth with my hand and, contrary to the narrator’s experience, actually DID ugly cry. Even in rehearsals, my voice broke every single time I came to this final phrase, and at the performance, the ‘-ein’ of ‘hinein’ did not even phonate. The most challenging part of the entire cycle was keeping completely still during the absolutely beautiful piano postlude that follows.
So this lengthy post is basically to tell you that today’s song is ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’, the final song in Robert Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’. I’ve chosen the wonderful Hermann Prey, in a video performance of the entire cycle made late in his career. Though past his vocal prime, Prey does a remarkable job conveying the emotions I described above. He embraces the silence and stretches out those final phrases, really twisting that knife.
I now come to the part of this week I’ve been dreading, which is why I figured I’d get it over with sooner rather than later. In general, I was a bit uneasy having to select songs from the rock/pop realm. I have very varied tastes, how am I supposed to choose just a couple? I had to be careful because I tend to go overboard on a particular band I discover before discarding them completely (current obsessions include indie groups Alvvays and Big Thief). One thing, however, was certain: there would undoubtedly be a song from Ryan Adams… but which one? In many ways it’s the equivalent of a hardcore Beatles fan having to choose a single tune that sums up their feelings. Ryan is incredibly prolific: eighteen studio albums, scores of unreleased material that he teases on occasion, and singles albums he was recording and releasing monthly just a couple years ago.
His music has accompanied me everywhere I’ve been since I first heard him about fifteen years ago. He continues to amaze me with his constantly-evolving style and his continual growth as an artist and a musician. Today, I’ve chosen “Meadowlake Street” from, arguably his greatest album, Cold Roses.
The repeated lyric “if loving you’s a dream that’s not worth having.. then why do I dream of you?” is set so beautifully and the almost intentionally muddy and approximate three-part harmony on its final appearance is just the icing on the cake. For years now this song has been rather therapeutic for me. Following a performance that didn’t go as I expected or when battling a bout of homesickness or missing my girlfriend, I would listen to this on the train or the walk home.
He’s an artist I would highly recommend to anyone unfamiliar with his music (for fun, check out his cover of Taylor Swift’s entire ‘1989’ album!) A dream was realized this summer when I finally saw him in concert. I’ve lost track of how many times I narrowly missed seeing him due to traveling for work. It was sensational. OK.. more tomorrow. Time for bed.
Ryan Adams “Meadowlake Street”
Five songs? That’s it? I have issues committing to a particular brand of yogurt at the supermarket let alone five songs spanning across numerous genres. I already anticipate submitting my picks and immediately regretting that I overlooked at least fifty others. Therefore, I’ve tried to really zone in on what draws me to a particular song.. where was I when I first heard it, what was going on in my life at the time, etc. There are plenty of songs I just plain ENJOY, but there’s little symbolism to them. So with that :::deep breath::: here we go…
Anyone who knows me is aware of my fascination (to the point of obsession) with Neapolitan folk song. I’ve performed several recitals consisting solely of these gems, I’ve written numerous undergrad and grad school papers on the subject, and I’m currently assisting an Italian friend and colleague with her dissertation at the university in Vienna. Additionally, we will perform a joint recital there in January for which I’m very excited! While the texts are often very simple and straightforward, dealing with infatuation, heartbreak, homesickness, and love for the sun and sea, the music is staggeringly beautiful and infused with so much emotion. When entrusted to the right throat, these songs are some of the most stirring and moving pieces in the entire song literature. I’ve chosen one of the more “operatic” pieces: Giuseppe Cioffi’s “‘Na sera ‘e maggio,” sung by a very young Giuseppe Di Stefano. Despite being Sicilian, Pippo captures the essence of this song like no other. It deals with a couple sitting by the sea. He tries to speak to her, she remains silent, distracted. She has fallen in love with another. He tells her “when one says ‘yes’.. just remember, there’s no need to kill a loving heart. You told me ‘yes’ one night in May, and now you’re going to leave me?” He goes on to remind her of the promises she made always to remain faithful, to never forget her first love: “Nun se scorda ‘o primmo ammore” Mo te staje scurdanno ‘e me?
It’s the ultimate breakup song, and I confess to having locked myself away in a dark room one more than one occasion with this anthem blasting in my ears.
As a ‘bonus’ of sorts, I added a version by the great Roberto Murolo, a native Neapolitan and scholar who recorded a 12 LP set between 1963 and 1965 chronicling the history of Neapolitan song dating back to the 12th century. It’s important to hear this beautiful language sung with true and authentic pronunciation. I say language instead of dialect because I’ve been reprimanded by Naples-born friends and colleagues who insist that, like their pizza, the language is separate and unique. The great Tito Schipa, when counting the languages in which he sang, listed Italian and Neapolitan as two separate tongues, despite the fact that his own dialect from Lecce is incredibly complex and unique.
Enjoy and ci verimm’ dimane with something entirely different!
Giuseppe Di Stefano
New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • firstname.lastname@example.org