I’ve been thinking about bel canto the past few days. Usually the term refers to a fertile era in Italian opera at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Composers like Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini used long-lined melody and bravura passagework to tell their high-flown, romantic love stories. Many of these operas end with the exquisite death of the lead soprano, who gets to sing a mad scene (Lucia di Lammermoor) or walk into a funeral pyre with her unfaithful but repentant paramoor (Norma). The heroine of “I puritani” loses her mind twice onstage, but recovers to sing an enchanting polonaise at the final curtain.
I came of age in the mid-60s, the Joan Sutherland era—Maria Callas’ meteor was in free-fall when I was first going to the opera. In those years I heard the young Montserrat Caballé at Carnegie Hall in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, watched Beverly Sills get her head lopped off as Donizetti’s Anne Boleyn and Mary Stuart, and stockpiled my bookshelf with LPs containing arias from operas like Emilia di Liverpool and Les dragons de Villars.
Over the years I have developed a love-hate relationship with the bel canto operas. Certain of them still ring my chimes in a big way when well sung—“Lucia” is my fave. But they need a special kind of fervor to work their magic, and they don’t respond well to irony. Without that grounded passion, the music can seem thin and formulaic. And their unalterable reliance on vocal finesse is out of step with today’s emphasis on tricky, updated stagings.
So I duke it out with pre-Verdi opera. But I remain wedded to the essential principles of bel canto: the expressive allure of long-lined melody allied to a glorification of sensitivity and fragility. Among the Great American Songbook composers, the one who most embodies the bel canto ideal is Billy Strayhorn. He was Duke Ellington’s right-hand man, and he composed a lot of the tunes that were published under Duke’s name. Here’s a slice of magic, the piano piece “Lotus Blossom.” I just played it in last week’s NYFOS show, Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs of Gay Harlem. For decades I have assiduously avoided playing solo piano, but recently I’ve developed a taste for it—a new trick for this old dog. Strayhorn’s music lifted me to the heights and yielded me three minutes of Stage Bliss.
I wish I could share that performance with you today, but the clip is not yet available. What I can offer you is the recording that inspired me: the divine Fred Hersch, who puts a pink and silver halo around this heavenly tune.
Our continuing preview of this year’s concerts continues with a peek at Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs of Gay Harlem, set for December 12. After the dizzying success of last year’s tribute to W. C. Handy, I wanted to get the team together again as soon as possible. And I almost succeeded: vocalists Joshua Blue, Justin Austin, and Lucia Bradford were available, as were reed-man Scott Robinson and piano partner Joseph Li. Full-out rapture turned briefly to modified rapture when we lost Vince Giordano, our bass/tuba/percussion guru, and then Shereen Pimentel. She has been called away to a project that trumped ours—the role of Maria in the new Broadway “West Side Story.” It still takes my breath away to type those words. I am wildly proud of Shereen and can’t wait to cheer her on the Great White Way. But I admit I didn’t see this coming (she’s a senior at Juilliard!), and it took me some months to find a replacement. After a bunch of auditions, that piece of casting was finalized yesterday: Bryonha Parham will join the ensemble, and I am restored to full rapture. Bryonha is a sensational performer, recommended by a pair of artistic giants in my life (Michael Barrett and Broadway producer Jack Viertel). I know we’ve landed on our feet.
The material in the show draws on songs written by Billy Strayhorn, Porter Grainger (composer of the title song), and Bessie Smith, as well as material popularized by “Ma” Rainey, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, and others. Elliott Hurwitt is helping with the research, as he did with the W. C. Handy show, and his expertise in early blues and jazz is beyond a mitzvah—more like a “mitzvissima.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Billy Strayhorn, you’re in for a treat. He was Duke Ellington’s amanuensis and (often uncredited) co-composer for some of Duke’s iconic hits, including “Satin Doll” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Strayhorn was a musician of tremendous skill and a sensuality rare in the staccato world of jazz. Here is one of his most beautiful songs, “Day Dream,” sung with antigravitational ecstasy by Darius de Haas. I got the full measure of the piece when I once had to play it in transposition. Normally it is not that difficult to move the key of a popular song—the chord changes, no matter how bewitching, are fairly standard. Not so with “Day Dream,” which has the most beautiful and deceptively complex harmonic progression of anything in the Great American Songbook.
In every NYFOS program I like to have a specialty number, something completely on-topic but completely unexpected. I despaired of having such a song for the April 24th Lorca concert until Michael Barrett said, “Oh, you should contact my cousin Jonathan Mayhew. He’s a big Lorca guy—he’s already written one book about him and is now working on another about songs written to Lorca’s poems.” A flurry of emails followed, along with a slew of suggestions for our concert. At this point in his research Jonathan is more involved with popular music than with art song, though he did have a few excellent ideas for the classical part of the evening. And he struck gold when he directed me to a song by Billy Strayhorn, one of America’s jazz icons. Strayhorn and Lorca? My heart skipped a beat.
In 1953 Strayhorn was trying to disengage from his powerful tie to Duke Ellington, for whom he had become muse, amanuensis, and uncredited co-composer. Ellington had launched Strayhorn’s career when he was a very young man, and the great bandleader come to depend on the assistant he’d nicknamed “Swee’pea.” But Strayhorn longed to get out from under Duke’s sovereignty and be seen as an artist in his own right. Seeking new projects, he got involved with the Artists Theater, a groundbreaking off-Broadway collective for new work. It had attracted the likes of Tennessee Williams, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and James Merrill, with scenic design by Larry Rivers, Elaine de Kooning, and other distinguished artists at the beginning of their careers. Strayhorn longed to make what he called “a black-gay statement,” which was an act of tremendous courage in the early 1950s. “Of course,” said the costume designer Bernard Oshei, “everybody thought of Lorca as the great gay martyr.” The play, The Love of Don Peremplín for Belisa in Their Garden, was one of the poet’s early works, a romance about an impossible love. The play opened at the old Amato Opera Theater, and its short run of four performances played to sold-out houses.
Strayhorn contributed four pieces for the short play, mostly incidental music that wove through the 50-minute duration of the show. But he also wrote a song, “The Flowers Die of Love,” a tune that weaves a spell using the simplest of means. Does it sound Andalusian? Hmm, not exactly. But the incantatory nature of the melody reminds me of Lorca’s “Tres morillas” (featured yesterday), filled with repeated motifs like a prayer. It takes a gifted composer to create beauty with only the barest of means. And Strayhorn was the man for the job—a brilliant tunesmith and a deep soul.
Upon the river shores
The passing night is moistened
And in Belisa’s breasts
The flowers die of love.
The night is naked, singing,
Upon the bridge of March,
Belisa bathes her body
With briny water and oils.
The night of anise and silver
Shining on the rooftops
Silver of streams and mirrors
And anise of warm, warm thighs
The flowers die of love.
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